By the late 1960s, classic horror movies pioneered by Vincent Price and Boris Karloff had run out of steam. What took their place in the period after that was something different, edgier and altogether more terrifying.
"To some extent you could say that modern horror started with the Universal classics, but I do think there is this significant turning point starting in 1968," says Jason Zinoman, author of the new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.
Zinoman tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Robert Smith the horror film genre is bigger today than it has ever been, and many of the tropes and motifs we see in modern horror films come from the period of the late 1960s through the end of the '70s.
"I think it was a huge transition from the old horror – (Boris) Karloff, Vincent Price and the old monster movies – to the kind of new brand of scares that you saw in Rosemary's Baby, Alien and Halloween," Zinoman says.
One of the major changes in horror films was the transition from the classic monster movie, good vs. evil style of film, to a more confusing and morally ambiguous story, Zinoman says.
"There were many more unhappy endings," Zinoman says. "It became much more realistic. Horror moved from being very remote about a spooky house in Transylvania to [a story] about the prom queen in your local high school."
Roman Polanski's film Rosemary's Baby was a huge step forward for modern horror films. It became an icon in part because a major studio was producing a film about the devil, but also because the film was one of first to bring that element of realism to the horror genre, Zinoman says.
"[Polanski] took this supernatural story and shot it on location in New York, and he made it about things people could relate to," he says.
Zinoman says Polanski also addressed what he calls "the monster problem," where the monster we often see in horror films is never as terrifying as we imagine. In Rosemary's Baby the audience catches only a glimpse of the monster (in this case the baby), leaving the real horror in the mind's eye.
On the other end of the spectrum is the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead by George Romero, which had the monster shown almost constantly on screen. Zinoman says what made that film revolutionary were the zombies themselves and the level of gore that audiences had never seen before.
"To see a little girl eat her father, on screen, in all its mess and blood back then was something relatively new," he says.
The film was also notable for having a black protagonist as a hero, Zinoman says. He says that made many critics and audiences see the movie as a political statement as well.
"People started to see this and say 'a horror movie doesn't just have to be cheap fun, it can also make a serious point.'"
Zinoman has many theories about why people like horror movies; one of them is the nostalgic pleasure of being scared as children. But he also says that perhaps a connection to the present is what keeps audiences coming back.
"I'm often on my Blackberry worried about three things I have to do the next day, [but] I never feel more in the present than when I'm scared in a horror film," he says. "And I think that is a very addictive feeling."
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. So a few minutes ago, you heard me freaking out at the haunted house. And, OK, it was pretty funny. But here's something else for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIEN")
SMITH: That's a scene from "Alien," where the baby alien bursts out of someone's chest. Now, that is true horror. "Alien" is one of a bunch of classic horror movies featured in a new book called "Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror." Jason Zinoman is the author, and he's at our New York bureau. Welcome, Jason.
JASON ZINOMAN: Great to be here.
SMITH: So, Jason, your book's about the invention of modern horror. And, you know, I assume that all the stuff goes back to, you know, Boris Karloff and "Nosferatu" and all those classic monster films. But that's not what you're really talking about here, is it?
ZINOMAN: No. To some extent, I mean, you could say modern horror started with the universal classics or even before that, as you say, with "Nosferatu." I do think there is this significant turning point starting in 1968. The movies I look at are from that period to the end of the '70s. And the reason for it is I think the horror genre today, which is bigger than it's ever been, many, many, many of the tropes and motifs from the horror genre today come from this period. And I think it was a huge transitioning from the kind of old horror - Karloff and Vincent Price and a lot of these old monster movies - to the kind of new brand of scares that you saw with "Rosemary's Baby" and "Alien" or "Halloween."
SMITH: So I think we know what a classic horror film, you know, pre-1970s, look like. Usually, there was a monster, maybe a classic Dracula or a Frankenstein. There was clearly a force of evil, and then there was a force of good. The force of evil would attack the force of good, in the end, good would win. And in between, people maybe got scared a little bit with, like, I want to suck your blood kind of thing.
So what are the qualities of modern horror? What did we start to see in the late 1960s, in the 1970s that changed all that?
ZINOMAN: Well, I think a couple of things. One thing that, you know, you're putting your finger on is it became much more morally ambiguous. There was much more of a sense of confusion and disorientation. There were many more unhappy endings. It also, starting in the late-'60s, partially influenced by documentary and cinema verite, it became much more realistic. Horror moved from being something very remote about a spooky house in Transylvania to about the prom queen at your, you know, in your local high school or about going to the beach with your family.
SMITH: You talk in your book quite a bit about "Rosemary's Baby."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ROSEMARY'S BABY")
MIA FARROW: (As Rosemary Woodhouse) What have you done to it? What have you done to his eyes?
SIDNEY BLACKMER: (As Roman Castevet) He has his father's eyes.
SMITH: In what ways was this really, sort of this icon of this new kind of horror?
ZINOMAN: Well, first of all, just the fact that a major studio was producing this pop boiler about the devil, directed by, you know, this art house filmmaker from Europe, you know, one of the real defining characteristics of horror before this period is just how disreputable it was. The other thing that I think Polanski introduced in it is this element of realism. You know, he took the supernatural story and he shot it on location in New York. He made it about things that people could relate to, the horrors of New York real estate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ROSEMARY'S BABY")
FARROW: (As Rosemary Woodhouse) Did she die in the apartment - not that it makes any...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Oh, no, no, no, no. In a hospital.
SMITH: And noticeably about "Rosemary's Baby," unlike perhaps every other monster film before that, you didn't get to see the monster, just a tiny little bit of the baby who - that was supposed to be the big scare, and yet he held back for the first time.
ZINOMAN: Yeah. One of the interesting things about this film - I wrote about this in the book. I call it the monster problem, which is every horror audience wants the same thing, which is to see the monster loosely defined. And inevitably, when you see the monster, it's kind of anticlimax. It's never as terrifying as what you could imagine. And, you know, one way to solve this problem is to keep the monster off screen for the most part.
SMITH: You know, we're talking about the sort of psychological thriller, scary horror films. But at the same time, you said another revolutionary film was "Night of the Living Dead." This is clearly one where the monster gets shown. In fact, many hundreds of the monsters get shown. What was "Night of the Living Dead" contributing to the horror genre at the time?
ZINOMAN: One element was the gore.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")
ZINOMAN: You know, to see a little girl eat her father on screen in all its mess and blood, back then, that was something relatively new. This kind of zombie, this flesh-eating zombie was also something new. And, you know, the fact that it had this African-American protagonist, who was a hero, made the movie be seen by many critics and audiences as a kind of political statement. People started to see this and say, wait a second. A horror movie doesn't just have to be cheap fun. It can also make a serious point.
SMITH: So after watching all these horror films and detailing the whole history of the genre, do you have a better idea of why people like this stuff?
ZINOMAN: I have many, many theories. I think there's a nostalgic pleasure being scared because some of our most potent scares are during childhood. And I think in a time when, you know, I'm often on my Blackberry worried about three things that I have to do the next day and something I said the day before, I never feel more in the present than when I'm scared at a horror film. And I think that is a very addictive feeling.
SMITH: Well, those are all good brainy explanations, but maybe you're just a sicko.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ZINOMAN: Well, I would say that's also a big part of it.
SMITH: That's Jason Zinoman. His new book is "Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders gave us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror."
ZINOMAN: Thanks. Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.