top of page

British Gothic Literature 101: Aesthetics of Horror & Terror


The British Gothic Literature 101 series aims to offer an in-depth analysis of the literary conventions recurrently encompassing most British novels written between 1760-1900. It will draw on spiritual insights and psychological themes correlated with the Gothic Psyche to reveal that there is more subtext in Gothic fiction than meets the reading eye. The British Gothic Literature 101 series aspires to pinpoint the defining elements of its genre, in order to provide a vehicle for the reading audience to explore considerations of the darker side of human nature with greater ease. Another reason it will strive to break down the literary tropes is to offer a breeding ground of inspiration to the modern aspiring writers of the genre.

British Gothic Literature 101 will be divided into the following chapters of contents:

  1. British Gothic Literature 101: Birth of the Gothic Genre Exploring the Doppelgänger

  2. British Gothic Literature 101: Aesthetics of Horror & Terror

  3. British Gothic Literature 101: Exploring Sublimity

  4. British Gothic Literature 101: Representations of the Supernatural

  5. British Gothic Literature 101: Female Agency of the Damsel in Distress

  6. British Gothic Literature 101: Emergence of the Elusive Antihero as Social Critique

British Gothic Literature 101: Aesthetics of Horror & Terror

In the academic world, terminological differences might become blurred, making it difficult to define concrete meanings. Depending on the writer‘s critical perspective or the medium being analysed, a struggle with content-based definitions and the intermix of concepts may emerge. One of the oldest dichotomies in Gothic fiction is the difference between “terror” and “horror.” The literary sense of these terms was coined by the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe in her essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry” (1826). At first glance, horror and terror appear to be synonyms. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some important differences between them. Some scholars believe that Gothic fiction can be divided into two distinct norms, a dichotomy originated from the contrasting writing styles of two authors from the late 18th century: Matthew Gregory Lewis and Anne Radcliffe. As Radcliffe (1826) argues, “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them” (p. 150). This article aspires to explore the two strands of the Gothic - terror and horror - and the legacy of this division in contemporary debates.

Terror in a Nutshell

The distinction between these two terms is rooted in their historical usage and evolution within the English language. Terror comes from the Latin word “terrere”, meaning “to frighten or alarm” (Mahoney, n.d.), and has historically been used to describe a feeling of fear or apprehension in the face of an imminent danger or threat. In the context of Gothic literature and other forms of horror fiction, terror often involves a sense of psychological suspense or uncertainty, rather than more visceral reactions. The more significant difference between the two terms lies in the “uncertainty and obscurity” that accompany terror (Radcliffe, 1826, p. 150). Terror “is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades” (Radcliffe, 1826, p. 150) and excites the imagination to fill in the missing information. Numerous iconic moments in Gothic fiction - for instance, Poe’s unseen beating heart and Dracula lurking in the shadows - are driven by terror. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) extensively explored and epitomised the terror aspect of fear. In one pivotal scene, heroine Emily St. Aubert lies in bed when she is alarmed by a bizarre noise coming from the door which communicates her room with a private staircase. All she can see is a human figure approaching her, but “the extreme duskiness prevents her distinguishing what it was” (Radcliffe, 1794, p. 186). This and similar Gothic scenes are, to some extent, obscured, letting one's imagination swell in distress and dreadful anticipation. Terror triggers the readers’ mental capacities to areas they fear to explore (and yet must), luring them with obscured imagery and the expectation (or menace) of something more (Round, n.d.).

Figure 1: Balance of beauty and terror in "The Nightmare" (Füssli, 1781)

A central concept in literary discourses concerning terror is “the uncanny.” In "The Uncanny", Freud (1919) describes this state as "a complex psychological experience wherein something encountered is simultaneously hauntingly beautiful and terrifying, that is, at once familiar and alien” (Posadas, 2018, p. 7). When the familiar thing turns out to be unfamiliar, it creates the uncanny, resulting in “a strange experience that the words cannot relate, but just makes one feel awe” (Bhandari, 2022, p. 104). According to Freud (1919), déjà vu, unnatural repetitions, automatons, and doppelgängers are some occurrences within reality that set this feeling off. In German, Freud bridges the term uncanny to the concept of not belonging at home – unheimlich. Haunted house narratives often elicit the uncanny as the main characters disclose secret passageways and boarded-up rooms. The idea that one’s own home could hide dark secrets provokes uncanny unease. It becomes clear then that the uncanny, in its persistence in being ambiguous and indeterminate, becomes similar to Radcliffe’s idea of terror.

Figure 2: White Bunny meets Dr Sigmund Freud (Dmitrenko, 2008)

What about Horror?

