Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Gothic Reading Group Schedule, Autumn/Winter 2016

Sheffield Gothic presents:

Gothic Reading Group Schedule for 
Autumn/Winter 2016: 
‘But is it Gothic?’

We’ve done the classics, we’ve done performance, we've done themes- what next for the Gothic Reading Group? This semester we’ve decided to take our favourite question to heart. We’ll be looking at a series of texts that may not always be identified as Gothic, but contain familiar elements (or flavours)and conventions.

October 5th: Macbeth (2015)

We’re kicking off the new semester with a screening of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation of the Scottish Play, starring Sheffield Gothic favourite Michael Fassbender in the titular role. Drawing on our previous focus on 17th century texts, such as Dr Faustus and The Revengers Tragedy, as ‘proto Gothic’ we’ll be discussing both the text itself and the films stylistic choices.


October 19th: The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood

What more can there be to say about Atwood’s 1985 classic of speculative fiction, The Handmaids Tale? Well, lots hopefully. Perhaps more relevant than ever, (with a 10-part series on the way), we’ll be discussing the novel with particular focus on Atwood’s use of imagery and language as well its dystopian setting.

November 2nd: The ‘Cartoon Cartoons’ era

Anyone who was blessed with satellite or cable television in the 90’s may remember the days of Cartoon Cartoons: from the ‘upsetting when you think about it too much as an adult’ shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory to the ‘definitely traumatised me as a child’ likes of Cow and Chicken and I am Weasel. In a reliving of our childhoods that we’ll likely regret, we’ll be looking at a selection of cartoons from the 90’s and early 00’s through a Gothic lens.

Look into the cold unnatural whites of their eyes and feel fear!

November 16th: Adventure Time

Since its appearance in 2010, Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time has steadily become a global sensation. As the series’ has progressed it’s delved deeper into the workings of the weird and wonderful Land of Ooo and its origins as a - spoiler alert - post-apocalyptic wasteland. Whilst some elements are obviously Gothic- such as the show's main antagonist of The Lich and Marceline the Vampire Queen, daughter of a demon king- the shows exploration of morality, environmentalism, mental health and spirituality also tread arguably Gothic ground.

November 30th: The Blood of the Vampire, Florence Marryat

Okay, so we’ll admit: this one is definitely Gothic. We’ve been trying to sneak in this tale of a young woman of ‘unusual’ parentage, complete with voodoo and psychic vampirism, for some time. Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire appeared the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) but takes a rather different route. The focus this session will be less ‘but it is it Gothic?’ and more ‘how is it Gothic?’

December 14th: Spirited Away (2001) 

For our final meeting of the semester, we’ll be screening Studio Ghibli’s Oscar award winning animated film Spirited Away. We’ll be asking ourselves about the relationship between the Gothic and the supernatural, but also the films engagement with the notion of greed. As we stuff our faces with cake, of course.

Pictured: typical Gothic Reading Group session

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Problem of Appropriation - “But is it Gothic?”

One of the common catchphrases of the Gothic Reading group here at Sheffield U is the question “but is it Gothic?” and it’s something that often sparks off serious debate.

(Nerd Alert: incoming heavy geekery and/or hard fanboying. You have been warned).

One would be forgiven for thinking that a TV show that includes ghosts, vampires, technology of the past erupting into the present, possession, frankensteinien creations, sublime monsters, and zombies would slip comfortably into the Gothic genre. Yet who would call The Transformers 1984 anime, the show which includes all these elements, Gothic? A show about giant fighting robots that turn into vehicles hardly smacks of Poe influences or dark terror, but an argument could be conceivably created to argue just that. And therein lies the problem of appropriation that I want to talk about today.

Octane, pursued by Cyclonus, Scourge and his Sweeps,
finds the ghost of Starscream floating in his crypt.
But is it Gothic?

The nature of Gothic is that it is pervasive: it lingers like an infection in society, occasionally resurfacing (as it has recently) into the mainstream consciousness. It’s a nice symmetry with the nature of the genre itself, which deals in pasts long thought buried which return to haunt the present (much like the transformers buried for aeons in a ship under the eart- Okay, I'll stop now). The problem is in over-identification, or rather, the appropriation of texts for the great and growing Gothic canon. The example which always comes to mind here, is that of Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. While I love the text as one of my favourite books of all time, I have never considered it as Gothic. Yet Maria Beville in Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity makes a convincing argument that this text, in its exploration of trauma, can be defined as Gothic. Beville argues that we do not need the paraphernalia of the Gothic, that postmodernist literature touched on contemporary terrors, positing this as Gothic’s supreme purpose.

