the Gothic
+ variations on the gothic

(thanks to Anthony Ramsden 2008)

Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

including the Wilderness Gothic >>

The gothic is a genre or style of literature that appears throughout Western literary history—from visions of hell to the novels of Stephen King—though it often goes by names like "horror," "terror," "thriller," the grotesque or macabre.

The gothic is easily identified by its network or system of symbols, all of which may not appear in every text:

haunted houses / castles / woods             mazes, labyrinths               closed doors & secret passages / rooms

light and dark interplay with shades of gray or blood-red colors (color code)         fair & dark ladies         twinning, doubling, & doppelgangers

repressed fears & desires; memory of past crime or sin             death & decay               bad-boy Byronic heroes

blood as visual spectacle and genealogy / ethnicity       spectral or grotesque figures, lurid symbols         

creepy or startling sounds, screams in the night, groans from locked rooms

Manifestations of the gothic make a long list, and so do its literary genres:

  • gothic novels or romances, horror, thrillers, mysteries, film noir
  • “goth” fashion and gothic rock or metal music  
  • Frequently today (and earlier) the gothic is satirized as a formula, e.g. The Addams Family, Young Frankenstein, Scary Movie, etc.
  • The gothic has deep roots in theology, architecture, psychology, the imagination, and many literary traditions. (see variations on the gothic)
  • Backgrounds: Images associated with the gothic stretch back to Christian visions of hell, devils, and demons, with Lucifer as the original Byronic hero: proud, rebellious, attractive, dangerous to know. As the gothic develops, such imagery becomes secularized but may still evoke the supernatural.
  • The indispensable feature of nearly any gothic narrative is a haunted space that reflects or corresponds to a haunted mind. In European literature the gothic space is typically a haunted castle or other architectural structure such as a maze or labyrinth. In science fiction such a space may be a haunted spaceship with intricate passageways, as in Alien (1979) or a hive or colony of insect-like vampires as in Priest (2011).
  • Psychological / cultural projections of the gothic:
    • Especially in Poe but also in Bronte's Jane Eyre and other gothic fiction, the haunted space appears as a correspondence or projection of a haunted mind. This psychological reading of the gothic would account for the style's persistence across various periods, media, and cultures.

    • The darkness and irrationality of the gothic villain or setting may sometimes serve as a convenient characterization of the Other or the Unknown. For instance, in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847) the Creole woman Bertha from the Caribbean is characterized in terms of gothic darkness and uncontrolled passion and depravity, in contrast to the pale, English, and restrained Jane. Comparably, in early American literature Native American Indians are sometimes described as "black" or "dark" figures holding satanic ceremonies in the night.
    • Though demonic elements of the gothic are easily observed, more positive spiritual elements often escape attention. The gothic's darkness depends on a corresponding light; the fair lady must be offset by a dark lady. Following the release of the 1973 film The Exorcist, church attendance enjoyed a temporary bump. Fascination with darkness requires an idea of light.

"The Wilderness Gothic"

(variations on the gothic)

American literature may feature gothic buildings like Faulkner’s or Morrison's ruined plantation mansions or Steven King's Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1977), but . . .

American literature and films often transfer the gothic to a haunted forest or wilderness—from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Last of the Mohicans to The Blair Witch Project.

William Faulkner's fiction of the deep South sometimes sets gothic effects in houses, as in the Poe-like A Rose for Emily, but in texts like "The Bear" or "The Old People" in Go Down, Moses (1942), the American forest (or "jungle") appears as a maze-like mystery to which a young innocent is initiated.

The haunted forest may be traced back to European fairy tales like Hansel & Gretel or tales of knights crossing unknown territories.

Gothic literature in the early United States faced a peculiar problem with settings, however. European gothic tales typically featured a mysterious mansion, castle, or abbey. The American landscape had few or none of these ancient buildings with time-haunted memories of crime and betrayal.

So American writers used the American landscape:

Imagination peoples the unknown with threats that are symbolized by familiar images—for European colonists and their descendents, such threatening images might be darkness, demons, the innocent imperiled.

Early European-American settlers sometimes regarded the New World as "the Devil's Territories" (Cotton Mather) and the Native Americans as either serving the devil, or devils themselves.

