Throwback Thursday: Chicago Premieres America’s First Horror Film

Each generation has changed and adapted to what we would consider a film scary, but where and when did it all start? Audiences of today dare to laugh at director William Peter Blattys the Exorcist, with Linda Blair, but in its day it would have caused spectators to suffer heart attacks in theater seats! While contemporary films, the Conjuring and Insidious, take reign in supernatural horrors, many people today take notice to horror films that highlight cultural, social-political differences through metaphors in insidious manners, like director Jordan Peeles’ films GET OUT & US.

While its true the topic can be very subjective, it brings up many debates on what we generally consider scary, and which methods and ideas that produce horror is best? Many would consider blood, gore and violence, with films like Final Destination, Thirteen Ghosts and Resident Evil, to be the ultimate scare; but to others it is just gross at worst. Slasher flicks like Jeepers Creepers, Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street tend to procure more startling and suspenseful, paranoia responses from people, and critics would say its too violent. Then we have narrative horror classics like the Shining, or American Psycho, that appeal to the mind but, you guessed it, they can be boring to some viewers. Even fantasy flicks like Pans Labrynth and Eraserhead can be pegged for being too far fetched or disturbing.

Regardless of what you find scary in a horror film, or what you think makes a horror film good, there is a flavor for everyone; and it generally seems to change generationally. For contemporary horror fans, the culture thriller sends shivers down our spines to the nature of our reality, and the people among us. Generations in the midst of Y2K scares, and the rise of psycho serial killers, are confronted with doomsday and slasher flicks. But the older generations, closer to when it all started, have an appeal to more spiritual antagonists.

While magicians and deities are easily disproven and overlooked, older generations did not have access to the information we hold today. Religion, magic, folklore and tradition has long been the center and foundation of many house holds and belief systems. Up until the counter culture movement, adults, religious traditions and law dominated the mainstream. Well up until the 70’s there have been countless horror flicks with the main antagonist being some evil monster, alien or super natural being; and looking at the very first horror films can attest to that.

Today the first horrors to be produced can be attributed as more art pieces of history for its genre, but in their day horror films were pivitol; especially to the thrill seekers and gothic idealogues. Back when tradition and religion kept people fearfully moral, saving their souls in the after life from judgement, to be damned to hell, was their main concern. The first film, as evident in its title, played on this fear, and put in out on display. The House of the Devil, aka the Haunted Castle (US), aka the Devil’s Castle (UK), made its premiere in 1896 as the first horror film in the world.

The House of the Devil is a French short by Georges Méliès, only about 4 minutes in length (a generous length for that era), and filmed outside on his property with painted scenery. It was released as a silent film, and during it would be accompanied by a music score. The two actors would be settling in a castle, while super natural occurrences would startle them, all brought on by the Devil himself. While the film contained many horror movie elements in such a short period of time like ghosts, transformations, moving objects and magic, it would be mostly presented for comedic purposes.

A few years later in 1908 on March 7th, the first American horror film would be produced, and it would be presented right here in Chicago, where culture was cultivating on theatre plays, music and opera houses. The Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago produced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and is widely accepted as the first version of the story. It is an adaptation on George F. Fish and Luella Forepaugh‘s 1897 four-act play, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Or a Mis-Spent Life. That play is its own sense is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson 1886 novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

1912 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Its plot would be split into 4 scenes; a Dr. Jekyll would seduce a Ministers daughter, killing her and the Minister after transforming into Mr. Hyde, because of a potion he is addicted to. Middle scenes would entail Dr. Jekyll revealing his transformation, surprising his friend, and in the final scene Dr. Jekyll kills himself, after running out of his potion, and struggling with grief. The 16 minute film would be hailed for its production feats for its time, as Dr. Jekyll’s transformation was done in one take, pulling it off by hunching over in agony, and pulling the wig over his forehead. The good vs evil duality of the play made it very popular, unfortunately it is considered to be a lost film and no copy of it exists today, and no film scholar ever reported seeing it.

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