RSS Blog

Horror Through the Decades: 1950-1970

October 18th, 2016 by Jordan Plaut

It’s the time of year we talk about horror movies!

While October is typically known for watching stuff that scares you, we love horror films any time of the year. And, with the recent release of the Hulu Original “Freakish” – about a group of high school students forced to fend off a town of zombie “freaks” after a deadly explosion – we thought we’d take a look back at the horror genre through the decades, highlighting standout titles that exemplify the height of each decade.

THE 1950’S saw the rise of monster-based horror films. Many Americans were all too aware of the costs of winning WWII, and it was popular to escape into films in which external, horrifying forces could be ultimately defeated or at least fought against by humans yearning for peace. These were the first blockbusters, and they reached teenage and suburban audiences through TV advertising for the first time.

 The Blob (1958)

This drive-in favorite stars a young Steve McQueen in his debut role as teen Steve Andrews, who spots a meteor crash with his girlfriend, Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut). Iconic composer Burt Bacharach helped write the eerie, thrilling music that sustains suspense throughout the film. The story itself is centered around a growing alien entity that crashes to earth and begins to consume and terrorize citizens in a small Pennsylvania town. Playing off early Cold War fears about the Soviet invasion and impending communist assimilation, The Blob conveys the loss of identity and trust amongst tight-knit American communities. In this particular case, the creature does not leave any trace and no one believes Steve’s wild tale – a warning to those who sympathized with or would willfully ignore the clear dangers looming behind the Iron Curtain.


The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren, played by master of horror Vincent Price, invites five people to an allegedly haunted mansion for a quirky party. As incentive, whoever can stay in the house for one night will earn a tidy $10,000. The catch? The frights and scares may actually be real. Legend has it that the film’s critical and commercial success on a low budget inspired Alfred Hitchcock to produce a low-budget horror flick himself – which just so happened to be 1960’s Psycho.

IN THE 1960’S, the teenage drive-in audiences of the 1950s were growing up, and had become used to and bored with blockbuster promotional tactics and broad allegories about global threats. As a low-budget, malleable genre, horror films offered unique opportunities for the counter-culture to confront stereotypes and social norms depicted on screen in favor of ambitious experimentation. In general, films became more likely to show nudity and visceral violence.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Directed by Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby was groundbreaking at the time of its release and is based on a novel of the same name. To put it far too simply, a young woman (Mia Farrow) and her husband (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, move into an old New York City apartment building. They decided to take up residence in the apartment of an old woman who had gone senile and, as they settle into their new life, stranger and stranger things begin to occur. The couple soon decides to have a baby and from there, well, you’ll have to see for yourself.

In addition to the film’s evocative and bold array of color, haunting music, and disturbing imagery, there is the persistent underlying theme of a mother or potential mother losing her authority. Though Rosemary is bright, like so many other women of the era she is often so eager to please that she is stepped on by the men in her life – men who clearly wish to maintain her ignorance. When we see her husband throw away her books or dismiss her suspicions with arrogant indifference, we’re seeing the film reflect a sad reality that was (and to an extent still is) far too real.


Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Another low-budget classic, this film from director George A. Romero was a huge commercial success when it was released. It was not critically acclaimed, however, as many thought it was far too explicit in its depiction of gore and violence. As constraints on what could be shown to audiences gradually eased, the film earned critical acclaim as well. The film itself centers on seven people trapped in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, which is attacked by an increasingly massive collection of unnamed, undead zombies or “ghouls”. Its popularity can be seen in the five sequels that were made in the following 40 years, as well as two remakes. But none hold a candle to this original masterpiece.


If the ‘60s brought about more horror titles rooted in exploring serious social issues, then the ‘70s continued the theme in force. Horror titles jumped back into the big-budget mainstream, where they explored the fear that the shift to addressing real issues had created a culture of potential monsters and aggressors right in your own home. These issues were felt most acutely within families and small communities, where the younger generation had established new ideologies in contrast to their parents and tradition – and the best horror films of the time followed suit.

Carrie (1976)

The first of many Stephen King works to be adapted to the big screen, Carrie tells the story of a bullied high school misfit being raised by her abusive, ultra-religious mother. After realizing she has telekinetic powers, Carrie takes revenge on those who have wronged her.

The film’s popularity through the years is exemplified by multiple attempts at sequels and reproductions. The original quickly became noteworthy for its creativity, bloodiness, and incredible prom scene, all of which culminated in widespread critical praise. It garnered two Academy Award nominations, one for Sissy Spacek as Carrie and another for Piper Laurie as her mother – quite a feat for a horror title before or since.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

James Brolin and Margot Kidder play George and Kathy Lutz, a young married couple who move into a home on Long Island with their three children. Soon it becomes apparent that sinister forces are at work in their new house. A priest has troubles blessing the home, George develops odd habits, and Kathy glimpses red eyes staring through her daughter’s bedroom window. From there, the horrors become increasingly terrifying.

Adapted from a novel, the first Amityville film spawned a massive franchise that includes 17 films (with number 18 scheduled for release in early 2017). So what makes this version of a haunted house so popular? Within the broader horror landscape, it’s a brilliant thematic representation of being forced to confront your fears – fears that are heightened in the perceived safety of your own home. This initial entry in the series is also special relative to other well-known titles in the genre due to author Jay Anson’s claim that the story is based in reality. In truth, the house was previously owned by the DeFeo family, until son Ronald Jr. murdered the other six members of his family there in 1974. The real Lutz Family did move in the following year, and left just 28 days later after claiming they encountered relentless paranormal activity.

Ready to watch from the safety of your home?