Elements of a Gothic treatment of the South were apparent in the 19th century, ante- and post-bellum, in the grotesques of Henry Clay Lewis and the de-idealized visions of Mark Twain. The genre came together, however, only in the 20th century, when dark romanticism, Southern humor, and the new literary naturalism merged into a new and powerful form of social critique. The thematic material was largely a result of the culture existing in the South following the collapse of the Confederacy. It left a vacuum in both values and religion that became filled with poverty due to defeat in the Civil war and reconstruction, racism, excessive violence, and hundreds of different denominations resulting from the theological divide that separated the country over the issue of slavery.
The term "Southern Gothic" was originally used as pejorative and dismissive. Ellen Glasgow used the term in this way when she referred to the writings of Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner. She included the authors in what she called the "Southern Gothic School" in 1935, stating that their work was filled with "aimless violence" and "fantastic nightmares." It was so negatively viewed at first that Eudora Welty said, "They better not call me that!"