The Gothic Mother in Contemporary Horror: an Analysis of Haunted Spaces and Mirror Images in


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The Gothic Mother in Contemporary Horror: an Analysis of Haunted Spaces and Mirror Images in American Horror Story: Murder House and The Fall of the House of Usher

Bachelor Project: Almen English

Pernille Zahl Larsen

Aalborg University


This paper investigates how so the haunted house motif can be considered a metaphor for a mother, and examines what said metaphor represents in terms of social conventions and values in society.

The 2011, TV-series American Horror Story: Murder House is the primary focus of a motive analysis in which relevant semiotic and psychoanalytical theory are used to examine the complexity of bodily projection in terms of the haunted house in contemporary horror. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) is used both as a contrast to the Female Gothic in the TV-series, but also as a source of reference in which the tendencies of the Victorian and Male Gothic are presented. At the centre of both stories are the anthropomorphically depicted Victorian style houses that give cause for an analysis on the haunted house motif.

The maternal metaphor in American Horror Story turns out to be similar, but not identical to the metaphor the lies within the name of Usher. Both a form of repetition within the genre, but also a modern variation to it, the Murder House of American Horror Story represents certain contemporary problematics in terms of those who are left on the margins of American society.

Anthony Vidler's “The Architectural Uncanny” (1992) and his theory of uncanny, bodily projection unto architecture are used in order to define the context of haunting in architecture. Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei's study on domestic spaces (2002) is used as a complementary source to this. In terms of the gender-specific metaphor, the paper uses both Barry Curtis’s semiotic approach to Burke’s idea of the female body being a maze in which one’s gaze can get lost (2008), and especially Claire Kahane’s psychoanalytical and feminist essay “The Gothic Mirror”(1985). Kahane’s approach to the Female Gothic places the conventional, Gothic heroine in an ambiguous struggle for a separate identity away from the dead or displaced mother whom is at the foundation of everything Gothic. Fred Botting’s “Gothic” (2014) is one of the books that create an overview of the Gothic tradition within the paper.
Table of Contents:
1. Introduction 03

2. The Gothic Tradition and the Haunted House Motif 04

2.1 Theory on the Concept of the Gothic Mother 07

3. Analysis on American Horror Story: Murder House 11

3.1 The Haunted House Motif in American Horror Story 12

3.2 The Gothic Heroine: Is she present in the 2011 TV-series? 15

3.2.1 The Mother Figure, the Femme Fatale and the Persecuted Maiden 17

3.3 Escape or Nonseparation: The end to the Gothic heroine? 20

4. American Horror Story vs. The Fall of the House of Usher 22

5. Conclusion 25

6. Works Cited 27

7. Appendix 1 & 2

1. Introduction

The haunted house is an archetypical Gothic motif often present in horror, and its origins stem all the way back to Horace Walpole’s Romantic haunted castle of Otranto (1764) (Bailey, 3). Today, 250 years later, the haunted house still appears in popular books and TV-series, but what exactly is it that the haunted house represents and how can it still be interesting so many years after its first appearance?

This paper seeks to investigate the connection between the haunted house and the family that inhabits it in order to analyse the Gothic and feminist tendencies in the TV-series American Horror Story: Murder House (2011). Gothic texts are often interpreted as representing paternal authority, but this paper is focused on a feminist take on the genre. Based on both semiotic as well as psychoanalytical theory, the paper examines how so the haunted house can be connected to a maternal metaphor. With special focus on works of Barry Curtis, Claire Kahane and Anthony Vidler, the paper seeks, through a motive analysis, an answer as to what the haunted house motif represents in society. This is done through the scrutinizing of the characters’ actions and theory on their probable and innermost desires.

Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story The Fall of the House of Usher was written in 1839 and has therefore been chosen as a contrast text in terms of the 2011 TV-series that revolves around a haunted house from the 1920’s [Pilot, 09:30]. Both examples of Victorian architecture, but created 172 years apart, the paper seeks to discuss the gender politics which the respective houses represent albeit with main focus on the contemporary TV-series. The paper is solely focused on the western perception of the haunted house motif and it accounts for relevant aspects of the literary history of Gothic fiction.

Thesis: Gothic texts are often interpreted as representing paternal authority, but this paper examines how so the haunted house can be considered a metaphor for a mother.

2. The Gothic Tradition and the Haunted House Motif

The haunted house is instantly recognizable, if not to the characters of the book or film, then most definitely to the audience that will sense from the house an aura of otherworldliness and terror. The haunted house is a space of memory, mystery and monstrosity, and it usually has some form of consequence to cross its threshold.

With its roots in the Gothic, the haunted house has a history which leads all the way back to the eighteenth century. Paradoxically, since the genre is anything but realistic, Gothic fiction came to be during a time of reason and Enlightenment. Fred Botting1 explains the origins of the gothic tradition as an effect of fear and anxiety in a world of change and also as a means to explain what the Enlightenment did not (Botting, 22). The Gothic novel reflected nostalgia for the divine mysteries of Romanticism and times past, but at the same time it was dark and monstrous. A form of dark romanticism, some would call it, because of its shared albeit negative aesthetic history with Romanticism (13).

The Gothic genre came to be a controversial, but very popular genre throughout the Romantic period. Especially a lot of women read Gothic fiction, and this might be of some relevance to the feminist theory which this paper investigates (Hogle, 1).

