Horror rather than Terror: the cover of “Dorian Gray” immediately shocks the viewer, an ironic contrast to the actual writing style of the novel which instead evokes terror

It’s the classic, bone-chilling tale that has thrilled readers for over a century. Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” combines themes of corruption and decay with descriptions of gore and decadence to evoke the Gothic atmosphere.

But is the Gothic formula of the tale still relevant and applicable to the horror genre today?

The answer is yes.

In fiction today, the genres of gothic and horror seem to stand apart. Gothic fiction evokes terror, which could be described as anticipation of fear and dread. Meanwhile, horror fiction evokes “horror”, an amalgamation of shock and revulsion. It should come as no surprise then that the thrill of reading is attained by different means. Gothic fiction tends to entice and captivate by evoking an atmosphere which encourages the reader to anticipate a fearful situation. In Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, this “fearful situation” is based on the expectation of the horrific sight of Dorian’s portrait.

Earlier on in the novel, the reader is witness to the first, dark change to Dorian’s portrait. After a particularly ruthless rejection of the woman he used to love, the man in the portrait develops a cold, cruel sneer. Before the reader can be privy to any more changes, Dorian soon hides the portrait, leaving it – and the reader – entirely in the dark. As Dorian undergoes his dark transformation, expectation of the reveal of the horrific portrait drives the reader towards the climax. While horror novels, especially those in the modern age, seek to terrify and shock through gory descriptions rather than through subtle insinuations, there are in fact more similarities than differences between the two genres.

The gothic and modern horror genres differ. But only slightly. The horror genre is mainly an extension of the gothic. Gothic fiction, from its conception in the late 18th century comprised one central genre, which then diverged and branched into several sub-genres. The horror genre is, arguably, one of these genres. Built upon the foundations of the early gothic, horror is attained not by the anticipation of these fearful events, but the reaction to those events, hence the feelings of shock and revulsion. But gothic elements are still prevalent in horror fiction.

Take a modern horror novel. Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” harnesses traditional gothic elements, such as darkness, supernatural elements and transgression, combining them with excesses of blood and violence. Vampirism, in the novel, is a means of permitting transgression. One of the main characters, Lestat, a vampire, rejoices in immoral and disproportionate acts of violence.

Interlaced with gothic elements are scenes of blood and gore. While the mystery and suggested attraction of the vampires lure in the reader, excessive violence serves as a repellent. So, most of the novel’s thrills are obtained by a combination of gothic and horror;  pages of gruesome description, with interjections of violence, simultaneously attract and repulse the reader.

This is even continued into the film arena. The novel was translated so effectively into a film because the horrific descriptions were easily transformed into visual excesses of blood and sex, both enticing and repulsing the audience. The horror genre is so frequently replicated in the cinema because blood and gore evoke the best reactions from audiences. Interestingly enough, horror films actually encompass both the Gothic and horror fictions successfully; the suspense and sense of foreboding prefigure the gore. Each element works in tandem, creating an interwoven web of anticipation and reaction.

So while the horror genre of today may seem to differ from the Gothic, as its appeal is derived from evoking shock and horror in the readers, rather than fearful anticipation, the two are essentially inseparable elements of one overarching genre.


Article by Olivia Johnson – Exeposé Online Books Editor.


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