Gothic Fiction

Jack Miller and Brian Schunk


Gothic Fiction came to prominence in the late 18th century and is still around to this day. It has taken many forms, from novels and movies all the way to computer games and music videos. Works of Gothic Fiction can overlap with many other genres, but carry certain distinct elements. Usually Gothic works will take place in some antiquated place. An example could be an old or abandoned mansion. Within that space, there are secrets that haunt the characters, and these haunting figures will often take the form of monsters, ghosts, and specters.

The Gothic Genre itself can be divided up into separate categories; for example, terror gothic and horror gothic. Terror gothic is full of suspense and fear for the audience and characters, while horror gothic is known for its brutality. Another way to break up the genre would be Rational and Supernatural Gothic, which has to deal with how realistic the work is and how great of a suspension of disbelief the work mandates.

Gothic Fiction is known for exploring the social, historical, and cultural views of its time, which makes it for rather rich reading. In fact, Gothic Fiction was as well explored by famous Psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva.

Because of the variety of Gothic Fiction and the centuries it has lasted, perhaps it is best defined by its most famous authors and famous works.

Notable Gothic Authors and Works

One of the most well known Gothic authors is Ann Radcliffe, who wrote A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797). Most importantly, she redirected Gothic Fiction in a new direction beyond what Horace Walpole imagined, and increased its popularity with the masses. Granted Radcliffe was the best-selling Gothic author, the most famous Gothic stories of all time is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Additionally, Edgar Allen Poe brought back Gothic in the early 20th century with “A Telltale Heart” (1850) and “The Masque of the Red Death” (1850).

Other famous Gothic-esque works are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Le Fantome de L’Opera (1910), Dracula (1897), The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), Jane Eyre (1847), and the music video for the song Thriller (1983).

Historical Background

The first example of Gothic Fiction came in 1764 when Horace Walpole published a story called The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, which he framed as a famous Italian story he found in a monastery and translated for the masses. This frame story is very common in Gothic like Frankenstein and, although not necessarily Gothic, Heart of Darkness. Unfortuantley, not much more Gothic literature was produced until Walpole died in 1790. Around then, Gothic stories exploded all over Europe and a bit of the United States. With a primary readership of women, many stories were written by women for women of the time as sensational literature.

Although the rise of Gothic was in the late 18th century, it is still very popular today. Indeed, the coming together of the old and new in a sort of sciencey-macabre way always appeals to people.


Gothic Fiction readers were mostly middle class and Anglo. As such, a large portion of Gothic work is centered around aspiring middle class white people, and it captures them caught between terrors of a past controlled by aristocrats and the forces of change that would reject that past. Such a subject matter is indicative of a time of change during the Industrial Revolution, which is exemplified in Gothic Fiction’s combination of technological innovation and old alchemic practices. With time, of course, Gothic Fiction expanded to other demographics, and maintained a consistent female readership in a time when female readership was growing rapidly.

Gothic Fiction was also prevalent in Sigmund Freud’s research of the subconscious mind. It helped shape Freud’s notion of the middle class Oedipal family. Though not necessarily in the literal sense, a great deal of Gothic Fiction contains some sort of “son” figure wanting to kill and striving to be the “father”, whatever the father may be, and feeling guilty and fearful about what he desires. This concept is reflected in the context of heroines as well, as they seek to escape worlds of patriarchy and male dominance.

Another psychological concept related to Gothic Fiction comes from Julia Kristeva. She describes the “abject” as a major component of Gothic work, as seen in ghosts or grotesques. The abject is meant to embody contradictions which we throw off ourselves, whatever is in-between, ambiguous, or composite in our beings we want nothing to do with. We fear and desire these things because they threaten to engulf us but promise to restore us to our to our primal origins.

Modern Representations of the Gothic

Today, the general premise of Gothic fiction still stands. Stories and poems about the mind, fantastical creatures, and the dark depths of imagination and human nature are all still factors in Gothic literature today. Three notable examples are the book (and eventual movie adaptation) “Fight Club” (1996) by Chuck Palahniuk, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) directed by Tim Burton, and the song/music video “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.

“Fight Club” remains a shining example of modern Gothic because it is morbid, shocking, and full of dark humor. Although it lacks the supernatural or macabre elements of most of the other books on this list, it explores psychology and identity. In addition, Palahniuk’s twisted ending confirms the Gothic nature of the novel.

Furthermore, The Nightmare Before Christmas exemplifies Gothic topics by following a personified skeleton who grows to like Christmas more than Halloween. The town Jack, the skeleton, lives in is called Halloween Town where monsters, goblins, werewolves, and more fantastical scary creatures live. With numerous scenes in cemeteries and portals between worlds and towns, The Nightmare Before Christmas remains a popular Gothic example today.

Additionally, one of the most famous gothic works is Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. The Music Video was fourteen minutes long and was MTV’s first world premiere video. It was since voted the most influential pop music video in history.

The video and its story represent Horror Gothic. In the video, Michael and his girlfriend visit classic gothic settings, such as a forest at night, a graveyard, and even an abandoned house. They encounter zombies, and Michael transforms into a werecat and a zombie during the video, both times chasing and attacking his girlfriend.


Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Jack Miller and Brian Schunk. All Rights Reserved.

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