[Horror History] We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes (The 1960’s)


This is Part 6 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 as well.

The Beat Generation. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Acid. Thalidomide. JFK. The sexual revolution. Bookended by Psycho (1960) and the Manson Family Murders, the 1960’s saw an enormous shift in what the public perceived as true horror. Change, revolt, and upheaval were the buzz words of the day as the social stability of the post-war years crumbled and everything from hemlines to homosexuality was re-examined for a new age. As the concept of the Cold War began to lost heat, so too did the oppressing fear of nuclear holocaust and mass-death by radiation. The mutant monsters of the 1950’s now looked a little silly, and since no aliens had shown up, the counterculture thinking shifted from external threats to reevaluating the social psyche. Tradition and prohibition were all put under the microscope as stereotypes across the board were questioned.

Horror films, usually made for cheap outside the major studio system, offered the world a means to debunk old taboos and explore new ways of perceiving sex and violence. In the sixties, they became vehicles for processing and interpreting the rapid changes of the decade, sometimes serving as cautionary tales about the dangers of discarding long-established practices willy-nilly, and other times stripping bare long held cultural stereotypes and asking the viewer to rethink their view of the world. The drive-in teen audiences of the 50’s were growing up, immune to the rubber suits and low-level scare factors of films with once lurid titles and tantalizing posters. A demand for horror that was more grounded in reality, more believable, more sophisticated, and more open to challenging social mores became predominant. Underground horror was able to dodge scrutiny, and therefore censorship, and genre lovers of the 1960’s got their wish for a new monster: themselves. Horror was now holding up a mirror to cinema-goers, and the reflection wasn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it was downright terrifying.

Come take a look…if you dare

Among the first to make their voice heard in this new ear was American International Pictures b-horror maven Roger Corman. He had begun his career in the 1950’s and at the turn of the decade convinced producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to grant him a massive budget for two black-and-white creature features. He then took all that money and made something else entirely, House of Usher (1960). The film, an adaptation of the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, was made in color like the horror films of British studio Hammer but more significantly, it was filmed in windshield-shaped widescreen to better accommodate drive-in viewings. With a careful, imaginative script from novelist Richard Matheson and respectable acting from Vincent Price to make up for the woodenness of the rest of the cast, House of Usher kicked off a new cycle of Corman-Poe-Price-AIP films that included The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Based off their success, AIP invested in finding work for other mature horror stars as well, including Ray Milland, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. Bela Lugosi had, unfortunately, died in 1956. The old elite worked alongside youth-appeal faces like Frankie Avalon, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Steele, and Hazel Court. Originally conceived as an answer to the British horror films of the late fifties, Corman’s Poe parade eventually crossed the Atlantic for the last, most lavish entries: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). AIP and Price then stuck around in the UK as things began to change, most notably working on Michael Reeves’s historical horror film Witchfinder General (1968), marketed in the U.S. as a Poe narrative, The Conqueror Worm.

Hammer stayed in the game, producing a number of strong Frankenstein sequels between 1958 and 1974, most directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing. There was also strong work from Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire, 1964) and John Gilling (The Reptile, 1966; Plague of the Zombies, 1966). Christopher Lee donned the cloak once more for Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), then strode through sequels that ran from bland (Scars of Dracula, 1970) to excellent (Taste of the Blood of Dracula, 1970). By the mid-1960’s, Milton Subotsky, who had started Hammer’s ball rolling, was offering serious competition with his Amicus outfit, known for omnibus horrors on the Dead of Night (1945) pattern like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). Amicus used Cushing and Christopher Lee the most, as well as other noted horror types like Michael Gough and director Freddie Francis, but Subotsky was more prone to draw on contemporary sources like the stories of Robert Bloch (The Skull, 1965; Torture Garden, 1967) or EC horror comics like Tales From the Crypt (1972). Hammer answered by adapting novels by stuffy British author Dennis Wheatley, notably The Devil Rides Out (1968) and Lost Continent (1968), both of which have an almost nostalgic edge to them, though there are still threads of dissent common in almost all 60’s horror. The ambitious and short-lived Reeves came of note directing Barbara Steele in an Italian quickie, Revenge of the Blood Beast (1965), then made two outstanding films in the UK: The Sorcerers (1967), a sci-fi/generation gap picture in which Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey mind-meld with Ian Ogilvy, and Witchfinder General, the English answer to the Grand Guignol starring Vincent Price. His next intended project, The Oblong Box (1969), also starring Price, was passed to Gordon Hessler after his death. Hessler brought in Christopher Wicking for rewrites and the two fell into an easy partnership. They followed up Box with several interesting, somewhat experimental films, most notably Scream and Scream Again (1969), a complex, clever, almost kinetic horror-conspiracy film. Whereas Hammer was still clinging to their traditional bodice-ripper fare, Reeves and his contemporaries were peppering their films with splashes of American thrillers, classic Westerns, and mod TV shows like The Avengers (1961-1969) that captured the hip vibe of Swinging London.

