The Horrific Experience of Coming Face to Face with the Other 2, or: Why The Thing with Two Heads is a Great Horror Film (h2so4 17)
For a long time I have wondered why certain purveyors of horror not only do not scare me, an inveterate fan of the genre, but rather piss me off. Due to the fact that this is a genre (literary, filmic) built upon dualitiessuch love vs. fear, good vs. evil, day vs. night, open sublime scenery vs. claustrophobic storm-encircled castlesits critics and apologists alike have tried to set up similar dichotomies in their readings of gothic. But none of these dichotomies completely satisfy nor explain my own hot and cold attitudes to various works within the genre. Early on (1826) Ann Radcliffe herself (known as the Shakespeare of gothic romance, author of the most influential The Mysteries of Udolpho and several other seminal romances in the genre) tried to explain to her critics, in a posthumously published essay, “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” the difference between terror and horror. She links terror, a feeling of “uncertainty and obscurity” which “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties,” with Burke’s concept of the sublime; and she links horror, which “contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates [the faculties],” with, well, disgust as a critical aesthetic response to yuckiness. This comes down to us today as the horror film purist’s claim that a Hitchcockian suggestion of murder (the shower scene in Psycho, for instance) is superior to a Lucio Fulci Italian gore-fest because the terror we feel when we imagine something terrible is more suggestive and aesthetically pleasing than the horror that we feel when we see something horrible perpetrated on a seemingly real human body.
While I more or less agree with this based on my own direct aesthetic experience, I have to reject it as a theoretical principle, especially in light of the various American post-wartime horror film cycles which have obviously sprung from a need to express the horror of that kind of carnage. From Lon Chaney Sr.’s post W.W.I armless, legless and noseless anti-heroes to Tom Savini’s (a Vietnam vet) dismemberment special effects for George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, many horror films have served as an interesting medium for exploring the horror that we feel in the face of military technology’s effect on the human body. (Remember? That’s the bogus explanation offered by Vaughan for his fascination with accident scars in David Cronenberg’s Crash. Actually it masks Vaughn’s quasi-religious sexual obsession with all things automotively experienced.) This horror of technological dismemberment is real and felt and, when presented intelligibly, quite effective. Still, there is something to be said for seeing and not seeing, something which lies much more deeply entrenched within in the genre.
One fairly recent study has helped to deepen my understanding of some of my own intimations regarding horror/gothic literature and film, seeing and not seeing, and the process of ritual initiation. It has also, almost as an aside, helped me to understand why I so vehemently reject some productions of the genre. Anne Williams’ Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic very interestingly follows the divisionary tendencies of gothic criticism, dividing gothic into male and female modes. The female gothic mode (the romances of Radcliffe, the novels of the Brontë sisters and the neo-gothic Rebecca of Daphne Du Maurier), according to Ms. Williams, is allied to another plot that has long fascinated me both aesthetically and as a subject of study: their plots are quite similar to the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche as told by Lucius Apuleius in his Metamorphoses, better known to English readers as The Golden Ass.
In William’s scenario, male gothic, as an Oedipal reaction to the feminine principle or, more specifically, as a kind of revenge-plot working out of a pre-Oedipal subject’s trauma of separation from the mother, seeks to re-assert the “law of the father” through a literally tortuous process of ghostly or mystified violence. This, though radical in presentation (as the Marquis de Sade so famously pointed out), Williams believes is ultimately reactionary. Female gothic, on the other hand, is about entering into a new kind of awareness through a process of visual discovery, experience and interpretation (the figuring out of what only appeared to be ghostlywhat some call the “Scooby-Doo plot”) as experienced by a female heroine who must undergo a series of trials before she finally understands that the originally monstrous object of her desire is a good, and obtainable, guy after all. Presumably this vision is double: as the mystical agents of terror (Radcliffe’s “ghosts”) are exposed as spectral illusions in a material world, so the monstrous aspects of the beloved (Eros, Valancourt, Rochester, Heathcliff and Max de Winter) are dispelled (both de-spelled as in disenchanted and de-spelled as in literally deconstructed) so that the heroine can enter into a domestic relationship with them. This is demystification to the letter via Freud’s definition of the uncanny as that-which-is-not-found-around-the-house. Though made of the same stuff, monsters are mysteriously out there and lovers materially in here.
