Back in the day, Universal Pictures was a minor film studio of modest means, looking to stand out from its competition. Their solution? Create some of the most classic and enduring horror movie icons in history.
Universal first dabbled in the horror genre in 1913 with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (starring King Baggot) and The Werewolf, the latter of which is a lost film. The next year it made The White Wolf, which is another lost werewolf film. The studio's first two hit horror films were the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and its 1925 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, both starring Lon Chaney. A string of successful silent films with German expressionist director Paul Leni and actor Conrad Veidt followed before Universal came roaring into the "talkie" era in 1931 with two movies: Frankenstein and Dracula. These two films were smash hits that laid the foundation for the modern horror genre, helped to establish Universal as a studio to be respected, and made leading men out of their respective stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Universal followed this up with The Mummy in 1932, The Invisible Man in 1933, and a trilogy of movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat and The Raven), as well as sequels to its 1931 giants: Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula's Daughter.
Universal took time off from making horror movies in the late 1930s due to the initial impact of The Hays Code. The studio's return to fright came in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein and hit the next high note in 1941 with The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr.. At this point, Universal was well into the sequel and remake game of their key properties. Possibly inspired by the "The Three Horror Men" marketing tactic of RKO Pictures's 1940 You'll Find Out, the first monster crossover hit the screen in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. That same year, a much bigger Monster Mash to be known as Chamber of Horrors was announced, which ended up as the fun but decidedly less ambitious House of Frankenstein. House of Dracula followed, with the crossovers culminating in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an Affectionate Parody of the horror genre and the first of a series in which Abbott and Costello have all kinds of encounters, some of which involving other Universal monsters.
Universal did try to set up brand new monsters in the 1940s, but after near-continuous losses in the 1930s, budget considerations made the cookie-cutter B-Movie the favored option. 1943's The Mad Ghoul stands out as one of the few horror movies not to receive a sequel, but this isn't for lack of trying. The Mad Ghoul himself was announced to be part of the Chamber of Horrors crossover, but didn't make it into the final product. 1943 also premiered Captive Wild Woman, the first of an eventual trilogy. Captive Wild Woman in particular is a product of the wartime female-centric cinema and the series as a whole is the only one in the Universal line-up to focus on a female monster. In 1944, the Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death brought about a horror series Spin-Off centered on the Creeper as played by Rondo Hatton. And from 1943 to 1945, the Inner Sanctum Mysteries name was licensed for the production of six films, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as leading man and David Hoffman as the Horror Host of the series.
The horror genre entered another period of dormancy in the late 1940s; this time without a clear culprit. Proposed explanations include the desire for normalcy in the post-war era, staleness and oversaturation of the genre, and a shift to Film Noir as the new source of gloom and thrills. As with the first dormancy, horror returned just before the turn of the decade. Classic horror was done away with in favor of alien invaders, big critters, nuclear trouble, and prehistoric remnants rearing their heads. The latter concept came about due to the long-awaited discovery of the coelacanth in 1952 and is the thought behind Universal's final iconic horror film: Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. Other films of note from this era are This Island Earth in 1955, The Mole People in 1956, and Monster on the Campus in 1958.
A move critical to the franchise occurred in 1957 when Universal teamed up with Columbia Pictures to distribute their film catalogue up to August 1948 to television networks in themed packages. Shock! (1957) and Son of Shock (1958) were the horror offering and they were a massive hit, kickstarting the Horror Boom of the 1960s. This is when Universal Horror as a franchise was established and the Monster Mash was codified. Universal responded with a sharp turn back to classic horror shortly before stopping horror production altogether. Rather, in the late 1950s, the British Hammer Film Productions began making movies based on the same material Universal worked with prior. Universal arranged to be the distributor of these films in America.
In the decades following, Universal has from time to time made new material based on their key properties. They did a remake of Dracula in 1979, starring Frank Langella and Sir Laurence Olivier, and at the Turn of the Millennium they remade The Mummy (1932) as a series of action movies known as The Mummy Trilogy. They reunited the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein's monster for the 2004 Summer Blockbuster Van Helsing, and did a remake of The Wolf Man in 2010, starring Benicio del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Finally, Universal's theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood have a reputation across America for throwing some of the biggest Halloween celebrations around.
