Gothic Fiction

Last Updated: 27 Mar 2020
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Bram Stoker’s Dracula debuted in Victorian England at the end of the nineteenth century. Not the first vampire story of its time, it certainly made one of the most lasting impressions on modern culture, where tales of the supernatural, horror, witchcraft, possession, demoniacs, vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens, and monsters of all kinds have become something of a theme in modern art, if not an obsession.

Many scholars debate the origin or cause of this phenomenon, yet most agree that culture plays an enormous role in the development of such themes, whether in nineteenth century gothic novels such as Dracula or Frankenstein, or in modern films with gothic leanings, such as The Exorcist or Children of Men. This paper will examine how fantasy and the idea of the supernatural, including the “undead,” is an important underlying fear prevalent in the psyche of humanity, which manifests itself differently, depending on the social or historical circumstances which spawns the creation of that work of literature or film.

By placing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein within the context of its Romantic/Enlightenment era, E. Michael Jones shows how the effects of the revolutionary doctrine of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, and Percy Bysshe Shelley found their ultimate expression in the gothic horror genre (90). Dracula, no less than Frankenstein, is indicative of the cultural underbelly that the Victorian Age sought to cover up. Far from speaking directly of the human passions unleashed by the Romantic era, the Victorian Age found it more appropriate to hide them, keep them out of the public sphere, render them lifeless, and thereby make life respectable.

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The problem was, the less those passions were talked about, but acted upon, the more those same passions bubbled up to the surface through the means of gothic horror novels and films. While, Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” carried the artistic world out of the Victorian Age and into the twentieth century of unhindered expressionism, Wilde himself fell victim to the very underbelly of Victorian England—which, in fact, prosecuted him to the fullest extent of the law when his vices became open knowledge to the public.

Stoker’s Dracula was just as representative of his own sexual desires masked by Victorian prudery. But because Stoker for the most part kept his affairs from becoming public scandal, he was left well enough alone to express what everyone was interested in anyway, and which has always been an easy seller: sex. Controlling the passions had always been the interest of the Catholic Church, which was the European bulwark against revolution, with assistance from the reason of Augustine to the scholasticism of Aquinas to the architecture of the gothic cathedrals.

With the growing corruption of many Church officials, the rise of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, that control was finally threatened and replaced. New philosophies were spread (Rousseau’s concept of nature as the only law; Sade’s concept of that same nature as brutal, animalistic, and violent), which unleashed a tidal wave of radical revolutionaries in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century, which in turn needed new types of control. Napoleon was the immediate result.

Victorian prudery was the nineteenth century’s later response. It enabled Mary Shelley to turn her husband into a “Victorian angel,” as she “dedicated the rest of her life to effacing their sexual experiment” (Jones 91) with Byron in Geneva, memorialized, however, by Ken Russell’s 1987 film Gothic, in which de Sade’s Justine informs Mary Shelley of what could soon be expected. What Sade foresaw, and helped promote, was a sexual revolution that would elevate sexual desire from the restraints of medieval Church doctrine.

While that elevation led to the enforcement of a new social code of conduct (Victorianism), an alternate development got underway in which that same elevation of sexual license was to be used itself as a form of control. In fact, Augustine had spoken of such centuries before when he wrote that a man has as many masters as he has vices. Sade’s assessment was similar in the eighteenth century: “The state of the moral man is one of tranquility and peace; the state of an immoral man is one of perpetual unrest” (Jones 6).

Yet, while Augustine promoted peace, Sade, who exercised some political sway in the Reign of Terror, promoted unrest: “By promoting vice, the regime promotes slavery, which can be fashioned into a form of political control” (Jones 6). Such was in line with Robespierre’s doctrine of terror as persuasion. Stoker’s Dracula was an expression of just such an idea—for Stoker himself knew the validity of both those claims: a seducer of young women, Stoker doubtlessly identified with Jonathan Harker and Dracula, the captive and master all at once.

