Can you imagine a world without horror movies? Their tropes are so familiar–monsters with bloody fangs, screaming teens, tired old jump scares–that it’s hard to imagine pop culture without them. Thanks to Halloween turning autumn into an extended celebration of all things spooky, in many ways the horror genre is part of life’s memories.
But while there were macabre films in the silent era, people wouldn’t start using the term “horror” until Universal started releasing its famous monsters in the early 1930s. Before that, spooky films used to be lumped in under the banner of “mysterious” or “mystery pictures.” In the 1900s, at least. The “mystery” distinction might’ve mattered more to exhibitors than the audiences at your basic moving picture show, who probably just felt that some of the (very) short films in the program were more eerily entertaining than others.
“Mystery” was a broad term–some films had supernatural subjects, but others simply presented objects or people moving in unnatural ways, either for laughs or for the novelty factor. Yes, they were an excuse to show off special effects (especially in the eager hands of Georges Méliès). But “mystery” also presented endless possibilities to the feverish imaginations of directors.
Your 1900s ancestors might’ve recalled seeing A Dinner Under Difficulties, featuring a table that suddenly grows three times its height and disappears and reappears in different parts of the room, or perhaps Dog Factory, where dogs were made into sausage and the sausages were…made into new dogs for pet-seeking customers (I got nothin’).*
It was this vague banner of “mystery” that grew into the genre that produced Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and Paranormal Activity. You might’ve heard of Frankenstein (1910), but what were some other century-old-or-older horror films that provided the foundation for our creepy classics?
One is the very Poe-esque short The Sealed Room (1909), one of D.W. Griffith’s darker Biographs. In it, a king’s beloved concubine cheats on him with the court troubadour. When the kings discovers this, he seals off the room where the lovers are having a tryst and they slowly, melodramatically suffocate to death. Enchanting!
Classic tales would furnish plenty of mystery films for early directors. Biograph also released Edgar Allan Poe (1909), with an actor who makes a surprisingly decent-looking Poe. The earliest version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dates back to 1908. And Méliès got a head start on adapting the disturbing old tale of Bluebeard all the way back in 1901!
And speaking of 1901, this was the debut of a British short called The Haunted Curiosity Shop, one of the earliest filmed ghost stories–mainly meant to show off the studio’s fancy (at the time) special effects.
There was a whole slew of devilish films, too–literally speaking. Méliès in particular used the devil theme quite a few times, cheerily portraying them as mischievous poltergeists. The Devil and the Statue (1902), The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), The Black Imp (1905), and The Infernal Cakewalk (1903) are just a few of them.
Still notable today is Segundo de Chomon‘s fantasy The Red Spectre (1907), which meshes demonic spooks with another beloved early horror trope: skeletons. A skeletal red spectre in a cape turns two women to ashes, only to have a kindly spirit pop up and oppose him. He then pours the women’s souls into bottles, or something fantastical like that.
These are all pretty darn old so far. But let’s go back even farther, to the 1890s–to the literal Victorian era. What quasi-horror films might we find there? And can we pinpoint the earliest horror film of all time?
In 1899 director Walter R. Booth filmed The Miser’s Doom, where said miser is haunted by one of his victims. And once again the name of Méliès is everywhere you look. He released the noteworthy lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb, about a man who resurrects the mummy of Cleopatra (he rudely chops it into pieces first). He also made the eye-catching The Devil in a Convent.
1898 saw a few more of Méliès’s mystery films, as well as Photographing a Ghost by George Albert Smith. Japan was also getting in on the action this early on, with lost films Jizo the Spook (Bake Jizo) and The Resurrection of a Corpse (Shinin no sosei). But we still have to go back a little farther…
1897 gave us one of the most unique old “horror” films, The X-Rays, showing a spooning couple who briefly turn into skeletons after being exposed to the rays (Wilhelm Röntgen had announced his discovery of x-rays in 1896). This apparently counts as horror because skeletons. And another noteworthy work is George Albert Smith’s The Haunted Castle, which survives as a nice, hand-colored print. And it’s obviously based on what mankind has deemed the oldest horror film of all time: The Haunted Castle (Le Manoir du diable) dating from 1896.
1896–otherwise known as the year William McKinley became president. The year brand new Sherlock Holmes stories were coming out. The year Henry Ford drove his first Ford. And who made The Haunted Castle? If you haven’t guessed it already–Méliès.
The Haunted Castle/Le Manoir du diable has all those things that we recognize as horror tropes–a spooky castle! Bats! Ghosts! Skeletons! Jump cuts! And thus it is widely recognized as the great-great-grandfather of every Hammer horror and Saw franchise film in existence.
…Or is it??
Now we come to an even older film: The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895), produced by Edison and directed by the thoroughly forgotten Alfred Clark. Poor ol’ Alfred doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, but he just might’ve made the world’s very first horror film. According to some folks it makes the cut because of its macabre subject and realistic violence. Observe:
Whether you agree with this assessment or not, at the very least we can say that the first horror movies date from the mid-1890s.
Times, they have changed. We smile at these old “horror films” now, and they amuse rather than scare (depending on the creep factor of the old-timey makeup). But they have a charm to them, creaky and primitive though they may be.
After all, how many of today’s horror movies could you possibly describe as innocent?
This is the first of my Return of Silent Horror Month posts! To see reviews of horror movies and spooky topics from previous Octobers, check out the list here.
*I first heard of these two films in Darren Nemeth’s reprint of the 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog (which I reviewed). A Dinner Under Difficulties is by Méliès, and Dog Factory is an Edison product. Yes, both still exist and are on YouTube!
My reference for the Japanese silent films is The Oxford History of World Cinema by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Oxford University Press, 1997.