While I can see this point of view, and the argument is both well made and interesting, I believe that sometimes this kind of textual appropriation can become all too common- Does terror in a text make it Gothic? What about that terrifying section of The Land Before Time VIII with the albertosaurus? Does that make it Gothic? Such thinking perhaps blurs the boundaries of the genre, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I can’t exactly claim innocence of this crime, though. All too easily I see myself identifying certain elements within TV shows, books, films, anything, and attempting to press them into service for the Gothicist in me. But is it Gothic? 

"A-Are we Gothic, Ducky? why am I
suddenly filled with existential dread!"
Let’s take 2002’s Blade 2 as an example. Here we have a film with vampires, the drinking of blood, labyrinthine sewers, warped familial legacies, and the sins of the father damning the future of the son. A big swing on the Goth-O-Meter towards “Gothic”. But the film does seem rejects its Gothicity (is that a word?), performing as an action blockbuster where the hero fights against all odds to defeat the cursed villain with explosions and guile.

The scenes push for a more action-line than horror, though those elements are there. You could, if you were so inclined, make an argument that it is Gothic in some ways, but the film is quintessentially Action, rather than Gothic in genre. Mary Going, a fellow PhD researcher at Sheffield coined an interesting term to resolve this, stating that such texts have ‘Gothic flavours’, and it is a phrase that I think should definitely find some traction, evoking perhaps the taste of blood, of decay and bonemeal, or dusty tombs. And Gothic flavours pervade a lot of artistic output, especially in the contemporary environment.

Sunglasses indoors are still cool, Gothic or not.
Texts like Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Text and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, for example, evoke a sense of the Gothic while not explicitly adhering to the genre. While I believe I could make a somewhat convincing argument for the Gothicity (I’m going to make it happen) of such texts, perhaps I shouldn’t. While it’s interesting to analyse the Gothic flavours of such texts, which can prove valuable in terms of the new ways in which these Gothic tropes are employed, to label these texts as Gothic does them a disservice. It foregrounds issues of terror, death and potential mental illness, which may or may not be main focus of such texts, but merely part of larger themes and subsequently may obfuscate, or worse colour, other readings of the text.

The same retroactive appropriation of texts often occurs in my main research area, that of metafiction. Metafiction, dealing with self-conscious fiction, is often attributed to the earliest of novels- Tristram Shandy is often cited, along with Shamela and even The Canterbury Tales for their elements which make clear their fictitious natures. Linda Hutcheon, in Narcissistic Narrative addresses this issue, arguing that while Metafiction is a relatively recent classification (coined in 1970 by William H. Gass), there have still been metafictitious elements for as long as there have been novels. The aforementioned texts, while displaying the motifs we now catagorise as metafiction, should not be claimed by metafiction, but rather seen as precursors, as containing, if I may, metafictional flavours. On a side note, I imagine that metafictional flavours would probably taste of tongue, or the taste of a tongue that has been rubbed on a book, or of smells. Tasty.

Pictured: Gothic Flavours. 
I think that appropriation is unstoppable in our academic works, as Gothicists, as we are often so enamoured with our lovely little Gothic, our slice of terror, our wonderful everliving genre, that we see it everywhere. And while it is certainly interesting, and often enlightening, to cast our beady vulture eye over other texts and pluck from them the decaying veins of the Gothic, perhaps, in answer to that time old question “but is it Gothic?” we should perhaps be suggesting that it has Gothic flavours. Or, alternatively, is Beville right in asserting that the age of Gothic as defined by a specific set of paraphernalia is over? But... is it Gothic?

"I was sparkling before Vampires made it cool, Octane!"
This question, as luck would have it, is the next theme for this term’s Gothic Reading Group! How fortuitious! Sheffield Gothic will be meeting to discuss texts that we think might be Gothic in flavour, if not in nature, bringing to light a few hidden gems that we think deserve a bit more attention. Stay tuned for the upcoming schedule and please do get in touch if you’d like to come down one day and join us by contacting:

Danny ‘Decepticon’ Southward is a PhD researcher in contemporary Gothic and post-postmodernism at the university of Sheffield. His work focuses on metamodernism, metafiction and creative writing (and also apparently Transformers). He’s not obsessed with Transformers. Honest. No, Really. Maybe a little. Okay, quite a lot. FIRRIB, amiright? 

