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The World’s First Scary Movies

By Oliva Harlow

What makes scary films so, well, scary? Like all things, you’ve gotta start somewhere. Psycho, Sinister and The Exorcist didn’t come out of nowhere, you know!


Even if you’re a horror movie fanatic, the first-ever documented horror film might come as a surprise. It was George Mellies’s Le Manoir du Diable, a three-minute silent film produced in 1896, featuring vampires, devils, witches and dancing ghosts trolls, all of whom appear and disappear in puffs of smoke. 


That’s Not Scary Though…

Well, for the time period, it was. The world’s original horror films were disturbing pieces of art, calling on expressionist paintings and spirit photographers of the 1860s. Using narrative style and themes from Gothic literature, these movies fused reality, mythical folklore and legends of monsters.

Spirit photography — using double exposure to depict blurred movement within a single frame — was popular not only among photographers who believed the ghost-like imagery was real, but also among musicians, and magicians who used the pictures as entertainment. This was especially used in motion picture animation videos, to show “ghosts” meandering through one scene to the next.


The Evolution of Horror

The silent film era stirred several technological advances, and every step from then on helped lead us to where we are today.

During the First World War, Germany banned foreign films, giving way to the nation’s own film industry. The country went from producing just over 20 films in 1914 to over 100 in 1918. Filmmakers developed their own style, heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement and other fine arts of that time period. Over the years, movie-makers started to apply photographic elements into theatre and stage setting.

Between 1900 and 1920, countless supernatural-themed films were made, many of which were influenced by literature. Perhaps the most iconic is Frankenstein. Edison Studios released the first adaptation in 1910. 

From then until now, horror has gone through phases, from gimmicky and fake-feeling spooks to evil-centered dramas. In the 70s and 80s, houses and people were generally depicted as being possessed with the Devil. Around that same time, “slasher” films took speed, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974 and A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984.

Whether you’re hitting the box office for this year’s latest Halloween thriller, or digging up Mom’s original version of Dracula, you’ll now have a greater appreciation of the evolution of what makes your favorite scary films so, well, scary.

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