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Upon The Nature Of Gothic Horror

October 31, 2023
by the gentle author

I believe I was born with a medieval imagination. It is the only way I can explain the explicit gothic terrors of my childhood. Even lying in my cradle, I recall observing the monstrous face that emerged from the ceiling lampshade once the light was turned out. This all-seeing creature, peering at me from above, grew more pervasive as years passed, occupying the shadows at the edges of my vision and assuming more concrete manifestations. An unexpected sound in my dark room revealed its presence, causing me to lie still and hold my breath, as if through my petrified silence I could avert the attention of the devil leaning over my bedside.

When I first became aware of gargoyles carved upon churches and illustrated in manuscripts, I recognised these creatures from my own imagination and I made my own paintings of these scaled, clawed, horned, winged beasts, which were as familiar as animals in the natural world. I interpreted any indeterminate sound or movement from the dark as indicating their physical presence in my temporal existence. Consequently, darkness, shadow and gloom were an inescapable source of fear to me on account of the nameless threat they harboured, always lurking there just waiting to pounce. At this time of year, when the dusk glimmers earlier in the day, their power grew as if these creatures of the shades might overrun the earth.

Nothing could have persuaded me to walk into a dark house alone. One teenage summer, I looked after an old cottage while the residents were on their holiday and, returning after work at night, I had to walk a long road that led through a deep wood without street lighting. As I wheeled my bicycle up the steep hill among the trees in dread, it seemed to me they were alive with monsters and any movement of the branches confirmed their teeming presence.

Yet I discovered a love of ghost stories and collected anthologies of tales of the supernatural, which I accepted as real because they extended and explained the uncanny notions of my own imagination. In an attempt to normalise my fears, I made a study of mythical beasts and learnt to distinguish between a griffin and a wyvern. When I discovered the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Breughel, I grew fascinated and strangely reassured that they had seen the apocalyptic visions which haunted the recesses of my own mind.

I made the mistake of going to see Ridley Scott’s The Alien alone and experienced ninety minutes transfixed with terror, unable to move, because – unlike the characters in the drama – I was already familiar with this beast who had been pursuing me my whole life. In retrospect, I recognise the equivocal nature of this experience, because I also sought a screening of The Exorcist with similar results. Perhaps I sought consolation in having my worst fears realised, even if I regretted it too?

Once, walking through a side street at night, I peered into the window of an empty printshop and leapt six feet back when a dark figure rose up from among the machines to confront my face in the glass. My companions found this reaction to my own shadow highly amusing and it was a troubling reminder of the degree to which I was at the mercy of these irrational fears even as an adult.

I woke in the night sometimes, shaking with fear and convinced there were venomous snakes in the foot of my bed. The only solution was to unmake the bed and remake it again before I could climb back in. Imagine my surprise when I visited the aquarium in Berlin and decided to explore the upper floor where I was confronted with glass cases of live tropical snakes. Even as I sprinted away down the street, I felt the need to keep a distance from cars in case a serpent might be lurking underneath. This particular terror reached its nadir when I was walking in the Pyrenees, and stood to bathe beneath a waterfall and cool myself on a hot day. A green snake of several feet in length fell wriggling from above, hit me, bounced off into the pool and swam away, leaving me frozen in shock.

Somewhere all these fears dissolved. I do not know where or when exactly. I no longer read ghost stories or watch horror films and equally I do not seek out dark places or reptile houses. None of these things have purchase upon my psyche or even hold any interest anymore. Those scaly beasts have retreated from the world. For me, the shadows are not inhabited by the spectral and the unfathomable darkness is empty.

Bereavement entered my life and it dispelled these fears which haunted me for so long. My mother and father who used to turn out the light and leave me to sleep in my childhood room at the mercy of medieval phantasms are gone, and I have to live in the knowledge that they can no longer protect me. Once I witnessed the moment of death with my own eyes, it held no mystery for me. The demons became redundant and fled. Now they have lost their power over me, I miss them – or rather, perhaps, I miss the person I used to be – yet I am happy to live a life without supernatural agency.

Fourteenth century carvings from St Katherine’s Chapel, Limehouse

5 Responses leave one →
  1. October 31, 2023

    I have never really liked the dark. As a child, I had to walk past an old Gothic house which we all dubbed: ” the haunted house”. Tales abounded of creepy residents chasing children, ghosts seen cackling outside and mysterious, unexplained phenomena. The gate was surrounded by thick ivy and, as a child, I could just peer through a gap to see dum lights from within on winter evenings as I walked home from school. That house was a fascination to me.
    I still dislike the dark but am much more brave than I used to be. My main fear is that the thing that goes bump in the night will be me, falling downstairs, by tripping over one of the cats who has taken to sleeping there.
    The creatures of the night aren’t phantoms, they are foxes, who make a range of blood-curdling, human-pitched screams at this time of year. The white, silent, floating objects that just catch your eye, are not ghosts but barn owls. I once had a badger cub run over my foot as I took things out of my car one evening. I had assumed it was a cat and I called by its presumed name before I realised.
    There is also something magical about standing in a wood, as the last of the light disappears and the stars come into view. Gradually the place becomes alive with the creatures of the night, as one by one, they put in an appearance. Your senses crackle with the slightest sound – the crack of a tiny twig, or nearby snuffling. You learn not to be afraid, there are no supernatural demons here, although, in reality, I still harbour one very real fear – tripping up.

  2. October 31, 2023

    Halloween holds a fond memory for me. I got my first kiss in a cemetery, one Halloween night.
    I was at that age when one is no longer a child, but not yet a full-fledged teen. I considered myself too “mature” to get into a real costume, so I took the route of rubbing burnt cork onto my face and dressing in rags — a sort of girl hobo. I still had my full bag of collected treats, from going door to door, and carried it up to the nearby cemetery on the hill. A slightly older boy from our neighborhood came along and we kissed. I doubt that it was a “first” for him – he seemed quite expert and experienced — but it was a FIRST for me, and I still remember it (and him) to this day.
    Needless to say, I am a big fan of Halloween — it is a wonderfully romantic holiday, methinks.

  3. Cherub permalink
    October 31, 2023

    I am not afraid of the dark or graveyards, the latter I see as peaceful places of contemplation even after dark and there is a small old churchyard near us in Basel we sometimes wander through out walking in the late evening.

    Many years ago I lived in a street 5 minutes walk from a graveyard, the street was called The Hallows and my house number was 31. It that’s not a nod to Halloween I don’t know what is!

  4. November 1, 2023

    Everyone knows about the monsters under the bed, but I expect that the monsters grow tired of waiting for us to slip up, and eventually they leave us in peace (at least I hope this is true, I must check again.) Happy Halloween. 😉

  5. BILL THE HORRIFIED!!!!! permalink
    November 1, 2023


    How well I remember the day, when, playing raucously with my siblings, I jumped up on my unmade bed and pulled the bedclothes over me, only to find… staring at me with the vilest malevolence… THE LEERING GREEN EYES OF THE BEAST HIMSELF!!!!!!

    I quickly threw off my sheets and covers and resumed my childish anarchy with my childish companions; however, I never forgot my quick acquaintance with Satan himself, hunkered down at the bottom of my bed… under… the bedclothes.


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