What Are the Conventions of the Gothic Horror Genre?

Gothic fiction, which reached the height of its popularity in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, was a genre of fiction that focused on the darker, irrational and more terrifying aspects of life. The Gothic novel was a reaction against the Enlightenment, which saw the world and humans as ordered and logical. Gothic conventions have remained popular and are still found in novels, music and film.

Conventions of Setting

“Gothic” derives from a style of medieval architecture, and Gothic fiction is often set in medieval castles or churches. These settings are often dark, gloomy and full of secret chambers, hallways and dungeons. Wild, dark and dangerous locations, such as abandoned graveyards, forests and other untamed places, are also common. In more contemporary Gothic literature, such as Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw,” older houses and manors replaced castles, though the sense of mystery and gloominess remained a strong element.

Conventions of Characters

The Gothic hero is often an isolated or “marked” figure who must restore himself to society. A figure of evil -- sometimes with a relationship to the supernatural -- is often in opposition to the hero. Women play significant roles in Gothic novels; they are often depicted as victims of tyrannical and evil men. Doppelgangers -- “doubles” that are similar in appearance, history and character to main characters in the novel -- are common in Gothic novels.

Conventions of Plot

Gothic plots often surround a family mystery, ancient prophecies or revenge. Concepts of “inherited” curses or terrible family mysteries are common; often, the protagonist must overcome an ancestral curse to restore the world to order. The Gothic novel sometimes depicts a fallen society -- one that has succumbed to some kind of evil or temptation -- that must brought back to the light.

Other Conventions

Most Gothic novels contain themes of ghosts, monsters or the supernatural. Although these elements are fantastic, Gothic novels sometimes report the events in an empirical manner, creating a tension between the scientific and the supernatural. Gothic fiction often contains grotesque or “unnatural” events, such as murder, suicide, madness and torture. In addition, many Gothic novels use the “Gothic Counterfeit” theme, in which a story is told by claiming that it is a found text, a diary entry or a series of letters. The Gothic Counterfeit gives an illusion of authenticity, heightening the drama and horror of the events recounted by the author. This storytelling device is used in “The Castle of Otranto,” an early Gothic novel, as well as “Dracula,” which uses the epistolary method, or a story told through letters.

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