Guillermo del Toro described his recent film Crimson Peak as a “classic Gothic Romance”, a subgenre that has been consigned to oblivion for nearly four decades. But what is Gothic Romance, what makes it different to horror and why did it fall into obscurity?
A woman in her nightie running away from an isolated manor house: the term “Gothic Romance” conjures up the image that appeared on the covers of thousands of 1960s paperbacks, often mocked by those who’d only bother with respectable literary fiction. Yet these novels, ubiquitous between the 1960s and the 1980s, are only the most recent manifestation of a genre that had been born two centuries earlier.
To trace its origins we must travel back to 1764, the year of publication of The Castle of Otranto, generally considered to be the first Gothic novel. In it, Horace Walpole introduced some of the elements that would define the genre: a seemingly supernatural irruption of the past; a sequence of shocking and macabre events; a sense of enclosure in an architectural space. But it was Ann Radcliffe who, with The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), would be praised as “the original inventor” and “the founder of a class, or school”, in Walter Scott’s words.
Radcliffe was one of the most popular novelists of her time – Jane Austen famously satirised the obsession of young women with her novels in Northanger Abbey (1817). She reflected upon the genre in her 1826 essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”, drawing a distinction between terror and horror that is still relevant today: for Radcliffe, terror was about suggestion, anticipation and imagined evils, whereas horror was explicit and physical, and led to revulsion and shock. She used this analysis to typify her own works in opposition to those of her literary rival Matthew Lewis, of The Monk fame: while Lewis took pleasure in shocking his readers with explicit scenes, Radcliffe favoured terror for its ability to “expand[…] the soul”, making readers aware of their human limits and bringing them closer to the sublime.
Fifty years after the publication of Udolpho, the Brontës gave birth to what we now understand as Gothic Romance. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), the tragic love story between Catherine and Heathcliff transcends boundaries thanks to the introduction of supernatural elements and Gothic imagery. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) the heroine tells her own coming-of-age story and faces a mystery as she struggles with the constraints of her life in an isolated manor house. Fascinated by supernatural tales since she was a child, Jane expresses herself in the language of Gothic.
None of these heroines are damsels in distress. They are complex individuals who don’t fit into society, the female embodiment of the Gothic Romantic, and accordingly, their heroes are Byronic: in Jane Eyre, Rochester, although repentant, carries the burden of a past sin; Heathcliff isn’t redeemed, and grows bitter and cruel after losing his true love. With the work of the Brontës, the eerie English landscape became synonymous with the subgenre, and the manor house a symbol of entrapment.
Rebecca and her daughters
Modern Gothic can’t be understood without reference to Rebecca (1938), the hypnotic novel by Daphne du Maurier that draws on themes already present in Charlotte Brontë’s work. Its film adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was a popular sensation, winning the best picture Oscar and forever lingering in the collective imaginary.
Du Maurier defined it as a study in jealousy, but the Gothic elements are inescapable. Its famous first line –“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”– introduces the proverbial Cornish estate within the supernatural atmosphere that runs through the story: a young, plain and naïve woman marries the older and much wealthier widower Maxim de Winter, but when they both move to Manderley he becomes a distant and brooding stranger. The house is haunted by the presence of Rebecca, Maxim’s dead first wife, and seething under its walls is a feeling of impending doom. The relationship between Maxim and Rebecca is presented as the ultimate mystery and the root of the protagonist’s paranoia: unlike her, the first Mrs de Winter was charming, glamorous, seemingly perfect. Tormented by her thoughts of inadequacy and manipulated by the unnerving housekeeper, she almost commits suicide. When she finally discovers Rebecca’s real nature, she also learns about her husband’s past sins, darker than she’d imagined – so dark, in fact, that the Hollywood version had them tempered to comply with the moral guidelines of the Production Code.
After the success of the novel, Hollywood produced several films that explored Gothic themes from the perspective of a female character. As was the case with Rebecca, they were always directed by men, even though most of the original material had been written by women: William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) was the second film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel; Jacques Tourneur’s I walked with a zombie (1943) was a Caribbean-set reimagining of Jane Eyre that traded the madwoman in the attic for a zombified first wife, and it came out the same year as Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) was based on the novel by the American Anya Seton.
Rebecca‘s daughters lay dormant for a couple of decades, until 1960, when Mistress of Mellyn, by the then unknown author Victoria Holt, became an overnight success. The plot was unabashedly modeled on du Maurier’s work and Jane Eyre: a governess finds a position in an isolated Cornish mansion haunted by the dead wife of her mysterious and dashing employer. But was he responsible for her death?
