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A Filmmaker's Guide to the American Gothic Genre

Study, Experience, and Analysis

Painting entitled "American Gothic" by Grant Wood

The American Gothic needs to be understood in the following ways: 

  1. What it is
  2. The Sub-Genres
  3. Examples

The most important thing is to note that you cannot understand the American Gothic by simply watching films; you also need to read around and have a look at how it has been portrayed before the time that movies began.

What It Is

In terms of literature, the American Gothic genre is normally defined by the characters being irrational or being in a state where they are unable or do not have the choice to be rational. This normally can lead to tragedies and anxieties forming as part of the narrative. This is very similar to the way it is portrayed on screen albeit in a book it is a lot more clear and easier to understand since the amount of space you have is far larger.

Things that American Gothic Novels and Films normally contain is the destruction of trust and character. This leads to tragedy that may not be able to be reconciled, but can also lead to some sort of redemptive quality. Both sides may be viewed respectively in the medium.

Example: So, in the medium we may have a family that is thrown into irrationality in which they do not have the option to think rationally because of their position. This leads to them doing things wrong and destroying the relationships they have with the other members of their family.

It is not only character and storyline that are important though. It is also the way in which setting is presented to us. Now, because of the many different sub-genres, we could honestly say that the American Gothic could be set anywhere. But, in the case of popular American Gothic Settings, we have to look at a more refined way of portraying atmosphere to the reader/audience.

During my time at university, I once used a very informative book entitled: American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction by Allan Lloyd Smith. He quotes from another work a description of setting:

"The city, a gloomy forest or dark labyrinth itself, became a site of nocturnal corruption and violence, a locus of real horror..." (Lloyd Smith, 2004, p.44)

This is how a setting must function. So, no matter where your American Gothic is set, it must have a purpose to do something, it must provide some sort of sub-storyline or meaning to the text/film you are producing.

Example: Your setting is a big city and it moves to a forest that is almost uninhabited. This shows the isolation of character and how one character is important in the story since that character is put in a setting in which the audience can only concentrate on them alone.

The settings of isolation are very important to the American Gothic Genre and I always recommend at least one setting of isolation. No matter how urban or rural that setting may be, make sure it is isolated in some way, shape or form. Just have a look what Lloyd Smith has to say about it in his book:

"In the American Gothic, that is to say, the heathen unredeemed wilderness and not the monuments of a dying class, nature and not society becomes the symbol of evil" (Lloyd Smith, 2004, p.45)

Natural, isolated settings at least once portrayed in the medium are always effective for creating the space and levels you require to build tensions. Just have a look at some of the greater horror films, there is always some sort of space of isolation, normally at the very beginning, in which there is some sort of perceived isolation.

The Sub-Genres

There are many different sub-genres of the American Gothic Scene, so we are going to cover three of the ones that are used quite well in film and literature. I hope you've heard of at least two of these three:

  • Urban Gothic
  • Southern Gothic
  • Dark Romanticism

Let's take a look at each of them individually and what they mean in literature and then, how this is translated to film.

1. Urban Gothic

The "urban" or the "city" gothic deals with events happening within a developed (or post-industrial revolution) city. The traits are normally disguised within the setting, such as the foggy Victorian London atmosphere that is there because of all the smog from the factories; it conveniently makes a good place to place your gothic novel/film. 

More particular of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the urban gothic is one of those sub-genres that only makes sense if you do it convincingly. It gave rise to the City-Based/Urban detective novels and translated itself into historical gothic horror when filmed later in the 20th century. 

I think the best example of the urban gothic in literature has got to be Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. It's set in 20th Century New Orleans and then, it takes a step back and everything we get is a flashback. But, we're still in that shady apartment with Louis and Daniel in New Orleans all this time. Basically, Daniel is trapped in a room with a vampire at night in a dodgy apartment in New Orleans. Let's have a look at various films you could watch in order to see how this works in our own day.

Urban Gothic Films 

  • From Hell (2001)
  • Seven (1995)
  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Fight Club (1999)
  • The Crow (1994) 

2. Southern Gothic

Easy to understand as the clue is in the title; the southern gothic sub-genre is a gothic that takes place in the American South. We have tense situations surrounded in suspense and horror which can include the fears particular of the 19th Century and Early 20th Century. 

We can have tensions about slavery, concentrations on the difference between the urban and rural with the characters fearing the changing world and, seeing as this is set almost always post-civil war, the absolute criminalisation of the southern states and how this impacts the lives and opportunities of the people living there. The darkness and fear comes from the characters and their inability to understand how their world is getting smaller, later on this moves into our third section "American Dark Romanticism." But, there are novelists who take these tensions into the 20th century with them. 

My personal favourite example of the Southern Gothic in Literature is the book Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. We have an incriminating observation on the life of the southern states in the wake of the civil war, which has left behind its image of destruction of the rural lands and its tragedy of the family structure. These fears turn into irrational phobias as the character (Thomas Sutpen) seeks self-actualisation in a world that is being changed to assimilate the urban lifestyles and therefore work against him. The language is that of a southern elegy and laments the loss of the traditionalism that is so longed for by those fearing the outside world. Let's have a look at some southern gothic films in order to see how this works in our own medium. 

Southern Gothic Films: 

  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

3. Dark Romanticism

Dark Romanticism is best explored, as most people know, by reading the works and writings of Edgar Allan Poe because he is known as the greatest writer of the tradition. We all know what Romanticism is; the romanticising of the human spirit as something euphoric and sublime. But, the dark romanticist side explores the dark side of the human psyche. We have an intense concentration on depression, melancholy, insanity and everything irrational about ourselves. These are normally presented through either grotesque ideas, through obsessive acts or through morbid curiosity. 

We have ideas of compulsion, the exploration of the wrongs of the human mind including deep sensationalisation on the strange subjects of ghosts, ghouls and dark fantasy. We also have an exploration on mental illness that is previously unknown to literature unless you read Don Quixote. We have this captivating psyche literature in which there is so much wrong with our protagonist that we cannot possibly believe a word they are saying. It is one of the most beautiful sub-genres of the 19th and 20th centuries that you will ever encounter. 

My favourite piece of literature to recommend for studying Dark Romanticism is The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe. This is because this story plays with our most incredible and frightening phobias as a race of human beings—being almost buried alive. It is a wonderful story of revenge and the way in which people can become obsessive with the want to make others suffer as an act of revenge. It is a brilliantly designed story that takes place on one night at a carnival and there is a flash-forward to 50 years afterwards that is just as exciting. Let's have a look at some films you could watch to understand Dark Romanticism further:

  • The Others (2001)
  • Sweeney Todd (2007)
  • Suspiria (1977)
  • Psycho (1960)

Conclusion

So, here we have a short and easy-to-understand method to using the American Gothic genre. I know not all of the films are set in America, but we can understand how America has used the gothic genre from its method of applying it to films in other countries. The main thing we are concentrating on is getting to know the American Gothic as much as possible and, if you wanted to use it in film, maybe have a go at adapting short stories for short film to begin with. Remember, the longer you make a gothic movie, the less effective your gothic will be. If it's too long, you're going to lose the audience as the effect won't last—but if you make it nice and short, it will have a longer and more lingering effect. The effect of the film is vital to the understanding of the American Gothic. In most situations, the Gothic must be used to add meaning to the film; if it does not then there is something wrong with the script and storyline. 

Good luck on your next project.

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