How The History Of Horror Movies Shaped The Fears Of Audiences
"Elevated horror" is a label slapped with increasing frequency on higher-budget, high-concept horror movies such as Us, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and The Witch. The recently coined term has been brushed off by most scholars, critics, and fans as inaccurately sectioning the genre, as if thoughtful films haven't existed throughout horror's history. Trendy names aside, are we really in an era where horror is finally emerging from the shadows and being taken seriously by critics and creators? To find out, Bustle looked back over the last six decades to see how horror movies that were popular with audiences have stacked up critically and held up in the pantheon.
By comparing box office takes to reviews and accolades, we can see how horror trends have shifted over time. (And how the movies we show up for now have been influenced by the past.) We'll also give you a few must-watch movies for every decade so you can get a taste of the horror that defined each era.
Box office gross isn't an accurate measurement of quality, of course. But what it does show is which movies were promoted, put in theaters, and lured audiences. Whether or not those audiences liked the films they saw is another matter. Sequels, for example, have diminishing returns with both audiences and critics, but often make enough money to land them at the top of their decade's blockbuster list. So take the following with a grain of salt, because even the indication that an audience responded to a film is already heavily influenced by their access to it and the promotion the film received. That said, here's what we found:
The '60s: Old Hollywood Meets New Ideas
Today, we're almost back to what horror was in the '60s. A handful of highbrow, small-studio releases were lauded and nominated for awards — Psycho and Rosemary's Baby in the '60s, A Quiet Place and Hereditary today — with plenty of low-budget horror made semi-independently to fill the need for content elsewhere.
Multiplying streaming services, including ones like Shutter that specifically feature horror, mean that today's independent and low-budget filmmakers have audiences ready and waiting for their films. But so did filmmakers of the '60s. Back then, movies were frequently shown in pairs called double bills, where the feature was the main draw, but a lesser movie was added to pad things out and give audiences more for their money.
These "B-movies" were the umbrella under which schlock and craft could fly their freak flags. Back then,Bs included gimmicks offered by the likes of director William Castle, who promoted 1959's The House on Haunted Hill as having "Emergo" (i.e. a glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton flying over audience's heads during the movie). They also included the tightly budgeted films of Roger Corman, whose emphasis on script and story brought respectability to the Bs while grabbing audiences with titles like Bucket of Blood and Little Shop Of Horrors.
Breaking out of that pen, George A. Romero's zombie shocker Night Of The Living Dead (1968) was the little indie that could, making over 250 times its budget back. And that was despite Variety calling the film "amateurism of the first order" whose "basic premise is repellent." That kind of successful outlier wouldn't happen again until the 1999, when The Blair Witch Project pulled a similar horror cash coup.
Two of the highest-grossing horror films of the '60s, Rosemary's Baby ($15 million) and The Birds ($5 million), contrasted the past and future directions of '60s horror. Both earned several prestigious awards, but these were also films people talked about popularly: Rosemary's Baby director Roman Polanski represented a new wave of filmmakers breaking away from Hollywood tradition, while Alfred Hitchcock was already an institution.
According to IMDB, Hitchcock spent only $806,947 on the second-highest grossing horror film of the decade, Psycho. Critics were surprised by the established director's low-budget black and white departure, especially as it came on the heels of his big-budget espionage thriller, North by Northwest. Still, Psycho was not only nominated for several Academy Awards, it also made a return of over 40 times its budget in the U.S. alone. Audiences were fascinated by new voices and new turns by filmmakers they already knew.
The '70s: Franchise Fever
One of the decade's biggest trends was successful horror spawning sequels. Though you might not think of it as part of the genre, the No. 1 smash Jaws still ranks as one of the all-time highest-grossing horror films, even without adjusting for inflation. The 1975 mega-blockbuster was followed up in 1978 by Jaws 2, which received middling reviews, and three years after that by the much-mocked Jaws 3-D. It's a perfect example of '70s films launching seemingly infinite sequels with diminishing returns, a trend that continues to this day. The Amityville Horror, Alien, The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all made the decade's box office top 10, and each franchise squeezed out at least three more films.
Of the titles on that list, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Amityville Horror have a commonality not seen again until the aughts: a strong religious element. It wasn't until 2013's The Conjuring that demonology hit the top of the box office like it did in the decade that was home to the possessed Regan MacNeil.
The '80s: Slashers & Sequels
The '80s are often thought of as a horror boom because the decade popularized the "slasher" genre, where a seemingly invulnerable killer stalks and murders a group of (usually sexually active) teens. It was an era in which films became widespread staples, thanks to the increasing availability of VHS rentals. People could enjoy a slasher series at home, then catch the next installation in theaters — considering sequels were still in vogue.