Friday, 2 September 2016

A Fresher Possession- Rob Kirkman's Outcast

From the creator of The Walking Dead comes Outcast: visually stunning and at times genuinely terrifying and creepy, this new horror television series aims to follow the success of The Walking Dead in reimagining an established but perhaps stale horror genre, although here the focus is not Zombies, but demonic possession. Adapted from the comic of the same name, Rob Kirkman’s Outcast follows Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) as he returns to his childhood home in Rome, South Carolina, and reluctantly reconnects with Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister). However, this is no ordinary reunion.

Re-united and it feels so good

Reverend Anderson is investigating a case of demonic possession, and as Kyle helps him to exorcise the demon from a young boy it becomes clear this is not their first demonic encounter. Moreover, it also becomes clear that the demon recognizes Kyle. This demon, and the subsequent demons he encounters throughout the series, identifies Kyle as ‘Outcast’. Although this label clearly pertains to the mythology of the series and Kyle’s relationship with the demons, it is also appropriately fitting for Kyle: having been adopted following violent abuse from his (possessed) mother, the now adult Kyle returns to Rome but without his own family, living as a kind of exile or social pariah, and followed by the rumors of his own domestic abuse.

Possession films form a significant part of the horror genre. Critically acclaimed, The Exorcist (1793) is often featured on lists of the best horror films, and since its release it has inspired a wealth of sequels, parodies, and other related possession films. The Exorcist therefore functions as an exemplar possession film; a forerunner establishing the conventions of the genre and the narrative structure that similar films would go on to typically adhere to.

Some say not to let the evil in... others say
This structure has arguably become somewhat formulaic: someone, usually a woman or a child, becomes possessed; their family and friends identify the possession, seek answers, and eventually discover the surrounding mythology of the possession; and finally, an authority from within this mythology is called upon to perform the exorcism. Following the Gothic’s fixation with Roman Catholicism, its rituals and aesthetics, the mythology used within possession films tends to be rooted in Catholicism, as is the case with The Exorcist. Typically, although not exclusively, the authority figure or exorcisor is a Catholic priest, and the demon is successfully exorcised with a combination of apotropaics, such as holy water, rosary beads, readings of scripture and, of course, the Roman Catholic ritual of exorcism.

This trend has continued into the twenty-first century with films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Rite (2011) which all follow the conventional structure of demonic possession and Christian/ Catholic exorcism. There are also several films that attempt to modify this conventional structure including The Unborn (2009) and The Possession (2012), which both situate their narratives, demonic possessions, and exorcisms within a Jewish framework. Though such films present some changes to the, by now, well-trodden conventions of the genre, they do not offer a substantial departure; while changing the aesthetics and mythology they continue to stay within the established formula.

Exorcism of a Jewish Dybbuk by a rabbi in The Possesion

However, Kirkman’s Outcast does offer a fresh reimagining of the possession genre. Arguable, this is in part due the medium of the television series which allows its characters, events leading up to and following possessions, and the possessions themselves to be developed and explored in greater length and thus detail. This contrasts with the medium of film which is not only limited in screen time but also tends to focus on a singular exorcism as the crux or the main event of its narrative.

For those who have already delved into Outcast, it is clear that Kirkman is not rushing his story. At times the narrative can seem slow paced, and each episode frequently lingers on extreme close ups, often of the eyes of its protagonists – but this simply contributes to the overall eerie and unsettling tone of series. Additionally, the television series is by its nature more intimate than film, which heightens this tone. Viewed alone or in small groups (unlike films which are geared towards the larger, communal audience of the cinema), the continual inclusion of extreme close ups, along with the often extremely visceral, violent, and even bloody possession scenes themselves, invade the private, intimate space of the viewer at home.

Quite simply, Outcast is unsettling. It unsettles the safety of domestic spaces, the family home, and even the intimate space of the bedroom; it unsettles the harmony of family, friend, and romantic relationships; and it even unsettles ownership of the body. While much of this can be credited to the supernatural textures of the series, the possessions are themselves woven into a story already laced with disturbing and unsettling events stemming from the natural world. Without giving too much away, the story of Megan (Wrenn Schmidt), Kyle’s adoptive sister, perfectly encapsulates the interweaving of natural and supernatural narratives that both contribute to the unsettling of domestic spaces and the body.

Domestic and bodily turmoil in an unsettling space.
Structurally, too, the medium of television allows for more a more detailed exploration. Here, possession is not simply a singular event initiated by an evil occupier that, once cast out, returns the possessed body and the surroundings back to normalcy, or at least a semblance of normalcy that post-possession allows the body and the individual to heal. Possessions and exorcisms are shown to be violent and brutal, the physical and psychological effects lasting far beyond the event itself and even, in some cases, causing permanent damage that cannot be reversed.

