It seems a fascination with the uncanny, skin-crawling sensations of the gothic narrative has led to this genre’s continuation and success throughout the centuries. First characterized by Horace Walpole’s novel, “Castle of Otranto,” published in 1764, the gothic genre is recognizable through the portrayal of medieval architecture or opulent modern architecture; ‘madness’ and the fear, confusion, or desperation mental illness can contribute to; sexual sin, often depicted through incest or sexual violence; supernatural aspects, including specters and monsters; and lastly, evil intentioned (usually) men of power and societal rank.
Often depicted in a Victorian-esque narrative, gender roles play a key part in the haunting storylines, with women usually portrayed as victims of a brutal, masculine threat to either their bodies or minds. This is not always the case, though, and as this genre evolved, the threats to sanity and personhood have been able to become less strictly gendered, but usually still containing components of dominance, submission and resistance within the relationships. usually colliding with the horror genre through these varying elements, the two are oftentimes conflated. Though these two work together nicely, the gothic is distinct in the sense of terror or great unease it creates, along with a confusion of good and evil–seen notably in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein’s Monster”. The complications of the gothic narrative that cannot be so easily simplified into categories of right, wrong, good or bad make this genre all the more intriguing.
In popular culture, the gothic can be seen within two of my favorite shows, “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. These stories are both set in large secluded mansions and the question of what is real and what is not is often at play for the characters within the stories. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” draws from aspects of Henry James’ “The Turn of The Screw”, a gothic novella written in 1898; stepping further back into history, the well known novel of Charlotte Bronte’s, “Jane Eyre,” published in 1847, also shares aspects of the gothic narrative. The character of Bertha is depicted as a madwoman, a danger to society and also as an unknown phantom haunting Thorfeild. The fear and even disgust of mental illness that Rochester portrays is typical for this genre, due to the idea that there is something inherently sinister surrounding a lost mind. Jane, surrounded by mysterious sounds and an older, wealthy, yet secretive and moody ‘bachelor’ who desires her, finds herself very much within a gothic story. A novel published later, in 1966, by Jean Rhys, titled “Wide Sargasso Sea,” reimagines the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre. Antoinette–which we find out is Bertha’s true name–is the main character in this novel that revolves around shameful secrets; implications of mental illness; sexual sin related to lust; and the ‘other’ characterized not by supernatural occurrences but by cultural and racial differences seen as threats to ‘civilized’ (white) life. Prominent in this novel is also the power struggle between Rochester and Antoinette having to do with presumptions of gender roles based on masculine dominance and feminie passivity. All these shared elements are–I would dare say–common in everyday life; it seems aspects of the gothic genre through the form of secrets, sin, and power struggles pervade both fiction and reality.
This genre is so intertwined with our entertainment and culture, yet, can seem to be elusive or niche. Taking part in novels, films, and TV shows, the gothic can often be an undercurrent to more prominent genres of perhaps horror, fantasy, or historical fiction. Elusive or not, this adjective does seem to fit nicely with the mysterious genre it encompasses.