In his 2014 video “The Problem with Horror Movies Today,” YouTube reviewer Chris Stuckmann discusses a lack of imagination he feels from the studios and the audience when making and viewing Horror films. To give an example, he brings up a comment from the (now defunct) IMDB forums on the recently released film The Babadook. In the comment, the commenter complains about the fact that the filmmakers did not show the monster at the end. Stuckmann describes this instance as an audience member not understanding a great film and instead trying to make it into something they wanted to see.
However, the creative decision to actually show a monster in a movie has a more complicated history than that. For much of cinema, the decision to hide the monster versus revealing it always became a major discussion when making a movie, especially when working with a studio. This article will focus mainly on the mainstream monsters created by studios and how they changed over time. The article will also focus on singular human-sized monsters, so to eliminate zombies and monsters that attack cities.
Universal and Val Lewton
In the 1940s, two distinct schools of Horror existed: the monsters of Universal Pictures and the more mysterious films of Val Lewton at RKO. Each one had a specific approach to horror. Both these approaches continue in practice to this day.
The Universal Films of the 1930s present their fantastical monsters as real flesh and blood characters, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the invisible man. Each had a specific look. Many of the characters came from classic literature and a Victorian-style of horror. Many of these characters (such as Frankenstein and Dracula) retooled the monsters from the story significantly.
The films also took place in a fictional Universal backlot world as opposed to real-world locations. Films tended to have multiple cultures mashed into one location. Except for The Bride of Frankenstein, the actors in the film also tended to encompass multiple cultures. English and American actors would often play characters from the same country, town, or village.
Portrayal of Monsters
While the audience often was meant to fear the monster, the monster also was often misunderstood. In The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the monster (Boris Karloff) looks for a mate to cure his loneliness. Throughout any of the series, the one consistent element remains the story’s monster.
At the end of most of these stories, the story’s “normal people” would kill the often-tragic monster. However, they would not stay dead for more than one movie. Throughout the 1930s, the characters would get their own sequels. Beginning in the 1940s, the monsters would get teamed up together in a series of movies. These movies marked the end of Karloff’s collaboration with Universal on Monster movies.
These movies made stars of their monsters, such as Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and Lon Chaney Jr. Sometimes these actors would play the same role twice or appear in multiple monster movies. Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney all played Frankenstein’s monster. Rains, Lugosi, and Chaney all appeared in The Wolf Man (1941). The casting of Universal created more of a stock company for its horror films.
In 1942, RKO hired Val Lewton to lead its new low budget horror unit to compete with Universal. Unlike Universal, they had much lower budgets and many fewer resources available. However, Lewton saw a big benefit that Universal did not have: imagination.
Producer Val Lewton took a different approach with his horror movies for RKO. Throughout his films, Lewton tends to reveal the monsters tend as a person rather than a fantastical creature. The horror comes more from the atmosphere than a physical monster. His first film Cat People (1942) became a big hit for RKO and helped to save the nearly bankrupt studio.
Throughout his tenure, Lewton tried to move away from the monster movies of Universal. His films took place in real settings that sharply contrasted the studio backlot world of Universal. The characters tended to have a complexity to them. Stories tended to focus around the psychology of the situations rather than their fantastical nature. For example, Cat People focused on the troubled marriage of a couple (Simone Simon and Kent Smith) as much as it focused on a cat person.
Although Lewton did all this, he made many compromises with RKO in the process. He ended up having to stick with horror and use the titles the studio gave him. He wanted to call the sequel for Cat People “Amy and her friend.” RKO vetoed this title and went with The Curse of The Cat People (1944) instead.
Towards the end, the studio also made him cast Boris Karloff, a decision he resisted because Karloff represented the old guard. However, Lewton ended up enjoying the experience of working with Karloff. Karloff loved collaborating Lewton and saw it as a second chance in his acting career after starring in awful (yet profitable) movies.
After Lewton left RKO, he did not experience the same success ever again. He died a few years later in relative obscurity.
