Books, Horror, Movies, TV

Descending into Darkness: An Introduction to Gothic Horror

by Jamie Alvey at 9:19 pm

Jamie Alvey is an award winning and losing writer as well as an actor and educator. She specializes in all things macabre and is the unofficial expert on Stephen King's It.

Under the larger umbrella of horror, there is a plethora of subgenres that cater to all sorts of predilections. Gothic horror is perhaps one of the most misunderstood by modern audiences. Whenever a new piece of gothic horror is released, there’s always the same middling and often ignorant responses the piece is lambasted with. There are lots of cries of, “It’s not scary!” or the tried and true, “This isn’t horror!” But oh, dear reader, it is horror. In fact, it is one of the oldest subgenres that rests under that larger aforementioned umbrella and created a solid foundation for modern horror to be built on. It’s not a crime not to know a lot about gothic horror. It’s quite common to have a bit of a blind spot in subjects, even those that one deeply loves and enjoys. However, gothic horror does deserve respect and to be understood because it is one of the founding pillars of horror as the world knows it.

A Brief History of Gothic Horror:

Gothic horror started in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it fully reached literary prominence. Horace Walpole is credited with writing the inaugural tale of the genre, a novel titled The Castle of Otranto. Author Clara Reeve wrote her own twist on The Castle of Otranto called The Old English Baron, thus furthering the creation of the genre. Ann Radcliffe took the genre to new heights and solely dabbled in the gothic. Her works were all met with great success, and she actually introduced the gothic character archetype that would later come to be known as the Byronic hero. Radcliffe is best known for The Mysteries of Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance. While Walpole is credited with starting the genre, it was women who did the legwork that truly furthered it. It was with Radcliffe that the idea of a “female gothic” emerged, a literary mode that women writers could employ as a way to exorcise their domestic fears and contentions with a patriarchal society.

Ann Radcliffe

The 19th century brought about a boom of gothic horror and gave horror one of its most enduring and iconic staples, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Shelley is perhaps one of the most well-known authors of gothic horror and the Romantic literary period, and Frankenstein is an early example of body horror. Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and peers, Lord Byron and John William Polidori, were also instrumental in the solidification of the gothic, but Shelley herself left a more indelible mark than the others. Ironically, at the time, Shelley was mainly known for being Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife, but in the modern day, he’s known more for being her husband. The Romantics influenced the works of gothic writers that would come later including the entire Bronte clan, which was well-known for cornering a market on gothic literature as a family tradition. The family included sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; all three were writers and saw much success as purveyors of gothic literature. Charlotte and Emily were particularly fond of employing the use of the Byronic hero archetype, which was famously named after Lord Byron.

Gothic horror was considered the darker side of the Romantic literary movement and where it found permanence as a subgenre of horror. This is why, when one hears the terminology gothic horror or gothic romance, visions of Victorian England are brought to mind. However, gothic horror blossomed in its own right in America as well with authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James. The gothic also made a mark on Irish writers during the 1800s, such as Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu; both of whom wrote two of the most enduring vampire tales ever, Dracula and “Carmilla” respectively.

The gothic persisted into the 1900s with French novelist Gaston LeRoux’s The Phantom of the Opera. However, the gothic continued to be a genre that was bolstered by the contributions of women. English writer Daphne du Maurier became a prominent voice in gothic horror with novels such as Rebecca and Jamaica Inn and short stories like “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now.” Horror master Alfred Hitchcock most certainly owes a great deal to du Maurier and her exceptional talent for the gothic. Du Maurier continued the idea of the female gothic, chiefly dealing with feminine anxieties and fears. While England had du Maurier, America had Shirley Jackson, who was as prolific and productive as du Maurier in her literary output. Jackson’s works too focused on domestic horror and anxieties, slowly getting under the skin of the reader. Jackson’s novels, The Haunting of Hill House among them, and short stories such as “The Lottery” stand as beloved testaments of gothic horror literature. The likes of Du Maurier and Jackson would go on to inspire more writers of the gothic.