But it was at the very start of the decade, in 1960, that horror changed forever and radically. The change did not come about in the old house on the hill, as might have been expected. It didn’t happen in the cold, dank fruit cellar (though the shriveled discovery the film’s conclusion certainly helped). No, it happened in the pristine, tiled bathroom of a nondescript room at the Bates Motel. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapted from Bloch’s novel, was the director’s attempt at reclaiming his “Master of Suspense” moniker back from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who had staged his own bathroom atrocity in the masterful Les Diaboliques (1955). A sustained exercise in misdirection, Psycho elevated the multiple-personality serial killer into a major figure in the horror film. Previously, this archetype was usually found in foggy melodramas like Hangover Square (1945) or in film noir like While the City Sleeps (1955). But Hitch, it should be recalled, had been intrigued by Jack the Ripper as early as The Lodger (1928), and gave American cinema its first great serial killer with the character of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Anthony Perkins’s iconic performance as ultimate mama’s boy Norman Bates, who dresses up as his murdered mother to slaughter Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), set the tone for many, many madmen to come. Hitchcock dabbled in straight horror one more time with The Birds (1963), an apocalyptic exploration of the unnatural natural. The Birds would provide inspiration for the under-siege element of Night of the Living Dead (1968) as well as countless 70’s horror films in which hitherto-subservient animals decide to prey on human beings.

A boy’s best friend is his mother…and an owl’s best friend is clearly not that boy

It was Psycho that made the bigger splash, however, directly and indirectly becoming a source of inspiration for decades to come, and its influence began immediately. Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a melodramatic tale of psychosis involving fading Hollywood icons whose festering relationship descends into madness in a crumbling California mansion, starring actual aging Golden Age legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, is all the more believable given that Mrs. Bates is believed to be a real character until the very end of Psycho. Crawford also starred in the Lizzie Borden-esque Strait-Jacket (1964), produced by William Castle, who was also responsible for the first great Psycho imitator, Homicidal (1961), complete with gender-bending and theater gimmicks. Meanwhile, Davis reteamed with Aldrich for a Southern gothic twist on Les Diaboliques with Olivia de Havilland, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hammer also took note of Psycho’s success and ran a series of Hitchcock-lite efforts that mixed in the who’s-killing-who of Clouzot’s film: Taste of Fear (1961), The Nanny (1964, starring a subdued Davis), Paranoiac (1962), and Nightmare (1963). Psycho‘s pattern was mimicked well into the 1970’s, and is arguably still being drawn on and played with today. Interestingly, the first major attempt to bend Psycho‘s DNA also starred Anthony Perkins: Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968). Perkins plays another unstable, perhaps-homicidal young chap, but it turns out that the blonde, all-American girl next door (Tuesday Weld) he draws into his mad fantasies is a far more dangerous character.

