Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
While I was info-gathering for this post, every article I read mentioned that the genre’s seminal work was the 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Consider my inclusion of this fact evidence that I’ve done my due diligence with research.
So, gothic horror. Is it a subgenre built on spectacle, more characterized by its atmospheric window-dressing than by any real depth of thought? Or is its effectiveness dependent on deeper horrors of human existence, as TV Tropes claims here:
I’ve probably shown my hand already by including such a long quote, so, yes, I definitely come down more on the side of “deeper horrors of human existence.” If you’re writing a hospital drama, you can’t simply put your characters in white coats, stethoscopes, and comfy shoes and assume that’s enough for your audience. Scrubs is popular with medical personnel not only because Donald Faison exists, but also because it’s a (fairly) accurate portrayal of hospital life. When it comes to creating verisimilitude for the audience, the culture of a genre–its origins, values, and practices–is just as important as setting or narrative voice.
Not to say that imagery isn’t a great tool for writers. Images carry powerful associations with them, and therefore can be used as shorthand to create meaning for readers. Young woman in white running from a castle? Threatened innocence, rejected temptation. Overgrown churchyards blanketed in cold mist? The presence of spirits, the undeath of the past seeping into the present. Lightning strikes? The wrath of God.
(Of course, the previous paragraph assumes that one culture’s symbols can be applied to all cultures, which is not true and which is why it’s important to read widely and deeply and gain greater understanding of the world around you–but this idea deserves several of its own posts).
What I’m trying to do in this post is align gothic horror’s imagery with its impact, not just through exploring tried and true tropes, but through imagining a few fun twists to play with in your next story.
I don’t know about you, but when I think “gothic horror,” I think “counterculture.” I think bookish outcasts and coffeehouse conversations and spooky Halloween. And after I did my research, Dear Reader, I learned that I thought wrong.
According to TV Tropes–an indispensable resource for all creative writing grad students–gothic horror often originated from more conservative viewpoints. It explored characters who transgressed against moral boundaries and the resulting consequences of their actions, which, if not seen as deserved, were at the very least inevitable.
Just look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Lucy Westenra’s vampiric fall from grace is inextricably intertwined with her sexuality and perversion of motherhood (i.e., instead of feeding babies, she feeds from babies). Because she’s now too sexy–and, admittedly, a murderer–Lucy has to be killed by a posse of men, including her former suitors (!).
What the fuck, Bram.
Or let’s revisit Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which, while not exclusively gothic horror, definitely has gothic horror elements. Jane flees across the moors with a) little money, b) little food, and c) insufficiently warm clothes after learning that Mr. Rochester, her boss and a real catch, has been taking part in the totally normal activity of keeping his maddened wife in the attic. You know. Like a gentleman.
Anyway, Jane sees this on their wedding day and nopes out of Thornfield Hall. Her crime? She never should have deigned to rise above her station as a lowly unmarried governess. I mean, marrying a rich man with an ancestral estate? Or living with that man outside of wedlock? Or, heaven forfend, treating a mentally ill woman like a person? Absolutely not! Get thee hence!
This might come a little late, but: Spoilers for Jane Eyre.
Unlike Lucy, Jane gets redemption. Once she’s an independently wealthy woman, she returns to Mr. Rochester, now a convenient widower, and marries. She’s able to find a place for herself within the constraints set by her society. Hooray?
So what’s the twist?: Try playing with political standpoints here–if gothic horror traditionally operated from a conservative political standpoint, then what would gothic horror privileging liberal or leftist perspectives look like? What transgressions would be punished, and, considering ongoing conversations about different forms of justice, what would punishment even look like? Or, what happens to gothic horror when a transgression against society is the right choice?
The presence of the supernatural, whether real or imagined, is a consistent thread throughout gothic horror. It’s one of the things that I love about the genre–good ghost stories absolutely delight me–but it’s also one of the things that’s easy to misinterpret.
Like, a monster just existing isn’t necessarily scary. A werewolf T-posing at the edge of the woods is nowhere near as frightening as a werewolf sprinting at you across an open field. And even that visceral, oh-fuck-it’s-after-me mortal terror can’t really be sustained over long periods. You just get used to being terrified. So you have to ask yourself, “what does the presence of this ghost/vampire/witch show about the character? How does it impact them beyond raw fear? What does this show about the story’s themes?”
