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How have scary movies changed over the years? We talk to faculty expert Matthew Lawrence for answers — and his top five scariest flick picks.

Matthew Lawrence, an assistant professor in TCNJ’s communication studies program, is also a filmmaker and horror movie expert. Lawrence chatted with us about how horror movies have changed over the last 20 years and offers his “must-see” list of five frightening flicks for the spookiest day of the year. 

How have scary movies changed over the years? We talk to faculty expert Matthew Lawrence for answers — and his top five scariest flick picks.
Matthew Lawrence directs on the set of his movie, Uncle Peckerhead.

How have horror movies changed over the last 20 years?

Horror movies, like many art forms, reflect the culture and the issues that society is facing at the time. That part remains the same, but one big change is that horror movies have become more inclusive. There’s definitely still work to be done, but we’ve seen a boom in terms of horror movies that reflect issues relating to race and ethnicity. We’ve seen a positive shift in the way women are depicted in horror films. We’ve seen films tackle the socioeconomic struggles, issues of sexual identity or gender. It’s also become clear audiences are hungry for different points of view in horror films. These are all positive changes for the genre. 

Do you see a change in the way that fans of horror films want to be scared?

Definitely. The original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is still a scary film even if contemporary movies are taking a different approach. Audiences now don’t just want some guy in a mask wielding an axe; they want to wrestle with the psychology of fear. I do think that movies that take a ‘Trojan Horse’ approach — where you are entertaining and scaring viewers but also giving them something to think about — is the secret sauce to a great horror movie. If people walk away entertained, but also thinking about the issues the movie tackled, that’s an accomplishment for the film maker. Jordan Peele is a good example of modern horror films, because he really uses the cultural climate to drive the plot and he creates those elements of entertainment and fear around those current issues.

How have the advances in technology changed the way horror films are made?

I think the Blair Witch Project (1999) was a turning point as far as people rethinking what a movie can look like; it got people thinking that anyone could try and make a movie! It used to be that the cost of equipment was prohibitive in terms of who could afford to buy a camera and other things you would need, but over the last 15 years cameras and equipment have become much cheaper and easier to access. People have made films on their iPhones. The more people making films and the more voices and the more diverse perspectives that are portrayed, the better for everyone. Technology has certainly made it more accessible for someone to bring a project to life versus how it was before these advancements.

Has the rise of streaming services impacted the horror genre?

Streaming services have made it possible for more people to get their films out there. My film, Uncle Peckerhead, might not have seen the light of day if not for streaming. Streaming services also can help get films and shows in front of audiences who may not know about them but are interested in something similar. But one of the problems is that these services often don’t share their viewership data. We don’t really know who is watching what. We know when something breaks through — like Stranger Things — and becomes a huge hit. But that isn’t the case for most projects. Not knowing how many people are watching what, or what the demographics of the viewers are, that is hard for a filmmaker and the industry in general.

What’s your list of the top five “must-see” horror movies of all time?

  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Not only one of the best horror movies made, but one of the best films ever made, period
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – One of the great allegorical films in the history of the genre
  • Alien (1979) – I have to include something from the sci-fi realm and this film is certainly scary enough to qualify
  • Halloween (1978) – The best of the OG slasher movies has to be on any must-watch list
  • Evil Dead II (1987) – I want to include a good cross section from within the genre and horror-comedy should be represented

— Luke Sacks