Faust in his Study - Rembrandt - Square

Table of Contents

S1E3: Devilish Dealings

Trends in Film

As a child, I was fascinated whenever two movie studios would release movies with similar plots around the same time. The first time I can remember this happening was in 1997 when Universal Pictures released Dante’s Peak, which was soon followed up by 20th Century Fox releasing Volcano. My fascination was probably reinforced the following year when both Deep Impact and Armageddon were released within 2 months of each other.

Since then, and as I’ve become more ingrained in the world of horror movies, I’ve become intrigued by a similar phenomenon, namely periods of time that are simply dominated by a particular type of film. For example, the slasher film genre ignited in the late 1970s and similar films were everywhere through the early and mid-1980s. Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, A Nightmare on Elm Street, to name but a few.

Poster for Rosemary's Killer; Alternate Title for The Prowler (1981).

Similarly, zombie films had a resurgence in the mid-2000s. 28 Days Later and Resident Evil were both released in 2002. Then, in 2004, we got the action-heavy remake of Dawn of the Dead and Edgar Wright’s incredible horror-comedy, Shaun of the Dead. I realize the reason why these trends happen is simple economics. A film comes out, does well at the box office, and then other studios try to capitalize on the themes to which audiences are reacting. Still, even with clear reasoning for why it happens, I still appreciate the phenomenon.

I’d really love to be able to make a clear timeline of all of the different trends in horror over time. Believe me, I even tried when I was first thinking about creating the Horrid podcast. I think it’s a difficult task because these thematic trends typically usually don’t correspond to well-defined beginnings and ends. Take the slasher genre for example. Most people would likely agree that the genre boom began in earnest with John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. However, using 1978 as a defined starting point leaves out both Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, both of which were released four years prior in 1974. 

Further, setting arbitrary dates on trends like this does nothing to alert the viewer to the historical influences of the slasher genre, like the Italian Giallo films of the 1960s and ’70s. Nor does this allow us to say anything of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, both films that were released another ten years prior in 1960, and which might be considered grandfathers of the slasher genre.

While it may not always be possible to have a tightly defined set of years assigned to genre trends, it doesn’t make those trends any less intriguing to me. Often, film scholars point to trends in film following the interests of the general public. Trends in horror in particular can be used as a barometer of contemporary mainstream fears. The 1950s and their abundant use of radioactive monsters and aliens from other planets are clear overtures to the growth in xenophobia that occurred in America following World War II and the subsequent transition into the Cold War. 

Even if you aren’t interested in the sociological implications, it can be incredibly rewarding and informative to examine the years just prior to genre trends. Often you can see clear influences present in earlier films. The aforementioned Black Christmas is a great example of this, as it has much of the same slasher formula later popularized by Halloween. In many ways, Black Christmas is arguably a better film than Halloween, especially when one considers the more fully realized characters present in the film. Of course, there is an equally compelling argument to be made for Halloween’s stripped-back plot and relentless pacing.But I’m getting ahead of myself and by nearly three-quarters of a century! On the last two episodes of Horrid, we spoke about the very beginnings of horror in film, through the works of the French illusionist and film pioneer Georges Melies. Returning to this time period of the late 19th century, I was amazed to find that, almost immediately, we can begin to see filmmakers fall into this pattern of indulging in genre trends.

The First Horror Trend

As near as I can tell, the first horror genre trend would be variations on the Faustian tale. The general plot involves that of a man who, for one reason or another, enters into a pact with the devil. Traditionally, this pact bestows unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures unto the recipient in exchange for their soul. More generally, a Faustian tale might now be described as a situation where a person sacrifices their morals in exchange for a taste of fleeting power and success. It’s a fable that has now been used countless times throughout the history of storytelling. Countless movies and works of fiction have been made featuring Faustian themes, with some modern examples including Little Shop of Horrors, Phantom of the Paradise, The Devil’s Advocate, Angel Heart, and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, to name just a few.

The original version of the German folklore tale is about Doctor Johann Faustus. The fictional legend of Faustus began with a German text published in 1587, entitled Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published by Johan Spies. The book was translated to English in 1592 by an individual called P.F., Gent, with that last part being short for an anonymous gentleman. It was this translated version which is believed to be the main source for the play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus written by Christopher Marlowe, first performed sometime between 1594 and 1597 and published in 1601. The story of Doctor Faust would be popularized again some two hundred years later with the 1808 publication of Part One of the tragic play Faust, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As a bit of an aside, note the difference in the title of Goethe’s play versus the earlier work by Marlowe; Faust as opposed to Faustus in the earlier work. While a seemingly minor change in translation of the titular character’s name, this difference will become significant later. 

