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British Gothic Literature 101: Representations of the Supernatural


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: Representations of the Supernatural

When delving into Gothic stories, the prevalence of ghosts, mysterious apparitions, and unexplainable events is prominent. Just after a revolutionary period, the Gothic genre emerged as a reaction towards the Age of Enlightenment and, “in such, it seems to abandon rational thought” (Finley, 2018, p. 45). Although the supernatural occurrences may seem coincidental or unrelated, a closer examination tells a different story. This essay examines the use of the supernatural in early Gothic literature and how it affects, possesses, and even controls characters within the novels. It further sheds light on how Gothic literature uses the supernatural not just as a means of entertainment, but to make a more comprehensive political statement on the position of women within a patriarchal society.

The Emergence of the Supernatural Effect

There is no doubt about Victorians’ deep fascination with the supernatural. The supernatural was not merely a form of entertainment, of chilling ghost tales before bedtime, but an “important aspect of the Victorians’ intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and imaginative worlds, and took its place in the domestic centre of their daily lives” (Bown et al., 2004, p. 2). While within the social sphere debates over incidents of unexplained, paranormal occurrences dominated public conversations, the influence of the supernatural over Victorian life was not limited to those (Craig, 2012). The supernatural encompassed Victorian culture as well, infiltrating “literature, art and science — to name only three of the most powerful cultural forces” (Bown et al., 2004, p. 2). The supernatural was not a new aspect of literature when the Gothic genre emerged, but it did drastically become popular, unfolding in the form of religious and haunting elements, influencing each novel in a different way. The 18th century “‘invented the uncanny’” because of the recent Enlightenment and, ironically, elevation in rational thought, which left many feeling disillusioned and disconnected from the natural world. The supernatural elements in Gothic literature served as a means of exploring the dark and mysterious aspects of human experience that could not be easily explained by reason or science (Castle, 1995, p. 8).

Figure 1: The supernatural emerged as a response to the recent Enlightenment (Derby, 1768)

The supernatural’s influence over literature led to the complex genre of the Victorian ghost story. While the typical ghost story may appear simple in its purpose and execution, the Victorian ghost story served two separate objectives: entertainment and cultural commentary (Craig, 2012). The Victorian ghost story was largely domestic in nature, often taking place inside one’s residence. This functioned as a metaphor where “ghost stories offered evidence that the home was no haven from powerful and exacting social pressures” (Lynch, p. 67).

The Gothic ghost story became an instrument for cultural topics, particularly cultural criticism, to be addressed without any kind of confrontation. Stories of this genre “often stress the conjunction of external, and by extension public, class status and internal, private matters” (Lynch, 2004, p. 67). The genre, then, takes its horror element from two separate sources. While the threat of irrational, unexplained, supernatural forces created dread on a superficial level, the underlying social criticism aroused distress on a personal level. The literary use of the supernatural to present social criticism in a direct, yet subtle fashion soon turned the Victorian ghost story into “a vehicle for […] what was truly scary in private and public life […] what could not be hidden in the domestic comfort of the hearth” (Lynch, 2004, p. 84).

The Realistic Aspect of the Supernatural

When examining a piece of Gothic literature, it is crucial to consider the realistic foundation of the genre. While the themes presented and events portrayed in Gothic literature may be, to a great extent, unrealistic, the genre is meant to be grasped and experienced in a very rational sense. The use of unreal or imaginary elements in a story, alongside a seemingly believable plot, created an unsettling feeling in the reader or audience, which is known as the “uncanny” effect (Castle, 1995, 4). This underlying intention renders the “Gothic supernatural to appear very real and disturbing” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 32). The psychological process behind what makes a particular face or event terrifying is examined by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In his essay The Uncanny (1919), or unhomelike, he described it 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 element turns out to be unfamiliar, it creates this eerie effect, resulting in “a strange experience that the words cannot relate to, but just makes one feel awe” (Bhandari, 2022, p. 104).

