The Allure of Gothic Horror

The woman wears a long velvet dressing gown over a lace peignoir that froths around her ankles like seafoam as she runs across the moor. In the distance, the shape of a house grown vast and gloriously terrible beyond any architect’s dreams looms, bleak and menacing and wonderful. The moon is high enough to light the scene; the sun is a lie told by nannies to their charges to keep them from being afraid of the monsters in the night. The monsters are not a lie. The monsters are real. The monsters are already inside the house. The monsters are in the blood and the bone and walls, the monsters are here, the monsters are pursuing the woman through the heather, toward the cliffs overlooking the sea, the monsters are sitting down in the parlor for slices of cake and cups of tea.

Welcome to the gothic horror.

Generally accepted to have originated in England with The Castle of Otranto (1764), the gothic horror genre balances in a strange hinterland between modern horror and fairy tale, pulling in elements of romance, realism, and the German Räuberroman, or “robber novel.” It is a genre where houses have hearts that can be broken and corrupted, where families wither under the weight of terrible secrets spanning generations, where lightning can do anything, and where women flee across the moors at the slightest provocation, and generally without pausing to put on sensible shoes. It ranges from the truly supernatural, filled with vampires and werewolves and men who always sound to me like Vincent Price in his heyday, to what is called the “explained supernatural,” a genre conceit which most people are probably familiar with from the various adventures of Scooby-Doo and the gang.

(One can, in fact, make a strong case for various of Scooby’s spinoffs being true gothic horror tales. The quantity of horror is not dictated by the genre, only the nature of the horror, and whether you’re looking at something like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, which belongs firmly to the explained supernatural/robber novel camp, or something like the more recent Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated serials, which are modern gothic horror by almost any measure, the nature of the horror itself is very much in the gothic vein.)

I’m fond of saying that there are absolute genres and genres that are as much about the mood and feeling of the story as they are about following strict rules. This division, imprecise as it is, is what allows for mix-and-match genres. Science fiction, for example, requires a certain amount of technology beyond our own: things that were science fiction twenty years ago may be modern fiction today, as innovation catches up to and passes by them. Horror, which is more of a mood than a set of absolute rules, becomes the overlay that can be slapped onto almost any absolute genre. Science fiction horror? Got it: Alien, Cabin Fever. Fantasy horror? Wishmaster, Troll. Horror adds to what’s already there. It modifies and accents.

Think of it this way. Some genres build the house. Other genres come along and decorate it.

Gothic horror is a very decorative genre.

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