Defining the Gothic and the Influence on Modern Horror Films

The influence of key elements in Gothic literature can still be seen today, especially within the realm of modern horror films. The Gothic novel, and its defining elements came first during the 18th century as an escape from a feudal past into a more modernized way of thinking. The early stages of the Gothic were not as extreme as the horror genre we know today, but the foundation of defining elements was there, and has evolved over the centuries. The transition from the classic Gothic novel to a more horror-based genre can be felt as early as the 1880s with authors such as Bram Stocker, and Robert Louis Stevenson whom pushed the extremes of what the Gothic novel was considered. While horror films are different than the traditional Gothic novel, there’s no overlooking the everlasting elements of the Gothic.

            The most identifiable element of the Gothic novel would be the atmosphere. The setting is the first thing that brings upon the initial feeling of the Gothic. The fear and suspense which is the true purpose of the Gothic is first ignited if the atmosphere is true to Gothic style. Ruined castles, abandoned forts, dungeons, cemeteries, old churches, all are used to invoke suspense. The darkness, and eeriness of castles, and similar settings put us in a state of unease, a place where danger gleams at every corner. Shadows, dampness, creaking wooden floors, thunder and rain, are a few characteristics present in the Gothic atmosphere.  This is the top element agreed by many critics “The essential nature of the atmosphere which produces the Gothic response is ominousness” (Keech 135). This key element of atmosphere can be seen in any good horror film of today. The house in Amityville Horror, the ships in the various Alien movies, the old mansion in Texas Chainssaw, the cabin in The Cabin in the Woods. All those iconic settings are directly influenced by the traditional Gothic novel. Watching or reading characters that are part of those type of settings immediately brings the feeling of suspense and terror which is the overall purpose of the Gothic style.

            Another element of Gothic literature is the presence of a supernatural aspect. This is more commonly found in modern horror films such as The Ring¸ The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, The Conjuring, and many more. The roots of these films can be traced back to early Gothic novels that implemented the element of the supernatural. Situations such as door slamming, windows opening, and other aspects affected by a seeming invisible individual. Some would go as far as to compare these events to an invisible hand which was first mentioned by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations where the invisible hand is the unforeseen force that controls the economic market. Stefan Andriopoulos took it a step further “Although this figure of an invisible hand reconciling private and social interest has generated prolific citation and interpretation, it has never been subjected to a literal reading by linking it to the contemporary literary genre of the gothic novel” (Andriopoulos 739) and he would continue further by stating “Already in Walpole’s novel the introduction of supernatural elements into the narrative space serves a determinate function comparable to Smith’s representation of the economic process as a narrative” (Andriopoulos 741). I would disagree with both statements regarding the supernatural element in the Gothic novel and would never use it within an economical discussion as that deteriorates the true impact of supernatural elements in the Gothic novel. These aspects are supposed to invoke fear and suspense much like the classic Dracula which was one of first Gothic novels to fully embrace the supernatural. It wasn’t a required element of the Gothic novel but one used frequently throughout the genre.

            Characters found in Gothic literature is another important key element. There are three common character types used; the wanderer, the vampire, and the seeker. Not every type is found in every novel, but one of the main characters would embody one these classifications in the classic definition of the Gothic novel. There are other types in addition to these as mentioned by James Keech “that the best and most intense of Gothic novels employ hero-villains of Promethean proportions, giants among mortal men in their strength, in the intensity of their emotions, in their faculty for evil” (Keech 133). The hero and villain are essential parts of Gothic literature, without them the novel would seem empty. Frankenstein needs the monster; Dracula needs the vampire character of Dracula. These characters take the idea of fear, and turn it into something we can imagine, something we can feel, which makes it seem more real. Aspects of these classifications can be seen in modern horror films. Vampires are still one of the most popular characters in the horror genre, and if it wasn’t for the influence of Dracula they wouldn’t exist today. Modern horror villains such as Jigsaw from Saw, Dexter Morgan from Dexter, Chucky from Child’s Play all stemmed from the early Gothic elements.

            The last and most important Gothic element I wish to discuss is the way it makes those whom experience it feel emotionally. The Gothic is defined by the fear and suspense one feels while reading it in a novel or seeing it on the screen. The purpose of the Gothic is to invoke these emotions through its atmosphere, characters, supernatural and more. The elements are used in a manner to trigger these terror emotions such as a door slamming, the dimly lit hall of an old castle, the threat of a supernatural being that is way more powerful than its counterpart in the story, and the list could continue for pages. Others agree with this purpose of the Gothic “The term Gothic as I see it, consequently means a response, or effect of fear characterized by foreboding and intensity” (Keech 134). If it doesn’t cause a feeling of fear or suspense then I wouldn’t define it as true Gothic, it may contain Gothic elements, but evoking fear is one of the main characteristics of the Gothic. All modern horror films are influenced by this true purpose of the Gothic such as The Thing, Friday The 13th, and Halloween all of which use elements to bring a response of fear. Some aspects happen in the novel or film with the only purpose of causing fear such as a lighting strike at just the right moment, or the supernatural villain stalking the hero through the mist.

            All of these elements that define the Gothic are reasons why it is so popular even today, and why it had such a huge influence on modern films. Without the foundation of Gothic elements, the horror film genre wouldn’t exist today. No other literary genre can create fear as the Gothic or have such unique defining characteristics as I have described which is why it will always be remembered as a literary staple, while continuing to evolve with the times.

Works Cited

Hasanat, Fayeza. “Gothic background.” Webcourses, Jan. 2019,      

Keech, James. “The survival of the Gothic Reponse”. The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 6, no. 2, 1974, pp. 130-144. JSTOR.   

Andriopoulos, Stefan. “The invisible Hand: Supernatural Agency in Political Economy and the Gothic Novel”. The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 66. No. 3, 1999, pp. 739-758. JSTOR.