Gothic Horror Film Trajectories, from 1960 to Present

Xavier Aldana Reyes

Xavier Aldana Reyes

Gothic horror is interstitial. On the one hand, it emphasises the affective qualities of the horror genre. On the other, it uses recognisable Gothic settings and conveys disturbing moods that aim to create the unease or destabilisation often ascribed to the reading experience of the Gothic novel.

It is therefore essential that Gothic horror is not confused with Gothic cinema. Tim Burton’s oeuvre, for example, relies on a specific type of dark imagery that aligns itself more with fantasy and fairy tales (Page 2007: 7–8) than with horror.

Similarly, the supernatural romance of many films that have derived from the paradigm-shifting ‘Twilight’ (Hardwicke 2008) should be neatly separated from the more visceral forms of horror covered in this article. Gothic horror is hard to define precisely because it is neither a genre, in the strict sense in which horror is a genre, nor a distinct subgenre. Instead, Gothic horror’s distinctiveness lies in its reliance on specific Gothic atmospheres, settings, music, tropes or figures, yet always with the intention of scaring, disturbing or “grossing out.”

A complete account of the many twists and turns of Gothic horror since 1960 would necessarily include many works of such continental directors as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco and Amando de Ossorio. It would also have to embrace the uncanny desert landscapes of ‘Dust Devil’ (Stanley 1992), the cataleptic turmoil of the transnational ‘Repulsion’ (Polanski 1965) or the psycho-sexual doppelgängers of ‘Possession’ (Zulawski 1981).

In the interest of economy, however, I focus on key trends and films from the United Kingdom and America. Although amenable to readings that may foreground their national specificities, the Gothic horrors produced by these countries often rely on a shared literary Anglo-American set of conventions that set them apart from other horror traditions. Their productions have also enjoyed the largest budgets and, in some cases, have become mainstream hits worldwide.

Of all the possible thematic concerns, some Gothic motifs have necessarily proved more influential than others. For example, although the pagan Gothic of ‘The Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (Haggard 1971) or ‘The Wicker Man’ (Hardy 1973) is highly original and fashionable, its filmic progeny has been limited. Conversely, monsters, apparitions, haunted houses or serial killers have populated the screen in high numbers since the 1960s, often to the point of saturation. These films are therefore given priority in this chapter, even if this means omitting horror landmarks such as ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (Polanski 1968), ‘The Omen’ (Donner 1976), ‘Carnival of Souls’ (Harvey 1962) and ‘Blue Velvet’ (Lynch 1986), influential subgenres such as possession or rape-revenge films, or essential cycles such as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations.

In order to survey the area of Gothic horror, I identify at least three elements that typify its existence over the past five decades: the increasing corporealization of the ghost as well as its digital mediation, a strong fascination with monsters and their sexuality, and a marked move toward embodiment which has led to an opening up of the body and its transformation as the ultimate site of Gothic inscription.

Ghosts negotiate the collapse of boundaries between shared notions of reality and the occult possibilities of the beyond. They are thus productive figures through which to study altered states of mind, or the possibility of survival after death.

The early 1960s saw the release of two highly accomplished adaptations of well-known Gothic texts, both of which used the haunted house motif to explore troubled psychologies or arrested development. Decay, as well as the supernatural forces that inhabit the vast spaces of castles or mansions, signals the descent into madness or losing of touch with the reality of their main characters.

The first film, ‘The Haunting’ (Wise 1963), approaches Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (1959) with the novel’s characteristic subtlety and restraint, and powerfully showcases the links between social awkwardness and repression. Here, the ageing and discontented Eleanor (Julie Harris) drives to Hill House in search of freedom from her family and past, particularly the turbulent relationship with her bedridden mother. Eleanor’s psychic qualities are channelled by the mansion in a series of events that foreground her indecisive, passive nature and her sexual confusion.

The second film, ‘The Innocents’ (Clayton 1961), released two years earlier, adapts Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) and explores similar territory. Its lead, the governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), finds herself trapped between the disturbing flirtatious behaviour of one of the children in her tutelage and the possibility of the ghost of Peter Quint, a licentious valet who may have performed indiscreet sexual acts in public. The film’s treatment of reality and/or hallucination ensures that Miss Giddens’s potentially conflicted psyche is reflected in an inconclusive denouement.

The old dark house subgenre, also popular at the time, was less interested in metaphysics or psychology than films about hauntings, but it also exploited for their fear-inducing capacities the Gothic specificities of spacious, gloomy manor houses or labyrinthine mansions with as many trapdoors and secret passages as the castles of Udolpho or Otranto.

