Legacy of Horror

exploring the genre’s psychological origins

You can bet that whenever our little societal fiefdoms are flipped over like so many unlucky turtles, bellies baking in the apocalyptic sun, the horror genre will be there to trumpet the tragedy, the irony, the desperation of the moment in mostly monstrous terms. To think: there exists international discourse, where—willfully or not, for clout or not—voices refute the presence of socio-political undercurrents in horror, a mystifying misdiagnosis that amounts to a withered ignorance of the genre’s history and very foundations.

Neither does that word “elevated” do justice to what’s happening in horror cinema today, not from a thematic, nor aesthetic standpoint; “expansive” is more like it. From the familial violence and trauma of Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Nia DaCosta’s new Candyman to the body horror of Jordan Peele’s acerbic Get Out and James Wan’s nutso Malignant, to the festering faith of Rose Glass’ Saint Maud and Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, it’s the modern psyche-in-disrepair that underpins it all. Horror has always allowed for absurd expressiveness and sowed fertile grounds for a transgression that reflect how we’re living, feeling, and attempting to survive right now: on the edge of a razor, doused in uncomfortable truth, consequence, and a lot of bone-crunching.

Film still: Alex Wolff (b.1997) as Peter Graham in Hereditary (2018)

Much of what audiences unconsciously attach to current horror cinema, though, can be directly traced back to the genre’s genesis in the emergent, terror-based films of both western Europe and America’s 1920s pre-sound era, the elements of which had an inarguable influence on the films of the next decade. And the socio-emotional-political climates of some of these films’ native countries in the years following World War I provided the psychological backdrop and drive for expression, interconnected ecosystems that birthed thrilling onscreen manifestations of anger, anxiety, and oppressive fear—not to mention a new visual language—in the form of imagined or real ghosts, monsters, and demons.

The penetrating arrival of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919—ushering in the influence of German Expressionistic design, a foreboding stylistic intersection of diabolical sets and suffocating shadows—signaled a shift in how film could convey various states of the fragile human mind in decay or sliding toward madness. So it was, then, that Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem (1920) premiered at a time in German cinema’s adolescence when many of the form’s fundamental techniques had been established—parallel and continuity editing, multiple exposing of film, detailed set, and costume design chiefly among them.

The Golem signals the evolution of the use of light as a narrative and psychological tool: Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), lit against the inky blackness of the night sky, sits atop his observatory, looking to the stars for a vision that will ultimately signal doom for the Jews of medieval Prague. It comes instead in the form of a declaration from the Emperor that the Jews evacuate their ghetto; this, in turn, will incite Löw to revive the clay Golem statue, the Jews’ ancient protector. Villagers take to the streets during overnight vigils, demonstrations of faith in the hope they might be saved. Their illuminated torches dance through the twisty, cobblestoned roads, acting as custodians of their collective anxiety and communion with the heavens (later, these buoyant fireballs are present at the “birth” of the Golem). The Rabbi leads his congregation in prayer encircled by candlelight, too, a visual reminder that light is healing, is life-giving, cathartic in this world.

Film still: Paul Wegener (1874-1948) as The Golem (1920)

Chapter two of the film begins with an image of the beaming celestial stars again, this time dissolving into a shot of a resplendent Star of David, which gives way to another dissolve, a close-up of the inanimate Golem. Wegener’s visual language represents a vital order to the Jews: the stars are the Jewish people; the religious symbol, their light and faith; and the Golem, their sentinel. In one scene, a freshly mobile Golem (Paul Wegener, carrying out acting and co-directorial duties here) returns home to Rabbi Löw’s observatory, entering through the heavy oak door on a swath of sunlight. He lumbers over to the furnace and stokes the fire, unaware or uncaring of its increasing intensity, a parallel to the creature’s developing sentience. He is also ignorant of the blaze because this is home, and, after all, he was born into turmoil and fire.

Let’s examine the Golem’s birth sequence: Rabbi Löw, accompanied by Rabbi Famulus (Ernst Deutsch), draws a psychic circle around them and it seethes to life, smoke, and fire leaping from the floor. It’s Löw who pulls the strings of this strange magic, establishing the character as a kind of filmmaker surrogate. Noah Isenberg, in his book Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era, asserts that “Wegener characterizes [Löw] as master of the power over the spectacle—over the aesthetic medium…” Löw is a father to his clay creation (as Wegener is to the film) and, later, its principal persecutor, filled with regret over his inability to govern it. The Rabbi is both Dr. Frankenstein and Van Helsing, to invoke two stalwarts of the genre. The appearance of the spirit Astaroth during this ceremonial jumpstart is a truly frightening moment and an effective optical double exposure: a smoke-spewing demon head, in shadowy nothingness, hovers about the two men. It breathes the sacred, secret word (Aemaet, which is an approximation of the Hebrew word for “truth”) that will be placed on the Golem’s chest plate…and vanishes. The ensuing maelstrom of lightning and wind streaking through the frame affirms the embattled environment into which Golem will enter, the secret word’s meaning an ironic counterpoint to the surreal proceedings and the creature’s doomed existence.