Societies change over time and with them do the literary tendencies. Gothic fiction has many aspects and nuances to it, and not all are relevant to this paper. Where early Gothic fiction usually was set in the Middle Ages in great, isolated and very haunted castles, abbeys or ruins (Botting, 4), the Gothic novel of the nineteenth century was set in a more contemporary setting. The Victorian Gothic is especially interesting in terms of this paper for Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher was published in 1839, and the haunted house in American Horror Story: Murder House was built in 1920 [Pilot 09:30].

The Gothic of the nineteenth century was increasingly terrifying because the horrors where brought that much closer to the reality and everyday life of the individual:

(…)the wild landscapes of Romantic individualism give way to terrors and horrors that are much closer to home, uncanny disruptions of boundaries between inside and outside, reality and delusions, propriety and corruption, materialism and spirituality (Botting, 104).
In the nineteenth century Gothic, the haunted pasts of family histories and guilty concealments were at the centre of the plots, and though the villains were still corrupt, they were increasingly human. Far more than earlier, the battle between good and evil was within the individual. The new scientific and industrial evolutions inspired superstitious beliefs in “alchemy and mystic powers”(116), and stories such as Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) represented a still existing interest in the aristocracy and past ruin. Ghost stories were quite popular during this time, but the supernatural figures were mostly used as “realism’s uncanny shadow” (Botting, 119). Here meaning a way to create a feeling of the unheimlich, something which Sigmund Freud called the effect of combining something familiar with something unfamiliar thus making it uncanny (Freud, 1-2).

The haunted castle evolves into a haunted house or manor, although it occasionally still remains a castle. Barry Curtis2 describes the typical haunted house as “anthropomorphic”, and claims that such a house holds a brooding and unsettling self-possession that makes it instantly recognizable to the viewer (Curtis, 31). Typically marked by neglect, the house represents ‘compressed time’ (32) and the haunting usually has to do with the history of the house. “It is an established scenario for childhood fears, tentative new beginnings, dramas of inheritance and the return of the repressed” (31).

It is no new idea that places can “retain the memory of traumatic events” (35), and it can be argued that all houses are haunted by something, be it memories, dreams or fantasies (Briganti, 840). Houses are the familiar and safe spaces of everyday life, so when a traumatic history is added to the architecture, the safety of the space is threatened. By adding mystery to the familiar, the house becomes the keeper of a truth that must be uncovered. Typically in the modern Gothic and horror, however, the mystery of the house may be uncovered, but rarely solved.

In The Fall of the House of Usher, the haunted house is described as a “mansion of gloom” with “bleak walls” and “vacant, eye-like windows” (Poe, 1553). The latter description gives the reader a sense of the house being alive, creating an uncanny feel already in the beginning of the short story.

Anthony Vidler3 interprets architecture in terms of the uncanny, and his “The Architectural Uncanny” explains the structure of the house as the combining element between familiarity and severe anxiety (Curtis, 12).

As a concept, then, the uncanny has (…) found its metaphorical home in architecture (…) in the house, haunted or not, that pretends to afford the utmost security while opening itself to the intrusion of terror (Vidler, 11)

Based on the psychoanalytical approach of Sigmund Freud, Vidler finds that the house both represents domesticity and family history, but also some form of invasion of “alien spirits” (17). He admits that buildings cannot inflict a guaranteed uncanny experience in the spectators, but argues that the emblematic attributes of haunted houses in Gothic fiction, create some characteristics that the spectator will recognize and dread (11). Because of this the style of architecture in itself can suggest a haunting as long as the spectator has a certain source of reference.

Encounters, repetition and reflections are but some of the factors through which the uncanny appears in architecture. If applied to The Fall of the House of Usher, the uncanny emerges when the narrator first encounters the house. The façade’s initial, anthropomorphic description as well as the house’s other characteristics are true to the genre’s typical haunted house motif: it is isolated, decaying and marked by time with its “discoloration of age” (Poe, 1554). The house with its Gothic archway is overgrown with minute fungi and looks forgotten (1555). In terms of the inside; there is a sense of entrapment for the inhabitants are too sickly to leave the building. Built by a lake, the house is reflected in the water, creating a horrific uncanny by means of a doppelganger (1553), and the dual unity between house and the family represents a hidden metaphor for one another.

As mentioned above, houses do not necessarily need to look haunted to have a reputation for being so (Vidler, 19), and it might be argued that the “insufferable gloom” of the narrator in The Fall of the House of Usher (Poe, 1553) may be what he projects onto the house thus making it appear haunted. As previously mentioned, the Gothic of Poe’s day was fascinated with the disruptions of reality and delusions (Botting, 104), and the narrator does compare the initial encounter to “the after-dream of the reveller upon opium” (Poe, 1553). The House of Usher is haunted by the family that inhabits it (Vidler, 19), their madness and probable incest. When the last two Ushers die in the end, the building physically disintegrates (Poe, 1565). In the case of Poe’s work, the haunted house therefore becomes a metaphor for the family and its decay.
In “Reading the House: A Literary Perspective”, Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei4 write that houses represent the style and culture of their owners, and if this is so, the idea of the house being a metaphor for a family and its history may arguably be a logical one.
The exterior façade and style along with the interior decoration, furniture, style, and layout of houses compose a semiotic system that signals status, class, and public display and creates meanings that observers, visitors, and the public may interpret and read (Briganti, 840).
Houses therefore both represent history, social conventions and the personality of their owners. The following section will introduced theory that places the bodily projection on houses within a maternal context.

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