[Horror History] Exotic Monsters (The 1930’s)


This is Part 3 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Once again, we begin with Dracula.

When Bela Lugosi was interviewed about his stage performance as the Count, journalists would often ask if he was worried about being typecast in “mystery plays.” After Lugosi starred in Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) entered pre-production at Universal, competing studios began rooting about for similar properties to chase the Dracula dollars and the term “horror film” slipped into general usage.

When the British Film Board instituted a special rating for these “distasteful” items, they labeled them as “H” for “Horrific”–which seems to have sealed the deal insofar as naming the genre went. It wasn’t a linguistic inevitability, though. Terms like “macabre,” “gothic,” “weird,” “terror,” “monster,” and “shudder” were also available. And though Dracula signaled the birth of a cinematic genre, there’s a sense that neither the studio nor the director had their heart in the film. Both were involved with the project because of Lon Chaney. With his death in 1930, it may have even seemed like a contractual obligation to see it through. Universal dilly-dallied with casting choices before resorting, essentially because he was cheap, to Lugosi. It may be that they didn’t go with Conrad Veidt because they didn’t see Dracula as a super-spectacular like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which was then in re-release as a semi-talkie film, or even The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Browning also hardly gave Dracula his best work. Though stunningly designed and photographed by Karl Freund, who had done The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1926), the picture is basic filmmaking, certainly not on par with The Unknown (1927) or other Chaney-Browning films. Some have argued that the simultaneous Spanish version of Dracula, shot on the same sets from a translation of the John L. Balderson script is more excitingly directed by George Melford. There’s no denying that Browning’s version is more succinct, however; he tore out redundant pages that Melford faithfully plods through. With the better pacing of the English version, and Lugosi’s iconic performance in a role Carlos Villarias cannot claim to own in the way that the Hungarian did (and does), the English-language Dracula stands strong on its own. Browning’s film also has the definitive fly-eating Renfield played by Dwight Frye, whose cracked laugh is also as imitable as Lugosi’s haunting “I…am…Dracula” accent.

Plus that winning smile

There was some enthusiasm for Dracula on Universal’s side, though. It came from studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., newly promoted by his doting father. But even he didn’t consider how radical the material truly was. To the Laemmles, Dracula was a solid, proven property: a novel everyone knew and a play that was still running. The studio that had made their mark with The Phantom of the Opera and The Cat and the Canary (1927) thought they knew what they were getting into. Dracula was even, technically, a remake: Nosferatu (1922) might have been officially suppressed at the time, but it certainly wasn’t forgotten. Clips of the film turn up in a Universal short called Boo! (1932), so there was likely a print on the lot for easy reference. And F.W. Murnau was well known around town as one of the first Oscar winners for his film Sunrise (1928).

The different between what had come before in Hollywood and Dracula was underlined by the play’s epilogue, in which Dr. Van Helsing (played by Edward Van Sloan in the film) comes out from behind the curtain to assure the audience that “there are such things.” Before, the Phantom was malformed at birth. The Cat was just a secondary heir in a fright mask. Even Chaney’s pointy-fanged vampire in London After Midnight (1927) turned out to be a sleuth playing dress up to catch a killer. But Lugosi’s Dracula was a real-life, honest-to-Bram-Stoker bloodsucking reanimated corpse. Hollywood had been leery of “such things” and practical Yankee reviewers often sneered about their appearance in European films. Browning didn’t much care either way. He remade London After Midnight as Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Lugosi in the cloak again, and tried to get away with a Scooby-Doo ending as though he hadn’t founded a whole new cinematic genre with Dracula.

Laemmle Jr. took note of the unexpected box office bonanza of Dracula (reportedly a $700,000 profit on a $340,000 budget), which hit theaters in February 1931. He immediately began to develop Frankenstein, managing to get it out before the end of the year despite a change in both director and star during pre-production. Originally, Robert Florey was set to direct Lugosi as the creature, but Englishman James Whale, whom Laemmle valued as one of Universal’s top assets, was given the pick of all the studio’s properties and chose Mary Shelley’s “man who made a monster.” Lugosi (who, forever after, claimed to have turned down the Monster role rather than being unceremoniously dumped by a Brit who didn’t take him seriously) and Florey were shunted off to make Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), a Poe adaptation that’s also a lightly disguised remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Whale cast his London stage associate Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, bumping out Leslie Howard, and scuppered Lugosi’s future career by selecting Anglo-Indian bit player Boris Karloff (born William Pratt) to wear Jack P. Pierce’s make-up as the Monster.

And he really does wear it well

In the opening credits of Frankenstein, Karloff is billed as “?” His name, not familiar to the public despite decades of playing secondary villains and one-scene psychotics, was not revealed until the “a good cast is worth repeating” closing crawl. If Dracula is a thrown-together piece that somehow works, Frankenstein is the result of considered thought by the director, make-up man (a great deal of the film’s lasting strength is that unbeatable, copyrighted Monster) and cast. The script is even more makeshift than Dracula‘s, with too many irreconcilable ideas thrown in. Quite a lot of fuss is made about the plot point that the hunchback minion Fritz (Dwight Frye again playing a sycophantic lackey) has snatched an “abnormal brain” for use in the Monster’s skull, but this “explanation” for why the experiment turns out badly is at odds with Whale’s (and Shelley’s) depiction of the creature as an innocent who only reacts viciously when abused or neglected and whose worst crime (drowning a little girl) is simply a tragic misunderstanding.

The early stirrings of censoring grumblers (especially in Britain, the spiritual home of Dracula and Frankenstein) did more to excite than depress box office figures. With two proven hits, Universal realized they had a new-made genre on their hands–complete with iconic stars, supporting actors, standing sets, behind-the-camera talent like Whale, Pierce, and Freund, and a shelf load of suitable material–and that their horror monopoly would not last long. Lugosi, though he signed on for a Poverty Row quickie (shot on a Universal lot, ironically), White Zombie (1932), retained some of his Dracula magic in the troubled Murders in the Rue Morgue and would remain, resentfully, the studio’s number-two bet for any horror role. But Whale and Karloff were the treasured pair, and were both cannier and more ambitious than Lugosi in parlaying their breakout success into whole careers. The duo reunited for The Old Dark House (1932), adapted from a J.B. Priestly novel, which summed up the entire genre of pre-Dracula “old dark house” horror comedies. Whale even recreates some of Paul Leni’s compositions from The Cat and the Canary. The gloomy drawing room is filled with clipped, soon-to-be-familiar British players like Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, and Charles Laughton. They sprout sardonic dialogue while Karloff grunts about as the below-stairs brute Morgan, the drunken Welsh butler. Whale was a working class lad who reinvented himself as a West End gentleman, whereas Karloff was the public-educated black sheep of a distinguished diplomatic family who’d oddly served decades as a manual laborer before becoming an actor. Whale disparagingly referred to Karloff as “the truck driver.”

Perhaps sensing that he was being “kept in his place,” Karloff passed on Whale’s offer for The Invisible Man (1933), in which his voice would finally be heard but only on the condition that his face was kept off screen. Claude Rains, another well-spoken Englishman of humble origins, landed the role instead. His silky voice quickly established him as a character star. Meanwhile, Lugosi moaned that if only he had played the Monster he would have gotten all the career breaks which came to Karloff. Karloff, for his part, never insisted that if had played the Invisible Man he would have landed Rains’s stand-out roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1943), and Notorious (1945).

Do you know how many children the Invisible Man has? None, he’s not apparent!

Karloff was at last allowed to talk, revealing an educated lisp, in The Mummy (1932), a swift rewrite of Dracula mingled with She and contemporary tabloid stories about the “Curse of King Tut.” With Karl Freund promoted to director and a streamlined script with little eccentricity, The Mummy can comfortably be called Hollywood’s first conveyor-belt horror film, i.e. commissioned by a studio that knew what they were getting, modeled after what had worked before, and showcasing a star that was both a proven talent and a box office draw. The Mummy is informed by a small whiff of graveyard poetry in the form of another memorable Jack Pierce makeup job and the melancholy tunes of Swan Lake playing over the credits, as in Dracula and many other Universal movies of the time.

By now, the competition was on the rise. Every studio in Hollywood had their onw would-be Dracula or Frankenstein on the starting blocks. Paramount, the most elegant and sophisticated of the major studios, looked to classic novels which nevertheless offered an opportunity for lurid, sexualized violence. First, they greenlit Robert Mamoulian to direct Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), with Fredric March trumping John Barrymore’s silent performance by playing the handsome doctor as a parody of matinee idol Barrymore and the ape-like mister as a shaggy thug in evening dress with a nasty streak of sadistic humor. Paramount’s second-string monster flick was Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton as a flabby, whip-wielding incarnation of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau. An unrecognizable Lugosi hides under face-fur as a beast man added in post-production to beef up the film’s horror status. March won Best Actor at the Oscars that year for his Jekyll/Hyde and his victory started to silence prudes who thought the film was too explicit about the double-man’s relationship with with Soho tart Ivy (Miriam Hopkins). Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls was banned in the U.K. for its vivisection and implied bestiality.