And then there's the guilt of repressed crime or sin that the gothic explores. America's original sin may have been taking the land from its original inhabitants and reducing them through disease, war, and exploitation.


Other examples of Wilderness Gothic:

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

The Blair Witch Project (1999, d. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez)


from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Hansel & Gretel

The Gothic Novel


The Gothic Novel


"Gothic." A term for aspects of medieval art first applied to pointed architecture in the early seventeenth century. . . .  The gothic revival [in architecture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries] in its literary aspects was closely associated with the green copses, disordered stone piles, enchanting shadows and sweet melancholy of these ruined buildings. . . .  Horace Walpole built Strawberry Hill (1750-53) and wrote The Castle of Otranto (1764) in the same mood.--Joseph T. Shipley, ed.  Dictionary of World Literary Terms.  Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1970.

"The Gothic Novel." A form of novel in which magic, mystery, and chivalry are the chief characteristics.  Horrors abound: one may expect a suit of armor suddenly to come to life, while ghosts, clanking chains, and charnel houses impart an uncanny atmosphere of terror.--C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 3d. ed.  Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1972.

“Gothic Fantasy": The starting point of Gothic literature is usually given as The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole . . . .  Although all Gothic fiction is tragedy, its key component is the edifice [or building] . . . . Gothic fiction usually takes place in an ancient castle or abbey whose owner discovers his noble line is doomed, usually because some past misdemeanor has caused the family to be cursed. . . . [The genre] was desensationalized and adopted into the mainstream by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights (1847). . . . [In the late 19th and early 20th centuries] the Gothic mode shifted toward romantic fiction, and was revived strongly in the work of Daphne du Maurier, who built on the work of the Brontes to lay the foundation for the modern Gothic romance. . . .--Mike Ashley, “Gothic Fantasy,” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, eds. John Clute and John Grant.  NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Additional examples of genre: See titles above, plus Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1800?); Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818); Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839); Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897); Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938); Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (1976); Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

categories of gothic (see variations on the gothic)

European / psychological gothic

  • haunted castles or ancient houses as reflections of haunted mind

  • examples: Poe, Anne Rice, some Stephen King (Americans, but locate gothic in older parts of country) 

  • + European predecessors (Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis)

Wilderness gothic—Irving's "Sleepy Hollow" & "Rip Van Winkle," Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; also To Kill a Mockingbird, Blair Witch Project

Puritan / moral gothic—Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter and stories (also include some wilderness gothic)

Space gothicAlien(s)

Suburban gothicNightmare on Elm Street

Urban gothicfilm noir (dark detective films like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, Body Heat, LA Confidential)


Links to gothic websites

Gothic Architecture of the High Middle Ages

A Study of Gothic Subculture

Addams family movies

Haunted Places Directory

Blair Witch Project

Research Sources: See above, plus web sites: The Gothic Literature Page

Literature of the Fantastic (gothic novels on-line, mostly out-of-copyright tales from the nineteenth century)


Final exam essay from LITR 4232 American Renaissance question: Describe the characteristics and significance of the Gothic  . . .

[complete answer]

The Gothic novel is a stylistic mode or genre that uses a set of conventions to instill a feeling of fear, or uneasiness in the reader. These conventions could include, but are not limited to haunted spaces, light and dark, pointed architecture, and masks. Gothic novels traditionally used Europe as their setting, as we will see with Poe, but throughout the course we had the pleasure to see it imported to American towns, woods, and even the human mind. In this mode, the Gothic can work towards setting the mood of the reader towards the works as a whole, or more importantly, we saw that it can be used to help us examine our own haunted spaces. As you mentioned several times in the class, we all have our secrets and we all wear our masks. Good writing helps us to see beyond our own masks.

