The History That Inspired Today’s Horror Genre

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

Horror: (1) An intense painful feeling of repugnance and fear. (2) Something unpleasant, ugly, or disagreeable.

Horror has been around for over 200 years. Its influence is evident from literature, arts, music, to architecture.

When you imagine the horror, what’s the first thing you think of?

Photo by gryffyn m on Unsplash

Are you thinking of this figure?

The Scared Wall

Or any of these guys?

Over the years, the meaning of both supernatural and monster has evolved into an immediate interception.

How are monsters & supernatural classified?

Monster: (1) An imaginary or legendary creature that has a strange or frightening appearance. (2) An animal, plant, or other organism having structural defects or deformities.

Supernatural: (1) Of or relating to the existence outside of the natural world. (2) Attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces. Of or relating to the immediate exercise of divine power; miraculous.

What Makes Horror Truly Scary?

There are many possible answers to this question. According to film director and famed screenwriter, Gullermo Del Toro had made three statements that correlate to one another. In his edition of The Raven X Edgar Allen Poe, he broke down his belief in horror as followed:

  • “To Learn what we fear is To Learn who we are”
  • Horror defines our boundaries and illuminates our soul
  • It operates as a theater of the mind in which internal conflicts are played out

Each has great points about the overall darkness and the uncertainty of the unknown. Let’s rewind to the birth of the horror genre.

Brief History

The end of the 17th century’s Enlightenment era marked the beginnings of the Romanticism and Gothic eras of the 18th century.

Romanticism (1770–1860) is the artistic and intellectual movement characterized by a heightened interest in nature, emphasis on the expression of emotions and imagination; departed from classical art forms and rebelled against established social conventions.

John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia Lilypad

It was created as a reaction against the Age of Reason (American Revolutionary War).

Now instead of reason, emotion and passion became dominant during this time.

Writers and Artists alike would let their imagination run freely, complete liberation while remaining optimistic. They have 5 values or the 5Is, which are:

  • Imagination
  • Intuition
  • Idealism
  • Inspiration
  • Individuality

When romantics looked at an individual, they saw hope since they believed in the natural goodness of mankind.

Writers were greatly inspired by natural settings and spirituality.

Prime writers: Victor Hugo, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth

“The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain”

-Lord Byron

Within the umbrella of Romanticism, Dark Romanticism first emerged during the late 17th century.

It’s characterized by expressions of terror, gruesome narratives, supernatural elements, and dark, picturesque scenery.

Unlike romanticism, writers were exploring the dark aspects of the imagination. Dark romantics weren’t as optimistic about humankind. They preferred the supernatural.

To them, the natural world is dark, mysterious, and decaying. Individuals are prone to sin and destruction.

The term ‘horror’ wasn’t coined until Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of OtrantoA Gothic Story. Walpole started the writing style of mixing suspense and mystery elements of a story and made it into a whole new genre. Walpole is considered the “Father of Gothic Literature.”

Gothic (1765–1820) is another literary style of fiction that emphasized the grotesque, mysterious, and resolute of things. The characteristics of typical gothic writing include:

  • Gloomy, decaying setting (haunted houses or castles are most common)
  • Supernatural beings or monsters (ghosts, vampires, zombies, giants)
  • Curses or prophecies.
  • Damsels in distress.
  • Heroes.
  • Romance.
  • Intense emotions.

In its early days, Gothic heavily feature discussions of morality, philosophy, and religion. The antagonist often acted as a metaphor for some sort of human temptation the protagonist must overcome. Romance was never the focus of the story.

Most notable writers include Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Henry James, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, H.P. Lovecraft, Charolette & Emily Bronte.

Gothic fiction played a significant part in the prevalence of women in literature. At the time, women served as writers, publishers, editors, and translators of Gothic fiction. It was common for women writers to publish their works under an alias of a male name, some examples are the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.

Mary Shelley was another notable gothic writer. She had many connections to the new movement. Between her famed parents, her husband, Percy Shelley, and dear friend, Lord Byron; it greatly influenced her writing style.

According to Shelley herself, in the summer of 1816, she and her husband were traveling in Europe and spent time visiting Byron at his house in Switzerland.

The three of them devised a game to see who could invent the most terrifying ghost story. The author wrote that night; she had a rather strange dream about an inventor assembling a monster and began writing.

Thur, Frankenstein was born!

She was just 21 when it was published.

The story itself was about the absence of a paradise, embodying a concept of the duality of mankind.

She used the literary device, Framed Story or Tale within the Tale in the structure of the story. This is a variated assortment of embedded narratives, which provide readers with a context about the main narrative. It serves as a guide for the readers about the narrator’s perception of the main storyline. The side story about Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walters, a man from his past is a great example of this narrative style.

Think inception of stories.

“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
Henry James

Henry James believed horror came as much by the punctilious nature of the details and background provided for the story as it comes from the obstinate omission of such details capriciously by the story’s narrator.

James classified ghost stories as fairytales for adults due to his fascination with ghosts.

The influence of his works is allegedly based on a ghostly encounter he had as a child.

He wanted his readers to rely on “his own experience, his own imagination.”

Like Guillermo once said:

And again, like a fairytale, horror can serve as a liberating or repressive soul tool, and it is always an accurate reflection of the soul climate of its time and the place where it gets birthed.

Edgar Allen Poe is perhaps the most famous gothic writer of the ones mentioned previously. He has been nicknamed the “Father of the Weird Fiction” and pioneer of modern-day short stories.

Unlike other gothic writers, instead of focusing on the supernatural, he decided to put his focus primarily on psychological horror.

Weird fiction (1844–) is a subgenre of fiction that utilizes aspects of fantasy, horror, and supernatural fiction. According to Wikipedia, weird fiction eschews or radically reinterprets ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and other traditional antagonists of supernatural horror fiction.

“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”

His works were greatly influenced by the mindset of the outsider, particularly within their inner darkness. The embodiment of fear and its psychology. They would serve as a mini autobiography on his own rather complicated life filled with isolation, misunderstanding, and dark moments.

Fun fact: he even coined the literary device, “unity of effect” which is when a story should focus on a single basic incident and that every scene, every paragraph, and even every single word of the tale must contribute directly or indirectly to the story’s outcome.

Since the success of 1845’s The Raven, many writers and filmmakers have been greatly inspired by his works. So much so that they’re still referenced heavily in today’s pop culture.

Remember early when I mentioned Del Toro’s 3 main points of what makes horror truly scary?

Yeah. No. Maybe.

Well, let us do a quick recap:

“To Learn what we fear is To Learn who we are”-

Romanticism and Gothic styles were about writers expressing their inner creativity and deepest desires.

Horror defines our boundaries and illuminates our soul —

It operates as a theater of the mind in which internal conflicts are played out

Edgar Allen Poe’s approach towards horror



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