In Pursuit of the Uncanny: The Unchanging Writing Techniques of Gothic Literature

By Tracy Thomas

The horror (or gothic) genre dates back to 18th century England and has grossed billions of dollars in movies alone. Whether a gothic creation takes the form of literature (including films), folktale, partaking in Halloween, pranking or getting pranked, there are common elements that must exist to make it qualify as horror or gothic. They must bear elements of the uncanny. When British novelist Horace Walpole first applied gothic writing techniques in his 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto” (also titled A Gothic Story in its second edition), the novel merged medievalism and terror in a style that has endured ever since (Walpole). Gothic writing techniques have remained the same and are as effective in modern-day horror literature as they were in old times. Comparing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, to analyze various techniques that have stood the test of time in gothic horror, this paper tests this theory.

There can be no horror without uncanny elements, so the various techniques used in gothic literature have one purpose: creating the uncanny. Uncanny refers to something strange or mysterious in an unsettling way.  Since fear occurs when there is an aberration, there must be knowledge of a normalized version of a thing for it to be considered strange. Sigmund Freud explains this in “The Uncanny” as our brains repressing information from past experiences that comes back to haunt us. In literature, these elements of uncanniness mainly adopt words and darkness to create a sense of horror and are created through character, setting, and plot design (Han and Guo, 2020). Furthermore, although the plots, settings, and characters change with each gothic literature, the techniques and style used by Walpole in his horror literature have been replicated by pioneering gothic writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe and by various modern gothic literature creators to date (Han and Guo, 2020).

One of the ways uncanny moments are created through characters is the use of doubles or doppelgangers. Freud defines uncanny as a “class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (1). For instance, it is not customary for people to have duplicates, except they are monozygotic twins. So, in Black Swan, seeing more than one Nina in a scene (15:35-55) causes horror because the audience knows that one of them should not be there. Similarly, in Solaris, the audience is aware that “the visitors” do not belong on the space station, so their presence causes horror. If it was an accepted societal concept to have doppelgangers, then the element of horror is lost. This concept is best explained by Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulations”, where he defines simulacra as a “generation by models of a real without origin or reality – a hyperreal”. In simpler terms, society is a social construct, and what is real, or fake depends on what society agrees it to be.

Another way gothic writers use characters to create the uncanny is through echopraxia. It is the involuntary repetition or imitation of another person’s actions. An example of this is when Nina’s double on the train mimics her (5:20-27). Freud states that “it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would otherwise be innocent enough…” (11). Although this concept was not expressly used in Solaris, Snow’s visitor was able to pass off as Snow by imitating Snow’s actions.

Gothic writers also use characters to create uncanniness by establishing a loss of control. It occurs when the character appears to be dealing with forces beyond their control. Freud refers to this as the fear of castration. He states that this “fear of castration itself contains no other significance and no deeper secret than a justifiable dread of this kind” (p.7). For example, in Solaris, Gordon expresses this fear when she says, “…just that I want it to stop…” (18:53-19:28). In Black Swan, Nina struggles with losing control throughout the movie. Some examples are instances where she senses the darkness of the black swan (34:35-35:01), when she sees her double (15:35-55), and when she sees her mutation (1:28:23-34). Similar to mishaps that might occur if a person loses control in real life, watching a character lose control creates horror in the audience.

Settings are also used to create horror in the gothic genre. When we get an eerie feeling from a scenery, it is because we find that setting uncanny. Freud states that for a thing to be uncanny, “something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny” (1). To establish abnormality in a setting, gothic creators use chiaroscuro to create an imbalance between light and dark, in which there is a surplus of dark in comparison to light. An example of chiaroscuro in Black Swan is when Nina alone is lit in the subway, and her entire surroundings are dark. The disproportion of light and darkness in the scene creates an eerie feeling. That weird feeling, in turn, creates fear when her doppelganger walks out of the dark and past her (15:35-55). In Solaris, chiaroscuro was used in slightly different forms. Like, the space station surrounded by total darkness, and moments like when Kris is in his room, there is limited lighting and much darkness that creates an eerie feeling that something abnormal might happen (21:00-34).

Finally, the old gothic writing techniques are here to stay. An inquest into why these techniques have remained the same requires knowledge of how they work. Scientifically, when we feel frightened, there is an increase in the hormones: adrenaline and cortisol (Lilienfeld et al.). These hormones boost our energy levels and prepare us for a fight or flight response (Lilienfeld et al.). The adrenal gland also produces estrogen in men and female, so as adrenaline and cortisol levels increase, we are scared and aroused (Lilienfeld et al.). Unlike being in situations of real danger, when we watch horror movies, we know we are not in real trouble, so we enjoy the feel-good benefits of being aroused. Since the old gothic writing style does an excellent job at producing these targeted hormonal reactions, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

In conclusion, the pioneers of gothic writing techniques created a horror inducing recipe that will always work. While pioneering gothic writers relied on a delightful kind of horror in the form of “an expansion of Romantic literary joys that were relatively new at the age of Walpole’s fiction”. Modern literature is viewed as a “natural revealment of female’s fear towards uneven society or as the release of the authors’ twisted sexual desire (Han and Guo, 2020). When viewed as a whole, the goal is the same, to cause fear (and arousal) through the uncanny.

Photo courtesy Pedro Figueras/Pexel

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