The Gothic

The covenant/jeremiad formula is a lost paradise script, and one of the most recurring in popular culture. Perhaps we hold onto the covenant idea because even though we may be in breach of it and suffering pangs of a chronically guilty conscience, sustaining it in our collective memory assures us that human history is in the care of a just dealmaker who will abide with our species to the end. A less sanguine lost paradise script is found in the Gothic.

Tom Beaudoin claims that GenX harbors many resentments for the damaged social goods they have been handed - a degraded environment, nuclear threat, AIDS, national debt, unaffordable tuition, stacked demographics, rampant materialism, McJobs, an unstable economy -and suggests that they testify to their resentment in their wardrobes. The semiotics of grunge, he suggests, is that of an uncared-for brood, declaring through style the awareness that they are "society's orphans and its cleanup crew." "Grunge underscores neediness; it highlights wants," it testifies to an inner poverty and poorness of heart. Like their ensembles, Xers have been forced to piece together their own meaning, poaching off what has been stingily offered them. The message of grunge, then, is that "when left alone, as we have been, we will wear the disarray in which we live."19 A second fashion statement is the Gothic look. The semiotics of Gothic style is that this is a grieving generation readying itself for a funeral. "It is all about separation ... from society and from God," Beaudoin learns from a Goth-clad cabdriver.20

As a contemporary sound, the Gothic first came to the airwaves through the melancholic music of groups like Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure, Nick Cave, and the Psychedelic Furs. Their lyrics were haunted by references to God and devils, heaven and hell, blood, death, judgment and ponderous lines like "the hole in the holy." In their music it was as if religious symbols were organs being removed from dying bodies by surgeons with limited knowledge of anatomy, who were nonetheless enthralled by the evocative, still throbbing life force they held in their hands. The au courant Gothic style of dress, embodied in a performer like Marilyn Manson - pale, emaciated, sad-looking youth with blackened hair, blackened lips, blackened eye sockets, milk-tinted contact lenses, black clothing and multiple piercings - is a semiotics of mourning. As a look, it emerged in London as a splinter of the punk club scene in the early 1980s, and has had unusual durability for a subaltern style. This may have something to do with the Gothic literary tradition that preceded it, providing a creed from which it has drawn and sustained itself. Gothic literature follows a formula with some variation on the following elements: gloomy settings, unsuspecting victims, unearthly antagonists (vampires, monsters, the living dead, madmen, Doppelgängers, enraged nature), and prolonged, sadistic acts of torment.

The Gothic literary form emerged in the late eighteenth century from a Romantic wing of the Enlightenment. It became a popular form of storytelling in the hands of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis who introduced the prototypes of handsome and enchanting but cruel hero-villains (drawn from the ranks of aristocracy and clergy) who had made their deals with the devil, along with innocent maidens or children in distress, and victims stranded in some decaying, oppressive old castle or monastery. As the genre matured in the hands of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who gave us Frankenstein's monster, Count Dracula, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it picked up additional elements: subterranean, shadowy spaces, live burials, heated lovers, graveyards, prisons, insane asylums, riots, fires, sacrilegious uses of blood and other assorted Catholic paraphernalia, overreaching scientists, vampires, and double personalities.21 Essentially, these are literary conjurings of the sublime, the dark side of the holy, strumming within us our anxieties that we are unworthy of any cosmic consolation.

Mary Shelley's monster, the ur-cyborg, is the sad creation of Dr Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who grew obsessed with uncovering the key to animating lifeless matter, and who, after two years of secreting away body parts from morgues and graveyards and tirelessly working in his laboratory, succeeded. An innocent giant at first, a noble savage, the creature only turned into a monster after being repeatedly scorned by those whose companionship he craved, including his creator's. In his sorrow he kills those who had hurt him, and to compound his creator's punishment, he systematically kills everyone dear to Dr Frankenstein before leading the doctor to his own death on a frigate frozen in the Arctic sea - after which the monster grieves inconsolably. Shelley used the elements of the genre to issue a warning against meddling with the deepest prerogatives of nature, against using technology to violate boundaries that are instead deserving of our awe and respect. She is the artist who did the most to transform the Gothic as a genre into an instrument for probing the human condition. She retrieved the ancient myth of Prometheus, then gave it new life by attaching it to Gothic terror. The moral of her story, according to Mark Edmundson, is that "when we usurp nature's role, especially through technology, what we create will turn on us, punishing us for our hubris." Even more ominous, Edmundson suggests, "The Frankenstein story, as we've come to understand it, is a postreligious rewriting of the fall of mankind, a tragedy in which we overreach and pay for it."22

