by Sam Knight
Gothic is a big idea. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Wait. Sorry. Those were Douglas Adams’s words, talking about Space. But calling Gothic a genre is kind of the same thing. And that means it can be kind of hard to grasp. So, don’t sweat it if you don’t. People argue over what it is—and isn’t. I don’t want to argue, so I will just tell you what I think it is, and you can use that as fodder to build your idea of what it is or isn’t.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I think of, when I think of Gothic, is The House. I don’t mean that to be a title of a story or a movie, I mean it to be a Major Character in a story that fits my idea of gothic. The building, or house, or estate, or village, or city used as a setting for gothic stories is almost always brought to life as nearly a character in its own right—sometimes literally. But it doesn’t have to be. That’s just what I think of. Probably because my first real exposure was House on Haunted Hill (1959), starring Vincent Price.
Instead of The House, it could easily have been something else that makes me think of Gothic. In fact, as I’ve grown as a storyteller, I’ve realized it should have been something else.
The idea, of what Gothic is, is more complicated and harder to define than you might think. Having little to do with the “goths” of my younger years, it is much, much different than people painting their fingernails black, having pale skin, wearing black clothes, and trying to act like they creepily don’t give a crap about anything not considered “dark.”
But they got those ideas from Gothic. That’s why they are (were?) called goths.
Gothic is as much a feeling as it is anything else, which is why it lends itself so well into horror, but that is also why it can be hard to pin down. The truth is, depending upon how you define the Horror genre, I’m not sure you can have a Gothic story without horror elements. In fact, the Wikipedia page implies Gothic Fiction is synonymous with Gothic Horror. Personally, again, I feel that depends upon how you define Horror. I’ll let you decide that for yourself. The thing is, there are many elements of Gothic stories that are easily recognizable as Gothic, but then, oddly, you can leave almost all of them out and still manage to have a Gothic story.
To elaborate on that, I’d like to toss around some elements often seen, but that probably can be left out. But how do we figure out what those are? Well, let’s look at the origins of the Gothic Genre.
First, the name. Where does that come from? I am not going to claim anything to be for sure, as I am neither a historian nor an expert (see suggested reading below, regarding The Castle of Otranto), but it seems to come from Gothic architecture. Why? Well, I can’t say for sure, but I suspect because it is overwhelming and fits the feeling I mentioned earlier. I doubt anyone ever saw Gothic architecture and felt overwhelmed with love and contentment. That makes those old castles, monasteries, churches, and such to be the perfect settings for the kinds of stories that created the Gothic genre.
And what kinds of stories were those? Well, depending upon how you research it, Gothic started out as a form of Dark Romanticism (which, again, like Gothic Fiction and Gothic Horror, is often considered to be Gothic, and then argued it is not). As that origin fits well into my ideas, I haven’t tried to disprove it. Basically the idea that Gothic stemmed from was Romanticism was too…well… romantic, I guess. (Remember to consider the definition of romantic to not be “love” so much as appreciation for beauty, intellect, accomplishment, etc.) So, terrible things were added to it. Things like horror or terror. Anguish and torment. Guilt and atonement. The romantic ideals of Good Things were turned upon their heads, and Bad Things trounced upon them, spoiling their happy-go-lucky romance stories and making them…Dark Romanticism.
And it went from there.
Like anything, this idea grew beyond its origins and became its own thing. By doing so, it gained new tropes, new ideas, new elements that, as it moved beyond Dark Romanticism, became recognized as part of the Gothic genre. A genre often considered darker than Dark Romanticism. Elements like ghosts, monsters, and supernatural things that go bump in the dark became ghosts, monsters, and supernatural things that go bump in the dark to ruin you and everything you love. And worse, human things that came bumping for you in the dark were never rescuers or savior, and if they were…God have mercy upon their souls for what was to become of them.
Many credit Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus as being the first Science Fiction novel, others say she created the entire Horror genre with it. I can’t attest to either of those, but nearly everyone agrees her novel was Gothic. All in all, things kept getting added to the Gothic genre until some of those things became their own genres as well. Like Lovecraftian Horror.
Or, to get quite specific, how about, Women Running from Houses. I recently (2020) participated in an anthology based upon this genre. (Castle of Horror Anthology Volume 4: Women Running from Houses). It was based upon a flurry of Gothic novels in the 1960’s and 70’s with cover art all following the formula of…women running from houses. Of course, being the kind of person I am, I had to subvert that idea, and I gave them a story about a woman in a wheelchair. Sorry not sorry.
With all of that in mind, let’s consider why Gothic is so hard to pin down as a genre. It started out as anti-Romanticism, often became an introspection of the dark side of what it means to be human, created not only Science Fiction but the modern Horror genre as well, and influenced nearly all ensuing forms of fiction writing. Then, somehow, probably because it consists of generally scary/creepy stories, it has often come to be considered a sub-genre of Horror.
