A New Gothic Revival: Part 1

OR: I really loved Ready or Not, Parasite, and Knives Out, and am ready to talk about my feelings

(Hi! It’s been a while! November was consumed by doing a book tour for Homesick, and December was a necessary recovery month. But I’m back now, and will try to be writing regularly here again.)

The first half of 2019 was a year of lukewarm genre films for me. Some of these films I only saw out of a sense of completionist duty (Avengers: Endgame, It 2), friends’ excitement (Detective Pikachu, Spiderman: Far From Home, Captain Marvel), nostalgia for source material (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Pet Semetary) or because I assumed it would deliver two hours of cathartic destruction (Godzilla: King of Monsters -- which, in my opinion, was ruined by the annoying human family drama; ether give me a less trite subplot or give me more death-via-kaiju). 

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(There are literally bigger things to worry about than a shitty dad redemption!! GOD.)

My partner Nibs and I had pretty much written 2019 off as a year of disappointing tentpoles and horror. Then came Ready or Not, Parasite, and Knives Out. This trio of films saved 2019 for me. 

Plenty of other people have written about what made these three films so delicious to watch. They’re excellently plotted, completely unpredictable and with genuine twists. The characters are memorable, complex, and pushed to their limits in organic, un-forced ways. And the writing, GOD, the writing. So many films feel stale and forced to me, because they’re written by a committee to specific formulae. Dialogue is there to deliver plot, or to set up the action sequences that punctuate films’ narrative. These films--Parasite and Knives Out especially--have their creator’s fingerprints all over them. They show signs of life instead of artifice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with artifice--you can create something beautiful according to a formula. It’s just that most films don’t seem to bother.) 

They also speak very clearly to the present moment; of growing wealth disparity and resentment towards the rich, of how poverty limits our options, of generational wealth and its privileges. They also deal heavily with history: the weight of the years and generations that preceded us, the longstanding consequences of choices our predecessors made, and how that influence trickled down.

After watching the final one of these films, I thought to myself: Sweet, I guess it’s time for another gothic revival. 

The Gothic, as a named genre, has been around for a few centuries. The general consensus holds 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole as its earliest defining work, with writers like Ann Radcliffe later refining and popularizing the genre. The first Gothic revival in art, architecture, and literature was a counterpoint to the Renaissance’s neoclassicism, its emphasis on rationality and logic, and the idea of a coherent, mechanical universe. It celebrated mystery instead, sublime terror as a reaction to the unknown or divine. The Gothic is also saturated with history; its stories proliferate with relics, Medievalist aesthetics, ghosts, moldering castles, ancestral curses, and buried secrets. The Gothic is a progenitor of a lot of contemporary genres, particularly speculative ones: it helped birth (at least in Europe and North America) mysteries and detective novels, science fiction, and horror. 

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Though I haven’t done enough research to really confirm this, the Gothic’s popularity seems to correlate—or be responsive—to periods of unrest and upheaval, and it’s fun to track how that manifests in different centuries and decades. Its early novels in the mid-to-late 18th century coincided with the French and American revolutions, the early fracturing of European empire, and the genre is littered with relics of dissipated power: castles and estates, centuries-old curses. In the 19th century, you see the rhetoric and aesthetics of the Gothic employed by abolitionists, particularly by formerly enslaved authors in writing autobiographical “slave narratives”: brooding plantations built on the blood and bones of the enslaved, tyrannical white masters and mistresses, forgotten graveyards, restless spirits. There was a boom of Gothic Romances in the post-war period, which centered (mostly white) women’s journeys from naivete to understanding and sometimes power, sometimes madness or death; I think of Eleanor’s end in The Haunting of Hill House, which seems to promise all three. 

All three of these films also employ the symbols and motifs that are familiar to the genre: particularly large houses with architectural oddities and secret passages, whose history play surprising roles in the plots. There’s an insider/outsider dynamic, with wealth, status, and family acting to shore up dynamics of power. Confrontations with power, the past, and oppression are threaded through the bones of the Gothic--this makes it an especially relevant genre right now, and I think the reason why we’ll probably be seeing more of it, especially situated in the present day. 

That’s why I’m calling this a neo-Gothic revival; there’s been a number of paint-by-numbers Gothic Romance stories and films in the last few years, but this approach feels distinct. These stories don’t just borrow the aesthetics of previous generations; they reckon with the consequences of those generations’ choices.

Rather than attempt to cram all of my thoughts about these films into a single newsletter, I’m going to break this up into a few different parts. Next week, I’m going to write about architecture and artifice. After that, wealth, privilege, and the “unreliable” narrator. I honestly could probably squeeze another newsletter out of this topic -- maybe on parody and humor? Maybe on gender? If there’s a topic you’re really burning to know more about, feel free to yell at me on Twitter or the contact form on my website

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