Why does the Gothic genre continue to attract and fascinate us? Why do the worlds of the uncanny, the monstrous, the grotesque continue to draw people in – in film, literature, dance, and music? The Gothic genre has grown and expanded over the last century and a half and what are left with now is a multiplicity of Gothic outgrowths and permutations – queer Gothic, feminist and post-feminist Gothic, sci-fi Gothic, and so on. There is no one unifying Gothic narrative anymore, although themes and tropes overlap in different versions of this genre. However, common elements still exist that unite different forms of Gothic stories.
First, a typical unifying theme in Gothic stories is the uncanny – the supernatural, mysterious (which also could be monstrous and frightening) nature of something that at first seems ordinary and commonplace. A house – a structure that is familiar and ordinary – may hold a terrible, violent haunting or be a home to a ghost, sad and haunted itself, but not necessarily threatening. Another common theme is exploration of the sublime – something extraordinary, on the edge between natural and supernatural almost, something that inspires awe. The awe could be mixed with terror and horror, if one marvels, even envies, the powers of a supernatural creature, such as a vampire. However, the awe might also be free from terror, if one is glorifying some aspect of a Gothic personage without fearing them.
Why do the sublime and the uncanny attract people’s gaze, even when mixed with horror or fear? We can’t speak for everyone, of course, but here we will share a few insights on this subject.
One possibility is that the Gothic themes of the sublime provide a connection to the extraordinary, mysterious, and magical. Existential psychology theories suggest that humans crave a sense of awe, a connection to something more powerful or greater than oneself – a sense of such a connection can be exciting and thrilling. The uncanny creates the potential of the imagination to imbue anything – ordinary experiences, places, and items – with a potential for magic and mystery. Is that really just an antique comb? Or is it a key to a tomb of someone very important, filled with treasures and ancient mysteries? Is this window just another place in the house, or is it a spot where the filmy fabric between different worlds blends, allowing for the possibility of communing with spirits of those who have passed? The Gothic promises excitement in a world where anything can be more than it seems; anything could be special or magical; and the mysteries seem endless.
Yet when the supernatural (e.g., spectre, werewolf, etc.) can use its power for violence, it is also terrifying, and mirrors experiences of fear and existential helplessness people feel when struggling with a foe that feels so much bigger and so much more powerful, whether that is a serious illness, past traumatic events, or sudden loss. The struggle against grotesque and powerful monsters is a simplistic representation of difficult struggles people encounter in life. The analogy of a monster is easily readable and relatable. In a way, the simplistic analogy of the monster, the deformed, the evil provides a black-and-white framework for the world, making it easy to identify who is friend and who is foe. The reality is often gray and complicated, and there are few things that people crave more than to try to simplify it – to figure out concrete answers to what is good, what is ethical, what is right, and what is wrong. The split between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters in some Gothic stories, especially the 19th and 20th century Gothic fiction, offers a psychological experience of imagining a world where what is clearly not good can be identified – often through vision, such as by regarding the deformity of the living human form in the undead zombie. In the latter half of 20th century and 21st century Gothic, this black-and-white demarcation often begins to blur, portraying reality more as it is – complex, messy, with a multitude of perspective of goodness, and a lack of absolute truth, rather than the way people often wish it to be. It then begins to serve a different purpose – of contemplating reality as it is rather than a comforting oversimplification of the “good vs. evil” narrative.
Gothic works also shine a light on what is typically forbidden. Perhaps some of the personages that are read as monstrous in Gothic narratives are actually our own attributes that people fear to recognize. Is it a coincidence that this genre, particularly in 19th century England, evolved at a time of pervasive culture of repression of animalistic/sexual and almost an obsession with decorum and rigid propriety? In that historical context, Gothic stories likely served as an outlet for urges and fantasies that were forbidden and deemed to mark degeneration of society. On the one hand, the villains and monsters in Gothic stories often transgress very severely on the notions of civilization and decorum. For example, they are often violent; their sexual impulses may be ambiguous or somehow threatening to heteronormative standards. Yet by deeming such creatures as ‘Other,’ by placing them outside of civilized society, the Gothic genre allows space for a certain psychological curiosity of watching their stories and lives unfold. It is somewhat like putting the basic human impulses into a zoo and watching them, reassured that they cannot escape from their cage. In other words, Gothic stories are a way for urges and feelings that may be forbidden to leak out and be expressed; a revolt against the attempt to sanitize human nature.
In several European countries, psychoanalysis was developing around the same time (late 19th and early 20th centuries). Developed by Freud, among many others, psychoanalysis insisted that people were driven by strong forces that are aggressive and sexual in nature, and the social contract of denying and trying to expunge such impulses are partially what led to neuroses (essentially, psychological disturbances). The initial societal reactions to psychoanalysis and its proposal was very negative, as it ran contrary to the project of civilization producing, eventually, a ‘perfectly civilized’ citizen. Yet, in Gothic fictions, readers could consider this idea, explore it, be curious about, without admitting the frightening hypotheses of psychoanalysts.
