The Gothic

September 9, 2010

 

As a modern critical term, ‘Gothic’ has meant the literature of horror and fantasy that developed in the late eighteen century. Yet the term is also widely employed in relation to modern and contemporary literature in the English language and otherwise, cinema, art, and cultural criticism.

 

Gothic’s representations of extreme circumstances of terror, oppression and persecution, darkness and obscurity of setting, and innocence betrayed are considered with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Ostranto(1764) and to reach a crescendo in Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho(1794) and Matthew G.”Monk”Lewis’s The Monk (1796).As the scholarly industry around the gothic has proliferated, so Gothicism has multiplied so that we might now consider a vast array of historical, generic and geographical versions of the Gothic.The genre of Gothic horror film has existed almost as long as the cinema itself, and it has always fascinated people. As the definition above suggests, the word can be loosely used to define any horror story with suitable settings, but such themes as disturbing dreams, desperate, undying love and melancholic romanticisation of death are also usually important in Gothic cinema.

 

It’s true that Gothicism has expanded into film and media and its distinctive moody style and theme which were quickly captured by the eyes of a visionary artist/film director known as Timothy Walter, Burton (a.k.a Tim Burton).One of the most characteristic elements of Tim Burton films is their visual style. The strange worlds in his movies are designed with a recognizable style that is heavily indebted to German Expressionist films of the twenties. Distorted perspectives, sharp contrasts between light and dark and stylized lighting, typical ingredients not only of German Expressionist cinema but also of Universal's 1930s horror films, are all used to some degree in each of his films. Burton's love for all things dark, shadowy and bizarre has contributed to this visual style in determining the look of his films.

 

Burton's very first production Vincent is the clearest and most extreme example of this style. Shot in black-and-white using stop-motion animation, it charts the imagination of a kid obsessed by horror movies. Perspective is skewered, angles are jagged and many shots are direct homage to Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari.The film is narrated by Vincent price himself reading along a series of poem which follows the visual language of the film. The animation is about 6 minutes long and was officially released as a bonus feature material on the DVD for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” also directed by Tim Burton. I've added the poem to this essay so that I’m able to denote the meanings behind them and the visual language of the animated film “Vincent”.

 

“Vincent Malloy is seven years old

He’s always polite and does what he’s told

 For a boy his age, he’s considerate and nice

 But he wants to be just like Vincent Price”

 “He doesn’t mind living with his sister, dog and cats

 Though he’d rather share a home with spiders and bats

 There he could reflect on the horrors he’s invented

And wander dark hallways, alone and tormented”

 

The split world is one of Burton's regular themes, worked out thematically as well as visually in nearly every one of his films. Many of Burton's main characters have split personalities, with one side inhabiting the normal world and the other half on the weird side, Burton films are usually split into a "normal" world, which somehow never comes across as being either regular or attractive, and a "weird" world, in which his characters are invariably more at home. This "weird" world is never understood by the "normal" side, and the "weird" characters often long for acceptance by the other side, but are always rejected and misperceived in the end.

 

Here, the protagonist young boy Vincent, who is not at ease in the "normal" world of his parents. so he kind of  disappears into a fantasy world of old films, For most Burton characters, it is this misconception by the people around them and their ideas of what being "normal" means that brands them outsiders.

 

“Vincent is nice when his aunt comes to see him

But imagines dipping her in wax for his wax museum

 He likes to experiment on his dog Abercrombie

 In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie

So he and his horrible zombie dog

Could go searching for victims in the London fog.

 His thoughts, though, aren’t only of ghoulish crimes

 He likes to paint and read to pass some of the times

While other kids read books like Go, Jane, Go!

Vincent’s favourite author is Edgar Allen Poe”

 

It is clear that Vincent doesn’t belong in the "normal" world represented within the film: Burton's heroes create their own reality in which different rules apply, in which the main character consciously cuts himself off from the world of his parents, who would prefer to see him playing outside or going to baseball games like "normal" children. Instead, he creates his own fantasy world of horror film images where their rules do not apply. This isolation creates delusional thoughts about the people surrounding him and makes him believe we could achieve more, merely like the mad scientist or more precisely Dr. Frankenstein. Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the mad scientist has been one of the most popular of the gothic’s bag of tricks, a figure whose descendants include Dr.Jekyll, Dr.Moreau, and now countless horror and science fiction villains. Twentieth-century readings and revisions of Shelley’s work often turn the story into a moral cautionary tale that teaches the evil consequences of using technology and science to dominate nature. The gothic draws on the modern assumption that it is dangerous to bury things which always returns as ‘Pet Semetary’ shows by bringing the unspoken to light; it acts as a potential corrective.

 

“One night, while reading a gruesome tale

He read a passage that made him turn pale

 Such horrible news he could not survive

 For his beautiful wife had been buried alive!

