A Dark And Stormy Night: Why We Love The Gothic
Crimson Peak's previews hardly bothered with the ghosts haunting its dilapidated mansion. It didn't need them. Mia Wasikowska runs down moonlit stairs in a nightgown with a ten-foot train — that's all you need to know. By now, the Gothic speaks for itself, and it's trained us to listen.
Though their definition is fluid, Gothic novels (and movies) generally offer equal parts delighted horror and breathless sentiment. And regardless of plot twists or historical pastiches, they're preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world. For early Gothics, this meant the Industrial Revolution, eulogizing the natural in the face of modernity (Anne Radcliffe's 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho equated love of nature with virtue until it was practically a superpower). Udolpho — and countless other crumbling castles — reflected both worry and rebellious glee about the fate of traditional social structures in the modern order; estates declined alongside their nefarious masters.
In the same vein, you could read the many scheming clergy and naughty nuns found in early Gothic novels as a critique of Church power — but another obsession of the Gothic is the mysterious Other. Authors relied on pearl-clutching antics that invoked delicious thrills more than real scares, and Catholic rituals were occult enough to power a hundred plot twists. In Matthew Lewis' impressively busy The Monk, published in 1796, evil nuns imprison a maiden, and a monk is seduced by a demoness into a Satanic sex spree and eventual damnation. This soap-opera style, dismissed as "romance" both in its day and ours, has survived nearly intact — there's comfort in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark; whether Flowers in the Attic or Thinner, we love knowing what to expect.
In later Gothics, this Other changed. The world was smaller; Italy was a honeymoon destination, not a den of secrets, and sinister strangers now hailed from Transylvania. Gothic novelists didn't invent the supernatural — monsters have always been with us — and Dracula wasn't a vampire because they'd run out of secretive Italians; he was Transylvanian because cultural prejudice had shifted east. Vampirism was a bonus; the supernatural is just the metaphor a Gothic novel actually knows it's making.
Somehow, that threat hasn't stopped vampires from becoming some of the most seductive figures going, ever since Lord Byron's buddy John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; Lord Ruthven's supernatural control, Carmilla's Sapphic intensity, and Dracula's near-limitless powers offer a draw beyond mortals' power to withstand. Even Varney the Vampire, the famously undercooked penny dreadful, gained sympathy for its devil as he began to bemoan his fate. (Vampires are the ultimate Byronic heroes.) And at heart, the vampire's otherworldly magnetism is tragic nostalgia; they're inherently out of place, whether chronicled by Sheridan le Fanu or Anne Rice. It's a mythos powerful enough to swallow Dracula's more obviously monstrous counterparts: These days, vampires are synonymous with sex until proven otherwise.
There's comfort in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark; whether 'Flowers in the Attic' or 'Thinner,' we love knowing what to expect.
But the Gothic's most discomfiting monster is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which ushered in an era newly fascinated with psychology. It's still a reflection of modern fears — particularly the responsibility of scientific advances. And it boasts complex leads; both Frankenstein and his monster suffer agonizing struggles between their compulsions and their better selves. It signaled a genre shift more navel-gazing than the horny monks of old. This psychological Gothic became evergreen, from Silence of the Lambs to Rebecca, its ghosts are the sort we call down on ourselves.
For sheer aesthetic, though, the Gothic hit its exuberantly morbid sweet spot with the Victorians; no story's too creepy for people who wore jewelry made from hair of the dead. But newer horrors were post-industrial, the city replacing the imperiled estate. Mr. Hyde is no remote threat — he terrorizes London, a criminal by a definition that became codified in the nineteenth century, as detective archetypes emerged from a Gothic environment of dread and secrets. Ironically, by the time James Ware wrote 1864's The Female Detective, Gothic trappings lent literary weight; the once-dismissed genre had become a benchmark. (Those early detectives proliferated with gusto into modern crime fiction.)
The Victorians were insatiable, from highbrow Gothic to penny dreadfuls' incest, intrigue, and throwback Italians. This era affixed crumbling estates, floaty ingenues, and tragic monsters in public imagination, so that Victorian detective fiction was only the beginning of a new literary tradition: Gothic elements used outside a Gothic narrative to evoke that thrill of recognition. We see elements of it in noir fiction, in Hannibal, and in the antiheroes of cable TV dramas. (The aesthetic has become so ubiquitous that Penny Dreadful and Empire are equally Gothic: one is High Victorian, crowded with deconstructions of its traditions; Empire is Gothic's earliest form, hip-hop as modern Other, with plot twists every minute and the sense of inevitable horror one generation bequeathes the next.)
Since its earliest days, the Gothic has impressed on its audience how charming it is to know what to fear. Its sprawling but recognizable collection of traits has sustained the genre for two centuries, robust amid endless adaptation and deconstruction — we understand when the Gothic announces itself, whatever form it's in; we all still love a pretty scare.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Persona.
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