“There is no escape.” Horace Walpole and the terrifying rise of the Gothic

Originally posted on the OUPblog, from Oxford University Press

Professor Nick Groom

This year is the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, first published on Christmas Eve 1764 as a seasonal ghost story. The Castle of Otranto is often dubbed the “first Gothic novel” due to Walpole describing it as a “Gothic story,” but for him the Gothic meant very different things from what it might do today. While the Gothic was certainly associated with the supernatural, it was predominantly a theory of English progress rooted in Anglo-Saxon and medieval history — effectively the cultural wing of parliamentarian politics and Protestant theology. The genre of the “Gothic novel,” with all its dire associations of uncanny horror, would not come into being for at least another century. Instead, the writing that followed in the wake of Otranto was known as the German School, the ‘Terrorist System of Writing’, or even hobgobliana.

Reading Otranto today, however, it is almost impossible to forget what 250 years of Gothickry have bequeathed to our culture in literature, architecture, film, music, and fashion: everything from the great Gothic Revival design of the Palace of Westminster to none-more-black clothes for sale on Camden Town High Street and the eerie music of Nick Cave, Jordan Reyne, and Fields of the Nephilim.

And the cinema has been instrumental in spreading this unholy word. Despite being rooted in the history of the barbarian tribes who sacked Rome and the thousand-year epoch of the Dark Ages, the Gothic was also a state-of-the-art movement. Technology drove the Gothic dream, enabling, for instance, the towering spires and colossal naves of medieval cathedrals, or enlisting in nineteenth-century art and literature the latest scientific developments in anatomy and galvanism (Frankenstein), the circulation of the blood and infection (The Vampyre), or drug use and psychology (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

The moving image on the cinema screen therefore had an immediate and compelling appeal. The very experience of cinema was phantasmagoric — kaleidoscopic images projected in a darkened room, accompanied by often wild, expressionist music. The hallucinatory visions of Henry Fuseli and Gustave Doré arose and, like revenants, came to life.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Public Domain via Wikiart

Camera tricks, special effects, fantastical scenery, and monstrous figures combined in a new visual style, most notably in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922). Murnau’s Nosferatu, the first vampire film, fed parasitically on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; it was rumored that Max Schreck, who played the nightmarish Count Orlok, was indeed a vampire himself. The horror film had arrived.

Cabinet of Dr Caligari Lobby Card (1920). Goldwyn Distributing Company. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Cabinet of Dr Caligari Lobby Card (1920). Goldwyn Distributing Company. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mid-century Hollywood movie stars such as Bela Lugosi, who first played Dracula in 1931, and Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s monster in the same year, made these roles iconic. Lugosi played Dracula as a baleful East European, deliberately melodramatic; Karloff was menacing in a different way: mute, brutal, and alien. Both embodied the threat of the “other”: communist Russia, as conjured up by the cinema. Frankenstein’s monster is animated by the new cinematic energy of electricity and light, while in Dracula the Count’s life and death are endlessly replayed on the screen in an immortal and diabolical loop.

It was in Britain, however, that horror films really took the cinema-going public by the throat. Britain was made for the Gothic cinema: British film-makers such as Hammer House of Horror could draw on the nation’s rich literary heritage, its crumbling ecclesiastical remains and ruins, the dark and stormy weather, and its own homegrown movie stars such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee in particular radiated a feral sexuality, enabling Hammer Horror to mix a heady cocktail of sex and violence on the screen. It was irresistible.

The slasher movies that have dominated international cinema since Hammer through franchises such as Hellraiser and Saw are more sensationalist melodrama than Gothic, but Gothic film does thrive and continues to create profound unease in audiences: The Exorcist, the Alien films, Blade Runner, The Blair Witch Project, and more overtly literary pictures such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula are all contemporary classics — as is Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV.

And despite the hi-tech nature of film-making, the profound shift in the meaning of Gothic, and the gulf of 250 years, the pulse of The Castle of Otranto still beats in these films. The action of Otranto takes place predominantly in the dark in a suffocatingly claustrophobic castle and in secret underground passages. Inexplicable events plague the plot, and the dead — embodying the inescapable crimes of the past — haunt the characters like avenging revenants. Otranto is a novel of passion and terror, of human identity at the edge of sanity. In that sense, Horace Walpole did indeed set down the template of the Gothic. The Gothic may have mutated since 1764, it may now go under many different guises, but it is still with us today. And there is no escape.


Professor Nick Groom is Professor of English at the University of Exeter. His new edition of The Castle of Otranto for Oxford University Press will be launched at the British Library on 6 December. You can now listen to a complete audio guide of Professor Nick Groom’s interview with Oxford University Press.

Professor Groom will also be speaking about The Castle of Otranto at Horace Walpole’s former residence, Strawberry Hill on the 19 December 2014 from 7pm to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of The Castle of Otranto, taking place on the 24 December.