Thursday, September 26, 2013


The one thing that every human being has in common is life and death. The only real variable is what happens in between the two events. Throughout the centuries of human history philosophers, scientists, and world religions have attempted to shed some light on life’s greatest mystery, what happens after death. Although virtually every religion has attempted to offer at least some comfort by addressing this great unknown, we as human beings have inherent dread of our inevitable demise. It is this fear of death that the horror genre, both in literature and film, attempts to exploit.  There is a cornucopia of anxieties that we as humans have faced throughout the centuries, but regardless of time period or culture, it is always death that strikes a resounding universal chord within the human psyche.

Early Gothic horror fiction has long deep roots that stretch back into antiquity. These imaginative works are a combination of both horror and romantic elements that often incorporate religion, folklore and superstition into their stories. The Gothic horror tale would pit mortal man against supernatural forces including witches, warlocks, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and demonic entities and would take place in an eerie location such as old castle, haunted houses, cave, or a dark dense forest.
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is credited with being the first modern Gothic novel. Its first edition was presented as a translation from an ancient Italian manuscript. This first edition received positive reviews, however, when the second and later additions acknowledge the fact that the story was merely the fictitious work of Walpole many critics dismissed the work. Yet despite the critics the novel proved to be popular and would inspire other authors to hop onto the Gothic bandwagon.
Although the first Gothic novels were in set eerie locations they did not incorporate the supernatural element into their story. It was authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, James Malcolm Rymer, and Sheridan Le Fanu who would weave the supernatural elements into their tales and would create what modern readers now refer to as a Gothic horror novel. Each author’s work reflected the fears and insecurities of their day.

 In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the issues of science running amok and human kind’s relationship with its creator are dealt with. Two notable natural philosophers may have had an influence of Shelley’s novel, Giovanni Aldini and his numerous public demonstrations in London from 1801 to 1804 at human reanimation using bio-electric Galvanism and Johann Konrad Dippel claimed to have developed chemical method that extended the lifespan of humans. Although considered a horror story by many, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is noted for being one of the first science-fiction tales.

John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, James Malcolm Rymer‘s Varney the Vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and some of Sheridan Le Fanu’s works are considered parodies for the sexual repression of the Victorian age and the fear that immigrants instilled into the population for Great Britain and the United States. It was Sheridan Le Fanu’s The Room in the Dragon Volant and Carmilla that was the inspiration for the film Vampyr(1932). Carmilla is also credited by being one of the most popular lesbian vampire Gothic tales and was a major influence for Brian Stoker’s Dracula. And it was James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire that established much of the popular vampire lore in literature and film and was also a major influence for Brian Stoker’s Dracula.

 Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde illustrates the Victorian age man’s struggle between presenting himself as a proper gentleman as he battled himself to suppress his inner most dark urges.  A number of stage plays and musicals are based upon this novella. To date there has been over 120 film adaptations of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid tales confronted his readers with their darkest fears of death, retaliation, and damnation. Over 50 films have been based on Poe’s works making him undoubtedly one of the most influential American authors.

Through their efforts these authors and others like them made an indelible mark upon the horror genre that is still prevalent today. Their stories have told and retold in mediums that the authors could not have imagined in their lifetime, film, stage, television and even comic books still reverberate the tales of these great masters of Gothic horror.

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