The novel’s atmospheric setting made readers wonder whether this was du Maurier hiding behind a pen name, but Holt’s true identity only emerged several years after her début: she was the prolific British author Eleanor Hibbert, who also penned historical romances under the names Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr. Hibbert had been convinced by American agent Patricia Myrer to revive the Gothic genre, and adopted a pseudonym that would evoke a Victorian setting. It wasn’t a coincidence that Gothic horror had just returned to the big screen via Hammer Films and its luridly coloured adaptations of Victorian horror classics. But this time it was more sexually suggestive than ever before. Christopher Lee’s Dracula, marketed as “the terrifying lover who died… yet lived!” was closer in his appearance to a brooding Gothic hero than to the “tall old man” of Bram Stoker’s imagination, and his portrayal was brimming with eroticism and a raw, virile energy that made the character seductive. These, however, weren’t love stories, and Dracula wasn’t portrayed as a sympathetic monster, but as a predator. Most importantly, they weren’t told from a female point of view.
Although the Gothic was en vogue again, there seemed to be a hunger for a product that did explore it from the perspective of the female gaze. It was a time in which women were entering the paid workforce, fighting for equality, and struggling with sexual harassment. Gothic Romance novels provided escapism and a quiet transgression: although anchored in a literary tradition, they were still suggestive of forbidden pleasures.
Soon the new paperbacks were everywhere, replicating the Gothic craze that had shaken the end of the 18th century. They quickly found their niche, a middle ground between pulp magazines and the more expensive hardbacks, ready for quick consumption. Holt became a household name, along with Mary Stewart and the Americans Phyllis A Whitney and Barbara Michaels. The paperbacks’ covers, by veteran pulp artists such as Lou Marchetti or George Ziel, each depicted a young woman in jeopardy, with the suggestion of a menace encased in an architectural space — a concept also present in the titles: Castle of Terror, Prisoner of the Manor, House of Shadows.
Most were coming-of-age stories told from the point of view of a woman alone in the world and in financial dire straits, which forces her to either make a living for herself or marry a total stranger. Either choice will take her to a mansion, a castle or a manor inhabited by people who hide too many secrets, the most important of which is a plot to kill her. Joanna Russ’s 1973 essay on the subgenre was named after its main trope: “Somebody’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband”. Indeed, part of the page-turning qualities of these novels lay in their ability to keep the readers guessing whether the man whom the protagonist married, or the one who she feels strangely drawn to, is or isn’t a murderer. The stories were dominated by a sense of paranoia and anticipation, heightened by the first-person narrative. The endless repetition of the formula, and the lower quality of many of the works produced, inevitably caused the subgenre’s downfall.
There is a tendency to interpret these novels as wish-fulfilments of the woman-nurturer; the belief that we enjoy reading them because they perpetuate the fantasy that a wicked man can be redeemed by a woman in love. But the assumption that their popularity was a product of the intrinsic nurturing nature of a whole gender is condescending, to say the least.
As we’ve seen, women have played a pivotal role in the creation and development of the Gothic genre. Let’s consider a fictional example: in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Jo March is a devoted writer of lurid Gothic fiction, but she’s convinced by her suitor, an older German intellectual, to abandon the genre. Jo obliges, and soon she is “rewarded” with the publication of her more realistic novel, one about “simple” and “lovely” characters inspired by her own domestic life. Even though Jo’s aim had been to make a living for herself and to succeed as a writer, the resolution doesn’t feel like a triumph, but a defeat. She abandons what she loves, following “sensible” advice that, naturally, comes from an older man. What’s more worrying is that the episode seems to echo Alcott’s career –she never liked Little Women, which she referred to as “moral pap for the young”, and she privately confessed to preferring her earlier Gothic tales.
Jo March’s disappointing character development reflects a constant: the belief that fantasy, in this case Gothic Romance, is creatively inferior to realism. The reason for these attacks is that the core of Gothic is distinctively anti-establishment, anarchic, and uncomfortable – particularly if it comes from the mind of a woman of child-bearing age. The Gothic heroine is curious (this is the very definition of Bluebeard’s wife, of the woman who walks downstairs in her nightie, holding a candelabra in her hand (the trope that embodies the genre), and curiosity, as Nabokov said, is “insubordination in its purest form”.
Historically, Gothic Romance was a way for women to explore, and vicariously enjoy, transgressive behaviour. Women were supposed to be nurturing angels naturally drawn to the domestic sphere, but they could rebel against this role and address their anxieties over domesticity through fiction. These novels explored the female process of leaving the family home behind, of becoming independent. But despite the decisive role of a male figure, the process didn’t exactly unfold in conventional ways.
The house was a crucial element of the story, the vessel that contained the mystery. Gothic manors, however, are never safe havens. The way we’ve seen them depicted on 1960s paperbacks provides some visual clues: the single-lit window from one of the top levels is a merciless eye that watches the heroine’s every movement; the half-opened window, the curtain flowing and the gallery of family portraits reveal the presence of an invisible threat and a history of horror contained within the walls of the house.