To understand how hearty this formula is, and what a steady appetite we have for it, consider Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequels. Real dinosaurs, cloned from DNA that has been found in the stomach of a prehistoric mosquito entombed in amber, are brought to life and inhabit a remote tropical island under a strict regime of reinforced barriers and electronic surveillance, but otherwise doing what comes "naturally."

Investors are eager to open the island as a theme park of prehistoric nature, but before this happens, things go terribly wrong. Two ferocious raptors escape their containers and, as Edmundson describes it, "Jurassic Park turns into something of a slasher movie, with an innocent young woman and two children, adept screamers all, careening down corridors [and] through dark tunnels."23 The fury of Dr Frankenstein's scorned creature reawakens to terrorize his heirs.

Or consider how versatile the formula is in a genre that encompasses such memorable films as The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Alien (1979), Altered States (1980), The Fly (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Home Alone (1990), Flatliners (1990), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Interview with a Vampire (1994), and Seven (1995)24 - with their great assortment of monsters. Some come to us from other worlds (demons, aliens, giant sharks), some are manufactured by us (Frankenstein's monster, Jurassic dinosaurs, the fly), and some emerge from our darker selves (jealous libidos, utopian demands, the longing for immortality, the will-to-power). The monsters of the Gothic genre are rich symbols that lend themselves to a Tillichian interpretation, disclosing levels of reality and dimensions of our own being that otherwise go unnoticed. They are symbols for understanding what has gone wrong - around us and within us - and why it is that this world is not the paradise we believe it should be.

One of the more interesting masters of the genre is filmmaker Tim Burton, who has excelled in the niche of the humorist-Gothic, with films like Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Nightmare before Christmas (1993), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). In Edward Scissorhands he rehabilitates the Frankenstein story with a laboratory-created Edward whose creator dies before he can attach flesh and bone hands to the boy-creature. Edward must make do with modified garden shears at the ends of his arms instead, and occupies himself grooming exquisite topiaries on the grounds of the gloomy castle on the hill. When he is discovered by an aggressive Avon lady ringing doorbells, he descends to the suburbs in full Gothic garb - black suit and ghostly white face, an innocent whose obvious talents as a hairdresser and gardener are soon exploited, and becomes a local celebrity. But, of course, innocence cannot thrive in the suburbs, and soon the angry mob forms and hounds him back to the lonely confines of his castle. While the story eclipses the Promethean warning of the Frankenstein tale with a simple reiteration of the themes of alienated youth and the intolerance for otherness that is characteristic of the American suburb, Burton does add the poignant lesson that rare talents, like Edward's disciplined, razor-sharp claws, have an ambiguous power. Everything they touch is changed, rendered beautiful or bleeding, in a manner their bearer cannot finally control.

In his fascinating study of the Gothic, Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, Mark Edmundson singles out four features of the Gothic as it has evolved that, it can be argued, make it a literary vehicle conducive to popular culture's reflection on sin and evil. First, its villain always "embodies some measure of the good." Like the devil himself, the Gothic antagonist is a fallen angel who has some admirable qualities, and thus we can concede the attraction of the victims to their tormenters, and perhaps better appreciate our own susceptibility to evil. Second, the genre locates its crucial, most terrifying actions in our oldest, most familiar and life-determining institutions: old houses, churches, universities, laboratories, hospitals, asylums, and prisons. In doing so, it triggers our suspicions that the most imposing institutions in which we spend our lives cannot protect us, and may even collude in the ill-will that is out to get us. The Gothic, he writes, "shows the dark side, the world of cruelty, lust, perversion, and crime that, many of us at least half believe, is hidden beneath established conventions." Third, the victims are never absolutely innocent. Monsters haunt those who are guilty of some transgression, or those who are dearest to them, for which punishment has not yet been meted out. The monster, as it were, is a "well-deserved curse" finally collecting on a debt. "In the Gothic world view," Edmundson writes, "every crime is punished: you can run, but not hide." Even in teenage slasher films, the fiends enforce a morality; "they kill the young kids who copulate, or want to." And, fourth, the villain embodies qualities that reflect deeply-felt desires or fears of the audience.25 Vampires are immortal, Frankenstein's monster is stung by the rejection of human companionship, Mr Hyde has a rakish night life. Who hasn't harbored these secret pains and longings?

