Review: Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic

Posted by Donna Mitchell on April 22, 2017 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic

Catherine Spooner

New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation, 2017.

ISBN: 978-1-4411-5390-6

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

Spooner’s study begins by bringing the reader’s attention to the fact that funny, romantic, and celebratory aspects of the Gothic text have long been ignored. Focusing on the summer of 2012 as a starting point for the rise of post-millennial Gothic’s popularity in terms of its increasing social and cultural omnipresence, she coins the phrase ‘happy Gothic’ as an umbrella term to describe the ‘positively inclined emotions or moods’ (2017: 3) that are currently associated with such paradigms. Noting the genre’s ability to evolve with the times in order to convey different political messages, she reveals her discussion’s objective to map new Gothic territories by raising the question: ‘what stories does the twenty-first century need to tell itself?’ (2017: 11). In doing so, she asserts her intention to explore what this shift in Gothic narrative may say about contemporary culture.

The first chapter considers the appropriation of Gothic by consumer culture and the world of commerce as Spooner discusses the genre’s steady mediation into advertising, museum exhibitions, interior design products, documentaries, and lifestyle television. After highlighting the symbiotic relationship between Goth subculture and post-millennial Gothic culture, she proposes that the genre exemplifies middle-class individualism and self-expression within the context of these mediums. Chapter Two uses the familiar aesthetics of Tim Burton’s production design to explain the look of twenty-first century Gothic. Spooner presents detailed analysis of his visual motifs by tracing elements of the expressionist movement and distortion in his Alice’s Underland and noting the many unintentional similarities to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari that appear in his stop motion work. Furthermore, the strong Burtonesque style of recent Gothic films such as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) emphasises how his work has created a desire for visual narratives in post-millennial texts. In recognising his influence on such trends, she concludes this chapter with the logical assertion that today’s ‘Gothic is defined by Burton, rather than Burton by Gothic’ (2017: 66).

Spooner returns to her roots in Chapter Three as she explores the periodic inspiration behind Goth and Gothic style of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Noting how the genre transgresses boundaries to inspire both designer collections and the high street fashion, she examines how this development has influenced media coverage  of Goths in contrasting cases as the victims and perpetrators of violence. The discussion then turns to the recent popularity of mainstreaming vampire figures in post-millennial Gothic narratives. She compares contemporary portraits of vampire-human relations in Twilight, True Blood, and Being Human to recent efforts to create mutual respect and tolerance between the alternative Goth community and mainstream culture.

Chapter Five introduces the term ‘whimsical macabre’ which Spooner defines as a variant of happy Gothic which ‘reconfigures the gruesome and grotesque as playful, quirky and even cute, and often draws on imagery associated with childhood’ (2017: 99). Her exploration of this term focuses on the popularity of Gothicised female figures in post-millennial children’s literature and dolls such as Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl series and Mattel’s Monster High range. The humanisation of late twentieth and early twenty-first century monsters is the focus of the next chapter. Spooner traces how the monster has developed a comic sensibility in contemporary Gothic texts and emphasises the importance of Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula as inspiration for modern depictions of the camp vampire.

The topic of Goth masculinities arises next as Spooner explores the notion of transformation. Specifically, she details how the treatment of male Goths in television comedy sketches, sitcoms, and makeover shows demystifies them to a mainstream audience through the creation of a comic persona. This action, Spooner argues, subsequently transforms them from an object of fear to one of laughter. The final chapter turns to Gothic tourism and the Gothic tourist. Using the core example of Whitby, Spooner identifies and dissects the attraction of the popular Gothic site in relation to its association with literature, folklore, death, and suffering.

Reverting back to her earlier analysis of the ceremonial use of Gothic imagery during the 2012 Olympics in the conclusion, Spooner defines the moment as one where ’Gothic was conjured as part of the British national narrative’ (2017: 184). Regarding the positive reaction to these visuals as ‘a Gothic of celebration’ (2017: 183) that her study has identified within British and America culture, she notes its concurrent existence on a global scale. She ends her discussion with a call for further consideration of other strands of happy Gothic to promote a greater understanding of this Gothic counter-narrative.

This is a captivating study that engages with a wide range of texts to reveal the hidden depths of twenty-first century Gothic. Spooner uses a clever medley of examples to highlight the connection between Goth subculture and the omnipresence of happy Gothic in contemporary society. In doing so, she raises awareness of the newfound enjoyment of this genre within the public domain, all the while creating a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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