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September 3, 2020

The World’s First Short Horror Film: The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as The Execution of Mary Stuart, is a silent, short film produced in 1895. It is the first known film to use special effects, specifically the stop trick.

The 18-second-long film was produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Alfred Clark at the Edison Laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, USA and may have been the first film in history to use trained actors, as well as the first to use editing for the purposes of special effects.

The film shows a blindfolded Mary (played by Mr. Robert L. Thomae, male actor in Shakespeare-Tradition also for female cast) being led to the execution block. The executioner raises his axe and an edit occurs during which the actor is replaced by a mannequin. The mannequin’s head is chopped off and the executioner holds it in the air as the film ends.

While not the scariest scene ever filmed, it would have certainly shocked audiences of its day – assuming more than a few people saw it back then. So compelling was the scene that some viewers at the time believed an actress had given her life to film it!

Modern horror audiences might lament the lack of blood flow, but they should remember that decapitated heads didn’t bleed in the 1500s, so the film was quite historically accurate. It’s true! Human heads just popped right off like doll heads and didn’t create any mess (other than confetti, which was not depicted in this film due to time and budgetary constraints). It wasn’t like the stupid decapitated heads of today, which require at least a bucket and a mop to clean up after.

Portrait Mary, Queen of Scots, by François Clouet, ca. 1558–1560.

Mary, Queen of Scots (December 8, 1542 – February 8, 1587), also known as Mary Stuart or Mary I of Scotland, reigned over Scotland from December 14, 1542 to July 24, 1567.

Mary, the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, was six days old when her father died and she acceded to the throne. She spent most of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents, and in 1558, she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. Mary was queen consort of France from his accession in 1559 until his death in December 1560. Widowed, Mary returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on August 19, 1561. Four years later, she married her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and in June 1566 they had a son, James.

In February 1567, Darnley’s residence was destroyed by an explosion, and he was found murdered in the garden. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to have orchestrated Darnley’s death, but he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567, and the following month he married Mary. Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. On July 24, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, she fled southward seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Mary had once claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics, including participants in a rebellion known as the Rising of the North. Perceiving Mary as a threat, Elizabeth had her confined in various castles and manor houses in the interior of England. After eighteen and a half years in custody, Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth in 1586, and was beheaded the following year at Fotheringhay Castle.


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