Like ’em, love ’em, or loathe ’em, horror movies have been around for decades and will be around for decades more. But some of them have more staying power than others. Some franchises stick around, others peter out. Some fade from memory, while others carve out their own personal corner of the pop culture mindset, becoming recognizable even to those who have never seen the movie in question. After three years of blogging about horror movies every October, I got to thinking about these franchises, and have compiled a list of what I think are the most iconic franchises. Not the best or even best-selling; the most iconic. The ones that everybody knows.
Now, this is completely unscientific, it should be noted. It’s based on my observations and perceptions, from what I’ve seen referenced in other works to what I remember being discussed on the playground in my youth. That latter bit does admittedly lead to a bias towards older films, but I’m not sure this isn’t correct. Today’s original horror movies are often the horror of the mundane, or horrors which hide within it; there’s nothing iconic in Paranormal Activity, for example, nothing that can be taken out and shown on its own. Saw has the creepy Jigsaw puppet, but puppets have been considered creepy by a lot of people for generations; it’s why Saw used the puppet to begin with. In terms of creating fear, the Jigsaw puppet is an imitation, not an innovation.
These top ten franchises are all innovators, not imitators. They all brought something new to the illustrated dictionary of fear.
#10: Child’s Play
This is the closest case of a film franchise on this list imitating what is already known to be phobia-inducing — dolls, much like puppets, have a long history as a source of irrational fear. There’s something unsettling for many people about looking at a too-perfect human-like face, with cold dead eyes. Animating one with the soul of a serial killer isn’t too far of a stretch by horror logic. But Child’s Play makes the list for its peculiar impact back on that pre-existing phobia. Although the creator Don Mancini has said that he was inspired by Cabbage Patch Kids, Chucky’s resemblance to the My Buddy line of dolls has been noted by many fans. The resemblance was strong enough that when My Buddy faced a decline in sales, rumors were that it was because people who had seen Child’s Play — whether the film itself or just the VHS box art in rental stores — were avoiding the doll. It was untrue — Playskool produced the doll well into the 1990s — but the strength of the rumor is indicative of the iconic status of the film franchise.
Sometimes one good visual is all that it takes. I wasn’t that impressed with the film Hellraiser, but there is no question that among horror fans it’s a series with some significant recognition. That recognition is built almost entirely on the visual appearance of the Lead Cenobite, dubbed Pinhead by fans. The criss-cross pattern on his face plus the pins at exact intervals suggests a very orderly approach to suffering that evokes a feeling of fear that, frankly, the actual film doesn’t live up to. But the image alone is enough to give anybody under the age of 13 nightmares, and a great many people over it. This is evil presented not as a wild maniac, but as a meticulous, patient threat.
Of course, the maniac can also be meticulous and patient in some instances. That is the image presented by Halloween, and it’s an exercise in simplicity in how it creates an image of fear. Michael Myers is a tall man, but there’s nothing all that remarkable about him. He wears a mask, bare of any decoration; somehow that blank white mask is made to be creepier than any monster mask could be. The music, what little there is, is just a few notes repeating quietly. It’s all calculated to create an effect of danger appearing with little outward appearance of danger, and the setting fits this idea most of all. Haddonfield, Illinois is not an isolated cabin in the woods, nor some motel off the beaten path. It’s not an isolated community of potentially-crazed hillbillies. It’s a small town like any other. It’s suburbia. It’s where most people in the United States live.
While Halloween may get something of a boost in recognition from its name and the poster image — certainly I remember that jack-o-lantern peeking over the shelves at the local video store — it’s the setting that really gives Michael Myers his staying power. When the poster said “The Night He Came Home”, the film made it seem like it could mean your home.
#7: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The idea of using another person’s skin as a mask is traced to real-life serial killer Ed Gein (also the inspiration for Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs; in all three cases, a loose inspiration). It’s definitely a striking image, and one that has been imitated a few times since. But what is truly iconic about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the chainsaw. Was a chainsaw conceived of as an offensive weapon before this film? It’s possible, but no examples of regular usage are springing to my mind. Yet examples afterward are fairly common, from other films such as Evil Dead II to video games such as Doom. The original film was so effective in establishing the chainsaw as a weapon of slaughter that many people claimed to remember the actual event — even though no such event had occurred.
