Realism, Pseudoscience, and Industrialization shaped Gothic Victorian into modern Horror
Victorian mansions and ghost characters have made frequent appearances in horror fiction and television shows in the past several years. The re-framing of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies (2016), and other popular reworkings of fiction in the last decade, have proven that the Gothic and Victorian periods in horror are popular in horror fiction at the moment. Next to a Gothic setting, the Victorian era is a popular and appropriate playground for horror writers. What makes the 19th century such a natural setting for modern horror stories? The century made substantial contributions to the literary movement of horror and other fields that make it almost synonymous with the genre. Victorian horror—or its equivalents in the penny dreadful serials and weird tales—paved the way for our modern sub-types of horror, as it bridged the gap from the haunted castles of the Gothic literary period to early modern cinema.
Application of science to the horror genre was yet another change that Realism brought to Victorian-style literature. Instead of looking to religion for answers, writers looked to new scientific theory, and popular pseudoscience, to bridge the gap in the fantastical and tangible reality. Advances in scientific theory and societal transition into the multi-class city structures shaped the already-popular Gothic tales into something more akin to our current sub-genres and approach to the horror genre. Novels like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde paved way for the early monster flicks from the 1930s and drew on realism and science instead of the supernatural inclinations of their forebears in the 18th century Gothic movement. At the very end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, psychical research groups began to study supernatural phenomena—similar to today’s Ghost Hunters (2004) and similar television series.
The reshaping of society during the industrial era brought throngs of people to cities to shape a broad working class and middle class. This movement added social commentary to the subtexts and broader messages of the stories. In addition, this created a centralized and different readership in the cities than that of the previous century. Readers were no longer nobility or merchants, well-to-do who had inherited castles and mansions. The romantic movement of the Victorian era had ended and brought the need for realism. Realism brought readers closer to the shock of horror, as the tales were no longer set long ago in far away lands and medieval castles. Instead, horror lurked everywhere, around every corner in the dense cities in which the audience themselves lived. Thus, crime-based horror, similar to the serial killer and psycho killer movies of the 1970s was born. Thrillers and psychological horror also find their roots in this approach to the genre.
In recent years, Victorian mansions have become the haunted castles of the cinema. The Victorian era, in all its literature, possessed an air of underlying and ever-present threat for horror because of the popularity of horror serials and their impact on social awareness. The Gothic and horror literature of the 19th century is what itself gives the Victorian era the aura and ambiance perfect for a modern horror story. The era is so interwoven with the birth of modern horror that it reflects the genre in every aspect—or in the very least is reflected in such a way in the pages of its popular fiction. Even novels that aren’t strictly horror possess notes that harken to the darker Gothic tone. The presence of a Victorian setting in modern horror stories, either as a nod or because it is the natural setting for horror, is an organic outcome of the era’s society and science.
Watch this video to learn more about Victorian mansions as Horror icons!