But when it came to box office, the '80s were something of an oddball decade. Maybe it was due to overkill (pun intended), but a number of the films that made the top 10, including Witches of Eastwick, Beetlejuice, and No. 1 film of the decade Gremlins (at $148 million domestic gross) were heavy on humor as well as horror. Even the Nightmare on Elm Street films (the third and fourth of the franchise broke the top 10, earning over $40 million each) had Freddy cracking puns.
When a horror film gets the higher end of box office takes, it's usually because an established director decided to dip into the genre, like Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining in 1980. But folks who worked on lower budget stuff in earlier decades also hit big with seemingly-out-of-nowhere blockbusters like 1984's Gremlins or the Elm Street series. These were filmmakers who'd come up working on "schlocky" '60s fare, or, like horror legend Wes Craven, in the lucrative but ill-regarded pornography industry. The relative freedom directors like Joe Dante had making early works, in the B-movie world or elsewhere, taught them to take creative risks that made them mainstream box office gold. The "unelevated" past led to a profitable, if not prestigious, present.
The '90s: Self-Parody & A Sea Change
Speaking of low-budget impact, the standout horror film of the '90s was a cheap, indie film that became a phenomenon: The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 film was made for $60,000 and earned over $140 million back in theaters. Critics loved it, and audiences found its ambiguity and absence of conventional format divisive, which is rare. Critics and audiences generally agree about horror fare. While 1998's The Last Broadcast beat Blair Witch to the found footage style, the latter's enormous success established the trend for decades to come, with films like Rec, V/H/S, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield following in its footsteps.
Horror in the '90s also got meta, with remakes of previous top-grossing horror films films like The Haunting and the Scream franchise's intentional riffing on slasher tropes making bank. It was also the start of M. Night Shyamalan-mania, with the director's first major feature The Sixth Sense and its then-shocking twist ending taking the No. 1 spot.
The '00s: Nostalgia & International Influences
Following the success of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's box office hits kept coming well into the next decade, with Signs at No. 3 and The Village at No. 8 in the '00s top 10. While his love of over-the-top twists eventually made him an object of mockery, his genuine skill at sustaining eerie moods satisfied audiences eager for more than jump scares and gore.
The early '00s were also a time where nostalgia for horror's past increased, along with budgets and star power (in more than one sense of the word). The No. 1 and No. 2 box office spots belonged to I Am Legend, a remake of the '70s cult classic starring Will Smith, and Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise, who inevitably turns every film into a Tom Cruise Film regardless of topic. While the presence of superstars turned these films from horror toward action, they're self-reported as part of the genre, with Spielberg in particular turning the sci-fi staple into a scary take on his own alien filmography.
The influence of innovative world cinema was also seen, though through a Hollywood lens, as remakes of Japanese hits The Grudge and The Ring were stylized for American audiences. That included the rise of new, unexpected franchises blossoming in but originating outside the Hollywood system, including Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli came to the states at 19 from Israel and Conjuring creator James Wan, born in Malaysia, came to Hollywood by way of his home country of Australia. While reflecting a lifetime of Hollywood horror in knowledge, both franchises delighted and subverted audience expectations, leading to their wild success and many sequels.
The '10s: "Elevated Horror"
This most recent decade is the most precarious to analyze, as it's still not over yet. Who knows if a surprising horror breakout will happen in 2020? But in the meantime, modestly budgeted, art-minded horror once again took the ticket sales, with Get Out ($176 million) and A Quiet Place ($188 million) cracking the top five. Interestingly, Stephen King ruled the roost with It at the No. 1 spot, a sign that he's still the master of horror (even though other movies with his name attached, like Pet Sematary and The Dark Tower were critically eviscerated.) It's also like Shyamalan never left, with Split winning audiences back to the tune of $138 million after a series of self-indulgent misfires briefly sunk his reputation. And some killers really just won't die — Halloween (2018) rebooted a rebooted franchise back to its origins and made over $159 million, enough to put it in the top 30. Two more sequels were announced at Comic-Con back in July.
So while it seems that horror is currently enjoying a real moment, most of the horror films that made their decade's top 10 horror hits averaged about the same success when stacked against releases in other genres. Horror films have been steadily popular, holding one or two spots in the top 10 blockbusters per each decade. Critical reception dipped hard in the '70s and '80s, when major releases were slasher rehashes and/or emphasized gore and violence — the more atmospheric and thoughtful of these only got accolades later on, when they found their audiences outside theaters.
Hollywood may not always spend the money on them, and it might take a while for critics to come around, but given the consistent output and box office position of horror, audiences have steadily stood by the genre. Critically and culturally, while horror does fluctuate in exposure and perceived popularity, it is virtually un-killable, and fans can confidently look forward to whatever the future of it will bring.