October 24, 2022

Horror conventions change with each new 15-year excitement cycle: Survey from 1915 to 2019

My discovery of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle began by detailing the dynamics of the three different phases (lasting 5 years each) -- the restless warm-up phase (energy levels at baseline, but capable of being stimulated), the manic phase (energy levels spiking), and the vulnerable phase (energy levels crashing into a refractory state).

Although these phases repeat endlessly in a cycle, we can still draw boundaries around a self-contained 15-year interval that has its own distinct zeitgeist. And these intervals begin with a restless phase and end with a vulnerable phase. The other two possible ways of drawing the intervals (beginning with a manic, or with a vulnerable) do not slice up history into recognizable and cohesive intervals. It's natural enough -- crashing into a refractory state is a natural end-point, soaring into the sky is a natural mid-point or climax, and doing warm-ups is a natural start-point.

At a higher level of dynamics, these 15-year intervals alternate between high-energy and low-energy versions, although that is not important for this post. But briefly, the high-energy cycles are those beginning in 2005, 1975, 1945, and 1915; the low-energy cycles begin in 1990, 1960, and 1930 (and 2020).

The only thing I notice about the high vs. low-energy cycles is that in the high-energy cycles, the villains tend to be invaders on the victims' wholesome supposedly safe home-turf, whereas during the low-energy cycles, they tend to be dwellers of a creepy lair into which the victims are drawn.

Something about the intense cycles makes people aware that danger can strike at home, whereas the low-key cycles make people think danger is only out there somewhere -- and therefore, home base is still safe. I think during intense cycles, people resonate more with getting out of the house to do exciting things (whether they actually do so or not), so they don't feel the need to sanctify the home. During low-key cycles, people resonate more with just relaxing at home, and need to feel that place is sacrosanct.

Let's look at how this changing of the zeitgeist plays out in the domain of horror movies. The point here is not to exhaustively list every example of the dominant genres for a given interval. We're looking at the big picture. And since the focus here is on where the boundaries between cohesive stand-alone intervals lie, I'll be using lists instead of prose to get the point across simply.

I'm not including the 2020s because cultural production has more or less ground to a halt across all domains, as our collective cohesion has come unglued. Big cultural production requires high-scale cooperation, so it is over, with only small-scale niche trends taking its place.

* * *

2005 - 2019: Torture porn, possessed / invaded home, paranormal investigation / science, found footage, reboots / vintage / retro

Key series: Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Paranormal Activity

Notes: The found footage trend grew out of the previous cycle's focus on urban legends being real -- there was documentary physical evidence, they were not merely a fictional narrative. In this cycle, found footage served to establish paranormal activity as an entirely mundane phenomenon (explainable, engineerable by human science), rather than a supernatural one.

1990 - 2004: Postmodern, self-aware / meta-, deconstructing, fiction invades reality, urban legends

Key movies: Candyman, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, In the Mouth of Madness, The Blair Witch Project, The Ring

Key series: Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend

Notes: Slashers and serial killers were still the main villain type, only now they had taken on a legendary status of their own, after saturating the market during the previous cycle. Basic Instinct took these trends into the adjacent genre of erotic thrillers.

1975 - 1989: Slashers / serial killers (human, animal, alien, cyborg, machine, supernatural)

Key movies: Alien, The Thing, Christine, The Terminator, Predator

Key series: Jaws, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play

Notes: This genre reflected the reality of serial killers during the height of the rising-crime wave, and is distinct from mass-murderers. Unlike similar movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which take place within a single small location like a house, the slasher is a hunter who stalks prey across a wide range of territory, relentlessly. The Child's Play series segues into the self-aware / "fiction invades reality" zeitgeist of the 1990-2004 cycle, since an icon of pop culture and advertising is the conduit through which a serial killer stalks targets in the real world.

1960 - 1974: Cursed / haunted / killer-occupied house (often Gothic)

Key movies: Psycho, The Haunting, Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Key series: Edgar Allan Poe by Corman, Hammer horror

Notes: The main difference with slashers is these are set in a single location, which is the killer's own lair, whether the victims wander haplessly there or are abducted. The slasher killer stalks a range of territory, invading the victims' familiar home-turf.

1945 - 1959: Sci-fi crossovers, creature features (aliens, robots, mutant animals, beasts)

Key movies: The Thing from Another World, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Tarantula!

Notes: Creatures generally invade the wholesome home-turf of the victims, rather than unwitting victims wandering or being abducted off to the monster's lair. Few horror movies were made, of any genre, immediately post-WWII, so these are all from the '50s. Faustian bargain -- advances in science & tech alert monsters to our presence, which they home in on. Or sci/tech creates these monsters from harmless beings. Similar to the "dangers of culture" theme in the '90-'04 cycle, only there it was the arts (fictional narratives), not sci/tech, that spawned the monsters.

1930 - 1944: Monsters dwelling in a Gothic lair

Key series: Universal classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Invisible Man, Mummy, Wolf Man)

Key movies: King Kong, Cat People

Notes: In contrast to the creature features of the '50s, the classic monster movies generally focus more on the lair of the monster, which unwitting victims are drawn into. The lair is typically Gothic, borrowing from the Expressionist trend of creating unsettling environments. Only now, it is a lair where much of the action takes place, instead of a hide-out while the monster is not terrorizing its victims out there on their home-turf.

