Austrian House of Horrors

Posted by Dale Townshend on May 08, 2008 in Blog tagged with

No one with an interest in Gothic fiction can fail to be struck by the similarities between the media coverage of recent events in Amstetten, Austria, treatment and the enduring conventions of late eighteenth-century Gothic writing.  Joseph Fritzl’s alleged drugging and imprisonment of his then nineteen-year-old daughter Elisabeth in a cellar beneath their quiet, sub-urban home, the repeated acts of incestuous rape as well as Fritzl’s fathering, over a period of twenty-four years, seven children with his own daughter read as horrific real-life enactments of the plots of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Sophia Lee’s The Recess and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk combined.  Smuggled letters and children abandoned on doorsteps recall the stuff of romance, while the mirroring of terranean and sub-terranean space—a wife and three children above, a daughter/wife and three (grand)children below—suggests the spatial geography of countless Gothic fictions.  The suggestion that, in latter years, Fritzl’s incestuous attractions had strayed beyond his prematurely aged daughter Elisabeth to his younger daughter/grandchild Kerstin, currently undergoing medical treatment for a condition in all likelihood caused by her endogamous origins, replays the uncanny mirrorings and double incest themes of The Mysterious Mother, while Elisabeth’s teary reconciliation with her mother and her three children raised upstairs in the family home would not be out of place in a fiction such as Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance.  Here, as in so much early Gothic romance, the horrors of paternal perversion, incest, abuse and female incarceration are offset against the fantasies of recuperation, restitution and return.  If these literary echoes are too arcane, reportage of the events is replete with reference to a more well-known Gothic text such as Frankenstein too.  Though repeatedly described as a ‘monster’, Fritzl himself insists that, while his ‘acts’ may have been monstrous, he is no monster at heart; true monstrosity, he argues, is infanticidal in effect, and given his commitment to preserving rather than destroying the lives of his children/grandchildren, he is more the creative, life-enhancing father Victor Frankenstein than the monster with whom he is more readily confused.  If monstrosity applies at all, we are reminded that, as in Shelley’s text, this monster was made and not born, Fritzl having been brutalised as a child by the repeated blows of his mother in the equally violent context of the Third Reich.  The sins of both the father and the mother have visited themselves squarely upon the children, even to the third and fourth generations.  

            How are Gothic tropes exploited in this and other media coverage of similar events?  To what extent is the Gothic consciously deployed by journalists, or to what extent are these overlappings largely coincidental?  How does the category of monstrosity function in this narrative, and how does it relate to notions of monstrosity as frequently invoked in relation to serial killers?  Do these journalistic narratives, in all their preoccupations with the horrors of the dysfunctional family, propagate the same sorts of values negatively disclosed in the Gothic nightmares of the late eighteenth century?  What are your thoughts on Gothic and the media in contemporary society?


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