How Horror Movies Made 3D Mainstream

15 years ago, My Bloody Valentine was just the latest in a storied tradition.

Originally Published: 
Person wearing a gas mask with a light on the side behind a grid, in a dimly lit tiled room.
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It’s been 15 years since My Bloody Valentine 3D tore through the screens and revived a classic horror tradition. A remake of a Canadian slasher of the same name, the film follows the residents of a small town, including Jensen Ackles from Supernatural, as they come under attack from a killer dressed as a miner and armed with a pickaxe. It’s classic serial killer movie stuff, and the addition of 3D only adds to the schlocky fun. Never before have the shredded remains of a human chest cavity been filmed with such strong depth of field! By the end of 2009, 3D cinema would reach a new era with the success of a little film called Avatar, but, as happened with its predecessors, it was this unlikely horror movie that opened the door.

For as long as cinema has existed, there have been experiments to make it feel even more true to life. How do we make audiences feel as though they’re truly part of the drama? Getting over the physical and mental barrier of the screen itself stumped many a creative figure, and they hungered to bring film into the third dimension. It took horror to truly make it work.

3D as a technology predates film, with the most rudimentary form of it born in the 1830s. Stereoscopes offered simple yet evocative glimpses into gently moving images and were popular novelties during the Victorian era. The first patents for a 3D film process were filed in the 1890s, although it wasn't viable with contemporary technology, especially since film itself was in its infancy.

It took several decades for creatives to return to 3D in any serious way outside of experiments. By that time, cinema was a multi-million-dollar business. Everyone went to the movies, often multiple times a week. In the 1950s, however, television began entering people's homes and Hollywood faced a crisis as ticket sales declined. Studios turned to bigger and more expensive projects, the kind of spectacles that couldn't be replicated on tiny TVs. 3D was inevitable. The tech was wobbly, requiring headache-inducing disposable blue-and-red paper glasses that limited the color spectrum on-screen, but audiences loved the innovation. It was used on everything, from cheap monster movies to Three Stooges specials. But it was through horror where the format would truly shine.

Eager to cash in, Warner Bros. greenlit what became the first color 3D feature film from a major American studio: 1953's House of Wax. Vincent Price played a disfigured sculptor who decides to rebuild his burned-down wax museum with murder victims. House of Wax milked 3D for all its worth. There were can-can girls kicking up their skirts, a carnival barker hitting a ball and paddle at the camera, and a moment where a shadow seemed to leap from the audience and onto the screen. While some critics felt the 3D gimmick detracted from the film's mood, audiences couldn't get enough of House of Wax. So, of course, many copycats followed in its red-and-blue shoes.

1953’s House of Wax was the first feature film from a major American studio to use 3D.

Warner Bros.

While attempts to make 3D happen with other genres came and went — Disney tried it with cartoons, Paramount made a costume drama, Fox went down the thriller route, and even the musical Kiss Me Kate was given the 3D treatment — it was horror that stuck around. The fad began to die off in the late '50s thanks to spiraling costs and audience backlash, but horrors like Creature from the Black Lagoon still merited such treatment.

It’s easy to see why 3D goes well with horror. What’s scarier than the possibility of the monsters on-screen reaching out through the safety of the fourth wall and grabbing you? The communal experience of horror — everyone being terrified together, the tension building and growing more unbearable through the act of groupthink in that dark enclosed space — made gimmicky additions like 3D or vibrating chairs feel more authentic than, say, putting them in a western. The biggest criticism 3D faces to this day is the idea that it's unnecessary, that it adds nothing to the artistic experience of a film and often depletes it with the distracting audience requirement to put on some glasses and deal with potential eye strain for a few hours.

3D tech grew more advanced in the '60s and '70s, but was primarily used for softcore adult films or experimental horrors like Andy Warhol's very un-mainstream reinventions of Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter includes scenes where human entrails fall onto the screen. By the '80s, 3D became kitsch and it was almost required for long-running horror series to make at least one sequel (usually the third, obviously) in 3D: Friday the 13th Part III, Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, the sixth installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, built 3D into the narrative. Towards the climax, when the characters enter the dream world, the audience is instructed to put on their 3D glasses to see the true horrors of Freddy Krueger's mind. None of these films were successful and the 3D made them seem all the more like a cheap cash-in.

My Bloody Valentine 3D doesn’t get as much credit as Avatar for restarting the 3D trend.


As with all trends, 3D eventually made a comeback in the 2000s. James Cameron's Avatar revived the fortunes for 3D, but it was My Bloody Valentine 3D that got there first. It was the first horror film and first R-rated film to be projected in the Real D 3D format, which became the industry standard and didn't require those red-and-blue glasses.

While My Bloody Valentine aimed for an evocation of the golden age of the medium, with its shocks and audience involvement, Avatar wanted its 3D to be totally immersive. It worked for that film, with its astonishing worldbuilding and groundbreaking effects, but the slew of copycats that followed in its footsteps stumbled. Many movies were speedily converted to 3D to cash in on Avatar’s success, which only exacerbated the notion that the format was a gimmick. By the end of its short revival, most of the 3D movies weren’t box office profits. Avatar and, yes, My Bloody Valentine were exceptions.

3D is currently out, with filmmakers disliking the ways that it dims the aesthetic of their work and audiences uninterested in higher ticket costs for no narrative benefits. It seems as though most of the film world struggled to find ways to make 3D seem like more than a fun idea. Horror cinema, however, revels in breaking the rules of the movie-going experience. It wants you to scream and squirm and revel in the carnage. 3D offered immersion but ultimately added distance between the screen and viewer, yet that made it perfect for rooms full of shrieking horror fans coming together for a fully chaotic experience. Is it a gimmick? Sure, but horror made 3D part of Hollywood history for a reason.

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