Why Was Horror Cinema Absent From Movie Theaters Ten Years Ago?

The cast and crew of Deliver Us From Evil, one of summer 2014's few horror movies, at the film's splashy premiere
The cast and crew of Deliver Us From Evil, one of summer 2014's few horror movies, at the film's splashy premiere / Dimitrios Kambouris/GettyImages

If moviegoers want something scary to see in theaters in May 2024, there are a plethora of options. Summer 2024 technically kicked off in part with Tarot, the newest low-budget Sony/Screen Gems scary feature. Two weeks later, The Strangers: Part One debuted in multiplexes to frighten moviegoers everywhere with just how bad it was. Finally, the last weekend of May 2024 houses In a Violent Nature, a gnarly new take on the slasher movie subgenre. Horror movies opening in wide release (a term meaning 600+ theaters) are plentiful in May 2024. That makes it all the more bizarre to consider the slate of May 2014 theatrical releases. Specifically, it's peculiar to explore those releases and realize what genre is missing. Just ten years ago, horror cinema was basically absent from North American movie theaters.

Let’s take a trip back to May 2014. If you turn on the radio, the Ariana Grande ditty "Problem" will inevitably enter your eardrums. Penny Dreadful began airing on American television through Showtime. As for new theatrical releases, the month was jam-packed with big blockbusters. Hollywood had begun embracing franchise fever and especially movies that could launch cinematic universes. The Amazing Spider-Man 2GodzillaX-Men: Days of Future Past, and Maleficent all crowded movie theater screens that month. NeighborsBlended, and A Million Ways to Die in the West, meanwhile, provided comedy counterprogramming. 

Absent from this month, though, were any new horror movies. Even among May 2014 limited releases scary films were nowhere to be found. The closest equivalent to a horror film was The Double, the 27th biggest new release of the month. However, even that would be stretching things since that Richard Ayoade directorial effort qualified as a thriller. This dearth of frightening motion pictures wasn’t even necessarily because one never released horror films in May up to that point. Two years earlier, May 2012 featured Dark Shadows, Chernobyl Diaries, and indie titles like Deadtime. What had happened in two years to send all the horror movies scattering away from May 2014?

Ironically, the presence of horror movies in May 2012 may have informed the genre's absence in May 2014. Dark Shadows flopped spectacularly while Chernobyl Diaries tanked as Memorial Day counterprogramming to Men in Black 3. These horror titles could not hope to compete with big May 2012 tentpoles like The Avengers. Two years later, Hollywood opted not to repeat that mistake again. All the horror cinema got out of the way for Godzilla and Days of Future Past. Today, horror functions as often bulletproof counterprogramming to even the biggest motion pictures. Something like Cobweb will even open in a couple of hundred theaters on the same day as Oppenheimer and Barbie. However, the film industry had a much lower opinion of the box office potential for horror back in 2014.

Then again, those May 2012 bombs may not have even crossed the minds of studio executives when mapping out May 2014’s cinematic offerings. After all, horror was just not a massive moneymaker in the early 2010s. Unless it was the first two Paranormal Activity sequels, scary movies pulling in big bucks. This genre was dominated by cheapie-found footage releases. Such features didn’t need to pull in summer moviegoing money to be profitable. Even non-found footage titles like The Woman in Black, the highest-grossing horror movie of 2012 domestically, pulled in $54 million in North America. A solid haul, but not a Get Out scale hit.

It's no surprise Hollywood didn’t see entries in the genre as important enough to warrant a prime May release slot. This was even after the previous summer’s big sleeper horror hit The Conjuring. That mega-smash grossed over $135 million domestically despite a release date in the middle of July. The success of that feature and fellow summer 2013 horror sleeper hit The Purge functioned, on paper, as a call to action. Horror, it turned out, could compete with and even trounce action blockbuster movie competition. Granted, summertime horror hits weren’t unprecedented in Hollywood. Just look at 1999 successes The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense.

However, Conjuring and Purge showed that horror could still excel financially in the world of wall-to-wall tentpoles. Surely that would get the attention of Hollywood! A plethora of horror films would have to rain down on moviegoers in the summer of 2014! However, the American film industry tends to take a while to respond to any big changes in the zeitgeist. Only a handful of horror films would emerge in the summer of 2014, like the July 2014 titles Deliver Us From Evil and The Purge: Anarchy.

It would take much longer than one year for the film industry to change its thinking regarding “typical” summer programming. Summer 2015 was loaded with horror titles, including the May 2015 remake Poltergeist. In May 2014, though, Hollywood was still reeling from The Conjuring’s success and even considering it a potential one-off. The tides were changing, but as usual, it took Hollywood a while to realize that reality.

Those “changing” circumstances meant that May 2014, in the grand sweep of film history, would be a quiet calm before a giant tidal wave upended the perception of horror cinema. Between May 2014 and 2015, The Babadook and It Follows each debuted in theaters and redefined what constituted “popular” horror. Modern scary features weren't innately doomed to become the umpteenth found footage or exorcism-gone-awry title. They could be more thoughtful motion pictures with incredibly precise cinematography. The following year, the dam burst. The Conjuring 2Don't Breathe, and Lights Out solidified the viability of horror features in this season. That same year, The VVitch birthed the era of “A24 horror”. That kicked off a new era of economically fruitful yet culturally impactful frightening films.

By the time Get Out and It produced superhero movie-sized box office grosses, the days of May 2014 were a distant memory. Just three years later, it would be unthinkable for Hollywood to leave any month vacant of scary movies. May 2014, in hindsight, was one of the darkest months before the dawn. Horror cinema was headed towards a box office and critical renaissance that nobody could see yet. The sparseness of options for lovers of slashers and ghouls in this particular month reflected how badly this genre needed a jolt of life. Horror was stagnant and not seen as a vital genre for either audiences or studios. It was high time a Babadook or It Follows shook things up and gave horror its groove back.

In May 2014, you could see all kinds of movies on the big screen. This included challenging fare like James Gray’s outstanding drama The Immigrant or the acclaimed Paweł Pawlikowski motion picture Ida. What you couldn’t see, though, is a new horror feature. The dearth of even a low-budget Blumhouse also-ran like The Darkness (which debuted in May 2016) in this month perfectly distills where horror sat in the early 2010s pop culture hierarchy.

Thankfully for devotees of things that go bump in the night, this status quo wouldn't last forever. May 2014’s lack of horror movies also reflects how far cinema has come in just a decade. This month’s horror cinema drought now looks inexplicable compared to our current crowded theatrical horror landscape. Just ten years ago, it would’ve been unthinkable to launch something like In a Violent Nature in theaters in May. Oh, how the world can change in just a decade!

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