Gothic manors turn into prisons, they oppress their inhabitants until they lose their sanity and commit atrocities. The families who inhabit them are haunted by an unspoken curse –a madwoman in the attic, a walled-up ancestor, an illegitimate heir buried on the north side of the graveyard. These deviations of conventional domesticity provide a glimpse of the irrational.
The Queen of Hades
The Gothic heroine manages to keep her respectable place in society while encountering, and somehow participating in, the dark side. Her portal may still be a man, her husband or her employer, but he is far from being a light character that fits well into society. Archetypically, Gothic Romance is rooted in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, an expression of fertility cults that go back to ancient Mesopotamia. Byronic heroes are variations on the archetype of the most feared god in Ancient Greece: Hades, the recluse, who lives an isolated life in the Underworld until he abducts the young maiden Persephone to be his consort. If a Gothic hero achieves redemption it is through love, which will put an end to his isolation.
Like Persephone, the Gothic heroine may be kidnapped, incarcerated, or simply trapped. But, much like the reader, she is fascinated by the irrational, so it’s her curiosity that drives all her actions. After a series of ordeals, she emerges as a more complex character, one that has left her innocence behind and has escaped conventional domesticity: a respectable husband, a legion of well-fed children, and utter boredom.
The ambiguous masculine figure was always the object of a dark sexual attraction, but eroticism stayed an unspoken suggestion. All these heroines remained chaste. The rigid morals of a bygone era, a recurrent setting in modern Gothics, don’t justify their choice –even contemporary heroines conformed to the unspoken rule: that surrendering to lower passions before marriage could lead to perdition and death.
Remarkably, not all Gothic Romances have a conventionally happy ending. Occasionally, the male lead was revealed to be a villain —a murderer, a calculating rake, a con artist or a traitor. Even in those cases where he turned out to be just your regular Byronic hero, the happy ending is tainted by an ominous threat, an invisible menace that ties a knot in your stomach, a feeling akin to watching Manderley in flames from the arms of the eternally tortured Maxim de Winter.
We can’t let the lower quality of some of these stories spoil our enjoyment of the genre. Even when they become formulaic and derivative, the subliminal idea is surprisingly subversive, and its suggestions are far more interesting than the impulse behind Paranormal Romance, the subgenre that replaced Gothic Romance in public favour.
Although some Paranormal Romance heroines may be sexually liberated, sassy and physically strong, their heroes — supernatural creatures like vampires or werewolves — are often presented as products of their circumstances, victims of a predatory nature that they can hardly control. Their efforts to behave “humanely” are inspired by the heroine. But, while the darkness of the Gothic hero stems from his own acts and their consequences, that of the supernatural creature is always extraneous. He is the recipient of a gift that separates him from other mortals, and, in this way, he can be interpreted as the dark version of a superhero, a dominant figure in contemporary pop culture. Both of them are spoilt children, the perfect poster idols for a generation which has grown up believing it is special.
Return of the repressed
For several decades now, horror cinema has shifted its focus to new horizons: slasher, found footage, torture porn, shock horror – all based on visceral fear, visual representations of the fight or flight instinct, or, as Ann Radcliffe suggested, horror, as opposed to terror. The latter is still at work in psychological thrillers. But, associated with romance and the feminine, seen as impractical and cliché and therefore deemed inferior, gothic romance has been forgotten. In this process, horror has lost touch with its roots.
Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak took eight years to complete, and del Toro admits that it wasn’t easy. It’s a film that swims against the tide — an ode to a lost genre that references its origins and that is undeniably concerned with the feminine in horror.
The role of the heroine has been updated: portrayed as an independent American who aspires to become a Gothic author and takes Mary Shelley as her role model, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) isn’t an orphan, and has, in fact, a very good relationship with her father. After being swept off her feet by a dark, brooding stranger who seems to appreciate and understand her literary efforts, she starts a new life in Allerdale Hall, a mansion in rural Cumberland. It is there that she becomes entrapped: while in the house, not only is she unable to live her life independently, she is also unable to create. Unlike most Gothic heroines, Edith doesn’t repress her sexual desires, she cherishes them, and isn’t punished for surrendering to them.
Fittingly, it is also a woman that sits in the villain’s throne, a space usually reserved for male characters. But the villainess, we learn, is also a victim of her own imprisonment: the burden of domesticity and familial relationships has taken its toll. Unable to escape, she becomes a terrifying knife-wielding monster, capable of brutal acts of violence. Allerdale Hall, the three-story haunted house that took seven months to build, is the real monster that suffocates those who inhabit it. The ghosts, organic, almost fleshy, serve as metaphors of this imprisonment, one that is extended to all eternity.
Crimson Peak merges explicit violence and grotesque, bloody apparitions with the atmosphere of entrapment, anxiety and paranoia that is part of what Kate Ferguson Ellis dubbed Female Gothic. And by restoring the elements traditionally sidelined as feminine, it returns us to the true roots of horror.