Halloween as a holiday has become an entire aesthetic which has spilled over into nearly every aspect of the present world. There are even “advent” calendars dedicated to counting down to Halloween. The world of the haunted house isn’t just confined to the latest Stephen King, Netflix series, or even a ride in Disney World (one of my personal favorites) anymore—it is everywhere. While this apparent return to fantasy alarms many, it’s nothing new and nothing that hasn’t happened before.
To find the origins of the haunted house, we have to travel back to the 1750s in particular—when the “Age of Reason” was in its heyday and many of the European powers, France and England in particular, were having discussions on a national level about the balance of power, the place of kingship, the place of democracy, and social mobility. Interwoven were smaller conversations which we are still having today: women’s rights, abolishing slavery, the role of the state in the life of the individual. These were small conversations then—too small for our modern sensibilities, but they are there nonetheless and they are no less significant because they are small.
We can also find other conversations which, for my generation of millennials at least, will also sound familiar—the tension between spirituality and religion, separation of church and state, social propriety and being authentically yourself, the sidelining of anyone who doesn’t fit a particular narrative. The Age of Reason was a hard attempt to limit these options to what was deemed “enlightened.” There was limited place for the “spiritual” in religion because that lead to superstition like that purported by the Roman Church and the Anglican Catholics—both of which had supposedly caused endless troubles during the previous two centuries. Ghosts, witches, wizards, spells, and anything that wasn’t physically in they’re here an now was considered supernatural, superstitious, and even barbaric.
All of these factor into the genre we have comes to know as Gothic literature and I highly and earnestly encourage you to read more into the eighteenth century, as wracked with faults as it was. It’s there that we see the beginnings of the world we know, and it is also there that we can start to trace our modern love of what Halloween has come to represent.
Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote, much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened.Horace Walpole
- Gothic is about perception and reality
Now hold on, I can hear you saying, isn’t everything about perception and reality? Well, that is true in a sense. Modern and holistic psychology tell us so as does the many different self-help and law of attraction gurus out there. In Gothic literature, however, the interplay between perception and reality takes on a whole new meaning because it adds in the inexplicable, the mysterious, and the superhumam or supernatural. The sub-genre of mystery and thriller especially play on what a character perceives and what a character actually experiences. For the purposes of our first novel, The Castle of Otranto, there is also the concept of what we perceive as historical events, what we perceive as being the present, and how we perceive the people in the past. At first blush, this sounds extremely modern. But it’s a reality which Horace Walpole and his contemporaries lived with as the likes of Edward Gibbon, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine, attempted to paint anything before the Enlightenment as barbaric, subhuman, and “unenlightened.” Gives you pause for thought, doesn’t it?
Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge…Horace Walpole
2. Imagination Can’t be Caged
The Age of Reason was the first epoch of what we would today call realism in the literary world. It was the age of the essay, the conscientious person of “letters” and of the very prim and proper pieces of chamber music. It was a desperate return to what was perceived as the “golden age” of the world—the days of the Roman Republic before the Ostrogoths came through, before the Christian Church wielded temporal as well as spiritual power, and before the world became divided into different nations.
3. Supernatural is Natural
In many ways, this idea is one of the biggest precursors to our modern sensibilities regarding the world. The mid 1500s on through the 1700s was the heyday of the witch hunt and included the famous Salem Witch Trials, which would later affect Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing so acutely. The answer to this in the Age of Reason was that there was nothing supernatural—that even God took a step back from the world and only minimally interfered. Everything that had to be done had to be done my humankind. Therefore, if nothing supernatural remained, then witches technically didn’t exist.
The idea of the supernatural being natural is an idea within the Gothic form which developed slowly. We see it in Otranto, we see it in Sir Walter Scott’s novels, we see it in poetry, and in the works of the Brontes. We even see it in psychology when Freud examines human emotions, dreams, and the subconscious mind.
