Atlas Obscura is digging into historical and pop culture villains during their Villains Week. The first story is a look back at the damsel-in-distress trope of evil, mustachioed villains tying women to railroad tracks. We've all seen it in silent movies. Or did we? It never made sense that a murderer would go to that much trouble to cause a death delayed just long enough for the hero to arrive. Fritzi Kramer, who runs the blog Movies Silently, tells us how that familiar scenario began.
On her site Kramer identifies the first occurrence of this type of scene in an 1867 Victorian stage melodrama called Under The Gaslight. The play’s stage directions call for one of the characters (named Snorkey) to be tied to the train tracks by the villain. It’s close to the scene we’re familiar with save for the fact that the person on the tracks is a man, and he’s saved by the leading lady.
This sort of train-based peril became a regular element of the melodramas as a cheap and easy way to create suspense. Moving into the early-20th century, and the silent film era, many films took their cues from those same 19th-century stage dramas. One of the more famous examples of this type of story was the serial The Perils of Pauline, which saw the titular heroine encounter all kinds of scoundrels and villains each week, who would put her in life-threatening danger—although it is important to note that she was never tied to the railroad tracks. This sort of overblown adventure tale became a well-known story type in its time, but that melodramatic style also inspired some comedies, which spoofed some of the more overused elements of the genre.
In fact, the vision we have of the villain with the top hat and evil mustache tying a woman to a railroad track never actually happened in a serious drama! That trope was cemented in the parodies that made fun of it. Read about the standard plot and how it changed in our minds over the years at Atlas Obscura.