19th Century Literature
March 1, 2013
The Evolution of Horror
The images used with the presentation are here: Presentation
The sky above you, once so clear and blue, darkens. The gigantic glowing ball in the sky kisses the edge of your world. You make your way back to the cave that you and your tribe had found shelter in. You and your brethren gather around the fire and settle in for the night. Beyond the fire’s glow a howl pierces the night, and as you drift off the sounds send chills down your back. You know these monsters, these beasts, you have fought them, have watched your fellow neanderthals fall to their blows. You fear the darkness that surrounds the fire’s edge. You can see the eyes of the beast reflecting the light of flame, and wonder to yourself, what else could the darkness be hiding?
Horror has been around since those ancient times, when bumps in the night could mean life and death. As humans became able to question what happens in the world and to acquire philosophies, they developed religions. While the beginnings of religion are questionable and there are many theories as to why it developed, some anthropologists claim that it evolved for the nurture of children, that it began as revitalization movement and that “it seems apparent that one thing religion or belief helps us do is deal with problems of human life that are significant, persistent, and intolerable.” So according to this theory, we developed religion to deal with the unknowns that faced us, to make death and ailments and the other problems we faced something manageable, and through these beliefs we found a new reason for living, finding peace and loved ones in the afterlife, or just the idea that the soul would live on after death in some form, would give comfort.
So there is one half of the origins of horror as we know it today. Religion. The first rationalization of negative forces active in the world, personified by deities, profits, and gods. Religion introduces ideas on death, the afterlife, and evil that horror focuses on.
The other half of the origin of horror is in folklore. The principles and ideas of evil, which were embodied in the devil, Hades, Set, Loki, all evil deities from the religions, took up form in lore, myths, and legends that were passed down through the generations. These were illustrated in stories of witches, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and demonic pacts.
Each culture has the tales of what mystical creature would come and steal away a child that refused to listen to their parents. They are stories about retribution for those who have done bad, warnings about innocent people meeting bad ends, and so on. Now in that regard it is easy to see the correlation between religions and folklores of cultures, both which are the basis that horror as a genre grew into what it is today.
Now that we have the roots established, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves, just what is horror. One of the defining traits of the genre of horror is that it provokes a response, either emotional, psychological or physical, within readers, or watchers, that causes them to react with fear.
One of H.P. Lovecraft's(one of my most favorite authors and a 20th century horror writer) most famous quotes about the genre is that: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Which brings this whole thing back to the origin of horror which, as I’ve covered, was religion and folklore, which used the legends, myths, and tales to bring life to the unknown in an attempt to deal with and overcome the fear it causes.
With that all established, we will move forward on this terrifying expedition, and jump to the 18th century. With the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, gothic horror became an established genre. Pulling on the same roots we discussed earlier, this novel was considered the first book that included aspects of the supernatural, instead of the pure realism that was favored at the time. Published in 1764 under the full title the Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. It made itself out to be, and was believed by all to be a translated manuscript from Naples, which was written in the 1500s and was derived from a story still older.
The story was of a boy on his way to marry a princess had a giant helmet fall from the sky and kill him, which played into an old prophecy about when their family would lose their lordship over Otranto. The boys father divorces his wife and attempts to marry the princess his son was supposed to marry, but she had ran off with with a peasant who turns out to be the bastard son of the father who was trying to marry her. The father ends up killing his own daughter and marrying the princess. It’s an entire drama.
When the populace found out that they had been duped, and it was actually a fictitious contemporary novel, many found it anachronistic, reactionary, or just in plain old bad tastes. Even so it continued to be immediately popular, and when it was called on to have a second edition published he said he felt he should explain the grounds on which he composed the piece and he says that it was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success..."
And that was the first gothic horror story, which went on to inspire plenty of 18th century works such as Vathek by William B. Beckford, The mysteries of Udolpho and the Italian by Ann Radcliffe, The Monk by Matthew Lewis and many more, plenty written by women and aimed for the female demographic, and containing a scenario of a resourceful female protagonist menaced in a castle.
So to make this whole spiel relevant to this class. Let’s talk about how religion, folklore, and The Castle of Otranto all come together and bring us into the 19th century. The 19th century was a grand time for horror. The Castle of Otranto had opened the floodgates and stoked our desire to delve into the unknown, the mystical, and the unbelievable. We have such classics as Frankenstien, which we have already read in this class, but we also have Dracula by Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and many more.
Using our previous talk of folklore and mythings as a springing board, I would be very remiss not to start this part of the conversation with the very famous Grimm Brothers. When someone says horror you won’t really think of the 7 happy dwarfs and a beautiful young princess singing merrily. Disney has done quite a number on the stories which were once a very good example at what horror could really be. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were German academics who collected folklore from their travels. The rise of romanticism in the 19th century revived interest in traditional folk stories. They gathered their stories and they gained such popularity that we can still feel their effect, even today, with new renditions of snow white and the rest of their works coming out all the time.
Another big contributor to the horror genre, as I have mentioned is Dracula by Bram Stoker. Most of us know the premiss, if not have read it. While this has inspired pretty much all of the vampiric movies and books we have seen, it is a double edged blade, because while we have had the amazing books from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire series, we also had to sit through that Twilight crap.
Now the man associated with everything horror is supposed to be. If you don’t know Edgar Allan Poe, you have been living under a rock your entire life. A very influential writer from the 19th century, he is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, he has influenced the scifi genre as well as mystery and horror. His influence was greatly felt in his successor H.P. Lovecraft, who used the popularity and ease of publishing the cheap paperbacks and periodicals at the time to expand the genre, which was going in all directions.
According to the dictionary horror is an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread. So, with that logic, the bible, the best selling book of all time, which has fallen angels, demonic possessions, and an apocalypse absolutely terrifying in its majesty all conveniently in one volume, rightfully would earn its place as a horror novel. So with that we have gone full circle and arrived at where we started, and I leave you with that.
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"What Is Horror Fiction?" Horror Writers Association -. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.