As a genre, horror is deeply rooted in the traditions of Gothic literature. These tales express haunting reminders that there is no escape from the past. They contain a creeping sense of dread that is magnified through setting, one of the hallmarks of the subgenre.
Named after the European, medieval architectural style (characterized by cavernous spaces dominated by vaulted ceilings, dramatic arched supports, and stained windows), Gothic makes heavy use of settings such as crumbling castles, isolated estates, and bleak landscapes. Other common narrative elements include ancestral secrets, psychological trauma, and supernatural events. You’ll also frequently find themes of madness and morality as the characters are faced with mental instability and the imminent descent into physical ruin.
According to most academics, the first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Inspired by a nightmare and a persistent fascination with medieval architecture, Walpole shaped this terror-filled genre that rose to popularity in the late 18th century.
However, although Walpole was the first to self-identify his work as Gothic, it was Ann Radcliffe who refined and popularized the form with the publication of her manuscript The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Labelled as a romance, Radcliffe’s famous novel includes many notable characteristics of Gothic sensibilities—a brooding aristocratic villain, a persecuted heroine, a crumbling castle, and sublime scenery.
Primed by these literary predecessors, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley pushed the genre even further in her debut novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). This tale about a scientist who uses electricity to bring his Creature to life endures as a classic in literature and serves as an inspirational source for both contemporary horror and science fiction.
A few decades after Shelley’s debut, writers of the Victorian era (1837-1901) breathed new life into Gothic with such pivotal works as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde, and The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James.
On the other side of the pond, Edgar Allan Poe was incorporating Gothic elements in short fiction. Known as the Father of American Gothic, Poe is known for creating psychological horror - stories filled with murder, madness, and mourning. Readers have plenty to chose from when reading Poe’s work, but perhaps his most pivotal work is “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)—a terrifying tale that can be easily identified as Gothic through its crumbling, haunted mansion and the tragic demise of a family line.
In the 20th century, women writers stepped into the limelight once again as the subgenre continued to evolve. Although classified as romantic novelist, Dame Daphne du Maurier’s works are renowned for their Gothic settings and paranormal overtones. Many of her works were later adapted into film, including her short story “The Birds” (1952) and her novel Rebecca (1938), a sensational tale filled with secrets, specters, and suicide.
From the mid- to late 20th century several noteworthy women writers made significant contributions to the Gothic cannon. Over the course of two decades, Shirley Jackson garnered particular acclaim for her terror-fueled tales including her Gothic masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
And, although Bram Stoker’s Dracula cemented the place of vampires in the Gothic tradition, Anne Rice took those tropes and pushed them further with her novel Interview with the Vampire (1976). The confession of the centuries-old protagonist, Lestat de Lioncourt, weaves a shockingly suspenseful and sensual tale that continued through a series collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. A few years later after Rice’s success, British author Angela Carter reinvented fairy tales with a Gothic twist in her highly acclaimed, provocative short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). This essential work reclaimed women’s power within Gothic subculture with a feminist slant.
Gothic in Film
In addition to Alfred Hitchcock's classic film adaptations of du Maurier's work, Gothic continues to live in cinemas under the direction of such legendary filmmakers as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Guillermo del Toro.
A Checklist for Writers
As a literary subgenre of horror, Gothic tales tend to be diverse in nature, yet there are a few key characteristics and motifs that they often have in common. Writers looking to add Gothic elements to their own stories can pick and choose the traits they’d like to include.
- Mysterious settings
One of the key characteristics of Gothic is the unsettling sense of the strange. Gothic settings should contrast the comfortable familiarity of the known world. Characters may find themselves in exotic or strange locations filled with decaying ancestral homes or gloomy castles. This architectural claustrophobia sets the stage for the inevitable descent into darkness.
- Contrasting eras
Gothic stories revel in the clash time periods—the modern and mundane butting up against the ancient and arcane. It is this meeting of the past and the present that ramps up tension and sets the stage for potential conflict. In addition to creating a sense of unease, the transitional space where past and present overlap also creates a perfect place for unsettling and uncanny events to occur.
- Power dynamics
These tales of terror often hang on dramatic differences in power. The victims are faced with the threat of entrapment and isolation. The villains, on the other hand, are powerful and transgressive by nature. These characters seem to be able to break laws and taboos without penalty, which only adds to the imbalance and abuse of power as a central component of these tales.
- Intellectual uncertainty
In addition to the Gothic tradition of revealing terrible and often tragic secrets, characters in these stories often brush up against the uncanny and supernatural. Sometimes these terrifying elements are later explained to have roots in the real world. Other times, ghosts and ghouls turn out to be the cause. In both cases, it is the promise of the sublime and the possibility of the supernatural that raise the stakes and shape the characters and events in these profound tales of terror.