Gothic Realness

Feb 25th, 2011 | By | Category: Further Reading

As the start of an on-going series of reviews, Jesse Stommel here discusses L. Andrew Cooper’s recently published book Gothic Realities: the Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture (2010). In this and future reviews (which will include reviews of both publications and presentations), we hope to engage in dialogue with the subject of the review, so if you have questions for Dr. Cooper about his work, please post them in the comments section below.


Cooper's work inspires contemplation, invites discussion, and opens the field for further consideration of the relationships between Gothic fiction, contemporary horror film, and real violence.


Gothic Realities: the Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture. L. Andrew Cooper. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. $35.00 (paper).

L. Andrew Cooper writes in Gothic Realities, “Gothic fictions give form to social phenomena . . . but they are not the culpable cause for the phenomena’s reality” (19). This is what I see as the thesis of Cooper’s book, an idea he traces across continents and through four centuries, from Mathew Lewis’s Gothic novel The Monk (1796) to James Wan’s “torture porn” film Saw (2004). Cooper’s approach to literary criticism and theory is rooted in time and place, aware of cultural and historical dimensions, but not limited by an excessive reverence for geographical distinctions or historical periods. And while his work is attentive to the differing effects of various media, he does not focus on one medium at the expense of all others, moving instead deftly from Gothic novels to contemporary film, touching also on news media texts, popular non-fiction, video games, etc. He explores his central questions in a focused (and sometimes personal) way, using all the critical and theoretical tools at his disposal.

When he writes that “gothic fictions give form to social phenomena,” he suggests that literature and film have the ability to influence reality–that stories can (and do) inspire real events; however, his use of the word “form” suggests that they can also make reality manifest in a more material way. As he points out here and elsewhere, stories of violence can’t be blamed for real acts of violence (fictions can “cause” but are not “culpable”); nevertheless, they do help us (or change the way that we) read, experience, and interpret reality. Our understanding of reality, and our determinations about what is and is not real, depend on literary tropes. We have become so accustomed to the conventions of literature and film that we often won’t recognize reality as real if it doesn’t obey literary conventions. Cooper discusses this with reference to ghost fictions, remarking that they (and other Gothic fictions) have “sought a degree of mimetic authenticity, a way to make their fictional ghosts seem real by making their attributes conform to popular expectations” (118). He later calls this a “parasitic technique” (127), or perhaps a more symbiotic one, given that he also says that “the fictional and the true borrow from and shape one another” (118).

These remarks remind me of Andre Bazin’s famous remarks about film realism in What is Cinema?: “The photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of the fingerprint” (15). For Bazin, film is an asymptote of reality, in constant relation to reality but never quite subsuming it. His use of the fingerprint as a metaphor is telling, because it suggests that film and reality touch one another in a material and intimate way. Bazin continues, “Every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image. Hence photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also a fact” (16). Gothic Realities flirts with similar descriptions of the relationship between Gothic fiction and reality, and like Bazin, Cooper never settles on an exact description of the nature of the relationship, ending the book instead with the very provocative (and even frightening) notion that “the Gothic will keep on intruding on our realities, giving shape to the violence we see, believe, and do” (207). Again, there is this notion here that the Gothic gives “shape,” that it can “intrude,” and that there is necessarily a distinction between what we “see” and what we “believe.”

Given that Gothic Realities is about the relationship and play between the two phenomena of Gothic fiction and reality, it is a clever structural decision that the book is broken into four parts with each part containing two chapters in dialectical conversation. For example, in “Part 2: Gothic Sexualities,” Cooper pairs a chapter about the birth of homosexuality in Gothic novels and sexology of the nineteenth century with a chapter that analyzes how this discourse plays out in contemporary horror films. Here, the book hits a high point in a chapter titled “Romps in the Closet: The Persistence of Nineteenth Century Notions in Contemporary Pop Culture.” It’s the chapter that both inspired me most and raised the most questions for me as a reader. (In fact, I wrote almost an essay’s worth of commentary in the margins of this chapter, which is a clear sign that the chapter is doing its work.)

For example, in this chapter, Cooper writes, “Reclaiming the queer, the homosexual, and the monstrous as a viable and valorized category of identity isn’t a simple, finite act. Queer theory has been celebrating queerness for decades, but the same queer celebrated in rarefied (and rare) academic circles faces a very real physical threat on Main Street U.S.A.” (83). This quotation comes in a section about (and critiquing) reverse discourse, and Cooper talks at length about the problems with recuperating both the queer and the monstrous. Queer theory, though, often insists that the queer disrupts rather than reverses discursive constructions. Likewise, reclaiming the monstrous does not merely upset the hierarchical binary of good/bad; rather, celebrating the monstrous has the ability to dismantle this binary (and others) altogether. In this sense, queerness and monstrosity don’t reverse signification; they short-circuit signification.

