For all of you who have ever wondered how the horror genre came to be one of the most enduringly popular in film history, how it forged and then constantly reinvented its own mythology, how it adapted itself to political and economic pressures, and why it is that the scantily-dressed heroine always insists on investigating the ominous noises in the basement, then we bring you this: the Dancing Henry Guide to Horror Films, and the answer to all your questions. Except that last one. No one knows that.

The roots of the horror genre are in the creepy silent classics made by German film-makers in the early 1920s which were deeply influenced by expressionist art. Friedrich"s Cupboard (1922)To better portray the deranged worlds of their stories, geometric shadows would be painted directly on to backgrounds, and sets would be constructed with peculiar angles and sharp corners jutting forcefully into the film frame. The movement was sadly short lived, due to the large number of cuts and eye injuries that occurred on set, but its influences remain. Among the acclaimed films made in this period is 1922’s Friedrich’s Cupboard, a film which is now thought to have been cursed, as everyone involved in its production has since died.

In the 1930s, Global Films released a string of acclaimed horror films based on popular literary monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein, cementing their status as the archetypal horror villains. Though initially successful, Global struggled to provide fresh plots for its stable of characters and was eventually forced into scraping the barrel with monster mash-ups such as The Mummy and Frankenstein’s European Vacation, Adolf Hitler Meets the Wolf Man and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Get Hitched.

The Monster is You! (1948)Most horror films of the 1940s were low-budget affairs, and producers such as Max Halton (head of AOK’s B-unit) were forced to find ways to keep the audience scared through subtle cinematic techniques. In particular, Halton felt that the imagination was the scariest thing of all, and the monsters in his film would often be consigned to the shadows, their presence only revealed through unearthly sounds and snatched glimpses under flickering lights. As his budgets were slashed further Halton grew to rely on these techniques more and more, resulting in films such as They Live in the Shadows…, which took place entirely in pitch dark, and The Monster is YOU! in which the audience were confronted by a blank screen and instructed to imagine the scariest thing they could.

Film producers of the 1950s decided to dispense with Halton’s theories, relying instead on the lurid appeal of make-up and special effects. Unfortunately they also had to deal with budgetary constraints, resulting in shoddy looking creature design which would damage a film’s credibility. To avoid loss of verisimilitude, film-makers would often attempt to justify the monster’s appearance within the world of the film itself, leading to genre classics such as The Papier-Mache Monster and Jerky Invaders from the Planet Plasticine.

Another staple of 50s and 60s horror was the creature movie, in which a large animal would attack a series of remote farms and lighthouses before violently working their way up the property ladder and launching an assault on the big city. Attack of the Long-Eared Alpine Field Mouse (1961)Most famous in this field was the “Creature Feature Company” who boasted that they were capable of producing a different movie for every animal on Earth, and even had a zoological department that was dedicated to discovering new species in order to generate more plots. This ultimately led to diminishing returns, as there was very little public appetite for films such as The 50 Foot Malaysian Small-Winged Stick Mantis and Attack of the Long-Eared Alpine Field Mouse.

The 1970s saw the birth of the slasher film, in which a group of people would be picked off one-by-one by a serial killer. Often criticised for its predictable “death by numbers” approach, the genre reached its epoch in the 1980s with The Deadly Wait, a three-hour film in which a bored psychopath systematically works his way to the front of a long queue at Alton Towers.

Since the 1970s many film-makers have attempted to use horror movies as political allegories, making powerful statements on the issues of the day. Britain’s Spanner Studios broke new ground in the early 80s when it raided its back-catalogue of characters to provide material for a slew of thoughtful, topical films. Most notable are Jack Frost versus The Abominable Snowman, a somewhat over-literal Cold War parable, and Dracula in Africa, the controversial last entry in their Dracula series in which the vampiric Count dies after contracting AIDS.

Deadly Pong (1982)Such social commentary was not always commercially successful. Whereas the mad scientists and nuclear monsters of previous decades had cleverly preyed on audiences’ fears of technology going too far, 80s cinema failed to be quite as convincing, with films such as Pacman takes Manhattan and Deadly Pong seen by most as unrealistic. Instead, the decade saw a trend towards gratuitous gore and body horror, with films such as Prickly Business, the excruciating story of a woman impregnated with the spawn of a demonic hedgehog, and Dismembered, in which a man is raped by his own penis.

Zombies have been a staple of the horror genre since the late 60s, with their groaning, shuffling antics striking fear into the heart of many a cinemagoer. In recent years zombie-lore has been updated, and they have gained the ability to talk and run. Further revisions in upcoming films will even see them managing to hold down a steady job, eating sandwiches instead of human flesh, and not being dead, thus completing their transition from being scary monsters to being exactly the same as ordinary people.

Eek 3! (1999)The 1990s brought a rash of post-modern horror films, such as 1994’s innovative slasher movie Eek!, in which a group of teenagers making a film in which a group of teenagers making a film are killed off one by one, are killed off one by one. 1997’s Eek 2! saw a group of teenagers watching the film Eek!, in which a group of teenagers making a film in which a group of teenagers making a film are killed off one by one, are killed off one by one, and being killed off one by one. And 1999’s Eek 3! followed a group of teenagers watching Eek 2!, and being bored to death.

Other popular sub-genres in recent years have included true-crime serial killer films and horror-comedies (though attempts to meld the two genres have not been well received). The most popular films have been teen-remakes of classic horrors, a trend symptomatic of the general kiddifying of the genre. One upcoming film involving a killer toddler set loose in a day-care centre has recently been approved a 12A certificate, a move which has sparked outrage among distributors, as it means that the target audience won’t be able to see it unless their parents are with them. Fortunately for them, however, a PG certificate has been granted to an eagerly anticipated update of a classic 50s horror film, Wobbly Invaders from the Planet Pixels.

Village of the Doomed (2008)Despite this there are still signs of life in the genre, and independent companies such as Vortex Films are now harking back to the Spanner films of the 80s, striving to introduce social subtext and political allegory into their films. Their cult hit Village of the Doomed imagines an oppressively politically correct society in which the adults of a small village are terrified of looking into the eyes of the children that live there, for fear of being put on the sex-offenders register.

Though the genre might not be in the healthiest state right now, its enduring popularity means that it will be around for a long time to come. Like Madonna, the horror film is able to continually reinvent itself, inflicting progressively more shocking and horrific images upon us as the years go by. We’ll always look to horror films to frighten us, to unsettle us, to provide a disturbing commentary on our times and an outlet for our darkest impulses, just as we’ll always secretly will the scantily-dressed woman to investigate the ominous noises in the basement, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, she’ll get stabbed in the tits. Such is the joy of horror.

Compiled by Josh Cluderay from entries in The Dancing Henry Almanac, twenty-third edition, vols 12-64.