For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s (I know this is the second time she’s shown up in this post and I promise that I’ve read more than three authors in my life) novel Villette, the school where the protagonist Lucy Snowe teaches is a former nunnery. There’s a grave in the garden underneath a twisted tree: The final resting place of a young nun who defied the chaste mandates of her order and suffered the consequences. Throughout the novel, Lucy, who fears both her own sexual desires and her increasingly likely future as a spinster, is haunted by apparitions of the nun around the school. Nobody else, of course, witnesses the specter.
Because she’s a poor young woman teaching in a foreign country, Lucy already feels alienated and isolated. The presence of the nun heightens those feelings and intensifies Lucy’s situation–she can’t speak seriously to her few friends or her employer about the vision for fear that she’ll be seen as insane. So, ta-da–there’s how the nun impacts her character, and there’s how it relates to the story’s themes of loneliness.
The uncertainty and foreboding that Lucy feels about the nun’s existence is a pretty common approach to the supernatural in gothic horror. It’s a sign of a character’s possible unraveling, like Eleanor’s growing distance from reality in The Haunting of Hill House or Jack’s ghostly interludes in The Shining.
But the monstrous entities preying on our protagonists don’t have to be real to be terrifying. In fact, revelations of truth are often a key part of horror, and as we’ve learned from Scooby-Doo, a modern gothic horror masterpiece, the real monsters are (almost) always humans. Learning that the person behind the ghost was someone the protagonist trusted, or even just that there’s a greater story to be discovered, is a fantastic way to add nuance to gothic horror and reveal just how fragile our sanity is.
Plus you can do reveals like this: The nun ghost in Villette is actually just a horny teenager. Isn’t that great?
So what’s the twist?: A couple fun and easy options here: What happens to the story when it’s told by the (supernatural or otherwise) monster? What happens when you include a less traditional gothic horror creature, like aliens, or focus on a phenomenon, like time travel? What happens when the monster inspires an emotion other than fear? You might be tempted to just check the paranormal romance section for that last one, but there’s more emotions to consider here: Rage, jealousy, and amusement are a few that I’d recommend exploring.
If gothic horror had travel posters, they’d feature empty moors in late fall, purplish-gray in the twilight and laid low with mist. In the distance, maybe on a cliff, there’s an ancient castle or manor house that’s just beginning to crumble. Once upon a time it was grand–maybe it was even happy. Nobody living remembers that time, though. All you know are the dark, dank hallways trapping you inside, the wide, windswept moors trapping you in every other conceivable way. Even if you ran, where would you go? You’re so lonely here–or at least, you’re hope you’re alone. Those noises you hear at night…
This is a familiar image, right? And it’s revealing as well. The physical landscape of gothic horror is one of unease, discomfort, and alienation, but that’s because the emotional landscape is all about those same feelings. In her memoir In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado writes, “Places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.”
What this means for gothic horror is that its setting works best when it speaks to something in the characters, when it responds to those characters in some way. Setting is a lot like the supernatural features of gothic horror in that way–it isn’t about scary imagery, but about how that imagery reflects (or heightens) the suffering of the characters.
And this doesn’t have to happen on the moors or in a manor house, either. The apartment building in Rosemary’s Baby is a great setting because its mundanity hides something horrifying and because Rosemary is simultaneously surrounded by people and completely alone. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining works partly because of its size; the family can disappear into different parts of the hotel and have no clue where their loved ones are, what they’re doing, or what they’re becoming. Furthermore, the hotel isn’t a home. It’s a place that so many have entered and (mostly) departed from, which contributes to the characters’ feelings of unease.
So what’s the twist?: One of the easiest twists here is just to find new, strange, fun settings to turn into sites of gothic horror. You can try genre-mixing here: An abandoned satellite, a ghostly railroad town, etc. What history do these places have, and how does that impact the character? Or, if you’d like to mess around a little more with the “horror” aspect of gothic horror, then try seeing what would happen if you changed the emotional tone of the character and the setting. What if your character had an intense devotion to an eldritch place, or what if their home inspired nothing but disgust?
Okay. This is the longest blog post I’ve written so far (hooray!) and honestly the one that I’ve enjoyed the most. Genres like gothic horror have so much to offer us in terms of theme, character, and literary tradition, but we don’t have to feel bound by conventions. Instead, we can use those conventions to shape something new, something that responds just as much to the conditions of our lives as The Castle of Otranto responded to conditions in the mid-eighteenth century.
Concerns like, you know, whether isolation or pox parties were the appropriate response to contagious diseases. Absolutely antiquated stuff.