Movie Monsters through the Ages

With Halloween almost upon us, it’s that time again where we celebrate the best the genre has to offer. It’s always a fun experiment ranking the best movies, or who the greatest monsters are, but why not celebrate them? Horror movies are escapes for their audience – a chance for us to see the world through darker eyes, experiencing a world completely alien to us, and giving us feelings we don’t get to feel in any other light. Fear, anxiety, stress, and panic – we do it to ourselves because we love the way it makes us feel, and whether that makes us sadists, or question our metal stability, it’s a rush, and something that thrills us to the very limits of the human psyche.

We’re going to look at the iconic characters that made us feel so vulnerable and terrified whilst watching., from the very beginning to the present day, and whilst putting this together, it’s easy to forget just how lucky we are. Whether you’re more familiar with the stand out movies such as The Exorcist or Nightmare on Elm Street, or astute to the lesser known and cult classics like Let the Right One In or The Babadook, let’s look at just why these horror icons play such a fascination in our love for the genre.

Charles Laughton / The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939 / Picture courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

Defining the movie monster is difficult because of the different forms the label has taken on over the years. The early twentieth century saw monsters such as Quasimodo and The Phantom of the Opera become the first to hit the mainstream in the genre, but unlike later monsters their tales featured more romance and drama elements instead of the blood and gore we’re used to.

In the 1930s, traditional monsters like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and The Mummy began a horror boom in Hollywood, building careers for legendary actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The Hammer Horror era of the 50s, and the advancements in technology meant horror monsters started to become more varied – more lifelike. Having these characters appear in colour meant there was more of a realism to them, blood was red on screen, making it much more tangible than ever before.

The horror monster started to take other forms in the 60s, and one of the most important developments came in the form of horror legend George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Zombies were in the public eye, and ever since, the walking dead have inspired hundreds of movies, games, and TV shows with their mystery and appeal. Whilst a collective instead of one sole threat, zombies terrify us due to their unpredictability and ability to kill anyone in any way.

Gunnar Hansen / The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974 / Picture courtesy of Bryanston Distributing Company

By the 70s, we were getting genuinely petrifying monsters like Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, based on serial killer Ed Gein. His approach to killing was cold, brutal, and unrelenting, and watching him on screen is still one of the most shocking film experiences available. The sounds of him butchering his victims send chills up our spines, and when he brandishes his famed chainsaw it’s tough to watch.

We also got horror films that featured non-human monsters that scared the living hell out of us, such as Jaws (1975) and Alien (1978), which introduced us to the shark and Xenomorph that we still can’t shake from our heads when we close our eyes. Ghosts and poltergeists started to come to cinemas, with the disturbing British horror The Exorcist shocking the world.

In 1978, the slasher movie was born, bringing Michael Myers to our screens in John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Halloween. He was a man with a severely troubled past, and not only was he unpredictable, but his presence throughout the movie kept us on the edge of our seat, unable to watch, but unable to leave the cinema. Shortly after Halloween was released, the 80s were upon us and a slew of iconic monsters graced the silver screen.

Child’s Play, 1988 / Picture courtesy of MGM

We were treated to Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees, Chucky, Pinhead, and more, opening the genre like never before and giving us countless nightmares in the process. Hollywood was thriving, and these characters were creations unlike anything we’d seen before – original, inventive, and savage killers all with their trademark looks.

The 1990s featured more of the same, and whilst we didn’t get a lot of new movie monsters, we saw the reinvention of the slasher genre, with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer leading the way. Whilst Wes Craven’s serial killer in Scream may have featured a tongue-in-cheek edge, it still featured some of the goriest and unsettling scenes in movie history, especially as it reached the movie’s conclusion.

Other notable mentions include The Blair Witch Project, where the monster wasn’t necessarily seen but existed in our heads. It was a brand of horror that hadn’t been witnessed before, playing with our heads and kicking off the psychological anguish we still love to this day. Traditional monsters came back with movies like Tremors, but towards the tail end of the decade, Japanese horror became massive, giving us one of cinemas most popular modern-day monsters in Sadako, the vengeful ghost from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu.

Saw, 2004 / Picture courtesy of Lionsgate

At the turn of the 21st century, horror movies featured collective movie monsters, such as infected humans in Danny Boyle’s fantastic 28 Days Later, and the resurgence of vampires in movies such as Dracula 2000, Nightwatch, Underworld, and Let the Right One In. Werewolves were back in fashion in the likes of Dog Soldiers, and a collective presence appeared a lot more than just the one fearsome villain. It felt that the movie monster’s appearance had begun to wane, with many remakes and throwaway sequels appearing on the screen instead of fresh ideas, but there were some over the coming years that managed to bring in some iconic modern evils, such as the Jigsaw killer in Saw.

In our current decade, The Cabin in the Woods from 2012 managed to create completely new monsters and make them all equally terrifying as well as breathing life into the more famous ones, and 2014’s The Babadook brought fear into our lives as the unsettling acclaimed Australian horror reminded us of the power of that one evil character.

Throughout time, we’ve discovered so many iconic monsters through cinema, whether it’s a serial killer, an alien, a ghost, or a character based in fantasy. Recently we’ve had a lull of genuinely scary monsters, but there’s still hope. The Slender Man wasn’t a bad attempt, and it shows that there’s still an appeal for the movie monster. Only time will tell what we’ll get to see in the future, but if the history of horror movies has told us anything, it’s that they can come at any point, in any film, and strike fear into our lives and our dreams without any remorse whatsoever.