The supernatural is a key defining element in the Gothic. Whether they invoke the supernatural directly or rely upon the imagination of the reader to provide it, Gothic writers use the supernatural to build suspense, and create special effects for the reader. This is not a Gothic invention; literature has a long history of exploration of the supernatural. Gothic writers need only look back to the examples of Shakespeare's ghosts, fairies, and sorcerers to see evidence of the supernatural in English literature and lore. Even during the height of their popularity, Gothic writers did not hold a monopoly on the supernatural; it can also be found in Romantic poetry of Samuel Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott.
It is interesting to consider the two different approaches to the supernatural adopted by Gothic writers. On the one hand, some novels rely upon the 'accepted supernatural,' in which case the supernatural is simply assumed to be part of reality, and no other explanation is given. One example of this would be the presence of the Bleeding Nun in The Monk. She does not prove to be some servant in a disguise, or a trick of the light or a creaky floorboard. She is as real as anyone else in the novel, and she is a ghost. Her presence is accepted, and never explained using any other type of reasoning. Some Gothic novels, however, use the 'explained supernatural,' in which case the scary supernatural effects of the story are later explained and have perfectly scientific and rational causes. Often attributed to the female Gothic, the 'explained supernatural' is exemplified in Ann Radcliffe's Romance in the Forest, in which scary things happen, but when explained, are less horrific than they originally seemed. For example, the heroine Adeline thinks she hears spirits in the night, but it turns out that she has simply been reading the wrong things, and her imagination has caused her to hear ghosts in what were really just the servants' voices.
Frederick S. Frank was fascinated with the supernatural gadgetry of the Gothic, by which he meant the physical elements in Gothic works by which supernatural forces take action upon the world. Frank's examples included: "vocal and mobile portraits; veiled statues that come to life; animated skeletons; doors, gates, portals, hatchways, and other means of egress which open and close independently and inappropriately; secret messages or manuscripts delivered by specters; forbidden chambers or sealed compartments; and casket lids seen in the act of rising."
Since Radcliffe and Lewis, the supernatural has maintained a steady foothold in fiction. While the mysteries of the natural world have been more and more thoroughly explained by science, writers have continued to evoke traditional forms of the literary supernatural, using ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves, and occult energies. In this way, the literary supernatural becomes an element in a greater conversation about human imagination, and the secrets of the human mind, and the nature of human existence as a spiritual creature, not merely a biological organism.
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.
Hughes, William, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. The Encyclopedia of the Gothic . Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
Ethelred & Lidania; OR, The Sacrifice to Woden [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
Horatio and Camilla; OR, THE NUNS OF ST. MARY. A TALE OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
Priory of St. Clair; OR SPECTRE OF THE Murdered Nun. A GOTHIC TALE [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
The Monkish Mysteries; or, the Miraculous Escape: Containing the History and Villainies of the Monk Bertrand, the Detection of His Impious Frauds, and Subsequent Repentance and Retribution., Elizabeth Meeke