There's a lot to be learned by looking back at the history of film. Before focusing on horror, let's ask ourselves what the very first movie was. "Movie" is shorthand for "motion picture." This does not necessarily denote the use of sound or special effects, simply the optical illusion whereby a series of still images, shown on a screen is perceived as moving images. One of the first I've been able to find is a race horse filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. It was actually captured by using twelve different cameras splicing the images together. The purpose of this undertaking was to figure out if all four of a horse's hooves are off the ground at the same time when galloping.
Ten years later, there is a two-second film made in 1888 by Louis Le Prince, called Roundhay Garden Scene. According to The Guinness Book of Records, it is the oldest surviving motion picture available. Is it absolutely the oldest film ever made? Possibly not, but it's the oldest one we've got.
Initially, filmmakers were unable to record sound, thus the first films were silent. The first use of sound in film happened in 1900. This was done via the projection of sound, and the sound was synchronized with the motion picture. With all this in mind, what would be the first horror film?
Although many would guess Dracula, Nosferatu, or maybe even Frankenstein as being the first horror film, it is often purported that the first horror motion picture is the 17-second silent film called The Execution of Mary Stuart.
Directed by Alfred Clark and produced by Thomas Edison, it depicts the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots. There is contention about whether or not the 1895 execution is in fact “horror” or simply historical re-enactment.
The closest contender for the crown of "first horror film" is a 3-minute, 18-second film called Le Manoir de Diable (The House of the Devil), filmed in 1896, by Gorges Méliès. Le Manoir de Diable is often hailed as the first horror film and is, no doubt, easier for modern audiences to relate to.
It clearly depicts monsters, ghouls and other recognizable tropes. There is a vampire, black magic, ghosts and all manner of dark mysteries. I would say that this is the first supernatural horror if you look at it as a comparison between The Conjuring (supernatural in nature) and the Saw franchise (not supernatural in nature).
Why Do I Think That The Execution Of Mary Stuart Is The First Horror Film?
A fundamental aspect of a horror is shock value and its ability to terrify the audience. A modern audience's opinion on what is scary has changed drastically in 120 years, and though it was based on an historical event, the Clark film was not made to be a documentary or a simple re-enactment. At a time when motion pictures themselves were a wondrous new invention (without sound or music), watching a woman being beheaded, regardless of our modern day propensity for of blood and gore, it would have been horrific to an audience in 1895.
The advent of filmmaking saw an explosion of horror films and the maturation of the horror genre, many of which are now considered to be classics and have large cult followings. Filmmakers drew on the content that they were familiar with, which generally lead to monster movie adaptions of well-known horror novels, plays or operas. Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula were some of the first horror films to grace the silver screen, and we love them to this day.
So, Where Do We Go From Here?
Interestingly, Clark made several shorts (not all horror) in 1895, while Edison and Le Prince are credited with both the creation and patenting of the earliest motion picture cameras. Méliès is said to have built one of the first film studios in 1897.
Fifteen years after their first attempts at film, we have the first ever recording of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley, filmed in 1910 and produced by none other than Edison Studios, further pioneering the way for the horror genre.
If you're in need of more contemporary horror fare, then check out the video below, which compiles the biggest and most important horror films of the the last century:
As always, thanks for reading and please do share your thoughts. I would love to hear what you think modern horror movies can learn from the genre's early beginnings, and what you thought of the movies above.