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Aftergothic: Consumption, Machines, and Black Holes

A hand appears, clutching an automatic pistol. Walls of gray and slimy concrete provide the gloomy surroundings. The flickering half-light of low ceilings, dark corridors, and sliding steel doors offer little orientation as the handgun begins to negotiate the uninviting dungeon.

Outside, a bleak, rocky landscape is visible. So, too, the harsh walls of the desolate bunker fortress, labyrinth, and prison. Suddenly, a shadowy movement is glimpsed through the pale glow of dials and lamps. A shot. The assailant, a barely human figure in fatigues and body armour, lumbers from a dark alcove, preparing to fire again.

The pistol reacts, kicking slightly in the hand. It kicks again. The attacker recoils and falls, a bloody mess on the floor. More shapes lurch from the darkness. The pistol responds, its semi-crazed fire continuing until all the mutant soldiers are splattered corpses. Welcome to Doom.

There is something strangely familiar about this popular computer game. Its labyrinths, ghostly figures, and monstrous mutants evoke primitive fears and instinctual responses; its violent shocks and graphic images set the pulse racing; its repetitive structure sacrifices imaginative narrative involvement for more immediate sensational pleasures.

Computer games owe a debt to horror cinema: Silent Hill evokes tension through dark, obscure settings, its player/wanderer suddenly shocked by “blood-curdling monsters”; Resident Evil takes scenes directly from George Romero’s 1978 cult horror movie, ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

A longer look at the generic history of Gothic fiction reveals further parallels in form and effect. Horace Walpole, discussing his new style of romance in 1765, argued that it leaves “the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through boundless realms of invention, and hence creating more interesting situations” (Walpole, Castle of Otranto, pp. 7–8).

The “first-person shooter” genre, in which a hand holding a gun offers an illusion of on-screen involvement, similarly draws the player into the virtual world. For John Romero, Doom’s creator, the blurring of fantasy and reality is crucial in the production of emotional effects rather than meanings: “when the monster jumps out, real adrenaline roars through your body.”

A world of ghosts and monsters is rendered palpable. However, where superstitious credulity and imaginative identification are required to realise fictions emotionally, computer games perform the work of visualisation themselves, while continuing to play with patterns of anticipation, expectation, and uncertainty drawn from the basic Gothic plot set out in ‘The Castle of Otranto’.

Virtual environments are designed to evoke horror and terror. The foggy world of Silent Hill obscures visibility and clouds the player in apprehension; the labyrinths, gloom, and postindustrial ruins of Doom produce the tense atmosphere of pursuit and disorientation.

While these environments stimulate visceral emotions, games also generate loftier feelings: the “breathtaking environments” of Tomb Raider are “awe-inspiring spaces,” “cathedrals of fire.” The artificial sublimity of computer-generated worlds are comparable to eighteenth-century aesthetic notions, in which a sense of the sublime occurs in an encounter with an immensity the mind cannot comprehend, a natural and divine power found in the sovereign shape of rugged, mountainous landscapes.

First overwhelmed by the spectacle, the viewer is then elevated by the sense of grandeur. Self-possession is lost then regained on another, imaginative, level. Though terror, in Edmund Burke’s mid-eighteenth-century aesthetics, invigorates an elevated idea of selfhood and the sacred, its energy comes from a baser, bodily source: “a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror; which as it belongs to self-preservation is one of the strongest of all the passions” (Burke, Enquiry, in Clery and Miles, Gothic Documents, p. 121). Self-preservation, moreover, is one of the more “instinctual” emotions central to the enjoyment of games, an “appreciation of dynamic properties hard-wired into the species — it is essential for survival.”

The sublime has economic and cultural dimensions underlying its popularity as an aesthetic technique. A mode of appropriating luxurious, wasteful expenditure (associated, in bourgeois commercial culture, with the excesses of feudal aristocracy), it manifests a significant change in ideas of self and nature, the former becoming increasingly individualistic, the latter being invested with powers at once increasingly measurable by empirical science and elusively spiritual in Romanticism.

In the natural images, architectural ruins, and courtly customs frequently employed in a Gothic sublime, the past is appropriated and expelled in an attempt to separate a civilised, rational eighteenth-century from its barbaric and feudal forbears.

Remnants of the past — ruins, superstitions, passions — are attributes of an earlier epoch superseded by modern practices and qualities. Gothic figures thus mark turning points in cultural-historical progress, points at which feudalism is apprehended and dismissed as a ruined past in a movement toward a more enlightened future.

The momentum of change, however, carries with it anxieties: has the barbaric past really been surpassed? Have primitive energies and passions really been overcome? Gothic figures come to represent these anxieties and give them fearful form as monsters, ghosts, and demons whose return terrifies bourgeois normality and undermines ordered notions of civilised humanity and rational progress.

Here the power of science to guarantee a comfortable future is brought into question. From Frankenstein onwards, scientific discovery is as much a threat as it is a promise. In H. G. Wells’s ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ (1896) the biologist’s attempt to accelerate evolution according to Darwinian principles only causes rapid regression to bestial states and unleashes a reversion to savagery and a host of horrible hybrid creatures.

The hi-tech worlds of computer games — linking instinctual energies and powerful machines (rather than natural or supernatural forces) — participate in this narrative of ruin. The future is anxiously perceived as another place of destruction and decay, as ruined as the Gothic past. Social and corporeal disintegration awaits in postindustrial devastation, in genetic experimentation, in alien and mutant forms of life and death.

Supernatural demons, natural forces (passion, guilt, sexuality), and most recently technological powers have successively assumed a predominant role in Gothic representations of cultural anxieties. The latter fear brings out an uncanny element latent in the process: “there is no difference between occult and technological media.”

For Terry Castle, discussing the popularity of phantasmagoria and magic lanterns in the late eighteenth-century, the magical materialization of ghostly images caused thought to become “phantasmagorical,” and so the mind found itself “supernaturalized” at the same time as rational science discovered a technical language and instrumentation to represent mental operations (Castle, Female Thermometer, pp. 141–62).

Human identity and society, it seems, are continually subject to transformation and redefinition by representational and mechanical technologies. The manufacture of automata, for instance, participates in the development and disturbances shaping individuals in the course of the eighteenth century: “the mechanical doll” provides “a metaphor of, and counterpoint to, the autonomous subjectivity.”

Machines double human functions and identity so that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Cinema, too, not only materializes these disturbing doubles, it makes them move across a screen as figures for the cinematic apparatus itself: “in Golem, in The Other, in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in The Student of Prague — everywhere doppelgangers ̈ appear as metaphors for the screen and its aesthetic.”

The magical, ghostly movement of cinema images has recently been surpassed by new computer technologies. Dataglove and digital bodysuit disclose the “industrial production of a personality split, an instantaneous cloning of living man, the technological recreation of one of our most ancient myths: the myth of the double, of an electro-ergonomic double whose presence is spectral.”

The movement of virtual images not only dispossesses the body of its shadows so that identity becomes no more than a phantasmic electronic flickering. The polygons composing computer graphics also assume an almost spiritual life of their own: “now the polygons have become animated, literally, given a soul. A machine soul.” Spirits and selves entwine on the spectral screens to manifest uncanny disturbances in which past, present, and future collapse.

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