The Origin of Horror Films (Odd History)

The Origin of Horror Films (Odd History)

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Horror films today are a billion dollar industry
that bring to life some of our darkest fears, from our childhood nightmares to social paranoia
and bodily terrors. Some of the most famous horror monsters have
even become an indelible part of pop culture. But before Freddy and Jason, and even before
the Universal monsters, visual storytellers used all kinds of methods to scare their audiences. These methods date back far before the advent
of film, but they nonetheless foreshadowed what horror movies would eventually become. In this special episode of Odd History, I’m
joined by Evan of the kubricklynch YouTube channel and we’re going to delve into the
origin, as well as some of the early history, of one of cinema’s most subversive and shocking
genres. Although people have probably been telling
scary stories since before the written word, horror as we recognize it today first emerged
in folkloric and religious traditions that often included tales of demons, witches and
ghosts. Ancient writings are chock full of monsters,
like the Leviathan found in the book of Job or Ammit the devourer, an ancient Egyptian
goddess who was a chimera composed of parts of the most dangerous animals. During the renaissance, religious and folkloric
imagery took on nightmarish new forms in the work of artists like Hieronymous Bosch and
Pieter Bruegel broi-gal the Elder. It was also during this time that experiments
with optics led to technology that would give rise to photography and eventually to film. A camera obscura is a type of natural optical
phenomenon that happens when an image of a scene on one side of a screen is projected
through a small hole in the screen onto another screen opposite the opening. The projected image is always inverted, due
to the fact that light travels in a straight line. Every camera, no matter how sophisticated,
has this problem. Modern cameras are fitted with mirrors to
compensate for this. Leonardo da Vinci wrote extensively about
the camera obscura and it’s been theorized that artists like the Dutch master Vermeer
used this technology to bring a whole new sense of realism to their work. But the camera obscura is actually much older
than the Renaissance. The first written record of one can be found
in Chinese writings from the 4th century BCE. This phenomenon was also exploited by people
looking to fool others into believing they had supernatural powers. There’s written accounts of tricksters who
would scam audiences out of money by claiming they knew necromancy and could conjure up
images of ghosts and devils. In reality, this was accomplished using a
camera obscura to project an image of a man in a devil mask or ghost costume. Not something that would fool anyone today,
but back then even such a simple trick was enough to scare an audience. In the seventeenth century, the optical principles
of the camera obscura were used by inventors to come up with the very first slide projector
which would come to be known as the magic lantern. They worked in much the same way as modern
projectors, using a concave mirror in back of a light source to project an image painted
on a glass slide. The glass slides were sometimes fitted with
levers and all kinds of mechanisms to allow for simple movements. Some of the first images ever projected with
magic lanterns were those that depicted monsters and demons. In fact, the man who is widely credited as
the true inventor of the magic lantern, Christiaan Huygens, first imagined using the lantern
to create a projection of death taking off its own head. And it’s with this invention that the first
real visual horror spectacle was born: phantasmagoria theater. Picture yourself living in 18th century Paris
and being approached by a stranger offering you a chance to witness a supernatural experience. You reluctantly agree and he leads you and
a group of others through a graveyard and into a building. Inside the building, you pass through rooms
where gruesome scientific experiments are taking place. The man then leads you into a darkened theater
after being told that you’re going to witness a visit from spirits and beings from beyond. You take a seat and wait in frightened anticipation,
when suddenly… The theater becomes filled with images of
demons, that seem to grow, move and laugh. Shrieking skeletons fly across the room, smoke
fills the area as weeping ghosts manifest out of nowhere. The audience is terrified as they are bombarded
with these images and some people even faint. Others try to escape but the theater doors
are locked. When the show is finished, some people walk
out of the theater laughing with excitement and others walk out believing they’ve witnessed
something truly demonic. Phantasmagoria shows like the one I just described
were popular during the 18th century and can clearly be seen as precursors to the horror
movie. The showmen at the time wanted to scare audiences
in ways that would seem terrifying even by today’s standards. One of the most famous of these men was Etienne-Gaspard
Robertson who was said to have been a master of phantasmagoria. His shows included all kinds of elaborate
tricks to scare the audience, like placing electrified plates on the ground that would
shock you as you walked on them or using smoke and sound effects to create more realistic
illusions. The audiences were sometimes even given drugged
food and drinks. Etienne would feel right at home with todays
horror movie directors, he was once quoted as saying: His shows were so scary that he even got in
trouble with the law because police believed that some of what he was doing was actually
real. He was eventually allowed to continue and
phantasmagoria theater grew in popularity until about 1840 when audiences were no longer
fooled by the simple tricks produced by the magic lantern. During the latter half of the 18th century,
another new invention had started to take hold that would further the capabilities of
horror storytelling: animation. Now, all animation, and also traditional film,