Finally, Outcast unsettles the traditional formula of possession and exorcism. From the first episode of the series, which is framed through the possession of a young boy Joshua (Gabriel Bateman), it becomes clear that the traditional formula of exorcism narratives may not be as effective as we have been lead to believe. Structurally, this episode most clearly appears to adhere to the traditional formula, with the opening scenes focusing on Joshua.

These scenes include several extreme close-up shots of Joshua’s eyes, open mouth, and a bug, along with a suitably eerie soundtrack; Joshua is leaning over his bed, scratching his hand and staring at the wall, before suddenly slamming his head into the wall, crushing the bug before proceeding to eat it, blood and all. With blood smeared down his face, we follow Joshua downstairs as he eventually gains the attention of his mother, but not without first attempting to eat his own finger.

This visceral, bloody scene signals the kind of possession we are to encounter in the series. Reverend Anderson is called in to help, and with his reputation within the community of Rome for performing successful exorcisms, fills the traditional role of authority figure/ exorcisor. Later in the episode, as we join Kyle in his reunion with Reverend Anderson, we follow them both into the bedroom of Joshua and witness seemingly traditional features of possession and exorcism: Reverend Anderson employs the apotropaics of the Bible, holy water, and sage, while the possessed Joshua inhabits the traditional physicality and sounds of a possessed child, both animal-like and very, very creepy. Yet, as the exorcism takes place, it is clear that Outcast is not following the tradition of established possession and exorcism narratives. In this case, Reverend Anderson’s attempts have not worked, and instead it is Kyle who successfully exorcises the demon. Moreover, Kyle’s exorcism is extremely unorthodox, and as violent and bloody as the possession itself.

As the series continues, the success of Reverend Anderson’s exorcisms is increasingly called into question, while his identity as preacher/exorcisor is further examined by the community and himself. Without the traditional Christian mythology, the formula of a religious authority figure and arsenal of religious items to protect the community from the threat of possession, the community of Rome, and indeed the viewer of the series, is left incredibly vulnerable. Indeed, the only real protection seems to come from Kyle himself, occupying the new identity of ‘outcast’ which produces more questions than answers. Why do the demons recognize Kyle, why do they call him outcast, why are they afraid of him: these are all questions raised throughout the series and left unanswered.

Kirkman is successful in offering a fresh perspective on the possibly tired possession genre. At times, his narrative seems to invoke parallels with Body Snatchers narratives, while the mythology and the identity of the Outcast he creates moves away from the traditional possession and exorcism formula. This is definitely a series worth watching, and, already renewed for a second series before the first episode of the first series aired, it is one to keep an eye on.

Mary 'Slayer' Going is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield and member of Sheffield Gothic. Her research focuses on representations of Jewish figures in Romantic and Gothic fiction. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she is terrified by the original Exorcist film, and refused to have any pictures of Regan in this blog.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Review: Iqbal Khan's Macbeth

I feel as if I should preface this review/blog with a disclaimer: I am neither a Shakespearean expert (at least no more than anyone with an undergraduate degree in English Literature is) nor a ‘purist’. Shakespeares’s Globe’s Wonder season, Emma Rice’s first as the theatre’s artisitc director, has been the topic of much conversation, both positive and negative, about the way in which it has adapted and presented Shakespeare’s work. Being as this review (and to an extent, this reviewer) is primarly concerned with the performance’s Gothic aspects, I won’t be passing judgment on the adaptation in that respect. Disclaimer number two: the play is still running (until October) and, all things aside, as I enjoyed it I wouldn’t like to spoil it. Also, despite having my notebook open in my lap the whole time, I completely forgot to take any notes for the majority of the performance. 

Though my eyes are want to see the Gothic wherever they look, I think it fair to say that Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth is a Gothic creation. The music that opens Khan’s Macbeth sets the tone of the adaptation, peformed beautifully and sung in what sounded, based on what I claimed at the time was a logical guess but honestly was from extensive Outlander viewing, like Gaelic before morphing into the Witches’ opening speech.

We’ve talked a lot about witches this term- largely thanks to the release of Robert Egger’s film The Witch earlier this year, which the Guardian called ‘a 90-minute exercise in anxiety’. As this blog has mentioned before, discussion at this year’s Gothic Reading Group sessions returned frequently to the same question: ‘What is there for us still to be afraid of?’ Texts like Egger’s The Witch tap into an anxiety a world away from the sensory overload horror that hits the cinemas every October and create a fear that’s less ‘jumped so hard in the cinema I spilled this obscenely large coke all over my jeans’ and more ‘lying awake at night flinching at every creak, trying not to cry.’ (Not that I didn’t jump, but as has been previously established, I’m a real easy scare).

