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The Gothic Castle: From Literary Trope to Ruin Porn

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With the annual tradition of Halloween fast approaching and this month’s theme being Relics, it seemed appropriate to explore the recurring fascination with the Gothic castle and its much-celebrated aesthetic, in both fiction and real life. The use of castles as important elements in storytelling can be found throughout history and range from the medieval tales of King Arthur residing at the round table in Camelot to the much-loved, magical school of Hogwarts, with its secret passageways and moving staircases.

Unlike the military purpose of the impregnable, feudal fortress and the romanticised depiction of the golden-haired princess in her white palace, the Gothic castle is often represented as an eerie and uninhabited residence, located in a desolate setting. Its recognisable design of pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaults originates from a style of art found in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, which was later adopted into the Italian and French architecture of the Renaissance. It might be hard to imagine the Gothic castle as being anything else than the uncanny home of supernatural creatures or the awe-inspiring backdrop for a scene in a fantasy movie, but it wasn’t until the emergence of Gothic fiction in mid-18th century Britain that the Gothic castle became synonymous with the mystery and intrigue that we associate it with today.

Engraving: The Library at Strawberry Hill House, London.

Horace Walpole is considered the father of the Gothic novel with his book The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is crammed full of elements that shaped the genre of Gothic horror. Today, the book can easily be misread as a parody of the archetypal Gothic novel, as it takes place over the course of 24 hours and borders on the absurd with its many descriptions of walking portraits, secret passageways, hidden trapdoors and an ancient prophecy. Walpole definitely had a taste for the dramatic, which is shown in his depictions of a young man being crushed by a giant helmet falling from the sky, an evil lord who tries to marry the fiancé of his dead son, people being locked in castle towers, mysterious knights and stabbing. The prophecy in the story states, ‘the castle and Lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it’ (The Castle of Otranto). One can only speculate as to whether this quote inspired the massive size of Walpole’s own Gothic revival villa, which he idly named Strawberry Hill House and built in the imitated style of the Gothic castle. But Walpole was not alone in trying to live out the romantic fantasy of the Gothic castle in the real world. Another example is the surrealist park Las Pozas, which was built in the Mexican Jungle by the British eccentric Edward James. This architectural project is commonly referred to as “The pools” and it was created between 1949 and 1983 and consists of a bizarre collection of floating staircases, elaborate structures and crumbling ruins. It is definitely worth a search on Google images.

Las Pozas, Mexico.

Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey (1803), at a time when Gothic fiction was becoming widely popular as a literary genre, which afforded her a certain ironic licence. Austen’s satirical approach to the genre is expressed through the story’s heroine Catherine Morland, with her naïve nature, eager imagination and love of Gothic novels. Austen good-heartedly pokes fun at the young, impressionable, novel-reading women of her audience and makes references to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis.

The castle in Northanger Abbey is used as a commentary on the dichotomous representation of good and evil, which was associated with the genre of Gothic fiction.  An example of this can be seen when Catherine is invited to stay at the Abbey and her friend Henry Tilney teasingly asks ‘will not your mind misgive you when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber [at Northanger Abbey] (…) presenting even a funeral appearance? Will not your heart sink within you?’ (Northanger Abbey). Catherine’s imagination starts conjuring up ideas of the horrors that might have taken place at the Abbey, such as murders and acts of vampirism, only to discover the opposite. But aside from the lack of haunted castles, Northanger Abbey is worth reading for those who like the romantic plots of Austen’s novels.

The quintessential Gothic novel, which must not be forgotten and should be recommended to everyone, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The novel is regarded as a definitive example of the literary genre of Gothic horror. Dracula tells the tale of an ancient vampire who travels from his castle in Transylvania to the English shores of Whitby, in a quest for new blood. The character of Count Dracula is based on the historical figure of Vlad III Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, who is said to have been a merciless ruler during his reign over Transylvania from 1456 to 1462. It is generally believed that his castle was Bran Castle, which is now a picturesque national monument located in Romania.

Pleasure of Ruins, Rose Macaylay (1953).

It is the fascination with the past as represented in Gothic architecture, that plays an important role in the popularity of the Gothic aesthetic and allows it to serve as a symbol of the old and archaic. This relationship has long been known and is shown in Rose Macaulay’s 1953 book, Pleasure of Ruins, which is ‘a lively and eccentric history of the “ruin lust” that gripped European art and literature in the 18th century, [and] reached its height in the romantic period.’1 This gave way to the term “Ruin Porn”, which is used to describe the modern-day phenomena of professional photographers who take pictures of old, run-down buildings and the crumbling ruins of ancient castles, solely for the purpose of their appealing aesthetics. As Richard B. Woodward argues in the article Disaster Photography: When is documentation Documentary Exploitation?, Ruin Porn entails photographing the beauty of decaying buildings and old, architectural monuments, without any regards to the historical context of their existence. In relation to this month’s theme being Relics, it could be argued that the history of the Gothic castle becomes a relic in itself if the castle is appreciated as nothing more than a thing of architectural beauty. Therefore, remember to occasionally look up the history behind the Gothic castles that you may stumble upon in photography or literature because as Woodward suggests, ‘The web [can] carry us endlessly along virtual pathways to real places.’

 

Books mentioned in chronological order:

The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole.
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen.
Dracula, Bram Stoker.
The Pleasure of Ruins, Rose Macaulay.

Articles:

Artsy: Deep in the Mexican Jungle, one Man Created a Surrealist Paradise.

The Guardian: Ruin Lust: our love affair with decaying buildings.

Art News: Disaster Photography: When is documentation Documentary Exploitation?

 

  1. Ruin Lust: our love affair with decaying buildings, The Guardian. 2012.

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