The term “horror film” first appeared in public usage in 1931 after the release of Tod Browning’s “Dracula.” But that doesn’t mean monsters and mayhem were not regularly seen on the silver screen during the silent era.
Kendall Phillips, professor of communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies, explains how horror crept into the earliest of movies.
“Early filmmakers relied on existing cultural stories and mythology to make their short, silent films understandable,” says Phillips, whose book “A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema” (University of Texas Press) was published earlier this year. “While late 19th-century American audiences were a diverse mix of cultures, languages and religions, stories about ghosts, devils and witches were well known to almost everyone.”
Phillips also notes that early films were not shown in movie theaters—they didn’t arise until 1905.
“Before 1905, audiences saw films at carnivals or vaudeville shows or, very commonly, at magic shows,” Phillips says. “So, movies and magic were intertwined from the very birth of motion pictures.”
Some early horror films might seem a bit silly to today’s audiences, but audiences back in the day may have had a different experience. “Audiences of the time probably watched these films with a mix of wonder, laughter and a bit of fright,” Phillips says.
Phillips points to five films, which he covers in his book, “A Place of Darkness,” that helped to shape the notion of fear on film:
- “Le Manoir de Diable” (1896, dir. Georges Méliès). “Less than a year after the first motion pictures were projected for an audience, French magician and pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès produced this short film packed with almost every trope of the classic horror film: a crumbling castle, witches, devils and a menacing bat!”
- “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1908, dir. Otis Turner). “Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 book became an instant American classic. The novel quickly spawned a popular stage adaptation and it did not take long for filmmakers to pick up on the story’s popularity. William Selig’s company produced the first known adaptation and spawned numerous others. Stevenson’s story of dual personalities was adapted for the screen at least eight times before the popular 1931 adaption starring Frederic March.”
- “Ghost Breaker” (1914, dir. Cecil B. DeMille). “What’s a good horror film without an intrepid hero? While there were many films that portrayed a brave American exploring the unknown, one of the best early examples is DeMille’s adaptation of the popular Broadway play by Paul Dickey and Charles Goddard. The hero, Warren Jarvis, is a tough Kentucky adventurer who must brave a haunted Spanish castle to retrieve a fortune and win the hand of the damsel in distress. A popular remake of this film starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard was released in 1940.”
- “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920, dir. Robert Wiene). “The impact of this strange German film can hardly be underestimated. While Hollywood bosses and some audience members hated this film’s heavily Expressionistic imagery, critics and others found it a refreshing way to use the medium of film to create psychological imagery. Caligari would have a huge influence on the way horror was filmed for years to come.”
- “The Monster” (1925, dir. Roland West). “Like a little laughter mixed in with your screams of terror? Then thank this Lon Chaney film for perfecting the mix of madcap comedy and creepy atmosphere. West’s film would provide the blueprint for the comedy thriller that would be perfected in films like Paul Leni’s 1927 ‘The Cat and the Canary.’”
These films can still evoke a sense of the creepy—and an appreciation for the early art of filmmaking.
“Unfortunately, the 1908 version of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and the 1914 ‘Ghost Breaker’ are now lost films,” Phillips says. “But people can definitely find the others and some, especially Caligari, continue to stand up as both scary stories and impressive works of cinematic art.”