The Witches three have taken many forms over the years. How does one make a witch visibly a witch, after all, without making them little more than a cheap Halloween costume? How do you style her, move her and stage her in a way that unsettles a modern audience?

There are an ambiguous number of witches in Khan’s Macbeth. And by that I mean there are four. But those four are also three. The four female actors (whom we identify as witches by their costuming) function as something of a chorus, donning black veils for moments of prophecy. They rise from a pile of bodies and, as Macbeth and Banquo approach them for the first time, they come together to form the triptych from a series of grotesque and disjointed limbs that shift to represent each ‘sister’.

From a Gothic perspective, this version of Macbeth’s witches works wonderfully; uncanny and unsettling, they are at once human and inhuman. The actresses are not the witches, but appear as a part of them; a physical extension that draws on the audience’s (both contemporary and modern) anxieties about femininity. Humour aside, it did draw my mind once again to Outlander, where Claire’s modern attitudes and medicinal knowledge cast her frequently as a witch. But that’s a blog post for another time.

The witch-women physcially move the play forward, crowning Macbeth and conjouring on stage the ghost of Banquo. I found myself particualrly impressed with the staging of this set piece, which was genuinely one of the most effective I’ve seen. Khan manages, through very simple means I will not spoil, to create something chilling, nightmarish and even monstrous. My only criticism is that I would have relished more. But there is another ghost in Khan’s Macbeth. And he is very cute.

A small boy appears throughout the play; he has no lines but is evidently the child of the Macbeths. Khan’s is not the first adapation to explore Lady Macbeth’s lines in Act I, Scene VII, ‘I have given suck, and know/ How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me’, but some reviewers have questioned the decision to include their child. However, so far as I noticed, the boy seeimingly exists only to Lady Macbeth, a blind man and later Macbeth. Perhaps it is the Gothicist in me, but I read the child as the ghost of the child the play implies the Macbeth’s to have lost. The child’s silence and Lady Macbeth’s doting obsession with him added texture to her character and performance, highlighting the anxieties and anguish that form her motivations.

Overall, Khan’s Macbeth sat well with me even if the witches did steal the show, with Banquo in a close second. During our perfomance, he stole a lemonade from a school boy in the groundlings, wandered off stage with it, then came out for his next scene and handed the kid an empty cup. Khan’s is a diverse and predominently well chosen cast. (Nadia Albina’s Porter, though perhaps not for all, had me in hysterics.)

If you want to see the play for yourself, Macbeth can be found at The Globe until October 1st-

Lauren 'Bee Afraid' Nixon is a PhD researcher at the university of Sheffield, whose research focuses on masculinity in the Gothic. She's also the new keeper of the blog and needs a fresh supply of blogs to keep her satisfied or she'll be the Macdeath of us all. Please send all proposals or blogs to 

and spare us a fate worse than Banquo.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Vampire Rabbit

Gargoyles are familiar fixtures on British buildings, glaring down from churches and cathedrals around the country. While gargoyles and grotesque figures have existed on religious buildings for centuries, they became more common within Gothic architecture. Some of them take the form of animals, and one of the earliest recorded animal gargoyles was a classical Greek lion in Athens, found on the Acropolis, that dates to the 4th century. But not many cities can boast a Vampire Rabbit among their watchful figures.

The Vampire Rabbit can be found above the weirdly ornate rear entrance to Cathedral Buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne. The front of the block is on Dean Street, once voted the best street in the UK, while the back faces the rear of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The building was finished in 1901, designed by architects Oliver, Leeson and Wood. The six storey building is now a mixed-used property, owned and managed by Minel Venues. Inspired by the Sparrowes House in Ipswich, Cathedral Buildings is a strange, rococo confection that stands out among the original buildings and multi storey car park on Dean Street.
But why a Vampire Rabbit?
Truth is, no one knows. Art historian Gail-Nina Andersen proposed several theories during a talk about the Rabbit in April, though none of them can be declared as definitive, and most of them rely on hearsay. One theory posits that he’s actually a hare, and a nod to the work of engraver Thomas Bewick, whose workshop was very close by. Bewick’s work features a range of hares and rabbits, but the connection seems a little far-fetched given the rabbit’s less than naturalistic representation. As far as anyone can tell, the Vampire Rabbit has always been on the building, though he had shorter ears in the past, and he was white at once stage. His current black coat and red fangs and claws are the result of a newer paint job. The longer replacement ears he now has are closer to a hare, so it would seem he was originally intended to be a rabbit.
There are no precedents for vampire rabbits or hares in vampire lore, and while he was referred to as the Demon Rabbit at one point, it’s still not a typical association. Rabbits and hares are usually associated with fertility, madness, purity or, weirdly, cunning and intelligence. You only need to look at Brer Rabbit to see the latter in effect. Renaissance art usually relates rabbits either to purity, and places them with the Virgin Mary, or it associates them with fecundity, and you’re more likely to see them with Venus.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Wellcome V0021351
The fact he’s on the back of the building is a key point. The front entrance isn’t actually as grand as the back, and the front certainly doesn’t feature any fantastical creatures. I wondered if the Vampire Rabbit was somehow linked with witchcraft, due to the old belief that witches could transform into hares. He’s opposite the east window of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, so maybe someone associated with the building had a problem with Christianity. Given the cathedral grounds he watches over were once used for burials (it’s now a car park), maybe he’s there to keep the inhabitants in line. There are dark tales of vampirism in the area, and when the unfortunate burials were relocated to make way for the car park, some of the corpses were allegedly discovered buried facing down. This is supposedly a means of keeping vampires in the grave as they’ll just dig themselves further into the earth, instead of out. Is the rabbit a reference to that?