Lewton’s movies do not have the iconography of the Universal Monster movies. His characters do not have the same recognizable features as Universal’s versions of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and Dracula. Cat People got remade in 1982 with more sex and violence, but most all of his other movies have not received the same number of revisits as the Universal movies.
Lewton, however, helped revolutionize many of the horror movie tricks used today. One of the most famous scenes in Cat People has a woman being followed at night. However, the final scare occurs when a bus pulls in. Such misdirection did not exist as much in the Universal movies, but would become a staple of later horror films.
Lewton also did get a fictional portrayal of himself. The Vincente Minelli film The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) focuses on producer (and later studio executive) Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), who serves as a composite for many producers and executives.
Assigned with making a horror movie about “cat men,” Shields must do the best with really bad costumes and a lame title. Using these elements, Shields and his director friend decide to make the movie specifically using atmosphere. They illustrate this by turning off the light and describing atmospheric monsters. The film then cuts to a little girl screaming.
‘The Wolf Man’ and ‘The Leopard Man’
Made around the same time, Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) and Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943) both focus on a community plagued by monstrous creatures. At the center of both stories stand men with an urge to kill, but the films take much different approaches to their respective monsters.
‘The Wolf Man’
The Wolf Man’s monster exists in the objective world of the film. Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) gets bitten by a wolf and now transforms into a wolf. Talbot has come back to his home to serve under his wealthy father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains).
Throughout the film, the perspective mainly focuses on Talbot. The victims of him tend to have little characterization unless they become important to the plot. For example, when a gravedigger who gets killed, he just lights his piper. In contrast, the main confrontation occurs between Talbot, his father, and love interest Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). These characters have been built up over the course of the story.
Originally intended for Boris Karloff, screenwriter Curt Siodmak rewrote the Wolf Man script for his purposes. When interviewed in the documentary Monster by Moonlight! The Immortal Saga of The Wolf Man (1999), Siodmak describes imagining the story as a Greek tragedy. In Greek tragedies, the protagonist cannot escape a horrible fate that the Gods have laid out for them. At the beginning of the story, Talbot buys a silver-tipped wolf head cane. At the end, his father uses it to kill the wolfman, only to realize his identity afterward.
Siodmak’s original script also left it ambiguous rather or not the actual transformation took place and the wolfman existed. Universal prevailed over him and created a specific monster. This allowed makeup artist Jack Pierce to design a new monster for Universal.
Movies perfected the wolfman character. This included the character changing principally by moonlight and the transformation itself. The audience watches Lon Chaney Jr. transform into this creature through a series of fades. The scene does not present the character in pain. In An American Werewolf in London (1981), the characters actually stretch in a horrifying painful manner. The 2010 Wolf Man remake would do the same thing.
The Wolf Man would appear in a few more Universal Pictures, but in each one, the studio paired him with other monsters and mad characters. They tended to include Frankenstein, Dracula, a mad scientist, and a hunchback. The Wolf Man’s basic character would never change though: tragic Lawrence Talbot would travel around looking for a way out of his predicament before he kills again. Oftentimes Talbot would meet a nice woman who would express interest in him. However, Talbot knew he could not stay with her due to his condition.
‘The Leopard Man’
Throughout The Leopard Man, the question of if the killer is man or beast comes into play. The first victim comes from a Leopard attack, but each subsequent attack brings the killer’s identity more and more into suspicion.
The story takes place in a distinct world. Set in a New Mexico town, the characters and story have a specificity to that region. The film has a largely Hispanic supporting cast. The lead character, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) brought the leopard in as part of a publicity stunt, making him culpable in the story.
