The fantastic in the Gothic is represented by the uncanny and supernatural, explained or not. These fantastic stories are classified by the weird fantastic ghost stories of novels, exaggerated in chapbooks. The fantastic or supernatural events take place within a framework of realism, where the author provides additional evidence to show that the events in the Gothic work really did happen. Somewhere in the story “something” strange and unknown breaks into the everyday world and this “something” remains unexplained and unexplainable to the characters and the reader until the very end of the story; additionally, many of these stories have an open ending because of narrator’s inability to explain away the fantastic elements, thereby indicating the existence of a symbolic layer of meaning underneath the realist surface of the narration. The fantastic exists to elaborate on something that is marginalized, hidden, or taboo to mainstream society. At the same time as the rise of the Gothic, sexuality and sexual activity became more hidden from society and further judged by the rising bourgeois middle class because their virginity and sexual purity could save even the most terrible of the Gothic era. However, these fantastic writers did not advocate for sexual liberalism, but merely suggested that female virginity could save even the most othered of all “Others.”


These are described by Frederick S. Frank as a characterization of supernatural encroachment. In the Gothic, supernatural figures tend to enter the lives of the characters and impinge upon and disturb the order of the natural world. These phantoms are sometimes ancestral and often engage the hero or heroine during a night journey. One famous apparition in the Gothic is the bleeding nun, who appears in Lewis’ “The Monk.” Conforming to Frank’s description, Lewis’ bleeding nun reveals herself during a night journey, and turns out to be one of Agnes’s ancestors.

The Haunted Forest

The haunted forest is a Gothic setting that is alive and crawling with horror. Functionally, the forest serves the same purposes as the architecture in a haunted castle. According to Frederick S. Frank, one of the most important formal characteristics of the Gothic is the aliveness of architecture. Frank points out that in many forms of high Gothic fiction inanimate matter possesses a life and mentality of its own. Walls and corridors exhibit auditory powers, windows and turrets have optical abilities, objects of art, furniture, and weaponry function with a vile intelligence of their own. The entire haunted castle (or equivalent) is hyper-organic in all its aspects. Haunted forests can be found in the chapbooks Monkish Mysteries, Secret Tribunal, and Duchess of C___.

The Haunting Past

There are a few ways characters in the Gothic are haunted, not by ghosts, but by other remnants of the past. Some examples of these include:

  • The Ancestral Curse: Evil, misfortune, or harm that comes as a response to or retribution for deeds or misdeeds committed against or by one's ancestor(s). In Walpole's "Castle of Otranto" all of the supernatural effects are caused by Manfred's ancestor Alphonso, whose ashes are buried, but whose spirit is vengeful. The bleeding nun narrative in "The Monk" is an ancestor of Don Raymond, who will not rest until he restores her bones to their proper resting place.
  • The "burden of the past," which, like the ancestral curse, concerns misfortunes and evil befalling one as a result of another's past actions. However, this particular form is not necessarily restricted to one character and his or her descendants, and usually the actions which have caused the present character's ill fate occur closer to the present than in the case of the ancestral curse. Such an example exists in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, when the two children are "possessed" by the evil spirits of the dead maid and caretaker.
  • The Pursued Protagonist: Refers to the idea of a pursuing force that relentlessly acts in a severely negative manner on a character. This persecution often implies the notion of some sort of a curse or other form of terminal and utterly unavoidable damnation, a notion that usually suggests a return or "hangover" of traditional religious ideology to chastise the character for some real or imagined wrong against the moral order. This crime and retribution pattern interestingly emerges in the work of many "free-thinkers" and political radicals of the Romantic Age, including such haunted and hounded figures as Godwin's Caleb Williams, Coleridge's Mariner, and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, who is both pursued by and in pursuit of his monster. A classic contemporary example of an infamous pursuer/pursued can be found in Anne Rice's Vampire series. These works typically employ a hero-villain, the vampire, who is both compelled and pursued by a greater force that causes him "to wander the earth in a state of permanent exile, persecuting others as a result of a contradiction of being which is itself the mark of his own persecution by another"

Courtesy of Wendy Fall and Bridget Kapler, Marquette University

See also: supernatural

Frank, Frederick S. The First Gothics : A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel . Frank. New York : Garland Pub., 1987. Print.
Mulvey Roberts, Marie. The Handbook of the Gothic. New York : New York University Press, 2009. Print.
Thomson, Douglass. "Glossary of Gothic Literary Terms." Resources for the Study of Gothic Literature. Ed. Kala Aaron, et al. Web. .




Almagro & Claude, or the Monastic Murder [Transcript], Unknown


Horatio and Camilla; OR, THE NUNS OF ST. MARY. A TALE OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson