The History of the First Ever Horror Film

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Shrouds of folklore have influenced the horror genre, creating a solid precedent in our literature and stories. As soon as the advent of cinema was born, it quickly became popular among viewers and potential filmmakers. But when did horror films start? Who started it? What themes did the first films explore when it came to horror? Here's a brief history of the birth of horror films, going back to the late 1890s.

What Was The First Horror Film?

The history of horror as a genre in films started with one person - Georges Méliès. He created an entire filmography of French short silent films that innovated how we perceive film today. As the inventor of special effects and illusions, he was a magician of his time, working with cinema to create fictional narratives and explore topics of humanity.

His works, however, explored all topics of interest, and he was also the first filmmaker to bring to life the film horror genre. The film House of the Devil, also called The Haunted Castle, The Devil's Manor, and the Devil's Castle was the first horror film to ever be produced.

The premise? This film begins with a bat transforming into Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil. With the help of his assistant, he then conjures demonic entities from a cauldron, pranking two men who enter the castle. At the end of the film, one of the men uses a crucifix to make Mephistopheles disappear for good.

It was filmed in Méliès's garden outside his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Deni, and contained famous actors of the time, including Jehanne d'Alcy, who eventually became his wife, and Jules-Eugène Legris, who later appeared in Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902), but Legris's appearance is debated by historians, believing that Méliès played Mephistopheles himself. This is because actors were never credited in films at the time and performed anonymously.

It was released by Méliès's studio, known as the Star Film Company, and was released in catalogs in the Theater Robert-Houdin in either 1896 or 1897. Originally, the film was believed to have been lost to time, but a copy was then found over 100 years later. The copy was purchased at a junk shop in the early 1930s and 40s in Christchurch, New Zealand but not recognized until 1985, which then turned up at the New Zealand Film Archive in 1988.

But is the film good? According to author Christopher Ripley, who wrote the anthology book Universal Monsters: Origins, it was a miss. In this book, he writes, "If Méliès was shooting for terror, he fell short of the mark." However, Ripley also notes that his use of cinematography was impressive for the time, especially with the limited tools he had and his notable imagination.

Other Honorable Mentions From Georges Méliès

Even if the film doesn't meet your standards for terror and fright, it's an excellent movie to watch to appreciate the history of horror and where it has come from today. If you want to check out his filmography for other horror-related content, he's a brief list of some of his most famous horror films:

  • A Terrible Night (1896)
  • A Nightmare (1896)
  • The Bewitched Inn (1897)
  • The Cave of Demons (1898)

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