Features

Horror Movie Origin Stories: Directors, Actors, and Writers on How They Fell in Love With the Genre

Horror movie masters like Jason Blum, Clive Barker, Ben Wheatley, and more tell us where their scary obsessions began.

Photo: Warner/Renaissance Pictures/Basara Pictures

If you’re a horror fan you’ll have one. A memory of a moment, or a series of moments, where you first felt the thrill of the genre. That sparkly feeling of fear and delight, when you want to look away but you feel like you can’t.

It could be a book, a film, a tv show, a snatched glimpse of something you shouldn’t have seen when you were too young to understand it. We all start somewhere.

Den of Geek spoke to a whole range of top people working in horror movies and tv to find out where it all started. 

Horror fans – let us know your origins stories in the comments!

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Clive Barker

Playwright, novelist, film director, and visual artist. Author of Books Of Blood, director of Hellraiser.

“At the age of 15, I went with a friend of mine to see a horror movie called Psycho, which was in a double bill with George Pal’s War of the Worlds. And we mistimed the time of going in to see the movie. We walked in at the end of Psycho. Just the moment that Lila Crane is going down the stairs to the apple cellar, where she will soon encounter the dead Norman Bates’ mother.

That was the first scene I ever saw of a horror movie, honestly. Nothing on television, of course. This is England in the ’60s, so there was nothing on the television. And I was bloody terrified. I had the satisfaction of then watching the movie again, and finding three girls sitting in front of my friend and myself. We knew what was going to happen, and they didn’t. I was 15, and that was a lesson, that I enjoyed vicariously watching people get scared. It’s probably something deeply sick about me. “

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Harrowing.

Ben Wheatley

Director of Kill List, Sightseers, High Rise, Rebecca

“Well, I mean there’s two answers. One, the first horror shock that I had would’ve been the end of Carrie. And probably walking into it as a kid not even seeing the rest of the film. And the hand coming out of the ground. I never felt so terrified in my life. I can still feel the contraction of my heart now, of how fundamentally afraid I was about that.

And that was a proper introduction to it. But the other real introduction for me for horror, which is not a horror film, is the public information films of the ’70s that were shown to schoolchildren, which were much more violent and terrifying than anything that was in the cinema.

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Which is not throwing Frisbees into electricity substations, don’t play on the railway, don’t play at building sites. And they would show these films and they would show children being killed again and again and again. And you were just like, ‘Oh my God.’ And that it’s so graphic. It was weird because it kind of unbalanced horror, I think, in the UK for a whole generation. Especially because it’s kids dying as well. And you were a kid. There’s a whole thing that’s like a sports day that they do on the railway. They do a series of events and one of them is running up the tunnel. And so these kids, all in their sports gear, run up a tunnel and a train comes down and then they’re all dragged out, arms and legs. And it’s just unbelievably horrible. And so that has haunted me my whole life.”

Jason Blum

Producer, head of Blumhouse Productions

“Well, it was a movie that we did. I mean, the experience I had on Paranormal Activity is what made me want to make scary movies. Not just because it was a hit, but because I finally found… I’d always had straddled studio and independent film. I loved making independent films. I hated independent film distribution. I loved studio distribution, but I really didn’t like making studio films. Horror movies, you could have the best of both worlds. Horror movies, still to this day, are independent movies distributed by studios.

“That for me was a way to get to fly my freak flag, or whatever you want to say with that, to be weird, and different, and make things that were subversive and strange, but have people see them. It’s always been important to me that the TV shows and the movies that I do found a broad audience. They don’t always find one, but I intend to make things that find a broad audience. They don’t always, but I’m always going out the door hoping that they do. That’s what I love horror for. You can do crazy stuff, and it can still find a broad audience.”

Katharine Isabelle

Star of Ginger Snaps, American Mary

“I did not watch horror growing up. I grew up on a small island where the convenience store in town had a little wall at the back with VHS tapes, and we hardly went to town so I had the same three movies growing up. I had like Willy Wonka and The Black Stallion.

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One of my favorite movies, it isn’t technically a horror, although I think it is because it is fairly horrific is Apocalypse Now. That has such terrific elements in it, but I never really was introduced to the real horror genre. I watched my first Freddy Krueger movie on set at night in my trailer on Freddy vs. Jason. I think my mean, older boy cousins forced me to watch The Thing or something stupid like that when I was a child. And I was like, ‘arrgghhh!’ I screamed and ran out, so I wasn’t really familiar with the whole genre at all. It wasn’t until Ginger Snaps came along, which I didn’t see as being a horror.

When I thought of horror before, in my ignorance, it was like scary slasher, monster from the deep stuff. I was into The Abyss. And Apocalypse Now, those are my scary movies. With Ginger I was like, “Oh, this is a really cool movie about a fucked up insecure teenager, exactly like me.” So I just connected with it on that level.”

Daniel Myrick

Director of The Blair Witch Project, Skyman

“I remember loving classics like The Exorcist, The Omen and The Shining back in the day, as well as Jacob’s Ladder, but it may have been indie-hit, The Legend of Boggy Creek sitting in a Florida drive-in that hit me with the horror ‘gut punch’ when I was a kid. It was the first film I watched that was a narrative story made to look like a documentary. It was also about ‘Bigfoot’, (in this case the ‘Fouke Monster’ of Arkansas), which was on everybody’s mind back in those days, so that really hit home. I remember one scene where a kid, about my age at the time, is running through the woods and comes across that hairy beast staring at him in the distance. That one made me jump out of my seat.”

Dan Trachtenberg

Director of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Black Mirror “Playtest”

A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes Craven, I’ve quoted him throughout my entire career for everything I’ve done. I think he’s a genius. A Nightmare on Elm Street deeply affected me. It’s dealing with our personal histories. It’s dealing with the past and what our parents pass on to their children, and you break cycles. That’s in almost everything I’ve done and everything I continue to think about doing is that thematic. A Nightmare on Elm Street was really the gift that keeps on giving. It’s something that could feel on the one hand so deeply, deeply primally un-scary. I think it’s the scariest idea of all horror movie ideas.”

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Rose Glass

Director of Saint Maud

Maybe two films I remember really specifically watching quite early, around the same sort of time. I wouldn’t say either of them are definitely horror films, but they’ve hopefully got a foot in that. That would be Pi, by Darren Aronofsky, and Eraserhead by David Lynch. I just kind of remember the two of them particularly, I think maybe I was, I don’t know, thirteen or something when I saw them both. Those were the first films where I remember my mind starting to shift and be like, “Oh. Films can be like this.” Because I was a massive, Lord of the Rings fan until then. Most of the films I would have seen were things I would have maybe seen at the cinema with my family or on TV, and quite mainstream basically. 

That was when I started to work out maybe, what my personal tastes were a bit more like, and I just found it very exciting to think that somebody could actually do that. So I think, Pi was the first film I remember. I discovered IMDb and would spend hours scrolling through that, reading synopses of different weird films and looking at “Hundred weirdest films of all time” kind of thing. And Pi kept popping up, so I ordered a DVD of that off Amazon. 

With Eraserhead, I think maybe my dad even saw me watching a bit of Pi, or maybe not. I don’t know. But I’d started to make noises about being interested in movies and he came back from work one day and was like, “So I got you this film, it’s the only thing I ever walked out of in the cinema. But maybe if you want to make films, it’s something you should watch.” And it was an old fashioned VHS of Eraserhead. In hindsight I’m like, “That’s such a cool bit of parenting that.” And again, I was just like, “What the fuck is this? This is great.” 

Neil Marshall

Director of Dog Soldiers, The Descent

“I saw Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein and things like that on television and was definitely kind of hooked into that. I remember being so scared of Doctor Who and hiding behind the furniture when I was a little kid when Doctor Who was on. I think inherently, I got some kick out of that. Watching scary movies is both you’re scared of them, but there’s an addiction to it as well.  

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I think it was an aunt of mine who had A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford, in the house. And I would just pour over that book and the pictures just sucked me in. Every time I went round there, I used to look at that book and read it and study about horror. I have my own copy of it now. I think it’s all of these elements just got me into that world really. 

It’s also a timing thing as much as anything, but I was in my teens during the ‘80s, during the origins of VHS, the beginning of rental, the beginning of the whole video nasties thing. And I saw a lot of those films before they were banned or tried to track them down after they were banned. But certainly when VHS came into our houses and we were able to watch whatever we wanted to watch from the rental store, so much of that stuff was horror. And that really sunk its teeth into me there, for sure.”

Corin Hardy

Director of The Hallow, The Nun

“Age 6… on my Grandmothers bed watching King Kong (1933) both terrified and moved to weeping tears at the end when the great beast falls. I wasn’t yet aware but I had been ‘bitten by the monster’.

Aged 7 – 9… a combination of Ray Harryhausen’s creature features that always aired over the xmas period on tv, captivated by the wonderful mythical monsters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (now thats an epic Horror Movie!) at the local cinema and a triple whammy of The Twilight Zone movie, (“Wanna see something reaaaallly scary?…”) Salems Lot (the kid at the window….) and Alien (sheer utter sci-fi terror) on VHS when the babysitter was over, left me traumatised. Yet infatuated.

American Werewolf In London aged 11, whilst on a family camping holiday on the moors…. (Imagine how that went…) followed by my main gateway/highway into the land of horror at the start of secondary school was when I began to fully accept that this was an addiction/obsession/fascination with the dark side of the genre and the Nightmare On Elm Streets, Halloweens, The Thing, Aliens, Predator, Robocop, Fright Night and all Friday The Thirteenths would consume me…. 

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Largely it was the monsters that I loved, Pumpkinhead, The Blob, The Fly… And the idea that someone was actually paid to make them excited me and I decided that I wanted to do that, so I started creating my own home-made monsters and makeups and basic animatronics in my old bike-shed sculpture studio.

But it was at aged 12 when I think the notion of actually wanting to MAKE HORROR MOVIES struck me like a lightweight bolt, and that came like a shock to the system after beholding the greatest movie to touch mine and your eyeballs…”

 

Evil Dead 2

“That film blew my mind wide open with its wicked concoction of creative inventiveness and I was never the same again. Raimi coined a phrase that I think is perfect description of what makes Evil Dead 2 and a lot of his movies of that era as well as 2009’s Drag Me To Hell, the riotous rollercoaster experiences combining gore and gags in double measures. He described them as ’Spook-A-Blast’ – one moment you’re screaming terrified and shortly after you’re uncontrollably laughing and then repeat. Spook-a-blast! But it’s a very fine tuned balance and Evil Dead 2 is the perfect example and as a result it caused me and my group of horror and heavy metal loving friends to instantly pick up a Super 8mm camera, pool our collective paper-round money and shoot Evil Dead, Friday The Thirteenth and Thing-style gory zombie horror movies across our weekends. 

It was through this process of enthused experimentation that I gradually became aware of storyboarding and shot composition, camera movements and timing, as well as the need to get actors better than myself and my mates in front of the camera… And that was a challenge.

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The monster bug never left me and through my teenage years I continued creating many grotesque designs in latex and strove to get work experience and summer jobs in prop and FX houses in the UK whilst doing my own special effects at home and shooting low fi shorts and music videos, until after studying in a degree at Wimbledon School of Art in sculpture and technical design for the stage and screen I made my first proper short film which was stop-motion ode to Ray Harryhausen entitled Butterly. 

Following the premiere at The Edinburgh Film Festival I began a 10 year career as a music video director making 50+ music videos for the likes of Keane, The Horrors, Biffy Clyro and The Prodigy, whilst developing a number of my own horror features, which eventually culminated in getting my own debut ‘creature feature’ The Hallow into Sundance in 2015 followed by my first studio picture for ‘The House That Freddy Built’ – New Line pictures The Nun in 2018. There are plenty more monsters on the horizon….”

