The First 13 Horror Films in Recorded History
1. Le Squelette Joyeux (1895)
In 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière directed a one-minute film of a dancing stop-motion skeleton, who keeps falling apart and putting his bones back together again. The title, Le Squelette Joyeux, can be translated as The Dancing Skeleton, The Joyous Skeleton, The Cheerful Skeleton, or The Skeleton of Joy.
This was more of an experimental film than an attempt at horror. But it deserves credit for being the first to portray a skeleton, even if its portrayal was more comedic than scary. Skeletons would later appear in several of Georges Méliès’s films, so this may have been an influence on his work.
2. Le Manoir du diable (1896)
Directed by Georges Méliès, Le Manoir du diable (1896) is considered the first horror film ever made, and was deemed lost until a copy turned up at the New Zealand Film Archive in 1988. Its title has been translated to The House of the Devil, Manor of the Devil, The Haunted Castle, The Devil's Manor, and The Devil’s Castle.
This series of sketches begins with a bat transforming into Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil. With the help of his assistant, he conjures demonic entities from a cauldron, which then go on to prank two men who enter the castle. In the end, one of the men uses a crucifix to make Mephistopheles disappear.
Le Manoir du diable was filmed in Méliès's garden outside his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis. Actress Jehanne d'Alcy, who appeared in several of his films and eventually married him, played the role of a woman who emerges from the cauldron.
Some historians believe Mephistopheles was played by magician Jules-Eugène Legris, who later appeared in Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902). Others believe Méliès himself played the role.
3. Une nuit terrible (1896)
In another one of Georges Méliès’s early horror films, Une nuit terrible (1896)—which translates to A Terrible Night—a man tries to get a good night’s sleep at an inn, but ends up wrestling a giant spider in an over-the-top, comedic manner.
The man, seeing a giant spider climbing the wall, picks up a broom, swats it down, and stomps on it. Then he dumps the dead spider in his chamber pot and goes back to bed, but finds he is unable to fall asleep now.
A Terrible Night was unique in that Méliès himself played the man, and that the spider was a pasteboard prop controlled by a wire, rather than a product of the special effects he was known for. Whether it’s a horror film, a comedy, or a horror-comedy is a point of debate.
At the time, the premise of a person in a hotel bed trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep was popular among variety shows on stage. This film may have marked the first time the scenario was depicted on screen.
4. The X-Ray Fiend (1897)
The work of accomplished photographer-turned-director George Albert Smith, The X-Ray Fiend (1897) was a horror-comedy that came out a mere two years after x-rays were invented. An audience full of people unaccustomed to the idea would have found it frightening and otherworldly.
The film begins with a man and a woman flirting while being observed by a professor. The professor turns on an x-ray and watches them flirting as skeletons, an effect that was achieved with glowing black bodysuits. After he turns the x-ray off, the pair have an argument and break up.
Prior to becoming a photographer and filmmaker, Smith worked as a stage hypnotist, psychic, inventor, and lecturer. He was also a key member of an informal group of British film pioneers called Brighton School, and a close friend and collaborator of Georges Méliès. Throughout his career he contributed to advances in film editing and the color film process.
5. L'auberge ensorcelée (1897)
L'auberge ensorcelée (1897), or The Bewitched Inn, was another debatable horror-comedy from Georges Méliès. It was the first time the director used his well-known trope of inanimate objects coming to life.
The plot was likely inspired by the Hanlon-Lees, a popular British acrobat group that performed comedy acts where they leapt through hidden trapdoors. In one particular skit, a guest at a candlelit hotel is pranked and tormented by an unseen presence.
In The Bewitched Inn, a traveler arrives at a small hotel, where he puts his luggage on the bed. His luggage disappears. Then he sets down his pith helmet, and it jumps and moves around on its own before disappearing as well. The traveler tries to light a candle, but it jumps across the room and explodes. As he undresses, his coat flies through the wall, his trousers fly through the ceiling, and his boots walk away.
Finally, the traveler jumps into bed, which disappears and reappears. This is the final straw that prompts him to leave the hotel.
6. Photographing a Ghost (1898)
Photographing a Ghost (1898), another one of George Albert Smith's films, could be considered a precursor to the paranormal investigation subgenre.
The film portrays three men who attempt to photograph a ghost, only to fail time and again as the ghost eludes them and throws chairs. In the end, the photographers are overcome by despair and give up trying.
The year before releasing Photographing a Ghost, Smith patented a method to make double exposures, having been influenced by photographer William Turner. Afterward, he then went on to co-develop and patent Kinemacolor, the first commercial cinema color system, in 1906.
7. La Caverne maudite (1898)
La Caverne maudite (1898), which translates to The Cave of the Demons, is about a woman who stumbles across a haunted cave, where she encounters the ghosts of people who died there.
This was the first film in which director Georges Méliès used multiple exposure, a camera technique in which two or more exposures are superimposed to create one image. Though the technique was used in photography as far back as 1890, this is its first recorded use in a moving picture.
As the film is currently lost, there are no records of its cast or crew. All that’s known for sure is that it was released by Star Film Company in 1898.
8. Shinin No Sosei (1898) / 9. Bake Jizo (1898)
In 1898, Japanese film company Konishi Honten released two horror films: Shinin No Sosei, which translates to Resurrection of a Corpse, and Bake Jizo, which translates to Jizo the Spook, both written by Eijiro Hatta.
Shinin No Sosei told the story of a dead man who comes back to life, having fallen from a coffin that two men were carrying. Hatta himself played the dead man, while the coffin-bearers were played by Konishi employees Kobayashi and Soujiro Sugiura.
Though there are no records of the cast, crew, or plot of Bake Jizo, it was likely based on the Japanese legend of Jizo statues, believed to provide safety and protection. The presence of the word bake—which can be translated to “spook,” “ghost,” or “phantom”—may imply a haunted or possessed statue.
10. The Miser’s Doom (1899)
Walter R. Booth made his directorial debut with The Miser’s Doom (1899), a film about a miser who is haunted by the ghost of a poor woman he took money from. The trauma of this encounter makes him die of shock.
Booth started out as a magician before working on trick films, a genre designed for the sole purpose of featuring special effects. He went on to direct the first British animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).
Over the course of 20 years, Booth would direct over 160 short films. Afterward he specialized in producing advertisements, including a commercial for Cadbury’s cocoa and chocolate.
11. Faust and Marguerite (1900)
In 1855, the play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was adapted into a romantic opera entitled Faust and Marguerite. Five years later, director Edwin S. Porter directed a film version that was distributed by the Edison Company.
The three characters are Dr. Faust, his love interest Marguerite, and the demon Mephistopheles, who interact in front of a fireplace. Mephistopheles offer Faust his sword and commands him to behead Marguerite. When Faust refuses, Mephistopheles tries to do it himself, but Faust and Marguerite somehow disappear. Once Mephistopheles has vanished, the couple reappear and are promptly married.
Porter later directed Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), and in doing so helped develop the concept of continuity editing. He also directed Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), the first film ever based on a comic.
Before this version was released, Georges Méliès directed his own adaptation, Faust et Marguerite (1897). However, as no record of the film exists, it is generally not categorized as horror. The scene(s) that Méliès's version portrayed may or may not have contained horror elements.
12. Le Diable au couvent (1900)
The title of Georges Méliès’s Le diable au couvent (1899) has been translated to The Devil in a Convent and The Sign of the Cross. As both those translations imply, the plot involves Satan, played by Méliès himself, infiltrating a convent while disguised as a priest.
This was one of the first films to use dissolves as a transition effect. Some critics believe it was satirizing Catholic Church, as was one of his earlier films entitled The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1898).
Le diable au couvent may have been inspired by the work of French magician Étienne-Gaspard Robert. He was an influential developer of phantasmagoria, a form of horror theatre that used magic lanterns to project frightening images onto the stage. This was the same technology used for séances.
13. Barbe-bleue (1901)
Bluebeard, a fairy tale about an aristocrat who murders his wives, was first adapted by Georges Méliès, who also played the title character. His wife, Jeanne d'Alcy, played Lord Bluebeard’s eighth wife, who finds a hidden chamber in his castle containing the hanging corpses of his previous wives. The wife’s relatives rescue her and kill Bluebeard, and the film ends with an angel restoring the seven murdered wives to life.
The film contains a dream sequence in which the wife, fearful of her husband’s wrath, has a nightmare about seven giant dancing keys, which represent the key she used to unlock the chamber and the seven bodies she found there. As a contrast to the angel, there is also a dancing imp who mischievously tempts her into opening the chamber. These could be considered early examples of psychological horror.
D’Alcy’s other roles in Méliès’s films include Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. She also made a brief appearance in his first horror film, Le manoir du diable (1896).