Unlike such genres as the musical and the gangster film, which had to wait for the development of sound, horror movies were an important genre in the silent era. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was filmed as early as 1910, and in France, Louis Feuillade's serial Les Vampires (1915–1916) made use of earlier narratives with female vampires. Audiences were familiar enough with horror conventions that by 1927 they were being parodied in The Cat and the Canary .
The first significant cycle of horror films appeared in German expressionist cinema, a movement that began with the influential Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , 1920), directed by Robert Wiene. Its plot involves an evil mesmerist who forces a somnambulist to commit murder. Designed by expressionist artists Hermann Warm, Walter Reiman, and Walter Röhrig, the film contains almost no right angles in its distorted buildings and streets; shadows were painted directly on the walls and floors rather than created by lighting, and the make-up and acting are deliberately stylized. The film's design visualizes the madness of the inmate in the insane asylum who narrates the story. Caligari was a significant international hit and inspired the many films to follow.
A specific period or movement of German silent cinema in the 1920s, German expressionism eschewed realism in favor of projecting onto the exterior world abstract representations of intense inner emotion, whether of characters in the narrative or of the artists themselves. Characteristic techniques of German expressionist cinema include an emphasis on extreme angles, chiaroscuro lighting, distorting lenses or sets, and stylized acting and makeup. The films were shot mostly in the studio, many at Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa, the largest studio in the country), with an artificial look that deliberately sought to exclude the natural world. Thus German expressionism was a style ideally suited to the horror film, and many of the films dealt with the popular horror themes of psychological breakdown and madness and the supernatural, including Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam ( The Golem: How He Came into the World , 1920); Der Müde Tod ( The Weary Death , also known as Between Two Worlds , 1921); Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror , also known as Nosferatu the Vampire , 1922), the first adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1898); Der Student von Prag ( The Student of Prague , 1926); and Faust (1926). Production of expressionist films in Germany peaked in the mid-1920s, and the movement dissipated in the early 1930s with the coming of sound and the emigration of many German directors, cinematographers, actors, and other film workers to the United States as the Nazis rose to power. In Hollywood they worked their way into the studio system, where they contributed significantly to the development and look of the horror film, particularly those produced at Universal, and later in the 1940s to the distinctive style of film noir.
In contrast to German cinema, the comedies and westerns already characteristic of Hollywood in the silent period expressed upbeat and open moods that were unsuitable to the dark and claustrophobic worlds of traditional horror. It was not until much later that Hollywood would turn for inspiration to the strong vein of horror that ran through American literature, from the demonization of native Americans and the wilderness in the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others to the more straightforward horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. But while horror was not a Hollywood priority in this period, Lon Chaney (1883–1930), known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" for his mastery of makeup, emerged as the first American star of the genre in such roles as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and in eight collaborations with the director Tod Browning. Unique among silent film stars, Chaney was known for portraying monstrous, physically deformed, and psychologically tortured characters.