This leads us into our next point…
That great master of nature, Shakespeare, was the model I copied.Horace Walpole
4. Shakespeare is BAE
Yes, you read that correctly. Shakespeare is cited on multiple occasions as partially inspiring the Gothic art form. In fact, he was used as justification for the form in the first place. Apparently, Voltaire said a few disparaging things about the Bard and that infuriated a few people in English society, Horace Walpole being one of them. Talk about cancel culture—Voltaire’s invective against Shakespeare turned blending the supernatural with the natural into an almost patriotic endeavor. Lesson 1 in the art of persuasion: DON’T INSULT BAE.
I wonder what Voltaire would make of Isaac Asimov’s commentary on Shakespeare. Yes, THAT Isaac Asimov. See what I mean?
All the rivalry aside, it is uncanny just how many Shakespearean features are included across the genre and how many times the Bard himself is directly referenced. There are even several Agatha Christie novels whose titles are taken from Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare’s use of ghosts, castles, hidden family secrets, madness, and so forth are all in Gothic literature in some way, shape or form. Even the three witches make their appearance—Hocus Pocus anyone?
5. Scenery is EVERYTHING
The Gothic literature of the 1700s has some very formulaic elements in it—so much so there were actual “recipes” printed for writing novels. Nearly everything had to do with scenery—old castles, dilapidated monasteries, graveyards, mountains, grottoes, etc. We see these elements over, and over, and over again well into the 1800s. It potentially the first time scenery played such a pivotal dramatic role in the events themselves. Even in Shakespeare’s plays, the scenery is interchangeable which is partially why you can have a play performed not only in original practice, but to more recent eras. If you consider the more modern forms of gothic—sci-fi for instance, the scenery is STILL a major player in the story. Consider the major franchises: Alien, Star Trek, Star Wars, even The Avengers. The settings, set pieces, and scenery have their own roles to play in the action of the story—almost as if they are characters themselves. In a way, the rise of robots in literature is a blend of the reality of computers and artificial intelligence with the concept of the setting being a law unto itself.
6. Death is only the Beginning….
Fans of The Mummy franchise will recognize this line from the Brendan Fraser’s remake of the original. It has enormous applicability to Gothic literature, however, since within the form are the remnants of the ancient and medieval worlds.
What began in 1764 when The Castle of Otranto was first published is still going on today. The medieval world Shakespeare knew truly was dead—it was in its death throes by the time he was born. At least, it was dead as far as the “real” world was concerned. In the world of the mind, it had, like it’s Roman predecessor, morphed into something else entirely. Note again the perception vs reality. While Rome devolved into the many different states which constitute Europe, the Medieval era devolved into different literary forms. Plot twists, hidden agendas, symbology, and so forth all have historical and literary roots in the Medieval period, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.
The death of the “barbaric” world is not what we think it is—because its coming back. Everything from the Day of the Dead, to All Souls Day, Samhain, Halloween, and the even the belief in fairies itself can be traced back to the advent of the Gothic literary form and then again back to the pre-Enlightenment, pre-Reformation world. Back to the world the likes of Voltaire and Paine considered “barbaric.” Why? Well, BAE can answer that one….
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, Lines 166-167Shakespeare
In the next month, I’m going to be challenging you—regardless of who you are or what you profess. Fair warning. If this discomfits you, then buckle up because it is important. It’s important because the imagination shouldn’t be limited. The spirit shouldn’t be limited. Your writing shouldn’t be limited. If anything, Gothic literature shows us exactly how powerful ideas can be when they are in story form. Little wonder the intelligentsia of Walpole’s day had such criticism of his book. But then, any Twihard or Potterhead can tell you that too. So can any Disney fan.
Gothic literature is possibly one of the best art forms in the world because it does precisely what the Age of Enlightenment feared it would do—it challenges what we think of as a perfect society and points out that you cannot change or suppress the past however hard you try because, like Manfred, it will call come falling on your head—sometimes literally.
So put on your favorite Halloween costume, grab your PSL (if that’s your thing), and dip into your goody stash because we’re going to go on a little tour….
Welcome, Foolish Mortal….The Haunted Mansion, Disney World