‘Contemporary Gothic’, by Catherine Spooner

Martin Fradley

Martin Fradley

From the Halloween theatricality of Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) and the lurid psychosexual malevolence of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897) to the backcombed gloom of 1980s British bands The Cure and Fields of the Nephilim and — more recently still — Angelina Jolie’s seemingly incongruous appropriation of a Goth makeover, the amorphous and morbidly persistent fascinations of Gothic culture have unquestionable longevity.

For Catherine Spooner, the continued popularity of this darkly romantic mode goes beyond the superficial allure of “apocalyptic gloom or cheap thrills”. Instead, she argues, the cultural pervasiveness of the Gothic underscores its enduring resonance with contemporary fears, desires, and anxieties. “Like a malevolent virus,” the author suggests, “Gothic narratives have escaped the confines of literature and spread across disciplinary boundaries to infect all kinds of media, from fashion and advertising to the way contemporary events are constructed in mass culture”.

In a volume that continually returns to the commodified status of Gothic themes and iconography, it is fitting that Contemporary Gothic begins with a shopping trip. Stumbling across a calendar — entitled, simply, “Gothic” — filled with images of spectres and graveyards underwritten by a funereal imagination, the author finds within this seemingly low-rent kitsch an exemplar of her central thesis.

Containing reproductions of a diverse and unconnected range of fine art images (by, among others, Goya, Munch, Henry Singleton, and Evelyn De Morgan), the calendar represents the continuum between past and present while simultaneously highlighting the perplexing disconnection of these images from their original social and historical context. A dislocated and mass-marketed emblem of contemporary time(s), this apparently banal product serves as a metonym for the mainstream commercialisation of artefacts that strive to exist at a marginal or culturally subterranean level.

Although the Gothic has always held popular appeal, in the current economic climate, it is a particularly lucrative business. Above all, Spooner notes, “Gothic sells”. Unlike many would-be subcultural phenomena, however, the Gothic persists despite its co-optation by late capitalist consumer culture, its seductively vampiric allure systematically refusing to be slain despite exposure to the overlit world of globalised commerce.

Contemporary Gothic begins in earnest with an interrogation of mock Gothic. Spooner argues that the Gothic mode has long been preoccupied with the tenuous distinction between authenticity and depth on the one hand, and a fascination with surface and performance on the other.

Contemporary Gothic illustrates this by recourse to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s celebrated ‘Blair Witch Project’ (1999), Mark Z. Danielowski’s labyrinthine novel ‘House of Leaves’ (2000), and the genuinely uncanny work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson. The chapter ends with a prolonged discussion of Michael Almereyda’s vampire film, ‘Nadja’ (1994).

Noting that the movie is a highly self-conscious and reflexive metacommentary on the conventions of the vampire narrative, Spooner’s analysis here echoes the work of Stacey Abbott in her contemporaneous ‘Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World’ (2007). With vampirism so omnipresent in contemporary culture — both as fictional icon and increasingly as youthful lifestyle choice — there is, as with Gothic culture as a whole, a danger of the vampire narrative “falling prey to its own central metaphor and being sucked dry of invigorating life, doomed to replicate itself as empty cliché”.

Yet in the short period since the publication of ‘Contemporary Gothic’, the enormous popularity of Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ saga (books, 2006–8; films, 2008–) and the HBO television series ‘True Blood’ (2008–, based on Charlaine Harris’s ongoing ‘Southern Vampire Mysteries’ series featuring Sookie Stackhouse, 2001–), coupled with serious critical acclaim for the Swedish vampire film ‘Let the Right One In’ (2008, based on a 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist), all suggest that these monstrously malleable passions refuse to be so easily lain to rest.

Spooner’s ambivalent survey of the undead terrain of contemporary vampire narratives typifies the broad tone of ‘Contemporary Gothic’, torn as it is between celebrating the enduring potency of the Gothic mode and decrying its commercial reification and cultural exhaustion. This dialectic continues in a chapter focused on corporeality and the grotesque body. “’Contemporary Gothic’ is more obsessed with bodies than in any of its previous phases,” she argues.