The Real Faustus

During my initial research, I was surprised to find that historians believe that the protagonist of these legends is based on a real person. Wikipedia has an article about this historical individual, which is entitled, Johann Georg Faust. This person is described as being a German alchemist, astrologer, and magician active during the years of the German Renaissance. The Wikipedia entry goes on to suggest that due to irregularities in the existing records it is unclear whether the historical figure’s name was actually Georg or Johann. I was curious about this issue, so I turned to scholarly literature to see if I could determine the current consensus.

The clearest summation of the debate that I was able to find was in E.A. Bucchianeri’s 2008 book, Faust: My Soul be Damned for the World Part 1. The text offers a comprehensive exploration of the Faust legend, including its historical basis. The majority of the scholarly interpretation in this book is based on the works of Frank Baron, a Professor of German Studies from The University of Kansas. I went on to read through several of Baron’s papers to get a feel for the true identity of the historical man called Faustus.

Documentation from the 15th and 16th centuries makes reference to two men that experts believe are likely to be the historical basis for the Faust legend. The first is Georg Helmstetter, a man that is believed to have been born in 1461 and who enrolled in Heidelberg University in 1483. He would earn a Master’s degree in Philosophy, the highest degree awarded in that discipline at the time, and which commonly conferred the moniker of doctor at the time. Other records would show this man traveling and practicing astrology and palm reading under the name Georgius Faustus throughout the early parts of the 16th century.

The second candidate, and the general confusion over the identity of the historical Faustus, comes from a record of a man named Johann Faust who matriculated from Heidelberg University in 1509. While the name of this individual certainly better matches the name of the fictional character, Baron points out an important observation which relates to the point I asked you to remember from earlier. Baron notes that the records for this second man clearly use the name Faust and not Faustus, a distinction of which people of the 16th century would be keenly aware. In fact, the earliest historical documents, written in both Latin and German, the authors make reference to the name Faustus, a Latin word meaning “fortunate” or “auspicious,” whereas it is only the later German sources that use the name Faust, being a German word which translates to “fist.” 

Based on this and other observations, Baron argues that the earlier records show that the man known as Georg Faustus is most likely the true historical basis for the Doctor Faustus of legend. From the research I was able to do, this seems to be the most widely accepted hypothesis among historians. The Wikipedia entry mentions that it has been suggested that there may have been two magicians calling themselves Faustus through this time period, which is based on the historical records that I described above. An editor for the Wikipedia article notes that a citation is needed for this, and I can confirm that it was German folklorist Will-Erick Peuckert that first offered this controversial opinion in an article he published in 1946, entitled Dr. Johannes Faust. In this article Peuckert theorizes that Georg and Johann were a father and son magician duo. However, this is not an explanation that is generally accepted by historians.

The Life of Faustus

We know a fair bit about Georg Faustus, or Magister Georgius Sabellicus Faustus Junior as he sometimes billed himself. He was a German scholar of sorts, practicing in several different fields supposedly including alchemy, astrology, and magic. These are not exactly professions that would be considered scholarly by today’s standards but were decidedly modern for the time period. Faustus traveled from town to town practicing his craft and building a reputation that might best be described as poor. 

Faustus is reported to have received a teaching position at Sickingen in 1507, which he abused by indulging in sodomy with his students, evading punishment by fleeing the town. Faustus was also criticized for his horoscopes, as it was said that he was not scientific about his astrology, a bit of an oxymoron if there ever was one. In 1528, Faustus visited the town of Ingolstadt, from which he was promptly banished, and in 1532 he tried to enter the town of Nurnberg but was denied entry. The junior mayor of the city wrote he denied “free passage to the great nigromancer and sodomite Doctor Faustus.” Nigromancer, a term that isn’t widely used anymore, is an archaic variant of the term necromancer, indicating Faustus’ reputation for dabbling in the black arts.

Perhaps the life of the historical Faustus can be best summarized by this quote by Harry Levin from his book chapter, A Faustian Typology, appearing in the anthology text, Faust Through Four Centuries:

Sketchy records and sporadic anecdotes trace for us the shadowy – not to say shady – existence of an academic loner, hastily moving on through little clouds of local scandal from one German town to another. Among the petty mischiefs reported of him, one classroom demonstration stands out: teaching Homer by raising the ghosts of his characters. Now, bringing the dead back to life, metaphorically speaking, should be the main intent of historical scholarship. However, these resurrections would soon be reduced to necromantic delusions, the most notorious of the many sins for which Dr. Faustus would serve as an object lesson.

There is no good, historical account of how Faustus died, although the year is believed to have been either 1540 or 1541. What records of his death that do exist are all considered to have been influenced by the growing legend. Invariably these documents describe a miserable death, some by explosion or by an extremely broken neck. And by extreme, there is one account credited to Johannes Manlius and dated to 1562 which describes Faustus’ body being found with the head twisted all the way around so as to be facing the back.

The Legend of Faustus

While the legend of Faustus grew throughout the latter half of the 16th century, it was solidified by Christopher Marlowe’s popular stage play at the turn of the century. More contemporary updates of the Faustian legend appear in novels like The Master and Margarita, a Russian text by author Mikhail Bulgakov, and German author Thomas Mann’s 1947 publication Doctor Faustus. There are even seminal American texts based on Faust, like The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving, who is probably best known in the horror community for his short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Devil and Tom Walker was the direct inspiration for Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, which was most recently adapted as the 2007 film Shortcut to Happiness, featuring Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Anthony Hopkins.

Similarly, I found that the basic plot, that of making a deal with the devil, found its way into many of the short films that were made at the beginnings of horror in film. The themes of Faust had already been proven to resonate with audiences for centuries, so why wouldn’t early filmmakers turn to this well-established plot device. As I looked through the early history of film, I tried to identify which filmmaker might be credited with creating the first Faustian film adaptation, and I found myself looking at a familiar name, that of George Melies. As we spoke about during the last two episodes of Horrid, Melies was a French illusionist turned filmmaker, responsible for helping popularize many early special effects and who can be credited as creating the very first horror film, The House of the Devil, in 1896.

By my count, Melies produced at least six such Faustian tales in the time between 1896 and 1905, three of which are now lost films. Surviving, however, are copies of the following: The Laboratory of Mephistopheles (a lost film, filmed in 1897); The Damnation of Faust (also lost, filmed in 1898); Faust and Marguerite (also lost, filmed in 1897); Faust in Hell (1903); a second film also entitled Faust and Marguerite (1904); and finally The Merry Frolics of Satan (1905).

The Laboratory of Mephistopheles

Prints of the last three films survive, but I was most interested in learning about the earliest of these adaptations, The Laboratory of Mephistopheles. In the book, Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles, author Inez Hedges lists this 1897 film as the first Faustian film among the many films included in a selected filmography of Faust films. The Wikipedia entry for the film uses this source as justification for calling this film the first film adaptation of Faust. The entry also cites a book entitled Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema by Christopher Frayling, which is cited as evidence that The Laboratory of Mephistopheles is Melies’ first literary adaptation.

While prints of the film do not survive, Google searches of the films names do bring up a brief, 40 second clip which is actually from George Hatot’s’ 1897 film, Faust: The Apparition of Mephistopheles. You can actually see the correct title of the film on the thumbnail for the video, but this thumbnail does not appear in the actual video, and the title of the video very clearly and wrongly claims this to be from Melies’ film.

I first looked for The Laboratory of Mephistopheles’s entry in the Star Film Catalog, where I found it listed as numbers 118-120. Unfortunately, the entry does not include a description of the film. I was able to find a description in the Edison film catalog, as they did sometimes distribute Melies’ films. After a bit more digging, I found a more complete description of the film on a website for Le Grimh, the Group of Hispanic Image Research. This is an academic organization whose mission is to help connect linguist scholars of differing languages. I wasn’t able to find a citation on their page for where this description comes from, but it does appear to be a more complete description while still agreeing with the Edison catalog. It reads:

Of all of the mystical illusion, this is one of the few that is really superb. The picture first opens with Satan in the foreground, apparently lost  in thought as to what he should do next. Suddenly he stretches forth his hand as though to call forth the imps at his command, when he immediately changes his form to that of a decrepit old man. He walks behind the counter conveniently placed near the wall and proceeds to wait on two customers who have entered meanwhile. After the imbibe they turn to go out, when a beautiful lady is seen sitting in a chair near the door. As one of the party stoops to kiss her hand she is transformed and Satan sits in her place. He causes a large cage to appear and his guests are now seen inside behind the bars. They are suddenly release and Satan transforms himself into a monkey, from that to a frog and from that to a donkey. He changes again to that of the old man, when one of the characters seizes a sword and chops his head off. The body disappears, but the head remains for some minutes on the counter, when it joins the body again and Satan appears in his true form. After considerable metriment, he is himself behind the bars in the cage, and remains there much to the comfort and peace of mind of those he has tormented. 

