As the millennium approaches, film and television bombard us with apocalyptic images—giant asteroids threaten Earth, killer viruses liquefy their victims.

Each century’s close conjures anxiety and apocalyptic fears in people. What interests Susan Navarette, a professor in the English department, is what these fears tell about their time.

At the end of this century, we fear what we cannot control. The Victorians did too, except they weren’t particularly concerned about asteroids. They were worried about biology—theirs.

By the end of the nineteenth century,” Navarette says, “Darwin’s evolutionary theories had crept out of the lecture hall and made their way into the darker recesses of the popular imagination.”

In her new book, The Shape of Fear, Navarette has made a study of turn-of-the-century horror stories and images that had their genesis in these dark corners. She explores the art and its authors, and the science that influenced them.

Evolutionary theory didn’t just shake up creationist belief, Navarette says. Europeans became obsessed with their animal heritage—plagued by the thought that traces of the animals they were descended from could be found in their own bodies.

After Darwin, the landscape of British horror fiction became littered with the bodies of ape-men and beast people. Just think of Mr. Hyde, or Dracula,” Navarette says. In these stories, and many more like them, the monstrous horrors don’t come from without, they come from within. Writers feared that, lurking beneath the civilized suit, ready to spring, was the animal Darwin had discerned in us.

Just as we use DNA fingerprinting to match the criminal with the crime, the Victorians marshalled their new “discoveries” against the thieves among them, Navarette says. Physiognomists—pseudo-scientists who matched body and facial features with personality traits—identified perceived non-Anglo characteristics as indicators of everything from a murderous tendency to an impulse to steal.

We find such racist assumptions offensive today,” Navarette says, “but one hundred years ago, they were so much a part of the dominant cultural consciousness that most Europeans simply accepted them.”

Traces of the attempt to disclose the animal in the man show up in visual documents that startle as much as the horror stories themselves. In one collection of drawings, a man’s face morphs from that of dog, pig, and monkey. Another print shows a carefully etched human ear that reveals the animal point knotched into the upper curve of the ear.

Navarette will show you others, photos of men in various emotion, some horridly frightened, some with outrageous smiles or scowls stretched across their faces. These images were commissioned by electrophysiologists, then later reproduced by Darwin to show the correlation between human and animal emotions.

These scientists, predecessors of neurologists, preferred mental patient and criminal models, who they considered more prone to produce the exaggerated expressions believed a visible sign of incipient savagery.

Sometimes,” says Navarette, “they even used electric shock to generate the desired expression.”

Such photographs and horror stories provided images that fed a growing fear of devolution, the concept—spawned by evolutionary theory—that all civilizations must inevitably regress to a primitive state. By the end of the nineteenth century, Navarette says, many people believed that they had reached the peak of the evolutionary roller coaster and were poised to plunge, screaming, into the depths of dissolution and degeneration.

Convinced the end was near, certain Europeans decided to leap before they were thrown, adapting a lifestyle that resembled an eternal hurricane party. These sensualists abandoned conventional behavior and embraced the very physical dissolution they feared most, Navarette says. Devotees of this culture of decadence flung themselves into a life of sexual promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse. Transported from the Continent to London in the 1880s, the culture soon found both flesh and fiction followers among the British.

Young artists and writers such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde gave stylish expression to the cruder fears of their era. With its images of fetuses in evening clothes and the bare-breasted sirens that had birthed them, Beardsley’s art was considered outrageous.

Beardsley and Wilde were trying to shock middle-class sensibilities, Navarette says. Paradoxically, however, these artists were as much reactionaries as revolutionaries. “They were like adolescents, desperately afraid of surrendering the very attitudes they were trying to kill off,” she says.

Both lived the decadent life as they created art under its influence. Wilde, for example, spent a few years in jail after a fling with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. At his trial, the prosecutor read excerpts from Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray as evidence against him, citing the text as the author’s covert confession of his own decadence.

Wilde’s Dorian Gray is not the only imaginary follower of this creed. First prize for the most unlikely fictional decadent would go to Sherlock Holmes, who takes his place among other, more familiar, figures such as Dracula and Dr. Moreau. Anyone who has read Conan Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories will remember descriptions of Holmes’ arms scarred with needle marks, or of his blissful detachment after a cocaine fix. Navarette says that when Doyle created Holmes, he created a memorial to the decadent man.

As the decades passed, Holmes’ pop-culture image got cleaned up. As a result, most readers are unaware of the connection between the great detective and the culture of decadence that helped produce him.

Recreating the background for a favorite short story or the odd Beardsley print is the type of research Navarette excels in. And no wonder. In a five-minute conversation she’ll riff from reference to reference, pulling quotations from her memory and from the many books she keeps piled in her office.

When you read her work and talk with her, you realize where her interests lie—in science—and where they don’t—with the supernatural. She says, “I don’t respond viscerally to monsters and bugbears and ghosts. I’m just not inclined that way.” She says, “The writers I like viewed the natural world as much more fantastic than any supernatural concoction. H.G. Wells felt that modern science, when treated with a bit of imagination, could become an infinite source of fictional wonders.”

But what most intrigues Navarette is how words, when they are placed just so, can make people anxious. Navarette admits she’d like to hook readers up to electrodes (painless of course), to monitor their physiological responses to the prose of Henry James or Herman Melville.

In the literature she studies, works such as Heart of Darkness and The Turn of the Screw, the prose style is self-consciously “strange,” and highly experimental. Navarette says, “These writers sought less to write about anxiety than to generate it in the reader through their highly charged, elaborately constructed prose style.”

The authors created this complex style, she says, because they were trying to make readers feel that their world was unreadable, its meanings veiled and threatening.

The very act of reading and discovering becomes perilous in these stories: Dorian’s death is plotted in his portrait, a “text” he “reads” obsessively, locked up in his boyhood playroom. And Kurtz, in the Heart of Darkness, can reveal nothing more of his discoveries than “the horror” before he too dies. This scenario recurs throughout these works—man uncovers major mystery, suffers grave downfall.

Navarette calls these stories “parables” or “dark sermons.” Unlike traditional sermons that inform or warn to redeem, these tales are not uplifting. If they produce a moral, it is inverted, dark.

There’s an overwhelming sense of suicidal despair in this literature,” Navarette says, then quotes the narrator from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine: “He thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.”


Julia Bryan was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

Susan J. Navarette’s book The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence, was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1998.