A Waking Nightmare
You awaken with a start, gasping for breath. You panic for a moment as you don’t recognize your surroundings. The room that you find yourself in is unknown to you. Unfamiliar shadows criss cross the bed, darkness layering and obscuring the corners of the room. A feeling of irrational terror begins to slowly crawl up the back of your neck. You go to turn to look at the clock, but find you cannot move. You are paralyzed. Suddenly, a great weight seems to sit upon your chest. You will yourself to breathe, but you find that you cannot. The urge is stuck in the back of your throat as the impossible weight settles down onto your chest further, compressing all of the air from your lungs. Panic takes over. Move! You scream silently as your lips refuse to respond. The animal response takes over. You thrash without moving, you scream without sound. Your eyes go wide as the shadows at the foot of the bed begin to take shape, looking over you, twisting and contorting into an inky black maw. The last thing you see is the shadow rushing towards you, and then-
Suddenly, the spell is broken. You’re awake. You can move. You can breathe. It comes back to you now. You’re in a hotel room, and you’ve just had the worst nightmare you can remember. You glance at the clock, the red glow illuminating the nightstand. It’s 3 in the morning. You turn your head back, and- no. No, the shadow at the foot of the bed. It was always there. Just like that. Wasn’t it?
The Haunted Inn
On the last episode of Horrid, I recounted the history behind the first trend to appear in horror films, that of the German legend of Doctor Faustus. While Faust is doubtlessly a well-worn trend of the silent film era, I became even more enamored with the second genre trend that I was able to identify. It’s a narrative that is now a well-worn horror trope; that of the haunted house. It’s a familiar setting, one used to great effect in a number of films, including The Shining (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979), 1408 (2007), The Haunting (1963), The Changeling (1980), and Poltergeist (1982).
The first example of this basic premise comes from the 1896 Georges Méliès short, The Bewitched Inn. I probably sound like a broken record by now, but Georges Méliès was a French stage illusionist and an important early film pioneer. If this is your first episode of Horrid, I would encourage you to check out the first two episodes of the podcast which were largely dedicated to Méliès.
As The Bewitched Inn begins, a weary traveler enters his room at the titular inn. He takes off his coat and places it and his luggage on the bed. Turning away only for a moment, the man is surprised to find that his belongings have suddenly disappeared without a trace. The man removes his hat, placing it on the side cabinet, only for the hat to crawl away across the floor of the room. Candles and chairs disappear and reappear about the room to comedic effect. The traveler changes to go to bed, and no sooner does he lay down then does the bed disappear, dumping him to the floor. At last, the bed reappears and the man runs from the room.
It’s the usual Méliès trick film comedy routine, presented here with the same sort of supernatural flair found in The House of the Devil and The Devil’s Castle. As you can likely tell from the description, the supernatural events of The Bewitched Inn are all played for laughs. Méliès made several other films with the same basic premise, including The Inn Where No Man Rests in 1903 and The Black Imp in 1905. Tangentially related due to the hotel setting are also the Méliès’ films The Midnight Episode and A Terrible Night, both of which were talked about on episode 2 of this podcast.
I was curious as to why Méliès had spent so much time creating films based around the haunted inn theme. Unlike his collection of films based on Faustus, there was no obvious connection to the popular literature of the time period. I unexpectedly found my answer reading through Rick Worland’s 2007 book, The Horror Film: An Introduction. In Chapter 2, Worland talks about the films and Georges Méliès and there is a single sentence which caught my attention:
The “haunted hotel” plot, often performed in nineteenth-century magic shows, was a popular subject reworked many times by Melies and others.
As a stage magician by trade, it wasn’t a surprise that Méliès would focus on adapting magic tricks in his early films. However, I discovered that the haunted inn was more than just a personal fascination of Méliès. This had been a more broadly popular theme, stemming from the Anti-Spiritualism movement of the late 19th century.
First, some context. The mid-1800s was marked by the increased belief in Spiritualism, a system of thought based on the idea that the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead. It was very popular among the religious middle- and upper-class, and especially among women. Spiritualism first appeared in the 1840s in upstate New York, but quickly spread throughout English-speaking countries. Spiritualists believe that anyone may receive messages from spirits, and that the skill of contacting and speaking with the dead can be taught through study and practice. Those individuals with a talent for conversing with the dead are known as mediums, and they would hold seances where the mediums claimed to receive and convey information from the spirit world. Seances of the classical Spiritualist type are depicted in numerous movies, including The Legend of Hell House (1973), The Conjuring (2013), and Drag Me to Hell (2009), and Host (2020).
