The Gothic Experience of Terror and Horror in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk

by Erica McCrystal

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 23] Eighteenth-century Gothic fiction details the vast capacity for psychological and emotional responses by creating settings and narrative perspectives that foster fear. Contemporary philosopher Edmund Burke aptly explains that “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” (Burke). Such fear is evoked by terrifying circumstances in the Gothic novel and witnessed by the reader who may imagine or share the intense emotional feelings of the characters. Aside from setting and perspective, Matthew Lewis uses superstition and the supernatural to evoke horror and terror in his 1796 Gothic novel The Monk. Despite abundant supernatural elements, The Monk allows for a more realistic reading experience as real feelings of horror and terror may be stimulated. Drawing attention to the art of the storyteller and faith in superstition, Lewis’s text becomes a manufacturing facility of real horror and terror, capable of unleashing repressed emotions. With the acceptance of the supernatural, terror is actualized as a real emotion that can be felt and experienced by the reader as it is by the characters. This article will examine the different types of emotional responses, from feelings of terror and horror to experiences of the uncanny and the sublime, through Lewis’s text, specifically arguing that the supernatural and the attention drawn to the art of storytelling allow these emotions to be realized despite the focus on and presence of the supernatural and unrealistic.

Many critics have distinguished between horror and terror based on their respective effects on a person. Ann Radcliffe differentiates between the two terms in her 1826 essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contacts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them . . . where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?” (Radcliffe). For Radcliffe, terror is connected to an imaginary thought process, whereas horror is aligned with the real. Anne Williams expands these definitions, arguing that, “while terror centers in the mind, the imagination, horror additionally evokes physical responses” (74); The Monk employs both terror and [page 24] horror to control the reader’s emotional response. For Vartan P. Messier, the experience of reading a Gothic novel involves emotional stimulation that displays such a physical response. Messier argues that horror “directly confronts the reader with the content: it narrows the distance between the text and the reader; creating a rapprochement between reading as an intellectual activity and reading as a physical experience” (45). I argue that in order for physical and emotional responses to occur, the reader must recognize the supernatural as essential to the Gothic novel, and that The Monk, therefore, is a breeding ground for such a response as it invites the reader to experience both terror and horror: terror, by imagining fear, and horror, by feeling it.

Both terror and horror can be attributed to superstition. Superstition in the Gothic text is an irrational belief that can be manipulated and intensified by external forces. The author uses superstition to excite emotions, including a fear of potential supernatural occurrences and terrifying events. According to Sigmund Freud, the author

can increase his effect and multiply it far beyond what could happen in reality, by bringing about events which never or very rarely happen in fact. In doing this he is in a sense betraying us to the superstitiousness which we have ostensibly surmounted; he deceives us by promising to give us the sober truth, and then after all overstepping it. We react to his inventions as we would have reacted to real experiences. (250-251)

Thus, fiction becomes a place where superstition can be planted, hatched, and actualized for the purpose of creating fear in the characters and belief in the power of superstition in the reader. Following Freud’s arguments, the psychological experience of reading a Gothic text involves tapping into a reader’s personal superstitions in order to simulate feelings of actual fear.

In The Monk, the Bleeding Nun superstition exhibits the storyteller’s horrific influence and the actualization of an imposed fear when the storied event becomes a real event. In this example, Lewis uses a storyteller within his text to deliver the superstition to other characters, and therefore to the reader as well. Agnes describes the terrifying influence of the Bleeding Nun: “But whether She prayed or cursed, whether She was impious or devout, She always contrived to terrify her Auditors out of their senses. The Castle became scarcely habitable; and its Lord was so frightened by these midnight Revels, that one fine morning He was found dead in his bed. This success seemed to please the Nun [page 25] mightily, for now She made more noise than ever” (140). According to this description, there is no release from the terror instilled by the supernatural creature manifested in the superstition. No one is safe from the fear of one’s death that she can create. When Alphonso attempts to rescue Agnes later in the text and ends up carrying off the Bleeding Nun instead, the superstition becomes a reality and the potential for terror becomes an actual feeling of horror. At this point, Lewis uses Alphonso as the storyteller whose tale spreads the superstitious beliefs, and therefore also the fear, further:

