The Birth of the Black Boogeyman: Pre-1930s
Beginning in the mid-1800s, White men from occupations as diverse as scientist, eyeglass maker, and magician were beginning to explore ﬁ lm’s technological boundaries and to press its storytelling ability. 2 In Europe, ﬁ lmmakers were proving that whatever came out of their imaginations, ﬁ lm could handle. This included giving birth to (presumably) the world’s ﬁ rst horror ﬁ lm proper — a two-minute, silent short entitled Le Manoir du Diable ( The Haunted Castle ), presented on Christmas Eve, 1896, at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris by French theater performer/magician Georges Méliès:
A large bat ﬂ ies into a medieval castle. Circling slowly, it ﬂ aps its monstrous wings and suddenly changes into Mephistopheles. Conjuring up a cauldron, the demon produces skeletons, ghosts, and witches from its bubbling contents before one of the summoned underworld cavaliers holds up a cruciﬁ x and Satan vanishes in a puff of smoke. 3
This was the era of the silent ﬁ lm (late 1800s to late 1920s), a period in which the moving image could not yet be coupled with synchronized sound for mass reproduction and theatrical playback. This was also a time when to be a ﬁ lmmaker meant that one either had access to the (often experimental, self-invented)
equipment necessary to capture a series of still images and make them move (e.g. “magic lantern” zoetropes), or possessed the capability to capture moving images using a ﬁ lm camera. 4 The ﬁ lmmakers created what were then called “photoplays,” with many of them initially only mere seconds or minutes long, thereby earning the moniker ﬁ lm “shorts.” Films were initially watched through viewing machines such as the Kinetoscope which accommodated one viewer at a time. However, advancements in ﬁ lm technology rapidly evolved and the projection of moving images for large, paying audiences was accomplished in 1893. Although the ﬁ lms of this period were silent, it was not uncommon for them to be accompanied by live orchestral music and sound effects. “Intertitles,” or stills of printed text or transcribed dialogue, were edited into the ﬁ lms to detail plot points while actors pantomimed their dialogue. In 1926 the ﬁ rst feature ﬁ lm with pre-recorded, synchronized sound was introduced. 5 In 1927, The Jazz Singer included, music, sounds, and, importantly, dialogue. From that moment on, “talkies” were a mainstay. 6
In the early years of ﬁ lm, Blacks were portrayed by Whites, performing racist stereotypes while in blackface. One of the earliest known treatments of Blacks in what might be considered a horror ﬁ lm proper (though the term “horror” was not widely used at that time) was in the French ﬁ lm Off to Bloomingdale Asylum (1901). 7 The ﬁ lm was made by magician and illusionist Georges Méliès, known for his stage performances and approximately 500 short ﬁ lms which include themes of the supernatural and the macabre. Asylum is rife with ghostly ﬁ gures as described in Méliès’ catalog:
An omnibus drawn by an extraordinary mechanical horse is drawn by four Negroes. The horse kicks and upsets the Negroes, who falling are changed into white clowns. They begin slapping each other’s faces and by blows become black again. Kicking each other, they become white once more. Suddenly they are all merged into one gigantic Negro. When he refuses to pay his car fare the conductor sets ﬁ re to the omnibus, and the Negro bursts into a thousand pieces. 8
The ﬁ lm’s “Negroes” were performed by White actors in blackface, who were charged, seemingly, to depict the violence around crossing racial boundaries, the tensions around racial masquerade, and ﬁ nally the brutish end to the metaphorical White man’s burden with the destruction of the Negro.