If we want to string out the tenuous links even further, you often find dead rabbits in Dutch vanitas paintings. Their intention was to remind the viewer that death comes to us all. Such ‘cheerful’ work often included memento mori, such as skulls, but rabbits, as prey animals, were common symbols. Given the Vampire Rabbit’s position opposite what was once a graveyard, maybe he’s there to remind us that, like those he watched over, we’re not immortal either?
How famous is he?
I’m not really sure when he became ‘famous’ as such, but he’s definitely become an object of fond associations for locals. In 1998, the Vampire Rabbit even made an appearance in Tinseltoon, a children’s fairytale set in Newcastle. In it, the historic statues of the city come to life one Christmas Eve, including our infamous bunny. Here, he’s not so much a vampire as a vegetarian, trying to munch on some grass in the churchyard. It certainly brings to mind characters such as Count Duckula, or Bunnicula.
I first came across him while on a ghost walk around the Castle Garth area in around 2008, where he featured prominently within the history of the locale. The Vampire Rabbit was the cover image on a tourism brochure, and he also appears on posters to advertise the area. He was also spectacularly lit up during the Glow festival in 2006. For a novelty gargoyle, he’s proved to be quite the tourist attraction.

No matter what the reason for his being there is, I’m very glad to live in a city that features vampiric bunnies as ornamental decor!

Say 'hello' to the new specter of your nightmares
Laura Sedgwick is currently studying for a PhD in Film Studies on the topic of ‘Haunted Spaces in Contemporary Horror Cinema: Set Design and the Gothic’. She is Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of New Zealand and Pacific Studies, and Assistant Organiser for the annual conferences of the New Zealand Studies Association. Her research interests include cemetery architecture, Gothic Studies, horror cinema, Surrealism, art history, and moai culture. She used to do ghost hunts in her spare time but has yet to get a decent photo of Casper!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Fascinating Faces: Considering the Death Mask

A traditional method of capturing the physical trace of the human body was through the invention of the death mask. The mask would be created by pouring wax or plaster onto the face of the deceased individual. This process was the only way in which to capture the physical features of an individual before the photographic process was invented.

The most famous example of the death mask is that of Tutankhamun, made from solid gold and inlaid with precious stones. The process of creating the death mask gained momentum in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries where individuals of high status or royalty had masks made which were used as effigies as their bodies lay in state. The earliest known European example is the death mask of Edward III. Interestingly, only British examples have survived from this time period as all casts taken of French royalty within this period were destroyed during the French Revolution.

This technique continued to be used throughout the subsequent centuries, becoming more widespread and increasingly less exclusive to the aristocracy. It was used to capture the physical features of unknown victims of crime, murder or suicide. One of the most compelling examples was created in the 19th Century and known as L’Inconnue de la Seine. This death mask was taken from the body of an unknown female who was found in the River Seine in Paris, a possible victim of suicide. A pathologist at the morgue took a cast from the victim as he was enchanted by her face.

Such was the interest in this story, that the cast was reproduced and the general public bought copies of the original and displayed them in their homes. It became an object d’art and a source of inspiration for both tomes of literature and within the Visual Arts. Boddaert (1993) discusses the writer and philosopher Albert Camus and his reaction to the viewing of L’Inconnue de la Seine. He compared the expression on her face to that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The L’Inconnue de la Seine became endlessly intriguing and fascinating to artists and the public alike. There is little doubt that the comparison to Da Vinci’s masterpiece only helped to propell the myth surrounding the victim and into the bourgeois society of the day. The mysterious and enigmatic quality of the cast served as a source of inspiration for subsquent decades to follow. In 1958 it became the face model for the first aid CPR doll, and is claimed to be the most kissed face in the world.

Figure 1
L'Inconnue de la Seine

The death mask acts as a way of capturing the in-between stages of life. It records the physical features of the human form but taken after death. In this sense, the death mask acts as a link between the two stages of existence, life and death. They have the ability to transcend these states in order to become something more than just a record of the physical features of an individual. They are an absent presence, captured in a specific moment in time. They are tangible through the physical cast and can provide information to the viewer with regards to their expression or the action of their body at time of death. But ironically, the death mask remains inaccessible to the living. We can only make assumptions based on the casts we see, we cannot unlock them completely. They give the viewer a tantalising glimpse into the past life of the individual which only serves to create more questions. Who were they? What did they feel?

Figure 2
The (alleged) Death Mask of Shakespeare

In ancient civilisations, the death mask would be put on display in the home of the family as a reminder of the individual’s life. The capturing of the physical body through the casting process could be argued as acting as a kind of memory which helps to fix the physical trace for eternity. The loss of the individual only succeeds in making the viewer sense the human condition more readily. The fact that these casts are made after death only makes them more poignant, and endlessly fascinating.

Jennifer Richards is a Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. She currently holds a Masters Degree in Contemporary Arts. Her research areas explore a range of visual responses to the themes of transformation, masquerade, temporality and performance. She has recently presented papers at Kingston University’s Reflected Shadows Conference; exhibited work at the University of Sheffield’s Reimagining the Gothic Showcase and is currently working on her paper for the Temporal Discombobulations conference at the University of Surrey in August.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Gothic Agents of Chaos Villainy in Comic Book Movies and Liberal Vigilantes

The Gothic and pop culture have found a fruitful common ground in television series, graphic novels and movies. Moving away from the traditional mode of the novel, material that has Gothic elements has found its way into most aspects of our everyday life, revealing pervasive elements of otherwise ordinary items and icons of everyday life and culture. Graphic novels and their respective film adaptations have entered the public sphere for good in the 21st century; they are not anymore the byproducts of underground fandoms, nor the mediocre commercially successful projects from maverick studios. The two blockbusters that came out this year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from DC Comics and Warner Bros) and Captain America: Civil War were met with phenomenal commercial success, despite the negative critics regarding the first one. I will mainly concerned with the comic book villains in these two movies and how they create, or even follow a Gothic tradition of descent into darkness, violence, despair and self-destructiveness.

What made the movies stand out for the following analysis was not only the incredible team up of popular comic book characters (even if the case of the DC hit this team up had never occurred before in a live action film); it is the villains that moved the interest of the viewers from heroes, be those (white and dark) knights, (neo)liberal icons and white-red-and-blue strapped boy scouts to tortured souls, “abominations” and megalomaniac deluded scientists-geniuses.

In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from here on BvS) as well as in Captain America: Civil War (from here on Civil War) the premise from the very beginning of the film is bringing the heroes face to face with the consequences of their actions, as presented in previous movies installments. Helmut Zemo, the main adversary in Civil War, whose family was all tragically killed when their town was destroyed in a previous installment of the Marvel cinematic franchise (Avengers- Age of Ulron), has no supernatural powers, nor is he a career-criminal mastermind. Much like a hero from Poe’s tales, he is driven over the edge by despair over a personal tragedy. He loses his family and sets out to destroy the “heroes” responsible facilitating the postmodern reality around him so as for the public to see them as he does: menaces that need to be put under control or be jailed and killed.

Zemo, in a noticeably BARON looking room
... it's funny, trust me.  

Zemo’s paranoia follows a Gothic tradition that sees the protagonist to use extreme means of persuasion and torture, change multiple identities, and constantly mislead those hunting him down to his own ends. In the age of surveillance, the Internet, social media, and fluid identities Zemo does not hesitate to use all means necessary to mislead the public and ultimately reveal the worst selves of whomever the world considers role models. He will present himself as the “Other” that is always someone else: a psychiatrist, a brainwashed assassin, a delivery boy: whatever is necessary to confuse and create chaos. He hunts down a manuscript that will allow him to control super-soldiers, but as the viewers will realize, this is only a pretense that is also not part of his identity. The stereotypical use of all comic book clich├ęs here are used to deceit the protagonists as well, as there is no overarching plan, only the basic human desire for vengeance. A vengeance that is self-destructive, one that once completed leads Zemo to attempt suicide (and fail due to another superhero).

