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Chris graduated from Georgia State University in 2009 with degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing. He has spent a lot of time working with the media. From engineering radio broadcast for most of Atlanta’s major sports teams to shooting high school football games behind a camera, Chris has a lot of media experience. Besides that, he loves soccer, detective shows, and a buffet list of 'nerdy' things that would embarrass his wife.

Scary and Revolutionary: 8 Films That Helped Define the Horror Genre

Norman Bates Psycho

Norman Bates from the Hitchcock’s classic. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Horror movies have long been a source of thrills and entertainment for us all, especially around this time of year. While sometimes they can be misconstrued as films that rely on cheap scares and over-the-top monsters in lieu of plot-driven stories, the genre is full of great movies that could satisfy even the staunchest movie buff. From the early days of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff to the “scream queens” and documentary-style scarefests of the last few years, the horror genre has been nothing if not persistently popular.

It would be hard to rank any one film as having the most impact on the film making side, especially considering the genre has so many sub-genres within itself. However, there are a select few that have helped to definitively shape the horror culture as a whole.

Psycho (1960)

Janet Leigh becoming a victim in Psycho

Janet Leigh’s final scene from Psycho. Credit: Paramount Pictures

It’s fitting to open up the discussion with a film from the suspense master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Much like House on Haunted Hill did one year earlier, Psycho utilized masterful story telling to create high-stress situations for the audience. From the moment of the famous “shower scene” the audience is driven down a nervy road where no one can be sure of what is about to happen. If you were to watch the film now it would be hard to truly grasp its impact. However, the theater-goers of the 1960s had never seen that sort of violence before. According to an article by Stephen Robb of BBC News, Hitchcock’s thriller was deemed worthy of an “X” rating upon its UK release.

Besides testing the boundaries of decency in the 60s, Psycho was also one of the first to walk the line of morality as well. One of the things that the film doesn’t always receive credit for is it’s ability to make the audience accept the fate of some its characters. For example, Janet Leigh may have been a far more sympathetic character had she not stolen money from the bank, and the detective’s overall demeanor made his loss more easy to cope with as well. Psycho gave many of its characters flaws that made them seem less like victims to the audience. This ploy worked well for Hitchcock’s film and serves as a model today in just about every slasher or horror movie.

Speaking of slashers, the character of Norman Bates is one that has stayed with us for a long time. You only have to look at other killers from movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th and even the 2012 movie House at the End of the Street to see a little bit of Bates’ influence. Psycho is the godfather of all slasher movies—plain and simple.

The Exorcist (1973)

If Psycho pushed the envelope in the 60s, the world didn’t have to wait too long for another horror classic to up the ante. The Exorcist personified everything that movie makers thought they couldn’t put on screen. While there have been plenty of films made about demonic possession, this one will always be the golden standard for how to pull it off.

The Exorcist took everything that was holy, literally, and twisted it…literally. For a film to mutilate religion through the possession of a young girl, it took a lot for the movie not to get rated “X” in the 70s. Add that to the disturbing imagery and you have quite the nightmare. You would be hard pressed to find too many people who actually made it through the entirety of the movie in theaters and even fewer people who wouldn’t tell you that The Exorcist is still the scariest movie they’ve ever seen.

Halloween (1978)

Jamie Lee Curtis Hiding from Michael Myers

Jamie Lee Curtis hiding from Michael Myers in Halloween. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

As a self-admitted horror movie lover, I have to say that the modern day slasher has nothing on its predecessors. But aside from my own preferences, the earlier versions or installments of horror movies often used mood, music and setting over blood and gore to scare audiences. Perhaps that’s why John Carpenter’s Halloween is arguably one of the creepiest horror films ever made. The emotionless Michael Myers is a far more brutal and methodical killer than Norman Bates, and his never-ending drive to kill the movie’s heroine Laurie Strode (played by a young Jamie Lee Curtis—ironically the daughter of Psycho alum, Janet Leigh) is one of the most iconic story arcs of the genre.

However, what makes this movie so great is the simple fact that it more or less played on the fears of the generation and translated it perfectly to the big screen at a relatively low cost. Whether it was being the babysitter on a dark night, the kids being at home by themselves or even not knowing if you’re alone in the dark; Halloween prays on all of these ideas until everyone watching has to check the closet for the “Boogeyman” before going to bed.

