The Gothic is the pit of dread that sits in your stomach as you walk up a dark staircase. It is that drop of cold sweat that runs down your spine when you enter a firelit room on a freezing night. Gothic is not being able to tear your eyes away from the very thing that makes you want to shut them.
But how do filmmakers replicate this feeling in their work? Creating a Gothic film takes a lot more than dramatic lighting and smoke machines. It means taking the time to understand fear itself.
The history of gothic
The idea of the Gothic has existed for centuries. It first was used as a derogatory term for “barbaric” as a way of describing the nomadic Germanic people that helped to bring down the Roman empire. At its core, it is about fear of the unknown.
Horace Walpole then borrowed the word to describe his seminal Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. It began as a joke meant to deceive the audience of its authenticity but sparked an entire genre with its tumbling ruins and supernatural happenings.
Frankenstein, Dracula, and the moors of Wuthering Heights all were spawned from Walpole’s strange novel. But the Gothic’s reach has spread much farther than the page since then.
Gothic cinema can be harder to define as it lacks the solidified parameters of a genre that generic horror enjoys. If it is not careful the Gothic can be swallowed by the Horror genre altogether, its individual quirks and nuances forgotten.
Horror in the home
Horror is interested in the world around us. The creepy guy next door and the homicidal hitchhiker all tell us that the world is dangerous and we should fear it. But the Gothic brings fear closer to home. It tells us that the danger is locked inside the home, ready to strangle you when the lights are off.
In the material sense, Gothic stories often take place in crumbling castles or empty ancestral homes left to long-lost and unfortunate relatives. But really it reveals the fear that many people have that the ones they love will someday be taken away from them. It is an inevitability, and one that Gothic stories exploit.
Look at the opening scene of Rebecca (1940) for instance. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted from daphne Du Maurier’s best-selling novel, Rebecca is a ghost story of jealousy, anxiety, and infidelity. In the first scene the moonlit drive becomes more and more twisted as it goes on, just like the story itself. The towering Manderley feels more like a tomb than a home place.
Hitchcock perfectly captures Du Maurier’s haunting description in this scene but he also sets up the crux of the narrative. We are given only one angle as the camera edges carefully up the drive. It is claustrophobic, and feels exactly how Rebecca’s unnamed narrator spends most of the film.
Gothic films take away the one place we are meant to be safe and replace it with hopelessness. This is why films of this style seem to be devoid of colour. When your world is without hope, what do you need colour for anyway?
When you think of the genre it is synonymous with dark hues, soft light, and deep shadows. The dangers are given ample space to hide in the corners of the screen. There is an edge to the setting that is sharp enough to draw blood.
But Gothic cinema is nothing without the supernatural and strange. Slashers might show fantastically gory murders, and thrillers focus on the terrifying human mind. But the gothic deals in the things that go bump in the night, and the ghosts of our past.
This goes right back to Walpole’s strange ghostly tale. To films like The Conjuring, The Nun, or any other disappointing horror sequel you can think of. Who knew they would ever share the same sentence never mind aesthetic.
There is so much more that can be said about this genre. The potent sexuality for one thing. But the main thing to understand about the gothic is the uniquely sinister tone that has been subtle yet successful in scaring audiences for centuries.
Featured Image credit: The Criterion Collection