“What is love, but a kind of creature waiting to be unbound? A malady. What does it bring any of us but…confusion and bedevilment?” says the prolific Dr. Victor Frankenstein on the gothic galore series Penny Dreadful. Gothic fiction will always have a place in our obsessions. Something about death, tragedy, horror, and batsh*t craziness is far too intriguing to pass up. Penny Dreadful reveled in these gothic fiction tropes while also reintroducing some of the most iconic characters that gothic fiction has to offer. A fraternized hyperbole of characteristics that range from madness, mystery, the supernatural, and, of course, creatures; these are the four legs that make the gothic fiction genre stand nice and tall.
Mythology and ancient religious practices provide the early basis for some of our most beloved tragic creatures. A sort of cautionary tale that a parent would tell their children in the hopes that they pursue a just life or at least convince them, and others, into believing a supernatural subsistence coincides with the living. The gothic fiction infatuation has been credited for emerging within the late 18th and 19th century starting with Horace Walpole’s 1764 iconic novel The Castle of Otranto pioneering the subgenre. Of course, as society has progressed, our favorite gothic fiction creatures have also adapted to contemporary audience perceptions, sometimes for worse (the teen romance for one). Our obsession with gothic horror has never fully been explained, but I suppose curiosity is a decent enough reason to feel a moral and disheartening connection for the perplexing lives of these “villains.”
Lycanthropy, a fancier way of establishing the transformation of man into wolf, has been an existing folklore since Medieval times theology. Medieval times, or when God took a 1,000 year vacation, wasn’t exactly a joyfully upbeat era to live in, so it certainly comes to no one’s surprise that the legend of werewolves would be mostly contrived at this time. But the ideology of man and wolf going hand-in-hand goes years before, however. As Greek mythology puts it— in the midst of the Trojan War, Hector sent Dolon, the fastest running soldier of Troy, to go and spy on Greek ships. Donning wolf skin before he departed on his missions, it left Greek soldiers bewildered to see a half man half wolf who only came out at night. The real supernatural demeanor of the gothic character came in the 12th century when Marie de France wrote a creepy poem called Bisclavret, which illustrated the disturbing transformation from man into wolf.
As legends of a half man and half wolf continued to remain in the minds of children it was not until Lietich Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf that the mythical character came into prominence. Ritchie’s approach to the lycanthropy offered a truly tragic character— a noble gentleman who loses control of all of his nobility come full moon. This is the most well known version of the werewolf, and it certainly is a better one thematically. Lon Chaney, Jr. played the dual role of Larry Talbot, the noble character, as well as the creature himself in The Wolf Man (1941). Co-starring as Bela the Gypsy (cause why not) is Bela Lugosi, which is a name that you should be more than familiar with by the end of his article. Since the wolf’s first onscreen appearance in 1941 there have been a multitude of renditions with recent versions replacing seriousness with six-packs. However, the tragic aspect will always remain making the werewolf one of the most doomed characters in gothic fiction.
Before teen dramas butchered the ideology behind vampires, Bram Stoker revolutionized it with his 1897 novel Dracula. Although a villain at his core, Dracula was the most complex vampire character ever depicted. A man-like creature who does not want to kill, but often succumbs to his bloodthirsty desires. Bram Stoker was influenced by John William Polidori’s The Vampyre before it. The two created a different version of the vampire, who were originally meant to be purple reddish and bloated, instead they were recreated into practical and mundane characters with villainous intrigue. Of course, where would vampires be without their vampire hunters, which Bram Stoker’s Dracula also introduced in the form of Abraham Van Helsing. Bela Lugosi was the first to grace the screen with his rendition of the charming vampire and the character was not been the same since.
The birth of the vampire, although they weren't called that until the late 18th century, comes from Eastern European and Asian traditions. Somebody got it into their heads that taking baths in the blood of the youth would somehow prevent aging wrinkles. However, history has also brought to light some real “vampires.” In good old fashion Slovak traditions, after the death of a villager, the townspeople would lay the body out and see if a cat would run over it, if it did then they would burn the body instead of burying it for fear it would unearth from the earth. Juro Grando, an impoverish man from some obscure Croatian village, was deemed one such “vampire.” Dying of illness, Grando spent his afterlife tormenting his village in the year's nights to come until someone had the idea of decapitating him in 1656 (better late than never, I guess). With real “vampire” cases taking place in Serbia from 1721 to 1734, the nonexistent gothic character suddenly became existent, and superstitious hysteria was put into overdrive. This overdrive found its way to Germany and England where the iconic character came to be.
Superstitions, spiritualism, black magic, possessions, shamanism, healing, occults, and divine intervention, just to name a few, are more than likely to be tropes that will find their way into a film of witchcraft. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are mostly attributed for exploiting the powers of witchcraft, particularly on children and those innocent. However, witchcraft has been a conversation for centuries upon centuries, so far back it goes that its place of origins are unknown to this day. Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian culture are some such places where witchcraft has come to prominence along with the fear that comes with it. The fear has never been portrayed more than during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 93, where 19 people (women and men) perished because of that fear. Contrary to popular belief, however, those accused during the Salem Witch Trials were not burned at the stake. The burning those for practicing witchcraft was a punishment in the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina of the Roman Empire. Instead, immediately following a swift and unjust trial, those who were convicted of witchcraft were hanged in Salem Town. Many of whom had confessed by force; Giles Corey was famously pressed by stones in public to confess his and his wife’s supposed witchcraft.