Figure 2: Woman reading Gothic stories of the Victorian era (Matisse, 1894)

The portrayal of events in Gothic fiction is meant to be relatable: they should make the reader feel as if those exact events could easily happen to them. The Gothic supernatural feels real and upsets the reader, not because of its horrific essence, but because “it is so close; it permeates” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 32). The boundaries between what is natural and what is other-worldly are blurred, rendering "the supernatural greater and nearer,” creating a “materialisation of the spiritual” through the depiction of supernatural phenomena (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 33). Therefore, the true terror of the Gothic supernatural is not evoked by the idea of horrific spectacles or unexplainable sounds. Instead, it is determined by the degree of reality achieved by the Gothic style. “Gothic terror”, then, is attained through a “merger of the natural and the supernatural that undermines a sound, predictable reality” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 35). Yet, Ann Radcliffe (1794/2001) will explain the supernatural happenings within her novels "rather than allowing them to simply just exist without an underlying meaning" (Castle, 1995, p. 121). The supernatural haunts the protagonists of the story, serving as a reminder of the past or as a harbinger of doom. In many cases, it is used to symbolise the psychological or emotional state of the characters. The supernatural affects her characters, but this power over them only exists until the explanation of the supernatural. While Radcliffe’s works adhere to this structure, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s (1796/1998) differ significantly. In stark contrast to Radcliffe, Lewis not only allows the supernatural to exist in a realistic setting, but reaffirms it in contrast to sceptical views. In fact, Lewis’s extreme plot has been described as a “frightening reversal of [Radcliffe’s] techniques” (Geary, 1992, p. 60).

The Gothic novel defines what is truth, portraying what is evil. With the paranormal acting as a fear trigger, the Gothic pieces highlight what is evil in the world as separate from the supernatural. Since Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764/2004), considered the first gothic novel, the genre typically opens with an irrational mystery, in this case, a giant helmet falling on the prince. The sudden appearance of a giant helmet out of nowhere is the initial triggering fear in the text. However, as the story progresses, “the reader is about to discover, by the end, that the real evil is found in Manfred, the arrogant and evil prince who banished his wife to the castle dungeon and usurped the throne” (Gelsone, 2010, p. 9). This underlying message evidently leans towards the Rationalist ideals of fighting overpowered monarchies and promoting social reform (Gelsone, 2010).

Figure 3: Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking (Fuseli, 1784)

Some Gothic novels, such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796/1998), still use the supernatural within the plot to allow the character to escape from an unreasonable cause of evil. The story describes the diabolical decline of Ambrosio, a Capuchin superior, who succumbs first to temptations triggered by the entrance of a young girl to his monastery and continues his descent with increasingly depraved acts of sorcery, murder, incest, and torture. The book is filled with supernatural subplots, such as The Bleeding Nun. However, the focus of evil embedded within humanity is never questioned, since the novel follows a character twist: even Satan himself is not the source of evil, rather it is the human flaws in Ambrosio, “the once devout monk who disintegrates into an incestuous rapist and murderer” (Gelsone, 2010, p. 10).

Female Power and the Supernatural

By analysing the heroines of each Gothic novel, it becomes evident that their varied fates, in relation to the supernatural, convey a gendered power dynamic. Most Gothic fictions feature not only a heroine whose plight is largely caused by the supernatural, but also a male, usually a villain, who uses the supernatural to his advantage. The male characters’ abilities to employ the supernatural to benefit their position further showcase how the supernatural favours masculinity. Thus, early Gothic literature enhances the idea that “supernatural works inherently against women, symbolising the oppressive and patriarchal chaos of the everyday” (2018, p. 1). By juxtaposing the supernatural elements of the Gothic genre with gendered power dynamics, attention is drawn to how these dynamics inform and shape the portrayal of the supernatural (Finley, 2018).

Heroines’ relationship to the supernatural in Ann Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794/2001) and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796/1998) establishes an overarching struggle between women and the supernatural as a paradigmatic feature of Gothic literature. The Mysteries of Udolpho focuses on the story of orphan Emily St. Aubert, who finds herself separated from the man she loves and confined within the medieval castle of her aunt’s new husband, Montoni. Radcliffe “departs from man-made power and natural contexts of patriarchal power to show that women are ‘framed’ within the obscure” (Finley, 2018, p. 6). The framing of women in obscure settings is a common, recurrent theme in both Radcliffe’s and Lewis’s novels. In particular, the accounts of Udolpho repeatedly describe it as both the supernatural realm and a prison for Emily, highlighting the intersection of patriarchal oppression and the supernatural in her story.

