The Dollhouse and Southern Gothic Legacy in Sharp Objects
Veronika Klusáková (Center for Audiovisual Studies, FAMU)
In my contribution I wish to focus on the dollhouse metaphor in Sharp Objects, an HBO limited series from 2018. The dollhouse has been a potent and multifaceted metaphor at least since the three-act play Nora (1879) by Henrik Ibsen, where questions of gender and identity are played out in the larger social contexts represented by the domestic setting and the female doll-like persona it implies. The reverberations of childhood play and fabrication of the dollhouse (becoming simultaneously a prop, a complex mise-en-scene and a metaphor) take a distinctly gothic turn in Sharp Objects. Here, the dollhouse is an exact replica and a doppelgänger of the upper-class mansion of a ruling matriarch of a seemingly picture-perfect smalltown, saturating the narrative with a strong sense of the uncanny. The dollhouse in Sharp Objects also plays on the deeply gendered, and toxic, nature of the presented family space, across three generations of women growing up, living in and leaving the American South. The Southern setting invited the series‘ creators to immerse into the vast Gothic legacy of the region ranging from the literary contributions of Poe, Faulkner, McCullers, and O’Connor, to name just a few, to film and, recently, quality TV productions like True Detective (2014–2019). The proposed contribution will argue that the success of Sharp Objects, its unmistakably visceral and affective impact, does not only stem from its bold rendering of gender issues, but lies predominantly in the workings of the gothic mise-en-scene, with a major focus on meticulous production design and elaborate soundtrack, resulting in the frightful yet curative collapse of distinct temporal frames and confines of the characters‘ identities. It will also propose a reading of the fantastic and simulated nature of the dollhouse as a twisted mirror of the nostalgic, dream-like limbo of the setting, contrasting sharply with gendered rage and violence that fills its contours.
One Haunted House and Three Women: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Mónica García Morgado (University of Salamanca / University of Valladolid)
Osgood Perkins’ Netflix original film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016) has not received much praise from Gothic horror fans. Perkins updates the Gothic genre with a highly iconographic film, thus breaking audience expectations. The magic of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House roots in the slow pace of a metafictional Gothic film with a noteworthy literary style that Perkins transferred to the celluloid screen. Leaving action aside, the film explores in depth the uncanny atmosphere of its exclusive setting. The house becomes the main protagonist through the shots and angles of the camera, which inspects its every nook and cranny. The uncanny masters the scenography. In this manner not only does the film narrate what the house provokes in the characters, but attempts to arouse the same sensations in the audience: tension, uneasiness, and a strange perception of time. Hence, Perkins’ film is in fact about the power an American house constructed in 1812 has over three generations of women who will never be free again. My paper will investigate how Perkins continues the tradition of the house as a Gothic locus through a discussion of four main points: the relationship between cinema and literature, literary references and influences, the corruption of the mind, and the supernatural. As a metafictional film, it confesses its self-reflexiveness through the use of the term, “House of Stories,” and denotes both intertextuality and self-referentiality by echoing Poe’s “The Black Cat” and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Perkins grants explicit importance to the walls of the house. These, which work as a metaphorical skeleton, are the prison walls that trap three women by reducing their bodies to a domestic sphere. At the same time, a growing stain of toxic mold contaminates the walls and soon invades the body of the contemporary protagonist, anticipating the pollution and destruction of her psyche. Besides, the supernatural is a confirmation that the house possesses an indelible past and a long-lasting memory. Polly’s ghost symbolizes a past that will always hunt the present, with just one possible fatal outcome: three women forever damned in one haunted house. This presentation aims to show the high aesthetics of an undervalued Gothic film that exploits the theme of the haunted house to the extent possible.
Transnational Representation, Seriality and Adaptation: Resurrecting the Haunted House for the Netflix Era
Pembe Gozde Erdogan (independent scholar)
Throughout the history of gothic literature, haunted castles, mansions and family homes have appeared as the perfect sites for the exploration of themes around past and present, changing class structures, disturbed mental states and gender ideologies within the family unit. Within the American tradition, these themes were intertwined with the ideal of the nuclear family. Two influential writers that wrote in different eras explored the motif of the haunted house through the eyes of their female protagonists, foregrounding the anxieties surrounding the place of women within the family home. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) still stand today as perfect examples of haunted house narratives. Proving once again that gothic forms circulate in a perpetual cycle of haunting, in 2018 director Mike Flanagan gave us the Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House, followed by The Haunting of Bly Manor in 2020. This paper aims to analyze these two seasons of this anthology series as televisual representations of the gothic trope of the haunted house. In this vein, issues around themes of family, class and gender will be explored as well as the implications of visual representation when compared with the written form. Most importantly, from a Television Studies perspective, this presentation will comment on how the changing transnational practices within streaming networks like Netflix lead to a greater experimentation with televisual seriality and adaptation.
The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror: The Strange Site(s) of Gothic Television
Sandra Danneil (TU Dortmund University)
In a regular opening of a Simpsons’ episode, each family member is shown coming from a different direction to eventually meet on their famous brown couch in the living room to switch on the TV in daily routine. However, an opening to an episode of Treehouse of Horror, The Simpsons’ seasonal journey into the world of horror, follows a different path when the Simpsons break through the floor as zombies or fall from the ceiling with a noose around their neck. Whereas the Simpsons simulate how we as viewers are sitting in front of the television in the regular series, imitating how we are watching them watching television, the Treehouse of Horror opening instead welcomes viewers in a home that doesn’t depend on doors anymore, a home that’s haunted, often by the television itself, has permeable borders, and can easily be invaded by killers who take place on the couch and wait for the family’s return. In my presentation I will explore how Treehouse of Horror has established a specific means to virtually invade our television screens when offering a fresh take on the haunted family narrative known from popular horror cinema. At various moments, the Treehouse Halloween cycle reflects how the television apparatus has become a representational marker of the 20th century to turn the home into spaces of terror and sensation much like the literary Gothic and their ill-fated stories about new technologies and human monstrosity, hubris and perdition have done in late-19th century. My illustrative examples show memorable moments from Treehouse of Horror in which not only the television set itself becomes the source of horror between familiarity and estrangement, but also when it fills the domestic vacuum with an often satirical sight to the domestic terror in popular horror films such as Stuart Rosenberg’s Amityville Horror (1979) in “Bad Dream House” (ToH I, 1990), Stanley Kubrick’s Shining (1980) in “The Shinning” (ToH V, 1994) or Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) in “UNnormal Activity” (ToH XXIII, 2013). By so doing, my aim is to examine how Treehouse of Horror set new standards to old scares by expanding on the Gothic motif of the haunted house within contemporary comedy television.