Gothic and the Question of Theory, 1900-Present

Authored by: Scott Brewster

The Gothic World

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  October  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415637442
eBook ISBN: 9780203490013
Adobe ISBN: 9781135053062


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Given the current proliferation of Gothic cultures, and the corresponding diversification of Gothic criticism and theory, do we inhabit an age peculiarly susceptible to its attractions? Or is there something inherent to Gothic that has generated, even demanded, new forms of critique as it has mutated since it emerged in the later eighteenth century? Gothic has fostered an array of theoretical approaches in the last century, and yet the possibility of providing a single definition — generic, thematic, conceptual — of the term becomes ever more remote. Nonetheless, after nearly 250 years, we return compulsively to the task: as Lucie Armitt comments, “we cannot leave the Gothic alone, because it deals in what will not leave us alone. It is everywhere and yet nowhere” (Armitt 2011: 12). As this essay was being completed, two examples of Gothic's ubiquity, and pervasive capacity to interpretation, caught the attention. The first was the UK release of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie (2012), timed to coincide with Halloween and school half-term breaks. The film, which centers on the death and resurrection of a beloved pet, brings the story back to life 30 years after Disney had fired Burton for making a short version of the film deemed “too scary” for children. The black-and-white animation faithfully acknowledges Gothic's cinematic history, and in an interview on the BBC News website Burton recalls his early identification with Frankenstein's creature and Dracula on screen. This has an echo in Frankenweenie; as the BBC feature stresses, the film deals not only with loss and bereavement but “also touches on issues of making friends and finding your way in life” (Griffiths 2012). Gothic horror, then, can be didactic and confidence-building, a manual to individuation. The perceived homely qualities of the feature were underscored by The Sunday Times on 14 October 2012 which had a Funday Times pullout devoted to the film, with features including “Brain-teasing puzzles,” “fun science to do at home,” and the chance to win “10 fabulous, fun-packed, Frankenweenie goodie bags.” The second example was BBC Radio 4's month-long focus on the Gothic Imagination, including new versions of Frankenstein and Dracula, with an aim of “reclaiming original gothic creations from the clichés they have become.” This refreshing endeavor did not appear to extend to the synopsis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz's Dracula, however. It was billed as “a supernatural fable reflecting a harrowing fear of female sexuality, and the treatment meted out to the insane pervert who unleashes it for pleasure.” The listener was promised an “all-action adventure story, with ghosts, ghouls, lunatics and seriously gripping chase scenes’, and that this two-hour adaptation would take its audience “on a thrilling ride through the dark psyche of Victorian England” (BBC Radio 4 2012). The novel reappraisal that is promised gives way to a series of old and long-familiar stereotypes of the Gothic: a theatrical supernaturalism, repressed female desire, perversity at once unleashed and punished, the guilty delights of exploring the murky depths of the past. This neatly illustrates Fred Botting's remark that “If Gothic works tend to repeat a number of stock formulas, so does its criticism” (Botting 2001: 5).

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