Thursday, 25 June 2015

Updates (I mean... creepy, terrifying, important Gothic updates... whoooohhh!)


Greetings Goths!

Sheffield Gothic has been very busy these last few weeks... here are a few things of note!

SUP YO?!?!

The Centre for the History of the Gothic has launched a new website detailing Gothic projects, events, and other information related to the University of Sheffield Gothic program.  Please check it out at http://www.sheffieldhistoryofthegothic.group.shef.ac.uk/

The "Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil" Conference, to be hosted at the University of Sheffield, has just released a Call for Papers.  The Summer of 1816 was of course the time when Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Claremont came together, for the first time, in Geneva, and were inspired to create some of the most seminal works in Gothic fiction.  Check out the CFP at  https://1816conference.wordpress.com/

Sheffield Gothic is pleased to announce its on-going collaboration with The North West Gothic ERC Research Network, based at Manchester Metropolitan University.  We'd like to thank the organizers at MMU for this amazing opportunity to connect with other Gothic researchers, and look forward to working with them in the future!

The meeting schedule for the Sheffield Gothic Reading Group is currently up on this website.  The general theme for this semester is 'religious Gothic' - be sure to mark the dates and come by for the classic combination of cake AND death!

There is currently an open call for blog post up for this website - if you're interesting in writing for us, please contact gothicreadinggroup@gmail.com to find out more!

As ever feel free to contact us and follow us on twitter @SheffieldGothic

#GothsAssemble #WeAreTheBarbarousGoths


Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Reimagining the American Haunted House (Part Three): William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill"



This is the final installment in the blog series on haunted houses in American literature (drum-roll please!), and because I’m secretly very ornery I’ve decided to write about a film which isn’t (ostensibly) particularly American and about a fictional haunted house which (probably) isn’t actually haunted.  

William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) is a famously gimmicky horror film starring Vincent Price in one of his most playfully fiendish roles. It is considered a camp horror classic, and it's success at the box office inspired filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock to cash in on the popular appeal of low-budget horror.  The film is also, fittingly enough, a pseudo-study on what defines a traditional 'haunted house.'

Price plays an eccentric millionaire who invites five strangers to a supposedly haunted house he has rented for a rather unconventional party, offering them each $10,000 if they can stay in the house all night.  The house itself has a dark history – the owner (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) promises, in an opening monologue, that this is the “only really haunted house in the world” and throughout the film his doom-and-gloom character re-emphasizes the possibility of the supernatural.  His family was murdered there, and he repeatedly insists that the house has somehow left its mark on all who enter.  Perhaps it has – the real danger is ultimately not ghosts and ghouls, but the living people staying there.

Vincent Price hosts a party... what's the worst that could happen?

The premise suggests Agatha Christie and the execution suggests Roger Corman.  William Castle employs nearly every possible horror clich├ę imaginable in order to keep the shocks coming – doors that slam shut on their own, the ceiling drips blood, a disembodied head is found in a suitcase (before mysteriously vanishing again), a vat of acid plays an important role, and, seemingly for no reason, a creepy old woman appears out of nowhere before floating away.  The gimmickry didn’t stop at the fourth wall, either.  Castle, at the time of the film's release, installed a pulley system in some theaters which allowed a plastic skeleton to pop out at the audience at the appropriate time. 

The fourth wall was also broken down within the film – Vincent Price’s disembodied head addresses the audience directly in the opening shots, casting the audience as potential guests and victims.  Another character promises that the ghosts will soon come for the audience themselves at the end of the film.  Such techniques effectively bring the audience into the movie and expand the movie to encompass the audience.

No, really, what's the worst that could happen?

It seems impossible that such a jumble of cliched effects could disturb anyone, especially since the movie appears to almost consciously point to its own cheesiness, going for the cheap thrills rather than slowly building dread.  However, in the film’s goofy fakeness there is an important element of horror.  The underlying question of the film is whether or not the house is actually haunted.  The audience is set up to believe so, yet ultimately the answer is immaterial - ghost may or may not be responsible for certain occurrences, but there are more profound evils at play in the house than slamming doors.  As both audience and characters explore the house their understanding of the situation (both supernatural and otherwise) is repeatedly reinforced, subverted, reinstated, and subverted again.  Within the film the gimmickry of horror – the fake heads, strange noises, and tales of gruesome murders employed by Vincent Price’s character (who is ultimately revealed to be a literal puppet master) - actually manages to turn the characters against each other more effectively then a real haunting probably would have.

