The three-minute 1896 film “Le Manoir du diable” (known as “The Manor of the Devil” or “The Haunted Castle” in English) by French filmmaker Georges Méliès is considered the first “horror film” ever made, even though the label wasn’t used until the 1930s. His short, like many movies that followed, as well as Halloween haunted houses, borrowed tropes from the Gothic horror genre of writing that started in the late 1700s. Books by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, and others helped create the standard quasi-Medieval horror-story backdrop: Stormy nights, foreboding forests, and old dark castles filled with suits of armor, creaky doorways, and secret passages to the dungeon. And these spooky places, of course, wouldn’t feel complete without bats, trolls, ghosts, demons, or witches with brooms traipsing around.
Isolated by German aggression in World War I, pioneering filmmakers known as German Expressionists wrestled with topics like insanity, depravity, and betrayal in silent movies using abstract, angular sets and distorted over-the-top facial expressions. This genre produced some of the first and most revered feature-length horror films, including the “Der Golem” trilogy about a murderous clay statue of Jewish legend; 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” which tells of a hypnotist who manipulates a sleep walker into committing murders; and 1922’s “Nosferatu,” an unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel, “Dracula.”
One of the earliest thrillers made in the United States was 1920’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” starring John Barrymore as the doctor with the split personality. Universal Studios—which unlike Paramount and Fox didn’t operate its own theater chain—recognized the potential of this new genre about resentful, often deformed misfits thought of as monsters and released “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923, followed by 1925’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” both starring Lon Chaney.
When “talkies” took off in the 1930s, Universal had a new element of fright to play with—the scream—and it began churning out monster-focused Gothic horror films in earnest. Its first horror hit was 1931’s “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi, followed by 1931’s “Frankenstein,” and 1932’s “The Mummy.” While audiences found these movies genuinely frightening, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to inject horror films with a little knowing comedy, as seen in 1933’s “The Invisible Man” and 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” the first sequel to Frankenstein.
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Universal produced more and more horror films. While a new monster, the Wolf Man, was introduced in 1941, with Lon Chaney, Jr. in the title role, many horror movies recycled popular monster characters, costumes, and sets. These include “The Invisible Man Returns,” “The Mummy’s Hand,” “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” In movies like “House of Frankenstein” and “House of Dracula,” five Universal monsters at a time appeared, so great was the audience's appetite.
In 1942, a small division of RKO studios dipped its toe into the horror genre with the low-budget “Cat People,” a psychological thriller designed so that people imagined, rather than saw the monster—which paved the way for a new style of horror films.
After World War II, horror films were downgraded to B-movie status, even though they were still hugely popular with teenagers. Movie theaters trying to draw these kids away from their newfangled television sets came up with wild promotions to incite them to the theater—everything from certificates for cowards and fake skeletons flying around the theater to vibrating seats and “Smell-O-Vision.”...
Classic “Gothic horror” monsters like vampires and werewolves were replaced by exaggerated Space Race and Cold War-era fears: oversize, possibly radioactive mutants and evil robot and bulb-headed aliens from outer space. These include titles such as “Godzilla,” “The Thing From Another World,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes,” “The Giant Leeches,” and “The Crawling Eye.” Universal introduced a fishy mutant that joined its pantheon of classic monsters, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, in 1953.
In the mid-1950s, unabashedly graphic horror comic books, such as “Tales From the Crypt,” “The Vault of Horror,” and “The Haunt of Fear,” all published by EC Comics, came under scrutiny for their ghastly tales and hideous imagery. In response to public concerns that comic books were corrupting children, the publishing industry voluntarily created “standards of decency” known as the Comics Code and EC dropped its horror titles. A decade later, monster magazines like “Creepy,” “Vampirella,” and “Eerie” were established to publish horror comics under other names.
As one medium for horror fans took a pause, another outlet filled the horror void. In 1954, KABC-TV of Los Angeles started showing old monster movies late at night. The films would be introduced by a campy costumed character called Vampira—played by Maila Niemi and inspired by Morticia Addams from Charles Addams’ “New Yorker” cartoons. Universal saw an opportunity to mine its vault of horror films and, in 1957, started offering TV stations a syndicated “Shock Theater” package of creepy movies. Soon, stations around the U.S. had their own versions of Vampira hosting “Creature Features” after 8 or 9 p.m. on weekends.
These programs were hits with horror-craving kids, and 1930s movies like “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Mummy”—which had once chilled theater-goers—came to be seen as harmless Halloweenish fun for little children. So-called “monster mania” begat movie magazines like “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “The Monster Times,” along with a glut of licensed Universal Monsters products for kids—everything from wind-up toys, puzzles, and board games to soaps, drinking glasses, and radio speakers. In the 1960s, Aurora’s paint-it-yourself monster model kits were particularly popular with monster-happy kids. The fad lasted well into the 1970s until a little space opera by the name of “Star Wars” took over toyland.
At the cinema, the Universal horror franchise wound down by 1960. That year, Alfred Hitchcock’s artful thriller “Psycho” proved that horror films could rise above their B-film status. Studios abandoned the restrictive Production Code in 1964, which allowed filmmakers a wider range of tools and ideas to shock and frighten their audiences. In the United Kingdom, a studio known as Hammer Film Productions adopted Universal’s classic monsters, but put them in films with more sex and shockingly bright red blood. Hammer produced seven Frankenstein films, six Draculas, three Mummies, and two Jekyll & Hydes from 1957 to 1974.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, the occult, particularly demons and other supernatural events, took over the horror genre, beginning with Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968 and followed by William Friedkin’s critically acclaimed “The Exorcist” in 1973. Before long, serious mainstream directors began to employ elements of horror in their work. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film “Jaws” sparked the new phenomenon of the summer blockbuster. Brian De Palma turned Stephen King’s novel “Carrie” into a teen-horror box-office smash that even received Oscar nominations. Ridley Scott’s 1979 film “Alien” and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of “The Thing” merged horror with dystopian science fiction. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 take on King’s “The Shining” was not well-received, but would later be considered one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Even though “Psycho” had introduced the concept of a “slasher film”—or a film in which a psychopath kills multiple victims—the often-graphic genre didn’t really take off until the 1980s. The success of independent movies like 1974’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and 1978’s “Halloween” inspired 1980’s “Friday the 13th” and 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” But it wasn’t just deranged killers populating that generation’s nightmares. In Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror film “The Evil Dead,” demons are responsible for the bloodbath, while evil ghosts terrorize the Freeling family in 1982’s “Poltergeist.” Many of these 1980s films turned into wildly popular horror franchises.
When it comes to collecting horror memorabilia, many people have a nostalgic affinity for the Universal Monster toys they grew up with, particularly the model kits by Aurora Plastics Corporation, as well as magazines such as “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and rubber Halloween masks. Usually, these items are not particularly expensive. Actual props from horror films are, and movie-poster collecting is the most lucrative and competitive arena of the whole horror genre. Half-sheets, one-sheets, two-sheets, three-sheets, six-sheets, inserts, window cards, and lobby cards used to publicize horror films in the 1920s and ’30s are particularly valuable. Over the years, more and more never-seen-before posters continue to turn up, often in the walls of old houses, where these now-rare works of horror-movie art were once used as insulation.