From the earliest examples, the Gothic has been deeply interested in the workings of the mind. Some Gothic tales examine the boundaries between the mind's ability to perceive reality and imagination or belief. Others are fascinated with matters of faith as they coincide or clash with post-Enlightenment thought. Still others consider whether emotion can be controlled by the mind; can a person be trained to select reason rather than sensibility under strain? Can the brooding hero's melancholy be controlled? Many popular Gothic novels also claim to be transcriptions of dreams, or contain scenes taking place in dreams within their pages.
The Altered Mind: The Gothic has long exhibited a fascination with ways the mind can be chemically changed to achieve altered states. Scholar Carol Margaret Davison coined the term "Gothic pharmography" to classify narratives that chart the progress of alcoholism or drug addiction. These stories nearly always connect with the Faustian myth, in which the protagonist must make a (literal or figurative) fatal exchange in order to receive the object of their obsessive desires. The 'elixir vitae' was a transformative alchemical 'drug' that played a key role in such Gothic narratives as William Godwin's St. Leon (1799). Both Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796) and Charlotte Dacre's Zafloya (1806) feature devils or devils' minions who use drugs to assist their libertine masters in enslaving and violating unwilling love interests. As the 19th century progressed and opium became readily available, Thomas DeQuincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), effectively moving the consideration of altered states to a more central position in Gothic tales to follow. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Marie Corelli's Wormwood (1890), and Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray(1891) all build stories around drugs and drug addiction, using them as a locus for exploring or escaping social ills and cultural anxieties. Eve Kosofsky Segwick argues that many novelists employed drugs and their resulting altered states as a symbolic scapegoat onto which secret 'vices' such as homosexuality or transgressive sexual liaisons (across class or outside marriage) could be transferred.
The Horror of the Mind: As the Gothic developed, the source of horror and supernaturalism moved from the external world to the internal mind. By the dawn of psychology in the 19th century, the idea that the unconscious mind could function independently of a person's will meant the monster inside could be twice as terrifying as the one at the door. Examples can be found in Edgar Allan Poe's psychological thrillers like The Black Cat (1843), in which the protagonist rather suddenly becomes an axe murderer, and no rationale for this change is given. In this case, the husband and wife are simply going down the stairs, and he snaps, murdering her, then moving on as if nothing of importance has happened. This shift of the position of the monster to the inside of the family also reflected a Victorian anxiety of being tightly bound in rigid social structures; it could be more terrifying to be married to a wicked man than to be abducted by a ghost.
Hypnotism and Mesmerism: In this case, an abnormal mental state is achieved by the complete loss of will. At the beginnings of the Gothic, mesmerism was a brand new concept; a systematic not-so-scientific practice begun by Franz Anton Mesmer when the field of science was new, and consumers of scientific advancements were rather gullible. Electricity and magnetism had recently been discovered, and Mesmer thought certain people and animals could have magnetism, too. Specifically, he thought he could channel his own 'animal magnetism' to affect the health of other people. In theatrical salons, accompanied by candlelight and music, Mesmer pointed his iron rod at sick people and they fell into fits that were sometimes spectacular, then were taken to a private room to 'recover.' Unfortunately, when two official investigating bodies examined this practice in 1784, Mesmer was discredited, and suggestions of sexual misconduct drove him to obscurity. Mesmer's ideas, though they were discredited by science, were continued in literature; over 100 years later, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) featured a great deal of hypnotism, suggesting that the idea of the suspension of will continued to be a subject of interest throughout the Victorian era.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Davison, Carol Margaret. "'Houses of Voluntary Bondage': Theorizing the Nineteenth-Century Gothic Pharmography." Gothic Studies 12.1 (2010): 68-85. Print.
Hughes, William, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. The Encyclopedia of the Gothic. Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men : English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire . New York : Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.
The Affecting History of the Duchess of C**** Who Was Confined Nine Years in a Horrid Dungeon, Under Ground, Where Light Never Entered, a Straw Bed Being Her Only Resting Place, and Bread and Water Her Only Support, Conveyed by Means of a Turning-Box, by Her Inhuman Husband; Whom She Saw but Once During Her Long Imprisonment, Though Suffering by Hunger, Thirst, and Cold, the Most Severe Hardships, But Fortunately She Was at Last Discovered, and Released from the Dungeon, By Her Parents. [Transcript], Stéphanie Félicité Genlis
The Gothic Story of Courville Castle; or the Illegitimate Son, a Victim of Prejudice and Passion: Owing to the Early Impressions Inculcated with Unremitting Assiduity by an Implacable Mother Whose Resentment to Her Husband Excited Her Son to Envy, Usurpation, and Murder; but Retributive Justice at Length Restores the Right Heir to His Lawful Possessions. To Which is Added the English Earl: or the History of Robert Fitzwalter, Unknown
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
The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin [Transcript], Thomas Isaac Horsley Curties