Since its creation, the horror genre has been at the forefront of innovation. So many traditions we take for granted now can actually be traced back to a single film, filmmaker, or even scene. From iconic monsters to structures that totally shook up the status quo of horror storytelling, there's an auspicious history of risk-taking that continues through today, with modern directors like Jordan Peele, John Krasinski, and Jennifer Kent putting their marks on the craft. To honor all the ways in which horror has trained us to expect the unexpected, here are 25 groundbreaking horror moments that utterly changed the game and influenced movies that followed.
Of course, some of the early days films on this list wouldn't raise a single goosebump on a modern audience member, but at the time, they were challenging everything moviegoers of the day knew. Horror movies tap into existing fears, but in some cases, they also taught us what to be afraid of. (The wolfman, for one.) This timeline will take you from the inception of horror as a genre of film and through the bold choices that shocked audiences and established new paradigms, all the way through to today.
The Haunted Castle Creates The Genre
These days, George Méliès’ 1896 short film The Haunted Castle would hardly be considered scary, but at the film industry’s beginnings, the three-minute story of a demon pulling spooky skeletons, phantoms, and more out of a cauldron was revolutionary. It introduced the concept of using special effects to inspire fear in the audience, laying the foundation for horror movies to come.
Where to watch: The Haunted Castle is available on YouTube.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari Adds Style & Complexity
Later referred to by Roger Ebert as the “first true horror film,” this 1920 German expressionist tale of an asylum patient and a mysterious doctor was revolutionary for its tilted, shadowy sets and distorted visuals. It also features early examples of two now-widely used narrative devices: the twist ending and the unreliable narrator.
Nosferatu Introduces The Modern Vampire
Later adaptations of Dracula would likely look very different if not for 1922’s Nosferatu, another German expressionist film, which defined the image of the vampire for modern cinema. The film had to change the names of Bram Stoker’s original characters to avoid a lawsuit, but the creeping sense of dread as Thomas Hutter unravels Count Orlok’s dark secret is still just as haunting.
The Cat And The Canary Kickstarts The Haunted House Trope
Although it wouldn’t gain the name “old dark house” until James Whale’s 1932 film of the same name, the concept of a killer running amok in a haunted mansion would first gain traction with The Cat and the Canary five years earlier. This comedy/horror film about a family who spends the night at their late uncle’s old mansion was also one of the first entries in Universal’s Classic Monster series, which contains many of the definitive movies of the genre.
Where to watch: The Cat and the Canary is available on Amazon Prime Video.
Dracula Gives Vampires A Sophisticated Makeover
Although Nosferatu came first, it was Bela Lugosi’s 1931 impersonation of the famous vampire that would influence many, many monster films to come. Along with Frankenstein, The Mummy, and other films that were part of the Universal Classic Monster series, Dracula defined the 20th century horror movie and established the image of Dracula as the cape-wearing, accent-having caricature people know now.
The Mummy Introduces A New Monster To The Canon
While the 1999 film of the same name might be better remembered by contemporary audiences, the influence of the original 1932 film can’t be understated. Drawing from public interest in the excavation of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, The Mummy’s central monster — undead Egyptian priest Imhotep — set the stage for later horror stories set in Egyptian tombs.
The Black Cat Makes Horror Psychological
The Black Cat, from 1934, is considered to be the first film in the psychological horror subgenre, as it focused on manipulating the audience’s emotions and using paranoia and suspense to scare rather than relying on explicit, visible frights. Critics say its “skinning scene,” in which Boris Karloff’s character Poelzig, is skinned alive, is particularly notable because only the shadow of the act is shown, making it even more disturbing.
The Wolf Man Cements The Werewolf’s Place In Hollywood
Although 1941’s The Wolf Man was not the first werewolf film to hit Hollywood (that title goes to 1935’s Werewolf in London, which bombed at the box office), it catapulted the lore of the werewolf into modern pop culture. The film crystallized the image and abilities of the modern werewolf, including its susceptibility to silver bullets and hairy but human-esque appearance.
The Uninvited Creates A New Type Of Ghost Story
Debuting in 1944, The Uninvited is widely considered to be the first film to portray haunted houses and ghosts the way they’re perceived now. Rather than showing ghosts in a comedic light, as they were often seen before, this story of two siblings who move into a house plagued by supernatural spirits takes its paranormal subjects seriously, and triggered an abundance of ghost films to follow.
Where to watch: The Uninvited is not available on any major streaming platforms, but you can check your local library or buy the DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Psycho’s Shower Scene Offs Its Leading Lady Early
Alfred Hitchcock shifted away from the element of surprise to focus on using suspense for psychological scares in his 1960 film, Psycho. The result is one of the most memorable and influential horror films of all time — it’s considered the genre’s earliest slasher film and took risks where almost no horror films had before, killing off its leading lady early on in the iconic shower scene.
Night Of The Living Dead Pioneers The Zombie Apocalypse
Fans of The Walking Dead and iZombie can send their thanks to George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, which is credited as the genesis of the zombie genre. The word “zombie” is never actually used in the film, but Romero shaped the pop culture perception of zombies as reanimated, flesh-eating corpses. And the plot provides one of the first examples of the “zombie apocalypse” trope.