Christopher Landon

Director Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U, Freaky

“Oh God. Well, I remember the first time I saw something terrifying in a film and it really left its mark on me. My parents were watching Psycho and I was supposed to be in bed. I snuck out of my room, I went into their room and I hid behind a chair in their room and they didn’t know I was there. I was watching it and there’s the scene where Norman Bates, towards the end of the film, comes charging down the stairs dressed as his mother. It scared the living shit out of me. But I remember that charge, and I remember that feeling of wanting to see more, even though I started screaming and I got caught.

That was the bug for me. My parents divorced when I was pretty young and my dad, which is probably not good parenting, but it worked for me, he let my sister and I start watching horror movies at a pretty early age. We were just obsessed with them. We saw everything. It was an interesting childhood.”

Rob Savage

Director of Host

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My parents tried to raise me without TV, which backfired horribly. Their protectiveness only made me want to watch as many films as possible, the nastier the better. I hid a portable TV under my bed and spent my Sundays browsing car-boot sales, the only places I could get hold of 18 certificate VHS, which I then hid within a loose wall cavity in my basement. Whenever my parents left the house, I’d stick on a Video Nasty and revel in the sleaze. 

I was all about the gore, but every now and then I’d watch a film that made me pause. Hellraiser, Candyman, The Thing. There was something going on in these movies beyond the viscera. I realised that these movies were actually… good? Until that point, I’d never really considered horror as anything beyond a fuck-you to my parents rules, but slowly I began to tune in to their unique frequency. I still get a kick from trashy gore movies (I have Cannibal Apocalypse on in the background while I write this) but from that point forward I became a horror evangelist – no other genre can reach the heights that the best horror does

David Kerr

Director of Inside No. 9

“It would be The Innocents, because it’s a film that, on the surface, seems reassuringly similar to other black and white films that were shown when I was a kid growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70s, that I just chanced upon on TV. It looked like it could be an Ealing Comedy, because it was black and white and on BBC Two, but it’s a really chilling, terrifying film.

Seeing that was pretty much a wallop, and when you’re forming your taste as a kid or a teenager, that’s what speaks to you. On the one hand, it’s ‘I don’t want to see that again’, but also… ‘I want to see that again!’ That’s really what horror is about. You have a feeling of terror and attraction at the same time. Take it away! Don’t show it to me! Can I see it again?

James Kniest

Cinematographer of Hush and The Haunting of Bly Manor

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“I saw The Exorcist when I was way too young and it still sticks with me. It scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. The next film that really affected me like that was The Ring as an adult. I don’t know why. I’m not particularly afraid of the Freddy Kruegers and the Chuckys and things like that. I’m more afraid of this kind of evil that is harbored in every human to some degree and also the devil really. So those kinds of things scare me, the stuff that’s more psychological.

It’s funny because Cape Fear isn’t really a horror movie, but it sure is scary. Those kinds of things I think that are really possible are the ones that scare me and that I kind of always think about and less the slasher kind of stuff.”

Rachel Talalay

Director of Tank Girl, Doctor Who, and A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

“There are two types of people. There are the ones who love horror and want to be more scared and are challenging themselves. And then there’s the people who are scared of absolutely everything. And as a kid I was scared of absolutely everything. So the original Star Trek and Twilight Zone, absolutely. And then when I had access to Doctor Who, that got added to that list of just… those images in my head that wouldn’t go away and terrified me. I was even scared of Time Tunnel, which is really cheesy. And of course I was terrified of the monkeys in Wizard of Oz.”

Natalie Erika James

Director of Relic

“I was a real scaredy-cat as a kid, could not handle anything, was scared of E.T. even. I would have really bad nightmares, would crawl into my parents’ bed in the middle of the night until I was seven. Really a scaredy-cat. 

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But it was probably when I was about 11, the first film that I went and saw with friends, without parental supervision, was The Others and it scared me shitless. So I was so terrified. And I remember sitting backwards in my seat just so that I didn’t have to look at the screen but feeling such joy at having survived that experience with my friends. And that was quite incredible. Not dissimilar to going on a roller coaster or something like that. The closest you can get to death without dying or something like that. So it kind of started there. 

