One of the things I’ve worked out recently is that much of my research involves thinking about one particular text or idea through a completely different one. So, right now, I’m trying to figure out how to approach my book on servants and slaves in American gothic, but I’m doing it largely by thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (mainly because I’ve been comfort-binging it, but nonetheless). This might sound both perverse and a bit abstract, but actually it’s a method that makes a lot of sense to me. Texts don’t exist in isolation – they talk to each other, and work off of each other, making use of established tropes, ideas, and plots to tell new stories in familiar ways.
Gothic and horror are particularly prone to fairly explicit recycling of this kind – otherwise, there would be no Scream franchise. What this means is that many gothic and horror effectively straddle a line between literature and myth. Laurence Coupe’s book Myth does a great job of explaining how myths allow particular ideas, stories, figures, and images to survive in continually evolving forms, as one story morphs into another, and one hero gets transported into what might seem to be a totally different set of stories, but without any real conflict.[i]
For Coupe, this is the essence of myth – its adaptability, its flexibility – but, at the same time, he warns that mythos, the process or mode of myth making, can all too easily transform into logos, the Word – a far more static, rigid form of narrative and idea-creation that has the potential to limit people’s lives because they feel like there’s a script they need to follow, rather than one they can shape to their own needs. In other words, mythos might give us a pattern to live by, but it’s one we can insert ourselves into and even change, while logos is a powerful, potentially even dangerous, tool, one that leaves the individual struggling to fight against it.
The phrase “make American great again” springs to mind here. Tapping into the existing myth of America as the land of the free, a place built on rebellion, democracy, and a welcoming attitude to the huddled masses of the world, the current political regime has reduced and hardened that myth into something cold, violent, and exclusionary – America is now free and “great,” it seems, because of who it excludes, who it chooses to kill, to blame, to impoverish, to traumatise – not least those who challenge the myth.
For me, then, seeing literary and popular-culture texts as bordering on the mythos paradigm is a way of understanding how one idea can be reused and reimagined elsewhere – and, I would like to think, understanding these stories and their continuing evolution can tell us useful things about the ways we use literature and pop culture to understand but also to construct and influence the world.
Right now, I’m trying to figure out how servants and slaves function in American gothic texts – how characters who exist on the margins of the texts and social worlds they inhabit can and do slot themselves into a narrative form that is, by and large, far more interested in their employers or “masters”. There are a couple of difficulties in doing this, relating primarily to the nature of American gothic. So, to break it down:
- As people like Teresa Goddu have pointed out, because the United States likes to present itself as a nation without a past, or at least with a very short one compared to the Europe, American gothic is essentially a “historical mode operating in what appears to be a historical vacuum”.[ii]
- OK, grand, but why is that a problem? Well, to start with, as Goddu suggests here, the gothic generally needs a strong sense of the past – in fact, of multiple pasts overlaid on one another – to function at all. It also needs several things that American culture would also like to think it doesn’t contain – powerful tyrants, superstition to bolster the tyrants’ power, and big old buildings for the tyrants to lord over and control.
- As for what happens in those buildings, well, in everything from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864), and Louisa May Alcott’s A Whisper in the Dark (1889) (which doesn’t get read enough so go and read it now – it’s nice and short, and the heroine rocks) – sorry, yes, in all these texts, and right up to much more recent things like What Lies Beneath (2000), Gothika (2003), and Crimson Peak (2015), young, socially powerless, slightly nosey women find themselves under threat of imprisonment, rape, and murder, while also witnessing these things happen to women around them, and gradually uncovering past abuses against a whole host of female relatives or other predecessors.
- All the gothic heroine has to do is remain totally chaste, while also poking around in dark corners, and ultimately, she should be able to expose the sins of the tyrant who wields his massive, unkempt house, castle, or abbey like a weapon. No pressure.
- In other words, the fundamental gothic plot is that of “Bluebeard,” and what these stories tell us ultimately is that it is women’s job to reveal and therefore tame male privilege and aggression, transforming aristocratic despotism and sexual licence into a nice middle-class marriage with a nice dude who hasn’t done much to help her all this time, but who’s good husband material precisely because he’s the polar opposite of the power-hungry, lecherous villain.
- Now, America had done a grand job of finding ways to make this plot their own in a variety of ways – that, I think, is a post, or a series of posts, for another day – but the trouble is that it’s quite hard to find castles and aristocrats in the New World. Instead, we get Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Or, as in the film examples cited above, we get supposedly nice, middle-class husbands who turn out to be wielding vast amounts of power over young women, and whose wives find their own homes and workplaces turned against them when they start snooping.
- So, in other words, America can square the gothic with its conviction that it’s a nation that was founded upon and continues to uphold democratic institutions and middle-class hegemony, but, to do so, it must evoke the powers of mythos, altering core elements to suit its purposes. Oh, and it can be quite heteronormative, but hopefully more on this in future posts.
