My First Encounters with the Gothic: How I became a Dedicatee of the Dark

I have always been drawn to the dark side. My parents are not into the Gothic, but they unwittingly provided plenty of paths that led me to a fascination with the weird and the wicked. Like Dr Henry Jekyll, I believe this capacity lies within us all – if (in)appropriately triggered in childhood. For those of us lucky enough to be given this early training in terror, the Gothic can take on a darkly delicious nostalgia later in life; a feeling of being at home, a reassuringly unheimlich home.

For me, it was a plethora of encounters from illicit Friday night viewings of Hammer Horrors, Hitchcocks, creature features, and curiosity shows about drinking blood on the tiny TV bracketed on my bedroom wall. The morbidity of Michael Burke’s 999 held the power to entice me back indoors in the long summer nights of the nineties. I was that child in primary school propagating rumours of the murderous ‘Blue Lady’ haunting the toilets – terrified, and loving it. Trips to the London, York, and Edinburgh Dungeons and ‘Chamber of Horrors’, with their creepy waxwork depictions of tortured criminals, fuelled my fire for the fiendish. It was in this chilling chamber’s gift shop that, aged nine, I began my ever-growing Gothic library, with a book by George Riley Scott, full of disturbing medieval woodcuts, entitled The History of Torture.  

As a teenager and young adult, I graduated to horror cult classics: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and relished the death trap depravity of James Wan’s Saw (2004) at the cinema. I surrounded myself with others who delighted in the dark: a budding horror film maker and Rocky Horror obsessive, a zombie aficionado, a special effects make-up artist, and a flat mate prankster who planted eyeless doll heads under the covers and Cousin Itts in the cupboard. Alongside this, I was devouring Jane Eyre (1847), Wuthering Heights (1847), Dracula (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Woman in White (1860), In a Glass Darkly (1872), Victorian ghost stories, and everything by Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson. I decided to make it my life’s work to devour the entire canon, so a PhD on the Brontës and Daphne du Maurier was inevitable. 

I fell in love with Gothic literature because it takes us beyond the daylight rigidity of defined categories, inviting us to revel in ambiguity, heightened states of emotion and passion, the frowned-upon recesses of humanity. Even if the Gothic novel winds up containing all this safely within a box, the Gothic is where the darkness is given a day out to parade in full, unashamed glory. Re-reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde recently reinforces my conviction that Gothic is a necessary life-force for the soul; however ‘wicked’ its leanings, one must need ‘strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty’. Gothic is transgressive, subversive, and liminal; it flouts in the face of the stuffy, stifling rules of ‘reality’. The Gothic’s interpretation of what ‘reality’ is – that it is multifarious, elliptical, contingent, and unstable – is, for me, the genre’s most alluring and powerful aspect. The death-obsessed Gothic taught me how to live. For that, I’ll never give up on the Gothic. 

By Helena Habibi