Alien (1979)

The 70s were truly a scary decade. Having given us demonic possessions and relentless killers, audiences were left with one last parting gift to help them “sleep better” at night. Alien helped breath life back into an almost forgotten star of the early horror movies—the monster. With the exception of Jaws in 1975 and John Carpenter’s The Thing in the 80s, no other movie featured such a terrifying killing-machine like Alien did.

From the inescapable “face-hugging” monster to the full grown Xenomorph that stalked the members of the crew, the film really leaves its characters (and audience) without so much as a safe place to sit. While the early renditions of Dracula or the Werewolf were always considered to be the prototypical movie monsters, Alien re-imagined what a monster really was: there were no stakes, no silver bullets and more importantly no motive for the creatures of this movie. That’s something that makes it truly unique, as most of the the monsters before and, to be honest, after at least had been given inklings of a soul.

The Shining (1980)

The Shining Twins

One of the creepiest scenes from The Shining. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

What does it say about a movie so great that it hasn’t been copied or remade in today’s reboot-obsessed cinema? Quite a bit actually. The Shining is one of those stories that simply transcends the decade that it was created in. It takes a perfectly innocent situation (albeit with a morbidly twisted back-story) and let’s its characters brood in growing paranoia until the penultimate sequence.

The Shining proved to be horrifying without actually using too many of the established cannons of horror films of that time. The imagery and mostly bizarre circumstances that Jack Nicholson’s character finds himself surrounded by are what eventually drives him crazy. As you watch the film, you will almost feel as though you’re being pulled into the dementia with him. Every scene that passes adds brings with it another element of suspense that culminates as Jack picks up the axe

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Like Alien did, A Nightmare on Elm Street broke the traditional mold of horror films of that time and took the fear to a place it had never really been before—your dreams. One of the scariest things about this film is that the victims of this movie are practically defenseless – much like they were in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. The movie also does well to keep audiences guessing as to what’s real and what’s fake, which makes for plenty of surprises along the way.

With the horror films of the 80s being mostly slasher films (though many were not very good), it was only a matter of time before the industry churned out one of the all-time greatest slashers of the horror world in Freddy Krueger. The “dream stalker” has become one of the most universally recognized killers of all time, standing next to the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Although he became infinitely more chatty in later installments, the Freddy from the first “Nightmare” will always be one of the best.

This movie broke away from some of the recycled cliches of the slasher sub-genre by consistently deceiving the audience with seamless transitions into dream sequences and butchery that often came out of nowhere. A Nightmare on Elm Street brought edge-of-the-seat horror to an unsuspecting audience.

Scream (1996)

Ghostface from Scream

Ghostface. Credit: Dimension Films

Notice the gap in years? After Freddy debuted, many horror movies became bogged down with the type of product that the general audience began to consider as the unfortunate mainstays of the genre. Enter Scream. While the movies that preceded it truly helped put together the genre,  Wes Craven’s Scream did almost as much to deconstruct horror movies. The film took a lot of what had become cliche and let its characters play off of it on screen.

In fact, the opening scene with Drew Barrymore set the tone for what was to be a revolutionary way of approaching horror. Scream reached out to the audiences of that particular generation and offered them a witty and morbidly clever take on a genre that had honestly gone stale. It succeeded and ended up with 3 more installments, each with it’s own relative success.

From its satirical nature, the movie helped in transforming those cliches back into appreciated facets of genre. It’s one of the reasons why Scream could arguably be considered one of the most important horror movies of the 90s.

Saw (2004)

One of the many things that gets lost in horror genre is how the movies (good ones) allow the audience to suspend their own morality. Think about it: when you went to see a horror movie you expected to see people die, yet rather than it be an unfortunate circumstance of the film, it’s more or less the center of the entertainment. Saw took things a step further by essentially asking the audience not to feel sorry for the characters as it was their own actions that lead to their “unfortunate” predicaments.

Even though Saw sparked the frenzy of gory, blood-filled movies of the late 2000s, the movie itself was more about the story and its characters than the latter “torture porn” knockoffs (many of which were its own sequels). The ingenious misdirection of the film’s final scene is truly one of the classic moments in horror movie history.

Unfortunately, Saw is one of the last in this genre to incorporate a carefully crafted plot within a dark and twisted onscreen world. In an industry of remakes, reboots and copycat plots, it may be hard to find another movie that changes the way that audiences and movie makers look at horror. But while the world is still waiting for the next great classic, it’s these films that have gone a long way to keep us enamored with it all.

