Katherine Hawkins

Although often overshadowed by the Victorian melodrama that dominated the 19th century, the evolution of Gothic literary and cultural expressions between 1900 and 1932 are no less demonstrative of the mournful repression and abject dread that characterize the genre. While it is not helpful to wholly segregate early 20th Century Gothic from previous literary traditions, the extraordinary social, technological and political upheaval of this period saw a rapid and transformative shift in the ways in which these narratives were expressed. Word limits restrict the depth to which the significance of this extraordinary era may be explored. However, this chapter will discuss the Gothic critiques of domestic life, the popularity of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory, the outbreak of the First World War, the onset of the Great Depression, the otherworldly introduction of Lovecraftian horror and the revolutionary introduction of film.

Thirty-two years may seem a trifling amount of time compared to the yawning centuries endured by Walpole’s crumbling ruins; but this was not a time of slow, moldering grief. Indeed, the horrors of early 20th Century lie in the suddenness of its transformations and the subsequent trauma of their recollection. This was an era wracked by crises of identity, incalculable loss and guilt, and the terror of the monstrous, unconscious self. Here we cannot find the quiet melancholy of ghosts in dusty mansions, but rather the shocking flare that illuminated first the trenches, and then the screen of the cinema.

Re-Turn of the Century: Moving from the Old to the New

The Gothic would not ordinarily be associated with progress and modernity, yet it is precisely the forward-march of technological innovation and social change that so transformed the genre during the first three decades of the 20th Century. This is not to say that the Gothic itself did a sudden, optimistic about-face, but rather that the revenant repression always inherent within the Gothic becomes all the more apparent when starkly contrasted with the change and transformation brought on during that time. While a more detailed examination of the significance of H.P Lovecraft within Gothic conventions will follow, his ‘weird fiction’ is perhaps the best exemplar of the persistent edifices of the ‘Old World’ attempting to ensnare the emerging present.  He is described by David Punter and Glennis Byron as, “[..] conducting a one-man battle against the forces of modernization, while clearly remaining locked into an image of the past that is itself compounded in terror and destruction”(144). Indeed, his infamous revulsion for the increasing cultural heterogeneity of America was matched only by his fear of what “terrifying vistas of reality” may be revealed by the chaotic hurtle towards modernity (Lovecraft 201).

Lovecraft was not the only author of the time whose gaze was faced backward. However, the Gothic nostalgia for the previous century is at best bittersweet for authors that recall its repressive confines. While not exclusively a Gothic author per se, Edith Wharton’s short stories and novels nonetheless recall the late 19th Century with caustic irony, The House of Mirth and her Pulitzer Prize-winning Age of Innocence exposing the hitherto unrepresented dark side of the claustrophobic New York high society that she had been born into. One of the best examples of her acerbic appropriations of the Gothic style is the short story Afterward, which depicts the particularly obnoxious Ned and Mary Boyne who purchase the decrepit Lyng house solely on account of it being haunted, and thereby possessing a “charm of having been for centuries a dim, deep reservoir of life” (Wharton 3). The narrative drips with a deeply ironic description of the Boyne’s fetishization of the obsolete and the supernatural; describing Lyng’s lack of ‘vulgar necessities’ like electric lights and hot water pipes in terms that imply the comparative refinement of Victorian antiquarianism (Wharton 4).

Accordingly, in A Motor-Flight Through France, she maintained that the “[..]Gothic spirit, pushed to its logical conclusion” ought to strive for, “[..]the utterance of the unutterable” (Wharton 17). While Wharton herself was critical of the suffragist movement that was gaining increasing visibility at the time, her scathing depictions of bourgeois domesticity demonstrates precisely that which had been ‘unutterable’ to her as a young woman: a pronounced disdain for the stifling expectations placed upon women (“Edith Wharton”). For example, her short story The Lady’s Maid’s Bell (1904) utilizes the uncanny, supernatural elements of haunted houses and revenant ghosts in order to demonstrate the silent, distinctly feminine dread of married life (Punter et al 171).

Post-War Gothic

While there were certainly significant Gothic publications prior to the onset of the First World War, it is difficult to de-center this cultural trauma from a discussion of early 20th Century horror. Indeed, as David Skal asserts, “Wars tend not to resolve themselves, culturally, until years after actual combat stops. The same is true of economic depressions, fatal epidemics, political witch hunts – the traumas can linger for decades”(286). Consequently, it should be unsurprising that there is a marked shift in the tone of almost all genres of art and literature – including the Gothic. In particular, the long-established trope of psychological decline within the Gothic genre was given renewed significance in the years immediately following the end of the war, as traumatized, wounded and disfigured soldiers returned home. British poet Siegfried Sassoon’s many war poems about the horrors of trench warfare reflect the trauma that was then referred to as ‘shell-shock’; his stark, embittered recollections replacing the comparatively decadent romanticism that characterised Poe or the Brontës’ depictions of madness and grief the century prior.

