Cinema has a long history of reflecting the cultural mores of a given decade within its frames, and the horror genre is no different. The 1950s saw the rise of atomic horrors following World War II; the 60s featured more personal and social horrors from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and George Romero; the 70s capitalized on stories from modern horror gurus like Stephen King and delved further into sci-fi/horror territory; the 80s focused on big-money franchises and low-budget slasher films, while the 90s took everything to the extreme, and the 00s put modern technology to work in the lucrative found-footage genre. But before any of the modern horror films made their mark, there were decades of early cinematic pioneers paving the way for everything that would come later.
The earliest of these films were experimental by design and by necessity. Georges Méliès‘ 1896 short Le Manoir du Diable or his 1898 short La Caverne Maudite are two of the oldest known films, as are the Japanese horrors Bake Jizo and Shinin no Sosei, both from 1898. It’s in the first 20 years of the 20th century that we see cinematic representations of Edgar Allan Poe‘s work like D.W. Griffith‘s The Sealed Room in 1909, the 1912 Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Thomas Edison‘s production of Frankenstein in 1910, among others. It wasn’t until the 1920s that films reached significant runtimes, although the films with macabre elements weren’t dubbed as “horror” films until the genre’s boom in the 1930s.
So it’s back to the bygone era of silent film and black-and-white pictures that we go in this list, selecting the finest examples of horror cinema from Pre-Code Hollywood. We include the soundless horrors of early German Expressionism and their reactionary World War I themes, many more adaptations of classic stories by Poe and other literary giants, the hugely influential monster universe of Universal Pictures, and taboo films that found themselves heavily censored and even banned after release. Get to know some old favorites alongside some horror icons that might be new to you in our list of the Best Horror Films from 1900 to the 1950s below: