Filmmaking was just coming into fashion at the turn of the 20th century, and for actors and directors, it was all uncharted territory. Nothing had ever been done to explore the possibilities of this brilliant new media, and those artistic souls who embraced film simply took it and ran with it.
Many of the resulting short films were the stuff of nightmares. Haunted houses, demons harassing innocent young women, giant man-pigs harassing innocent young women, giant frogs harassing innocent young women . . . you get the picture. These early short films were glimpses into some deep, dark souls.
10Le Cochon Danseur (The Dancing Pig)
Skip to 2:09
The basic story of the video involves a girl sitting down to have a picnic and being repeatedly interrupted by a man wanting to join her. And when we say “man,” we really mean a giant, creepy, man-pig wearing a suit. His advances are spurned by the young lady in question, who is apparently unimpressed by his giant, creepy head and his wandering hands. They do make up, though, after she strips him of his suit and completely humiliates him—then it’s time for the naked pig dancing.
You’ve probably seen a GIF grabbed from the video. It’s an absolutely bizarre close-up of the pig’s head, flapping his ears, winking, and sticking his tongue out. Weird in itself, and absolutely nightmare-inducing in the context of the rest of the video, where the young girl makes him dance naked for her. Filmed in 1907, the short is actually a part of a longer vaudeville show that had massive success.
Skip to 0:47
This is another short in which an anthropomorphic creature adds a whole new level of weird. The film features a young girl who meets a frog hopping around a fountain. The frog begins to chase her around the fountain, when the video turns into less of a story and more of an excuse for the director, Segundo de Chomon, to start using some of his new film techniques. Known as a revolutionary Spanish filmmaker living and working in France, he’s credited with being one of the first to use stop-motion filming and for inventing a process of hand coloring film.
The film flashes between the fountain, some weird, disembodied giant heads (it’s the heads that are the worst, spraying water as they scream and grimace and pull faces at the camera), girls draped in cloth and flowers, riding in clamshells, then driving carousel-like chariots, all as the frog-suited man does lap after lap around the fountain. If that’s the magical frog of fairy tales, we’re pretty sure we don’t want to ever meet him.
Skip to 1:26
This is another entry from Spanish director Segundo de Chomon. (Don’t worry, it’s definitely not the last, either.) This short from 1912 features another young woman and another elaborate stage. This time, though, she’s performing magic tricks. We’re guessing that it’s probably a pretty easy thing to do when you’re pioneering stop-motion video, but at the time, this was cutting-edge stuff.
And that’s not the creepy. The creepy happens when the woman starts bringing little statues to life, and then setting them on fire. She starts out with balls, but soon escalates into torching little dancing bears, a squirrel, and then a little group of dancing babies. The film runs in reverse to give birth to a little dancing fat man, but he’s only around for a few seconds before he goes up in flames. The woman soon magics into existence a handful of other women, and the short ends right as the smoke starts. The rest appears to be left up to your imagination.
Silly Symphonies was probably the most misleading name for a short animated series ever. Created by Disney between 1929–1939, it featured cartoons set to music. Because they were designed to be short, simple pieces that weren’t bound by recurring characters or a story that people might already be familiar with, animators could do what they pleased. And many were very, very dark.
The very first one, The Skeleton Dance, was just that. Skeletons come out of the graveyard at night, pulling off their skulls and throwing them at owls to silence them, before starting their weirdly cheery dance about two minutes into the video—definitely nightmare fuel for any unsuspecting child hoping to enjoy the Disney shorts they haven’t seen before. The second in the series, El Terrible Toreador, features a bullfighter, his saucy barmaid of a girlfriend, and a very strange bullfight.
The fourth, Hells’ Bells, is essentially a dance number performed by weirdly elongated, winged demons dancing to the delight of a bell-ringing Satan. There’s a break around 3:30, where the demons milk a dragon-cow to deliver some flaming milk to the devil. Unfortunately, it’s not appreciated, so one of his minions gets fed to Cerberus and the other gets chased by the devil himself. The devil ultimately gets hurled off a cliff and receives a fiery spanking.
6The Electric Hotel
Skip to 0:40, 5:18
We’d really, really like to know what goes on inside the head of Segundo de Chomon. In this 1908 short film, two people check into a hotel. Seems innocent enough, but since it’s an electric hotel, that means all sorts of things happen. Luggage moves on its own and molests a chair before going on to unpack itself.
The garishly dressed couple retire to their private rooms. Their stay at the electric hotel involves furniture that rearranges itself and brushes that scamper over to clean their shoes and start to get really, really personal. The woman’s hair is combed and braided (after she’s partially undressed), and the man has absolutely no qualms about being lathered and shaved by floating razors.
But there’s a danger there, too: An overload of electricity makes the hotel go haywire. If these are the effects of electricity, we’re pretty sure we’d rather not have anything to do with it.
5The Astronomer’s Dream
Skip to 0:58
Georges Melies was a Frenchman living in England when he discovered magic and motion pictures. Over the course of a few decades, he directed more than 500 short films, experimenting with integration of story and special effects. The Astronomer’s Dream, done in 1898, is exactly that, only we’d call it more of a nightmare.
An astronomer, frustrated with his work, looks through his giant telescope, only to find the moon has come out of the sky and is suddenly in the middle of eating said telescope. The massive, wide-mouthed moon with its rolling eyes starts belching fire and vomiting little moon children, whom the astronomer picks up and pitches back down into the moon’s gullet. Women, scantily clad for 1898, manifest in the moon and come down to visit the astronomer, but flee from his advances. Finally, he’s eaten by the moon and vomited up in some difficult-to-discern pieces. If this was our image of the moon, it’s a wonder we ever made it there.
4La Maison Ensorcelee
Skip to 0:31, 0:55
As if Segundo de Chomon’s work isn’t creepy enough when he’s not making a horror movie, he gets to go all out on La Maison Ensorcelee. Done in 1907, the short film follows a small group of hapless travelers who seek shelter from a rainstorm. Since it’s a rainstorm created by de Chomon, of course there’s also a haunted house. Apparently, the travelers miss the point where the house turns itself into a giant, leering, toothy monster (with a top hat) as they’re entering—there’s no way anyone in their right mind would do anything but give this place a wide berth.
Inside, it’s implied that it’s the wild-looking, clawed demon living in the painting that’s causing misery for the travelers. The travelers really don’t have our sympathy at this point, as they decide to stay even after seeing the creature. Furniture rearranges itself, clothes come to life, ghosts appear . . . yet the travelers still decide to sit down and try to have a bite to eat. Smoked meat appetizers are carved by a mysteriously floating carving knife, but at least it cleans up the crumbs.
On the other hand, when we get a close-up of our travelers—painted to look like clowns that just committed unspeakable acts of savagery in a box car—we’re not all that surprised, or concerned when the demon in the painting gets them in the end.
3Sweet Dreams Intermingled With Nightmares
Skip to 0:41
This short is another excuse for Segundo de Chomon to get freaky. A young girl is spending a lovely afternoon by a peaceful pond, when a statue behind her awakens and turns into a demonic man. She doesn’t see this, though. It’s only the frog-like demon-imp rising from the middle of the pond that first grabs her attention, then her.
She appears in hell, surrounded by other frog-demons with massive heads, dancing and mocking her, all weirdly grotesque and absolutely delighting in her clear distress. It’s not long before they grab and throw her on the fire to roast her alive—their giant forks make their intentions clear.
The girl wakes, back in reality, before falling asleep again to sweet dreams. This time, there’s a surreal garden with other happy young women, where she’s introduced to a gallant young man. She wakes again, without him, and we can’t help but think that de Chomon is suggesting that her reality has become her nightmare.
2The Sealed Room
This short is a little different from the others: There are no moments where something bizarre or deformed leaps out of the screen at you, there are no magic tricks or weird, demonic creatures tormenting clown-painted people. The Sealed Room is a 1909 short film by D.W. Griffith, who would later go on to direct one of the most controversial films in American cinematic history, The Birth of a Nation. Born in Kentucky, Griffith was originally an actor, before he started directing short films like this one.
Inspired by a classic horror motif, The Sealed Room is the story of a king who discovers his favored girl has been cheating on him with a musician. In spite of being the recipient of her amorous affections, he becomes suspicious and eventually catches the pair in each others’ arms, hiding inside a curtained dovecote. While the two ill-fated lovers cuddle with each other, the king orders the small entryway to the room to be sealed with bricks.
When the pair discover that they’ve been sealed in and left to die, they react with all the horror and anguish you’d expect, while the king laughs and shouts and pounds on the wall from the other side. An entirely different sort of nightmare, it’s one that anyone with a fear of cramped spaces can completely relate to.
1The Man With The India Rubber Head
Skip to 0:30
This short—another one from Georges Melies—features a mad scientist that quite literally has a head. He keeps it in a box, and it looks suspiciously like him. He puts the head on a table, and gestures toward the camera, indicating exactly what he intends to do with it. While the head blinks and gasps on the table, he attaches bellows to it and inflates it to a massive size. When it gets big enough, he deflates it back to its original size.
There’s a lot of really disturbing cheering and clapping and stomping of feet on the part of the decidedly mad scientist. He invites someone in to watch, but unfortunately, this time he inflates the head just a little too much. It explodes in a puff of smoke, and based on the terror and agony that the head had expressed throughout the entire sketch, we’re guessing that a swift end really was in its best interests.