Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gothic: To Fulfill A Strange Human Need?

Psychologically, the Gothic novel serves cathartic purposes and a fundamental human need, what Virginia Woolf called "the strange human need of feeling afraid".

In the dead of the night, I shiver violently at blood-curling renditions of vampire folktales, I sometimes even let out a gasp of terror when I re-read Stoker's Dracula or another R. L. Stine novel, finding my palms clammy and my body covered in cold sweat.

So why do people torture themselves like this? Why are they so willing to be turned into traumatized yet addicted consumers of fear?

I believe in humanity's inner fascination with the grotesque and the frightening, inexplicable, overwhelming aspects of the universe and the human soul.

As a New York Times article "Embracing Fear as Fun To Practice for Reality; Why People Like to Terrify Themselves" by David Blum tells us, in real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers. But the narrative form puts those fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears.

As long as whatever that is happening in the books isn't happening to us, we feel safe and want to experience the terror and thrill without actual repercussions

However, I think it is worth wondering: with the volume and intensity of scary stories and movies and arranged experiences growing so rapidly, is it getter harder to satisfy the craving for fear?

Perhaps. That is why many modern readers find Gothic literature not very scary but instead rather conservative and refined. 

However, I do beg to differ. To me, Gothic classics such as Stoker's Dracula never fail to scare me despite the long sentences and elaborate descriptions. Stoker, I believe, mastered the arts of scaring and writing perfectly. His demonstration of humanity's division between a finite, physical identity and the often terrifying, bizarre forces of the infinite never can be attained by any modern writer, even if said writer was his great grand-nephew. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Gothic On the Stage: The Phantom of the Opera

Softly, deftly, music shall caress you
hear it, feel it, secretly possess you
Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind
In this darkness that you know you cannot fight
The darkness of the music of the night


When the curtains went up, I sat there in bated breath, ready to be dazzled by the grand spectacle of The Phantom of the Opera. And when the curtains went down with an abrupt finality, my friend and I broke down crying. 

For me, this was my second time watching The Phantom of the Opera, the first time in 2007 when I was only nine. But ever since then, I have loved the Phantom-- the triumphant, misunderstood genius and poor, twisted creature-- with a burning passion. I adored his voice, his aura of enigma, his mask, his tragic past, his brilliance in music, his obsession with Christine and the eventual sacrifice of his love that both redeems and destroys him. 

Perhaps, because I only just recently read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, I was particularly mindful of the various Gothic elements that jumped out at me throughout the entire duration of the musical. 

The Phantom himself is the embodiment of the mystic and the mysterious. His presence in Christine's life represents a blurring of the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, and his unsettling flair for singing about sensual themes that challenges the social conventions then is in truth, I believe, an outlet for the condemned and repressed darkness of the human mind. 

Christine's absolute haplessness and helplessness when surrendering to the Phantom's music is another favorite motif in Gothic literature, that of the poor damsel being exploited by a sinister identity. 

Labyrinths, dark corridors, winding staircases, graveyards, dungeons, crypts, demonic fires, death and failing candles... All these stock motifs of the Gothic novel were alive and in action in the opera. 

But, to me, what liberates the Phantom from his antagonistic position and glorifies him, is the beautiful and heartbreaking music and lyrics of his songs. The ultimate victim in this musical, in my opinion, is neither Christine nor any of the opera house members who died, but the Phantom himself.

His demise salvages him but destroys his music and therefore robs him of his most precious love-- the love of music which had originally sustained him.