American Renaissance & American Romanticism:

The Gothic

"The Gothic" is a style, tone, or genre in western literature that most people recognize through various names, images, or elements:

  • haunted houses / castles / woods    mazes, labyrinths   closed doors & secret passages / rooms
  • light and dark interplay with shades of gray or blood-red colors                   fair & dark ladies  
  • repressed fears & desires; memory of past crime or sin     death & decay     bad-boy Byronic heroes
  • blood as visual spectacle and genealogy / ethnicity       spectral or grotesque figures, lurid symbols         
  • creepy or startling sounds, screams in the night, groans from unknown rooms

Elements of the gothic make a long list, and so do its literary genres:

  • gothic novels or romances, horror films, thrillers, mysteries, film noir
  • “goth” fashion and gothic rock or metal music
  • Frequently today (and earlier) the gothic is spoofed or satirized as a formula: The Addams Family, Young Frankenstein, etc.
  • The gothic has deep roots in theology, architecture, psychology, the imagination, and many literary traditions.
  • Images associated with the gothic stretch back to Christian visions of hell, devils, and demons, with Lucifer as the original Byronic hero: proud, rebellious, attractive, dangerous to know. As the gothic develops, such imagery becomes secularized but may still evoke the supernatural.
  • The indispensable feature of nearly any gothic narrative is a haunted space that reflects or corresponds to a haunted mind. In European literature the gothic space is typically a haunted castle or other architectural structure such as a maze or labyrinth. American literature sometimes features a gothic building, as in Faulkner’s southern gothic, but American literature and films often transfer the gothic to a haunted forest or wilderness—from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Last of the Mohicans to The Blair Witch Project.

The Gothic Novel


"Gothic." A term for aspects of medieval art first applied to pointed architecture in the early seventeenth century. . . .  The gothic revival [in architecture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries] in its literary aspects was closely associated with the green copses, disordered stone piles, enchanting shadows and sweet melancholy of these ruined buildings. . . .  Horace Walpole built Strawberry Hill (1750-53) and wrote The Castle of Otranto (1764) in the same mood.--Joseph T. Shipley, ed.  Dictionary of World Literary Terms.  Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1970.

"The Gothic Novel." A form of novel in which magic, mystery, and chivalry are the chief characteristics.  Horrors abound: one may expect a suit of armor suddenly to come to life, while ghosts, clanking chains, and charnel houses impart an uncanny atmosphere of terror.--C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 3d. ed.  Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1972.

“Gothic Fantasy": The starting point of Gothic literature is usually given as The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole . . . .  Although all Gothic fiction is tragedy, its key component is the edifice [or building] . . . . Gothic fiction usually takes place in an ancient castle or abbey whose owner discovers his noble line is doomed, usually because some past misdemeanor has caused the family to be cursed. . . . [The genre] was desensationalized and adopted into the mainstream by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights (1847). . . . [In the late 19th and early 20th centuries] the Gothic mode shifted toward romantic fiction, and was revived strongly in the work of Daphne du Maurier, who built on the work of the Brontes to lay the foundation for the modern Gothic romance. . . .--Mike Ashley, “Gothic Fantasy,” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, eds. John Clute and John Grant.  NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Additional examples of genre: See titles above, plus Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1800?); Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818); Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839); Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897); Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938); Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (1976); Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

categories of gothic

European / psychological gothic

  • haunted castles or ancient houses as reflections of haunted mind

  • examples: Poe, Anne Rice, some Stephen King (Americans, but locate gothic in older parts of country) 

  • + European predecessors (Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis)

Wilderness gothic—Irving, Cooper, To Kill a Mockingbird, Blair Witch Project

Puritan / moral gothic—Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter and stories (also include some wilderness gothic)

Space gothic—Alien(s)

Suburban gothic—Nightmare on Elm Street

Urban gothic—film noir (dark detective films like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, Body Heat, LA Confidential)



Based on the example, how do you know you're in a Gothic novel?

What other features may you expect as you turn the pages?

Why is setting so important?


Links to gothic websites

Gothic Architecture of the High Middle Ages

A Study of Gothic Subculture

The Gothic Literature Page

Gothic Martha Stewart

Addams family movies

Haunted Places Directory

Haunting of Hill House

Haunted Forest

Blair Witch Project

Research Sources: See above, plus web sites: The Gothic Literature Page

Literature of the Fantastic (gothic novels on-line, mostly out-of-copyright tales from the nineteenth century)