Stambaugh Hosts Annual Silent Horror Movie with Live Organ Accompaniment

By Cailey Barnhart

A screening of the silent movie “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” with live organ accompaniment was held at Stambaugh Auditorium on Oct. 27. Stambaugh holds a silent film viewing each year around Halloween to get the audience into the spirit.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a 1920 German horror film. It follows Francis and Alan, who come across the mysterious Dr. Calligari at a carnival in Germany. Caligari is displaying a somnambulist, a hypnotized man named Cesare who can see into the future. 

When Cesare predicts Alan’s death and Alan is found dead the next morning, Cesare is the main suspect. Francis begins to descend into madness as the movie leaves it up to the audience to decide if Cesare was the killer, or if he was being controlled by the mysterious Dr. Caligari. 

Many consider “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” to be the first true horror film as well as the quintessential display of German expressionism due to its set and makeup styling.

The set features crooked backgrounds, sharp shadows and bold lines, all hand painted. The buildings are pointed and crooked, giving an almost hallucinatory effect that one would expect in an Edvard Munch or Pablo Picasso painting.

The makeup on the actors is dark and exaggerated, drawing expression and emphasizing the eeriness of the film due to the fact that words cannot express it. 

Famous film reviewer Roger Ebert gave “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” a five-star review, explaining that “there had been earlier ghost stories, and the eerie serial ‘Fantomas’ made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. ‘Caligari’ creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”

In the book “From Caligari to Hitler,” Siegfried Kracauer, an art historian, argued the rise of Nazism was foreshadowed by early German films that reflected a world at wrong angles and lost values. Kracauer felt that Caligari was a symbol of Hitler and the German people were sleepwalkers under his spell.

Stambaugh Auditorium promotes the screening of the silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” before the event begins. Photo by Cailey Barnhart/The Jambar

Clark Wilson, the event’s organist, has been bringing life to silent movies for decades. 

Wilson discussed the evolution of film, from a man turning a crank to a two-step motion at a carnival to what we view now in cinemas. He made sure to point out the Warner Brothers, whose family settled in Youngstown. 

“They would hang a bed sheet over a wall, a hand-crank projector in the back and would have 75 or 100 chairs borrowed from the local funeral parlor, and they would show these short films,” Wilson said about the movement of film from carnivals to indoor nickelodeons, which were theaters with an admission fee of one nickel.

Wilson notes that plot was originally introduced in 1903, “changing the history of films forever.”

Upon the ending, Wilson was met with a standing ovation from the audience. 

The audience also included YSU students who were no strangers to Stambaugh’s silent movies.

Senior finance major Anthony Nakley has been attending the silent film shows at Stambaugh since his freshman year of college. 

“It’s always a treat to see large crowds attending. The art, storylines and especially the beautiful organ music encapsulates the audience for two hours, transporting them into another world,” Nakley said.