[Horror History] Beastly Beginnings (1896-1929)


This is Part 2 of a series posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here.

A bat flies into a haunted castle and transforms into the Devil. He is represented, as often on stage, as a nattily dressed gentleman with a beard. From a giant, black cauldron this Mephistopheles proceeds to conjure up and dispel imps, demons, ghosts, witches, and skeletons. A cavalier then bursts in and brandishes a crucifix and the Devil vanishes in a puff of smoke. All of this occurs in just about three minutes. It is, officially, the first horror film ever made, The Devil’s Castle (1896).

Playing off of centuries of imagery from books, legends, and stage plays (among those figures conjured up by the Devil is is an old man with a grimoire, presumably Faustus himself), The Devil’s Castle has been noted for the bat transformation and the power of the crucifix, leading the vignette to not only be labeled as the first horror film in history, but the first vampire film as well. It should be noted, however, that the trope of evil being associated with bats and shrinking from religious icons were not exclusively associated with vampires until the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula the following year.

The director and star of The Devil’s Castle, Georges Méliès, is a man familiar to most film students and movie buffs. He is regarded as the father of the cinema fantastiqué, the successor to Auguste and Louis Lumière, the fathers of documentary realism cinema. Where the brothers thought there was little future in film beyond a passing experimental fad, Méliès was showman by nature, a trickster in an age where illusionists were top-of-the-bill attractions. He viewed trick photography as an aid to magic. As such, his films feature multiple exposures, dissolves, perspective tricks, elaborate props, and stage makeup to accomplish what were basically vaudeville acts on film. There is no grand story to The Devil’s Castle, it is simply a parade of tricks culminating in a flourishing exit.

Can’t you feel the flourishing?

Between 1896 and 1914, Méliès directed over five hundred movies. He did not confine himself to the fantastical, either, taking stabs at the animated “French postcard” genre with After the Ball (1897), historical epics with Joan of Arc (1899), religious spectacle with Christ Walking on Water (1899), topical political drama with The Dreyfus Affair (1899), literary adaptations with The Queen’s Musketeers (1903), and even parodist newsreels, like the one about the coronation of King Edward VII that even the monarch himself thought genuine. Before his own distinct style caught on, Méliès was among cinema’s first rip-off artists, capitalizing on the success of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) by filming other trains at other stations.

But it is for the magic that we remember Méliès. After The Devil’s Castle, Méliès produced a number of films of the same dark persona, often building whole movies around a demonic figure and a single great illusion, as in The Man with the Indiarubber Head (1902), wherein Méliès inflates his own head to giant size until it bursts like a balloon. He took his act from stage to screen and lived up to the title of one of his many 1899 films, A Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist.

Over time, Méliès’s films grew longer and more ambitious. Among his literary adaptations–where were often highlights rather than the whole story–were the screen debuts of Rider Haggard’s She: The Pillar of Fire (1899), the charlatan of Cogliostro’s Mirror (1899), Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1901), the grizzled pirate Bluebeard in Barbe-Bleu (1901), and the Wandering Jew in the eponymous film of 1904. Méliès often returned to Faust and Mephistopheles, but his filmography is littered with titles that suggest horror sub-genres in the making: The Bewitched Inn (1897), Cave of Demons (1898), Murder Will Out (1899), Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899), The Doctor and the Monkey (1900), The Dangerous Lunatic (1900), Beelzebub’s Daughters (1903), and The Witch (1906).

Georges, you tricksy little minx, you

His greatest success, and his most often seen/parodied work, was A Trip to the Moon (1901), whose loose plot concern a lunar trip of the type made popular by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells novels. Méliès was encouraged to make more of these “impossible voyage” films to locations such as the sun, under the sea and to the North Pole. He set out to amaze and chuckled as nervous patrons gasped in terror at dancing skeletons, phantoms, and devils. But Méliès was, at the end of the day, a trickster. He was not interested in cinema as a medium for telling stories, but for showcasing special effects. Despite not considering himself part of the “horror business,” Méliès’s scares and frightening imagery would come to define the genre and recur again and again in the coming decades.

By the beginning of the 20th century, movies had gripped people the world over, and there was already healthy international competition. In America, pioneers like Edwin S. Porter paved the way for cinema’s first iconoclasts, like D.W. Griffith, and in Italy there were regular feature-length epic spectacles by the second decade, like the tale of ancient muscle hero Maciste in Cabiria (1914). Meanwhile, in Germany the heirs of E.T.A. Hoffman began to play with shadows, and in Britain one-and-two-reel melodramas began to proliferate and become commercially successful. Activity was so hectic in this new field that oft-told tales would make their screen debuts and be done over again within a few months. William Selig’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), a film of the stage play that had been touring during Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifetime, is largely considered the first American horror movie. It was rapidly followed by a British remake, The Duality of Man (1910), a Danish version starring Alwin Neuss, Den Skaebnesvangre Opfindelse (1910), and another American version starring James Cruze and Harry Benham in the title roles, an interesting approach that has been rarely reused. In 1913, a German version vied with two more American versions, one a primitive colorized version and the other produced by Carl Laemmle, who would later become the patriarch of Universal Pictures, where the horror film found its first true home.

Things went quiet until 1920, when three new versions of the Jekyll/Hyde story arrived simultaneously: John S. Robertson’s lavish star vehicle for John Barrymore (whose steeple-headed, spider-fingered Hyde pre-empts Max Shreck’s similar looking vampire by two years), a quickie imitation with Sheldon Lewis, and F.W. Murnau’s Dr. Jekyll, a tragically lost version with Conrad Veidt as the doctor who, in this version, transforms under the magical influence of a two-faced bust rather than mad science. Bela Lugosi also had an early role in this version as the doctor’s butler. Even the first parodies of Stevenson’s novel surfaced at this time, Horrible Hyde (1915) and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925), starring Stan Laurel.

The peak of hilarity, clearly

Though Jekyll and Hyde was the most frequently adapted story of the silent film era, other famous monsters also made their debut during this time. Edison’s Frankenstein (1910), with Charles Ogle as the wild-haired creature whipped up in a vat like instant soup, was followed by Life Without Soul (1915), in which Dr. Frankenstein becomes “William Frawley” and the Monster is “the Brute Man.” The Frankenstein Monster (1920), possibly the first Italian horror film, also tackled the story, while The Picture of Dorian Gray enjoyed great success in Denmark as Dorian Gray’s Portrait (1910), with other versions following in 1915 from Russia, 1916 from America (this version starred Henry Victor, future strongman from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks), 1917 from Germany, and 1918 from Hungary (Lugosi played Dorian’s mentor, Sir Henry, in this version). Sherlock Holmes, who made his screen debut battling an invisible man in 1900 with Sherlock Holmes Baffled, was part of one of the earliest crossover events in Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery (1908), solving Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The sleuth’s creepiest adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) was first filmed in Denmark as The Grey Lady (1903) with a spectral woman instead of a Hound of Hell. Germany turned out a more faithful adaption of Baskervilles in 1914, followed by six sequels in which Holmes pursues the novel’s dog-training villain. This period also saw multiple early adaptations of genre staples like She, Trilby, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sweeney Todd, Maria Marten, Faust or Dr. Faustus, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Fu-Manchu.

Poe was a popular source in both France and America and it was D.W. Griffith who first took a frequently reused tactic by combining several Poe stories into one episodic narrative for The Avenging Conscience (1914). Meanwhile, the first feature-length British horror film, The Avenging Hand (1915), was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) with a revived ancient Egyptian princess and a severed hand. It was among a run of mummy-themed films popular at the time: The Mummy (1911), The Dust of Egypt (1915), The Eyes of the Mummy (1919). Other popular films included The Vampire (1913), about an East Indian snake woman and The Werewolf (1913), concerning a Native American shapeshifter. There were also a number of films about monkey gland transplants (a medical fad of the day) and Darwinian evolutionary theory best epitomized by the 1913 French adaption of Gaston Leroux’s novel Balaoo (1912) about a humanized gorilla. It was remade as The Wizard in 1927 and Dr. Renault’s Secret in 1942.

Already, some filmmakers were specializing in the macabre, and several actors were building reputations on the strength of their horror roles. Paul Wegener, a German actor/director, cut a hefty figure as Balduin in The Student of Prague (1913), adapted from H.H. Ewers’s Poe-like novel about a deal with the Devil and a deadly doppelgänger. He achieved massive fame, however, under a clay wig and built-up costume in and as The Golem (1915), the legendary living statue of the Prague ghetto, revived to rampage in modern times. The film was so successful it spawned both a parodic sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and an elaborate prequel, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920). Wegener also took on several bizarre roles in his career, as when he played a warlock modeled after Aleister Crowley in Rex Ingram’s French-American film The Magician (1926), or the title role in Svengali (1927). Wegener’s last bow in horror was in the multi-episode The Living Dead (1932), written and directed by his rival Richard Oswald, who had first come to the genre with a number of Hound of the Baskervilles sequels and stuck around to deliver adaptations of Hoffman, including a talkie version of Alraune (1930) with Brigitte Holm recreating her silent role as the artificially fashioned femme fatale.

Alluring Alraune, alright?

Wegener and Oswald were principally adaptors of others’ work. Their films have pictorial virtues and an obvious feel for the material, but little sense of the developing potential for cinema. Others came at horror from a different direction, not just hoping to trade on well-known material but expanding the boundaries of film as art. Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the most influential and famous example. Weine’s direction, in conjunction with the sets of scenarists Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, the art direction of Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm (who devised the stylized sets, painted shadows, and designed other visual tricks for the film), and the input of Fritz Lang, who was signed up to direct but moved on to something else after devising the frame story that reveals the whole action to be taking place inside the mind of a lunatic, created lightning in a bottle. Lang’s narrative input turned what might have been a confounding arthouse picture into a gimmick picture. The revelation meant that patrons disturbed by the imagery could leave the theater thinking they now “understood” what they had seen, i.e. the visualized ravings of a distorted mind. Mayer and Janowitz despised this angle, having intended to depict a world that was cruel and insane rather than a protagonist having bad dreams.

Nevertheless, the film was a hit, especially for breakout performers Werner Krauss as the top-hatted mountebank and mesmerist Caligari, and Conrad Veidt as the leotard-clad, hollow-cheeked somnambulist/murderer Cesare. Both would join Wegener among the emerging group of proto-horror stars. Veidt, whom Universal considered casting as Dracula in 1930, played The Count of Cogliostro (1921), the rumored diabolist-violinist Paganini (1923), the pianist with a murderer’s hands in Hands of Orlac (1924), Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (1924), and the titular characters in Rasputin (1930) and The Wandering Jew (1933). Krauss would later play Iago in Othello (1922), Jack the Ripper in Waxworks, and the Devil in The Student of Prague (1926).

F.W. Murnau also cast Veidt in The Head of Janus (1920), a rip-off Jekyll & Hyde film scripted by Caligari‘s Janowitz (this was the strange case of Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor). Murnau assumed that Bram Stoker’s widow would be as negligent as the Stevenson estate and so attempted another literary adaptation with a few plot alternations, turning Count Dracula in Count Orlok for Nosferatu (1922). Whereas The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s expressionist style was created entirely in-studio, Murnau took his vampire out on location, filming in Slovakian mountains and ruins. Nosferatu still stands as the only screen adaptation of Dracula to be primarily interested in terror. Max Shreck’s rat-faced, corseted, stick-insect of a monster possesses no undead glamor, nor even the melancholy brought to the character by Klaus Kinski and Willem Defoe in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Just as Dracula can serve as the template for the horror novel, Nosferatu serves as the template for the horror film. Murnau added wrinkles to the Stoker story that have persisted, notably the vampire vanquished by the first light of day.

