If you type ‘Who invented horror?’ into Google, Horace Walpole’s name pops up at the top of the search results. This is due to his authorship of his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, a tale of ghosts and an old castle which features the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’. Although Google seems sure, I wanted to explore whether there were any other people in history who could possibly lay claim to the title of ‘inventor of the horror genre’.
So, what exactly is horror?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines horror as ‘a type of book, movie, etc. that is designed to frighten people’. This is incredibly vague and somewhat subjective. Were there really no works of fiction created with the intention of frightening people until 1764?
The Ancient Candidates
Let’s go back, way way back to the time of gods and monsters. The ancient Greeks had all manner of frightening beasts in their mythology, from Cerberus to the Hydra to the Minotaur. The ancient Greeks are also known for their love of theatre and storytelling. Although horror wasn’t in the classic triad of ancient Greek theatre genres, there were some pretty brutal murders and disturbing taboos explored in the tragedy plays. However, there was rarely anything too graphic or scary on the stage, despite some of the nastiest-sounding murders in fiction stemming from these plays, they were usually described rather than shown. That doesn’t mean the dialogue didn’t conjure up pretty horrific images. There’s a famous speech delivered by a Messenger in Euripides’ Medea that describes a rather brutal poisoning: ‘Her eyes no longer kept their wonted form nor did her shapely face, and from the top of her head blood dripped, mingled with fire, and her flesh dropped from her bones like resin from a pine-torch, torn by the unseen jaws of the poison, a dreadful sight to behold.’
Even without showing these murders on stage, these scenes were likely intended to be frightening. But, if we fly ahead in history and take a look at some of the best-remembered plays of the English Renaissance I think we’ll find a few more examples of pre-Walpole horror seeping into literature. Shakespeare’s tragedies had characters dropping like flies, if they survived to the end, they were in the minority. But, it’s not the murders I want to focus on as much as the supernatural elements. Nowadays, there’s an understanding that good horror speaks to its contemporaneous audiences and plays on the specific fears of their time. One of the most talked about topics and sources of genuine fear for many in the Jacobean period was witchcraft. King James I was obsessed with witches, he even wrote a book about them called Daemonologie. Shakespeare was no fool, he knew that in order to stay in favour with the royals, he had to write about what interested them (hence why the Tudors are bigged up in the history plays) so the Weird Sisters are given full license to be creepy and spooky as Hell in his Scottish play.
However, much as we see with the ancient Greek theatre, true horror and frightening scenes weren’t always portrayed on stage and theatre is naturally a trickier art form to show horror due to the limitations of stagecraft. Maybe it was only a matter of time until someone like Walpole took these theatrical tremors of horror and put them into a book with the rise novel in the 1700s due to technological developments in printing presses. Walpole himself even drew similarities between his novel and Shakespeare’s works, suggesting he didn’t necessarily see what he was doing was particularly original.
Why does it matter?
It doesn’t really. It’s a fairly arbitrary issue. The definition of horror is so vague that pinpointing the first work of fiction to ever intentionally strike fear into its audience is basically impossible. I think Walpole did do something meaningful with his novel but I’m not sure if it’s fair to claim he invented horror.
As a genre, horror is often regarded as not being very high brow. It’s associated with base and popular but forgettable storytelling, from cheaply made movies to Victorian penny dreadfuls. Even Euripides is the often the most criticised of the ancient Greek tragedians.
I personally think there is real skill in being able to scare an audience or reader. It’s not an easy task. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating what’s popular because sometimes that’s what ends up making history. In fact, if it wasn’t for this line of thinking, Walpole might not have claim to the title at all. In the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, not only did Walpole use a pseudonym, but he put a note at the start of book stating that it was a translation by a William Marshal from a Medieval Italian manuscript. It was only when the book became so popular that Walpole identified himself as the real author and therefore the modern ‘inventor’ of horror.