I want to introduce you to a technique of thinking, which I hope you might find helpful in more precisely defining things or concepts that are complex.
It involves identifying features, multiple elements or tropes. A trope can be a repeated image or motif, a theme or storyline. For example, common tropes in horror films include the use of skulls or eyes, or the motif of the ‘woman in jeopardy’.
I’m going to apply this technique to identify the common tropes of what we call the Gothic, so establishing its key features or elements, and therefore arriving at a more precise definition of the Gothic style.
Originally, the Gothic style related to architecture and specifically the design of cathedrals. Four mini-tropes within the architecture of a cathedral include the use of stained-glass windows, pointed arches, rose windows, and what are called flying buttresses – or supporting arches. The more of these features a cathedral has, the more precisely we can call it Gothic. The Duomo in Milan is a good example of the Gothic style.
The use of ruins, often ancient ruins, and more generally a sense of things falling apart and rotting, are typically gothic features. The use of ruins as a backdrop can also imply an emotional or psychological as well as a physical state of collapse.
The need to navigate a maze or labyrinth – the existence of hidden rooms or forbidden spaces - is another common trope. Again, the physical labyrinth is used regularly to represent the complex map of the mind and the web of human psychology.
The haunted house is an archetypally common gothic feature – think of Scooby Doo. But it is often the ordinary, domestic house that then turns strange, which best represents a gothic device. As Sigmund Freud pointed out, what is most frightening can often lie in what is most familiar. It seems more treacherous, of course, if your own home betrays you.
Freud used the German words ‘heimlich’ (meaning belonging to the home) and ‘unheimlich’ (meaning scary) to illustrate how the idea of a home turning strange can fill us with terror.
Beyond the home or house, landscapes is an important aspect of the gothic imagination. What often seems on the surface like a pastoral idyll or rural paradise can actually conceal a nightmare landscape underneath.
The dark forest is perhaps the most common gothic landscape (often a feature of fairy tales, and of course a key motif in Dante’s Inferno), with the shape of the trees taking on threatening forms and eerie noises generating fear.
It’s not just the landscape but Nature itself that can turn on you – perhaps in the form of quicksand, dense swirling fog, an earthquake, or wild waters. The sense of a large natural force can make the hero in a gothic tale feel all the more isolated and vulnerable.
A modern gothic trope is the setting of a story at the edge of a city, where the terrain might be derelict and run-down, where the city runs out and things left abandoned, such as old bikes in rivers, supermarket trolleys, old bits of clothes. These things, existing physically on the edge, also suggest an emotional space on the boundary of reason.
A further motif is the stranger – the stranger who suddenly appears in a town, sitting alone in the local cafe, or appearing from nowhere in the village pub – usually a man, almost always on his own, threatening to disturb the established social order.
The gothic can involve a change in proportions, radically altering the sense of scale. Usually it can take the form of something monstrously large, and therefore frightening, though it can also present itself as something freakishly small.
The large monster – for example, Frankenstein, King Kong or Godzilla – may at first seem scary, but ultimately as they are chased, chained, persecuted, and imprisoned, the monster can prove a focus for our sympathy. As such, they may represent a human need to understand the outcast, the social pariah, to have compassion for the outsider.
The default trope of the gothic monster is the tentacle. The tentacle speaks to something viscerally or physically fearful in us, its long slimy limb seeking us out, trapping us, even strangling us.
Indeed, the scaling up of the giant squid or octopus, for example, has long been a staple of gothic horror, as you can see in the still below from the 1950s film, It Came From Beneath the Sea.
Perhaps even more frightening in gothic terms is the hybrid form of monster. I’m not talking here about the marvellous and fantastical mosaic forms of the unicorn, the centaur or the sphinx, but rather the transgressive, shape-shifting cross species such as the werewolf or the human rodent.
There are many examples of the Double or doppelgänger in gothic tales – the monstrous echo of the self, the individual hideously twisted as in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is not the case of an ordinary guy who turns into a superhero. This is instead the ordinary guy transformed into a terrible fiend.
Finally, one of the defining elements of the Gothic – as hinted at in the figure of the double – is the fact that the monster you’ve been confronting, fighting and running away from is not an external threat after all, but actually an expression or reflection of your inner self, the psychological monster that lies within you.
You can see, I hope, that the Gothic has many features and comprises many elements as detailed above, so that coming to a precise definition can be difficult.
I think, therefore, that it is helpful to talk of definitional elements. In other words, the more of the tropes or features listed above that a story contains, then the more we can accurately define it as Gothic.
You can extend this same technique usefully to other subjects, to define for example the features of a town in Geography, in History to define the elements of a dictatorship, in Literature to define a Comedy or Tragedy, in art or music to define an aesthetic style, in Chemistry to define a metal, and so on...
The point I’m making is this. Life and learning grow more complex the older you get, and it’s not always easy to find a simple answer. This technique, then, might help to achieve a more accurate definition and a more precise truth.
And next time you watch a Gothic horror movie, you might just be a little bit less scared.