Since ancient times, horror fiction has been a widespread form of storytelling. Finding its roots in folklore and religious tradition, the European horror novel was popularized by the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. Their stories form the basis of many well-known works, such as novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelleyinspired by his legend Hippolytou.
During the Middle Ages, the horror genre drew many of its stories from real-life figures such as Draculawho was inspired by Vlad the Impaler. By the 19th century, Gothic literature was overwhelmingly popular, with the The Vampyre by John Polidori, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe are some examples of the major works that emerged during this period. These works of gothic fantasy were essential to the creation of horror films that are still widely depicted in cinema today.
Therefore, during the early days of cinema, filmmakers took inspiration from classic horror fiction to create their own versions of these stories. Horror is the perfect genre to experiment with special effects. So the directors were based there to make classic films.
The first horror film was made by French pioneer of cinema Georges Méliès, who created it House of the Devil in 1896. It was considered a lost film until a copy was found at the New Zealand Film Library in 1988. The short film was shot in Méliès’ garden in Montreuilin the Seine-Saint-Denis, and his future wife, Jeanne d’Alcy, it seems to come out of a cauldron. The House of the Devil uses many special effects such as a bat that turns into a human and various entities that appear out of thin air.
That same year, Méliès created A Terrible Night, a horror comedy influenced by Charlie Chaplin where we see a man (played by the director himself) trying to fight off a spider so he can sleep. The film features arguably the first dream sequence depicted on screen. With its release, the film advertised as a fantasy film, which referred to cinema which contained elements of horror and science fiction.
The following year, Mr Méliès created another horror comedy, the The Bewitched Inn, which marked the first time inanimate objects were depicted as being felt on screen. A candle moves around the room before exploding, a man’s clothes fall through the ceiling and his luggage mysteriously disappears. Since the Méliès pioneered many cinematic techniques and special effects, it is no surprise that his film 1898, The Cave of the Demons became the first animation to use double exposure. Unfortunately, this film has been lost.
In 1897, Mr George Albert Smith decided to use X-rayswhich had been invented just two years before, for his horror film, The X-Ray Fiend. In the short film, a couple flirt with each other before an x-ray machine is activated, turning them into skeletons. This technique was achieved by the pair wearing black leotards, but this result was undoubtedly terrifying to an audience new to the concept of X-rays.
The following year, Smith released the Photographing A Ghost, which has since been lost. However, the film is regarded as one of the first examples of paranormal investigation cinema. Smith’s film follows a group of men who fail to capture a ghost on camera. Instead, they are tormented by the entity that follows them.
Around the world, Japan was also producing some exciting early horror films. In 1898, the company Konishi Honten released it Resurrection of a Corpse and Jizo the Spookboth scripted by Eijiro Hatta. The films were rooted in Japanese legends, with Jizo the Spook depicting a haunted statue traditionally used as a protector of the dead. These are now considered lost films.
Since the late 1800s, horror cinema has blossomed into one of the most profitable genres in the world. The highest grossing horror film of all time is the It of 2017, which is completely different from the early horror films mentioned above. Regardless, modern horror cinema owes its debts to pioneers like Méliès, who paved the way for the genre’s popularity.