It almost seems too obvious to call what Ryan Murphy and the amazing cast accomplished in American Horror Story a “gothic tale.” Almost.
It’s harder to use the term if you get technical and lets get technical for just a second. Just about any definition of gothic, a literary and cultural movement that grew out of romanticism in the late eighteenth century, includes references to macabre tales told among ruins, a moldering old mansion, an aristocratic past turned sour in the age of revolution.
Gothic deals with the past as a revenant…and the souls endangered by that past as they walk among the ruins of some Terrible Place. Its possible to see the first gothic tales as efforts to come to grips with the hierarchal societies of the European past, to romanticize and criticize them, just as they began to slip away. A way to try and say goodbye to a past that still haunts and frightens.
But we aren’t stuck with technical definitions and the meaning of gothic has been applied across a wide spectrum of cultural phenomenon, a point I make in talking about “Gothic America” in Monsters. I argue that the slippery nature of the term emerged out of the problematic effort to create a new American identity in a new world that included so much of the old. Let me quote briefly from my discussion of how Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, struggled with this problem in the 1820s.
“Irving shaped a monster story that sought to give America a usable past….creating an American past as filled with as many monsters as Europe could boast. Irving believed that this past needed to be one filled with monsters, that American identity needed its Headless Hessians and Haunted places.”-Monsters in America, p. 58
Obviously, America has put some history under its belt since the 1820s. And American Horror Story tapped into some of that history, both distant and more recent, as I point out here.
“The American past is a haunted house,” I say in Monsters. A highly unfriendly reviewer on Goodreads commented that they were disturbed that I had not spent time on ghosts in Monsters in America. My first mental response to this went something like “hey dude on Goodreads, how about checking the title?” But after my fit of snark, I thought a bit about how the American monstrous, for many people, has become the ghostly, past presence who, for good or ill, are even haunting Mcmansions these days.
This is not new. Gothic horror, tales of ghosts and terrible places, experienced a revival in the late nineties. The Sixth Sense, The Others, the popularity of J-Horror and its hungry ghosts, maybe presaged the current boom in ghost-hunting and paranormal fascinations.
And more to come. Next year has the promise of a great year for horror and science fiction (will be talking about this in an upcoming post). One of the films I’m most excited about comes from the twisted and brilliant mind of Ti West, perhaps my favorite indie horror director. His The Innkeepers will take us down the dark hole of gothic terror and I cant wait. If you missed his House of the Devil, you missed the best indie horror flick of 2009.
Here’s the trailer for The Innkeepers. Warning: it will scare the living Christmas out of you.
Wow, ok. Anyway, let’s hope that American Horror Story keeps its twisted sense of history, its gothic sensibility, as it moves on from “Murder House” to other haunted American spaces. In the first season, it certainly found a usable past of terror in the American dreamland. A past, in fact, that our films and popular culture, our waking nightmares, cannot seem to escape.
While we are talking gothic, I missed getting this on my holiday list so I’m treating myself to Liisa Ladouceur’s Encyclopedia Gothica. Can’t wait to read the book and to see Gary Pullin’s illustrations…you should pick it up to.
And speaking of things worth reading, take a look at the total, utter takedown of those sad, emo souls who want to turn American Horror Story’s monstrous Tate into the new Edward Cullen over on the “Day of the Woman” blog. BJ -C takes them apart and Twi-heads will never recover.
Promise this is the last American Horror Story post…until next season. Back before too long with book lists, discussions of the year’s upcoming horror films, where I’ll be speaking and signing Monsters in America next year and even a tour of my horror nerd lair. Scary.