‘Hell is other people.’
M.P. Diedrich referenced the famous Sartre quote at our recent panel for the anthology First Came Fear. It seems fitting to utilize it once again as I make a case for Emily Brontë’s gothic masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, to sit comfortably within the horror genre. Although tales of horror can include both the fantastical and the supernatural, my own training in psychology has taught me that if humanity itself possesses the potential for infinite kindness, it just as proficiently exercises the deployment of infinite harm. And no soil more richly cultivates cruelty than that of love.
Which is where Wuthering Heights comes in.
At its core, Brontë’s novel is one that is purposefully built to remind the reader of this juxtaposition between love and hate, and the horrors we can inflict on each other in the name of devotion. The two main characters of the novel, Catherine and Heathcliff, love each other with such passion that it eventually destroys them both, along with many of the people closest to them.
Horror relies on creating discomfort for its readers, and although Wuthering Heights features no gore or overt physical violence and only a passing nod to spirits and ghosts, the vulnerability that Catherine and Heathcliff’s love creates leads to such intense emotional violence that it transcends generations. Heathcliff’s obsession with Catherine eventually drives him to marry another woman out of spite, then neglect her and the son she bears him. He kidnaps Catherine’s daughter, forces her to marry his son under the pretense of securing more land as his own, and then confines Catherine’s daughter to a life of mistreatment and psychological abuse. The reader is led to understand that Heathcliff’s brutality originates from his intense adoration of Catherine—and if that is not a message meant to disquiet the audience, I don’t know what is.
Heathcliff is not the only character guilty of cruelty under the guise of affection. Catherine refuses to marry Heathcliff due to his low social status and instead marries his long-established rival, the sweet and malleable Edgar. Catherine spends much of her time in Wuthering Heights toying with both Heathcliff and Edgar’s emotions, not because she is essentially conceited, but because the adoration of two men has encouraged her to be so. The callous disregard Catherine shows to the men who adore her is an expression of her own malignancy: the love of two men has made a monster of her.
By emphasizing the abiding adoration between Heathcliff and Catherine, Brontë takes on a solid convention of horror, where the benign is revealed to be malevolent. She cautions the reader to beware of how love can skew our realities and our natures. Heathcliff wasn’t always a savage brute who took joy in the psychological warfare of maltreatment, and Catherine wasn’t always a narcissistic manipulator. Both transformed into their more grotesque selves after they became intensely connected, both emotionally and physically, to one another. And as Brontë so clearly details throughout her novel, it was Catherine and Heathcliff’s love that eventually manifested their own private hell.
What could be more horrible, or more true, than how easily love can ruin us?