As I listened to the mournful hollow sound, and heard it die away in the wind, I felt a sudden chillness spread itself over my body. I shuddered without knowing wherefore; Cold dews poured down my forehead, and my hair stood bristling with alarm. Suddenly I heard slow and heavy steps ascending the staircase. By an involuntary movement I started up in my bed, and drew back the curtain . . . The door was thrown open with violence. A figure entered, and drew near my Bed with solemn measured steps. With trembling apprehension I examined this midnight Visitor. God Almighty! It was the Bleeding Nun! . . . I gazed upon the Spectre with horror too great to be described. My blood was frozen in my veins. I would have called for aid, but the sound expired ere it could pass my lips. My nerves were bound up in impotence, and I remained in the same attitude inanimate as a Statue. (159-160)

Lewis builds suspense in this passage to further draw the reader into the intensity of the scene. In Agnes’s description, the Bleeding Nun was merely capable of creating great terror, but Agnes does not describe any physical effects. Here, in Alphonso’s account, the reader can imagine the physical effects of the actualization of a superstition. The reader must therefore accept the supernatural as capable of inflicting a real physical and emotional response. This aptly illustrates Freud’s “overstepping of the bounds of possibility,” because, as readers, we can recognize that the supernatural is a fictionalization, but we must also acknowledge that both superstition and the supernatural have the capacity to create real horror and real physical reactions. The feelings are real even if their stimulator is not. David Punter argues that “Lewis . . . begins the essentially Gothic construction of a world of mutually self-validating fictions which are texturally more ‘real’ than reality itself” (70). Therefore, it is this potential realness of textuality–constructed worlds capable of evoking suppressed [page 26] emotions–that creates the imagined terror and felt horror.

Superstition is often present in religious belief, particularly in the Catholicism of The Monk, and thereby affects the behavior of the devout. Ambrosio is a god-fearing monk being manipulated by the devil. As Matilda tries to convince Ambrosio to allow her to conjure a spirit for the purpose of pursuing Antonia, she appeals to his religious fear: “’Tis not the crime which holds your hand, but the punishment; ‘Tis not respect for God which restrains you, but the terror of his vengeance! Fain would you offend him in secret, but you tremble to profess yourself his Foe. Now shame on the coward soul, which wants the courage either to be a firm Friend or open Enemy!” (269). Ambrosio’s fear, emerging from piety, challenges Matilda’s fiendish plan. Later, when Ambrosio succumbs to Matilda’s persuasions and is found guilty of murder, he maintains the same fears: “Though dreading the tortures, as He dreaded death still more which would consign him to eternal torments” (424), and his dread leads him to sell himself to the devil. Lewis demonstrates the power that religious superstition can have over emotion and the capacity of the supernatural to validate superstitious beliefs. In Ambrosio’s desperation, he experiences feelings of suspense and hopelessness: “worked up to phrenzy by the urgent danger, shrinking from the approach of death, terrified by the Daemon’s threats, and seeing no other means to escape destruction, the wretched Monk complied. He signed the fatal contract, and gave it hastily into the evil Spirit’s hands” (437). This incident evokes a different kind of terror than that experienced by the other characters, best described through Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection, which she says is “immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you” (4). As the Devil has schemed and ultimately destroyed Ambrosio’s life, he exists as the epitome of abjection, as an extreme terror that only makes its presence felt at the very end of the novel, when not only death, but God’s judgement, is imminent. Lewis allows the reader to imagine abjection then as a feeling of final desperation, and witness the ways in which the supernatural can make emotional realities out of religious fear.

