Both commercially and critically, the horror genre is at a high point of popularity. Horror films have had more success at the box office than almost every other genre, and – as proven with movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – have the most potential to become massively profitable with their meager budgets. Filmmakers like Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent, and Robert Eggers have established their careers on independent horror films that became festival hits and went on to be commercial successes.
Moreover, recent independent horror films have also been critically acclaimed for pushing the boundaries of the genre. Even more, the genre as a whole has undergone a huge revaluation in recent years by audiences, with many disregarded films and directors throughout history being discovered by a younger audience. Old sub-genres and styles have surfaced in creative ways, whether it be Ti West's X, a recent pastiche of 1970s exploitation films, or Robert Eggers's The Lighthouse, stylized with black-and-white cinematography to evoke expressionist images of the silent film era. As it continues to thrive today, it's worth diving into this new renaissance of the horror genre and how its impact has grown so extensively in recent years.
Past Revivals of Horror
Like most film genres, horror movies have a long history with many periods of extended popularity and decline. Universal horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein briefly surged in the 1930s, thanks to the powerful performances of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as the titular monsters. Decades down the line, the genre resurfaced with a new generation of filmmakers like George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and John Carpenter (Halloween). Slasher franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street dominated the 1980s, with the tried and true formula of a vicious masked murderer brutally killing off a group of teens. By the mid-1990s, that formula had become so dry it inspired postmodern revisions like Scream or outright parodies like Scary Movie, briefly bringing the genre back to life.
Low Budget and Independent Successes
One of the most important companies behind the recent resurgence of the horror genre has been Blumhouse. Founded in 2000 by producer Jason Blum, the studio achieved phenomenal success with Paranormal Activity, a found-footage horror film of a young couple being haunted in their new home. Shot for a mere $15,000, the film was a hit at festivals like Slamdance and was eventually acquired for distribution by Paramount, where it went on to make nearly $200 million worldwide – the most profitable movie ever. Since the success of Paranormal Activity, Blumhouse has helped produce and distribute dozens of horror movies including Insidious, The Purge, and Get Out. One of their most recent releases, The Black Phone, made over $150 million this summer, emphasizing the importance of horror films to theatrical box office.
Independent studios like A24 and Neon have also done immensely well with their forays into horror. One of A24's first major successes was The Witch, a period horror film about a family of Puritans in the 1600s who are terrorized by an evil presence from the woods. The movie was praised by critics and audiences upon its premiere at Sundance, and earned $40 million a year later when it was released in theaters. Other independent horror films like Under the Skin, Hereditary, and Titane have not only been acclaimed as horror films, but also helped reinforce the notion that the genre can be just as artistic and insightful as more traditionally highbrow dramas.
Horror Filmmaking at the Studios
In the midst of the bloated streaming market and the Covid pandemic, major studios like Paramount and Universal have found themselves relying more and more on horror films. For example, in 2014, Universal signed a first-look deal with Blumhouse for the following 10 years: an unprecedented move on the part of Universal, and one that has paid off huge dividends with franchises like The Purge and original films such as Get Out. Studios have also used their vast libraries of IP to reboot film franchises or other horror properties to solid results. Warner Bros.'s It in 2017 was one of the highest grossing films of the year with $600 million worldwide. However, it's worth noting that original horror films have done just as well in profitability compared to bigger-budget, IP-driven fare – a special rarity in today's theatrical market.
Foreign Horror Past and Present
Foreign horror films have also played major roles in the recent resurgence. During the same period filmmakers such as Hooper and Romero were establishing themselves in the United States, Italian directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were coming into their own directing giallos (heavily stylized and erotic thriller/horror films) like Deep Red, Suspiria, and The Beyond. These works, in turn, influenced American directors for decades for their colorful production design, graphic violence, and entrancing music scores. Japanese and other Asian countries produced several successful horror films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Ju-On, Ringu, and Audition, which became immensely popular amongst Western audiences. The first two were even remade by Hollywood with The Grudge and The Ring, respectively. These foreign horror movies have arguably had just as large an influence on contemporary horror filmmaking as their American counterparts.
More contemporary foreign-language horror films have also grown popular amongst critics and audiences. South Korean genre filmmaking has especially become popular, following the financial success and accolades given to Bong Joon-ho's Parasite and the Netflix series Squid Game among others. The 2016 zombie film Train to Busan was the highest grossing film of the year in South Korea, and was enough of a global hit that an American remake was announced shortly after. On the arthouse side, the French body horror film Titane won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and was selected as the French entry for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film. While foreign horror films don't have nearly the same impact on American audiences as Hollywood titles, there has been more and more interest amongst audiences recently, especially because streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime provide easy access to those works.
Horror Comes to Television and Streaming
The success of the horror genre has not just been limited to movie theaters or the festival circuit. A streaming service like Shudder has thrived at promoting specifically horror and thriller content, with a mix of old and new movies and series. Furthermore, many of the most popular TV series of the past decade have been from the horror genre. Some examples include the zombie drama The Walking Dead; the vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows; the long-running anthology series American Horror Story; and the limited series The Haunting of Hill House, based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. Most noteworthy is Netflix's flagship series Stranger Things; its most recent season especially leaned into horror elements and broke viewing records to become the most watched English-language series in the platform's history.
Renewed Critical Attention and Audience Response
The horror renaissance of the last few years has also subsequently inspired rediscoveries of the genre as a whole and its vast history. Previously maligned titles – ranging from franchise sequels like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 to more experimental fare such as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me – have been reappraised and defended by critics and fans of the genre. The term “elevated horror” has been applied to the recent crop of independent horror films that have emerged in the last decade, used to describe how films like The Babadook and Get Out comment on issues of grief, trauma, race, and other social and political issues. The term has notoriously gained significant backlash from fans and critics, but its popularity nevertheless illustrates how popular and critical consensus around the horror genre has so dramatically shifted as of late.
“Horror has long been one of cinema's most effective and interesting lenses through which to examine the things that scare us most, both as individuals, and as societies. In the 2010s, directors have been given the space to tell these stories their way—and confident marketing that makes sure they reach not only typical horror audiences, but outsiders who might love them just as much. If this continues into the decade to come, the exhausting semantic debate over ‘elevated horror' will have been a pretty small price to pay.”
The recent successes of films like The Black Phone, Barbarian, and Smile confirm that the horror genre has a lasting impact that was able to survive even after the last two years of Covid. Not only that, it consistently brings in audiences where most other types of movies have largely failed to do so, and their lower budgets make them the most profitable genre at the box office. Some of the best filmmakers in recent years have both emerged from and remained in the horror genre, from Jordan Peele to Jennifer Kent, Ari Aster to Julia Doucaurnau. As the future of the film industry continues to be unstable, with theater chains filing for bankruptcy and streaming services losing subscribers, horror films have thrived and evolved. Hopefully, this renewal and renaissance will never end.
Horror Movie Collections
If you're a horror fan or interested in exploring the genre further, be sure to check out these iGEMS collections: