‘Strange Folk’ brings together nine artists all of whom are based in Cornwall. The exhibition works with themes of Folk Horror across a range of media and different platforms and broadly seeks to make the familiar seem strange.
We acknowledge the importance of sound in creating the right kind of ‘folk horror’ ambience, or as HP Lovecraft terms it, ‘Malign Tensity’, through David Bessell’s soundtrack to the show and the interactive audio works, including the detuned ‘autoharps’ which can be plucked to mix with the show’s soundtrack. The soundtrack also provides a context that wraps around the other two-dimensional and three-dimensional works.
Michelle Ohlson works with household objects to make us see them in a different way, deconstructing the usual boundaries and meanings we associate with sinks, taps and light switches. Sue Leake is a figurative artist with an interest in bones and skulls. She shows that not only do they have a structural role to play but that they are beautiful, fragile and multi-formed objects, particularly the case with her drawings of bird skulls. Michael Harris’ work focuses on the human form, concentrating on heads, making strange more conventional portraiture and weaving into his images a sense of ritual decapitation and emphasising the visceral qualities of heads.
Jill Eisele’s work figures around the crepuscular, providing brooding landscapes that emphasis the ancient qualities of the Cornish landscape and the sentience of both light and nature. Kate Walter’s fugitive processes capture the subtle body, the unseen and the fleeting, that which exceeds rationality. Anne Wilkening’s images also work with light and the physical body to create a sense of energies beyond the obvious.
Jason Walker’s intense engagement with detail and care in the painting of dead birds provides a ritualistic memorial to the cycle of life and death. Tanya Krzywinska’s art is informed by her work of many years as a scholar of occult fictions; her themes are folk magic, power and agency (or its lack) in the face of what Lacan termed the big Other.
The Strange Folk gathered here in this exhibition were commissioned specifically to accompany the Folk Horror 2019 conference. They each aimed to work through the Folk Horror themes that have such a deep resonance in the Cornish region. Echoes of that resonance can be seen in Du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’, David Pinner’s Ritual (1967) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), as well as within Cornwall’s monumental granite pillows and the remnants of Celtic Christianity or Bronze Age culture.
Tanya Krzywinska 01/09/19
This paper was printed originally in Robert Fish (ed)Cinematic Countrysides. MUP, 2004.
JWF Turner Stonehenge 1825
Jagged monoliths, eroded earthworks, stone circles, hillside chalk figures: the enigmatic remnants of pre-historical landscapes in the British countryside have fired the imagination of artists, writers, historians, archaeologists and filmmakers. From folklore to feature films, the ‘pagan’ landscape has inspired mystery, horror and romance. Escaping the confines of contemporary written documentary sources, diverse fictions are easily projected into the historical void. However, the retrospective and apparently fanciful fictions that circulate around the existing features of ancient landscapes are frequently grounded in real cultural conflicts and tensions. Many of these contentions coalesce around competing narratives and accounts of what ‘Britain’ means. The argument of this essay is that the existing features of ancient landscapes and their presentation in film and other popular media are often used to explore and create histories and identities that extend beyond, or challenge, those offered by conventional ‘national’ and historically grounded narratives. I explore the ways that British pagan monuments that are strewn across the countryside have acquired certain conventionalised and often subversive meanings. An ‘archaeology’ of such meanings reveals that these are not entirely grounded in contemporary culture, but stretch back to the rhetorical modes used by Roman writers, rhetoric that has come to serve the generic forms of horror and fantasy as well as the predilection for sensationalist spectacle inherent within audio-visual media. As such I cite representations of the British pagan countryside in popular culture within a matrix of cultural, formal and historical contexts.
An amalgam of theoretical perspectives provide tools for analysing these relationships, some explicit, others implicit. These are commandeered as a means of understanding the way that the distant whisperings of the ancient past have been amplified and distorted to serve contemporary, if divergent, agendas. Theoretical perspectives on formal, generic and industrial features contribute to understanding the meanings of the pagan countryside in a specifically cinematic context.[i] Reader reception theory provides models for understanding interpretative differences (in particular the notion of ‘interpretative communities’[ii]). A cultural studies perspective facilitates an analysis of the way that certain conventionalised themes and narrative forms, which range across various popular media, relate to a broader social-cultural context in ideological terms, demonstrating that cinema does not operate in isolation. The selective combination of these approaches provides a framework for understanding the way that representations of British pagan countrysides have become meaningful for viewers and readers in the light of broader social-cultural contentions around ideology and identity.
‘The Devil’s Own’: Monumental Pagan Troubles
During the Summer Solstice of 1985, the area around Stonehenge became a ravaged battlefield: a standoff ensued between the ‘keepers of culture’ and what were considered officially to be anarchic violators of British heritage. Makeshift raggletaggle encampments, barbed wire, news cameras, and police in riot gear are not perhaps the accoutrements that might be associated with the bucolic idyll promised by English Heritage marketeers. Assorted interested people clashed with the police in a standoff between very different notions of the meaning and use of an ancient ‘pagan’ monument. The Battle of the Beanfield, as it has become known, demonstrates the way in which the meaning of Stonehenge, as an icon of the British pagan landscape, has often been situated at the confluence of a variety of cultural contestations. What the Battle of the Beanfield exemplifies is that the remnants of an ancient British landscape offer themselves as emblems through which people have challenged dominant narratives of British history and identity. The fact that the terms ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ have no meaning in a prehistorical context plays a significant role in its post 1960s attraction. This enigmatic ancient past appeals to neo-pagans and some counter-cultures as a means of rejecting and challenging the implications of what is often considered to be the repressive nature of Christian-based authority.
Part of the subversive appeal, which also operates in a more populist sense, is derived from the way that monuments of British prehistory have been presented within horror and fantasy genres. Many of these are informed directly or indirectly by older fictions, however. The miscellany of ancient monuments that stand in mute testimony to an occulted past are laced with mythic explanations of their origin and use. Medieval mytho-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth suggests that Stonehenge was built by giants and that it was transported from Ireland to Britain by the magician Merlin (1982: 196). The notion that stone circles are the petrified remains of people punished by god for dancing on the Sabbath seems to have originated during the English Civil War (Ashe. 2002: 40; Hutton, 1997: 74). Many 17th and 18th century interpretations compete between supernatural, folkoric, explanations of stone circles – witches or fairy circles for example (Hutton, 1997: 74) – and more scientifically grounded ones, provided by proto-archaeologists such as John Aubrey and William Stukeley. Meanings assigned to inscrutable features of the British landscape have also been strongly informed by the sensationalist accounts of so-called ‘celtic’ religion, outlined by Roman writers such as Caesar and Tacitus, in particular the alleged druidic practice of human sacrifice. In the 18th century Stukeley consolidated this link by publishing his engravings of stone circles as druidic temples (although later he changed his view to a more Christian orientation). (See Hutton, 2001, for an extended account of the treatment of pagan landscapes in British letters and literature.)