The fears that coexist with superstition become horrors when they are actualized. When the Devil comes alive on the page, Lewis exposes the real author behind Matilda’s manipulations, using a participatory character to control the story. Maggie Kilgour argues that this technique exposes Ambrosio’s weaknesses as Ambrosio “discovers once more that he is not the author of his own narrative but only a character; the plotter has been part of a larger plot. He is the victim of social, natural, and finally supernatural agents, who in the end all conspire against him to [page 27] expose his illusions about his own powers of self-determination” (163). By layering narration and drawing attention to storytelling, Lewis invites the reader into the text, making it clear that this is a fictionalization, but one capable of evoking a real emotional response. The storyteller becomes the vehicle for arriving at real emotional duress by the actualization of superstitious fears with the help of the supernatural.

Many critics evaluate the different physical and psychological experiences that works of horror and terror provide for the reader. For instance, Terry Heller examines the distance of the reader from the fantasy world of the supernatural in order to argue for a social and psychological separation between the imaginary and the real:

Horror thrillers, mainly by means of their presentations of supernatural monsters, force the reader to entertain images of the forbidden, images of what a culture commands its members to exclude from their selves. Because such images are unconsciously attractive (representing parts of the self) at the same time as their meanings are forbidden entrance into consciousness, we can take a kind of illicit pleasure in the mere contemplation of these images, but ultimately they must be put back. Horror thrillers are fairly careful, sometimes indeed, elaborately careful, to create and maintain psychological distance between the real reader and the terrifying images. (Heller)

For Heller, it is necessary for the reader of Gothic fiction to disconnect from experiencing the terror and horror initiated by the fiction. He argues that pleasure may be felt in experiencing the text, but there is a limit as to how far the reader should indulge that pleasure. In addition, Heller argues that reading Gothic fiction becomes a learning experience for the reader: “we are allowed to escape temporarily from the normal limitations of social reality and to practice or pretend mastery of some fears. This particular psychological pleasure contributes to another level of pleasure, the experience of extremes of emotion usually not available in ordinary life, for the play with fear intensifies those emotional extremes” (Heller). Thus, the practice of reading a Gothic novel serves to instruct the reader on fear management: we can enjoy the reading experience because we know that the events in the text are not real threats, yet since the emotional responses are authentic, they not only stimulate the reader’s pleasure, but also contribute to his or her emotional and intellectual growth and development.

However, as Freud’s “The Uncanny” demonstrates, Gothic fiction allows the reader to tap into suppressed emotions. Therefore, the [page 28] separation that Heller observes becomes diminished as the reader experiences emotional pangs, aroused by the horror and terror present in the text, and becomes connected to past experiences. For Freud, “an uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (249) and “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old–established in the mind and which has been alienated from it only through the process of repression” (241). Reading a Gothic novel may allow the reader to experience the uncanny. When this occurs, the horror and terror experienced by the reader is not precisely pleasurable, but is instead an emotional connection to a repressed experience.

Lewis’s characters experience the Freudian uncanny throughout the novel, as the psychological capacity for terror emerges when repressed thoughts are revisited. Ambrosio visits the drugged Antonia and, “while He gazed upon their rotting bones and disgusting figures, who perhaps were once as sweet and lovely, Ambrosio thought upon Elvira, by him reduced to the same state. As the memory of that horrid act glanced upon his mind, it was clouded with a gloomy horror” (379). Elvira’s murder cannot be repressed and constantly comes back to haunt Ambrosio. The uncanny is eternally present and also later drives Ambrosio to sign the contract with the devil; not only does the horrific deed haunt him, but also the fear of eternal punishment for his actions.

I argue that the uncanny experience, that of horror, is what the Gothic novelist wants to achieve. Following Freud’s argument, then, the novelist can use any means, even supernatural, to elicit feelings of terror. As David B. Morris puts it, “mankind’s secret terrors are the realities which Gothic novelists seek to engage through their extravagant and impossible fictions” and “the Gothic novel in its preoccupation with death shocks us with the return of something familiar and old-established in the mind but also estranged and unknowable. So, too, Gothic supernaturalism confronts us with the repetition of what we prefer to keep hidden or covered by denial” (310). The reading experience may serve as pleasure fulfillment, as Heller argues, but once repressed experiences emerge, the pleasure is gone and the reader needs to face the emotions encouraged by the fantasy. When repressed experiences are recalled, the reader may be able to use the experience for practicing fear management, as Heller argues, but I argue that the management of repressed fears would not be a pleasurable experience; rather, it would [page 29] allow for confrontation and coping. Pleasure from experiencing feelings of horror and terror can occur only if the fears do not actually arise from a repressed experience.

