Gothic Literature: the Fascination with Terror

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Traci L. Pugh
Dr. Amber Reagan-Kendrick
ENG 45023-SU-2012-OA Seminar in American Literature
8 August 2012
Gothic Literature: The Fascination with Terror
People have an intrinsic fear of the dark and the unknown. While each person’s level of anxiety and object of terror are different, the fascination to reveal them has inspired Gothic authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and Stephenie Meyer for three centuries. Subjects of these classic tales include vampires, reanimation of the dead, ghosts, murder, witches, and love. These stories and poems can terrify audiences because they can encompass reality of things people cherish with a twist of the impossible. Gothic writers use terror, mystery, and excitement to probe the dark aspects of life by exposing inner human fear.

Mary Shelley was a Romantic Gothic author, and it is speculated that Frankenstein symbolizes “internal conflicts and life experiences with what may have been their manifestations in the fictionalized characters she created” (D’Amato 117). She was orphaned at an early age, and death was no stranger to her due to the deaths of her sister and her husband’s first wife. Mary feared giving birth, mainly because her mother died eleven days after giving birth to her, but D’ Amato proposes that she “may have believed any child she produced would inherit the repressed, hated, and destructive parts of herself” (122). Shelley’s work may have mirrored her life, but it was common for Gothic authors of this time to write about “the nation’s dreams, and their own” (“Gothic Undercurrents”).

The early nineteenth century was a time of fear due to rapid changes in the nation: abolition, the Great Depression, war, and the bank crisis. These events gave Americans the feeling that “life was an experiment that had gone horribly wrong,” and these writers explored this fear with prose (“Gothic Undercurrents”). This newfound style of writing exposed the dark side of humanity, but it also questioned the mystery of unsolvable problems. These works probed the demons of the nation and the writers.

Frankenstein began as Mary Shelley’s dream in 1816, and her tale of loneliness, reanimating the dead, murder, guilt, and revenge has been dubbed a literary classic. The main character, Victor Frankenstein, believes he has discovered the secret of life and proclaims, “Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a church-yard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm” (Shelley 79). Once the monster is created, it feels abandoned and starts killing. The creature inadvertently causes the death of an innocent girl. Victor realizes his creation is lonely, and nothing more than an abomination, so he decides to destroy it. A journey into the mountains ensues, but a crack in the ice divides their paths. When Frankenstein dies, the monster comes to see him and says, “Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine; for the bitter sting of remorse may not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them for ever” (Shelley 244). This story reveals the idea that the dead, once reanimated, are like an angry child who lashes out at a parent who has betrayed them. The feeling of abandonment was what Shelley tried to capture in this morbid tale of love and loss, and this theme would continue with future authors.

Edgar Allan Poe, considered a Victorian Gothic, was also an orphan whose life seemed to be full of disaster. He suffered an unmerciful surrogate father, was kicked out of the University of Virginia, dropped out of West Point, married his thirteen year old cousin, and lived in poverty with his freelance lifestyle (Doctorow 241). The driving force behind his work was that he embraced his own misery because he believed that his suffering was natural. His stories were written in the mid-nineteenth century, and people were still afraid of their uncertain...
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