Arctic Gothic: Where The Owls Really Aren’t What They Seem

Posted by Brigid Cherry on October 19, 2010 in Dr Brigid Cherry, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

There has been an overwhelming focus on a Southern Gothic in the key examples of post-modern American Gothic horror film and television, set as they frequently are in New Orleans (Interview with the Vampire, The Skeleton Key), South Carolina (American Gothic), Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico (Carnivàle), Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi (True Blood), and Florida (Invasion, Dexter). Heat and its attendant passions are clearly a significant aspect of these narratives, and the landscape of the southern states (be it the boyou, the everglades or the dustbowl) a key element in each text’s evocation of the Gothic sublime.

However, as I commission a chapter for an edited collection on True Blood which will discuss the ways in which the series radiates heat, I am also drawn to the fact that in recent years a number of North American films have emerged which locate the Gothic in colder climes. (And no, I’m not thinking of Twilight, even though the opening pages of the book foreground Fork’s “near-constant cover of clouds” and “gloomy, omnipresent shade”.) The Last Winter (2006), 30 Days of Night (2007) and The Fourth Kind (2009), along with the Canadian Pontypool (2008), all position themselves as Arctic Gothic. Whilst some of the settings are strictly speaking sub-Arctic, in all of these films the extremes of landscape, geography and climate create a sublime aesthetic, a backdrop to a Gothic scenario in which vulnerable human beings are overwhelmed by terror, trapped in small towns or isolated locales, haunted and stalked by spectral or monstrous entities.

The Last Winter is set in the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, described in the film as “pure white nothingness”. This is not the expanse of sea ice over which Frankenstein trekked in search of his wayward creature, but it might as well be with its creaking ice sheets that swallow characters, its sheer cliffs which break off and fall in clouds of ice crystals, with bare human footprints in the flat expanse of pristine snow and cadavers frozen in the tundra. Frankenstein sought to destroy his creature, and the creature wanted solitude and escape. In The Last Winter, these Frankensteins are exploring for oil, and the creature is the Earth itself. The ghosts of all the creatures who died to make the oil haunt this landscape and these people who would despoil it: “The land has changed, something up here is off”, “There’s a fierceness in the wind I’ve never felt before, something is being unleashed”, “It’s coming up from the ground, it’s haunted” The land itself is the creature seeking escape, and it is the humans in their environmental destruction who are monstrous.

As Vijay Mishra notes, the Arctic can be included amongst the many varieties of the Gothic sublime. The emphasis in the Arctic sublime is on:

The European sense of disempowerment in the face of the Arctic void and the kinds of knowledges, both human and barbaric, the voyages in search of the Northwest Passage symbolized.

Although The Last Winter (and these other films) do not come close to art (after all, in other respects these are run-of-the-mill productions designed for spectacle, shock, and entertainment, not artistic masterpieces), they nevertheless embody this sense of disempowerment in the face of the ice-encrusted landscape, the white void. They convey a sense of the Arctic Gothic. Certainly, they contain aspects of the sublime laid out in Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:

The terror arising from darkness, solitude, obscurity and confusion; a sense of great undefined spaces stretching beyond the lateral limits of the picture; ferocious beasts, which like the Arctic itself, convey a sense of uncontrollable and menacing power.

Set in Barrow, an isolated Alaskan town on the edge of the Arctic Circle, 30 Days of Night creates terror in the darkness of the constant night when the sun never rises for the month of the film’s title. The vampire hoard—here menacing, guttural voiced, speaking in a foreign tongue, inhuman in their facial characteristics—hunt and feed at their leisure. The few remaining townsfolk cower in their isolation in boarded up attics and the spaces under buildings. “Please, god, please,” pleads one of the captured humans sent out as bait to lure the last few survivors out of hiding. “God?” growls their leader, pausing to look slowly all around, finally shaking his head, “No God.” God has abandoned them in this desolate place.

The small group of survivors in Pontypool are similarly abandoned. Assailed by snow and zombified townsfolk alike, their refuge is a church, but this is no place of God. It is the radio station at which they work, a secularisation which provides no more hope of salvation or sanctuary than prayers to God do for 30 Days of Night’s victims. This may be a sub-Arctic setting, but again the small town locale and the hostile weather conditions create isolation. “And take a look outside – a big, cold, freakin’ kill-me-now weather front that’ll last all day,” says shock-jock Grant Mazzy at the start of the film. As in 30 Days of Night and The Last Winter the screen becomes an expanse of white that bleeds beyond the frame. These films do indeed capture a great undefined space that cannot be contained by the lateral limits of the picture.

In all of these films too, the characters are beset by obscurity and confusion. There are no certainties except death and they cannot comprehend the horrors that beset them. The ferocious beasts of this Arctic Gothic, whether they be a pack of feral vampires, a hoard of zombies infected by a virus in language itself, or a vengeful planet, are not only resolutely powerful and uncontrollable, but also unknowable. The vampires in 30 Days of Night have no individuality and little personality, the cause of the outbreak in Pontypool strips humanity of the spoken word and the act of speaking – of the power of communication in other words, and in The Last Winter, as environmental horror, Mother Nature turns on her children.

In the last of this group of films, The Fourth Kind, confusion is positioned front and centre. Whilst the mood of terror is all-pervasive, the source of the horror itself is obscured – and never, indeed, made explicit (despite the pretence at mockumentary, this is ultimately a psychological piece with its moments of hesitancy continued through to the end of the film). Again, beasts are the bearers of this terror. The patients of psychologist Abbey Tyler all experience nocturnal visitations by owls: “I wake up in the middle of the night, almost every night”, “There’s one thing, there’s an owl, at my window”, “A white owl, just looking at me”, “Its eyes are big”, “I’ve seen it a lot”, “Staring at me”, “Every night this week”. But these owls are akin to screen memories. They stand in for something much more ominous and terrifying. That terror, signified by screams and convulsions, emerges under hypnosis: “It doesn’t look like a normal owl”, “There’s no owl”, “It’s not an owl”. Images of the owl become mutable, in close-up shots of its face, the darkness around the eyes spreads larger and more ovoid, it seems to flow like ink.

Burke mentions a number of wild beasts as significant sources of the sublime: ‘it comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros’. That the ‘wild beast’ here is a snowy owl—and one that takes on the features of the stereotypical grey alien, the film ostensibly being an account of alien abduction—clearly references Whitley Strieber’s Communion:

I awoke the morning of the twenty-seventh very much as usual, but grappling with a distinct sense of unease and a very improbable but intense memory of seeing a barn owl staring at me through the window sometime during the night.

However, the owl cannot but remind us also of Twin Peaks where such creatures “are not what they seem”. A prime example of Television Gothic according to Lenora Ledwon, Twin Peaks “brings the horrid and the normal into juxtaposition until the viewer is unsure what is normal anymore.” She also suggests that doubling techniques serve to “problematise the distinction between appearance and reality”. The indistinctness of appearance and reality are clear in the doubling of owl and alien. Twin Peaks thus casts a long shadow over The Fourth Kind.

In terms of an Arctic Gothic in general, the darkness, isolation and confusion, combined with the uncontrollable and menacing power of the unknowable beast, creates a horror that is palpable in these films. Whilst none are artistic masterpieces or exemplars of the genre, they illustrate that a colder, darker Gothic exists in counterpoint to the hot American Gothic of the Deep South.

  • Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Menston 1970).
  • Ledwon, Lenora. “Twin Peaks and the Television Gothic.” Literature/Film Quarterly, 1993.
  • Vijay Misra, The Gothic Sublime (SUNY Press, 1994).
  • Whitley Streiber, Communion (Avon Books, 1987).

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