The First Horror Film, Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle (1896)

In lit­er­a­ture, graph­ic descrip­tions of men­ace and dis­mem­ber­ment by mon­sters are as old as Beowulf and much, much old­er still, though it wasn’t until Horace Walpole’s 18th cen­tu­ry nov­el The Cas­tle of Otran­to inspired the goth­ic romance nov­el that hor­ror-qua-hor­ror came into fash­ion. With­out Wal­pole, and bet­ter-known goth­ic inno­va­tors like Mary Shel­ley and Bram Stok­er, we’d like­ly nev­er have had Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Love­craft, or Stephen King. But nowa­days when we think of hor­ror, we usu­al­ly think of film—and all of its var­i­ous con­tem­po­rary sub­gen­res, includ­ing creepy psy­cho­log­i­cal twists on good-old-fash­ion mon­ster movies, like The Babadook.

But from whence came the hor­ror film? Was it 1931, a ban­ner hor­ror year in which audi­ences saw both Boris Karloff in James Whale’s Franken­stein and Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s Drac­u­la? Cer­tain­ly clas­sic films by mas­ters of the genre, but they did not orig­i­nate the hor­ror movie. There is, of course, F.W. Murnau’s ter­ri­fy­ing silent Nos­fer­atu from 1922 (and the real life hor­ror of its deceased director’s miss­ing head).

And what about Ger­man expres­sion­ism? “A case can be made,” argued Roger Ebert, that Robert Weine’s 1920 The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari “was the first true hor­ror film”—a “sub­jec­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal fan­ta­sy” in which “unspeak­able hor­ror becomes pos­si­ble.” Per­haps. But even before Weine’s still-effec­tive­ly-dis­ori­ent­ing cin­e­mat­ic work dis­turbed audi­ences world­wide, there was Paul Wegener’s first, 1915 ver­sion of The Golem, a char­ac­ter, writes Penn State’s Kevin Jack Hagopi­an, that served as “one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ances­tors to the cin­e­mat­ic Franken­stein of James Whale and Boris Karloff.“ Even ear­li­er, in 1910, Thomas Edi­son pro­duced an adap­ta­tion of Mary Shelley’s mon­ster sto­ry.

So how far back do we have to go to find the first hor­ror movie? Almost as far back as the very ori­gins of film, it seems—to 1896, when French spe­cial-effects genius Georges Méliès made the three plus minute short above, Le Manoir du Dia­ble (The Haunt­ed Cas­tle, or the Manor of the Dev­il). Méliès, known for his silent sci-fi fan­ta­sy A Trip to the Moon—and for the trib­ute paid to him in Mar­tin Scorsese’s Hugo—used his inno­v­a­tive meth­ods to tell a sto­ry, writes Mau­rice Bab­bis at Emer­son Uni­ver­si­ty jour­nal Latent Image, of “a large bat that flies into a room and trans­forms into Mephistophe­les. He then stands over a caul­dron and con­jures up a girl along with some phan­toms and skele­tons and witch­es, but then one of them pulls out a cru­ci­fix and the demon dis­ap­pears.” Not much of a sto­ry, grant­ed, and it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly scary, but it is an excel­lent exam­ple of a tech­nique Méliès sup­pos­ed­ly dis­cov­ered that very year. Accord­ing to,

In the Autumn of 1896, an event occurred which has since passed into film folk­lore and changed the way Méliès looked at film­mak­ing. Whilst film­ing a sim­ple street scene, Méliès cam­era jammed and it took him a few sec­onds to rec­ti­fy the prob­lem. Think­ing no more about the inci­dent, Méliès processed the film and was struck by the effect such a inci­dent had on the scene — objects sud­den­ly appeared, dis­ap­peared or were trans­formed into oth­er objects.

Thus was born The Haunt­ed Cas­tle, tech­ni­cal­ly the first hor­ror film, and one of the first movies—likely the very first—to delib­er­ate­ly use spe­cial effects to fright­en its view­ers.

The Haunt­ed Cas­tle has been added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Scors­ese Names the 11 Scari­est Hor­ror Films: Kubrick, Hitch­cock, Tourneur & More

Watch 8 Clas­sic Cult Films for Free: Night of the Liv­ing Dead, Plan 9 from Out­er Space & More

Time Out Lon­don Presents The 100 Best Hor­ror Films: Start by Watch­ing Four Hor­ror Clas­sics Free Online

Watch 10 Clas­sic Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Films: From Fritz Lang’s M to The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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