As a child, I was plagued by nightmares and hallucinations. I would lie awake, transfixed with terror, as shapes appeared on the walls of my bedroom, and unnatural noises invaded my ears. When I dreamed, it would be of werewolves, murderers, or that the stuffed toys adorning my bed had come to life in order to kill me (I was a troubled child.) These days, my partner frequently experiences ‘night terrors,’ trapped inside his nightmare–most often spiders, and sometimes zombies–but crying out with terror in waking life. Although the content of our nightmares can be sourced, in part, in the combination of an over-active imagination, stress, and anxiety, they are far more than simply a projection of subconscious angsts. Why do the manifestations of our fear so often take the same forms: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and the undead?
In order to cast some light on why people continue to be disturbed by monsters, it helps to look at the legacy of Gothic horror. In Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, the British Library offers an extremely detailed retrospective of the origins, development and adaptation of British Gothic literature and art over the past 250 years. Laid out over six rooms and featuring 200 artefacts, the exhibition traces Gothic literature from its foundation in the work of Horace Walpole, concluding with photographic documentation of the 2014 Whitby Goth Weekend.
Highlighting the enduring effect of the Gothic imagination on contemporary incarnations of horror is the exhibition’s emphasis on public fervour for the unexplainable and supernatural. Gothic writers were influenced heavily by political and social change, and 18th and 19th century Gothic literature––itself fascinated with Medieval culture and beliefs––often located narrative on the cusp of that superstitious past and the dawning Enlightenment and Renaissance periods. Themes of imprisonment and escape were common, thinly veiled allegories for the younger generation (especially women) attempting to throw off religious and familial constraints and move freely into the modern age.
Applying the same motif to an exploration of how events of early 20th century Britain––two World Wars, Women’s liberation, medical advancements––shaped horror in the 1980’s, 90’s, 00’s and beyond would have been equally as fascinating, but was underdeveloped. For an exhibition purporting to explore the enduring effect Gothic horror has on literature and culture, there was very little commentary on representations of women in classic and contemporary horror, or representations of race, class, and mental illness, despite these themes being inherent to the genre.
For example, considering the huge influence of psychoanalysis on Gothic horror––Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is at least featured––I would like to have seen this relationship covered more to further the exploration of why the same themes recur over the centuries. Furthermore, a discussion of the rise of the ghost story among the working class was all too brief, but included a fascinating artefact: an original ‘spirit mirror’–highly polished volcanic glass used to scry for spirits–as owned and used by the British occultist and practitioner of Enochian magick, Dr. John Dee.
However, one point where the exhibition does picks up on this is the inclusion of Jack the Ripper and his gruesome murders. The huge popularity of these killings in popular imagination, both at the time and since, illustrates how the Victorian lust for horror and gore transcended that held in books, predicting the kind of appetite in contemporary Western culture for violent films, video games and news stories. A great example of this is an edition of The Illustrated Police News on show, one of theearliest tabloid newspapers, and one that lapped up the thirst for news of the Ripper’s next victim. Sound familiar?
Some less murderous highlights include an original edition of Edward Young’s 10,000 line poem Night-Thoughts which was stunningly illustrated in watercolour by William Blake, itself accompanied by examples from Blake’s unfinished work Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797-1807), inspired in part by his work for Young. Equally as beautiful are several pieces by Henry Fuseli, a master of Gothic Romanticism (last seen at the British Museum’s Witches and Wicked Bodies), most appropriately The Nightmare (1781), but also the ethereal and dreamlike Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost (1796), used to refer to the influence of Shakespeare on Gothic literature. Also worth spending some time with are Lynd Ward’s 1934 illustrations for Shelley’s Frankenstein, Harry Clarke’s famous accompaniments to Poe’s work, and reproductions of original horror movie posters from the 50’s and 60’s.
In the section ‘The Gothic Body,’ I was thrilled to see original manuscripts and illustrations of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1982) and its cinematic reworking Hellraiser (1987), but no mention of his contemporaries (albeit not of British nationality), in particular David Cronenberg, whose contribution to the body horror genre is unsurpassable, and connection with Gothic themes undeniable. Furthermore, the emphasis on zombies was tiresome. The zombie genre, while the most prolific of body horror as a whole, is played out and dull, and zombies have become domesticated–sometimes literally–and offer audiences little to fear. This time would have been better spent focusing on the extremes horror must go to in the 21st century to achieve the shocks and controversy that the Romantics and their Victorian followers achieved, or perhaps the cinematic reinterpretations that Gothic literature has experienced in the last few years. The vampire, lycanthrope and monster are well-worn tropes, re-imagined every few years to appeal to our shorter attentions and insaitiable thirst for gore. That said, they are themes as old as the literature itself, and their persistence is testament to how powerfully they represent fear.
A good example is Showtime’s wildly entertaining series Penny Dreadful, (2014) based on its namesake but also drawing on famous Gothic characters such as Dorian Grey, Victor Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and the now ubiquitous werewolf, with lashings of sex and gratuitous violence. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the tremendously underwhelming Dracula Untold, which drew on the current trend for origin stories in an attempt to inject interest back into the world’s most famous vampire, otherwise diluted and dulled by young adult novelists and TV serialisations. I suppose I can see why they would hesitate to include that particular specimen.
Rather than concluding with the Whitby Goth Weekend, a renowned if somewhat pedestrian celebration of British gothic culture that does little to enrich understanding of contemporary interpretations, Terror and Wonder would better serve its audience with examples of Gothic horror’s endurance beyond fashion and the superficial, and its ability to evolve with technology and digital media. The British-based Fortean Times’s It Happened To Me forum, which has kept me up late many nights, or the rise of online-only ghost stories, or a mention of British-made films such as Neil Marshall’s contemporary werewolf horror Dog Soldiers (2002), or his celebrated follow-up The Descent (2005), are but a few examples. The exhibition’s biggest failure is its comprehensiveness, as in attempting to cover every base, it neglects those aspects that would be most fulfilling.