In the Gothic novel, why are supernatural elements interesting?
It seems that in terms of Gothic literature, Mary Shelley really got the ball rolling with Frankenstein. However, her intent was not to breathe new life into a genre begun earlier with The Castle of Ontranto from 1764. Mary kept the company of her husband Percy as well as Lord Byron, and was in the company of great writers in her home growing up. Byron, Shelley and Keats were Romantic writers of English literature, and greatly influenced by medieval romances. A key element to these earlier forms of literature was magic (or the supernatural).
I think that people are often drawn by what lives outside of the realm of "natural." It cause excitement, provides previously unthought of possibilities, and allows for a place where anything can happen.
If we think back to the stories we "cut our teeth on" when we were children, many of us remember fairytales. And Disney has revived princes, princesses, and wicked witches or wizards, bringing them to the forefront of classic children's stories (and movies) today. Perhaps it brings back to us a time when we were free—even encouraged—to use our imaginations.
The possibilities in these stories are endless: but we are especially captivated by the spells and magic powers of the good and evil, the flying carpets, and the ability to fly. Even the Harry Potter books do this, and though originally intended for an adolescent, have come to appeal just as must to adults.
It's the "stuff that dreams are made of," and I think it appeals because we look outside the normal world to excite our imaginations and feel more alive. However, in these contained environments (books, movies, etc.), we don't need to be afraid, either.
I think the answer to this question depends largely on opinion, but certainly sparks an interesting discussion. Why are supernatural elements interesting in horror films today? Why are people morbidly drawn to things that are psychologically bizarre and therefore scary?
The human tendency to enjoy a good scare or thrill from mysteries or ghost stories is the same today that it was in the time of Edgar Allan Poe. The only difference, is that in American Literature, he was the first author to really tap into it. Everything that has been written or created since, in some way, pay a tribute to his original ideas.
Supernatural elements include things like ghosts and spirits, which many people link to spiritual (or demonic) roots. This is interesting for a large population who believe them to be real, but rare. Other supernatural elements common to gothic literature are mysteries surrounding health issues, especially psychological disorders. While today, there are far fewer mysteries in the field of science, in E.A. Poe's time, many psychological disorders were classified simply as issues of insanity, and people who suffered from them were often assumed to be demon possessed. I think the lack of knowledge surrounding psychotic behavior made this "supernatural" element a huge point of interest to many people. And even today, despite modern medicine, counseling, and drug therapy, there is still a fascination with things that seem super-human or beyond human control.
Supernatural elements influenced the Gothic writing technique the same way it influences us: Psychologically.
When a topic is deepened by a mystery, it automatically grasps the attention of the reader, as our minds always need closure. Yet, when you add to that deeper mysteries that involve life, death, fate, the nature of things, and other general questions we consistently pose to ourselves as parts of our existence, the Gothic element comes to life.
Supernatural elements satisfy that paradigm: They instill wonder, respect, fear, suspicion, and they are impossible to proof and to explain.Whether you are a skeptic or not, the influence of the supernatural is worth the argument because there is no proof of whether it exists or not. That is the magic of it: It is one of those very few things that we cannot explain and allows our imagination to run wild.
Similarly, with Gothich literature, the element of supernatural mystery allowed the writers to let their imagination run wild, while enticing even further those of their readers. Its a synergism made in supernatural heaven!
When reading Bram Stoker's Dracula, the most interesting part of the novel, for me at least, takes place at the start of the story when Harker travels to Dracula's castle. There, he witnesses many supernatural events that he struggles to understand. After all, Harker is a model Englishman, and he has put his faith in the Enlightenment's gambit that all things answer to a rational mind. However, what if the guiding light of that age is mistaken? How can the Enlightenment account for Dracula, who proceeds to follow Harker back to London? It's as though Stoker has chosen to invade the heart of the Enlightenment values with this supernatural symbol. Can Van Helsing and his careful, rational, studies overcome this supernatural monster? The attraction of the supernatural in this case is that it invites us to consider some of our most deeply held values. What if we have put our trust in the wrong things?
Gothic literature aims to show that the fixed binary oppositions that operate in reality are actually a construct, and there lies a middle, blurred ground between what we like to think are neatly pigeonholed terms. For example, most Gothic fiction explores this in the binary opposition of alive/dead. We like to think that there is a definite dividing line between the two, however Gothic fiction deliberately blurs these dividing lines by tantalising us with figures of the undead: zombies, skeletons, monsters being raised to life or created (as in Frankenstein), vampires etc. These attract us and at the same time are troubling because it goes in direct contrast with so much of what we think as a society. Maybe those lines of other fixed oppositions, such as sane/insane, human/inhuman are not too impermeable after all.
Excellent point about the blurring of lines that the preternatural and supernatural construct! The unknown, the unexpected, is always frighteningly exciting and intriguing, especially whenever "the pasteboard mask," as Herman Melville said, is removed and the preternatural forces enter into the mundane and mortal.