Terror and Horror

Although the novels commonly referred to as "Gothic" are united by certain thematic and stylistic conventions, they seem to vary a great deal in the emotional responses they seek to elicit from readers. Ann Radcliffe herself was among the first to draw an affective dividing line down the middle of the newly emergent genre. Conservative and rational in her own approach to the Gothic, Radcliffe clearly objected to the shocking scenes depicted in The Monk, and it is widely believed that she wrote The Italian as a protesting response to Lewis' novel. She elucidated her stance in an 1826 essay entitled "On the Supernatural in Poetry," in which draws upon Edmund Burke in order to distinguish between terror and horror in literature. She argues that terror is characterized by "obscurity" or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, "nearly annihilates" the reader's responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.

Although Radcliffe uses examples from Shakespeare, rather than Gothic novels, to articulate her position, later critics have consistently adopted the terms "terror" and "horror" to distinguish between the two major strains of the Gothic represented by Radcliffe and Lewis respectively. Devendra Varma was one of the first critics to seize upon this distinction, characterizing the difference between terror and horror as the difference between "awful apprehension and sickening realization," with Radcliffe the sole representative of the former and Beckford, Maturin, Shelley and Godwin allied with Lewis in representing the latter. Robert Hume has also embraced this distinction, although in slightly different terms: he argues that the horror novel replaces the ambiguous physical details of the terror novel with a more disturbing moral and psychological ambiguity. In a sharp rebuttal to Hume, Robert Platzner has questioned the rigid categories of terror and horror, quoting from Udolpho to demonstrate that Radcliffe herself often crosses the line between the two. He calls for a more methodical and text- oriented approach to characterizing the Gothic novel.

For related discussions, see the section on Burke's notion of the sublime and the section on the Female Gothic.


From The Mysteries of Udolpho

A return of the noise again disturbed her; it seemed to come from that part of the room which communicated with the private staircase, and she instantly remembered the odd circumstance of the door having been fastened, during the preceding night, by some unknown hand. Her late alarming suspicion concerning its communication also occurred to her. Her heart became faint with terror. Half raising herself from the bed, and gently drawing aside the curtain, she looked towards the door of the staircase, but the lamp that burned on the hearth spread so feeble a light through the apartment, that the remote parts of it were lost in shadow. The noise, however, shich she was convinced came from the door, continued. It seemed like that made by the undrawing of rusty bolts, and often ceased, and was then renewed more gently, as if the hand that occasioned it was restrained by a fear of discovery. While Emily kept her eyes fixed on the spot, she saw the door move, and then slowly open, and perceived something enter the room, but the extreme duskiness prevented her distinguishing what it was. Almost fainting with terror, she had yet sufficient command over herself to check the shriek that was escaping from her lips, and letting the curtain drop from her hand, continued to observe in silence the motions of the mysterious form she saw. It seemed to glide along the remote obscurity of the apartment, then paused, and, as it approached the hearth, she perceived, in the stronger light, what appeared to be a human figure. Certain remembrance now struck upon her heart, and almost subdued the feeble remains of her spirits; she continued, however, to watch the figure, which remained for some time motionless, but then, advancing slowly towards the bed, [it] stood silently at the feet where the curtains, being a little open, allowed her still to see it; terror, however, had now deprived her of the power of discrimination, as well as that of utterance.


From The Monk

[A light] proceeded from a small Lamp which was placed upon a heap of stones, and whose faint and melancholy rays served rather to point out, than dispell the horrors of a narrow gloomy dungeon formed in one side of the Cavern; It also showed several other recesses of similar construction, but whose depth was buried in obscurity. Coldly played the light upon the damp walls, whose dew-stained surface gave back a feeble reflection. A thick and pestilential fog clouded the height of the vaulted dungeon. As Lorenzo advanced, He felt a piercing chillness spread itself through his veins. The frequent groans still engaged him to move forwards. He turned towards them, and by the Lamp's glimmering beams beheld in a corner of the loathsome abode, a Creature stretched upon a bed of straw, so wretched, so emaciated, so pale, that He doubted to think her Woman. She was half-naked: Her long dishevelled hair fell in disorder over her face, and almost entirely concealed it. One wasted Arm hung listlessly upon a tattered rug, which covered her convulsed and shivering limbs: The Other was wrapped round a small bundle, and held it closely to her bosom. A large Rosary lay near her: Opposite to her was a Crucifix, on which She bent her sunk eyes fixedly, and by her side stood a Basket and a small Earthen Pitcher.

