Thursday, 18th April 2013 - by Kyl Chhattwal
Puglia, heel of Italy’s boot. Known for its seafood, trulli, olive groves, and crumbling Spanish watchtowers. But who knew it was also the root of our modern mythology of horror, the source
of our most popular and enduring tales of “things that go bump in the night”?
Otranto, a humble Pugliese town on the Adriatic, is the setting of the first Gothic novel ever written, The Castle of Otranto, which directly influenced and inspired future Gothic classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
The Castle of Otranto was written by Horace Walpole, son of an English Prime Minister. Walpole wrote the novel possibly
without ever having visited Otranto itself. The story is downright bizarre, with gigantic battle helmets falling out of the sky and squishing princes like insects, skeletons dressed in monks’ cowls, and ancestors crawling out of portraits like Samara Morgan crawling from a TV screen in the horror film The Ring.
The book tells the story of Manfred, an Italian nobleman who rushes about his castle like a medieval Silvio Berlusconi, lusting after his son’s fiancée. Inhabiting the castle is also a restless spirit, a giant in rattling armor, peering through the gloom with his spectral eyes.
The real life Castle of Otranto, however, is the furthest thing from a gothic edifice. It is a relatively small polygonal fortress, with cylindrical towers and a bastion, not nearly large enough to contain all the frenzied activity of Walpole’s book.
Nor was it built to harbor ghosts. In 1480 a Turkish fleet of 18,000 razed the city, and afterwards Otranto’s defensive walls were constructed, and the castle fortified to the squat, war-like, amber-coloured structure that exists today. During the Turkish siege the invaders took 800 Otrantonese into the hills surrounding the town and executed them for refusing to renounce their Christian beliefs.
Presently, the bones and restless spirits of these pious martyrs are housed in Otranto’s beautiful cathedral, and not in the more famous and literary castle nearby.