Or a competent dentist

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu might be the most cited examples of Expressionism, but they’re not the whole story. Throughout the 1920’s, as German society spiraled out of control, German cinema became shadowed with figures as sinister as Cesare, Caligari, and Orlok. Fritz Lang turned out the epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) in which Rudolf Klein-Rogge incarnates superhuman evil as a master criminal in the mold of Fu-Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Mabuse is a founding text for all manner of far-fetched thrillers, including the Hitchcock japes of the 1930’s, the film noir of the 1940’s, the super-spy pictures of the 1960’s, and the paranoid conspiracy dramas of the 1970’s. Lang brought Mabuse back to exact malign influence from an asylum cell and beyond the grave in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but his most influential early talkie is the layered and haunting M (1931), the first great serial-murder film. Peter Lorre stars as a pedophile killer stalked by cops (including Mabuse’s nemesis, Inspector Lohmann) and criminals. Paul Keni, another German director, put Jack the Ripper on the screen in 1924 in Waxworks, but his presence was muted. The missing link between Werner Krauss’s tubby, trench-coated Ripper and Lorre’s whistling, whining Franz Beckert is the mild-mannered, pathetic Jack the Ripper as played by Gustav Diessl in G.W. Pabst’s masterful Pandora’s Box (1928), who kills the innocent heroine Lulu (Louise Brooks) under the mistletoe. Alfred Hitchcock, who served an apprenticeship in Germany, took note of what was going on both in politics and filmmaking and used this for his own British Expressionist Ripper story with The Lodger (1927).

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, horror as a solidified film genre was still somewhat murky, but the first true horror star was on the rise in the form of Lon Chaney. A master character actor and makeup artist, Chaney played full-on monster roles as the ape-man in A Blind Bargain (1921), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and the skull-faced Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), plus a comedic mad scientist in The Monster (1925) and a fake vampire in London After Midnight (1927). His most distinct work, however, is found in melodramas, usually those directed by Tod Browning. Their joint masterpiece is The Unknown (1927), in which Chaney plays a murderer hiding his giveaway double-thumbs by binding his arms and posing as an amputee, performing a knife-throwing act with his feet. The heroine (a young Joan Crawford) affects to abhor a man’s embrace, so “Alonzo the Armless” has his arms surgically removed to become her ideal lover–only to learn she’s changed her position on hugging and is now canoodling with the circus strong-man, prompting Alonzo to plot bloody revenge. The difference between Chaney’s grotesques and the creatures of German expressionism is that most of Chaney’s brilliantly mimed, remarkably made-up freaks are just grump guys who don’t get the girl (a theme that Chaney raised to obsessive levels), rather than the incarnation of evil or insanity in semi-human form. Perhaps this is why his most horrific films, though illuminated by moments of masterful acting, wear less well. Arguably his best work, in Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) and Victor Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924) fall on the outskirts of the genre.

When Universal Pictures, the backers behind Hunchback and Phantom, lost Chaney to MGM they replaced him with Conrad Veidt as the Joker-grinning freak of The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni, who also helmed perhaps the most important American horror film of the 20’s, The Cat and the Canary (1927). Based on John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play, the film was a semi-spoof of already well-established Old Dark House mystery in which a group of people gather for a reading of a will in an isolated, spooky locale and are menaced by a monstrous figure who turns out to be the most cheerful, helpful suspect. Think lots of clutching hands, secret passageways, and bodies tumbling from wardrobes. Similar titles included The Bat (1925), directed by Roland West and remade as a talkie, The Bat Whispers (1929); Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen, who also helmed the striking Danish semi-documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1921); multiple versions of Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917, 1925, 1929), a property rehashed as late as House of the Long Shadows (1983). Others in this arena included The Ghost Breaker (1922), The Gorilla (1927), The Thirteenth Hour (1927), The Haunted House (1928), and the first all-talkie, The Terror (1928).

