Review: ‘Reimagining the Gothic: Monsters and Monstrosities’ symposium, 6th May 2016

Posted by Amy Bride on May 19, 2016 in Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

‘Monster’ is a jointly allusive and ubiquitous term. For gothic scholars, what constitutes monstrosity is a vast and varied spectrum of physical abnormality, genetic hybridity, moral corruption, and everything in between. Yet for almost 200 years perceptions of the gothic monster in the popular imagination have been dominated by Mary Shelley and her life-creating doctor who has transcended literary boundaries to become a cultural icon in his own right. The task of re-analysing the gothic monster, both in conversation and contrast with Shelley’s creation, was that addressed by the ‘Reimagining the Gothic: Monsters and Monstrosities’ symposium organised by postgraduate students and early career researchers affiliated with the Centre for the History of the Gothic at the University of Sheffield.

Hannah Moss (Sheffield) presented a re-reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as inflected by visual aesthetics and Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781); the discussion of monstrous beauty/beautiful monstrosity and voyeurism as key to Shelley’s description of the monster was echoed in Kate Gadsby-Mace’s (Sheffield) reading of Dominik Moll’s film adaptation of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, (Le Moine, [2011]) in which the audience embodies the perspective of saintly statues, and where veils and masks are used to disguise or enhance physical beauty and sinful intention. This concentrated focus on the monsters themselves was expanded in papers given by Teresa Fitzpatrick (MMU) and Dr. Katy Soar (Royal Holloway), which analysed the locations of monsters – gardens vs. laboratory green houses, and archaeological sites respectively – as contributing to or colouring the presentation of monstrosity. Fitzpatrick explored the way in which the spaces enclosing vampiric plant-monsters are gendered along lines of domesticity vs colonial exploration in interwar short stories; Soar examined how the temporal disjointedness of archaeology, in its excavation and reordering of history from within the present moment, is akin to and actually accelerates the haunting nature of gothic time concerned with a re-emergence of that which has been repressed.

Dr. Katy Soar presenting at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium

Dr. Katy Soar presenting at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium

Barbara Chamberlin (Brighton) and Maria Cohut (Warwick) continued the theme of beauty and monstrosity in papers on comic book witches and conceptual video gaming. Chamberlin gave an overview of the proliferation of witches in contemporary comic books and graphic novels, indicating that age, aesthetic appeal, and power are interlinked in almost all examples, but that these examples vary in their preference of youth over wisdom and beauty over grotesqueness as visual indicators of power or weakness. Cohut explored the subversion of traditional definitions of monster, beauty, and narrative in The Endless Forest and The Path by Tale of Tales, and the effect of gameplay through hybrid avatars on the players own concepts of categorizations of identity. This interaction between real and fictional worlds was similarly discussed in Dr. Sarah Cleary’s (Trinity College Dublin) examination of the Slenderman stabbings in relation to ‘The Mythos of Harm’. Cleary defined ‘The Mythos of Harm’ as the perception of the presence of horror – or access to horror films, novels, websites – in the lives of children as itself being actually harmful to those children, tangibly putting their physical wellbeing in danger.

Dr. Xavier Aldana Reyes presenting the keynote at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium.

Dr. Xavier Aldana Reyes presenting the keynote at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium.

The blurring of gothic symbol and apparently ‘real’ monstrosity as perceived by society that emerged in Cleary’s paper foreshadowed the symposium’s keynote delivered by Dr. Xavier Aldana Reyes (MMU) on the ‘Monstrous Feminine’. Reyes’s paper, an abstract from his book on Horror Film and Affect (Routledge, 2016) began by discussing the misconception of Barbara Creed’s theory of the ‘Monstrous Feminine’ as indisputable fact, that gothic manifestations of women and femininity are either characterised by victimisation, or a monstrosity that is a direct result of the female body rebellion, expressed through shameless menstruation, hyper-sexuality, and demonized motherhood. According to Reyes, the acceptance of this causal monstrosity by readers and scholars of the gothic alike leads to the monsterization of these apparently ‘repulsive’ forms of femininity within society. This then plays dangerously into the hands of misogynist rhetoric and misrepresents the extent to which the female monster has been utilized by the gothic canon as exclusively anti-feminist. In order to correct this misrepresentation, Reyes read the 2000 film Ginger Snaps (dir. John Fawcett) as exploring both monstrosity – as embodied by the werewolf – and womanhood but ultimately presenting these modes of being as separate rather than reactively related. Protagonist Ginger is able to enact a powerful and assertive femininity, through sexual dominance, bodily experimentation, and her physical development into womanhood which is neither subtle nor shameful. That her simultaneous characterisation as monstrous stems not from this femininity but from her physical size, capacity for violence, and hybrid status that result from her werewolf infection is, for Reyes, evidence that the ‘Monstrous Feminine’ does not have to represent or trigger societal revulsion at aspects of the female experience.

Daisy Butcher presenting at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium.

Daisy Butcher presenting at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium.

The challenge to public perceptions of the gothic monster presented by Reyes reflected the tone of the panel on vampires, in which Karen Graham (Aberdeen), Daisy Butcher (Hertfordshire), and Emily Foster-Brown (Sheffield) discussed medicalized, female, and biblical vampires as alternatives to the mainstream. Graham looked at the progression of supernatural to scientifically triggered vampirism in contemporary film and television, indicating a corresponding progression from sexual allure to sexual threat in line with rhetorics of infection and HIV AIDS. Daisy Butcher re-examined the female vampires of Carmilla (1872) and Dracula (1897) as embodying the vagina dentate and the threat of a dually alluring and repulsive femininity that penetrates and castrates its victims. Foster-Brown’s reading of Salome in True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014) demonstrated a precedent for vampiric traits within the femme fatal established in the Bible as a warning against (gendered) immoral behaviour. The use of gothic monstrosity to symbolise social evil was also discussed by Lucy Hall (St Andrews) in an analysis of human monstrosity in the moral ambiguity of Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949, dir. Carol Reed), and Sandy Mills’s (Hull) reading of Chucky of the Child’s Play franchise (1988-2013) as a criminally possessed artefact of a building consumer culture that threatens childhood innocence and attacks (members of) the family unit. These papers appeared in a panel on gothic film alongside Maryam Jameela’s (Sheffield) paper on the articulation of terrorism in contemporary horror films and society’s reconceptualization of fear post 9/11, which sees the gothic monster become humanised in an echo Hall’s discussion, both papers discussing the othering and spectralization of the monstrous human.

Sandy Mills presenting at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium.

Sandy Mills presenting at the Reimagining the Gothic symposium.

The final panel saw Kaja Franck (Hertfordshire) re-read werewolves as symbolising man’s troubled historical relationship with wolves and wildness in animal categorisation in opposition to traditional readings of gender exaggeration or evolutionary bestiality residing in the civilized man. This was followed by Jen Baker (Bristol) and her examination of the gothic pop up and moveable book as a physical manifestation of the haunted architecture that populates the gothic canon. Baker’s paper presented a lively and imaginative end to a consistently engaging and insightful conference in which the advancement of understandings of the gothic monster was a clear concern of each presentation. Given the authority of Frankenstein’s monster in both academic and public conceptualizations of monstrosity, more room could have been made for new and alternative readings of Shelley’s classic in order to demonstrate the proclaimed malleability of this particular creature classification; however, as a collection, the conference papers provided a connected yet thoroughly original perspective on gothic monstrosity and its multiple links with society, art, and electronic cultures.

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