“Madmen Know Nothing!” The Gothic Transgression and Madness

Lynne Woodcock

Lynne Woodcock

I will be looking at the purpose of comedy within gothic texts, analysing how comedy is utilised to celebrate gothic extremes from over the top emotional outbursts, to the absurd plots and to themes like transgression and madness.

Following a brief look at how gothic criticism is satirised, I shall turn to an analysis of how Beetlejuice depicts social anxieties of possession and changing domestic arrangements. I aim to show the diversity of the comic turn within the gothic and how comedy revitalises the gothic by reimagining its stylings and tropes for a postmodern audience.

Horner and Zlosnik stated that “extremes of feeling and experience inevitably invites the ludicrous excess of further layers of fakery in the form of parody.” This excess of emotion is a constant within the gothic with Edmund Burke defining the sublime to be “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Gothic heroes and heroines, however, were obviously too close to the action to be able to cope with the emotion their experiences provoked. For example, Frankenstein runs to his bed ill once his creature awakens and many characters in ‘The Monk’ become bedridden from their supernatural encounters. This emotional suffering can reveal the true horror and fear the characters are experiencing.

A contemporary example is in ‘The Blair Witch Project’ when Heather films a monologue to camera crying and visibly shaking she says “we are hungry, cold and hunted.”

To watch this scene, which clearly expresses the extremes of feeling mentioned above, in isolation from the overall narrative the excesses of emotion shown seems over the top. This emotional outburst is thus the inspiration for parody, included in the first of the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise and there are countless caricatures on YouTube including ‘The Bear Wit Project’ by ‘The Muppets’.

What these parodies achieve is to undermine the original scene, by making it seem unbelievable.

Jean Paul Richter saw comedy as “the inverse sublime”, as it invites an ironic detachment from the world. In the case of such ludicrously overblown parody, this has a certain degree of truth. However, I perceive that many gothic texts achieve a sense of irony whilst remaining disturbing and, even, sublime.

I am not thinking here of the aforementioned parodies, but of a more subtle form of comedy in the gothic.

The 1990’s American television series ‘Twin Peaks’ achieved this subtle mix of comedy and gothic along with its many other hybrid identities such as soap opera, thriller and advert. The comic here, however, occasionally increases the sense of fear and suspense because in ‘Twin Peaks’ the blurring of boundaries is so frequent that nothing is as it seems.

The security from evil that comedy provides will be quickly undermined. Fred Botting writes that the “hybrid mixing of forms and narratives has an uncanny effects, effects which make narrative play and ambivalence another figure of the horror”. This is how ‘Twin Peaks’ functions by playing with its audience to unsettle and make almost every scene seem uncanny.

Having discussed the more subtle forms of gothic humour, we must consider its brash, excessive opposite: the overblown gothic parody. This extreme exaggeration of gothic conventions can be demonstrated in all its ludicrous glory by ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. The starting point for the gothic parody of Rocky Horror is the low-budget sci-fi and horror films of the 1950s.

Kamilla Elliott wrote that it “flagrantly out[s] the sexual subtexts that Gothic critics work so hard to unveil.” What Rocky Horror achieves with its corseted transvestites, catchy songs and the ludicrous plot is an embrace of weirdness, transgression and sexual taboo.

It became a cult hit through its slogan “Don’t dream it, be it”, an inclusive notion that the young and misunderstood could take to heart. It is a musical played for laughs, rather than screams; a notion encapsulated by Dr Frank-N-Furter’s creation being a toned, blonde Adonis, rather than the mish-mash of dead bodies that constitute Frankenstein’s creation.

The writer of Rocky Horror, Richard O’ Brien, said that “once you get repression, you get all kinds of madness seething underneath.” With the Gothic’s preoccupation with repression, madness has become a common part of Gothic tales. The madman in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ who hides the body of the man he has killed under the floorboards is “funny” in both senses of the word.

His naive narrative voice, as he defends his insane actions, states; “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded.” The way that he begs the reader to view him sane, his obvious misconception of himself and our superior knowledge all seal his downfall as tragically comic.

Contemporary writers continue this tradition of the Gothic mad. ‘Twin Peaks’, for example, introduced the world to’ The Log Lady’; a woman who carried a log around like a baby. The comedy springs not just from shock at this bizarre behaviour, but from the community of ‘Twin Peak’s complete lack of shock.

As if oblivious to the idea that such behaviour is surreal and “other”. When asked about her by the outsider Agent Cooper the reply he gets is simple: “we call her the Log Lady”.

In addition to both the subtle and brash modes of gothic humour, the genre also invites even more complex and insidious forms of humour. ‘House of Leaves’, for instance, is a gothic patchwork of satire and genuinely disturbing moments.

The satirical undertone is aimed at academic analysis of texts. The absurd footnotes and obtuse Latin references seek to destabilise the commonplace discourses of gothic criticism, particularly psychoanalysis.

With long sections dedicated to how the House represents the inhabitant’s inner lives and past traumas, Danielewski anticipates the critiques of the House and undermines their attempts by addressing every possible approach within the text itself.

The house may be a labyrinth, but the text itself is a labyrinth to be looked at from a bird’s eye view; for the critic, there is no way inside. This irreverent approach to the inevitable literary criticism is an extremely understated form of gothic humour in itself.

Often when asked to define the gothic critics answer that the blurring of boundaries characterises it. Danielewski blurs boundaries between critic and author reflecting other conflicts in the text between truth and fiction, house and home.

