Halloween is for embracing the visceral thrills of horror — jump scares and rotting corpses, zombies, werewolves, and slashers. But Halloween is also for terror.
Yes, horror and terror are different. If horror is the scream, terror is the whisper, the disembodied laughter and song. Terror is the dark room before the light reveals the monster, the forbidden staircase to the basement where the creature awaits. Terror is the anxiety of expectation. Terror is where the Gothic lives. And in this anxious era, the Gothic is thriving.
The Gothic literary tradition began in late 18th-century England as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason. Gothic narratives prized the irrational, emotion, and what scholar Fred Botting at Kingston University London calls “transgression,” ideas having to do with violence, sex, and the supernatural.
Gothic fiction, like the architecture it is named after, embraced the aesthetic of an imagined Middle Ages, full of crumbling castles and abbeys, winding staircases, and secret rooms. These reflected hidden parts of the human psyche, its suppressed desires and traumas. The protagonists of novels such as Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” and Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” were innocents — often a young Englishwoman and/or a disenfranchised but secretly noble young man — drawn into the narrative by the machinations of a powerful villain, a charismatic older man with an Italian or Spanish name.
Heroes and heroines of Gothic novels uncovered ancient secrets amid haunted manors and forests while fending off attacks on ladies’ virtue. Though all usually ended in happy domesticity, for the length of the narrative the Gothic provided a space of enchantment and danger for these protagonists and their middle-class readers, who could work out anxieties related to their changing society, from the upheaval of revolutions in France and America to the relentless pace of industrialization and the growth of cities.
Gothic conventions serve similar functions today — on their own and as elements of diverse literary and cinematic genres, such as horror and science fiction.
Scholar Maisha Wester at Indiana University Bloomington writes that the Gothic is “a consistent resource for the disguised expression of challenges and anxieties facing a given culture at a given moment.” Many of our contemporary worries were shared by early Gothic readers, including concerns about the survival of nature and, conversely, unpredictable nature’s capacity, through flood, fire, and other catastrophes, to threaten our existence.
In the Gothic, nature is portrayed as both sublime and terrifying. As industrialization spread throughout England — and, later, in America — factories encroached on and replaced landscapes both wild and pastoral, both forest and farmland. This bred nostalgia for the beauty and magic of natural spaces. We see that longing in the overgrown, ruined forest that surrounds the abbey in Radcliffe’s “Romance of the Forest” and in the windswept, haunted moors of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” At the same time, Gothic writing can reflect a fear of vengeful nature always ready to overtake the works of human beings, as in the “deep and dank tarn” that swallows up Roderick Usher’s ancestral home in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Today, threats to the natural world — and from a natural world scarred by human behavior — are often presented in Gothic terms. Post-apocalyptic books and films like “The Road,” “I Am Legend,” and “Children of Men” show protagonists moving through dangerous and decaying natural landscapes haunted by memories of a pre-apocalyptic past, which is also the readers’ and viewers’ present.
Haunting is central to the Gothic. Protagonists may be haunted by happiness turned to grief, or they may be haunted and terrorized by past traumas. Terror can be the memory of horror, the constant anxiety that it might return.
In the past few years, the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence have forced all Americans to contend with the historical horror of slavery and the cruelty of racism. One of the early and persistent elements of the Gothic is the demonizing of people deemed racially other.
Contemporary Black writers and filmmakers have used Gothic conventions both to deconstruct what Wester calls the Gothic’s “racial ideologies” and to address the trauma and terror of racism. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” uses all the Gothic tropes: the creepy house, the secrets, the protagonist imprisoned and immobilized by a powerful authority — but flips the script. As Elaine Roth at Indiana University South Bend writes, “the film extends the Gothic by foregrounding race and reversing a familiar US narrative of eroticized white female victimization at the hands of dangerous black men; by contrast, ‘Get Out’ features sympathetic black men preyed upon by white female sexuality.” The film’s protagonist, Chris Washington, played by actor Daniel Kaluuya, is invited to the home of his white girlfriend’s parents, where he slowly uncovers a plot to transplant the minds of old and ailing white people into healthy young Black bodies. In a film haunted by the specter of slavery, Washington is the Gothic hero, ensnared by — and, spoiler, ultimately escaping from — white Gothic villains.
Terror thrives amid the hidden. The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were haunted by terrifying mysteries driven by a host of unknowns: Where does this disease come from? How does it spread? The twin terrors of the pandemic — the specter of dying alone and prolonged isolation from extended family and community — recall Gothic narratives about contagion and deadly disease. Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” takes place in a medieval “crenelated abbey” where wealthy people take refuge from a plague. With its tolling clock signaling impending doom, the story goes from Gothic terror — the specter of widespread death — to horror, as the hooded figure of the Red Death makes that specter real.
As in Poe’s story, the pandemic revealed to us the thin border between terror and horror. The Gothic offers a way to exorcize our darkest imaginings. Within its enchanted narratives, we see our terrors reflected back at us, and we face the secrets we have long repressed.
Regina M. Hansen is the author of the young adult fantasy novel “The Coming Storm.” She teaches at Boston University.