Monsters ink

Two hundred years after the heyday of the gothic novel, people still want to scare themselves. We re

In 1816, just after the end of the Napoleonic wars, four young writers staying in the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, decided to invent hideous stories for each other. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Polidori took their turn, but the most successful was the 19-year-old Mary Shelley. She terrified herself with her story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, and would soon frighten the rest of the world.

Life in the western world today is increasingly less "nasty, brutish and short", as Thomas Hobbes put it. Yet we are entranced by representations of horror and preoccupied by gothic representations of the terrible killer. Murder films and books abound. Frankenstein still exercises great power over us and last summer a stage adaptation of the novel entertained audiences at the National Theatre in London. We cannot resist a gothic demise.

Today, most of us would be more likely to kill ourselves than be murdered - we die from overeating, drinking, smoking, or lack of exercise. But we do not terrify ourselves with artistic representations of giant cigarettes or bottles of whisky, or demand art that explores the conditions that will destroy us - cancer, obesity and heart disease. Instead we want to see death in its most outlandish forms. Harold Shipman might have been Britain's most prolific serial killer, but portrayals of murderous doctors are rare. We tend not to imagine dread of lovers or colleagues, even though they are, statistically, most likely to deprive us of our lives. Instead we relish fear of the stranger - the mysterious murderer, the monster running untamed.

Fascination with the murderous arts is a modern phenomenon, growing at the same rate as improvements in life expectancy and living standards. Like those in the Villa Diodati in 1816, we are hunting for the sensation of fear because we lack it in life. A learned response usually created by vicarious experience or instruction, fear alerts the human to danger and the need to "fight or [take] flight". It is no coincidence that Byron and his friends were searching for sensation just as the bloodiest European conflict in years finally ended.

For 18th-century writers, an individual's experience of terror was a route to potential greatness. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1759, the "terrible", or whatever excited the "ideas of pain, and danger", was a source of the sublime, the "strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling". Such sensation, he suggested, was produced by contemplating vastness or infinity. Vastness and infinity were not easy to represent in fiction, however. Horace Walpole in his novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) communicated the "terrible" with more prosaic props - ancestral curses, secret passages and fainting heroines. Writers enthusiastically copied his plots, and so the gothic novel was born.

Named after the medieval architecture of abbeys and castles in which the novels are set, the form generated a thrilling dread in the reader by means of sinister suggestion and the conjuring of an eerie atmosphere. Those who see Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, published posthumously in 1818, as lampooning Ann Radcliffe's works miss the point: Catherine Morland finds terror in normal life because she fails to finish The Mysteries of Udolpho and thus never reads Radcliffe's pragmatic explanation for all the clanks and chains - the fake Italian nobleman's ambition to steal the protagonist Emily St Aubert's legacy.

Not only was the supernatural explained in the gothic novel, it was presented as beneficial. As Radcliffe wrote in 1826, bald representations of atrocities annihilate perception, but true terror, a product of obscurity and indeterminacy, works to expand the soul and awakens the faculties "to a higher degree of life".

Frankenstein was very different. With a desperate monster and the notion that the greatest horror was our own creation, Mary Shelley undermined confidence in rational explanation. The supernatural exceeds our attempt to control it and the soul is not expanded but petrified with dread at its capacity for iniquity.

The idea that human beings could contain great evil was particularly appealing to the Victorians. For them, the city, rather than a ruined abbey, was the setting most conducive to terror. G W M Reynolds's lurid story series The Mysteries of London, begun in 1844, transported the plots of the gothic novel to a capital swarming with "venomous objects, wearing human shapes", as criminals use trapdoors, chests and secret passages to pursue their diabolical ends.

Dickens, too, explored London as a site of cruelty in Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But the representation of the city as the most auspicious setting for murder reached its apogee in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Stevenson's bestseller introduced the idea of the split personality to the popular imagination. In the early 19th century, many murders were attributed to gangs. By the late Victorian period, however, the notion of the individual criminal mind had taken hold. Now, every murderer had to be hiding a dark secret.

When, in 1888, women started to be found in Whitechapel with their throats cut, the public read the imagined culprit as a character in a novel. The conjecture that he was a respectable man with a dark side proved irresistible. An actor playing Hyde on stage was briefly arrested because his performance was deemed too convincing to be feigned. Yet the most prolific killer of the period was not Jack the Ripper, but Mary Ann Cotton, who was hanged in 1873 after murdering several friends and relations in order to benefit from their life insurance.

Many murderers are dully methodical about their tasks and are caught only when they grow careless about their systems. But we tend to be resistant to what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil". Instead, we are compulsively attracted to the wild, Hyde-type killer, possessed by his demons and violently aroused.

Gothic fascinations tend to increase with recessions. Frankenstein was perfectly fitted to the economic slump that followed the end of the French wars. And it is often suggested today that economic contraction will bring benefits as we become less materialistic and more devoted to family and community. History, though, shows that, on the contrary, recession increases crime and makes us desperate for distraction - the more monstrous the better.

In my novel The Pleasures of Men, set in recession-struck early Victorian London, the inhabitants seek to divert themselves from their troubles by following the activities of a murderer. This is a perilous error, as their interest takes them too close to danger. Nowadays, however, we are safe with our vampires and monsters.

My earliest memory of fear is sitting in my school hall aged five and being told by the teachers that the whole school would watch something that would scare us and that no one was allowed to leave. I remember the panic I felt watching a rather creaky film about children who played on railway lines. No experience of dread has ever rivalled seeing the train appear and the memory induces a slight terror in me even now. There is something about fear that returns us to the state of childhood: we are controlled by another and are unable to predict what will happen next. The gothic murderer, the vampire or the monster running wild is more than an entertaining distraction; he represents the failure of reason and rational explanation to encompass our experiences.

Fifty years hence, our murderers will seem quaint. But one thing is certain: people will still want stories of mysterious death. Exposing ourselves to fear in art is a way of reminding ourselves that we are alive.

Kate Williams is a historian and the author of "The Pleasures of Men" (Penguin, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain