THE BLOG
10/29/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Appeal of the Gothic

Now that Halloween is here, we will be invited to frighten ourselves with scary masks and terrifying movies. Why? How is it that fear - the primitive defense mechanism that warns us to fight or flee when faced with danger - can be pleasurable? And yet that paradoxical wish to be frightened is as ancient as narrative art itself. From Grendel lumbering murderously out of the darkness in the eighth century poem "Beowulf," through the tales recorded by the Grimms and down to our own age, storytellers have catered to our desire to be made fearful.

Yet perhaps those words - fear, terror, fright - aren't quite the right ones. As we sit comfortably at home or in the movie-theater reading or watching, we know we are not in actual danger. Isn't there a more appropriate vocabulary to describe that paradoxical desire?

A kind of literature specifically designed to inspire fear emerged in England at the end of the 18th century, and its legacy remains hugely influential. It very serendipitously and inappropriately became known as "Gothic" and it relied heavily on "props" and "melodrama." The settings were ruined castles, graveyards, and sinister old houses. Its lurid plots involved charming villains, duped innocents, shameful secrets, terrifying ghosts, mad scientists, and devastating revelations. Apart from the somewhat later Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the books are largely forgotten. (Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" and Ann Radcliffe's "The Mysteries of Udolpho" are the best-known examples.) We probably know the genre best from Jane Austen's satire on it in "Northanger Abbey."

It is no accident that a form of fiction that exploited the supernatural should have emerged precisely at the time when faith in conventional religion was crumbling. For many people the consolation of eternal life or the threat of eternal punishment no longer gave shape and meaning to their lives. A set of superstitious beliefs arrived to supply that need and to articulate humanity's ineradicable fear of death and of the dead. As the process of secularization continued, the Gothic mode flourished. The discovery in the early 19th century of the European folk-tale tradition added to the mix new and more disquieting supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves and zombies.

The Gothic mode is now more powerful and more prevalent than it ever has been and popular culture's way of thinking about death is largely in terms of that legacy. Hollywood continues to embrace the old tropes of blood-sucking immortals preying on human beings or unquiet spirits of the dead haunting the places where they lived. The truth of that is illustrated by movies like the "Twilight" series, "Insidious," "The Sixth Sense" and "The Woman in Black." In popular literature Stephen King, Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer and all their numerous rivals and imitators endlessly and profitably recycle elements from the supernatural end of the Gothic spectrum.

Though we take it for granted, there is surely an oddness in our highly technological and materialistic culture relying on metaphors that entered our literature two hundred years ago. Digitally-engineered armies of zombies! Men transformed to wolves thanks to CGI!

The more interesting question is: Why do we want to be frightened and why do we choose these particular tropes? Why do the terrors of the late eighteenth century - giant ghostly knights or mad nuns - no longer frighten us when Frankenstein's monster or Count Dracula, in one form or another, still do?

Obviously the Gothic has endured because it is a way of dealing with issues that are normally repressed or can't be directly addressed. Those are issues that don't arouse fear so much as unease or anxiety. As we watch or read, we know we are physically safe but the movie or the novel is dramatizing an unease that puts us in psychological danger.

The unease comes from our sensing that there is something we don't know or don't understand. As children we suspect that secrets are being kept from us and we are usually correct. But because a child knows that it is being excluded from the whole truth, it entertains irrational and unjustified fears - for example, that its parents don't really love it. (That is surely the basis of those folk-tales in which wicked step-parents really do try to harm children.)

The unease that the Gothic identifies and dramatizes is about boundaries and their arbitrariness. The obvious ones are between the living and the dead (zombies) and the human and the non-human (werewolves). And there are the boundaries that define human identity - our own and that of the people around us. The Gothic mode - specifically in the horror movie - exploits the fear that those we love most are not what they seem. That they secretly hate us. Hence the power of a moment like the one in "28 Days Later" when a father turns into a zombie and attacks his child.

Similarly, every parent at some moment probably sees its child as a monster in its demands and its disruptive impact. That explains the effect of all those moments in movies when a child turns out either to be utterly wicked or not really to be a child at all: "Don't Look Now," the "Omen" series, and all those more recent horror movies - mostly in Spanish - with "orphan" or "orphanage" in the title.

So much for the unease, but what about the pleasure? What pleasure do we derive from being told that the spirits of our dead loved ones may be all around us, suffering and perhaps trying to make us join them in their pain? From the suggestion that those we trust may be capable of tearing us apart? From being told that a child may be the summation of all evil?

It must be that the acting out in front of us of our most irrational fears allows us to deal with them, to see them as irrational. Almost as absurd - and that is perhaps why horror movies teeter on the edge of being comic. So our anxieties are first validated by the premise of the narrative and then resolved as the story leads us safely towards its denouement. And the source of our pleasure is our paradoxical awareness from the start that our preliminary unease will eventually be allayed.

Charles Palliser's newest book, "Rustication," comes out in November.

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