Horrific Ties to Gothicism
Thomas K. Fagerholm
Gothic drama is a form or sub-genre of horror drama. Through an examination of the basic elements of Gothic romance we see that both Gothic drama and horror drama excite an atmosphere of fear and terror. Gothic drama, however, must be a form or sub-genre of horror drama because of its similarity and specificity of form over the limitless form of horror drama.
The horror play, or horror drama as referred to in this work, has been around for centuries, yet there is little scholarly research on the subject. J.A. Cuddon refers to the works of Seneca in A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory as an example of early classical works in which the writers used the attraction of the horrific and exploited it in order to appeal to particular inclinations and appetites (p. 418). Another example of horror drama is that of Titus Andronicus. Coleridge felt it was ‘obviously intended to excite vulgar audiences by its scenes of blood and horror’ (p. 31). One area of interest in horror drama is Gothic drama, which originated in the late eighteenth century. Gothic drama is derived from the literary form, Gothic romance. Gothic drama contains many elements of horror, yet there is very little scholarly work on its relationship to horror in other forms of drama. Horror drama is defined by its ability to actively engage the five senses in order to heighten the evocation of fear that is predominant in the genre. The fears of death, isolation, victimization, and hopelessness are intrinsic to horror drama. In short, the horror drama is one of the few genres that derives its name from the very emotion it intends to promote. This is similar to the genres of mystery and suspense (Carroll, p. 52). The following paragraphs serve as an examination of the basic elements of Gothic drama, revealing it as a form or sub-genre of horror drama.
In order to understand the nature of Gothic drama it is first necessary to understand Gothic romance, its predecessor. Cuddon notes that Gothic romance appeared at the beginning of the romantic movement, in which popular literary works strayed from classical literature, and were written in the vernacular of the people (pp. 813-817). Thought to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole laid the foundation for later Gothic works. His novel revolted against the conventional attitude toward medievalism (castles, giants, armour, the supernatural, etc.) that Gothic was barbarous, by transporting enlightened gentlemen and sensible ladies from contemporary society into that earlier time (Evans, p. 7). The Castle of Otranto excited reader's feelings of mystery, gloom and terror by selecting those elements of medievalism which proved most horrific. This was the basis for later works to be called Gothic. Although these emotions had been expressed before through lyric poem and drama, the novel was a new literary force just emerging in Europe and certainly none of the works had combined such Gothic elements together with the purpose of terrorizing readers and audiences.
The early Gothic novels were works of terror focused on the suspense of external circumstances. Robert D. Hume writes in his article ‘Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel’ that ‘The terror novel prepared the way for a fiction which though more overtly horrible is at the same time more serious and more profound’ (p. 285). As the Gothic form evolved, the focus of terror shifted to psychological horrors that threaten not only physically but also cognitively. The Gothic terror novel holds the reader's attention through suspense or dread of terrible acts that never materialize. Gothic horror differs in that it attacks with a succession of horrific events and situations that shock and disturb the reader. Hume writes:
'Terror-Gothic works on the supposition that a reader who is repelled will close his mind (if not the book) to the sublime feelings which may be roused by the mixture of pleasure and pain induced by fear. Horror-Gothic assumes that if events have psychological consistency, even within repulsive situations, the reader will find himself involved beyond recall.' (p. 285)
This involvement beyond recall is another of the elements of Gothicism that led to its success.
It has been argued whether or not setting and mechanics make a novel or drama Gothic. I will make the argument with Hume that while these elements are often present in Gothic works they are not formulaic, rather they add to the atmosphere of a Gothic work. ‘The key characteristic of the Gothic novel is not its devices, but its atmosphere’ (Hume, p. 286). The medieval castle, haunted chambers, or the secret passage is not required to make a work Gothic but it adds to the atmosphere of evil, brooding terror, misery, gloom and suspense.
The Mysterious Mother by Horace Walpole was privately printed in 1768 and is by Evans's account the first Gothic drama. Although never acted out, the script was distributed to some of Walpole's close friends and was seen as Gothic because of the similar elements he used in his novel. Evans writes on Walpole's drama:
'this work represents the true beginning of the Gothic school of drama, and to describe it is, with allowances for later expansion, to describe that school. Its predominant feature is its unrelieved atmosphere of mystery, gloom, and terror. Settings, characters, machinery, theme, and technique are singularly devoted to manufacturing this atmosphere.' (p. 32)
Many of the elements of this play could be said to be that of horror drama. Walpole himself said:
'From the time that I first undertook the foregoing scenes, I never
flattered myself that they would be proper to appear on the state.
