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Silent Horror: Celluloid Specters

Updated: May 8, 2023

From Max Schreck’s ghoulishly feral Count Orlok to Lon Chaney’s grotesquely disfigured Phantom of the Opera, the movie monsters of the silent era remain particularly terrifying, even after haunting the silver screen for nearly a century. The uncanny, otherworldly, ghostly qualities that make them so uniquely and captivatingly unnerving are, I believe, etched into the very celluloid onto which their images are printed.

Older film stocks create a sharper contrast between black and white, lending the shadows that highlight and distort the creatures’ misshapen visages a physical, tactile presence that has gradually waned with technological “advancements.” Would John Barrymore’s cartoonishly theatrical interpretation of Edward Hyde—with his gnarled, bloated, sausage-like fingers; his enlarged, conical cranium; and his thin, stringy hair—appear half as horrifying when viewed through the lens of a modern digital camera? I doubt it; the comparative "naturalism" of high-definition would only diminish his inherent mystique.

Fear begins with form and medium; the rest is secondary.

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