German expressionist cinema and the ways it influenced the horror genre in Hollywood

German expressionist cinema

German expressionist – Horror movies are fun, exhilarating and draw millions of people to the theatres. Most of us love to curl up inside our blanket alone or with a loved one and watch horror movies at a stretch on the weekend. The jump-scares, terrifying music and macabre looking sets send a chill down our spines and curdles our blood. And instead of running away from movies that terrify us, we tend to look for more such movies and explore the genre in elaborate details. The horror cinema that would dominate Hollywood before the 1920s was horrifying only in terms of its narrative. However, it left a void when it came to inducing fear that would run deep and shake people to their very core. And that is why people loved to watch more of these movies. The fear would last for just a few hours until people would forget all about it and go back to their normal lives.

However, with the gradual passage of time, narratives evolved, and filmmakers understood that stories needed to have more nuance for the fear to find roots in human beings’ psyche. And this realization was mostly inspired by the German Expressionist Movement of the 1920s. Horror filmmakers, even to this day, find inspiration from the movement of German Expressionism, and that is why it becomes important to understand how the German Expressionist cinema explored the horror genre.

German expressionist

We find a number of horror movies today that make use of different props and sets to create a spine-tingling impact on their audience. While some of these movies are set against a casino and encourage people to pick up some gambling tricks to try out on sites like, other movies are set against the backdrop of a haunted mansion that scares people to such an extent that they start avoiding any gothic building. This concept of using sets and props diligently to give rise to an eerie atmosphere can be dated back to the beginning of the German Expressionist movement. Therefore, without any further ado, let us check how this movement explored the horror genre to understand how it influenced the horror movies that are made today.

Experimenting with the mise-en-scene:

German filmmakers who have been an integral part of the German Expressionist Movement are known to experiment with and explore the mise-en-scene. These filmmakers, the likes of which include F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Robert Wiene, attempted to create visually distorted images that find little semblance with reality. From the sets and the actors’ body language to the striking costumes and themes, each of these factors blended beautifully to create disarray that would allude to the conflicts the protagonists faced inside their heads.

Two movies that can be cited as the best examples are The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu. These movies are known to have shaped the genre of horror movies and influence the very aesthetics of horror films.

Movies that the German expressionist movement influenced:

In this section of the article, we shall look into a few films that have been significantly influenced by the German Expressionist Movement. These movies have cemented their position in the history of horror films and continue to serve as the holy grail for amateur and seasoned filmmakers alike, furnishing them with all the essential plot points and references that they would ever need to make a successful horror movie.

The Phantom of Opera

One of the most celebrated horror movies that is enjoyed even today is the silent film, The Phantom of Opera. The film is based on the famous French novel written by Gaston Leroux and chronicles the life of a lonely Phantom. The Phantom is ghastly and terrifying in his appearance and resorts to living in the dungeons where no one would ever find him. However, over the length of the movie, we see him return to the outside world only to shock people with the shadows that he casts on the walls.


Most of us have watched and admired the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho. It has been ranked as the greatest film of all time by multiple sources and truly evokes fear and paranoia in the minds of its audience. The shower scene is one of the best scenes to have been made in the history of cinema and is celebrated even to this day. What makes the scene so horrifying is the blurred shadow that falls on the curtain and the ignorance of the audience about the identity of the murderer. The use of a nightmarish shadow on the shower curtain is a quintessential German Expressionist element and clearly shows the influence the movement had on the filmmaker.

A few final words:

From movies like Eraserhead made by David Lynch to Sleepy Hollow made by Tim Burton, German Expressionism has influenced the horror genre in more ways than we can count. The movement did not just explore the horror genre in German movies but also sunk its teeth deep into Hollywood. The horror movies that we watch and eulogize today have been heavily influenced by this movement, and that is what makes this school of art crucial and indispensable.

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