Horror derives from the Latin word “horrere”, meaning “to bristle or shiver with fear” (Mahoney, n.d.), and originally referred to a feeling of coldness or dread. Over time, the term came to be associated with a sense of revulsion or disgust, distinguished for its physical effects. The overwhelming tension one experiences after seeing a horrendous spectacle renders horror “the limit of reason […] the very emotion in which the human reaches its limit” (Botting, 1996, p. 55). Gothic horror startles the reader with the grotesque or vulgar, entrapping and disturbingly loading their senses. Its foundations are rooted, then, in their reactive response to these gruesome images and not in anticipation. Even if horror is dynamic and fluid, taking on different forms in everyday reality, it is also “a genre, a construction, and a representation of what terrifies and disgusts, what one fears and secretly desires” (Wisker, 2005, p. 5).

Radcliffe’s affinity for terror can be viewed as an implicit opposition to the gory scenes of her literary rival, Matthew Lewis. For Lewis, the object of fear is not an ambiguous entity hiding in the shadows, but a monk in the flesh and bones who becomes an imminent threat to the ones around him, or a rotting corpse of a baby inside a “gloomy dungeon” (Lewis, 1796, p. 254). Horror is the paralysing fear of something concrete and tangible, arising when encountering a hideous monster, a spectre, or a disgusting scene. In other words, if terror’s essence is soul-heightening and subtle, then horror’s is claustrophobic and brutal (Round, n.d.). Interestingly, in Gothic literature, terror often leads to horror, but the opposite is not necessarily the case. Indeed, in exposing the shocking object so bluntly, horror risks deflating all the tension that terror accumulates in a climax (Round, n.d.). Terror is intensified by ambiguity and ignorance, so the writer consciously tries to hide details from the reader in a balanced way without hiding so much that the effect is sheer confusion.

Figure 3: The Monk, a Romance (Lewis, 1818)

Terror, Horror, and the Sublime

Writer and scholar David B. Morris (1985) first established the connection between the Gothic and the sublime when he said that sublimity was a common occurrence and an indispensable component of Gothic literature (pp. 314-315). Nadal (2020) further reviews the Gothic sublime as a kind of “longing for plenitude, infinity -even transcendence- opposed by self-destructive drives” (pp. 373-387) and “the Gothic -negative, oceanic- sublime” following the sublime Gothic theory of Mishra (1994, p. 225). Romantic poets emphasise that nobility of soul is necessary for some features of the sublime style (the grandeur of mind combined with the intensity of love). Wordsworth (1850) describes the sublime as:

“The soul’s obscure sense/of possible sublimity, to which/With growing faculties she doth aspire” (The Prelude, II, pp. 336-8).

The effects of the Sublime are a loss of rationality, an alienation that leads to identification with the artist’s creative process, and a profound emotion mixed with pleasure and exaltation (Trott, 1998). In Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, the sublime is described as “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke, 1757, p. 45). It is a higher emotional state one's mind cannot fully grasp in which fear and awe are intertwined. Similarly, as Gothic scholars elaborate, “Terror creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world” (Varma, 1957, p. 130). Additionally, terror, in its ambiguity, transcends existence and brings one toward the effect of the sublime (Radcliffe, 1826). Given this, terror becomes a source of the sublime, while horror does not. This capacity of terror to remain obscure and suggestive and thus closer to the sublime was central to Radcliffe’s thoughts for privileging the essence of terror over horror (Reyes, 2015).

Gender Associations

Amidst the Gothic fiction world, the horror/terror division was perpetuated by some followers and imitators of Lewis and Radcliffe. This division started occurring loosely along gender lines, as Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe came to be considered as the representatives of each literary strain (Reyes, 2015). In the popular imagination, as terror characterised the works of Radcliffe and other female writers, terror became eventually associated with the Female Gothic, that strand of the Gothic written by women and usually featuring female heroines. According to scholars Smith and Wallace, The Female Gothic has been considered “a coded expression of women's fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the female body,” which became a significant perspective (2004, p. 1). Women thus felt imprisoned in the household and their own bodies, a feeling they covertly tried to convey through female Gothic literature. The authors (2004) also state that in the female Gothic novel, women expressed their discontent towards patriarchy and its suppression of “the maternal” (p. 1). In her novels, Radcliffe often portrayed female characters as intelligent and resourceful, with a strong sense of morality and a capacity for empathy. While her female characters experience fear and terror, they are also depicted as able to overcome these emotions and assert their independence and agency.

Figure 4: The Burial of Atala (Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, 1808)

On the contrary, the Male Gothic is often regarded as “the true Gothic” (Fleenor, 1983) on many grounds. Firstly, the supernatural is not clarified by an ordinary or natural cause, which causes the novels to end mysteriously (Miles, 1993). Secondly, in the Male Gothic, rape is depicted more directly than in the Female Gothic. And thirdly, the story often takes place in a merciless universe and involves an insubordinate protagonist. A representative of the Male Gothic, Matthew Lewis is known for his explicit portrayal of sexuality and violence. In his novels, women are often depicted as helpless victims of male desire, with little agency or control over their own lives. Female characters in The Monk are frequently subjected to rape, murder, and other forms of violence, with little hope of escaping their degradation. Matthew Lewis, William Beckford and Charles Robert Maturin are all male novelists who wrote extravagant pieces that dealt with fear in a more straightforward and unrestrained manner, which came to be correlated with horror. The belief that the Male Gothic subgenre is “the true Gothic” has led critics to view Female Gothic novelists as shy and reserved.

