I have always loved Halloween. When I was a kid I started planning my Halloween costume sometime in July. I drove my parents crazy begging to be allowed to have Halloween parties. I had a perhaps unhealthy obsession with skeletons and the headless horseman (Hey, he had a cool black horse!) I loved scary stories, even though my vivid imagination meant that I ended up sleeping with the hall light on and the bedroom door cracked open just the right amount. If my mom didn’t leave a radio playing softly to mask the sounds of the house settling or the wind in the trees, I would jump in terror at every noise in the night.
Not for me modern horror movies with buckets of blood and screaming teenagers, a chainsaw or machete waiting around every corner. Give me ominous castles and old, abandoned houses dripping with cobwebs, give me wolves howling in the distance and bats silhouetted against the moon. Give me pale, elegant villains who charm rather than chase. Give me, in other words, good, old-fashioned Gothic horror.
What, you ask, is Gothic horror? Think about all the trappings of Halloween before Hollywood got hold of it and turned it into murder porn. While, of course, a book or movie doesn’t have to have all elements to be Gothic horror, here are some of the common themes:
An isolated castle or mansion. Bonus points if it is an ancestral home and/or falling into disrepair.
Setting usually falls sometime in Regency through Victorian eras.
A pure maiden lured to the above dwelling under false pretenses. Some possibilities: a job as a governess; a promise of marriage, arranged or otherwise; distant kin or a forgotten associate turning up to generously rescue our heroine (or, less commonly, our hero) from poverty.
A locked room that our hero or heroine is forbidden to enter.
A dark and mysterious nobleman.
Our hero/heroine receives an ambiguous warning to stay away from the dwelling or nobleman mentioned above.
Strange sounds in the night.
A ghost and/or rumors of a ghost.
A madwoman in an attic.
Mysterious deaths in story-past.
Often, but not always, the heroine/hero escapes, traumatized but wiser for the experience.
Arguably the golden age of gothic horror ended sometime in the Victorian Era (Exact dates vary. Argue among yourselves if it truly matters to you.) You will see gothic elements everywhere from Halloween decorations to popular culture, everything from the better (IMHO) vampire books and movies to certain episodes of Doctor Who. And occasionally, we get a truly masterful, classically gothic work that polishes up the old tropes and makes them fresh again.
Halloween is just around the corner, and I, for one, intend to celebrate by re-watching the 2015 movie Crimson Peak, and not just because it has Tom Hiddleston in period dress dancing the waltz (though, really, that would be enough reason on its own.) Crimson Peak resonates with all the elements of Gothic horror in a way that is truly delicious for fans of that genre. We have a handsome baronet trying to restore his family’s rotting old mansion. He brings his beautiful, young, and not-so-incidentally rich young bride to Crimson Peak, an ocean away from any source of support. The red clay of the soil bleeds through the snow on the grounds, making it appear like a massacre has occurred. . .super creepy. Although societal rules of the day would dictate that our heroine becomes mistress of the house, the baronet’s sinister sister keeps the house keys on a ring at her waist, and warns our heroine never to try to enter any locked room ‘for her own safety.’ The sister waits just a beat before explaining that the house is so poorly maintained that some areas are structurally unsafe.
If that’s not enough to get viewers biting their nails, there’s plenty of other indications that something is Very Wrong. The handsome baronet fails to consummate the marriage. (In view of the fact that we’re talking Tom Hiddleston, that’s almost enough to make the film a tragedy.) Our heroine sees/hears ghastly things that are there and gone again, making her question both her safety and her sanity. The baronet is pouring more and more of her inherited money into elaborate new mining equipment that he hopes will make the family’s mines profitable once more. (and gives us a beautiful, steampunk-y scene of Hiddleston as mad inventor, working on the huge, metal beast. <sigh>)
Toward the climax of the movie, our heroine gathers her nerves and goes down to find out What’s In the Basement. Without spoiling anything, the movie ends with a surprise twist to two of the tropes, giving the tale an original and yet satisfying end. In another alteration to the standard tropes, our heroine contributes to her own salvation through her bravery and cleverness (she is a writer, and therefore skilled at looking for plots within plots.) This departure fixes one of the flaws that a modern audience finds with the gothic genre. . .the sense that the heroine survives through her innocence and purity, qualities too often used by the larger society to judge and control women.
So, your turn now. What are some of your favorite Gothic horror moments?
Shawna Reppert is an award-winning author of fantasy and steampunk who keeps her readers up all night and makes them miss work deadlines. Her fiction asks questions for which there are no easy answers while taking readers on a fine adventure that grips them heart and soul. You can find her work on Amazon and follow her blog on her website ( ). You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter, where she posts an amazing array of geekery. Shawna has on occasion been found in medieval garb on a caparisoned horse, throwing javelins into innocent hay bales that never did anything to her.