Illustration from Matthew Lewis, The Monk (1796)
I haven’t quite worked out yet how servants fit in – some of them (generally the white, Anglo-Saxon ones, like the narrator of Edith Warton’s story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1902)) themselves act as gothic heroines, figuring out what is going on in their mistresses lives in a frantic effort to save these wealthy women (rather than themselves) from male violence. Others (generally coded as Irish- or African-American, and definitely not Protestant, or at least not Protestant enough) seem to be aligned with the hauntings that plague their employers, or else just hover uneasily in the background, providing bits of useful information or heading for the hills once the supernatural shenanigans get too much.
Illustration from Edith Wharton, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1902)
What, then, does all of this have to do with Buffy, and why has thinking about the show been useful for me? Having watched all seven seasons again there recently, I was struck by just how closely aligned Buffy Summers herself is with the conventional gothic heroine, but also how hard the programme works to subvert or actively reject some of what’s involved in such a role. Some of these ideas have been usefully covered by Kathleen Hudson and Mary Going on the excellent Sheffield Gothic blog.
Essentially, though, Buffy can be understood an effort to work though the problem of how to depict a gothic heroine in an age when many societies don’t prize chastity all that much, and where breaking free from the roles assigned to us is often seen as preferable to fitting into them. Complicating matters further is the fact that the gothic heroine’s quest itself is all about refusing a particular narrative path, breaking free of a past that keeps repeating itself and moving forward into a better future.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by returning to Alcott’s A Whisper in the Dark, which I think is in many ways the purest, neatest example of the conventional gothic narrative. The point of what the gothic heroine does is that she strives not to follow in the footsteps of the women who have fallen foul of the villain before her – Alcott’s plucky narrator is wrongfully imprisoned in an asylum by men who want to steal her inheritance, and gradually comes to realise that the women in the next room, who has been totally deprived of her sanity, is in fact her mother, who the narrator had believed dead but who had in fact fallen victim to the same fate years before. Simultaneously uncovering the heinous plan and figuring out how to escape, she finally spots her chance and flees the building just as it burns to the ground, and runs right into the arms of her sweet but rather ineffectual lover.
In the films mentioned above, an identical pattern can be discerned – the message, then, is that, to be a gothic heroine, to escape and also destroy patriarchal power, a heroine must be the antithesis of the women around her – she must figure out what they did wrong, and do the exact opposite. Generally, this involves being “strong” enough to evade various assaults and abuses while retaining a firm grip on her sanity – in other words, it’s a big ask, and implicitly blames the other women for “giving in.” The conventional gothic, then, is a narrative form that, on the one hand, applauds female pluck, independence, and ingenuity, but on the other, roundly castigates those who fail to be all these things and chaste and sane and, well, alive.
Buffy Summers is, of course, not quite any of these things – she dies twice, may in fact have been in an institution all along (see Season 6’s devastating “Normal Again”), and has some spectacular sex (even if it doesn’t always end well). The trouble with all this, however, is that she still can’t escape the plot that has her repeatedly outwitting numerous horrible villains, in demon and in human form, only to start all over again. Buffy is “the Chosen One,” “she alone in all the world has the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness.” It’s not simply that she ends up playing this part – ancient forces have conspired to ensure that she must. And for me, what’s interesting about Buffy is the way it directly engages with this central problem.
As Hudson explains very effectively in her blog post, the Season 1 finale, “Prophecy Girl,” sets Buffy up fairly explicitly as a gothic heroine, who strays into the underground lair of an ancient vampire known as the Master, while wearing a symbolic white dress – but also carrying a crossbow, and, you know, with superpowers. On the one hand, then, she’s visually set up as the sacrificial lamb, but on the other, just as overtly, as the person who’s going to stop the lamb-killing for good.
Except that she doesn’t. In that episode, she drowns and is resuscitated by her friend Xander, and is brought back again at the start of Season 6 by her other friend Willow’s witchcraft, having died a supernatural death. Poor Buffy – even tormented, imperilled gothic heroines get to rest eventually, safe in the arms of their bland husbands. To do this, though, would be to follow one kind of script, and so she’s forced to follow another, where she performs the same actions over and over, to the point of weariness, boredom, and depression – “going through the motions” – following her second revivification.
And this, as Going asserts, is where the very final episode comes in. Buffy and Willow work together to ensure that all of the girls throughout the world who could become slayers like Buffy suddenly do. So, what this means is that Buffy as a whole messes with the gothic pattern by essentially reversing what the gothic usually does. Instead of having to be set apart from every other woman she has ever known and ever will, instead of having to be the only one who is able to fight off the terrible people and forces around her, she and Willow make it so that she’s no longer unique – they make thousands of girls like her, so that she doesn’t have to be different to every other girl ever.
Buffy and Buffy therefore break with gothic repetition, with the fear that you might end up just like your mother or your aunt or your friend who’s body you just found in the cellar, but it does so, paradoxically, by embracing repetition. There are slayers all over the place now in this fictional universe, and what this means is that Buffy no longer has to play the same role over and over again. She can do whatever the hell she wants.
Phew. But something tells me that most of my fictional servants and slaves aren’t going to be so lucky.
[i] Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p.45.
[ii] Teresa A. Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p.9.