On the Life and Death and Life Again of Gothic Horror

This post is a can I’ve been kicking down the road since 2015 when I cooked up a series of horror articles for every day in October that year. Each Halloween season since then I’ve managed to to add a few more posts for my horror section, but this little orphan never got beyond an initial concept. It started with an awareness that a lot of the horror films of the 1960s, particularly those of Hammer Studios (and its competitor Amicus), as well as American International Pictures (i.e. Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle), and Italian giallo films, all sort of look similar. I had a vague idea that I wanted to loop them together as a sort of category, but I really hadn’t much to say beyond that, and merely talking about the history of the studios and their films, or the look of them, seems well-trodden ground, often by people vastly more knowledgeable and appreciative of the genre than I am. So I’ve been waiting for inspiration to strike, another angle of approach. And a “Eureka” moment arrived a few days ago (I’ll return to what it was and why in a bit). This all goes to why this random horror post arrives six weeks after Halloween is over!

Basically this post is a late sequel to, and an elaboration upon, this earlier one about why I prefer Gothic horror, and this one about the intersection of horror and comedy. In contemplating the horror of the ’60s, which was a kind of rebirth of an aesthetic that had already been dying, I began to ponder why it was reborn, why the resurgence finally ended, and what it even was in the first place. I find the topic of the Gothic endlessly fascinating to probe. There will always be partial answers, but they are like teases, they never quite satisfy.

We use the words Goth and Gothic all the time, but what do they mean? I mean, beyond the obvious qualities we and many others have written about. My recent visit to the Mary Shelley exhibition at the Morgan library reawakened my interest in the origins of the concept.

Tradition places the origin of the Goths in what is now Southern Sweden, in Roman times. The Geats were a German tribe who inhabited Götaland, on the Swedish mainland (the people in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf); the related Gutes lived on the nearby island of Gotland. In the first century A.D. these people are said to have migrated to the mouth of the Vistula river in what is now Poland, naming it Gothiscandza, after Scandza, a name for Scandinavia, from which the place name Gdańsk (Danzig) is also derived. Over the next several centuries Visigoths and Ostrogoths and other Germanic tribes moved South and West from that point of origin and invaded the entire Roman world, culminating with the invasion of Rome and Italy itself. Rome fell, ushering in the Dark Ages.

The Goths are associated with death then because (according to the narrative) they destroyed civilization, and turned temples and monuments into ruins. They came, well, like hordes of zombies. In this light, what is our modern love for post-apocalyptic dystopia but a revisitation of something western culture has already known and experienced? We have cultural memories of these things even if we don’t have personal ones. These things have already happened.

When your eyes have beheld ruins, if you think about anything at all you may think about how they got that way

So: those are the historic (and semi-mythic) Goths. The modern obsession with the concept seems to begin after Western Europe has finally pulled itself back to civilization to such an extent that it can now begin to look backwards. There had been a Renaissance, and a printing press, and Science, and an Age of Enlightenment, and an Age of Revolution. Increasingly, superstition was thought to be outmoded, at least in reputable, mainstream precincts. But ironically, those same advances meant that more information was becoming available all the time, which also meant that the educated classes could learn about the darker times. A Grand Tour of Europe became a rite of passage among the English aristocracy. The farther East they got, the more they encountered the battlegrounds of the fall of Greece and Rome. And it began to inspire their imaginations. Romanticism and Gothic literature were fruits of this ferment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It started with writers like Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliff and Byron and Mr. and Mrs. Shelley…and it didn’t seem to dispel for a long time. In America, there was Edgar Allan Poe. There were the Brontes (whose work wasn’t supernatural but moody) and Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson, bringing us quite close to the present era. And for seasonal seasoning, let us not forget Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with its army of angry ghosts.

Then cinema gave Gothic horror a new burst of life. And then SOUND cinema gave it yet a NEWER burst of life, in the hands above all of Universal studios.

