Britain's horrific heritage

Written by james holloway | 13/05/2017
Britain's horrific heritage
Tales of the macabre and supernatural have a long history in British literature. (Getty Thinkstock)

Everyone loves a good horror story, one that sends shivers up the spine and causes us to jump when the wind howls in the trees. Horror stories are a vital part of British literature -- one of the earliest examples of English literature is a monster story -- and continue to be a vibrant part of British culture today. In fact, the modern horror story has its origins in Britain.

"Still the dead man arrived each night, making as if to seize those who were sleeping ... the bishop was just as amaze as everybody else, but was told by some of his advisers that such things had often happened in England ..."

William of Newburgh, "Historia Rerum Anglicarum"

The Medieval Dead

Stories of ghost, monsters and the macabre date back to the beginnings of British literature. One of the most famous is Beowulf, an Old English poem about a Scandinavian hero and his battles against a series of monsters. Other medieval stories about ghosts and the walking dead made their way into chronicles and histories.

Although the poem Beowulf isn't a horror story itself -- it's a heroic narrative about a great warrior and his deeds -- its early sections contain long passages focusing on the monster Grendel. The anonymous poet evokes the eerie images of the landscape at night: "in off the moors, down through the mist bands / God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. / The bane of the race of men roamed forth, / hunting for a prey in the high hall. / Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it ... ."

Eerie tales of the walking dead occur in medieval British chronicles. For instance, "The Life and Miracles of St Modwenna" tells a story about how a group of men returned from the dead "now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals ..." and terrorised their village until a group of local dug them up, cut their heads off -- in traditional zombie-killing fashion -- and then tore their hearts out.

A more vampire-like tale comes from the medieval historian William of Newburgh, who describes a pair of young men hunting a walking corpse. When they dig up the corpse, they discover it "swollen to an enormous corpulence, with is countenance ... suffused with blood... ." The heroes tear the heart out of the corpse and burn it.

Tales of the supernatural continue to be an important part of British literature throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance, with the ghost in Hamlet being one of the most famous examples. But the birth of the modern horror story was yet to come.

Gothic Shudders

The birth of the Gothic genre -- the forerunner of modern horror -- came in the 18th century with Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto," which told a complex story of hauntings and treachery in a medieval castle. Walpole's innovation was to blend the traditional elements of medieval romances, with their ghosts, spells and other fantastic themes, with the psychological realism of contemporary novels. The resulting combination was hugely successful, and the Gothic tale became a popular form of literature.

Walpole's successors included Ann Radcliffe, who developed stories in which seemingly supernatural events that turned out to have mundane explanations, a phenomenon now more closely associated with Scooby-Doo. Many Gothic authors, including Matthew Lewis, included elements of humour or parody in their works.

The most famous fruits of the Gothic genre are two later examples: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein draws on the Gothic tradition and marries it to speculation about science to create what may be the first work of science fiction. Although author Bram Stoker was Irish, he was living in London and immersed in the British theatrical world when he wrote Dracula, perhaps the most famous horror novel of all.

The Gothic novel spread across Europe and to America; American writer Edgar Allan Poe was one of the genre's finest writers. But the bulk of great horror writing in the 18th and 19th centuries was taking place in Britain. Welsh writer Arthur Machen's novella The Great God Pan is beloved of horror fans but little-known outside the genre, while other writers such as M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood brought the ghost story to new heights of perfection.

Changes in society were underway that would put literary horror on the back foot, however; the growing influence of Hollywood and changing social priorities in the postwar world would see a decline in the prominence of British horror -- but not for long.

A New Era of British Horror

The Home of Horror

Early British horror writers often preferred to set their works in exotic European locations. American filmmakers based films like Dracula and Frankenstein on British novels -- and then, peculiarly, decided to set many classic horror films in British settings. 1941's The Wolf Man is set in Wales, and its predecessor, 1935's Werewolf of London, similarly has a British setting, despite the fact that Britain doesn't really have the same body of werewolf lore that European nations like Germany or Poland do. There were exceptions -- 1932's The Mummy is set in Egypt and California, for instance, while The Creature from the Black Lagoon is set in the American South. Even today, however, American films like The Mummy Returns are as likely to have British settings as American ones -- possibly a legacy of Britain's horror tradition.

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