Horror is Cyclical...And It's Rising Again
Relative to other genres, when have horror movies been most popular? When have they been the most respected? When have they been...elevated?
[author's note on elevated horror: if some horror is elevated then all horror is elevated, and if all horror is elevated then no horror is elevated, so no, this site does not acknowledge so-called "elevated" horror]
To answer this question, we took to the rabbit-hole of Letterboxd's handy statistics pages. Beginning in the 1930s - the decade that saw the debut of Universal's major monster movies, with Dracula and Frankenstein kicking things off in 1931 - and running through the 2010s, we crunched the numbers on each decade in horror.
Popularity: First, we looked at the top 50 narrative feature films in each decade, ranked by overall popularity. We sorted by genre and identified the horror films in the top 50. 5 points were awarded for each horror film ranked 1-10, 4 points for each one ranked 11-20, and so-on down to 1 point for those stashed in the 41-50 range.
Rating: Second, we looked at the top 50 narrative feature films ranked by average Letterboxd rating. We followed the same ranking and sorting process.
Exceptions: Note that we used Rough Cut discretion to include a few films that Letterboxd does not have categorized under the horror genre. In chronological order, these are The Devils, Beetlejuice, The Sixth Sense, and Parasite.
And what did we find? A surprisingly consistent cycle of rise-and-fall, boom-and-bust periods for the horror genre. In both popularity and respectability, it's a genre that fades away for decades but can never fully be counted out. The chart below tracks both popularity and overall rating.
Aside from the shape of the chart, you'll also notice a major point about the horror genre: when compared to other films, its popularity far outstrips its rating. That is to say: the people love to see it, but not everyone respects its artistic value. This is no surprise. What might be a bit of a shock are the dual poles of the ratings line - the first and the final decades. With the rise of genre fare that plays to a more typically prestige-hungry audience - the last two Palme d'Or winners have been explicit genre films - we've seen horror come full circle with its early origins. As it turns out: evil does not, in fact, die tonight.
Read on for a more detailed look at each decade.
The 30s - An Early Peak
Most Popular: Frankstein (7), King Kong (9), Dracula (10), The Bride of Frankenstein (11), Freaks (13), Invisible Man (16), Vampyr (19), The Mummy (27), The Black Cat (32), The Old Dark House (39), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (44), Island of Lost Souls (50)
Highest Rated: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (14), The Bride of Frankenstein (16), Freaks (31), King Kong (44), Frankenstein (49)
Sure, the Universal monster movies dominate the decade - but the genre's success goes beyond the studio-led charge. The pre-code era combined with many audience's lack of familiarity with the visual medium to create some genuinely perverse, horrifying films like Freaks and Island of Lost Souls. As the Great Depression raged on, audiences found both escapism and a grandiose reflection of the more banal daily terrors they faced.
The 40s and 50s - A Sharp Decline
40s Most Popular: Cat People (23), The Wolf Man (43)
50s Most Popular: Diabolique (34), Godzilla (35)
Highest Rated: None
The genre tumbled off a cliff in the decades to come - in part due to the removal of the fear factor as audiences grew accustomed to it, and in part due to world events. There could be nothing more horrifying than the footage shot by Hollywood director George Stevens at the liberation of Dachau. And so the grim and the gruesome drew fewer audiences and even less respect. This rut would extend out several decades, through most of the William Castle era - cheap shocks that neither audiences nor the people making them took all that seriously. No judgment from this writer, a huge fan of some of Castle's work, but all the same, it was a statistical low point for the genre.
The 60s - A Revolution Begins
Most Popular: Psycho (2), Rosemary's Baby (4), The Birds (9), Night of the Living Dead (13), Eyes Without a Face (27), Repulsion (47)
Highest Rated: Psycho (11), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (35), The Cremator (40), Rosemary's Baby (42), Kwaidan (48)
It should be no surprise that the horror's rise came in tandem with two major cultural movements: the counterculture era and the age of the auteur. Purposeful or not, some of the earliest movies of the New Horror movement, emerging in the late 60s, burst at the seams with metaphors for the issues that preoccupied the nation's youth. And while George Romero's Night of the Living Dead earned crowds, it was the move from established and up-and-coming directors into the genre that brought it prestige from the buttoned-up crowd of film aficionados. The above list includes two films from Alfred Hitchcock and two from Roman Polanski, and as the movement wore into the 70s, it would be the A-List directors that helped bring horror to new heights.
The 70s - The New Horror
Most Popular: Alien (4), Jaws (6), Halloween (10), The Exorcist (11), Suspiria (12), Eraserhead (13), Carrie (15), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (16), Rocky Horror Picture Show (17), Hausu (22), The Wicker Man (31), Dawn of the Dead (40), Salo (41), Don't Look Now (48)
Highest Rated: Alien (9), The Devils (30), Demons (35)
Scott, Spielberg, Carpenter, Friedkin, Argento, Lynch, De Palma, Hooper, Roeg. The names are the stuff of legend. What's perhaps most surprising, then, is that despite being far and away the most popular decade for horror, it's not the most respected, and in fact couldn't nudge any higher than the three-decade plateau from the 60s through the 80s. Could this just be the heightened competition with the rise of the New Hollywood in the 70s? Or does horror as film art just have an inherent ceiling?
The 80s - The End of An Era
Most Popular: The Shining (1), The Thing (11), Beetlejuice (16), A Nightmare on Elm Stret (30), The Evil Dead (36), The Fly (43), Gremlins (45), Videodrome (49)
Highest Rated: The Thing (11), The Shining (12), Possession (45), Kisapmata (50)
Another strong decade, the 1980s also saw the beginning of the end of the New Horror. There may not have been a single Heaven's Gate moment akin to the decline of the New Hollywood (though I'd argue for the E.T.-ification of 1982's splinter-vision Poltergeist), but the genre nonetheless began its epic march toward the 90s-era direct-to-video extravaganza. Most of the decades highlights - with the exception of David Cronenberg's exceptional output every few years - came in its first few years.
The 90s and 2000s - Life Support
90s Most Popular: The Silence of the Lambs (3), Scream (29), The Sixth Sense (35)
2000s Most Popular: American Psycho (7), Shaun of the Dead (46)
Highest Rated: The Silence of the Lambs (13) (none from the 2000s)
Look, there are some phenomenal horror movies from the 90s and aughts. But who are we kidding? These decades were mostly a barren wasteland of successively aborted revivals, sixth sequels, straight to video slashers. The Blair Witch Project - perhaps the most impactful and terrifying film of the bunch - barely missed the top 50 of the 1990s. Saw, I'm sad to say, was nowhere close.
The 2010s - A Rebirth
Most Popular: Get Out (5), Midsommar (6), The Lighthouse (30), Hereditary (32), Us (38), A Quiet Place (39), Black Swan (42), It (50)
Highest Rated: Get Out (20), What We Do in the Shadows (35), Black Swan (42), The Lighthouse (45)
According to Letterboxd and the arbitrary parameters we set, the 2010s was the highest rated decade in horror's history. Despite clocking a popularity score closer to the 60s and 80s than the peaks of the 30s and 70s, the genre has earned a level of respect amongst mainstream filmgoers and critics at least not seen since the 70s, and perhaps not even then. And a look at that chart suggest it's just getting started. If past is prologue, this is the beginning of the next great rise in horror - and the next decade could bring previously unseen riches in the genre.