Romanticism emerged from the tail-end of the 18th Century with works of art and literature that placed an emphasis on the emotional experience. It fetishized the power of the individual, nature’s grandeur, and the medieval world. It was the antithesis of the classical order and rationalism. Romanticism spawned the Gothic horror of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It went on to influence art movements, from Art Nouveau, to Symbolism, and Expressionism. Romantic art emphasised the natural rawness of authentic and heightened emotional feeling. The experience of the artist in situ, the creative experience, and the audience’s emotional reaction to the work of art or literature. This was more important than technical perfection or laboured classical compositions. Romanticism changed the way Western culture perceived art and storytelling, creativity and freedom.
Nowhere is an instant emotional response more important than an audience’s experience at the cinema. People buy their tickets expecting an emotional journey, because of this, films are inherently Romantic in their goal, and this often includes the style and subject matter. Musical scores are built to arouse emotions and to create tension, so they have an obvious synergy with Romantic objectives. Music provided the emotional colour to lift black and white silent films and the marriage between music and moving pictures has continued ever since. In Bernard Herman’s classic music score for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest he brilliantly combined bubbling energy and creepy tension with a sense of boundlessness. The music captures the emotional ‘bigness’ associated with the Romantic landscape painting, the suggestion of sweeping vistas, and grandiosity. Interstellar (2016) features a Romantic / Minimalist-inspired musical score that accentuates the dramatic tension, the immensity of space, and vast extra-terrestrial landscapes. Humanity, tiny and vulnerable, exists within this grandeur—often struggling alone against nature, surviving against the odds. But this battle also makes individuals feel alive. It gives them cause to figure out what it means to be alive.
Romantic ideas produced new types of hero and heroine—the visionary individual, the suffering artist, the explorer, the woman looking for fulfilment—and new villains like the tormented genius (whose work produces monstrous consequences). Dr. Hans Reinhardt, the mysterious scientist in The Black Hole (1979) inhabits a creepy, literally dark, spaceship maintained by a psychotic robot and the lobotomised husks of the former crew. His obsession for knowledge and desire to control everything around him has destroyed his humanity. While Sid and Nancy explores the raw emotion and doomed energy of an angst-ridden performer, Sid Vicious, the anti-establishment figure and lead singer of the Sex Pistols.
John Martin’s paintings of biblical disaster like The Great Day of His Wrath (circa 1853) are forerunners of Hollywood disaster films like Deluge (1933), and Armageddon (1998). Where Martin focused on divine retribution and biblical extravaganza, contemporary disaster stories are more likely to be caused by natural phenomenon such as global warming, a meteorite, or a freak storm. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004) a meteorological phenomenon created by Global Warming threatens North America, and in The Perfect Storm (2000) a freak wave causes catastrophe at sea. Disaster at sea was a reoccurring Romantic theme. Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1823-1824) depicts the wreck of HMS Griper, which was crushed by an arctic ice sheet. This theme continues with Hollywood blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure (1972, and 2005), which follows a group of passengers as they struggle to escape from a capsized ocean liner.
The Gothic horror film Nosferatu (1922) combined the heightened emotional sensibility of Expressionism (which was itself influenced by Romanticism) with the Gothic Vampire story. The Vampire is a creature of the night—a nightmarish apparition that has come to life and inhabits the real world. The Vampire is a monster that arises from our deepest nightmarish fears. The nightmare is another reoccurring Romantic theme, a shadowy world where reality is blurred with dark fantasy, a potent mix of weirdness and monstrous beings. This scenario is perfectly captured in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799).
The nightmare fascinated the Romantic mind-set because of its irrationality and heightened emotion. This horrific experience, where weird twilight creatures lurk in shadows, morphed into the monsters of mainstream cinematic horror. But, today’s monsters are more likely to originate from outer space, like the hunter-killer in Predator and H. R. Giger’s terrifying alien in Alien. The power of the nightmare continues to inspire beyond the Romantics and the strange dream sequences of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Films like Insomnia use the dramatic effect of a nightmare—or the flashback, a form of pseudo-nightmare—to foreshadow a dramatic event that the protagonist must face up to.