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Creepin’ It Real: A Brief History of European Gothic Literature

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” -Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

Where does the horror genre come from? Why, when we hear the word “horror,” do we think of vampires and werewolves? Why do we think of zombies, witches, and demon possession? There’s actually an answer for that, looking through the lens of European, specifically Christian, culture.

Imagine it’s 1235 A.D, and the fear that people are falling away from the faith has taken hold. The Vatican issues an order that faith needs to be reestablished, and as a consequence, being charged with heresy would often get tangled in accusations of witchcraft. This fear-mongering worked because no one wanted to be known as someone who made deals with the devil, and Europe’s obsession with witchcraft continued into the 1800s.

Backtracking to specifics, it was in 1307 when Dante published his Divine Comedy, Inferno. It painted Satan into an image that had such a heavy influence, we still think of him in a similar fashion today.

It wouldn’t be until the 1580s when a new sort of horror came into play. Quite literally. Plays like The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, or Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Macbeth entered the public eye and terrified audiences.

But what about the Gothic Novel?

Imagine it’s 1731, and the Austrian government has ordered an investigation into the mass hysteria of a village known as Medvegja. Apparently, before dying by falling off a hay wagon in 1726, Arnold Paole had said that he’d been bitten by a vampire while living in Turkish Serbia. A month after his death, villagers claimed that he had risen from his grave and killed four people. Ten days later, they exhumed his body under belief that he was now a vampire. Finding that his body hadn’t decayed as much as they’d been expecting, they drove a stake through his heart and burned the body. Despite these precautions, ten more people died under mysterious circumstances. The report of this incident was written by Johannes Fluckinger, and it quickly gained interest all across Europe. People wanted to read this terrifying account of what eventually became our modern obsession with vampires.

Inspired by the popularity of this scary account, Horace Walpole published what is now known as the first Gothic Novel in 1765: The Castle of Otranto.

Gothic Literature took its most dramatic, and most well known, turn in 1816. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley, and Dr. John Polidori met and decided, possibly under the influence of laudanum, to have a ghost-story writing contest between them. As a result, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein began the genre of science fiction, a genre in which horror often crosses into.

This brief history that I have given you is far from complete, and very European. We’re missing other important authors like the Brothers Grimm and Edgar Allen Poe. We’re missing stories from other cultures such as the Algonquian wendigo, Japan’s Oni, and “tepe,” a man-eating tree from Madagascar, just to name a few.

Join me in exploring the genre of horror through folktales, culture, and writing styles. See you next Friday.


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