The Gothic novel was invented almost single-handedly by Horace
whose The Castle of Otranto
essentially all the
elements that constitute the genre. Walpole's novel was imitated in the
eighteenth century, but enjoyed widespread influence in the nineteenth
century in part because of that era's indulgence in dark-romantic
themes. Today, the Gothic continues to
the novel, the short story, and poetry, and provides a major source of
themes and elements in film making. (In fact, Gothic elements have been
used so often in film that some have become predictable cliches. When
people enter an abandoned room in a supposedly abandoned house, the
door often closes and locks behind them.)
2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense.The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. This atmosphere is sometimes advanced when characters see only a glimpse of something--was that a person rushing out the window or only the wind blowing a curtain? Is that creaking sound coming from someone's step on the squeaky floor, or only the normal sounds of the night? Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. People disappear or show up dead inexplicably. Elements 3, 4, and 5 below contribute to this atmosphere.
In modern novels and filmmaking, the inexplicable
are often murders. The bodies are sometimes mutilated in ways that defy
explanation--"What kind of monster could do this?" or "Here's the body,
but there's no blood." When the corpses start to mount, suspense is
raised as to who will get killed next. Another modern setting that
lends itself well to the sense of suspense and even entrapment is a
supposedly deserted island, where the characters have arrived by
shipwreck or mysterious invitation. Their way back to civilization has
been cut off (the airplane ran out of fuel or crash landed, the boat
sank, etc.). Who knows? They might even run into living dinosaurs.
3. An ancient prophecy is connected with
the castle or its inhabitants
(either former or present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial,
confusing. "What could it mean?" In more watered down modern examples,
this may amount to merely a legend: "It's said that the ghost of old
Krebs still wanders these halls." Ancient, undecipherable maps showing
the location of amazing treasure represent another variant of the
ancient prophecy aspect.
4. Omens, portents, visions. A character
may have a disturbing
dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming
For example, if the statue of the lord of the manor falls over, it may
portend his death. In modern fiction, a character might see something
shadowy figure stabbing another shadowy figure) and think that it was a
dream. This might be thought of as an "imitation vision." Sometimes an
omen will be used for foreshadowing, while other writers will tweak the
reader by denying expectation--what we thought was foreshadowinig
5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events.
events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects
as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the
are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events
are truly supernatural. As you might imagine, Hollywood uses special
effects to a large degree to provide fire, earthquakes, moving statues,
and so forth, often bluring the line between human-produced, natural,
and supernatural events.
6. High, even overwrought emotion. The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, fear, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common. In the filmed Gothic, screaming is common.
7. Women in distress. As an appeal to the
pathos and sympathy
of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them
fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and
oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her
are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer
the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on
or by accident), and have no protector at times. (In horror-Gothic
films, when the guy tells the girl, "Stay here; I'll be right
back," you pretty much know that one of them will soon be dead.)
8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive,
One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor,
father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female
do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone
does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a
crime. In modern Gothic novels and films, there is frequently the
threat of physical violation.
|wind, especially howling||rain, especially blowing|
|doors grating on rusty hinges||sighs, moans, howls, eerie sounds|
|footsteps approaching||clanking chains|
|lights in abandoned rooms||gusts of wind blowing out lights|
|characters trapped in a room||doors suddenly slamming shut|
|ruins of buildings||baying of distant dogs (or wolves?)|
|thunder and lightning||crazed laughter|
10. The vocabulary of the Gothic. The
constant use of the appropriate
vocabulary set creates an sustains the atmosphere of the Gothic. Using
words maintains the dark-and-stimulated feel that defines the Gothic.
Here as an example
are some of the words (in several categories) that help make up the
of the Gothic in The Castle of Otranto:
|diabolical, enchantment, ghost, goblins, haunted, infernal, magic, magician, miracle, necromancer, omens, ominous, portent, preternatural, prodigy, prophecy, secret, sorcerer, spectre, spirits, strangeness, talisman, vision|
Fear, Terror, or Sorrow
|afflicted, affliction, agony, anguish, apprehensions, apprehensive, commiseration, concern, despair, dismal, dismay, dread, dreaded, dreading, fearing, frantic, fright, frightened, grief, hopeless, horrid, horror, lamentable, melancholy, miserable, mournfully, panic, sadly, scared, shrieks, sorrow, sympathy, tears, terrible, terrified, terror, unhappy, wretched|
|alarm, amazement, astonished, astonishment, shocking, staring, surprise, surprised, thunderstruck, wonder|
|anxious, breathless, flight, frantic, hastened, hastily, impatience, impatient, impatiently, impetuosity, precipitately, running, sudden, suddenly|
|anger, angrily, choler, enraged, furious, fury, incense, incensed, provoked, rage, raving, resentment, temper, wrath, wrathful, wrathfully|
|enormous, gigantic, giant, large, tremendous, vast|
||dark, darkness, dismal, shaded,
11. The Onomatopoeia of the Gothic. Onomatopoeic words resemble
the sound they name. For example, "buzz" when spoken supposedly
resembles the sound of a buzzer. Many onomatopoeias are not very close
in actual sound, but they convey the meaning to the reader. Here are
some onomatopoeias frequent in Gothic works, allowing appropriate
fearful sound effects to arise from the printed word.
The 1943 Sherlock Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (one of the classic Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films), contains all the elements of the Gothic. Here is a brief rundown of the items above:
1. Setting. It's not quite a castle, but it is a huge mansion with several levels, including a basement and a hidden sub-basement. Dark and drafty. Ominous.
2. Atmosphere of Mystery. It's a multiple murder mystery, with cryptic notes, hidden passageways, wind, lightning, and everyone a suspect.
3. Ancient Prophecy. There is the Musgrave Ritual. Obscure, compelling, ancient.
4. Omens and portents. The crow at the tavern, the intrusive lightning strike, the taunting notes from the butler.
5. Supernatural or inexplicable events. How the victims died. The lightning seems to strike at just the right time.
6. Overwrought emotion. The female lead screams and panics a bit.
7. Women in distress and 8. Women threatened by a male. Toned down here, but the murderer had designs on the heroine.
9. The wind blows, signs bang into the wall, lightning, a few characters are trapped in various ways.
1. Powerful love. Heart stirring, often sudden, emotions create a life or death commitment. Many times this love is the first the character has felt with this overwhelming power.
2. Uncertainty of reciprocation. What is the beloved thinking? Is the lover's love returned or not?
3. Unreturned love. Someone loves in vain (at least temporarily). Later, the love may be returned.
4. Tension between true love and father's control, disapproval, or choice. Most often, the father of the woman disapproves of the man she loves.
5. Lovers parted. Some obstacle arises and separates the lovers, geographically or in some other way. One of the lovers is banished, arrested, forced to flee, locked in a dungeon, or sometimes, disappears without explanation. Or, an explanation may be given (by the person opposing the lovers' being together) that later turns out to be false.
6. Illicit love or lust threatens the virtuous one. The young woman becomes a target of some evil man's desires and schemes.
7. Rival lovers or multiple suitors. One of the lovers (or even both) can have more than one person vying for affection.
Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)