The most habitual premise involves typically the reading of a will, an occasion at which most members of a family are present. Ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are customarily explained away, in true Radcliffean fashion, through the introduction of manipulative killers or lunatics escaped from nearby asylums.

Most of the old dark house features that appeared in the 1960s were hybrid comedies: ‘What a Carve-up (Jackson’ 1961), ‘The Horror of It All’ (Fisher 1964), ‘The Ghost and Mr Chicken’ (Rafkin 1966) or the William Castle remake of ‘The Old Dark House’ (1963) all contain horror elements, but Pete Walker’s later ‘House of the Long Shadows’ (1983) exploited these to more significant effect. Its main character, a writer who thoroughly decries Gothic romances and makes a bet that he can write something as “over the top” as Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) in 24 hours, travels to a Welsh estate that has been empty for 40 years in pursuit of the most conducive and inspirational atmosphere.

Complete with a rightful heir who has been kept locked away for decades, ‘House of the Long Shadows’ is one of the best homages to Gothic horror. Its cast boasts genre stars Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Sheila Keith, and it includes a long list of clichés (from rotting corpses to stormy nights and poisoning) and archetypal characters (from tyrannical patriarchs who mourn the death of the old order to damsels in distress).

Real historical events have also, at times, been used as the backdrop for elaborate or apocryphal Gothic reimaginings. The often ignored ‘Gothic’ (Russell 1986), for instance, blended the haunted house trope with a famous episode of literary history in its fantastic recreation of the events of the summer of 1816, events which led to the writing of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819). Its opening, highly reminiscent of the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (Whale 1935), shows Percy (Julian Sands) and Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) joining Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) for a few days of spooky entertainment and camaraderie at the picturesque Villa Diodati in Switzerland.

Although bereft of actual ghosts, the film wears its Gothic credentials on its sleeve: Fuseli’s painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) is recreated as a bad dream, and its characters cite canonical novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) and ‘The Monk’ (1796). Not content with this level of intertextuality, Gothic also plays out excerpts from ‘Fantasmagoriana’ (1818), a collection of ghost stories meant, as this filmic Byron puts it, to “conjure up [their] deepest, darkest fear[s].”

The ‘Amityville Horror’ (Rosenberg 1979) is a similar and highly referential hybrid film. The true crime story of Ronald DeFeo, Jr, who murdered his whole family, is combined with a series of visitations that torment the Lutz family upon arrival at his house. Some of the most striking paranormal moments include an indeterminate black substance bubbling up from the toilet, blood trailing down the walls and what appears to be a flying pig with red eyes.

The film’s lack of closure, as well as the absence of an actual anthropomorphic ghost, makes ‘The Amityville Horror’ one of the most open-ended haunted house narratives post-1960. Important though they have been to the construction of the aesthetic of Gothic horror, derelict or uninhabited houses are not the only buildings susceptible to hauntings.

The formidable Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980) shows that Gothic settings can successfully escape the confines of the suburban. This film relishes panoramic pans that explore the uncanny nature of the building and its surroundings, but also emphasises the other protagonists of the story: the ghosts themselves. In fact, there is often little distinction made between the portrayal of ghosts – potential hallucinations – and the visions of the relapsing alcoholic father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson).

Often, as in the bar scene, the film only tacitly points out the actual physical absence of these apparitions by showing Jack talking to an empty room. Such scenes evince another change in spectral narratives in the second half of the twentieth-century: the development of more physical, almost tangible, ghostly manifestations.

William Castle’s ‘13 Ghosts’ (1960), for instance, features ethereal earthbound spirits, but makes a point of giving them a more “real” purchase on reality by suggesting that they can be captured and collected. The Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Sixth Sense’ (Shyamalan 1999) would even go so far as to explore the narrative possibilities of having the ghostly nature of its main character hidden to both intradiegetic characters and viewers alike.

As in ‘The Others’ (Amenábar 2001), this can only be achieved if the ghost is made virtually unintelligible as such, and thus figured as a very real and human presence. In other cases, such as that of the recently rebooted Hammer studios remake of ‘The Woman in Black’ (Watkins 2012), the effect may also be achieved by having a character begin the film as human, but later turn into a ghost. Here the viewer often realises the change in planes of reality at about the same time that the spectre does.

If such stylistic decisions are, to a certain extent, dictated by the script, they also point to the move toward corporeality that I trace elsewhere in this chapter, a move that has also been registered in the appearance of what we might term “digital ghosts.”

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