With the proliferation of vampire and zombie-based media, not to mention myriad 21st-century Penny Dreadfuls (including American Horror Story and the eponymous Showtime series), the Gothic genre is having a massive resurgence. A new exhibit makes us wonder if it ever went away. Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library, is Britain’s largest-ever exhibit on the genre, featuring hundreds of literary, sculptural and fine art artifacts from the last 250 years.
Admittedly, with such a broad historical time span, the definition of gothic can get a bit “nebulous” according to Tim Pye, the exhibit’s lead curator. After all, what does the original artwork for Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have in common with the original manuscript from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? But three basic themes are present in all the work on display, from William Blake’s macabre engravings from 1797 to the recent reconstituted body horror of Jake and Dinos Chapman. These are “a focus on the dark and uncanny; an interest in the supernatural; and, above all, a desire to examine our deepest fears.”
Over the centuries, Gothic art has swung ominous-pendulum-like between a focus on external terrors–the “ruined castles and abbeys of the 18th century” and the dark, serpentine “urban landscape of Victorian London”–and the internal ones, as evidenced in Poe’s mad protagonists. More recently, artists like Alexander McQueen were again engaged with the disturbing physical world. “By utilizing antlers and taxidermied birds in much of his fashion, he constantly explored the darker side of nature,” says Pye. Beyond the physical and the mental, Gothic art also tackles important societal issues. Bram Stoker’s Dracula grapples with colonialism, the “New Woman” and the advance of technology. In The Shining, Kubrick employs that most famous of Gothic symbols–the haunted house–to examine the repercussions of alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic abuse.
Not all aspects of Terror and Wonder are so weighty. One of the most popular artifacts on display is a vampire-slaying kit, complete with pistol, crucifix, mallet, and wooden stakes, the Book of Common Prayer, and rosary. (All of these items are packed in a tidy little travel case, so you can hunt your vampire without having to check your bags.) All of the items date to the 19th century, though Pye believes that they may have been assembled into one package by a curiosities collector in the 1970s or ’80s. The kit was included to reflect what Pye calls “the enduring popularity of Dracula and our cultural fascination with the vampire.”
Also enduring is our desire to be both terrified and delighted by such terror. There’s nothing quite as pulse-quickening as “that moment of drama that stops you in your tracks,” says Pye. As a culture, we are addicted to the unexplained, the irrational and the creepy–anything that plumbs “the hidden, shadowy corners of the human psyche.”