THE BLOG
10/08/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Tales From the Dark Side: Horror Flicks Rooted in Gothic Past

Looking back over this past summer's Hollywood offerings, the entertainment media has made much of the many box office bombs it produced, at least domestically. Duds like The Lone Ranger, which cost approximately $250 million but brought in only $85.5 million domestically, and White House Down, which cost approximately $150 million but took in only $75 million at home, suggest that action- and cowboy-themed movies, at least, are no longer sure-fire recipes for big-screen success. (Apocalyptic-themed films, the other big summer movie trend, had a somewhat better record.)

One traditional movie genre did very well this summer, however, at least from a profit-making perspective. (Is there any other kind, ultimately, in Hollywood?) The Conjuring, an old-fashioned haunted house tale set in the 1970s, had a budget of $20 million but took in over $125 million domestically; The Purge, a slightly futuristic horror movie, was made for $3 million but scared up $83 million in North America. These movies found success, moreover, without the big-name stars or thousands of CGI-effects that the busted tentpoles boasted.

So what did they have that the others didn't? Genuine scares.

In fact, the first Gothic novel -- Horace Walpole's oddly entertaining The Castle of Otranto (1766), was originally merely subtitled "A Story." Only the second edition's title page featured the now-familiar adjective "gothic" -- a word which previously had signified barbarism, but which Walpole included to draw attention to his novel's fantastical elements. Why wait until the 2nd edition? Because Walpole passed the 1st edition off as an authentic manuscript, found in "the library of an ancient catholic family" and supposedly translated from medieval Italian. With this veneer of realism -- a trick that many novelists and filmmakers still invoke when they introduce creepy old maps or relics as the source of subsequent evils, or present their films as "found footage" -- Walpole was at liberty to introduce the grotesqueries promised by his revitalized adjective. And supernatural happenings certainly proliferate in The Castle of Otranto: portraits come to life, the castle emits mysterious lights and sounds, a statue bleeds, a skeletal hermit threatens other characters, and -- most famous of all -- giant pieces of armor fall from the sky and begin to reassemble themselves.

With the exception of the giant falling armor, you probably are already familiar the other pieces of "Gothic machinery" listed above; many of them proved so effective at amazing -- if not actually frightening -- readers that they have been used to the point of exhaustion ever since. But it was not until several decades after Walpole's original efforts that a novelist named Ann Radcliffe tweaked the genre sufficiently to make it widely popular.

How did she do this? For one thing, Radcliffe characters are compellingly complex -- her villains in particular are endowed with strong and often conflicting emotions and motivations. Her greatest creation, the monk Schedoni in The Italian (1797), arguably set the mold for the figure of the conflicted bad guy, from Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847) to Tony Soprano. For another, Radcliffe made her heroines into central protagonists rather than merely supporting characters. Yes, adventures happen to them more frequently than they seek them out, and they tend to faint repeatedly and require rescuing at key moments. But they are still undoubtedly both the focus and the "focalizers" of every major Radcliffean novel. In fact, critics frequently speak of Radcliffe as the creator of "the female Gothic" -- the first popular novelistic genre written by and about women.

Another of Radcliffe's signature achievements was to distinguish between the two major emotions that Gothic tales, whether on the page or screen, still attempt to evoke: terror and horror. The latter confronts you with The Thing itself, in all its gore and violence, and freezes you in your tracks; this is embodied nowadays by "slasher" movies, like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as by so-called "torture porn" and straight-up monster movies. Terror, by contrast, is more about scaring the reader or movie-goer with what might happen; terror builds suspense as the reader identifies with the threatened heroes or heroines, but cannot clearly see what is chasing/ threatening them - sometimes not until the story's end. Radcliffe's own novels, in fact, always eventually reveal their apparently supernatural happenings to be artificial and explainable. This is what I like to call the Scooby-Doo effect, in which the threatening monster or ghost is inevitably revealed - "Let's see who this really is!" - to be the seemingly harmless groundskeeper or butler who was trying to keep the old manor house for himself to sell at a profit.

This last bit is no accident, moreover. Behind most of the plot twists and supernatural phenomena of the original Gothic fictions, one tends to find real, human desires and motivations at work: jealousy, lust, ego-mania, vengeance, greed. Today's world is arguably more vulnerable than ever to the ill effects of these emotions writ large, especially since the last and perhaps most common of them - greed - is so frequently, lavishly rewarded.

Little wonder, then, that audiences still enjoy a good scare. Whether on the page or the screen, we indulge in the Gothic and its successors not only for escapism and to remind ourselves that things could always be worse - we could be pursued by actual monsters or crazies, instead of just menaced by quotidian dangers of 21st century life like war, disease, economic crisis, and climate change - but also to gain some emotional practice in learning to embrace fear without being utterly paralyzed by it. To confront the future's true dangers, we will need this skill perhaps more than any other.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.