Spooner usefully contextualises this accelerated material fascination with the body as a return of the repressed, “an attempt to reinstate the physicality of the body in an increasingly decorporealised information society”. Beginning with Gunther von Hagens’s overhyped ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition, the author continues to survey the fusion of freakishness and carnivalesque humour wherein she finds evidence of “the democratisation of monstrosity”. Here, ‘Contemporary Gothic’ casts its critical eye across Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks’ (1932), Katherine Dunn’s novel ‘Geek Love’ (1989), and Angela Carter’s novel ‘Nights at the Circus’ (1984).

In contrast to the broad body fascism of late capitalist Western culture, Spooner finds in these celebrated fictions an engagement with disability politics and a sharp critique of the presumptuousness of “ableism.” Moving on through AIDS metaphors in the work of authors Will Self and Patrick McGrath, Spooner concludes with an extended discussion of Rupert Wainwright’s would-be millennial nightmare film ‘Stigmata’ (1999) and the work of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. In Spooner’s view, these texts signify something of an uneasy revival of spirituality in contemporary Gothic culture.

Yet while the author makes a compelling case for “the restoration of the spirit to the suffering flesh” and “a new kind of Gothic revival, a spirituality for our secular times”, her examples are nevertheless limited in range. While fans of ‘Supernatural’ (2005–) may enthusiastically point to the neo-Christian mythology underpinning that series as a way of supporting Spooner’s thesis, one might just as readily point to the fascination with physical suffering in the recent cycle of torture-porn films. With their brutal depictions of a contemporary world entirely emptied of spiritual or moral substance, the ‘Hostel’ films (2005–7) or the phenomenally successful ‘Saw’ cycle (2004–) may well have led the author to very different conclusions.

‘Contemporary Gothic’s strongest card is its level-headedness vis-à-vis the mainstream commercial prevalence of the Gothic. As Spooner shrewdly notes, the Gothic has always been closely allied to the machinations of post-Enlightenment consumer culture.

In addition to the huge advances and multiple reprints of classic Gothic novels by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, the author also cites the revealing case of George du Maurier’s ‘Trilby’ (1894). The book was estimated by some to be the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and its success was linked to an impressive array of associated events and ancillary merchandise, “including Trilby shoes, sweets, soaps, sausages, concerts, parties and, of course, the celebrated Trilby hat”.

Spooner is also healthily sceptical where fetishistic appropriation of the Gothic by academic scholars is concerned: Gothic has apparently become popular among academics because it is invested with the thrill of the forbidden, which in this context is not entirely different from the thrill of the low-brow. Suddenly, Gothic is PC: championed by feminists and queer theorists for its level of attention to women and non-heteronormative sexualities; the reading material of the masses; the spaces in which colonial guilt could be explored and exorcised.

Indeed, the reinvigoration of interest in the genre since the late 1970s has witnessed the wholesale romanticisation of the Gothic “as a marginal genre, invested with subversive potential” (25). Spooner’s cautious tone here points to the critical (ab)use of popular culture as a conveniently darkened mirror through which to reflect the furtive political longings of middle-class scholars.

To this end, few cultural practices have attracted more sensationalised media scrutiny and academic fascination than spectacular postwar youth subcultures. In a chapter entitled (with an appropriately knowing wink) “Teen Demons,” Contemporary Gothic explores the links between youth culture and Gothic style. Due in no small part to the neo-Marxist underpinnings of subcultural theory, Goth has perennially been dismissed as the self-indulgent affectation of middle-class youth. This has mainly been true in the United Kingdom, where the Goth subculture has never been deemed severe or transgressive enough to foster the media ire that it has sometimes attracted in the United States. However, readers more interested in the tribal fashions and music-based affiliations loosely gathered under the label Goth are perhaps more usefully directed toward Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby’s sporadically intriguing collection, Goth: Undead Subculture (2007) or Paul Hodkinson’s Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture (2002).

Nevertheless, Spooner’s broad sweep in this section provides a lively overview of the Gothic appropriations of contemporary youth culture, from the reinvigorated Gothic imaginary of teen horror films (a lucrative subgenre that has sustained the American horror film both commercially and thematically throughout the 1990s and 2000s), via the knowingly postmodern Gothic stylings of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), and on to the latent moral panic surrounding the alleged links between Gothic youth culture, the music of self-described Antichrist superstar Marilyn Manson, and the 1999 Columbine massacre. Also of interest here is the pop paganism of Wiccan culture and beliefs and the concomitant trend for teenaged girls to self-identify as witches, a trend refracted in the popular youth-oriented soap operatics of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996–2003) and Charmed (1998–2006). Spooner offers a useful critique here, arguing persuasively that supposedly alternative belief systems like teen witchcraft are always already commodified lifestyles subject to the conservative cultural logic of self-help narratives and consumer-driven individualism.

