Here is one of the most famous images in silent film - in all of film history, in fact - the Man in the Moon, walloped in the face by a bullet-like spacecraft in Georges Melies 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. Film evolved first as a magician’s trick, so it seems natural that Melies would look towards fantastical subjects and the unknown.
And yet outer space, speculative fiction and the like are rarely to be found in films prior to the 1930s, when the term ‘Science Fiction’ is first thought to have been coined. There are notable exceptions, of course -Metropolis (1926) being the most famous - but it was not for another decade that cinemagoers were regularly taken to alien worlds or the not-too-distant future. Perhaps it is telling that while Edgar Rice Burroughs had helped popularise the genre with The Princess of Mars (1912) and subsequent novels, it was a creation that spoke to the origins of human behaviour that captured the bulk of the public’s fascination: Tarzan.
Instead of looking out into the universe, filmmakers of the 1910s looked inward, to the world of the mind and consciousness - what might be called the 'inner space’, a place just as mysterious as the heavens, and one which was likewise only in the early stages of being known and understood. What was often referred to as the 'psychological film’ at the time fulfilled a similar desire to that which was later fulfilled by science fiction - to examine the very borders between fact and fantasy; to push the first to see where it overlaps with the other, and to examine the impact of science upon the human psyche.
Psychoanalysis was still an emergent field. The actions of the human brain were largely a mystery. Mental illness remained little understood. Many, for example, still believed that epileptic seizures or psychotic breaks were a form of demonic possession. The idea that the mind may not only be understood but tamed - even controlled - was every bit as exciting a scientific premise as the conquering of outer space.
Louis Reeves Harrison, scenario editor for Screenart Pictures, wrote in 1914 that 'psychological’ themes such as mental derangement and split personality represented 'not the abstract fancies of the psychologist, but stern realities whose existence needs the entertaining determination of truth, and they may all furnish material for intense drama … we are far from being what we think we are and there are many exciting adventures yet to be made into the dark realm of mental change, adventures which can be used to awaken high suspense and, at the same time, fascinate us by startling revelations concerning our personal relations to the forces directing our careers.“
Blanche Sweet (Becky) confronts Blanche Sweet (Dorothy) in The Case of Becky (1915). Source: Motion Picture News, 18 September 1915.
Thus, as in science fiction, the world of scientific fact and dramatic fancy found a junction. Multiple personalities was one area of interest, especially given the histrionic possibilities it opened to the lead actor or actress. Lasky-Belasco’s The Case of Becky (1915), based on a successful stage play, found Blanche Sweet as the sweet-natured Dorothy who, hypnotised by an unscrupulous doctor (Theodore Roberts), develops a second, malevolent personality named Becky. She is saved by the intervention of another hypnotist (played by Carlyle Blackwell), who manages to suppress Becky.
It may appear a fairly trite treatment of multiple personality disorder today, but as with many films of the psychological genre, a grain of scientific fact provided it with credibility. In this case, the basis was the real-life story of Miss Christine Beauchamp, as outlined in Dr Morton Prince’s 1905 book The Dissociation of a Personality. The same book was cited as an inspiration behind The Two-Souled Woman (1918), though the New York Times felt the latter suffered in comparison to the former: "Mr. Belasco’s play departed considerably from the scientific record in search of theatrical effect, but its departure was only the slightest deviation compared to that of The Two-Souled Woman, which is simply a melodrama … Improbabilities and impossibilities are expected in melodrama, but should one be asked to accept absurdities?” Bridging this credibility gap became the main challenge for the psychological film, and it may be precisely because it sat so squarely on the border between showman’s trick and scientific phenomenon that one ‘psychological’ theme gained precedence over all the others: that of hypnotism.
Ella Hall undergoes hypnotism to cure paralysis in Universal’s The Silent Command (1915). Source: Motion Picture News, 5 June 1915
Featuring in dozens and perhaps hundreds of films in the 1910s, hypnotism sat on the threshold between the known and unknown in such a way that the qualities of one could lend it credence, and the other, drama and mystery.