What I find so elegant and exciting about Cooper’s Gothic Realities is the way that it leaves space for exactly this sort of marginalia, encouraging me as I read to engage (on the page) in my own thinking about film, queer theory, and horror. Cooper’s work inspires contemplation, invites discussion, and opens the field in important ways for further consideration of the relationships between Gothic fiction, contemporary horror film, and real violence.

7 Comments to “Gothic Realness”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A question I wanted to throw out for Andrew that did not make it into the body of my review: you move, in your book, from Gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries to horror film of the 20th and 21st centuries. Do you (or would you) make a distinction between “gothic” as a mode/genre and “horror” as a mode/genre? Are these different traditions, neighboring traditions, or different phases of the same tradition? Does horror have a different form or function in culture than the (capital-G) Gothic? Also, you make a distinction, in your book, between (capital-G) Gothic and (lower-case-g) gothic. Would you make the same distinction between (capital-H) Horror and (lower-case-h) horror?

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve already gone on at great length in response to Dr. Stommel’s question at the end of his generous and well-crafted review, but I do have one more question in response to the review that doesn’t fit with Dr. Stommel’s question about G/g and H/h: what does queer theory actually disrupt?

      In _Gothic Realities_, I respond to Foucault’s description of “reverse discourse,” which I find problematic, but I also find the notion of disruption as an alternative to reversal problematic because disruption, the breaking of binaries, always seems to be temporary and partial. I’ve seen queer theory make many really big claims, but I’ve never seen it really short circuit anything, not to the point that the thing whose circuits got queering ceased to operate as, for example, part of an oppressive and repressive regime of heteronormativity.

      I like queer theory; if I’m any kind of theorist, I’m a queer theorist. But I find queer theory’s capacity for social intervention to be highly… vexed. If you (anybody, not just Dr. Stommel) can think of anything queer theory has truly short circuited, what is it?

      • Anonymous says:

        I have several responses to the questions/comments here. While I agree that new centers (and thus new binaries) do arise in the wake of deconstruction, I think Derrida himself imagines a more permanent sort of disruption at the very end of “Structure, Sign, and Play” when he refers to those (critics, theorists, etc.) that “turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.” For me, Derrida imagines an extended moment of play where something terrible and wondrous emerges, something relentless. For me, horror makes a space for exactly this sort of becoming. Horror films (and their monsters) show us new bodies, new sexualities, new ways of perceiving, and they demand that culture make way for (or move out of the way of) these new potentialities.

        It’s hard for theory (in its more conventional forms) to do this kind of work. It can describe collapse but rarely does itself collapse. For me, “queer theory” is more effective as a mode than as a discipline, and “queer” does more fruitful work as a practice than as an identity category. Nouns describe fixed and immutable things, whereas verbs imply movement and action. So, it makes less sense to think about what “queer” is and more sense to think about what “queer” does. The same could be said of “queer theory.” Queer theory tells a story about the world we inhabit–a story about our evolving physicality (or the erosion of it), but it also does real work that acts as a catalyst for this evolution/erosion.

        A sentence like this one from Sedgwick’s “What’s Queer?” begins to do the disruptive work of queer theory: “A word so fraught as ‘queer’ is–fraught with so many social and personal histories of exclusion, violence, defiance, excitement–never can only denote; nor even can it only connote; a part of its experimental force as a speech act is the way it dramatizes locutionary position itself.” Here, she both describes “queer” and forces a reconsideration of language and meaning-making, crafting a playfully punctuated sentence that weaves around (and in and out of) its subject. For me, “queer” doesn’t mean (and words don’t mean) in quite the same way as before I read this sentence. Others have done this work, like Gertrude Stein (“Act so that there is no use in a center”), Emily Dickinson (“A Word Dropped Careless” or “Infection in the Sentence Breeds”), and even Emerson (when he talks of poets speaking “wildly” in “The Poet”).

