From black and white silent films such as "Nosferatu" (1922) to the suspense-thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, the face of the horror genre in classic film has changed and manifested many times over the decades. But what were the first films that started to pump fear and adrenaline through our veins and continue this tradition to today?
The earliest horror film was none other than the inventor of the motion picture camera himself, Thomas Edison and his company. On August 28, 1895, Edison’s short film lasted only one minute but it was the re-enactment of the barbaric beheading of the famous Mary, Queen of Scots. It was aptly titled, “The Execution of Mary Stuart.” In order to make the beheading look real, Edison replaced the actor, Robert Thomae, with a dummy. They filmed the dummy's head being sliced off. Later, Edison edited the reels together to create a seamless and shocking sequence.
Meanwhile allover the world, directors and cinematographers were making their own brands of horror. Georges Melies, the famous French film maker responsible for “A Trip To The Moon”(1902), made his own contributions to the “horror” genre. His film “The House of the Devil”(1896) lasts two minutes and depicts a bat flying around the house before he turns into the devil and summons figures from the underworld to appear. The film ends when the devil is forced back from whence he came by a man holding a crucifix. It is considered to be the first horror film ever created.
On January 16, 1912, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” received its first film adaptation when director Lucius Henderson created an eight-minute silent film. In the film, we witness Dr. Jekyll making his hideous transformation into Mr. Hyde by swallowing his own concoction. This silent film initially sparked interest in creating a second silent film adaptation, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920) which starred John Barrymore.
By the 1920s, future classic films in the horror genre were making their first appearances with the mass audiences. Director F.W. Murnau’s silent vampire film “Nosferatu” (1922) still scares viewers with its scene of eery shadow play on the wall without a hint of “sparkle.” With Lon Chaney’s successful string of horror films such as “The Phantom of the Opera”(1925), women supposedly fainted when “The Phantom”’s face was first revealed.
Since the first images of Edison’s beheading and Melies’ bat to devil transformation, the classic horror genre has flourished with many original ideas and “re-imaginings” of the “things that disturb our dreams and awaken our deepest fears.