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What Makes Gothic Writing Scary? Psychological States or Haunting Settings?

An examination into what makes Gothic writing freak us out the most.

Consider the claim that Victorian Gothic writing, unlike earlier texts, evokes fear through the depiction of psychological states rather than external objects.

As the Victorian era gave birth to a wave of scientific breakthroughs and psychological theories, more and more could be rationally explained and understood. Unsurprisingly, this time of flux had a clear effect on the literature of the day, as many genres opened up to explore new ideas, and Gothic fiction particularly evolved. Supernatural monsters were far less terrifying to the modern Victorian reader as they were not logically feasible; instead Victorian Gothic texts progressed from the use of stereotypically frightening objects and settings to evoke fear in the reader “by imagining terrifying truths seething beneath the peaceful surface of the British middle-class domesticity” (Case and Shaw (eds) 2008, p157) and playing on people’s fear of the psyche. While it is impossible to fully examine the extent to which this observation is accurate here, this essay will consider the claim with reference to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and the anonymously written The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin.

The exploration of adverse psychological states is depicted through Braddon’s use of double identity in the protagonist. Lucy charms everyone as the wife of Sir Michael Audley and in her new domestic role Lucy is portrayed as the devoted and gracious “Angel in the House”. However, as the novel unfolds the reader begins to see her split identity as Helen Talboys and she is revealed to be a madwoman and a criminal. This dichotomy between the “Angel in the House” and the “fallen woman” would evoke fear in the Victorian reader as it shows that even the “prettiest little creature” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p48) on the outside can be incredibly ugly and terrifying on the inside. Northrop Frye explains, “Where there is a sense of literature as processes, pity and fear become states of mind without objects, moods which are common to the work of art and the reader, and which bind them together psychologically instead of separating them aesthetically” (Haggarty 1989 p5). This shows the transfer from the use of typically frightening objects to the far more psychologically terrifying tropes, such as split personality as found in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This idea is strengthened by the fact that Lucy’s chambermaid Phoebe can be thought to act as Lucy’s doppelganger. Lucy says, “Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say you and I are alike” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p47). This ambiguous character inter-play would psychologically create a feeling of uneasiness as it subtly infers that basically Lady Audley could be anyone, and thus anyone could turn out to be insane or a criminal. It is the constant uncertainty about what is happening beneath the surface in all social classes that would instil fear of the threat of a transgressive society.

It is this depiction of the seemingly respectable characters’ perverse psychological states that would frighten the conservative Victorian reader as they would be shocked to hear of a wealthy female criminal. Traditionally, it was not thought possible for people of the middle or upper classes to commit crimes such as murder – these were the scandalous traits of the uncivilised working class or the unemployed. But the Early and Mid Victorian Novel explains: “…the woman whose beauty and grace were the charm of last night… – how exciting to think that under these pleasing outsides may be concealed some demon in human shape” (Skilton (ed) 1993 [1862], p77). It was this gritty realism that was so terrifying to the Victorian reader because it evoked real suspicion that transcended into their own society as they realised the possibility that murder and deceit were actually happening behind closed doors. The book continues, “we are thrilled with horror, even in fiction, by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us” (Skilton (ed) 1993 [1862], p77). In a wider context, many Victorian people were of the mind that an increase in population would lead to an increase in crime which would subsequently lead to the mass degeneration of a society that prided itself on its morality and respectability. Elizabeth Napier in Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form stresses that in the Gothic novel there is a “tendancy towards moral and structural stabilizing…and a contrary inclination towards fragmentation, instability and moral ambivalence” (Haggarty (ed) 1989 p2). Here, it is Lucy’s lack of remorse that is psychologically chilling and even as she confesses everything “her voice was never broken by a tear. What she had to tell she told in a cold, hard tone;” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p278). Her heartlessness would be far more affecting to the Victorian reader as it is so perfectly plausible. Freud’s theory of “the Uncanny”, strengthens this claim as he suggests it is “the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar” (Internet 1). A confession would be expected by the criminal, but it would be unsettling to have it delivered with no guilt. The Victorian Gothic Novel highlights, “Its thrill derives in part from the destabilisation of ‘the real’ – challenged by radical gaps between social appearance and reality” (Case and Shaw (eds) 2008, p159). Thus it is the tyranny of the “normal” that makes many Victorian Gothic novels frightening as the writer takes seemingly everyday situations and alters them to create a dark and psychologically engaging atmosphere.

Perhaps the way Braddon most explicitly makes use of psychological states to evoke fear is the revelation of Lucy’s “madness”. When Richard Audley discovers that it is her who attempted to kill both himself and George Talboys she confesses that she did it because she is insane. She exclaims, “You have conquered – A MADWOMAN!” and continues, “I killed him because I AM MAD! Because my intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary-line between sanity and insanity… my mind, never properly balanced, utterly lost its balance, and I was mad!” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p274). Again, this depiction of Lucy’s deteriorated mental state would be feared as again it is highly uncanny. During the mid nineteenth century women were often deemed mentally ill as they “did not have the mental capacity of men” and this risk grew great if she “attempted to better herself through education or too many activities” (internet 2); therefore the Victorian reader would accept that Lucy’s instability lead her to commit these crimes. Moreover the reader is constantly left unsettled by the way Braddon’s characters almost seem to transfer “madness” unto each other. It is also interesting to note that after her confession Sir Michael Audley pleads: “Lucy! Tell me this man is a madman!” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p275). While this sounds like a throwaway exclamation, it nonetheless puts Robert’s sanity under the spotlight and as he has previously been described as “eccentric creature” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p96) and in his relentless search for George Braddon writes, “his mind was beginning to grow confused” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p77); the subtle description drops hints of him of Robert as potentially delirious and erratic, thus leaving the reader in doubt about the main narrator. With all the characters claiming the other is mad, the reader is forced to join in with the character’s paranoia; consequently these psychological states of confusion and insanity are transferred onto the reader.