We were introduced to the Gothic very early in our reading. Washington Irving used the gothic throughout both "The Legend of Sleep Hollow", and "Rip Van Winkle." When viewing Irving as a popular writer who was adopted into the world of classical literature, I would guess that Gothic exists in his work simply to enhance the setting. While RVW may be viewed as a statement on his society, I wonder how political he actually meant it to be. On page 1369 we are given a scene that is very Gothic. Ichabod has made his way into the woods on a dark and lonely night. During this trip he recalls stories of ghost and goblins. He eventually makes his way to the tulip tree and sees its twisted and knarled form. The tree actually moans at him at one point. Again, this type of writing does well for setting the mood but I did not find that it urged me to think or examine myself. I do not mean to speak ill of his works, they used the Gothic well and have obviously withstood the test of time.

The second reading that we saw the Gothic in was The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper used the Gothic heavily in both the setting, as a wilderness gothic, and as a very important tool where the Gothic worked to show the returning past as repressed. Throughout the novel we often visit ruins that are "quietly crumbling in the solitude of the forest, neglected, and nearly forgotten…(125)" there are also several graves that appear. During their adventure we are often reminded that horrible actions have taken place in the past. (I’m getting bogged down so let me be more general.) We are also show Gothic of a matter of light and dark. This applies to both physical lighting and the shades of skin. Cooper uses Gothic for describing physical locations. For example, the cave in Glenn’s falls we see the secret doors and its jagged edges. Again, this usage of Gothic by Cooper shows the past being revisited and demonstrates the ghost-like state of the Indians. He uses Gothic to explain the situation of a particular group of people.

When one thinks of Gothic, Poe is often the first writer that comes to mind. Because of his writing style, he is often perceived as demented or insane. This is due to the fact that people easily mistake Poe as a writer using the Gothic, with the "I" character he inserts into his works. As I mentioned earlier, Poe often wrote with the traditional Gothic setting, Europe. However, his use of the Gothic as a mode extends past settings or establishing an attitude in the reader. He uses the Gothic as the subject of his works. When Poe includes a Gothic space in his writing, for example a house, it usually parallels or corresponds with the unconscious mind of the reader or the characters in the works. One page 1461 in "The Fall of the House of Usher" we see that the house has vacant eye-like windows and on 1462 we are presented with the fact that the house is identified along with the family. This technique of twinning is another common occurrence in the Gothic. Once this convention is identified, the reader can see that whatever the family is going will be reflected on the house and likewise. Twinning also appears with the Roderick and Madeleine twins. There seems to be almost a supernatural connection between the individuals (if they are indeed that). With Poe we do also get the generic Gothic. In the "City in the Sea" (1507) we are presented with decaying towers. Again, Poe seems to use the traditional European gothic but in a way that comments on the psychological state of the characters and the reader.

Hawthorne contains most of the Gothic conventions named earlier but he seems to most use the Gothic as a commentary on the degrees of guilt and innocence possessed by all humans. He uses the light and dark to represent good and evil. He also makes it clear that even in the Gothic there does exist shades of gray. Unlike the other writers, Hawthorne sets his works in the Puritan times. This choice allows him to take advantage to the ideas of traditional good and evil and to interject his exploration of the subject in a way that shows there is no absolute right and wrong. Like Cooper and Irving, he often writes in the wilderness Gothic. One 2208 Goodman Brown takes a "dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest…" but this also ties into Poe’s use of Gothic in that the road taken corresponds to his actions. Hawthorne most uses the "Puritan Gothic" where is customarily making a walk to the graveyard to reflect upon live. In the Minister’s Black Veil he uses the veil as a mask to cover his sins. The reference to secret sin is very strongly in turn with the Puritans. Even the wilderness gothic is provided for under the puritan thinking in that the wilderness is considered heathen (2211). He was also very good at connecting correspondence as a Gothic convention. On page 2222 the use of a cloud and the sunshine correlates to sin and sorrow.

The last writer that I will cover (briefly) is Melville. In Billy Budd we have Claggart as the gothic character. He is the darker of the characters in appearance and nature. He seems to like Billy but is drawn to harm him. The powers of his actions are out of his control. On page 2543 Claggart is described as having manifestations and a subterranean fire that was eating away at him. In his writing, Melville seemed to use the gothic in relation to a single person and not the society as a whole or even the setting of the novel. This is an example of a very focused Gothic. [DG 2001]

Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey in the Oak Forest (1810)
Gothic features include gothic arches, light-dark contrast, decay, graves, monks, ruins, etc.