Some Thoughts on Gothic Horror
Let the Halloween season officially begin! Every day in October I’m going to do at least one post (some days several) on horror films and spook comedies, mostly ones from the classic studio era. To kick it off, I thought I’d do a little “thinking out loud” about the kinds of horror films I’m attracted to (Weird Horror, Gothic and the Supernatural), and why that may be.
Well, first there’s my age bracket. When I grew up in the 1970s (the age of the 3 channels, no internet, cable or home video), one’s exposure to movies came strictly through what was playing in cinemas, and through cinema books. In No Applause and Chain of Fools, I talked a good bit about how my appetite for silent and classic comedy had been whetted via books about the subject at a time when exposure to the actual films was relatively rare. The same was true of horror. Since the genre was sort of discouraged in my house (although I was allowed those Aurora Universal Monster horror models — I had Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon), I usually thumbed through these books in the school library. And this being the late 1970s, it was prior to the great title wave of new horror that was to come. Thus most of these horror books started out with a chapter on silents, such as The Phantom of the Opera, then dwelt mainly on the Universal Horror films of the 1930s and 40s, with perhaps a soupcon of RKO, and then would conclude with a chapter on “modern” phenomena like Hammer Horror, the AIP Poe Cycle and the zombie films of George Romero. Thus, much as I grew up listening to my friend’s mom’s Elvis records, and my brothers’ old Beach Boys albums (and consequently felt a real connection to the past in the kind of music I liked), horror too was strongly anchored in a previous time period. And this was true for nearly everybody, I think. Though there were plenty of contemporary horror films (in fact I really love horror films from the ’70s, at least the early ’70s) in a way that would be tough to describe to young people today, “horror” back then automatically implied the CLASSIC era of horror, the era which died around the end of World War Two. This was brought back to me with force when I was watching an old episode of Emergency on ME-TV recently. The off-duty firemen are killing time in the station house watching a horror movie. And what is it? It’s not something contemporary (for them, circa 1975). It’s something old. (I can’t remember, but it was something like Frankenstein). And it wasn’t presented as camp or quaint. The characters were watching it to be scared, and they were scared.
At the same, the contemporary movies that came out in the late ’70s and early ’80s, those ones we DID watch for camp value, we did consider them “bad” movies, low budget affairs with bad acting and cheesy special effects. When the heads blew up in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), we laughed — really hard. Some of the films I saw then, like Motel Hell (1980), and Troma’s Mother’s Day (1980), were at least in part intentionally humorous, which was the only reason I bothered with them in the first place. Horror tended to be R rated. Talking your way in to an R film when you were under 17 occasionally took an effort, an effort I was seldom willing to make for a modern horror film, so I didn’t catch the major New Horror franchises (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Leprochaun, Basket Case etc etc etc) until they became available on tv or home video, and when I eventually saw them, I confess I had little but the same sort of scorn for them. (Though I’ve since developed an appreciation of sorts for John Carpenter). Ironically, I find that classic horror, long associated with camp, has a more lasting, terrifying effect on me than the supposedly more scary New Horror.
What is it about the Gothic? Well, we’ll start with the most obvious — it happens to be the prevailing aesthetics at play in our cemeteries. STILL! Granted in recent decades there have been some exceptions. Military graveyards for example, prefer neat, clean monuments, a “classical” aesthetic as opposed to a Gothic one. And some folks prefer a lighter, more inspirational, even futuristic design. But, I think you’ll still find the majority of most graveyards emulating an aesthetics of the past that is heavy, ominous and sobering. As do many of our churches. I happen to be an Episcopalian, which is one reason this aesthetic may have a hold on me. There are indeed modern Anglican churches, but most of the ones I have seen or belong to project a Medievalism, with stone construction and stained glass. You walk in and you say “This is a church that was founded by Henry VIII and it’s STILL the church of Henry VIII. Because here I am connecting with the 16th century”. And no less than the Egyptians, aren’t we to a certain extent a Sky Cult, a Death Cult? It’s the place we go to connect to the Mysteries, and the biggest Mystery of all is what happens to us when we die. And some of us at least make that contemplation in a place that looks Gothic. (Unlike many sects that are terrified of such paganism, the Episcopalians actually DO Halloween, and they generally do it up right. It’s in the name: Hallowe’en = All Hallows Eve, i.e. the night when the ghosts are about. One of the most amazing Halloween’s I ever had was spent at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York).
That said, the reverse is also true here in America. We associate this architecture with the past: with Europe, with superstition and religious persecution and torture and death. There is a cultural prejudice at work. The Medieval = the Tower of London and the Grand Inquisitor. Poe, the Father of All, delivered this theme to us on a silver platter. Byron and Bram Stoker who developed the modern notion of the vampire set his origins amongst the castle ruins in the vaguely terrifying “east”. Gothic horror plays heavily (I’m the first to admit) on American ignorance and jingoism. The foreigner, the “Other” is always the threat and the enemy. Horror movies have stigmatized nearly everyone who was perceived as not a “normal American” in this regard: the Gypsy fortune teller, the Indian swami, the cruel Asian (Fu Manchu), the voodoo witch doctor, and above all decadent, swishy, vaguely aristocratic “Europeans” with accents, be they German, Russian, Hungarian…or even (perhaps especially) English. Those foreign names! Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya….These are creatures who don’t eat normal healthy American meat and potatoes like you and me, but rather dine on mysterious gourmet cuisine and drink wine out of goblets. I just know what that “meat” is! And I bet that “wine” is probably red!
