General Victorian Gothic-Horror Arts of the Uncanny

Denise Schweigert
Denise Schweigert

Initially, it is important to state that there are different approaches to define the phenomenon of horror. Mostly, the term is used to classify literature, films and games into a specific genre and to characterise a certain mood elicited by the eerie or “uncanny”.

In this article, Horror is not only understood as a sole genre or mood, but also as an intermedial, aesthetic experience (Toikkanen 4). This idea of Jarkko Toikkanen is especially appropriate with regard to analysing horror video games, where the recipient takes an active role and genuinely experiences what is happening on-screen by controlling the character. With this definition in mind, it is important to distinguish horror further into two categories, namely natural horror and art horror.

Natural Horror does not apply to the idea of being an aesthetic experience. It is closely linked to the low-road processing of fear. For instance, being mugged or attacked immediately triggers the fight-or-flight instincts and leave the victim horrified, also affecting their fear memory. Scenarios like for example ecological disasters or war are usually described as horrific. Even when a person might not be directly involved, depictions of those real events have an unsettling, but by no means entertaining impact.

This article does not discuss natural horror. It solely deals with art horror which, as an aesthetic intermedial experience, triggers fear symptoms, but still has an enjoyable effect. Art horror uses a “variable set of rhetorical devices designed to elicit a specific mood” (Sauchelli 40) and therefore imitates real horror to a certain extent.

Regarding Horror Games, fear and its symptoms are evoked by the content or mimicked by game mechanics and design. This is also the key to enjoying art horror — if certain things were real, they would be avoided, but since they are fake, the recipient (in this case, the player) can experience them without unpleasant consequences (which only affect the character in-game). Even though games aim at keeping the distance between player and character relatively close, the human brain usually is able to recognise that it is situated in a safe space in front of a screen.

A certain emotional threshold, other than when encountering real horror, is not passed (Bantinaki 386). Additionally, the control the player has over the character allows him to enjoy negative emotions that horror elicits and not just to tolerate the painful aspects (Bantinaki 385).

Not all physical manifestations of horror emotions are intrinsically unpleasant though: adrenalin rush, an increased heartbeat and skin conduction are also shown in a state of positive, for instance, romantic or sexual, arousal (Bantinaki 386). Hence, there is a pleasant side to the symptoms of fear. Negatively connotated emotions are sort of an experience intensifier and art transforms them into an aesthetic encounter with an artistic positive value (Sauchelli 47). So to conclude, the experience of art-horror is actually a cathartic incident for the recipient.

Drawing on the findings in the last chapter, gothic literature serves as a perfect example of how a literary medium uses several horror elements to evoke fright and terrifying emotions within the reader. Overall, it is agreed that the gothic narrative approximately lasted for 56 years — from the publication of Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (Wolfrey xi). Yet, gothic fiction was an outlet to portray contemporary fears and longings in imaginative ways for centuries by blending the ancient and the modern (Hogle 1).

Therefore, gothic itself is a highly fragmented, unstable genre, rising again and again in considerably altered forms, “scattering its ingredients into various modes” (Hogle 1). One of those modes is the Victorian Gothic Novel that “reworked a number of issues which were to be found in the earlier Gothic tradition” (Hughes and Smith 2).

Gothic aesthetics has a vivid manifestation in the omnipresent artistic mood of the Victorian epoch leaving its mark seemingly everywhere (Wolfrey xv). Decadence and hedonism coined the ubiquitous fin-de-siècle mood of the time, leaving a morbid touch to literature and culture as well.

Horror and the horrifying have been a great part of entertaining media — people enjoyed and still enjoy being shocked. Numerous of the typical Victorian Gothic Fiction characteristics can be found in the aesthetics and story of LoF as well, recycling the Victorian Gothic Horror once again for the modern medium of video games. Therefore, the next chapter discusses general Victorian Gothic motifs to show narratological similarities between the two different media.

While traditional gothic literature takes place in ancient times in faraway places, mostly being old castles or monasteries in rough, open and grim spaces, the Victorian gothic turns to a familiar urban setting, exploring domestic spheres (Hughes and Smith 3). “The point of the domestic Gothic is that it represents a particular manifestation of the uncanny” (Hughes and Smith 4), in which, according to Freud, the home “becomes a sphere where trauma is generated” (Hughes and Smith 4), thus creating a constant underlying tension and fear of what used to be a safe space.

The German term “unheimlich” covers that process precisely. This is exactly the case in LoF. The entire game solely takes place in the mansion of the protagonist, a painter, and is most likely to be situated in Victorian London. In the beginning, it is a building with three floors and a usual room division, but once the protagonist enters the atelier and starts painting his schizophrenia kicks in, turning the familiar space into an unreliable, always changing environment.

While exploring the changing building the psychic painter encounters various surreal scenarios, diving deep into his own past, revealing things about him that neither the player, nor the character, seems to know or remember, by finding newspaper snippets and old letters. The game, therefore, picks up the common gothic theme of the haunted house which “demonstrates both the burdens and the responsibilities of memory” (Mighall 110). This is stylistically reinforced with graffiti which can be found on several walls within the house, each hinting at plot-relevant happenings or information.

One graffiti says “Going in Circles”, referring to the house as a maze as well as the fact that the game itself (depending on the way the player chooses to play, more information on this will be provided in the ludologic analysis part) is an endless loop where the painter relives the same scenario of trying to create a new magnum opus, again and again, not being able to escape this horrifying mental prison. ‘Remember each mistake’ hints at the Gothic burden of the memory, even though at this point, the painter has not yet discovered what he did.

Since the painter suffers most likely from schizophrenia, not only the motif of the haunted house is picked up, but also the Victorian fascination with medical and psychological conditions due to Freud’s rise of the Psychoanalysis as well as the progress in healthcare and science with Darwin’s evolutional theory (Margree and Randall 218).

The house is changing, but the probability that it is due to the existence of a sublime force is rather low — mostly, the environment is perceived through a psychic mind, hence the abrupt surreal changes. Rather in the beginning of the game, a diagnosis sheet with the symptoms of schizophrenia can be found. It appears to be a self-diagnosis by the painter, and it is obvious that he fulfils most symptoms. Schizophrenic episodes are a huge part of the game mechanics and design which is why the technical and stylistic realisation of the symptoms will be discussed in detail later in the article.

Another manifestation of the addressing of medical problems within Victorian gothic fiction is that the painter has an amputated leg and is wearing a prosthesis, which can be seen in his limping walking style and is proved by a report card that states that he has purchased a below-knee prosthesis as well as a sketch depicting his feelings towards this prosthesis.

Additionally, the medical development and the interest in human alternation is shown with the attempt to transplant skin onto the distorted face of the painter’s wife which has suffered major burns in a house fire. The correspondence between the desperate painter and a surgeon can be found in the game, showing the inability of the painter to cope with the loss of his muse’s beauty, reinforcing his psychosis.

Mental illnesses and descriptions of “degenerate physiognomies [and] abhuman bodies” (Margree and Randall 218) were especially a subject in Fin-de-Siècle-Gothic — the painter’s wife being a symbol for this. She is portrayed as “the Other”, distorting the familiar, turning it into something horrifying which is haunting the mind. Even though the disfigured wife of the painter is the prime example for othering, LoF uses this gothic principle to evoke a trembling, unsettling atmosphere, picking up omnipresent dark Victorian aesthetics throughout the whole gaming experience.

Numerous paintings in the mansion are distorted images, often showing two faces, symbolising the usual and the Other. The best example for a painting representing the Other, causing discomfort, triggering fearful impulses and at the same time picking up the idea of an abhuman appearance, is the game’s version of Da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. The game uses a famous painting and distorts it, blending all so far listed elements of Victorian gothic: the Other, the uncanny and horrifying and an abhumanly altered body.

Victorian Fin-de-Siècle Gothic shows “themes of cultural decline” (Margree and Randall 218). Decadence and hedonism coined the mentality and literary attitude, elaborating a “cult of death and mourning” (Hughes and Smith 3). Several recurring motifs in LoF imply this degenerate aesthetics that lies over the entire game like a veil of terror. The most used motif is rats.

The rodents appear everywhere in the game. They suddenly run along corridors or disappear behind walls and doors. Several sketches by the painter that can be collected throughout the game show rats in a menacing way.

In the drawings they are depicted as the cause for the painter’s mad episodes: he feels as if the rats are crawling around in his mind and body. Rats are generally connected to the idea of sickness and decay.

In LoF, they are a symbol of the psychological degeneration of the artist. It is unclear if the rats are real or if they are a product of his schizophrenic imagination; nonetheless, they seem to have transgressed the limitations of the mind and entered the real world, since mouse traps can be found everywhere in the mansion. Probably a poor try by the painter to stop the madness crawling through his body into his brain.

Additionally, the painter is an alcoholic. Everywhere in the house, there are huge amounts of empty wine and whiskey bottles. This is a symbol for the general hedonistic attitude during the fin-de-siècle period, but also for mental degeneration.

Furthermore, the uncanny is often connected to contemporary fears of not only psychic, but also social instability (Hughes and Smith 6), “symbolically engag[ing] with the idea of economic uncertainty that characterised the period” (Hughes and Smith 5).

The painter in LoF is not able to create any masterpiece that can keep up with societies or his expectations, resulting in a kind of self-inflicted, incipient poverty. On top of that, due to his wife’s accident and his inability to cope with it, his social and domestic life is completely shattered, resulting in alcoholism, psychosis and the suicide of his wife, ergo he can not keep up with supreme Victorian living standards and the pressure of succeeding as a functioning member of society.

All in all, many Victorian gothic horror motifs add up to the overall dark, an unsettling and haunting atmosphere which lays the essential foundation for a fear-evoking video game. The main inspiration for LoF regarding aesthetics, as said before, is Oscar Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, which is why the next chapter will compare similarities between the game and the book.

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