The Man Who Laughs…his way into your nightmares

As talking pictures caught on, Murnau and Leni were perfectly positioned within Hollywood to direct horror films. Dracula had been running on stage in Britain and the U.S. since the mid-1920’s, and the rights had been legitimately bought by Universal Pictures in the hope that Chaney would star. However, within a few years, Murnau, Chaney, and Leni were all dead through freak accidents or illnesses. The future of Dracula, and by extension the entire horror genre, was up for grabs…

Read on for Part 3, which will tackle fear of the “exotic” throughout the 1930’s

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Early Evil


This is Part 1 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade

If there’s one thing that almost every major horror franchise has fallen prey to it’s the origin story. So from what dark corners of the world did horror cinema spring from? Well, those who study film know that “the movies” essentially began in 1891 when Thomas Edison, assisted by his colleague William Dickson, took the celluloid film roll invented by George Eastman and used it to create the Kinetograph, a camera capable of exposing images in rapid succession. Developed in a strip and viewed inside a turn-the-crank device called the Kinetoscope, the ribbon of pictures would give the illusion of movement to the viewer.

The Kinetoscope became a fairground novelty, operated by a coin in a slot and was designed for a rapid turnover of single spectators. Slideshows, magic lanterns, praxinoscopes, and several other pre-cinema spectacles had been popular attractions for decades, but the idea of showing movies to an audience gathered as if for a lecture or a play did not immediately appeal to Edison.

Pictured: a rollicking good time

Enter Auguste and Louis Lumiere, two French brothers who, in 1895, developed the Cinematographe. This device could take moving pictures (like the Kinetograph) and project them onto a screen. On December 28, 1895, the brothers conducted the first film show for a paying audience in history. Held in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris, they screened brief snippets taken during the year that have since become famous amongst film students and scholars. Most of the short films were accounts of everyday activities, such as Exiting the Factory (1895), which depicted workers at the Lumiere factory clocking out for the day. Other films were staged, like The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895), in which a boy plays a trick on a gardener–possibly the first action film–but the hit of the evening was the first true sensation of the power of cinema: a couple-second film titled The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). Having never seen a motion picture before that night, many Parisian patrons could not quite tell the difference between a silent, black-and-white image of a locomotive steaming towards the camera and a real train crashing through the basement wall and threatening to plough them down.

For about ten years, the Kinetoscope and the Cinematographe coexisted, seemingly not in competition, but it was the Lumiere vision of cinema as a theatrical attraction that caught on around the world, drawing masses of people and inspiring film’s earliest pioneers. Edison’s gadget, meanwhile, was primarily used for “what the butler saw” type peepshows. By the beginning days of the 20th century, Edison had moved to the projected-on-a-screen variety of cinema as well. Among his best known productions from this time was the very first film version of Frankenstein (1910). Ironically, by then, the Lumiere brothers were out of business and Edison was raking in the cash thanks to a near stronghold on American film production. Edison had patented the sprocket holes, the perforations that allowed film to run through the projector. This vicegrip would only be broken by film enthusiasts who fled the Edison-dominated New York film scene to found a new movie stronghold in California–Hollywood.

Thomas Edison: climbing in yo windows and snatching yo ideas up since 1847

Well that covers the birth of cinema, but where was horror? Formats that would become movie genres were fairly well defined in other media well before Edison and the Lumiere brothers came to prominence. Adventure and detective stories were universally developed in prose. The musical was the staple of the theater. Cheap novels were the homes of Westerns, while the love story seeped into nearly every form of narrative art. The religious spectacular was familiar in painting, and the great epic had been around since antiquity. Even science fiction had coalesced into something recognizable by the late 19th century thanks to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Yet for all these distinct genre arenas, no one alive in 1890 would have any idea what you meant if you called something a “horror story.” This is not to say that such stories did not exist but just that horror was only now starting to come together into its own classification through the efforts of a disparate bunch of creative minds, much like cinema itself.

