Horror films take as their focus that which frightens us: the mysterious and unknown, death and bodily violation, and loss of identity. They aim to elicit responses of fear or revulsion from their audience, whether through suggestion and the creation of mood or by graphic representation. Horror paradoxically provides pleasure, providing a controlled response of fear that is presumably cathartic. Stories of fear and the unknown are timeless, no doubt beginning around the prehistoric campfire. It is around such a fire on the beach at night that John Houseman dramatically recounts the scary legend of Antonio Bay to the engrossed children in the opening of John Carpenter's The Fog (1980). With roots in such precinematic forms as medieval woodcuts, Grand Guignol theater, and the gothic novel, the genre has been popular since the beginning of cinema, as evidenced by the fantastic films of Georges Méliès from the first years of the twentieth century. Many of Méliès's short trick films dealt with monsters (a dervish in Le Monstre , 1903), ghosts ( Le Revenant, 1903 ), magic ( La statue animée , 1903), and the devil ( Les trésors de Satan , 1902)—subjects that were to become central to the genre as it developed over time.
Horror films address both universal fears and cultural ones, exploiting timeless themes of violence, death, sexuality, and our own beastly inner nature, as well as more topical fears such as atomic radiation in the 1950s and environmental contamination in the 1970s and 1980s. As Stephen King observes, horror "is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful "(p. 81). Horror addresses that which is universally taboo or abject but also responds to historically specific concerns. Both kinds of fears are addressed by the main categories of horror, as Roy Huss and T. J. Ross usefully group them: gothic horror, monster terror (overlapping here with science fiction), and psychological thriller. Because horror provides us with manageable experiences of fear, it is one of the most sustained of film genres, as popular today as it has ever been.