1 April 2011
Social and Historical Effects Responsible for the Conception of the Fantastic and Supernatural in Gothic Horror
Bram Stoker’s Dracula debuted in Victorian England at the end of the nineteenth century. Not the first vampire story of its time, it certainly made one of the most lasting impressions on modern culture, where tales of the supernatural, horror, witchcraft, possession, demoniacs, vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens, and monsters of all kinds have become something of a theme in modern art, if not an obsession. Many scholars debate the origin or cause of this phenomenon, yet most agree that culture plays an enormous role in the development of such themes, whether in nineteenth century gothic novels such as Dracula or Frankenstein, or in modern films with gothic leanings, such as The Exorcist or Children of Men. This paper will examine how fantasy and the idea of the supernatural, including the “undead,” is an important underlying fear prevalent in the psyche of humanity, which manifests itself differently, depending on the social or historical circumstances which spawns the creation of that work of literature or film.
By placing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein within the context of its Romantic/Enlightenment era, E. Michael Jones shows how the effects of the revolutionary doctrine of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, and Percy Bysshe Shelley found their ultimate expression in the gothic horror genre (90). Dracula, no less than Frankenstein, is indicative of the cultural underbelly that the Victorian Age sought to cover up. Far from speaking directly of the human passions unleashed by the Romantic era, the Victorian Age found it more appropriate to hide them, keep them out of the public sphere, render them lifeless, and thereby make life respectable. The problem was, the less those passions were talked about, but acted upon, the more those same passions bubbled up to the surface through the means of gothic horror novels and films. While, Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake” carried the artistic world out of the Victorian Age and into the twentieth century of unhindered expressionism, Wilde himself fell victim to the very underbelly of Victorian England—which, in fact, prosecuted him to the fullest extent of the law when his vices became open knowledge to the public. Stoker’s Dracula was just as representative of his own sexual desires masked by Victorian prudery. But because Stoker for the most part kept his affairs from becoming public scandal, he was left well enough alone to express what everyone was interested in anyway, and which has always been an easy seller: sex.
Controlling the passions had always been the interest of the Catholic Church, which was the European bulwark against revolution, with assistance from the reason of Augustine to the scholasticism of Aquinas to the architecture of the gothic cathedrals. With the growing corruption of many Church officials, the rise of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, that control was finally threatened and replaced. New philosophies were spread (Rousseau’s concept of nature as the only law; Sade’s concept of that same nature as brutal, animalistic, and violent), which unleashed a tidal wave of radical revolutionaries in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century, which in turn needed new types of control. Napoleon was the immediate result. Victorian prudery was the nineteenth century’s later response. It enabled Mary Shelley to turn her husband into a “Victorian angel,” as she “dedicated the rest of her life to effacing their sexual experiment” (Jones 91) with Byron in Geneva, memorialized, however, by Ken Russell’s 1987 film Gothic, in which de Sade’s Justine informs Mary Shelley of what could soon be expected.
What Sade foresaw, and helped promote, was a sexual revolution that would elevate sexual desire from the restraints of medieval Church doctrine. While...