#6: Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th is an interesting case because it took a few entries to transition from being merely successful to achieving the truly iconic status it has today as a horror franchise. Jason Voorhees became a household name in the mid-80s — or at least “Jason” did, as not everyone remembered his last name. But it wasn’t from his burlap-sacked appearance in the second film, and it certainly wasn’t from the first movie. They were successful films, else there would be no sequel, but the character wasn’t everywhere yet.
And then came part 3, and the hockey mask. Suddenly the killer was masked, same as before, but not with something as inherently creepy as a makeshift mask out of a burlap sack, but with something fairly ordinary. Something he could almost hide under as a normal person, were it not so out of its proper context. The film single-handedly established the hockey mask as a frightening item, the serial killer equivalent of a bank robber’s ski mask. Jason’s appearance stopped changing from the third film onward, cemented in pop culture.
#5: A Nightmare on Elm Street
If Jason Voorhees is a household name, Freddy Krueger is even more so. I distinctly remember playground discussions of the Nightmare on Elm Street films among groups of kids who hadn’t even seen them, speculating on what might be in them and just who Freddy Krueger really was. There are several elements to Freddy’s appearance that all trigger different kinds of unease. His face is badly burned, evoking fears of fire, as well as fears of the deformed (as politically incorrect as it may be to admit it, few people are completely free of it, and especially not the young). A single glove with blades on it is an unconventional (albeit not original) weapon. Even his sweater is a little off-putting due to the ugliness of it, as well as the incongruity of having a serial killer wear a sweater (somehow we always picture serial killers wearing something less fluffy.) And he attacks in your dreams, where everyone is vulnerable.
Freddy Krueger become a pop culture phenomenon in 1980s. He had action figures, a 900 number, and a television series of his nightmares. He didn’t just inspire the Fat Boys to do a song for his movies, but also Will Smith — in the Fresh Prince’s case, without even a movie to write the song for. There was even an entire album of Freddy Krueger songs, by “The Elm Street Group”, put out in 1987. Though titled Freddy’s Greatest Hits, the tracks on it were distinct from any that were featured on the actual soundtracks of the films to that point. There was also a genuine “Best Of” soundtrack album released in 1993. For a time, Freddy Krueger was everywhere short of the cereal aisle. Few horror characters had anywhere near the ubiquity of the character.
Admittedly, Psycho is only a “franchise” if one counts the sequels that almost nobody remembers and even fewer people want to watch. But that first film is something else altogether. While we discussed Freddy Krueger on the playground when I was a kid, we didn’t discuss Psycho. We didn’t need to. Pop culture had said all there was to say. Everybody knows the shower scene. Everybody knows the “Psycho strings” — those quick violin chords as the knife strikes. It’s an image and a sound inextricably burned into the consciousness of western culture. It’s the reason we lock the door when we take a shower, and why Rockwell is afraid to wash his hair. The sound is reused in countless parodies specifically to add an impression of fear before comically defusing it, and is also reused in several straight horror films simply because even after all these years it’s still so effective.
Hitchcock, after releasing the film, once received a letter from an irate mother. Her daughter had refused to take baths after the film Diabolique, switching to showers. After Psycho, the child refused to take showers either. Hitchcock’s response? “Take her to the dry cleaners.” Now, one might wonder why a mother would let her child see either film in the first place, let alone see something called Psycho after the reaction the kid had to Diabolique. But it wasn’t just children who were affected. Reportedly, star Janet Leigh never took a shower again in her life, opting for baths, where one is presumably less vulnerable.
The biggest of the big. There are a lot of giant monster movies, but aside from King Kong, none have the status of Godzilla — largely because aside from King Kong, almost all of them are imitations of Godzilla. Godzilla is a mighty monster, towering over skyscrapers, flattening cars with his feet, and vaporizing buildings with his atomic breath. In medieval times, both European and Asian cultures had legends of dragons, giant lizards with incomprehensible powers. In modern times, we’ve been fascinated by the bones of dinosaurs, wondering what it would be like to be faced with them. Godzilla plays into that very same imagery. And there’s always the underlying moral that this is ultimately our fault as humans — if the atomic power had never been used, Godzilla would not have awakened. To quote Blue Öyster Cult in their song about the monster, “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”
Godzilla is one of the most successful and longest-running franchises in horror and monster movies. The official number of Toho production films in the franchise is 28, plus there are three American productions — one due out next year. The character has been aggressively marketed to children as well. There have been toys for decades, both official and bootleg. Marvel Comics published a series starring the monster in the 1970s, and there have been two separate U.S. cartoon series — one in the 1970s and one in the late 1990s — as well as a Japanese one. The character is immediately recognizable to anyone, and isn’t going anywhere.
#2: The Living Dead
What is a zombie? A zombie is a man who has been brought back to life by a bocor through the practice of voodoo. It is subject to the will of the bocor, and will do whatever he commands with no will of its own nor sense of self. But it’s doubtful most people would give that answer. What would go through most people’s brains is “Braaaaaaains….”
When Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, its ghouls inspired countless followers (most of them moving very slowly and slurring their speech). Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead and its sequels further established this vision of the dead coming back to life to feast on the living. George Romero considered them ghouls, not zombies, but the imitators as well as the common public called them zombies and eventually that was the name that stuck. The Living Dead franchise changed the very meaning of a pre-existing supernatural term. This alone would be a significant achievement for a horror film; that the new meaning has become the biggest monster movie type is even more remarkable.
#1: Universal Monsters
An umbrella for franchises and a franchise in and of itself, the Universal Monsters series stands at the top of my list. It is, frankly, an easy decision. Not only did it essentially create the monster movie genre, and the horror genre with it — there were earlier examples, but few that caught on — it’s still one of the most recognizable.
Now, some might say this is a bit of a cheat. After all, these characters existed before. (And indeed, it’s this reason that Hammer Horror, while respected, doesn’t make the list; without Universal, Hammer wouldn’t have the recognition.) But these characters existed as literary characters initially, written in eras where literacy was not as widespread as it is today. And it’s a curious (and lamentable) fact that as peoples’ ability to read novels has steadily grown upward, so has their apparent lack of interest in doing so. While these may have been significant novels, they are also largely unread novels by the population at large — both in the 1920s and today.
It is the imagery from Universal’s films that defines how we see these characters. The novel of Frankenstein depicted a creature with yellowed skin, black lips, and a fairly demonic appearance. But every depiction today, in parodies, toys, or other references, shows the Monster as a tall green-skinned man with bolts on the side of his head, because that’s what Universal did. Count Dracula is depicted differently by various actors, but any “generic” depiction of the vampire depicts Bela Lugosi. Why is the Wolf Man considered one of the standard members of any “group of monsters” while the Witch is not? Because Universal didn’t do a witch picture. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is nearly as well known as the Wolf Man, without the centuries of folklore behind him. The Mummy? A mummy was just an interesting way of treating the dead until Universal made a monster out of it. And it was Universal that created the classic trenchcoat, bandages and sunglasses look for the Invisible Man.
Think about that for a second: as a culture, we have a mental image of what the Invisible Man looks like.
For almost any classic monster that one can name, it’s a classic Universal monster, and it’s the Universal version that has become the basis for our current view on what the character looks like. They created what became the generic, default appearances for these characters, the ones seen every Halloween on children’s masks. That’s more than a little impressive, and certainly fits the definition of iconic.
As always, it’s possible I’ve overlooked something important. There is, after all, only room for ten. If you think I’ve missed something major, please let me know in the comments. If you think something should have been placed higher or lower on the list, feel free to mention that too — though remember, this isn’t what I think is best, but what I think is most iconic (or Halloween would be higher than Nightmare and Friday, at least going by the first films.) And if you have any thoughts on what modern horror films might achieve iconic status, I’d love to hear those as well.