Horror Cinema By the Numbers

In Dread Reckoning: “Bringing Home the Horror”, I mentioned that, thanks to current digital technologies, we are now literally flooded with dozens of new horror movies releases each and every week. Indeed, a quick glance at the pages of Fangoria or a stroll through the aisles of the local Best Buy reveals the gore-laden glut. From a scholarly and fan perspective, this means that it is completely unfeasible to even try to exhaustively follow the development of the genre by watching all the latest releases. Indeed, the amount of time and money necessary for such a noble endeavor would be staggering.

Nevertheless, it is important to try to analyze the number of worldwide horror films that are released every year, and to use this information to try to identify and comprehend the trends that have shaped the history of the genre over the past few decades. Clearly, this type of study can shed light into important cultural shifts and how they have been reflected in the motion picture industry.

Such an undertaking could be done through an obnoxious and time consuming process by exhaustively reviewing the horror genre literature. Thankfully, the internet offers superior options. While film fans probably already know the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as a reliable source of information and reviews about a specific title, performer, or filmmaker, this site also offers the possibility of a variety of interesting investigations that can be performed across the entire history of motion pictures.

By selecting the appropriate IMDb “power search” options, I was able to obtain the number of horror movies produced every year, worldwide, from 1930 to 2006. Included in my exploration were films with a theatrical release and direct to video efforts. For the sake of simplicity, I did not include TV movies, series, or episodes. I decided to start with 1930 mostly because this decade marked the genesis of sound cinema. To ease the appreciation of the evolution of horror cinema, we can plot the number of worldwide horror films against the year of production, obtaining the following graph:

In this insightful diagram, the blue line shows the actual number of horror films produced worldwide, for each year from 1930 to 2006. While the red line shows the trend of this data. This graph makes evident my previous claim. That is, in the past few years we have witnessed what appears to be an exponential increase in the annual production of genre works. Indeed, while 229 horror movies were produced in 1990, and 358 in 2000, by 2006 we had no less than 874 fear flicks.

A closer observation reveals that since 1997, the year when digital recording technologies reached a new pinnacle in the form of DVDs, there has been a huge, steady increase in the number of horror films produced worldwide. As previously suggested, the reason behind this shift is the fact that DVDs offer efficient and inexpensive distribution strategies for independent film companies. In addition, modern digital recording technologies have dramatically reduced the production costs of low budget horror films. Today almost anybody can afford a cheap digital video camera, shoot a flick in the backyard with friends, sell it through the Internet, and post the entry on the IMDb.

A few other important trends can be seen in this graph. For instance, notice the severe decline of horror flicks around the ‘50s. In 1950, for example, only four such motion pictures were produced. Arguably, this is the telling result of the cultural shift towards science fiction narratives. During that period, most fantastic movies were about aliens, space adventures, and scientific blunders.

This result also puts in evidence a potential shortcoming of this analysis. That is, I am using the generic classification found on the IMDb, which may or may not be adequate for the purpose of analyzing these trends. So, a movie such as Missile Monsters (Fred C. Brannon, 1950), which could be considered a horror film, is catalogued as science fiction. But then again, this conflict in the definition of horror is not new, and was already discussed in some detail on a couple of previous installments of Dread Reckoning (see Dread Reckoning: Fear Factoring – Part 1 and Dread Reckoning: Fear Factoring – Part 2).

Ignoring such an issue for the mean time, the graph also shows a renewed interest in the horror genre in the late ’60s, most probably due to the success of sophisticated and revolutionary horror films in the vein of Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968) and Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). We also see a sharp decline towards the late ‘70s, which could indicate another shift towards science fiction due to the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). Finally, we can also observe the overwhelming saturation of the horror market with the countless direct to video slasher flicks made during the mid ‘80s, as well as the horror renaissance of the ‘90s heralded by Scream (Wes Craven, 1996).

With these results, one is left to wonder how many of these horror films have been made in America. Once again, the IMDb can quickly provide the data. The plot of the results is given in the following graph, which turns out to be truly revelatory:

This graph shows in blue the actual percentage of worldwide horror films made in America, while the red line shows the trend of the data (I have omitted the period 1930-1959 because during these years the percentages are very erratic and do not appear to follow a clear trend). Quite surprisingly, during the ‘60s only about 35 percent of the horrors film made in the world were produced in the US. Since then, however, this percentage has increased rather dramatically. Indeed, while in 1961, 32 percent of the fear flicks were American, by 2006 the percentage increased to 68, more than doubling its value and completely dominating the current market.

This graph appears to contradict our recent experience, as we have witnessed hundreds of foreign horror movies released on DVD. However, we have to recall that most of these DVDs feature older efforts that have finally found their way onto the American market. In any event, as expected, careful analysis reveals that the foreign production of horror films has also increased dramatically in the past few years. But nevertheless, by far, today the US is the largest producer of macabre movies in the entire world.

It is interesting to note that such a growth in the horror film industry has also increased the percentage of horror films released every year. That is, from 1960 until 2000, horror flicks counted for about three percent of the overall, worldwide film production. However, in 2006, horror movies made up five percent of the total, nearly doubling their presence in cinema productions.

Perhaps, one of the most important reasons behind both the increase in the number of horror movies made in the US and the overall increase of horror in film productions is economics. Just think about it, for independent and low budget production companies, the horror genre has a strong exploitative nature, which makes these flicks easy to produce, market, and sell.

Without a doubt, all these numbers provide interesting information that helps us better understand the evolution of the horror genre. Still, truth be told, this was a very crude approach. First of all, all these films are not separated according to their budget, popular reception, legacy, and critical or box-office success. Also, the IMDb listings include a variety of short films that probably have no leverage on the industry. These are important factors, because even though horror currently accounts for five percent of all the movies made worldwide, the economical impact of our beloved genre is far greater. But then again, a more refined analysis is likely to reveal the exact same trends. In other words, judging by the numbers, horror films appear to be as popular as ever.