Gothic horror has even more subgenres under it including Southern gothic and New England gothic, meaning that Stephen King’s entire body of work also grew out of the gothic horror tradition. King was chiefly influenced by the likes of Shirley Jackson and has called Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” two of the best horror stories ever told. It might be easy to dismiss gothic horror literature as an outdated subgenre, but the literary world owes a lot to the writers of the gothic because they provided such a stalwart base for many talented people to create chilling tales. Gothic horror literature still endures to this very day and is ever evolving.

Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, inspired by Shirley Jackson

Gothic Horror in Other Media:

Naturally, gothic horror isn’t solely limited to literature. The gothic has left its mark on film and television in addition to literary works. Gothic literature led into the creation of the iconic black and white monster movies that were produced by Universal Studios, as well as the renowned Hammer Horror films. Universal and Hammer were two of the biggest and most influential bases for horror filmmaking, and more modern horror films essentially descended from these films. While slashers and cosmic horror and all the other wonderful subgenres of horror film are not gothic horror, they do carry the DNA of the gothic with them. Gothic horror is almost like the parent genre that birthed the horror film as we know it. Many famous tales from gothic horror literature were translated to screen because these were some of the most thrilling and artful tales to adapt for viewers and fans of the macabre.

The dots from gothic horror literature to the modern horror film isn’t difficult to connect, but it is a connection that is often ignored by audiences when filmmakers revisit the gothic tradition in their own works. The disconnect between an understanding of the gothic and the modern horror consumer is often best reflected in the less than stellar reviews that gothic horror media receives. Only five years ago Guillermo del Toro released his gorgeous homage to the genre Crimson Peak, and the critics didn’t quite understand what del Toro was attempting to achieve with the film, causing it to be wildly misconstrued by reviewers that should have known better. More recently, Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor was met with similarly confusing criticism from people who weren’t quite understanding just what gothic horror is. This led to petty criticisms from reviewers trying desperately to hide that they had little to no background to work with and a misunderstanding of the tenets of gothic horror. One reviewer from Vanity Fair tweeted that Bly Manor had a “blah manner” instead of merely admitting that they lacked the knowledge to properly give the show the review that it deserved. Unsurprisingly, this same reviewer reacted similarly to Crimson Peak a mere five years earlier and is indicative of the widespread cognitive dissonance that has become the norm surrounding gothic horror. Horror fans and those dedicated to art should expect more from big publications when it comes to the coverage of horror in general given that the horror in question was birthed from a long line of horror creativity and was created with love, devotion, and understanding of the gothic. This is an issue that plagues creatives who choose gothic horror as a mode for their stories that needs to be circumvented through active pursuit of knowledge.

Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro

The Hallmarks of Gothic Horror:

There are trademarks of gothic horror that are often displayed in both literature and film that fall under the subgenre. Learning these facets can help a reader or viewer appreciate the work more and have a better understanding of what it is trying to accomplish. It’s a subgenre that traffics in the macabre and the grotesque. There’s almost always a creeping sense of terror. The gothic runs on pure dread. Here are a few of the more prominent tenets of gothic horror that continually show up in media:

Intense emotions and melodrama – The gothic is known for delving into the more emotional side of the human psyche. This could be why it evokes such strong responses in audiences. The characters are often in the midst of strong emotional states, for example distress, desire, longing, etc. It has a sense of melodrama, where the dramatic itself is heightened along with the emotional quality of the piece. It is  exciting and enticing. Often, there are people who are possibly going mad; there are ghosts about, bad men, even worse omens, and young women caught in the middle of romantic yearning. It’s melodramatic, yes, but melodrama in the case of the gothic is not a bad thing. Sensationalism and thrills is what the gothic hinges on.

Fear – Whether it be the audience that is struck with fear or the characters themselves, the gothic is imbued with fear. At every turn, there is some sort of fear to be reckoned with. This makes the genre a great cathartic one because it isn’t afraid (pun intended) to delve into the fears that lie within the human soul.

Setting – The setting in the gothic often takes on a life of its own and in many ways becomes a character or a feature of the text. Take Manderley Estate from Rebecca, Hill House from The Haunting of Hill House, and Bly Manor from “The Turn of the Screw” all are beautiful, terrifying, and foreboding stages for the main action of the story to take place. Often, the settings are haunted mansions, manor houses, estates, and castles. More often than not, the setting will be one that is fairly isolated.