Poets John Keats, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Robert Graves and proto-anthropologist JG Frazer, author of The Golden Bough[iii], also romanced with the alleged bardic-philosophical tradition of the Druids, which, Caesar had written, originated in Britain. Even Byron asked of Stonehenge what the ‘devil is it’ in his poem Don Juan (1821). In the main, poetic imagery of the Romantics is used to evoke the sublime majesty of the stone circles and often represents a lost Arcadian age when the poetry had religious status. Even here conflicts between the material presence of ancient monuments, which were taken as representing an apparently sophisticated prehistorical culture, and classical Roman accounts of their barbarous use are apparent. Matthew Schneider (1997) mounts a convincing argument that Wordsworth and Keats struggled in their poetry to square the druidic practice of sacrifice reported in Caesar with what they viewed as the noble aspects of druidism. The romance with druidism, and the landscape that speaks ostensibly of them, continues (even if archaeological evidence places most monuments as preceding the late Iron Age by millennia in some cases). But it is the sinister spectre of human sacrifice that lends such monuments their particular bloodcurdling resonance and it is this that has fuelled the sensationalism of many subsequent occult-based fictions. Rev. J. Ogilvie commented in 1787 in The Fane of the Druids that with regards to druidic human sacrifice ‘some ancient writers seem to dwell on this subject with a satisfaction’ (cited in Schneider, 1997: 5). Many modern texts follow in similar vein, including some that do not fall within the category of generic horror fiction.
Within the context of the horror genre, prehistoric ‘pagan’ monuments are connected often with the presence of primal, supernatural evil. The use of Stonehenge in the opening credits of Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) (1957, UK) provides an indicative example. A montage of canted shots of the stones, backlit and windswept in brooding black and white, appear accompanied by a sonorous voice-over that intones ‘It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. And, it is also said, that using the magic power of ancient runic symbols man can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of hell’. Accompanied by dramatic music, and schlocky B movie graphics for the titles, the scene utilises all the lurid generic accoutrements of the horror film to jar the spectator’s equilibrium. The film’s story hinges on a common trope in the horror film: a sceptical hero comes to understand the full force of the occult, when he investigates the mysterious death of an academic. The chief suspect in the case is the leader of a cult, Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), whose manuscript was turned down for publication by the dead man. Hot on the trail of Karswell, our hero is given surreptitiously a note inscribed with runes that will invoke an ancient demon to kill him. Moral balance is restored when the note is returned to Karswell resulting in his death. The story arc has little to do with Stonehenge, however, but the powerful image of Stonehenge is used metaphorically to encapsulate the film’s theme of vengeful desire and demonic magic that lurks beneath the civilised skin of middle England.
Iconic monuments of prehistory in horror-based cinema are also often linked to human sacrifice within the context of a barbarous paganism. Blood on Satan’s Claw (aka Satan’s Skin, 1970), The Witches (1966) and The Wicker Man (1970) are British-made horror films that place ‘pagan’ sacrifice centrally as the source of horror: each are set in the British countryside and emphasise in different ways the links between the landscape and pagan practice. These films follow on from the commercial success of Dennis Wheatley’s sensationalist and tendentious occult novels written between 1933 and 1974, which linked pagan practice with black magic. The Devil Rides Out (1934) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953) are structured morally and formally on Manichean lines, where Christian forces representing light and good do battle with evil in the form of black magic and ‘lustful’ pagan-derived practice. In one section of the former novel, a woodland glade, reproduced in the Hammer film of the same name, provides the stage for a bacchanalian orgy complete with a composite image of Pan, the devil and Baphomet, the alleged god of the Knights Templar, appearing at the height of the ceremony (see Krzywinska for an analysis of the figure). Later in the novel a child is to be sacrificed in a deconsecrated chapel in a manor house.[iv] Here, however, Stonehenge escapes the brooding menace of its representation in Night of the Demon. One character asks why Stonehenge is a good place to find sanctuary against evil, given that it is associated with druidic sacrifice, the response from the occult-moral authority, De Richleau, is that even though druids practised human sacrifice at the site it is nonetheless ‘one of most hallowed spots in all Europe because countless thousands of long-dead men and women have worshipped here – calling on the power of light to protect them from evil things that go in darkness’ (1971: 141). Like Wordsworth and Stukeley, Wheatley seeks to square the apparent contradiction between sacrifice and spirituality, thereby rescuing the monument for British moral heritage. Within this novel, as with other occult fictions, the landscape itself is a source of power, imbued with a moral-metaphysical dimension that accords neatly with the common horror Manichean-based convention of a universal battle between good and evil, which, in this case, precedes Christianity. Tom Holland’s horror novel Deliver Us From Evil (1996) is partly set in Wiltshire and continues the tradition of associating remnants of a pagan landscape with the intrusion of hitherto repressed dark forces that are both supernatural and articulations of the collective unconscious. The novel blends together seductive villains with a Wheatley-esque take on black magic, weaving a tale around historical figures such as John Dee, John Milton and the British antiquarian John Aubrey, who surveyed Stonehenge and Avebury in the 17th century.
Deliver Us From Evil alongside each of the films and novels mentioned above invokes the British countryside as a place where pagan practices continue to abide in the Christian era. This trope provides the rationale for sensationalist stories of human sacrifice and orgiastic sexuality freed from repressive civilising agents. Most of these texts regard pagan sacrifice as inherently evil, and particularly in Wheatley and some of the horror films, the return to the ‘old religion’[v] and antique magical practice represents moral decay, a factor indicated by the presence of abandoned Christian churches in The Witches and The Wicker Man. In Cry of the Banshee (1970), a ruined church that lies deep in secluded woods provides a place for pagan-based nature worship, but here is the stage for the brutal massacre of the hippie-esque celebrants by those alleging to do their brutal work in the names of God and the King, resulting in a plot-driving curse on the house of their leader. Many British occult films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Eye of the Devil (1967), Cry of the Banshee The Witches, and The Wicker Man, make use of the League of Gentlemen[vi] model. The locals may look ordinary, but they are in fact members of barbaric pagan cults that practise human sacrifice. While in Blood on Satan’s Claw, the locals are god-fearing and their daily life is disrupted when a sub-human skull, complete with a set of rudimentary horns, is found in a field near their village. Through some strange magic this drives the local youth to a frenzy or murder and self-mutilation. While the muted tones of an autumn rural landscape lend a bucolic tone, the flesh-rending Bacchae-like events that take place are very far from being quietly picturesque. Such generically grounded othering of rural communities sits in sharp and delicious contrast to the saccharine ‘Miss Marple’ view of the English country village in which murder has no magical or supernatural cast. The type of myth-making found in occult-horror fictions draws some of its power from tacit references to antique religious practices outlined in the Roman ‘colonialist’ texts mentioned above. But their particular horrors are also rooted in the cultural context in which they were produced.
As Leon Hunt has noted ‘the conflict between “old” and “new” faiths was a way of talking about the relationship between the upheavals of the late 1960s – the emergence of youth and “counter” cultures, permissiveness, the possibility of revolution – and the backlash of the 1970s represented, in particular, by the “law and order” agenda of the new Heath government’ (2002: 93). Blood on Satan’s Claw and Cry of the Banshee and are set respectively in the early 17th century and interregnum period, times that are associated with Puritanism and its goal to place piety and religious observance at the heart of the culture and government (Witchfinder General  is also located in this period). Made during the early 1970s, the particular historical setting of these films is well-suited to articulating modern cultural conflicts around the increasing ‘permissiveness’ of British culture. Manifestations of supernatural entities that destroy the order of things can be regarded as symptomatic of perceived repression (as well as having dramatic and sensationalist potential), the landscape serving as a metaphor for the stratified layers of the collective unconscious. While it is easy and attractive to glean a message about the danger of stultifying the free expression of sexuality in such films, the portrayal of pagan practice is often ambiguous, serving, as it were, with two hands. As with Wheatley’s conservative Christian-bias, these films yoke the return of the repressed with ritual sacrifice and black magic. The return of occulted atavistic supernatural forces expresses a warning about the effects of repression, yet they are frequently regarded as evil and overcome by the forces of ‘Right’ and ‘Light’ – terms of no liberal/relativist compromise that are closely associated with Mary Whitehouse’s anti-permissive organisation, The Festival of Light. Blood on Satan’s Claw is by far from a simple celebration of ‘pagan’ sex and magic, its sensation-driven narrative carries a health warning about the dangers that cults represent to youth (especially when considered in the light of the high profile ritual murder of the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate by Manson’s ‘Children of God’ in 1969). Yet the anarchic outbreak of barbarous behaviour in the film has a transgressive appeal that would not be lost on the well-developed counter-culture, which found many of the values and attitudes of conservative middle-England abhorrent, particularly as these tended to demonise aspects of youth culture as well as unfettered expressions of sexuality. However, not all horror-based fictions that use the British pagan landscape for their setting speak so directly of unregulated sexuality. The children’s TV series Children of the Stones (1977, Harlech Television), set within the partially stone-encircled village of Avebury, is one such case, yet nonetheless the stones harbour dark forces of an extra-terrestrial nature that possess the local inhabitants and prevent them from leaving.
In terms of an ‘archaeology’ of the meanings assigned to the pagan landscapes in each of these horror-based texts, each draws quite strongly on the image of ‘celtic’ paganism outlined in the writings of Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny. These Roman writers viewed North European paganism as deeply barbaric, using human sacrifice as a means of demonstrating their claim. Yet, it should be noted that they had reasons to construct and maintain a difference between their own culture and that of the ‘othered’ barbarians. As with more recent fictions, they too projected lurid fantasies onto the strange landscape of ‘celtic’ paganism. The conflation of ‘barbarianism’ and ‘primitivism’ inscribed in such work functioned as a means of justifying the colonial management of North European people, deployed according to various political and moral agendas. When their ‘histories’ are adopted in later fictions, it is the colonist gaze that prevails and it is the studied sensationalism of this viewing position that lends itself so well to the horror genre. This becomes extremely apparent when we examine the aforementioned horror fictions in relation to these ‘classical’ works. Tacitus, for example, comments that the Germans ‘count it as no sin, on certain feast days, to include human victims in the sacrifice’ (Tacitus, 1970: 108), and Caesar writes that the Gauls are much given to human sacrifice and employ druids to do it, he goes on to say ‘Some of them use huge images of the gods, and fill their limbs, which are woven from wicker, with living people […] They believe that the gods are more pleased by such punishment when it is inflicted upon those who are caught engaged in theft or robbery or other crime’ (Caesar, 1996:127-8/6.17). There is a clear, if tacit, superior self-promotion in the deployment of the binary opposition civilisation/barbarism here. This binary is also played out obsessively in the horror genre, and is frequently allied to the psychoanalytic notion of the return of the repressed. British occult-based films and novels that look back to the ‘old religion’ consistently mobilise human sacrifice as the indicator of barbarity and moral bankruptcy, as was also the case in Tacitus and Caesar. This model also threads its way through Christian discourse and many clerics used such rhetoric as a means of outlawing and demonising paganism: old gods become new devils. The legacy of such demonisation plays a crucial in the meanings that popular culture, and particularly the horror genre, assigns to the British pagan landscape. In a neat redeployment, the othering of ‘celtic’ paganism within Roman and Christian discourse, has provided recent popular culture with a powerful counter-discourse with which to ‘other’ Britain, as well as deploying sensationalist images to attract horrified fascination.
Caesar’s powerful evocation of the wicker man as a tool for human sacrifice in celtic culture is resurrected directly in The Wicker Man, a film that is often hailed as the most significant British horror film. Set in a fictitious Scottish island, Summerisle, the local inhabitants practice a version of paganism that they believe ensures the fruitfulness of their harvests, re-introduced to them by their Laird in the 19th century. For the first time their crops have failed and they entice a carefully chosen ‘virgin’ policeman, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), to the island to investigate the death of a child. He witnesses pagan practices that affront his fundamentalist Christian sensibilities, and ends up being a substitute sacrifice for the current Laird, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), the aim of which is to restore fertility to the land. As a policeman and as a hard-line Christian who believes strongly in sex only within the sanctity of marriage, and lets everyone know that they are sinners, Howie is multiply-determined as a representative of outmoded puritanism and authoritarianism. This character coding is pointedly directed to the libertarian counter-culture as a figure of ridicule and contempt, however. Nothing could be more timely and fitting than the sacrifice of an agent of ‘repression’; a man who is horrified by the sight of young woman jumping naked over a fire placed at the centre of a circle of standing stones, and who does not yield to his sexual urges (despite the best efforts of a witchy-seductress played by Britt Ekland). Like Blood on Satan’s Claw, the film is riven with contradictory meanings. These can be viewed within the context of contemporary counter-cultural investments, and exhibit themselves in disagreements about the meaning of the film between the screenwriter and the director, as well as in the film’s ambiguous dealing with sacrifice as both horrific and thrilling, rational and irrational. Are we meant to commend the pagans for killing the policeman? If so, then the death of an arrogant and self-righteous cop wasn’t working to gain my sympathy. Robin Hardy, the director, claims his aim was to communicate the dangers of paganism (see Krzywinska 2000 for an extended analysis), whereas Anthony Shaeffer, the film’s screenwriter, claims that the impetus for the film lay in the need for ‘someone to go right back to the beginning and explore…what lay behind religion as we know it.’ (cited Brown, 2000: 24) For many fans of the horror genre and those with contemporary pagan leanings, it is Summerisle’s paganism that offers up an alternative to repressive laws and puritan-style moral frameworks. Throughout most of the film paganism is presented as vital, generally life-affirming and appeals to the senses through the connections it makes between sexuality and seasonal cycles. Thereby the film addresses itself most directly to those viewers inclined to baulk against the repressions of conservative, authoritarian, parent culture (even if Summerisle has its own brand of authority).
