The Historical Roots Of Contemporary Horror Fiction

The Historical Roots Of Contemporary Horror Fiction
Copyright © Photograph by Flex Dreams

While horror tales are often not taken seriously as a legitimate literary genre, it is important to note that horror tales have existed longer than any other story form. For example, the ancient Egyptians created tales of spiritual revenge to protect tombs from thieves. Dennis Hamilton points out that prior to the Egyptians, at the dawn of prehistory, “the caveman painted real-life horrors on the walls of his house.” He goes so far as to call these the first monsters.

‘The Canterbury Tales,’ by Geoffrey Chaucer, contains stories narrated by journeyers on religious pilgrimages. Several of the stories contain supernatural elements such as corpses singing, the power of dreams, and murdered men telling the story of their deaths. Geoffrey Chaucer presumably appropriated folk beliefs and their associated geographical contexts in his array of supernatural occurrences. A theme often repeated is that of the slain reaching beyond the grave to make the guilty pay for their crimes. These themes of spiritual revenge and the repositories of death have traversed time. A characteristic feature of the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century is that of a hero being cheated out of his rightful inheritance by the relative who killed his parents to gain their wealth. The ghosts of those murdered would customarily appear and scare the villain into confessing his crime. Their appearance imparted special meaning to the geographical context of death or burial. Mundane settings acquired supernatural significance.

The first horror novel was written in 1764 by Horatio Walpole, an English nobleman who became the fourth Earl of Oxford and sat in Parliament for twenty-six years. His novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ took place in a haunted castle complete with ghosts, clanking armour, and terrified maidens. Walter Kendrick points out that not only is Horatio Walpole the founder of the genre, but he is also responsible for “establishing its link to the architectural style that shares its name,” that is, the Gothic novel. Though the haunted residence had been used as a subject periodically throughout history, Horatio Walpole can be credited with making it a standard theme and creating the tradition of the Gothic setting.

Horatio Walpole’s novel was followed in 1794 by ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ by Ann Radcliffe. This is now considered to be the keystone novel in Gothic horror. The book contains the same haunted house elements of horror found in ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ but it is said that Ann Radcliffe used them with far more significant literacy and impact.

These novels were the tentative beginnings of horror literature. While ancient stories and folktales did evoke fear in their listeners, there is a distinct difference between them and horror fiction today. Folktales were either accepted as real or created out of a true fear of the unknown. The two novels by Horatio Walpole and Ann Radcliffe in the late eighteenth-century can be seen as a turning point. Horror became entertainment written for the titillation of the reader and often detached from his or her world of immediate experience. These novels and their imitators were the pioneering cases of manufactured horror. They were meant not as a scare tactic, explanation, or moral fable, but as vicarious pleasure. Secondly, horror became personal and solitary. The new fiction transcended the experience obtainable from a group-based oral tradition. It came down to the book and the reader; it was private. The horror tale now pleasured fear, not fear itself.

Psychologist Michael J. Apter points out that in detachment, all emotions are enjoyed. Even emotions like fear, horror, and grief are enjoyed when we feel them out of empathy with a fictional character. Emotions are not just passing moments in fiction, but the whole rationale for fiction. If we did not get anything out of fiction, we would not bother with it. We feel the emotions of the character and enjoy those feelings. The most memorable moments of a horror story are the most terrifying. Moreover, they are the most memorable because they elicit the strongest emotions. The emotions we feel from fiction are genuine emotions. They are not false or artificial, but they are context-specific. The emotion is the same as it is in real-life, except that we are aware that it is not real-life. In the context of being unreal, the negative emotion turns positive and is enjoyable.

The creation of the horror magazine Weird Tales in 1923 marks a turning point for horror fiction in the United States of America. Before the magazine’s existence, short horror stories or weird tales were published in general interest magazines. However, horror almost wholly disappeared from traditional magazines when Weird Tales came on the scene. The result of horror fiction moving away from the mainstream may well have contributed to horror becoming a distinct genre. For not only did it disappear from mainstream magazines but from mainstream publishers as well. In the United Kingdom, where there was no equivalent to Weird Tales or Arkham House, horror progressed into a genre much later than it had in America. Horror stories continued to be published by large publishing firms and general interest periodicals. The genre evolved in the United Kingdom due to marketing practices.

As previously mentioned, the big house setting is the stereotype of horror. The gloomy, cobweb-filled, haunted house offers atmosphere and lots of places to hide. As big old houses and mansions are torn down, fall down, or gentrified into singles district apartments, the big house setting is becoming a rarity in horror. The number of apartment and single-family house settings has remained somewhat stable in horror literature. However, we will probably see a growth in these settings in the future. In the introduction to ‘Shadows of Fear,’ David Hartwell (1992) points out that women read today, most popular horror. He states that a recent Gallup Poll found that sixty percent of the adult horror audience comprises women in their thirties and forties. Horror topics that most appeal to the concerns of women include children, the house, and the supernatural. If this is what sells chart-toppers, this is what many authors will write.


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