The theme was not entirely new, appearing most famously in the 1895 stage play Trilby, based on the novel by George du Maurier. One of the few examples of the hypnotism genre which remained popular into the sound era - the 1931 sound film Svengali may be its best remembered incarnation - it is nevertheless noteworthy that the first time it appeared on screen was in 1915, right in the midst of the 'psychological’ craze. Clara Kimball Young appeared in the title role of the beautiful young artist’s model who is hypnotised into a career as an opera singer by the mysterious mesmerist named Svengali.
The typical pattern for the genre was set by one of its earliest screen examples, D.W. Griffith’s The Criminal Hypnotist (1909). A scientist performs a party trick of placing partygoers under hypnosis to perform harmless amusements. One young woman proves particularly susceptible to his powers. With her mind under his control, he guides her into attempting a robbery. Finding her in a trancelike state, her family calls in another expert to revive her, but to no avail. Finally, the ‘criminal hypnotist’ is apprehended and made to return the girl to her original state.
The idea of mind control by the sort of ‘mad scientist’ who later became a stock character of science fiction soon became prevalent, and reflected similar fears about the ethics of ‘playing God’. In numerous examples -The Forbidden Room (1914), Through the Eyes of Truth (1915), A Silent Accuser (1915) and many others - the doctor’s aim is to use the subject to commit or take responsibility for a crime.In Victor’s The Bribe (1915), an attempt is made to hypnotise a judge into changing an adverse verdict. In many others, the scientist hopes to win the love of the victim of his machinations, or turn her against a romantic rival. The hypnotist’s intentions are not always evil, however. In many examples, a benevolent (though ill-defined) ‘brain doctor’ or 'mind expert’ arrives at just the right moment to restore the victim to their correct state. In Kalem’s The Invisible Power (1915), an army surgeon (William H. West) meets a dance hall girl (Cleo Ridgeley), who has lost her memory in a bar room brawl. His hypnosis leads her to abandon her unhealthy lifestyle and her abusive lover, the dance hall proprietor. Frequently - as it is in this case - the good doctor spontaneously wins the love of the hypnotised girl. Or perhaps, not so spontaneously? This is an ethical ambiguity that most films of the time are willing to sacrifice in service of a happy ending.
Thanhouser’s 'Zudora' (1914). Source: Moving Picture World, 16 January 1915.
In other cases, hypnotism proves almost as useful a method of solving crime as causing it. In Lubin’s A Silent Accuser (1915), a surgeon is robbed and his young assistant, the fiancée of the surgeon’s daughter, falls under suspicion. It is not until a servant is hypnotised that he confesses and absolves the assistant.
Thanhouser’s serial Zudora (1914) told the story of a 'mystic girl detective’ who uses 'deduction, hypnotism and scientific analysis’ to solve mysteries. The serial format, with its emphasis on unpredictable developments and heightened tolerance for esoteric subject matter, provided fertile ground for the psychological drama, with hypnotism featuring in The Evil Eye (1914), The Mysteries of Myra (1916), and many others. It is interesting to note than when science fiction did begin to move into the mainstream, it was also via serials, such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
The psychological film always walked a thin line between fantasy and fact, and the two qualities were not always resolved in a satisfactory manner. As many reviews pointed out, it was not so much the plausibility of the phenomenon itself that mattered, but how believably it was portrayed which contributed to the credibility of the final product.
World Film Corporation’s The Stolen Voice (1914), for example, had a storyline that was not much more outlandish than many of its contemporaries - a physician uses hypnosis to steal the voice from a famous singer - and yet the apparent ease with which the doctor achieved his end, and the lack of motivation for this act, made it seem implausible. “It is hypnotism made so simple that even the least skeptical of spectators is likely to question its possibility and probably conclude 'it can’t be done.’” said one review. Whereas The Invisible Power managed to maintain credibility even whilst venturing into the pseudoscientific concept of 'thought transference’ (mental telepathy), poor handling could easily tip a solid psychological premise into the realms of silly melodrama. “There were moments when the drama itself won an uninvited giggle,” said Variety of Vitagraph’s hypnotism-themed The Strange Story of Sylvia Gray (1914) - again, not necessarily because of its convoluted multi-generational story, but the unfeasibly large quantity of coincidences and leaps of logic that were relied upon to carry this story.
