Pull up any of the popular serial reading apps on your phone: Dreame, Radish, Wattpad, Galeata, etc and what are you going to find? Shape shifters, fae/fairies, elves, aliens, werewolves, zombies, mafia, vampires, angels, demons, dragons, and nearly all of them fall into the romance category. The Gothic novel is alive and well and bigger than ever before.
That’s just one side of the spectrum too. Go to the movies and what are you going to find? Spy thrillers, murder mysteries, haunted houses, monsters, monster-killers, and that list goes on too. Even superhero franchises such as the Justice League and Avengers all point to an underlying need or desire for more than the world we see. Whether it’s unconscious longing, escapism, mental illness, or a mere inability to “deal with it” as summed up in the favorite millennial aphorism “I can’t even” there are signs everywhere in the art we consume and the content we create that this world isn’t enough for any of us in some way shape or form.
1500 years ago, this would have been nothing new—1500 years ago, there were stories of monsters, demons, ghosts, ghouls, old gods, old druids, old lore. A study of the Medieval Era is a study of the genres we have come to know and either love or revile, depending on your stance. The difference? Well, there isn’t much difference. To a medieval peasant, the story was, at least in some cases, an acknowledgment of reality. To a 21st century modern? It’s largely an unspoken wish for reality. We wish there were great deeds to accomplish, we wish there were actual monsters to defeat, we wish for a world that is more cut and dry than the squelching, red-taped mess we find ourselves in.
When Twilight came out in the 2000’s, the backlash from psychologists to feminists was extreme. Yet, it went on to become very successful franchise and book series and its fanfiction spin-off Fifty Shades of Gray enjoyed the same success—and censure. What was some of the criticism? Unrealistic expectations was what a lot of it boiled down too. Unrealistic. They say we can’t all be swept off our feet by handsome billionaires to be taken care of and have life handed to us on a platter. No one is coming to save us, we have to save ourselves, we have to work and slave away, we have to pay taxes, we have to retire, we have to die. These are realities of living which we all must come to terms with, but is that all reality has to offer?
I bring this up because it mirrors almost too exactly the same conditions the early Gothic writers faced. We looked at Castle of Otranto on Friday and some of the markers of Gothic fiction on Thursday. We know from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey too just how ridiculed some of these writers were. Jane Austen herself may have enjoyed Ann Radcliffe. Sir Walter Scott may have been inspired by Radcliffe, but the critics were outraged at the supernaturalism and sentimentality of the early gothic novels. It wasn’t realistic. It wasn’t reasonable.
Ok, so confession time: I haven’t been swept off my feet either. I have had to work tooth and nail to provide for myself and to keep myself sane. I’ve been ghosted multiple times, deserted, strung along, and lied to by dates, boyfriends, and employers alike. Logically, I know it’s “unrealistic” by the critics’ standards at least. Does it keep me from wanting it to happen anyway? Nope. Not one bit and I am woman enough to admit it!
We all want to have the ample bank account, to travel the world, to drive the nice car, to own the yacht, to be the next big influencer, and to own the home of our dreams, or any variation thereof. Mine is having the library from Beauty and Beast with the handsome prince to massage my feet and bring me wine so I don’t have to stop reading. Good wine. Preferably French. With assorted other romantic gestures and intentions.
The perception of reality doesn’t faze the desires of the heart. If it did, Coco Chanel would lived out her life in penury and unknown, Pixar would have failed before Toy Story ever began, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter would have never come into being, Walt Disney’s dreams wouldn’t still be enjoyed around the world, Netflix would go bankrupt. Realitywas only a small consideration in the broad scheme of things. For those who wrote Gothic fiction, it wasn’t even a blip on the screen.
What role does reality play in the world of vampires and haunted houses and how can it actually help? Those tropes, characters, plot lines, and scenes speak to a deeper need within each of us—a dream we each have for what we want our lives to be and the monsters we see in those stories are like the monsters who tell us what we want isn’t realistic enough. Are there realities we have to face? Of course, there are! But it doesn’t mean that what we want in a book doesn’t have its own correlation here in the 3D world. The billionaire vampire boyfriend speaks to an inherent need to have our romantic partners be generous with their time, attention, and love. The superhero movies speak to our inherent need to have someone to emulate, to admire, and to inspire us and yes, to rescue us when necessary. The murder mysteries that get solved nicely and neatly speaks to our own desires to have closure to our own traumatic experiences and problems.
Our inherent desires and needs for more are perfectly natural. Our dissatisfaction with reality is also natural. It’s realistic to want there to be more than what we see—our own dreams and wishes for our lives speak to that very fact. Whether or not those dreams will come to pass is entirely up to us. Are we going to let what someone claims is reality be the block to what we want? Or are we going to continue to work for what we want in the knowledge that what we want is more real because we are making it real.
We may not be able to make a billionaire boyfriend, a superhero, or a unicorn but we can change how we see the next person we date; we can get involved in our local communities; we can use our desire for magical things to make our own magic in the world around us. Sorry, that’s the best I can do for unicorns not actually having a substitute. Ditto for all of you Pegasus fans out there. Merely writing as a creative endeavor it itself a magical thing. Putting it out there is even more magical because it’s real.
So dream on, wish on, read on, don’t listen to the critics who think a book is bad because it doesn’t match reality. Enjoy the haunted house, enjoy the B-grade horror flicks, the vampire romances, the Disney movies, the superheroes, the monster-killers, and all the chills, thrills, and fantasy you find in the world. Use those to channel your own creative endeavors to make your own magic, your own Gothic story, your own dream come true. Reality is only partially the way things are.