What was the first horror film ever made?
Most people would guess Dracula or Nosferatu, maybe even Frankenstein; and those are good guesses for the average Joe. If you were one of those who would have gone with Nosferatu, you would only be about 27 years off. Many film buffs, film scholars and fans would agree that the first horror motion picture is the 17 second film, directed by Alfred Clark and produced by Thomas Edison, called The Execution of Mary Stuart released 28 August 1895.
There is contention regarding whether or not the 1895 execution is in fact “horror” or just historical re-enactment. I believe that one of the fundamental aspects of a horror film is shock value, and its ability to terrify the audience. Modern horror films rely on jump scares and tension building through music and other ambient sound. Bearing in mind that the modern audience’s opinions of what is scary has changed in 120 years and though it was based on an historical event, the Clark film was not made to be a documentary or a re-enactment. In a time when motion pictures themselves were a wondrous new invention (without sound or music), watching a woman being beheaded, regardless of blood and gore, would have been horrific to an audience in 1895.
This was then followed by a 3 minute 18 second film called Le Manoir de Diable (The House of the Devil), in 1896, filmed by Gorges Méliès.
Le Manoir de Diable is often hailed as the first horror film and, no doubt, it is easier to relate to as a modern audience. It clearly depicts monsters, ghouls and other recognisable tropes. There is a vampire, black magic, ghosts and all manner of dark mysteries. I would say that this is the first supernatural horror. There are differing opinions on this, but either way, I am simply aghast and thrilled that any of these have survived.
Moving into the 20th century, there is a 1910 production of Frankenstein, directed by J. Searle Dawley and produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company, with a total running time of 16 minutes.
Other pre-1920’s era film titles include: The Cave of Demons (1898), Dante’s Inferno (1911), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1914), 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) and The Picture of Dorian Grey (1916). These short, emotive scraps of celluloid paved the way for some of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
The 1920’s – 1950’s
The advent of film-making saw an explosion of horror films, many of which are now considered to be classics and have large cult followings. Film makers drew on the content that they knew, which generally lead to monster movie adaptions of well-known horror novels, plays or operas. Such titles as Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were produced in the 1920’s. The 1930’s then brought us some of the classic monster movies with Dracula, Werewolf of London, The Mummy, Svengali, Vampyr and Frankenstein. These tropes dominated the horror film industry right through the 1930’s, and were joined by one of our favourite monsters in horror: Zombies, giving us The Walking Dead and White Zombie. The 1940’s capitalised on this trend with Isle of the Dead, The Mad Ghoul and The Undying Monster, bringing us, finally, to the 1950’s and the advent of outer space/Alien films, such as: Plan 9 from Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Brain from Planet Arous. By the ’50s, the horror genre would have almost all of the material it would ever need to continue with success ad infinitum.
In addition to some of the most iconic films in history; the world met, embraced and admired some the genre’s greatest actors. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney became household names.
Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster
Lon Chaney as The Phantom
The 1960’s – 2000’s
By the dawn of the ‘60s, the horror genre was well established. Movie make-up and special effects had advance and films now had sound. Though we may take this for granted now, films like Psycho pushed the boundaries of the film industry at its time. The boundaries gained through innovation and vision gave filmmakers new freedoms to finally depict their ideas as they had wished they could. It gave filmmakers more creative license when depicting death and killing. Psycho was revolutionary for its time, as was Texas Chainsaw in the ‘70s. Texas Chainsaw was the first film to ever depict the murder of a child on screen. Though a teenager, not an infant or toddler, this was momentous for the genre. The filming of Texas Chainsaw was done in such a way that the audience was made to identify with the killer and the chase, rather that the victim and the escape. This was revolutionary and would influence the genre in a way that could not have been predicted.
The ‘70s & ‘80s saw the birth of some of the most iconic horror films and iconic killers: The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddy), Friday the 13th (Jason), Leatherface, Halloween (Michael), The Hills Have Eyes, Carrie, Hellraiser (Pinhead), Last House on the Left and Night of the Living Dead; this then bled into the ‘90s with such titles as: It, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Final Destination, Silence of the Lambs, Dawn of the Dead, The Blaire Witch Project, and finally into the 2000’s with Saw, Hostel, Wrong Turn, Hatchet, Pandorum, Paranormal Activity, Evidence, Insidious, Possession, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z and One Missed Call, to name but a few.
Creative minds, innovations in technology and the willingness of men and women to push the boundaries of censorship have made the horror genre one of the most popular genres of film since the dawn of movie making.