“Goth” is a term applied to various Germanic tribes who ransacked southern Europe from 376-410
CE. Because the Goths were credited with bringing about the fall of Rome and its classical culture,
Renaissance and Enlightenment critics later applied the term “Gothic” negatively, to mean
“medieval” or that which was considered barbaric. Medieval or “Gothic” architecture, for example,
did not follow the classical ideals of simplicity, unity, and symmetry—instead, soaring towers,
pointed vaults or arches, flying buttresses, gargoyles and other intricate or “wild” elements prevailed
in churches, castles, and monasteries. “Gothic” gradually lost its negative connotation and was used
to refer to an ancient past, often in a nostalgic way.
The Gothic movement in literature, like Romanticism, is viewed as a reaction to Enlightenment
rationalism, a return to the primitive. The 18th century was an “Age of Reason” concerned with
classical principles and scientific progress. The novel, a young genre, was predominantly realistic and
didactic. Appearing near the end of the 18th century, however, Gothic novels drew upon the
conventions of the medieval (chivalric) romances that told of knights battling with magic and
monsters. Gothic novels presented a protagonist’s immersion into a dark, horrific realm of some
kind and reintroduced supernatural elements into fiction.
Gothic tales characteristically deal with difficult-to-express issues and anxieties. Boundaries or
limits (political, philosophical, sexual, etc.) are both established and challenged in Gothic fiction.
Blurring or disruptions of borders are common (e.g., inside/outside, illusion/reality,
masculine/feminine, material/spiritual, good/evil) and the tensions between the scientific and the
supernatural are often prominent in Gothic texts. Originally called “Gothic romances,” Gothic
novels were consumed by a popular audience—often women—and initially considered to be of low
literary quality. The Gothic novel's “golden age” is generally cited as lasting from 1764-1840;
however, the Gothic influence remains visible not only in literature, but also in film, television,
music, and even dance.
Conventions of the Gothic Novel:
wild landscapes
remote or exotic locales
dimly lit, gloomy settings
ruins or isolated crumbling castles or
mansions (later cities and houses)
crypts, tombs
dungeons, torture chambers
dark towers, hidden rooms
secret corridors/passageways
dream states or nightmares
found manuscripts or artifacts
ancestral curses
family secrets
damsels in distress
marvellous or mysterious creatures,
monsters, spirits, or strangers
enigmatic figures with supernatural
scientific tone (fantastic events observed
specific reference to noon, midnight,
twilight (the witching hours)
use of traditionally "magical" numbers
such as 3, 7, 13
unnatural acts of nature (blood-red
moon, sudden fierce wind, etc.)
Sources: Fred Botting, Gothic (London & New York: Routledge, 1996); J.A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1991); Markman Ellis, The History of Gothic Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000); Thomas Woodson, ed.,
Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Fall of the House of Usher (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969).
The Ghost Story and the Horror Story: The ghost story and the horror story are influenced by
Gothic novels and appear early in the 19th century. Both stories have elements of horror, but while
a ghost story usually deals with the reappearance of the repressed and must have a ghost (hence the
name), a horror story does not; a confrontation with something unknowable/unexplainable is at the
core of the horror story. Both types of stories explore the limits of what people are capable of
doing/experiencing (e.g., the capacity for fear, violence, madness) in a world where the “normal”
rules of cause and effect do not necessarily apply. The stories present an attempt to confront and
find adequate descriptions/symbols for deeply rooted energies and fears related to death, afterlife,
punishment, darkness, evil, violence, and destruction. Hell, traditionally conceived as existing in
another location or plane (e.g., Dante's Inferno), has been re-envisioned as residing in the mind or
Common Motifs:
lycanthropy (werewolves)
doubles and doppelgängers
demonic pacts
diabolic possession/exorcism
Horace Walpole's The Castle of Ontronto
Anna Letitia Aikin’s “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” argues that
reading about horrific events can be pleasurable although experiencing terror is not.
Theories of the sublime (contradictory emotion that finds pleasure in horrible
things) and catharsis (Aristotle’s term for moving the audience through pity or
terror as a purgative of the emotions) are operative here.
Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (“supernatural explain’d”)
Matthew Lewis, The Monk
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (written after Byron’s invitation to “write a ghost story”)
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Dr. John William Polidori, The Vampyre
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
James Malcolm Rymer, Varney the Vampyre
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
Sheridan LeFanu, Carmilla
R.L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau
Bram Stoker, Dracula
1960s- now
Literary criticism recognizes the Gothic as discrete genre for study.
Classic Gothic texts are republished and widely distributed.