FROM FRANKENSTEIN TO FREDDY KRUEGER, MONSTERS ARE ENDURINGLY FASCINATING. IT SEEMS WE CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF SCARING OURSELVES SILLY
“We love scary stories, especially in the chill nights of autumn”
You might think the world is terrifying enough right now, but despite that – or perhaps because of it – there’s been a surge of interest in the scary. Horror book sales are soaring, shows like Stranger Things are huge hits, and Hollywood is cashing in with original stories ( A Quiet Place; the Oscar-winning Get Out) and rehashed classics (the 2017 remake of Stephen King’s IT has made over $700 million). With Jamie Lee Curtis returning to the Halloween franchise this autumn and a TV series based on
The Blair Witch Project in the works, it seems our appetite for horror shows no signs of abating. So, what makes us so keen on being scared? And have we always been like this?
We have long loved scary stories, especially in the dark, chill nights of autumn and winter, when death (of nature) is most tangible and shadows from the fire loom large. Early sagas are loaded with the fantastical; ghosts are rife in ancient literature and history, from Egypt to Mesopotamia to Rome; and Shakespeare and Marlowe both referenced ghostly ‘winter’s tales’ – something Dickens helped to popularise with
A Christmas Carol in 1843. But the concept of horror as we understand it now can be traced back to the trapdoors and secret passages of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of
Otranto (1764). Deemed to be the first Gothic
novel, and still one of the bestselling such novels of all time, it kickstarted a genre that flourished under such talents as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern
Prometheus (1818), is often credited as the first science fiction novel. Written when Shelley was still a teenager, it tells the tale of a creature spawned in a scientific experiment.
The book was the unlikely result of a bad holiday. Travelling in Switzerland in 1816 (the infamous ‘year without a summer’) with Percy Shelley, her future husband and his ne’er-dowell friend Lord Byron, they were so plagued by bad weather that they stayed in and told ghost stories. The same trip gave rise to seminal story The Vampyre, by fellow guest John Polidori, predating Bram Stoker’s more famous
Dracula (1897) by a good few decades. If it had just been a bit sunnier, the horror genre might look very different!
There were other influences, too. In 1802 Frenchwoman Marie Tussaud brought her wax models to tour Britain. By 1835, when she opened on London’s Baker Street, her Chamber of Horrors, which featured models made from the death masks of victims of the French Revolution, »
“Horror manifests our fears in forms that can be defeated”
as well as of murders and other criminals, was the most popular exhibit.
Fifty years on, London was in the grip of a reallife horror tale as Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated a series of women in Whitechapel in 1888. The rise of mass-circulation newspapers put fear at fever pitch with crowds attacking anyone they thought might be the killer. Chillingly, the suspicion that the killer was an educated man echoed the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published just two years earlier.
But it was the birth of cinema that truly brought horror into the mainstream. By the late 1930s, UK annual cinema admissions were nudging the 1 billion mark (against 170 million in 2017) and the suave, caped vampires and lumbering, bolt-necked monsters of the horror heydays of the Universal and Hammer studios were imprinting themselves onto our memories.
Just as Frankenstein preyed on the insecurities created by the possibilities of science, the best stories deliver an unnerving reflection of the world around us. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – released in 1920 and widely considered the first true horror film – tells the story of an insane hypnotist and mirrors Germany’s dread of authority in the aftermath of the First World War. Post Second World War, horror movies often featured mutations, the literal fallout of a nuclear age. 1956’s Invasion of the Body
Snatchers has been interpreted as paranoia over Communist infiltration or, conversely, McCarthyism; in the 80s and 90s vampire fiction became a potent allegory for the terrifying new disease AIDS. As we become less superstitious, the nature of threat changes: from ghosts and monsters to biowarfare and psychopaths (the real terror of the Scream mask is that it could be anyone underneath).
Given this grounding in real and often very topical worries, it’s not surprising our reactions have sometimes been so extreme. When Richard Mansfield starred in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Lyceum in 1888, so convincing was his performance that he was accused of being Jack the Ripper. When Hitchcock gave us Psycho in 1960, the first ‘slasher movie’, people regularly
fainted at the shower stabbing scene. In the 70s, audiences at The Exorcist were so shaken that cinemas provided ‘barf bags’. (The British Board of Classification found the film so disturbing, it was refused a classification for home video release for over a decade). The viral marketing campaign for 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was so successful that many viewers thought they were watching a documentary.
As this evolution shows, no matter how the world moves on, there’ll always be things to be scared of. Writer Neil Gaiman famously paraphrased GK Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten”. The lure of horror is that it manifests our fears in a form that can be defeated.
Perhaps this also explains the modern trend in horror: heroines as unkillable as the villains. The monsters have long been immortal but now we see women (and it is almost always women) coming back to beat the bad guys once more. Dismissed by those around them as irrelevant or too old, Ripley from the Alien series, Laurie from
Halloween and Sidney from Scream are survivors all – maybe because we need them to be.
2 31 Cesare, the spooky ‘sleeping’ assassin in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.2 Janet Leigh, giving a good horror heroine scream in Psycho.3 Nosferatu was FW Murnau’s 1922 adaptation of Dracula, featuring Count Orlok, a stranger to the manicure set
Halloween H20: Laurie is horrified when Michael Myers reveals he has forgotten to bring the sweets for the trick- ortreaters
The pod people are 1 coming for you: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.2 Boris Karloff, finding his role as The Monster rather a pain in the neck.The sophisticated and 3 charming Dr Hannibal Lecter. Just don’t take Chianti round for dinner.Are you ready for 4 Freddy?Dracula – star of 5 many a movie... but who’s counting? 5