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The Gothic

December 17, 2011

What is the Gothic? In literary studies, the term is generally applied primarily to a body of writing produced in England between about 1750 and about 1820. Often set in ancient, partially ruined castles or mansions haunted by the real or apparent threat of a supernatural presence, its cast of characters typically includes a mysterious and threatening older man, a vulnerable heroine, and a character who is poised ambiguously between good and evil.

…Its principal characteristics are a concern with the fragmented and often doubled nature of the self… and a concentration on the gloomy, the mysterious, and the ruined.” (xi)  

Hopkins goes on to quote  “Gothic signifies a writing of excess. It appears in the awful obscurity that haunted eighteenth century rationality and morality. It shadows the despairing ecstasies of Romantic idealism and individualism and the uncanny dualities of Victorian realism and decadence. Gothic atmospheres – gloomy and mysterious – have repeatedly signalled the disturbing return of pasts upon presents and evoked emotions of terror and laughter.” (xi)

The Gothic in Film

“above all, the classic genre marker of the Gothic in film is doubleness, for it is the dualities typically created by the Gothic that invest it with its uncanny ability to hold its darkly shadowed mirror up to its own age.” (xi)

“In the first place, Gothic tends to create polarities: extreme good is opposed to extreme evil, extreme innocence to extreme power, and very often extreme youth to extreme age. An aesthetic of violent contrasts in all possible fields seems to prevail in both Gothic books and Gothic films…. And yet, at the same time, there is an uncanny sense that the polarizations so beloved of the Gothic are not in fact as absolute as they seem – that things which appear to be opposite can actually be frighteningly, uncannily similar. …I claim that the blurring of previously secure polarities is as much a genre marker of Gothic as the introduction of radical polarization. This is not tricksiness or bad faith, but an attempt to allow for the complex, shifting nature of the Gothic and the fact that some of its most troubling effects arise precisely from such uncertainties about identity and the relationship of one thing to another.” (xii)

“One of the most notable results of this emphasis on doubling,” Hopkins continues, “is that much criticism of and commentary on the Gothic has preferred psychoanalytic approaches to historicizing or materialist ones, a trend fed by the fact that, as Linda Bayer-Berenbaum points out, the Gothic tends ‘to portray all states of mind that intensify normal thought or perception. Dream states, drug states, and states of intoxication have always been prevalent in the Gothic novel because repressed thoughts can surface in them.’ The idea of repression takes us straight to the terrain of classical Freudian psychoanalysis, and this approach has been often and fruitfully deployed in reference to Gothic texts. Thus, David J. Skal introduces his account of Dracula in Hollywood Gothic by observing, ‘Modern psychoanalytic theory on the subject, as classically argued by Ernest Jones in On the Nightmare, finds the genesis of vampire legend in the universal experience of the nightmare.’ Ernest Jones was Freud’s disciple, so it is no surprise to find him echoing his master’s assumption that the dream is the royal road to meanings locked in the unconscious.” (xii)  

However, Hopkins notes that “The link between the Gothic and psychoanalysis is by no means accepted as an universal truth. In The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film, Jack Morgan treats the horror generated by the Gothic as essentially physical and indeed biological in origin” (xii-xiii)

Ref: (bold, blue emphasis mine) Lisa Hopkins (2005) Screening the Gothic. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press

NOTE: In her book, Hopkins notes that “I am concerned here not with what the Gothic originally meant but with what it means in these adaptations. One of the central planks of my argument in this book is that many of the adaptations I discuss have introduced the motifs and discourse of psychoanalysis (usually, but not always, specifically Freudian psychoanalysis) to the stories they treat, even where – indeed particularly where – the original books on which they were based preferred to frame the events they represented in clearly materialist terms. This is perhaps, an inevitable consequence of filmmakers’ desire to ensure that the ensuing work can continue to speak to a contemporary audience, without being bound to the conditions of its own time.  It does, however, often have the additional effect of introducing Gothicizing elements where none had been before.” (xiii)

Hopkins continues, explaining that the films she discusses are those “which have been adapted from novels and which have had changes made to them in the process” (xiii) “The literary texts discussed,” she writes, “were either originally written as consciously Gothic or have been adapted in a Gothic mode. My central claim is that, paradoxically, those texts whose affiliations with the Gothic were originally the clearest become the least Gothic when they are filmed. …this is partly because locating the origins of events in the mind rather than within society ensures a sense of the narrative’s continuing relevance.  It is also partly because cinema’s focus on the face of the individual inevitably leads to an emphasis on the individual rather than the group, while its traditional language of visual symbolism causes things to be read in terms other than their own; this produces a modal affinity with both the Gothic and with the strategies of psychoanalytic interpretation, which is also manifested in the cinematic Gothicizing of a number of Shakespeare texts and in the paradoxical genre of family-oriented Gothic [such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mummy and, particularly, The Mummy Returns]” (xiii)


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