Horror stories - for the most part, anyway - are all about bodies. Bodies changing, bodies dying, bodies coming back to life, bodies being bitten with fangs. All the things which can transform, or damage, or distort us (physically or emotionally!) are what’s at the heart of most scary fiction, either in books or on screen.
Werewolves? People who turn into animals. Vampires? They drink our blood. Zombies? Dead people.
are a good example of how horror can mirror even very everyday fears.
In many zombie stories, the bad guys have contracted a virus and infect
people… in exactly the same way as an infection might give us a bad
cold, or a nasty rash. Zombies are a way of representing the idea of
disease! (Think about that next time there’s a scare in the news about
flu or a food poisoning outbreak).
The modern horror story is
basically a Victorian invention. Horror fiction has its roots in ancient
folklore and mythology, the kind of monster-in-the-cave stories we’re
all familiar with, but it was only in the 1800s that stuff started to be
written purely to scare. Before that, monsters or the supernatural
usually turned up as part of a larger story. The ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the witches in Macbeth, for example, or assorted nasties from the Brothers Grimm. They weren’t normally the whole focus of the tale being told.
In the later 1700s, there
was a literary and artistic movement called romanticism, which was all
about stressing strong emotions in art and writing. The gothic style
evolved from this. Gothic stories were full of dark secrets and daring
heroes as well as ghosts and other supernatural things. They might
include gloomy castles and foggy mountains, bandits and monks, windswept
maidens and evil magicians, as well as all the family curses, madness
and death you could possibly fit into it.
The first gothic novel was Horace Walpole's The Castle Of Otranto, published in 1764. Today, this book is a strangely dull and difficult read, but it clearly started a trend. The influence of gothic fiction can be seen in quite a lot of Victorian novels, including the works of the Brontë sisters.
separate literary elements, all of them firmly based in the gothic
tradition, are what eventually set the scene for the arrival of horror
fiction as we know it today. One of these elements was Charles Dickens’s
ghost stories, as mentioned above.
The tales of terror written by
Edgar Allan Poe around the 1840s, full of nightmares about being buried
alive and haunted by eerie visions, are another of the six. Robert
Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde gave us a new twist on the theme of monsters. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spooky detective mystery The Hound Of The Baskervilles is the element that was published last.
remaining two pieces of the puzzle are perhaps the most important of
all. They are novels which between them created two of the most familiar
characters in all fiction, worldwide.
Vampires have been the
subject of more stories, novels, movies, TV series, more
just-about-everything, than any other imagined horror. They were around
in legends and folklore, in various forms, for many hundreds of years,
but they were made popular by the Irish writer Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.
Dracula, as a character, was a mixture of old European
myths and Bram Stoker’s boss. Stoker had started out as a mathematician
and a civil servant, but from 1878 he was the secretary and touring
manager of the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving.
a great admirer of Irving’s acting. Which was lucky, because by all
accounts Irving was the kind of boss who’d make a serial killer look
like a small fluffy kitten. He could be rude and cruel to Stoker one
minute, charming the next. It’s not a great leap of imagination to see
that such a person could be turned by Stoker, his no.1 fan, into the
smoothly sinister Dracula.
It’s often thought that Dracula was
based on the medieval ruler Vlad the Impaler, but there’s no evidence of
that. All Stoker did was take Vlad’s nickname ‘dracula’, meaning 'son
of the devil’, out of an East European history book. It’s fortunate that
he did that, because his main character was going to be called Count
Wampyr. Which doesn’t quite have the same impact. (He was also going to
make Dracula’s nemesis in London a police inspector, but changed his
mind when the Met noticeably failed to track down Jack the Ripper -
that’s the only reason the book includes the character Van Helsing and
his sidekicks. Oh, one more thing: Stoker’s original ending to the book
involved an exploding volcano - just goes to show how important a bit of
re-writing can be..!)
Dracula was eagerly adapted for
stage and screen. Another horror story, written almost eighty years
earlier, in 1818, had been snapped up even quicker. Fifteen theatre
versions of this story were produced within ten years of its first
appearance, all the more remarkable because its author was only eighteen
years old when she started writing it. Her name was Mary Shelley, and
the book was called Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
came to be written is almost a gothic story in itself. Mary and her
soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Shelley, spent the summer of 1816 in
Switzerland. They rented a grand house beside Lake Geneva, the Villa
Diodati, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, the
at-the-time-infamous poet Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal doctor John
They spent their time writing, boating on the lake and
discussing anything and everything. The weather was dreadful, and one
stormy night they amused themselves by reading German folk tales around
the log fire. Byron suggested that the violent thunder and lightning
outside was ideal for inspiring supernatural stories. So they decided to
have a competition, to see who could write the scariest.
Mary Shelley wrote a great deal more, including the end-of-the-world novel The Last Man, but Frankenstein has
always been her most popular book. As well as being a landmark of
horror, it’s also thought of as being the first proper science fiction
story. It’s quite unlike its many movie versions, concentrating on the
rights and wrongs of Frankenstein’s actions rather than what the monster
gets up to.
Here’s a weird coincidence: what town links Mary Shelley, Dracula and Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde? Answer - Bournemouth. Shelley is buried there, Henry Irving was a frequent visitor there, and Dr Jekyll was written there!
Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, The Hound Of The Baskervilles,
Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and Charles Dickens’s ghostly tales all
boosted public interest in spine-chillers, and changed the nature of
what a scary book could be.
For most of the 20th century, horror
fiction was dominated by short stories. Writers
like H.P.Lovecraft and M.R.James were experts at creating frightening
atmosphere. Novel-length stories like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot were the exception right up until the 1970s and '80s.