The Uncanny: Towards a Spatial Definition of the Gothic

Jeppe Ugelvig

Jeppe Ugelvig

As historian Richard Davenport-Hines puts it in the prologue of his book ‘Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin’, the “Gothic” originates in a “fascination with twisted and punished desires, caprice, base terrors and vicious life.” Along with the succulent title of his major body of work, this description leans towards a broader definition of the Gothic, a definition that exceeds its status as a mere nineteenth-century literary genre.

A thriving cultural phenomenon running successfully in its fourth-century, the Gothic constantly reappears and shape-shifts in culture, much like the spectres it mediates, making it a flickery and difficult cultural category to define; if not a historical period, what exactly is the Gothic?

Scholar Gilda Williams argues that the Gothic “is more atmospheric than neatly defined,” which by no means brings us closer to a definition; indeed, how do you define an atmosphere? However, her linking the Gothic to the atmosphere, being essentially an emotional response to our physical surroundings, allows us to consider the Gothic as a spatial notion; the Gothic as space. With this notion in mind, we can release the Gothic from its historical conservation, and a more comprehensive and intricate study of the genre can begin, looking here at past and present Gothic spaces, the Gothic’s indisputable link to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny (being itself a spatial term), and the suburban Gothic as a postmodern Gothic space.

From its earliest etymological traces, the term “Gothic” has resonated with fear and horror; initially indicative of particularly barbaric Scandinavian tribes that threatened the Roman Empire around 400 AD, the term came to signify a particular architectural style in twelfth-century Europe, known for its excessive structures, dramatic lines and unbelievable advancement in elevation. The European Gothic cathedral would tower threateningly in the medieval cityscape, all-mighty and dreadful like their perceived God at the time: Davenport- Hines argues that the medieval Gothic originates in an extremity of fear of the phenomenal world at the time.

Eventually, the Gothic style of the high medieval period fell out of vogue, but its impact on culture survived as a kind of disposition of fear and darkness. In the eighteenth-century, after several centuries of unpopularity, “Gothic modes” surfaced and were revived once more. Working against the Enlightenment of Europe, with its emphasis on reason, true knowledge and scientific advancement, poets such as Joseph Addison wrote of a “gloominess […] or melancholy […] that is not disagreeable,” and the “poetry of secret terrors,” just as Alexander Pope famously developed his idea of the “picturesque” of ruins and decay. Counter to the prevailing ideologies of the time, this “mode”, later categorised as the “Gothic revival”, initiated a romanticisation of mystery and darkness.

From this brief historical tracing, it is important to note firstly that, although the Gothic term can be traced back to a revivalism of a medieval notion, “the Gothic” as a cultural mode does not have a clear origin; over the span of 400 years, all kinds of counter-Enlightenment impulses have been allocated to the Gothic term, oversaturating it and making it omnipresent in culture. Secondly, that the Gothic is and always has been counter in nature; it is defined by its opponents and opposites, through its antithetical properties, its “Otherness”.

The Gothic becomes antithetical to an ideal society through transgression and disruption, that is, a disruption of philosophical idealism, rationalism and positivism. Scholar Cyndy Hendershot argues that “the Gothic disrupts… [and] takes societal norms and invades them with an unassimilable force.” The force in question, the force of the Gothic, is most frequently driven by fear. The Gothic concerns itself with the romantic portrayal and exploration of fear in all its forms; fear being both a widely communal and deeply personal syndrome. It becomes not only a space, but a device to perform a critique of society, confronting its own darkness and anxiety, questions that remain awkwardly excluded from the ideology of the Enlightenment. Whether through the depiction of castle-haunting ghosts, sexually potent blood-sucking Vampires or threatening monsters of incarnating scientific advancement, the Gothic has a remarkable ability to repeatedly renew itself, continuing to provide multifaceted imagery for the criticism of society. Here, the vampire is a fine example of a multi-layering of symbolic anxieties present in one figure.

With the recurring emphasis on blood, immortality and penetration, the Victorian vampiric figure embodies a deeply rooted class anxiety of the “immortal” bloodlines of the English aristocracy (Vampire as aristocrat) whilst also representing a potency of sexuality repressed in the moral Victorian reader.

Finally, the Vampire is arguably also the personification of the “Eastern Other,” the ethnic-religious threat from the East that perils the superiority of the British Empire, and provides, in negative, a positive definition of the West. In fact, it is through the fabrication of a number of (sexual, racial, political) Others threatening stability, that the Gothic plays out these dramas: Franco Moretti explains how “literature of terror” produces its own monsters, and continues to argue that “wishing to incarnate Fear as such, [the monsters] must of necessity combine fears that have different causes: economic, ideological, physical, sexual.” By expressing and externalising the phobic object, and personifying it in Gothic characters (being always essentially monstrous), the reader moves towards a mastering of it, a conscious “living the unconscious.”

The Otherness is always relative, and is fabricated particularly through the creation of tense dualities or oppositions such as living/dead, pagan/Christian, madness/science, and the Gothic often portray these dualities through doubling, either of figures, places or events. In Oscar Wilde’s 1891 high-Gothic classic, Dorian Gray’s moral decline is thus visible only in his painted double; in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde’, the schizophrenic Gothic character creates a psychological doubling to play out his own madness. Both examples, as well as countless other, enable a mirroring of oneself, of one’s own hidden Other/monster. But as scholar Shai Biderman argues, the “external alienation of the ‘other’ is but a standing for the real internal act of alienation;” the repressed “other within the self.” Spatially, the Gothic operates through internalisation/externalisation of fear, and does so often through spatial dualities, particularly, as we shall see, through home/away, domestic/foreign.

Looking through history, it is clear that the Gothic has always been concerned with domestic spaces; Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ of 1764, considered by many to be the first piece of gothic literature, is before anything else, a gothicisation of one of the most English of homes; the aristocrat’s castle. The story of Manfred, the lord of the castle, unfolds through a series of rather macabre accidents to become a full-blown allegory of the anxiety of the aristocracy’s decline. The house acts quite literally as the disrupter of (class-bound) peace, as an enormous falling helmet crushes Manfred’s son to death on the night before his wedding, imperilling the line of heritage and the future of the family.

Similarly, In Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ (1938), the unnamed female protagonist moves to Manderlay, the most exemplary Gothic country house, and is psychologically haunted by the uncanny memory of her husband’s former wife, Rebecca. Utilising the domestic Gothic space, Du Maurier not only portrays the repressed sexual Other in the sensually constrained female narrator, but delivers, through subtle, yet accurate observations of the neurosis of the English ruling classes, a critique of late-Victorian society with its conservatism and obnoxious conventions. Similarly, Wilde utilises the Gothic to portray the urban space (the equally dark antithesis to the country house) as a grim and morally corrupt place, infecting the innocent Edwardian Dorian Gray as he travels to the opium dens of London’s East End, itself a spatial metaphor for the Eastern Other.

Looking at the Gothic Other as a return-of-the-repressed, the study of the Gothic naturally places itself in the field of psychoanalysis. It is no coincidence that Freud, occupied with the problems of human duality, experienced an enormous success at the peak of neo-Gothicism. Particularly his writing on the Uncanny, or der Unheimliche of 1919, explores Gothic terminology and the spatial mapping of fear.

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