Contemporary Gothic in Novels and Films and Why We Need It

Steven Bruhm
Steven Bruhm

My title suggests a rather straightforward enterprise: I want to account for the enormous popularity of the Gothic — both novels and films — since the Second World War. However, the title proposes more questions than it answers.

First, what exactly counts as “the contemporary Gothic”? Since its inception in 1764, with Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, the Gothic has always played with chronology, looking back to moments in an imaginary history, pining for a social stability that never existed, mourning a chivalry that belonged more to the fairy tale than reality. And contemporary Gothic does not break with this tradition: Stephen King’s ‘IT’ (1987) and Anne Rice’s vampire narratives (begun in the 1970s) weave in and out of the distant past in order to comment on the state of contemporary American culture, while other narratives foreground their reliance on prior, historically distant narratives.

Peter Straub’s ‘Julia’ (1975), Doris Lessing’s ‘The Fifth Child’ (1988), and John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ (film version: ‘The Village of the Damned’ [1960]) all feed off ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) by Henry James, itself arguably a revision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ (1762), a treatise on the education of two children at a country house.

And as many contributors to this volume demonstrate, the central concerns of the classical Gothic are not that different from those of the contemporary Gothic: the dynamics of family, the limits of rationality and passion, the definition of statehood and citizenship, the cultural effects of technology.

How, then, might we define a contemporary Gothic? For to think about the contemporary Gothic is to look into a triptych of mirrors in which images of the origin continually recede in a disappearing arc. We search for a genesis but find only ghostly manifestations.

Nor is the idea of origin the only problem here, for there is also the problem embedded in my title: why we need the contemporary Gothic. Certainly its popularity cannot be disputed — films like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) take home Oscars, and Stephen King habitually tops the best-seller lists — but why are we driven to consume these fictions? Is this craving something structural or social? Does it stem from our desire to see the political tyrant bested or the weak, deformed, or unfortunate (as in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ [1949]) scapegoated in a ritual purgation of blood?

The Gothic has always been a barometer of the anxieties plaguing a certain culture at a particular moment in history, but what is the relationship between these general social trends and particular individual psyche? When the children of ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) conjure Freddy Kruger in their dreams, are they expressing a personal nightmare about what lies beneath their consciousnesses, a social nightmare about how America treats its dispossessed, or some amorphous combination of the two? For that matter, do we need to see each child’s Freddy Kruger as the same Freddy Kruger? The “we” who needs the Gothic is by no means a unified, homogeneous group.

I do not necessarily need the same things you do. I do not necessarily take the same things from a Gothic narrative as do the others who have bought the book or the theatre ticket. Like the question of origin I addressed above, the basis of need and desire is not only a theme in Gothic narratives but a theoretical quandary for the spectators and readers who consume those narratives.

We can best address the question of audience need by placing the contemporary Gothic within a number of current anxieties — the ones we need it both to arouse and assuage.

One of these anxieties, taken up by Stephen King is his nonfictional ‘Danse Macabre’ (1982), is political and historical. He discusses at length the degree to which the Second World War, the Cold War, and the space race gave rise to particular kinds of horror in the 1940s and 1950s. Central to this horror is the fear of foreign otherness and monstrous invasion.

We need only consider Ira Levin’s ‘The Boys from Brazil’ (1976), William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ (1971), or Stephen King’s ‘The Tommyknockers’ (1988) to see the connection between national purity and the fear of foreign invasion, be it from Germany, the Middle East, or outer space.

Another anxiety, not unrelated to the first, is the technological explosion in the second half of the twentieth-century. Advances in weaponry — both military and medical — have rendered our culture vulnerable to almost total destruction (as in Boris Sagal’s ‘The Omega Man’ [1971] or King’s ‘Firestarter’ [1980] and ‘The Stand’ [1978]) or have helped us conceive of superhuman beings unable to be destroyed (the cyborgs and animate machines of 2001: a ‘Space Odyssey’ [1968], the ‘Terminator’ series [1984, 1991], or ‘Dark City’ [1998]).

