Happy Halloween everyone!

As I am undergoing oral surgery today (really, what won’t I do for the perfect Halloween costume?) and will have some time to kill on the couch as I recover, I thought it was the perfect moment to kick off a new Film 101 series on classic horror.

I always say I don’t really like horror, but, truth be told, I haven’t seen a lot of it, especially not the classics that everyone seems to know and love. So, although I’ve been meaning to take on the western for ages, I’ve decided to look in the mirror for inspiration and spend the post-Halloween sugar rush pondering the horror film. Though I have long loved the holiday, this is the first time I have looked at this most ancient of film genres seriously.

In fact, horror is one of the earliest film genres, with depictions of supernatural forces dating back to the early silent period. However, until the 1930s, these films relied more on mystery and the macabre rather than living, breathing monsters: a gothic atmosphere rather than ghosts and ghouls. Often, these early horror films were literary adaptations: Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera, and various stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The 1930s would see the golden age of the “movie monster” with Universal Pictures leading the charge with stars Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff.

Following World War II, we enter a bit of a dry spell when it comes to horror. I guess that event was horrific enough that we didn’t need movie monsters anymore. In the 1950s, with the dawn of the atomic age, we start to see a merging of horror with science fiction: Godzilla, or Gojira, being the classic example. While ghosts and ghouls still lurk in the shadows, monsters are often represented by aliens or created by advanced technology. Eventually, from the 1960s onward, these supernatural and extraterrestrial forces give way to the more mundane (but no less terrifying) madmen, psychopaths, and serial killers of the modern world. Though lately the supernatural seems to be making quite a comeback.

Regardless of exact subject matter, what all these films do is play on the primal fears of the audience: what repulses us, what scares us, what gives us nightmares. Almost all focus on a central character or action that seems to violate the laws of nature, using low-key lighting, shadows, heavy make-up, and special effects to surprise and/or shock the viewer.

I’ll be watching these films chronologically, going from the 1920s to the early 1960s and trying to hit as many major titles as I can for that period. I’m not yet sure if I’ll be writing them up chronologically or based on theme, but look for about one post per week through November.

In the meantime, do you have a favorite classic horror film? Do you have a regular selection you like to watch for Halloween? Let me know in the comments below.