A Nightmare was an innovative silent film made in 1896 by Georges Méliès. Yes, I am once again giving readers the silent treatment!

When I write about older films, I already know I’m not likely to get major views. I guess that’s a quirky thing about me: I write about what interests me at a given moment, and it’s not necessarily blockbuster superhero movies or even well-tread horror franchises. Lately, one thing I like doing is watching older, sometimes silent movies. When one does such a thing, they run the risk of being accused of hipsterism — of looking back at “retro” things to seem cool, unique or uniquely cool. However, for me it’s part of a broader quest to understand the history of horror, and the history of film generally. They are interesting (if not fascinating) slivers of experience, and probably worthwhile regardless of what ideas they represent. Perhaps this merits a little bit of explanation.

Looking Back Helps Us Look Forward

While I have a love/hate relationship with entertainment and even art, I recognize it as part of what gives life meaning. In that sense, it defines us, and possibly can even save a person’s life. It pays to look back at the roots of all this, with films by people like Georges Méliès, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, F. W. Murnau. Similarly, there’s something interesting about comedies like The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers. While any creative work offers a limited view of the world, you can gain insight into that time and age, and potentially even look past its horrors and its triumphs. You can see aspects of history that are difficult to pin down and explain. You know, the parts that slip between the cracks.

For example, Georges Méliès’ short 1896 film, A Nightmare, is almost impossible to explain through conventional means. One could write about the various images in the dream depicted. However, none of that is as sufficient as simply watching what happens.

It’s a little weird, right? It’s not conventional for our age. Obviously, one image in the nightmare is of a minstrel wearing blackface, which was a more common figure in entertainment back then. While modern audiences would see this part as “problematic,” it almost transcends any conventional emotions when put in the context of a dream. Everything is weird about this little story. Oddly enough, everything in A Nightmare is potentially a problem/menacing. Even the moon can bite the dreamer! As someone noted online, “Georges Méliès is 100% terrified of the moon,” as Méliès regularly used it as a motif in his films.

Georges Méliès: Peer Into the Cauldron

Such trends continue throughout horror, even if many people don’t see it that way. However, if you watch a horror film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead, you can see that the menace isn’t just the villain, but the circumstances which put victims in their path. Something in the universe lined these events up to happen. The universe itself is often aligned to create trauma in our lives. If anything, horror films can help us understand this phenomenon, encapsulate it for us, and sometimes make it entertaining. So, when we occasionally look back at horror cinema’s deepest, darkest roots, it’s like scraping the bottom of the witch’s cauldron to better understand the ingredients.

Speaking of which (or should I say “witch?”), Méliès also made use of cauldron imagery:

Those angry fireballs F Satan in the A!

The simple fact is, there is no final assessment of any film. No matter how clear one’s understanding is, life and imagination can offer more layers of complexity. It’s one of the confusing things about art, and one of the reasons people either love or hate a given work. These movies may be products of their time, but they can still reach us and make us ask questions about their world as well as ours. It is, after all, part of the same universe…or is it?

What are your thoughts about older films like A Nightmare? Go ahead and squawk at us in the comments!

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Wade Wanio is an author.

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