Sassoon’s 1920 poem “I stood with the Dead” depicts the hopelessness and despair of the trenches: a soldier – evidently insensible and in shock – stands amongst his dead comrades, ordering them to rise and to resume killing. The title and the repeated phrase, “They were dead; They were dead” not only inextricably links the author to the abject scene of the piled, staring corpses of his friends, but also recalls an inescapable, looping repetition that is a defining feature of Gothic depictions of trauma (Sassoon 38). Christine Berthin describes repetition within the Gothic as a temporal as well as a sensory/psychological displacement, wherein the constant re-playing or re-appearance of fearful or distressing phenomena constitutes a “distortion of chronology” that blurs the boundaries between a traumatic past and the present (67). Akin to Derrida’s hauntological reflections on linguistic displacement, Berthin asserts that the inability to disentangle oneself from a traumatic past obfuscates the potential for future recuperation, stripping away a protagonist’s subjectivity. In this state, these wretched individuals are “haunted, and do not belong to themselves. They are not contemporary with themselves and perform actions that only make sense beyond the frame of the present where they find themselves ungrounded” (Berthin 67). In conjunction with Berthin, Sassoon’s depiction of the trauma of the Great War also conjures one of the most consistent fixtures of post-War Gothic symbolism: the dreadful image of soldiers stripped of their humanity and reduced to the status of murderous automatons – a subject that will be revisited in a moment.

While there is a wealth of literature that exemplifies this dehumanizing trope within the Gothic, an examination of post-War Gothic is not complete without considering its articulation within the emergent popularity of cinema at the time. While the technology of moving film had existed prior to the turn of the century, the transition of film from short ‘nickelodeons’ to longer narrative features had opened up a rich well of potential for Gothic imaginings by the time the War ended (Skal 31) . Arguably the best exemplar of post-War Gothic film is Robert Wiene’s 1920 expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Its jarring, hyper-stylized painted sets and depictions of madness, somnambulism, and murder, encapsulates the traumatized zeitgeist of post-War Germany; a country reeling from defeat and the loss of its national identity. Although the original script was intended to be a “political parable of unchecked authoritarianism following the cataclysm of the war,” Wiene de-clawed this narrative by framing it as a mere delusion retold by the insane, titular Doctor (Skal 41-43).

Directorial gaslighting aside, the film nonetheless exemplifies the same post-war Gothic conventions that rendered Sassoon’s work so affective. Although The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more reliant upon metaphor than Sassoon’s accusatory fusillades, its depiction of the sleepwalking Cesare being commanded to murder by Caligari recalls the same dreaded loss of selfhood implicit in the dehumanized, autotomized soldier-subject mentioned above. Just as Sassoon is haunted by the recurring trauma of the front, Caligari’s evocation of the War is that of a similarly haunting and coercive supernatural entity that is identified by Skal in the film’s opening intertitle: “Everywhere there are spirits…They are all around us…They have driven me from hearth and home, from my wife and children”(43).

The manifestation of post-War Gothic in both film and literature coincides strongly with the contemporaneous popularity of psychoanalysis, and the associated significance of the unconscious. While Cesare’s somnambulism in Caligari makes this connection evident, Freud’s observations represent important epistemological milestones – both terms of the history of the Gothic, but also for the psyche of the broader post-War population. Freud remarked that the war necessitated a re-thinking of the conventions of death, stating, “Death will no longer be denied, we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no-longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands in a single day” (47). Freud ultimately defined the nomenclature for another pivotal convention within the Gothic: the return of the repressed. As with Berthin’s discussion of hauntological repetitions, Valdine Clements explains that the portentous re-emergence of that, “[..] which has been submerged or held at bay because it threatens the established order of things” pre-dates Freudian psychoanalysis considerably (4). However, Freud’s post-war discussion of repression within his 1919 work The Uncanny is arguably the analytic text that best contextualizes the return of the repressed within post-War Gothic; employing a more modern approach to trauma that reconceptualised what it meant for a person – or indeed, an entire population – to be ‘haunted’ by their histories.

