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A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema book review

The horror film, as a genre, emerged in 1931 with the release of the Universal-produced Dracula and, later that year, Frankenstein. It wasn’t until this time that the language of horror entered the popular vernacular and that a framework of a genre had been defined. But by no means were these two films the first to use horrific elements; elements designed to evoke the uncanny, use the supernatural as an artistic and emotional tool, and to shock audiences. It is this pre-1931 period of American cinema that Kendall R. Phillips’ book A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema (which was included in the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker non-fiction award) focuses on, a period of proto-horror that set the foundations for a genre to come.

Phillips does not set out to present a cinematic history of this period – although I think this would be a great place to start – but instead to approach it as an exercise in rhetorical studies. Now, for the non-academic (a label I would attach to myself), calling this book “a study in the rhetorical problem of horror’s pre-history” might come across as off-putting. But instead, simply understand that A Place of Darkness wishes to place the proto-horror films of pre-1931 within the context of their time, to understand how these horrific elements developed and eventually amalgamated into a genre, and to relate them back to a changing and emerging national and cultural identity. Put even more simply: how did these early films reflect what it meant to be American during this period?

Cinema’s relationship with the uncanny goes back to its very beginnings, by virtue of the mechanics of the medium more than anything else. Russian writer Maxim Gorky’s description of the early moving image projections as “not life, but its shadow… it is not motion but its soundless spectre”, captures well the uncanny sense of reanimation or simulation of life that the form’s early viewers were left with an impression of. Early films such as those by French filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose background as a stage magician translated to the artistry of illusion in his work as a director, exploited this inherent sense of the uncanny and blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. Méliès and his contemporaries’ experimentation led to the development of the “trick film” genre, films that featured special effects designed to create illusions.

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Georges Méliès A Nightmare
“A Nightmare”, a silent trick film by Georges Méliès

The uncanny fascination of American viewers of these early films mirrored the growing fascination in spiritualism in the second half of the 19th century, which, rather than being coincidental, might have formed part of the same cultural movement, “fuelled in part by the widespread grieving caused by the American Civil War.” But this attraction to the marvellous, whether in the form of spiritualism or the illusions of early cinema, was connected with and a reaction to the “unsettling emergence of modern life” with its rapid industrialisation, increased social mobility, and influx of immigrants. Perhaps spiritualism was a clash between superstitious Old World beliefs and modern scientific investigation, as Americans turned towards the empirical investigation of observable phenomena.

As modern America was forming in those years following the Civil War, there was an association between the uncanny and supernatural with a foreign otherness, as Old World beliefs to be left behind as America entered a new age. The uncanny was “weird” – a term used frequently in this period to describe films using these horrific elements – and in some ways foreign and un-American. The rationalist view of the supernatural shaped the direction American films took (until 1931) and contrasted them with weird and gloomy films emerging from other parts of the world. Supernatural elements were explained away as incredulity became entrenched “into a broader system of American values”. Protagonists were idealised American males for whom superstitious marvels were obstacles to be overcome, contrasted with groups of credulous Others such as women, people of colour, the poor, and the rural.

1920 movie poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
1920 poster for J. Charles Haydon’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”

However, a different trend paved the way for the re-emergence of the marvellous in American cinema. There was growing anxiety surrounding motion pictures, even as they became commonplace, and were viewed with having an almost magical power to captivate audiences who therefore needed protecting from certain subjects and themes. This resulted in “legalized censorship and industry pressure toward morally uplifting films”, something you might imagine would halt the progress of an emerging horror genre. From these pressures, however, emerged literary monsters as classic novels were dramatised, chosen because of their literary prominence and came therefore with an artistic and moral justification. This led to films such as the three adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, the latter a reaction to German Expressionist films. Films such as these shifted the aesthetics of the horrific in American cinema, escalating the shock and more gruesome aspects, subverting moral panic through their literary origins.

The next shift in the depiction of horror in American cinema was brought by the “mystery thrillers”, melodramas often set in old dark houses that used horrific elements to envoke bodily responses from the audience, “often in the form of shivers or shrieks.” To envoke the responses they did marvellous horrific elements were essential, with examples including Roland West’s The Bat (1926, an influence in the creation of Batman) and Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927). These films shifted the audience from being merely observers to active participants, even if they did still retain the “American uncanny” of incredulity. When interest in mystery thrillers began to wane, the introduction of synchronised sound prolonged their popularity, with sound providing “a means to expand the mysterious space of the screen beyond the visual and to signal audiences that there was more at hand than they could see…to create a sense of the screen as a mysterious and uncanny space”.

Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)
New Movie Magazine on Dracula (May, 1931): for “those who prefer to enjoy their nightmares in the theatre”

The book concludes with the release of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. It was the time of the Great Depression and not only did film studios no longer have the budget for big productions but audience numbers dwindled as the luxury of going to the pictures was one many couldn’t afford. Dracula was produced on a modest budget and “there wasn’t a box-office name in the picture” (Dora Albert writing in 1931), so Universal was surprised by its success, despite its confidence in Lugosi’s performance (who was chosen because he was performing Dracula on the stage). It was a risk, even on a small budget; Bram Stoker’s novel was reasonably successful but not enough for the name to be household and the tone was dark, darker than the films that had come before it. Perhaps a crucial difference between Dracula and the American films that led up to it was its inversion of the superstitious folly. Rather than the supernatural being defeated with a rational explanation, the fools in Dracula were those who didn’t believe in the Count’s true nature and our hero, Van Helsing, doesn’t reflect the idealised American male of previous pictures. Dracula’s unrelenting darkness and its inversion of previously held treatments of the uncanny in American cinema helped it define a foundational moment for cinema. From this point, we now had a name to give these films designed to terrify their audiences: horror films.

Kendall R. Phillips’ A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema is a fascinating read and gives a new context for understanding the horror in American cinema before 1931, going beyond a cinematic history.

“A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema” written by Kendall R. Phillips is published by University of Texas Press. Buy the book on Amazon

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