Skip to main content

Getting to know Gothic Romance; the TV trend of fall

Three images show: A couple standing in front of a hedge from Rebecca; Swamp Thing in the bayou; and a young girl looking scared in the ground of a large mansion in The Haunting of Bly Manor
A couple standing in front of a hedge from Rebecca; Swamp Thing in the bayou; and a young girl looking scared in the ground of a large mansion in The Haunting of Bly Manor. (Image credit: Netflix, The CW)

A comic book TV show torn from the grips of a dying streaming service, a period adaptation of a classic novel on Netflix, and the followup to one of the most popular horror series of the last few years. What do these three disparate Fall TV highlights have in common? They all center dark, wistful Gothic Romance stories highlighting an exciting trend for this season's schedule.  

Defined by their moody atmosphere, tragic love stories, and touches of the supernatural or strange, Gothic Romance narratives have been delighting and enticing readers for centuries. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto sparked the trend, weaving a dark yarn about a family of royals struck down by tragedy as they try to marry off their daughter Isabella. Crafting many of the foundations of the genre, Walpole intertwined romance and horror with a sprinkling of eccentric characters, gruesome deaths, and tragic ends for apparent heroes. 

Though the genre was arguably started by a male author it was shaped by women. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is one of the most well known examples of the brooding genre, every page stuffed with twisted secrets, looming mansions, and of course a tainted romance. Her sister Emily's classically horrifying ghost story Wuthering Heights is another seminal work in the Gothic Romance canon, leaning into the supernatural and centering on a story of a man haunted by the ghost of the woman he once loved--and centuries old spoiler alert--even climbing into her grave to reunite with her. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier echoes Jane Eyre in its take on the chilling folkloric tale of Bluebeard as a young woman ventures into a marriage but is haunted both figuratively and perhaps literally by the deceased former wife of her love. 

So how do these three new interpretations of the genre fit into the wider landscape of Gothic Romance? Let's dig in. 

Rebecca

The most obvious of our choices, Netflix's new adaptation of du Maurier's iconic novel is directed by Ben Wheatley and stars Lily James (Emily in Paris) as the new Mrs. de Winter, Armie Hammer as her distant husband, and Kristin Scott Thomas as the fearsome housekeeper of Manderley, Mrs. Danvers, who is deeply loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter. Spooky and filled with secrets, it's likely the Netflix version will play into contemporary conversations around emotional abuse and gaslighting, which are both key themes in the original story. There's also the ambiguity around the reality of Rebecca's presence and impact on Manderlay, so it'll be interesting to see where Wheatley lands on and leans into that aspect. 

Taking on one of the most famous Gothic Romance novels is already no mean feat, but there's also the fact that Alfred Hitchcock directed a critically acclaimed version of the story in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier. From the trailers it's clear that British director Wheatley is trying to leave his own mark on the story with a brighter palette and hints of the supernatural already creeping in. Playing in the ambiguity of good and evil is core to the Gothic novel, and if Wheatley sticks close to the source material there's a lot to play with there as the truth between the young wife and her new husband unravels against the background of the stunning Manderley estate. 

Rebecca will hit Netflix October 21st, 2020.

Swamp Thing

Putting an environmentally conscious twist on Beauty and the Beast, Swamp Thing is here to charm Cryptid lovers everywhere. Based on the '70s comic book character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, The CW's new superhero series is peak Southern Gothic Romance. A tragic heroine, Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), has to return to her bayou hometown of Marais, Louisiana after the outbreak of a strange virus that is killing the locals. Quickly making a connection with a disgraced but passionate scientist, Alec Holland (Andy Bean), the pair are at the core of the murky romance behind the dark horror-steeped show. 

Alec doesn't stay human for very long, instead being tragically transformed into the titular Swamp Thing. Not only does the idea of falling in love with a literal monster fit perfectly into the Gothic Romance framing, but so does Swamp Thing's exploration of a decaying old money family living in a sprawling home surrounded by the people they exploit. That's before we get into the beautifully dark and delightful bayou-based sets that are as eerily lit as any enchanted forest. Out of all of our picks, this is the one that embraces the grotesque aspect of Gothic Romance the most, not just with Swampy himself but also with other supernatural elements from psychics to possessions and even a literal demonic entity. But no matter how dark things get, Abby and how much she cares for Alec cut a blazing light through the bleakness and brutality. 

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Mike Flanagan has been open about his aim to create a modern Gothic Romance with his followup to The Haunting of Hill House. Inspired by the stories of Henry James and framed around his most famous tale, The Turn of the Screw, his heartbreaking new series features multiple doomed love stories that explore the spectrum of what love can mean. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, Bly Manor hits plenty of the most important Gothic Romance tropes. Each of our characters have deep-seated secrets and tragedy that haunts them. The majority of the series takes place in a looming stately home with plenty of forbidden rooms, shadowy hallways, and as it turns out unsettled spirits connected to the somber past of the house. 

However, the real heart of the series is the humans who live inside. Even with all the doom and gloom, Flanagan focuses on the power of love, both destructive and revelatory. Familial love, the love between chosen family, the love that siblings share, and of course romantic love all play a key part in building the hallowed halls of Bly Manor and the emotionally charged ghost story at its core. Flanagan's vision of Gothic Romance offers hope as well as heartbreak, making a passionate and beautiful argument that slivers of happiness can exist within the darkness.