The Madwoman in the Attic, The Madman In Your Head

Conference Q&A sessions can get a little extreme...
Conference Q&A sessions can get a little extreme…

I’ve always had an interest in more modern incarnation of Gothic culture and texts. However, with a thesis that focuses on the 19th century this will be my final post for a while on modern Gothic TV. The following is based of the text of a paper I gave at the Gothic Manchester Festival Conference held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in October 2014


There is in literary history a well-established pattern of combining evil with specific places – throughout literature and culture, certain locations are closely linked with encounters with the morally dubious and supernatural – something Professor Christopher Partridge refers to as ‘occulture.’ This particular intersection of interests lends itself quite naturally to Gothic studies. Since 1757 and Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry” place has been positioned as a means of affecting the self, whether they be the reader or characters within the text. It is quite arguable that the genius of the early Gothic is to introduce a moral tension into the classicism of the sublime aesthetic embodied in Romantic and early Gothic landscape. Dark, dangerous and haunted castles set within the beautiful landscapes are integral to the early Gothic and crucially, its effect not merely upon the body but upon the mind. To quote Ann Laetia Akin from 1773:

“A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced of ‘forms unseen, and far mightier than we,’ our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view and rejoices in the expansion of its powers.’

Thus, the Gothic is a place of mental encounter and response to a convergence of the “far mightier than we” (in whatever guise it may take) and a specific place or location, a divide between psychical and abstract worlds. It’s from a similar tension that evil emerges as perhaps the greatest of the “invisible beings” that Akin references, dependent as it is upon the ‘split between body and spirit, between an abstract will to dominate and destroy and the meaningless piece of flesh that it inhabits” (Eagleton 2012). Gothic literature is full of evil figures who embody this divide between the physically sublime, (whether through their appearance or where they live), and the intangibly evil, but in the modern Gothic do evil and place still exert such a powerful influence upon the individual subject and how does a culture fascinated with the representation of interiority manage to convey this today?

The following will aim to assess two modern Gothic “texts” and assess how they continue the tradition of interaction between place and the subject and in what ways modern incarnations of the Gothic problematize this relationship. The relatively recent resurgence in interest in Gothic scholarship is mirrored not just in literature but also in TV. The importance of TV lies in the mass reach of the medium, able to distribute programming and create Gothic fans at a faster rate than the (in) famous ‘trash of the circulating libraries.’ Under consideration will be the first seasons of both NBC’s “Hannibal” and the FX show “American Horror Story.”

Beginning first with American Horror Story: At first glance, as with much of the recent TV New Gothic it would be simple to dismiss the show as an intoxicating melange of recycled Gothic tropes, sex and violence. The intuitive reaction to the show seems quite natural – the first season is based upon that most overused of Gothic tropes – that of the haunted house. As the character of Violet (played by Tassia Farmiga) sardonically explains when the family moves in ‘So we’re the Addams family now?’ in a neat meta-textual acknowledgement of the season opening clichés. The house itself, the Rosenheim Mansion, is thoroughly apposite; it has been previously used in an episode of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – modern TV Gothic spaces it seems, have no end of recycling potential, able to create their own “sites of encounter” in a matter of a few short years. The house in this case is portrayed as the site of decades of violence, medical experimentation and disfigurement, colloquially known as ‘the murder house,’ still populated by ghosts of all those who have been killed there since the house was constructed.

Into this environment of art-deco architecture, vivisection and murder move the archetypical American family, handsome and sensitive therapist Ben Harmon, wife and desperate mother Vivian and the sullen yet sensitive teenage daughter Violet, (played by Dylan MacDermott, Connie Britton and Tassia Farmigia respectively). The show continues to follow a well-established Gothic convention as the family is exposed to the ghosts in the house. Far from being the ‘forms unseen and mightier than we’, these ghosts are presented as deeply human, experiencing their own forms of rage, fear and distress. It is from this point that a clearer understanding of how the show deals with place, the self and evil can be gained. Evil within American Horror Story season one is not located with the malevolent spirits trapped within the ‘murder house’ – as the show progresses what becomes clear is the extent to which these spirits are trapped and tortured through circumstances largely outside of their own control. Even the vicious gay couple Chad and Patrick, (played by Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears) are, at least, partially sympathetic, trapped in a relationship gone deeply stale. However, despite the pathos of the characters it seems inarguable that deeply immoral acts do occur within the house – murders, rape and all kinds of gruesome medical experimentation. How can these be placed within a psychological topology?

As Terry Eagleton argues:

‘in the complex web of human destinies, where so many lives are meshed intricately together, the freely chosen actions of one individual may breed damaging, entirely unforeseen effects in the lives of countless anonymous others….Acts that we and others have performed freely in the past may merge into an opaque process which appears without an author, confronting us in the present with the intractable force of fate.’