Over in Italy, meanwhile, Hammer and Psycho influence ran rampant. Riccardo Freda was one of the first to put his own spin on what the Brits were doing with The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) wherein Robert Flemyng played an obsessive necrophile in the 1880s and Barbara Steele played his doomed second wife. Steele was a British starlet who had become an Italian horror icon thanks to Black Sunday (1960), a vampire film directed by Freda’s former cinematographer and uncredited co-director Mario Bava. Looking east to Russian literature and Moldavian lore, Black Sunday is a dreamlike, intricate, and unconventional gothic that became the foundation for Bava’s subsequent, inventive catalogue. He moved from Expressionist black-and-white to delirious color for the three-story gothic Black Sabbath (1963), the sado-romance The Whip and the Flesh (1963), and the first of many masked slasher pictures, Blood and Black Lace (1964). Steele also worked with Antonio Margheriti in La Danza Macabra (1964). Margheriti was a prolific player in whatever genre was hot in Italian cinema at the time. His film The Virgin of Nuremberg (1964) is one of several “masked gimmick criminal” films inspired by German director Edgar Wallace and the revival of franchises like Dr. Mabuse and Fantomas. Bava also got in on this trend with Diabolik (1968), after which it was considered to have peaked.

In Spain, horror was dominated by Jesus Franco. He combined the plot of Eyes Without a Face (1960) with Freda’s aesthetic to produce The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), the first of many, many titles that often reshuffled characters, tricks, and story elements. Occasionally, Franco churned out great work, including his widely regarded masterpiece Necronomicon/Succcubus (1967), but mostly his oeuvre is considered quite dull. Franco was the whole of Spanish horror, however, until screenwriter Jacinto Molina wrote and starred (under the name Paul Naschy) in Hell’s Creatures (1968), an homage to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Naschy reprised his medallion-wearing werewolf role several times and beefed up his star status by playing as many famous monsters as Karloff, Lugosi, and both Chaneys combined. In France, Jean Rollin also weaved together the inspired and the makeshift like Franco and Naschy. He dealt in pulp influences and serial-style pictures, often blending horror into nudie picture, as with Rape of the Vampire (1967). Sam Sherman and Al Adamson, an American producer/director team most equivalent to Rollin and Franco, used relics of Universal (old lab equipment, aged Chaney, Jr. and Carradine) alongside Hell’s Angels and cobbled footage from stalled projects. Their films lack the inspiration of their European counterparts, however, and their punchy titles (Blood of Dracula’s Castle, 1969; Dracula vs. Frankenstein, 1970; etc.) often tried to mask that they were the same film done over and over again.

I’m thinking blood’s not the only bodily fluid flowing in ole Drac’s castle…

Federico Fellini reportedly spent his whole life and career trying to reimagine the film that first excited him as a child, Maciste in Hell (1927), which Riccardo Freda actually remade in 1962. Franco, Naschy, Rollin, and Adamson-Sherman were essentially creating some of film’s earliest fan fiction. At their best, they enthusiastically play with monsters in a childish, amusing, and even endearing manner. At their worst, they churn out slow-paced stinkers with a few dollops of gore and sex and don’t even try to hide that they’re working the same angles of decades prior (Dr. Orloff, Franco’s recurrent villain, is a carbon copy of the Bela Lugosi character from Dark Eyes of London, 1939).

These efforts, combined with the controversy surrounding Psycho, made horror disreputable again. It was the genre degenerates and perverts once more, and yet the crowds still flocked, drawn to these strange films that helped unravel the enigmas of a shifting world. Yet not everything in horror was scoffed by highbrow enthusiasts. The 60’s also saw a minor revival in stately, tasteful shudders that began with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Both are careful, creepy ghost stories, impressively shot in widescreen black-and-white, dealing with complex psychological themes yet still finding time to harbor real, bone-deep chills. James was among the classic canon, but Jackson’s novel was new to the horror library. The success of the film adaptation of Haunting led other filmmakers to finally start paying attention to the wealth of great horror material written since the Edwardian era. Psycho also made Robert Bloch a name worth evoking in a somewhat different manner. Forever after he was known as “Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch,” a dubious distinction at best. A loose group of writers who come to the fore in the 1950’s started getting more attention in the 60’s, many while working on television for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and other anthology shows. Through doing script work, many of them were able to then have their own novels and stories filmed, among them Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Stanley Ellin, Charles Beaumont, Harlan Ellison, Ray Russell, and Ray Bradbury. These were ambitious, well-read authors familiar in what came before in the genre and eager to influence what came next. They scripted adaptations of writers who had yet to achieve the acclaim they deserved; Matheson and Beaumont turned Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), which had been botched by Inner Sanctum as Weird Woman (1944), into Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn (1961). Beumont also did wrote the first screen adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft, although AIP turned “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” into one of their Poe/Price/Corman movies, The Haunted Palace (1963).

