This article explores the relationship between the eruptions of the abnormal which are a key part of the Gothic genre across media, and the use of the genre within mainstream television series to provide an occasional special episode that breaches the normality of that programme.
Such episodes typically occur at particular parts of the year: Christmas in Britain and Halloween in the United States. The supernatural element of these episodes forms a wound of irrationality in series which typically depend upon an essentially rational mode, for example detective series like Bergerac, Castle and Hawai’i Five-O.
This echoes the specialness of the time of the year in those seasonal episodes, times which have been perceived as wounds or weakenings in the boundary between the natural and supernatural worlds.
But even in episodes broadcast at other times of the year these intrusions of the abnormal into the apparently normal serve to open up the normative rationality of the texts to suggest a wider universe and the existence of spiritual and supernatural possibilities. It, therefore, appears that these programmes suggest that rationality remains the dominant and most useful way of understanding the universe in a post-Enlightenment Western culture, as long as the possibility of the irrational is accepted.
My current research into horror and the Gothic on television is primarily interested in considering the specifically seasonal aspects of the intrusions of the abnormal, as operating within and marking out specifically ritual social purposes.
This article, however, looks at some of the other underlying elements and meanings of the eruptions of the irrational into the normally rational.
These episodes seem to me to be a disruption of the ordinary ideology of these programmes, particularly when these programmes are usually not only based around ideas of a non-supernatural world, but where they are inherently rooted in the concept of rationality, as with the detective or science fiction show.
If the basic precept of the police show is that society requires protecting, and that the law has to and will act to protect society, then the basic precept of the detective show is that deductive reasoning and the application of observation and experimentation will ultimately reveal the answer. What is important is not legal proceedings, but simply finding the answer.
This places the detective genre as a distinctly post-Enlightenment genre, dedicated to rationality and individual experience and observation. Horkheimer and Adorno claimed that “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters.”
They summarise the seminal work of the English Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon as the belief that “the mind, conquering superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature.” This suggests a conflict between superstition and rationalism, the natural and the supernatural, with the aim being to end enchantment and to establish a purely rational nature.
The processes of the Enlightenment in advancing rationality and scientific method are thus seen as not only pushing back the irrational but also as being a source of power over the world and the emotions. Thus, when a rational world, even one created in a fiction, is disrupted by the appearance of the supernatural, the effect is greater than if this world already included the supernatural, accepting it as everyday and mundane.
This was the background to Freud’s theory of the unheimlich or uncanny, which has dominated many explorations of horror and the Gothic. For Freud, the unheimlich was the return of something familiar which had been repressed, the comforting turned disturbing by the nature of its return.
Occurrences of the supernatural thus became intrusions into normality rather than a continuation of the natural order of things. For Freud, the uncanny is specifically the return of that which has been repressed, particularly repressed by rational thought. The uncanny in literature needs a narrative setting which is essentially that of everyday life, so that the return of the repressed is an eruption of the abnormal into that which is perceived as “normal”.
A narrative setting which openly admits of the supernatural, like a fairy story, cannot contain the Freudian uncanny.
This framework can clearly be found in most of the narratives with which this paper is concerned. An existing series which has established itself as essentially rational is faced by an eruption of the supernatural. This eruption is contained within a specific episode, rarely if ever having ongoing consequences for the series’ narrative or the world view of the characters. It is also frequently contained by the episode being broadcast at specific times of the year, whether that is Hallowe’en or Christmas.
One way in which these eruptions of the abnormal are contained by the rational, dominant world-view is to have them explained by it. We could call this the Ann Radcliffe rationalisation, or, to be less literary and more media-orientated, the Scooby-Doo strategy.
This is a defiantly rationalist approach, in which all things can be explained without recourse to the supernatural provided the protagonist can overcome their own projected emotions and fears and simply consider the evidence logically. Terry Castle has pointed out that Radcliffe’s novels may not incorporate the supernatural, but that they are full of the exteriorisation of individual thought and emotion to an extent which blurs the boundaries between natural and supernatural. This then provides a world little changed from the supernatural one, only the horrors and wonders that it contains are all understood as stemming from the individual and their perception. That explanation collapses the supernatural into the rationalist worldview.
A modified form of this narrative is frequently used by series which permit these eruptions of the abnormal, in that the main narrative may appear supernatural, but is ultimately explained, but there will be an event that is often peripheral to the main narrative which has no apparent rational explanation.
According to Tzvetan Todorov’s seminal study on the genre, these eruptions of the abnormal would be part of “the fantastic”, which he defines as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” However, this definition places the genre of the fantastic as one of unresolved tension; it is a genre in which there can be no resolution of the source of the apparently supernatural event.
By being open to interpretation, such a genre thus allows for the fascination with the supernatural to exist alongside dominant rationality. Todorov places the genre of the fantastic as itself being liminal, “as a dividing line between the uncanny and the marvellous”, as a sustained period of indecision, of failure to settle upon an interpretation based on either rational deduction or on belief.
Such an approach is clearly useful for those television series which want to engage with the supernatural, possibly in relation to a specific time of the year, while retaining their dominant rational model. One example of this would be the Hawai’i 5-O Halloween episode ‘Ka’iwi Kapu’, in which apparent acts of supernatural vengeance for desecration of a native sacred plot are explained as ordinary murders, while the kindly old woman who helps Detective Danny Williams find a new apartment is strongly implied to be the ghost of the previous inhabitant. Thus the detective team retain their power of rational thought and their ability to apply it to return order to society, while the possibility of supernatural powers is retained to provide a pleasant final frisson of fear for the viewer.