Universal Horror represents one of the earliest attempts at a shared movie universe. Through sequels, its Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man movies were established as sharing a loose continuity, which in turn codified the Überwald trope. Via the Abbott and Costello film series, the Invisible Mannote and the Mummynote were also added to this shared universe. During the 1960s Horror Boom, these five classic Universal monsters and the then-new Creature from the Black Lagoon were treated as a package deal for purposes of homage and satire. Decades later, Universal gave its official stamp of approval to these six classic monsters — Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and Gill Man — by releasing a Legacy collection for each as a way of promoting Van Helsing.
Due to the successes of The Mummy Trilogy and Van Helsing, as well as the example set by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal went to work setting up a new, rebooted Universal Horror universe under the name of the Dark Universe. 2014's Dracula Untold was intended to be the first film in this shared setting, but its underperformance caused it to be scrapped from continuity and 2017's The Mummy (2017) was set to become the new first film. It bombed even more spectacularly than Dracula Untold and the plans for the Dark Universe were subsequently shelved. The Invisible Man (2020), made by Blumhouse and distributed by Universal in 2020, was produced and marketed as a standalone film. It was the first time since Van Helsing that a Universal Horror movie did well in the box office.
A large number of Horror Tropes were made, codified, and employed by these movies, particularly those pertaining to the so-called "classic movie monsters" — vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc. The modern images of said monsters were more or less created by Universal, to the point where deviations from their classic blueprints are still regarded as subversions of the "traditional" rules surrounding them. Also, since the limitations of The Hays Code meant that Universal couldn't rely on graphic violence and sex to frighten and titillate viewers, they remain a great way to introduce younger or more squeamish viewers to horror — which is exactly what they did once TV stations started using them as late-night movies in the 1950s.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913)
- The Werewolf (1913) (lost)
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
- The Cat and the Canary (1927)
- Haunted Island (1928) (serial; lost)
- The Man Who Laughs (1928)
- The Last Warning (1929)
- The Last Performance (1929)
- The Cat Creeps (1930) (Sound remake of The Cat and the Canary.) (lost)
- La Voluntad del Muerto (1930) (Spanish-language version) (lost)
- Dracula (1931)
- Drácula (1931) (Spanish-language version)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
- The Old Dark House (1932)
- The Mummy (1932)
- Secret of the Blue Room (1933)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
- The Black Cat (1934)
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- Werewolf of London (1935)
- The Raven (1935)
- The Invisible Ray (1936)
- Dracula's Daughter (1936)
- Night Key (1937)
- The Phantom Creeps (1939) (serial)
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
- Tower of London (1939)
- The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
- Black Friday (1940)
- The Mummy's Hand (1940)
- The Invisible Woman (1940)
- Man Made Monster (1941)
- Horror Island (1941)
- The Black Cat (1941) (no relation to the 1934 movie with the same title)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
- The Strange Case of Doctor RX (1942)
- The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)
- Invisible Agent (1942) (Universal Horror meets wartime propaganda)
- Night Monster (1942)
- The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (First film to combine the sub-series into a shared universe)
- Captive Wild Woman (1943) (Universal Horror meets woman's film)
- Phantom of the Opera (1943) (Sound-enabled remake of the 1925 original that incorporated many musical elements)
- Son of Dracula (1943)
- The Mad Ghoul (1943)
- Calling Dr. Death (1943) (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- Weird Woman (1944) (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- Jungle Woman (1944)
- The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
- The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
- The Climax (1944) (originally meant to be a sequel to Phantom of the Opera of 1943)
- Dead Man's Eyes (1944) (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- House of Frankenstein (1944)
- The Mummy's Curse (1944)
- The Frozen Ghost (1945) (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- Jungle Captive (1945)
- Strange Confession (1945) (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- House of Dracula (1945)
- Pillow of Death (1945) (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)
- House of Horrors (1946)
- She-Wolf of London (1946)
- The Cat Creeps (1946) (no relation to the 1930 film of the same name)
- The Brute Man (1946)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
- Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
- The Strange Door (1951)
- The Black Castle (1952)
- It Came from Outer Space (1953)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
- Revenge of the Creature (1955)
- This Island Earth (1955)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
- Tarantula! (1955)
- Cult of the Cobra (1955)
- The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
- Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1955)
- The Mole People (1956)
- The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
- The Deadly Mantis (1957)
- The Land Unknown (1957)
- The Monolith Monsters (1957)
- The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
- Monster on the Campus (1958)
- Curse of the Undead (1959)
- The Leech Woman (1960)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932) is sometimes listed as a Universal horror film, despite being made by Paramount. This is because Universal released it on VHS in the nineties, and included it under the "Universal Monsters" label in the process.
- Original novels expanding on the stories of the film series occasionally pop up, including:
- Jeff Rovin's 1998 book Return Of The Wolfman, which continued the adventures of Larry Talbot, and itself received two sequels (The Devil's Brood and The Devil's Night) by David Jacobs.
- Universal Monsters - a six-part seriesnote by Larry Mike Garmon, released by Scholastic for younger readers in 2001-2002. The series begins when an accident with a prototype of an experimental holographic movie projector (borrowed from the Universal Studios theme park) and a lightning storm releases the monsters and other antagonistic characters from the films Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) into the real world. Consequently, the escapees have to be hunted down and returned to the films by a trio of 21st century teenagers.
- DH Press's 2006-2007 series, each by a different author and set in independent continuities:
- Dracula: Asylum (2006) - direct sequel to Dracula (1931). Ignores the events of Dracula's Daughter.
- Frankenstein: The Shadow of Frankenstein (2006) - interquel taking place between Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein.
- Creature From The Black Lagoon: Time's Black Lagoon (2006) - distant sequel to the original Creature From the Black Lagoon trilogy, set decades later and exploring the origins of the Gill-Man.
- The Mummy: Dark Resurrection (2007) - essentially a remake of The Mummy (1932) rather than a sequel to any of the previous films.
- The Wolf Man: Hunter's Moon (2007) - direct sequel to The Wolf Man (1941). Ignores the events of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and its three sequels.
- The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora's Bride (2007) - direct sequel to Bride of Frankenstein.
- Allan Rune Pettersson's novel Frankenstein's Aunt is a young adult parody of, very specifically, the Universal Horror universe.
- Bally's Creature from the Black Lagoon is a game based on both the movie itself (in 3D!) and attending a drive-in to see the movie.
- Monster Bash is an ensemble game, with the player collecting six of the Universal Monsters to form a rock band.
- Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue, a Crossover stage show where Beetlejuice makes the Universal Monsters into his own rock band.
- Halloween Horror Nights, an annual event at Universal Studios Orlando and Hollywood, has featured haunted houses and scarezones based on the classic Universal Horror properties and has been used to promote properties like The Mummy, Van Helsing and The Wolfman (2010) remake as well as properties from other studios. Also notable that the Orlando incarnation of the event has invented original horror icons with detailed backstories that feature heavily in the events and their marketing.
- Universal's Horror Make-Up Show, a behind-the-scenes presentation at Universal Studios Florida that focuses on how makeup has been used throughout Universal's horror film legacy, including the Classic Monsters films.
- The Universal Monsters brand has provided fertile ground for trading card manufacturers. Perhaps the most remarkable is the series put out by Kitchen Sink in 1996, which incorporated just about anything remotely horrific that was made by Universal up until 1960. Anyone remember The Man Who Reclaimed His Head note
- A few video games have been based on the films, such as
- Dracula, Wolfman, the Creature, Frankenstein, and the Bride of Frankenstein (under the Universal Studios Monsters) are characters in Funko Pop! Blitz.
- Monster Force, a futuristic 1994 series in which Frankenstein and the Werewolf do Heel-Face Turns and team up with the titular heroes (a Darker and Edgier version of the Ghostbusters) to hunt down their fellow monsters.
- Monster Old Maid, a deck for playing Old Maid featuring Universal monsters (and a few Hammer Horror monsters that snuck in). Dracula's Daughter is the eponymous Old Maid.
- Horrified is a published 2019 Ravensburger tabletop strategy/horror game that lets players work together in defeating seven titular classic Universal Monsters: Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein (The Monster) and the Bride of Frankenstein.
- The Monster Squad pits a Goonies-esque team of kid heroes against Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, a Mummy, a Wolf Man, and the Gill Man. Because the movie was not made at Universal, however, these are technically not the Universal Monsters.