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A Place of Darkness

A Place of Darkness
The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema

Analyzing films from La manoir du Diable to Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as their promotion and critical reception, this book reveals how tales of horror are intimately bound to questions of nationhood and national identity.

March 2018
Active (available)
268 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w photos |

Horror is one of the most enduringly popular genres in cinema. The term “horror film” was coined in 1931 between the premiere of Dracula and the release of Frankenstein, but monsters, ghosts, demons, and supernatural and horrific themes have been popular with American audiences since the emergence of novelty kinematographic attractions in the late 1890s. A Place of Darkness illuminates the prehistory of the horror genre by tracing the way horrific elements and stories were portrayed in films prior to the introduction of the term “horror film.”

Using a rhetorical approach that examines not only early films but also the promotional materials for them and critical responses to them, Kendall R. Phillips argues that the portrayal of horrific elements was enmeshed in broader social tensions around the emergence of American identity and, in turn, American cinema. He shows how early cinema linked monsters, ghosts, witches, and magicians with Old World superstitions and beliefs, in contrast to an American way of thinking that was pragmatic, reasonable, scientific, and progressive. Throughout the teens and twenties, Phillips finds, supernatural elements were almost always explained away as some hysterical mistake, humorous prank, or nefarious plot. The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, constituted a substantial upheaval in the system of American certainty and opened a space for the reemergence of Old World gothic within American popular discourse in the form of the horror genre, which has terrified and thrilled fans ever since.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Cinema, Genre, Nation
  • Chapter 1. Superstition and the Shock of Attraction: Horrific Elements in Early Cinema
  • Chapter 2. Weird and Gloomy Tales: Uncanny Narratives and Foreign Others
  • Chapter 3. Superstitious Joe and the Rise of the American Uncanny
  • Chapter 4. Literary Monsters and Uplifting Horrors
  • Chapter 5. Mysteries in Old Dark Houses
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Index

Syracuse, New York

Phillips is a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. He is author of several books, including Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture and Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film.