Squeaky floorboards, creaking rusty hinges of a door and the hair-raising sense of an alien presence in a dark house set the tone for today's spooky movies. But how did early movie viewers react when sound first came to the screen?
During a brief period between 1927 to a few months after the release of Dracula in 1931, audiences saw talking movies for the first time.
The public's response to the coupling of images and sound—and the beginning of the horror film genre—are the focus of Case Western Reserve University author Robert Spadoni's forthcoming book in September, Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre (University of California Press).
Today's audiences might look at the old horror films with a "condescending" attitude that the movies lack sophistication, but Spadoni argues that for the time and place in which the movies were made, they were a new and startling experience for those audiences.
Like any new cinema technology, sound had an impact on its audience, said Spadoni.
Uncanny Bodies goes back to that time and place to piece together the evidence from film archives and critics' reviews about this era and its reception of early talkies. The book then examines two icons of early horror—Dracula and Frankenstein.
Spadoni, assistant professor of English and film at Case Western Reserve, draws the title of his book from an essay by Sigmund Freud on the psychology of situations where the living appear dead and the dead alive, such as the mannequin in the store window that suddenly moves or the passenger next to a traveler who has quietly died during the trip. Freud describes the point of realization that the dead are alive and the living dead as uncanny.
Cinema audience had much the same feeling when sound came to the screen.
Spadoni reports that moviegoers found the people on the big screen "ghostly" and "unreal."
All the artificial qualities of early film contributed to the ghostliness, from the hollow, tinny quality of voices produced by early sound technology to the black and white film that made people appear gray.
Comments from some film critics described the actors as "talking shadows."
The early technical difficulties heightened the uncanny sensations as the audience saw "gray" and "ghostlike" images of people moving across a large flat larger-than-life screen, emitting sounds that resembled not people but "hollow, wavering waiflike voices," said Spadoni. "The combination produced this ghostliness that the public found in the movies."
Later, with Dracula, when the novelty of sound had started to wear off and the voices didn't sound so strange anymore, Spadoni argues that the character played by Bela Lugosi mixes the qualities of deadness in his whitish makeup and by living in a coffin and with his strange Hungarian accent.
Spadoni said Universal Studio "re-estranged" sound film through certain strategies that recreated those qualities that audiences found in the early sound movies.
"Dracula was able to tap the "emotional memories" of all these people who had seen early sound films. They were ripe—primed—to sit down and really be impressed by this kind of figure that Bela Lugosi played," said Spadoni.
Frankenstein's release later in the same year as Dracula would spook its audiences to the point where people were so frightened and disturbed that they got up and left the theater, said Spadoni. Other early horror films of this time were The Mummy, which harkened back to the silent era with its lack of sound, and White Zombie.
Today, people find Dracula funny because our standards of scariness have evolved with new technologies introduced into the sound and images of the cinema, explained Spadoni.
He added that "What persists over time in the horror genre is its relationship to new cinema technology. Sound provided filmmakers with new means to jolt and scare audiences. We see this sort of thing happening repeatedly throughout the history of the genre, when, for example, color and 3D are introduced later in the sound era."
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