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147 Comments on “Scary and Revolutionary: 8 Films That Helped Define the Horror Genre”

  1. Team Lost November 13, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    The Exorcist and The Shining still haunt me to this day. *chills

  2. johnberk November 13, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I rather prefer the old timers from this list. It is because their ability of building atmosphere is extraordinary. Being it Alien, Psycho or The Shining, you had to wait for a long time before SOMETHING (scary or gore) actually happened. I was very lucky and saw Alien and Shining in the cinema when they came out, which was something that will never repeat. With the current state of Hollywood, I am very sceptic about any horror classics to be appearing soon.

  3. mattthomas444 November 13, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

    How about The Descent? I think it’s the best horror film of the past 20 years.

    • johnberk November 15, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      Yeah the Descent was totally great… I have to agree with this one. But it was hardly a classic. Why? Because people who are left inside of some place and can’t go out having to fight with something – that’s a concept taken from the Alien.

  4. christianliving2014 November 14, 2014 at 1:02 am #

    Reblogged this on christianliving2014 and commented:
    Totally great write! Some of these movie’s are awesome!

  5. alicakes512 November 14, 2014 at 8:13 am #

    Reblogged this on alicakes512.

  6. lambusaajan November 14, 2014 at 8:15 am #

    The psycho is the best among all I seen among the list mentioned above

  7. Kitty K. Free November 14, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Reblogged this on Chocolate Girl Wonder.

  8. hamadurrehman November 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    Reblogged this on my health and fitness and commented:
    Hmm

  9. rhidushka November 14, 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    Good read! I haven’t seen all he films on the list but I’ll definitely check them out now!

  10. thepianist1221 November 15, 2014 at 6:07 am #

    truth to tell, I still remember how many sleepless nights I had when I watched The Exorcist for the first time…

  11. nodman82 November 15, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Reblogged this on Nodman82's Blog.

  12. decapotable5 November 15, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    I love horror movies, and never tire of watching them, but Alien… I just can’t. Makes my skin crawl.
    It is really hard to pin down a top “#” of movies in a genre, but this is a great list of movies that shaped what we expect when we go to the theater. I would want to add “Misery”, but at heart, I think it’s the kind of suspense thriller that originally came from “Psycho” and/or “The Shining”. And really, the ending isn’t unhappy enough, is it?!

  13. Prahlad November 15, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    Saw is a bit odd name, as it is gory but doesn’t come close to horror as the other movies create! Few additions to the list could be: The Others, The Conjuring, The Ring

  14. Kathryn November 15, 2014 at 9:03 pm #

    It is a long time since a horror movie scared me but, a new Australian film The Baboddook truly chilled me. Even watching the trailer leaves me feeling anxious. It does not rely on gore or cheap tricks.

  15. chefdaddy1 November 16, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    Pretty good, I like the old stuff as well, can’t sit though the new.

  16. hamiltonporter November 17, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    As much as I disliked the film itself, I’d have to give an honorable mention to the Blair Witch Project. Not only.was it made on a shoestring budget, but it also helped to launch the “found footage” sub genre of horror. Just my two cents tho lol. Great read.

    • Christopher Hill November 18, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

      No joke, hamilton. I almost included that one in my article. Thanks for reading.

  17. onelostlaugh November 18, 2014 at 5:50 am #

    Not sure how one can entirely skip friday the 13th

    • Christopher Hill November 22, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

      Friday the 13th didn’t really change horror the way Halloween did a few years earlier. The original is still a classic though.

      • onelostlaugh November 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

        Fair point, but for me I believe Friday the 13th was really the movie that brought the genre mainstream, and while it didn’t necessarily break as much ground as some other films, it opened a lot of doors for the genre as a whole.. While it was before my time I have always read about the back and forth between the franchise and Elm Street. I felt that the character of Jason was the first one that could really be empathized for the creation of the villain. IMO Halloween’s in your face death scenes changed the genre forever, but it was still extremely influenced by psycho. However, what really sets 13th apart for me is the nice little formula that so so many movies have followed since; a sense of serenity for the characters, a peace, while at the same time most of the characters haven’t a lot of dept, a unique combination. That is only to be followed by cold calculated and sudden savagery..in your face and immediate, no slow buildup. Just my opinion anyways.

  18. ardensta November 18, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    COOL

  19. soundsbysteve November 18, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Great list! I still need to see Psycho, but the other films are great. Good analysis on all of them!

