Strangely enough, monasteries are some of the most fruitful settings for Gothic horror. As Frederick S. Frank explains in “The First Gothics,” all Gothic novels are built on a foundation of claustrophobic containment. Characters feel enclosed by buildings, by compartments, and by compartments within those, such as coffins, closets, and cells. Furthermore, since so many religious buildings also featured underground crypts, tunnels, or cellars, they lend themselves well to the motif of subterranean pursuit, another frequent pattern in the Gothic, wherein an angelic heroine is stalked by a Satanic villain at night through a long labyrinth of darkness. The monastery is also an apt setting for Gothic Anti-Catholic and Anti-European rhetoric, since it is located in traditionally Catholic territory, such as Spain or Italy, and populated with 'papists'.
Stories of violence and licentiousness in monasteries are so prominent in the Gothic that William Whyte Watt coined the term "Monastic Shocker" to refer to these narratives as a sub-type of the genre. The Monastic Shoker is derived from The Monk and The Italian, in that it uses the monastery or convent as its principal background. Among the chapbooks, the Monastic Shocker is remarkably formulaic, even for the Gothic, which is known for its use of pattern and repetition. Watt rather dryly describes the requirements for the setting of of the Monastic Shocker chapbook, stating that there must be: "one cell for solitary confinement, one underground vault for slow starvation, one large nave for taking the veil and for funerals, one 'dismal' bell to ring upon such occasion to inform approaching relatives of the nun's fate, a congregation of nuns to stand about looking pale and chanting 'nunc dimittis' and 'de profundus' and a generous assortment of Madonnas, crucifixes, coarse food, and human skulls and bones, preferably female." It is also easy to identify the chapbooks Watt describes because they often provide ample notice in their titles, as in Almagro and Claude: or, Monastic Murder and Eliza, or the Unhappy Nun: Exemplifying the Unlimited Tyranny Exercised by the Abbots and Abbesses Over the Ill-Fated Victims of Their Malice in the Gloomy Recesses of a Convent.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Frank, Frederick S. The First Gothics : A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel. New York : Garland Pub., 1987. Print.
Watt, William Whyte. Shilling Shockers of the Gothic School; a Study of Chapbook Gothic Romances. New York, Russell & Russell c1932. Print.