The Origins of the Horror Movie Genre


As I have expressed numerous times before I think that Horror cinema is at its most powerful when it reflects reality. So when you learn that those who wrote the screenplay of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), often referred to as the first definitive horror or even art film were two former German soldiers who suffered their own horror on the West Front then one realizes that horror does in fact, reflect reality.

I therefore suggest that the first horror film came directly out of the real horrors of WW1 that is expressed in Hanz Janowitz and Carl Mayer’s screenplay. Several critics note how the expressionist and bizarre atmosphere of the film reflects the insanity of war and how it’s battlefields and Germany’s Kaiser led soldiers such as themselves to their death. Anton Keas in Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War also highlights the parallels between the destroyed and chaotic landscapes of WW1’s battlefields and the shattered forms of the films environments, just one element of what he describes as its shell shock style. This also represents the shattered minds of former soldiers suffering from WW1’s psychological impacts. 

Crucially The Cabinet of Caligari (1919) was also followed by the rise of Nazism in Germany with which several critics including  Tom Gunning argue the renowned director Fritz Lang used as a context to develop the narrative of his own films. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) it’s main villainous figure draws clear parallels to Adolf Hitler. In a post WW1 Germany, who’s economy and society was in chaos throughout several periods Dr. Mabuse in the film, as like Hitler ultimately manipulated his fellow Germans suffering from the effects of the various crises. It is, however in Dr. Mabuse’s case directed from the criminal underworld, perhaps signifying the corrupt, brutal and indeed, criminal nature of the Nazi philosophy that awoke the hidden fears and anxieties of the German people (In the case of Hitler, who was in reality a war criminal, he influenced almost the entire German nation, a reality perhaps more terrifying than the narrative of Fritz Langs own film).

Another individual example is the Doctor’s testament he draws up while in the asylum he finds himself imprisoned in that lays out a future empire of crime. This clearly draws parallels with Hitler’s own manifesto which described his racist and nationalistic philosophy his eventual rule was based on; Mein Kamp, that he wrote while he was imprisoned after his failed 1923 putsch against the Weimar Government. While this film does pre-date the ultimate rise of the Nazis it is also interesting to note and almost prophetic that it was in post-production when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 30th January 1933 and banned in Germany upon its completion in the same year by Joseph Goebbel’s. The Nazi Minister of Information saw it as a possible inspiration for terrorists to threaten public order and security. He clearly didn’t realise that the real terrorists, indeed war criminals were Hitler and himself. 

While the social and economic turmoil was exploited onscreen by Dr. Mabuse, and in reality by Hitler in Germany the American population also rushed into theatre’s in 1931 to watch Universal’s adaptation of the broadway play based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula to escape the worldwide Depression’s effects on themselves (America’s stock market crash incidentally, being its origin). Though it was a huge success partly due to its own power as a film; a result of the assured, in some sequences striking cinematography by Karl Frued and the exotic appeal of Bela Lugosi we cannot ignore the social context in America, so similar to Germany’s that may have also been critically important to the story of Dracula’s success.

What is also important to highlight is that like Fritz Lang Freund originally lived in Nazi Germany; They both worked together on Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and more importantly fled the country due to the rise of Nazism. Freund brought with him, as many other german filmmakers the same expressionist techniques from the cinema of Weimar Germany that we see indications of in Dracula (1931) and later the Universal Frankenstein films and which, in part contributed to their cinematic success and made them the genre classics they are today. The flourishing of horror cinema that they were integral in also perhaps made an important contribution, as the earlier German expressionist films to the horror genres enduring success and appeal that last’s till this day.

Inspired by the success of Universal’s Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), MGM’s own attempt during the first true flourishing of american horror cinema, the ill-fated Tod Browning picture Freak’s (1932) and other successful horror films of the same period Paramount attempted to adapt H.G Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau in Summer 1932 – retitling it Island of Lost Souls in the processWhilst watching the documentary features on my disc of Island of Lost Souls Jonathan Rigby highlights how Charles Darwin’s published theory of The Origin of Species had a profound impact on Victorian understandings of the foundations of life. This directly influenced later Victorian gothic literature (1880-1900) such as H.G Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau , Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde and perhaps Bram Stoker’s Dracula which examples of early horror genre cinema drew its roots.

All these texts confronted and created a focus on issues of degeneration. As Jonathan Rigby states what is the alter ego of Jekyll but a Neanderthal. By having Jeckyll changing into his nNeanderthal, primal alter ego Hyde is Stevenson representing the Victorian’s severe anxieties over the implications of theories present in The Origin of Species? Considering that fellow author H.G Well’s studied biology and zoology and was a prominent member of the Fabian society, which allowed him to combine an informed context with particularly potent political and social themes in The island of Dr. Moreau it gives credibility to this view on the impact of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Interestingly it was in the same time period of these gothic adoptions, which also includes Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) that the famous ‘Scope’s Monkey Trial’ took place. John Scopes was a teacher who was simply put on trial in 1925 for teaching evolution to his class in a state funded school in Tennesse.

Reflecting on this complex and interweaving history of human society and horror we have to ask, ultimately, what is at the core of horror genre. As Jonathan Penner convincingly states it is the unavoidable reality and our realization of it. It is in the ancient texts of the Koran and Bible and of ancient Greece, Japan and China that are full of brutality, demons, spirits and the afterlife. It is in the cave painting’s of fearful lions and tiger’s drawn at the beginning of humankind. As he concludes, it is the Nazis in power.

If I have failed to convince you so I can only leave you with these words of german philosopher and cultural critic Freidrich Nietzsche “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”.


1 Comment

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      1. Herner Klenthur February 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm

        Deep bro… very deep.