Are Horror Movies Getting Scarier?

Number of films released in previous 10 years mentioned on any “Scariest Movies of All Time” list, and Number of top 25 such films

A few weeks ago, I ran across the following argument from Scott Sumner’s blog:

“The film industry is in long-term decline, which happens to all art forms after they express their most potent ideas.  Painting peaked in the 1500s and 1600s.  Pop music in the 1960s and 1970s.  So on film I’m a pessimist.”

Sumner isn’t the only one who seems to think film has peaked. The BFI Sight and Sound top movies poll gives only  4 out of 100 spots to movies made since 1990(!).

This is a bit puzzling for two reasons. First, technology in general continues to improve year after year. Movies are sort of a technology, so why don’t they also get better? After all, surely film-makers are learning all the time from what worked in the past. And they have much improved technical tools. And there’s just a lot more movies being made by a lot more people around the world. Why doesn’t that translate to steady improvement in film?

Second, some movie genres don’t seem to have peaked. In particular, one of my favorite genres – horror – appears to be in the midst of a golden age. If horror movies are getting better, why not the rest?

The problem, of course, is that producing great art is about both craft and originality. Craft may indeed be improving all the time, but it gets harder to be original with every passing year. The need to be original is a handicap not faced by technology in general, and likely accounts for the difference between film and technology.

But it would still be interesting to see if the craft of film-making is improving. How do you measure the advance of film making craft though? Well, with horror, I think it’s pretty obvious. A well executed movie should be scary. There are lots of techniques related to framing, sound design, and editing that can put an audience on edge or have them jump in fright. If these techniques have to be discovered, then later film-makers have advantages over earlier ones, since they can copy them.

So I decided to see if there’s any evidence horror movies are getting scarier. (Of course this is not a decisive proof about anything, but it was a fun evening project).

Ideally, I would have some human subjects watch horror movies across different eras while being hooked up to instruments measuring their physiological responses: heart rate, sweat, goosebumps, etc. As far as I can tell, no one has done this. And since I doubt the NSF will go for it if I submit a proposal, I’m taking a simpler approach.

I spent my lunch hour searching the internet for lists of the “scariest movies of all time.” I restricted my attention to lists published in the last two years (so I can capture the new golden age of horror), and put together by staff at publications. So no fan lists. I found 8 such lists from Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Reader’s Digest, NME, Complex, Newsday, Consequence of Sound, and Hollywood Reporter. These lists ranked (or simply listed) between 10 and 100 movies each, for a total of 302 rankings.

There are 144 unique movies included in these 8 lists. These are all movies that someone thought were scary enough to merit inclusion on a list of top scariest movies of all time. In the figure up top, I plot the number of such movies released in the previous 10 years, from 1929 to 2017. This is the line in black.

By this metric, there was relatively steady progress in making scary movies up through the 1980s, followed by a major retrenchment in the 1990s. While progress has not been steady (at all), we are indeed in a new golden age of scary movies. The previous peak of 1982 (35 scariest movies released in previous 10 years) was passed in 2010 (37 scariest movies released in previous 10 years) and shows no sign of abating.

By another measure though, horror has indeed peaked. To try and identify the top 25 scariest films, I gave each film a vote for each list it appeared in, where it was ranked in the top 25. There were two lists that named 32 and 35 films, but did not rank them, so in these cases I assumed each film in the list had a 25/32 and 25/35 probability of being in the top 25. I gave them votes weighted accordingly. I took the 25 films with the most votes to assemble a list of the top 25 scariest movies of all time.

I then repeated the same exercise, plotting the number of top 25 films released in the previous decade. That’s the red line above.

Here we see that the first golden age of horror has not been surpassed. Twelve of the films most likely to appear in the top 25 were released between 1973 and 1982. That’s nearly half in one decade! While there has been a minor resurgence in the 2000s, we are far below the peak.

So which is it? Are movies getting scarier or not? I actually think these figures support the general idea that the craft of making horror movies has risen. To see why, let’s take a look at these top 25 horror movies.

Psycho (1960)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The Exorcist (1973)
Black Christmas (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Jaws (1975)
Carrie (1976)
The Omen (1976)
Halloween (1978)
Alien (1979)
The Shining (1980)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Poltergeist (1982)
The Thing (1982)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The Fly (1986)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Ringu (1998)
Audition (1999)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Descent (2005)
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The Strangers (2008)
Hereditary (2018)

These are pretty scary movies! But they’re not just well crafted movies. Many of them are also original or ground-breaking in an important way. Even though these lists are supposedly about what is scary, not what constitutes great art, I don’t think the presence of so much originality is necessarily (or only) because “great” movies are sneaking onto a list of movies that are just supposed to be scary. Instead, I think it’s because we are scared by the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the shocking. The scariest stuff tends to have something original that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

It may be that film-makers today have an edge over their peers in the past, when it comes to making a pretty scary movie. The craft has improved, and it’s never been more likely that a movie released in the recent past is very scary. That’s the black line above. But to make the scariest movies, good craft isn’t enough. You need an original and frightening idea, something the audience hasn’t grown used to. And as time goes on, the threshold for originality keeps getting raised. Hence, the red line.

Bonus:

As we approach the end of the 2010s, my list of the greatest (not scariest) horror movies released during the golden age of the last 10 years:

  1. It Follows
  2. Midsommar
  3. Under the Skin
  4. Hereditary
  5. The Wailing
  6. The Invitation
  7. The Witch
  8. Cabin in the Woods
  9. Get Out
  10. The Babadook

Happy Halloween!

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