The subject is so horrid, that I thought it would shock, rather than
give satisfaction to an audience.... The subject is more truly horrid
than even that of Oedipus.' (Evans, p. 33)
The first dramatic adaptation of The Castle of Otranto was The Count of Narbonne by Robert Jephson in 1781. Like many adaptations there were cuts made to the story; however, the response to the adaptation was positive. Evans cites a review of the show:
'Hortensia, overborne by the horrid sight of her murdered daughter and husband at her feet, sinks in the agonies of despair, and the deathlike stupor which precedes dissolution... the play went off with warm and general applause.' (Evans, p. 52)
Although many of the grosser and more horrific elements were eliminated, the play still captured the darkness and gloom of the novel.
The Gothic drama through its underlying purpose, ‘to excite feelings of mystery, gloom, and terror’ (Evans, p. 6), and through the mechanics it uses to evoke its atmosphere is comparable to horror drama. Both Gothic and horror drama actively engage the five senses in order to excite the emotion of fear that is predominant in both. The fears of death, isolation, victimization and hopelessness manifest in both. These similarities suggest that they are both of the same genre. Where they differ is in their subtleties. Gothic horror drama uses more specific elements to achieve the atmosphere of fear, whereas horror drama is virtually limitless. Since Gothic horror drama has limitations on how it evokes emotion and horror drama does not, it cannot be an equal genre but instead must be a sub-genre of horror drama. There are many examples of Gothic dramas that can or have been classified as works of horror. Notable examples include dramatized adaptations of Frankenstein and Melmoth, The Wanderer. An example of contemporary Gothic drama could be the grotesque Gothic fantasies of Mervyn Peake, which by Cuddon's account ‘might easily be classified as horror; as might some of William Burrough's work’ (p. 429). One can conclude from the similarities between horror drama and Gothic drama and because of Gothic drama's specificity that it is a sub-genre or form of horror drama.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1930) ‘Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism’, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2 vols (Cambridge: Harvard UP).
Cuddon, J.A. (1991) A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell).
Evans, Bertrand (1947) Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Hume, Robert D. (2009) ‘Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel’, PMLA 84.2, pp. 283-290.
The Decomposition of
the Contemporary Family:
Coded within media representations of zombie lore lay the interstitial boundaries between zombies and family. The fantastic scenario of zombies coexisting alongside humans and forging relationships has been explored in movies such as Fido, as well as texts such as S.G. Browne’s Breathers and Stephen King’s Home Delivery. The possibility of zombies melding into a human family changes the very concept of a nuclear family. The OED defines a nuclear family as a social unit developed around a pivotal source or centre. This fusion creates a ‘un nuclear’ family, something out of the ordinary, imperfect and yet strangely balanced. Browne and King’s zombies help contemporary culture re-examine the transmogrification of the nuclear family, allowing current culture to see what it has to lose or gain through transformational change.
The three stories illustrate how two cultures of ‘beings’ can coexist and create a balance. In Andrew Currie’s Fido, Timmy and Helen Robinson were much happier in their new life with Fido than their earlier life in a ‘nuclear’ family of husband, wife and 1.5 children. Fido, according to William Larkin’s article ‘Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies and Zombies’ is able to express both ‘bodily and psychological continuity’, which allows the zombie to contain more humanness than his former proprietor (pp. 16-17). Smoking a cigarette, dancing with Helen and befriending Timmy are all characteristics that prove that Fido is human. As a zombie, Fido is searching for what the philosopher Aristotle calls pleonexia, the striving for more fulfillment in one’s life.
One of the primary characters of the movie Fido is Timmy. He is a young boy who is unsure how he feels towards zombies. He not only questions the appropriateness of their existence, but also the zombies’ captivity. For Timmy to ask his father, Bill, such questions would only confuse the boy more. Timmy and his dad share a minimal relationship, due to Bill’s childhood trauma growing up during the Zombie Wars. Bill was forced to kill his own father after he ‘went’ a zombie and Bill has distanced himself from his own family because of that action. He shows absolutely no affection towards his son Tim or his wife, Helen, who is pregnant with their second child. Bill also shows complete hatred towards the zombie servant Fido, a purchased addition to help the family conform to the community and neighbours.
The Robinsons on the surface represent a perfect family – a father who is the bread winner in the house (the centre), a stay at home mum, and young son, along with another on the way (the social unit that exists around the seminal centre). They fit the OED definition of the nuclear family. Despite their relationship problems they carry the necessary attributes of a nuclear family, with Bill as the centre.
Fido helps to bring Bill’s true aggressions and selfishness to the family and the audiences’ attention. Bill’s unwillingness to make amends with his past or allow himself to reconnect with his wife and son loses him his role as head of household. With his child-like expressions and appealing eagerness to please, Fido becomes a central part of the family in both Helen and Timmy’s eyes. What Fido does, indirectly, is help Timmy and his mother bond. The zombie servant also helps Timmy to tear down his own emotional barriers and see the world from a different perspective. Timmy finds not only a friend in Fido, but a companion and a saviour. Helen, knowing that she is lost to her husband both emotionally and physically, finds comfort in a dance with Fido and smiles at a water fight between Timmy and Fido, all of which her husband finds revolting. As Fido joins mother and child, life slowly begins to come back into both broken bodies – Helen and Fido.
Bill, Timmy’s father, eventually comes to terms with his past aggressions before he dies, and with his excision Timmy’s family becomes complete. The neighborhood atmosphere becomes one of euphoria, zombies and humans living side by side. The categorical crisis of separation no longer exists and an UNnuclear family is created. The family is not in appearance a nuclear family, due to a zombie as a father figure in a human family. However, the bond that they have the understanding and love that they share permits them to exceed the status quo of the human nuclear family.
By image standards the Robinson did have a nuclear family but look deeper into the family lifestyle. A father who ostracizes his son because of his own fears should not be granted the title of father. A husband who ignores the woman he married so he can find his own ‘eudemonia’ or true happiness in life (Aristotle) is not a husband. But does putting a zombie in the place of the father and/or husband person qualify as a nuclear family? According to Larkin, as long as a person carries the traits of psychological and physical continuity then a zombie has every right to be considered a person.
Who is to say that a nuclear family is the superlative family? Consider Andy, the main character and first-zombie narrator of Breathers. He is a zombie with quite a weight on his shoulders. Andy remembers everything about his previous life as a human. However, in this new, defunct life, Andy exists as no more than a despicable entity and he is forced back into the home of his childhood with his parents. His wife Rachel is deceased; she died in the car accident that killed Andy. However, Rachel never reanimated, and their daughter Annie lives with Andy’s sister and brother in law. Andy remembers life with Rachel and Annie and in the beginning of the novel that is all he wants, yet he is forbidden by his conscience and law to see either one. The three of them may have molded the outwardly perfect nuclear family but life is not always wonderful and stability can shatter.
Andy lives in a makeshift bedroom in the basement and wine cellar of his parent’s home; he is not even allowed the luxury of his old bedroom. His parents live as though Andy is a burden to them and they treat him as though he is a leper. Affection does not exist for him and Andy ‘…feels like a prisoner’ (Browne, p. 57).
Andy relates to the audience his relationship with his parents both before and after his death. His mother still dotes on him, although with a lot less physical contact the second time around, and his father is still an ass to him. Andy never did anything right in his father’s eyes, including dying. Life with his parents in both his pre- and post-reanimation worlds is unbearable; neither life is much better than the other. Perhaps for Andy his parents existed outside the realm of human. Even as he quartered their bodies and toasted them over the grill he would still call the pieces of meat “mom and dad” (Browne, p. 213). Andy’s family experience with his parents before his death may have had a nuclear image, but it did not function as the perfect nuclear family. However, there are several other families that Andy helps to form – both his relationship with Rita and their unborn child, as well as the social convergence of friends and allies.
There is social bonding within the zombie therapy group that Andy attends. The mandatory sessions craft the ostracized zombies into a ‘un nuclear’ family; this allows them to find comfort and love among themselves. Andy is infatuated with Rita, a zombie who found her death through suicide. Their relationship grows and Andy begins to come out of his depressive post death state. Through the process of eating ‘mom and dad’ and other humans, Andy and Rita find happiness in their reemergence as ‘humans’ and the abilities that come along with it. Though the two are zombies, they have created a balanced and meaningful family, vital in the development of a nuclear family, and then seem at ease with their union. The only hindrance to this relationship is that though zombies have ‘become a more accepted part of society… [is] being denied their basic rights, accept[able]’ (Browne, p.39)? The zombie culture is treated as though comparable to the lack of rights experienced by African Americans in the early 20th century. Barriers constrict their livelihood in all directions: legal, social and political.
The two main characters have a structural balance in their union; they believe in each other and look out for one another. If humanity would just allow them their life together, it would work out and they might be able to find their own utopia. The boundaries in this situation get trampled by both sides of the debate. Why does one demographic get to rule the other, or for that matter who is to say what the ‘correct’ nuclear family is and who can and cannot have one. In this story Andy and Rita would transcend many of the human families by understanding the importance of their humanity and life and would essentially knock down most of the prejudices set forth by humans. They would be an essential part in opening up more sections in the barrier wall and granting others like themselves to push through and create change.
