Catholicism In Gothic Literature

The Gothic genre is distinctly different from other forms of literature. There are certain prominent traits about Gothic literature that set it apart from the rest; these tales explore the tension between what we fear and what we desire. This genre utilizes the sublime, sexuality and religion as tools to develop stories. The universally acclaimed Gothic masterpiece, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is rich in religious skepticism. Throughout the novel there are many key incidents that encapsulate Stoker’s attitude towards Catholicism. The ideas developed in Gothic tales suggest that individuals often find fear rather than comfort in the institute of Roman Catholicism.

Dracula is a novel with many examples of sublime imagery and the development of fear. The story of Dracula introduces the reader to Jonathon Harker, a man traveling to the Eastern European country of Transylvania to meet Count Dracula. As Harker travels through the Carpathian countryside the locals warn him about his destination. The local people are characterized as being “very, very superstitious” (Stoker, 382). The peasants utter strange terms, which at this point Harker is unfamiliar with, later in the novel it is learned that the words mean ‘vampire’. They give him crucifixes and other charms to protect against evil.  When offered the crucifix, protagonist Harker responds “[that he is] an English Churchman taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous”  (Stoker). Harker is now frightened, but still in disbelief about the concept of trinkets protecting against evil. In England society operates on technology and sciences, in Transylvania those who survive believe they do so on faith. It can be assumed that all the main characters, with the exception of Van Helsing, are Protestant, as evidenced by their unfamiliarity with the Catholic burial rite that Van Helsing reads over Lucy’s body (Stoker, 231). [1]Catholic rituals are linked to superstition and survival in the territory of Dracula. Van Helsing follows old Catholic methods to fight evil when he gives Lucy both a crucifix and garlic to safeguard her from Dracula at night (Stoker, 143,180). [2]Catholicism and folktale-superstitions are portrayed throughout the entire novel. Both are effective weapons against the evils of the world, but at the same time both are coupled in a sense with that evil.

Matthew Lewis’ The Monk explores the distrust towards Catholicism and the darker side of Religious figures. Lewis utilized character development to illustrate the underlying darkness embedded into Catholicism. As the narrative develops the antagonism between the protagonists and the villains becomes complicated. Father Ambrosio enters initially as a protagonist. He is the most admired Monk in the city. His level of purity would exalt him, and he would accept no sin from others. Ambrosio’s transgressions are blamed on his upbringing by Monks who “[were] Busy rooting out his virtues and narrowing his sentiments; they allowed every vice that was his share to arrive at full perfection,” (Lewis). Both Ambrosio and the Prioress hold positions that imply morality, but the circumstances and nature of religion is shown to alter these ideals. [3]The true character of Ambrosio serves as almost a satire to the dynamics of Religion. If the sole leader of a constitution is ultimately corrupted, what is there to have faith in?  Ambrosio is not a representative for any God. Perhaps, for the devil, he is a murderer with the identity of an angel. The hypocrisy of Ambrosio is revealed as a shallow face for his own self-interest and hidden desires. He chooses to punish sin in others but he himself remains corrupted. The Monk explores the framework of religion. As the story develops, it shows the readers that religion is foolish. All in this world is ultimately corrupt. The generally clear boundaries distinguishing good and evil ultimately collapse and evil takes the face of what is commonly seen as holy. The church is shown to be an institution of superstition, filled with hypocritical, corrupted figures of authority.

The original film Nosferatu, from 1922, is a film loaded with elements of fear. Catholicism and superstition are ambivalently present throughout the film. At 06:48 the protagonist journey is introduced. Hutter is sent to the Carpathians to complete a real-estate deal with Count Orlok. The world seems innocent, and the journey initially seems to be ordinary. At 13:14 the world of superstition meets Hutter’s reality. At twilight the world seems very odd. Animals act strangely and the locals behave fearfully. [4]At 13:14 Hutter is warned that evil spirits become all powerful after dark, and he is given a crucifix to protect him. The symbol of Jesus on the cross is seen as a protective-force against what exists in the darkness of the Carpathians. The promise of Christian salvation seems stronger than the present evil. Hutter is dumbfounded. In his homeland technology is relied on for survival, but in the Carpathians the communities rely on faith and superstitions to survive. Catholicism and Orlok all fall into the dark world that is very different from what Hutter experienced before entering the Carpathians.  Catholicism is seen as a scapegoat, rather than an object to be feared. Although religion brings a sense of comfort, it does not ultimately serve as a protector against the evils in the world.

The ideas developed in Gothic tales suggest that individuals often find fear rather than comfort in the institute of Roman Catholicism. Stories share the same basic conventions: a character in peril, madness and—the most shocking—corrupt religion. Gothic literature takes upon an anti-Catholic approach as well as parody towards salvation of man at the hand of God. The protagonists in Nosferatu and Dracula are introduced to the world of Catholicism as a source of salvation and hope. In both narratives, religion does not universally serve as a savior. In The Monk, a reverse idea is explored. Initially faith is seen as a requirement for a content life. After the corruption and true identity of the Monk is revealed, faith is seen a joke, truly a fools hope. Gothic literature identifies with the idea that religion is not a salvation, but a false hope for the weak. When the world of superstitions, evil, and religious beliefs collides, there no longer exists a clear-cut distinction between the protagonists and the villains.

Works Cited

 1993, David Carradine Hosts ‘Nosferatu. 1922. One DVD.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. Penguin Books. 1987.

Norton, Rictor. Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. London: Leicester UP, 1999.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. Ed. Frederick Garber. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968

Sage, Victor. The Gothick Novel. London, Macmillan, 1990.

Schmitt, Cannon. Technique of Terror, Technologies of Nationality: Ann Radcliff’s The Italian. 1994.

Haworth-Maden, Clare. Dracula Everything You Always Wanted To Know About the Man, the Myth, and the Movies. Bison Group. Hong Kong. 1992

Mulvey-Roberts, M. (ed) The Handbook To Gothic Literature. Macmillan Press Ltd. 1998

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1992


Superstitious beliefs are ever popular in Catholicism. Heaps of salt are present in Roman Catholic Church mausoleums to prevent evil spirits from entering

[2] Catholicism is often used in tandem to fight vampires and evil creatures (crucifixes, garlic, ivory, axes, salt, holy water, bibles)

[3] Corrupt views of Catholicism are popular among Gothic writers. Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian creates a places Catholicism at the center of evil and tyranny.

[4] It is a common belief between Christian and Catholic’s that the symbol of the cross will protect against the forces of evil. This belief is still common today and is presented in many literary and cinematic pieces: Nightmare on Elm Street (the crucifix on the wall prevents Freddy Krueger from entering that spot of the bedroom), Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Crucifixes burn vampires and prevent attacks)

About Maison Moonchild

A Canadian gal that firmly believes words can change the world. An avid reader, writer and Halloween enthusiast. She has a special interest in communications and writes for pleasure and profession. She moonlights as a metaphysical maven with a knack for creating magical crystal jewelry and holiday accessories.
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