This last feature is particularly worth examining given the way we have come to take for granted that we are haunted from within by a variety of subconscious drives that society has required us to repress. The early Gothic novelists were writing before Freud had invented a clinical language for our internal monsters. Thus, Shelley and the rest may have been capturing proto-Freudian psychodynamics. But we had to await Freud before any credible scientist would tell us flat out that these unearthly monsters live inside of us. Freud, Edmundson argues, internalized the Gothic. He made us aware that the human psyche is itself a several storied haunted house. "Freud's remarkable achievement is to have taken the props and passions of terror Gothic - the hero-villain, heroine, terrible place, haunting - and to have relocated them inside the self." Indeed, we are haunted by our pasts, by traumas we absorbed and traumas we inflicted, and because of this the past does have the power to dominate the present, just as Gothic storytellers have claimed. Only we are haunted not by devilishly clever counts and mad scientists who chase us around dark mansions, but by "obsession, neurosis, compulsion, repetition, the uncanny, repression, death drive, and psychosis." The real hero-villain, it turns out, is our sadistic super-ego.26

Edmundson goes on to argue that the Gothic plot, in its several variations, has become one of the premier templates we use to make sense of our anxieties and fears. It has spilled out of its fictional domain and become a narrative form for divining the meaning of real events, a favorite of journalists and talking heads. Think of the effect of simple volume. We are hammered with 15-minute segments on TV news magazines of environmental catastrophes, political uprisings, wars and natural disasters. Putting this into perspective, Richard Stivers points out that "In traditional societies one had only to confront local tragedies, not those of the entire world simultaneously. Emotionally, then, one experiences the world of television as a place of ever-escalating disasters."27 Journalists have to reach for a few proven formulas just to keep up with the flow of calamities, and the Gothic is a favorite. Thus, Michael Jackson, priest molesters, the Unabomber, and O.J. Simpson are all cast as Doppelgängers; they are brilliant, suave hero-villains.28 Or think of the Gothic elements that have been ascribed to Osama Bin Laden, the emaciated but austerely handsome bedouin who, driven by stern principles, destroys buildings associated with our most consequential institutions - buildings filled with innocent women and children that melt in fiery conflagrations. He relentlessly pursues us, haunting us at every turn. Whenever rumors of his death begin to circulate, he makes ghostly appearances on mysterious tapes to rally the forces of evil and remind us of his invincibility, forcing us to ponder what past sins we have done to deserve this. When confronted with evil, we reach almost immediately for familiar Gothic scripts. And now we find ourselves in a culture where the Gothic idiom, Edmundson claims, has begun to shape and regulate our perception of reality, thrusting us into a world in which crazy militiamen, deranged priests, panoptic power, bizarre molesters, Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface constitute reality. They are - to more and more of us - what's out there ... [W]e have created a world of brightly toned, lethal cartoons.29

Like the covenant/jeremiad script, this one forces us to face our past transgressions, and invites us to own up to them. But we are prompted to do so in a different cosmos. The cosmos of the covenant is one in which the moral order is overseen by a benevolent power who has ultimate authority and good will toward the human race. The cosmos of the Gothic is one in which we are buffeted by powers whose intentions are unknown, and, judging from the body count of innocents, probably capricious. While the Gothic originated as a form of religious narrative, an offshoot of the Faust legend, it has moved far from its roots. Evil no longer occurs in a providential order that we can trust will ultimately contain it and even bring good out of it. More and more it occurs in a nihilistic universe where anything can happen. In Edmundson's analysis, the new Gothic has adopted a Foucaultian view of power as a force without a center to oppose (again, think of the hydra-like descriptions of global terrorism), but with a "supernatural vitality and resourcefulness that makes it virtually impossible to defeat." Consequently, it presses us to adopt an outlook that is fatalistic and inclined toward an immobilizing despair.30 We have entered an era of history in which we are being persuaded that there are intractable forces of hatred arrayed against us.

