Thursday 9 November 2017


There are several distinct modes of political system under which the gothic in fiction and popular culture operates. They act as a kind of backdrop onto which the tales that explore themes of the suppressed, transgressive and inhumane can be projected. But this do not simply act as a stage for tropes, but they also feed into the form and content of gothic culture.

The most prominent political mode in gothic literature and film is that of the 19th century, central/east-European model of absolutist monarchy. It is the Europe of the nobility, peasantry, princes, Burgermeisters and priests – effectively, that of the Habsburgs. It is a vast realm, full of ungoverned spaces punctuated by small pockets of arbitrary and brutal autocracy; for every peasant farmhouse or hamlet there was a dungeon, jail or fortress. The Emperor acts as a kind of absentee landlord, generally disinterested in the events of much of the nation and especially of the peripheral wastelands and spaces in which 'gothic' events take place. This is the political backdrop to which nearly all of the main gothic texts and their numerous celluloid offspring takes place.

Another mode, albeit less prominent, is that of the war-torn province. The actual real-life history of the Balkans and of Transylvania between and even during the wars features many eerie intrusions of the gothic into political life, from the psychodramatic theatrics of the Iron Guard fascists in Romania including their strange pseudo-vampiric blood rituals to the blood tests carried out on Transylvania peasants by the occupying Hungarian troops; and this prototype mode of mob rule, violent disorder and tyranny is another staple of the gothic. The tumults of the wars fed directly into the work of James Whale, the acting of Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee, and the renewed fascination with the horrors of technology and mortality that became vivid in the televisual age.

The mode that was until recently most prevalent in popular culture was that of the gothic of totalitarianism; during the era of the cold war the image of the darkened depths of a divided Europe, from beneath the Berlin Wall to the edges of the Carpathians, was a form of gothic that resonated a kind of real-time political dread. With this came the related fears of nuclear war, espionage, and political dictatorship. The shadow of the police state hung over all gothic terrain, and where it was not the decadence of a West Berlin took on nihilistic and desperate tones, and the neo-vampiric rule of Ceausescu represented a political nightmare that was all too real.

And finally there is the current political mode of the gothic – that of the playground, the nightclub, the holiday, the big city, of adventures in a crumbling old and rising new world. The postmodern escapades of the 'Underworld', 'Blade', 'Hellraiser' and 'Saw' series are all in this tradition of the contextless, modern rampage.

The interplay between political context and the gothic is always linked to the conflict between monolithic absolutism, in it's various forms, and the struggle of liberal (and modern) forces against it. In effect, that contradiction has had to become more fantastical (even ersatz) as the forces of real tyranny have subsided.

So how can a new political mode be created to fit the struggles of the modern world?

Now, that is an entirely different matter....

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