So, if it is somehow both progenitor and offspring of Horror (fittingly creepy, don’t you think?), then what the heck is it?
It’s okay if you don’t know. Most people don’t. Definitions often don’t match up. Gothic ends up being an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing.
So here are some commonly accepted elements of the genre:
- Intimidating/menacing/scary setting. This could be the architecture, like the mansion, the castle, the ruins, the graveyard, or it could be the caves hidden in the cliffs, or anything really. Sometimes it’s a whole town. (Think Derry in Stephen King’s novels.)
- Unknown/sinister/terrible history (of the land, a building, or characters, etc.). Usually, it is some form of a hidden history, slowly revealed in a traumatic or terrifying way.
- Supernatural happenstance. Bad omens. Bad dreams. Things that go bump in the night. Just generally creepy, unexplainable things. Even if they are only in the character’s mind.
- A general overall feeling of ominous foreboding. Foreshadowing dropped into the text to let the reader know Bad Things are going to happen. (Even if they aren’t! This could all be in the character’s mind.)
- Woman running from the house. Not really, but you get the idea. The helpless/defenseless/innocent person caught up in it all. They may or may not be the protagonist. If they are, they are often also an anti-hero. In fact, the main character is often an anti-hero.
- The Bad Guy. Might be supernatural, might be human. Might be Dad, might be an ancestor who died in 1237AD, might be the gardener. Might be The House. (Might only be in the character’s mind.)
- Romance of some sort, no matter how tenuous. Can just be friendship or imagined. Mostly it needs to be there because the helpless/defenseless/innocent person needs to have some kind of hope that can eventually be ripped away from them just to make things even worse.
You may have noticed that some, or all, of those things can be elements of stories that are not necessarily of the Gothic genre. Even from this point, you can add and/or subtract quite a few elements and still have what people will consider a Gothic story. That definitely to the confusion about what the Gothic genre is.
Personally, I think there is one thing still missing from the list. It is the thing I mentioned earlier, when I said that, as I’ve grown as a storyteller, I’ve realized it should have been something other than The House that I thought of when I thought of Gothic.
Strangely, I’ve never seen it on any other lists of things that comprise Gothic stories. I’m not saying others haven’t noticed it, just saying I’ve never seen, or heard, anyone else list it. So, with that in mind, feel free to disagree with me. Maybe I’m wrong.
To me, the one element you have to leave in, and lean into, in order to make sure your story is Gothic, is the terrible constraints put upon the main character by their beliefs and societal obligations. Their inability to overcome religious, family, and/or societal expectation and obligations and the like, are what keeps them mired in the terrible situation they find themselves in. Those are the reasons that something an ancestor did 400 years ago is still so terrible and can still ruin the present day. Those are the reasons why actually running from the house and never looking back is not an option, and if it were, it’s not a solution. Those are the reasons why they can’t just bitch-slap the bad guy and yell, “Boo-ya!” Those are the shackles that hold the characters down, make them oppressed, make them subservient and slave to their situation, and prevent them from prevailing.
Keeping that in mind, you may start to see why the Wikipedia page implies Gothic Fiction is synonymous with Gothic Horror. Can you have that kind of a situation and not have horror?
Well, again, I will leave that up to you.
I think a good rule of thumb is that if the character doesn’t know/understand what’s going on, doesn’t know who or what their antagonist is, and isn’t sure if they’ve gone insane, it’s probably Gothic. And then all you need to do is find a way to make them even darker, even more horrific, more helpless, hopeless, and inescapable, and you’ll be on your way to a Gothic Horror story.
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, of course. Don’t settle for a movie version. Even the rare faithful versions don’t live up to it if you want to understand why this is Gothic and what Gothic is.
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. I haven’t read it, but everyone credits it as being the first Gothic novel (though elements of the genre are much older), so I kind of had to recommend it. It is also considered by many to be the first Horror novel. It was originally released as a “found” novel, supposedly written in the 1500’s. When it became popular, Horace Walpole finally took credit and the second edition was re-titled The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. This may be a good indicator of the origin of the term Gothic, in relation to the genre.
Edgar Allan Poe. Any of them. Pick one at random. There is a reason he is considered American Gothic writer. If you can’t pick just one, try The Fall of the House of Usher.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There is a reason the Horror Writers Association call their awards the Bram Stoker Awards®
There are tons of others, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, but those are where I would start, if I wanted to understand the real, psychological meanings and expectations behind what comprises Gothic Horror.
The Colorado Springs Chapter is currently working on a Glossary of horror sub-genres. Currently there are live entries on Gothic Horror, Ghosts, Humorous Horror, Occult Horror, and Weird Western. Keep an eye on our page as we continue to add to the offerings. And if you have a suggestion for a sub-genre we might have overlooked, feel free to drop us a line.