Freud and the Uncanny

The Uncanny represents what Ellen Power Stengel describes as “the most famous heuristics ever to analyse supernatural literature” (1). Unlike much of Freud’s prior and subsequent therapeutic psychoanalytic work, The Uncanny is a treatise on the aesthetics of that which is terrible, rather than frightening, lending it perfectly to the study of the Gothic (Freud 217-218). Much of the text is dedicated to the explanation of the specific etymology of the uncanny, wherein Freud identifies an interesting inversion of meaning in the equivalent German term, heimliche. He explains that heimliche refers to a state of comfort and familiarity – typically within the home. However, he states that this should not suggest that the uncanny is akin to its opposite der unheimliche, as this would imply a neat and dualistic process of simple unknowing, an awareness that is reducible to the known unknown (Freud 223). Rather, following a long demonstration of etymological genealogy, Freud reveals a definition of das heimliche that is its own antonym: the heimliche as that which ought to have remained hidden, but has nonetheless become visible. Through this unusual linguistic inversion Freud demonstrates the unsettling potential of the uncanny as that which is not at home, at home. For Freud, the Uncanny refers to the experience of discomfort that is provoked by the reappearance of irrational or infantile imaginings (hitherto surmounted or repressed) within the realm of the familiar (Freud 239). Put more simply, the Uncanny unsettles us because it makes us uncertain about the things that ought to be familiar or habitual, and in so doing it ‘makes strange’ our conceptions of the normative and the rational (Bennet & Royle 37).


A department store display if mannequins evokes the uncanny because of their strange imitation of humanity.
A department store display of mannequins evokes the uncanny because of its strange imitation of humanity (Robert Couse-Baker).

According to Punter, such a capacity to disrupt the often-prescriptive boundaries of rationality is, “at the core of the Gothic, since it, like the uncanny, deals in the constant troubling of the quotidian, daylight certainties within the context of which one might prefer to lead one’s life” (286). In Edith Wharton Rings “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, Ellen Powers Stengel provides a reading of Wharton’s 1904 short story through Freud’s Uncanny, explaining the relationship between the present materiality described by the story’s protagonist Hartley, and the return of the repressed in the form of the ghost of Emma Saxon (Stengel 3). The gloomy Brympton Place is beset by secrecy and censorship – the servants feigning ignorance or amnesia at the fate of Hartley’s deceased predecessor. Nonetheless, the heuristics of the everyday here-and-now are disturbed through the irruption of the Revenant ghost: a diachronic figure from the past that joins with the synchronic, surmounted present. By this confluence of the spatial-present and the revenant-repressed, the sinister goings-on of Brympton Place are revealed to Hartley and thus the domestic setting rendered Uncanny (Stengel 4-5).

Lovecraft and the Anti-human Gothic


In The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from The Castle of Otrano to Alien, Clements notes that an oft-overlooked characteristic of more modern Gothic fiction is the tension that arises between a character’s skepticism and the gradual, dreadful revelation of something that exists beyond their rationalized heuristics (15). This, she asserts, is a consequence of the modern era – where the comparative safety and technological advancement come at the cost of a deeper spiritual connection to the supernatural, and to the realm of the unknown (ibid).  Here Lovecraft’s aforementioned disdain for the cultural and technological changes of the modern era become relevant to the Gothic and the repressed.  In his 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft states:

“The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imaginations and a capacity for detachment from every-day life. Relatively few are free enough from the daily routine to respond to rappings from outside, and tales of ordinary feelings and events, or of common sentimental distortions of such feelings and events, will always take first place in the taste of the majority [..]” (171-172).

Here, Freud’s description of the “primitive”, surmounted atavism that is recalled through the Uncanny is contextualized by Lovecraft in terms of the boundaries drawn between the supernatural “Other” and modern, cynical rationality – boundaries that the Gothic consistently transgresses (236).

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (63) describes Lovecraft’s ‘weird fiction’ as a modern continuance of the Gothic tradition in that it chastens the hubris of humanity’s pretentions towards ontological supremacy.  Inherent within Lovecraft’s work is a pronounced anti-humanism, a “cosmic fear” that strips humanity of its privileged, unique status within the cosmos, and in so doing speaks to the intimate connection between the fear of the unknown, and the fear of death (Weinstock 63-64). Here it ought to be noted that Lovecraft himself took care to demonstrate that weird fiction ought not be subsumed into a broader category of horror fiction; insisting that a true weird tale must evoke, “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”, as well as a “[..] malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (Lovecraft 173).

