Haunted spaces and Gothic emotion


Bruno Lessard explains:

“Gothic space differs from ancient Greek space, again according to Worringer, on the basis of the former’s wresting from space “a vitality of expression” (158) that facilitates the coming to life of the sensuous pathos of Gothic that is to be desired in the first place. As Worringer describes it, Gothic architectural space relies on a visual spectacle and embodied impact that force us to reconsider the legacy of Gothic through the ages in order to investigate the transformations it has incurred in other artistic phenomena and media environments. When Worringer mentions that, upon entering a Gothic cathedral, one “encounters an intoxication of the senses … a mystical intoxication of the senses which is not of this world” (159), we can rest assured that affect, sensation, and emotion have become as primordial in the construction of the cathedral as they are in art historical discourse. The sensuous and affective dimensions of Gothic can only take form in the context of a critical practice that will be attuned to these aesthetic and corporeal dimensions, which equally rely on their hypostasized presence in the work. The overwhelming nature and often violent enrapture of Gothic space, as “sensuous-super-sensuousness” (176) or “Sinnlich-Übersinnlich” and affect-value, would undergo a crucial transformation in what is known in literary studies as the “Gothic revival.” A primordial characteristic of Gothic, as noted by a number of scholars, is its reliance on visuality and spectacle. Insofar as this can be relayed through the written word, Gothic writers’ descriptions of emotional states often went beyond their medium of expression in a way that sought to question the boundaries of expressive forms: “Though [Gothic writers] always insist on the powers of feeling and imagination, they tend to concentrate on external details of emotional display while leaving readers to deduce for themselves complex inner psychological movements.” The rise of Gothic cannot be separated from a dual emphasis: the heightened display of emotion and the visual characterization of emotion to the detriment of inner motivation and psychology. The creation of Gothic emotion has to be linked to exterior stimulation, a point that has led to the critique of Gothic as a mode that relies too heavily on sensation, melodrama, and theatrical display. Therefore, the intermedial ambiguities at the heart of Gothic seem as disturbing as the plots of the novels themselves, and the fact that these novels provoke pictorial effects, or ekphrasis, appears equally problematic in terms of defining what Gothic affect is.” (p.218)

“…commentators on Gothic and horror film have noted a first difference [between literary and film Gothic] that would lie in the production of emotion and affect. On the one hand, literary Gothic would rely on an invisible presence that incites a plurality of interpretations; meaning thus becomes overdetermined in the field of suggestion. On the other hand, cinematic Gothic would tend to show the threatening agent, thereby reducing the number of possibilities. Therefore, the production of affect and emotion would always be accompanied by the production of subjectivities in a dichotomous scheme that leaves little room for the contradiction and hybridity that has always fueled Gothic.

“A film such as Wise’s The Haunting already problematizes the aforementioned distinction between literary and cinematic Gothic. The problem may arise when, as in Wise’s film, Gothic does away with the immediate visible presence of the threatening agent; the house replaces the monster. Instead of a physical presence haunting space, we have physical space h(a)unting the characters. Characters and spectators hear pounding and thumping noises and see doors bend. It is therefore appropriate to speak, as Misha Kavka does, of the cinematic Gothic’s use of the “plasticity of space” to convey emotion and affect, thereby disclosing “an underlying link between fear and the manipulation of space around a human body.”” (p.219)

Kavka argues that in Gothic “something … remains shadowed or off-screen,” while the horror film would present “something terrifying placed before our very eyes but from which we want to avert our gaze” (227). Kavka goes on to refine the dialectic between seeing and not seeing by adding that in the horror film there is something to see that we try not to see. In the case of Gothic, she maintains, the dialectic is different in the sense that it is “part of the structure of visualization itself” (227). Indeed, she suggests that it is not that we do not want to see, but that we cannot see: “Rather than the horror film’s challenge to the audience to open their eyes and see, the feared object of Gothic cinema is both held out and withheld through its codes of visual representation” (227).” (p.220) [NB Lessard goes on to complicate this distinction through consideration of Wise’s The Haunting]

“…perhaps it is Worringer who stated it best about haunting, life, and the use of CGI in contemporary Gothic films when he said that “[b]ehind the visible appearance of a thing lurks its caricature, behind the lifelessness of a thing an uncanny, ghostly life, and so all actual things become grotesque” (82).” (p.222)

Ref: Bruno Lessard Gothic Affects: Digitally Haunted Houses and the Production of Affect-Value, pp.213-224 in Esther Peeren, and María del Pilar Blanco (Eds.). Popular Ghosts : The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

Reference is to: Misha Kavka ‘The Gothic on Screen’ in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. Jerrold E Hogle (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University press, 2002)

Wilhelm Worringer, Form in Gothic, trans. Herbert Read (New York: Schocken, 1957)


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