What is Gothic Horror?

A dark wood. A foggy moor. A towering abandoned building. Howling wind. What is it exactly that marks Gothic literature? It has an interesting history, starting with the 1764 publication of The Castle of Otrando by Horace Walpole. This book blends realism and supernatural elements while introducing many of the trappings of Gothic horror – haunted castles, pictures moving, doors opening on their own, secret passages, ghostly apparitions with ominous warnings.

from British Library

These early Gothic works strongly featured themes of religion, philosophy, and morality. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, was the first to twist the genre into the antagonist really being some sort of manifestation of human folly. The Victorian era produced much of the well-known Gothic horror works including Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and novellas such as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

Talented author Edgar Allan Poe rose to fame with his own modern reinterpretation of the Gothic genre. He was thoroughly influenced by the Byronic Romanticism which was apparent in his work The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Oval Portrait (1842). This romanticism was also seen in the writings of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). The fiction work by Brontë sisters is considered by the critics as one of the finest examples of the Female Gothic literature. This included explaining the supernatural presence logically and the position of women in the society, which was under the firm control of male antagonists. Also, the female protagonist’s ordeal was described while overcoming situations, which might include supernatural terror, or their internal conflict with the male-dominated society.

From the 20th Century
Horror and mystery stories with a traditional Gothic flavor grew in popularity during the 20th Century, but the themes were rewritten to fit the climate of the new era. Phyllis A. Whitney, Barbara Michaels, Joan Aiken, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and others created variations in Gothic romances. Modern Gothic romances were primarily authored by female authors and centered on women; such as Daphne Du Maurier’s world renowned book Rebecca (1938).

In modern Gothic horror, immortal protagonists and supernatural beings such as vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, and the like are progressively replacing ghosts and spirits. Modern Gothic romances provide a more detailed depiction of the setting of the plot, as well as the moods of the characters, as well as the introduction of more characters and opportunities for romance.

Themes of Gothic Horror

The major themes you can use to identify Gothic horror are:

  • Setting and Atmosphere – perhaps the most defining characteristic. Moody, dark atmosphere and setting that are characters in and of themselves. Example: the house in Haunting of Hill House
  • Mystery and Fear – Modern Gothic tends to focus more on building an ominous and mysterious sense of dread throughout the novel
  • Omens and Curses – This can be literal curses that characters are fighting or vague omens, like ravens gathering in one tree
  • Paranormal or Supernatural elements – ghosts and spirits are the most common, but other supernatural elements are popular and may be present
  • Romance – not all Gothic novels have romantic subplots, but many do. They are often lead-ins to tragedy and sorrow. Example: Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee”
  • Strong villains – historically, villains in Gothic literature are men in authoritative positions, often with complex motives and they may initially appear sympathetic until their secrets are discovered.

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