With the previous success of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and now Taboo on FX, it’s obvious that there is a renewed interest in horrors in historical contexts.
Through stylized costumes for modern audiences and the need to make all that’s old new again, it can be hard to discern exactly when these story lines are taking place – and what may be happening in the world contemporaneously. When Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, what is considered the first gothic novel in 1764, not only did he set the tone for a century of horror literature, he also gives modern readers a peek into what mid-18th century audiences found appealing; from the treatment of women and minorities to observations of class protocol and etiquette. I understand that the style of writing is not for everyone, but you must look at the historical themes, the themes my dear reader!
An obvious nod to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Penny Dreadful capitalized on the continued popularity of the Steampunk sub-culture and the Disney fractured fairytale success of Once Upon a Time. For three seasons and a total of 27 episodes, Penny Dreadful brought us a darker and sexier retelling of classic monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. Set in 1891, the rush for colonies was in full swing and everyone in Europe wanted a piece of Africa and Asia while the USA was intent on fulfilling its manifest destiny. Orientalism and the allure of the exotic continued to capture the imagination of the masses.
Taboo takes the viewer back even further than Vanessa Ives and her battle against the dark forces – to 1814. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars on the European continent and the War of 1812 in the Americas, powerful European countries were in the thick of colonialism, imperialism, and a general desire to own as much of the world as possible. Rather than mad scientists and vampires, the first episode of Taboo stylistically hints at the real-life horrors of man – namely, slavery and the human cost of greed.
I’m not here to argue that one needs to read Gothic literature to appreciate these historical horror shows, but if you’re interested in immersing yourself in the lurid tales that the wealthy would have tittered about behind gloved hands, give these stories a chance on a dark and stormy night!
Set in the Middle East:
The Giaour (poem) – Lord Byron 1813