There is a paradox in the genre we call horror. Its main engine has remained constant for millennia—primal fears of death (and afterlife), and relatedly inescapable phenomena like birth, aging, and sickness. At the same time, horror is always contemporary, reflecting “society’s collective anxieties throughout the decades,” writes Lauren McGrail at the Lights Film School blog.
We can see this in horror movies, dividing them by decade according to their most pressing concerns. 1920s German expressionism recoiled from the growing threat of fascism. The 1930s and 40s created a cult of personality around deathless horror icons.
“In the 1950s,” McGrail writes, “the fear of invasion and atomic war fueled films in which the effects of radiation created larger-than-life monsters.” The 60s saw deviancy everywhere, especially among the supposedly normal.
“In the 1970s, Hollywood looked inward, inventing threats that sprung from within,” sometimes quite literally. The ‘80s dealt in panic over satanism, teenage promiscuity, and childhood abuse. The ‘90s gave us charming sociopathic killers, horror parodies, (and bees). “More recently, an uptick in prestigious ‘elevated horror’ films is tackling modern social issues head-on.” Get Out uses disorienting shocks and scares for a heady examination of racism. Midsommer represents the fear of isolationist, homogeneous communities (ethnostate horror, if you will).
Kanopy, the free film streaming service, has made its horror film catalogue available online, allowing us to test this theory by watching classic movies from nearly every decade of cinema history. They’ve included a generous portion of recent highly acclaimed horror films, like Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. There are classic subgenre-defining films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Even the oldest of horror movie tropes get updated every few years to illustrate contemporary social conflicts. Frankenstein and his monster, Dracula: such 19th century literary characters came to life on celluloid again and again in the first half of the 20th century, when Hollywood horror was still figuring itself out. These oft-campy characters aren’t well-represented in the Kanopy collection. But there are offbeat psychological thrillers like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, crime thrillers about real monsters like David Fincher’s Zodiac, and horror comedies like Kevin Smith’s Tusk.
The horror film arrived before the 19th century ended, with Georges Méliès’ 1896 The Haunted Castle, a visual effects feast for 1890s filmgoers’ eyes. Its imagery now calls to mind a seasonal candy aisle—bats, witches, devils, skeletons, and a bubbling cauldron. Fall is a commercial bonanza for fun-sized candy bars and scary movies. Like pharmacies stocking giant bags of candy come summer’s end, no major studio should find itself without a horror release—or re-release—this time of year.
Halloween—the harvest-festival-turned-quasi-Christian/occult-ceremony-turned-major-shopping-season—may do as much to keep horror alive in popular culture as Christmas does for films about family dysfunction. Whether they’re digging up the corpses of ancient evils or inventing new metaphors for old-fashioned fears, horror films give Halloween its best costume ideas, and the best reason to gather up friends and family and get scared out of your wits together (ideally).
Should you be hosting such a gathering, or looking to freak yourself out, you’ll find contemporary horror aplenty free to stream at Kanopy. All you’ll need is your local library card. (To check and see whether your library–or university–is among Kanopy’s partners, just type it into the search window on this page.) “We stream thoughtful entertainment to your preferred device with no fees and no commercials by partnering with public libraries and universities,” says Kanopy’s about page, explaining that you need only “log in with your library membership and enjoy our diverse catalog with new titles added every month.” A very small price to pay indeed for such high-quality content. Enter Kanopy’s horror collection here.
The First Horror Film, George Méliès’ The Haunted Castle (1896)
Martin Scorsese Creates a List of the 11 Scariest Horror Films
Time Out London Presents The 100 Best Horror Films: Start by Watching Four Horror Classics Free Online
What Makes a Good Horror Movie? The Answer Revealed with a Journey Through Classic Horror Films Clips
Stephen King’s 22 Favorite Movies: Full of Horror & Suspense
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
I just watched Enemy. That was nuts. And ties with Midsommar for best use of a Walker Brothers song during the credits.