While the uncanny involves supernaturalism and the release of repressed emotions, terror in the Gothic novel is additionally generated from the sublime. For a contemporary definition of sublimity, we must turn to Edmund Burke, who argues that “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke). Sublimity, then, is essential to a Gothic novel, to elicit fear and emotional duress. In The Monk, sublimity begins with desire. When Ambrosio first meets Matilda, “he struggled with desire, and shuddered when He beheld how deep was the precipice before him” (78). The sublimity of Matilda’s radiance overpowers Ambrosio’s emotions and instigates feelings of terror, as he acknowledges that these desires are dangerous. The fall into the “precipice” occurs when he succumbs to his desires. Yet Ambrosio is aware of such sublimity when he regards Matilda: his religious belief has taught him that the feelings will destroy him rather than give him pleasure. Morris argues that “gothic sublimity–by releasing into fiction images and desires long suppressed, deeply hidden, forced into silence–greatly intensifies the dangers of an uncontrollable release from restraint” (306). As the reader witnesses the devastation that is created by the release of desires, he or she can imagine the capability of repressed feelings to create horrific outcomes. Such experiences with these emotions are real, though described in a fictionalized and supernatural setting. This is more strongly exhibited through the reactions and feelings that occur in relation to death. Morris argues that death “is sublime because it remains a terrifying mystery, not simply unknowable but linked with human desires that we wish to keep unknown” (309). Ambrosio’s lust, first for Matilda and then for Antonia, brings together desire and death through the supernatural. Matilda, as we later learn, has been sent by the Devil. Although Ambrosio does not have any idea of this when he meets her, her presence unleashes strong sexual desires in Ambrosio, the first he had ever experienced. When these desires shift to Antonia, Matilda uses her supernatural abilities to help Ambrosio gain entry to Antonia’s house. These actions ultimately lead to Ambrosio murdering Antonia’s mother and later, Antonia. Thus the supernatural allows for the sublime to emerge on the pages as it [page 30] engages suppressed desires.

Acceptance of the supernatural allows the reader to also experience the emotional intensity of the sublime. Morris asks, “How can we locate the sublime in what we know to be ridiculous?” (310). The answer is that we accept the supernatural as a crucial element of a text so that we can imagine the emotions of one facing phantasms at the brink of death and all of the horrors that come with such experiences. Edith Birkhead credits Lewis’s ability as an author to engage and involve the reader, noting that “we are conscious that his story is unreal or even ludicrous, yet Lewis has a certain dogged power of driving us unrelentingly through it, regardless of our own will” (63). The emotional responses of terror are real, even if excited by unreal stimuli. Lewis crafts his narrative carefully, using a multiplicity of perspectives and various storytellers to demonstrate that anyone, hero or villain, can experience pure terror through the sublime. For Heller, “the Gothic romance is a literary form that deliberately seeks to evoke the sublime. The sublime brings into aesthetic experience the irrational, the unknown, and the terrible, thereby transforming pain and danger into parts of beauty” (Heller). The art of the text is to be sublime, incite emotions of terror, and, I argue, make reading a Gothic novel feel like a real experience.