This scenario is, I believe, pretty close to what the process of ritual initiation is supposed to achieve: a vision of the mystical aspect of life on earth and a social re-integration of the adept after a period of liminalitywhich allows for a post-pubescent entré into adult society.1 Yes, you can read this process as a de-mystification of the mystical, but I rather see it as a ritual/religious familiarization with that which cannot be materially explained, domesticated, or conquered. To harp on the thesis of my last essay, let me point out that this has very little to do with biological or even psychological sexuality and everything to do with the social aspects of alignment, or what Williams calls, à la Foucault, “the deployment of alliance.” Williams does attempt to totalize and dichotomize her argument by defining male gothic, with its family and dynastic concerns, as an attempt to mythologize such “deployment of alliance.” She also theorizes female gothic, and Romanticism as a whole, as the mythologization of “the deployment of sexuality.” But such divisions break down when we consider the ritual initiatory aspects of female gothic as exemplified by what Williams herself proclaims to be its founding, or at least parallel, myth: that of Psyche and her lamp in Cupid’s castle.
To continue, then, we need to stop for a moment to study the context of the Cupid and Psyche story as it appears in Apuleius’dare I say it (!?!)gothic romance. Briefly, the Metamorphoses tells the story of an overly curious fellow (named Lucius, like the book’s author) who convinces his lover (a maid in a household wherein he is a guest) to aid him in experiencing first hand the mistress of the house’s witchcraft. When he spies upon the mistress during her incantations and sees her turn herself into an owl via a magic potion, he convinces the maid/lover to procure him a taste of both potion and owlness. The plan backfires and he is turned into an ass. Soon the house is robbed and he is employed by the robbers to cart away the loot. To regain human form he must simply eat a rose, but one misadventure/adventure after another prevents him from doing so. During this frame-like tale of Lucius’ wanderings as a donkey, he witnesses and overhears many tales of transformation and dismembermentthieves who terrorize in bearskins, thieves who lose their arms in slammed doors, etc., as well as the central and much elongated story of Psyche’s adventure in the castle of the lover whom she is not allowed to see, Cupid. Psyche eventual breaks this taboo by gazing upon him while he sleeps. She then must undergo several trials at the hands of Cupid’s mother Venus (including a trip to the underworld), and, with the help of various natural agents (including, finally, Cupid himself), eventually triumphs in these tasks, regains her lover and is transformed into a goddess. At the romance’s end Lucius himself is visited by the goddess Isis, ritually baptized in the sea, and transformed back into a man. In gratitude he becomes an adept and priest in the Isiac religion, briefly describing his own initiation as a trip to both the heavens and the underworld.
In context it becomes quite obvious that the Cupid and Psyche story is not only a myth of perception and of the power of perception to domesticate the mysterious, but also a key myth in the very popular Roman initiatory religion surrounding the presumably Egyptian goddess Isis. I say “presumably” because the Romans, the first real New Agers, seem to have more or less imported the Greek mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, grafted onto them some elements of various older Middle-Eastern Great Mother cults, including Egyptian names and symbols, and formulated them as an all-encompassing mystery cult beyond any single cultural situation or origin. The author of the book, Lucius Apuleius, was himself a Roman citizen born into a Greek colonial family residing in North Africa since pre-Roman times, a man whose identity and origins were not easy to grammatically construct in this sentence! Lucius’ textual alter-ego, however, undergoes his adventure of transformation into an ass, back into a man, and finally into an adept of the goddess, in Greek Thessaly, the Transylvania of the Roman worldland of witches, desperate banditti, and barbaric superstitions.
But before Bram Stoker’s Transylvania became synonymous with mystical/horrific experience, Anne Radcliffe’s gothic romances all took place in Italy, land of superstitious and (by 18th Century English standards) barbaric Catholicism with its scary and dramatically satisfying inquisition, viscious banditti, and gloomy gothic (well, technically Romanesque, but who’s counting?) castles. Thus Apuleius’ romance seems more radically gothic than even Anne Williams imagined, and the struggle for a proper perception of the world that she outlines as the crux of the female gothic has perhaps more to do with identity, transformation, and therefore pubescent liminality than the infantile trauma of separation from the mother that she sees as the basic foundation of the abject, of horror and terror, and of gothic literature in general.2
Once again, to the thesis of my previous article: for myself and many others gothic as a genre acted as an initiatory experience of radical otherness for us as we passed through the liminal period of adolescence. As we began to separate ourselves from our families, the concept of our growing individuality began to haunt us with the possibilities of radical freedom and radical alienation.3 I’m well aware that this experience has mostly been deemed male (for instance, by David J. Skal). That’s why I was overjoyed to be able to formulate my own horrific experience as non-sexual (and specifically not as an unpleasant aspect of male adolescent sexuality which others had so mistakenly convinced me it must be) along with some help from Nina Auerbach, whose book Our Vampires, Ourselves also seeks to explore the aspects of identity involved in creating, reading about and cinematically viewing monsters. Obviously then Anne Williams’ formulation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche as a model for female gothic also thrilled me, not only because its tale of sleeping-with-the-enemy-turned-domestic partner was able to further articulate the horrific in literature and film as an approach to selfhood and otherness which we ultimately carry over into our love relationships, but because it also explicitly links this experience to rituals of initiation and spiritual transformation.