Atmosphere – Gothic horror heavily relies on as n eerie atmosphere to create a truly unsettling experience. The setting usually adds to the atmosphere and the dread that the piece possesses. It’s normal for the atmosphere in the work to cause the viewer to feel suspense or a sense of deep dread. Mystery itself plays a deep role in the creation of an atmosphere. There are always secrets that desperately need to be revealed. Atmosphere is a tool used to create the tale’s terror. It gets under the skin, and it stays there.

Death – Gothic horror dearly loves death and the concept of death. Death abounds and permeates the gothic work. No one is left untouched by death by the end of the tale, and all great gothic horror deals with death, looking at it from any different perspectives. One could say that the genre is obsessed with death.

Brooding men and innocent women – Men with troubled pasts who might be heroes or villains are a trope that is engrained in the genre along with the idea of innocent young women who are thrown into the chaos of the gothic melodrama. These brooding men are typically charismatic and toxic. They’re the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” sort that Lady Caroline Lamb warned people about. They’re exceedingly dark and melancholic as well as intriguing. The innocent female protagonist is another staple that is seen right alongside the man burdened with darkness. The woman has an air of purity and goodness in addition to being sensitive and caring.

Supernatural elements – While not all gothic horror explicitly states that the supernatural is at work, there is almost always a supernatural element that is included within the work. It could be the ghost of long dead lovers tapping on windows or a full-blown monster made from reanimated corpses. Ghosts are a favorite of gothic horror, and the ghosts of the gothic come in many forms and are usually used as forms of symbolism within the story as a whole. There are almost always bad omens and prophetic nightmares that abound. If it’s gothic, the supernatural will more than likely be there.

Romance – There’s not always a romantic storyline in all gothic horror tales, but there is often one at least featured. It can be a subtle one like the implied one between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in “The Turn of the Screw” or a large feature in the story such as Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker’s in Dracula and Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza’s in Frankenstein. Love in gothic horror is often a fraught event in itself, where there are extremely few happy endings and lots of tragedy and heartache to be had. There’s angst and pining galore and sometimes lots of grief. Being in love in gothic horror is almost literally a death sentence. If the lovers do survive they most certainly come out on the other side of the drama with deep trauma. Love isn’t a safe endeavor in real life, but somehow it’s even more frightening in the context of gothic horror. Steer clear of brooding men.

Conclusion:

As a whole, gothic horror can be a lot to take in and learn about. The importance of the gothic is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and there is always a time and a place to gain more knowledge on the storied subgenre that serves as a matriarch to horror as audiences know it. The gothic meshes both the feral and the divine to create an intoxicating experience that leaves the viewer emotionally wrought and breathless. It pierces through to the heart of the audience, giving a whole new meaning to fright. The gothic doesn’t ask easy questions, and it definitely doesn’t provide easy answers. While gothic horror might not be everyone’s preferred subgenre, it is undeniably interesting and often fundamental in understanding horror as a whole.

Book/Short Story Suggestions:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James
  • “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” by Henry James
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Film/Television Suggestions:

  • Crimson Peak (2015) dir. Guillermo del Toro
  • The Haunting of Hill House (2018) created by Mike Flanagan
  • The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) created by Mike Flanagan
  • Dracula (1931) dir. Tod Browning
  • Dracula (1958) dir. Terence Fisher
  • Frankenstein (1931) dir. James Whale
  • Rebecca (1940) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  • The Haunting (1963) dir. Robert Wise
  • The Innocents (1961) dir. Jack Clayton
  • The Lodgers (2017) dir. Brian O’Malley
  • The Uninvited (1944) dir. Lewis Allen
  • The Changeling (1980) dir. Peter Medak
  • Dark Shadows (1966-1971) created by Dan Curtis
  • Don’t Look Now (1973) dir. Nicolas Roeg
by Jamie Alvey at 9:19 pm

Jamie Alvey is an award winning and losing writer as well as an actor and educator. She specializes in all things macabre and is the unofficial expert on Stephen King's It.

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