 “Ah,” I can hear you say, “but is it Gothic?”  Does the self-conscious use and subversion of trite conventions and clich├ęs not place this film more in the realm of parody than anything else?  I would suggest that the film is still an effective horror movie which only grows more Gothic in its persistent exploitation and subversion of expectations – the Gothic, after all, is arguably about recycling tropes in an increasingly unstable and chaotic uncanny space. 

"We're out of cheese twists!" "NOOOO!! Ugh, this party is the worst..."

Moreover, the underlying fears and anxieties within the story do distinguish the film as Gothic.  Sexual jealousy and hatred twist the marriage of the host and hostess, and a heroine falls prey to ‘sensibility’ as various people attempt to ‘Gaslight’ her.  The veneer of a socially acceptable ‘party’ is continually broken as metaphorical ghosts from the past return and the characters' psychological states are twisted by events.  Then there’s the house itself.  Like the other houses discussed in this series it fulfills the basic requirement of any haunted house - it is unheimlich, the ‘un-house’ which denies familiarity and readability.  At one point a character jokes that, “If I was going to haunt anybody this would certainly be the house I’d do it in.” This is particularly telling because that is exactly what happens – the characters and the audience project their own assumptions about the nature of a ‘haunted house’ onto the house (haunted or not), and ultimately the personal secrets and immorality of the characters leads to some very real murder and mayhem.

In many ways these elements make the House on Haunted Hill a distinctly American haunted house.  As examined in earlier posts the American haunted house seems to be defined primarily by its ability to take an old and established trope and twist it into something new.  Many would say that the inclination to make a haunted house a kind of Disneyland ride is typically American, as is the attempt to tame something untameable only to have it eventually come back to bite you.  American anxieties about history define American hauntings, but in this film a 'haunted' history becomes a weapon for the kind of present day deviance only Vincent Price could deliver.

The film has a rather effective twist ending but even without that aspect there is a constant shift between supernatural and not which destabilizes the sense of reality.  Ultimately, despite its persistent cheesiness, the film manages to ask so important questions: What are ghosts? Are they actual physical manifestations or are they just bad feelings and uncanny spaces?  What is more frightening – the dead or the living?


Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield studying narrative in early Gothic literature.  She should be writing her thesis, but she's actually probably off somewhere pretending she's Vincent Price



Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Reimagining the American Haunted House (Part Two): H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House"


This blog is the second installment in a series examining American ‘haunted houses' in Gothic literature.  As I suggested in an earlier post, when most people think about haunted houses they usual have a fairly standard picture in mind... the creepy castle, the abandoned shack, the old ruin.  However, because America has a unique history certain American Gothic texts manipulate the classic ‘haunted house’ trope in order to explore a specific cultural identity.

H.P. Lovecraft is one of my favourite Gothic authors if only because he is so very strange, straddling the boundaries between the Gothic, Weird Fiction, and Science Fiction.  It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that when Lovecraft does write about a haunted house he twists the traditional formula into one in keeping with his own  particular mythos.

The Dreams in the Witch House (1933) is set in “the changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham,” playing with America’s definitions of a ‘haunted house’ and with what constitutes a national ‘haunted history.’  Protagonist Walter Gilman takes an apartment in “the old Witch House” expressly for the purposes of academic study as he attempts to apply modern mathematics and scientific theory to the work of a legendary witch from centuries before.  His new domicile was formerly occupied by a witch named Keziah Mason.  Mason disappeared from a Salem jail during the Witch Trials in the 1600s, leaving behind her a kind of supernatural imprint that makes the very walls of the Witch House uncanny and dangerous.  As Walter unearths a weird kind of supernatural geometry connected with the house and Mason's activities he accidentally falls through a portal to a hell dimension, home to the Elder Gods which populate Lovecraft's fiction.  Refusing to believe his own senses, Walter eventually succumbs to the evil of the house, sells his soul to a Devil-figure while in a dream-state, and is killed by Mason and her familiar, a rat-man creature named Brown Jenkins.

