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Scariest Movies of the Silent Era

3 years, 11 months ago
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by Taylor Leonard

Silence is scary when danger seems imminent. To this end there is something uniquely frightening about many horror movies of the silent era. The actions and expressions of killers and monsters in silent cinema seem to happen in a nightmarish realm where some of our sense are denied while others accentuated. Though dozens of silent era movies are noted for their fear factor, here are the top five which are most likely to generate scares in modern audiences as much as they did upon initial release:

Phantom of the Opera (​1925)


Countless adaptations of the novel L​e Fantôme de l’Opéra b​y Gaston Leroux have been made since its publication in 1910, but it’s the 1925 silent film version which remains the pop culture standard of this famous story. Lon Chaney’s memorable makeup and performance are key to the film’s enduring legacy as a source for scares. The Phantom’s appearance is every bit as unsettling as it was 90 years ago, a testament to Chaney’s skill at tightroping what we know today as the uncanny valley.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages​(1922)

HŠxan (1922) Filmografinr: 1922/06

Banned in the United States upon its release, the Swedish­made H​äxan w​as made with the intention of being a documentary. Its subject: the role mental illness played in perceived witchcraft throughout the centuries. However there are vignettes strung throughout the film meant to depict both the myths and realities of so­called demonic possession which to this day are capable of making your skin crawl. In particular, the film’s creator, Benjamin Christensen, portraying the Devil incarnate on camera.

Nosferatu (​1922)


An iconic horror film of the German Expressionist movement, ​Nosferatu​can seem sort of tame at times thanks to the abundance of still images of actor Max Schreck dressed up as vampire Count Orlok. It’s a costume which admittedly seems corny and outdated. Upon viewing the film, however, it becomes apparent that the fright is not generated from the look of Count Orlok but rather the way he looks at you. Schreck’s eyes tell a story of impending doom which require no noise or heavy action to get the point across. See for yourself.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ​(1920)

scariest silent film

Another product of the German Expressionist movement, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is perhaps the first movie to successfully capture the predatory nature of what audiences fear most. The slinking, stalking killer of the film, helplessly controlled by a madman, can be considered a predecessor to Slenderman. Furthermore, modern audiences may recognize the film’s iconic set design and artistic direction as having similarities with the works of director Tim Burton. Indeed, Burton considers The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari one of his major influences as a filmmaker.

Honorable Mention: B​egotten (​1991)


Not completely silent and released in the 1990s, B​egotten​doesn’t technically belong on the list but is worth listing anyway. Brutal black and white imagery of what can only be described as absolute agony are, at most, accompanied by subtle ambient sounds. Otherwise it’s eerily quiet, adding to the visual agony rather than detracting from its horror.

Silent horror movies are in a class of their own. They deny the viewer the power of one set of sensory organs while doubling down on the impact on another. In this way they are very much like living nightmares, where dreamers are often robbed of hearing and unable to move, all the while privy to the frightening actions unfolding before them.

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