What was the first horror film ever made? Many people might guess Lugosi’s Dracula or Nosferatu, maybe even Frankenstein; and those are good guesses for the average Joe. If you were one of those thinking of Nosferatu, you’d still be about 27 years off. Many film buffs, film scholars and fans agree that the first horror motion picture is the 17 second film, directed by Alfred Clark and produced by Thomas Edison, The Execution of Mary Stuart released on August 28, 1895.
It’s debatable as to whether or not the 1895 execution is in fact “horror” or just historical re-enactment, but one of the fundamental aspects of a horror film is its ability to shock and terrify an audience. After all, what constitutes “scary” has changed in 120 years, and at the time this short film would have sufficed. In 1895, when motion pictures themselves were a wondrous new invention, watching a woman being beheaded would have been a horrific experience.
Clarke and Edison’s film was soon 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 for a modern audience. It clearly depicts monsters, ghost & ghouls, and other recognisable tropes of the horror genre. It would be fair to say that this is likely to be the first supernatural horror film. There are differing opinions on this, but either way, it’s quite thrilling to see that any of these films has survived.
Also worthy of note is the 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 titles at in the pre-1920s era of movie making included: 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 1920s – 1950s
The evolution of filmmaking saw an explosion of horror films, many of which are now considered to be classics and have large cult followings. Filmmakers drew on the content that they knew, which generally led to monster movie adaptions of well-known horror novels and plays. Such titles as Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are excellent examples. The 1930s then brought us a series of classic monster movies like Dracula, Werewolf of London, The Mummy, Svengali, Vampyr and Frankenstein. In addition to some of the most iconic films in history, during this period the world met, embraced and admired some the genre’s greatest actors. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney became household names.
The 1930s also saw the rise of everybody’s favourite representatives of the undead: zombies, giving us The Walking Dead and White Zombie. The 1940s capitalised on this trend with Isle of the Dead, The Mad Ghoul and The Undying Monster, bringing us, finally, to the 1950s 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.
The 1960s – 2000s
By the dawn of the 60s, the horror genre was well established. Movie make-up and special effects had advanced and the silent era was long forgotten. Though we may take its presence in the canon 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 delve deeper into their imaginations. Filmmakers had more creative license when depicting violence. Take The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for example, released in 1974, which was the first film to depict the murder of a teenager on screen. As it turned out, Tobe Hooper had almost single handedly invented a new sub-genre.
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, The Blair Witch Project, and finally into the 2000s 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 has made horror one of the most popular genres of film since the dawn of movie making.