Even series which are parts of fantastic genres can represent eruptions of the abnormal as something unusual, by contrasting them with the normal run of these programmes. This is done by contrasting the regularly acknowledged novum and style of the series with the supernatural or Gothic elements, allowing a production with a fantastic premise to still present these elements as eruptions of the abnormal.
For example, the episode ‘Catspaw’ (US, first TX. 27 October 1967) of the original Star Trek series, makes use of horror iconography, including witches, dungeons and black cats, which is finally explained to be the use of the science of an alien race to scare the Enterprise crew. While extraterrestrial life may be fantastic as far as our dominant understanding of reality is concerned, it represents the norm of this show, and so the explanation of these horror elements by established aspects of the programme’s “reality” is another means of normalising the supernatural within an established rational aesthetic.
This also means that programmes with a fantastic premise can include elements of the irrational and still present them as eruptions of the abnormal, even though they are erupting into a setting which is not the normal world that we experience daily. The science fiction series Quantum Leap posited a scientist time travelling within his own lifetime by swapping bodies with other individuals.
This is clearly a fantastic premise, explained by pseudoscience within the programme’s diegesis. However, when the episode ‘The Boogieman’ (US, first TX. 26 October 1990) introduces a figure with apparent supernatural powers, the characters within the programme make it clear that they cannot explain these occurrences rationally, even within the rationality of a programme featuring time travel.
The supernatural is thus depicted as something that is still Other, different even from the fantastic setting which has been established and thus rendered comparatively mundane by this eruption of abnormality. This Hallowe’en episode, also set at Hallowe’en, 1964, thus demonstrates the significance of these times of year when the abnormal can erupt into the normal, whether that is the normal of our everyday lives or the normal of the programme.
Of course, if a series includes a supernatural element at the same time every year, whether it is Christmas, Hallowe’en or some other occasion, then this is normalising that event as a recurring seasonal marker. It effectively states that the supernatural and the inexplicable can exist within this setting, but that their manifestations will be marked out by only occurring at particular times of the year.
In essence, a specific time and place in which engagement with the supernatural is permitted is established, and this establishment of a permitted time and place for interacting with the supernatural gives these occasions the basic characteristics of a ritual, particularly if an element of symbolic representation can be identified within the ritual.
Overall, this means that these events allow us to see the universe as described through these programmes as largely rational, but retaining room for the supernatural. The series presents a world with an established and stable set of rules, even if those rules are not exactly those of the experienced world outside the television set. But they can also be disrupted and breached, allowing for forces and experiences beyond the normal, beyond the rational. However, these forces and experiences are contained, with the normal run of things continuing, the reset button deployed, until the next permitted eruption of the abnormal to remind us that there may be more to the universe than our rationality permits.
But I am not sure that that is the whole story. After all, these series that I am discussing actually offer more of an illusion of rationality and scientific method than they actually show it. The demands of timing and broadcasting contribute to that, but there is also the fact that the process is not the point of the programmes, but viewer engagement is.
Arguably, these productions run more on faith than on rationality; they show us the magical processes of forensic science, baffle us with leaps of deduction, while flattering us that we have been able to follow these experts. As with much of modern society, rationality is accepted as central, but what is actually turned to and used is little more than belief and feeling.
The eruptions of the abnormal, in this case, may actually be reassurances that rational thought and scientific methodology are themselves essentially props, parts of a story, one way of understanding the world, but not the only way. This would certainly fit with Robert F. Geary’s observations about the spread of alternative belief systems in the modern world to provide explanations where rationality fails to provide them, or provides explanations which are difficult to understand without specialist training and concentrated effort.
In this understanding, these eruptions are not actually of the abnormal, but rather of the normal, of the underlying mechanisms and powers that drive the universe. This may also explain many of the apparently supernatural appearances in “rational” American TV shows seem to be benign or actively helpful. This is an expression of faith in a benevolent supernatural power, or powers, that leave people to generally get on with their lives but which will occasionally intervene to aid or reward the righteous. It also suggests that rationality may be a useful way of approaching the every day, that it fits particularly with the human social constructs of law and process, but that there are times when only the irrational will serve, when rationality cannot be relied upon, and when other forces should be acknowledged.
Where these eruptions are perceived as frightening, it is an echo of the Romantic sense of the sublime, where the scale of nature offers, in Fred Botting’s words, “intimations of a metaphysical force beyond rational knowledge and human comprehension.” (Botting, 1996: 4) The underlying nature of the universe, as with the stories of HP Lovecraft, is indifferent to human existence, beyond the understanding of human scientific rationality, and so much beyond what our rationalised society can make of it that actually understanding it would make us appear mad. Rationality is a coping mechanism.
So we are left with this: even dramas which appear to be based on rationality and its importance for understanding the universe are more interested in the depiction of rational thought than its actual processes. They offer comfort by generally suggesting that the world is understandable, that there are people out there who can apply their skills and abilities to keep us safe from the normalised eruptions of abnormality such as crime.
However, by including supernatural eruptions of the abnormal, these programmes also offer the comfort, to those who feel that way, that there is something more to existence than the purely rational, coldly mechanistic world that scientists and intellectuals claim is all there is. It may be benign, a sign of a higher beneficent power, or it may be malign, a sign that we cannot know everything and may be better not trying to know everything. Either way, they indicate that we exist in a universe where rationality is not all.