The Gothic

Posted by Jennifer Agnew

Monsters aren’t just for Halloween anymore . . . and haven’t been for a while.  Recent trends in literature—including Young Adult (YA)  literature—film, TV, and the fine arts reveal a renewed interest in vampires, zombies, ghosts, and serial killers.  All of these monsters and more fall under the larger category of “The Gothic.”  While many associate “Gothic” with “Goth,” a term that conjures up images of pale skin, black lipstick, and a melancholic mien, the word describes a literary style or genre dating back to late-eighteenth-century England.  Many believe Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, to be the first Gothic novel written in English.  With its haunted castle, family secrets, and murder, the novel set the stage for authors usually only read by English majors—Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, James Hogg—and those more universally recognized thanks to film adaptations and popular culture—Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula), and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

Like so many other literary genres, The Gothic quickly made its way across the Atlantic to the United States, with the publication of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland in 1798.  Many critics believe that Edgar Allan Poe’s works turned the outer trappings of The Gothic (haunted houses, ghosts, and vampires) inside, within the tortured psyches of the mentally insane.  As The Gothic has evolved over the years, one thing remains the same: the monsters—whether external or internal—reflect our society’s fears and anxieties.  Consequently, the ends of centuries and unstable periods in history often see a resurgence in Gothic works.  Take, for example, the end of the 20th Century and millennium; Gothic films like The Blair Witch Project provided a safe outlet for viewers to purge their anxieties about Y2K.  More recently, vampires and zombies have overtaken literature and film.  One scholar, Diane Winston, the University of Southern California’s  Knight Chair in Media and Religion, argues that our current fascination with monsters reveals larger epistemological concerns.  That is, the monster, whether it’s a zombie, vampire, or serial killer, evokes basic questions of humanity.  Moreover, Winston and other scholars believe all things Gothic are emblematic of moral dilemmas and allow us a creative and entertaining means of solving these dilemmas.  Scary movie as therapy?  Perhaps, for some—as long as you can get to sleep.


Photo Credit: Coastal Carolina Univesity

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