Thursday, March 17, 2011

The History of Horror by CK Webb

Webster’s Dictionary defines horror as a painful and intense fear, dread or dismay. But, how has horror evolved through history in books and film?
It would be impossible to trace the origins of the very first horror story as myths, tales and fables have been around since the dawn of mankind. Cave drawings from pre- historic times contain images of real life and fable horrors that man faced.
Written documentation of horror by modern man came much later and its’ beginnings were marked by the great tales told by Dante in his Devine Comedy.
History itself saw the rise of ‘Dracula’ when in 1456; the prince of Wallachia was crowned and began his campaign of evil against his enemies and all enemies of the church. Dracula or Son of the Dragon, was the name given him by his father but the name he earned and one which was more appropriate was ‘Vlad the Impaler’. This name was given him due to the horrors he inflicted on his fellow man. The name Dracula would however, secure for him an elevated status in horror for centuries to come.
During this time, many artists and painters sprung forth with works of art that now, can only be described as ‘horror’.
Throughout the coming years and into the 1600’s play after play began to fill the theatrical stages of the world, each containing a very central theme…They were, by all accounts, horrors.
In the late 1600’s witchcraft came to the forefront of the human psyche with persecution and executions ensuing. None in history gained quite the stage as did the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts. Even today, you can find reference to this dark time in American history in books and in film.
1765 sees the entrance of Gothic Horror to the scene with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Horror is again redefined and soon begins to take on a new shape and a new place in history.
In 1784 the Marquis de Sade wrote 120 Days of Sodom while incarcerated in the Bastille. Having spent most of his life persecuted for his intense love of the written word and the horror tales he spun, he was believed to be insane and as such, would never live to see his masterpiece published.
In 1800 America saw its very first translation of a vampire tale in Wake Not the Dead by Johann Ludwig Tieck. Sixteen years later horror would take its most significant turn when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr. Polidori declared they would each write their own version of a ghost story. Though it is rumored that the four were under the influence of laudanum, it does not take away from the impact that this group would have on horror. From this single group of writers, under the influence, sprang the vampire sub-genre as well as the science fiction genre.
In 1818 Mary Shelley’s contribution came in the form of Frankenstein. The first science fiction book with deep horror roots became all the rage. Frankenstein was followed closely by Dr. Polidori’s The Vampyre, the very first of its kind written in the English language.
In the 1820’s Victor Hugo made waves in the world of horror when he introduced Notre Dame de Paris, more famously known here in America as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo would continue to impact the world with his literary contributions many of which would be later made into long running theatrical plays.
Now came one of history’s greatest writers (my opinion of course) Edgar Allen Poe. Bursting onto the literary scene in 1833, Poe gave the world some of the greatest horror tales ever told and did so in the short 16 years until his life’s end in 1849. The remainder of the 1800’s would see a barrage of famous horror tales from Tales Told For Children, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber, Wagner The Werewolf, The Ring and The Book to the classic tale Childe Rolande To The Dark Tower which would become the inspiration for another great horror writer in history.
From 1885-1896 the world would be introduced to Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, the real serial killer, Jack The Ripper and would also visit The Island Of Dr. Moreau.
Arguably the most famous of all horror books was released by Irish novelist Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker in 1897. The vampire craze which had been started years earlier took an aggressive turn that would hurl Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well as its central character, into the forefront of horror where it remains even today.
The 1900’s saw the introduction of horror to film with William N. Seligs short film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frankenstein would see its first filming and legendary writer/director/producer Alfred Hitchcock would come raging onto the horror scene.
In 1923 Lon Chaney and Universal Studios would immortalize The Hunchback of Notre Dame on film and the world began to clammer for more. America wanted to be scared and for years to come, they would be.
Phantom of the Opera and Dracula would deliver the one, two punch and the literary world as well as the world of film began to light up with horror tales of every kind. Actors from Lugosi to Karloff to Lon Chaney Jr. fought for the lead roles in Hollywood’s film adaptations of the literary world’s greatest horror masterpieces.
Radio broadcasts of horror tales even found a place in the market and many children found themselves racked with fear as the tales spilled from the radio. As a child, I spent many a ride home in the car with my feet pulled tightly to my chest in hopes that the creature from the tale on the radio would not reach out from beneath the seat and carry me away.
The next years would see the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Orson Welles and Ray Bradbury, all of whom would weave themselves and their writings into the very fabric that makes up the horror genre.
In 1953 Vincent Price and his chilling portrayals of evil would catapult to the head of the film industry and still we wanted more. Our prayers for new and more sinister horror would be answered with such works as The Lord of the Flies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Haunting of Hill House and Psycho. Though the world had seen its fair share of horrors, The Black Plague, The Great depression, The World Wars, Hitler, The KKK and a generous sprinkling of serial killers; nothing could compare with the thrill of being scared. Horrors fit that bill.
Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock gave us fear and horror in 30 minute doses everyday on their T.V. series Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In the 1970’s horror rallied itself as champion not only in the literary world but in film as well. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in book and film would slingshot horror into the spotlight and become a catalyst for greats such as Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Craven, Peter Benchley, Anne Rice, David Seltzer and John Carpenter to name a few.
We have seen vampires, mummy’s, werewolves, aliens and the like translated from book to film. Horror films today sometimes border on silly and scary has somehow gotten lost in translation. It has not stopped movie goers of all ages from flocking to theatres in hopes of being scared to death. Books have continued to deliver and every day new authors are putting their unique spin on the genre and leaving their mark for the next generation.
Whether tales of foreboding creatures or the uncertainty that lies in the reality of the everyday world, horror has become a very real part of the human condition. People want to experience intense and painful fear, dread or dismay…It makes us feel more alive.
Does your horror come from under the bed or lurk in the shadows of the darkness where no light can be found? Or does your horror come from the things left unsaid about that strange neighbor next door? Whatever your answer, one thing is certain, horror has traveled and evolved with us through the years. I have no doubt that horror will continue to wrap us in fear and prey on us for as long as there is fear itself. History is Horror.


  1. I remember reading this article! I thought it was very invigorating and informative, and I walked away with more knowledge about horror - my favorite genre - than before I read the article. =D

  2. Thanks Tiffany...I really appreciate you taking time to read and leave a comment. I love that you love horror!!!

  3. My dad introduced me to horror at a young age. I remember watching Stephen King's Rose Red when I was 9 years old and finding many great movies from there. In all its craziness, I think horror is really a beautiful genre in disguise. lol. Look at me, getting all poetic. >.<

  4. Very interesting article. I particularly like hearing the history of Dracula. Thanks.