Third, the rise of feminism, gay liberation, and African-American civil rights in the 1960s has assaulted the ideological supremacy of traditional values where straight white males ostensibly control the public sphere.

In the midst of this onslaught comes a further blow to Euro-American culture: the heightened attack against Christian ideology and hierarchy as that which should “naturally” define values and ethics in culture.

The Satanism of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, the continued cult worship of the Dracula figure in all his manifestations, and the popularity of anti-Christ figures from Damien Thorne of The Omen (novel, 1976; film, 1976) to Marilyn Manson all attest to the powerful threat (and attraction) posed by our culture’s increasing secularity. And regardless of whether one loathes the anti-Christian figure in these narratives or cheers him on, one cannot help but be impressed by the degree to which this “attack of the Gothic” has infiltrated our culture and fractured any ideologically “natural” state of personal or social well-being.

The Gothic texts and films I have already mentioned circle around a particular nexus: the problem of assimilating these social anxieties (which I will momentarily discuss in terms of “trauma”) into a personal narrative that in some way connects the Gothic protagonist to the reader or spectator.

What becomes most marked in the contemporary Gothic — and what distinguishes it from its ancestors — is the protagonists’ and the viewers’ compulsive return to certain fixations, obsessions, and blockages.

Consequently, the Gothic can be readily analysed through the rhetoric of psychoanalysis, for many the twentieth century’s supreme interpreters of human compulsions and repressions. In both theory and clinical practice, psychoanalysis is primarily attributed to the work of Sigmund Freud, for whom the Gothic was a rich source of imagery and through whom the Gothic continues to be analysed today.

Psychoanalysis provides us with a language for understanding the conflicted psyche of the patient whose life story (or “history”) is characterized by neurotic disturbances and epistemological blank spots. More often than not, such psychoanalytic accounts are intensely Gothic: ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) and ‘A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis’ (1922), along with a number of Freud’s case studies, make the figure of the tyrannical father central to the protagonists’ Gothic experiences, as does Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ (1796) or Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897); ‘On Narcissism: an Introduction’ (1914) and ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ (1921) offer us purchase on the person in society looking for acceptance while at the same time remaining abject and individualized, a central problem in Gothic novels; and the phantasms generated by the ‘Wolf Man’ or Dr. Schreber, like those experienced by the grieving subject in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, cannot be dissociated from the Gothic ghost, the revenant who embodies and projects the subject’s psychic state.

However, perhaps what is most central to the Gothic — be it classical or contemporary — is the very process of psychic life that for Freud defines the human condition. While the id finds its narrative expression in the insatiable drives of the desiring organism (Dean Koontz’s ‘Bruno in Whispers’ [1981], the mutant child in the film It’s ‘Alive’ [1974]), the superego takes monstrous form in the ultrarational, cultured figures of Hannibal Lecter, Damien Thorne, or Anne Rice’s blood-drinking literati.

The battle for supremacy between the ravenous id and the controlling superego translates in myriad ways into the conflicts of the Gothic. Indeed, what makes the contemporary Gothic contemporary, I hope to show, is not merely the way Freudian dynamics underlie Gothic narratives (for this, uncannily, is also the condition of classical eighteenth-century Gothic), but how contemporary Gothic texts and films are intensely aware of this Freudian rhetoric and self-consciously about the longings and fears it describes.

In other words, what makes the contemporary Gothic contemporary is that the Freudian machinery is more than a tool for discussing narrative; it is in large part the subject matter of the narrative itself.

A major theme of the Gothic has always been interior life, as in the paranoid Gothic of William Godwin’s ‘Caleb Williams’ (1794) or James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ (1824), but the rise of psychoanalysis in the twentieth-century has afforded Gothic writers a very particular configuration of this internal life.

To the degree that the contemporary Gothic subject is the psychoanalytic subject (and vice versa), she/he becomes a/the field on which national, racial, and gender anxieties configured like Freudian drives get played out and symbolized over and over again.

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