It is in this light of pre-determined choices that perhaps we can begin to place AHS within a certain literary tradition – the Gothic novel of the 1800s and perhaps most specifically Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. Whilst this initially may seem optimistic, the similarities are striking. The “Murder House” is an upper class dwelling with a long and chequered history closely woven with the servant neighbours who tend to it. Perhaps most similarly it is a house where evil dwells – a murderous violent spirit in the basement (a tortured and insane family member long abandoned) – mirroring the violent yet tortured and sympathetic figure kept locked in the attics of Thornfield Hall

To return in the line of cliché for a moment the obvious question of the narratologically challenged is usually some variation upon ‘why don’t they leave?’ This is an issue common to any encounter with evil in a specific location. The answer posited in Season 1 is initially a little banal; the Harmon family have to stay in the house, as it has been an investment. Leaving would be a financial risk to them, and the pressure of depreciation is one that is given equal validity to other concerns as the show progresses. What is present here is a combination of tangible and intangible investments. Thus, it seems that the financial investment in purchasing some physical space matches an ideological investment in the ideas of home ownership and the family as the bedrock of social community (another set of values specific to a post-Regan late capitalist America.) Characters routinely speak of their desire to possess the house, despite their knowledge of the events that have occurred within it. As Vivian remarks to the Harmon family realtor, ‘there’s always someone who’ll want to buy this house.’ Purchasing property is a form of libidinal investment in the broader ideological mechanisms that have trapped the Harmon’s within the ‘murder house’ and it is those forces, especially the desire to purchase and own property that the Harmon’s find themselves fighting against at the close of the season. With “Jane Eyre”, these investments are located within somewhat different arenas – Rochester and Jane herself are both trapped within certain ideological forces, in this case the rigid gender and class codes that police their behaviour – it is worth highlighting that Bertha ends up in the house through Rochester’s own actions – just as with Ben Harmon, seeking to correct his mistakes. The idea of the American frontier becomes not a wild place that brave subjects refuse to retreat from but rather a capitalist investment, with manicured front lawns and picket fences. The frontier is not just “tamed” but now tames and polices the behaviours of the individuals in question.

The individual subject is thus not the focus of the opening season of American Horror Story, but rather the show brings attention to wider discursive practises that often function without direct acknowledgement. The show never attempts to do the far more complex task that “Jane Eyre” achieves, marrying social critique with a piercing subjectivity. The individual subject in AHS season one is never all that developed – the Harmon’s themselves never function beyond the ideological limits that created them. Ben Harmon’s characterization is through his infidelity (perhaps a particular misogynistic embodiment of the capitalist American dream) and so he meets a seductive ghost that immediately tempts him into further infidelity. His wife is introduced to the viewer after suffering a miscarriage, and thus her arc revolves around childbirth. Violet the atypical daughter becomes so insubstantial her death serves only to tie her (and the rest of her family) more closely to the ideological forces that American Horror Story seeks to critique. Horror in American Horror Story is a tool for the propagation of social awareness, thus the individual subjects psychology within the show is not of great interest. Rather than use it to provoke a response upon a subjective level AHS is reaching towards the systemic environment outside of itself. Interestingly, this poses questions for the viewer – what does it mean to exist in the Gothic space of our own capitalist, property owning, unhappily married culture? American Horror Story’s first season lays out the ideological forces that hem the individual subject in in the modern world – conforming to Akin’s age-old discussion of the impact of “strange and unexpected events.

In a sense then American Horror Story is a deeply traditional incarnation of Gothic writing, with an inward subjectivity that functions solely to demonstrate the effectiveness and the power of the wider forces that are behind the violence, the supernatural and the terrifying. It is, in short, an outward facing show; interested in the interiority or psychology subject only in as much as the subject is the site of various wider social forces. ‘The mad woman in the attic,’ to use the famous phrase is replaced with the mad ghosts in the house, both of whom are victims of the wider, far more powerful forces that both “Jane Eyre” and AHS seek to critique.

However, there are examples of a modern Gothic where subjectivity receives primacy of place, the modern NBC adaptation of “Hannibal.” Immediately what is striking about Hannibal in comparison to American Horror Story is the lack of a specific geographical location. There is no suburban utopia here, but rather more abstract and more official or institutional locations. Rather than being centred on one specific site the show ranges across Baltimore and the wider United States – it seems that physical place is not the vital component here – rather the show turns upon the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, played by Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkleson respectively. This focus on character is where psychology begins to take precedence in the show, as Hannibal describes Will to his superior, Jack Crawford:

What he has is pure empathy. He can assume your point of view, or mine — and maybe some other points of view that scare him. It’s an uncomfortable gift…Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends

Will Graham’s self-assessment is perhaps more acerbic;

My horse is hitched to a post that is closer to Asperger’s and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths

Fascinatingly, on the level of plot it might seem that the show is labouring in the same potentially clichéd territory as AHS – the police procedural is not necessarily the most fecund of ground for the medium. However, the show combines the interiority of its characterization with the formulae of the police procedural. In short, Hannibal stages the hunt for a killer as therapy, with Hannibal and Will both attempting to use psychological and psychiatric tactics to manipulate the other.