From the description, it would appear as though the film’s connection to Faust is tenuous at best. Save the appearance of a devil character named Mephistopheles, I fail to see how the film has any relation to Faust. In the broadest sense, the film does not depict a deal being made between the devil and man, and there is certainly no damnation at the short’s conclusion. If the inclusion of the character of Mephistopheles is the only requirement, and not the plot and themes, then I see no reason why Melies’ earlier film, The House of the Devil, does not also qualify. Based on this, I personally would conclude that while the story of Faust may have been an inspiration for Melies’ film, this film does not qualify as the first Faustian film adaptation. I think the same can be said of the claim that this work is Melies’ first literary adaptation.

Other Filmmakers

Melies was by no means the only filmmaker creating films directly inspired by Faustus. Other filmmakers were adapting the story around the same time. George Hatot, a French filmmaker, produced a film simply titled, Faust in 1897. Referring back to the selected filmography appearing in Hedges’ book, it would appear that based on my own criteria that Hatot may actually hold the record for the first adaptation of Faust to film, as it would predate Melies’ next Faustian film, The Damnation of Faust, from 1898. 

Other notable early filmmakers adapting Faust include English director George Albert Smith, whom we spoke about on a previous episode of Horrid, who directed Faust and Mephisto in 1898. The last filmmaker I will mention is the French director Alice Guy, would also produced her own interpretations of Faust in the 1903 film, Faust and Mephistophiles.

Alice Guy is an incredibly interesting figure from history, as she is likely the first and only female filmmaker operating during the early days of film, roughly defined as the ten years from 1896 to 1906. And, although it falls outside of the horror genre, Guy is arguably recognized as the first filmmaker to tell a fictional story on film, through her 1896 film The Cabbage Fairy. Interestingly to me, Guy’s career predates that of George Melies, and she remained active and successful far past the end of Melies’ career as well.

Final Thoughts

Although I haven’t spoken about any surviving films in depth in this episode, a copy of The Merry Frolics of Satan, Melies’ most ambitious Faustian film appears on the transcript page for this episode on horridpodcast.com. 

If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.

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Until next time, stay scared.

Related Media

The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906)

The Laboratory of Mephistopheles: Description from Le GRIMH.
The Laboratory of Mephistopheles: Information from Wikipedia.

References & Further Reading

  1. Boerner, Peter, and Sidney Johnson. Faust through Four Centuries – Vierhundert Jahre Faust: Retrospect and Analysis – Rückblick Und Analyse. Walter de Gruyter, 2013.
  2. Bucchianeri, E. A. Faust: My Soul Be Damned for the World. AuthorHouse, 2008.
  3. Hedges, Inez. Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles. SIU Press, 2009.
  4. Baron, Frank. Georg Faustus – Leben und Legende. 2009. kuscholarworks.ku.edu, https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/11079.
  5. Baron, Frank. “Which Faustus Died in Staufen? History and Legend in the ‘Zimmerische Chronik.’” German Studies Review, vol. 6, no. 2, [German Studies Association, Johns Hopkins University Press], 1983, pp. 185–94. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/1428526.
  6. Baron, Frank. “WHO WAS THE HISTORICAL FAUSTUS? Interpreting an Overlooked Source.” Daphnis, vol. 18, no. 2, Brill Rodopi, Mar. 1989, pp. 297–302. brill.com, doi:10.1163/18796583-90000455.
  7. Complete Catalogue of Genuine and Original “Star” Films. Accessed: January 3, 2020. Available: https://doi.org/doi:10.7282/T3CR5TJ3
  8. Le GRIMH: Description of The Laboratory of Mephistopheles. Accessed: July 16, 2020. Available: https://www.grimh.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=4099&lang=fr#1
  9. The Laboratory of Mephistopheles. Wikipedia Entry. Accessed: July 16, 2020. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Laboratory_of_Mephistopheles#:~:text=%20%20%20%20The%20Laboratory%20of%20Mephistopheles,%20%201897%20%203%20more%20rows%20