While eluding categorical enclosure within the literary traditions of the time, Lovecraft’s “cosmic fear” is commensurate with the teleology of the Gothic, as it contradicts the solipsism of Enlightenment rationalism that holds mankind to be capable of comprehending (and thus overcoming) any and all instances of threatening uncertainty (Sederholm et al 35; Punter et al 12). Weinstock asserts that within Lovecraft’s Gothic anti-humanism, “human beings are reduced to things, demoted to matter that doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things”(76). Although Lovecraft himself was not a veteran, the parallels to the themes of dehumanization and automatism inherent within The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Sassoon’s war-poetry are indicative of the broader cultural and literary zeitgeist that permeated the 1920’s.

The 1930’s: Gothic Depression

By 1931, the United States had been plunged into the depths of the Depression. The hedonism of the jazz-era gave way to impoverished cynicism and movie-goers sought an outlet for their anger (Skal 115-116). In the space of this single year, Hollywood studios produced three films adapted from 19th Century Gothic novels: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All three represent a different aspect of Monstrosity that recalled the anxieties of Depression-era audiences: Dracula as the aristocratic foreigner – both immigrant and capitalist come to further drain the lifeblood from America; the Creature as the wretched and abandoned walking corpse – a poignant symbol of the all-too-common unemployment breadlines; and the bourgeois Dr. Jekyll who allowed the villainous Mr. Hyde to exploit and murder ‘disposable’ lower-class women (Skal 159).  These films launched the careers of iconic horror actors like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and secured a permanent place for the Monster Movie in cinema and pop-culture history. But more importantly, they demonstrated that the Gothic tradition could not only survive the rapidly changing times, but it could also adapt and thrive through them.

The Spartan severity of the early 1930’s lacked the sumptuous, dark romanticism and macabre indulgences that had informed Stoker, Shelley and Stevenson’s stories. This was an era that would not escape the deprivation of economic Depression for many years and would soon see the rise of the Third Reich – despite having only just recovered from the previous War. In just 32 years, the Gothic had transformed from decadent tales of vampires and mysterious castles to the haunted, existential dread of a traumatized generation. Nonetheless, its core traditions of uncanniness, displacement, repetition, and haunting would continue. Indeed, as should already be evident, the longevity of the Gothic lies in its revenant regeneration: where there are fear and uncertainty to be repressed, it will inevitably rise anew. And further horrors were certainly on their way.

Works Cited

Bennet, Andrew and Royle, Nicholas. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (2nd Edition). Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Bethin, Christine. Gothic Hauntings. Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Clements, Valdine. The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror From the Castle of Otranto to Alien. State University of New York Press, 1999.

“Edith Wharton”. In Our Time: Literature, Reported by Hermione Lee, Bridget Bennett, Laura Rattray and Melvin Bragg, from BBC Radio, 4th Oct. 2018.

Freud, Sigmund. Reflections on War and Death. Moffat, Yard and Company, 1918.

—. ‘The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 217-256.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” H.P. Lovecraft: Selected Works, Critical Perspectives and Interviews on his Influence, edited by Leverett Butts, McFarland & Company Inc, 2018, pp. 171-203. (Original Work Published 1927).

—.  “The Call of Cthulu”. Necronomicon: The Very Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, Commemorative Edition, edited by Stephen Jones. Gollancz, 2008, pp. 201-225.

Punter, David and Glennis, Byron. The Gothic. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. 2005.

Sederholm, Carl H & Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrews. “Introduction: Lovecraft Rising”. The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 62-78.

Skal, David. The Monster Show (Revised Edition). Faber & Faber Inc, 1993.

Stengel, Ellen Power. “Edith Wharton Rings “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell””. Edith Wharton Review, vol. 7, no.1, 1990, pp. 3-9. Jstor.org/stable/43512769 Accessed June 29, 2019.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. “Lovecraft’s Things: Sinister Souvenirs From Other Worlds.” The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 62-78.

Wharton, Edith. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”. Ghost: 100 Stories to Read With the Lights On, edited by Louise Welsh, Head of Zeus Ltd, 2015, pp. 344-358. (Original Work Published 1904).

—.  “Motor-Flight through France, A.” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 99, 1907, p. 98.

—. “Afterward.” The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton, by Edith Wharton, vol. 2, ICON Classics, 2008, pp. 3-36. LitFinder, http://link.galegroup.com.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/apps/doc/CX4031900006/LITF?u=macquarie&sid=LITF&xid=9f979b07. Accessed 29 June 2019.


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A Guide to the Gothic Copyright © 2019 by Katherine Hawkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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