Figure 4: Lady Blanche Crosses the Ravine Guided by the Count and Saint Foix (a Scene from The Mysteries of Udolpho) (Grogan, circa 1796-1798)

Within The Monk (1796/1998), Ambrosio uses magic to take physical possession of Antonia, resulting in her tragic rape and death. In Agnes’s storyline, her brother, Lorenzo, uses reason to evade superstition, resulting in his sisters rescue and the finding of his lover, Antonia. In contrast, Antonia’s susceptibility to the supernatural ultimately leads to her downfall, as seen in her graphic rape and murder scene as implemented by Ambrosio, a man who uses the supernatural to accomplish such devastation. Alternately, Agnes, an unfortunate sacrifice to superstition, must suffer through starvation and entrapment until her brother employs reason to save her. In each novel, Gothic heroines fall victim to a larger, patriarchal force orchestrated by the supernatural. Such presence of the patriarchal and male-favoured side of the supernatural could support the claim that women, in comparison, are victims in this power dynamic.

It has been proposed that women characters’ inability to act “stems from a large exterior patriarchal force disguised as the supernatural” (Hoeveler, 1998, p. 14). It is essential to acknowledge that each of these novels treats power and gender in their own unique way. Yet, examining them together brings out their commonalities. Whether the supernatural is explained rationally, prevails against reason, or is unquestioned, it always negatively affects, and eventually controls, a female character. Similarly, even when it seems like a female character may obtain power by using the supernatural, such as Agnes, it ultimately backfires against them, whereas this rarely happens with male characters. In this sense, the irrational entity of the supernatural seems to be a masculine power, serving as a metaphor for the dysfunction characterising patriarchal societies. This interpretation would be timely “considering the number of revolutions both revolting from and turning into patriarchal structures, especially considering that the French Revolution was right within this time frame” (Finley, 2018, p. 46).

Figure 5: Vincent Cassel in The Monk movie (Moll, 2011)


The supernatural in Gothic stories is treated as an effect delivering more meaning than simply the horrific spectacle that meets the eye. The realistic dimensions suggested by the supernatural prompt the reader to read between the lines and process situations rationally. The repetitive pattern of Gothic heroines falling victim to a larger, patriarchal force supported by the supernatural corroborates such an idea. The presence of the patriarchal character of the supernatural appears to convey that women are entrapped in this gender-power dynamic. No matter what the conclusion of these novels may be, by manipulating the effect of the supernatural, each of them contributes to a broader political and societal criticism, taking them beyond the sensationalist genre they are often considered to be.

Bibliographical References

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

Bayer-Berenbaum, L. (1982). The Gothic imagination: Expansion in Gothic literature and art. Associated University Presses.

Bown, N., Burdett, C. & Thurschwell, P. (2004). The Victorian supernatural. Cambridge University Press.

Castle, T. (1995). The female thermometer: Eighteenth-century culture and the invention of the uncanny. Oxford University Press.

Craig, S. (2012). Ghosts of the mind: The supernatural and madness in Victorian

Gothic literature. [Honor theses, The University of Southern Mississippi]. The Aquila Digital Community.

Freud, S. (2003). The ‘uncanny’. Penguin classics. (Original work published in 1919).

Geary, R. F. (1992). The supernatural in Gothic fiction: Horror, belief, and literary change. The Edwin Mellen Press.

Gelsone K. (2010). The Gothic flip: Using the supernatural to fight for morality. [Academic works dissertations and theses, City College of New York]. CUNY City College.

Hoeveler, D. L (1998). Gothic Feminism: The professionalization of gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Lewis, M. G. (1998). The Monk. Penguin Group. (Original work published in 1796).

Lynch, E. M. (2004). Spectral politics: The Victorian ghost story and the domestic servant.

The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press.

Radcliffe, A. (2001). The mysteries of Udolpho. Penguin Classics. (Original work published in 1794).

Walpole, H. (2004). The castle of Otranto. Dover Thrift Editions: Classic Novels. (Original work published in 1764).

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Anny Polyzogopoulou

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