The Emergence of Modern Day Horror from 19th Century Gothic

Exploring modern-day horror films and novels, it is possible to draw a parallel between the nineteenth-century gothic genre and contemporary horror. Such a shift is inseparably connected with the spread of psychoanalysis created by Sigmund Freud, Jacque Lacan and Julia Kristeva and that gradually influenced the interpretation of early gothic romances and modern gothic horror. The first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole dates back to 1765, followed by Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula that considerably advanced the gothic genre.


Recently, psychoanalysis has been exposed to harsh criticism from the side of modern scholars and philosophers. However, psychoanalysis can be successfully applied to the investigation of the emergence of modern-day horror from nineteenth-century gothic. At the end of the eighteenth century, Great Britain began to experience various social changes that challenged the existing ideologies and evoked human consciousness. It was in that controversial period when the gothic novel was created, reflecting the destruction of old social identity and pursuit of new identity. Despite the fact that gothic novels are sometimes criticised for their too gloomy plots and settings, the gothic genre has acquired unusual fame since the first gothic romance The Castle of Otranto written by Walpole. Nowadays gothic is advanced and changed, but it remains one of the most important genres of modern cinematography and literature. Such popularity can be explained by the fact that gothic novels make attempts to analyse in-depth people’s consciousness that conflicts with the existing cultural stereotypes and superstition of the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. On the basis of supernatural powers, gothic writers uncover some elements of human mentality; simultaneously the fear depicted in gothic novels reveal the negative impact of French and American Revolutions, as well as rationality of the era of Enlightenment on people’s consciousness.

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In view of such cruel and complex social reality, there is no wonder that English literature has gradually turned from rationality to the unconscious, to the exploration of psychological states of characters and coexistence of good and evil in people. As a result, gothic novels appear to be the principal source for a psychoanalytic investigation, because, according to Freud’s psychoanalysis, the evil and horror are usually inspired by people, by their powerful emotions and illusions, but not only by miraculous phenomena. In their psychoanalytic theories Freud, Lacan and Kristeva regard fear of uncertainty as to the most powerful human emotion; thus it is clear why horror genre continues to attract attention of modern audience. Early gothic novels are characterised by the portrayal of dark sides of both the world and personality that usually result in characters’ madness. Modern-day horror creates a more profound analysis of the suppression of sexual desires and interprets gothic elements with irony or parody.

The aim of this dissertation is two-fold: 1) to analyse the emergence of modern-day horror literature and films from nineteenth-century gothic, and 2) to utilise a psychoanalytic framework of Freud, Lacan and Kristeva to explain this particular shift. The research is divided into chapters. Chapter 1 provides a statement of the problem that reveals the problematic of the conducted analysis. Chapter 2 briefly analyses historical and social contexts of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries, paying attention to the spread of psychology and psychoanalysis. Chapter 3 conducts a general observation of some critical works that are written on the discussed issue. Chapter 4 points at the research methods that are applied for the analyses. Chapter 5 investigates in depth different aspects of gothic and modern-day horror through a psychoanalytic framework, evaluating such gothic romances as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker and films of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as some modern horror films. Chapter 6 provides a summarization of the received results, while Chapter 7 observes the limitations of the conducted research, giving some suggestions for further research of gothic and modern-day horror.

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Review of the literature

Freud’s psychoanalytic approach is one of the major psychological approaches for explanation of the emergence of modern-day horror from nineteenth-century gothic1, despite the fact that such critics as Erwin, Macmillan, Grunbaum and Cioffi challenge the scientific nature of this approach and its applicability to the analysis of horror2. Investigating psychoanalysis and horror films, Carroll claims that “the psychoanalytic account is not comprehensive for the genre”3. Even if Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is proved unscientific, it still provides a valid explanation to the phenomenon of horror in literature and films. As the theme of gothic and modern-day horror attracts much attention from the side of critics, many critical works are written on this issue, although they provide rather controversial findings. According to MacAndrew, gothic novels of the nineteenth century are closely connected with sentimental literature of the eighteenth century that was aimed at evoking sympathy and pity in readers.

Thus, MacAndrew considers that gothic literature reflects a certain level of psychological complexity and “gives shape to concepts of the place of evil in the human mind”4. The researcher states that the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries were the start of people’s obsession with the analysis of the unconscious and the inner self; as MacAndrew claims regarding Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, “Walpole was able to present his age’s concept of human evil – pride, hatred, violence, cruelty, incest – as part of man’s psychology”5. Analysing early gothic romances, Howard Philips Lovecraft regards Horace Walpole as the initiator of the gothic genre, but the researcher further claims that gothic novels are improved and complicated by such writers as Ann Radcliff and Edgar Allan Poe who manage to create the element of ‘cosmic-terror’ in their narratives6. However, the researcher Linda Bayer-Berenbaum challenges Lovecraft’s view, pointing at the fact that Walpole and Radcliffe establish traditional elements of gothic romances in their works The Castle of Otranto and The Italian7. Bayer-Berenbaum considers that through gothic elements of these novels the writers uncover the unconscious in people and simultaneously reveal social reality.

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