As a child, I spent entirely too much time inside on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I was always watching television edits of films that, honestly, had no business being aired by the local network affiliates during the weekend matinee time slot. I was six years old, sitting in an uncomfortable wooden chair in front of the ten-inch television in our kitchen. I remember watching in utter horror as the body of a bloodied teenaged girl, wrapped in plastic, was dragged down the school hall by an unseen presence in Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street. I have memories throughout my childhood of closing my eyes and seeing that crimson red streak that Tina leaves on the floor of the hallway. I was terrified, and I was hooked.
What is it that fans find so alluring about horror? It’s a question that any genre fan has encountered countless times throughout their lives. A lot of people just don’t understand the appeal and, after a lifetime of trying to explain it, I’ve come to accept that there simply isn’t an explanation that will satisfy everyone. After all, how do you explain the enjoyment that comes from being scared, two basic emotions that seem the complete antithesis of the other. The rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, that acidic knot that just sits, heavy, in the pit of your stomach? You either get it, or you don’t. You’re either “one of us,” or you’re not.
I don’t mean for that statement to come across as gatekeeping. It’s important to be inclusive, especially with a hobby as potentially misunderstood as horror films. While it was my experience that I came to find the enjoyment of the horror genre at a young age, it’s just as valid to develop an appreciation for these films later in life. I don’t care if you’ve seen ten horror movies or a thousand. Maybe you’re still trying to work up the nerve to watch your first; it doesn’t matter. I hope that Horrid can grow and become a community for everyone.
While I consider myself relatively well-versed in horror, I am aware of some personal blind spots. The first that comes to mind is giallo. These are murder myserty films of Italian origin and which served as the precursors to the slasher film craze of the 70’s and 80’s. While I’m certain I will eventually talk about giallo on later episodes of Horrid, it was through this type of self-reflection that I realized I didn’t have a strong grasp on the origins of the horror genre itself. I knew immediately the first questions that I wanted to answer as a part of Horrid. How did the horror genre begin, and what was the very first horror film?
While the Universal Monster films are some of the most popular and enduring classics of the genre, I knew that the horror genre must have existed beforehand. I was aware of the silent vampire film Nosferatu, which had been released in Germany in 1922. But what about before that? I had heard the title The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, although I honestly had never seen it. And what about before that? Honestly, that was about the limit of my preexisting knowledge of the genre. As much as I’d like to believe that horror cinema simply sprang into existence fully-formed, like some sort of quickly-gestating xenomorph chestburster, I knew there had to be more to the story.
I started with a quick online search for the term “earliest horror film,” which pretty much immediately brought my attention to the French illusionist and early film pioneer, Georges Méliès. There are numerous sources online which name Méliès as the director of the very first horror film. If the name sounds familiar, you may recognize Méliès as the subject of the 2011 Martin Scorsese film, Hugo. Scorsese’s movie is probably best described as a love-letter to the early days of cinema, and it’s plot is based upon a fictional account of the latter parts of Méliès’ life.
The Life of Georges Méliès
Méliès was born on December 8, 1861 in Paris. He was the youngest of three brother, and his father was a successful shoemaker who eventually opened a high end boot factory. As a child, Méliès often found himself at odds with his teachers. They would yell at him for doodling in his notebooks when he should have been paying attention to class. As he grew older, Méliès’ artistic side became more pronounced. Still a child, he began building puppet theaters out of cardboard, and it wasn’t long before a teenage Méliès was building his own sophisticated marionettes. It was clear from a young age that Méliès was both creatively- and technically-minded.
After graduating from high school, Méliès’ parents sent him to London where he apprenticed as a clerk at the business of a family friend for a handful of years. It was during this time in England that Méliès was first exposed to and became fascinated with the art of stage magic, often attending shows at the Egyptian Hall.
After returning to Paris in 1885, Méliès attempted to embrace his inner artist. He made it known to his family that he wished to study painting, but father refused to support his artistic endeavors. With few other options, Méliès put his technically-inclined mind to work as a machinery supervisor at the family’s boot factory. Over the next several years, his love for magic continued to flourish, and he would often attend local magic shows at the Theatre Robert-Houdin. It was around this time that Méliès began learning the craft of stage magic for himself.
Méliès continued to work in the family boot factory until his father retired in 1888. Shortly thereafter, Méhe liès sold his stake in the family business and used this money to fund the purchase of the Theatre Robert-Houdin. Méliès did find some success as a stage illusionist. He was a talented performer, and he was able to apply his technically-inclined mind to invent a series of new illusions that kept his audiences entertained.
