Take a walk down a dark corridor, with only a candle to light your way. Listen to the sudden creak of a door and look twice when a curtain billows in the wind.
As Halloween fast approaches, the BBC and The British Library are celebrating all that is Gothic. The former is running a season of Gothic programmes on television and radio, and the latter has a Gothic exhibition running until January, as well as various events.
Since I am studying Gothic at university, I’m feeling pretty immersed in the subject at the moment. This year is the 250th anniversary of the publication of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto. This is widely thought to be the first ever Gothic novel, and although it may differ greatly from the literature we consider ‘Gothic’ by today’s standards, it is easy to see how this story of a castle with hidden passageways, curses and strange ghosts paved the way for more monstrous tales.
I visited Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at The British Library recently, and seeing all the artifacts and history behind these cherished tales of terror was genuinely fascinating. The exhibit starts off with Walpole and Gothic architecture, the Victorian classic novels of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the real-life fear of Jack the Ripper, continuing through the Universal monster films and the Hammer Horror pictures, right through to the Gothic films and books today, and the counter culture of Gothic fashion and music. The exhibition is a rare treat to see first editions of books, scripts and even a vampire slaying kit.
I also went along to a talk called Vampires in Films: Dracula on Screen – a panel talk – consisting of Marcus Hearn, Official Hammer historian; Robert J.E. Simpson, Hammer archivist, author, publisher and film historian; Jonathan Rigby, actor, writer and author, and last but certainly not least, the great Sir Christopher Frayling, writer, cultural critic and presenter. The panel chose to discuss eight Dracula films through the years, starting with the original 1922 silent movie version Nosferatu, and ending (rather anticlimactically, in my opinion) with Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Other films discussed were: Dracula (the 1958 Hammer version), The Brides of Dracula, El Conde Dracula and Count Dracula (the 1977 BBC version). In a way, we were looking at the evolution of the onscreen Dracula, from a rodent-toothed ogre, to a suave sexy aristocrat. I found the talk really interesting, and loved the screening of Dracula (1958) after, but I was disappointed that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula was only mentioned briefly, albeit in a rather critical fashion. To me, that film is my favourite depiction of Dracula. I can see the flaws, but I think it is claustrophobic, nightmarish and beautiful, and I adore the cinematography and special effects (much preferable to CGI).
Also worth noting is the fact that this year celebrates the 80th anniversary of Hammer. Hammer films hold a special place in my heart; when I was about ten years old, I begged my mum to let me have my nan’s old cast-off black and white television in my bedroom. Every now and then, I ‘d secretly stay up and watch the old horror double bills on BBC 2 (often Hammer films), and although I don’t find them frightening now, I certainly did as an impressionable young girl. I think that might be when my love for the Gothic began.