Spiritualism was a very popular movement, attracting folks from all walks of life. Although Spiritualism was popular, practiced by some 8 million people at its peak, the second half of the 19th century witnessed the rise of a pro-science movement that sought to debunk the charlatan spirit mediums by demonstrating how these techniques could be reproduced using nothing more than technology and clever engineering.
As it turns out, there was a fair amount of overlap between this Anti-Spiritualism movement and, you guessed it, practitioners of stage magic. Melies himself was a fervent critic of Spiritualism, but perhaps the most notable anti-spiritualist stage magician of the time was John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne became a prominent English magician, performing his act at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly for a record 31 years.
Maskelyne got his start in magic after attending a seance by the famous American Spiritualists the Davenport brothers. The Davenports claimed that their shows and the illusion therein were the result of supernatural occurrences. During the stage show Maskelyne recognized how the illusion worked, and he stated to his fellow audience members that he could recreate the illusion using only real technology and engineering. Maskelyne’s attempt to discredit the Davenports wasn’t successful on the night, but he sought the assistance of friend George Alfred Cooke, a carpenter, to build their own version of a spirit cabinet. Together, Maskelyne and Cooke revealed their illusion and exposed the Davenports trickery to the public in a show that took place in June 1865.
Maskelyne went on to become a professional stage magician, always painting his illusions as triumphs of technology and engineering instead of supernatural. He went on to create shows that blended his illusions with narrative, including the well received one act stage play, Will, the Witch and the Watch. In this show he modernized an old stage trick known as Dr. Pepper’s Ghost, essentially a trick using early projectors, called magic lanterns, glass and mirrors to make spectral images appear on stage. Maskelyne’s adaptation of the trick in the one act was used to project a gorilla on the stage, resulting in a madcap farce with the gorilla entering, existing, appearing, and disappearing with unbelievable pace. Simon During, author of the book Modern Enchantments, says that the spirit of this production is perhaps best caught in the early Méliès production, The House of the Devil.
The Haunted Hotel
Returning to the world of film, I found that the haunted hotel plot extended beyond the films of Méliès. In America Edwin S. Porter directed Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel in 1900, which itself was a sequel to Uncle Josh’s Nightmare. As a bit of an aside, Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel is noted as likely the first film sequel, and with the addition of Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show in 1902, the first film trilogy.
Other examples of Haunted Inns include the work of Spanish director Segundo de Chomon and his 1908 film, The House of Ghosts. The same year Chomon also released a film with a similar motif, The Electric Hotel, although this version lacks the supernatural element as the cause for the on-screen effects. Most notable of all these films, however, is James Stuart Blackton’s incredibly successful The Haunted Hotel, released in March of 1907.
Another early and important step in the development of the horror genre is the advancement of special effects. While Méliès was well-known for his use of the stop trick, a technique which many of his contemporaries would mimic, other filmmakers began to develop more intricate methods of instilling awe in their audiences. One such filmmaker is James Stuart Blackton, who is perhaps best known for his early use of animation in film.
Blackton was born in Sheffield, England in 1875, and his family emigrated to the United States ten years later. Like me, you’re probably starting to notice a theme amongst early filmmakers, as Blackton often appeared onstage with his friend, Albert Edward Smith, as part of Smith’s magic conjuring act. Blackton was also a skilled illustrator. To pay the bills, he worked for the New York Evening News, providing drawings for their news stories.
In 1896, Blackton was sent to interview Thomas Edison and was to illustrate the process by which Edison made films for the New York Evening News. At the time, Edison was heavily promoting the Vitascope, an early motion picture projection system for which Edison had bought the rights from its inventors, Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Edison took Blackton to his film producing studio in New Jersey, a house which he referred to as the Black Maria, and, in an early bit of meta-filmmaking, Edison created a film of Blackton illustrating Edison’s process of making films.
Blackton was so impressed by the technology, that he and Smith, his magician business partner, bought several films from Edison as well as a Vitascope to publicly display the films. They incorporated the motion pictures into their stage act to great success, and then went on to form the American Vitagraph Company and began producing their own films. The American Vitagraph Company was a great success for Blackton and Smith and was eventually bought and absorbed into Warner Brothers Pictures in 1925.
