A guide to ghosts, goblins, and ghouls in film

Harrison Burns–Staff Writer

‘Tis the season for ghouls and goblins as the days darken and leaves fall. In the spirit of this upcoming Halloween season, a brief exploration into the wonderful, frightening, and dumb world of Horror movies seems appropriate.

Movies depicting our darkest nightmares continue to fascinate audiences both for their thrills and their insight into human nature, desires, and of course, fears. For those looking for an introduction into the horror genre or just searching for the right scary movie to watch with friends, this guide is intended to help.

What better place to start than perhaps the cornerstone of horror films—the monsters. The classics like Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein and Christopher Lee’s iconic Dracula may not offer terrifying scares for modern audiences but they do provide the archetype of many horror tricks today. One cannot write on the monsters of Hollywood without mentioning the simplest of the undead beasts—the zombie. From the classic Night of the Living Dead, H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, the gritty 28 Days Later or even the comedic Shaun of the Dead, there is no shortage of zombie flicks.

The Monster Movie bleads into the sub-genre of “Slasher” films that hold a host of unstoppable, murderous boogeymen. These tend to emphasize the “blood-over-story” ratio and thus aren’t for everyone, but their impact on the horror landscape cannot be denied, and the genre contains a few entries admired by both critics and the populace. Staples of the slasher films include Nightmare on Elm’s Street, Child’s Play, Friday the 13th, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Halloween.

Horror is often done best when it is woven into other genres, and Science Fiction is one of its most fruitful partners. Particularly when melding with the monster iconography, Sci-Fi Horror is extremely effective and popular, with gems like The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and John Carpenter’s The Thing. But the franchise that cemented audience’s love of terror beyond our world would have to be the Alien films. Premiering with the caption, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” sequels are still being churned out featuring the iconic chest-bursting, acid-blood spewing alien. Some of the spin-offs are certainly better than others (the action-oriented Aliens being excellent) but the original 1979 film remains one of the most suspenseful and well-crafted science-fiction thrillers of all time.

A subset of horror films that has recently spiked in popularity is the paranormal-type scares that see the characters facing more intangible monsters of ghosts and demons. Franchises like Insidious, The Conjuring, and Paranormal Activity have all capitalized on this increased interest in malevolent spirits, with mixed responses from both critics and audiences. But these contemporary outings are certainly not a new fad. From the PG scares of Poltergeist to the sinister plots of the occult in Rosemary’s Baby and the disturbing possession in The Exorcist, modern horror holds its roots in these (in)famous films. (Some advice from personal experience, I would not recommend starting The Exorcist at 2:00am with a friend as your first “real scary movie” …there are less traumatic bonding experiences.)

For those looking for less brutal scares, the thriller category of horror provides the same or more suspense without excessive gore or demons. Reaching back to the renowned horror actor Vincent Price, The Pit and The Pendulum presents Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic tale. The “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock created a plethora of classic thrillers, perhaps his most iconic being Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, The Blair Witch Project, and even the recent A Quiet Place have each carved their place into the thriller genre with iconic premises.

The haunted house is one of the chief archetypes of the thriller appearing in titles like, Amityville Horror (1979), The Others and, perhaps the most critically acclaimed horror film, The Shining. Steven King based films could be a list of their own, contributing to horror with Misery, IT, Carrie, 1408, etcetera. Psychological terror is also growing in popularity with outings like Gerald’s Game, The Babadook, and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Horror’s dominance as a major movie genre over decades has allowed films to play off its clichés and themes with clever twists. These self-aware constructions include Cabin in the Woods, Scream, and Get Out. And then there are the parodies and comedies that take horror’s tropes to ridiculous heights (or lows). Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein and Gremlins are two that come to mind.

This brief survey of horror is far from exhaustive and there are surely many readers despairing that certain films were forgotten. But this list hopefully succeeds as a springboard into the wide variety of scary films available for the perfect thrills this Halloween season.

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