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A Horrible History

Horror stories have been told around the campfire for centuries. With their roots in ancient folklore and mythology, they often served as morality tales and helped listeners contextualise the surrounding world and its mysteries.

In the 18th century, classic Gothic novels like Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein helped to define the genre. Their influence can still be felt in literature, art, and entertainment.

Horror played an essential role in the early days of film history. Classics like Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle, 1896), Nosferatu (1922) and King Kong (1933) helped to establish the genre as a popular form of entertainment.

In the decades since, horror has continued to evolve and diversify, with new subgenres and trends emerging all the time. In the 1950s, movies began to explore new themes such as the Cold War and nuclear anxiety. Suddenly alien threats, viruses and mind-control were as equally horrifying as ghouls and ghosts.

The 1970s saw a resurgence of the genre, often focused on the supernatural, with releases like The Exorcist and Halloween, featuring more graphic and violent imagery, with intangible threats increasingly brought to life through more sophisticated effects and filmmaking techniques. In recent years, a number of critically acclaimed films such as Get Out and Hereditary explored timely social and political issues.

Sissy Spacek as the blood-soaked teen avenging high school bullies. Carrie (1976) United Artsts

Grizzly Genres and Terrifying Tropes

The horror movie explores the darkest corners of our psyche, confronting us with our deepest fears and anxieties - our shared vulnerabilities - through various subgenres.

Morality tales
Films like the The Exorcist and The Babadook teach us lessons about good and evil, while urban myths (Candyman, Jeepers Creepers) exploit our fear of the unknown. Revenge stories, like I Spit on Your Grave and Carrie, allow us to vicariously experience the satisfaction of taking revenge on those who have wronged us. Redemption stories, for instance The Exorcist III and The Mist, offer hope for even the most lost and tormented of souls.

Since the mid-last century, the loss of religious certainty and a need for new myths have also inspired many stories, like The Witch, Rosemary's Baby, and The Lighthouse which grapple with the complex emotions arising from a loss of faith in established norms.

Supernatural horror
Paranormal or fantastic tales that often feature ghosts, demons, and other supernatural creatures. Examples include The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and The Shining.

Slasher horror
The serial killer is a classic and oft revisited motif. Whether real-world, imagined, or conjured from the after life, these tortured souls normally have some persuasive back-story to explain their motivation as they exact their revenge, their psychosis normally founded in some childhood trauma. Examples include Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Body horror
Movies featuring graphic violence and bodily transformation which preys on our own sense of our physical selves and the possibility of invasion and disease from unknown quarters. Examples include The Thing, Alien, and Videodrome

Psychological horror
Focuses on the inner fears and anxieties of the characters. Examples include Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and Black Swan. All of these films question our own psychological stability and our perception of the world.
Leatherface in <i>The Texas Chain Saw Massacre</i> (1974)

Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Despite these different subgenres, horror films share many common tropes:

We know almost everyone is going to die quite horribly, but the best horror movies exploit suspense, our own expectations and imagination to build tension through a series of carefully orchestrated scenes. We know it's going to happen, but we still scream when it does.

A visceral sense of fear and dread is created through the use of shocking and disturbing imagery. From the grotesque and gruesome to the eerie and unsettling, they can push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable to show on screen, transporting us from the world of rational and moral norms, to a landscape in which even the most unthinkable is believable.

Jump scares
Jump scares are a common tactic used in horror to elicit a startling response, and one demanded and expected by the audience. Part of the (very successful) marketing and publicity for The Exorcist was claiming that people had suffered sudden cardiac arrest whilst watching it.

Sound & Music
Eerie sound effects and discordant music are used to create atmosphere and suspense, to build tension and anticipation. From footsteps, dripping water, howls, and clicks to the unforgettable scores of Jaws (1975, John Williams), The Exorcist (1973, Mike Oldfield) and Psycho (1960, Bernard Herrmann).

Otherworldly and paranormal themes are a staple of horror flicks, drawing from our fascination with a world beyond our comprehension. It's even more terrifying if you can't see it!

Isolated or confined spaces, such as haunted houses, abandoned buildings, or dark forests can heighten a sense of suspense and danger, and make the characters feel more vulnerable and helpless.

Gore is not always present in horror, but when it is, it can be used to create a sense of visceral disgust and shock. Graphic scenes of unchecked violence can be particularly effective in disturbing viewers, not just while watching the film, but for a very long time after. Seriously, have you ever gone for a swim at night without thinking about Jaws?

Final girl
Another common trope, referring to the last surviving female character who faces off against the killer or monster. Often portrayed as strong, resourceful, and intelligent, they serve as a symbol of hope and resilience in the face of evil. Examples: Halloween (1978), Hellraiser (1987) and of course, one of the genre’s great survivors, Ripley in the Alien franchise.

The Phonecall
Don't pick up the phone! Drew Barrymore in the shortest-lived cameo since Marlon Brando in Superman

A mysterious phone call threatens the protagonist and their loved ones. The trope exploits our fear of the unknown and our vulnerability, even the most mundane and everyday can suddenly become a vehicle for horror and its invasion of our lives and imaginations. Examples: The Ring (2002), Scream (1996).

Never Die Bad Guy
The main antagonist is seemingly indestructible. The trope creates suspense and dread, as the audience knows the bad guy will be back, but not when or how. Examples: Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise, Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise. Stab them, shoot them, drown them, throw them down the stairs, they just keep on coming back. And then there's the inevitable sequel.