Lorenzo stopped: He was petrified with horror. He gazed upon the miserable Object with disgust and pity. He trembled at the spectacle; He grew sick at heart: His strength failed him, and his limbs were unable to support his weight.


Ann Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry," The New Monthly Magazine (1826): 145-52.

[Ed. note: Radcliffe's essay is in the form of a dialogue between Willoughton, "the apostle of Shakespeare," and Mr. Simpson, "the representative of Philistine common sense."]

[W____:]"Who ever suffered for the ghost of Banquo, the gloomy and sublime kind of terror, which that of Hamlet calls forth? though the appearance of Banquo, at the high festival of Macbeth, not only tells us that he is murdered, but recalls to our minds the fate of the gracious Duncan, laid in silence and death by those who, in this very scene, are reveling in his spoils. There, though deep pity mingles with our surprise and horror, we experience a far less degree of interest, and that interest too of an inferior kind. The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail."

"That may be," said Mr. S____, "and I perceive you are not one of those who contend that obscurity does not make any part of the sublime." "They must be men of very cold imaginations," said W____, "with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?


Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).

Mrs. Radcliffe, a mistress of hints, associations, silence, and emptiness, only half-revealing her picture leaves the rest to the imagination. She knows, as Burke has asserted, that obscurity is a strong ingredient in the sublime; but she knew the sharp distinction between Terror and Horror, which was unknown to Burke. "Terror and horror...are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them...; and where lies the great difference between terror and horror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?" Sounds unexplained, sights indistinctly caught, dim shadows endowed with motion by the flicker of the firelight or the shimmer of the moonbeam invoke superstitious fear. "To the warm imagination," she writes in The Mysteries of Udolpho, "the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the Sun can show."


The chords of terror which had tremulously shuddered beneath Mrs. Radcliffe's gentle fingers were now smitten with a new vehemence. The intense school of the Schauer- Romantiks improvised furious and violent themes in the orchestra of horror.... The contrast between the work and personalities of Mrs. Radcliffe and ' Monk' Lewis serves to illustrate the two distinct streams of the Gothic novel: the former representing the Craft of Terror, the latter and his followers comprising the chambers of Horror....

The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse. Professor McKillop, quoting from Mrs. Radcliffe, said that " obscurity [in Terror] . . . leaves the imagination to act on a few hints that truth reveals to it, . . . obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate". Burke held that "To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary", and added that, ". . . darkness, being originally an idea of terror, was chosen as a fit scene for such terrible representations ". Burke did not distinguish between the subtle gradations of Terror and Horror; he related only Terror to Beauty, and probably did not conceive of the beauty of the Horrid, the grotesque power of something ghastly, too vividly imprinted on the mind and sense.

Terror thus creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a cruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolting, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair. Horror appeals to sheer dread and repulsion, by brooding upon the gloomy and the sinister, and lacerates the nerves by establishing actual cutaneous contact with the supernatural...

Each writer of the intense school contributed a grotesque and gruesome theme of horror to the Schauer-Romantik phase of the Gothic novel. They wrote stories of black-magic and lust, of persons in pursuit of the elixir virtue, of insatiable curiosity and unpardonable sins, of contracts with the Devil, of those who manufacture monsters in their laboratories, tales of skull-headed ladies, of the dead arising from their graves to feed upon the blood of the innocent and beautiful, or who walk about in the Hall of Eblis, carrying their burning hearts in their hands.... The baleful hall of Eblis, "the abode of ve ngeance and despair", is pictured in the full effulgence of infernal majesty. It conveys to us the horror of the most ghastly convulsions and screams that may not be smothered. Here everyone carries within him a heart tormented in flames, to wander in an eternity of unabating anguish...