“I bid you…velcome!”

But by the late 1930s, the Gothic horror aesthetic already seemed to be dying in the movies.  A combination of factors I think. Overexposure for one, the large number of sequels in Universal’s second horror cycle, culminating in the ridiculousness of Abbott and Costello comedies. The modern was increasingly fetishized at the expense of the antique. It was the World War Two era that seems to have finally altered the dynamic definitively. Large numbers of ordinary people had seen the world now. There were fewer “mysterious, untouched” regions. Troops had been EVERYWHERE during the war, followed by documentary movie cameras. It’s like a very harsh light had been pointed at the entire planet, eliminating all shadows. It turned out there were no remote villages living under the thrall of a local vampire, or what have you. ANYWHERE. It’s kind of like an entire culture learning there’s no Santa Claus. It was subtle, unarticulated. I merely deduce that this is a thing that must have happened, even among the unsophisticated. Somewhere, in the mass subconscious, there came a realization that this was a world that contained no supernatural spirits or monsters, even at its farthest reaches.

But also, at the same time, the realization that the world contained REAL horrors, ones unleashed by science and the depravity of man. So by the 1950s, most horror of the Gothic sort began to ebb away, and movie screens of that decade were dominated by atomic monsters, or ones who had otherwise been unleashed by science, by experiments in chemistry, or physics or genetic engineering. In the ’50s most horror was allied to science fiction. Though the Gothic lived on in atrophied form, on television (with comical horror hosts), at special screenings, and in very low-budget B movies.

“Will I use the BLUE liquid? Or the GREEN liquid? or will it be the RED liquid? I don’t know, I suddenly have so many unprecedented options!”

And then something unanticipated. Gothic horror in the cinema got a new lease on life. Its agency was COLOR. The success of Hammer Studio’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) ushered in a new era (ha! I said “Usher”). The old iconography of castles and cobwebs was revisited with new eyes. I have often criticized (sometimes pretty harshly) the Hammer horror films and those of their imitators of the time for their dullness: their lack of camera movement, or any movement. I find them static and slow moving and full of unbearable silence and just generally soporific. But when I analyze it, I begin to realize that I am taking many things for granted. I grew up in the color era. I never knew a time when black-and-white film predominated. The virtue of a Hammer horror film (or the films of the Poe cycle, for example) is that of pictorial beauty. The art direction, sets, costumes, make-up, lighting and cinematography are generally stylized and gorgeous. For a time, that was going to be the crux of this post. I was intrigued by the fact that the horror films of the era had a certain look, and for a time I researched it to see if I could learn, for example, if the look was the result of a certain film stock no longer in use. But I gradually realized (and if you’re an expert, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), that in that first, early orgy of color explosion, what was happening was that cinematographers, uninterested in naturalism, were using colored lens filters and lighting gels to create beautiful effects. And so the films often look vastly more colorful than real life. Sometimes they resemble paintings. Sometimes they look like (more to the point) comic books — especially E.C. Comics. And the most prized spot on the palette was reserved for red, for that was the color of BLOOD in all the Hammer Dracula movies. That, too was stylized. In real life blood is somewhat translucent. In the Hammer films of the ’60s era, it looks sort of like Sherman Williams paint.

At any rate, that is the virtue. At the time, I imagine the filmmakers could afford to be slower because the color was spectacle by itself. You could linger. People would not be bored. I imagine the very best way to see these movies nowadays would be in a cinema, with an audience of fans, and probably under the heavy influence of cannabis. I’m just saying.

After a while, though, as you can imagine the novelty word off. Hammer resorted to adding lots of sex to their films, including topless women and hints of lesbianism, branching into what was essentially soft-core porn, in order to keep the momentum going. But by the 1970s, color, and blood, and porn were everywhere. These were no longer sufficient by themselves to draw an audience. And Hammer had begun to lose its stars. There was a Hammer diaspora. Peter Cushing and Dave Prowse wound up in Star Wars; Christopher Lee was in the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), and then many another greener pasture.