However, the reader must question the possibility that Lucy is not actually mad at all and that she merely uses it as an excuse to get out of being sent to prison. It seems impossible to accept that she is “mad” as all the crimes she commits are far too calculated and meticulously planned out to be the work of a mentally unstable woman. Instead, Lucy could be interpreted as just a desperate young woman who is prepared to do anything for class mobility. In fact, it is after she tells Robert about her poor childhood and being left by George that she claims her “mind first lost its balance” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p279). Even Dr Mosgrave attests that “there is no evidence of madness in anything she has done” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p299); Lucy was just determined to escape her impoverished social status and knew exactly what she was doing. It is only after he had spoken to her privately that the doctor concedes that there may be symptoms of madness: “I have talked to the lady and we understand each other very well. There is latent insanity! Insanity which might never appear” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p301). However this comes across as unconvincing and seems that Braddon is merely bowing to Victorian norms. If the Victorian reader accepts that Lucy is not mad and only uses the condition as a scapegoat, this would terrify them still as it shows the degradation of the middle classes and would scare them to think that a sane woman could be capable of murder. Still, the fact that the reader is left not entirely sure of Lucy’s mental state is psychologically terrifying in itself as they are offered no real closure and are left in doubt.

Still in Victorian Gothic literature fear is not entirely evoked on a purely psychological level. The description of Audley Court, with its “secret chambers”, “narrow staircases” surrounded by a “thick shelter of over arching trees” (Braddon 1997 [1862], p4-5) is reminiscent of pre-Victorian Gothic texts, with their heavy emphasis on spooky settings and objects and serves to reinforce the dark plot. Ultimately however, Audley Court is uncannily just the stereotypical middle-class estate and nothing uncommon. This comes as a marked contrast to earlier Gothic writing where characters would find themselves in old ruined castles or abandoned abbeys. In the 1801 text, The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin, the family who had previously lost all their wealth decide to invest in the “dreadful haunt” of the ruined abbey with its “tottering turrets and broken casements”, “dark precincts” and “crumbling pieces of furniture” (Baldick (ed) 2001 [1992], p34-35). The objects and setting used here offer a completely different way of evoking fear compared to the psychological elements employed in Victorian texts as early writing relies on the reader’s fear of the alien and their complete lack of experience in frightening situations. Moreover, the setting in the Victorian Gothic text such as Audley Court or later examples, such as industrialised London in The Picture of Dorian Gray, could be read metaphorically for the complex “chambers of the mind” and used to foreshadow and mirror the protagonist’s psychological states. This differs from earlier texts as there appears to be much less depth; we know little about the heroines, Rosaline and Anna, other than a brief history of their situations. Instead the main Gothic concerns are centred round stereotypically frightening and evocative objects and images such as the skeleton found by Rosaline. Maurice Levy highlights, that Gothic has “that special eighteenth-century flavour, which attaches itself to ruined castles and abbeys, either examined from a distance…or fearfully explored… The idea that the word “Gothic” could designate anything else never entered my stubborn mind”. Little is explored in the way of psychology in pre-Victorian writing as melodrama and sensationally unfamiliar objects and setting are instead the main source of terror.

After close examination of both Lady Audley’s Secret and The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin it is clear that it is the depiction of characters’ psychological states, as opposed to external objects, that fear is primarily evoked. It is chilling to discover that Lucy is the master of deceit and hysterical criminal after Braddon so consistently likens her to an angel. It is the stark contrast between her aesthetically beautiful and innocent exterior and her truly ugly and malicious inner self that makes this Victorian Gothic text so chilling. The fact that Braddon makes the text so realistic is even more unsettling as the reader is faced with a number of characters they can identify in their own society and brings the threat of such heinous scenarios closer to home. However, it is perhaps the direct address of the condition of “madness” that instils a sense of fear in the reader as they come face to face with a character who appears perfectly normal on the outside but is inherently unstable; the fact that we are never sure of Lucy’s exact psychological state leaves us as paranoid as the characters. Braddon’s attention to her characters’ inner conflicts comes as a complete contrast to earlier Gothic texts, where the terror mainly stems from the use of unfamiliar external objects such as dusty skeletons and abandoned abbeys.


Baldick, C (ed) [1992] 2001, The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bloom, C (ed) 1998, Gothic Horror, Hampshire: MacMillan Press Ltd

Braddon, M E 2007 [1862], Lady Audley’s Secret, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd

Case, A. And Shaw, H.E., 2008, Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Austen to Eliot, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Haggerty, G E 1989, Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, London: The Pennsylvania State University Press

Lloyd Smith, A and Sage, V (eds) 1994, Gothick Origins and Innovations, Amsterdam: Atlanta

Punter, D 1996, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day, Essex: Pearson Educated Ltd

Skilton, D 1993, The Early and Mid Victorian Novel, New York: Routledge

Wilde, O 2007 [1890], The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: Vintage

Internet 1:, consulted 12/12/08

Internet 2:, consulted 12/12/08

Internet 3:, consulted 12/12/08

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