        And I think you, Dr. Cooper, have moments in your book that do exactly this sort of work (and I don’t mean to be flippant here–in fact, just the opposite). At the end of Ch. 4, you write, “as the films turn queer monsters into sexy jokes–delectable in their appearance and ridiculous in their murders–the closet becomes a fabulous place to be” (113). In this sentence, I see you short-circuiting (not rewriting or rewiring) the monster, the homosexual, the closet, making way for possibilities less simplistic than the neat and tidy equation MONSTER = HOMOSEXUAL. You aren’t offering merely a reversal, in which HOMOSEXUAL does not equal MONSTER, but a fuller disruption of the categories “monster” and “homosexual,” a disruption, in part, achieved by your dismantling of the conventions surrounding the space they typically inhabit, the closet. And, frankly, I think the work you do here is permanent. The “closet” means differently after I read your sentence.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Dr. Stommel’s question is fundamentally about definition, which by necessity (and a great deal of adviser insistence when the project was a dissertation germ) I take up in the introduction to _Gothic Realities_. I distinguish capital-G Gothic from lower-case-g gothic so that I can separate texts that conform to my definition (the Gothic text is one that focuses primarily on representation of fear and the fearful, such as _The Monk_) and texts that don’t conform that are nevertheless of interest to gothic studies (the text with gothic elements that doesn’t focus on those elements primarily, such as _Wuthering Heights_). The crux of my distinction is really the word “primarily,” as if texts somehow establish fixed hierarchies of focus. They don’t, so this definition, like all definitions, falls apart if you press it too hard. With this caveat in place, my answer to Dr. Stommel is that my distressingly capacious definition of “Gothic horror” allows it to gobble up the entire horror genre in film and in other media, too, and although hierarchies of focus are anything but fixed, H/h makes just as much sense to me as G/g, with H standing for fear and the fearful being primary and h standing for fear and the fearful being something else.

    My favorite thing that I’ve written about definitions has nothing to do with capital and lower-case letters. It’s a quote from Stephen King’s _Danse Macabre_: “It’s a trap, this matter of definition, and I can’t think of a more boring academic subject.” I agree that definitions are a trap, but I don’t agree that they’re boring. Then again, I’m an academic. I rather like walking into the trap of saying I use “Gothic horror” as a cross-media, cross-historical, and cross-disciplinary term and then letting the but-what-abouts begin.

    But what about the differences between and among media? This question suggests that the affordances of different media inherently create unbridgeable differences between traditions of representation. Affordances DO create differences–thank goodness, as otherwise art might stagnate and cease to have any cultural relevance–but those differences are, like Bazin’s notion of film and reality, asymptotic to one another. Film is a visual medium: it shows us horror in a way print can’t. But print is also a visual medium: figuratively, it’s capable of “showing” any horror that film can show, and literally, it’s visual because the act of reading a printed page is still fundamentally an act of looking. And if you (“you” anyone, not you, Dr. Stommel) think film meditates on the corruption of spectatorship, of looking at spectacles of violence, in a way print can’t, I beg you to read any of the sensation novels of the nineteenth century, perhaps _The Woman in White_, in which the reader’s voyeurism is just as violent as the voyeurism of the audience inhabiting the first-person perspective provided by a horror filmmaker’s killer-cam (Dario Argento’s, John Carpenter’s, dozens of imitators’). Yes, the experiences and the potentials for signification associated with print and film differ, but I find exploring the similarities far more intriguing and productive than naming the differences and then insisting on the gap of the asymptote being powerful enough to quarantine one sort of intellectual endeavor from another.

    But what about differences in historical contexts? This question suggests that moments of art-forms’ emergence grant their artifacts immutable individuality. The Gothic in print emerged in the late eighteenth century while horror in film emerged, well, when film emerged, in the late nineteenth century and perhaps more fully in the early twentieth, and the differences among moments of emergence are so many that an artist from one moment wouldn’t even recognize “gothic” in the hands of an artist from another. Take the present moment, for example. In the publishing industry, “gothic” certainly doesn’t mean what it used to: it’s far more likely to describe a bodice-ripping historical romance novel than a flesh-rending contemporary zombie romp.

    Again I say the similarities are more productive than the differences, and I might appeal to my old friend Monk Lewis (really Matthew Lewis, so named because of his notorious authorship of _The Monk_) for help. In _Gothic Realities_ and elsewhere, Lewis’s work stands in opposition to Ann Radcliffe’s, and while I set them against one another because of their radically different critical receptions (Lewis was jeered, Radcliffe cheered), they’re also often opposed because Lewis stands for the “male” tradition of horror while Radcliffe stands for the “female” tradition of terror. CAUTION, binary pile-up: male/female maps onto horror/terror maps onto revulsion/suspense, as both audiences and affects tend to divide in these ways, so if you buy all these divisions, then maybe Lewis’s male Gothic is father to the critically-derided horror film genre while Radcliffe’s female Gothic is mother to the critically-praised thriller, with the parent/child binary being as insuperable as all the others because, well, things evolve when they reproduce, right? Surely the child goes farther than the parent? Surely the gruesome horrors of the _Saw_ series could never have been conceived in the prim and proper eighteenth century?

    What eighteenth century might that be? Is it the eighteenth century of incestuous rape and rotting baby corpses that Lewis provides? The eighteenth century of the Marquis de Sade, who was among the few to receive Lewis’s work with open arms?

