THE cold trickle of dread runs down your spine and a hand of terror grabs hold of your hammering heart. Your mouth is dry. Palms sweaty. You have to cover your eyes and pray for it to end.

Love them or loathe them the horror movie is the ultimate cinema rollercoaster. Psychologists we love horror movies because we can experience fear but from the safe confines of our cinema seat or sofa. It's cathartic and helps us deal with real life anxieties and purge pent-up emotions. Film experts meanwhile argue that the genre is perfect for exploring the dark fears of the modern world - from the alien invasion movies of the 1950s inspired by McCarthyism and the 'Reds under the Bed' paranoia in the US to our current crop of post-apocalyptic horrors taking their lead from fears of mass pandemics and nuclear war.

Industry figures suggest we are in something of a horror golden age. In terms of box office, last year was the best one since 1999, when The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense roared on to cinema screens. In 2017, we had Stephen King’s IT with its extraordinary $315 million gross and counting beating the previous highest grossing horror movie of all time The Exorcist in 1973. Other horror hits of last year included Get Out ($175 million), the directorial debut of Jordan Peele which rifted off Black Lives Matter; Annabelle: Creation ($102 million); and Alien Covenant ($74 million), Ridley Scott's follow-up to his original cult movie.

Alan Jones, veteran horror film journalist and director of Glasgow's FrightFest, which has just launched it's latest programme, claims the film industry is at last taking the genre seriously. "The big studios are finally realising it's a great forum if you have something to say," he says. The cinema, he adds, with its communal experience, is the ideal place to watch horror flicks. "You jump when the person next to you jumps, you hear the intakes of breath and then you're all laughing with relief."

That, he says, is what FrightFest – which is running its 13th two-day horror movie fest as part of the Glasgow Film Festival from March 1-3 – is all about. The festival, which runs its main events in London and has been dubbed "the Woodstock of Gore" by director Guillermo Del Tor, is packed full of Scottish, UK and world premiers from ten countries. Highlights include schlock-tastic Attack of the Bat Monsters – a homage to the1950s – The Tigers Are Not Afraid, a horror fantasy about kids orphaned as a result of Mexican drug cartel violence, and 1920s gothic ghost story, The Lodgers.

Jones claims the enduring appeal lies in the very human need to explore our fears about mortality. "Our lives are getting scarier by the minute," he says. "I think horror is one of the best ways of dealing with the difficult nature of our times without being worthy. Imagine if you remade I Daniel Blake [Ken Loach's film about benefit sanctions] as a horror movie? You could still get message that across without the boredom and depression. No subject is taboo in horror. There are no parameters." It would be all blood banks, rather than food banks, he says.

There are limitations on the genre, of course, and they are mostly about budget. Most of the movies screened by the festival are made for between several hundred thousand and a few million dollars and and as a result do not have the big names that big budgets attract. The Blair Witch Project was a case in point, famously made for around $60,000 with an unknown cast, it went on to make more than $250m. All this, insists Jones, is part of the appeal. "We filter out of the bad stuff and show what's good. This is a community. A love of these movies allows bonds to be made [at the festival], friendships formed...babies to be born."

Rosie Fletcher, Digital Spy's movies editor, who claims FrightFest is "an institution", agrees that horror is about dealing with our darkest selves. "It isn't bound by restrictions of reality so it can be a home for the unfettered imagination," she says. She shrugs off the often-made accusation that horror movies are second rate. "There is no more point in saying you don't like horror movies because Sharknado 3 is rubbish than there is claiming you don't like comedy because Bride Wars sucked," she adds.

While the big successes of recent years are doing a lot to change reputations, audiences are changing too, she says. "For a long time there was a perception that horror viewers were men, and that might have been true in the past, but these days there tend to be slightly more women viewers than men. Horror filmmakers seem to be pretty wise to this. Many of the biggest horror movies in recent years have starred women in active roles – not as victims – and the prevalence of films with graphic rape and brutalisation of women has massively decreased."

Raw, a 2016 French-Belgian horror drama film written and directed by Julia Ducournau, and starring Garance Marillier as a young vegetarian who after her first taste of meat gets a craving for flesh – tackling issues of female violence is and sexuality – is just one example.

