We're well into October now, which means chrysanthemums and pumpkins adorning yards and doorsteps... and not a few white muslin ghosts hanging from trees and lamp-posts and giant spiders, fake tombstones, and other scary appurtenances scattered about yards as Halloween approaches.
What is it about Halloween and the cult of spookiness? Is it the fun of getting a scare without really being…well, scared? We know that ghosts and witches and monsters aren’t really lurking around the corner, but sometimes it’s just fun to pretend that they might be…and Halloween is the time of year to indulge in that kind of fun.
But we aren’t the first to enjoy a good shiver and nervous glance over the shoulder. Our young ladies of the 19th century liked it just as well as we did. I rather think the vogue for ghost stories and other scary literature that first arose in the late 18th century and continued to blossom in the 19th is probably a direct result of the Enlightenment, that intellectual movement of the 18th century that, among other things, rang the death knell of common belief in things like witches and curses and other supernatural beliefs. People stopped believing that their horse had gone lame or their child taken ill because they had been “overlooked” by the old lady at the end of the lane with a wart on her nose and poor personal hygiene…but once the real fear of the supernatural waned, I think they also kind of missed the frisson of excitement that it lent to life.
The frisson came back in 1764 when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, what's now known as the first Gothic novel...and for the next decades young ladies shivered over its haunted corridors, evil villains, and gigantic ghosts. I'll let Regina tell you more about the Gothic novel craze, and hope you'll come back from now through the end of the month as we look at 19th century Books that Go Bump in the Night!