 He dug out her grave to make sure she was dead

Unaware that her grave was his mother’s flower bed

 His mother sent Vincent off to his room

 He knew he’d been banished to the tower of doom

 Where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life

Alone with the portrait of his beautiful wife

 While alone and insane encased in his tomb

 Vincent’s mother burst suddenly into the room

She said: “If you want to, you can go out and play

It’s sunny outside and a beautiful day”

 Vincent tried to talk, but he just couldn’t speak

The years of isolation had made him quite weak

So he took out some paper and scrawled with a pen:

“I am possessed by this house, and can never leave it again”

His mother said: “You’re not possessed, and you’re not almost dead

These games that you play are all in your head

 You’re not Vincent Price, you’re Vincent Malloy

You’re not tormented or insane, you’re just a young boy

You’re seven years old and you are my son

I want you to get outside and have some real fun.

 ”Her anger now spent, she walked out through the hall

And while Vincent backed slowly against the wall

The room started to swell, to shiver and creak

His horrid insanity had reached its peak”

 

If you look at Freud’s theories of repression and the uncanny, it’s been fruitful for reading the gothic, there is some circularity here between the subject and the object-a kind of gothic doubling between the object under analysis and the scientific method. “Freudian theory can itself be seen as a Gothic myth. It presents the individual as much as the gothic does, as essentially imprisoned by the tyranny of an omnipotent but unseen past”.

 

William Patrick Day suggests that the gothic and analysis have a common source: “the two are cousins, responses to the problems of selfhood and identity, sexuality and pleasure, fear and anxiety, as they manifest themselves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”Both reveal the dark truth that the autonomous subject is not a unified whole but fragmented and dismembered, internally ruptured so that it is alienated not only from nature and others but from itself. However the goals of a Freudian analyst, like that of Victor Frankenstein, are to re-member the dismembered parts of our fragmented selves and cure us by making us whole. This makes the analyst similar to the gothic detective Sherlock Holmes, who is an outsider, an analytical observer, whose ability to solve crime depends upon his identification with the criminal. The detective is good and the criminal is bad; the criminal hides and the detective seeks, but the detective’s underlying similarity of the two minds-an almost symbiotic understanding between them enables the detective to intuit the criminal’s moves. Like Victor and his creation, good and evil, innocence and guilt, pursuer and pursued are thus complex doubles of each other, locked together in a complex identity.

 

“He saw Abercrombie, his zombie slave

And heard his wife call from beyond the grave

She spoke from her coffin and made ghoulish demands

While, through cracking walls, reached skeleton hands

Every horror in his life that had crept through his dreams

 Swept his mad laughter to terrified screams!

To escape the madness, he reached for the door

But fell limp and lifeless down on the floor

 His voice was soft and very slow

As he quoted The Raven from Edgar Allen Poe:

 “and my soul from out that shadow

that lies floating on the floor

shall be lifted?

Nevermore…”

 

Horror is epistemological. Ever since the Enlightenment, the definition of horror has been intimately bound up with the representation of thinking subject. It is often dismissed as an escapist form, isolated from the world in its ruined castle or laboratory and so ridiculously out of touch with life. An unreal genre, it has always been aware of and nervous about its own dubious status. While often revealing in its own artificiality, one of its central themes is the instability of the difference between fiction and reality.

Thus the gothic reveals to us the dangerous side of our own claims for power, and will not simply see ourselves as heroic liberators as it reminds us of the affinity between the detective and the criminal, the healer and the mad doctor, the cure and the disease. Which gives us a way of ironically distancing ourselves from our own endeavours, of scrutinizing our own scrutinization-The mad scientist is our dark double who reveals our current deep suspicion that all motives, including our own and specially any that lay claim to aesthetic detachment, disinterest, or scientific objectivity, and dark and sinister, weighted with power. We know too well that the dream of using art or even theory to deconstruct the world and remake it in a better form too often turns into a Frankensteinian nightmare.

 

[Works cited]

 

  • (Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”. On creativity and the Unconscious.New York:harper and Row.)

  • (Alan Lloyd-Smith, 2004.American Gothic Fiction. United States of America, 15 East 26 Street, New York, NY 10010,the Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd)

  • (Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of fear and Desire: A study of Gothic Fantasy.Chicago:Chicago UP,1985.)

  • (Robert K.Martin & Eric Savoy, 1998.American Gothic: New Interventions in a national Narrative. United States of America, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City)

  • (Martin Myrone, 2006.The gothic reader: a critical anthology. London SW1P 4RG, Tate Trustees by Tate Publishing, a division of Tate Enterprises Ltd)

 

[References]

 

  • (See link: http://www.student.oulu.fi/~sairwas/frameX/horror/)

  • (See link: http://fotoone.dot5hosting.com/documents/Burton_web.pdf)

  • Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqsczhhR53I&feature=related

  • Available at http://www.timburtoncollective.com/vincent.html 

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