In Haunt

From madwomen imprisoned in their attics to persecuted wives, unquiet ghosts and final girls who take on and outwit violent men, the Female Gothic on screen offers a variety of strong roles for women. In films as diverse as The Cat and the Canary (1927), Jane Eyre (1943), Dragonwyck (1946), The Haunting (1963), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Woman in Black (2012) and Crimson Peak (2015), the iconography of the Gothic enables an exploration of women’s complex inhabitation of dark patriarchal spaces and transformations from victim to heroine. But what were the key motifs and settings of the Female Gothic and how did they change from the days of silent movies to the contemporary era? In a one-day course at HOME in central Manchester on Saturday 14 September 2019, as part of HOME’s Celebrating Women in Global Cinema programme, members of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies (Manchester Metropolitan University) opened up some of the secrets of the Female Gothic and its terrifying manifestations on screen.

Gaslight

In her lecture ‘From Novel to Screen’, Dr Emma Liggins, a specialist in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Gothic, talked about the origins of the Female Gothic in novels of the 1790s and its development in the Victorian period. Novels such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), reformulated as stage melodramas in the nineteenth century, were adapted for the screen in the 1930s and 1940s. These films linger on the dark interiors of castles, asylums and ancestral mansions which harbour the secrets of the past, including the buried histories of women and the ‘lost mother’. Adaptations of ghost stories on film often focus on the female ghost with a story to tell. As the trailer for The Uninvited (1944) shows, audiences were thrilled by the ‘nameless horror’ to be encountered in the haunted house, ‘the house of terror’ disturbed by the wailings of two lost mothers and their forgotten stories of illegitimacy and jealousy. Emma’s research on haunted house narratives in the twentieth century has revealed that haunted nurseries are key spaces for female ghosts projecting their lost maternity, evident in both The Uninvited and in the later horror film, The Woman in Black.

The second session of the day was run by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Reader in English Literature and Film and who specialises in modern and contemporary Gothic film and fiction. Xavier has been recently working on a British Academy-funded project on the old dark house mysteries of the 1910s and 1920s, a hybrid filmic mode in which many of the tropes of the Female Gothic resurfaced before moving on to the cycle of women films of the 1940s. His lecture ‘Female Gothic: Classical Cinema, 1895–1950’ drew on archival research done in the Library of Congress and the Margaret Herrick Library last year to explain how and why literary motifs from the Female Gothic tradition – like the entrapped wife, the claustrophobic estate or the tyrant husband – reappeared during what was a significant period of transition in American and Britain. Films with increasingly more assertive women, especially where female suspicion was proven right, became popular due to important changes to cinema demographics brought about by two World Wars and which had seen women take up jobs in munition factories and, later, in the clerical sector. As part of the day, Xavier also introduced the film Gaslight (1940), a British classic co-written by Irish-British screenwriter Bridget Boland and starring Diana Wynyard. The research he presented on the day is being partially published in his book Gothic Cinema (Routledge), out next January.

Gaslight

The concluding lecture of the day course was delivered by Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies and American Studies, focussing on the division of female gothic tropes into other subgenres within horror. With an emphasis on the abject nature of the killer, the changing dynamics of gender, domestic spaces and places, and the ‘Final Girl’ in particular, Ní Fhlainn looked at the legacy of the Female Gothic and how it intersects with more contemporary iterations of representing women in Gothic and Horror cinema. What is of particular significance is the victim’s initial suspicion and eventual overt confrontation with the monster, giving her agency to fight back, which finds commercial and critical purchase from the 1970s onwards in Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996) and Crimson Peak (2015).  The mesh of styles between the earlier film cycles in the Female Gothic was also examined— the horrors found in the home, the secrets with communities, and the spectral return of past sins and transgressions— and how these tropes and ideas still inform contemporary Gothic and Horror Cinema. There was significant positive commentary in the evaluation of the course on how these concepts directly encouraged and altered their perception of these films as informed by feminist readings.

The audience at HOME responded with enthusiasm to the day, especially to a long history of female representation they were not familiar with and whose timeliness they were able to contextualise. Many remarked on the relevance of the topics covered to life today. They also enjoyed the screening of Gaslight and some were even inspired by it to seek out the 1944 American version, as they reported in their evaluation sheets. Some members of the audience were particularly intrigued by the horror film and the slasher, and whether such films, with their violence against women, could be seen as feminist. They raised questions about representations of female madness, women’s confinement to the home and under-currents of domestic violence.

For more information on HOME’s Celebrating Women in Global Cinema programme visit the website and there is more information on the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies online, as well as details about its 7th Gothic Manchester Festival which returns for the whole month of October 2019.  

Article with thanks to Dr Emma Liggins, Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes and Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn (The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University)                 

Imagery above from Gaslight (1940), provided with thanks to HOME                            

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