A History Of Horror–How We Arrived At Modern Horror

For Bookstr Trivia, we’re exploring Spooky Season and everything horror! Take a deep dive into the history of horror and how it changed through the centuries.

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We’re making a deep dive into all things Halloween here at Bookstr and we’re all loving it! Halloween is a time of candy, tricks, and horror. “Spooky Season” as it’s fondly called, many of us book lovers love Halloween. The chilly weather and cloudy skies put all of us in a mood to read with a huge mug of tea. My personal favorite of the season, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, is the quintessential horror and original science fiction novel. Halloween is all about horror and as book lovers here at Bookstr, we’re of course going to take a look at how horror as a genre came to be. For Bookstr Trivia, we’re going deep into the history of horror and how it’s changed throughout the centuries.

Believe it or not, horror as a genre has always existed. Through oral folklore and storytelling, people for generations have passed on scary stories. One of the earliest stories I heard was a Cambodian/Khmer folktale about Neang Neak, a young woman who tragically passed away with her son during childbirth while her husband was away at war. She proceeded to haunt the village and lived with her husband when he arrived home, killing anyone who dared to tell her husband that she and their son was dead. This story took root centuries ago, passed down through generations through oral tradition. So it’s safe to say that our interest in the horrific has always been of interest to the masses.

But what has to be the very first “form” of what we understand as horror literature today (at least to a Western audience) was steeped within religious rhetoric. Due to the church’s obsession with witchcraft and punishing anyone that might have anything to do with magic and the occult, horror until the 18th century (the 1800s) was tied to religion.

Illustration of Salem witch trials for history of horror

By the late 1500s, horror arrived on the London stage (not to be mistaken with tragedy). Through plays like William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus, the horror genre began to take a new form, exploring the supernatural and human psyche. By 1765, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto which is considered to be the first gothic novel.

By the 1800s, classical horror as we understand it today came into fruition alongside its subgenres. Most famously, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818 which pioneered horror and science fiction. Additionally, John William Polidori published The Vampyr in the New Monthly Magazine in 1819 which gave root to the vampire subgenre that we all love and enjoy today. During this time, children’s literature also experienced a horrific flare–Jakob and Willhelm Grimm’s Kinder und Hausmarchen in 1832 and Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales Told for Children in 1835 were so gruesome and terrifying that they had to go through some revisions before being published.

The Industrial Revolution saw extreme popularity in the horror genre. Life wasn’t ideal and people were looking for distractions through entertainment. But as often said, art imitates life. The stage and literature reflected the violence of Victorian London. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) is an example of this, literally. Stevenson’s play was based on an actual man that his family had done business with.

Illustration of Jekyll and Hyde for horror genre

Horror had transitioned from the Romantic notions of the supernatural and sublime to embodying the horrific flaws of human choice and nature. Horror became defined by an individual’s actions and their impact on the community around them.

Modern horror began to take shape through Ambrose Bierce’s Can Such Things Be? in 1893 and H.G. Wells War of the Worlds in 1898. The ghostly supernatural and futuristic science fiction incited anxiety within readers. With the creation of the film, silent horror films were the rage, with people running to the theaters waiting to be scared. Unfortunately, during this time horror literature and novels became out of fashion when people began to be more interested in watching rather than reading horror.

But by 1967 with the publishing of Rosemary’s Baby, horror literature once again boomed. The 1970s seemed like the golden age for modern horror fiction, a time when the greats like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Blatty published their iconic novels and solidified their position in the horror genre, and shaped horror for the 21st century.

Horror literature went through transformations throughout the centuries and has an enduring effect on us all. We love horror because it explores the unknown, frightening us with new notions of the supernatural which actually reflects our reality. Make sure to pick up a spooky, horror novel for Halloween, but honestly, it should be read all year round!

For more fantastic Halloween content, take a look at my earlier article about the timeless quality of horror here!