Having examined the different ways in which the gothic genre utilises humour generally, I will now discuss the film Beetlejuice: a parody of gothic convention, the film uses comedy and the macabre to outline social anxieties surrounding changing domestic and family arrangements.

Many of the comic aspects of the film are based on the point of view it presents, that of the ghosts.

The haunting, and the ghosts themselves, which in gothic texts are often portrayed in a manner that creates mystery and otherness, are instead rendered commonplace and thus become a source of comedy rather than fear.

The film considers what it might be like to be a ghost and, as becomes apparent, such an unanswerable question has some pretty surreal answers.

Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik suggest it is “Gothic’s preoccupation with ‘surface’ that enables it so easily to embrace a comic as well as tragic perspective.” This central concern with surface, theatricality and excess is often how the gothic “sends itself up” whilst remaining uncanny.

Timothy Burton takes classic gothic hallmarks and deliberately undermines them. As Lydia climbs the staircase towards the ghosts in the attic, for example, she is surrounded by mist.

As becomes apparent, however, this is not an unearthly visitation, but simply steam emanating from decorators removing wallpaper. As such, Timothy Burton reduces Gothic conventions to the level of the commonplace, a source of comedic misunderstanding, rather than fear.

The villain of the piece, Beetlejuice, is as theatrical and surface obsessed as Dr Frank- N- Furter. He talks almost impossibly quickly as he advertises his services, throwing in deliberate nonsense at every possible turn, such as the offer of a ‘Free Demon Possession with every exorcism’. Disney’s evil characters have also been created with a love of gothic theatricality in mind.

This is clearly evident in ‘Maleficent’, the wicked witch of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, who declares herself to be “the mistress of all evil”. This immodest claim would also undoubtedly be an ambition for other evil Disney creations.

The dissertation I am currently working on considers how conflicts of possession give rise to gothic events. This is certainly the case in Beetlejuice as the new and old owners of the house clash. The old cannot stand by and watch as what they still see as their home, despite being dead, is changed.

The ghosts think that they have possession of the house, but the new owners, disagree and also feel they possess the ghosts who in turn haunt and in that way possess the house. Horner and Zlosnik state that “The comic turn in the Gothic […] often indicates ambivalence in the face of the new.” This statement can be seen to in some ways represent the conflict in Beetlejuice between the old owners of the house and the new.

The recently deceased Barbara and Adam are traditional country house owners; their mantra is “there’s no place like home”. The decoration of their home, old fashioned chintz wallpaper, symbolises this idea. The new owners could not be more different, being loud city dwellers, rich from property developing and, in the case of the wife, Delia, making strange abstract sculpture.

After Delia has transformed the house, much to the dismay of the old owners, the place looks nothing like its former self, but rather like a television set (and a surreal one at that), clearly displaying an influence of the German Expressionist film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’. The house now emphasises its own existence as a film set, making the things that happen there less frightening by being framed in an obviously fictional setting.

This seems to be a hallmark of Tim Burton’s style in film, one that can also be seen in Sweeney Todd, in which he used obvious sets rather than the real London and the excessive use of make-up and gore to lessen the horrifying aspects of the film and leave the audience laughing. This emphasis on the theatrical, superficial and fraudulent is a gothic trope.

Jerrold Hogle stated that “From its beginnings in the eighteenth-century, in the ‘Gothic revival’ in architecture or the ‘Gothic Story’ […] the modern ‘Gothic’ as we know it has been grounded in fakery.” The beginnings of this gothic forgery can be seen in the revival in medieval architecture, such as Horace Walpole’s ‘Strawberry Hill house’, buildings which faked their antiquated look from source drawings.

By the end of the film, harmony is restored in the house, most obviously through the return of the traditional appearance of its interior. The tone of the end has a feeling of a peaceful hybridity between old and new. The old owners are in the living room dancing with Lydia.

The new owners are happy with their new home too. The wife has even found inspiration for her art in her new surroundings, from Beetlejuice’s haunting, so she has appropriated the situation without turning her home into a marketable haunted house.

The film can be seen to represent anxieties surrounding changing family and domestic relationships. Horner and Zlosnik state that the comic gothic makes “an estranged world more bearable.” The anxiety explored in the film surrounds Lydia’s relationship with her father and stepmother.

There are several incidents at the beginning of the film showing her to be ignored by her parents. What Lydia finds in the ghosts are friends who have also been sidelined, with Barbara and Adam feeling rejected from their own home.

The finale shows a relatively peaceful extended family, an inclusive, “everyone’s welcome” notion, with biological parents, step-parents, ghost parents and other ghostly friends completing the family unit.

What is slightly disappointing about the end, however, is Lydia’s appearance. She seems to be reformed and extremely conventionally happy as she cycles home after school. The Goth of the start has vanished and, far more significant than her style, her sense of irony and quick-wittedness has also been lost.

The comic element and happy ending have removed the Goth from the gothic, which seems contradictory to Burton’s over the top aesthetic. Television series like ‘The Munsters’ and ‘The Addams Family’ are good examples of the depiction of happy, funny families that are still dark, macabre and theatrical.

The gothic is a term of debate among critics, difficult to pin down and in this way akin to the term postmodernism. What seems clear is when the gothic and postmodernism collide the result often includes the comic.

Simon Malpas wrote that the postmodern “evokes ideas of irony, disruption, playfulness, parody and simulation frequently originating from a ‘mixing of styles’, ‘voices contradicting and undermining each other’ and plots where ‘nothing is as it seems”.

This definition encompasses the idea of the comic gothic, the notion of playing with the conventions of a narrative style that has been established and continually exaggerated and revived for two centuries.

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