Contemporary culture upholds the idea of a true nuclear family by trying to conform to it. As the deconstruction of this concept becomes more and more obvious, society begins to accept small modifications, such as Maddie Sullivan in the short story Home Delivery. She is a young woman who lives with her shy and quaint mother and her aggressively selfish and swindling father, George. Maddie’s family is far from functioning – the balance is way off. She has lived a hidden existence and was forced to stay in her father’s shadow alongside her mother. George treated the two so insubstantially that the story does not even mention Maddie’s mother by name.
After the death of her father, Maddie and her mother find peace. There is no more tension or the literal denial of their lives. They are left to live on their own with the substantial amount of money George left behind. But most importantly the two women are allowed to think for themselves, something they were never allowed to do with George Sullivan around, who always ‘reminded’ (King, p. 238) them of the jobs that they had to do, as if he were the women’s keeper and master.
Eventually Maddie marries a young man named Jack Pace, who helped Maddie to come out of her own zombie state and find conscious life. King writes ‘[Maddie] had Jack to lean on; Jack to help her make decisions, and that was the best of it’. Jack was a man with a dream. He worked as a lobsterman and at night he attended classes at the local mainland college. Jack was working towards his and Maddie’s ‘eudemonia’ (Walker, p. 86) – the good life. Maddie’s life was taking a turn for the better. She and Jack’s marriage was thriving and they even purchase a house that they can call their own. Even without children they form a nuclear basis, and the balance for the two characters is overwhelming. With stability comes the potential for chaos. While Jack is at sea on the lobster boat a ‘bad swell…knock[s] him over the side of the [boat]’ (King, p. 241). Maddie is once again left on her own without a partner, but she is not alone – she has a child growing inside her.
As the days pass after Jack’s death, a mysterious outer space bug starts to reanimate the dead people all over the world, raising them from their eternal resting places to feast on living flesh. The islanders feel that the separation of their residence from the mainland may be their saving grace; they guard and defend themselves from their only remaining obstacle – the small graveyard on the island.
Like Andy’s connection with his fellow undead, Maddie bonds with her fellow humans. As Maddie counts the days before her child is born she is again overwhelmed by remorse and loss. She begins to fall back into her previous state of zombieness; she is incapable of functioning without support. On one night after the dead come back to life, Maddie finds her true self and her true family. Jack, dead at sea, comes back to his wife, ‘res cognito’. He retains his ability to remember and recognize his previous living life (Larkin, p. 16). Maddie knows that Jack is not in his true form, although she longs to have him back. As Jack the zombie tries to engulf Maddie she soon fights back, sticking ‘one of the knitting needles into the thing’s eye’, as King so eloquently describes, with a bootie still attached to it. Maddie fights not only for herself but for her child, destroying the one being who helped her to create that life. He had died months back; this zombie was no longer Jack. She finished off the zombie by throwing his remains down an old cistern in the basement of her home.
Live Jack was her one true love, and he had helped Maddie to create a wonderful loving home. They shared a special bond and the two of them were happy and well balanced, but the Jack that emerged on that ominous night was not the Jack she knew. The Jack she knew was in her heart and inside the child she carried. Jack will not actively be there when the child is born, and Maddie and her baby will have a balance unlike any other. Jack is still in Maddie’s and the baby’s life, as he lives within the foundation of the home, the cistern. Could he then be looked at as a ‘dead beat dad’? The fact that her dead spouse reanimated and came back to her only to victimize her creates an all too common scenario in today’s world. As a single parent raising her child she is not alone in a growing society of what might be classified as the new nuclear family. However, the balance she fights for allows her to feel safe, and so will her child.
These interstitial characters, these zombies, create a categorical crisis that speaks to the debate about what a nuclear family is. Contemporary culture that dictates what is socially and morally correct is overwhelmed with the metamorphosis of the nuclear family into more progressive forms.
The three stories illustrate how two cultures of ‘beings’ can coexist together and create a balance. Timmy and Helen Robinson were much happier in their new life with Fido after breaking down barriers and reforming their cultural ideas. The humans in Breathers were swamped with the prejudice about the zombie’s existence, yet it did not originally affect the balance between Andy and Rita’s family. And Maddie Pace may be a single mother raising her small child, but she has a balance where she and her child will feel safe. She also has an entire community to help guard, protect and raise that child.
Perhaps like the characters whose lives improve through the construction of ‘UNnuclear’ families, the existence of all humanity depends on our cultural adaptability.
Browne, S.G. (2009) Breathers (New York: Broadway Books).
King, Stephen (2008) ‘Home Delivery’, The Living Dead, ed. John Joseph Adams (San Francisco: Night Shade), pp. 236-256.
Larkin, William, S. (2006) ‘Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies, and Zombies’, The Undead and Philosophy Chicken Soup for the Soulless, eds. Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad (Chicago and LaSalle: Open Court), pp. 15-26.
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