Horror Movies and Gothic Fiction


The horror film has had a major presence in the world of film almost since the inception of the cinematic form. While it has been through many incarnations since its beginnings, the genre has always maintained its associations with the earlier literary form of Gothic fiction. Recognising its similar objective of providing terror to the reader/audience, filmmakers have exploited Gothic archetypes and themes by adding a visual component to the literary word. The influence of literary Gothicism on the history of the horror film can be traced through the decades by selecting representative films from each decade and showing both how both the film and the Gothic influence developed.


What comes to mind when one associates the words “horror” and “film?” Many would think of grotesque monsters, rampant bloodletting, and the exploitation of every type of human fear that surfaces in a cinematic melee. However, the horror film, which dates back to the origins of the cinematic form itself, can be directly linked to an earlier literary genre: that of Gothic fiction. The Gothic genre combines elements of sensationalism, melodrama, and the supernatural to elicit a strong arousal of the reader’s senses. Like the Gothic text, the primary objective of the horror film is to awaken terror and wonder in the viewer. Both genres are characterised by intense emotion, emphasising the darker side of life. The horror film itself seems to stem from classic Gothic texts such as Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In fact, many early movies were visual representations of the earlier texts; most notable is Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), an adaptation of the classic Dracula narrative. Other very early films such as Le Manoir du diable (1896), or The Devil’s Castle, carry numerous Gothic embellishments; the idea of a monstrous bat which transforms into a mythical being inside a medieval castle while a demon creates supernatural beings in a cauldron hearkens to archetypal Gothic texts. Terror often stems from the intrusion of supernatural forces into the everyday world, and early filmmakers use established literary forms to achieve an amplified sensual effect, with a new emphasis on the visual.

As more films with horror themes were produced, filmmakers began more creative genre overlapping. In films such as James Whales’ Frankenstein (1932), Gothic archetypes and cues from classic texts were combined with burgeoning genres such as science fiction to produce updated ‘versions’ of the older texts. However, the ‘old reliables’ of Gothic fiction still held strong in the cinematic world: a version of Dracula was produced in 1931, while Rouben Mamoulian convinced Paramount to produce Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the same year. Horror films with an overt Gothic influence continued well into the 1940’s, with well-known franchises like Universal’s Frankenstein series maintaining its place in the moviegoers’ eyes.


However, after the Second World War, horror films moved away from the ‘classic’ Gothic and began to delve more visibly into science fiction. Perhaps as a reaction to the triumphant optimism and utopic confidence generally expressed after the end of the war, attacks from other worlds and by unknown life forms, such as alien forces and mutants, became common, replacing the idea of more traditional supernatural incursion. Nonetheless, this new direction in the horror genre only served to develop Gothic themes further, though they were less apparent in the film narratives. The ideas of the grotesque, seen in narratives such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1753) surfaced prominently as mutation and negative transformation in sci-fi narratives such as The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Drawing from the much earlier “scientific Gothic” narratives that usually involved a mad experimenter (such as Hawthorne’s short stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark”), horror movies during and after the 1950’s began to reflect the anxieties of a mysterious but ubiquitous nuclear threat, and scientific creations were positioned so that they rather unambiguously portrayed an ‘enemy’ that alluded to the Communist threat. Thus the horror film began to take on a more political perspective during this era; filmmakers addressed the more serious contemporary paranoia surrounding the Cold War in alternative and more implicit ways at the time.

At the same time, the old Gothic narratives were reinterpreted for an audience that was willing to see films that promised more life-like thrills: The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy were all released in the late 1950s, as well as a series of Vincent Price films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. These films, with their more explicit and terror-inducing portrayals of violence and gore, are generally regarded as the beginnings of the modern horror film.

The next development in the genre was a marked shift from the ‘cheap thrill’ to a more psychological form of horror in top-billed movies, pioneered by filmmakers such as Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. This movement echoed the same tendency towards psychological Gothic seen in the middle of the previous century, which resulted in texts such as Poe’s “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables. The psychological form delved into the inner workings of the antagonist’s mind, countering the horror genre’s previous limited omniscient tendencies.


Not to be completely ousted, the supernatural horror film still remained: both The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963) explore the idea of ghosts and their possessive qualities that somehow reveal secrets in ancient mansions. George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1968) combined the classic Gothic narrative with the later tendency towards gore and violence. Romero’s work spearheaded the course of the horror film into the 1970s – in this decade, the genre became more preoccupied with the occult (Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Exorcist), signifying yet another shift away from the established Gothic themes. While movies like The Shining (1980) updated the idea of the haunted castle by portraying a hotel possessed by the vengeful dead, films were taken less seriously and began to lose popularity to other forms, or to the thrills of the ‘slasher flick.’ The political hints remained in films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – which could have been read as an allusion to the war in Vietnam – but by the end of the decade, more independent films such as Halloween (1978) introduced the mindless ‘slasher’ film to audiences.


The 1980s was the decade of the franchise; the films that most of us remember were parts of series established in the former half of the decade, such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, and Halloween. Unsurprisingly, the sequel overkill that characterised much of the decade spawned a backlash that began to pervade the mainstream – parodies of well-known horror conventions in film, which had by then long become clichés, began to equal the popularity of the more serious films. The Gothic embellishments that so characterised the horror film were turned in upon themselves and while they were still present, were used to mock, rather than to horrify.

Most of the franchises continued into the nineties. While narratives like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) attempted to revive the seriousness of the horror films of yore, slasher movies still dominated, and still dominate, the genre’s place in mainstream viewing. Films like The Blair Witch Project (1999), while attempting to be serious, were in actuality mockumentaries, much in the way that This is Spinal Tap mocked the rock documentaries before it.

Contemporary cinema is characterised by a resurgence in horror movies, but in a blatantly mimetic form. The most popular horror films have been cookie-cutter remakes of earlier films, such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and ‘prequels’ of films. In the mainstream, the Gothic continues to play a significant role in the horror film; however, its original objectives have been lost to the particulars of the fickle viewing public and the commercial development of the genre itself. The retro movement that has been evident in horror within the last few years may indicate that filmmakers will look further back to earlier films for inspiration or their next assured box office hit; however, it is impossible to tell how soon the public will tire of the regression to conservative nostalgia. The role of the Gothic, while established for decades, may still nevertheless provide feelings of terrific horror for a new generation of moviegoers.

Dan Enjo

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