A Proposed Horror Canon (a work in progress)
In an article titled “Firing Broadsides: Creating a Horror Canon,” I examine the issues surrounding canon-building. When I first proposed a piece on horror canon I thought it would be a fun time r
Published on April 16, 2013 | Filed under editorial
The Exorcist

In an article titled “Firing Broadsides: Creating a Horror Canon,” I examine the issues surrounding canon-building. When I first proposed a piece on horror canon I thought it would be a fun time researching classic horror titles. I had no idea what I was getting into. Typing “horror canon” into Google didn’t return much, and though Google Scholar yielded better results, I soon came to understand that I was getting involved in something much bigger and more complex than a simple list of movies. Canon was just the beginning. Researching horror canon led me deep into genre history and development. As I learned, canon-building is a lesson in genre: how it grows and develops over time, and how it’s studied and analyzed. Through my readings, I learned that canon-building can be a divisive topic as the politics of inclusion and exclusion are applied during process of canon formation. Why this film instead of that one? Why not this other film also? Thornier still is the issue of what’s genre and what’s not. I recall one author who, when asked the question, “Is it horror or is it thriller?” answered, “That depends on whether you like horror movies.” I’m not here to debate the issue of horror vs thriller, but I have a new appreciation for the difficulties involved in that kind of genre analysis.

What I am here to do is propose a horror canon. Ask any group of horror fans what’s canon and no doubt they will each of them draw up similar lists. This would be the “unofficial” horror canon, an agreed-upon list of movies that are, for whatever reasons, important to the genre; classic films, great or award-winning films, cult films—all enjoy canon status within the hearts and minds of the horror-loving public. But what about an “official” canon, the authoritative list of horror movies that must be seen and studied for a proper education in genre film?


For quick reference I recommend The Vault of Horror’s horror canon, a list of 35 titles compiled by film reviewers and bloggers. What I’m proposing here is something more formal, an annotated list of films that helped shape the genre, defining it and driving it. Early on, canon existed as a way to deal with an overwhelming number of titles—too many to watch in one lifetime—and canonized movies were meant to be representational of the larger population of movies. Later, canon films grew less generic and more exceptional, instead of being exemplary they were outstanding. The new canon I’m proposing will combine these two definitions in an effort to educate the interested in what’s typical and what’s not, what set the standard and what broke the mold.

The aim is to finally present the films chronologically. Enumerated lists have an inherent hierarchy and I want to shy away from ranking canon films. Rather, a chronological list should trace a line through genre history and development, while the annotations will explain why these films specific films were chosen for canonization.

In an effort to make the process as inclusive as possible, I invite everyone to recommend films for inclusion (or exclusion). To get the ball rolling I’ve included a (very) short list of contenders, inspired in part by the list that appears at The Vault of Horror.

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Hitchcock had the gall to kill his leading lady in the first half of the film, but it payed off in one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. The film is an intense study in psychopathy and suspense.

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
A “scariest movie of all time” for an entire generation. It brought horror into the mainstream.

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
When everyone else was adapting horror novels, Spielberg made his shark movie. It was the first summer blockbuster.

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Although not the first slasher film, it was tremendously successful, spawned the franchise, and inspired another successful franchise, Friday the 13th.

An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
Rick Baker won the first Oscar for Best Makeup for his effects work, transforming David Naughton into the titular werewolf.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
Revitalized slasher film and introduced mainstream audiences to the postmodern horror movie.

Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005)
It could be argued that Saw (James Wan, 2004) is a better movie, but Hostel was invoked when “torture porn” was coined. Adam Lowenstein’s erroneous statement about the film’s political commentary have nevertheless helped legitimize the film’s gore.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)
Although not the first low budget found footage movie, it ushered in a new era of indie filmmaking. The marketing technique used to promote the movie was brand new, getting the audience involved and invested in seeing the film.

DM is not actually a certified dive master, having only completed half the training. Other things she's never finished include the Foundation series, the movie Crank, and this list. DM does have a full BFA in film, however, and a bunch of other degrees, which she puts to use calling out historical inaccuracies in terrible movies. DM lives in Canada, likes cheese, and sometimes dreams in French.

  • UncouthParacinema

    Blair Witch Project was also hugely successful and helped bring indie horror into the mainstream. Honestly i don’t like the film but it’s pretty important. It also proved you could make a movie with a very small budget and become huge. the filmmakers were on time magazine and helped shed light on indie cinema in general, riding the wave started by pulp fiction. Are you just doing American horror?

