Trigger warning for use and reclamation of the word “queer”
The word “Gothic” probably evokes different images depending on who you are. Maybe it makes you think of the Gothic architecture movement, or the music and fashion subculture that involves dark clothes and a lot of eyeliner. Or maybe it makes you think of the Gothic horror genre. A genre filled with creepy houses, love, death, and drama.
Gothic horror is a subgenre of Romantic Literature that started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and has continued with Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dracula by Bram Stoker, and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (which is technically a satirical take on the Gothic horror genre as a whole, but I’m putting it on the list anyways).
There’s also more modern examples, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and The Shining by Stephen King.
Gothic fiction often features themes of morality and/or religion, with villains that represent some kind of “sin” or “temptation” that the hero must choose whether or not to overcome. Romance is often heavily featured in Gothic horror, but it doesn’t always have to be the main focus of the story. The ending is almost always unhappy, with lots of death, destruction, and all that. There’s usually a fight between humanity and some force of evil, whether it’s a monster of the supernatural variety, or of the human variety.
Another staple of Gothic horror is big, creepy houses. Usually something about the house is tainted, corrupted or overall plain old haunted, (like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the house in Coraline, and Dracula’s castle). Often (but not always), the castle/house is designed in the style of Gothic architecture, but this is usually more present in older novels, when this style of architecture was more common.
Another element that is included is the sense of isolation. One main attraction of the massive creepy Gothic castle is that it’s usually in the middle of nowhere, or farther on the outskirts of towns at least, and it’s very uncommon to have it in the middle of a city (at least in these stories). As I mentioned in my article last week, isolation is a very important element in all horror stories, but it’s central to the Gothic genre. The setting of a Gothic story is a very important part, and the haunted house often seems like it could be its own character.
The Gothic horror genre gained popularity for its over the top dramatic nature and its ability to explore darker and more taboo topics. A big example of this is the Bronte Sisters’ novels. Primarily Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, which were very controversial at the time, for portraying things like independent women (gasp!), incredibly passionate and toxic relationships, bigamy, adultery, murder and much more. Reading the books today seems awfully tame compared to some other horror and romance media out there, but when you take into account the incredibly reserved society of Victorian England that these books were being published into, they were quite shocking. Especially because of the fact that these books were written by women! (The sisters all used male pseudonyms for this reason, up until the death of Emily and Anne Bronte, after which Charlotte wrote prefaces to the new editions of their novels that revealed their true identities).
Another big part of Gothic horror that was seen as “shocking” and “indecent” at the time but is undeniably woven into the genre of Gothic horror, is queer coded characters. This happens most often in Gothic stories involving vampires (Carmilla, and Interview with the Vampire are two titles that come to mind), which you can read into on your own. Another notable example is the Picture of Dorian Gray.
I’m not going to go into which authors were suspected to be gay, since that would be a much longer article with a lot more gray area, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of letters and such that lead historians to suspect that many authors of the Romantic period were some kind of queer.
One thing that I can explore though, is the queer coded aspects of many Gothic horror novels. Of course, queer coding is heavily based in stereotypes, so I understand that these representations will not resonate with every queer person, but I still feel that it’s interesting and important to look at.
Gothic horror often included a lot of blurring of gender roles, with women being able to be more independent and strong willed (again, consider the gender expectations of the Regency and Victorian eras), and men who are more “feminine”, at least for the time. Also, many relationships in Gothic horror were very homoerotic, even if they couldn’t be explicitly stated as such (the prime example of this is Basil and Dorian from the Picture of Dorian Gray).
A lot of the queer coded characters in these novels were portrayed as villainous for demonstrating these characteristics, something we deem problematic today. But it is important to bear in mind that many of these authors may have been queer themselves, and this was a way that they could see themselves in literature without earning the scorn of their peers. By framing stereotypically queer characteristics as evil and having their villains be “punished” for these “transgressions”, they were able to instead market their story as a “cautionary tale”, while still being able to include queer elements. It was certainly a raw deal, but it was what they had to work with at the time.
(For more information on the history of queer coding, you can check out Asha Swann’s article The Origins and Evolution of Kill Your Gays, and Overly Sarcastic Productions’ video on Queer Coded Villains).
Ultimately, I believe that the popularity of the Gothic horror genre is owed in part to the theatrical and dramatic elements of the Romantic era of fiction as a whole. Massive castles, sweeping moors, lots of fog (Seriously. So much. Talk about a pathetic fallacy!), and over-the-top expressions of emotion are classic elements of this genre. And after all, who doesn’t love a little sprinkle of drama with their horror?
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.