Paganism in British films of the 1960s and 1970s is frequently coupled with the full expression of ‘natural’ sexuality, a factor that has informed various interpretations of standing stones as fertility, phallic or vaginal symbols. The link between stone circles and fertility rites is evoked in the image from The Wicker Man (see below), yet other rites are rather less benign. In Deliver Us From Evil the central male character is impregnated by the Devil within the inner circle of Stonehenge. Rather than a site associated with the invocation of forces of light as in The Devil Rides Out, here it is presented as a dark and blood-soaked monument, the ‘natural’ home of a corrupting evil that makes a mockery of the gendered order. The paganism paraded in the British horror genre articulates in its cultish way, for some at least, an anarchic atavistic spark that re-invokes a rhythm that has been lost under urban tarmac and clock (on) time. Yet within the context of horror and sexploitation, witch-power and magic are rendered perverse, amoral and connected to violent death (which in itself provided for some viewers a welcome transgressive fantasy thrill that put two vicarious fingers up to the moral order). By deploying familiar prehistorical monuments as settings for such narratives, and drawing on pseudo-historical sources, the British pagan countryside becomes infused with subversive resonance.
These few examples show how the sacred landscapes of ancient Britain have become entrenched in the popular imagination under the seductive sign of ‘transgression’. Prehistory, with its connection to the primitive, acts as literal and metaphoric terrain for conjuring up buried histories, identities and narratives that have been are, or imagined to be, suppressed by ‘civilisation’ and the dominant order.
In the more benign context of recent fantasy fiction, the pagan past becomes a place for evoking a time when the land and people worked in harmony, to which magic was instrumental. Here a rather different register operates to that which colours the ‘demonic’ vision of paganism in the horror film. Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) carries a strong authorial signature, and is perhaps best described as having an art cinema aesthetic. With mainstream cinema embracing strongly the notion of the ‘auteur’ at that time, as a means of branding products that evaded generic affiliation, the context was right for Boorman to explore the Arthurian myth from a personal perspective, one that dovetailed with the considerable counter-cultural interest in myth and magic. As he is quoted as saying ‘When you recount a legend you find yourself speaking more about your own period than you think […] What is essential, then, is not to refute the myth but to refresh it’ (cited Frayling, 1995: 23). What is new in Boorman’s rendering of the myth is its insistence on old paganism (at least old paganism filtered through 19th and 20th century mediations). Merlin and Morgana (both practitioners of ancient magics) belong to the old pagan world and act outside the newly established Christian/democratic/patriarchal order. The film presents the pagan countryside through iconic representations such as stone circles, but paganism also plays a structural role. Despite Arthur’s Christianity, the seasonal rhythms of nature are also at some deep level tied into the trajectory of Arthur’s life. When Arthur is young, perpetual spring reigns, when he marries it is full summer and when he grows ill, a hard winter sets in; on drinking from the grail the land becomes bright and lush again and cherry blossom petals fill the air. This romantic synergy is derived in part from JG Frazer’s contention in The Golden Bough that many pre-Christian myths coalesce around the notion that the king and the land are one. This takes on a symbolic and allegorical resonance in the film that is informed by Jung’s work on archetypes. Frazer also presents this king/land synergy as the basis for human sacrifice: if the land falls sick the king, or his substitute, must be ritually sacrificed. This myth-based trope provides both structure and horror-based spectacle in The Wicker Man, Eye of the Devil, a horror film set in Northern France and, in an art movie context, Pasolini’s Medea (1969, Italy) [see Krzywinska for more detailed analysis of sacrifice in these films].
For Boorman’s purposes, Arthur is of less interest than Merlin. Merlin crops up in various guises in many of Boorman’s films, representing in archetypal terms a lost world of magic. Not wholly absorbed by the traditional chivalric focus of the myth, Boorman makes use of novelist Mary Stewart’s strategy of locating the Arthurian myth within the context of the transition between paganism and Christianity; and it could be said that the shift itself is ‘mythologised’ by the film. Boorman states ‘…[Merlin] says to Morgana “The days of our kind our numbered”. There are also echoes of the coming of Christianity and I couldn’t resist putting my own feelings into this. I feel that the imposition of Christianity – a desert religion – on northern Celtic people, was a very alien thing…They destroyed the magic of those people and we are still suffering from that today’ (cited Film Directions: 1984). This sense of spiritual loss distilled a more general trend at work in the mystically inclined hippie counter culture. The ascendance of Arthur does not herald a golden age, as traditionally couched, but a fall that entails the loss of a rich and meaningful relationship with the landscape and nature. Boorman uses Merlin and powerful images of the living, changing landscape as means of evoking that missing connection, thereby providing an implicit criticism of some of key tenets of traditional British culture and identity. In so doing the film mediates a burgeoning dissatisfaction with the more traditional celebration of British culture and identity that is embedded in many versions of the Arthurian golden age. Whether the film’s nostalgia is considered conservative, with a small c, or subversive depends on the interpretive framework that viewers bring to the film. For those aligning themselves with the hippie-oriented counter-culture the film expresses through the appropriate rhetoric of myth-based fantasy the latter.
There is also a notable gender dimension to the film’s representation of paganism that warrants consideration because it has a bearing on the burgeoning counter-cultural investments in the ‘old religion’ at the time the film was made. The 1970s saw a growing interest in the development (or rediscovery as it was sometimes couched) in feminist/feminine modes of spirituality and expressions of power. This has a bearing on the representation of the figure of Morgana in Excalibur. As a witch of the old religion Morgana is intent on overthrowing Arthur’s glorious age of men, which makes her available to be read as a threat to both patriarchal and Christian values. Her representation resonates within the feminist appropriation of witchcraft as a discourse of gender dissidence, as is evident in Hélène Cixous’ reappropriation of witchcraft as an anarchic discourse of female empowerment with capacity to subvert patriarchal power (1986). Within this context pagan witchcraft, and its related myths of powerful female deities, constitutes a challenge to the status quo, speaking, at least to some receptive viewers, of a lost and othered ‘herstory’ that melds together imagination and historical fact. With recent re-witching of popular culture, evidenced across various media with the Harry Potter franchise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and the presence of playable shamanic magic casters in role-playing games such as EverQuest and SpellForce, the links between paganism and witchcraft are often consolidated through quite wide-spread cultural investments in ‘girl power’. The figure of Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) in made-for TV film Merlin (1998, Hallmark/NBC) utilises this resonant link. Dressed in gothic black and purples, with powerful magics at her fingertips, she has the requisite bad girl kudos through her attempts to destroy Arthur, lure Merlin to the ‘dark side’ and rescue the old gods, of which she is one, from oblivion. She first appears as a standing stone made flesh, stepping out of the stone which establishes her connection with the prehistorical landscape. Open to a variety of interpretations, this association might be read by those with an interest in witchcraft, and perhaps seeking new ways of figuring a female-based spirituality, as a way of aligning the female body to the rhythms of the earth, rhythms masked by industrial clock-time. For some feminists, however, this association might be construed as supporting essentialist ideas about the definition of femininity. In either case Queen Mab is a very contemporary figure, who is made entirely in the light of recent popular interest in paganism and witchcraft (or Wicca).
