Did you know one of the earliest movie makers was a horror director? There’s a chance you’ve never heard of him, but Georges Méliès is aguably the first horror director. Sure, his films weren’t quite as brutal as the horror of today, but many of the same themes were there. For example, his 1896 film, The Haunted Castle (Le Manoir du diable), features a medieval castle, the Devil, a cauldron, a skeleton, a bat, and an old woman with a stereotypical witch-like appearance. Also, the Devilish figure is warded off by a cross, which would become a trademark aspect of vampire movies (though it already was an established aspect of vampire beliefs).
I have written about Georges Méliès before elsewhere, but here I wish to emphasize his interesting depiction of the Devil, so early in cinematic history. There are (and presumably were) many different interpretations of this particular depiction. Maybe it’s the constraints of the time, but this particular Devil seems to be played for comedic effect as opposed to sheer shock and horror. Essentially then, this was arguably an early piece of comedy-horror. It seems also to make fun of evil and superstitions. If you pay close attention to the action, you’ll surely recognize some classic elements of slapstick. Basically, some of these things could be called gags, and they almost have a “Three Stooges” vibe. Obviously, humor is a very common element to modern horror as well, so Méliès’ film suggests there’s a common element to laughter and fear. Both involve heightened emotions, and both can play off each other in interesting ways.
Similarly, the themes of good and evil easily feed into one another. There’s a common conception in horror that you can’t have light without darkness. Then again, that’s not just about horror, but possibly everyday experience. As much as we try to appreciate the good in life, we sometimes must observe and deal with evil or crazy things, including our own “dark” thoughts. I think horror can help us navigate this process safely, even though it’s accused of leading people astray. No doubt the early filmmakers faced such criticisms, and would still face them by modern viewers. Still, The Haunted Castle takes the good with the bad, as evil is thwarted in a short period of time, and peace is restored through some impressive early cinematic trickery.
So, if anyone ever mentions Georges Méliès as an influential science fiction filmmaker, tell them about The Haunted Castle and how he was an early innovator in the horror genre, too. While he’ll always be more recognized for iconic scenes from A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Haunted Castle should probably get more recognition as an early milestone in horror cinema.