What is horror? Is it simply a desire to scare and be scared, or is it something more? Is it perhaps a collection of familiar horror movie tropes that, while startling at one point in time, have become worn down by repetition? While the jump scare may be much maligned today, it appears to be one of the most fundamental building blocks of horror - that is, someone jumping out and yelling "BOO!" - but the history of the jump scare shows that even this wasn't always the case.
Though horror fans may complain about these tired patterns, all of the best horror movies use - and, on occasion, subvert - these motifs, and the scariest movie villains all get drawn from a well of overused tropes, despite sometimes being that trope's originator. A brief overview of the history of horror tropes finds that even the most groundbreaking films usually had some precedent, and sometimes familiar cliches ended up finding their origins in unlikely places.
Why did Michael Myers put on that William Shatner mask when he returned to Haddonfield? Because it was Halloween, of course. But long before Michael donned that pale facade, and before Jason pulled on a hockey mask, masked slashers were already familiar sights on movie screens. The giallo films of Italy often get credited as precursors of the slasher films that swarmed multiplexes and video rental shelves in the 1980s. In many of those films, the antagonists also donned masks to hide their identities.
Even before the black gloves and straight razors of the gialli, however, there were the "old dark house" movies of the 1930s and '40s, many of which were adapted from earlier stage plays. In them, beings in grotesque masks or monstrous makeup shadowed unsuspecting marks through secret passages in creaky houses, frequently going by sinister names like "the Cat," "the Bat," or even "the Octopus."
Going back at least as far as Sigmund Freud - who identified the mirrored but competing drives of "Eros and Thanatos" - physical relations and a character's demise seemingly get intertwined in horror stories. From the relatively straightforward "morality" of the slasher subgenre, in which "sex equals death," as Randy points out in Scream when outlining his "rules one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie," to the more metaphorically complicated seductions of creatures like vampires and succubi/incubi, these two taboo topics go hand in hand on the silver screen.
"In horror, which is so much about the body, how can you avoid [intimacy]?" says Clive Barker, himself the creator of the most suggestive horror imagery to ever appear on screen, in an interview with Salon.
"Look at Dracula," he continues. "It has a profound [sensual] subtext."
The 1930s found this character in castle laboratories, cackling over bubbling vials and electrodynamic machinery. By the 1950s, the character had harnessed the power of the atom to create giant insects or zombies. In the 1980s, Herbert West and his peers defied the afterlife by piecing together gloppy patchwork abominations, while more recent films like Splice and Ex Machina have offered variations of the form.
The trope of the mad scientist may owe much of its enduring popularity to Mary Shelley's groundbreaking novel Frankenstein. But while Colin Clive's portrayal of that book's title character in the 1931 film adaptation might be the most famous early cinematic depiction of the trope, it was predated by a handful of other mad doctors, like the eponymous Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo in the 1926 film The Magician. Frankenstein himself had even appeared in a 1910 short film produced by none other than Thomas Edison.
From Pennywise to American Horror Story's Twisty to Rob Zombie's Captain Spaulding to the eponymous clown from the 2018 film Gags, there's no denying that clowns are creepy - at least when they show up in horror movies. "A clown is funny in the circus ring," original monster actor Lon Chaney Sr. is reputed to have said. "But what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight, and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?"
If that dichotomy doesn't dive straight to the heart of horror, nothing does. Maybe that's why creepy clowns have haunted horror stories - and silver screens - for almost as long as clowns have existed.
Chaney himself played a few clowns that were less-than-funny, but the godfather of all creepy clowns in cinema might be Conrad Veidt in Paul Leni's 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, which famously inspired the aesthetic of the Joker from Batman comics.