120 Years of Horror

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 NosferatuDr. 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 DraculaWerewolf of LondonThe 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 DeadThe 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.


Margeaux (a.k.a. TropicalMary) finds her time taken up by movie watching, game playing, book reviewing and cat herding. There’s nothing she can’t do in a pencil skirt and a killer pair of heels, especially when the reward is a glass, or 5, of a crisp chenin blanc. Failing that, a onesie and a burger will make her happy.

21 thoughts on “120 Years of Horror

  1. Welcome Margaux. I’m a big fan of German Expressionist horrors from the ’20s. There were pre-Caligari movies that I’ve read about (some no longer exist) that I’d love to watch. how about this for fun: who is your Mt. Rushmore of horror directors? I’d have Browning, Argento, Bava & Cronenberg. Am I totally off-base, Bill?

    • Thanks for the welcome, Jon 🙂

      There are too many to chose from but if I was asked with a gun to my head and had to, I would have to say: Cronenberg, Natali, Murnau and Alvart (as the new comer).

    • That’s a formidable mountain of horror, Jon. For my personal Rushmore, I would change out Browning for Terence Fisher, and would give some thought to replacing Argento with Fulci, as I feel Argento is encompassed by Bava.

    • Was Miriam a teenager? She was Haines’ unfaithful wife and of college going age but I am not certain that she was a teenager…

        • In Blood Feast, actress Ashlyn Martin was 17 years old when she played Marcy , who was murdered onscreen in a scene more grossly explicit than anything in Texas Chainsaw.

          • I should have been more explicit in the article, but I was referring to the age of the character, not the actor. Though Ashley was 17 at the time, Marcy (the character) was meant to be in her early 20s.

  2. I think you mean the ten minute 1907 short 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, since you refer to it as a “short, emotive scrap of celluloid.”. The 1916 version is, at 105 minutes, a full length feature.

    • I was specifically referring to the 1895 (Mary Stuart), 1896 (Le Manoir) and 1910 (Frankenstein) shorts. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. Interesting article, Margeaux. I have to admit that horror isn’t my favorite genre, but there are truly some wonderful films in the category. And you’ve pointed out an intriguing fact: that audiences’ taste for scary/bloody/frightening stuff goes back a long way. It’s fascinating to see how the space evolved over the years.

    • Thank so much. I know very few people who genuinely enjoy horror. I love the innovation of the genre. What fascinates me most is just how far we’re willing to push the boundaries as society evolves. Where will the line be drawn?

      • That’s a good question. Is there anything in horror cinema that hasn’t been done before? I’m not sure, but I’d definitely like to see more of a reliance on atmosphere and suspense than bloodletting and things jumping out at me. And for once, I’d like to see a version of “Frankenstein” that sticks closely to Mary Shelley’s brilliant book! Maybe one day …

        • I agree completely! I love some good gore but I have to admit that movies like Insidious and The Conjuring are more terrifying than a bloodfest. Firstly, I adore James Wan and secondly there is a lot to be said for a brilliant score and tension when it comes to horror.

  4. An enjoyable overview of the history of the genre. I often wonder if it has anywhere left to go, anything else to show. I’m sure they will think of something…
    Best wishes, Pete.

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