Both Excalibur’s Merlin and Merlin’s Queen Mab are intrinsically linked to the pagan landscape: Arthur can only speak to the imprisoned Merlin through the conduit of Stonehenge. Unlike Excalibur, Merlin is far more in keeping with the more traditional Arthurian narrative (Queen Mab excepted). The figuration of Merlin (Sam Neill) is clearly built around his being an active and morally upright agent of change, rather than a darkly ambiguous and playfully arch representation of the old order of shamans, as he is in Excalibur (‘I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It is mine to know which, and when.’). In Merlin, Queen Mab, is defeated by Merlin and Arthur’s court, composed predominantly of men, by a simple act of forgetting. They turn their backs on her and the old world that she presents. Given that she is presented in such deliciously mischievous ways, presenting an affront to the patriarchal and Christian order, I for one did not want to forget her so easily. The film may evoke the attraction of the pagan-witch but her disruptive purpose is overcome with no deigetic sense of loss. It then takes a recuperative interpretational act to remember the magical counter-world that she stands for. By contrast, in Excalibur, the audience is actively invited to reconnect with an imagined pagan past that has been lost in the smog of industrial time. As such the landscape itself is re-enchanted and anthropomorphised, rescued from being more than simply a dumb, exploitable commodity. This is set to speak to those with an interest in ecology, magic and pantheistic religions. While both films are clothed in the special effects of the type typical of the fantasy genre, they seem to look in different directions. Merlin looks to the bright, rational, future, celebrating the loss of the old magic and its wickedness. Excalibur looks back with melancholy to an unrecoverable, mythic, past to show the hubristic folly of the ‘time of men’. As Merlin says from his tomb of crystal: ‘the earth is being torn apart, its metals stolen, and the balance is broken and the lines of power no longer converge’.
All the narratives addressed in this article deploy elements of transgression in their depictions of the pagan countryside, although the type of transgression differs from text to text, interpretation to interpretation. The screen of prehistory provides a context through which to evoke an imagined lost world that resonates in accord with the socio-geographic fault-lines of contemporary culture, whether this is a lost spiritual vitalism or something repressed by the machinations of civilisation/industrialisation/patriarchal institutions. Pagan prehistory as rendered by these popular texts is often set against the loaded authority of traditional history; as well as helping to diversify the very concept of ‘Britain’. The competing narratives that invoke British prehistory demonstrate that what constitutes Britishness is far from fixed or settled. As Barbara Bender has suggested, the pagan landscape provides contemporary British culture with a means of what she calls ‘differential empowerment’ (1999: 5). The presence of pagan landscapes in popular fiction is, at least in part, based on the spectacular attraction of magic, myth, sex, and sacrifice, which are well-suited to audio-visual media. The rhetorical alignment of transgression to the pagan landscape provides for some a vehicle by which to challenge and reconfigure the meaning of Britain and identity. And, perhaps the recent enthusiasm for British prehistory reflects a desire to reinvest the landscape with a sacred dimension, as well as distaste for a very dirty and repressive British history.
I am grateful to Prof. Julian Petley and Leon Hunt for reading versions of this paper.
Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles (London: Methuen, 2002).
Bender, Barbara Stonehenge: Making Space (Oxford: Berg,1999).
Brown Inside the Wicker Man (Basingstoke and Oxford: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2000).
Caesar, The Gallic Wars [De Bello Gallico] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Trans. Carolyn Hammond.
Cixous and C. Clement, The Newly Born Woman. (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 1986). Trans. Sandra M Gilbert.
Frayling, Strange Landscapes: Journey through the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth BBC Books/Penguin, 1995).
G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: Abridged (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994). Abridgement by Robert Fraser.
Holland, Deliver Us from Evil ( London: Abacus, 2000).
Hetherington, New Age Travellers (London: Cassell, 2000)
Hunt, ‘Necromancy in the UK: witchcraft and the occult in British Horror’ in S.
Chibnall and J. Petley (eds), British Horror Cinema (London, Routledge, 2002). pp82-98.
Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy (Oxford: Blackwell Books, 1997).
Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Krzywinska, A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film. (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000).
of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982). Trans. Lewis Thorpe.
Schneider, Matthew ‘”Wrung by sweet enforcements”: Druid Stones and the Problem of Sacrifice in British Romanticism. Anthropoetics II, no. 2 (January, 1997)
Tacitus, The Agricola and The Germania (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970). Trans. Harold Mattingley.
Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out (London: Arrow Books, 1971).
Wheatley, To the Devil – A Daughter. (London: Arrow Books, 1972).
‘John Boorman Talks About Excalibur’ and The Dynamic Principle of Fantasy’ Film Directions V4 no.1 Autumn 1984.
[i] For more on such approaches to the study of cinema, see: Rick Altman (1999) Film/Genre. London: BFI publishing; John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds) (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press; Robert Kolker (1999) Film, Form and Culture (McGraw Hill); David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (McGraw Hill, 2001, sixth edition).
[ii] See Stanley Fish (1980) Is there a text in this Class?: The authority of interpretative communities Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.
[iii] The Golden Bough was first published in twelve volumes between 1906 and 1915 and abridged in 1922. It is a study in comparative myth, magic and folklore, often described as a work of classical anthropology.
[iv] Large old houses are often used in British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s as the fitting domicile of decadent aristocrats, an articulation of what Carol Clover terms, in Men, Women and Chainsaws (1993), the ‘terrible place’, a staple location used in various guises in many horror films.
[v] Pagan-witchcraft is in fact a new religion, which according to Hutton (2001) is the only religion to have developed in the historical era in Britain. Many writers, including anthropologists such as Margaret Murray (The God of the Witches, 1970), have claimed erroneously that there is a continuity of practice between prehistory and contemporary ‘Wicca’. This notion has informed many occult fictions including Eye of the Devil, however.
[vi] The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, BBC) has made explicit references to The Wicker Man as well as parodying horror movie conventions and plot formulas.
Given that the book I wrote back in 2000 – A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film – is now very hard to find, I’ve scanned it and
you can access the PDF of the book here.
