Sometimes, we just love to be scared. Especially this time of year, when Halloween has us ready to meet some monsters and explore that flimsy boundary between life and death. But fear is only fun when you’re not in any real danger. That’s why horror fiction is so popular and enduring. But how did this tradition start? Today, I want to take you through the history of the horror genre.
Horror has deep roots that come from two main sources: folklore and religious traditions. Most of the monsters that we now recognize from popular horror films originally came from folk beliefs that were passed down orally in communities around the world. Creatures like vampires, werewolves, or spirits were used to explain missing animals, unexpected deaths, or strange behavior among members of the community. Other types of stories were used as cautionary tales to scare children into behaving correctly or to warn adults to make smart decisions. But some of the first truly terror-inducing pieces of written literature were religious in nature. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be surprising given that religion deals with such fraught topics as death and evil. In Christianity, dreadful depictions of demons and hell were meant to scare practitioners into following the path of righteousness. Horrific imagery appears in everything from treatises on catching witches to sermons on the fate that awaits sinners.
But horror as a literary genre truly got its start with the Gothic literature movement of the late 1700s. Horace Walpole began the genre in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto, the story of a young woman trapped in a castle with an evil man who wants to marry her. Matthew Lewis introduced gore and grotesquerie into the genre with his tale of corrupted clergy, The Monk. In response, Ann Radcliffe sought to distinguish between crude horror and the refined and abstract terror which she promoted in her novels and in her legacy of the Female Gothic. These early writers paved the way for the Gothic writers of the nineteenth century that modern readers will be more familiar with: Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker.
The nineteenth century also gave us new types of literature like the pejoratively-named sensation novels and penny dreadfuls. Sensation novels typically depicted scandalous topics like adultery, kidnapping, or murder, but differed from earlier Gothic novels by placing these events within familiar domestic settings rather than medieval castles or other exotic locales. The genre was particularly popular with female readers, though many in Victorian society worried about the ability of these books to corrupt young women. Early examples of the genre include Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Penny dreadfuls, on the other hand, were serialized works of literature printed on cheap paper and aimed at young, working-class men. Some of these were merely rewrites of earlier Gothic novels adapted to this new format. Others were new stories, such as the lengthy tale of Varney the Vampire, or were based on local legends like The String of Pearls: A Romance, which told of a murderous barber named Sweeney Todd.
Serialized fiction continued to be popular into the twentieth century, when special publications emerged for purpose such as the pulp magazines Weird Tales and Unknown Worlds. Many horror writers that we still read today, like H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James, got their start by publishing short stories or serialized chapters in these magazines. In the 1950s, horror fiction found a new outlet in the world of comics. Tales from the Crypt was a particularly popular horror comic anthology which came out bi-monthly between 1950 and 1955. The stories were often clearly inspired earlier works like those of Lovecraft and Poe, but the visual element gave them new impact and reach.
The impact of the visual element of horror can be seen even more clearly in the genre’s rise through film. Even before movies had been invented, an early predecessor of film was almost entirely built around macabre imagery: phantasmagoria—a form of horror theater performed using “magic lanterns” to project frightening images such as ghosts, skeletons, and demons. With this legacy, it’s not surprising that horror crops up in some of the earliest examples of film. In 1896, French film pioneer George Méliès created a short silent piece called The Haunted Castle which is generally regarded as the first horror film, despite being largely comedic. Early silent film also brought us classics like Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. Then German expressionism swept the film scene and led to the genre-changing vampire classic Nosferatu. By the 1930s and ’40s, film studios like Universal were pumping out horror films, mining inspiration from Gothic novels for Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Later decades saw new subgenres emerge like zombie films, slasher movies, and psychological horror. The diversification of horror through film then fed back into its literature.
Today, one of the names most widely associated with horror fiction is Stephen King, who has written hundreds of short stories and over fifty books, many of which have been made into successful films. Some contemporary novelists take what they’ve seen in horror films and bring it back onto the page, as Jack Ketchum has done with slasher horror in books like The Lost and Off Season. Another notable name is Anne Rice, who shook the horror genre by taking many of its creatures and imagery and spawning a genre of supernatural fantasy that focuses more on interpersonal relationships and romance than on trying to be scary. One more notable change in the contemporary horror genre is how much of it is directed at children. Kids of all ages particularly delight in these kinds of tales, as can be seen by the enduring popularity of R. L. Stine’s Fear Street and Goosebumps series or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
Horror fiction has come a long way since the days of ancient people telling campfire tales of monsters that lurk in the dark, and yet much of it has stayed the same. For such a relatively new and modern genre, its roots go deep and its most basic elements transcend time and culture. What’s your favorite era of horror history, and what would you like to learn more about? Let me know in the comments!