    • DM

      American horror is what I’m most comfortable with and what I know the most about, but I shouldn’t limit myself to just that.

  • UncouthParacinema

    Can’t forget about the importance of the Universal Monster films and the subsequent generation of “monster kids” and the creation of official horror fandom with Famous Monsters of Filmland.

  • LabSplice

    It’s a difficult proposition here. A canon of anything is quite a bit like evolution – not often done in huge leaps and bounds but in subtle shifts. Is the movie that did it first the same thing as the movie that did it most notably? Do we consider the bad movies that influenced the people who made the good movies? One thing’s for sure – you’re a braver soul than I for trying to tackle this. I’m curious to see what people come up with!

    • DM

      I expect this will take some time, indeed. But I’m keen to see what people think.

  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Les Yeux Sans Visage, Carrie, The Wicker Man, Suspiria, Cannibal Holocaust, The Evil Dead, The Bride of Frankenstein, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

    • DM

      Thanks Neil! I forgot all about The Wicker Man. How shameful!

  • Jon Abrams

    My 13 Essentials are

    NOSFERATU (1922),

    DRACULA (1931),

    FRANKENSTEIN (1931),

    PSYCHO (1960),


    THE EXORCIST (1973),

    JAWS (1975),

    HALLOWEEN (1978),

    ALIEN (1979),

    THE SHINING (1980),


    THE THING (1982), and

    EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

    Those are the most absolutely important in my eyes, if I were to narrow it down to a strict baker’s dozen, though there are plenty of other movies I could name. (It would kill me not to have DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) on there, for example.)

    When this case goes to the Supreme Court, I’d also like the chance to argue on behalf of PHENOMENA (1985). If we’re talking about horror movies that broke the mold, that’s a singular movie with no obvious precedents or imitators.

    • DM

      Thanks Jon! I’m not familiar with Phenomena, so it looks like I’ve got some research to do 🙂

      • Jon Abrams

        I only came to it recently, and I’ve never been an Argento guy, but it seems like an anomaly in his filmography on top of being an anomaly in general. So crazy. You may love it!

  • Christine

    My first thought was Blair Witch. Mostly for the reasons mentioned by Uncouth.
    Next thought, TCM. After that, Poltergeist.

    Much like you, I am much more familiar with American horror, and if we start getting into gialli, my picks turn into stuff I thought was cool, or killers I dug. And then I tell you to add New York Ripper to the canon. And no one is looking for that.

    I’m going to keep thinking!

    • DM

      Don’t hurt yourself 😛 Maybe we should re-title it “An American Horror Canon with Some Canadian Films Thrown in Because You Know, Cronenberg”.

  • Have you read THE MONSTER SHOW: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF HORROR by David J. Skal? It focuses very heavily on the origins of horror films. It’s got some extremely questionable transphobia in parts, but it might help frame the early films in the horror canon in a helpful way.

    • DM

      I’m familiar with Skal, but I’ve not read this one. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

  • I can’t imagine a horror cannon without Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It helped bring DIY home movie-style filmmaking to the front in an artistically viable way. It’s also one of the few great zombie films that focuses on the danger of the human characters more than the zombies without being an obvious “let’s not focus too much on the zombies” kind of way.

  • In terms of being influential on future horror sub genres and specific tropes, I would include the following:

    Black Christmas (slashers, final girl)

    The Exorcist (devil or demon possession, horror films that can also work as drama or movies dealing with a family dynamic)

    Psycho (slashers, women in horror films who have sexual agency being killed/misogyny)

    Nosferatu, Vampyre (early Dracula interpretations on film)

    Hammer, Universal (studios who specialized in genre films)

    All the variations of zombies from the Haitian origins (White Zombie) to the Romero version to the not-ever-called-zombies in 28 Days Later.

    Real-life psychological horror and how it diverts and intersects with more supernatural horror. For example, Psycho is plausible but is Michael Myers still plausible when he keeps coming back to life?

    Body horror, for example, David Cronenberg.

    The intersection of horror and science fiction, and when the shift to more horror-focused sci fi movies began.

    Definitely need to tackle the origins and development of found footage horror, too.

  • Another challenge would be identifying specific tropes in horror from both narrative and character-based perspectives, which movies introduced them, how they shifted through the years, and which films reinvented them in a fresh or unique way.