The Monster and Death
Over the course of the story, the film focuses on the victims rather than the creature. Each one of the victims is a Hispanic girl or woman who has an absent father. The first one, Teresa (Margaret Landry), has her mother send her out to get cornmeal. The audience never sees her father. The second one, Conseulo (Tuulikki Paananen), lost her father years earlier. She visits his grave when the leopard man kills her. The leopard man claims her while she waits for her boyfriend in the cemetery. Finally, singer Clo-Clo (Margo) talks to a much older man before her death. The main thing they talk about is how his daughter and son-in-law do not respect him. Raised by his mother and aunt, Lewton grew up without a father.
Almost every killing takes place offscreen. The audience sees images like rustling through the trees or a cigarette on the ground. The first confirmed kill comes when blood spools into a crack below the door of a house. The audience also never sees the body.
When the film finally reveals the killer as a man, the film focuses on his capture and death. Throughout the entire film, Dr. Galbraith (James Bell) has cast suspicion on other characters. When his identity as the killer gets revealed, Consuelo’s boyfriend Raoul (Richard Martin) shoots Galbraith. Before this happens, Galbraith describes his motivations and urge to kill. Later filmmakers would later eliminate such explanation.
The late 1960s
By the late 1960s, the ideas presented in Victorian horror had become quite quaint due to all the social upheaval of the era. The old way of making horror relied heavily on a studio system and its virtues. With television, old horror stars like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price had become cuddly and warm.
In 1968, producer Roger Corman allowed Peter Bogdanovich to make a low budget horror movie under a few conditions, namely that he use Boris Karloff (who owed him two days of work) and footage from the Corman production The Terror (1963) starring Karloff.
Bogdanovich came up with Targets. The story focused on an aging Horror movie monster (Karloff) and a young sniper (Tim O’Kelly) on a killing spree. The stories collide when the killer goes after a drive-in where the horror movie star watches one of his old horror movies.
Unlike previous films, Targets never explains its characters’ motivations. Bogdanovich became inspired to not to include an explanation partially after seeing Psycho (1960), which explained Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) at the end in a longwinded bit of exposition provided by a psychiatrist. With the film, Bogdanovich hoped to express how no old monster could that the violence happening at that very moment had become scarier than any old monster could ever be.
Around the time Targets came out, the country experienced a sniper assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Forty years later, the film took on a certain amount of new relevance when the 2012 Aurora Theatre shooting happened. Bogdanovich expressed a certain amount of regret in making the film after the incident.
‘Alien’ and ‘Jaws’
Both Jaws (1975) and Alien (1979) mostly show the monster off-screen, but both had more complicated reasons for making that decision. Both monsters hid in the shadows not only for logistical reasons but also for atmospheric reasons. However, neither film arrived at the decision to do this easily.
Both creatures would spawn their own series later on. Jaws received four sequels that showed more of the shark. Alien received four sequels and spinoff series, where the character got teamed up with the Predator from Predator (1987). In each case, a new version of the monster would get generated by the film somehow, only for the hero to kill it by the end of the film. Unlike Universal’s monsters, none of these monsters appeared as strong characters that continued over many films.
The decision to not show the shark in Jaws came out of necessity just as much out of necessity and inventiveness as out of genuine choice. The shark often malfunctioned. This misfortune turned into luck allowed them to come up with inventive ways to generate terror.
Spielberg also made a conscious choice when not to show the shark. He did not want to show the shark in the opening to allow the audience’s imagination to take hold. According to Spielberg, he shot the death of a child from the perspective of Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), so the scene would focus on his reactions rather than the gruesome event itself. Spielberg also cut a bloodier scene with one of the victims because he found it cheap and disgusting. The beginning of the scene still exists in the film but does not proceed past a certain point.
Jaws marked a change in portrayal of villains in horror movies. For the next decade, many horror films featured an often-faceless villain with ominous music playing behind them. It would also principally put the audience in that perspective.
The idea for the alien creature in Alien came largely from screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who suffered from Crohn’s disease. O’Bannon designed the life cycle of the creature as part of the screenplay. O’Bannon also handpicked H.R. Giger to design the creature.
