Ah, Fall. If you live near nature, it’s a visually beautiful time of year. The air is getting crisp, and the sun leaves us just a little earlier each day. Leaves rustle and glint in vivid, warm hues above us, filtering the sun, before falling underfoot. And in the stores and places of our daily commerce, earlier and earlier each year, we see the return of Halloween décor. Bones of the dead rendered in cheap plastic, the green hues of zombies on heavy cardstock, Styrofoam headstones, and of course, sticky gels and lighting systems to display ghosts, spooks, haunts and haints in our windows and on our porches and yards. We add doorbells that scream and moan and startle you with jump scare animatronics to our front doors, and carve seasonal gourds and pumpkins to ward away evil and summon the holidays revelers to beg for our candy stashes. In the dark of night, ready to raise the hair on our necks and give us pause in darkened corners of our own homes, we settle in, making hot chocolate, and perhaps sneaking a few pieces out of those 5 pound bags of candy. Turning on our TVs, attentive to our Rokus and Netflix, Cable and DVDs, we settle in for the pleasure of being scared by a good old fashioned Horror Movie. Perhaps in times pre-COVID, we might even plan an outing with our loved ones, our friends, to catch the latest fright franchise in theaters. Even with COVID, Drive-In theaters are doing their best to appeal to this seasonal mood, with offerings of horror classics to carloads of fans eager for the annual feast of spectres on the big screen. Tis the season, and we all love a good scare.
I asked a few friends (with nary a cinema scholar among them) to tell me the “oldest horror movie” that they could think of. The replies have been unsurprising guesses – Dracula (1931), The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Frankenstein (1931). I pointed out to them what may be the “first” horror story on film; there was some surprise to learn it came before the 20th century had even quite begun.
We don’t often think of the Victorian era when we consider the origins of the “first horror movie”. We may vaguely consider our impressions that the birth of the horror movie came later, associating it with the Golden Age of the Movie Monster, during a time of wider growth of the cinema, catering to the demands of this new media audience. Victorians were a society with plenty of spooky and morbid interest – as tech innovations developed, these interests easily carried over.
One of the most notable offerings of this time was a short movie that portrays the dead, ghosts, demons and the devil, was created in 1896. The House of the Devil, released in the US as The Haunted Castle (Le Manoir du Diable, or, The Manor of the Devil) is a 3+ minute film by the French special effects innovator Georges Méliès, who is most often recognized for his whimsical creation, A Trip to the Moon.
Méliès himself was an illusionist and filmmaker who led the way to new developments in special effects and narrative development in early cinema. He popularized techniques in film as he perfected his narrative vision. These effects were an extension of how he performed his illusions on stage, previous to his endeavors with film. He acquired an “Animatograph” (a film projector), later modifying it to function as a camera. As film processing was not yet common, he sourced raw materials and processed his film stock himself, learning by trial and error.
The film itself is a short scene, a little over 3 minutes in length. In it, we see a bat fly in, becoming Mephistopheles. He shows his conjuring prowess by summoning a girl, spirits of the dead, and some witches. A crucifix is brandished, sending him, presumably, back to hell. These are tropes that we continue to see to this day in the horror movies that we seek out, each and every Halloween, haunting us from the shadows.
Please enjoy The Haunted Castle below!