    But what about all that gendering–what about male versus female constructions of taste and cultural power? Charlotte Dacre of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries proved that girls can be just as horrific as boys; to keep the gender-bending faith alive, today we have Poppy Z. Brite, whose _Exquisite Corpse_ is exquisitely nasty. And while Alfred Hitchcock serves up plenty of both terror and horror, he is, after all, the master of suspense, so he’s a boy working on the girl side of the fence.

    But what about the horror/terror, revulsion/suspense distinction itself? Arguably the most suspenseful bit in Radcliffe’s _The Mysteries of Udolpho_ is the mystery of the veil, and what’s behind the veil (SPOILER ALERT!) turns out to be a maggoty corpse worthy of Monk Lewis. Oh, but the corpse is a _fake_ corpse, a dummy that only _tricks_ the heroine into being grossed out. But I’m tricked in the same way every time I’m grossed out by a horror movie. The truth is, suspense often climaxes in revulsion (and yes, body genre fans, I do mean _climaxes_, thank you, Linda Williams for such supple notions).

    Back to Dr. Stommel’s question: yes, I can think of differences in form and function between Gothic in print and horror in film, and I can think of reasons to use H/h that parallel my reasons for using G/g. More important, however, is that the tradition I call Gothic horror provides a bridge for every divide I can think of. The bridging itself is perhaps one of Gothic horror’s most exciting attributes: the tradition of representing violence, decay, and death, like death itself, connects everything it touches. That’s why, when I think about Gothic horror, I tend to think big.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I feel like Old School horror and gothic literature have had a huge impact on modern film especially. Movies like Twilight are huge right now and have a really timeless spin.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I found Cooper’s theoretical examination of the creation of the culture we call our reality by morally questionable additions to that culture’s literary tradition provocative, if not stirring.

    That said, I think the thesis that gothic fictions, or more directly its originators and perpetuators, are to be eschewed of responsibility for the culture that they help to create on account of not having bodily control of the people adopting it is akin to suggesting that the human body, not vitamin C, is to blame for scurvy on account of having functions which necessitate the intake of vitamin C.

    The dehumanizing effect of gothic fiction only becomes greater over time, in graduations tracking imperviousness to it. Yes, I concur with Cooper’s assessment (substantiated by Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and Slovaj Zizek’s Lakanian writings) that predispositions are paramount to the response one has to any particular work. But those predispositions can be highly standardized across a population with precisely the type of media we are discussing here. Culture creation is a science, studied and funded by our governments, as revealed in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders.

    That the classic gothic works, such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, were received more graciously due to the cultural influence of the philosophy of someone like David Hume, speaks to the boundlessness of the warping of our minds with ideas and images that are not native to the health of those minds, if it is to be presupposed that happiness is a measure of mental health.

    I believe Hume said that morality is a matter of sentiment. The moral relativity images and imagery of terror foist upon us is currently making it inhumane to become sentimental about a time when this was widely viewed as inhumane.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I found Cooper’s critical and theoretical dissertation on the inexorable interplay between the events of gothic fictions that play-out in our minds’ and that which play-out in our realities provocative to be certain.

    Insomuch, I find his conclusion, which deems that fiction can cause events but is not responsible for them, rather inconsequential in the grand scheme that is culture creation through gothic media.

    While an inanimate object which can be used by us to stimulate thought, such as a book or film, may not be capable of possessing a motive, the people creating them certainly are and to me it is naive to not at least bring into question their motives for these works.

    This is especially important if you consider that these media are not only a means by which we can consciously form the thoughts and opinions upon which our unique reality is founded, but design our interpretation of it beneath the conscious mind without our consent. They reflect upon reality (or are an imprint of it in recognition of Bazin’s philosophy of film realism) and so, since we are not after a certain extent able to distinguish between the reflection and the source, become it.

    Predictive programming is but one plainly crafted ploy which has been employed by fictions (from gothic novels to blockbuster comedies) for as long as history can record to “form” the way we perceive reality, in advance of events that likewise alter it. Plato, no less, discusses how the culture industry of his own day was an imperative if the empires were to maintain control over populations. This is underscored by the fact that it was compulsory to attend plays during this time history.

    This programming seems to explain why a multi-generational family can sit down to take in their evening dose of “programming” and be divided in their reactions to such an extent that the older members feel forced to leave the room, and those of the latest generation are too compelled by what they see to notice this.

    It seems unlikely to me that the “torture porn” of today would have been considered a form of “entertainment” (a word which, oddly enough, derives from the word distraction) when Matthew Lewis released The Monk, even if it was in book form – the literary tropes of that time (and the concept of reality the people within it had developed on the basis of these) and those found in these human life devaluing works were too asunder.