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Digging Up the Bones: Origins of the Horror Film

Unearthing the Literary and Theatrical Inspiration Behind the Nail-biting Genre


Horror films have always had—or rather possessed—a special place in my heart. Perhaps that was why I was drawn to St Andrews. The town's gothic architecture, gloomy skies, and dark, swelling waves make it easy to imagine an adolescent Mary Shelley writing amongst the Cathedral’s gravestones. More than cheap thrills, horror films prompt engagement — and a reaction — from the viewer. Watching horror is not a mindless viewing experience; both low budget and cult films fill the audience with strong emotions and, crucially, fear. By taking a look at the origins of the horror film, we can re-examine the genre and view it as a product of artistic experimentation and innovation.


The horror narrative is present throughout history, with ancient roots in everything from folklore and early religion, myths and fables, to gothic novels. The origins of the horror story go as far back as the beginning of literature itself, or at least as far as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 B.C.) and Homer’s Odyssey (circa 800 B.C.) If you fast forward a few thousand years it is evident in the early gothic novels, the most influential being Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Conceived during a dreary summer on Lake Geneva and published in 1818, the novel became hugely popular and has an incredible legacy, serving as the inspiration for thousands of films, from the beginning of cinema to the present.


However, the horror film does not only owe its origins to novels and poetry. Early horror films drew on the theatrical and terrifyingly visual practices of Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol for gruesome inspiration. Founded in 1894 by the Frenchman Oscar Méténier in the Pigalle district of Paris, the theatre’s influence was worldwide. Inside the Grand Guignol, which had previously been a chapel, the most horrific theatre was staged, presenting graphic violence in explicit detail. The performances were a ghoulish premonition of the most savage modern horror films. In fact, principal scenarist André de Lorde would judge the success of a performance from the number of audience members who fainted from shock or left in disgust. He even worked with the experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to enhance the unsettling reality of his “playlets”. More disturbingly, the Grand Guignol was continually improving their special effects. In fact, actors would use an early form of latex to create a gooey, melting face. In one short play, The Torture Garden, someone was seemingly skinned alive, an effect created using a long strip of Elastoplast where the sticky side was painted red. The realism extended even to the sound as when the strip was pulled off a ripping noise was produced.


Nonetheless, as the Second World War began and after the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, enthusiasm for horror waned. As Charles Nonon, the Grand Guignol’s final director, lamented, “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening on stage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality”.


The graphic horror of the Grand Guignol proves that splatter movies are not a modern phenomenon, only the medium has changed. Despite the brutal practices of the Grand Guignol, cinema of the 1910s and 1920s merely hinted at horror. For example, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which was made just two years after the end of the First World War in 1920, reflects the fears of battle and the trauma of occupation. The film is eerily shadowy and obscure, hinting at horror as opposed to the explicit literality of the Grand Guignol. We follow a somnambulistic murderer who, under the direction of the sinister Dr. Caligari, commits a series of murders in a small town. In a final twist, it is revealed that the brutal plot may only exist in the imagination of the film’s narrator who turns out to be a prisoner of an insane asylum—an asylum run by Dr. Caligari himself. The paranoia imbued in this masterpiece of German expressionist horror delves into post-war fears and asks the question—who can you trust?


Indeed, the European avant-garde proved to be a stimulating period for early filmmakers. A reflection of avant-garde values, to unite art and life, the horror film aimed to reveal the real horror in society.


We now watch the lasting impact of these literary and theatrical innovations in the cinema or on our laptop screens, from the sinister subtlety of Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In to the gratuitous goriness of Peter Jackson’s horror-comedy Braindead. So, I urge you, when flicking on a horror film and quenching your thirst for fear, remember the innovation behind the screen.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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