1915 - 1929: Expressionist, Old World folk / fairytales

Key movies: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem: How He Came into the World, Nosferatu, Haxan, Phantom of the Opera

Notes: Most innovation in the early film industry was technical and visual, not narrative, so these drew heavily on existing traditions for their story. Generally the menace invades the comfy home-turf of the victims.


  1. The settings tend toward the Gothic in low-key cycles, and toward the contempo in intense cycles, although it's a weaker pattern than the one about invasion vs. drawn into a lair.

    Gothic settings were central to the '30-'44 cycle and the '60-'74 cycle, though not so much during the '90-'04 cycle. They weren't part of the urban legend / self-aware trend, because that was so specifically contemporary. But there were other big horror movies that revived the Gothic settings -- the dungeon-like locations in Silence of the Lambs, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, Sleepy Hollow, etc.

    Contempo residences were central to the '05-'19 cycle (even the "vintage" locations were only back to the '60s or '80s or so, not very Gothic), the '75-'89 cycle (postwar suburbs, or at most a rural summer camp, not a creaky mysterious Gothic mansion), and the '45-'59 cycle (comfy Midcentury Modern suburbs / cities). Not so much during the '15-'29 cycle, because their stories were derived from Old World folktales, and were staged to look that way, not contempo designs of their day.

    I think this is just the temporal side of the spatial pattern. In low-key cycles, people resonate with just relaxing at home, so the home-turf must feel sacrosanct -- if there's anything bad, it's out there somewhere. But apply that to the time dimension, and that means "now" is safe, while the remnants of "way back then" are threatening.

    In the intense cycles, people resonate with going out and having fun, so there's no special need to sanctify the home. Of course terror could strike on our home-turf -- and therefore, "now" is no safer than the remnants of "way back then".

    It's a more figurative concept, but the past (in time) is also distant (in space), so these are two sides of the same coin. Low-key cycles make people want a safe here-and-now, intense cycles make people not care about that, and living in a nice contemporary home is no guarantee of safety.

  2. Vladimir Berkov10/24/22, 7:57 PM

    What about Poltergeist? Is it an outlier?

  3. Nah, it's just not a slasher, so it's not as distinctively '80s as the other ones I listed.

    But it is in line with the high-energy cycle in that the danger is a kind of home-turf invasion, rather than the haunted / possessed house being outside their cozy community (like Psycho).

    Also, the haunted house is not Gothic but contempo suburban (looks "vintage" now, but was very contempo back in 1982). The danger is invading the here-and-now, not lying in wait over there, from the remnants of the past.

    And there isn't a very scientific tone to the paranormal investigation part. There's a little bit, but how do they solve the problem? They have to go there, grab her, and get pulled back out. While saying prayers / incantations / etc.

    Similar to Ghostbusters -- not very scientific, nothing is explained, all of it serves as props and set pieces.

    Poltergeist was remade in 2015, which also fell in a high-energy cycle when home invasions were popular. I only caught 5 minutes of it on cable a few years ago -- cinematography looked OK, but couldn't tell if it was enjoyable otherwise. Low score on imdb, fwiw.

  4. Gura and Mumei singing Broadway numbers together at an IRL meet-up... maybe when the owl is on Christmas vacation from civ duties? Fans can dream, anyway. :)

    They're the two who are most into musicals, and they had such great duo chemistry in that "room review" stream earlier in the year.

    I think having Gura physically present would let Mumei not feel as self-conscious as she occasionally gets when singing. There's that recurring bit about how she "likes to watch" rather than initiate mischief, so if Gura were to lead the way in just letting go, Mumei could follow along, as opposed to trying to force herself to let go on her own during a solo karaoke session.

    Gooba, you may not think of yourself as a leader in the sense of giving orders and others obeying. But you really do have a fairly high level of confidence, and that allows you to lead by example, for others to follow along -- they want, and need, someone to lead the dance.

    The following partner still feels confident, as long as they're in the presence of the leading partner, who can feel confident on their own.

    But there's no shame in being the kind of person whose confidence depends on a self-confident leader being there to lead them by example, and making them feel secure enough to give it their all.

    The Goobinator is charismatic, not just in attracting a big audience, but being the type that her colleagues will gravitate towards in order to come out of their shell and be more confident themselves.

    Apropos of nothing in particular -- just wanted to let you know how much we all appreciate you, you inspiring sharky princess, you.

    And you don't need a special occasion to let your colleagues know that you appreciate them in return. "Awwww, you really want to be near me so I can bring you out of your shell / bring out a hidden side of you? It means so much that you value me enough to want to follow my lead."

    Nor do you need to tell them that in public, in private works too. Yeah, you'll have to joke your way around the topic, so it doesn't get too sappy or weepy, but they'll know what you mean, and will appreciate you even more for showing that you're using your charisma for good, not as a demonic guru or something.

    Why do I always make these observations in public? To break the ice, setting the lead in my own way. That way, you don't have to start the convo yourself. You can all have a giggle about, "Did you read what the blog guy wrote recently about us? Tee hee. But I mean, he has a point..."

    Just trying to channel my pot-stirring instincts toward constructive ends. Hehe.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."