In literature, graphic descriptions of threats and dismemberment by monsters are as old as Beowulf and still much, much older, though not until the 18th century novel by Horace Walpole Otranto Castle inspired the Gothic romance novels that horror-qua-horror became fashionable. Without Walpole, and more famous gothic innovators like Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, we might never have had Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, or Stephen King. But nowadays when we think of horror, we usually think of movies—and all of its various contemporary subgenres, including the sinister psychological twists of ancient monster movies, such as Babadook.
But where do horror films come from? Was it 1931, the year of banner horror where audiences saw both Boris Karloffs in James Whale’s? Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi at Tod Browning’s Dracula? Of course classic films by genre masters, but they don’t come from horror films. Of course there is the eerie silence of FW Murnau Nosferatu from 1922 (and the real-life horror of a missing head director).
And what about German expressionism? “A case can be made,” argued Roger Ebert, that the 1920s Robert Weine Dr. Cabinet Caligari “is the first true horror film”—a “subjective psychological fantasy” where “unspeakable horror is possible.” Possible. But even before Weine’s cinematic work still baffles audiences around the world, there was Paul Wegener’s first 1915 version. Golema character, writes Kevin Jack Hagopian of Penn State, who plays “one of the most significant progenitors to cinematic Frankenstein from James Whale and Boris Karloff.” Even earlier, in 1910, Thomas Edison made an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s monster story.
So how far do we have to go to find the first horror film? Almost as far back as film’s origins, it seems—in 1896, when French special effects genius Georges Méliès made the above three plus minutes, Le Manoir du Diable (Haunted Castle, or Demon Palace). Méliès, known for his silent sci-fi fantasy Journey to the Moon—and for the award given to him in the work of Martin Scorsese Hugo—using his innovative method to tell a story, writes Maurice Babbis in the journal Emerson University Latent Image, from “a large bat that flew into a room and turned into Mephistopheles. He then stood on top of the cauldron and spawned a girl along with some ghosts and skeletons and witches, but then one of them took out a cross and the demon disappeared. It’s not much of a story, really, and it’s not terribly scary, but it’s an excellent example of the technique Méliès allegedly discovered that very year. According to Earlycinema.com,
In the Fall of 1896, an event occurred that has since become film folklore and changed the way Méliès viewed filmmaking. While shooting a simple street scene, Méli’s camera crashes and it takes her a few seconds to fix the problem. Thinking no more about the incident, Méliès processes the film and is shocked by the effect the event has on the scene – objects suddenly appear, disappear or transform into other objects.
Thus was born haunted castle, technically the first horror film, and one of the first—perhaps the first—to use special effects to spook the audience.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician living in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness