Panel 3: Dislocating Identities: The Psychology of the Gothic House

A House to Grow Old In: Aging, Spaces and Evil in The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and American Horror Story: Murder House (2011)
Carmen M. Méndez-García (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)

Decaying houses as a metaphor for the decadence (physical or mental, by natural aging or by insanity) of its inhabitants are a staple of classic gothic and horror texts. The metaphor of the house as an entity endowed with human qualities, which body and/or mind deteriorates as a reflection of those of its dwellers clearly made sense up to the 19th century, with centuries-old nobility “houses” of renown that used to inhabit a “family house” or mansion for centuries, when it was easy to identify the progressive decadence of the house as an accumulation of the “sins” of a single lineage of inhabitants. Changing social models of spatial and class mobility in the 20th and 21st centuries, when individuals and families rarely inhabit a single house for most of their lives, seem to have changed the cultural representation of the connection between houses and their dwellers, putting the onus of aging and its physical and mental manifestations of decadence on the spaces themselves. These “horror houses,” only superficially renovated, their façades face-lifted through the decades and carefully manicured on the inside so as to “reflect” the new owners’ personalities, change hands easily, and their inhabitants, despite their hard efforts to domesticate them and turn them into spaces of their own, end up reflecting the space’s malevolent personalities, being possessed, made sick, or killed by the spaces’ evilness. Following this idea of current cultural representations of the house not as just a metaphor of the self, but as an independent entity that ages, evolves, and forces its malignant identity on others, I would like to analyze two recent TV series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and the first season of American Horror Story (2011), aptly subtitled Murder House. Very loosely based on the book with the same title by Shirley Jackson (1959), Hill House in the TV series is re-visited by the Crains 26 years after they left it hurriedly, after an attack of the space on the family. Following yet another family tragedy that may be connected to the malicious “nature” of the house and its effect on the youngest, weakest members of the family, the surviving Crains feel “called back” by the house, as they face the passing of time, both for the house and in their own selves. The transgenerational character of the protagonist family (now 5 adults whose lives have been forever marked by the events at their family home), and the portrayal of the encounters with the house of both their young and present selves, emphasizes how people at different stages of aging may confront, be absorbed, reject, or embrace the house’s mixture of nostalgia for the past as its ages and a profound desire for vengeance due to its own failure to be a “forever home” for the family. In American Horror Story: Murder House, the title building ages through the decades and grows not wiser, but eviler, with each passing family. The more recent owners of the space, the Harmon family, must “read” the signs of aging and decay in the heavily renovated house, trying to understand its history as they try to rewrite their own histories in it as a family. In both The Haunting of Hill House and American Horror Story: Murder House, cumulative wickedness is not just a result of the houses’ successive inhabitation as they absorb the evil of their dwellers, but rather a plague at the heart of the space, with the houses as active agents, transcending their physical limits and penetrating the bodily boundaries of the inhabitants, infecting them to have humans reflect the houses’ degeneration.


Gothicising the Home in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead
Benjamin Brown (University of Edinburgh)

George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead subverts traditional ideas of the gothic house by relocating it from the decrepit castle in a foreign land to an isolated farmhouse in Pennsylvania. This is a Gothic film: it engages with gothic categories in several ways, such as the blurring of the line between science and supernatural; the collapse of personal identity in the face of crisis; and the transgressive threat to the conventions of a dominant social structure. My argument will focus on how the farmhouse in the film is presented as a gothic structure in much the same way as the castle or manor is in older gothic works. I will show that the film subverts traditional presentations of the home as place of safety and comfort and transforms it into a space of fear and terror which in these respects, draws heavily on Gothic genre categories. I will set out how the house itself is introduced as an ominous location, isolated from the rest of society, and argue that, as a result, viewers are presented with a Gothic structure that calls to mind the previous iterations of the genre. In doing so, the film immediately creates a level of uncertainty, that forces the viewer to reassess how they view the safety and security that a home would traditionally provide the occupant. As the film progresses, the house becomes a microcosm for the events that are happening within it. Just as the characters begin to turn on each other and their humanity begins to degrade, so too does the structure itself. By making these connections between human psychological and structural degradation, the film presents a location that mirrors the loss of humanity and rationality that the characters experience and further emphasises the shift to barbarism that occurs both inside and outside the building. In making these claims, my paper will demonstrate how the traditionally threatening gothic castle has been replaced by the seemingly inconspicuous setting of the American household as a place of terror and uncertainty in a manner that domesticates the horror and brings the otherness of the gothic back home.


Weirdness and Displacement at Home as Depicted in J.C. Oates’ Gothic Novels
Natalia Kapytko (Minsk State Linguistic University)

In a broader literary context Gothic fiction itself can be viewed as a Shadow image of the mainstream literature of the day. Even nowadays, when contemporary literary process is characterized by a high degree of inclusiveness and diversity, the status of Gothic fiction is still very ambiguous. Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction blends the psychological and the supernatural in a manner that is the distinctive feature of the English ghost story and much recent fiction in the genre. Her novels of the Gothic experimental cycle including Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), and My Heart Laid Bare (1998) present characters whose previous moral and psychological conceptions of reality are shattered by evidence of the paranormal, or of psychological revelation, or, most importantly, of disintegration. Viewed from the perspective of the individuation process, disintegration can be regarded as a necessary stage in the protagonists’ psychological transformation. J.C. Oates experiments freely with Gothic mode both in her novels and in her short fiction. As Susan A. Ford observes, in her Gothic fiction “Oates charts the terrors of the self under threat from a dehumanizing and disintegrating world”. The darker vision of the endangered self confronted with the horrors of the hostile universe in her writing reflects the shifting boundaries between the real and surreal, the physical and spiritual, the rational and irrational at the moments of high psychological intensity. The aim of the presentation is to consider the identity problems the characters of J.C. Oates’ novels of experimental Gothic cycle face when they encounter the mysterious, incomprehensible or supernatural occurrences at their homes. The identity crisis very often caused by these extraordinary circumstances results in the formation of the “transgressive self.” This can be viewed as a psychological construct that undermines and subverts their previous vision of the inner and outer world. The most effective literary form J.C. Oates chooses for the artistic representation of this psychological phenomenon is that of Gothic focusing on the overwhelming feelings of weirdness and displacement her protagonists experience within the boundaries of their own homes.