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  • Writer's pictureMorgan Karpiel

Haunted Mansions, Passionate Lovers, & the Occult: Why Gothic Romance Flirts with Horror

From sprawling mansions steeped in local lore to lost heroes, secret pasts, and family tragedies that draw from the supernatural, Gothic Romances seduce us with rich imagery, mercurial characters, and the lure of the unknowable. But what is it about their dark worlds and harsh landscapes that we find so appealing?

Fans of the genre might quibble over which authors should be included in its list of progenitors and contributors, but I cast a wide net. Ann Radcliffe, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, and so many others, have created a body of work that captures not only our desires and vulnerabilities, our rebellion against the rules of our societies but also our need to beautify death itself.

Ann Radcliffe’s Shakespearian tales of castles and family intrigue are driven by war, murder, and the struggle against unchecked power, giving voice to generations affected by the bloodshed and upheaval of the American and French Revolutions. Despite their losses, her characters are able to find sanctuary in each other and heal the land in the process, transforming the evil committed against them into new life.

Edgar Allan Poe gave us emotional heroes and unreliable narrators, men who raged, and loved passionately, and fell victim to their own madness and delusions. His life, as so many others during the 1840s, was marked by the loss of lovers, friends, and family to cholera and tuberculosis epidemics, leading him to explore the themes of decay, morality, and the macabre in ways that resonated with his generation. His poetic verses and descriptions are vivid and dreamlike, lending a surreal quality to his characters both in life and death.

Daphne du Maurier gave us women who were immature and lovestruck in the traditional sense, but also powerful, desirable, and complex—women who ultimately could never really be destroyed or forgotten. In her most famous character, Rebecca, du Maurier presents us with a symbol of rebellion, both against the constraints on women in society and the image of a perfect wife in the general sense. Using the haunted halls of Manderley, she is able to bring us into a physical manifestation of personal shame and trauma that will only release its hold on the living through fire.

Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley both presented us with broken versions of ourselves, our egos as the monsters we become or create, and the way our pursuit of power will ultimately destroy the tender and fleeting opportunity we have to love others and ourselves within our lifetimes. In describing the horror their characters are capable of, these authors also brought to the surface what still made them human—the tragedy of their origin and the beauty of their existence.

It is perhaps especially powerful now, when we no longer live for generations in the same house, or the same town, that we can go back to this cathartic form of fiction to explore ourselves from time to time. These worlds where mansions are symbols of generational trauma waiting to burn, and curses are tied to family secrets that must be understood to be released, offer us tropes we can discover ourselves in.

The emotive hero who must save others to save himself. The heroine who rises from a helpless ward to a fearless guardian. While they can be seen as reductive roles, there are times when we need reminders of what it takes to overcome overwhelming odds and do the things we are afraid to do.

To me, that is the human need that Gothic Romance addresses. It takes us into beautiful but frightening settings to confront the demons of our past, the limits of our mortality, the risks of our deepest desires, and the things we need to let go of to live freely. Hence, many Gothic romances include strong elements of horror and the supernatural, because letting go is a form of death—a necessary step toward transformation.

Agree? Disagree? We invite you to watch our VR audiobook series, Affair Diabolique, on YouTube. Inspired by the authors mentioned in this post, it offers a Gothic romantic mystery with rich language narration and different 360 listening environments for each chapter. Feel free to like, subscribe, or leave a comment with your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you!

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