In Haunt

An article by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes (Reader in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a founder member of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Previously interviewed by Haunt here) – who is leading a course on Gothic Cinema at HOME.

From August 2013 to January 2014, the British Film Institute, Britain’s most prestigious organisation in the promotion and preservation of film, ran a very widely publicised season entitled ‘Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film’. Its scale was vast: 150 films were played in around 1,000 screenings throughout the UK and the season became the longest yet in BFI Southbank history. ‘Gothic’ also included talks from invited guests, specialist lectures and workshops, new DVD releases, an educational programme, an issue of the affiliated magazine Sight and Sound containing a special feature on Gothic cinema and even an accompanying compendium, the first to transnationally encompass the history of the Gothic on screen beyond specific periods. The season was very successful and received coverage in major newspapers and tabloids like The Guardian, Evening Standard and Metro, and was also the subject of an article by the BBC. It seemed that, after many years of existing on the cultural periphery as a term used mostly by scholars and architects, the Gothic had finally become a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Gothic cinema’s resurgence did not end there, however, for the British Library, another mainstay of British culture, also launched a massive exhibition, ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, in October of 2014 that lasted until January 2015. Its exhibits centred on literature but also included films, a decision that demonstrates their value to contemporary perceptions of the Gothic. Yet for all the wealth of interest these events generated, the term ‘Gothic’ remained somewhat vague in its application to cinema.

Gothic CinemaMy main aim with the project that has culminated in the book Gothic Cinema (out in January 2020 from Routledge) and the 8-week course of the same name running at HOME from January to March of 2020 was precisely to mount a defence of Gothic cinema as an aesthetic mode with a distinctive set of markers that can be disentangled from horror. This is important because, as we have received it, the Gothic today is primarily visual, premised on a number of motifs and images that have either derived from or been filtered by film history. Until very recently, the existence of the Gothic in film was in question too, relegated to the subtle side of horror, the modern equivalent of what Ann Radcliffe referred to as ‘terror’, or else unhelpfully collapsed into horror altogether. What exactly is Gothic cinema, and why has it been so difficult to pin down? Naturally, the fact that a lot of classical horror cinema derived inspiration from the literary Gothic tradition (although mostly from nineteenth century texts and normally thanks to previous successes on the stage) has created some confusion. The steady rise of Gothic Studies since the 1990s and the mode’s connection to certain poststructuralist theories and methodologies also muddled the ground, turning the Gothic into a tool of investigation that used single motifs to Gothicise entire texts.

For this reason, my research project has been more actively driven by the specificity of the cinematic medium and of the Western film industry: when did the Gothic begin to manifest on screen, and was this a self-aware process? When and why did film begin drawing on, even creating, a Gothic aesthetic comparable to that of the literary tradition? Are monsters or the supernatural a requisite of the Gothic? Once a world of shadows, what happened to Gothic cinema when Hammer and other studios began bathing their period films in glorious technicolour? And what happened to the Gothic once the exploitation boom of the 1960s and 1970s and the success of the more realist and contemporary horror popularised by The Exorcist (1973) rendered its settings and titillating subtexts passé, even redundant? The historical drive behind these burning questions was significantly emboldened by a grant I was awarded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust in 2018 to visit key film archives in the States – the Library of Congress (Washington - pictured below) and the Margaret Herrick Library (Los Angeles) – to consult existing photographic material for many lost Gothic films from the 1910s and 1920s. Although largely forgotten today, films like The Ghost Breaker (1914) or Something Always Happens (1928) exhibit the type of Gothic sensibility that would be exploited by Universal’s horrors in the 1930s. I aim to explore the significance of the old dark house mystery to cinema history in future research, but a number of the things I discovered during my research stays in 2019 made it into the forthcoming book and course.

Library of Congress

I only started properly writing what would become Gothic Cinema in 2016, but its gestation period goes much further back. I have had a long academic fascination with the Gothic since I undertook my MA programme and subsequent PhD, and of course, I now belong to the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies and teach BA and MA Gothic units at Manchester Metropolitan University. In a sense, thinking about the Gothic is something I cannot help but do on a weekly basis. Yet two moments were key in sparking the final creative fuse. The first of these was an invitation I received to give a paper at the aforementioned Gothic season at the BFI in 2013. When the organisers asked me if I had a book on the subject they could promote, it suddenly hit me that I probably could and definitely should. The second wake-up call came while co-delivering with Dr Linnie Blake the ‘Introduction to Gothic Cinema’ course at Cornerhouse (now HOME) in the autumn of 2014. The experience was transformative and the excitement of the attendees truly infectious. Once more, I had to reply in the negative when people asked me if there was something I had written on the topic they could read and, once more, I thought to myself that there was no good reason for this. It makes perfect sense that this particular journey should return to one of the places where it began: I cannot wait to launch my new book with HOME and I am very much looking forward to seeing Son of Frankenstein (1939) (still picture below) and La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday, 1960), two personal favourites, on the big screen.

Son Of Frankenstein

One of the most important films of the twentieth century, the influential German expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, will be turning a hundred years old in February. What better way to celebrate the anniversary of this granddaddy of Gothic cinema than by embracing the dark heart of film history? Especially because, as it transpires, Gothic films are always partly a distorted mirror of what we continue to fear and desire.

Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes has also contributed previous content to Haunt Manchester, including an article exploring the connection between ‘HOME and the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies’ and a piece on ‘Manchester and Gothic Publishing’.  

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