The Birth of the American Horror Film traces our terrifying obsession

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Jan 31, 2018, 7:20 PM EST

Horror movies have always injected us with the thrill we seek when we pay to sit in a dark theater for two hours purposely trying to get scared. There is something about our very nature that makes us wants to venture into the dark recesses of the mysterious and the monstrous. This is what inspired premiere horror film historian Gary Rhodes to unravel the strange history behind how uniquely American horror films emerged in his new book The Birth of The American Horror Filmwhether they are ghosts of literature, phantasmagorias, or the darkest fears that lurk in our psyches.

> “Some people argue that horror is more about graphic visuals and terror is more about a creepy feeling. We could think of this as the difference between onscreen blood-and-guts, and the slow-building scares of a ghost movie,” Rhodes said in an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE.

>The author believes all monsters are human. Besides being the American Horror Story tagline, this is a concept that manifested itself in cinema from its earliest black and white days, where you couldn’t see the slick redness of fake blood. But that didn’t take away from mad scientists, or deranged killers, or someone who tried to reanimate corpses.

“Even in the earliest days of American film, the crazy murderers, serial killers, and images of death seemed to frighten American viewers the most,” Rhodes said. “It is important to remember, I think, that the first horror film was American, and it was an image of someone being beheaded.”

That film was the 1895 recreation of a royal beheading. The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, may only be a fifteen-second breath of a film reel that ends with the final gasp of the queen’s disembodied head rolling onto the ground, but Rhodes notes in the book that such scenes horrified early moviegoers with their exhumations of events that actually happened.

Literature dealing with mania and violence that descend into death, such as Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart or The Cask of Amontillado, was subconscious nightmare fuel. Both short stories follow the downward spiral of a frighteningly human sort of madness that was much more tangible than the fraudulent séances of that era. Newspapers were also splattered with reports on Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and a string of other serial killers of the time, often accompanied by gruesome images of their victims’ mutilated corpses.

If death was everywhere, maybe it was safest to confront it in a movie theater.

“I believe there is a safety in the cinema,” said Rhodes, who feels this is the beating heart of the human tendency to want to see disturbing and even unspeakable things, images that horrify, but at the same time make them unable to look away. “We can be frightened by the images, and even frightened by being alone in the dark with strangers (a very real fear in the earliest days of American film), but there is still a distance from the onscreen horrors. We're close to what is terrible, but still at a safe distance.”


"Ham" (Lloyd V. Hamilton) and "Bud" (Bud Duncan) in Lotta Coin's Ghost (Kalem, 1915). Credit: Gary Rhodes


Rhodes observes that this fascination with the terrible was influenced by European films and literature, whose visions of the macabre merged with our own. Gothic horror was an obsession during the Victorian era, with authors like Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, and even Jane Austen (think Northanger Abbey) taking us through menacing castles, shadowy corridors, and doomed romances at the witching hour of night. Gothic stories that brought the supernatural to life were often re-adapted to expose these specters as figments of the imagination. American Gothic literature such as Hawthorne, Irving, and Poe was also adapted to film.

While one of these inspirations came from abroad and the other was Frankensteined from it, the fascination with death in horror movies was something that first materialized in America. Mary’s faux beheading started a national craze. The masses were eager to hear the latest on murder investigations and read the biographies and autobiographies of criminals, which foreshadowed what they would want to see at the movies.

“One thing American cinema did was focus on death, which it did prior to any other national cinema,” said Rhodes.

Something potentially more horrifying than death in itself are the crimes committed towards an individual or group because of what Rhodes calls their “otherness.” Vampires, witches, and werewolves may have had their origins in myth and legend, but it was too often that those who were different and gravely misunderstood were targeted as being capable of transforming their victims into animals, sucking their blood, or murdering them by some other odd supernatural means.


The Trials of Faith (Reliance, 1912), one of several early films about alleged witchcraft. Credit: Gary Rhodes


“Making anyone who was perceived as foreign or exotic into the subject of terror was common in the years before 1915, whether that meant Native Americans, Asians, or Indians. The same could be true of African-Americans, whether in the earliest days of cinema or until the present,” said Rhodes. Indeed, werewolves transformed from a Native American legend that was warped by European settlers to target suspicious “others.”

The Salem Witch trials were the topic of numerous films depicting witches hung or burned at the stake for perceived crimes that were really no more than the otherness of the accused. It was African-American servant Tituba who was the first accused of having bewitched preteens Betty Parris and Abigail Williams into feeling as if they were being inexplicably pricked by pins or erupting into violent seizures, which may have really been symptoms of epilepsy (which was vehemently denied at the time).

Some films based on the trials ultimately had happy endings where someone came to the rescue of the “witch” right before the fire was lit or the noose tightened. While audiences lined up to see these versions of one of our darkest moments of history, it was too often that they euphemized events that often ended tragically.

“Here is one of the most awful legacies of American horror: to make anyone different into the subject of horror,” Rhodes said, as both a reminder of a grisly past and a warning of a grim future.