And then in my early teens, again at sleepovers, we would watch horror films and scare ourselves. So that was probably my way into it. I also was really into darker fairytales. Slowly, I became more interested in Gothic horror literature as well. So probably more from a reading perspective. And then when I went to film school I started making dark psychological drama and then, slippery slope, I just slowly started embracing more extreme horror elements from there.”

Kevin McKidd

Star of Dog Soldiers and Rome

I loved…I mean ‘80s horror movies were my jam. The Nightmare on Elm Streets, all that stuff. Poltergeist was  huge for me. Obviously, The Shining That movie was huge. Alien, the original Alien movie still has this psychological hold over me.

Roman Coppola

Visual effects and second unit director of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, screenwriter of Moonrise Kingdom

“As a kid, I had one particular friend who really deeply loved horror movies. In fact, his mother was in Dementia 13. His name was Jeffrey Patton, and his mother was Mary Patton, who was one of the actors in Dementia 13 [under the name Mary Mitchel], which of course was my Dad’s horror movie that he made as a young man. And we used to watch horror movies. So when I think of that genre, I think of films, and again, particularly the canon of Universal Movie Monsters.

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I became very interested in makeup when I was a kid, theatrical makeup. And so Jack Pierce is sort of a hero to people who love that kind of thing, you know the Famous Monsters of Filmland [magazine]. There’s a lot of fan activity. There’s a guy named Forrest Ackerman, who I had the pleasure of meeting, and he had a wonderful selection of horror memorabilia, and he’s very generous to let me do tours of his home. In fact, I think he has the ring, Dracula’s ring from the film and had a lot of King Kong armatures, a lot of great stuff.

… I think of the horror movies, and especially this particular friend, Jeff Patton, who introduced me to all that. In terms of literature, reading, it’s not really the same, but the Grimms’ Fairy Tales are something that I had a selection of. I used to read those, and of course, they’re very outrageously kind of gruesome and kind of shocking and horror-esque. So that’s kind of what I think of when I think of horror in reading and films.”

Sean Pertwee

Star of Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon, Doomsday

“I was sort of obsessed with ghosts. With my father being an actor, we stayed many times in lots of different places, wherever he was filming we used to rent and I had a few experiences myself. My mom absolutely doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she has had the most horrendous experiences of anyone being a non-believer. I, on the other hand, do and I had quite a few experiences. Coal thrown at us, bouncing balls, all the cliche’ stuff really.

With my cousin, we used to tune in when we were very little because there were only three channels in this country at the time. We used to tune in to the television and listen to Ingrid Pitt, Christopher Lee, and all these wonderful people. All the Hammer House of Horror movies, we used to tune in and listen to them on the radio to freak ourselves out when we were little. But I always loved it. Village of the Damned, all those kinds of movies, I loved that style of movie making.” 

Brannon Braga

Director Books of Blood

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“I think the first movie I saw in the theater as a kid, which was probably ill-advised, was Tales from the Crypt. The 1972 one. More memorably, seeing John Carpenter’s Halloween at age 12 was very similar to the Psycho experience that Clive [Barker] described, in that the audience was going berserk like I’ve never seen an audience do. In fact, you can go to YouTube. Somebody tape recorded an audience reaction in 1978 to the last three minutes of Halloween. You have to listen to it, because it’s an old movie now. But at the time, people are going crazy from the suspense. It was the filmmaking. I wanted to make movies like this.”

Xavier Gens

Director of Frontier(s), The Divide, Gangs Of London

I far as I can remember I think the first horror experience I had is when I saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Philip Kaufman on TV. This film really traumatized me when I was young and I had nightmares for more than a week after watching it. It was a real experience.
Then my Dad brought me to theatre to watch Conan the Barbarian by John Milius. It’s not a horror film but I still remember for ever the first screening of Conan. The Thulsa Doom transformation into a giant snake really impressed me for such a long time. The 3rd film is clearly Jaws by Spielberg. I saw it on tv and I couldn’t go swimming after that. Still today I’m too scared to go swim in the Ocean…