This inward staging of an outward narrative is what drives the shows progression and draws an interesting point from comparison with AHS. In Hannibal, the mind is not a sight that experiences an ‘expansion of its powers’ but rather a collapse of them – a postmodern reworking of the effect and impact of the Gothic upon the self. To return to Akin’s quote with which we began, the mind in “Hannibal” is no longer a thing of heightened power, exploring an unknown new world but is known often by that which is profoundly hostile. Through the discourses of post-modernity, the mind has become a landscape that is not only mapped, but created – at the climax of the first season its revealed that Will’s surreal and dreamlike hallucinations are medically caused and further exacerbated by the interfering of Hannibal Lecter. Psychiatry becomes not merely the means of exploring the terrain of the mind but a discourse capable of policing it. In Hannibal, the subject is not pushed into action by the ideological forces that contributed to AHS or Jane Eyre, rather the self is almost incapable of action at all. Whilst AHS saw the interior world of its characters are not necessarily interesting, it was in the actions of the characters and their struggles for agency that they encountered the far more powerful forces that so fascinate Akin. Hannibal is a Gothic that embodies a specific post-modern malaise. Here the subject is wracked with neurosis, analysed, policed, drugged and placed into situations that threaten the idea of a coherent psychological self. Perhaps one of Will’s most revealing hallucinations, this idea of a fragmentary and perhaps more worryingly, illusory self is explored;

WG: I stared at Hobbs and the space opposite me assumed the shape of a man filled with dark and swarming flies

A site of endless explorations, of interventions and deconstructions the self in Hannibal is gradually pulled apart. Through medical problems, seizures, medication and manipulation the mental landscape of Will Graham collapses into repeated gestures – the same experiences are played out repeatedly, auditory and visual hallucinations replace reliable sense data and his sense of time gradually erodes. Here, a Gothic encounter does not inspire exploration of a new imaginative world with rapture but rather an intense vulnerability – the self is not awakened by the unknown, but rather is at risk of total annihilation.

In part, this has to do with the show’s more sophisticated understanding of evil. AHS, in line with Jane Eyre seem to position evil as something which can be identified within certain actions (leaving the ideological influence as implicit rather than explicit) – whether that be murder, medical torture or punishment upon those poorer and weaker than yourself. Evil is a set of actions – explicable and with concrete real world consequences. By contrast, evil in Hannibal is a strange and somewhat more diffuse idea – killing others for example is often assumed as morally bad a priori yet Hannibal offers an explanation that disrupts the most common moral condemnation of killing others, the appeal to a larger (and externalized) moral authority:

Hannibal Lecter: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in God’s image?

Hannibal Lecter: God is terrific. He dropped a church roof on 34 of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Rather than appearing evil through direct action it is through his often more subtle gestures and inactions that Hannibal’s morals become more easily identifiable – less an action that is performed than an influence that is exerted. Hannibal’s actions are often minimal, and as Will explains when he final confronts him;

Will Graham: You have no traceable motive…which was why you were so hard to see. You were just curious what I would do. Someone like me. Someone who thinks how I think. Wind him up, and watch him go…

A traceable motive would have perhaps rendered Hannibal easier to see, in Will Graham’s phrase, but would have perhaps diminished him as well – reducing him to a level of explication, of causality, that a Gothic monster with such an impact upon the psyche staunchly resists.

In many ways, Hannibal feels like a much more post-modern show than AHS. With the focus on psychology, spectacle and the instability of the subject it maps out a very different psychology geography to American Horror Story, which ties it’s psychology and ideological terrain far too closely to the physical terrain it exists within. On a genealogical level the two shows exist in two different traditions. The first discussed here is perhaps more classically Gothic in construction and execution. The psychology geography there is a world that exists only to engage the viewer into identification and subsequently awareness of the wider social issues that it seeks to raise. Unlike Jane Eyre however, it lacks the ambition or the skill to combine this wider awareness with a distinctive subjectivity – a sign of Gothic tropes creating works that are increasingly homogeneous. This tension between a sense of social consciousness and generic commitments to the Gothic becomes more pronounced throughout subsequent seasons of AHS as the show resorts to increasingly eye-catching spectacle which comes to clash with the its ostensible desire for a socially conscious horror. This is particularly noticeable in the 3rd season where attempts to tackle the complex issue of race in modern America are stymied by increasingly hackneyed characterization and a script which fails to go beyond the necessary clichés.

In contrast, Hannibal focuses primarily on characterization and the psychological realities of the self in its encounter with a distinctly post-modern evil. It is in this move from the external to the internal worlds that Gothic shifts from modernity towards post-modernity. The American Gothic that originally dealt with a physical landscape, a frightening frontier to be tamed has been, appropriately enough, built upon, by a new territory to explore – one ephemeral, fragile and increasingly under threat. AHS reveals the forces that manipulate the outward show of ideological conformity, with ghosts and spirits bringing pain and disaster to bear upon the American Dream. Within Hannibal we see the interior life of the American subject, a place fragile, fleeting and in danger of falling into the void.


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