So, as I’m sure many of you have begun to wonder, what does a French stage magician from well over one hundred years ago have to do with the origins of horror in cinema? I assure you, we’re starting to get there. In December of 1895, Méliès attended a private presentation hosted by the Lumiere brothers. The event was a showcase for the brothers’ latest invention, the cinematograph. Although there are a few earlier examples of functional motion picture technology, the cinematograph is probably the most important of these as it is essentially the ancestral analoge of the modern motion film camera. In fact, the Lumiere’s machine was actually more than a camera, it was an all-in-one solution for making motion pictures. The device could not only record images to film, but it had a separate compartment for developing footage. If that weren’t enough, the cinematograph could also be operated in reverse and used as a projector to display the films that it captured and developed. Again, really an all-in-one solution.
The cinematograph was a technological marvel, and Méliès immediately recognized its potential as a device for entertainment. He offered the Lumieres 10,000 Francs for one of the machines, an offer which was refused as the brothers were more focused on the scientific merits of the machine. Méliès was so intrigued by the motion picture technology, however, that he set forth to find an alternative. Not long after, he purchased an Animatograph from Robert W. Paul, an inventor from England. The Animatograph wasn’t a camera like the cinematograph; really, it was just a projection system. With it, Méliès immediately began showing motion pictures at his Theatre and, before long, he had figured out how to reverse engineer the Animatograph to function as a camera. And just like that, history was made. Méliès began making his own films in May of 1896.
The Star Film Company was established as Méliès’ production company, and he produced over 80 films during the remaining seven months of 1896. Over the course of his career as a filmmaker, which would stretch from 1896 to 1913, Melies would remain equally as productive, ultimately directing over 500 films.
The First Horror Film
In 1896 the medium of film was in its absolute infancy. Films from this era are significantly different from what we recognize as movies today. For example all of the scenes in these early movies are static shots, lacking any sort of camera movement. This is mostly a physical limitation related to the size of these early camera systems. A second and perhaps more obvious difference is that these early films are silent, as the advent of synchronized audio is still decades away. Although movies were sometimes presented to audiences alongside a musical accompaniment, there are no attempts at dialogue. These earliest films don’t even make use of the dialog cue cards that would appear in later silent films. And, finally, the runtimes of early films are measured in seconds or, at most, minutes. Combined with the static camera work and the lack of dialog, these films tend to be devoid of complex narrative.
At first, the very idea of watching moving pictures was enough of an appeal that audiences came out in droves to see recordings of everyday events. Some of the earliest films, those produced by the Lumiere brothers in 1895 and 1896, depict common events like a train arriving at a station, and workers exiting the Lumiere factory as they go on break. Once this initial awe of was sufficiently satiated, the door was opened for the film medium to progress in new directions. This is where creative minds, like that of Georges Méliès’ began to come into play.
As I said earlier, my search for the term “earliest horror film” brought up several sources which name Méliès as the father of horror in film. All of these claims seem to be based on Méliès being the director of the 1896 film Le Manoir du Diable, which roughly translates to The Manor, or, more commonly, The House of the Devil. It is this film, directed by Méliès, which is commonly credited as being the very first horror film.
In the film, which has a run time just over 3 minutes, a large bat is seen flying around a room. In an instant, the bat transforms into a caped man, a transformation not unlike something you would expect to see in a vampire movie. Based on the title of the film, one presumes that this caped man is an incarnation of a devil or demon. For our first bit of trivia, the devil is played by George Méliès himself.
As the film continues, the devil paces the room before conjuring up a large cauldron from out of thin air. He then proceeds to conjure an impish helper that works the cauldron, ultimately producing a woman from the cauldron who then retreats into one of the backrooms. The devil disappears as two well-dressed men enter the castle room. The imp reappears and antagonizes the two men using a pitchfork, causing one to run off in fear. The other man investigates and is surprised by a suddenly appearing skeleton, a sequence which probably qualifies as the first jumpscare in movie history.
The bat reappears and again transforms into the devil, who summons the imp to continue terrorizing the man. Finally, the man tries to run out of the castle, but is intercepted by a group of white-robed ghosts, causing the man to faint from fear. The man comes to and is confronted by the woman that was conjured earlier in the film. He tries to greet the woman, but she transforms into the group of ghosts. The man’s friend returns and a quick, Scooby Doo style chase occurs before the friend again runs off. The man seems to realize that the ghosts can’t harm him, and he is puzzled by their ability to disappear at will. As the film draws to a close, the man is again confronted by the devil. Thinking quickly, the man removes a cross from the wall and uses it to repel the mischievous demon before we fade to black.