I hope that I have not used the word “radical” here three times in vain. I do see this kind of individuation through the perception, familiarization, and identification with a monster/terra-incognita/death-itself as a freeing, radical and nomadic experience.4 This process does, after all, mirror the mystery adept’s journey into the beyond (Jungians will smile here but their readings are for the most part literarily reductive) be it to Hades, Italy, Thessaly, or Transylvania. Ms. Williams also sees the process as radical when she formulates Psyche as a model for the female gothic. She sees male gothic, on the other hand, as an empty, ultimately reactionary, breaking of taboos. To explicate this point she lauds Stephen King’s self-definition in his (non-fiction) Danse Macabre as a male gothic author’s true confession: “The writer of Horror fiction is neither more nor less than an agent of the status quo.” Not only is Stephen King one of those purveyors of horror who does little for me, his work also usually really pisses me off. Now I know why. He’s missed the whole point of monster-making as I have seen and experienced it. I believe that true horror does not act as “a reaffirmation of the order that we all crave as human beings” (King again), but that, when handled correctly, it allows us to see the other within ourselves, the selfhood that is otherness, the fact that we change in time as well, and the knowledge that to love we must explore the otherness and sameness of an alignment because, since the advent of romantic love in the occident, this has been the core of our sexual relations. Yes, Foucault’s formulations are brilliant but anyone with a partner knows that sexuality is the least of their problems. Partnership, the discourse of love, is a discourse of alignment based on selfhood and otherness and is radical in the sense that it shifts these terms nonsensically, nomadically, continually, even frighteningly.
Male gothic, as formulated by Ms. Williams, would not do this, but I believe that it often does. I agree with her, for instance, when she claims that Matthew J. Lewis’ The Monk is in many respects the opposite of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. But is not this opposition in itself really just another of its many similarities? If a female gothic heroine falls in love with evil and eventually discovers it, through a series of trials and deepened perceptions, to be good (or at least to be something with which she can live), is not Lewis’ story the opposite procedure and therefore a cautionary tale of that possibility?5 Ambrosio falls in love with good (though for the wrong reasons: out of pride and mistaking one of Satan’s many faces painted into an icon of the Madonna) and eventually finds it (specifically because he loved it for the wrong reasons, looks it square in the face but fails to see it for what it is) to be a motor for perpetrating and excusing crimes that express the basest of his desires.
The Monk’s story seems more of a seduction than an initiationthough it’s full of the same graveyards and subterranean vaults that we are led through in female gothic texts and Roman mystery initiations. Ambrosio is simply enacting Lucius’ initial, botched transformationor Psyche’s near demise when she decides to partake, against Venus’ prohibition, of a little of Persephone’s beauty, which she has been sent to Hades to recover. This novel is not revolutionary, as the Marquis de Sade believed, because it breaks social taboos, nor reactionary à la Stephen King, because the bad guy gets his comeuppance in hell in the end. Rather it is a complex fable of attempting to chart one’s individuality between the boundaries of the words saintly and satanic. Just because male gothic, as Williams has isolated and described it, is generally tragic does not mean that it is wholly pessimistic or reactionary. It’s simply up to the reader or viewer (as in the case of tragic theater and horror cinema) to interpret and learn from viewing a protagonist’s failed journey into the underworld.
Take what I believe to be the granddaddy (gender intended) of all gothic texts, Hamlet. The rather obnoxious doublings in this text are legend. There are the two Hamlets, father and son, the two brothers and/or kings, Hamlet Sr. and Claudius, the two murdered fathers, Hamlet Sr. and Polonius, the two young friends, Hamlet and Horatio, the two young noblemen, Hamlet and Laertes (who both seek revenge for their respective father’s murder), the two princes, Hamlet and Fortinbras, and the other two young men so similar as to be indistinguishable, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There are two parallel family units, Hamlet Sr.’s and Polonius’, as well as the perhaps incestuous re-arrangement of Hamlet Sr.’s household around Claudius. There are also various double possibilities of romantic alliance, Hamlet Sr. with Gertrude, Claudius with Gertrude, Hamlet with Ophelia, even Hamlet with Gertrude(!). Though one can argue that this text is preoccupied with the rather male (and quintessentially gothic) concerns of revenge, the correct use of power, and familial dynastic problems, its real beauty and longevity lies in its subversion of these issues. Or, better, its presentation of these issues as a series of trials revolving around Hamlet’s search for a proper identity or non-identity in a sea of models of individuality and alliance. Though one always hears that Hamlet’s problem is how and when to act, his real question is rather “To be or not to be.” He wishes that his “Too, too solid flesh would melt” in a radical experience of otherness, his own symbolic death and, presumably, resurrection. Hamlet’s tragedy is very like that of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster: prevented from making any alliance, from burying/resurrecting his “I” in any “we,” he must ultimately self-destruct, taking a stage full of corpses with him. If only, like the cinematic monster, he could be resurrected in sequel after sequel, we would be able to see the truth of Hamlet’s unending process of seeking identity in otherness.6 I mean, is there a play with a less satisfying or more obligatory ending than Hamlet?
It should be obvious by now that I’m not attempting to refute Anne Williams’ theory that there are male and female modes of gothic writing. All I want to say is that I see a similar process, albeit failed and intrinsically tragic in the male productions, in both modes. This leads me not to contradict her very interesting theories (seek out her book, read it), but to affectionately complicate them. Perhaps a more valid aesthetic dichotomy then, rather than that between male and female gothic productions, is one between nomadic gothic mythologies (which explore the self in relation to the other as well as the self’s own intrinsic otherness) and those misguided purveyors of the genre who believe that a monster should be a faceless (often sexist) and blandly destructive force with need for neither identity nor alliance and which, once created, must be disposed of simply and neatly so that we can all sleep peacefully at night. This is, after all, where gothic, where Hamlet begins: with the specter (Latin spectrum, from specio, look) that rises up out of its grave, blocking out the letters on its tombstone, R. I. P., waking us from the sleep of reason and making us wonder “What is a man,”7 what is a woman, what machinations constitute the construction of an I, a we, a they? END
1. See Victor Turner’s work, following Van Gennep, on initiation in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure.
2. Her theory borrows heavily from Julia Kristeva’s formulation of the abject in her book Powers of Horror, an Essay on Abjection and ultimately seeks to replace Freud’s Oedipal Complex, at least in the case of female subjects, with a Psyche Complex. This would posit the female experience of separation from the mother as a series of trials in the form of perceptional adjustments to arrive at Freud’s Reality Principle. It’s a terrific (pun intended) but again rather totalizing theory.
3. And, in light of all the talk about American adolescents’ and children’s “loss of innocence” after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. of September 11, 2001, I’m more convinced than ever that our initiatory rituals are, nowadays, done through spectacles of death, either imaginary (books, film) or real (the media).
4. My own approach borrows heavily from the writings of Deleuze and Guattari and seeks to explore the nomadic, non-totalizing aspects offered within these texts and films and the experience of traversing them, rather than reducing them to psychoanalytic or literary categories. Don’t get me wrong Anne, I think your book’s observations and ideas regarding gothic are truly wonderful, all I really want to criticize here is the terrifying universal certainty of your arguments.
5. It’s difficult not to enter here into a discussion of the voluptuousness of the presentation of rape and violence in this text which 18th century critics, and Anne Williams, saw as morally reprehensible. Suffice it to say that, despite the risk of sympathizing with the devil, it’s sometimes useful to look at evil from the evil-doers perspective rather than from our own falsely objective moral superiority.
6. Let’s not forget the other thematic dualities of Hamlet, the play between sanity and madness, reality and theater, the ghostly and the material, which are all also perceptive judgments centered around what Freud has called the Reality Principle.
7. “What is a man, / If the chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” Hamlet Act IV, Scene IV.