The Exorcist Gets Horror’s First Best Picture Nod
1973’s The Exorcist, said to be so scary it caused fainting and vomiting among theater audiences, was the first horror film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The legitimacy that its success gave the genre led to more studios, such as Warner Bros., to take a chance on bigger horror film budgets.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface Becomes A Villain Prototype
Leatherface, a silent murderer who wields a chainsaw and wears a mask of human flesh, became the blueprint for many other famous horror villains — Halloween’s Michael Myers and Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, for example. The 1974 film was also praised for always keeping Leatherface’s characterization just realistic enough to be possible, making the plot’s events that much scarier.
Jaws Pits Man Against Nature
Although some debate whether 1975’s Jaws is actually a horror movie (to its credit, it was considered scary enough to inspire fear of the ocean among many viewers), it did lead to many “man versus man-eating animal” horror flicks that took the genre out of creepy castles or houses and into the natural world. Jaws is also considered one of the first summer blockbusters, ushering in a new era for Hollywood.
Halloween Popularizes The Slasher Film
Psycho may be credited with birthing the slasher genre, but it’s the original, 1978 version of Halloween that made it a horror staple: the use of now-established horror tropes such as filming from the killer’s point of view and killing off sexually promiscuous characters were made classic in Halloween. It would inspire many other slashers (think Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street) as well as parodies (Scream).
Alien Blends Horror With Sci-Fi
Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror film was first conceptualized as “Jaws in space,” but it’s majorly influential in its own right: it showed that horror and sci-fi can coexist very effectively, something that hadn’t been done before at this level. It also contained more feminist and pro-choice narrative subtext than was common for horror films at the time, signaling a shift in how horror can be used as a vehicle for social issues.
The Shining Explores A New Type of Haunting
In his 1980 masterpiece, The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick rejected the notion that a place must be dark or filled with cobwebs to be considered haunted. The brightly lit Overlook Hotel is just as terrifying as any haunted house, if not more. Although it took several years for The Shining to receive the “classic” status it now has, its iconic images (blood spilling out of the elevator, the Grady girls in the hallway) and pioneering use of the Steadicam cemented its place among the most memorable horror films.
Poltergeist Introduces Technology-Based Horror
The 1982 film about a family attempting to save their daughter from evil spirits is the forefather to films such as Unfriended and Pulse for its use of TVs as horror imagery. Its grounding in family themes and iconic mother figure, Diane Freeling, also contribute to its lasting popularity.
The Silence Of The Lambs Is The First Horror Film To Win Big At The Oscars
The story of Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter, and “Buffalo Bill” was the first horror movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (it also took home the “Big Five” awards). What makes 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs so memorable and influential is its portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, who — though he was a serial killer — made audiences sympathize with him and made them reconsider their ability to separate good and evil.
Scream Pokes Fun At The Genre & Saves It At The Same Time
Director Wes Craven loved horror (and created some of the most memorable films in the genre, including A Nightmare on Elm Street), but he wasn’t afraid to point out its clichés. Scream, which debuted in 1996, is both a parody and a slasher in its own right, and revitalized the somewhat dormant horror genre, inspiring a slew of copycat teen horror films in the following decades.
Ringu Brings Japanese Horror Tropes To Hollywood
The image of a vengeful onryō, or “stringy-haired ghost girl,” originates from Japanese culture, but 1998’s Ringu brought it into the American consciousness. The film, which features iconic ghost girl Sadako Yamamura and a cursed videotape that ensures its viewers’ death after seven days, led to an American adaptation in 2002 and an era of other Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films.
Where to watch: Ringu is available on DirecTV.
The Blair Witch Project Establishes The “Found Footage” Technique
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project was marketed to be real footage taken by three student filmmakers who went missing in the woods after searching for the titular witch, and its low-budget format and improvised dialogue have an edge of authenticity to them that heightens its frightening aspects. The “found footage” technique would go on to become its own subgenre within horror, inspiring films such as Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield.
Teeth Uses Horror As A Feminist Tool
Teeth’s feminism likely isn’t perfect when you’re watching the film over a decade after its release. But this 2007 story of a girl with vagina dentata (aka “toothed vagina”) that bites off the genitals of men who disregard consent in sexual encounters became a classic for its critiques of purity culture and male entitlement.
Get Out Comes For Its Audiences’ Implicit Racism
Get Out was not the first film to use horror as a means to make a point about social issues, but the 2017 release tackles race relations in a way that had never been done before — in fact, the film attempts to make audiences realize that perhaps they are the villains, at least in terms of their complacency toward white America’s treatment of black people. While Get Out is hailed as a “modern American horror classic,” director Jordan Peele tweeted after the film’s release that, actually, he considers it a documentary.
A Quiet Place Makes Silence Scary
Even though many early horror films were silent, 2018’s A Quiet Place is the first modern movie to actually explore how unsettling silence can be. John Krasinski’s story of a family trying to survive in a world filled with monsters that attack anything that makes noise has very little spoken dialogue, filling audiences with dread for when the silence would be broken.
Additional reporting by Sage Young.