Dead by Third Act (DBTA)
A significant character is killed by the end of the third act, often a character the audience cares about, making their death shocking and upsetting. The trope creates a sense of loss and despair, reminding the audience that even the good guys can die in movies. For particularly good examples see The Shining or Misery, where the would be heroic policeman saviour is unceremoniously dispatched and our hopes of a swift denouement deflated.

Why Do We Like Horror?

Whether it’s the thrill of being scared, a love for the themes and stories, the social aspect of watching movies together, or a boost of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine - there are many different reasons why people love horror films.

On a deeper level, horror allows us to explore our fears and darker thoughts, and even comment on social and political issues. It can be a cathartic experience, a way to help us better understand and cope with our emotions. They tap into a visceral response in our psyches - fight or flight, but within the safe context of our own sitting rooms or movie theatres.

The horror genre continues to evolve and provide insights into the current social and cultural landscape, and reminds us, however competitively priced it may be, never to buy a house on an ancient burial ground.

Petrifying Picks from the NextShoot team for an Unholy and Horrifying Halloween

The Tenant (La Locataire), 1976, Roman Polanski

The last instalment of the ‘Apartment trilogy’ (after Repulsion and the much more famous Rosemary’s Baby), this is actually the first of Roman Polanski’s films I ever watched, and I think this is a psychological horror that really synthesises his genius.

Roman Polanski puts himself as the main character, and his ‘imperfections’ as an actor make him perfect for the role. His awkwardness and discomfort are depicted masterfully, and you really get to empathise with him and feel for him.

The film makes you feel uncomfortable from the very beginning and the camera movements and soundtrack are perfectly tuned to the feeling of dread that accompanies you during the entire film.

With no splatter scenes or jump scares, this is, nonetheless, one of those films that will stay with you forever.

Alessandro Inglima, Senior Editor

The Omen, 1976, Richard Donner

Terrifyingly, I first saw this film when I was about 8 years old, courtesy of my older sisters.

Gregory Peck plays it straight as the doting husband and father, whose faith in his own perception is slowly eroded. As viewers, we too come to doubt our own beliefs. Yes, there's the insane priest, but there's also David Warner's brilliantly played photographer, whose rationality crumbles in the face of incontrovertible evidence. There's the magnificent evil nanny, the blinded monk, the crazed archaeologist and the snarling rottweilers.

What is truly great about the film is that you're taken on the journey with the protagonists from incredulity, to possibility, to probability and finally to their own certainty. The final act is utterly chilling as Peck, the last one alive who thinks he knows the terrible truth, is silenced. Was he mad? Is the film actually more about the threat of unchecked and absolute belief, mental illness and loss than it is about the Antichrist? Like all great horror, it plays on that uncertainty, and, for moments, it seems the story it purports to tell may be nothing more than a cautionary tale about the power of myths and the irrational pathways they may set the vulnerable on.

The coda of the funeral scene chills to the core and reminds the viewer that the devil, and the story, may after all be real. And the music is brilliant.

The Omen sits in the context of rising literal religious belief, the seerish mysticism of the revelation of St.John, and a growing paranoia and uncertainty, desperately seeking a clear definition of good and evil in our world and our place within it. If only life were as simple as it was in 1976.

Don't watch the remake! Stick with the incomparable original.

Mike MacNamara, Director

The Blair Witch Project, 1999, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez

Sometimes the unseen is more powerful than the seen. The plot of this film is very simple. Three people go to a forest to make a film about a serial killer. They interview some locals, a few of whom appear to be in a state of denial. Never a good sign in a horror movie.

They camp and hear some weird sounds. Unlike the audience, they convince themselves there's nothing to worry about. Awaking the next day, they find some little occult symbols posited around the wood. They decide to get the hell out of there, but it turns out they're lost. Cue fear, the corrosion of their relationships, distrust and unspoken fear. The genius of the film is that nothing actually happens and it's all the more terrifying for it. In the spaces in between is where the horror lies.

Shot for just $60k, it's the first and most-notable example of 'found footage'. Who found it remains the mystery. It heralded a new era of filmmaking using pro-sumer cameras and point of view narrative. An absolute groundbreaker in terms of content and style, it's a journey into horror. A film of a film where watching too many horror films informs the narrative and the viewer's response? How much more meta can you get?

What can we learn? Always pack more tissues.

Dominic Sutherland, Managing Director

Alien, 1979, Ridley Scott

Ground-breaking special effects, creature and production design, and the birth of the female action hero have ensured this cult movie has its place among the greatest horror films of all time.

A blend of science fiction, horror, and thriller, the movie centres around a commercial spaceship crew as they investigate a distress call from a distant moon, only to discover a deadly alien lifeform.

Made in a time before CGI, a variety of techniques were used to bring the creatures to life and create the dark, uneasy atmosphere that is its trademark, including stop-motion animation, animatronics, and optical effects. But what fascinates me most about filmmaking is that so often it is the combination of masterful craft and experimentation that makes a difficult scene work.

A great example is the Alien eggs. To give the eggs an organic look, they were stuffed with sheep intestines and cow stomach lining. But making them pulsate and create the illusion of movement inside was a challenge.

Ridley Scott solved the problem by inserting a rubber glove through a hole in the bottom of each egg and connecting it to a hose that filled it with compressed air. He could then make the glove inflate and deflate, manipulating it with his fingers from the outside to create the illusion of movement inside the egg.

I've always loved Alien for its groundbreaking special effects, intense atmosphere, and iconic creature design. But once you see the level of detail behind every scene, it makes you appreciate the film even more.

Magdalena Herfurtner, Account Manager

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