Film Genre: Gothic Horror
108 - 002 | Rhetoric 131T | CCN: 15168
Because it is notoriously difficult to define the term “Gothic,” or to describe its complex history as an aesthetic form involving architecture, “high” literature and popular fiction, painting, opera, theater, cinema, television, gaming, and fashion, we will be working toward an understanding of the Gothic throughout the semester. Our study of Gothic horror in film will be a challenging one, as Misha Kavka argues in her essay “Gothic on Screen”:
…There is no established genre called Gothic cinema or Gothic film. There are Gothic images and Gothic plots and Gothic characters and even Gothic styles within films, but there is no delimited or demonstrable genre specific to film called the Gothic. This is at least in part due to the fact that film, as a medium born with the twentieth century, is both a latecomer to and an avid, unabashed plagiarizer of earlier literary forms of the Gothic. As such, the “Gothic” does not “belong” to film, and the film medium must content itself with providing a home for that catch-all category of terror and spookiness, the horror genre.
Nonetheless, if it is surprising that there is no such thing as Gothic cinema, that is because we perfectly well know the Gothic when we see it. There is, in fact, something peculiarly visual about the Gothic….[T]he Gothic tantalizes us with fear, both as its subject and its effect; it does so, however, not primarily through characters or plots or even language, but through spectacle. The fearful effect of the Gothic, at least in its literary forms, depends on our ability to cast certain conventionalized images from the text onto the “screen” of our mind’s eye….
…[I]t may be as much as one can do to say that the Gothic is about fear, localized in the shape of something monstrous which electrifies the collective mind. But in that case, how do we distinguish the Gothic from the catch-all film genre of horror? It is useful, perhaps, to specify that the Gothic is about paranoia, defined as a projection of the self on the outside world, which in turn is read as hostile. Paranoia thus involves a blurring of the boundaries between self and other, to the extent that the other becomes a version of the self returned, with interest, in the form of hostility. This blurring of the boundaries depends precisely on the fear of a return, for something which has been expelled may well come back, half-expected, from the other side or the beyond. Julie Kristeva refers to this something as “the abject” inPowers of Horror, while Sigmund Freud has famously called it “the return of the repressed,” a return of something which has always been there (in the unconscious) and whose sudden appearance calls up the feeling of the “uncanny” or the unfamiliar that is deeply familiar.
In this context we can recognize more easily the visual codes of the Gothic such as the doppelgangers, wandering ghosts, and risen corpses, the ruined, decaying, haunted, and abandoned dwellings, mysterious towers, secret passageways, hidden rooms, ambiguous and imprisoning shadows, the obscuring weather effects of mists, fogs, rains, and snows, the manifestations of psychological slippage in mad staring eyes, entranced and sleepwalking figures, and projected dreams, flashbacks, and hallucinations.
We will be considering several categories of films that are most often discussed in terms of the Gothic: German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu; “classic” Universal horror films includingFrankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy; Val Lewton’s “fear by suggestion” horror films such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie; the Hollywood female Gothic films of the 1940s such as Rebecca, Gaslight, and The Uninvited; film noir; the British supernatural and “Hammer Horror” films; the many adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories; and later iterations of the Gothic such as The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, The Woman in Black, the Paranormal Activity films, and the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan Batman films.