Out of the Dark: Open Spaces

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on January 27, 2014 in Uncategorized tagged with

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In considering the ways in which Gothic comic strips and lantern-shows, both forms of mass-entertainments and popular media for well over two centuries, have often until very recently been edited out and sidelined by academic communities, I began to wonder about the present status of activities usually presented on the fringes of Gothic conferences: dance, rock music gigs, quizzes, ghost-walks and similar events.

I asked Michael McCarthy, Director of the Bram Stoker film festival, whether he saw any distinction between presenting such a wide-ranging programme of horror, Gothic-themed and vampire-inspired films, dance companies like the stunning Lisa Starry’s A Vampire’s Tale, magical acts and also hosting attendant multi-media lectures like that given in 2013 by Dr Karen Oughton: ‘Crucifixes, Cadavers and Demons’. Michael replied that he receives so many enquiries from different types of supporter and enthusiast, that he would like to encourage a full spectrum of involvement, both in a popular and academic sense of fan, performer, lecturer and critic. In fact, Michael sees plurality of engagement as key to the festival’s continuing and expanding success.

He continued: ‘I’d like to encourage everyone to get involved at a level which they enjoy. We’d like to see academic speakers involved as well as different kinds of entertainer. Our festival has evolved into the biggest horror media festival in the UK and I think that one of the reasons for that is our openness and another is our wonderful facilities at the Pavilion in Whitby, the natural home of a celebration of Bram Stoker’s achievement.’

I then asked Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes of Manchester Gothic Festival two related questions:

How much do you see such live performances and activities perhaps traditionally marginalised from Gothic study as an ongoing ironic critique of Gothic and how much do you see them as integral to the developing spectrum of Gothic studies ?

Xavier replied: The events that were included in the Gothic Manchester festival were most definitely not intended as an ironic critique or comment; they were an exercise in public engagement that aimed to bring MMU’s expertise in this area of research to a wider audience. Manchester is teeming with gothic architecture, goth bands and gothic events, so it just seemed logical to bring all these various strands together in a manner that was both culturally relevant and entertaining. I do think that these types of events are integral, as you say, to the development and health of Gothic Studies and, in fact, reflect trends in academia towards a form of the Gothic that is approachable, interdisciplinary and transmedial.

The second part of my question followed: ‘Or is there, in your eyes, no distinction between these concepts because the Gothic always undercuts and ironises itself?’

Xavier responded: Again, I am not sure that this was the case with Gothic Manchester. I think the public enjoyed the events for their distinctive, alternative and exclusive nature (i.e. a zombie pub quiz as opposed to any other pub quiz, a lamp-lit tour of the Manchester Art Gallery as opposed to any other tour, etc.), and the people who attended the Open Day on Saturday were genuinely interested. I do think we are quickly moving away from a critical model where the Gothic needs to legitimise itself. I think the irony of the Gothic as a self-aware genre might appear problematic to those who cannot or wish not to get involved in its world (and this is a perfectly acceptable position too!), but that those who study or consume it do so because they wholeheartedly enjoy what it has to offer.

In 2009 I attended the wonderful ‘Monstrous Media/Spectral Subjects’, Conference at Lancaster University co-organised by Dr Catherine Spooner. As well as a fascinating schedule of academic papers, films and TV, this event featured Gothic costume, rock bands, magic lantern shows and phantasmagoria, (my own amongst them), dance and even cakes. The picture below features Stuart Nolan and Nik Taylor (exponents of Bizarre magic) with Mervyn Heard, myself and other fascinated delegates taking part in a magic session. 

In her essay ‘Goth Culture’, Catherine makes some very salient points about the importance of performative identity in Goth media and style :

Goth style can be traced to those conventions of Gothic literature which, as Eve Sedgewick argues, prioritize surface over depth and repeat motifs of veils, shrouds, masks and disguises. Goth style embraces and animates these features of the Gothic, converting them into a particular kind of performative identity, in which the personae of Gothic narrative become figures of imaginative identification and self-dramatisation.

Taking into account Goth style’s specific and distinctive qualities, I believe Catherine’s statement still makes important points about awareness of the Gothic repertoire as a whole. In response to the same questions above which I put to Xavier, Catherine wrote:

I do think that irony and spectacle are intrinsic to Gothic and I wonder whether rather than being a critique of Gothic as such, these performances and events enable us to make a critique of the way Gothic Studies has tended to prioritise the novel and construct a canon of Gothic texts. I feel that Gothic Studies is now at a critical juncture where it has become sufficiently legitimated within the academy that it is able to challenge these traditional critical formulae and offer a more fluid, multi-medial understanding of what Gothic is and does.

I’d like to thank Michael, Xavier and Catherine for taking time from their busy schedules to answer my questions. Their replies are, from their different perspectives, remarkably similar in their open-ness and, I believe, augur well for the future of Gothic and Horror culture, events and studies.

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