To go back and see when witchcraft first made its appearance in literature would be as complex as it is to trace it back to its historical origins. Instead, here is a list of the top five witches to ever grace the screen.
5) Angelique Bouchard, Dark Shadows
Sultry, vulgar, and jealous— all the ingredients that make an entertaining witch. Tim Burton’s flawed remake of the popular 1960’s television series did have some good things going for it. Eva Green, for instance, was a marvel as the centuries-old witch bent on ruining the life of Johnny Depp’s vampire character, Barnabas Collins. Cruel and sour while looking attractive is no easy feat, but Eva Green always makes it look fun.
4) Helena Markos, Suspiria
Before Darren Aronofsky brought us into the cadaverous world of ballet with Black Swan, Dario Argento brought us to ballet school with Suspiria. Like most schools of ballet, this one was terrifying, unlike most schools of ballet, this one had witchcraft. This Italian horror classic followed an American ballerina embroiled in some kind of witchery led by Helena Markos, an infamous name in the world of the occult.
3) Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter series
In a fantasy series with wizards, black magic, magical creatures, and telepathy—Bellatrix Lestrange is one of the few pure-blood witches of the Death Eater group. Lestrange has violent tendencies with an egotistical poise— all the right makings for a cold-blooded witch.
2) Minnie Castevet, Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski’s psychological horror movie has since become a cinematic classic. What would you do if you knew you were giving birth to the devil’s baby? Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar her role, stars as Minnie Castevet— quiet and as sincere as a church mouse, Miss Castevet has a much more sinister persona leaving us in wonder at how we were just as fooled as Rosemary.
1) Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz
Here it is! As soon as Margaret Hamilton donned her green make-up, black dress, and crooked hat we should have known that no one would ever surpass her performance as the evil Wicked Witch of the West. Hamilton’s characterization of the infamous witch has continued in every literary and cinematic representation—even securing its own Broadway musical Wicked.
Bela “B-Movie Go-To” Lugosi (are you used to the name yet?) starred in 1932’s White Zombie as an evil charmer named Murder Legendre. It was an independent black-and-white horror movie more well known for its backdrop setting of Haiti. This is mostly because we can attribute the folk tales of zombies to Haitian ritualistic and voodoo traditions. White Zombie’s representation of the undead are a little outdated, especially when you have talents such as Richard Matheson morphing gothic fiction with every page he writes. He completely changed our views of the undead with his novel I Am Legend (1956), an influence that exceeded beyond the page, not only with Will Smith’s adaptation, but with George Romero. Romero, of course, went on to make a career out of revolutionizing the cinematic interpretations of zombies starting with Night of the Living Dead (1968). From comedies like Shaun of the Dead (2004) and dramatic horror television like The Walking Dead— we have gotten a variety of approaches regarding our favorite undead army.
Now some may not consider it part of the gothic fiction cannon, but when you consider just how much zombies and the undead factor into the same literature as werewolves and vampires, it certainly has a strong place within it. As Haitian folklore goes— those who offend voodoo deity Baron Samedi, lose half of their soul leaving reanimated in physical form to roam the earth as mindlessly determined barbarism. Pop culture has been more than inclined to take dead beings as political counterpoints to contemporary science (diseases, viruses, radiations). However, as fun as zombies truly are to watch, this is an actual concern in some Haitian villages, and there is at least one accounted for zombie that has existed. Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian fisherman who many within the community have claimed to have been turned into a zombie following voodoo. Although this has been heavily disputed, zombism certainly has a place in ancient Haitian voodoo, emerging as a fictional allegorical response to Haitian slavery and oppression; zombies have materialized into a powerful figure in the horror genre. First introduced to western civilization in the 1929 novel The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook, which followed an outsider witnessing the power of black magic in the reanimation of the once living. Based on Seabrook’s own experiences with Baron Samedi voodoo, it inaugurated our current obsession with the undead.
Described as “the most vile evil man” by those who knew him best. Johann Conrad Doppel was an experimental innovator, to say the least. Not only an inventor of chemical warfare, Doppel’s animal oil was used during the World Wars to contaminate the foreign enemy’s water, however, Doppel is mostly known within his home country of Germany as an eccentrically anti-religious man filled with sin to the core. Rumors surfaced for years and the continuing years after his death that he was enamored with the human anatomy and would often times experiment. Most of these experiments took place his birth home, a castle looking over the town of Darmstadt (because of course it would be).
Can we just get this straightened out once for all? Frankenstein is the name of the doctor not the monster that he creates. Upon visiting Doppel’s castle, later renamed Frankenstein Castle, Shelley developed one of the most tragically iconic characters in all of gothic literature in 1818. Frankenstein has since gone on to become the high point of penny dreadful gothic horror which played with themes of religion and the God complex in the form of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. The monster, itself, is an alloy of body parts reanimated by chemistry, alchemy, and electricity. Representing the advancement of science as well as the dangers that come with it, the monster is an incorporation of good and evil characteristics— making him an intriguing character of dire complexities. No easy task for Shelley to write or for an actor to portray. The monster’s first appearance was played by Charles Ogle in the first film adaptation of Shelley’s novel in 1910. However, it was Boris Karloff, another B-movie legend, who made the equally legendary character renowned in Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Since then, many have taken a stab at the monster from Robert De Niro to Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein (1974).