Tanya Krzywinska, Falmouth University
Videogames may rely on the highly logical nature of computing technology, but that does not mean they are immune to the dark touch of Gothic; far from it. Gothic themes, characters, stories, and environments can be found across a wide range of videogames, from puzzle games to multiplayer online games and from shoot ’em ups to strategy games. More wide ranging and focused work is certainly required as there is a major lack of sustained scholarly engagement with Gothic in videogames.1
In an effort to begin the task of remedying this and as part of a more extensive project (a book entitled ‘Gothic Games’ [forthcoming]), this paper plots some initial coordinates of the domain, locating some of its major features, and provides a framework for evaluating the uses of Gothic in games. The foundation on which this analysis rests is an amalgam of two materials. The first is comprised of concepts, models and ideas that have been developed specifically for the analysis of videogames within what has become known as Game Studies. The second is drawn from concepts, models and ideas developed for the analysis of Gothic within what has become known as Gothic Studies. Game and Gothic Studies are both based in the Humanities and share through the lens of Cultural Studies a common attentiveness to the formation and reception of certain types of texts and their ‘meaning potential’; laden with signification and organized around patterns, texts both carry and are constitutive of culture.
As Mikko Lehtonen puts it, ‘texts are not stuck on top of the rest of the world, as messages detachable from it, but participate in a central way in the making of reality as well as forming our image of it'(2000, 11). Gothic Studies evaluates texts, the way they are used and engaged with across a range of media and cultural practices. Game Studies focuses specifically on the formal specificities of games and the way they are played and engaged with. This paper calls on material from both provinces to fulfil its primary aim of understanding the effect that videogame media have on the appearance of Gothic in games and to stage its argument that videogame media has the capability to produce a powerful and compelling addition to Gothic fiction‘s arsenal of affect.
Keywords: games, Gothic, gamification.
This paper pivots on an expanded use of the verb ‘gamification’. Gamification‘s definition extends beyond its use in the context of Serious Games (where game-like features are used to change behavior, such as encouraging workers to save energy in the workplace) and can be used in addition to describe the process of adapting a text, activity, genre, mode or style into game form. While this paper takes the position that Gothic is always rhetorically constituted, it claims there are more coherent claims on the nomenclature than others, and that these must be identified if we are to understand in what form Gothic appears in games. To make for more internal coherence, it is necessary to begin by situating the work in this paper in relation to work in both Game and Gothic Studies.
Scholarly work on videogames has grown apace since the first flush of books and articles that came out in the early 2000s. Setting out the terms of this new field of academic study meant that much of the foundational work adopted a generalist approach by necessity. Espen Aarseth (2003) and Jesper Juul (2001) for example focused on what was common to all videogames and in so doing privileged computing, rules and game mechanics over the descriptive, adjectival and representational aspects of games. By contrast Janet Murray (2001, 2003) focused on games as story-based ‘cyberdramatic experiences’, an approach that helped spark the ‘narratology/ludology’ debate.2 So dominant did this debate become that it obscured or discouraged other approaches to the academic study of games within the Arts and Humanities. This preoccupation with the (problematic) relationships between game rules and story, mechanics and representation, alongside the aspiration to ascertain the universal principles of videogames, left little scope for the investigation of more niche aspects. The situation was further intensified by the denouncement of work that mapped older methods and concepts such as those developed within literature or film studies onto games. Ignoring the value of comparative media analysis, Markku Eskelinen (2001) and Aarseth (2003) pronounced that such endeavour ignored what was radically new and different about the medium of videogames.3 This combative milieu, where rhetoric served in the creation of opposing poles, was not favourable to the study of something so apparently narratological and representational as the presence of Gothic in games, even though aspects of Gothic appeared in a range of well-known commercial games around that time.4
More conducive to the study of Gothic in games is a ‘textual’ approach, notably Marie Laure Ryan‘s work on immersive, interactive worlds as texts (2001). Craig Lindley (2002) too advocated a more holistic approach to games, seeing story, rules and mechanics as unified whole, an approach echoed in Barry Atkins‘ More Than a Game (2003). Building on their earlier work and applying Roland Barthes‘ expanded notion of cultural artefacts as text, Atkins and Krzywinska‘s introduction to videogame/player/text (2007) argued for the textual analysis of games. They did so not just in terms of story and representational gambits, but claimed code, rules and mechanics as intrinsic to the creation of games as ‘readable’ textual artefacts. I would add that ‘reading’ is often an integral part of playing a game, thereby acting itself as a core game mechanic. Atkins and Krzywinska also noted that games require a player/reader to kick them into action, thereby activating the semiotic, kinetic and affective energies that constitute player experience. Diane Carr extends this text/player synergy by arguing for the importance of taking into account the situated nature of play (2007), an idea developed more sharply in her work on disability and games (2013) which concentrates on the embodied player and the differences in play through the particularity of that embodiment.5 Graeme Kirkpatrick argues for a balance between semiosis and experience, suggesting that fixing exclusively on the ‘meaning’ of games elides the fact that our pleasure in playing games, as with playing with a ball, may originate in something more plastic: Video games do not have to mean ‘anything to be popular and their popularity can be intelligible without reference to interpretation’. (2011, 17) The sum of such scholarship provides a more nuanced understanding of the complex relations between videogame, player and text and it is symptomatic that the analysis in this paper attends to the experiential doing element of what it is to play a game in order to make its argument that games have the capacity to bring a new dimension to Gothic–even if that capability is by no means fully realised. A more rounded approach to the study of games is preferred because it takes into account how games are made, how they are played and how they draw on and are constitutive of culture. Most importantly, textual analysis deployed within this paper allows us to evaluate the types of intertextual patterns and rhythms used to produce and articulate Gothic in games. It further permits evaluation of the impact which the characteristic features of digital games such as interactive, cybernetic, haptic, kinetic and embodied dimensions, have on the way that Gothic is actualized ludically. The movement away from an exclusive rules-centric take on ludology (the study of games) towards more diverse approaches has widened the horizon of Game Studies, thereby enabling work that is more focused on individual games and genres and as well as on topics such as gender and philosophy. This extended range provides the vista required for this initial analysis of how videogame grammar shapes the articulation of Gothic.
Every game is comprised of systems that define and manage a player’s actions. Most videogames possess an interface and are composed of rules, progress arcs, and winning conditions. Each game tailors these elements according to its own design logic which in turn governs the disposition of a game’s spatiality and perspective. Therefore, to progress within a game, a player must actively engage with the particular demands set for him or her by the design of a game‘s mechanics. These mechanics range from the simple to the complex, encompassing what a player has to do in a game as well as the various elements of computing behind delivering the game to screen along with the interface controls. The specific horizon of interactivity, the particular scope of feedback mechanisms and the precise arrangement of the interface configure around the overarching game concept. In addition to the characteristics of a given gaming platform and the market intended for that game, all these factors play a critical role in the particular way that a game (gamifies) Gothic. It is methodological consideration of these elements that provide part of the framework for evaluating the success of that endeavour.
Conceptual Unification: Evaluating the Gamification of the Gothic
Making a systematic address of how the primary elements of a game treat their Gothic subject only proves productive and transcends taxonomy if an evaluation of that treatment is framed by a notional and coordinating sense of what is meant by Gothic. I began this work with an intuitive sense that there are vast variations in the effective, and indeed affective, use of Gothic in games and as work for this study progressed that sense has intensified.
Definition is therefore no simple task, especially considering that Gothic has spanned such a breadth of mood, time and location. As Fred Botting notes ‘[t]he diffusion of Gothic forms and figures … makes the definition of a homogeneous generic category very difficult’ (1996, 14). In his discussion of the uncertainty in scholarly definitions of the Gothic, David Punter writes that there is a ‘significant resistance to canonization’ (2000, ix), suggesting that there is no one text that substantiates Gothic. It is therefore largely agreed within recent scholarship on the topic that Gothic is brimful of vertiginous, acute tangents and perplexing ambiguities. Platonic ideals might therefore serve badly if we want to celebrate the sheer variety of its many incarnations, or if we want to mirror that flux in the grain of our scholarly writing. Yet it is nonetheless necessary to pin some basic principles to the board if we‘re to sharpen our understanding of Gothic in games and indeed endow the term ‘Gothic’ with meaning both generally and in a ludic context. Games can be regarded as constituted through grammar. Videogame makers select elements from established game grammar to construct the particular vocabulary of that individual game. The same can be said of Gothic. As with games, a set of conventions emerge cumulatively and proliferate from similar texts, sounding the structural beat to which story, style and theme dance. This does not mean an individual convention is stable or foundational however, and we can make useful application here of the structuralist axis of substitution and the plasticity that this affords to any meaning-producing system.6 Nonetheless, too radical a change to the overall pattern leads to hybridity and unfamiliarity. In some cases this produces something innovative and experimental, as with Mark Z. Danielewski‘s dizzying and exemplary novel House of Leaves (2000). But other examples simply weaken, rather than reinforce, any claim on Gothic.
A whole range of games certainly draw on Gothic patterns, but is a superficial presence enough to term a game Gothic in meaningful way? Gothic‘s capacity for constant and definition-bruising reinvention is evident through the ease of its adaptation into game form (‘gamification’). Alongside Science Fiction, Gothic vocabulary is very commonly called upon by game developers making digital, blended (part digital) and other types of games (card, board, live-action and table-top games). It is perhaps most meaningfully present in games that seek the status of art and pursue the creation of an experience of the sublime, such as The Path (Tale of Tales, 2009) and Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012). It is also present in those games that utilize the sensationalist qualities of the supernatural to provoke a brooding sense of dread for a player, such as the case with the Silent Hill series (KCET/Konami, 1999–present), Fatal Frame (Tecmo/Wanadoo, 2002), and Dead Space (EA Redwood/EA, 2008). Gothic tropes also appear in games that do not seek to discomfort players and which may be best defined as ―cute‖, as is the case with A Vampyre Story (Crimson Cow/Autumn Moon, 2008) or the Burtonesque MediEvil (SCEE, 1988). With these games we have to scrutinse the function of their Gothic elements to evaluate their claim to the nomenclature ‘Gothic games’. Gothic is best regarded as central to their overall concept in games where Gothic themes are woven into story, game mechanics and representational style. In other games, representation and iconography might draw directly on Gothic but cannot be said to pervasively inform gameplay and/or story. The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) for instance makes use of the supernatural and Gothic tropes but any potential for Gothic affect is lost because of the game‘s pervasive comedy and light-hearted playfulness.
The articulation of Gothic in games is then no different from other media in the sense that it appears in a host of differently mediated and handled ways, ranging in intensity and deployed for various purposes. Investigating the edges of Gothic, where style might not be underpinned by a more pervasive means of producing the affect of apprehension, helps to better understand what conditions are required to include a game under the label Gothic Games.
What then can be claimed to be some of the major coordinating nodes of Gothic? An obliging place to start is the effect of a Gothic milieu on story. Manuel Aguirre argues that Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein makes use of the structural components of the Hero‘s Tale, reconfigured to stage the alternative journey of the ‘false hero’; ‘a hero who is not a hero’ (2013, 11), the one who fails, who succumbs to entropy, the figure of tragedy 7. The presence of this structural pattern and its particular reconfiguration provides our first major coordinate for defining and evaluating Gothic in games 8. As Aguirre puts it, ‘Gothic abides by fairy tale narrative rules; it is only that Gothic individual who crosses over into the Other is no real hero.…A key to Gothic thus resides in its centring the flawed character as protagonist…[while] the standard hero of traditional tales is often demoted to a helpless or passive stance.’ (ibid.) This latter point benchmarks a structural patterning that appears in relation to themes and economies of agency in a range of Gothic games and which provides a pivotal node in the process of judging whether the use of the grammar is simply replication or innovation. Examples of games drawing on false hero structures include American McGee’s Alice (Rogue Entertainment/EA Games, 2000), Planescape Torment (Black Isle Studios/Interplay Entertainment, 1999), Shadow of the Colossus (Team Ico/SCE Japan, 2005/2006) and indie games, platformer Limbo (Playdead/Microsoft Game Studios, 2010) and roguelike The Binding of Isaac (Headup Games, 2011). The ‘false hero’ is therefore are first coordinate.
Our second coordinate is a particular use of Mise-en-scène which can be symptomatic and spatially locative of the journey of the ‘false hero’. Haunted, disquieted and uncanny spaces abound as ‘representations of estrangement’ made strange not by some property of the space itself but as products of the cultural imagination (Vidler, 12). Numerous games make use of Gothic locations, typically haunted houses, spooky woods, crypts and graveyards, derelict buildings, attics and cellars, without recourse to the ‘false hero’ pattern begging a question about the strength of a given game text‘s claim on Gothic.
Our third coordinate is the representation, production and simulation of a related group of psychologically affective emotional states: paralysis, claustrophobia, vertigo, alienation, estrangement, dread, discomfort, disorientation. Games often attempt to provoke such feelings for players and these may arise logically in some cases from game mechanics and story type, aligned often to the return-of-the-repressed structure as well as through the particular deployments of elements of mise-en-scène. Like adventure, comedy or romance, Gothic fiction carries a certain affective expectation, although many games that make cursory use of Gothic tropes have no intention to create a pervasive Gothic affect.
The mode of representation, best termed ‘style’, is our fourth coordinate, encompassing the aesthetic choices made in the realisation of mise-en-scène, the types of adjectives used, the objects chosen and used or the type of lighting for example. Style also includes the aesthetic rationale behind the choices made to organise the delivery of a story and is therefore manifest through editing, phrasing, elisions, use of time, auditory and visual elements, such as colour palette. It is important to note that it is not so much the individual components in themselves that comprise Gothic, but how these form patterns and how those patterns draw on the ‘word hoard’ of previous Gothic texts and artefacts. Style and mise-en-scène commonly come together to produce indirect, environmental story-telling in the context of games. This mode of delivery is linked in to a player‘s traversal of the game space and contributes to the creation of a stronger sense of presence within the game world for a player, thereby providing a foundation potentially for the generation of affect.
