Essay on Gothic Fantasy Flavor

The Core Choice: Enlightenment or Superstition?

 The heart of Gothic conventions suggests there is a choice, both for those making the story and for the characters within it. What will you trust, what is true? Enlightenment, or superstition?

Enlightenment promises that the universe is orderly, if you can get close enough or far enough away to see the workings. Science will eventually have the answers. Human passions and thoughts can be schooled and ordered for productive life. All problems have solutions, adding knowledge and science to a situation automatically improves it, and humanity has progressed onwards and upwards from the morass of the past and its inferior ideas and practices. There must be a reasonable explanation.

Superstition tries to combat the random dangers of the world by manipulating the unseen forces beyond visible reality. You cannot understand why it works, but trial and error have led to some reliable ways to deflect bad luck, encourage good luck, and deal with supernatural forces. Thirsting for an explanation for why things happen, the superstitious mind is open to a wider range of possibilities than the rational mind. A wild array of creatures and monsters intermingle with spirits and ghosts for a varied cast of invisible characters. Superstition accepts instinct as knowledge, and is open to accepting intuition that comes without explanation. The explanation can come later—the intuition is critical. The rational mind is only open to part of the truth, and there is more truth out there, more ways to understand that truth than logic will admit. There are things out there you can’t understand.

 The tension comes from when one perspective trespasses on the territory of the other. In the movie “Sherlock Holmes” the detective applies deductive reasoning and psychology to the arcane ritual of the villain. In the novel “Thinner” a rational everyman is struck by a lethal gypsy curse. In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a teenybopper valley girl is drawn into the grim world of vampires and demons. In “Devil’s Advocate” a successful well-educated lawyer is seduced to sell his soul to Satan. In “Skeleton Key” a young woman is herded from one world view to another, with disastrous consequences.

If all you have is the supernatural or enlightenment, the tension fails to be Gothic. The Gothic threat comes from another world; whether the characters draw authority from superstition or enlightenment, they must face an opposing world view that threatens to destroy them.

You can have a great time with an enlightened group of characters against supernatural remnants of the past. You can also have a great time with a bunch of witches, monsters, and shamen making trouble for an orderly world plowing towards modernity.

I think it is most enjoyable if you swirl the nuance into both sides. Characters can have mixed allegiances; a gypsy woman gets a university education and is torn as she faces a threat, how best to combat it. A scientist is harnessing elementals to fuel constructs. And so on.

 Staking Out the Spectrum on Television

Enlightenment. The adventures of Scooby-Doo repeatedly demonstrate the victory of enlightenment over superstition. Where everyone else is willing to believe there are monsters and ghosts, with each outing the crew of the Mystery Machine proves that it is only an old man in a rubber mask. Their willing disbelief and courage in the face of the so-called supernatural allows them to thwart those who would take advantage of the gullible.

Superstition. The adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester (Supernatural) demonstrate that there is a wild world of monsters out there, and knowing the “lore” is the key to interacting with it. It is not important, the “why” of how it works. Their efforts are about technology over science; the “how” over the “why.” Pull out the symbols of superstition, because they have power over the darkness that the modern mind has forgotten. Those who accept the reality of the inexplicable are the protectors of those who are too blinded by the lies of modern life to see what is going on behind the scenes.

The Tension of the Question. The adventures of Mulder and Scully (X-Files) are more the ambition of Gothic Fantasy. Mulder draws from both his enlightenment modern tradition, and a willingness to be open to things he cannot prove or even explain. Scully is so determined to vindicate her rational background that she is willfully ignorant of the evidence of her senses if she cannot reproduce the result in a controlled environment. The ongoing story comes down on the side of the alien and inexplicable most of the time, but at its best it allows room for speculation as to the “how” and “why,” the origin and nature of the threat.

 Why Gothic Fantasy Works.

You lose some of the tension about whether the world is ruled by the supernatural or logic when there are monsters and spellcasters in public view. However, the question only shifts. Instead of, “what is true?” the question becomes “what can save us?”

The world is intensely dangerous. Undead armies, dragon attacks, and demon wars drive that point home. The back story of the World Between is designed to give the human race a question for the first time ever. With the introduction of gunpowder, there is a non-magical way for a physically inferior specimen to destroy a monster.

This world is turning away from the gods and magic, towards gunpowder and independence. What if we can defend ourselves? What if we don’t need deals with demons, patronizing protection of indifferent gods, demeaning traditions that elevate spirits above humanity, and dehumanizing magic?

Led by Caligari, humanity is turning away from supernatural protection and trusting in firepower. Guns and cannon drove off the dragons, humanity’s first big win against monsters. This win has given humanity all the false confidence of a plucky teenager who successfully defied his parents.

Repurposing the answers to fit the questions: enlightenment promises that science and technology and reason will provide safety in the future. Superstition promises that the only true protection is in using supernatural energy against supernatural energy.

It is not a question of what is real and true. It is a question of where humanity’s faith will lie. Will humanity rely on their own resources, or always require the resources of the supernatural?

 The Church of the Lady of the White Way, and the Catholic Church

In the real world, the Catholic Church plays a dual role in the Gothic tension. On the one hand, trust in the supernatural in the form of the divine, angels, saints, and the Virgin Mary provides comfort and protection. On the other hand, the church is a center of learning and education, providing a framework for study that leads to the logical and rational worldview.

To increase the tension, the church also provides a stern, judgmental presence—while also providing hope for sanctuary and repulsion of evil aberration.

The Church of the Lady of the White Way serves a similar function in the World Between. On the one hand, the Church offers no tangible supernatural protection. The clergy of the Lady have no supernatural power, only their faith and trust that a supernatural force is looking out for them. On the other hand, the Church provides a framework of grimly determined defenders of humanity who can sometimes create blessings that will harm evil creatures. These are the mortals with the grit and know-how to defend humanity from monsters even without supernatural powers.

And, in the background, the Church is a stern and judgmental presence. Characters who cannot feel the weight of sin and sense the gaping chasm of damnation can’t be properly Gothic.

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4 Responses to Essay on Gothic Fantasy Flavor

  1. Jack says:

    Yeah, I think you’ve pretty much captured it here. The nature of the choice between superstition and rationality you discuss in the essay reminds me of Tzvetan Todorov’s writings on the uncanny as a structural element of literature; in Todorov’s view, we can’t classify what a work is until it has resolved that central question: is the marvelous (the supernatural) at work or is their a rational (uncanny) explanation. It’s in the scenes leading up to that resolution what we get the dramatic tension that moves the plot.

    In the Gothic, we see it play out both ways. Ann Radcliffe’s classic Gothic novels (The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian) come down on the side of rationality and the enlightenment worldview by dispelling all the mystery through mundane explanation. Similarly, Arthur Conan Doyle’s flirtations with superstition in his Sherlock Holmes tales (The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”) always end with Holmes re-asserting the power of reason in the face of the marvelous and unexplained.

    Of course, the Gothic often has it the other way as well. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk is unabashedly drenched in supernaturalism; it’s a novel where magic, witches, and the devil are held to be narrative fact. The counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes would be something like William Hope Hodgson’s Carnaki the Ghost-Finder stories, in which a supernatural detective uses technology based on the arcane rather than the scientific method to “solve” the problem of unnatural incursion from “other planes.”

    My one quibble or qualification is that sometimes the Gothic acts as though the choice has already been made. Some Gothic works assume that we’ve accepted enlightened reason and thus deploy their narratives as a way to trouble that choice. We assume we lead lives of ordered, progressive rationality but the Gothic continually gestures to our continued barbarism and irrationality.

    I really enjoyed reading this!

  2. fictivite says:

    Jack: Thanks for reading this, and for the excellent and thoughtful response! I appreciate the literary references, and the indication that I’m on the right track. =)

  3. Good food for thought here. I am not much of a Gothic reader but I can see the tension now that you have pointed it out (and your TV examples are right on the money). Excellent work, thank you.

  4. fictivite says:

    Glad you like it! A framework for understanding what makes something Gothic is key to putting those elements in your game and getting the sense you’re after. Thanks for reading.

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