Gothic literature began in the mid-eighteenth-century with Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, which is widely considered to the first true work of Gothic fiction (‘The Castle of Otranto’). However, the genre did not truly take off until the Victorian era, which spanned most of the nineteenth-century.
While some may attribute the genre’s sudden gain in popularity to a shift in the interests of writers and artists, it is impossible to ignore the various social factors that influenced the eerie genre’s uprising.
When reading and reviewing Gothic texts, the prevalence of ghosts, mysterious apparitions, and unexplainable sounds and events is apparent. Just as frequent, however, is the theme of insanity — of hallucinations, anxiety, and complete mental breakdown — particularly in Gothic texts’ weakest female characters. Although the occurrences of insanity and the supernatural may seem coincidental or unrelated, a closer examination of the culture surrounding such literature tells a different story.
The themes that occur in literature are almost always a direct result of the society in which the author is immersed. As the Victorian era progressed, the practice of Spiritualism began to grow, both in practice and in notoriety. Because of this spike in interest, the frequency of séances and supernatural phenomenon soon drew the attention of the public. However, as interest in the world beyond began to grow, so did interest in the world within.
The emergence of psychological theories in the late Victorian era, such as Eduard von Hartmann’s ‘The Philosophy of the Unconscious’, laid the foundations for the development of the ideologies which would eventually lead to modern psychology, such as Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis (“Eduard von Hartmann”).
The emergence of such psychological theories led to a piqued interest in the human mind among Victorians. As ideas about the human mind became more and more developed, they also became a more prominent topic in social circles. The influences of Spiritualism and psychoanalysis in Victorian popular culture did not confine itself to parlour talk, however. As Victorian authors and artists began to incorporate these themes into their works, the Gothic genre began to take shape.
There is no doubt about Victorians’ deep fascination with the supernatural. The supernatural was not merely a form of entertainment, of chilling ghost stories before bedtime, but an “important aspect of the Victorians’ intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and imaginative worlds, and took its place in the domestic centre of their daily lives” (Bown, Burdett, and Thurschwell 2).
While debates over accounts of unexplained, paranormal occurrences pervaded parlour talk, the influence of the supernatural over Victorian life was not limited to the social sphere. The supernatural invaded Victorian culture as well, permeating “literature, art and science — to name only three of the most powerful cultural forces” (Bown et al. 2).
The supernatural’s influence over literature led to the complex genre of the Victorian ghost story. While the typical ghost story may seem simple in its purpose and execution, the Victorian ghost story operated on two separate levels: entertainment and cultural commentary. The Victorian ghost story was largely domestic in nature, often set inside the home. As pointed out by Eve M. Lynch, “ghost stories offered evidence that the home was no haven from powerful and exacting social pressures” (67).
The Victorian ghost story became a way for cultural issues, particularly cultural criticism, to be addressed without any kind of confrontation. Stories of this genre “often stress the conjunction of external, and by extension public, class status and internal, private matters” (Lynch 67). The genre, then, takes its horror element from two separate sources. While the threat of irrational, unexplained, supernatural forces creates dread on a superficial level, the underlying social criticism arouses distress on a personal level. The literary use of the supernatural to present social criticism in a direct, yet subtle fashion soon turned the Victorian ghost story into “a vehicle for […] what was truly scary in private and public life […] what could not be hidden in the domestic comfort of the hearth” (Lynch 84).
An example of social issues addressed by Gothic texts can be seen in ‘Ralph the Bailiff’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which utilizes the ghost story in order to comment on women’s “helpless” position in Victorian culture, “[directing] her sympathies into the plight of the woman with no marital property rights and no familial control” (Lynch 75; 77).
Unknowingly married to a murderer being blackmailed by his manservant, the story’s protagonist, Jenny, is haunted by “hallucinations of the dead” and unsettling dreams that “[whisper] of her husband’s guilt” (Lynch 75).
The hallucinations eventually lead her to overhear a conversation between her husband and his blackmailer, Ralph, which reveals the truth behind her husband’s past. After she discovers that her husband’s estate, including her dowry, is being seized by his blackmailing manservant, Jenny realises that the only way to escape being controlled by Ralph is to flee. By doing so, she loses the only “property she [brought] into her marriage,” leaving her penniless (Lynch 77).
Jenny’s plight is an example of “demonic domestic possession,” which uses the supernatural to examine the limitations of Victorian women, especially within the confines of marriage (Lynch 75). In light of the impact of the supernatural on literature and cultural discourse, it is imperative that the factors contributing to the rise of the supernatural in Victorian culture be examined.
