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The Birth of the American Horror Film

Gary D. Rhodes

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Explains how the American horror movie came into existence

Although early cinema has long been a key area of research in film studies, the origin and development of the horror film has been a neglected subject for what is arguably one of the world’s most popular film genres. Using thousands of primary sources and long-unseen illustrations, The Birth of the American Horror Film examines a history that begins in colonial Salem, taking an interdisciplinary approach to explore the influence of horror-themed literature, theatre and visual culture in America, and how that context established an amorphous structural foundation for films produced between 1895 and 1915. Exhaustively researched, bridging scholarship on Horror Studies and Early Cinema, The Birth of the American Horror Film is the first major study dedicated to this vital but often overlooked subject.

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Chapter 1: Literature

Chapter 2: Theatre

Chapter 3: Visual Culture

Chapter 4: Moving Pictures

Chapter 5: Devils

Chapter 6: Witches

Chapter 7: Ghosts

Chapter 8: Supernatural Creatures

Chapter 9: Death, Murder, and Execution

Chapter 10: Evolution and Devolution

Chapter 11: The Other(s)

Chapter 12: The Powers of the Mind

Chapter 13: Mad Scientists

Chapter 14: American Literature Onscreen

Chapter 15: Exhibition and Reception

About the Author

Gary D. Rhodes is Head of Film & Mass Media at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of Lugosi (1997), White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film (2002), Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema (2012) and The Perils of Moviegoing in America (2012). Rhodes is also the writer-director of the documentary films Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula (1997) and Banned in Oklahoma (2004). Currently he is at work on a history of the American horror film to 1915, as well as a biography of William Fox.


'In a remarkable work of historical research, Gary Rhodes provides what must certainly be the definitive study of the origins of the horror film genre. First, he traces the manifestations of “horror-themed” material well back into the 18th century, considering literature, theater, graphic arts, freak shows, lurid news stories—anything likely to raise a thrill of horror. He then turns to early cinema—the peep shows, the nickelodeons—covering its development from 1895 to 1915. Most popular of the horror figures were witches, ghosts, and devils, but almost all future familiar frights were represented—vampires, werewolves, mummies, monsters, mad scientists, mesmerists, somnambulists, aliens, sinister “others.” The only horror missing from the period was the zombie. Rhodes also enumerates the films based on the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and—especially—Edgar Allan Poe. The sheer volume of films produced is astonishing. Most are lost, of course, but Rhodes does a magnificent job of resurrecting them, using advertising copy, publicity stills, trade magazines, and film criticism to recuperate plots and some notion of style.'
- W. A. Vincent, Michigan State University , CHOICE

This is a meticulous study of the intermedial roots and manifestations of horror-themed cinema in all its varieties prior to 1915. The depth and scope of Rhodes’ erudite scholarship make this an indispensable read for everyone interested in one of the most persistent features of American cinema of all ages: horror.

- Professor Jan Olsson, Stockholm University

A fascinating and overdue study. This book demonstrates the multiple different contexts out of which the horror film was born. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of horror film

- Professor Mark Jancovich, University of East Anglia

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