While Shakespeare isn’t renowned for writing horror, he certainly understood the power of a macabre scene and the dramatic impact of horror when portraying just how evil a character could be.
He created a number of beautifully creepy and macabre scenes that hold definite appeal for horror fans, and which make great reading for October and Halloween.
‘Hamlet’ opens with a spooky, although not macabre, scene. This scene is all about those common elements that make horror work: creepy chills, fear and dread.
It’s the dead of night and the guards at Elsinore Castle are going about their regular duties, except that they seem nervous: Bernardo opens with the line “Who’s there?” and Marcellus leads their conversation leads with, “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?”
They are discussing the apparition that has appeared to them on the two previous nights. As they talk, the ghost appears again. It doesn’t speak to them, it doesn’t harm them… but it definitely scares them.
As they discuss the ghost and hypothesise as to whether or not it’s a bad omen, it returns, spreads its arms wide, and then disappears when a rooster crows.
Afterwards, Horatio tells Hamlet about seeing the ghost, and gives more detail of how frightened they were.
Like them, Hamlet thinks the appearance of the ghost is a sign that all is not right. His response is to keep watch with them that night, and when the ghost appears, he addresses it as his father’s ghost and entreats it to tell him what he needs to do.
Still fearful, Marcellus and Horatio tell Hamlet not to go with the ghost. He does, of course. How else would he find out what it wants to say to him?
It’s fair to say that Hamlet is more appalled by what the ghost of his father tells him than he is by seeing the ghost in the first place. The ghost says he was murdered by Claudius and urges Hamlet to take revenge, which is what drives the action of the remainder of the play.
This might not seem terrifying to audiences in the 21st century, but Shakespeare’s audiences were far more superstitious than we are, and they understood the significance of ghosts and omens. Just as the soldiers in the play “tremble and look pale”, most of the people in the early modern audience would likewise have taken that apparition very seriously.
This is delicious creepy horror that foreshadowed the Gothic style made popular by authors such as Walpole, Shelley, Stoker, Lovecraft, and even Charles Dickens, among others.