National University Faculty Interview: Gothic Literature's Influences on Modern Horror Trends

October 21, 2016

Professor Franz J. Potter oversees the M.A. in English program, which includes a specialization in gothic studies; He shares how horror and Halloween culture is influenced by gothic literature

As Halloween approaches each year, so does a renewed fascination with haunts, ghouls and scary creatures. Associate Professor Franz J. Potter of National University’s Master of Arts in English program – believed to be the only such program in the U.S. with a specialization in gothic studies – notes the inspiration behind today’s horror trends and characters comes from gothic literature of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Over the years, gothic literature has been a significant source of inspiration for blockbuster movies and books, and it continues to be appropriated by popular culture in new ways. This includes the growing popularity of graphic horror novels, as well as the recent social media-fanned cultural phenomenon of people dressing up as “creepy clowns” to scare people by appearing in public spaces.

“The notion of haunted or ghoulish clowns has exploded lately in popular culture and become a mainstay of social media,” he said, but it all has its roots in gothic literature, adding that "we've taken the genre a step further, adapting the tried and true themes from gothic literature and applying them to new settings and situations. Creepy clowns are another example of our fascination with things that stalk us from the shadows that is both terrify and thrilling. Ultimately they remind us that monsters could be real, and are still among us.”

Dr. Potter, who is the Lead Faculty of National University's M.A. in English program, attributes many of the primary characters and backdrops of late October to the original horror novels of literary greats such as Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe. As to the “creepy clown” phenomenon, Dr. Potter said literary connections can be traced to the clown in Stephen King’s novel It, andas far back as Poe’s tale Hop-Frog.

"At one time, gothic literature was most popular genre in England and America," says Dr. Potter,  who has authored several books on gothic literature, gothic authors and the history of gothic publishing. "The stories were full of  vampires and haunted houses, ghosts and the living dead…fear-inducing tropes that are as in-demand now as they've ever been, if not more so.”

These days, modern horror in fiction and film represents some of the biggest box office hits and best sellers on the market, building the careers of new masters such as Stephen King and Tim Burton.   Dr. Potter, also cites the work of Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the popular "Twilight" series of contemporary vampire novels, which became a popular film series as well. "That's an example of gothic literature creeping down into young adult fiction," he explained.

Another rapidly growing medium that Dr. Potter points to is the graphic horror novel, a popular hybrid that straddles the line between comic book and paperback.  Sales of graphic novels topped $1 billion last year according to Comichron, The world's largest public archive of comic book sales figures.

An understanding of gothic literature can contribute to a richer and deeper appreciation of current horror media and traditional Halloween memes, but it also presents a foundational springboard for the sort of professional success enjoyed by novelists, such as Anne Rice, screen writers, poets and others who have found new and inventive ways to reconstruct these themes that resonate with new generations. 

For more information on National University’s M.A. in English program: click here.

For more information on the M.A. in English program’s specialty in gothic studies: click here.

About National University
Founded in 1971, National University is one of the largest private, nonprofit universities in California. With more than 150,000 alumni, National University is the flagship institution of the National University System. National University is dedicated to making lifelong learning opportunities accessible, challenging, and relevant to a diverse population of students. Four schools and two colleges – the College of Letters and Sciences; the Sanford College of Education; the School of Business and Management; the School of Engineering and Computing; the School of Health and Human Services; and the School of Professional Studies – offer more than 100 graduate and undergraduate degrees and 23 teacher credentials. Programs are offered at locations throughout California and across the nation, and are also available online. National University is headquartered in La Jolla, California. http://www.nu.edu/