The Birth of Gothic Horror and Beyond

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This is a short article relating to the genre of Gothic Horror, its origins through literature and later through the medium of film and the enduring popularity it still holds in contemporary society.

Submitted: April 28, 2013

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Submitted: April 28, 2013





The Birth of Gothic Horror and Beyond



What is Gothic Horror?


Gothic horror is a genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), gothic architecture such as a castle, abbey or manor, either in ruins or intact, that may be haunted, dungeons, underground passages or crypts, dark corridors and winding stairs. Much use is also made of shadows in the darkness from the moonlight or flickering candles and the landscape and weather generally play a part in terms of an extreme rain or snow storm and dense thick forests and high peaked mountains. The gothic genre includes elements of mystery and the supernatural, such as omens and ancestral curses, ghosts or magic. The stock characters of gothic fiction include tyrants and sadistic villains and a curious or persecuted maiden or femme fatale in need of rescue, as well as vampires, monstrous creations or werewolves.


The Origins of Gothic Horror


In the 1700s, the word ‘Gothic’ acquired a new meaning. There was a trend for a new genre of writing - 'Gothic' novels. These were a precursor for the horror stories of today. This trend further developed and became even more popular during the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Gothic novels were written to develop feelings of fear and terror in the reader, thus the setting in evocative, crumbling old castles, abbeys and manors. English author Horace Walpole published what is generally recognised as the first true gothic novel. ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’ it created a convergence of medievalism and terror that has evolved and endured ever since. Gothic literature was influenced by the dark gothic architecture of the period with gothic tales taking place in such ‘Gothic’ surroundings as a dark and stormy castle as evidenced in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, or Bram Stoker’s infamous ‘Dracula’. In essence, these stories were romances with a twist, largely due to their love of the imaginary over the logical and were told from many different points of view.


Gothic Literature


Making its debut in the late 18th century, Gothic fiction was a branch of the larger Romantic movement that sought to stimulate strong emotions in the reader - fear and apprehension in this case. Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere, using setting and diction to build suspense and a sense of unease in the reader. Common subject matter includes the supernatural, family curses, mystery, and madness. As mentioned above ‘The Castle of Otranto’, written by Horace Walpole in 1764, is seen as the very first true gothic story. Walpole was obsessed with medieval Gothic architecture, and built his own house, Strawberry Hill, in that form, sparking a fashion for Gothic revival.

Gothic novels were written to elicit strong emotions; they set out to intrigue and to terrify readers in equal measure. The novels were written to conjure up images of mysterious, decaying old buildings where dark secrets had laid hidden for hundreds of years. Gothic writers loved the imagery of an old castle, a place of decayed grandeur, once full of life and vitality, but now seeped in decay. They described castles as being filled with memories of life gone by; and marked by death. This image lives on in peoples' minds today and has evoked many powerful emotions over the years.


The Victorian Era


An important and innovative reinterpreter of the Gothic in this period was Edgar Allan Poe. Poe focused less on the traditional elements of Gothic stories and more on the psychology of his characters as they often descended into madness. This was evidenced in his novels ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1842). Other notable novels of the era included the following;


Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)

Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving (this appears in the book of short stories The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.  (1819-20)

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (1831) 

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897)

The Phantom of The Opera by Gaston Leroux  (1909)


From Page to Screen – Hammer Film Productions and Beyond


The 1960s and the 1970s were, in many ways, the golden age of horror cinema. In Great Britain, the legendary Hammer Films produced countless re-made classics, often based on classic stories about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf and the Mummy. Usually starring Christopher Lee as the monster and Peter Cushing as the pure-hearted hero, some of these films were based on traditional Gothic themes and some of them were set in traditional Gothic surroundings with the vast majority of them containing elements of both. The 1990s saw a revival of Gothic horror going from page to screen. The most notable films being; ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990), ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992), ‘Frankenstein’ (1994) and ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999). More recently saw the emergence of the ‘Twilight’ series of books and films created by Stephanie Mayer.


The Enduring Popularity of the Gothic Horror Genre


The mood and themes of the Gothic novel held a particular fascination for the Victorians, with their morbid obsession with mourning rituals, mementos and mortality in general. However, it is without doubt that the Gothic horror genre popular in the Victorian era is as popular in contemporary society as ever, both through literature and film, but why is this so? I would argue that it is because the Gothic creates feelings of gloom, mystery, and suspense and tends to be dramatic and the sensational. Most people immediately recognise the Gothic genre when it’s encountered in novels and movies. For some people the prospect of safely experiencing dread or horror is thrilling and enjoyable, there is pleasure in feeling scared. This literature gave birth to many other forms, such as suspense, ghost stories, mystery, and detective stories. This movement began to slowly open many peoples’ eyes to the possible uses of the supernatural in literature. Gothic tales of the macabre, fantastic, and supernatural, usually set amid haunted castles, graveyards, ruins, and wild picturesque landscapes tended to set readers’ imaginations racing, conjuring up images of the event in their own minds so that they are compelled to keep reading to see what happens next. Gothic novels were written mainly to evoke terror in their readers; they also served to show the dark side of human nature. They describe the nightmarish terrors that lie beneath the controlled and ordered surface of the conscious mind, thus. eliciting strong emotions as they set out to intrigue and to terrify readers in equal measure. It allows people to explore a different type of world through their own imagination which condones hidden desires or curiosities. People are also curious about the dark and unknown; it is another realm of fantasy.




Davis, (2009) Defining Gothic Accessed April 2013

Harris, R. (2011) Elements of the Gothic Novel Accessed April 2013

The Literature Network (2013) Edgar Allan Poe Accessed April 2013 Gothic Horror Accessed April 2013  (2013) Accessed April 2013


© Copyright 2017 Val Mansell. All rights reserved.

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