Gothic horror arrived in North America in the latter half of the eighteenth-century as one of many imports — literary and cultural — from the United Kingdom during this period of intense transatlantic circulation. As an experimental and often transgressive genre, the Gothic novel found a congenial home in the fiercely independent new nation.
By the 1790s, the American Gothic was well on its way to establishing a set of themes and concerns that would become uniquely its own. These included the frontier and its native inhabitants, Puritanism and its tendency towards religious excess and the individual in relation to the larger body politic.
Aesthetically, the Gothic novel embraced several different modes; of these, horror was the most significant and the most deeply rooted in the North American rhetorical and literary traditions. Present already in the uniquely North American form of writing known as the captivity narrative, horror writing emerged in full force in the late eighteenth-century as a modern reaction-formation to shifts in the political and religious landscape. As historian Karen Halttunen (2000) has shown, modern North American horror was born at the moment when religious narratives had lost their purchase of explaining crime and, especially, murder. While Protestantism religious narratives about evil had regarded it as a natural and inevitable fact of fallen existence on earth, the new, secular paradigms of the Romantic movement and the Enlightenment could only consider violent crimes as mysterious aberrations. The result of this epistemological gap was a fascination with the details of bodily mutilation and the life history of killers that has persisted until today.
The moment of horror’s arrival in the fledgeling United States of America also corresponded with a time of intense social transition as the new nation struggled to define itself and decide upon the precise character of its political institutions. For example, there was the public debate about federalism against republicanism, with its choice between centralised authority as opposed to greater states’ rights. The country had committed itself to a democratic government, but many practical and philosophical questions about what this meant and how to implement it remained.
Novelists took up the challenge of thinking through some of the dilemmas raised by the curious phenomenon of a disparate set of colonies banding together to cast off the trappings of empire and now facing the task of inventing themselves as a coherent political unity. Inherently engaged with questions of ethics and moral judgement, the horror mode lent itself to such experiments in political thought, as did the specific historical circumstances and background of the young republic. These included the popular genre of captivity narratives (first-person accounts of violence and kidnapping by “Indians”) and the tradition of Puritan sermons, both of which provided a wealth of imaginative material for early American horror’s anxious examination of the individual in the New World.
The first indigenous form of the horror mode was the captivity narrative. These were usually written by women who had been abducted by Native Americans, often during a violent attack resulting in the death of the woman’s husband and/or children and other relatives. The most famous captivity story, ‘A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’, written by Mary Rowlandson herself, was published in 1682, but the greatest number of captivity narratives appeared in the last decades of the eighteenth-century — at exactly the moment when the Gothic novel and its horror aesthetics were becoming popular. There are many structural and thematic similarities between the two forms, including gory descriptions of violence, sequestration and the threat of rape, and the focus on an intrepid female survivor. In this respect, the captivity narrative inaugurated a core dimension of the Gothic genre: the heroine who faces and overcomes male violence. The captivity narrative can also be seen as a way of thinking about various models of government in the way it stages scenarios in which different kinds of people (such as Native American tribes and European settlers) either possess enough common ground to co-exist or do not, depending on the political inclinations of the writer.
Another specifically North American Gothic literary background is the Puritan tradition. Puritanism was originally a reform movement within the Church of England in the 1560s, but it soon parted ways from the mainstream of English society, its followers believing that the reforms had not gone far enough. The name “Puritan” derives from the idea that these reformers sought to restore the “purity” of the church. Although not necessarily separatists at the start, Puritans nevertheless began to leave England because of persecution; several thousand eventually sailed to the North American colonies in the early seventeenth-century. Many believed that they had a pact with God to create a new kind of holy communion. Such a conviction would remain a running thread throughout North American history and self-definition, developing insidiously over the centuries into what twentieth-century scholars would call “the myth of American exceptionalism” – that is, the belief that the United States of America is qualitatively different from any other country in the world and chosen by God for a special destiny.
Puritans have been represented quite negatively in the contemporary media, portrayed as a dour and humourless people. Although this image is mostly exaggerated, it is undeniable that the Puritans held a number of beliefs that were quite dark and deterministic, including the existence of hell and the devil, original sin and innate (or total) depravity. Looking at their surroundings through the prism of their religious beliefs, the Puritans saw a wilderness peopled by devils, in which they had to wage daily and endless war against both Satan and their own inherent sinfulness. Ironically, later generations of Puritan settlers often became even more severe in their application of Puritan doctrine than their forefathers had been, due in large part to their cultural and geographical isolation.
Few incidents in North American history have left such an indelible mark on the history of horror — and its literary legacy — in the New World as the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. These were a series of hearings and prosecutions that resulted in twenty executions, almost entirely of women. Nineteen of these were by hanging, and one man was pressed to death with heavy stones laid on a plank over his body for three days in an effort to force a guilty plea. Five more people died in prison, including a child.
Although the Salem witch hysteria was over within a year, its impact on the North American imagination has been enduring. One immediate effect was a permanent loss of power of Puritan authorities, as the ease with which respected officials were carried away by the frenzy and its murderous results led colonists to view religious fervour with a new wariness. This mistrust has never worn off, just as the Puritans have never shaken off their association with religious intolerance and murderous irrationalism.
Narratives about the witch trials proliferated in the nineteenth-century, including several stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. These have served as a basis for horror-inflected novels, plays and films throughout the twentieth-century, such as Esther Forbes’ ‘Mirror for Witches’ (1928), Arthur Asher Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ (1953) and the recent ‘The Lords of Salem’ (dir. by Robert Bartleh Cummings, 2012).