When we drive by a car accident, we slow down and search for blood and gore. When we listen to a story, we’re more interested if something scary or horrible happens to one of the characters. When October comes around, we step into haunted houses, asking monsters to jump out at us. The fact is, humans enjoy terror and seek it out. Exactly why humans are innately intrigued by fear is a well-debated issue and better analyzed in my paper, The Psychology of Horror: Why We Like Being Scared, it’s undeniable that humans are deeply fascinated with, as well as scared of, horror. Humans seek out a unique type of fear that they experience in safe, controlled environments, and one such environment is a movie theater. While watching a horror movie, viewers can experience the terror they desire, while having the peace of mind that they aren’t at any real danger. Psychological horror is defined as “a subgenre of horror and psychological fiction, which relies on the mental, emotional and psychological status of characters to frighten or unsettle viewers” (“Psychological Horror”). With the natural variation of people’s interests and cultural influences, it is curious how psychological horror films have managed to consistently interest people across many decades and make generous profits. How has the subgenre of psychological horror remained a dominate part of the movie industry, while all other types of horror films have come and go? The nation’s persistent interest in emotional horror and the accessibility of online streaming providers suggests that the genre of psychological horror will continue to be popular but thrive on a different screen.
Long before horror films made their debut on the silver screen, the era of horror fiction began in the 1800s with literary classics such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and the works of Edgar Allen Poe (Jancovich). Horror films existed, in some sense, as early as 1895 with the first ever horror film, The Haunted Castel; however, the introduction of sound into the film industry in the1920s increased the popularity of horror films that came into vogue in the 1930s. The 1930s produced gothic horror films, such as Dracula, that interested the public for about a decade, until people became bored of gothic monsters. Producers began making comedic movies out of the original horror films to get every drop of revenue that could procure from the Gothic Monster era. Thus, initiated the “cycling of horror subgenres”, which is essentially when a specific niche of horror is created, explored, adored, becomes boring, is made into spoof movies, and then the subgenre is retired and a new one rises. With the1950s and the beginning of the Cold War, came the rise of the Pulp Science Fiction cycle, with hits such as Forbidden Planet and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers playing on American’s fear of extraterrestrial and nuclear unknowns. But this cycle had reached its conclusion at the end of the decade. The 1960s brought the world’s first psychological horror film, Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, that terrified audiences through real-life horror. Contrary to Hitchcock’s well-crafted horror films, there were many B-rated horror movies that were churned out in the 1960s, simply to make profit. In the 1970s, there were many horror cycles, such as the Supernatural cycle, the Shark cycle and the Teen Horror cycle, all cycles that were very short-lived. The Slasher cycle was popular in the 1970s, with hits such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. In the 1990s and the 2000s, the Torture Porn cycle was in full swing, with increasingly violent and gory films, such as the Saw Franchise. Finally, in the 2010s, there was the Zombie cycle. Over the past century, around a dozen horror subgenres have cycled through; however, psychological horror is the exception. Beginning in 1960 with Psycho, psychological horror films and thrillers have remained popular to present day. 1980 brought Kubrick’s The Shining, another psychological horror film, which has become one of the most popular and eerie horror films of all time. 1991 marked the release of The Silence of the Lambs; The Sixth Sense came in 1999, which was followed by Shutter Island in 2010. Unlike all other subgenres of horror, psychological horror remains popular (“A Brief History of Horror”).
Psychological horror continues to interest and terrify people because the subgenre isn’t constructed around a fear of one specific thing such as sharks or bloody murders. Instead, psychological horror terrifies its audience by pointing out the hidden terrors that exist all around us in our everyday lives, making the subgenre forever relevant. Although psychological horror remains popular, going out to the movies is not. In recent years, movie theater ticket sales have decreased with the rise of online streaming providers like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime that make movies easily accessible and cheap. However, the psychological horror industry will not die out like movie theaters will; the subgenre of horror will simply transition from movies on the silver screen to television series on home-televisions and computers (Cowden).
Not only do online streaming services make psychological horror television series more accessible and less costly for viewers, the layout of a television series allows for a more thorough development of emotional terror than single-sitting movies. A season of a T.V. series is, on average, somewhere around twelve, 45-minute episodes. This means that a single season of a television series is around 7 and a half hours – much longer than a two-hour movie. This extra time results in a much more extensive emotional and psychological development of the main characters and the plot, which allows for a deeper connection between the characters and the audience. Two of the most popular psychological horror series are American Horror Story and Bates Motel, which are both available on Hulu, Netflix and Amazon with monthly subscriptions. American Horror Story is a wildly successful franchise with six highly praised seasons. The series is so successful that seasons seven, eight, and nine are already scheduled to air in September 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively (“American Horror Story”). The most recent season of American Horror Story, My Roanoke Nightmare, focuses on the story of a reenactment television show about a family who lived in a house supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the Lost Colony. The season follows the “found footage” style of a compilation of first-hand footage clips from the people living in the haunted house, that was first made popular by the 1999 psychological horror film, The Blair Witch Project, demonstrating that psychological horror television shows are simply the next step in the evolution of psychological horror and not a replacement of the films. The Bates Motel series also incorporates many of the original psychological horror film attributes, as it details the story of Norman Bates leading up to him famously murdering Marion Crane in the 1960 hit, Psycho. The five-season series lets the viewers grow-up with Norman Bates and experience the abuse and horrors of his childhood that made him the iconic psychotic killer, making the eeriness of the series arguably rival the film it’s based on.
Even though psychological horror films could potentially decrease in popularity due to declining movie theater attendance, online streaming providers are revolutionizing the way viewers experience psychological horror and making this subgenre of horror increasingly relevant, scary, and enticing.
“A Brief History of Horror.” FilmmakerIQcom. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. Link
“American Horror Story.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 09, Apr. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. Link
Jancovich, Mark. “‘Frighteningly Real’: Realism, Social Criticism and the Psychological Killer in the Critical Reception of the Late 1940s Horror-Thriller”. European Journal of American Culture, vol. 31, no. 1, Feb, 2012, pp. 25-39. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1368/ejac.31.1.25_1.
Cowden, Catarina. “4 Big Reasons People Aren’t Going to the Movies Anymore,” CINEMABLEND. Cinemablend, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. Link
“Psychological Horror.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Apr. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. Link