  20. Enviroart November 18, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    I have seen all of them. Definitely “The exorcist” which I saw 3 times until I could not go to sleep for 2 years without thinking the devil was under my be (1st time I laughed all the way) and then “The shining”, so realistic of what can happen to the human mind.

  21. tmgrigg November 18, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on tmgrigg.

  22. poetinsocks November 19, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    Your movie selection was on point. The best Freddy, by far was tha 4th one…meatball faces, awesome! However, tha scariest movie on tha list was exorcist. Tha remastered version where she did tha crab walk down tha stairs scared tha shyt outta me.

  23. messyeffe November 19, 2014 at 9:46 am #

    Great movie selection! Love horror movies, even though I just can’t watch them when I’m alone XD

  24. anisioluiz2008 November 19, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on ARTE, SIMPLESMENTE….

  25. Sarah-Jayne November 20, 2014 at 4:36 am #

    I struggle with the horror films of today, finding that the Wes Craven days of building up suspense have been replaced by a competition to see how much blood can be shed.

    I love films such as Paranormal Activity, Saw, When a stranger calls and other horrors that make you so wound up that you jump at the mildest movement in horror. I switch films with bloody opening scenes straight off.

  26. infiniteperplexes November 20, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    It’s funny how I haven’t watched all of these movies.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see any of them >_<

  27. chordgitarlengkap November 20, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    Cool

  28. carroll412 November 21, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on Carroll412's Blog.

  29. Emily November 21, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

    Very cool, straight-forward post! If you’re into classic horror films, there’s actually a lot of contemporary work being done that’s worth taking a look at.

  30. anewcatsworld November 22, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    One movie that scared the daylights out of me was Wes Craven’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow”. I absolutely refuse to watch it again.

  31. fantasticbetty2014 November 22, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    I have not seen all of the films on your list but have seen several of them. My opinion, The Shining does not belong on your list. Maybe because I liked the book so much, the movie version did not come close to building the horror with the intensity the book did for me. I thought Shelley Duvall as Wendy was insipid and one-dimensional, too many long pauses in the dialogue, and that silly thing with Danny and his “talking” finger – blah!
    A much better choice would have been The Haunting of Hill House (older version, not the newer, The Haunting). Still scares and startles me every time I watch it!

  32. dalilab96 November 25, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    Reblogged this on dalilab96.

  33. Charlie November 25, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on The World at my fingertips...

  34. MixIC November 26, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on Mixic.

  35. terryterror November 27, 2014 at 1:09 am #

    scream and saw put me to sleep

  36. smoothpaws November 27, 2014 at 8:06 pm #

    Great article! :)

  37. bambiiee November 27, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

    Reblogged this on Bambiiee World.

  38. frugoal November 29, 2014 at 10:53 am #

    Great list!

  39. BCHQ November 29, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on An Alchemist's Journey…..

  40. shocky30 November 30, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Reblogged this on shockysblog.

  41. Very Bangled November 30, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Thank you for including Alien in this horror movie list. My honey and I often debate the difference between Alien (he likes) and Predator (I like) and I always insist they are different genres. Alien is definitely horror, it’s too scary for me.

  42. stevendmcilroy84 November 30, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    I much prefer all the original films. Horror today are just not that scary. I’m sick of all these remakes as well, has the film world lost originality? Can’t new ideas, themes and concepts be thought of. The films today lack the creativity of the films that shaped the horror genre. I give up on film when someone decides to remake Alien, my favourite film ever made!!

  43. denisfeuerstein December 1, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Scream and Saw? Well okay, if you say so.

  44. jaysanzin December 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on Jay Sanzin and commented:
    Great list of influential films. I never put it together how great the 70’s and early 80’s were for horror

  45. Eva Egido December 4, 2014 at 6:50 am #

    Favourite genre. The shining is an amazing film! Great choices and article.Thanks

  46. running42km December 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    Great list! Two of my favs horror movies: REC from Spain and Ju-On from Japan. Very good reading

  47. Matthew Cabe December 8, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    Psycho truly was revolutionary, especially if you look at the number of movies that came out in the years after that tried to ramp up the scares and the gore. The slasher sub-genre that emerged in the 70s and hit its peak in the 80s owes so much to the daring of Hitchcock’s film.

  48. splower December 9, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on mens finest and commented:
    Test

  49. barack2012 December 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm #

    Reblogged this on GetRealWithDarylandDeVon@.Wordpress.Com.

  50. roelyons December 15, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    Reblogged this on roehilldotnet.

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