“Horror Film”: How the Term Came to Be

Gary D. Rhodes
Gary D. Rhodes

Though it was based on the infamous death sentence of 1587, the Edison Manufacturing Company’s film ‘Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots’ (1895)— which was also distributed under the less-specific titles ‘Execution’ and ‘Execution Scene’ — features no historical context, its narrative consisting solely of brutal capital punishment that lasts fewer than fifteen seconds.

It remains arresting cinema, and certainly, it predated the work of George Méliès.

An 1895 newspaper advertisement publicized ‘Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots’ as being the very first “Chamber of Horrors” moving picture to be “seen on the kinetoscope,” adding that it was “blood-curdling in the extreme.”

Twenty years later, when reviewing Kalem Company’s ‘The Secret Room’ (1915), the Moving Picture World wrote: “It is one that demanded some relief at the close, for it builds up a veritable nightmare and would have been almost insufferable if one couldn’t wake up from it — insufferable from sheer horror. […] People have thought up situations of terror before this and even put them into pictures… but in this picture showing is made real. We have only seen three or four other film offerings portraying horror that were as effective. When the spectator sees it he will know whether he has strong nerves or not.”

This description could be easily applied to many horror movies of the twenty-first-century. Moreover, as in the ad for ‘Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots’, the word “horror” is clearly articulated.

Despite these early references, there is an enormous gulf between the application of a term and the naming of a genre that conjures recognisable codes and conventions.

In the case of the Edison film, the “Chamber of Horrors” reference invoked the popular nineteenth-century tradition of waxwork exhibits that depicted tortures, murders, and executions. And in the case of the Kalem film, the adjective “horror” was used somewhat interchangeably with the word “terror.” It was not the label of a distinct category.

Discussing the importance of terminology, Lincoln Geraghty and Mark Jancovich advise: “If one wants to know how ‘Trip to the Moon’ [Georges Méliès, 1902] and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ [Rupert Julian, 1925] were understood within the periods of their original release, one needs to be clear about the precise way in which they were generically identified at the time, rather than presuming that one can simply draw upon one’s own understanding of generic categories.”

For Geraghty and Jancovich, it is important that, while ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is regularly included as a canonical text in the history of the horror film genre, it predated the term “horror film,” which, as they note, “did not enter common usage until almost a decade later — at some point in the cycle of films that followed the success of ‘Dracula’ (1931) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931).”

To label a film retroactively, they argue, “can do violence to our sense of history by abstracting it from its original contexts or “emphasize some details and ignore others.”

By contrast, Rick Altman writes, “Throughout the 20s and 30s, Universal had been the uncontested king of the horror film genre.” He specifically cites ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ as one of his examples, thus applying a generic term to it that did not yet exist. Disagreement exists.

On the one hand, Charles Musser has importantly re-examined Edwin S. Porter’s ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), not as a western, as the term was not in usage at the time of its original release, but instead how it activated the contemporaneous travel, crime, and re-enacted news genres.

On the other hand, many scholars, critics, and audiences have regularly imposed the label “film noir” onto movies that were never conceived or originally publicized with such terminology.

To reconcile the views of Geraghty and Jancovich with those of Altman, it is important to understand that — as ‘Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots’ and ‘The Sealed Room’ illustrate — the term “horror” had descriptive meaning for fictional entertainment long before the term “horror film” (and variants like “horror movie”) came into common currency, first in literature and then in the cinema.

Indeed, a full-page photomontage of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ published in the fan magazine Motion Picture Classic in April 1925 was headlined with the single word: “Horrors!” And when reviewing Paul Leni’s ‘The Last Warning’ (1929), a critic for Variety described it as being “much in the manner” of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. Recognizable tropes emerged prior to the film genre’s name.

But the arrival of the name, “horror,” possessed power and meaning that resonate to the present day. A careful and rigorous review of the archive reveals that Universal Pictures intentionally tried to avoid adjectives that evoked horror and the supernatural when initially promoting Tod Browning’s ‘Dracula’ (1931). And yet three groups — critics, exhibitors, and audiences — wrested power from the studio once Dracula was released, drawing upon earlier contexts and descriptive terminology to rebrand it a “horror film.”

The term came to the fore not as the result of a Universal’s marketing strategy, but rather in spite of it, thanks to its organic usage in the early months of 1931.

Grasping Dracula’s success and apparent reasons for it, Universal rapidly embraced the label, so much so that they produced and advertised upcoming releases with it.

Other studios followed, with the term “horror film” becoming increasingly common in late 1931 and early 1932, used and readily understood by those creating, publicising, viewing, and even decrying the genre.

In Chapter IV of Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), the first Gothic novel, Hippolita asks, “What means the horror imprinted on each countenance?” The naming of the horror genre was an attempt to answer that question by use of the very same word, a single term that could invoke a wide range of codes, conventions and tropes.

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