Illustration by Vivian Lai

A prom queen stands drenched in blood, wearing a strappy pale pink dress. Four murderous teen girls strut down the halls of their high school clad in kilts, crucifixes and black chokers. A band of low-class punks terrorizes innocents while dressed in dapper suspenders, bowler hats and false eyelashes on only one eye.

Most people will instantly recognize these striking visuals from the films Carrie, The Craft and A Clockwork Orange–even if they haven’t actually seen the movies. The characters’ iconic fashion looks stand on their own regardless of plot, set design, musical score or even the actors who star in these films. Scary movies are often treated like the McDonald’s of cinema: people love them, but no one wants to give them due credit. Awards shows and critics mostly ignore the genre that haunts our dreams. And at best, horror films are considered a guilty pleasure. But beneath all the blood, they’re actually the ultimate fashion films.

There might not be much art involved in hunting teenagers down with kitchen knives or carving up unsuspecting travelers with a chainsaw before eating them, but dismissing horror’s cultural impact is a mistake. These films feature some of the best costume designs in the history of cinema and often set trends that live far beyond the screen. Just witness Marc Jacobs’ Tim Burton-inspired fall runway show at New York Fashion Week that included an appearance by Lady Gaga outfitted as an eerily gothic grandma.

“It’s funny there’s almost nothing written about it, but fashion is absolutely crucial to the way horror films work,” says Dr. Catherine Spooner, an English professor at Lancaster University in Lancashire, England, who specializes in gothic film, pop culture and fashion. “Even when the fashion appears relatively mundane, it’s visual shorthand that communicates so much about our present culture.”

Horror film fashion is fascinating because it’s a world of extremes with little middle ground. Costumes are either meant to completely overload viewers’ senses (like the S&M-inspired Cenobites in Hellraiser or Edward Scissorhands’ punk rock hair and razor-sharp hands) or inspire a sense of normalcy (like Michael Myers’ coveralls of Halloween fame or Freddy Krueger’s striped crewneck in A Nightmare on Elm Street). Both approaches are equally effective when it comes to striking fear into the hearts of viewers.

“Visual choices like putting Michael Myers in coveralls or Jason Voorhees in work shirts aren’t distinctive, but that makes them more unsettling because they’re dressed very ordinarily,” says NOW Magazine senior film writer Norman Wilner. “From the back, Michael Myers just looks like a guy; from a distance you don’t perceive him as a threat. The lack of fashion sense makes these characters more banal and more frightening.”

It’s noteworthy that some of the most iconic female fashion symbols are villains in the vein of Cruella de Vil, the girls from The Craft, and Maleficent. “There’s always been a lot more attention paid to female fashion in horror films. You had Edith Head designing iconic costumes for Hitchcock films in the 1950s–but all the focus used to be on the heroine,” says Wilner. “Now, it’s all about the villains. It’s about projecting power when women historically don’t get to be very powerful on screen.”

However, fabulous costuming can also be used to send negative messages about female empowerment and independence. “Female villains wear the best clothes, and often the baddest ones are the most fashionable,” says Spooner. This trend was most recently seen on the hit comedy series Scream Queens where mean-spirited sorority queen bee Chanel Oberlin rules the campus with a well-manicured fist and an enviable closet full of (what else?) Chanel.

“Cruella de Vil is the most symptomatic of that. It’s interesting because in the novel the Disney films were based on, she was much more glamourous. She wasn’t as haggard. Disney uses her love of fashion to demonize the idea of a career woman, a woman who chooses her own career and who chooses her own clothes.”

This vilification of stylish women extends to the real world– just look at how the press treats well-robed political wives like Samantha Cameron and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau or fiercely dressed power players like criminal lawyer Marie Henein. The more fashionable a woman is, the easier it seems to find reasons to dislike her.

The significance of sartorial choices in horror movies can be traced back centuries to horror’s origins in 18th-century gothic novels. “Items of clothing are really, really important in gothic novels whether they’re veils, shrouds, disguises, cloaks,” says Spooner. When these stories were translated to a new medium in the 20th century, the emphasis on clothing stuck.

While horror costuming is critical to the success of many films, it’s also been a significant inspiration for designers off screen. For a genre often dismissed as lowbrow, it’s referenced ironically often on high-fashion runways.

“I think the most overt example is the late Alexander McQueen, who was obsessed with horror films. You could see that very overtly in many of his collections– I mean, he called a collection ‘The Hunger’ after the erotic vampire movie of the same name,” says Spooner, who helped curate Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty for the Victoria & Albert Museum. Other McQueen shows inspired by horror include 2002’s ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ which referenced Tim Burton, 1999’s ‘The Overlook,’ inspired by The Shining, and 1995’s ‘The Birds’ that paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film.

“Also look at Valentino; his collections often look like a horror film from the mid-18th century,” says stylist Talia Brown. “Valentino always does those deeply hued fabrics with lace, velour, suede, big hats and dark florals. There’s something about those tones that play with your eyes both on film and in person. They overwhelm and mesmerize.”

“Many designers are inspired by horror because it’s so visually distinctive and is all about the viscerality of bodies,” says Spooner. “Fashion is also all about the body. So, when the two come together, it allows designers to articulate things about the body that perhaps other genres don’t offer in the same way.”

Somewhere between the blood-curdling screams and gratuitous gore, fashion and horror have forged a beautiful symbiotic relationship. Neither would be complete without the other. If you aren’t one of the lucky few to receive an invite to attend this season’s runway collections, watching a scary movie may very well be the next best thing.