History of Horror

‘Grief is timeless, Mary Shelley was, in a very cathartic manner, writing about the loss of her daughter, taking the power of god to breathe new life into dead flesh, Poe knew death intimately having lost both mother and father when young, then suffered through watching his wife die of tuberculosis, aged 24, and they found a way of dealing with tragedy through what we would today consider the foundations of horror. It’s no different to Anne Rice bringing her own dead daughter back in the Vampire Lestat … People will never stop grieving, loss won’t leave us, so those pains are always going to be as fresh because they’re about the humanity of the situation, not about the horrors. It isn’t about special effects, it is all about people. And people are the same today as they were one hundred years ago.’Steven Savile, author of Gods and Monsters and many other novels. 

Horror did not start with Stephen King. Horror fiction has a very rich history which goes back centuries.

Supernatural or Gothic horror has its beginnings in folklore and religious traditions. The focus of horror fiction in it’s early incarnation was on death, the afterlife, evil, and the demonic. It was also obsessed with the Devil. Religion has played a big part in horror and still does, even in the modern era.

Stories about pacts with the devil go back to the 4th century, but the story of Faust, which became popular in the 16th century, is one of the stories that has stayed with us and continues to be a base for modern renditions. Christopher Marlowe wrote a play based on the legend of Faust during the Elizabethan era and Goethe reworked it 200 years later.  In Marlowe’s version Faust is carried off to hell by demons, but in Goethe’s version he repents and is saved by Gods grace. To be honest, I prefer Marlowe’s version. It’s far more real. I think Goethe wanted to make it more upbeat and wanted it to be about redemption, but as a result it lost its truth.

Dante’s Divine Comedy was written in the 14th century. It’s an epic poem about travelling through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and heaven or paradise (Paradiso). It is also an allegory for a person’s journey to God. The Nine circles of hell are described in the first part of the poem – Inferno. Dante’s Inferno is probably one of the most famous parts of the poem and is the basis for a lot of modern horror.

In the 18th century Gothic horror was all about witches, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and demons. These evil creatures ran rampant in books like The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian by Anne Radcliffe, who was a contemporary of Jane Austen. Quite a bit of the horror fiction of that time was written by women and marketed for a female audience. The usual scenario was a plucky heroine being frightened by things that go bump in the night in a gloomy castle as lightning splits the sky. Not that much has changed if you think about it. A lot of horror movies these days are about a girl kicking arse. Buffy and the Scream movies come to mind. The only thing that has changed is the setting. It’s now modern day cities or homes as opposed to gloomy castles on a full moon.

Gothic tales continued to play a huge role well into the 19th century. Books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and let’s not forget one of the most iconic stories of that time Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These stories are now classified as classics and most people forget that they are in fact the basis of today’s horror fiction. And like modern day horror writers, they were also frowned upon by the literary establishment of their time.

HP Lovecraft emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, with his Cthulhu mythos and his Necromanicon. A lot of modern horror authors site HP Lovecraft as being one of their biggest inspirations.

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