The rat-man. You're welcome.

Within the space of the Witch House boundaries are fluid to the point of being almost non-existent…people fall between the human world and an Elder God world almost unintentionally.  Walter frequently ends up in places he shouldn’t be, unsure whether he can ever escape or, indeed, whether there is even a place to escape to:

“He felt sure he was in the immemorially sealed loft above his own room, but whether he could ever escape through the slanting floor or the long-slopped egress he doubted greatly.  Besides, would not an escape from the dream-loft bring him merely into a dream-house – an abnormal projection of the actual place he sought?  He was wholly bewildered as to the relation betwixt dream and reality in all his experiences.”

Once in a transgressive space, Walter's senses deny boundaries in their inability to navigate slanting floors and basic architecture.  However, the house takes on a doubly uncanny significance when Walter is unable to separate dreams from reality, a dream-house from an actual material space.  

This is interesting given that the story almost immediately starts by anchoring the narrative in a specific time and place – the original evil of the Witch house occurred in 1692 in an area famous for the Salem Witch Trials.  Even a casual reader has immediate associations with that historical context and some very specific cultural traditions and images.  Like many 'haunted' houses in fiction, this house refers to a specific time and crime, yet also articulates a more general anxiety connected to the Salem Witch Trials as a sort of symbol of repression, hysteria, and an uncanny un-identity.  Anxieties about a particularly dark time in American history resurface and reclaim the present just as an actual ghost would.  Moreover, such historical context suggests that the reader can assume that certain historical facts are true and that space in this instance is ultimately fixed and navigable.

However, just as the physical boundaries of the house are fluid, so too are the historical realities associated with it.  Lovecraft reworks the traditional Puritan/Devil story to conform to a Cthulhu mythos.  The original tales of Salem witches include stories of familiars (little demonic creatures who serve witches) and the “Black Man” who comes to his disciples in the night and forces them to write their names in his book (and therein presumably sell themselves to Satan).  In Lovecraft's Witch House those old tropes remain – the witch, the familiar, the Black Man – yet this story also accommodates Lovecraft’s familiar villains, ancient “primal evils” such as Azathoth, an Elder God.  The Black Man, a figure belonging to a specific regional heritage, becomes the messenger of a timeless and space-less elder god, and the haunted house, a material and relatively stable area, becomes a portal to an alternate and unheimlich dimension.  Blood sacrifice, magic, folklore are all reworked and reincorporated into Lovecraft’s reimagining, an adaptation and re-working of history as well as fiction. As such he uses the idea of a ‘haunted house’ to subvert the traditions attached to it – to de-familiarise cultural history and thus blur our perceptions of reality. 


"I'm bored...wake up...make me a snack..." (From Stuart Gordon's 2005 adaptation)

Ultimately, as with all spaces of ‘history,’ the house is revealed to be a graveyard – whatever the true nature of history and identity the story ends, with typical Lovecraftian optimism, with the discovery of a secret horror, in this case a legacy of human sacrifice.  In the "immemorially sealed loft" Walter experiences a timeless evil that is also part of an active attempt to seal off a physical space, the history it represents (the hysteria of the Witch Trials), and the forgotten history (the remains of human sacrifices) which has enabled evil to fester.  By failing to place history in a proper context, however, one risks repeating it.  History in The Dreams of the Witch House is troubling cyclical as yet another victim, Walter, fall prey to an evil that is both anchored in a culturally significant time and space and part of a timeless space without boundaries.  Much like Arkham, this particular American haunted house is both "changeless and legend-haunted."  The house which is introduced as unheimlich develops as the ultimate ‘un-home’ not only because it denies the physicality and materialism of homeliness but because it de-familiarises history and cultural identity for both protagonist and reader.



Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield, studying Gothic narrative in early Gothic texts.  She has visited the Witch House but is waiting until her PhD is completed before she transcends the inter-dimensional plane.