The first horrifying film was actually one of the earliest to be screened to a mass audience. In December of 1895, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, premiered their short film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) to an eager audience. Legend has it that the sight of the train barreling toward the viewer caused a bit of a panic, and some were even said to have passed out in their seats. There are many people out there who refute this claim, thinking it just a publicity ruse (similar in vein to the tagline for Wes Craven's infamous Last House on the Left: "To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It's only a movie...It's only a movie..."), but I prefer to believe the myth.
Similarly, the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery shocked its audience by having a close-up of the bandit pointing a pistol at the viewers. While it may be difficult to believe that such stunts could have then been considered shocking and frightening, one must remember that the film medium was still a new and burgeoning artform. People as a whole were not used to seeing these scenes played out before them in such a manner, and to the untrained eye this must have appeared to be as much witchcraft as science. The modern viewer has become too jaded to be so easily horrified.
But there are a lot of things that are horrifying that can not be classified as horror. The evening news, for instance. So where do we go to find the first horror film? Not too far, it turns out.
Georges Méliès--who was in the audience the night that the Lumière brothers debuted their impressive film--is sometimes credited with being the grandfather of the horror film. If nothing else, he is at least the grandfather of the Special Effect, which is the lifeblood of the horror film. Until he came along, the medium was used primarily to capture moments of real life, mini-documentaries of a sort, such as the aforementioned train arrival, or factory workers heading home for the day. Méliès is responsible for bringing imagination to the forefront of the motion picture.
Méliès is probably best known for his 1902 film Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), which received a brief burst of popularity when the Smashing Pumpkins used it as the inspiration for their music video "Tonight, Tonight". This is tentatively a science fiction film, although perhaps more of a fantasy film, but in all reality the majority of Méliès' works are less stories than they are showcases for his innovative camera work and trick shots. (Click here to watch)
A magician himself, many of Méliès' movies highlighted stage magicians in ways never seen before, as in the 1899 short L'Impressionniste Fin de Siecle (An Up-To-Date Conjuror) shown below.
Many of his works, regardless of their purpose, did utilize some horrific imagery.
1896's Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil) has elements of vampirism, with Mephistopheles showcasing his ability to transform from a bat into human form, and being staved off with a crucifix.
1903's Le Monstre (The Monster) has an Egyptian king asking a holy man to resurrect the skeletal remains of his dead wife. The holy man obliges, and she returns--briefly--as a ghostly dancing figure. (Click here to watch)
1904's Le Roi du Maquillage (The Untamable Moustache) showcases a sketch artist with the uncanny ability to transform himself into whatever it is that he draws on his board. Among the characters he becomes is a creepy clown, and the devil himself. (Click here to watch)
1905's Le Diable Noir (The Black Imp or The Black Devil) featured a mischievous demon haunting the room in which a weary traveler has rented for the night. A series of practical jokes performed on the traveler by the imp leads into a battle of the wits and comes off more as slapstick than anything else. (click here to watch)
1906's Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable (The Merry Frolics of Satan) was a hand-tinted film that followed a pair of travelers on a carriage ride lead by a skeletal horse. The trip initially takes them barelling through the heavens, but in the end, one of them plummets to hell. (Click here to watch)
As Méliès was the director of more than 550 films, the list goes on and on. Those interested in seeing more should do a Google Video Search for his name and settle in for a long night.