People have been making movies for as long as motion pictures have existed, even before they could enhance the scares with sound. Silent cinema was a surprisingly fertile place for terrifying filmmaking, and today the odd frame rates and grainy celluloid make the scares seem fresh decades after the films first appeared.
From vampires to phantoms to golems, here—for the seventh in our series of 31 Days of Halloween features—are some of the greatest creepfests of the silent age.
The Haunted Castle (1896)
Widely considered to be the first horror film ever made, this three-minute movie from legendary cinema pioneer Georges Melies is basically just a vignette in which Mephistopheles (played by Melies himself) terrorizes a castle courtyard with a number of devilish tricks.
Though the Boris Karloff version is the most iconic film adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel, this little silent picture has the distinction of being the first. Made by writer/director J. Searle Dawley in Edison Studios (as in Thomas Edison), the film was believed for several decades to be lost, but a restored print was eventually recovered, and today we can see it in all its glory. If you want to see something particularly creepy, check out the beginning of the creation sequence at about 3:20.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
John Barrymore, one of the great actors of the silent age, stars in this early adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. The film is best known for its transformation sequence, which you can check out at the 24:30 mark.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Best known for its Expressionist sets and the deliberately odd movements of its actors, particularly co-star Conrad Veidt, this silent German classic is atmospheric and creepy throughout, and remains an outstanding, dreamlike example of Expressionist cinema.
The Golem: How He Came Into The World (1920)
Between 1915 and 1920, German director Paul Wegener made three films based on the Jewish legend of the Golem. This one, the Golem's origin story, is the only one that hasn't been lost. Set in 16th-century Prague, it's filled with atmospheric shots, weird sorcery and the titular creature.
Ask film buffs to name the greatest silent horror movie ever made, and you'll find quite a few who name this one. Adapted (without authorization) from Bram Stoker's Dracula, it's best known for the long-nailed, wide-eyed performance of German actor Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok.
Haxan (1922) (NSFW)
Witches, demons, black Sabbaths and more make this among the creepiest silent films ever made. Intended as a pseudo-documentary exploring the history of witchcraft and the superstitions of the Middle Ages, the dramatizations of witches at work take center stage.
The Hands of Orlac (1922)
Conrad Veidt stars in this late Expressionist classic about a concert pianist who loses his hands and receives a transplant of the hands of a murderer.
A writer takes a job writing stories about exhibits at a wax museum that includes wax images of Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper, among others. The film is part fantasy anthology, part wax museum horror picture, because you just know those wax bodies won't stay still forever.
The Monster (1925)
A mad scientist, an old house, bizarre experiments. They all sound like cliches now, but The Monster was among the first mad scientist movies, and it's made even better by the casting of the great Lon Chaney as the villain, Dr. Ziska. Chaney, known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, known for his legendary freaky makeup transformations. We'll see more of him in a bit.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney's most famous role, and his most famous makeup, was the titular villain of this silent classic. The legendary "unmasking" scene, which you can jump to at about the 50-minute mark, is perhaps the most famous silent movie scare ever, and it still freaks viewers out today.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
A squabbling family arrives at a crumbling old mansion to hear the contents of a rich relative's will. Spooky things start happening, and suddenly all of them wonder if they'll make it out alive. Part horror film, part comedy, The Cat and the Canary is a classic "old house" flick.
The Unknown (1927)
And we're once again back to Lon Chaney. This time the Man of a Thousand Faces stars as a fugitive posing as an armless knife-thrower in a circus, who falls in love with a beautiful carnival girl (Joan Crawford) with a pathological fear of arms. The film is also notable because it's directed by Tod Browning, who would later go on to direct the talkie horror classics Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932).
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
This film might not have been intended to fit in with the other horror pictures of the day, but the unearthly grin of the title character (played by Conrad Veidt) made it a full-on creepfest. But it turned out to be more than just a spooky movie. Veidt's grin would later serve as one of the inspirations for iconic comic book villain the Joker.
And here's a complete list of all 31 Days of Halloween features: