The social aspects of nineteenth century Gothic horror are a study in the dichotomous nature of the Victorian mind. This period, characterized by its sexual repression, gave rise to some very salacious fiction, especially of the horror variety. Early in the century The Second Great Awakening had renewed religious fervor in both Europe and America. This is juxtaposed against eighteenth century cultural trends that had seen great strides towards intellectual, scientific, and sexual enlightenment. The reemerging repressive attitude seems to have been a reaction to the more libertine nature of the previous century and it is possible this grew out of advances in female empowerment. The temperance movements and the social purity movements of the period acted as a political outlet for women in a time when they were locked out of more traditional political activity. These movements worked hand in hand with the newly empowered religious institutions to counter any and all things they perceived as sexually or morally deviant. Sexuality had to go underground and find new outlets of expression safe from the burgeoning social nanny state. One of the most obvious of these outlets was the convergence of sexuality and literature specifically as found in Gothic horror fiction.
Gothic horror became a cloak under which the Victorian who wished to explore ideas of a more sensual nature could feel free to do so with abandon. From the first half of the century we have such works as The String of Pearls (better known today as Sweeney Todd). Here, ideas regarding sex are completely disguised in the form of a cannibal, his victims, and his accomplices: The sex is merely suggested and never acted upon openly. However, the very act of eating human flesh is one of the most intimate acts one could possibly imagine and becomes a means through which the author relates the deviancy of the characters. It also doesn’t take much imagination to link the horror created by Sweeney Todd to many sexual practices that would have been considered deviant at the time such as bondage and elicit affairs between married partners. The story is full of semi-hidden double entendres, but it was far from the open bucking of cultural conventions when compared to later more explicit works. These later authors touched on subjects as varied as physical seduction, bestiality, and very surprisingly frank depictions of transvestism. Two late Nineteenth Century novels represent the peak of this trend towards sexualization in Gothic horror literature, Bran Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.
The two novels explore sex in a very open and frank way. While it is still depicted as deviant and dangerous, there is no doubt it was meant to titillate the reader. Not only did these novels seek to express sexual themes, they also took shots at British imperialism and conformity. To the modern reader sex and imperial rule would seem very disconnected but, to the Victorian sensibility, sexual prowess and imperial might were intimately intertwined. Inserted into this mix, the villains of both Dracula and The Beetle seek to overturn British hegemony through “means of the appropriation and destruction of symbols of the moral, spiritual, and racial superiority of England’s ruling class- its women.”(30). Thus the two novels explore the ideas of sexual deviance through the domination of racial “others” over pure British womanhood. This interracial aspect of sex acts depicted in both books feed into both fear and arousal.
In the article, “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis”, Kathleen Spencer seeks to explore the sexual undertones of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the perspective of the body of literature available during the Victorian period. It is her belief that the novel should be read in context with the other novels that explore sexual and supernatural situations, in order to form an overall synthesis of how sexual mores are expressed in these works. Spencer breaks these works down into their composite pieces to illustrate how abnormal sexual situations could be presented through supernatural aspects without causing the Victorian reader to reject the works outright. This would be important in inoculating the literature from conventional social forces that may seek to ban these novels.
Authors like Stoker set their works in the contemporary period to lure their readers into a sense of the normal. Spencer states that, “First and most important, the new authors insist on the modernity of the setting not on the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader, but on their identity. A modern setting means, most profoundly, an urban setting, as by the end of the Nineteenth Century well over half the population of the British Isles lived in cities.” (200). The authors of the time were intent on relating to their readers and to bringing them into their stories. They used a variety of techniques, from using familiar settings to creating intense emotional content, to capture the reader’s attention. This increased the tension within their narrative and resulted in much more vivid storytelling. The authors then introduced fantasy elements to shock the reader out of their normal lives, allowing them to embrace ideas and situations that would not appear in mundane society.
Spencer then goes on to explore further how sexuality is expressed in Dracula and other novels of the period. She contends that, “the crucial distinction between Dracula and his opponents: he is degenerate.” (213). Dracula represents the opposition to the sexual norm. He and his creations are monsters of the fantastic and illustrate the dangers of degeneracy and sexual deviance. These monsters are powerfully alluring, but they can be defeated. Men and even woman can hold out against their sexual power, at least for awhile, and those that can’t are doomed. It is important that those characters shown to fall prey to the sexual deviant are damned, as this plays into the themes that protect the novels from conventional social criticism. If these novels are seen as cautionary tales against evil then they could break social/sexual taboos without fear of reprisal by moral authorities.
The Beetle, published the same year as Dracula, delves even further into what Victorians would have seen as sexual aberration. It was so successful that it outsold Dracula into the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Victoria Margree calls the novel The Beetle “an extended homoerotic and masochistic fantasy.” (76) The book focused on the strict attitudes against female empowerment and women acting as men. We, as a society, may not be as concerned with female identity as we once were, but the interplay of homosexuality in the book fits well into the fears and anxiety of our own society and its struggle with the idea of gay marriage and rights. This is a novel that broke all the rules regarding sex and morality of the period and managed to be one of the best selling novels of its day without raising an as much as an eyebrow among the religious elite.
The horror genre continues to be a place in which authors, artists, and especially filmmakers can explore the fringes of human experience. Attitudes toward sexuality may change, but horror fiction continues to push the boundaries of society on that front. My generation often attended horror movies just to see the scantily clad bodies of the girls who would be menaced once again by those eternal supernatural creatures. Those movies taught us that having sex would surely result in decapitation or a bloody death in a lakeside cabin. It never prevented me from returning each week and it certainly never really turned anyone off sex. We were just playing the same century long game of hide and seek with the puritanical among us.
Garnett, Rhys. “Dracula and the Beetle: Imperial and Sexual Guilt and Fear in Late Victorian Fantasy”. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990: 30-54. Print.
Kathleen L. Spencer. “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis.”ELH, 59.1 ( 1992): 197-225 The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Margee, Victoria. “Both in Men’s Clothing: Gender, Sovereignty and Insecurity in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.” Critical Survey 19.2 (2007): 63-81. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.