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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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/.