PANEL 1: Love, Trauma, and Othering in the Ecogothic

The Shape of Water (G. del Toro 2017): Cold War America as Amphibian Gothic
Carolina Sánchez-Palencia (Universidad de Sevilla)

Drawing on critical discussions of the Ecogothic (Smith and Hughes 2013; Principe 2014; Deckard 2019) and the Anthropocene Gothic (Payne 2017), this paper addresses Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) as a revisitation of classical gothic tropes –boundaries, transgression, confinement and monstrosity—through an environmental lens that contests speciesist and anthropocentric hierarchies. I analyse the story’s amphibian poetics as a metaphor of the different forms of hybridization—between races, sexes, nations, bodies—that were strongly feared and perceived as threatening in the Cold War Era, a time when the American Dream became the American Nightmare for non-WASPS and “abjectified” others. Amphibians (a name that means “double life”) are particularly apt to represent the monstrous and ambivalent nature that inspires the gothic genre: not only are they capable of living both in water and on land, but also develop system-shifting functions and their bodies display features that lie between those of fish and reptiles. But, most importantly, as indicator species, they provide information on the overall health of the ecosystem and on the changes and conditions of other species within it, thus inviting an analogy with gothic fantasies as indicators of the different anxieties in the societies that produce them, or with monsters as “embodiments of a certain cultural moment.” (Cohen 1996: 4) Del Toro’s filmography tends to emphasize the monstrous nature of the human by presenting characters that are far more brutal and predatory than those non-human creatures at the other side of our imagination. I contend that in his interrogation of the very limits and definitions of the human in The Shape of Water he adopts the Amphibian Gothic as the best vehicle to expose the apprehensions about national, sexual, racial and scientific boundaries in Cold War America, and to undermine its grand narrative of progress.

 

Ecogothic Trauma in Carmen Maria Machado, Dani, and Tamra Bonvillain’s The Low, Low Woods
Alissa Burger (Culver-Stockton College)

Carmen Maria Machado’s The Low, Low Woods, with art by Dani and color by Tamra Bonvillain, was one of the comics featured in Joe Hill’s curated Hill House Comics collection for DC Black Label in 2020. The Low, Low Woods focuses on two young women, Vee and El, and their lives in Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania, a town that exists on top of a series of smoldering, subterranean coal mines, evoking the real-life town of Centralia, Pennsylvania and the Gothic narratives it has inspired, including the Silent Hill series of video games and its film adaptations. In addition to the coal mines and the ever-present threats of danger and disintegration they pose, the Gothic landscape of Shudder-to-Think expands beyond the scope of the mines themselves, including monstrous figures that roam the woods, a local spring whose waters rob the women of their memories, and a powerful mushroom that can restore the memories that have been lost. All of these ecogothic elements are intertwined, as Vee and El discover that the men of Shudder-to-Think have used the waters as a way to abuse and rape the town’s women, then rob them of these memories of trauma, and that the wild mushrooms have the power to restore the women’s memories. The skinned men Vee and El encounter in the woods are those of the first coal miners to discover the water’s power, punished by a local witch, while the hybrid deer woman and other uncanny creatures are some of these women themselves, who the witch transformed in an attempt at mercy. At the opening of the comic, both Vee and El have missing spaces in their memories and throughout the narrative, they discover the town’s dark secrets and must decide for themselves what they wish to remember and what they would rather not know. Machado, Dani, and Bonvillain draw significant parallels between the abuse of the land and the rape of the women, as well as the toxic masculinity that claim the right to destroy each. Both protagonists are queer women of color and interconnections between their bodies, sexualities, and the ecogothic wilderness within which they exist are central to Machado’s exploration of this narrative as well. The role of memory, trauma narratives, and individual agency—as Vee, El, and the witch ultimately allow each woman in Shudder-to-Think to make the choice of whether or not to remember for herself—are also essential themes in The Low, Low Woods, with the ecogothic and the (un)natural world interconnected with and influencing each of these elements. In this presentation, I will present a close reading and analysis of The Low, Low Woods that explores the ecogothic foundation Machado, Dani, and Bonvillain’s comic builds upon, with particular emphasis on how the ecogothic provides a productive lens for considering the connections between self, place, history, and other, as well as the unique opportunities the ecogothic presents for navigating the trauma narrative specifically.

 

Ecophobia, the Gothic Sublime and the Puritan female body in The Witch (2015)
Ana Cristina Baniceru (West University of Timișoara)

Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut movie, The Witch, has been praised for its accurate description of Puritan life (Booker 2019). However, besides the movie’s knowledge of Puritan conduct, clothing, language, religion and superstition, The Witch shows an in-depth understanding of the Calvinist theological framework as manifested in its followers’ symbolical reading of nature. Therefore, it seems only natural, pun intended, to interpret Eggers’ movie using ecocriticism as theoretical framework. One emblematic scene appears when the family, having been banished from the colony over a religious dispute, kneels in prayer while facing the unknowable and opaque forest, close to which they will soon build their own farm. The present analysis argues that The Witch describes a Gothic encounter between the human (the New Englanders) and the non-human (nature, wilderness, the forest) in which the boundaries between the two are slowly erased, giving way to paranoia and loathing in the face of the unknowable. The female character, the adolescent Thomasin, becomes the embodiment of both the abject non-human and the so-called corruptible human. While constructing my argumentation, I will rely on two important concepts that could be related to the Calvinist contradictory understanding of nature as a “fallen, cursed world created by original sin” filled, nonetheless, with “a religious, biblical symbolism” (Hillard 2014). One is ecophobia, as defined by Simon C. Estok (2019), and the other is the Gothic sublime as depicted by Vijay Mishra (2012). The former encompasses both our hatred and fear of nature’s agency. The latter focuses mainly on the sublime as “purely negative,” without “a moral centre,” thus failing “to provide the reassurance of an All-Knowing and Compassionate Creator” (Franck 2020: 244), but, nonetheless inspiring awe. These two concepts also offer another complementing reading of the movie. The forest is an example of exterior wilderness, which echoes an interior one, that of the Gothic female body as both the site of “monstrosity and fear” (Del Principe 1: 2014) and of strange fascination. In essence, the dread of the forest, as experienced by the isolated family, overlaps with their Calvinist fear and misunderstanding of the female body, in this case, Thomasin’s, who, by the end of the movie, is symbolically engulfed by the uncanny forces of the forest.

 

The Absent/Present African American in American Gothic Literature
Katrina Younes (Western University)

In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison effectively argues that Africanism is deployed in a “savage” way to give Anglo-American identity the ground to define itself. One way the Anglo-American literary canon does so is through the use of colours in Gothic literature. I propose to present on the issue of how depictions of the colours of the environment (landscape) and objects function in traditional Anglo-American Gothic narrative “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving to reinforce an imagined racialized “other” through the critical lens of Morrison. I propose to address the primary question of how does the “dark” colours of the landscape and objects in Irving’s story, alongside the abstract representation of African American characters, reinforce a stereotypical imagine African American other? Lastly, I will explore how Morrison herself tries to invert this tradition in Beloved by focusing on white colours of objects. Morrison’s focus on whiteness as a defining feature of landscape and objects in Gothic literature is inverted to the same effect Irving deploys “darkness” in his story. In conclusion, I want to focus on the African American body as it is present/absent in Irving’s story through landscape and objects and how Morrison, through Playing in the Dark and Beloved inverts the Anglo-American Gothic treatment of the African American population as “objects” for meditations on terror in Anglo-Gothic literatures. Morrison re-envisions the traditional dark and black colors of landscape and objects that we see in stories such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to give autonomy back to the African-American population.