Warner Brothers, who specialized in rattling, contemporary, torn-from-the-headline dramas (even their musicals are realistic) had Michael Curtiz direct a pair of twisted whodunnits in lovely new Technicolor, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). These introduced Lionel Atwill as another British horror face, voice, and leer. Paramount snapped him up for their nasty Murders in the Zoo (1933) but then lost him to Universal. These films also introduced Fay Wray as a leggy beauty, though she’s upstaged by Glenda Farrell’s wisecracking proto-Lois Lane in Wax Museum. The two films mixed disfigured fiends, mad geniuses, “moon murders,” and “synthetic flesh” with snappy reporters doing self-aware gags (“he makes Frankenstein look like a lily”) and complaining about Prohibition. Warner Bros. never really committed to horror, but Curtiz did land Karloff his role in The Walking Dead (1935), which sees gangsters stalked by a vengeful zombie in one of the first body-count movies. The studio also put their contract player Humphrey Bogart in an unlikely “scientific vampire” role for The Return of Dr. X (1939).

Humphrey Bo-gey man?

RKO had their own monster in the works with King Kong (1933), though the giant ape doesn’t seem to be as much an attempt to mimic Dracula and Frankenstein as it does the 1926 film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which had proved that Willis H. O’Brien’s hand-animated prehistoric creatures could carry a picture. While producer-directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper were toiling Kong, they had time to use the same sets and lead actress Fay Wray in a quickie classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Here, Leslie Banks was cast in the Karloff-Atwill-Rains mold as Count Zaroff, a Russian huntsman with perfect Shaftesbury Avenue tones and a distinctive way of holding a cigarette. Zaroff’s passion is stalking “the most dangerous game,” man. The Richard Connell story would be remade often and Zaroff is an early archetype of the sadistic mad genius who would feature in many horror melodramas before mutating into the role model for classic James Bond villains (Christopher Lee’s Man With the Golden Gun in particular has many Zaroff traits). After the awe-inspiring debut of King Kong, RKO rushed out Son of Kong (1933), the genre’s first disappointing sequel. The poor reception led to the studio quitting horror altogether until the 1940’s.

MGM, which liked to think themselves the most prestigious studio on the row, obviously now had to get in on the horror fanfare. Chaney and Browning had worked there through the 1920’s under the aegis of supposed living genius Irving Thalberg. Browning returned to the studio for Freaks (1932) with Chaney replaced by real sideshow oddities. The result is regarded as Browning’s masterpiece, though it is wildly inconsistent in tone. The film was then hastily sold off by the studio to grindhouse exhibitors who touted it as a roadshow shocker alongside Dwain Esper’s astounding Poe-derived Maniac (1934). Since Freaks didn’t work at the time (though it’s fondly looked on as a genre classic now), the studio played it safe by hiring Karloff and adapting a proven property with The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). But once again, MGM vacillated, switching directors and failing to settle on a proper tone. Despite this, Fu Manchu was the film where Karloff really broke out and showed that he could more than a dutiful studio employee, relishing sadistic camp in a manner even Whale wouldn’t dare. Myrna Loy, playing the devil doctor’s daughter, played her character as a sadistic nymphomaniac and puritanical, moralistic studio boss Louis B. Mayer, in a perpetual power struggle with Thalberg, was duly horrified. Browning, though regarded as burn out now, was still welcome on the studio lot. After Mark of the Vampire, he managed one other quirky effort, the grotesque science-fiction tale of miniaturized assassins, The Devil-Doll (1936). Perhaps MGM’s best horror film of the decade, however, was another attempt to fit the Universal template, Mad Love (1935). Freund was hired to direct from a script based on Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac (1920). The story had previously come to screen as a German silent film and the new version starred established second-rank horror players Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, who was well on his way to the first-rank after his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) impressed all the Hollywood executives too scared to greenlight a film about child murder.

Finally, the independent Halperin organization gave Lugosi one of his better roles in White Zombie, drawing on the then-hot topic of Caribbean voodoo. The film introduced the apparatus of wax dolls and walking corpses and exploited the genre’s simultaneous fascination with and denial of ethnic cultures (the implication of the title is that a “Black Zombie” wouldn’t be news). Never a major force, even on Poverty Row, the Halperins managed to produce a semi-sophisticated tale of possession with Supernatural (1933) and a near-unwatchable follow-up, Return of the Zombies (1936). Other quickie outfits were ready to sign Lugosi and Atwill and borrow Universal sets. Majestic produced The Vampire Bat (1933) with Atwill and Fay Wray, along with Condemned to Live (1935). The success of White Zombie inspired Drums o’Voodoo (1934), Black Moon (1934), and Ouanga (1935). If things dried up in Hollywood, there were always jobs abroad. Karloff returned home in triumph for The Ghoul (1933) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1933), while Lugosi was made welcome in England for The Phantom Ship (1935), one of the first features from newly founded studio Hammer Films, along with The Dark Eyes of London (1939), directed by Edgar Wallace. But if horror had a true home, it was still on the Universal lot.

