Tales of horror have been with us for centuries. Folklore, religion, and ancient traditions left us metaphors and fables to explain the fears and realities of everyday existence. While some have been lost, others have endured in societies across the world. They left countless horrific entities in our books, movies, and, occasionally, our wardrobes. Whether a demon, witch, vampire, werewolf, or ghost, every personification of horror plays on different fears. Some of those have enjoyed particular peaks of popularity.
Werewolves were familiar in the medieval period, at least in legal codes of the time. The name referred to outlaws, referencing wolves as a symbol of greed. Over the years, the fusion of man and wolf became more physical, drawing on ancient legends of transformation.
Stories of vampires have a long history too. Beings that preyed on the life force of humans were familiar to ancient civilizations, including Roman, Manipuri, and Hebrew. European folklore expanded their legend as plagues swept through the Dark Ages. But it was only in the 18th century that verbal traditions were drawn together in prose. Remarkably similar traits led to seminal works that embedded more familiar vampires in popular culture, most prominently in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
When Mary Shelley wrote her horrific dream into the 1818 novel that played a fundamental role in shaping modern horror and science fiction, she drew on ancient inspiration. Frankenstein continued a direct dramatic line to Greek Mythology. Its publication was crucial in combining Gothic tales with Romanticism at the start of the 19th century. By the end of that century, the genre had already made its way into motion pictures, its bloodline may run far back, but horror was ready-made for revolutionary technology.
What was the first horror film ever made?
1896 was the year when horror reached the movies. One year before Dracula’s publication and just a year after the revolutionary public screening of ten of the Lumière brothers’ short films in Paris.
Those had provided the breakthrough for projected pictures, and early filmmakers were eager to pioneer increasingly spectacular effects on film. At the forefront of these so-called Trick Films was Georges Méliès, an actor, director, and, importantly, an illusionist. At the time, stage magicians were extremely popular, and the switch to recorded footage was not only a natural fit, but it also had even more power to startle audiences.
Méliès’ quest to create illusions on-screen led to many technical and narrative developments in cinema. We can thank him for pioneering special effects and techniques such as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, and dissolves. And horror, alongside science-fiction fantasy, provided the perfect material.
Méliès is perhaps most famous for his pioneering fantasy films, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904) – but he worked with horror before those.
Méliès’s Le Manoir du Diable, known in English as The Haunted Castle or The House of the Devil, may only be 3-minutes long, but it is regarded as the first horror film.
A supernatural story told through several sketches, Méliès included a skeleton transforming into a bat, the appearance of the devil’s agent Mephistopheles, and the conjuring of many demonic entities. Brilliantly, it was all filmed in Méliès’s garden. The short film was lost for many years but was fortunately rediscovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 1988.
By 1920, feature-length horror had reached the screen, with the hugely influential German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That came just over a century after the publication of Frankenstein and ten years after the first loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. That 1910, 16-minute and one reel short was produced by Thomas Edison.
Horror’s early arrival to cinema was truly a combination of magic and science.