Vampires, werewolves, ghosts and zombies were once literary expressions of public anxiety and warnings not to stray from the path of righteousness. But in the 21st century they are no longer the stuff of nightmares, they are pin ups for a generation enamoured with the idea of the beautiful stranger with a dark secret.
The popularity of TV series like True Blood, Being Human and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention the global phenomenon of the Twilight series, is testament to a culture that likes to dip its toe into the Black Lagoon every so often and to experience those sublime shivers you get when you walk on the wild side.
…isolated castles, dark windswept forests, shadowy corridors…
Based on book series, True Blood and Twilight are the latest examples of a proud tradition in popular gothic fiction that stretches back all the way to the 18th century, to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. A book that laid the creaking, cobweb covered foundations for what we now recognise as gothic horror: isolated castles, dark windswept forests, shadowy corridors and about a hundred other genre conventions that have become a staple of gothic horror ever since.
Gothic fiction more than any other genre draws on the 18th century philosophy of the Sublime, which, put simply, explores the idea that the terrifying and dangerous can be pleasurable. The shivers you get when you see a thunderstorm on the horizon, or feeling inconceivably small while looking up at the night’s sky is an example of what this philosophy exemplifies.
…the dangers of scientific discovery without conscience…
Arguably the biggest milestone in Gothic fiction came in 1817 when the 21 year old, Mary Shelley, anonymously published a novel which would make her world famous, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Written as a warning about the dangers of scientific discovery without conscience, Frankenstein is no mere monster rampage novel.
Victor Frankenstein’s creation is not, as it is usually portrayed, a mindless, violent monster but a sensitive, inquisitive man who is as much a victim of Frankenstein’s arrogance as any of the other characters. Realising he is unique in his deformity the Creature craves companionship and demands that Frankenstein builds him a mate, reasoning that it’s Frankenstein’s responsibility as his creator to end his loneliness.
The Creature, usually thought to be Frankenstein, is intended to represent the dark side of Victor but in fact displays more sympathetic qualities than his creator.
Frankenstein became an exemplar of Gothic horror and possibly it’s best known symbol in the Creature up until the end of the 19th century, with the publication of the novel that became the figurehead for the Gothic genre and still remains one of its finest examples, Dracula.
Like Frankenstein’s Creature, Dracula is not simply a blood thirsty fiend, but a highly intelligent and complex character that makes the reader ask important questions about how they would react in the same situation.
…undercurrents of dangerous sexuality…
Unlike Frankenstein’s Creature, Dracula offers his victims the choice to become like him and be young and powerful forever but at the price of becoming a soulless, daylight fearing revenant. The moral choice Dracula offers was an attractive, but controversial one to its contemporary readers with undercurrents of dangerous sexuality that was almost unheard of in literature of the time. It became a sensation and even to this day still influences pop culture 114 years after its publication.
Without these novels’ vast influence then modern sympathetic characters like True Blood’s Bill Compton or Being Human’s vampire John Mitchell, may not exist or be very different creatures altogether. Whose posters would adorn bedroom walls everywhere? Mr Darcy? Heathcliff?
Images courtesy of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, Casper and The Wizard Of Oz