The fear of death and of the unknown are common to all cultures. One of the roles of ancient religions and mythology was to explain many events with a violent behavior – and apparently arbitrary – that mark human life. This role has led to the creation of a parallel world inhabited by gods and monsters which dominates our world. A supernatural world where the forces of good and evil compete in an eternal conflict, and in which man is fighting for his survival.
The heroic and often horrific interaction of man with forces that are superior to him is an integral part of the oldest forms of literature, religious literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh (2000 BC) and Homer’s Odyssey (800 BC) depicted adventurers fighting against hordes of monsters, sometimes helped sometimes hampered by the Gods. The Bible also contains a great collective of monsters and demons, the sea creature Leviathan and Satan – aka the devil, God’s enemy. For Christians, Satan is the incarnation of the ultimate evil. It appears in the apocalyptic Revelations of St. John among other animals, terrifying in the form of a dragon, and is finally defeated by the archangel Michael.
The work of William Shakespeare also contains horrific and supernatural elements, the ghosts and witches of Macbeth, the bloody Titus Andronicus (including a rape, a severed hand and cannibalism) through The Tempest, which takes place on an island where an exiled magician reigns over a diverse group of spirits and monsters.
Ironically, the horror genre in the whole has its true origins in the eighteenth, a century where science and reason are meant to abolish forever superstition and ignorance. Some artists and writers produce works exploring the darkest corners of their imagination. Horace Walpole is one of them, writing the first British horror novel, The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Inspired from a nightmare but supposed to be based on an Italian story, his book is conspiracy within the Italian aristocracy with matching ghosts, prophecies and poisonings. At the time, the novel caused a craze for what will be soon called Gothic fiction, and generated a large number of imitators.
In general, popular terror stories are adapted from newspaper accounts, which relate facts so distorted in their early narrating that they become real. This is the case of the story of ‘Jack’, a man of uncertain origin who attacks women randomly and then, they say, flee the crime scene by leaps and bounds with boots with heels spring. His representation, with his ears and sharp nose, his bright red eyes and ability to spit flames, is a mere fabrication around a character who terrorizes London in the 1830s. Burke and Hare, Scottish tomb looters, also make headlines at the end of the 1820s, inspiring Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Thief in 1885.