Horror: Who Started It?

Hello, friends and foes! For my first-ever blog post I thought it would be fun to do a brief timeline of horror literature and try to figure out who might have planted the horror family tree. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Horror: who started it? There are several obvious contenders; H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe. When I dove into this research rabbit hole I began as any self-respecting researcher would – I Googled it. The answer might shock you.

While this search result is hilarious, it’s not exactly what I was looking for when I set out on this quest for an answer. So I, living my armchair anthropologist dreams, decided to dig (read: Google) a little further.

The encyclopedia Brittanica defines a horror story as “a story in which the focus is on creating a feeling of fear”. This definition is important because, for the sake of keeping this a brief timeline of horror literature, I won’t be delving into the different branches of the family tree (i.e. gothic horror, paranormal horror, body horror, etc.). With this simple definition in mind, who do you picture of when you think of horror? Stephen King? Anne Rice?

Stephen King’s reign of terror began in 1974 with the publication of the now-classic Carrie. Since then he’s published over 80 books so, sure, I’d consider him as a contender for Father of Modern Horror. (For the record, R.L. Stine has published over 300 books. Just sayin’.)

Anne Rice rose to fame around the same time as King, as Interview With a Vampire was published in 1976, a whopping 26 years before Stephanie Meyer published the insanely popular vampire series Twilight. Since 1976, Rice has published over two dozen books, including both Christian and erotic literature. She even cites Stephen King as an inspiration for her work (Billboard interview, March 11, 2016). The 1970’s saw an upswing in horror literature that has led all the way to present day, but that’s not where the genre began.

Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You know The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? Yeah, she wrote the book back in 1959. It’s often cited as one of the first haunted house novels in America. She also wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even before that, Jackson published her short story The Lottery in 1948. If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember this as being the single most traumatizing piece of assigned reading in your middle school English class.

Jackson was also a general badass, regarded as incredibly witty, confident, and successful in a field that did not grant easy access to women at that time. She also read tarot and allegedly practiced witchcraft. Spooky. I read her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and you should, too. While she didn’t cite a specific author of literary influence, Jackson seemed to be inspired by the darkness of every day – sometimes hidden, sometimes right under your very nose.

I’d say it’s typical for horror writers to be drawn to and inspired by the dark intricacies of life. Take a look at H.P. Lovecraft, for example. A fellow New Englander and anti-anthropocentrist (anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals). Lovecraft’s claim to fame is widely regarded as his short story The Call of Cthulu from 1926 which eventually became the staggering Cthulu mythos that most horror (or in Lovecraft’s terms, “weird”) literature fans have come to know. Lovecraft’s first known writings began in 1897, a staggering 77 years before Stephen King’s Carrie. His legacy in the literature realm is abundantly clear, as his Cthulu mythos has been adapted into film, TV, board games and more. And, while 1897 seems like a really long time ago, I wanted to know who inspired Lovecraft. So I kept digging.

Lovecraft’s influence is another pretty obvious contender for starting the horror genre as we know it: Edgar Allen Poe. Another New Englander (I blame the gloom) that became an instant success with the publication of The Raven in 1845 but had published horror shorts since the early 1830’s. Poe was a student of cosmology, another influence of Lovecraft’s work (cosmology: the philosophical study of the origin and nature of the universe). Poe is widely regarded as a pioneer of “gothic” and “gothic horror” literature. An interesting anecdote about Poe’s history that I might do a whole post on in the future (would you be interested? Leave a comment below!) is the case of Lizzie Doten in the 1860’s. Doten was an imitator of Poe’s poetry after his death and claimed to hear Poe’s spirit dictating new poetry from beyond the grave.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s get on with it.

Poe was a popular (and ultimately very tragic) figure in horror literature, but not the first. Before him came another one of our obvious contenders: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Shelley ushered in the age of science-fiction and horror during what can certainly be called a “Golden Age” for spooky literature. The early 1800’s saw the Brothers Grimm collection of short stories for scaring your children and other classics, like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

At this point in my research, I truly thought I was nearing the finish line. A big boom of horror literature in the early 1800’s meant someone had started the genre in the not-so-distant past, and I was determined to figure out who it was. I made it back in time to 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. FINALLY. Several sources claimed this to be the first gothic horror novel. And it was quite controversial at the time of its publication; it was initially published under the guise of being a romance story.

Finally, I had reached the end. Or… the beginning. I made it to the first ever horror story ever written!

Just kidding. Common sense tells us that horror has its roots in folklore, superstition, and myths from all over the world for as long as history has been recorded. Even real life events have been inspiring terrifying works of literature for hundreds of years. A serial killer inspired 1697’s Bluebeard, and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory inspired 1729’s Tragica Historia and the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story: Coven, portrayed by horror film icon Kathy Bates. And although we didn’t talk about Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, it’s thought that his inspiration came from the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who terrified all who knew him in the 15th century.

It wasn’t just vampires back then, either. Werewolf literature was popular as far back as the 12th Century, way before Leitch Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf in 1831. If you want to get technical, there was a werewolf in The Epic of Gilgamesh and that dates back to 2100 BC. Werewolves were also prominent figures in ancient Greek and Roman horror stories.

Now, here’s the thing. Horror stories as we know them go back basically forever. I’m talking before the year 1000. Hell, maybe even before the year 100. Euripides wrote stories about ghosts and necromancy that inspired Mary Shelley. Pliny the Younger wrote about a haunted house in Athens over 1800 years before Shirley Jackson was even born.

I guess the conclusion is that there is no conclusion. At least, not one I could come up with on my armchair anthropology expedition into the roots of horror literature. Horror’s roots are ancient, tying back to the oldest superstitions, folklore and ghost stories from all over the world. You can give Walpole credit for the first gothic horror novel, and Shelley for the first sci-fi horror, and H.P. Lovecraft for being straight-up weird, but it’s impossible to find a single originator of horror. And, I think I like that answer better. Ghosts, witches, vampires and demons have haunted humans for as long as we’ve been able to tell stories about them. And reading a good ghost story never gets old.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

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7 Comments

  1. I would love to know more about Poe! Really admire all of the research you put into this— and I feel like I’ve gotten a ton of new dinner conversation topics. The “scariest” thing I had to read for school was Shelly’s Frankenstein and out of my class of 19 I think I was the only one who enjoyed it. Looking forward to next Friday!

  2. I love it! Interesting read about something I never thought I’d be interested in. I can’t wait for next Friday’s installment. Unless it’s too scary. I get bad dreams.

  3. Glad to see that Werewolves are one of the first horror icons, always thought they deserved much more respect than they are often given.

  4. Ahhhhh, I love it.

    I never thought to look at the history of horror, but it’s combining two things I love <3

  5. It looks like I have some reading to do. I’d never even heard of The Lottery, so I thank you in advance for my nightmares to come. <3

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