There will always arguments about what the first horror film is – some would claim it to be L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, which – according to urban legend – sent audiences screaming for the exits when first projected in January 1896. But most agree that is was The Haunted Castle (aka The Devil’s Castle), a three minute romp from later that same year, which showed how quickly cinema was growing – from a simple shot of a train pulling into a station to demons, bats, ghosts and ghouls featuring crude yet effective special effects, within a few months.
The Haunted Castle showed that there was an audience for chills and thrills, even within the short formats of early silent cinema. Obviously, there was no room to develop horror as we know it, but images of the supernatural, the weird and the bizarre became increasingly popular with filmmakers, even if their stories were (even at the time) likely to induce as much laughter as horror.
A typical example of these early spook show movies is The X-Ray Fiend, a one minute extravaganza that was directed by G.A. Smith in 1897. The film, starring Laura Bayley and Tom Green, takes advantage of the newly discovered (two years earlier) X-ray photography technique. Throwing scientific accuracy to the wind (and thus setting the scene for over a century of science fiction film makers to come), Smith’s film features a canoodling couple who have an ‘X-ray Camera’ pointed at them. Amazingly, they then turn into a pair of kissing skeletons!
While it is unlikely to shock or amaze anyone today, The X-Ray Fiend is notable as a pioneer of the horror film.