Trailblazing production design and optical effects are loaded with meaning in Victor Sjöström’s 1921 Swedish entry, The Phantom Carriage. Susan Hayward, in her film theory bible Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, noted that horror films “lead its audience into the unconscious and through the implications of evil and of dream”; indeed, when David Holm (played by director Sjöström) dies at midnight on New Year’s Eve and is cosmically fated to take over the reins of the eponymous carriage to the netherworld, his former pal and outgoing coachman, Georges, brings to light the real evil inherent in the film’s psychology and physicality—the abuse and degradation of loved ones at the hands of David himself. Paradoxically, in a film suffused with supernatural imagery, Carriage’s shadowy realism is grimy and tactile, presented as a kind of moldy sickness analogous to the alcoholism and mental decline that envelopes David. This outward realism explores inner spiritual mechanisms further appropriated in the film’s sets.

Film still: director Victor Sjöström (1879-1960) and as David Holm in The Phantom Carriage (1921)

One example is the film’s early introduction of the one-room hovel at the top of a dilapidated, cast-off alley tower that shelters Holm’s wife and two children, on the run from the cruel treatment afforded them by a perpetually mercurial husband/father. The apartment is stark and ravaged by time and neglect, a psychic battlefield symbolic of David’s corporeal abuse. When Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm) calls on Mrs. Holm to inquire about David’s whereabouts, the emotionally battered wife becomes progressively visible in the frame, first gazing vacantly into the dark corners of the room before emerging from its oppressive recesses. The stark vacuousness of the set points to decay and damage whose origins the audience isn’t privy to yet; the film hasn’t introduced David at this juncture in the film. The Holm homestead’s design is in geometric contrast to the home of another Sister, the dying Edit—her cluttered, but cozy room brims with familial warmth, a cocoon of soft illumination reflective of Edit’s inner goodness and her allyship with Mrs. Holm.

The vehicle of the title arrives in an eerie evocation of a ghost world previously unseen in quite such a form onscreen. It carries David (with Georges in tow as a kind of spiritual mountain guide) in search of an esoteric redemption, using the events of his sordid life as a kind of road map, a documentary of self-actualization. The carriage makes its appearance—the film’s first optical effect—at the moment of David’s reciting of the fate of Georges from last New Year’s Eve. Georges, conversely, relates the enduring legend of the phantom carriage: the story-within-the-story-within-the-story analogy here parallels the double, triple, sometimes quadruple exposed film utilized to create the spectral coachmen, their vaporous transport, and the backdrops through which they traverse. The phantoms are powerful devices in the narrative—they go everywhere, no one remains out of their reach, the film’s multiple exposures hinting at the multiple planes of existence in play.

Caligari’s director, Robert Wiene, noted that expressionism was a suitable style by which to depict haunted settings, specifically when the locale took the form of a fairy tale forest, magic castle. In the case of director Paul Leni’s American contribution, The Cat and the Canary (1927), it’s a Gothic mansion, but Wiene could have just as easily been describing the cursed industrial ship Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien, or even the incomprehensible Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Even if we doubt the house in The Cat and the Canary is really haunted or simply a ruse perpetrated by a nefarious interloper (which is mostly parsed out in the finale), the film’s technical elements hint at unsettling, unbalanced psychological states.

Fill still: Laura La Plante (1904-1996) as Annabelle West in The Cat and the Canary (1927)

So what of the prime psychic real estate provided by…well, the real estate? In the first act, Leni’s camera dollies through the vast, desolate hallways of the mansion from a high enough angle to instill in the audience a sense of floating, that the viewers themselves may be paranormally complicit. As the film barrels through the exposition and character introductions, we’ll see evidence that the mansion’s cavernous interiors hold secrets and defy logic, too: the sinister caretaker Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox, decidedly unpleasant) opens a safe that has been sealed for twenty years, only to have a live moth flutter out; while Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) sleeps, a monstrous hand emerges from a sliding panel above her bed and snatches her necklace; and the salty Guard (George Siegmann) improbably materializes within the frame of a vaunted window during the film’s climax, vomited forth from the moat of nothingness that surrounds the house. The film bounces along in a gauzy dream state, but it’s consistently a quandary as to whose state it actually is.

Leni employs an array of optical effects, too, to incite terror. Two prime examples reveal themselves: first, as the nervous Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) questions the night’s proceedings after learning of the “sign of death,” a chattering, ghostly skull hovers over him, appearing and disappearing in anxiety-inducing synapse bursts. Even if the projection of the skull can be interpreted as simply a part of Paul’s psyche, unseen by the rest of the guests—which, again, the film is wont to disprove—the monstrous presence at the heart of the haunting leaves us with collateral dissonance. We all saw that, right? It’s a precursor to madness.

Like The Phantom Carriage, Canary’s use of multiple exposures conveys levels of psychological fracturing. Patriarch Cyrus West’s inheritance and the reading of his will have brought the evening’s disparate guests together at the mansion before the story reveals what’s led to this moment. In a slyly efficient flashback, West’s developing insanity and depression have him slumped in a chair, a second shot of empty medicine bottles laid transparently over him coming into hazy focus; the disparity in size and perspective of the two shots frames West to appear he’s actually inside one of the bottles. Then a third exposure on top of these—ghostly images of super-sized black cats who tower over West, swatting at him as if he were one of the doomed birds of the title. It’s a thrilling, consequential image.

For some filmmakers of the silent era—and certainly, within the films explored here—the approach to interpretation and innovation in an industry still in its initial throes of relevancy was a journey turned inward, toward the mind and soul and across the emotional minefield stretching between, symbolized by spiritual, sometimes ominous forces. These pre-sound artists couldn’t have known they were conjuring the tenets of a new type of nightmare—molding and alchemizing their own Golem—but their deeply individual, innately cultural expressions of onscreen horror would leave the 1930s and beyond with the means to visually navigate all manner of cinematic and psychic terrain.