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Mask So You Really Want To Scare People:
Choose Your Poison,
Gothic or Horror?

When you start to write, direct or produce "horror" stories or any feature film fiction of this type, one of the most helpful questions you can ask yourself is "Am I really doing a horror story?" This may sound like a strange question, but actually there is much confusion nowadays between horror and Gothic storylines. The two genres are closely related but remain totally different animals. There are other similar questions you should also ask as well. If you want to do horror, is your story really Gothic with a horror disguise? Is it Gothic horror, and if so, how much is it one or the other?

Most people can easily distinguish horror stories, but don't have a clue about what constitutes the Gothic tale. Horror is scary, right? The fear element definitely predominates. Gothic may or may not be scary. If it's Gothic and scary, you have Gothic horror. The first Gothic story (actually a novel) was written by Horace Walpole in England in 1764, a ghost story of sorts titled The Castle of Otranto. Its success began a thriving literary trend, first in England and then, by the nineteenth century, all over the world.

The horror genre sprang from Gothic literature during the early 1800s, almost simultaneously in Great Britain and the U.S. By 1850, horror stories were a thriving genre all their own worldwide, along with their purely Gothic brethren. Incidentally, not only horror, but crime drama, Medieval-type fantasy (think "Middle Earth"), and even science fiction all originated from the Gothic literary stream.

A Description of Differences: Gothic Versus Horror Fiction

So what is Gothic fiction? Chris Baldick's "Introduction" to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales defines a Gothic text as being made up of "a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of a sickening descent into disintegration." I would add that the agent producing this disintegration is of a supernatural, preternatural (mysterious/unknown), or fantasy/psychotic-related origin.

So, for a story to be Gothic, some kind of dark history has to be there. For example, an evil from the past confronts a group of people in an isolated area. The isolation equals claustrophobia. So how does this group react? If the fear element is strong, you have Gothic horror. On the other hand, such a story can be merely suspenseful, without being scary at all. Keep in mind that the claustrophobic "area" can also be within a person’s own mind, for example, someone in an extremely dreamy, deranged, drug-induced or nearly psychotic state.

An essential element of the Gothic is almost always "romance," either the erotic or literary type, or both. What is "literary" Romanticism? Well, check out the classic American horror author, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). His stories are mostly lacking in man/woman romance but are full of dark, literary Romanticism, that is, things like old castles and ruins, persons near-madness, damned souls, unspeakable desires, darkly mysterious elements, people attaining "freedom" as stark isolation and so on. Just as Baldick leaves out the supernatural, which surely "haunts" much within the Gothic territory, he omits romance and Romanticism as well.

Nowadays, if you want to write a good Gothic story, especially one that sells, "romantic" almost always means a male and female in love. To hold your audience in today's world, you need to have a strong romantic interest to animate your plot. Doomed or daunting love is the Gothic romantic theme par excellence. However, you can also have it both ways, as does Emily Brontë (English, 1818-1848) in her novel Wuthering Heights. Brontë's main storyline is about a tragic romance, but she manages to insert a romantic subplot with a happy ending. Also, her story contains both literary and man-woman romance. Volumes have been written about the relation between the Gothic and Romantic. All you really need to know about the two is that to write a successful Gothic story, in the words of the song, "You can't have one without the other."

If Emily Brontë (and her sister Charlotte, 1816-1855)  typify the romantic end of the Gothic spectrum, authors like Poe and H.P. Lovecraft (also American, 1890-1937) champion the horror side. With these authors, the evil from the past confronts and overwhelms its lonely, forsaken victims, and they're usually damned forever. Whether the main characters in Gothic horror are trapped in a threatening location or within their own tormented souls, they writhe in abject fear until they meet their untimely demise, or worse, a "lifetime" of some type of living death, insanity, agony or eternal condemnation.


Gothic & Horror Stories in Hollywood & Film

In film, an excellent example of a "purely" Gothic tale is The Sixth Sense (1999). Called by Hollywood a "supernatural thriller," this story is actually Gothic in the best sense of the word. Without retelling the whole plot line here (the film is available on DVD if you haven't seen it), let's check out why Gothic story elements clearly predominate.

The main character feels trapped by what happened to him in his own past history and senses a disintegration and isolation in his life, all of which he cannot understand. The theme of the supernatural is established early on by the boy with strange visions of dead persons. The romantic element clearly predominates, with the focus on the main character's relationship with his wife, and in fact this entire story turns on this man's undying love for her. In the end, the tragic reason his life has "fallen apart" stunningly reveals itself. Death has indeed triumphed over love, but there's a final hope that love can be stronger than death. This is authentic Gothic stuff and could have easily been penned by a modern American version of Emily or Charlotte Brontë. The film's writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan (Indian-American, b. 1970) went on during the next decade to establish himself as one of the Gothic masters of Hollywood film.