My principal reservation about Contemporary Gothic is its broad approach to the diffuse and malleable nature of the contemporary Gothic mode. While Spooner offers a lively analysis of Gothicized postfeminist discourses and direct address of a darkly gendered sensibility in entertaining and intelligent films such as The Craft (1996) and Ginger Snaps (2000), it would take an unusually loose conception of the Gothic to incorporate Donnie Darko (2001) under this rubric. Elsewhere, the volume’s (relatively) brief engagement with Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems a little redundant when the author readily acknowledges that the show has already received “an unprecedented level of critical and academic attention” (114). Contemporary Gothic’s penultimate chapter, “Gothic Shopping,” underscores the strengths and weaknesses enforced by the relative brevity of the volume. Examining both the increasingly prevalent use of Gothic imagery in advertising and “the marketing of Gothic products that straddle the uneasy borderline between the subcultural and the mainstream” (135), Spooner attempts to make sense of the wholesale commodification of the Gothic in the global marketplace. Like the book as a whole, Contemporary Gothic here shifts somewhat uneasily between valorising the Gothic for its enduring cultural potency and elsewhere quietly despairing at its hyper reification in the collective consumer consciousness. For example, a discussion of Gothic imagery and the invocation of Satanism in a successful marketing campaign for Smirnoff vodka arguably tells us a lot more about the ingenuity and commercial logics of contemporary advertising than it does about the uncanny resonance of the Gothic today.

This, of course, is precisely Spooner’s point, though the author does perhaps overlook the dipsomaniacal irony in her own reflexive questioning: “Why should a genre with distinctly unpleasant connotations (claustrophobia, fear, decay and moral turpitude) be revived as a means of selling alcohol?” (136). Elsewhere, Spooner’s enthusiastic discussion of the Living Dead Dolls toy line seems content to simply validate the manufacturers’ careful niche marketing of their products with a wholly commodified aura of cult exclusivity. These toys, argues Spooner, “signal both underground commitment and the joys of…a new Gothic: Gothic as pure commodity, pure luxury, pure excess” (153). The new Gothic, it seems, floats merrily free amid the transnational ebb and flow of the global marketplace.

Yet Contemporary Gothic concludes on an appropriately ambivalent note. Alluding to the broad sense in which the Gothic mode is perceived to have exhausted itself, Spooner intimates that “where once Gothic provided a space in which the dark dreams of the Enlightenment could be realised, now it simply exposes the void at the heart of an advanced consumer culture” (155). The seemingly inescapable Gothic now functions as the perfectly protean postmodern commodity:

The Gothic can be progressive or conservative, nostalgic or modern, comic or tragic, political or apolitical, feminine or masculine, erudite or trashy, transcendentally spiritual or doggedly material, sinister or silly. It is difficult to say what contemporary Gothic “is,” or even what it is like, since it does all of these things so well…It is a perfect product, readily available and simply adapted to the needs and purposes of a wide variety of consumers.

Spooner makes her case well, and although it lapses into solipsistic cultural studies orthodoxy at this juncture, I have no real argument with her key point. Equally, while one struggles to argue against the argument that “individual consumer choices can indicate renegotiations of identity politics at a micro-level” (156), it is equally tempting to ponder whether the selfsame argument could just as easily be made about any mass-produced commodity. One might even argue that Contemporary Gothic is itself a wholly typical example of the mode in the early 21st century: strategically ambivalent, accessible to a wide audience, and beautifully illustrated throughout, the book is in many ways a perfect Gothic commodity. Yet in a lucid and powerful closing commentary on the post-9/11 moment—focusing here on the film Batman Begins (2005) and McGrath’s linked short-story collection Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now (2005)—Spooner underlines the continued relevance of the Gothic. Even in a hypercommodified global information society, it seems, the Gothic imaginary has not entirely unshackled itself from the genuine frisson of the uncanny; nor has it forsaken its ability to distinguish between Gothic lite apparitions such as Emily the Strange and the all-too-real nightmares of our times.

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