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British Gothic Literature 101: 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: The Doppelgänger

  2. British Gothic Literature 101: Horror & Terror

  3. British Gothic Literature 101: The Sublime

  4. British Gothic Literature 101: The Supernatural

  5. British Gothic Literature 101: The Damsel in Distress

  6. British Gothic Literature 101: The Anti-Hero

British Gothic Literature 101: 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. However, 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 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 key 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 our imagination swell in distress and dreadful anticipation. Terror triggers our mental capacities to areas we fear to explore (and yet must), luring us with obscured imagery and the expectation (or menace) of something more (Round, n.d.).

Figure 1: Fuseli H. (1781). Balance of beauty and terror in "The Nightmare". [Oil painting]. Detroit Institute of Arts.

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 feels 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: Dmitrenko, V. (2008). White bunny meets Dr. Sigmund Freud [Illustration].

What about Horror?

Horror is 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 us with the grotesque or vulgar, entrapping and disturbingly loading our senses. Its foundations are rooted, then, in our reactive response to these gruesome images and not in our 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 we fear and secretly desire” (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: Lewis, M. (1818). The monk, a romance. [Illustration]. British Library.

Terror, Horror, and the Sublime

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 our 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 us 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 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. On the contrary, male authors such as Matthew Lewis, William Beckford and Charles Robert Maturin, who wrote extravagant pieces that dealt with fear in a more straightforward and unrestrained manner, came to be correlated with horror. What these differentiations may signify is “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 4: (n.d.) Ann Radcliffe (Terror) and Matthew Lewis (Horror). [Photograph]. The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.


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. Yet, no matter which effect appeals to us more, it is hard to deny that the Gothic genre is not necessarily as firm and mechanical as we have 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.

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 UP.

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

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

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.

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

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

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