One way of bridging the credibility gap was to push the concept more solidly into the realms of clinical fact. By late 1915, at least one actress, Beatriz Michelena, decided to study medical hypnosis for her role in The Unwritten Law (1915), telling Moving Picture World that 'the theme of hypnotic influence has long played a prominent part in both stage and screen productions, but usually in an overdrawn and overacted manner.“ Likewise, Allan Dwan reportedly contracted two "specialists in mental telepathy” to review his 1914 film The Forbidden Room, an early macabre picture for Lon Chaney.
The so-called ‘Princess Khan’ (Stella Razetto) in Selig’s 'The Strange Case of Princess Khan' (1915). Source: Moving Picture World, 2 January 1915
Another option was to push the theme in the opposite direction - away from the scientific and towards the supernatural, often via an esoteric religion or foreign culture. Domino’s The Fakir (1915) - co-authored by one future director, Thomas Ince, and featuring another, Frank Borzage - told the story of a Hindu fakir and hypnotist, Dr Ronaldo. Rhea Mitchell, as his protege Mademoiselle Florine, escapes his influence and marries a wealthy man, Tom Waldron. Dr Ronaldo tracks her down and hypnotises her into robbing her husband’s family vault, but she is interrupted in the process of giving him the loot and he is shot dead.
The Strange Case of Princess Khan (1915) featured another Hindu hypnotist, Sadi Khan, whose mysterious party trick culminates in the appearance of the magical apparition of Princess Khan, a long-dead Hindu princess. Is the princess an actual apparition, or the product of a hypnotic hallucination? It turns out she is a real person, kept hostage by a combination of drugs and hypnotism. As in The Fakir, the hypnotist is killed - but in this case, there’s an additional twist: without the hypnotist, the girl cannot be drawn from her trance. The drug he was also using to effect her moods is found on the hypnotist’s body, and fortunately proves to act as an antidote.
By the later 1910s, it appears that the hypnotism theme was beginning to wear thin, and was frequently watered down with more esoteric and less scientifically sound ideas. Metro’s A Sleeping Memory (1917) featured an intriguing premise that quickly descended into implausible complications. Stage actress Emily Stevens played a poor young woman who submits herself to a scientific experiment in which her past memories are removed, turning her into a heartless and soulless flirt. She becomes involved with no less than three different scientists, the second of whom puts her under hypnotic control, and the third, yet another trusty 'brain specialist’, restores her memory to normal, also uncovering a host of previous lives she has lived, including as a Viking, a member of the House of Borgia, and a victim of the Salem witch trials. Reincarnation enjoyed a brief vogue in films such as The Image Maker (1914) and the serial The Mystery of the Sleeping Death (1917), but was never as popular, perhaps due to its outright breaking of the rules of scientific plausibility that psychological drama was only ever intended to strain.
A number of 'psychological’ films were remade in the very early 1920s, including The Case of Becky and The Invisible Power. By the middle of the decade, the theme was largely played out, though it did reappear on occasion. It’s not often remembered, for example, that hypnotism plays a major part in the storyline of the lost London After Midnight (1927).
As Moving Picture World observed in 1914, the sheer novelty of the psychological drama had also been a major component in its enjoyment. “Perhaps our greatest pleasure in any story comes from the mind’s adventures in the places that it creates. The average mind soon gets tired of walking for pleasure down the same old widows and lanes and, to such, a brand new path leading out unexpectedly to places that have never been seen before is delightful." The theme soon became too ubiquitous to be novel. And yet, while it lasted, the psychological film explored the boundaries between speculative fiction and science fact in a way that is not so dissimilar to modern science fiction classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982) and the recent Ex Machina (2015). "There is a profound reason for our need of and joy in adventures,” said Moving Picture World in 1914. “Like Tennyson’s 'Ulysses,’ our adventures become a part of us. It is the only way we can grow.” For a brief period, the journey into 'inner space’ was considered as intriguing as the adventures in outer space that succeeded it.