The art of darkness

Why gothic myths continue to resonate

- October 30, 2007

Movie poster from the classic 1931 Dracula.

The vampire lurking through castle halls. The mad scientist whose dark experiment goes terribly wrong. The serial killer stalking unsuspecting teenagers.

These horrific images are ingrained in our collective culture. We encounter them in the stories we tell around the campfire, the books we read in bed and the movies we line up around the block to see. As the calendar creeps closer to Halloween, it’s worth asking why these gothic and horror myths continue to resonate even as they’re interpreted and reinvented generation after generation.

“When the gothic started as a form of literature, generally in the late 18th century, it was related to the Romantic movement,” explains Dr. Jason Haslam, assistant professor in the Department of English.

“The Romantic movement was about transcendence, about finding ways we can spiritually, physically and creatively transcend our surroundings and find some sort of universal human meaning. The gothic is usually figured as the dark underbelly of the movement… it reminds us of the supposedly negative aspects of our culture that we can feel separated from, that we feel we can transcend.”


WHAT: The Varma Prizes in Gothic Literature are awarded in honour of the late Devendra Varma, former member of the English Department
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Grawood Lounge

Most experts considering the first truly gothic text to be The Castle of Otranto, a 1764 novel by Horace Walpole about a haunted castle, although some of the genre’s hallmark motifs are strewn throughout literary history. Gothic literature exploded in the 19th century with famous works including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the poetry and short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. These works contained many of the key devices that defined the genre: spooky castles, the supernatural, “doubles” and doppelgangers, and a healthy dose of the grotesque. These themes have continued into the 20th century with the work of cinematic and literary auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King.

Part of the reason why gothic and horror stories remain so popular is because they appeal to audiences on multiple levels. One the one hand, the gothic can be about re-imposing a society’s view of normal in the face of emerging threats.

“In gothic narratives you often have a very strong conservative trend in which these threats to the dominant order of things are silenced,” explains Dr. Haslam. “So think about any horror movie where the kids who have sex outside of wedlock and smoke pot go out in the woods by themselves and are impaled. The virgin lives and emerges as a hero, or the non-normative monsters are threatening and the norms have to go in and save the day.”

But as his colleague Dr. Julia Wright explains, most audiences don’t go to the theatre or read a novel for the moral story: they go for the monsters.

“There’s a very interesting piece by Thomas De Quincey where he’s talking about watching a gothic play, and he says that what’s interesting is getting to see things from the perspective of the monster, the murderer,” she elaborates. “It’s an opportunity to see how their minds might work without the danger and disgust of actual violence. It’s a kind of imaginative sympathy that we don’t get in our daily lives that is exciting and exotic, but always safe.”

Both Dr. Haslam and Dr. Wright see the gothic as alive and well in our culture, although it has taken on a semi-ironic, self-referential tone. They’re both huge fans of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and point to Shaun of the Dead as a modern gothic classic.

“One of the interesting things about the gothic, almost right from the beginning, is that it’s aware of its predecessors in the genre, so gothic texts are always dense with allusions to other works,” says Dr. Wright. “I think that’s one of the elements of gothic literature that has transported quite easily to television and film in our own time.”

Light up the jack o’ lantern – Halloween is just around the corner. Here are some reading and viewing suggestions to get you in the mood:


  • Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe by Edgar Allen Poe
  • The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Dark Half by Stephen King
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice


  • Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale
  • Dracula (1931), directed by Tod Browning
  • Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004), directed by Edgar Wright


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