Heightened Victorian interest in the supernatural is attributed largely to the Spiritualist movement. According to Richard Noakes, the sudden rise of interest in the supernatural during the Victorian period has been largely unexplained by scholars (23). At that time, it appeared that the majority of the Victorian populace had given over to the idea that “the cosmos was governed by immutable natural laws rather than capricious supernatural agencies or divine whim, and […] supernatural beliefs were increasingly dismissed as superstition” (Noakes 23).
It was perhaps this scientific assessment of the universe, however, which allowed for the growth of the Spiritualist movement. Spiritualist practitioners, while seemingly engrossed in superstitious babble and exaggerated misconceptions about the natural world, were actually quite driven to uncover the logical, scientific forces behind the supernatural phenomena they encountered.
As explained by William James, the brother of author Henry James, in his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, the supernatural was an integral part of the physical world. He explains, “the unseen region in question […] produces effects in our world […] that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we [have] no philosophic reason for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal” (461).
Spiritualists felt strongly about not only the existence of the supernatural realm, but its importance to the human experience. The movement’s emphasis on the supernatural as a scientific field soon brought it into the public eye.
The seemingly whimsical ideas of the Spiritualist movement created a stir as they “[threatened] a revival of a superstition that [was] anathema to the proponents of Enlightenment” (Cooper 43). In their quest for logical reasoning, Spiritualists attempted to rationalise the irrational. They tried to define the supernatural, “a category that defies definition, a realm the human mind cannot conceive” (Bown et al. 9).
The true danger of Spiritualist agenda and the subsequent emergence of Gothic literature was its potential to “transform readers into […] irrational […] creatures” (Cooper 43-44). As the movement began to pursue scientific explanation for what had once been dismissed as mere superstition, the distinction between “absurdity” and “authenticity” became increasingly blurred.
It is important to keep in mind that this time period was also the era that saw the minds of brilliant scientists whose ideas and inventions changed the scientific world. Among those scientists were James Prescott Joule, Michael Faraday, and William Thomson (“Lord Kelvin”), whose research created scientific advancements such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, the creation of “electric current from a magnetic field,” and the “foundations of modern physics” respectively (“James Prescott Joule;” “Michael Faraday;” “William Thomson, Baron Kelvin”).
In an age that saw such a productive scientific community, the Spiritualists’ claims about the scientific nature of their work inspired heavy criticism from the esteemed scientific world. The Spiritualist drive for scientific validity led to “fierce scientific, intellectual and theological debates over the boundaries between science and Spiritualism” (Noakes 24). For example, one scientific explanation of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena contended that the apparition was merely a “subjective optical effect” due to the deficiencies in an individual’s eyesight (Smajić 18).
The connection such debates drew between Spiritualism and science “opened up new paths into the occult by virtue of its explorations of objects and phenomena that elude the limited register of the bodily senses” (Smajić 137). The scientific community’s apparent interest in Spiritualist claims led the public to see Spiritualism and the supernatural as viable explanations for unexplained phenomena. It is perhaps the dense debate over the reality or fiction of supernatural experience that creates the unique style of horror found in Gothic literature.
When examining a work of Gothic literature, it is important to keep in mind the Realist foundation of the genre. While the themes presented and events portrayed in Gothic literature may be largely unrealistic, the genre is meant to be understood in a very realistic sense. Therefore, the “Gothic supernatural appears very real, disturbing, and uncanny” (Bayer-Berenbaum 32).
The portrayal of events in Gothic fiction is meant to make the reader feel as if those exact events could easily happen to them. The Gothic supernatural feels real and disturbs the reader not because of its horrific quality, but because “it is so close; it permeates” (Bayer-Berenbaum 32). The division between what is natural and what is other-worldly is dissolved, “[rendering] the supernatural greater and nearer,” creating a “materialisation of the spiritual” through the depiction of supernatural phenomena (Bayer-Berenbaum 33).
Like the debates sparked by the emergence of Spiritualist beliefs and endeavours, the Gothic supernatural attempts to take the unreal and make it real. Therefore, the true terror of the Gothic supernatural is not the idea of horrific spectres or unexplainable sights and sounds, but the degree of reality that is achieved by the Gothic style. As summed up by Linda Bayer-Berenbaum, “Gothic terror” is created by a “merger of the natural and the supernatural that undermines a sound, predictable reality” (35).
The psychological process behind what makes a particular visage or the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud examines event scary in his essay ‘The Uncanny.’