Horror as a genre had been a long time coming by this point, folks. The earliest known narrative in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is rife with gruesome and fantastical elements. Heroes fight monsters in Graeco-Roman and Norse mythology with astonishing regularity, a trend that continued up through the eighth century Old English epic poem Beowulf. In typical horror fashion, some dark and strange force is raiding the hall of King Hrothgar every night, leaving dead and mutilated corpses behind. The hero traces the trail of trouble to the monster Grendel, whom he kills in battle. The epic even contains its own sequel (the staple of the horror genre), as Beowulf must then confront the dead beast’s vengeful mother almost like a weird, backwards version of Friday the 13th (1980).

Of monsters, men, and mommies–the horror trifecta

Countless other myths, folk tales, legends, and epic cycles conform to the structure of the horror story. With the right slant, they could all be made or remade as horror films with ease, and many of them have. Working from the Bible alone, you have the horrors of the ten plagues of Egypt, which were the inspiration behind the influential The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971); the trials and tribulations of Job, which was perhaps the first “conte cruel” or “cruel tale,” in history; and the apocalyptic vision of the Revelation to John as the source of such Antichrist yarns as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Omen (1976), and numerous other “Christian” horror tales. Even classical drama is full of blood and guts; Oedipus blinds himself when he realizes how dreadfully he has transgressed into a world of hate, murder, and revenge.

Theater had a long history of peddling the macabre and helped give rise to horror’s many sub-genres. During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, English audiences flocked to theaters to see “revenge tragedies,” productions that drew on classical models but played up ghosts, grim, and gore. Hamlet (1611) features its vengeful specter in the night, an exhumed skull, multiple stabbings, poisonings, and Ophelia’s mad scene. The doom-haunted tone of Macbeth (1606) is set in the very first scene by the three witches chanting their wicked prophecy, but Shakespeare really went balls to the wall for the kind of shock value that Italian filmmakers would later relish with his blood-soaked tragedy Titus Andronicus (1594), the source for the lengthy sequence in Theater of Blood (1971) in which rape victim Lavinia has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t identify her attackers but foils them by writing down their names with her bloody stumps.

Even still, Shakespeare is tame compared to his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, particularly his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1592, the archetypical deal-with-the-Devil story) or even Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which opens with the stage direction “Enter VINDICE, holding a skull.” These plays and others would demand increasingly elaborate stage effects, such as hidden bladders of pig’s blood pricked by daggers for John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), fake heads branded about after onstage decapitations for The Duchess of Malfi (1623), or the Duke of Gloucester’s bloodied eye-sockets in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606).

Do you see where I’m going?

It wasn’t all just on stage, however. In 1764, English novelist Horace Walpole published what he claimed was a rediscovered manuscript, The Count of Otranto. It was a saga of ghostly and criminal doings set in an old Italian castle. It was the first in a series of increasingly lurid “gothic” novels, but it was Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), among others, who became the most successful of the gothic novelists. She wrote of imperiled heroines facing magnetic yet repulsive villains, often in old Italian palaces with contested inheritances and secret passageways a-plenty. Any and all supernatural business was explained away with Scooby-Doo-like deduction and the ghost riders unmasked as bandits in disguise. By the time that Jane Austen paid homage to Radcliffe and her many imitators, while simultaneously parodying them, in Northanger Abbey (1817), the gothic form was an established strain of popular culture. Parents were said to be concerned of the effect that gothic novels might have on their children, while the rise in mock-medieval architecture indicated how pervasive the gothic influence really was.

Mrs. Radcliffe’s works were relatively genteel, however. Parental caution most likely stemmed from Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 bestseller The Monk, which unashamedly plunges into the supernatural with an enthusiastic catalogue of depravity thrown in for good measure. It is virulently anti-Catholic, as are most British gothic novels, and is, boiled down, a variant on the Faustus story. The Monk follows the saintly Ambrosio, who is visited by a demon in the form of a young girl that tempts him into a succession of fleshly pleasures and crimes that escalate into matricide, incestuous rape, and worse. In the end, Ambrosio is torn to shreds by the Devil himself. If there was any contemporary writer more extreme than Lewis, it was the French aristocrat Donatien Alphonse Francois, better known by his title, Marquis de Sade. In 1800, the marquis wrote that the gothic novel was the “necessary fruit of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe,” and thus became one of the first critics to perceive a connection between the upheavals in society and fantastical fiction, a connection still widely examined today.

The latter gothic period produced a number of masterpieces, like Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and the style lasted well into the 19th century before it began to peter out with the longer novels of J. Sheridan LeFanu: Uncle Silas (1864), The House by the Churchyard (1863), and the much-filmed vampire tale and precursor to Dracula, Carmilla (1872). It was also at this time that the gothic began to somewhat evolve into the serialized penny dreadfuls that chronicled the exploits of such brooding figures as Dick Turpin, Varney the Vampyre, and Sweeney Todd.

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!that means read

But of course, the most famous and lasting horror novel of the gothic period is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published anonymously in 1818. At the time, Mary was not the respectable Mrs. Shelley, but the scandalous Mary Godwin, a teenage runaway adulteress and Romantic poetry groupie. The novel is supposedly the result of a tale-telling competition between famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary, as depicted on film in the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in other features like Gothic (1986), Haunted Summer (1988), and Rowing with the Wind (1988). Frankenstein owes its convoluted structure of stories within stories to the gothic, but it does break new ground in its tale of the callous scientist Victor Frankenstein and the tragic yet maligned Monster that he creates. The novel is a cornerstone not only of horror but of science fiction, and utilizes a complex moral framework. What is interesting about the novel is that Victor’s true crime is not making the Monster, but in being a bad parent–everything would have been alright if he’d taken care of his creature rather than rejecting it simply because it looked hideous.

Before the supposed contest that birthed horror’s first true milestone, Dr. John Polidori, a member of the Shelley-Byron troupe as well, had published an influential if somewhat whiny short story entitled “The Vampyre.” The titular vampire was a caricature of Byron and the tale itself was the first vampire story written in English. The troupe had all been collectively researching folk and horror tales translated from German and likely encountered the works of E.T.A. Hoffman, whose story “The Sand Man” is about a doll that comes to life and is spiritual precedent to Frankenstein.

Edgar Allan Poe also acknowledged the influence of the Germanic gothic in his own work. His distinct horror tales, written during the 1830’s and 40’s, started playing with the mechanics of the genre, often breaking away from traditional story structure to creep into the minds of his deranged protagonists, presenting torments that were more physical and more spiritual than the conflicts in their typical gothic predecessors.

Edgar Allan Poe–Master of the Macabre, Sexy Ass Mo-Fo

It should be noted, however, that Poe was essentially too awesome to limit himself to one form. Besides horror, he more or less invented the detective story as we know it today. He also wrote important early science fiction, bizarre humor, journalistic hoaxes, puzzle stories, vicious and toadying reviews, and begging letters. It is his horror and mystery stories, however, that reveal his true imagination and that have seen countless adaptations over the years. These core Poe tales include “The Black Cat” (1843), “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842).

Whereas gothics tended to revolve around a virtuous but imperiled heroine who would be saved at the end of the day (or night), Poe’s stories present women who were dead, dying, or spectral. His tales concentrated on the kinds of male protagonists who are on the verge of madness or transcendent wisdom. They obsess on details to the exclusion of all else and think in a frenzy, made evident by dash-ridden sentences that spill from the author’s pen like the ramblings of a drunken lunatic. As such, it would be easy to write Poe off as a neurotic who put his own failings into his writing. Just as his poems use complex meter and rhyme schemes, his prose is finely wrought to seem like the ramblings of an insane person while the author remains in complete control of the effect.

By the late 19th century, though, the gothics seemed quaint and bordering on comical. Trace elements did still remain in a few works, namely the labyrinthine constructions of Charles Dickens (Bleak House, 1852) and Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1859). Poe was now remembered as much for his messy life as for his stories, which were more popular in France than in England or America. However, the decades immediately preceding and following the birth of cinema saw an unparalleled burst of horror fiction. More key texts were written in this comparatively short time than in all the centuries before and arguably, the time since. In about twenty years, the world was given Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Sir H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow (1895), H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), Algernon Blackwood’s The Empty House (1904), Arthur Machen’s House of Souls (1906), William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908), and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1911). And those are, quite frankly, just the titles that have held firm in the public eye. Heaps of other lesser known horror titles were published in the same era.