The top horror bestseller of the 60’s was, unquestionably, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, published in 1967 and filmed and released in 1968 for Paramount by director Roman Polanski. Polanski had already made an important psychological horror picture with Repulsion (1965) as well as the charming Hammer spoof Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Rosemary’s Baby became the first “event” horror film since Psycho. Though its vision of a Manhattan coven isn’t far removed from Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), Rosemary’s Baby works as much on its pregnant heroine’s Repulsion-style nervous breakdown as it does the coming of the Antichrist. This was the sort of horror film that could, and did, get serious Oscar buzz–Ruth Gordon took home the Best Supporting Actress statuette–and was embraced by audiences who wouldn’t have been caught dead at an AIP double bill or an all-night Jesus Franco marathon. Its influence was swift, but wouldn’t truly be felt until the 70’s when writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub became established and films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) made waves by getting back in bed with the Devil.

“Oh shit, he looks like the mailman”

At the other end of the budget range was a very different approach to horror. After running out of ways to film topless women for so-called “nudie-cuties,” Herschell Gordon Lewis turned out Blood Feast (1963). This has been labelled the first “splatter” movie, though the term wasn’t coined until Lewis’s career was long over. The film strings together ketchupy atrocities through a minimal plot about a mad caterer preparing an Ancient Egyptian cannibal feast. Lewis followed this up with Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), in which Confederate ghosts dismember Yankee tourists. Important but not very good, Lewis has his place in horror history, and he helped make room for other auteurs of dementia like Andy Milligan (The Ghastly Ones, 1968; Torture Dungeon, 1969) and Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinder, 1971). This was d-list Hollywood at best, thrown together in unfashionable parts of the U.S. in the certain knowledge that anything can scrape few grindhouse playdates. Other efforts from far outside the studio system began to pop up, sought out by the curious crowds who’d seen enigmatic references in magazines. Among the most popular were Curtis Harrington’s underground Lewton homage Night Tide (1961), Herk Harvey’s artistic chiller Carnival of Souls (1962), Ray Dennis Steckler’s carnival gimmick musical The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies??! (1963), Jack Curtis’s gruesome The Flesh Eaters (1964), Jack Hill’s endearingly demented Spider Baby (1964), and William Grefe’s sleepy Death Curse of Tartu (1966). The important aspect of these films is that you weren’t safe from them. There were no studio executives intent on securing a uniformity of product, no unkillable stars, no submission to the industry’s codes and practices.

The true breakthrough of the decade, commercially and artistically, was George A. Romero’s Pittsburgh-shot Night of the Living Dead (1968), assembled by filmmakers who had worked in advertising and industrial movies. Inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), NOTLD depicts modern America overrun by the newly risen dead, who have an insatiable hunger for human flesh. A group of fractious, panicky survivors hole up in an isolated farmhouse, besieged by the living dead, while a posse of tooled-up sheriff’s deputies comb the countryside in a Vietnam-style search-and-destroy mission. Besides inventing a new monster–combining zombie, vampire, cannibal, and pod person–NOTLD strikes a new set of 1968 attitudes: suspicious of authority, disenchanted with regular folk, willing to break taboos (namely the little girl ghoul killing her mother with a trowel), slyly satirical between suspense scenes, terrified as much by the fact that nobody knows what’s going on as by the rampaging monsters, and ultimately pessimistic. Ambiguous and unhappy endings had started creeping into horror in the 60’s with the likes of The Birds and The Fearless Vampire Killers, but NOTLD goes for the throat. The hero, a Black man played by Duane Jones, fails to save any of the others and only survives by hiding in the cellar, a strategy he has argued against. When he shows himself in the morning as the monster-killing posse turns up, he is mistaken for one of the living dead and shot in the head (“kill the brain and you kill the ghoul”) and hauled out by men with meathooks to be tossed onto a bonfire of corpses. It was a devastating ending, then and now.

And so, after that Night, things really changed…

Though the word “zombie” is never used, the modern conception of the monster began here

See just exactly how that change manifested in Part 7, and how that led to the 1970’s being termed horror’s golden age

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/.