The vampire became a persona of iconic horror status in film in the following century. The concept of the walking “undead” who fed on the blood of innocents conjured up something so profound and stimulating in the minds of audiences all over the world that vampirism was everywhere, from Nosferatu to Bela Lugosi to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. Dreyer, who had shot what is considered one of the greatest silent films of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc, found his inspiration for his vampire film in the likes of Magnus Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld was an honorary member of the British Society for Sexual Psychology and something of a movie star himself in Weimar Germany, playing an “enlightened, sexually condoning doctor in Richard Oswald’s pro-homosexual film Anders als die Andern” (Jones 194). The themes of sexual license and control had a significant impact on Germany. Sigmund Freud would take up the themes in his psychoanalytic studies, promoting the fulfillment of sexual desires as a means of appeasing the subconscious.

In Dr. Seward’s diary, one finds no less: a blood transfusion is given to Lucy by Van Helsing, who states, “She wants blood, and blood she must have or die” (Stoker 123). Lucy has been bitten by the vampire and become, in a sense, contaminated. The only scientific cure is to give her want she wants: blood. The allusion to another blood exchange is obvious—but the sense is inverted: While T. S. Eliot states in Murder in the Cathedral the relationship between Christian sacrifice and control of the passions (“His Blood for ours, Blood for blood”), Enlightenment science suggests no spiritual remedy—merely a physical or psychological one: a psychological/physical giving into desire rather than a spiritual dominance of it.

Jones speaks of the sexual revolution that ran concomitantly with the French Revolution as the real forbearer of gothic horror. Whereas othic cathedrals reinforced through visual representation the horror of Satan and sin, modern gothic horror does the same—though the solution is different (if there is one, and there often is not: the immortal evil of Michael Myers, Jason, Krueger, etc. suggests that while Christ was the answer for Augustine and Aquinas, the Enlightenment has yet to formulate any acceptable solution). Meanwhile, the manipulation of desire, Jones notes, has found its way out of Victorian prudery and into the mainstream through advertising, radio, television, music, and cinema. The fantasy of the “undead” in the George A.

Romero franchise, which is still being updated, suggests a kind of public response to the world around it: a society full of living, walking dead—killed by the bombardment of uncontrolled passions, yet still living, shopping, attending to social rituals. The sexual revolution and Enlightenment doctrine of the 1790s and early twentieth century resurfaced in full throttle in the 1960s and 70s, to create a new wave of liberal social doctrine and a new wave of gothic horror in film. In Dracula, Mina Harker records the assessment of the evil of vampirism according to Van Helsing: The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once.

He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil. This vampire…is of himself so strong in person as twenty men; he is of cunning more than mortal…he have still the aids of necromancy, and all the dead that he can come nigh to are for him to command; he is brute, and more than brute; he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not. (Stoker 237) The portrayal is Satanic, and a similar portrayal would be given in 1973’s The Exorcist, in which Satan possesses a girl through the medium of a children’s game (the Ouija board).

Yet, with The Exorcist, the spiritual evil is made much more real than the fantastic evil of Dracula. And while Dracula is destroyed by a stake, the devil is dispelled only through the power of Christ in The Exorcist. Ironically, however, the devil is driven out only after the death of not one but two priests—the old man initially, and then the younger priest, whose own crisis of faith becomes a kind of despair at the end of the film, when, ceasing to compel Satan through Christ, he cries, “Take me! instead, and then throws himself out the window when his own possession is complete. The girl is freed from her captor, but only at the cost of the life and soul of the young priest: the power of Christ merely served to anger the devil—it did not subjugate him; such would have been too meaningful in the relativistic climate of the 70s. The 70’s sexual and political revolutions were intertwined to such an extent that hardcore pornography and Feminist politics appeared on the scene simultaneously.