“I’m no painter, but I know what I like!”

But one other thing happened in the 1970s to quell the Goth aesthetic in horror, and now we come to my “aha!” moment, the one that prompts this post. As it happens, I have been binge watching episodes of the old TV show Night Gallery (1969-1973) for a new post on Rod Serling (his birthday is Christmas Day). Are you ahead of me yet? I was too young to see the show when it originally aired, though I had certainly read a lot about it, but to SEE it is to experience a particular cultural moment firsthand. It’s sort of the shark-jumping of an entire genre. For a long time, my question had been “Why did that new generation of horror film makers turn away from the supernatural, and start making graphic, naturalistic slasher movies in the ’70s?” Night Gallery provides your answer in stark detail. I hasten to say, Night Gallery presented many superlative stories by top writers, not least of whom was Serling himself. BUT. A good portion of it was toothless, and cliched, and seemingly for children. It was never meant to be binge-watched, of course, but binge-watching certainly provides you with a concentrated capsule of what went wrong. The constant repetition, both in Serling’s narration and in the show’s art direction, of creaking doors, “ghosts” and “haunted houses”, spider webs, squeaking rats, joke shop skeletons, and the actual phrase “things that go bump in the night”. Blecch! It’s pretty embarrassing.

A Frankenstein baby on “Night Gallery”, with Wally Cox as the sleepless dad. Scared yet?

The most egregious sin of all was the inclusion of very short black-out sketches not unlike the ones on Love American Style and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, starring Universal Horror monsters like Frankenstein or Dracula or whomever, often starring Laugh-In comedians (like, all of them: Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Joanne Worley etc etc). At this stage we are getting very far away indeed from terror. And this wasn’t the only related development at the time. One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons The Groovie Goolies premiered in 1970. In 1971, General Mills unleashed their “Monster Cereals”, Count Chocula, Frankenberry, Boo Berry and the now defunct Fruit Brute. Gothic horror seemed to have devolved entirely into the realm of children’s entertainment. Against this backdrop, I might mention also the vampiric soap opera Dark Shadows, which wasn’t (as) silly, but was on TV every single day of the week — and familiarity breeds contempt. And this context also explains the impatience with critics and audiences of The Night Stalker’s “Monster of the Week” syndrome we wrote about here.

All this goes to explain, I think (if only to myself in case you are way ahead of me) why a new generation of horror film makers and fans were more into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and its offspring. A newer fresher direction was desperately needed and wanted. Location shooting replaced artificial sets. Film-makers seemed to draw inspiration from the 6 o’clock TV news, which became increasingly exploitative and tabloid-like throughout the 1970s, with its creepy lingering on stories of serial killing, rape, kidnapping, bloody accidents, disasters and the like. Horror became sort of quotidian, generally about stalkers and slashers and ax-murderers invading suburbia rather than undead night creatures out of an 18th century dream realm. Horror was all around us. It was in the kitchen knife drawer.

Interestingly, just as horror movies were moving away from the Gothic, a Goth subculture was being born in music and fashion. This trend seems to owe its origins to punk groups like The Cramps (“Human Fly”) and The Damned and Bauhaus (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead”), and visually to owe a certain allegiance to the New Romantics who flourished in the early ’80s. Lord Byron would be somebody who’d matter to both groups; Romanticism and the Gothic have always gone hand in hand. Tim Burton began to rehabilitate the aesthetic in the cinema as early as Vincent (1982), an homage to Vincent Price, whom he later was able to cast in his 1990 Edward Scissorhands. In recent decades, mummies, ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches and werewolves have all made gratifying comebacks. What explains THAT, I cannot say, unless audiences and film-makers share my OWN predilections and have simply been bored by machetes and summer camps. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t be happier, and for quite some time now when I have a spare moment to relax, my default has been horror rather than comedy.

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