works in the same way. You’re presented with a sequence of images
that minimally differ from each other and when viewed in rapid succession, they give
the illusion of motion. By 1877, all kinds of animation contraptions
with strange names had been invented, such as the phenakistiscope, which was a device
that used a disc with printed images and rectangular apertures around the rim to create short,
fluid movement or the zoetrope, which used a cylinder instead of a disk to produce a
similar effect. The most advanced of these devices was the
praxinoscope. I have a modern example of one here and as
you can see, it’s fitted with a number of mirrors in a kind of upside down cone shape. Older praxinoscopes tended to have cylindrical
shapes but they all work the same way. Each of the mirrors reflects a different image
that is printed on a circular strip. When the praxinoscope is spun, the mirrors
show the sequential images one by one, resulting in fluent animation. Eventually, inventors combined the fluid motion
of these machines and the projecting powers of the magic lantern to create moving picture
systems like the Theatre Optique, patented by Emile Reynaud (amil rey-no) in 1888, which
was basically a giant praxinoscope with film strips that were over 160 ft. long that were
projected using a magic lantern and a series of mirrors. Innovations by the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas
Edison followed and by the time the 20th century rolled around, movies had evolved from a simple
novelty to a large-scale entertainment industry. It’s at this time that the very first horror
movies hit the screen. I’m going to hand it over to Evan to talk
about some of the most important examples of early horror films. The short film commonly considered to be the
first example in the horror genre is The Haunted Castle from 1896, just eight years into the
history of cinema. It was directed by one of the most important
filmmakers of the silent era, Frenchman Georges Méliès, who was known for his pioneering
work in special effects as well as making some of the earliest science fiction films,
like the iconic 1902 short A Trip to the Moon. The Haunted Castle features a bat transforming
into a human, so it’s also the first vampire film. This trick was achieved by using Méliès’
famous substitution splice trick where he would carefully match up two frames in order
to give the illusion that one thing had instantly changed into another. Méliès would go on to make several more
horror-themed films, such as The Bewitched Inn from 1897 about a magical hotel where
inanimate objects come to life and the 1899 short The Devil in a Convent, which satirizes
Catholicism and stars Méliès himself as the title character. Many of his shorts in the next decade could
be considered examples of horror as well, like The Black Imp, The Monster, and The Devil
and The Statue. Equally as influential as Méliès were the
Lumiere Brothers, who were two of the first directors to utilize film as a mass medium
and two of the first to experiment with color. Most of their works were basically documentaries,
but they did a silly, fun little short in 1897 titled The Dancing Skeleton or The Skeleton
of Joy. As the title suggests, it solely consisted
of a skeleton made to look as if it was dancing. It’s pretty amusing and at under a minute
long, it’s definitely worth checking out. The first American horror film came from another
silent filmmaking legend, Edwin S. Porter, whose 1903 work The Great Train Robbery changed
cinematography and editing forever. It was released in 1898 and called The
Cavalier’s Dream, it was thought to be lost but recently resurfaced and shows a man falling
asleep at a table and then seeing ghostly figures appear out of nowhere. An interesting French horror film from 1908
is The Haunted House or The House of Ghosts, which was one of the earliest examples of
a haunted house movie and clocks in at about six minutes. Made by Spanish director Segundo de Chomón,
the influence of Méliès is clear, partly due to the use of the substitution splice
trick and other special effects. And the house having a face even reminded
me of the moon having a face in Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. There are actually some creepy aspects to
it and the visual effects were very impressive for the era. The parts where the camera tilts and then
eventually spins around were also quite inventive at the time. Finally, we come to Frankenstein, the first
film adaptation of many of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, made by Edison Studios and directed
by J. Searle Dawley in 1910. In the ten minute short Frankenstein’s monster
looks nothing like the later versions and the plot is significantly changed from the
source material. The creation scene is different from the usual
portrayal as the monster’s genesis is more supernatural than scientific. In what may seem like an odd choice in retrospect
the film came with a statement that said they removed anything from Shelley’s story that
could possibly shock the audience. However, it makes sense when you take into
consideration the historical context of the unwelcome attention motion pictures were receiving
at the time from moral crusaders who thought movies encouraged sin. What strikes me the most about the history
of visual technology is how quickly emerging inventions were adapted to tell horror stories. It seems as though we’ve always enjoyed the
thrill of seeing our worst fears and nightmares brought to life. Today, horror movies use state of the art
visual effects and expensive equipment to help tell their stories, but the audiences
sitting in a high-tech IMAX movie theater are no different than those sitting in a darkened
theater in 18th century Paris looking up at a magic lantern projection, convinced that
they were witnessing something from another world. If you liked this video, please subscribe
to Crypticc for more. And check out Evan’s channel for film discussion
and movie reviews.

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