The distinction between Male and Female Gothic fiction has been attributed to the two 18th-century writers' personal struggles and stylistic contrasts. As it has been further argued, the distinctions between the Gothic traditions originated from these authors’ accounts for the different experiences men and women have of fear. The difference is that while men fear “the Other” (women included), women fear “the terror of the familiar: the routine brutality and injustice of the patriarchal family, conventional religion, and classist social structures” (Karin, 1992, p. 91). These differentiations may signify “the extent to which the division between terror and horror may masquerade certain prejudices” (Reyes, 2015, 2). In this sense, the literary divisions could even reflect prevalent gender stereotypes, as “feminine” terror was perceived as subtler and purer, while “male” horror was thought to be more physical and harsher (Reyes, 2015).

Figure 5: Photograph of Ann Radcliffe (Terror) and Matthew Lewis (Horror) (Literary Ocean, n.d.)


Both horror and terror are indispensable components of Gothic literature to create a sense of fear, disquietude, and uncertainty in the reader. They are used to explore the more sombre aspects of human nature and probe the darker intricacies of the human psyche, rendering Gothic literature a fascinating and multifaceted genre for scholarly inquiry. If terror elements seduce and obscure, horror is an affective representation based on the reader’s reactive response to a shown atrocity. Terror then becomes the writing of sublimity, and horror the literature of sensation. The different schools, which are Female Gothic represented by Radcliffe and Male Gothic, represented by Lewis, are distinguished by some critics as novels of terror and novels of horror. As it has been noted, this same distinction is tied to gender, with female equated with terror Gothic, and with male equated with horror Gothic. Yet, no matter which effect appeals more to the reader, it is hard to deny that the Gothic genre is not necessarily as firm and mechanical as one has been led to believe, as categories tend to cross and blur at points. Instead, one could claim that the quality of Gothic literature lies precisely in the immense abundance of pieces and the fluid interplay of elements within them. With this in mind, the awful apprehension that terror builds throughout a novel can surely reach its climactic ending with the sickening realisation that horror provides. By examining the use of horror and terror in different literary and cultural contexts, scholars can gain a deeper understanding of how these genres reflect and respond to human fears, anxieties, and desires.

Bibliographical References

Bhandari, S. R. (2022). The projection of the double in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Pursuits, 6 (1), 102-108.

Botting, F. (1996). Gothic: The new critical idiom. Routledge.

Burke E. (1757). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford University Press.

Fleenor, J. (1983). The Female Gothic. Eden Press

Freud, S. (2003). The ‘uncanny’. Penguin Classics.

Lewis, M. (1796). The monk. Penguin Classics.

Mahoney, K. (n.d.). Horrere/Terrere. In Latin Dictionary. Retrieved on 23d March 2023.,stand%20on%20end%2C%20bristle

Miles, R. (1993). Gothic Writing: 1750-1820. London: Routledge.

Mishra, V. (1994). The Gothic sublime. State University of New York Press.

Morris, D. B. (1985). Gothic sublimity. The sublime and the beautiful: Reconsiderations. New Literary History, 16(2), pp. 299-319.

Nadal, M. (2000). Beyond the gothic sublime: Poe‘s Pym or the journey of equivocal (e)motions. The Mississippi Quarterly, 53(3), pp. 373-387.

Posadas, B. T. (2018). Double visions, double fictions: The doppelgänger in Japanese film and literature. University of Minnesota Press.

Radcliffe, A. (1826). On the supernatural in poetry. The New Monthly Magazine 7, pp 145–52.

Radcliffe A. (1794). The mysteries of Udolpho. Oxford World’s Classics.

Reyes, X. (2015). Fear divided: Terror and horror, the two sides of the Gothic coin. The Magazine for Advanced Level English, 68, 49-52.

Round, J. (n.d.) The Gothic aesthetics in literature, from horror and terror. Atmosfear entertainment.

Smith, A & Wallace, D. (2009). The female Gothic: New directions. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Trott, N. (1998). The picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime: A companion to romanticism. Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Varma, D. (1957). The Gothic flame. New York: Russell and Russell.

Winter, K. (1992). Sexual/Textual Politics of Terror. Katherine Ackley. New York: Garland.

Wisker, G. (2005). Horror Fiction: An Introduction. Continuum.

Wordsworth, W. (1850). The prelude. Retrieved from

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Anny Polyzogopoulou

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page