From Vathek

In the midst of this immense [Hall of Eblis], a vast multitude was incessantly passing, who severally kept their right hands on their hearts, without once regarding anything around them: they had all the livid paleness of death. Their eyes, deep sunk in their sockets, resembled those phosphoric meteors that glimmer by night in places of interment. Some stalked slowly on, absorbed in profound reverie; some, shrieking with agony, ran furiously about like tigers wounded with poisoned arrows; whilst others, grinding their teeth in rage, foamed along more frantic than the wildest maniac. They all avoided each other; and, though surrounded by a multitude that no one could number, each wandered at random unheedful of the rest, as if alone on a desert where no foot had trodden.


Almost at the same instant, the same voice announced to the caliph, Nouronihar, the four princes, and the princess, the awful and irrevocable decree. Their hearts immediately took fire, and they at once lost the most precious gift of heaven-- HOPE. These unhappy beings recoiled, with looks of the most furious distraction. Vathek beheld in the eyes of Nouronihar nothing but rage and vengeance; nor could she discern aught in his, but aversion and despair. The two princes who were friends, and, till that moment, had preserved their attachment, shrunk back, gnashing their teeth with mutual and unchangeable hatred. Kalilah and his sister made reciprocal gestures of imprecation; all testified their horror for each other by the most ghastly convulsions, and screams that could not be smothered. All severally plunged themselves into the accursed multitude, there to wander in an eternity of unabating anguish.


From Frankenstein

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.


Robert Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA 84 (1969): pp. 282-290.

Terror dependent on suspense or dread is the modus operandi of the novels of Walpole and Radcliffe. The Castle of Otranto holds the reader's attention through dread of a series of terrible possibilities-Theodore's execution, the (essentially) incestuous marriage of Manfred and Isabella, the casting-off of Hippolita, and so on. Mrs. Radcliffe's use of dramatic suspension is similar but more sophisticated. She raises vague but unsettling possibilities and leaves them dangling for hundreds of pages. Sometimes the effect is artificial, as in the case of the black-veiled "picture" at Udolpho, but in raising and sustaining the disquieting possibility of an affair between St. Aubert and the Marchioness de Villeroi, for in stance, she succeeds splendidly. Mrs. Radcliffe's easy manipulation of drawn-out suspense holds the reader's attention through long books with slight plots.

The method of Lewis, Beckford, Mary Shelley, and Maturin is considerably different. Instead of holding the reader's attention through suspense or dread they attack him frontally with events that shock or disturb him. Rather than elaborating possibilities which never materialize, they heap a succession of horrors upon the reader. Lewis set out, quite deliberately, to overgo Mrs. Radcliffe. The Monk (1796), like Vathek (1786), Frankenstein, and Melmoth the Wanderer, gains much of its effect from murder, torture, and rape. The difference from terror-Gothic is considerable; Mrs. Radcliffe merely threatens these things, and Walpole uses violent death only at the beginning and end of his book. The reader is prepared for neither of these deaths, which serve only to catch the attention and to produce a climax, respectively.

Obviously a considerable shift has occurred. Is its purpose merely ever greater shock? Or has the Gothic novelists' aesthetic theory changed? Terror-Gothic works on the supposition that a reader who is repelled will close his mind (if not the book) to the sublime feelings which may be realized by the mixture of pleasure and pain induced by fear. Horror-Gothic assumes that if events have psychological consistency, even within repulsive situations, the reader will find himself involved beyond recall.

This change is probably related to a general shift in conceptions of good and evil.... Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe maintain the proprieties of a strict distinction between good and evil, though in Manfred and Montoni they created villain- heroes whose force of character gives them a certain fearsome attractiveness, even within this moral context. But with the villain-heroes of horror-Gothic we enter the realm of the morally ambiguous. Ambrosio, Victor Frankenstein, and Melmoth are men of extraordinary capacity whom circumstance turns increasingly to evil purposes. They are not merely monsters, and only a bigoted reading makes them out as such.

