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5 Themes of the Gothic

For centuries, horror and terror have been at the heart of the fascination with Gothic literature and art. The ominous themes and haunting visuals that lurk within works such as Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes continue to captivate audiences around the world.

Horror and terror are two prominent themes in Gothic art, literature, and movies. This genre delves deep into the darker aspects of humanity and often incorporates supernatural elements to create a haunting and captivating experience for audiences. Originally coined to describe medieval architecture, Gothic has evolved to encompass a wide range of creative expressions that explore the depths of fear and despair.

Let’s take a deep dive into the Gothic genre’s rich history, exploring its preoccupation with death, decay, and the mysterious supernatural.

History of the Gothic

The horror-dense genre of literature is one that is often misunderstood, yet uniquely captivating. Originating in 18th-century England, it emerged as a reaction to the prevailing novels that centered around middle-class life and morals. Gothic literature aimed to subvert these ideals by exploring themes of horror, suspense, mystery, and darkness. It delves into the concept of rediscovering the unknown, exploring themes such as death, decay, fear, ambiguity, and violence against oppression. These themes are also prevalent in American Gothic literature.

When you hear the term ‘American gothic’ most think of the famous painting of the man and woman and the pitchfork or the hit series American Horror Story. But really it refers to the periods following the American Revolution and even the Civil War. This gruesome genre likes to focus on post-war life.

For example, Gone With the Wind would technically be considered gothic literature. American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Faulkner paved the way for the ‘American Gothic’.

Next, we will discuss five themes of Gothic literature.

5 Themes of the Gothic

The Gothic genre has a wide range of common themes that authors and filmmakers explore to create their stories. Here are five of the most common themes used in Gothic literature and art:

Death and Decay

One of the most prominent themes in Gothic horror is the presence of death and decay. This includes decaying manors, corpses, and other elements that evoke a sense of morbidity and unease. The use of death and decay is often used to create a sense of foreboding and to hint at the darker themes that will be explored throughout the story.

Supernatural Elements

Another key theme in Gothic horror is the presence of supernatural elements. This includes ghosts, demons, vampires, and other creatures that defy explanation. These elements are often used to create a sense of fear and to explore the unknown. They are also used to challenge the reader’s sense of reality and to blur the line between what is real and what is not.

Isolation and Madness

Isolation and madness are also common themes in Gothic horror. Characters are often trapped in remote locations or confined to dark, claustrophobic spaces. This isolation can lead to a sense of madness or paranoia, which can further add to the sense of unease and fear. These themes are often used to explore the darker aspects of the human psyche and to challenge the reader’s sense of what is normal and acceptable behavior.

Romance and Sexuality

Romance and sexuality are often used in Gothic horror to create a sense of tension and unease. Characters are often drawn to each other in ways that are forbidden or taboo, and these relationships can lead to tragic consequences. These themes are often used to explore the darker aspects of human desire and to challenge societal norms and expectations.

The Unknown and Unknowable

Finally, the theme of the unknown and unknowable is a key element of Gothic horror. This includes the presence of mysterious forces or entities that are beyond human understanding. These elements are often used to create a sense of fear and to explore the limits of human knowledge. They are also used to challenge the reader’s sense of what is possible and to evoke a sense of wonder and awe.


To sum up, the Gothic horror genre has had a significant and long-lasting impact on literature for many years. Beginning with the works of writers such as Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, and continuing with today’s horror films, themes such as death and decay, supernatural elements, isolation and madness, romance and sexuality, and the unknown and unknowable have remained core elements of this genre.


“Top 10 Elements of Gothic Literature.” Invaluable, 4 Nov. 2019, https://www.invaluable.com/blog/elements-of-gothic-literature/.

LibGuides. “Libguides: Gothic Literature Guide: What Is the Gothic?20.” What Is the Gothic? – Gothic Literature Guide – LibGuides at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 28 July 2021, https://guides.library.illinois.edu/c.php?g=347594&p=7003511.

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