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The Develoment of the Horror Genre

By samantha_s Jun 21, 2005 1125 Words
The term Gothic is significant for the understanding of the origins and development of the horror genre. Both of these genres differ, whilst Gothic literature is the text that explores the frightening extremes in mankind, horror focuses more on the unknown. The Gothic horror genre has changed over time and retains importance because it is the antecedent of the horror genre. Factors such as the definition of the word Gothic, the archetypes of the genre, and its social and historical contexts, have altered considerably as time progressed. The value and popularity given to the gothic horror genre has also varied during the past few centuries. As a result, in order to understand the horror genre's foundations, it is important to observe the Gothic novel's modifications.

Horror stories have existed for thousands of years, initially in the form of verbal communication. The themes of ruthless enemies and supernatural beings were common themes in myths in an attempt to set morals. However, at present, the true horror literature in its written form mostly aims to entertain. Its forerunner, the Gothic novel, rose in the eighteenth century and was extremely popular until the nineteenth century in England. The meaning of ‘gothic' varies exceedingly. The word initially refers to German tribes that took part in overthrowing Rome. This word can be perceived as a synonymous for barbarous and dreadful. Similarly, the horror genre also has factors of monstrosity and dread. The "Gothic" style of architecture was famous in the middle ages and has been found on many cathedrals such as Notre Dame. Historians would describe this style as "gothic" to suggest their negative opinion of the architecture, that it was tasteless and dry. Instead of conforming to this perception, people were only led to believe the word to mean "dark and ominous". Gothic architecture, with the foreboding atmosphere posed around it, correlates with the Gothic novel because it has been a prevalent backdrop to gothic novels in the 19th century, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. These Gothic horror stories were some of the first examples of the horror genre, and are therefore vital for the understanding this field. In its historical context, the gothic horror genre is believed to have emerged as a response to a time of rational thought, the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This intellectual movement aimed to show that knowledge could only be obtained from science, instead of religion. Enlightenment philosophers valued reason beyond emotions and feelings. Therefore, it can be said that the Gothic genre was a form of escapism from the Enlightenment as it portrayed extreme emotions and moods. The Gothic horror genre has been given different responses and values from the time of its birth in 1764, with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, to the present moment. The Castle of Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel, which contains elements of suspense, violence and supernaturalism. As dominant paradigms and interests change, so has the appreciation which is given to Gothic horror. The Gothic has been frequently criticised for the sensationalism and implausibility created. Some believe that Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles' Maturin, which was published in 1820, was the last "Classic Gothic" novel. Several literary critics have often been hesitant to accept the Gothic genre as valuable. It was only the critics who were interested in its historical aspects and practices that were the first to appraise the genre. However, the Gothic genre is celebrated today with canons being studied at educational institutions. At present, elements of the Gothic still reverberate through horror books, films and so on; thus it is essential to become aware of the origins of the Gothic horror genre in order to identify the inspiration created and how the horror components were derived. Gothic themes still resonate in modern literature through authors such as Anne Rice, who wrote tales of vampires. The most highly acclaimed gothic novelists include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Bronte and Henry James, who have inspired modern horror and the Gothic elements that lie within them.

The gothic horror genre nearly always follows a hero or heroine. In earlier Gothic stories it was essential to have the hero or heroine as the central character. For example, in the subgenre of Gothic romances, the story would be about a heroine who possessed beauty, wit and good morals. The heroine was given more weaknesses of emotional insecurities, which posed vulnerability to villains. These young women played the role of either governesses or new brides who stayed in large, dismal manors, which usually held a handsome man with dark pasts and secretive servants. An example is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. There must be a victim and it often is a damsel in distress who is rescued by a tall, courageous man. As the genre developed the innocent victim often is revealed as the evil perpetrator at the climax of the story. An essential archetype in the gothic horror genre is the villain. The villain can range from a cold-blooded murderer to a banshee. It was Anne Radcliffe who created the brooding villain her novels. As the genre developed, a different perspective emerged and the villain often became the central figure of the story. The popularity of the gothic horror genre in England spread to America, and American writers began to utilise Gothic elements. An example is Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell Tale Heart, a short story which is told from the first person perspective of the archetypical villain, and murderer. The essence of these archetypes have been re-established in the modern horror genre, thus it is practical to observe the archetypes of the Gothic novel as well. This allows the responders to grasp a better understanding of the origins of horror elements.

It is therefore evident that the Gothic horror genre has evolved a great deal over the past two hundred years or so. The Gothic novel has affected the horror genre because of the intrigue created with the intense emotions and aspects of human nature. This as a result creates Gothic horror, similar to the horror genre but instead plays on the horrifying attributes of the radical human mind rather than the dread of the unknown and the irregular. In order to become more aware regarding the origins of the horror genre, it is important to understand the progress of the Gothic. It is notable to recognise the meaning of the term, its changing values, historical context and the varying archetypes of the Gothic novel in order to become acquainted with the horror genre's development.


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