How Gothic Horror Related to Romanticism in England
Gothic horror shares many characteristics with literary Romanticism, and is generally considered an offshoot of that wider movement. The two genres had their beginnings in 18th century England, and contributed to the rise of poetry and the novel as popular entertainment. Gothic horror and Romanticism informed and influenced one another over the century of their development, and many Romantic writers dabbled in horror or incorporated supernatural elements into their work.
A Common History
Romanticism developed in the mid-18th century as a reaction against Enlightenment-era Neoclassicism and its emphasis on reason, rationality and order. Early Romanticists drew much of their inspiration from medieval romances such as “Tristan und Isolde” and “Sir Orfeo,” with their basis in Arthurian myth. Gothic fiction also drew inspiration from medieval literature, from the use of castles as a setting, to the presence of magic and supernatural villains. Horace Walpole is credited with inventing the gothic genre in his 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto.” Walpole sought to combine the newly popular elements of Romantic literature -- fanciful settings, a heroine, outsized love and sorrow -- with ominous, supernatural elements.
Gothic horror functions as an extension of the Romantic notion of literary pleasure, that literature should inspire deeply felt emotional responses. Gothic horror sought to instill a pleasing sort of terror and thrill from its emphasis on taboo subjects, such as satanism and matters of the occult, that both fascinated and repelled polite English society. The Romantic, Byronic hero equates to the brooding gothic villain in that both figures are tortured souls placed at the center of action. Romantic works such as the poetry of William Blake and Alfred, Lord Tennyson displayed a fascination with the supernatural also apparent in gothic horror.
Romantic Writers of Gothic Horror
Many prominent Romantic writers rendered works of gothic horror. Lord Byron, perhaps the pre-eminent author of Romantic verse, in 1816 organized a ghost story competition between himself, Percy and Mary Shelley, and John William Polidori. This competition yielded two classic works of Gothic horror in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” which took inspiration for its titular character from Byron’s unfinished “Augustus Darvell.” Other English Romantics who utilized tropes from gothic horror include Samuel Coleridge, whose “Christabel” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” contain Gothic elements, and John Keats, whose “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” features a ghost, a beheading and the exhumation of a corpse.
Romanticism and the Victorian Gothic
The influence of Romanticism and gothic horror peaked in the 1850s, when elements from both genres had become almost standard tropes in popular literature. The works of Charles Dickens, for example, typically centered on an idealized, Romantic-style love affair, and featured grotesque villains and Gothic-style settings, such as the titular manor in “Bleak House.” One of the most famous Victorian novels, Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” displays a seamless interweaving of the Romantic and gothic. The novel features supernatural elements, such as Catherine’s ghost, and Heathcliff, who embodies the brooding, Byronic hero.
Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.