Blackton is particularly well-remembered among the early pioneers of film for his early use of traditional animation in film, and for his role in developing the special effects technique of stop motion animation. The very first film to use stop-motion animation was the 1897 film, The Humpty Dumpty Circus, directed by Blackton. Unlike the stop-trick popularized by Georges Méliès, which involves stopping the camera and then removing or adding an element to the scene before restarting the camera, stop-motion works by stopping the camera, moving something in the scene only slightly, and advancing the camera by a single frame of film. This process is repeated over and over again to create the illusion of objects moving on their own.
Of particular interest to the development of the horror genre is Blackton’s 1907 film, The Haunted Hotel. This is a seven minute long film, depicting a man that comes to stay at a hotel seemingly run by an invisible supernatural force. It is a fairly amazing film given how it incorporates traditional animation, live action, and stop-motion animation.
The Haunted Hotel begins with an exterior shot of the hotel. It appears to be little more than a quaint cottage sitting along the edge of the woods. Dark shapes move against the night sky, and the trees begin to move in an altogether unnatural manner. There’s a sudden flash of lightning and suddenly the door to the hotel begins to tilt back and forth. Next, the windows begin to dance, and then, move! The windows dance and spin around the front of the house, before coming back to rest at their original places. Slowly a face begins to materialize, superimposed over the front of the hotel. The windows become eyes, the door a nose, and the stairs a sinister grin.
Cut to the interior of the hotel, and we witness the arrival of a traveler. He begins to relax after his journey, but is perplexed as his clothing and other possessions move about the room on their own. He sits down to have breakfast, and is astounded as the meal begins to serve itself. The bread knife comes to life and slices half of a loaf of bread. The bread slices neatly arrange themselves on a small plate, and the kettle pours a cup of coffee.
The stop-motion breakfast sequence really is a sight to behold, and I have no doubt that these effects were positively astounding to audiences of the early 20th century. The Haunted Hotel was wildly successful in both America and Europe and is probably the first example of a motion picture being a runaway commercial success while containing the thematic elements of horror. You’ll note that I’m still not referring to these films as horror films. Much like with the Méliès films I discussed earlier, I don’t think audiences were truly scared of the events depicted in the film. I was able to find some evidence of this fact, through an archived copy of an Arizona newspaper from November 6, 1907. In this edition of the Bisbee Times, there is an ad for the Theater Royal and its showing of the Haunted Hotel, which reads, “one of the greatest trick comedies ever made.”
In researching this episode, I was amazed to see the similarities between Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel and Segundo de Chomon’s The House of Ghosts. I was further confused as the listing for these films on the Internet Movie Database, found online at IMDB.com, listed Chomon’s film as releasing in 1906, a full year before Blackton’s masterpiece. I was initially dumbfounded by this because the two films are literally almost shot-for-shot identical, with the exception that much of the animation and production value of Chomon’s film surpasses that of Blackton’s. It seems inconceivable to me that this technically superior film would have been released first and to much less acclaim. As it turns out, it was indeed inconceivable. Chomon’s film was actually released a year after Blackton’s, in 1908. The entry on IMDB remains incorrect as of July 20, 2020.
One last piece of information on The Haunted Hotel: I found many versions of this film on Youtube that are only three and a half minutes in length. These versions tend to end just as the traveler is going to sleep, but the full production is nearly twice as long as these truncated versions. The full 6-minute version of The Haunted Hotel can be found on this episode’s transcript page at horridpodcast.com.
As always, I’ve collected a selection of the films mentioned in this episode, including Méliès’ The Black Imp, the full 6-minute version of Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel, and Segmundo de Chomon’s The House of Ghosts. These films can be viewed 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.
The Bewitched Inn (1897)
The Black Imp (1905)
The Haunted Hotel (1907)
The House of GHosts (1908)
References & Further Reading
- Abel, Richard. Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. Taylor & Francis, 2005.
- Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. University of Chicago Press, 2015.
- During, Simon. Modern Enchantments. Harvard University Press, 2009.
- Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Wiley, 2006.
- The Black Imp (1905) – IMDb. www.imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0215575/. Accessed 19 Sept. 2020.
- The Haunted Hotel (1907) – IMDb. www.imdb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000553/. Accessed 19 Sept. 2020.
- Maison Ensorcelée (1906) – IMDb. www.imdb.com, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0449308/. Accessed 19 Sept. 2020.