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American Gothic is a subgenre of the Gothic, or gothic horror, a type of fiction that arose in conjunction with the Romantic literary movement. American Gothic as a genre is defined by real-life American horrors and bloodshed, allegorization of personal, generational, and social traumas, and a focus on the mental state, often a descent into madness. Aesthetically, it invokes isolation, Christianity (mostly Protestant), and the lush American landscape.

Differentiation from "Old World" Gothic[]

Aside from the original Gothic tropes such as haunted buildings, the supernatural, mental illness, and family traumas, the American Gothic differs in that it centers more on social anxieties such as race and religion. Often, the stories and aesthetics of the American Gothic rely on specific regions of the United States and their histories, such as slavery playing a large role in Southern Gothic and the Puritans and witch trials influencing New England Gothic. There are also several aesthetics specific to the American Gothic but not dependent on region, such as liminal spaces, the wilderness, farmlands and/or plantations, and decay. The decay and abandonment of structures such as barns, churches, and ghost towns is tied to politics and history, and notable in that these are not ancient Gothic castles and cathedrals of the “Old World,” but (mostly) cheaply constructed buildings exposed to the volatile American elements.

Origins and History[]

The origins of American Gothic can be traced back all the way to the Mayflower, when the Puritans arrived from Britain to North America. The Puritans not only held the Salem Witch Trials, a key source of inspiration for authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne (who, legend has it, inserted the ‘w’ into his surname to stand for ‘witch’ in solidarity with the women killed in the Trials) and others to this day, but also ignited the imagination of puritanical–a word derived from their denomination–fear throughout the early American colonies that set the standard for the moral questions that American Gothic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Flannery O’Connor would come to ask in their works.

Poe bridged the gap from the original idea of the American Gothic to a more southern focus, as he tried to work his way up to becoming southern aristocracy. A common theme in his stories is fear, often of some repressed secret or ‘dark’ object. Modern analyses of his work connect these ideas to racial anxieties as well as family ones, and these both continued to be common themes presented in Southern Gothic, and American Gothic as a whole. Other authors such as Toni Morrison shifted the perspective to one of blackness, especially in a post-Civil War America. Morrison’s works often interweave the regions of the south and the midwest.

Modern Interpretations[]

Southern Gothic and New England Gothic (see respective pages for more info) are the most developed and established subgenres of American Gothic. The regional gothic trend on 2010s Tumblr also introduced the ideas of different regional aesthetics and their application to the Gothic to younger folks, though this push for acknowledgement of other regions of the American Gothic to be recognized in the literary and artistic world existed outside of the internet, such as the literary journal Midwestern Gothic (now discontinued).

Unlike “Old World” Gothic, which has its classics but is largely considered a genre of the past, the American Gothic still has influence in modern American and post-colonial storytelling. Because the racial, class, and religious tensions of the United States are always hypervisible and involve so many different groups, many of the classic American Gothic novels remain relevant, and modern storytellers continue the Gothic tradition. American Gothic can be seen in movies, TV, music, and other media. Additionally, because of its early fascination with the frontier and wilderness, it has become intertwined with Mexico and Indigenous peoples, and from this have sprouted even more subgenres, such as the Chicano Gothic.

Visuals[]

  • Natural American landscapes (prairies, swamps, the desert, etc.)
  • Churches (small and humble, not cathedrals)
  • Dilapidated buildings
  • Overgrown gardens/overgrowth generally
  • Tombs and cemeteries
  • Farms and plantations
  • Rural liminal spaces
  • Witches, black cats, superstition
  • Christian (especially Protestant) imagery
  • Young women (especially white), ideas of “purity”
  • “Bad” weather (dark, misty, windy, etc.)

More associated with the regional gothic trend but still thematically accurate:[]

  • Interior liminal spaces
  • Rusted machinery
  • Abandoned gas stations, malls, diners, etc.
  • Broken windows, dirty interiors, etc.
  • Roadside church signs
  • Roadkill animals
  • Guns
  • White dresses
  • Tornadoes

Media[]

Note: Some of these authors/films/etc. have racist viewpoints or subtext despite their notoriety within the American Gothic canon (such is the case with Poe, for instance).

Literature[]

  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
  • The works of Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The works of Shirley Jackson
  • The works of Edgar Allen Poe
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The works of Flannery O’Connor
  • The works of Toni Morrison
  • The works of William Faulkner
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • The works of Stephen King
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • The works of Cormac McCarthy

Film & Television[]

Note: adaptations of the above not included, but are also examples.

  • American Gothic (1995-1996)
  • American Gothic (2016) (unrelated to the 1995 series)
  • Twin Peaks (1990-92, 2017)
  • Candyman (1992 & 2021)
  • Fargo (1996)
  • Eve’s Bayou (1997)
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
  • Sharp Objects (2018)
  • Badlands (1973)
  • Bones and All (2022)
  • Supernatural (2005-2020) - mostly early seasons
  • Midnight Mass (2021)
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  • Over the Garden Wall (2014)

Music[]

  • Johnny Cash
  • Ethel Cain
  • Nicole Dollanganger
  • Shakey Graves
  • Mirel Wagner
  • Dollie Rot
  • Merricat Crellin
  • The Civil Wars
  • The Handsome Family
  • Anaïs Mitchell

Art & Photography[]

  • “American Gothic” by Grant Wood
  • The works of Andrew Wyeth
  • camojacketfag on Tumblr
  • teeth-ing on Tumblr

A note on artists & authors: not all of these individuals are American themselves, however, their bodies of work fit the genre and usually take direct inspiration from the American Gothic (or in the case of a lot of music, gothic americana) genre.

Gallery[]

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