What’s the difference between Count Dracula and Freddy Krueger? How about the Frankenstein monster and Jason Voorhees? Ever wondered why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a timeless classic, while Return of the Living Dead just… isn’t?
The differences are more than fangs vs. finger-knives or neck-bolts vs. hockey masks. A Victorian doctor who transforms into a maniac has more to offer literature than a reanimated corpse, no matter how many brains it might eat. The differences between these classic novels and our beloved slasher flicks is a matter of genre.
It’s a matter of Gothic vs. Horror.
For the centuries it’s been around, though, arguments have raged about what Gothic Fiction really is. It doesn’t help that we’ve labelled a whole subculture ‘Goth,’ which, like most subcultures, is filled with denizens who don’t understand their own origins. It’s helpful, though, to watch and listen to someone who identifies as ‘Goth.’ They’re almost always educated. They almost always come from a middle class that they resent. They almost always try to visually identify with a different class. They can be heard to tell us that our culture is eating itself alive, or that we’re the architects of our own destruction. And maybe that subtle hatred of our own origins is the key to understanding Gothic Literature.
It arose at a time that more of the English masses were being educated. Superstition was on the decline, but on the rise was awareness of England’s colonial atrocities against poorer classes and cultures. With education came time to reflect, and the Romantics used this time to long for a simpler life surrounded by Austen’s moors and Wordsworth’s daffodils… but some authors took this a step further. Some authors made victims and monsters out of the wealthy class. They held a dark mirror to all they held dear, and they asked one simple question:
“What if we deserve to be punished?”
Here, then, are three of the key features of Gothic Fiction to this day:
Gothic Checklist Number 1: The wealthy class are the monsters
Who could be more highly respected than a brilliant scientist or a Victorian doctor? Yet when one of them lets his true nature show and starts killing prostitutes or letting his monster loose on English villages, it’s a way for an author to reveal the horrors we all commit without thinking.
By contrast, Stephen King’s characters Dennis Guilder or Carrie White tend to be downtrodden and bullied before they rise up to command possessed Plymouths or drop pig’s blood on prom queens. That makes his books terrifying and hard to put down… but hardly Gothic.
Gothic Checklist Number 2: The wealthy class are the victims
It’s one thing for the rich folk to be hurting the poor underprivileged, but turning the tables on cashed-up victims is an essential element to Gothic fiction. Jonathan and Mina Harker were respectable and ethical nearly beyond reproach, but by making them victims of history’s hottest Count may have been Bram Stoker’s way of showing us that their wealth alone was enough reason to punish them.
Even the 1985 vamp film Fright Night got this right, with Jerry Dandridge a highly respected neighbor that teenager Charley Brewster was left to reveal as a neck-sucker. Twilight, though? Well, that’s a whole different argument.
Gothic Checklist Number 3: The buildings and furniture are scary
What’s a true monster story without a dark castle filled with organ music? Why didn’t Dracula ever buy a split-level near Monterey? The answer is simple association: settings that scare are a chance to connect us with wealthy things that make us uneasy. After all, not everyone can afford a stone mansion complete with gargoyles. Nobody frugal would ever allow cobwebs to cover their original French furniture.
On the other hand, the painfully middle-class teens in I Know What you Did Last Summer wouldn’t know a Louis-Philippe lounge from an A-Mart couch, so they’re safe from the creeping Gothic threats. They only have to deal with the horror.
What else distinguishes the shivers of Gothic fiction from the shock of horror? Add your own ideas in the comments!