LONDON—There’s a part of us that loves to be scared.
How else to explain the popularity of stories featuring haunted castles, lurking monsters and restless ghosts?
Collectively they form a genre known as gothic, the subject of a new exhibition at the British Library that charts 250 years of gothic chills, thrills and bloody excess flowing from the pages of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to the clothes of Alexander McQueen.
The story starts in 1764, when English author Horace Walpole had a vivid dream about a giant armoured hand on a staircase in an ancient castle. The next morning he began to write “The Castle of Otranto,” a fantastical novel he subtitled “A Gothic Story.”
A genre was born.
“Every single gothic trope you can imagine is in ‘The Castle of Otranto,”‘ lead curator Tim Pye said Thursday. “An increasingly deranged tyrant chasing after virginal maidens … crumbling castles … battling knights … a general air of foreboding.”
“And in among it all, you’ve got supernatural elements: ghosts, giants, paintings that come down from the wall and walk around the castle,” he added.
Readers loved it, and the book remains in print today.
The exhibition features rare manuscripts from the library’s collection, along with movie posters, film clips and objects from around the world—including a vampire-slaying kit, complete with Victorian-era crucifix, stakes, mallet, prayer book and pistol.
There is Shelley’s handwritten manuscript for “Frankenstein,” with notes from her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—and a letter from their friend, Lord Byron, pronouncing the tale “a very good work for a girl of 18.”
The show traces the genre through the Victorian “penny dreadfuls” to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and onto novels such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
Pye calls the endlessly adapted vampire tale “the most enduring gothic novel.”
Gothic crops up in unexpected places, such as in the work of social chronicler Jane Austen. The exhibition gathers together rare copies of the seven “Northanger Horrids,” horror stories named in Austen’s Gothic-influenced novel “Northanger Abbey.”
The gothic bloodline still runs strong in movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” the Twilight book and movie series, and zombie thrillers including “The Walking Dead.”
In music, it emerges through bands such as Bauhaus and The Sisters of Mercy while in fashion, it gives its name to the black-clad Goth subculture. A star lot in the exhibition is a black lace dress and a headdress topped with taxidermy antlers by the late couturier McQueen.
“It’s a universal emotion that’s never going to go away—that love of being terrified,” Pye said.
“Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination” is at the British Library from Friday until Jan. 20.