Of all the genres horror has to offer, gothic fiction/horror will always own my dark little heart. I couldn’t tell you why - perhaps it’s my penchant for wandering in old cemeteries or my obsessive love for historical research - but for whatever reason, when I cracked open that old dusty textbook hidden away in our seventh grade reading nook, and found Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, I fell head over heels in love.
So what exactly is gothic fiction, you ask?
I’m sure what comes to most people’s minds is the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Perhaps Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Maybe you were a lit geek like me and know about Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe, or the works of Lord Byron.
But gothic horror isn’t all candelabras and corsets. In fact, gothic themes exist through modern storytelling within some of the movies we enjoy today. Although it’s not a terribly modern example, one that fits beautifully into this genre is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Yes, The Shining. Here’s where horror fans love to argue. It’s no secret that Stephen King was not a fan of Kubrick’s adaption of his novel, and I do agree that they are vastly different pieces of art. You could easily assert that the book itself is an example of modern gothic horror, but I’m going to focus on the movie… because I love it and I just got done with my annual rewatch.
(I feel like I should make a quick note here that in my “other” life, I’m a long-winded academic who could easily write an entire thesis on gothic literature and its themes, but I promise not to bore you. I’ve decided to focus on a few widely accepted gothic themes and explore them through the lens of my favorite movie.)
You know the living, breathing entity that is the Overlook Hotel? Let’s say hello to Gothic Motif #1: Atmosphere. Often, this would be encompassed by a drafty old castle, a decrepit mansion, a moldering graveyard. These specific images are not visually included in The Shining, but Kubrick nods to the graveyard motif when Mr. Ullman tells Jack Torrance that the hotel was built over a native burial ground (I could branch off here and do an entire segment about the themes of racism/genocide Kubrick explores in the movie, but I’ll stick to topic, with the side note that some scholars point out that racism can be another part to the gothic villian).
Ullman dropping this information to an unsuspecting Jack during his tour of the hotel also hints at another common theme in gothic literature, Gothic Motif #2: Omens and Curses. A common American storytelling technique is calling to attention the desecration of such burial places in the country’s sordid history, and in this case, its serves as a perfect example of the ominous warnings and tragic consequences that gothic literature gives its protagonist. I should also note, when talking about atmosphere, that weather is a common technique to paint a dreadful gothic setting. I find it interesting that King sidestepped the typical building thunderstorm and grey skies, artfully utilizing a snowstorm instead to create the atmospheric terror gothic fiction boasts.
Perhaps the most obvious themes, which I won’t go too deep into, are Motif #3: Supernatural/Paranormal activity (hello, Overlook ghosts!) and Motif #4: Madness. Who can forget that shot of Jack Torrance staring off into space, his spiraling decent into insanity depicted in his dull eyes and facial twitches? I’ve seen the movie over a hundred times and this part still gets to me. Absolute genius.
Now let’s talk about Motifs #5 & #6: the Villain and the Damsel. Gothic villains are generally autocratic, authoritative men in power positions such as a marquis or a king; in this instance, he is a father. Modern fathers are generally perceived as warm and loving, but playing on the tyrannical father figure is just about as gothic as it gets. This is where I see the greatest difference between Kubrick’s and King’s version of the story. King painted Jack as deeply flawed but forgivable, a man being preyed on through his weaknesses (alcoholism/temper). King’s Jack shows glimmers of humanity towards the end of the book, but Kubrick kept him a monster throughout. Kubrick also made Wendy a frail, weeping, unhinged waif on the brink of a nervous breakdown. There are interviews where King has expressed displeasure at this interpretation of Wendy, since she was, essentially, King’s heroine. But I would argue that Kubrick was following the gothic dynamic of villain verses damsel and for what he was trying to create, I think it worked well. I will point out that Wendy did triumph over Jack at the end, and there are many versions of this damsel-becoming-the-hero theme, especially in modern horror (aka the last girl standing trope). In fact, one of my favorite gothic themes to deconstruct in my own writing is making my “damsels” my actual heroines.
Speaking of damsels, here is a good time to point out that the only theme Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is missing is Motif #7: Romance. However, if you see how Jack and Wendy were at the beginning of the movie, a relatively happy loving couple, and then watched as they devolved into bitter enemies, with one wanting to murder the other... well, that’s a tragic gothic romance if I ever heard one.
Again, I’m skimming the surface here. There is a vast amount of research out there regarding gothic literature that I would urge you to read if you’re interested in the genre. There are also plenty examples of modern gothic literature besides The Shining, such as the extremely popular Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia that came out over the summer. Other non-Victorian era gothic writers include Daphne du Maurier, Anne Rice, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Susanna Clark, Kate Morton, Susan Hill (and this is a very, very small pool in a vast ocean of amazing gothic authors!) Modern gothic movies include Crimson Peak, The Phantom of the Opera, and well, pretty much everything Tim Burton creates.
Intrigued? Take advantage of the spooky season and explore some gothic horror today. Who knows - maybe you’ve loved the genre all along and never even realized it. Feel free to share with me some of your favorite gothic authors/books/movies - I’m always on the hunt for different takes on my favorite genre!
Until next time--
Cassandra L. Thompson has been creating stories since she got her grubby little hands around a pen. When she is not busy managing a house full of feral children (human and canine), you can find her wandering around in cemeteries, taking pictures of abandoned things, exploring lonely patches of woods, or in the library doing research on her latest obsession. But mostly she is staring off into space, imagining other worlds and things that go bump in the night. Her debut novel, The Ancient Ones, a gothic horror fantasy, will be available Oct. 31, available now for preorder. She also writes short horror stories for her blog, Tales from the Shadows.