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Ambiguity and Madness in Gothic and Horror Short Stories

Updated on October 24, 2014
Illustration of Gothic amadeus
Illustration of Gothic amadeus | Source

Fear has given us life. Being adequately and appropriately afraid ensured our ancestors continued survival. Although modern humanity has progressed in countless ways, our brain remains relatively unchanged and our primitive instincts merely rearranged. We inexplicably find ourselves attaching fear response to that which poses little or no tangible threat to our survival, but is in some way ambiguously dangerous or simply vague. From darkness to the ventriloquist puppet, that which possesses an air of mystery or uncertainty has an uncanny ability to vestige a strange blend of confusion and terror within us, a sensation that usually finds its place in horror and gothic tales.

Great video on why uncertainty leads to fear.

Tzvetan Todorov author of 'The Fantastic'

Historian and essayist Tzvetan Todorov
Historian and essayist Tzvetan Todorov | Source

'The Fantastic'

In an age of impossible possibilities and unfathomable knowledge it is the unknown and ambiguous which rouses terror in us the most, this may explain why tales that fit Todorovs notions of ‘the fantastic’ are so easily able to elicit our animalistic instincts of fear. Todorov famously coined the unsettling moments of ambiguity in a tale when an impossible event occurs in a seemingly realist setting ‘the fantastic’, this hesitation between the uncanny and the marvellous confuses and frightens our instincts as we attempt to explain what cannot be explained. To settle this confusion either we or the author, conjure an excuse for that which we cannot touch with reason, an excuse that I myself have taken interest in is madness.

The Rebirth of Ghost Stories

The Age of Enlightenment was a cultural movement beginning in the late 17th century and is characterised by a popularisation of the scientific method. The Enlightenment was defined by growth of empirical methods of testing that lead to widespread innovations however prior to this shift in cultural paradigm the population had a less rational perception of reality and did not dismiss as myth that which could not be tested or falsified by experiment. The physical existence of the supernatural was ambiguous and so belonged in the enigmatic realm of the unknown. Ghosts belonged in this realm and as such they plagued us with tremendous fear and became a natural part of horror tales. However, as 18th century reader had disproved and so banished the ghost from the realm of the ambiguously possible, the Enlightened gothic author was given the task of reinstalling fear and possibility into the ghost story often this was done using insanity and a first person narrator.


The Horla

Guy de Maupassant's ‘The Horla’ is a story of one man’s descent into madness and one ghost’s ascent into reality. We read with bated breath an anonymous man’s journal entries as he describes, an overwhelming feeling of presence, then a number of horrific nightmares and a strange series of events that describe either how an intelligent and logical man is haunted to hysterical insanity by a metaphysical being or how even the educated and rational mind can betray itself into hallucination and neurosis. “a reasonable, serious man may not permit himself such hallucinations…” . Eventually our unnamed narrator, driven by unrelenting fear to drastic measures, attempts to kill the invisible presence by burning his entire property, and his occupying servants, to the ground. As the story is told in journal form it can mimic a truthful account of reality as it would appear to a faithful author, this gives it a more tangible sense of reality and tightens the tension the reader feels through their spine. ‘The Horla’ is a perfect example of the modern ghost story as it so well unites and contrasts the irrational fear of impossible spirits with the fear of losing one own rationality. As we read we see the unfolding of logic in its senseless attempt to explain what it cannot perceive, ‘The Horla’ uses madness as a marvellous critique of the ‘enlightened’ state of the modern gentleman.

Illustration by Virgil Finlay of a scene from 'The Tell Tale Heart'
Illustration by Virgil Finlay of a scene from 'The Tell Tale Heart' | Source
A portrait of E.T.A Hoffmann
A portrait of E.T.A Hoffmann | Source

Freud and E.T.A Hoffmann's 'The Sandman'

Sigmund Freud uses E.T.A Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ to articulate his theories of ‘The Uncanny’ which he explains is the transformation from something that is familiar but has been rendered, at the same time, alien thus we feel the strange ‘Todorovian’ confusion that results from the ambiguity of threat. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ is used to exemplify the uncanny as, on a number of levels it unites what once was familiar with vague notions of danger that result in a confused paralysing fear.

