Terror and Wonder: 10 key elements of Gothic literature

Are you ready for fright night? Halloween is approaching and so is a fresh crop of scary movies, including a new adaptation of Frankenstein.  Many of the elements in horror films share similar stylistic tricks to those in Gothic literature.

 

Gothic elements include the following:

 

Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania, Romania by Simon Marsden, The Marsden Archive
Corvin Castle, Hunedoara, Transylvania, Romania by Simon Marsden, The Marsden Archive

1. Set in a haunted castle or house

The main location, usually an old castle plagued by an ancestral curse, is a vital element in Gothic fiction, providing a dark and threatening back-drop.

Horace Walpole was avidly interested in medieval architecture, transforming his villa into a castle, complete with turrets and towers. It is an early example of Gothic Revival architecture.

Placing a story in a domineering Gothic building drew on feelings of awe and isolation.  Corvin Castle is undoubtedly the spookiest of all Gothic castles, located in Transylvania. Vlad the Impaler III (more commonly known as Dracula) was allegedly held prisoner here. See more spooky buildings.

 

scream-gothic-film Actress Kathleen Hughes (b/w photo) / Underwood Archives/UIG / Bridgeman Images
scream-gothic-film
Actress Kathleen Hughes (b/w photo) / Underwood Archives/UIG / Bridgeman Images

2. A damsel in distress

The female lead often face events that leave them terrified, screaming and fainting. Returning to her medieval role as damsel in distress, the virtuous heroine is typically incarcerated in a castle and pursued by a sadistic aristocrat. Early examples in this genre include Matilda in Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and Emily in Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho.’

 

Left : Poster for the stage version of 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins Right: Window, Castle Frankenstein (b/w photo) Simon Marsden
Left : Poster for the stage version of ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins
Right: Window, Castle Frankenstein (b/w photo) Simon Marsden

3. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense

The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. When first published, Wilkie Collin’s ‘The Woman in White‘ was identified as a “sensational novel.” The story involves family secrets, faked identities, and false imprisonment.

Objects or paraphernalia which help create the Gothic atmosphere are burial vaults, suits of armour, flickering candles, cracked mirrors, portraits and evil potions.

 

Left: Boris Karloff as the monster Frankenstein. 1931 Right: Scrooge and The Ghost of Marley, from Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
Left: Boris Karloff as the monster Frankenstein. 1931
Right: Scrooge and The Ghost of Marley, from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ Arthur Rackham

4. There is a ghost or monster

In Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein‘, Victor Frankenstein creates a monster using body parts from deceased criminals in an attempt to make the perfect human being.  Other main characters have included supernatural or grotesque creatures, ranging from vampires, devils, ghosts, monsters, demons, zombies to evil spirits, the “possessed,” and werewolves.

 

Heathcliff and Cathy, from the novel Wuthering Heights
Heathcliff and Cathy, from the novel Wuthering Heights

5. The weather is always awful

Flashes of lightning accompany revelation and thunder and downpours usually prefigure the appearance of a character or the beginning of a significant event. The storms and wind that sweep through ‘Wuthering Heights‘ signify how the characters are at the mercy of forces they cannot control.  In ‘Rebecca’, the weather mirrors the characters’ moods; a fog descends when the narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter is confused and depressed.

 

The Nightmare, 1781 by Henry Fuseli, Detroit Institute of Arts
The Nightmare, 1781 by Henry Fuseli, Detroit Institute of Arts

6. Dreaming/nightmares

Fuseli, the quintessential Romantic artist is often quoted as saying, “One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams” and writers as diverse as Walpole, Stoker and Shelley were all inspired by  vivid and unsettling nightmares.

Disturbing or prophetic dreams are frequently experienced by these writers’ fictional characters as well, used as a plot device to emphasize their insecurities and fears.

 

Rochester, illustration from 'Characters of Romance', first published 1900 (colour litho) by Nicholson, Sir William (1872-1949) Rochester, illustration from 'Characters of Romance', first published 1900, Sir William Nicholson
Rochester, illustration from ‘Characters of Romance’, first published 1900 (colour litho) by Sir William Nicholson,

7. Burdened male protagonist

Aristocratic, suave, moody, solitary, cynical and nursing a guilty secret, this darkly attractive and conflicted male figure surfaces everywhere in Gothic fiction. Both Maxim in ‘Rebecca’ and Mr.Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre‘ are tormented by their pasts and both their ancestral homes go up in flames.

This curse or damnation is a “hangover” of traditional religious ideology to chastise the character for some wrong against the moral order. Haunted or hounded figures also include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein who is both pursued by and pursues his monster.

 

Illustration from 'Le Theatre' magazine, 1900s (litho), French School, (20th century) / Private Collection / © The Advertising Archives
Illustration from ‘Le Theatre’ magazine, 1900s (litho), French School  © The Advertising Archives

8. Melodrama

Emotions run high in Gothic literature reflecting a heightened sense of drama.  Women have a tendency to swoon and men rage in reflection of unseen inner torments.  There are also murders, kidnappings and people going mad. The villain is usually the central character but fate intervenes in the end to ensure good triumphs over evil.

 

' The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' 1919. German silent film. Universal History Archive/UIG
‘ The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ 1919. German silent film. Universal History Archive/UIG

9. Death

The Gothic novel is enthralled with death and the supernatural contributing to an atmosphere of horror. If Gothic literature reflects a wish to overcome one’s mortality, there is also a fear of those who somehow manage to transcend it; i.e. vampires, whom are at once both dead and alive.

There is also a Gothic obsession with the bodies of dead women. Edgar Allan Poe said that the death of a beautiful woman is “the most poetical topic in the world”. In nearly every one of his tales, one of the characters has died or is being mourned.

 

Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, pub. 1880s (colour litho), American School
Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, pub. 1880s (colour litho), American School

10. The beast within

Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde‘ (1886) tapped into contemporary anxieties. Dr Jekyll is eminently respectable while Mr. Hyde is brutal and ape-like.  The twist is that both represent two facets of the same person.

Influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, such a nightmarish biological lineage that denied the superiority of humans, feeds into many late-Victorian Gothic novels.

 

Bela Lugosi in costume as Dracula, 1931
Bela Lugosi in costume as Dracula, 1931

The origins of the Gothic novel

The origin of the Gothic novel is largely attributed to Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto‘ in 1764, the story of which was inspired by a dream he had at Strawberry Hill, his ‘ little Gothic castle.’

The words Goth and Gothic describe the Germanic tribes (Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths) who ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages. By the eighteenth century in England, the term Gothic had become synonymous with the medieval era, perceived as superstitious, barbaric and unenlightened. It morphed into a genre of Gothic literature which had a fascination with death and the supernatural, influencing many art forms that we know today that seek to shock and entertain.

Portrait of Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford, 1754 by John Giles Eckhardt, National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford, 1754 by John Giles Eckhardt, National Portrait Gallery, London

Find out more

See more images of Gothic inspired fiction and art 

See how Gothic literature has inspired film

See Halloween image galleries

 

 

 

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