Producers met with veteran director Robert Aldrich. As a director, Aldrich had primarily only worked with human antagonists. According to Producers associated with the project, Aldrich did not feel the audience would remember such a creature and said that very little effort should be put into the creature’s creation. According to producer Walter Hill, he also suggested bringing in a shaved orangutan.
The Actual Alien
In terms of the Alien’s design, it does not have a set of eyes to help the audience to relate to it better. The audience often sees the creature’s elongated head with sharp teeth, rather than eyes to relate to. This makes the creature more menacing by design.
The film also rarely shows any of the deaths to the audience besides the first time. The film does not really begin killing characters until an hour in. The first hour builds up atmosphere, the creature, and plot.
In terms of the creature’s prey, the film makes them a bunch of blue-collar workers hauling cargo through space. The film introduces them sitting around a table having an amicable discussion and eating. The film later uses a rhyming scene of them eating to introduce the chest-burster. This lulls the audience into a sense of security before introducing the horror. Since neither scene takes place in a dark atmospheric place, the horror comes from the shock of it all.
1978 saw the release of the Halloween. The villain of the movie, Michael Myers (Nick Castle for most of the first film), became known as a silent man wearing a mask based on a cast of William Shatner’s face. The backstory had him stabbing his sister multiple times. Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill set out to create a “pure evil” rather than a relatable villain. The Van Helsing of the story, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), describes Myers as impossible to understand. This detail would become a hallmark of later slasher villains.
A New Villain
This brought in a new type of horror villain: a figure the audience does not relate to. Unlike Jaws or Alien, these series focused on a human villain. However, their face would remain obscured or hidden altogether. They also did not feel bad about killing. Their motivations had more to do with revenge against random innocent people than any tragic human emotion of the Universal monsters. Michael Myers does not really have a motive.
With these changes, the filmmakers could rewrite and recast such roles without a noticeable change. Oftentimes, no one actor filled that the role. The character of the monster could return as somebody different in each film.
Similarly, the title of the films often did not refer to the character, but to a trait of the characters’ attacks. This included the day the character attacked on (Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth (1980)) or how the character attacked in (A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)). These titles connected more to the concept than to the character.
The filmmakers also chose to make films that featured lots of blood, sex, and humor. In the documentary Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013), makeup artist Tom Savini likened making slasher movies to making pornography, complete with “money shots” of violence and nudity. Slasher directors Sean S. Cunningham and Wes Craven began their film careers making sex manuals. The characters getting killed did not matter as much because the filmmakers could make the film as a somewhat disposable product. However, the filmmakers often made the monsters and/or situations more humorous and self-aware as the films went on.
‘Friday the Thirteenth’
Perhaps the closest character to one of the old Universal monsters comes in Jason Voorhees of the Friday the Thirteenth series. The character supposedly drowned at camp Crystal Lake due to the negligence of camp counselors. He now spends his days killing camp counselors.
With that said, Voorhees mainly serves to kill teenagers. He rarely talks. His tragedy also seems negated by the fact that the films never actually present an alternate path for Voorhees to take. Original director Sean S. Cunningham said that the character was like “a great white shark.” As director of Part 2 and 3, Steve Miner said that the character had no motivation and told the actor playing him in part 3 not to ask about motivation for his character. While he has no qualms about killing, the filmmakers and Jason actor Kane Hodder felt that Jason would not kill animals or small children due to his past.
Changes from The Original Film
The filmmakers really gestated Jason Voorhees with the sequels of the original movie. Cunningham describes the first film as an unoriginal product and as a comment on what can happen in the movie business at a certain time. The subsequent films created a character that they could make a series out of.
Voorhees did not appear as the villain in the first film. Instead his revenge driven mom filled that role. The filmmakers thought that by casting the killer as a sweet mother (Betsy Palmer, who had a genial screen presence), they would offset the audience.
However, the film decapitates her, so when the producers wanted to make a sequel, they needed a new villain. Both the original film’s writer Victor Miller and original makeup artist Tom Savini did not like this change. Miller eventually sued for (and won) the rights to the characters and setting of his original film.
