Friday, 10 May 2013

Why Are We So Fascinated By The Gothic?

Lucy Cole

The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli, 1781
(wiki commons)
Since its humble beginnings in 1764, with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the gothic novel has become an increasing source of fascination to readers of every class, age and status. Whilst originally these fantastical and totally irrational works were regarded as a lower form of literature (as was the novel as a genre itself) compared to the literal histories and traditional poetry of the day, its popularity gradually grew, and we can see the result of this in our modern day fascination with the dark and dangerous; works such as The Bloody Chamber, Twilight, Harry Potter, not to mention the hundreds of horror movies that cross our screens with tales of the undead, supernatural creatures and uncontrollable passions and desires, all merely go further to reflect our obsession with the gothic.


However, the question that poses itself is why are we so fascinated with this most dark and forbidden of genres? Is it the sense of mystery? Of taboo? Or do we all secretly find the darkest and most evil part of our psyche reflected in the corruption and horror of these tales? In a society which is all about rules and regulations, both social and moral, we seem unable to resist the transgressive nature of the Byronic hero, driven by the wild passions and desires which we have been taught from infancy to subdue. We have always been attracted to the rebel, someone who is brave (or stupid) enough to do everything that we would not dare. These rebels grace our television screens; James Bond, Edward Cullen, Batman… The gothic takes this one step further. This genre seems to encapsulate Freud’s psychodynamic concept of the id, the part of ourselves which is ruled only by want and need, unchained by civilisation or restrictions, a pure drive for physical and mental satisfaction. There are few who do not secretly cherish the idea that deep within them is an uninhibited part of themselves that could break the surface at any moment. It is part of our desire to be an individual, to be different from the face of conformity that everybody else lies behind. Is it surprising that the majority of advertisements play on the idea of something forbidden, transgressive and dangerous? For some seemingly unexplainable reason we are drawn towards the corrupt and the irrational.
Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog
by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818
(wiki commons)

Indeed, it could be said that our fascination with the gothic lies in the fact that it speaks of things that we cannot fathom in our rational and civilised world. Just like Faustus, we want omnipotence, we find ourselves desperate to uncover the secrets which are withheld from us, and undeniably the supernatural is one of these mysteries. The gothic deals with all the things that we, as human beings, do not understand; the distribution of power, inexplicable events, death, the afterlife, lust, and even life itself. However, it also deals with that which is causing change and confusion in the contemporary society. We see that in Frankenstein Shelley explores the unknown potential of science and its possible consequences, something which was only at the beginnings of its discovery and use in 1818 when she wrote her infamous novel, whilst in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, we see the traditional gothic gender stereotypes subverted, with the women no longer helpless victims of their own innocence, but defiant and seeming to hold their own in a patriarchal society of wolves and strange beasts, published in a time when women were finally beginning to see real movement towards equality. Hence it seems that the gothic is an attempt by the author not only to explore the irrational and mysterious, but also to understand and make sense of the events and changes that are causing upheaval in their contemporary society.
  Thus it is clear that our fascination with gothic literature and film is undeniable, but why it exists is a far more complicated question. We seem to be drawn to the dark and mysterious, and whether this is due to our wanting to connect with a darker part of ourselves that is hidden from society as suggested by Freud it cannot be said. The gothic deals with everything that is confusing or inexplicable, and personally I rather like the romantic idea that our fascination with the gothic lies in the fact that it explores that which we do not understand, and feeds our imagination with the promise that there is something beyond the rational, civilised (and rather dull) world in which we live.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting overview and perspective.

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