The supernatural and the sublime are also evoked through terrifying dreams that stir up fantastic emotions. Lorenzo dreams of the supernatural, entering into a fantasy world of the sublime: “the Lamps were extinguished, the Altar sank down, and in its place appeared an abyss vomiting forth clouds of flame. Uttering a loud and terrible cry the Monster plunged into the Gulph, and in his fall attempted to drag Antonia with him” (28). This dream terrifies Lorenzo, but proves to be prophetic as Antonia is brought down by the influence of the Devil on Ambrosio. Likewise, Elvira’s dream about Antonia about to fall off a cliff awakens her right before Ambrosio violates her daughter (301). Finally, Ambrosio’s dreams in his cell are so terrifying that he dreads sleep: “he found himself in sulphurous realms and burning Caverns, surrounded by Fiends appointed his Tormentors, and who drove him through a variety of tortures, each of which was more dreadful than the former. Amidst these dismal scenes wandered the Ghosts of Elvira and her Daughter” (426-427). Again, the supernatural sublime creates a great feeling of terror in Ambrosio. Such emotions are stimulated by fantastic visions of the repressed, again embodying Freud’s uncanny.

Like dreams, prophecies in The Monk are described in such a way as to kindle terror of imagined, unfulfilled events. The prophecies that Lewis [page 31] describes are another example of someone telling a story, a story that ultimately comes true, and serves, like dreams, as foretellers of the future, creating suspense and, ultimately, terror. Agnes’s prophecy to Ambrosio is delivered as a curse:

What temptations have you vanquished? Coward! you have fled from it, not opposed seduction. But the day of Trial will arrive! Oh! then when you yield to impetuous passions! when you feel that Man is weak, and born to err; When shuddering you look back upon your crimes, and solicit with terror the mercy of your God, Oh! in that fearful moment think upon me! Think upon your Cruelty! Think upon Agnes, and despair of pardon! (49)

Ambrosio does not fear Agnes’s prophecy, nor does she deter him from his planned means of punishing her transgressions. However, Agnes is serving Lewis’s purpose, eliciting an emotional response from the reader rather than Ambrosio. Through the voice of Agnes, Lewis foreshadows the terrors to come. Kilgour argues that “foreknowledge never stops anything from happening; it merely intensifies suspense by creating an atmosphere of certain doom” (153). Therefore, the reading experience is intensified by the anticipation of the events that will befall Ambrosio. For Robert Miles, “Lewis is less concerned with developing characters and a consistent point of view and more interested in creating arresting tableaux, or scenes that shock, something he through his inversions of generic expectations” (53-54). The story and the vivid descriptions that intensify emotions of terror and horror are crucial to the Gothic text. The characters can be stock figures, as replaceable as the characters in the several poems recited throughout the text, but all inflict pain on one another, stirring up intense emotional responses and embodying the ability of the Gothic to unleash feelings of terror and horror.

It is through both the supernatural elements and the storytelling of multiple narrators that Lewis draws attention to the text as a fiction, and these literary techniques greatly contribute to the release of horror, terror, abjection, the uncanny, and the sublime. While Lewis describes how the characters feel strong emotions, the reader is asked to participate and to revisit repressed experiences. The vivid descriptions that Lewis uses allow him to create a work of imagined sublimity and fostered plot that focus on supernatural elements and death, instigating feelings of terror and horror. The development of Gothic fiction during the eighteenth century allowed for a new reading experience, one focusing on emotional response rather than on the characters themselves. [page 32]

Works Cited

Birkhead, Edith. The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963. Print.

Burke, Edmund. On the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. XXIV, Part 2. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. Web.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII (1917-1919). London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1955. 217-256. Print.

Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Coe College. Web.

Kilgour, Maggie. The Rise of the Gothic Novel. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. California State University, Sacramento. Web.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Messier, Vartan P. “The Conservative, the Transgressive, and the Reactionary: Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian as a Response to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk.” Atenea 25.2 (2005): 37-48. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

Miles, Robert. “The 1790s: The Effulgence of Gothic.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 41-62. Print.

Morris, David B. "Gothic Sublimity." New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 16.2 (1985): 299-319. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London: Longman, 1980. Print.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine 16.1 (1826), 145-152. The Literary Gothic . Web. 23 July 2002.

Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.

MLA citation (print):

McCrystal, Erica. "The Gothic Experience of Terror and Horror in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 23-32.