Gothic Fiction Bundle! Dreary moors and brooding aristocrats not included

As these novels hit shelves and found their way into personal collections, cinema was advancing from experimental flickering snapshots to feature-length stories that could compete with the grandest stage productions of the time. Most of the titles listed above began to be filmed over and over again and have, to this day, spun off so many sequels, prequels, imitations, homages, revisions, reworkings, reboots, and other variants that it’s entirely possible a full 50% of all horror films ever made are, in some fashion or another, drawn from this brief two-and-a-half decades of literary production. Toss in Frankenstein and the works of Poe and that’s a comfortable 3/4.

It may be that this outpouring of what would soon definitively be labeled as “horror” was linked to the contemporary accelerated development of cinema and other technologies of the time (think the telephone, automobiles, and airplanes). When the world changes rapidly people are often both scared and excited. That collective societal thrill encourages storytellers to play on those emotions and can be found as an underlying theme in many of the above-mentioned masterpieces.

The gothic novels all looked back, their settings either in the past or in a fantasized foreign country portrayed as somehow less advanced. Though we now view them through a London fog of gaslit nostalgia, the late-19th century horror cornerstones were up-to-the-moment. Stevenson, Stoker, and Leroux all included newspaper clippings in their works to add weight to their fantastical tales. Wells and Haggard traipsed off to the far corners of the globe only to bring terrifying stories home to oak-paneled drawing rooms. Hodgson, James, and Blackwood found ancient ghosts, curses, and sorceries nestling into an uncertain modern world.

Titillating yet ghastly

Interestingly, in some of the early gothic novels now considered horror classics, the horror elements aren’t even primary. Jekyll and Hyde is a twist-at-the-end crime thriller whose last chapters, published serially in 1886, would have been a jaw-dropper that made Mr. Hyde look like the Tyler Durden or Keyser Soze of his day. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a black satire. Wells’s novels are often considered as scientific romances, yet he wrote better monsters than anyone else of his day–cannibal Morlocks, beast-people, invisible maniacs, vampires from Mars. Heart of Darkness is considered “serious literature,” but, you know, with severed heads stuck on poles. And then, Hound of the Baskervilles is a whodunnit concerning the rationalized supernatural.

But what is remembered, what lingers in pop culture through the years, are the set-pieces that have made them cinema staples: Dorian’s portrait in the blue frame, aging to a withered corpse; Jekyll taking the potion and transforming into the “somehow deformed” Hyde; the Martians devastating everything from village to skyscraper; creepily angelic kids under malign, perhaps spectral influence; James’s nastily physical little ghosts; and then, most of all, Dracula in his Transylvanian castle, climbing down the walls, creeping into the bedrooms of English ladies to drink blood and defy an array of heroes only to decay into nothing once his blackened heart is pierced.

If modern horror starts somewhere, Dracula is as good a place as any. It deploys exactly the strategies, learned from Collins and Stevenson, that still serve for Stephen King, Carmen Maria Machado, and Stephen Graham Jones, not to mention almost every horror film being made today. And yet Dracula has a plot that isn’t far removed from Beowulf. A credible, realistic setting–unlike those of the early gothic novels or Dorian Gray–is established, which allows for suspension of disbelief when the monster is introduced. There is a mystery element as the human characters, aided by the scholarly Dr. Van Helsing, puzzle over strange phenomenon and work out who and what the villain is; discovering the monster’s powers, limitations, and weaknesses. In the climax, the hero and his heroine overcome the monster through applied knowledge and moral superiority and destroy it, though not without cost.

And yet, a full year before the infamous Count came to the printed page, it was the Devil who made his big screen debut…

The King of Vampires. And maybe also arthritis

Click here for Part 2, covering horror cinema’s beastly beginnings through the roaring 20’s

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.