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Horror film

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in the 1922 film Nosferatu. Critic and historian Kim Newman declared it as a film that set the template for the horror film.[1]

Horror is a film genre that seeks to elicit fear or disgust in its audience for entertainment purposes.[2]

Horror films often explore dark subject matter and may deal with transgressive topics or themes. Broad elements include monsters, apocalyptic events, and religious or folk beliefs. Cinematic techniques used in horror films have been shown to provoke psychological reactions in an audience.

Horror films have existed for more than a century. Early inspirations from before the development of film include folklore, religious beliefs and superstitions of different cultures, and the Gothic and horror literature of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley. From origins in silent films and German Expressionism, horror only became a codified genre after the release of Dracula (1931). Many sub-genres emerged in subsequent decades, including body horror, comedy horror, slasher films, supernatural horror and psychological horror. The genre has been produced worldwide, varying in content and style between regions. Horror is particularly prominent in the cinema of Japan, Korea, Italy and Thailand, among other countries.

Despite being the subject of social and legal controversy due to their subject matter, some horror films and franchises have seen major commercial success, influenced society and spawned several popular culture icons.


The horror film is defined by The Dictionary of Film Studies as representing "disturbing and dark subject matter, seeking to elicit responses of fear, terror, disgust, shock, suspense, and, of course, horror from their viewers."[2] In the chapter "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s" from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (2002), film critic Robin Wood declared that commonality between horror films are that "normality is threatened by the monster."[3] This was further expanded upon by The Philosophy of Horror, or Parodoxes of the Heart by Noël Carroll who added that "repulsion must be pleasurable, as evidenced by the genre's popularity."[3]

Prior to the release of Dracula (1931), historian Gary Don Rhodes explained that the idea and terminology of horror film did not exist yet as a codified genre, although critics used the term "horror" to describe films in reviews prior to Dracula's release.[4] The mystery film genre was in vogue and early information on Dracula being promoted as mystery film was common, despite the novel, play and film's story relying on the supernatural.[5] Newman discussed the genre in British Film Institute's Companion to Horror where he noted that Horror films in the 1930s were easy to identify, but following that decade "the more blurred distinctions become, and horror becomes less like a discrete genre than an effect which can be deployed within any number of narrative settings or narratives patterns".[6]

Various writing on genre from Altman, Lawrence Alloway (Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (1971)) and Peter Hutchings (Approaches to Popular Film (1995)) implied it easier to view films as cycles opposed to genres, suggesting the slasher film viewed as a cycle would place it in terms of how the film industry was economically and production wise, the personnel involved in their respective eras, and how the films were marketed exhibited and distributed.[7] Mark Jancovich in an essay declared that "there is no simple 'collective belief' as to what constitutes the horror genre" between both fans and critics of the genre.[8] Jancovich found that disagreements existed from audiences who wanted to distinguish themselves. This ranged from fans of different genres who may view a film like Alien (1979) as belonging to science fiction, and horror fan bases dismissing it as being inauthentic to either genre.[9] Further debates exist among fans of the genre with personal definitions of "true" horror films, such as fans who embrace cult figures like Freddy Kruger of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, while others disassociate themselves from characters and series and focusing on genre auteur directors like Dario Argento, while others fans would deem Argento's films as too mainstream, having preferences more underground films.[10] Andrew Tudor wrote in Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie suggested that "Genre is what we collectively believe it to be"[11]

Cinematic techniques

Depiction of the usage of mirrors
in horror films.

In a study by Jacob Shelton, the many ways that audience members are manipulated through horror films was investigated in detail.[12] Negative space is one such method that can play a part in inducing a reaction, causing one's eyes to remotely rest on anything in the frame – a wall, or the empty black void in the shadows.[12]

The jump scare is a horror film trope, where an abrupt change in image accompanied with a loud sound intends to surprise the viewer.[12] This can also be subverted to create tension, where an audience may feel more unease and discomfort by anticipating a jump scare.[12]

Mirrors are often used in horror films is to create visual depth and build tension. Shelton argues mirrors have been used so frequently in horror films that audiences have been conditioned to fear them, and subverting audience expectations of a jump scare in a mirror can further build tension.[12] Tight framing and close-ups are also commonly used; these can build tension and induce anxiety by not allowing the viewer to see beyond what is around the protagonist.[12]


Filmmaker and composer John Carpenter, who has directed and scored numerous horror films
, performing in 2016.

Music is considered a key component of horror films. In Music in the Horror Film (2010), Lerner writes "music in horror film frequently makes us feel threatened and uncomfortable" and intends to intensify the atmosphere created in imagery and themes. Dissonance, atonality and experiments with timbre are typical characteristics used by composers in horror film music.[13]


Charles Derry proposed the three key components of horror are that of personality, Armageddon and the demonic.

In the book Dark Dreams, author Charles Derry conceived horror films as focusing on three broad themes: the horror of personality, horror of Armageddon and the horror of the demonic.[14] The horror of personality derives from monsters being at the centre of the plot, such Frankenstein's monster whose psychology makes them perform unspeakable horrific acts ranging from rapes, mutilations and sadistic killings.[14] Other key works of this form are Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which feature psychotic murderers without the make-up of a monster.[14] The second 'Armageddon' group delves on the fear of large-scale destruction, which ranges from science fiction works but also of natural events, such as Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).[14] The last group of the "Fear of the Demonic" features graphic accounts of satanic rites, witchcraft, exorcisms outside traditional forms of worship, as seen in films like The Exorcist (1973) or The Omen (1976).[15]

Some critics have suggested horror films can be a vessel for exploring contemporary cultural, political and social trends. Jeanne Hall, a film theorist, agrees with the use of horror films in easing the process of understanding issues by making use of their optical elements.[16] The use of horror films can help audiences understand international prior historical events occurs, for example, to depict the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, the worldwide AIDS epidemic[17] or post-9/11 pessimism.[18] In many occurrences, the manipulation of horror presents cultural definitions that are not accurate,[according to whom?] yet set an example to which a person relates to that specific cultural from then on in their life.[clarification needed][19]