On the other hand, stories like the Friday the 13th film series (first film directed by Sean S. Cunningham in 1980, spawning a raft of sequels and a remake!) represent total horror, for better or worse. Cunningham (American, b. 1941) and his successors didn't throw much of the Gothic or romantic into these stories, in any sense of either word (these films also available on DVD, if you don't mind the blood). The films' plots are like gory "funhouse" rides and depend entirely on shock, panic and the fear factor.  In most horror stories, good conquers evil, but often the opposite can happen as well. Regardless, these stories invariably end in a feeling of devastation, a kind of breathless exhaustion like most people feel after a traumatic or terrorizing experience.

In better-done virtually "pure" horror stories, for example, The Exorcist (1973, American, directed by William Friedkin) fear compounds fear until a final suspense sequence pays off with near-unbearable fright. The conflict between the good and bad characters (or bad "monsters") becomes a near-epic struggle against jeopardy that, at every turn, could possibly end in death. On the other hand, really bad horror tales have a near-pornographic feel to them as plot and characters come off as just "filler" between the often grisly, blood-filled scare scenes. One feels sense of impatience when there's no violence or gore happening, a desire to "speed things up" so the plot can get on to the next horrific scene.

Keep in mind that horror can be gory and visual or driven by more psychological, unseen menaces. The offstage tends to be more powerful because it leaves much to the imagination. An unseen, ubiquitous menace has the uncanny ability to generate powerhouses worth of suspense. Still, shock and awe predominate in pure horror, and good authors in the genre milk human hormones, sexual, as well as adrenalin and others, for every drop of thrill they can provide.


So How Do You Combine the Two Dark Genres?

Gothic horror provides a broader story canvas because it can blend and play off both genres. Poe and Lovecraft demonstrated this ability in its most classic sense. Modern authors like Stephen King (American, b. 1947) and Anne Rice (American, b. 1941) continue writing in this tradition. Examples of Gothic horror abound, including stories about vampires, werewolves, exorcists, Frankenstein types, succubae, incubi, and undead ghosts.

Vampire stories are excellent examples of marrying the Gothic with horror. By its very nature, the vampire tale can combine themes of entrapment, evil history, disintegration, and the supernatural equally with stark, awesome terror. In nice addition, the male vampire, as an object of desire, can pump the hormones totally while inspiring romance at the same time. Lately, even female vampires have been stirring up their share of fictional and cinematic libido. What an amazing character type! Bram Stoker (Irish, 1847-1912) created the model of the modern vampire with his classic 1897 novel Dracula. These ubiquitous blood-suckers have become a main staple of Gothic horror ever since.

Anne Rice pumped "new blood" into the vampire tale by giving the world loving, sensitive vampires. Her cemetery ground-breaking novel Interview With the Vampire (1976), features a memorable denizen of the undead, the dandyish Louis le Pointe du Lac. He hates killing humans, dotes on children, romantically entices women without draining them in any sense (except maybe sexually) and even has a good PR relationship with the media. The "Twilight" novel series by Stephenie Myer (American, b. 1973, first book, 2004) has taken this trend many steps further with vampires so lovable, attractive and successful, they have become positive role models! Who wouldn't want to be a vampire like Meyer's main man, Edward Cullen? At this rate, vampires will most likely be propelling the successful marriage of the Gothic and horrific far into a fascinating and fun-filled future.

So, the main rule is don't confuse your genres. You run the risk of turning off your readers, who may not be able to define "Gothic," or even horror, but know either one when they see it. More importantly, they know when your genres have been botched. You’re certainly free to write Gothic, horror, or both. However, be aware of the specific properties of each genre and use them wisely.

Especially when you combine them, do so with the care and skill of a French chef mixing onion and garlic (vampires beware!). These seasonings are similar but distinctly different flavors in your spice cabinet, just as Gothic and horror sit side by side among your genre sources. Treat them that way, stir carefully, and serve with élan. Incidentally, you may want to include a dark red wine. Unless, of course, you never drink ... wine!

For more information: To read an excellent examination of modern trends in things Gothic, check out Contemporary Gothic by Catherine Spooner. I am indebted to her for many (but not all!) of the ideas in this article.