Scotland, too, is riding the horror wave. Last year Lawrie Brewster - film maker and founder of Hex Media, which has produced films such as the Lord of Tears, The Unkindness of Ravens and The Black Gloves – announced plans to set up the UK's first horror movie studio since Hammer in a gothic church in Fife. He claims Scotland has the capability to become a leader of independent film. "It is a means of expressing ideas in the most adult, uninhibited form," he says. "Horror will always endure as a genre. It is the truest reflection of those [dark] aspects of ourselves."

Horror history

Dark gothic tales of horror are as old as the human race itself – stories of monsters, ghosts and things that go bump in the night have been told round the fire since time immemorial. But the origins of the earliest horror films can be traced back to 19th century gothic fiction such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker's Dracula - where modern anxieties about the industrial revolution spilled on to the page as uncontrollable monsters.

There were classic silent horror movies - Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, and FW Murnau's Nosferatu - but it was not until the 1930s that technology allowed the horror movie to really explode culturally with Universal movies bringing us Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman in all their black and white glory. The genre stayed mostly stateside into the 1940s, although Britain made some exceptional chillers such as Night of the Demon and The Dead of Night. In the fifties the genre really hit their stride with the birth of the B-movies. Creature from the Black Lagoon, anyone?

While big stars were reserved for the musicals the aim of horror in these post-war times was to create cheap thrills to entertain the masses, all done in wonderfully garish technicolour. That's not to say that even then they didn't have something to say. The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), based on the novel by Jack Finney about alien take-over, has been seen as a parable about communism in the McCarthy era, paranoia and brainwashing.

As the sixties hit, the stimulus for horror notched up a gear – it was a decade in which we saw the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam war and brought us Hitchcock classics from Psycho to The Birds before serving up the Night Of The Living Dead in 1967. The George A Romero movie spawned an entire sub-genre - the zombie movie, onto which any modern fear can be laid.

It was also the sixties – which saw the contraceptive pill made available for the first time – that first saw the introduction too of that now classic device, the sinister child, with The Village of the Damn the seminal film. Spooky kids continued to creep up – literally in many cases – in the films of the seventies such as Nicolas Roeg's unsettling 1973 masterpiece Don't Look Now about a grieving couple in Venice. Then there was The Exorcist, voted 'the scariest movie of all time' which brought the genre artistic respectability and even won an Oscar. The onscreen monsters were now amongst us – the crazed father of the Shining (1980), the horror of the human body in Shivers (1975) and your wicked husband in The Stepford Wives (1972).

The eighties saw budgets get bigger and special effects go all out. Classics like American slasher Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) were all about the gore while the A-list got involved with remakes of Frankenstein and Dracula. The serial killer started to stalk the imagination with films like 1991 horror drama Silence of the Lambs and Scream (1996) a post-modern take on the genre itself.

The move into a new century brought new preoccupations, producing films about urban legends from the "docu-horror" The Blair Witch Project (1999) to 2002 American supernatural horror film The Ring. More recently our fears have become more claustrophobic, with Spanish psychological thriller Kidnapped (2010), or agoraphobic with Cabin in the Woods (2012). But it is the last few years that critics argue have produced some of our most exciting horror films for many years. From the creepy clowns of IT, where the fear is of anonymous evil, so familiar in our social media obsessed lives, to sexual games gone wrong in the horror movie Gerald’s Game, it feels like the chiller is all grown-up.

Six of the best horror movies of this century - as selected by FrightFest director Alan Jones

1. Rec (2007)

Found footage taken to fearful levels in a Spanish apartment block

2. Martyrs (2008)

Trauma is a potent human emotion is this classic example of French extreme horror

3. Let the Right One In (2008)

A lyrical coming of age Vampire fairytale

4. You're Next (2011)

Home Invasion was never more hilarious or horrifying

5. The Babadook (2014)

How to cope with grief, pain and mental illness in a fantasy context

6. Get Out (2017)

Racism issues folded into a pertinent bodysnatching fable