The best Gothic horror is all too well aware about this uncomplimentary primitive side of our psyche and usually takes us to task for it, critiques it — think of the lynch mobs in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein and the way the heroes are treated in Freaks. Mad scientists and villains often have real and powerful justifications for their rage-filled revenge (“she jilted me at the altar, they laughed at my dream!”). We often sympathize with their feelings if not their actions. I often think it was Poe who imported (from Italy) the theoretically un-American concept of vendetta, in tales like The Cask of Amontillado and Hop-Frog.
Another primitive emotion Gothic horror often stirs up is a reactionary fear of science. As much as we fear the old, we likewise seem to fear the new. Mad scientists are often going “too far”, and “going where man wasn’t meant to go”. (Interesting that this seems to be the entire playbook of certain modern politicians. It’s the 21st century, but plenty of people seem to think it’s still the 17th). Another interesting thing about science — instead of clearing away the spiritual mists of our ancient terrors, somehow the modern science of psychoanalysis through the writings of Freud and Jung and others, FED into them by way of the German Expressionists. The extremely subjective point of view — from Romanticism to Dr. Jekyll represents a difference of degree, not of kind.
It’s interesting to me that the original Hollywood horror cycle died with World War Two — for that was the very moment when an entire generation of Americans became far less parochial and provincial. Millions had spent time in Europe; the mystique, not to say the terror of Europe and all things European was dispelled. Americans began to vacation there in large numbers. And the world became much more mechanized, robbing storytellers of many of their most atmospheric devices…horse drawn hansom cabs….torches and lanterns for light, and so forth. Social mores changed. It became less and less acceptable to demonize the Other. Even to alienate the deformed or “the monstrous” became verboten. The world became smaller and, in the literal sense, it seemed, comprehensible.
Gothic horror of course soldiered on for at least another couple of decades, at American International Pictures, and Hammer Studios and on television. By the time of the late Cold War, however, it had almost entirely entered the domain of comedy (see my upcoming post about the Gothic horror-comedy connection). And the taste in mainstream horror learned toward the literal. Though the horror films of the ’80s weren’t all slasher movies, I tend to lump them all in that category.
I’ve given a good deal of thought as to why gore and torture doesn’t effect me as much. And the crux of it (for me personally anyway) seems to be that the old style is literally psychological, i.e., a discourse rooted in the spirit, hence the unseen. It could be in your head. It could be “beyond the veil”. It feels like a nightmare; the terror is metaphysical. Here the terror is not just of death or harm but ultimately of God. I often think of the Burning Bush in Exodus (especially as rendered by Cecil B. DeMille.) My King James Bible has it all caps: “I AM THAT I AM.” The self-sufficiency of that statement and our inability to penetrate it is terrifying to me. It’s kind of identical to the quality of “silence” in Samuel Beckett. Nothing is scarier to me than this “thing that’s out there”. We catch a glimpse of him, whenever we meet an actor or clown (or in ancient times a priest or warrior) gazing at us malevolently from behind make-up or a mask. (See my earlier essay on that here). What is behind the face-paint? Is it war paint? Is he a medicine man? Is the clown here to kill me? For me, the writings of the Existentialists, the theatrical Absurdists, and certain theologians holds far more terror than any horror movie.
And straight out of our superstitious brains, that dark dimension beckons and taunts us with its heralds and harbingers. The instinct to fear bats, snakes and spiders, which we’re so hard-wired for, pre-dates language. (Yeah, some people overcome it, but that’s just showing off, like eating a jalapeno). These creatures are like death’s familiars: they have a little announcement to make. Sometimes they even BRING death. And for us, an audience in a horror movie, they bring a symbolism, they trigger an ancient trip-wire, they are communicating something to us at the subconscious level.
As opposed to the slasher style plot — which might be rendered as “some guy is chasing me”. He might kill me. If he doesn’t kill me, he might cut my arm. He might cut my arm, but I also might trip him so that he falls down the stairs and breaks his neck. I hope I’m not revealing something untoward about myself (or if I sound like I’m boasting because I’m not saying I wouldn’t be scared), but in real life (this would never happen, which is another reason why the genre fails), in real life if I’m locked in a house with some other guy who’s wielding a hatchet, and there’s no phone service, and a couple of my friends are hurt or dead, in that case my instinct is not to be a passive, acted-upon, victimized thing, but rather to GO HUNTING. Or scare the dude worse than he’s scaring me or something. At any rate that’s what I tell myself when I watch a movie,which is the point. In real life I’d probably blubber and plead, but when I envision this as a scenario (usually because I’m bored to tears by the movie) I’m usually, like, “Stop hyperventilating, and just hit the guy with fuckin’ lamp!” True awe is not of the living, but of the dead.
I often think of the slasher formula as Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians scenario with the killer’s pov metastasized and the detective’s role reduced. Normally the setting is a college campus or a summer camp. And a bunch of kids are stalked and killed one by one by an unknown attacker. I often think, What’s the problem? Where’s the fear? There’s a dozen of you and one of him. What are frat boys known for except ganging up on and torturing some individual and possibly raping and killing them in some ritualistic manner? In fact I’ve never been real clear on what precisely else they do! And what are sorority sisters except the meanest people on earth? In my horror movie some misfit in a goofy mask is pursued and hunted by the football team, not the other way around. And summer camp! Who’s more monstrous than the other kids at summer camp? That’s the genius of Addams Family Values, a holiday classic around my house. H’m, come to think of it, this is why the slasher movie was the perfect Reagan era genre: a bunch of mindless conformists are taken out by an outsider of some kind. But, I assure you there’s a good percentage of the audience that relishes the dispatching of these victims, and however enjoyable that may be in theory, it’s not…well it’s just not healthy.
This isn’t about “old vs. new” or even “old vs. newer“. It’s more about the supernatural vs. the graphic. And I fully acknowledge how subjective this discussion is by it’s very nature. We’re talking about our FEARS here! You got yours and I got mine! So I’m writin’ about mine!