The history of reading horror
Horror fiction, in its many forms, continues to grow in popularity and influence.

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The history of reading horror

Story By: PETER WARD
10/29/2015


It is strange that there should be an entire holiday dedicated to experiencing fear. Oddly, this emotion that we would normally want to avoid—a sign of danger and source of anxiety—comes on Halloween, a cause for excitement, exhilaration and fun. For most, celebrating Halloween will always involve reading, watching or listening to some type of horror fiction.

Horror fiction, in its many forms, continues to grow in popularity and influence.  Such stories can be psychological or supernatural; often they include elements of science fiction, fantasy and mystery as well as other genres. Allusions to horror stories incorporate all aspects of culture, even our everyday speech. The recent zombie craze is a particularly notable example of our obsession with the genre, as seen by an explosion of zombie books, movies and television shows like “The Walking Dead.” There are even zombie-version parodies of classic literature on the shelves, such as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” which has in turn received a film adaptation of its own.  Other horror obsessions over the years have included: vampires, mummies, werewolves, ghosts and the paranormal, aliens and abductions, as well as murderers of various types.  The one commonality in these stories, which goes without saying, is fear.

The first wave of popular horror stories was of the “gothic” variety. “The Castle of Otranto,” which Horace Walpole published in 1764, introduced the disturbing setting, mysterious ambiance, and looming sense of fate that would come to identify such stories.  Ann Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolpho” of 1794 included abandoned castles, shadowy influences and kidnappings. “The Monk,” written two years later, replaced the castle with a monastery and introduced the figure of a deranged priest as villain—a figure that would become a familiar archetype of the time. At the height of the phenomena, the ideas and themes of gothic stories began appearing in even the most unexpected places; Jane Austen’s characters even read gothic novels.  When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, it featured elements of the gothic as well as the Promethean Romanticism of the time, creating a new sort of book with a plot hinging on the power of reason to unleash the fantastic. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” written in 1897, opens with a typically gothic scene; this time, the menace is not drawn from the weight of tradition or mankind’s overweening drive for progress, but folklore: the legend of the vampire.

In America as well, horror has been an influence from the beginning. Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a familiar Halloween story, while the original Rip Van Winkle conveys an eerie sense of the supernatural. Many of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical tales are shaped by the powerful sense of fate and revenge. Above all, though, Edgar Allen Poe, through careful development of the horror story, and even the horror poem, became a sensation in his lifetime, besides the future of the genre. A large measure of the reason for this popularity is indubitably linked to their realism. For instance, when Poe wrote “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” mesmerism, a form of hypnotism, was on the vanguard of scientific advancement. “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” was written in an age revolutionized by advances in transportation and exploration. Not only did many of Poe’s early readers believe that many of his stories could happen, they believed they actually occurred.

In the early decades of the 20th century, pulp fiction magazines proliferated, the largest being the “Weird Tales” under the aegis of H.P. Lovecraft. Here, the idea of cosmic horror was first introduced; a form featuring incomprehensible alien visitors causing humans to reflect on the insignificance of our planet compared to the immensities of evolutionary, geologic, and interstellar time and space. With the new media of film as well as the growing media of comics, many classic stories were given new life and increased popularity. Early monster movies such as “Nosferatu,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” remain popular Halloween viewing to this day. Horror novels once more exploded in popularity in 1967 with Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Carrie” by Stephen King in 1979. More horror novels were being published than ever before, while horror movies and television shows became more popular than ever. In the 21st century, new writers such Joe Hill, Sarah Langan, Jeff Strand and Jim Butcher have continued the tradition, blending new ideas and concepts with the long foundation of horror. This Halloween is another great chance to explore the past or look into the future of a popular genre.