The Dark New House: Rebuilding the Gothic Castle

The Dark New House: Rebuilding the Gothic Castle first published in the Crimson Peak issue of Little White Lies, no. 61

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Gothic begins with a castle. Or more specifically, with The Castle of Otranto (1764), subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story”, and set during the medieval era amongst the already crumbling stones of an Italian edifice. Gothic would grow from the foundations laid by Horace Walpole’s romantic novel, acquiring along the way its characteristic storms and plagues and macabre murders, its dynastic/domestic curses and cobwebbed ruins, its vampires and ghosts, its mad scientists and errant aesthetes, its monsters disinterred from the mound – or the mind. Since the beginning, however, the very name of this sensationalist, grotesque genre has come with connections to both architecture and receding history. Cinema, medium of the preserved undead, would love it.

It is significant that Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle (Le Manoir du diable, 1896), generally regarded as the first horror film, is named after, and set in, a mediaeval structure – as is Universal’s first successful horror title, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), drawn from Victor Hugo’s gothic novel of 1831. For the next quarter century, Universal would continue pillaging gothic literature for its pantheon of movie monsters – followed in turn by Hammer, and Roger Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations. Yet ‘castle horror’ belonged to an old world, and could seem as quaint and stuffy as its neglected interiors for the modern moviegoer.

The new Golden Age of horror in the 1970s was ushered in by two very different films from 1968 that radically changed the genre scene. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a gothic tale of rationalism in conflict with the supernatural – but it moved away from the castle in two rather different senses: first, because B-movie trickster/gimmickster William Castle (note the surname), who had purchased the film rights to Ira Levin’s 1967 novel in the hope that it would be his ticket to directing a prestige studio film, found himself relegated to the role of producer (and a brief cameo) when Paramount insisted that Polanski take the helm instead; and second, because the film’s setting, though occupied by a cursed history and the odd hidden passageway, has been transferred from traditional gothic ruins to a residential building in contemporary Manhattan, where Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes) plan to transform an old(ish), unfurnished apartment into their modern family home.

The architecture of gothic could also be seen shifting in George A. Romero’s low-budget monster movie Night of the Living Dead. For, although far removed from the dilapidated abodes of the European nobility, the Pennsylvanian farmhouse that is the film’s principal location becomes beleaguered by a veritable return of the repressed (in the form of ‘ghouls’ rising from the grave), even as it is made to accommodate contemporary concerns with the ongoing Vietnam war and civil rights conflict, and the gaping generational gap of the 1960s. Here gothic could be seen obtaining new digs for new times.

This renovation would continue in the more peculiar abodes of backwoods America. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) offered a form of southern gothic horror, as a line of slaughtermen redecorated their Texan farmhouse with their victims’ skin and bones, and with the all-American mythology of Ed Gein. By the time of Marcus Nispel’s remake, once again a terrifying dynastic family of mad Texans had taken up lodgings in a big old White House, and no-one could be certain of escaping their backward, aggressive whims in one piece. Accordingly, though formally still set back in 1973, this 2003 film managed to find room for push-button anxieties about its own Bush era. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) also found a new and now much imitated locus for its gothic play: the cabin in the woods. And in case you missed the gothic connection, the 1987 sequel reveals – and the 1992 trilogy closer more fully explores – a transdimensional portal leading directly from Eighties cabin to a medieval castle. The ancient demons of European history can, it seems, take possession of new places to live in the American hinterlands.

Alongside this there remained an American gothic of a more conventional, albeit renationalised, variety, where large addresses would preserve in their present a supernatural trace of their pre-twentieth-century history: the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980) the Bell home in An American Haunting (2005), Blackwood Manor in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), or any number of other film ‘properties’ where the bad blood of native burial grounds, the ghosts of colonial days, and the crimes of previous generations, all come home to roost.

Of course, in traditional gothic, castles were the preserve of the preserve of royalty or the nobility, and their decaying stones were signifiers of an old social order’s collapse before the concomitant rise of the bourgeoisie and the revolutionary mobbing of the working classes. Yet if few people actually live within crenellated fortifications, every man’s (or woman’s) home is their castle – and so it was the genius of films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) to relocate the delirium and death of gothic to cosy middle-class suburbia, where the uncanny (from the German unheimlich, or ‘unhomely’), precisely in not belonging, was right at home. Now America, the heart of cinema’s mainstream, had its very own domestic brand of gothic.

On the other side of the Atlantic, where gothic itself originated, a more traditional setting occasionally resurfaces, like the stately boarding school in The Awakening (2011), Eel Marsh House in the retooled Hammer’s The Woman In Black (2012), and Crimson Peak in Guillermo del Toro’s latest. Yet whether it is in the Poe-esque dungeons of ‘torture porn’, the haunted housing estates of ‘hoodie horror’ (especially The Disappeared, Heartless, Citadel, The Forgotten), or the cursed technologies of J-, K- and T-horrors, 21st-century gothic also keeps finding new places to reside, and to rewrite its own history.

© Anton Bitel