A Study In Horror: Part I (The Early Years)


With Halloween fast approaching and the October season in full swing, our minds have been brought back to considering what may go bump in the night.

Cheerful and thrilling, the monsters and ghouls of the month have returned to the forefront of our imaginations in force, and macabre mainstays in the vein of Jason, Freddy and Mike decorate storefront windows and rickety porches. These icons of fear stand as if their presence is a given, statuesque in their stature but seemingly ready to strike, their every nightmarish action alive in our own heads. It’s relatively easy to get caught up in it all without stopping to consider where we may have been before. There were many Halloweens without Jason and his mask, where the fear, fright and fun remained all the same. It would be easy to move on, wouldn’t it? Why do Jason Voorhees and other genre giants like him stick around for so long, a massive imprint on our social conscience that lives through October, and ultimately, beyond? To find the answer to that graveyard riddle, one needs a careful eye and a brave heart, as the mystery’s end lies in the history of horror.

The horror genre has had many different focuses during its long and storied life. Explosions of auteurism, differing directors providing their own specific takes on tried and true formulas, and innovative studios taking some very profitable gambles have all contributed greatly to horror’s longevity. But the greatest ally of the horror film is its number one effect: fear.

The fundamental aspect of horror lies in its ability to frighten us. Human beings have always had an innate desire to delve into the supernatural, our nice little brains allowing us to conjure up demons and ghosties from beyond the pale around every darkened street corner. We love to be afraid, love to jump in our seats and feel the blood rush to our every tingling nerve as adrenaline thrusts us into terrified ecstasy, popcorn flying and eyes widening as we take in every thrill with gusto. It is a singular experience to enjoy a horror movie, one that took a while for people to catch onto.

The sense of capitalizing on that shared human interest in the dark beyond our vision finds its roots in literature, however. Early horror greats like Shelly and Poe tantalized readers with petrifying, inhuman stories that covered a sizeable range of emotions and proved to not only be fantastic literature, but literature that thrived in how many spines it could shiver. The stories within the scares still held up as well-written novels and poems that would later be elevated far beyond their initial aspirations and venerated as purely artistic forms of the craft. As time drew on, the genre expanded, more contemporary twentieth-century authors, such as H.P.. Lovecraft with his Cthulhu Mythos and M.R. James’s ghostly tales, served to redefine the limits of the genre, drawing still from the same deep elements of fear and wonder at the unknown that so many people could still be transfixed by. It would not be for some time before the first horrific tales began to show up in film: silent movies by the late great Georges Méliès featuring demons and devils playing cruel games with mortal men and women. To a contemporary audience it may appear rather tame, but to audiences of the time (the late 1890s) it would have been simply shocking to appear on screen. Horror pictures during these very early years would have a heavy focus on the nature of demons, the Devil and Hell itself, with the European audience being primarily religious and therefore very susceptible to fear of eternal damnation.

It was in this way that the earliest horror directors understood what they had managed to tap into; a shared experience of fear coupled with a never-ending interest in the unknown nature of the subject matter. It wowed audiences all over the continent, and the success of even such early films was an evident reflection of that fact. Clearly the genre had promise, and as it continued to draw more of the spotlight, its practitioners began to tackle more prestigious projects.

The first film to take on a major pop culture influence was the 1910 production of Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein, the first filmed adaptation of the source material to ever grace the public eye. Edison Studios of the United States did in fact attempt to mask the horrific aspects of the tale and focus on the psychological and philosophical questions it raised, but the deeply macabre subject matter cemented the story as synonymous with horror, and the great monster craze began to take shape. More directors took more and more stabs at differing source materials, the classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde being adapted into film and once again thrust into the limelight as horror darlings to be remembered. This trend of adaptation continued, with gems and flops alike, into the 1920s, when the visceral mind of Robert Wiene exploded onto the scene with his classic masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. The film not only proved the skill and relevance of German filmmakers of the time, also greatly influencing American horror cinema through the introduction of elements such as the twist ending and “unreliable narrator” that have become mainstays of the genre.

Caligari is often credited as the first “real” horror film of the age, and through its critical acclaim and monetary success, it set the standard for films to come. Nosferatu made waves as an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror triumph Dracula, and its central villain, the vampire Count Orlok, made a lasting impression on not just moviegoers, but the genre as a whole. The shadowy imagery and striking contrasts used by director F.W. Murnau helped cement the vampire as a force of fear and thrills on the silver screen. Murnau built a sense of dread masterfully, creating tension and keeping viewers on the edge of their seats as he reveled in the effectiveness of his fear, and raked in fame and fortune as a result of his skillful work. Work in the vein of German Expressionism would continue through the early 1920s, but as the decade waned, audiences found their attention gripped by another force from the American filmhouses of Universal Studios. Horror had made its mark, and the first rising stars of its stories had made their presence known. It was time for the monster craze to begin.