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This paper examines the relationship between darkness and fear in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, widely recognized as the first Gothic novel. Walpole wrote Otranto soon after the rise of Enlightenment thought, which stressed sensory observation as the foundation for human reason. Walpole engages with Enlightenment ideas through Otranto’s dark setting, which invokes fear and irrationality in the heroine, Isabella.

Tracking Walpole’s manipulation of light and darkness through the narrative, this paper illustrates how darkness inspires more fear in Isabella than either the novel’s infamous supernatural dangers or its human villain, Prince Manfred, who pursues her through the castle’s dark subterranean passageways. Isabella descends into all-consuming fear of the unknown whenever she lacks a light source to generate knowledge of her surroundings, revealing darkness as not merely a characteristic of the ancient Gothic setting but also an active agent of Gothic terror.