Posted by Matt Foley on December 14, 2008 in Blog tagged with

 Being a first-year PhD student I can still recall much of what I learnt on my undergraduate. I also realise that a lot of the content I can remember is not applicable to the ever-narrowing scope of my research. This is true of the learning from my fourth-year class on Vladimir Nabakov. Whilst temporally his Russian works are within the limits of my research unfortunately they are, um, Russian: I am looking at English and American fiction in the inter-war period.

I often think of the esoteric attributes that Nabakov gives to the aesthetic bliss a novel can generate, a state in which curiosity, tenderness, kindness and ecstasy are the norm. It is quite difficult to articulate succinctly what all these four states involve but the point I am trying to make is that I often think of curiosity and more and more I think about curiosity in the Gothic.

Firstly, there is the obvious etymological link between the noun curiosity and it’s adjectival counterpart ‘curious’ meaning strangely interesting or eccentric. The Gothic often deals with curious characters or stages curious incidents. It can be a celebration of the curious and promote loving the curious instead of abjecting it. An extreme example would be the carnival freak, portrayed in novels like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989) or in film like the thirties classic Freaks (1932).


Alternatively, some scenes from horror film, particularly slashers, can be read as cautionary tales against curiosity, the noun. The cliché of the big breasted girl going through the door she shouldn’t before getting knifed by a serial killer will be familiar to most fans of slashers. As viewers we have a fair idea that curiosity should not be indulged when the Gothic antagonist is on the loose and blood-thirsty. Instead, the flight mechanism should be jolted into fifth-gear.

 A more interesting example of indulging curiosity when it isn’t wise to do so is played out in The Ring. Below is the trailer for the Hollywood version (2002) in which a couple of the characters admit to having found it irresistible to watch the dreaded tape that legend has it leads to death in seven days if watched (starting from about 50 seconds in).


The above trailer focuses on the narrative journey of unravelling the mystery of the tape’s origins; a journey that begins, like most searches, with a spark of curiosity.

Thus, there is a lot to be said in theorising curiosity as it is what drives so much human activity. Anyone who has seen a toddler picking up and examining everything within reach will perhaps see it in its purest form. In terms of The Ring we could perhaps place this example of curiosity in the framework of the death drive, the pleasure principle and the reality principle. We should also not forget, and this is perhaps linked to the pleasure principle, that experiences of the sublime occur only once some terror has been overcome and being curious is a way of taming terror and making it domestic, if all goes well. Using the theories of Burke and Radcliffe may prove particularly fruitful in terms of discussing the relationship between curiosity, the sublime and the Gothic. Obviously, the very real desire of audiences to see the macabre, horrific and grotesque staged fictionally is a key question for Gothic academia to address. Is curiosity not at the very centre of this?


 P.S. I couldn’t resist posting this from Scary Movie 3 (2003). There is not much flight going on here:


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