To put the change from terror-Gothic to horror-Gothic in its simplest terms, the suspense of external circumstance is de- emphasized in favor of increasing psychological concern with moral ambiguity. The horror-Gothic writers postulated the relevance of such psychology to every reader; they wrote for a reader who could say with Goethe that he had never heard of a crime which he could not imagine himself committing. The terror novel prepared the way for a fiction which though more overtly horrible is at the same time more serious and more profound. It is with Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer that the Gothic novel comes fully into its own.


Robert L. Platzner, "'Gothic versus Romantic': A Rejoinder," PMLA 86 (1971): 266-74.

[W]hen Mr. Hume, in search of a theoretical model of the mechanism of Gothic sensibility, turns to the Burkean concept of the sublime and its attendant emotions, he finds in the distinction between terror and horror not only a satisfactory modus operandi for Radcliffean Romance but an adequate principle of differentiation for all Gothic Romance after Radcliffe. What I would object to in all this is not the very existence of an esthetic of terror or even the fact of its importance to Mrs. Radcliffe and her contemporaries....[n]o, what I propose to students of the Gothic is that any reinterpretation of this genre must proceed beyond or outside of the constricting framework of late-eighteenth-century esthetic theory, for if we are to establish the groundwork for a new appraisal of the Gothic imagination we will have to provide for the theoretical differentiation of mythopoetic tendencies that cannot be accounted for in terms of either "terror" or "horror".

I would suggest, further, that there are reasons for doubting the final adequacy of neo-Burkean sensationalism, or any of the distinctions it makes possible between gradations of terror and their source, even if we restrict ourselves to the Radcliffe- Lewis-Maturin era. I, at least, remain unconvinced that Mrs. Radcliffe's rationale for terror is in fact the governing principle behind all of her work. It appears, rather, that far from never crossing the boundary between terror and horror, Mrs. Radcliffe compulsively places her heroine in situations of overwhelming anxiety in which a gradual shift from terror to horror is inescapable. Let us agree, for example, to dismiss the notorious "veil" scene as too crudely melodramatic to be properly representative, and focus on a more modestly terrifying episode that occurs sometime later in the same chapter:

"A return of the noise again disturbed her; it seemed to come from that part of the room which communicated with the private staircase, and she instantly remembered the odd circumstance of the door having been fastened, during the preceding night, by some unknown hand. Her late alarming suspicion concerning its communication also occurred to her. Her heart became faint with terror....she saw the door move, and then slowly open, and perceived something enter the room, but the extreme duskiness prevented her distinguishing what it was. Almost fainting with terror, she had yet sufficient command over herself to check the shriek that was escaping from her lips....but then, advancing slowly towards the bed, [it] stood silently at the feet where the curtains, being a little open, allowed her still to see it; terror, however, had now deprived her of the power of discrimination, as well as that of utterance."

How far is Emily from that annihilation of sensibilities that is characteristic only of pure "horror"--a hairbreadth? What is the practical utility of insisting upon a critical distinction that belies rather than discloses the dramatic character of events or sensations? No doubt some such dichotomy between titillation and revulsion is necessary to express the shift in tone and subject one encounters as one moves from the school of Radcliffe to the Schauerroman of Lewis or Maturin and its singular preoccupation with the perverse and the occult. Once again, however, I find (as in the relation between Gothicism and Romanticism) the continuity between Udolpho and The Monk at least as instructive as the discontinuity. Regarded in this light, Lewis' marginally pornographic Romance is but an actualizing of the incipient or imagined horrors of an Emily or an Adeline. Put another way, the paranoiac apprehensions of the Radcliffean heroine become the real crimes of an Ambrosio, no slight distinction to be sure. But transcending even such a distinction is the undeniable presence of evil, whether manifest as free-floating dread or demonic temptation.