As mentioned, there isn’t a strong narrative at work in The House of the Devil. However, a basic story can be pieced together from the actions presented on screen. We may never know why the men enter into the castle, or what exactly the devil wished to accomplish, but these narrative hooks were not the point of Méliès’ early works. Instead, he utilized his knowhow as an illusionist to create moving pictures depicting the sorts of actions that would otherwise be impossible to show an audience at the turn of the 20th century.
The House of the Devil
For a long time, The House of the Devil was presumed lost, as many of the early motion pictures were destroyed during World War I. In 1917, the Theatre Robert-Houdin was occupied by the French Army, and was used as a hospital for injured soldiers. Most copies of Méliès’ Star Film Company films were stored on-site and were melted down by the French Army in order to recover valuable silver. Ironically, the melted down celluloid was also used to create heels for the boots of soldiers. Despite his best efforts, it would seem Méliès was never quite able to escape the family business. Luckily, prints of some 200 of his films have survived to modern day. In 1988, some 92 years after its initial public debut, a copy of The House of the Devil was found among footage stored at the New Zealand Film Archive. The film can now be viewed online by anyone that wishes to seek it out. As it is in the public domain, a copy of The House of the Devil can be viewed on the transcript page for this episode at horridpodcast.com.
After watching The House of the Devil, it is easy to see why Méliès is often credited as the father of special effects. The film shows off Méliès’ technical prowess and is a showcase for one type of special effect in particular, the stop trick or substitution splice. The way that the stop trick works is film is cut and edited together, allowing props and actors to appear, vanish, and transform all within the blink of an eye. The stop trick is thoroughly mined throughout The House of the Devil’s three minute run time: a bat becomes a man; a cauldron appears from nothing; a woman emerges from the cauldron; a skeleton appears from nothing; a woman becomes a ghost, which becomes a group of ghosts. It’s an incredible spectacle. I can only wonder how audiences reacted to seeing all these impossible displays for the first time.
For Méliès, I imagine that watching those audience reactions must have been incredibly rewarding. Knowing that Méliès was trained as a stage illusionist, it certainly makes for a good story to suppose that Méliès saw the potential of using film to develop illusions that simply would not have been possible to perform on the live stage. However, Méliès himself wrote in his memoirs that he discovered the stop trick by accident. In his own words:
“An obstruction of the apparatus that I used in the beginning (a rudimentary apparatus in which the film would often tear or get stuck and refuse to advance) produced an unexpected effect, one day when I was prosaically filming the Place de L’Opéra; I had to stop for a minute to free the film and to get the machine going again. During this time passersby, omnibuses, cars, had all changed places, of course. When I later projected the film, reattached at the point of the rupture, I suddenly saw the Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse, and men changed into women. The trick-by-substitution, called the stop trick, had been invented and two days later I performed the first metamorphosis of men into women and the first sudden disappearances that had, at the beginning, such a great success.”
While Méliès’ explanation also makes for a great story, film scholar Jacques Deslandes supposes that even this admission of accidental discovery is likely an exaggeration. Deslandes suggests it is more likely that Méliès learned of the substitution trick by carefully examining The Execution of Mary Scott, a short film produced by Edison Studios in August of 1895. And, yes, the Edison in Edison studios does refer to the famous and controversial historical figure, Thomas Edison. In addition to his other inventions, Edison was also deeply ingrained in the beginnings of the movie industry in the United States. The Execution of Mary Scott depicts the beheading of the titular character through a shot that substitutes the actress for a mannequin. Even if this is true, Méliès is due credit for popularizing and perfecting the effect, as it was Méliès’ careful attention to details, like scene composition and actor placement, which made his effects so convincing and which set the gold standard for filmmakers to come.
And there we have it; the dawn of horror in film. Before King Kong, before Dracula, there was a French stage magician with a mind for both machines and entertainment. Although the name George Méliès may not be as well known to the modern horror fan, his contributions are significant and he deserves to be remembered along with the other luminaries of the genre.
If you have the inclination, I do recommend watching some of Méliès’ films for yourself. The complete version of The House of the Devil can be viewed on the transcript page for this episode, which can be found online at horridpodcast.com. If you note any factual errors or have additional information related to this episode, please send an email to [email protected]. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram, @DocManson.
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Until next time, stay scared.
Le Manoir du Diable - The House of the Devil (1896)
References & Further Reading
- Complete Catalogue of Genuine and Original “Star” Films. Accessed: January 3, 2020. Available: https://doi.org/doi:10.7282/T3CR5TJ3
- Méliès, Georges, and Stuart Liebman. “Cinematographic Views.” October, vol. 29, 1984, pp. 23–22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778305.
- Rosen, Miriam (1987), “Méliès, Georges”, in Wakeman, John, World Film Directors: Volume I, 1890–1945, New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, pp. 747–65
- “Georges Méliès” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Méliès. Accessed April 2, 2019.