The prevalent Civil War theme is whether or not those with powers should be controlled by governments and laws, namely international ones, is also at stake at BvS. The movie has become all too uncannily familiar, as the Capitol is bombed by a seemingly lone wolf terrorist, a person that lost his legs and his family after a fight that levelled half a city between Superman and General Zod. In this film the criminal mastermind is the heir to a multimillion corporation, a friendly face similar to what we see today as millennial CEOs and owners of successful startup companies. He is all out for power, and as we see in the course of the film, he organizes with clinical precision a mass murder in Africa, a bombing in Washington DC, a clash between Batman and Superman, and finally the birth of an abomination, very similar to Frankenstein’s creature. Lex Luthor is a child that was abused by his father, is generally (and up to the very end of the movie) considered a model citizen, has a love-hate relationship with certain parties in the US government and cannot fathom that he can be possibly outsmarted.

If the first films of the new millennium were mostly concentrated on origins and the so called “good guys”, or as Luthor calls them “the capes”, then BvS shifts the focus to the people themselves. The opening scene features not Batman, but Bruce Wayne at the epicenter of destruction, one of mythical proportions and uncanny, in that the creatures from above that cause all that look like humans, but their actions portray them as otherwise. The Batman, a vigilante that moves into the shadows, one that even the people he rescues are terrified of, is not the most frightening icon of the film. The hauntological concerns of postmodernism prevail and we see humans that are not only afraid of what lies beyond, but also what the next day will bring. The two movies operate in parallel universes with all too many similarities to ours, and it would be safe to say that out post-9/11 world is pretty similar to theirs as well. Even if in BvS no one mentions New York, even if in Civil War their New York has buildings such as the Avenger’s tower that is all too futuristic for our reality, it is clear to the viewers that the same tensions from our world apply in the cinematic universes as well.

At the center of the concerns over the limits of technology and the duality of human nature lies Doomsday. He is a combination of Alien technology and human blood (Lex Luthor’s) and it is a creature that is born with the sole purpose of killing Superman. From its very birth it’s called an abomination; both the AI and Luthor himself name it like that, and it is indicative of the morally dubious process that is followed that even by alien standards it is illegal and contrary to any kind of customary tradition. Luthor desecrates a corpse, uses his own blood, and through what may look like a dark magic ritual, only in this case technology becomes the “othered” force majeure, Doomsday is born. He is by all means and purposes the Gothic image of capitalism. A monstrous creature that keeps getting stronger if someone attacks it, seems indestructible even by the most extreme weapons mankind possesses (nuclear weapons), it is born in the middle of an battlefield, on the ruins of skyscrapers, and not even the guy that represents “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” cannot defeat it without sacrificing himself. Doomsday, in name, nature, appearance, and actions is everything the 21st century citizen should be afraid of. It is no accident that this gothic monster, this abomination, kills the symbol of hope in the film, Superman. Doomsday is not Frankenstein’s creature. He is not abandoned by his creator, he was not a person that his creator was too afraid to cultivate and claim responsibility for; he was exactly what Lex Luthor wanted him to be, a tool for destruction and murder. His existence was not robbed of meaning; the only purpose it had was mayhem, a nemesis for all who thought that their way of life was back to “normal.”

Lex Luthor, as played by Jesse Eisenberg
At the end of both movies, the viewer naturally is promised of more sequels and more team-ups. But what is left for us to wonder is what lies ahead for the villains that we saw. On the one hand, Zemo is incarcerated and there is a cosmic threat looming over our beloved Avengers, that of Thanos. However, the tensions and the secrets of the grounded Marvel superheroes tell a story quite Gothic, the return of repressed secrets and desires, and characters that are not the role models have learned to admire them as. On the other hand, in the DC Comics blockbuster Lex Luthor from his jail warns of a bell that has been rung and “cannot be unrung.”The Lovecraftian promise is not only foreshadowing a great cosmic threat, but also shows how the Gothic ultimately functions as a language that makes turns popular culture icons to problematic and troubled characters; heroes and villains alike that act in quite unpredicted and unprecedented patterns, bound to face the consequences of their actions as the latter gradually become their own nemesis.

Generously written for us by Michail-Chrysovalantis Markodimitrakis:

I am a PhD student at the American Culture Studies Department at Bowling Green State University. I hold a BA in English Language and Literature from Aristotle University and an MA in English with a specialization in Literary and Textual Studies from BGSU. My research interests include but are not limited to the Gothic, postmodernism, graphic novels, science fiction, steampunk, propaganda in popular culture, and the Absurd in literature.