Scream (1996) does not have a traditional version of a monster. However, the filmmakers had questions about how to approach to its teenage serial killers. What should the motive be in the story? Should a motive be revealed? Would revealing a motive make the story less scary?
In the end, screenwriter Kevin Williamson chose to have two killers and approach characters both ways. The character of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) reveals himself as the main killer. His mother had abandoned him in the story. When asked about his motivation, accomplice Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) joked about peer pressure.
Difference from Other Series
Scream also created a cast of characters that understood the genre they were in. All of them had seen the other movies and knew all the rules. When Williamson’s more straight forward slasher movie I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) got released, it did not receive the same praise as Scream and its sequel. Williamson had written this movie first, but it did not get put into production until after Scream came out.
Although they wear the same costume every film, the identity of the serial killer of the series also changes from film to film. The only constant in the films are the tone and main characters. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) often bears the brunt of the tragedy. With this series, the stories focus on the protagonists and less on the villains.
Modern Day Horror
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a few horror films came out and made a lot of money. The Blair Witch Project (1999) made a quarter of a million dollars on a showstring budget. On the studio end, Final Destination (2000) came out. An antagonist did not necessarily drive the story.
With many of the mainstream horror franchises, the film focuses more on a story concept than a character like the 1930s Universal monsters or 1980s Slasher movies did. Some of these stories focus on purportedly true stories. Both The Blair witch Project series and the Paranormal Activity series focus on groups trying to capture spirits on camera. Both claim that their stories really happened. Other films focus on more fantastical stories. The Purge follows a day where all crime (including murder) becomes legal. Many other films focused on puzzles or games (Ouija (2014), Truth or Dare (2018), Escape Room (2019)). In all of these stories, the killer becomes less important than the concept.
Leigh Whannell and James Wan
While there have been many remakes of old horror movies and monsters, most all new singular horror movie monsters have only lasted for one or two movies. Many of the new American horror series that deal with monsters and menacing figures have one thing in common: Australian filmmakers Leigh Whannell and James Wan. They have worked on the Saw franchise, The Conjuring universe, and the Insidious series. In their stories, the monsters often go after a lovable human protagonist.
Saw (2004) focused on the Jigsaw Killer, who often spoke through a suited puppet with red eyes. With the Saw series, the Rube Goldberg type traps that killed its characters mattered just as much as the killer. The Jigsaw killer often appeared mainly to set them up. The puppet master also changes over the course of the series. Serial killer and cancer patient John Kramer (Tobin Bell) began as a mysterious figure in the first film, but had his story filled out over subsequent films. By the end of the series, John Kramer has died and a new killer has taken his place.
‘The Conjuring’ Universe
The Conjuring universe focuses on lovable characters facing off against spirits. The films portray each of their protagonists as lovable rebels trying to exist in a system. The main series focuses on a real-life couple of ghost hunters (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), while the other films focus on side characters. This includes the doll Annabelle, which spawned its own series of three movies. The series built its universe around real legends such as Valac and La Llorona. These monsters mainly exist as a monster for the (often female) protagonists to eventually kill.
Insidious focused on a family being terrorized by an evil presence. It then transitioned its focus to its psychic Van Helsing character Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). The last film Insidious: The Last Key (2018) focused on her return to her old family home. Often the plots of these movies would focus on a spirit taking a child.
When making a Horror film, the decision to show the monster remains a conscious creative choice that affects the audience. Sometimes a monster comes along that spans a life of its own over many sequels. In other cases, the creature appears mostly in shadows and offscreen. In the end, it all depends on the filmmakers, the studios, and the audience they try to please.
This article does not cover a lot of other films from the time period than the ones mentioned. This article has a lot of sources, but one I would like to mention here at the end is Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value: How a few eccentric Outsiders gave us nightmares, conquered Hollywood, and invented modern horror.