Why we need the Gothic

We crave it because we need it. We need it because the twentieth century has so forcefully taken away from us that which we once thought constituted us – a coherent psyche, a social order to which we can pledge allegiance in good faith, a sense of justice in the universe – and that wrenching withdrawal, that traumatic experience, is vividly dramatized in the Gothic. We do not seek out one Gothic experience, read one novel, or see one movie, we hunt down many. We do not tell one story, we tell many, even as all of them are knitted together by those familiar, comforting, yet harrowing Gothic conventions. For our traumas, like Regan McNeil’s demons, are legion: the tyranny of the lawgiving father, the necessity of abjecting the mother, the loss of history and a sense of pre-formed identity, and the shattering of faith in a world that ca permit the Holocaust and genocide or reconstruct us as cyborgs or clone each of us into another self. What better venue can there be for working through our always vague sense of these traumas than a malleable form of fiction-making that cannot really grasp all of its foundations – indeed, that beholds fragments of them always receding into a distant past – just as we feel about ourselves in the west as we watch older ways of grounding our “natures” dissipate and disappear?

As we confront this underlying terror of our times, after all, the Gothic provides us a guarantee of life even in the face of so much death. Who is more alive than Regan when she is hurling a priest across the room? Who is more alive than Carrie when she is incinerating her graduation class? Who is more alive than I when I am thoroughly gripped by a horror story that actually changes my physiological condition as I read or watch? But the pleasantly terrifying thing may be that this life, this consciousness of being alive, is constantly shadowed by previous and imminent breakage and dissolution. Contemporary life constantly reminds us that we are moving toward death, or at least obsolescence, and that life we must continually strive to hold together. Paradoxically, we need the consistent consciousness of death provided by the Gothic in order to understand and want that life.  (Steven Bruhm)

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