What about the postmodern setting of 21st century where we now find ourselves? Do these appeals still move people? Certainly, some things that very forbidden and taboo at the turn of the 19th century are now accepted. Yet new taboos have developed. Some old taboos have changed, but little. Despite greater freedom of choice and values, people continue to face strict rules that box in their humanity. A seemingly simple one – a very common myth that anger is ‘bad’ and can only be used destructively – is a great example. Anger is quite a natural emotion and understanding of it can be harnessed to protect one’s self, one’s goals, and one’s loved ones. When one tries to simply erase anger from their life, however. When anger is denied or painted as evil across the board, it is the person who suffers – usually with difficulty being assertive, protecting their needs, or standing up for their goals and boundaries. In another example of cultural psychological constraints that 21st century folks continue to experience – the tyranny of the ‘beautiful,’ when beauty is typically equated with very narrow and unrealistic standards about body weight and shape, and often tied to racist presumptions of lighter skin being ‘more beautiful.’ Being anything other than a very slender, tall skinny shape, especially for women, is often cast as lacking in beauty. The harshness of the tyranny of such a narrow, prescriptive, and critical approach to beauty and bodies is felt widely, so much so that it is typical for people to feel a persistent and profound dissatisfaction with their body, to believe it to be ‘ugly’ or ‘deformed’ when it does not meet an unrealistic ideal. Such an ideal demands unceasing, impossible perfection, and any deviation from the ideal is punished with harshness and criticism. When such messages are absorbed by people over years and years, it is no wonder that there is a very good chance that someone you see as very beautiful may actually consider themselves unattractive, ugly, not good enough.
Coming back to this idea of sublime. The sublime can be a very versatile concept. The sublime is sometimes contained in a moment of unusual hope. Think of all the creatures that inhabit the Gothic universe. Many of them are presented as monstrous, evil, and threatening to civilization and to humanity. Yet, many of the creatures deemed monstrous are motivated by very human desires for love, acceptance, and belonging. A sublime moment in a Gothic story can sometimes be a very human moment – when perhaps a creature deemed ugly or grotesque by most is shown a moment of care or empathy. An unusual moment in a life of a shunned creature. A moment like that can feel so foreign it almost feels otherworldly. As a parallel, consider a moment of a person who has thought they are ugly their whole life, looking into the eyes of another who finds them uniquely beautiful – how much weight does a moment like that hold, when suddenly someone shows that the harsh beauty ideals can fall away, that they do not need to apply?
The Gothic stories and narratives are still relevant. They serve more than one purpose. They show us different sides of ourselves, sides that may actually be simply human, but have been demonized or othered. They allow the mind to explore the magical, the sublime, and uncanny, and to experience excitement at its mysteries. When we complexity of the world is confusing, they can be a simpler, more digestible reflection of our own struggles – within ourselves, with our own nature, with others, with the world.
“Dracula’s Garden” is an interdisciplinary art series focused specifically on creating a series of contemporary dance poems. This series draws inspiration from the Gothic realm and from all of its appeals – which, of course, are include many more angles than I can cover in a short article such as this. Through combination of contemporary dance, poetry, photography, and exploration of original and postmodern Gothic texts, artists at Voirelia examine the multifaceted richness for understanding human nature that the Gothic universe provides. One of the dance works, currently in development, explores grief and mourning as a human experience that can often be misunderstood and cast as a destructive, ‘bad’ thing. This dance work explores the fact of grief as a consequence of social bonds and attachments and as a painful, but typical reaction to loss – loss of self, of dreams, of culture, of loved ones.
More than anything else, for myself, as the artistic director of this series, the Gothic universe unveils the complexity of human nature, the very futility of efforts of oversimplify and put people and their experiences into black-and-white, narrow boxes of labels. The Gothic gives voice and vision to the indefinable, the ambiguous, the inexpressible – the wondrous depth of potentiality inside each human being. We invite you to explore it with us – through reflection, thought dance, through photography, and through conversation.
-Alina Sotskova, Artistic Director of Voirelia & Psychologist
Director, Choreographer, and Dancer in Dracula’s Garden series.
You can find more information about Dracula’s Garden series in this section of the website. Our Facebook page has the latest updates with videos of work in progress, behind-the-scenes pictures, and more!
Sources this article draws on:
The Gothic: A Reader (2018). Editor: Simon Bacon. Authors: various. Peter Lang Ltd, International Academic Publishers.
Photo by Ian Sparks.