A Brief History of Horror Movies, And Films That Use Silence to Build Suspense!

How Horror Films Got Their Start

Fantastic Horror Movies That Build Suspense Through Silence!

The first documented film in the horror genre had a viewing length of only 3 minutes and was completely silent.

For those of us who are a bit wary of seeing anything even remotely scary - this could be 3 minutes too long.  For those who are true fans of the genre, this brief appetizer wouldn’t even remotely quench your appetite for all things grim and gruesome. However, this particular film, has more hee-haws than horror. Though classified as the first known horror film, (as well as the first vampire movie) “ Le Manoir du Diable” (the Devil’s Manor) was intended to evoke amusement and comic relief instead of fear.

“The Haunted Castle”, as it was called when released in the United States, which you can see here, was classified in the horror genre not for its ability to instill fear but rather due to its cast of characters - the devil, the devil’s attendants, a skeleton, and a man transforming into a bat.

This French silent film was released in 1896 and was directed by film pioneer and illusionist George Melies, who is dubbed the “creator of the cinematic spectacle” having been one of the first film directors to use special effects in terms of substitution splices, dissolves, time lapses, and multiple exposures. Though rudimentary in the various “special effect” techniques, it demonstrates how Melies was creatively using his limited tools and techniques resulting in something fantastically entertaining for that time period.  True to form, the very “this could only happen in the movies” real-life occurrence of how a never-before-used special effect was discovered.  The technique of one thing turning into another (in this case the skeleton into a bat) was stumbled upon completely by accident by Meilies in 1896, according to Early Cinema.

“In the Autumn of 1896, an event occurred which has since passed into film folklore and changed the way Méliès looked at filmmaking. Whilst filming a simple street scene, Méliès camera jammed and it took him a few seconds to rectify the problem. Thinking no more about the incident, Méliès processed the film and was struck by the effect such an incident had on the scene – objects suddenly appeared, disappeared, or were transformed into other objects.”

As in the vein of other life-changing discoveries made completely by accident (ie: penicillin, x-rays, and chocolate chip cookies), this film technique changed the power of cinema, and undoubtedly horror and fantasy films to come.

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Silence is Golden, and Deadly

In what was referred to as the “Golden Age of Horror”, the 1920’s and 1930’s, marks the true start of the development of films that were less farce and certainly more fearful as the directors began to try their best to instill fear in their audiences.  Though still silent in nature, these films certainly paved the way to mark the history of horror films that were to come.

Frankenstein (1910) - This film was one of the earliest silent films to have a “cue sheet” for the accompanying musical score.  The cue sheet acted as a trigger for the action to be carried out at a particular time.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - This German film was released just as foreign film industries were easing restrictions after World War I. Film critic Roger Ebert referred to it as “the first true horror film”.

Nosferatu (1922) - This film was unofficially based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, and cast a particularly creepy main title character.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) Starring John Barrymore and is an adaptation of the 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog  (1927) - With a plot surrounding a Jack the Ripper-type character, this was Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller and firmly established his role as a director.

So What Makes a Good Scary Movie?

In a horror movie, some of the scariest moments happen when there is no dialogue at all.  The leading musical score, the build-up to an intense moment, and just the hint of something horrible around the corner or down the basement stairs are enough to send chills down your spine.

Writer Lauren Rouse, of Lifehacker.com interviewed Dr. Adam Daniel suggests what he believes are the makings of a good horror film, “I think there are many elements that contribute to a genuinely scary experience, and they are also very subjective. If there is some universality it would be around watching representations of death, illness, and bodily harm – all things we are genetically hardwired to fear outside of film watching.”  Dr Daniel is the author of “Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality ”, and also holds a doctorate in film and media.  He also writes and creates films in the horror genre himself, so he definitely has some experience in making films audiences want to watch.

In her in-depth interview, Lauren asked Dr Daniel what elements he believed made horror films genuinely scary.  These characteristics and reasons behind his opinion include:

The Creation of Dread and Tension

“Dread to me is one of the most powerful emotions horror can create. Tension is of course a central part of that equation. Dread draws the viewer into the film, immersing them in the world of the character. It’s a different emotion from direct horror, in that it’s all about expectations of what is coming, both for the characters and for the viewer.”

The Blurring of Reality and Unreality

“Nowadays viewers are, of course, much more savvy to the tropes of the genre, but there is still a real joy in leaning into the constructed reality and watching these films as if they were real artifacts,” he said.

What is Left Unseen

“Horror film, as a genre, has a long history of manipulating the viewer through the unseen (although sometimes heard) presence of the monster.” Dr Daniel said.

“The unseen taps into the ‘push-pull’ of the desire to look versus our fear in doing so. For me, some of the best horror films are those that strategically withhold the monster, allowing our imaginations to conjure more terrifying bogeymen.”

Strong Identification with the Protagonist

“It’s difficult to create fear and tension if the audience doesn’t care about the characters at the heart of the story,” Dr Daniel said. “The stronger our identification, the more we are willing to vicariously go into the darkest places with these characters.”

The Irrational and Intangible Nature of the Supernatural

“The most intense horror often emerges from a conflict that doesn’t follow the rules of logic or science. This is one reason why the supernatural is such a common source of fear in horror; its unknowable and uncontrollable dimensions can make for the most terrifying antagonists and situations.”

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Successful Scares on Screen

So is it possible to embrace the qualities of what is believed to be a “good horror movie” and rely so little on dialogue to carry the plot?  According to many successful film releases in the last few decades, the answer is yes.

Many recent film creations have taken the hint from early silent films by leaning on the power of an intense musical score, and very little dialogue to create some particularly sinister and scream-inducing films. Without the crutch of a heavily worded script to set the tone, or assist the audience by describing situations and conveying important information, a film with minimal dialogue allows its watchers to draw their own conclusions in what is sure to happen in a film.

To many what makes a scary film truly grip-inducing is not what is said, but what is suggested by the imagination.

If you would like to enjoy a particularly quiet but scary evening at home, there are some suggestions. Some of these movies run the range from undoubtedly strange to downright diabolical. These films feature some element of silence in them, whether it be an eerily silent killer, or needing to stay quiet to survive! Be warned though, some of these movies are rated R, so make sure to check a parent guide online to see if it is something you want to watch as a family, or if it’s best to have the kiddos watch something more age-appropriate!

  • The Innkeepers (2011)
  • Hush (2016)
  • A Quiet Place (2018)
  • The Silence (2019)
  • No One Will Save You (2023)

Whether you watch a film that is eerily still or heavily laden with an intense musical score.  One rule in horror film watching will always exist.

Be very, very quiet. You never know who or what will hear you!

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