"Gothic," in literature, refers to a work that is concerned with the Middle Ages. These works are rooted in the social upheaval that resulted when feudalism and the Dark Ages gave way to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. They were popular from the late 1700s to early 1800s and continue to influence literature and film today.
Typical elements of Gothic works:
- Castles and ruins
- Dungeons, secret and underground passages, dark hallways and crypts
- Low-lit settings with shadows and flickering lights
- Rugged and extreme landscapes
- Supernatural elements such as magic, omens and curses
- Ancient manuscripts
- A determined hero who may hide a secret
- A vulnerable heroine
- Doubled characters
- Terrifying events
Gothic literature is said to have started with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1765. The genre was enormously popular over the next fifty or so years and is considered to have ended with Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820.
Critics of the time believed that the novels had a corrupting influence on readers' morals and served no useful purpose. "Gothic" was not a complimentary name, and these novels were not taken seriously as works of literature. This attitude toward supernatural fiction is still common, especially in the US and Britain. Contemporary authors at best called Edgar Allan Poe an immature genius, while international authors admired his work.
There was a division of opinion among Gothic authors, as authors such as Matthew Lewis wrote visceral and sensationalistic novels that offended authors such as Ann Radcliffe, who saw their work as more refined. The early Gothic horror films by England's Hammer Studios were criticized under similar grounds but today are considered tame.
As the genre matured, it splintered into several directions and influenced a number of classic novels of mainstream literature. It is considered to have sired the science fiction genre with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Edgar Allan Poe's work, especially "The Fall of the House of Usher," contained many Gothic elements that in turn are reflected in the work of H.P. Lovecraft and similar authors such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood.
Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula were the reigning classics of literary horror at the dawn of cinema, and their most famous film adaptations virtually defined the horror film for roughly the first twenty years of the talking picture. The genre saw a resurgence beginning around 1960, when most Gothic horror came from where it would be expected to come: Europe. The main producers were England's Hammer Productions, who remade the Universal Films classics, and the Italian director Mario Bava and his imitators. American producer Roger Corman was quick to jump on the bandwagon with a series of adaptations of Poe's works. These usually starred Vincent Price, typically in combination with Peter Lorre, and were made by American International Productions.
Relaxed censorship standards resulted in a flurry of productions based on a genre classic that had previously seen little adaptation: Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. This novella's lesbian overtones were depicted more or less explicitly in these many versions, which began with Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses in 1959. Other major versions included Hammer's The Vampire Lovers and its sequels and the Spanish production The Blood Spattered Bride.
Hammer continued to make films in a classic Gothic vein through the mid-1970s, and it has been said that their inability to move beyond the genre caused the studio's failure. Even Bava, the quintessential Gothic director, had by then moved on to giallos, proto-slashers and existentialist films. The existentialist trend was a significant form of Gothicism during the 1970s, as Jean Rollin and Jess Franco used the subjects of sex and death as the foundations for examinations of the nature of existence. Their particular branch of Eurosleaze, which amped up Carmilla's lesbian subtext often to the point of pornography, became less common after Rollin's Living Dead Girl in 1982.
Modern Gothic film
Given that its nature is rooted in the conflict between old ways and new ways, it makes sense that the Gothic tradition influenced many films following the countercultural revolution of the late 1960s. Gothic films of the 1970s took the mansion, which previously represented tradition and comfort, and turned it into a symbol of repression. This meshed perfectly with the common Gothic theme of the family curse and allowed for an additional element of Freudian psychology.
Films from Psycho onward tended to emphasize insanity more than the supernatural, and productions such as the American International Poe and Lovecraft adaptations depicted the family as monstrous and corrupted. The newer generation questioned authority. This was reflected in pessimistic movies, such as Witchfinder General and House of Mortal Sin, whose villains were sadistic men and women who abused positions of responsibility.
A sense of irony crept into some productions from the 1960s onward. AIP films such as The Raven were very much horror comedies. This humorous approach to Gothic themes is a key element of Tim Burton's style.
Gothic tales often involve families who are defined by some kind of past tragedy. This often takes the form of a curse that has been passed down between generations. The curse must somehow be dealt with so that safety can be restored.
Black Sunday is a defining example of this plot element. Its driving event is a curse placed centuries before by a witch's dying breath. The Blood Spattered Bride never explicitly states that a curse is at work, but there's a clear pattern of family misfortune in its backstory.
Gothic fiction tends to be distanced from the reader. It is often set in foreign lands and may concern a people who are on the fringes of society. This separation is not necessarily a physical distance but can also be a span of time, as when a story is set in the past, or a fantasy setting. There may also be some kind of rugged terrain that places the setting in isolation.
This sense of isolation can be created in other ways. The hospital of Session 9 is a world unto itself even though it exists in the middle of a huge metropolitan area. Hobbs' End, from In the Mouth of Madness, is in New England but exists on no map and can only be reached by a long and strange journey. One does not have to go far underground to be cut off from society, and the same effect can be produced by weather effects such as snowstorms. Candyman features a crime-infested housing project that is avoided by anyone who has a choice in the matter. At the other extreme, it's lonely out in space, and Gothic elements are more common in films like Alien than one might expect.
Some artists intentionally remove that distancing barrier. Director Jacques Tourneur, and later Pete Walker, used familiar settings instead of exotic locales and insisted on characters to whom his audiences could relate. Stephen King loads his stories with pop-culture and brand-name references to place his characters in a world familiar to his readers.
Gothic horror tends to emphasize buildings and places. Houses are intimately connected to their inhabitants. In Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," the house itself is destroyed by its occupant's disease. In Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space," decay consumes the house and spreads outwards to infect the entire landscape. Houses are safe refuges, but their privacy may keep evil, disease and insanity hidden from the public eye.
These disease connections may literally mean disease. There is a body horror element in the Gothic tendency to depict grotesque physical deterioration.
Places are subject to horror's surreal element. Objects lose their ordinary meaning and take on a menacing aspect. The Overlook Hotel of The Shining and the boiler room of A Nightmare on Elm Street are so affected by past atrocities that they bend their visitors' perceptions of reality. Lovecraft frequently wrote of structures that violated the laws of geometry.
Gothic novels were popular in the United States in the late 1700s, and are considered to have been major influences on such important American literary works as Emily Dickinson's poetry, Tennessee Williams' plays, The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick. The true crime novels popular in America are often considered to be in the Gothic tradition. Modern writers with ties to the genre include Stephen King, Anne Rice and Clive Barker.
The question of Gothic works set in the Americas has been argued over. Some claim that America lacks the long history and ancient places necessary for true Gothic literature. This did not stop H.P. Lovecraft from writing of crumbling mansions and evil seaports or from incorporating Native American legends into his stories. Age anyway becomes irrelevant when time itself becomes flexible, as in Event Horizon. Others counter that age isn't what attaches myths to places and that America has myths of its own. Charlie Starkweather, Danvers State Hospital and the Salem witch trials, for example. Think of how fertile is the wendigo legend: It can be incorporated into anything from Lovecraft's Mythos to a story based on Jeffrey Dahmer or the Donner party.
Those who believe that horror needs a European atmosphere tend to point to Poe, whose works are sometimes set in Europe or at least feel European, or Lovecraft, a devout Anglophile who adored antiquity and felt out of place in the modern era.