If pressed to offer one reason for the recent "proliferation of Gothic," Edmundson concludes, that reason would in a certain sense be religious. Though most of us Americans claim to believe in God, few of us seem able to believe in God's presence. That is, we do not perceive some powerful force for good shaping the events of day-to-day life in accord with a perceptibly benevolent master plan. Most of us don't have a story that we can believe about the way God's designs are unfolding among us.31

In place of religious hope, he goes on, we have become fascinated with the Gothic. Why?

There is something to gain in accepting the harsh belief that the world is infested with evil, that all power is corrupt, all humanity debased, and that there is nothing we can do about it. With the turn to contemporary Gothic - no-fault, dead-end, politically impotent though it may be - we recover a horizon of ultimate meaning. We recover something of what is lost with the withdrawal of God from the day-to-day world. With the Gothic, we can tell ourselves that we live in the worst and most barbaric of times, that all is broken never to be mended, that things are bad and fated to be, that significant hope is a sorry joke, the prerogative of suckers. The Gothic, dark as it is, offers epistemological certainty; it allows us to believe that we've found the truth.32

So, the Gothic is a two-edged sword. It is a literary device designed for unearthing our hidden fears, anxieties and understandings of why the world is such a twisted place and possibly alerting us to our complicity in it. In performing this function, it lends itself to an honest, reflective diagnosis of sin and evil. But the spread of the Gothic template into journalism and social commentary is threatening to so overwhelm us with an impression of the forces of malice that afflict us that we risk a loss of hope, as well as nerve, and are thus tempted to abdicate our moral responsibility to reform ourselves and our institutions. Then we gripe and fume, but we do not join reform movements. Even a hard-hitting investigative news program like PBS's Frontline, which is sometimes jeremiad (we have strayed from our principles) and sometimes Gothic (the sins of the fathers are visited on their children), has surrendered to this mindset in its recent ad campaign: "Sit back and react." We may still rise and lash out against the "evil ones" who afflict us from outside, but even then it is becoming less clear what it is we are defending inside.

The best use of the Gothic as a tool of theological analysis is to pay close attention to the content it is inserting into its conventions. What is it, for instance, that has twisted the villain? Frankenstein's creature began as an innocent, and only became a monster in response to his horrible treatment at the hands of human beings. Shelley takes a theological position here that sin is acquired; like the creature, we are born innocent but then deformed under the influence of the accumulating viciousness of society. At one point, the monster laments, "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend." In Shelley's anthropology, innocence is corrupted by an evil that assails it from without. But once corrupted, it becomes the corruption into which others are born. Or, to take another diagnostic approach, what wrongful act in the past might account for the present suffering of the victim? Was it duplicity, callousness, infidelity, inordinate desire, disregard for nature's laws and human finitude, overreaching ambition, neglect of filial duties, insensitivity toward the sublime, excessive consumption, selfishness, incest, brutality, immoderate self-reliance, undeserved insult? These are common originating sins in Gothic stories. In the Gothic, we are haunted by transgressions of the past, our own or those of others, sins that have wandered down circuitous routes, spinning off consequences, which themselves beget consequences. In the Gothic worldview, human actions set things in motion that cannot be taken back and in the end must be requited. Behind Gothic suffering is some originating wrongful act worth recovering and reflecting upon. At what moment in the past did someone slip from the moral order, and what decisions were made that allowed that to happen. How, in other words, was paradise lost? With this kind of attention, the Gothic can be exercised as a diagnostic tool for understanding how popular culture is working through the problem of sin.

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