Panel 2: Domesticity and the Family

Tracing gothic houses in US culture
Sofía Martinicorena (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)

Years ago, the gothic was not a favoured genre in US literary criticism, with scholars like Teresa Goddu speaking of an “erasure of the gothic.” However, the manifest predilection of cultural products for gothic themes, settings and modes has made it clear that the gothic has been an ongoing choice in US literary and cultural production up until today. In particular, one of the most prominent ways in which the gothic has been channelled in US culture has been through the use of houses as either gothic setting or as the very object of a gothic conflict. This proposal will provide a brief overview of some of the most remarkable instances of houses as the locus of gothic across the cultural history of the United States, paying special attention to two of the main representations or manifestations of the gothic house trope, namely, the house as the space where psychic and familial trauma are expressed, and the house as a metonymy for the nation, where the gothic mode becomes a catalyst for national and imperial anxieties. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which continues to exert influence still today (see Patrick Pickard’s 2020 film The Bloodhound) will be discussed as a starting point in the centrality of gothic houses in American letters. After relating Poe’s story with Freud’s concept of the uncanny⎯not in terms of psychoanalysis but rather in regard to the undecidability the notion contains⎯, a series of twentieth and twenty-first century pop culture examples will be discussed in order to prove the continuation of this trope and its relation to psychological and family trauma. If Poe’s text was the foundation for the horror relating to houses that reflect a troubled psyche, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables provides the basis for an analysis of how the house has been often taken as an emblem for the nation, and as such has been used to express national narratives, anxieties and, most typically, paranoid feelings about an allegedly threatening Other. From the trope of the haunted house built upon an Indian burial ground, which reveals the guilt of settler colonial communities, to the suburban house as the national embodiment of anti-communism, this proposal will explore examples in which the gothic house becomes an ideal repository for unsettling national narratives.

 

Monstrous interiors: domestic space as the ontological terrorist of toxic masculinity
Kerry Gorrill (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Resonating with these pandemic times, Catherine Spooner has described the Gothic as a “malevolent virus.” In my presentation, I will propose that the haunted house narrative, so central to American Gothic, has itself mutated in response to a backdrop of post-millenial social, political and financial collapse in a manner quite different to developments in the rest of the Gothic literary world. The narrative strand which has emerged, presents the reader with a new form of the Gothic male protagonist, whom the British psychologist R.D Laing in The Divided Self (1960), would describe as a “schizoid” subject. Fragile, failing and fragmenting, he escapes a failing career, marriage and parenthood by removing his family to a quasi-domestic space which promises repair. House or hotel, these ‘haunted houses’ are different from the earlier “hungry houses” identified by Gothic writer Stephen Graham Jones in his introduction to Robert Marasco’s classic haunted house novel, Burnt Offerings. This new quasi-domestic space, often combining work and home, rises up to meet the male schizoid, not merely as the traditional Gothic setting, but as a sentient being; a monster in its own right. His entrapment in this new Gothic labyrinth that is constantly shifting, expanding and shrinking, provides a performative stage on which the schizoid male is forced into an existential crisis beyond that of the trauma of spousal and parental failure, ultimately forcing him to confront what it is to exist in space and time. A reaction to the rise of neo-liberalism and toxic masculinity, this important strand to American Gothic embraces the multiplicity of the Gothic’s new forms and is evident in texts such as Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Thomas Liggotti’s The Town Manager, Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It and Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters. Developing from their deeper roots in the Calvinist Gothic tradition of Hawthorne, Brockden Brown and Poe via the mid-century works of Stephen King and Robert Marasco, these new post-millennial narratives provide a space in which notions of masculine subjectivity are fundamentally challenged.

 

Share the Trauma: The Home as Transmitter of Disability and Psychic Pain in The Dark and the Wicked and Relic
Andrew Sydlik (independent scholar)

A number of 2020 gothic horror films take up the home as a site of generational trauma, guilt, and instability connected with physical and mental disabilities. Films such as The Dark and the Wicked and Relic use traditional gothic themes of familial dysfunction leading to physical decay and fear of the Other as guise for anxieties about our own aging, memory loss, and physical debility. In both films, an older parent falls ill, and their adult children must return home to care for them. This caregiving role leaves the children torn between obligation to their parents and lives beyond their family home. Yet these films also resist mere stigmatization of states of physical and mental impairment by foregrounding the nondisabled children’s responsibility in their parents’ disabilities, which result, at least in part, from poverty, isolation, and neglect. Decaying homes mediate this responsibility by becoming a transmitter of psychic pain, able to make the children share their parents’ disabling experiences. Person and place are so inextricably bound that even when people try to leave their home, its haunting trauma follows them. Yet, these unsettling experiences also bring about an abiding love that parent and child feel in their shared vulnerabilities. The Dark and the Wicked and Relic differ in how they depicts the possibilities of such love, a difference likely due to their different national origins. The Dark and the Wicked from the U.S. suggests a bleak portrait of love’s failure to undo the harmful effects of rural poverty. The children prove unable to cope with the demands of caring for their dying father. This failure stems from fantasies of American individualism that continue to haunt economically devastated rural Americans, who are often without social support systems. In contrast, Relic provides a more nuanced picture. Although the process of aging and literal decay prove inevitable, three generations—a grandchild, mother, and grandmother—nurture each other to share their collective pain. Australian cinema often reckons with its colonial past and seeks more communal approaches to helping people marked by physical and mental disabilities.

 

Housing the Dead – Reinventing Postapocalyptic Domesticity
Marko Lukic (University of Zadar)

Within the inexhaustible series of readings of the (American) haunted house trope a particular niche reveals itself when discussing the role of domestic space and spatiality in relation to the various zombie narratives. Starting with the traditional setting proposed by George Romero, and his Night of the Living Dead (1968), a series of on-screen and off-screen authors attempted a reinvention of the initially articulated space. What this analysis proposes is an exploration of one of these narratives, more precisely Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, now contextualized within the theoretical paradigms of human geography. The initial protective and familiar domestic setting, as experienced through the discourse offered by Gaston Bachelard or Yi Fu Tuan, once exposed to the apocalyptic zombie outbreak events, becomes theoretically recontextualized into what Marc Augé defines as “non-space.” This transformation, as the presentation will argue, allows not only the birth of a different type of horror, now deeply rooted in the previously utopian perception of familiar spaces and space-related behavioral patterns, but it radically redefines the concept of the house within the genre. This new postapocalyptic spatiality, however, is not limited by the metaphoric (and occasionally actual) deconstruction of the house, but is instead followed by a reinvention and re-articulation of domesticity in accordance with a new (postapocalyptic) economic context. More precisely, what the violent disappearance of the old economy/domestic setting allows is the constitution of what could be defined as a neoliberal spatial paradigm, within which, a new form of domesticity and a metaphoric and real home spatiality becomes articulated. Structured around the needs of the survivors, the new home now conforms to a postapocalyptic, proto-economic system, defined by the threat of the undead, as well as by the horrors of an extreme neoliberal, free-market based society.