On one level Hoffman parodies a familiar German folklore figure ‘the sandman’ twisting him from the delightful sleep inducing children’s character to a sinister eyeball gouging metaphor for the loss of innocence that the protagonist, Nathaniel, endures and is haunted by throughout his life.Throughout the story we are in constant hesitation on whether to regard Nathaniel as mentally unstable possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and so his horrors imagined or to believe his terrifying account as truth because of the belief he himself has in it.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is of much use in analysis of this story, his theory surmounts that adult fear stems from repressed infantile trauma therefore we may regard Nathaniel’s later psychotic episodes as being triggered via associations with the terrible figure of Coppelius. Freud extracts other symbols for trauma from Hoffman’s story; he suggests that the fear of losing one’s eyes is analogous to the fear of castration which occurs in all infantile boys . Therefore it makes sense that whenever Nathaniel is experiencing feelings of affection Coppelius makes an appearance and triggers a feeling of uncontrolled autonomous action in Nathaniel that we in a rational approach may regard as a psychotic episode. Nathaniel’s truth is subjective and is in hesitation with the more logical madness interpretation. The multitude of levels of uinescapable ambiguity within ‘The Sandman’ allows us to experience, through observing Nathaniel, what it may be like to exist in a reality of hallucination, constantly fighting to perceive the truth from madness. This is where fear dwells. It is in knowing, without doubt, that one is sane but is still constantly haunted by that which it cannot dream to explain


Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Tell Tale Heart'

Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ helped to revive the sensationalised and overdramatic state of gothic literature by injecting real horror into the psychology of its characters. The genius in ‘The Tell Tale heart’ is the uniting of binary oppositions rationality and madness as we interrogate the rational confession of an unnamed killer as he attempts to convince us of his sanity.

This 'rationality' is found in the narration as every single sentence adds to the accumulation and pace of the plot as it builds and releases tension. This causes us to squeeze the arm of our chair and grind our teeth together as the narrator moves with an unnaturally calm and calculated slowness towards the sleeping eye of the old man with a remorseless intension to end his life with brutal force.

Like ‘The Horla’ This story is shrouded in a veil of mystery by the anonymity of the homodiegetic narrator, who strips excess detail like he is meticulously gutting a fish as he recounts the events leading to murder. This concentration on the revealing of the plot simultaneously increases our proximity to the tension and clarity of the action, whilst removing our sense certainty to motivation or identity. Like many gothic characters, it is the narrator’s nerves that reveal his true nature and expose his lack of reason despite his wealth of logic. The ambiguity between sanity and insanity that the narrator displays induces paranoia, because in a reality where killers cannot be separated from the ordinary by appearances alone the ambiguous possibility of the murderer next door will have the reader sleeping with one restless eye open.


A favoured possible explanation, among writers, to invite frightening supernatural elements into his story is ‘the insanity excuse’ as this allows him to give a kind of validity and internal logic which amounts to the terror of the impossible by excusing the its existence as a product of the narrator’s unreliable conscious. Whether this validity is supported by a realistic form, a first person focalisation or folkloric mystery it gives permission to ghosts, the undead, wicked women and eye ball stealing creatures to leak into reality and scare the animal within us that we have buried beneath our humanity. The ambiguous existence of madness can give the gothic story unique abilities; it allows the story to suggest and study the possibility of the supernatural element without ever needing to give way to either a realist or marvellous explanation, balancing between both. Because regardless of whichever explanation of these might be true, both outcomes share the same consequences for the character, with whom we empathise, and so are equally as terrifying. The only thing worse than seeing a ghost is being the only one that can.


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    • Mitch Charman profile image

      Mitchell Charman 

      4 years ago from Western Australia

      Great article! "Our brain remains relatively unchanged and our primitive instincts merely rearranged," is a great statement!

      I disagree with Freud's theory (and I realise how that sounds) suggesting the "fear of losing one’s eyes is analogous to the fear of castration which occurs in all infantile boys." I certainly think the fear can be explained, as you mentioned yourself, as a "fear of losing one['s] own rationality... [in a] senseless attempt to explain what it cannot perceive." Without our eyes we cannot perceive, and we struggle to explain what we can't perceive, therefore we are afraid of slowly losing our rationality. To me, nothing is scarier than that. In saying that, Freud has just a little more experience than I have (understatement!), so he's definitely considered things I haven't.

      I'm going to go back, read everything you've mentioned (especially 'The Tell-Tale Heart' again!) and even try my hand at writing some while keeping in mind the psychological principles you've mentioned.

    • Elizabeth Bowers profile image

      Elizabeth Wilson 

      5 years ago from Tennessee

      Interesting Hub. It's fascinating to look at the impact of the supernatural and the element of fear has on our culture. Thanks for this!


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