While Betty Friedan opposed traditional gender codes in such works as The Feminine Mystique, pornography was raking in the profits. The cinematic response to this was the slaughter of sexually-active teenagers by homicidal maniacs (evil incarnate), while virtuous and chaste maidens like Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween remained alive just long enough for the evil to be driven away by a male authority figure. Horror films often reinforced traditional gender norms, yet the awesome evil of those films seemed to have no end.

With the proliferation of contraceptives as a form of eugenics similar to the kind practiced under Hitler, sex became an act of passion without physical consequences; yet horror maintained that it still had psychological and even spiritual ones. Nonetheless, as Jones shows, the promotion of contraception in twentieth century America by representatives of the Rockefeller Foundation was supposed to be nothing more than the controlling of ethnic populations that were found to be subhuman by WASP elitists (406).

The black and Catholic communities, whose uninhibited breeding threatened to undermine WASP political control, promptly received the attention of people like Margaret Sanger and “Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C. S. C. , who used Rockefeller money to fund secret conferences on contraception at the University of Notre Dame from 1962 to 1965” (Jones 147). The idea of Thomas Malthus, that over-population would ultimately destroy the earth, was marketed as the principle behind contraception. The underbelly of the movement, however, was, according to Jones, nothing more than a power play for control.

The extremity of the situation would be explored by Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men based on the novel by P. D. James. Friend of Spanish filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose Mimic has been noted in “Good Entomologist/Bad Entomologist” by Jones as a swipe at Enlightenment doctrine being a vain attempt at setting and controlling social mores (“The only solution left is the…prime totem of folk Catholicism, the rosary”—referring, of course, to the end scene in which Mira Sorvino’s character draws blood rom her hand with a rosary crucifix to divert the attention of the giant blood-sucking roach, which is about to eat the little boy). In Children of Men, there are no little boys, nor little girls—in fact, children are gone altogether (a threatening theme that opens Del Toro’s Mimic too). The rampant sterilization of modern years is turned into a life-threatening ideology, affecting everyone and all ethnicities. When a woman is found, who has seemingly miraculously conceived, she is caught in the middle of yet another struggle for control—one group wants to use her as a political poster child, the other wants to legitimately help.

Meanwhile, a war is waged in the urban cities, which evokes a kind of apocalyptic message of utter desolation. As Clive Owen’s character makes the ultimate sacrifice (his life) for that of the woman and her child’s, a sense of hope in the future of mankind is restored—but the outlook is still bleak and grim—for no one knows whether the woman and her child will really make it as they disappear into the fog rolling across the open sea. Hope is in the approach of the ship, but beyond that lies—what?

In Children of Men, the fantasy of the “undead” is replaced by the fantasy of the “unborn. ” The reality of Malthusian sterilization taken to extremes in modern times by social groups across the globe (birth rates are at lows nearly everywhere), sexual liberation has once again become a pathway to political control and to gothic horror genre representations. In conclusion, the underlying fears of societies since the beginning of the Romantic/Enlightenment age have manifested themselves in a variety of forms depending upon the cultural climate of the time.

Beginning with Shelley’s Frankenstein as a repudiation of Enlightenment doctrine and going through Stoker’s Dracula as a representation of sexual desire and control bubbling under the surface of Victorian prudery, gothic horror has found its way into the mainstream culture with tales of supernatural occurrences that are in some sense connected to the issues of the day. The sexual revolution of the early twentieth century in New York materialized in greater force all over America in the 60s and 70s, launching another series of gothic horror novels and films onto audiences, from Stephen King to John Carpenter, Clive Barker, and Stanley Kubrick.

While films like The Exorcist and Children of Men get closer to the reality of spiritual possession and widespread sterility, the human psyche of modern times continues to want to see itself as a kind of “undead” creature, whose reason for being has yet to be determined. Therefore, popular gothic horror icons like Frankenstein and Dracula remain staples of modern horror fiction, representing to the populace a mirror of its own struggles with the doctrine of Enlightenment liberation and control.

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Gothic Fiction. (2017, Apr 22). Retrieved from

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