Nice day for a…white zombie

Laemmle Jr. wanted to spend 1934 teaming up Karloff and Lugosi with another big horror name he didn’t have to pay for: Edgar Allan Poe. The Black Cat (1934), directed by the ambitious Edgar C. Ulmer, owes more to The Most Dangerous Game than the Poe story that shares its name but nevertheless gives the actors lots of material worth chewing over. Karloff plays a perverted diabolist who lives in a modern castle built over the battlefield where all the men he betrayed in the war were killed. Lugosi is a vengeance-seeking obsessive who plans on skinning Karloff alive for his treason. It worked so well that the gang was back together, with Ulmer replaced by the less artsy Louis Friedlander for The Raven (1935), in which Lugosi’s Poe-obsessed mad plastic surgeon gives Karloff’s gangster a new, hideous face. In this pair of films, the stars are evenly matched, alternating lead villain and vengeful stooge. By The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff was the undisputed lead as a glowing mutant and Lugosi is just along for the name value. Meanwhile, Universal, wary of Whale’s increasing demands, tried to boost other directors to “horror men” status. Stuart Walker handed a couple of gothic Dickens films, getting good mad work from Claude Rains in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), and was given The WereWolf of London (1935), in which Henry Hull subs for Karloff as a botanist infected with lycanthropy by Warner Oland in the Himalayas. As the first talkie werewolf movie, London ended up less as a mainstay and more as a rough draft for a sub-genre that didn’t quite come together until The Wolf Man in 1941.

What Universal really wanted weren’t just follow-ups, but proper sequels. James Whale was given carte blanche along with a dream cast including Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester to make Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is at once a genuine expansion of his original and a deconstructive parody of it. Waspish, sly, charming, pervasive, and emotionally devastating, Bride of Frankenstein shows how far Hollywood had come in only four years; already, the 1931 film, with its lack of music and dull, drawing-room chats, seemed antique. The sequel, meanwhile, as a full score by Franz Waxman, no patience for boring characters (Valerie Hobson barely gets a look-in, though she officially has the title role), and enormous visual sophistication paired with bare-faced, blasphemous cheek. If it had been up to Whale, the horror cycle would have ended with Bride. He certainly had no more to say on the subject. Like Browning, he didn’t really work after the mid-1930’s. Universal, of course, saw things differently. They had Dracula’s Daughter (1936) in production with Gloria Holden in the title role and Lugosi nowhere to be found. The sequel films of the latter half of the decade were brisk, efficient entertainments but most lacked in real chills and gothic charm of the originals.

Interestingly, around the time that the first cycle of sequels dominated the production schedule, the horror film fell out of Hollywood favor. Pressure from British censors and moralists mounted due to the rising tension in Europe. Whispers of war and atrocious Nazi crimes were abundant. This brought about a horror hiatus that was somewhat bizarre given that the voice of Hollywood horror had a distinctly British accent. Much of horror’s subject matter came from British authors and the remarkable Tod Slaughter was in constant employment in tiny studios around London outdoing any depravity Karloff or Lugosi could imagine, particularly in Sweeney Todd, or the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936). Meanwhile, Karloff spent the end of the thirties playing a Charlie Chan knock-off Chinese sleuth for the low-grade Monogram studio and Lugosi was on welfare. Yet as the decade came to a close, it seemed the horror express would be back on the rails.

Of course when I think of “horror express” I’m reminded of this terrifying Hey, Arnold! episode

Hailed as “the greatest year for film,” 1939 was certainly the year of super productions. Besides mammoth Southern drama Gone with the Wind and ultimate children’s tale The Wizard of Oz, there were several epic-scale, all-star, A-picture revivals of genres that had fallen to programmer status, notably the Western drama Stagecoach and gangster flick The Roaring Twenties. Horror also made a triumphant return thanks to a successful double-feature re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein that prompted Universal to produce Son of Frankenstein (1939)–inevitably casting Karloff in his final go-around as the Monster and Lugosi as the broken-necked Ygor, arguably his finest screen role. The incisive Basil Rathbone and clipped Lionel Atwill rounded out the principle cast and made up for the absence of dry, British Whale, who was replaced by Rowland V. Lee.

Rathbone also donned the deerstalker that year for the first time to star in Fox’s Hound of the Baskervilles while Paramount polished off an old Universal property and cast Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in a remake of The Cat and the Canary alongside perennial supporting suspects George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard. RKO mounted a lavish version of another silent Universal hit with The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. There was even time within the year for follow-ups: Universal had Lee, Karloff, and Rathbone get together to make historical horror Tower of London, Fox pinched Rathbone back for a macabre duel against Moriarty (Zucco) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and RKO got another Broadway mystery remake in the can with The Gorilla starring the Ritz brothers, Atwill, and Lugosi.

Like the classic monsters themselves, horror was back.

Boris Karloff climbin’ in yo windows in The Ghoul (1933)

Next, Part 4 looks at the looming, animalistic terror of the 1940’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/.