Out of such configurations emerge different flavours of Gothic that have their own distinctive patterns: Fairy Tale Gothic, Victorian Gothic, American Gothic or (even) Weird, for instance. These Gothic patterns might be juxtaposed with other generic, affective or stylistic patterns to form hybrids or to create meaning through difference; Martin Wills, for example, argues that ‘Dickens uses Gothic to isolate certain spaces to mark them off’ (2012, 22). In addition to which, there may be a largely uniform Gothic style yet with no use of a Gothic ‘false hero’, or there may a Gothic treatment of a genre (science fiction for example, Doom 3 is discussed below in this context). There are therefore games that use some aspects of Gothic demonstrating the value of Wills‘ exhortation that, ‘[i]t is not where Gothic might be found that is important by why it is found, what it is employed to do‘ (Wills, 17). Function thereforeprovides our fifth coordinate, helping us to evaluate the potential uses of Gothic in games; for example localised use of Gothic helps reinforces the notion of ―home‖ in Lord of the Rings Online (Turbine/Midway, 2007-present) as it does in Tolkien‘s works. Gothic is used in World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) with the Undead race to demonstrate moral relativism and in a different context it provides the means to fuse together an ambiguous mix of power and objectification in Bayonetta (Platinum/Sega, 2009/2010).
Before going on to look in more depth at particular games as examples of prevailing trends and linking these to our five coordinates, it is useful to our purpose of defining the ‘Gothic game’ to illuminate the specific ways that genre designations operate in videogames. This is necessary because game genre is defined by different means than those used to classify genre in other media. Greater clarity here serves as a means of underlining the unique formal particularities of videogames that shape their engagement with, and articulation of, Gothic.
The genre of a game is generally defined around either the point of view taken by a player in a game (third person, first person), or by the types of activities that define game play (real time strategy game, point-and-click adventure, role-playing games, puzzler,tower defence, and so forth). It may also be defined on the basis of a mix of these features (an online first-person tactical shooter for example). These labels have been established mainly by the game industry as marketing tools, such as retail categories, and those categories are consolidated and popularised through games journalism. Newer genre designations have developed around the game literacy of a target market. The nomenclature ‘casual games’ describes those games made for non-traditional players, as opposed to ‘hardcore games, so named because they purport to be designed for consumption by regular or enthusiastic gamers. Many games do however also draw on genres established in other media (western, horror, sci-fi, soap, fantasy). For the sake of clarity, in the context of games these transmedial genre labels are best named ‘milieu’ (King and Krzywinska, 2002). We are then able to speak of a first-person shooter such as Doom 3 (id/Activision, 2004), set in space with demonic monster enemies, as having a science fiction/horror milieu. Milieu encompasses character design, narrative, atmosphere, and iconography; while genre is defined in the special case of games mainly by aspects of gameplay type or the mode in which a game is played. It is important to note that Gothic in this definitional schema is not just found in milieu (setting), but is also found in the gameplay mechanics and computing configuration from which a player‘s actions originate. The co-presence of both, alongside our five coordinates (story/character, mise-en-scène, affect, style and function), provides a methodological measure by which to identify games that are most pervasively and meaningfully Gothic in character. An application of this method follows.
Evaluating “Gothic” Puzzle Games
Midnight Mysteries: Salem Witch Trials (MumboJumbo/Avanquest, 2010) (MM:SWT from here on in) is a recent representative of a well-established genre of point-and-click, find-the- hidden-object, puzzle games, a genre which Clara Fernández-Vara argues (2009) has been overlooked in academic writing on games. Such games use many different themes but the Midnight Mysteries series of games specialize in stories that weave their fiction around American Gothic writers of the 19th century. The first-person point-and-click puzzle genre has traditionally targeted the ‘casual’ gamer and rose to popularity with Myst (Cyan/Broderbund 1991), a commercially successful game critically lauded for its immersive qualities. Given the early prominence and longevity of the format it has some dedicated followers, although it is not a genre popular with console gamers looking for a more action- packed game experience. Nonetheless, the genre has acquired renewed life through the widespread popularity of hand-held devices, particularly the iPad, that in many cases lack the graphical resources needed for 3D-based games mainly developed for PC or console gaming. More specifically, MM:SWT represents games that place and combine elements of American and populist Gothic vocabulary in the context of a 2D graphical environment, even if some of the models are made using 3D software and using particle effects (fire and smoke in particular). In this context there is minimal use of animation, mainly reserved for low resource effects such as picking up and finding objects or to highlight some aspect of the storytelling. Added to which, simple game mechanics engage players through puzzle-solving with a linear story.
In drawing on witchcraft in American history and fiction, the title signals strongly the Gothic nature of the game. Acting as a detective and making use of first person perspective (in a game this is equivalent to first person narrative), a player seeks to resolve the mystery surrounding the unexpected death of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne in a snowstorm9. The game makes use of events and places in the author‘s real life, plus references to his literary works,
which are hung on a return-of-the-repressed narrative structure that originates thematically from the various sins of the founding fathers. As such the game calls on a familiar American Gothic variation on a narrative structure common to Gothic generally. It does so in a recursive way through a literal evocation of American Gothic authorship, which is further synonymous with the disturbed psycho-geography of Salem, thereby signifying that the supernatural has broken through the protective magic circle of fiction into the ‘real’ world. The game‘s story and ludic structure plays on a mystery about Hawthorne‘s life that has buttressed biographic scholarship on the author; it is claimed that Hawthorne was possessed of a dark secret, with various claims as to its nature, typified by Philip Young‘s contentious Hawthorne’s Secret: An Untold Tale (1984). In the opening scene of the game, Hawthorne appears to a player as a ghost chained and barely able to speak—a quiet, unquiet ghost, seeking help from a player to be put to rest. On agreeing to help him a player is transported to the past and begins the task of piecing together the story. As is typical of a great deal of American Gothic fiction, it is events of the ancestral, colonialist past that trouble him. It is a commonly held belief that in real life Hawthorne added a ‘W’ to his name to divide him from an ancestor, Jon Hathorne, a judge who sentenced hanging in the Salem Witch trials. In the story of the game, this ‘W’ becomes the scarlet letter of Hawthorne’s eponymous novel and in a rather fuzzy plot twist he is murdered as a result of a curse laid on his family by a Wabnaki shaman for the theft of their land. In a way typical of populist American Gothic, two sources of the return of the repressed are overlaid: patriarchal and colonial oppression are yoked together as a means of appeal to a contemporary Gothic subcultural sensibility.
Young (1984) argues that Hawthorne‘s dark secret was incest and it is this, rather than the more acceptable sin of adultery, that lies at the base of the novel The Scarlet Letter. As a piece of populist puzzle-fiction, the game avoids this Oedipal dimension of Gothic preferring instead a more palatable version of the return-of-the-repressed as colonialist/patriarchal narrative. Such well-worn troping provides the game with several strata of ready-made meaning but betrays the complexity of Hawthorne‘s novels in which original sin is consonant with the human condition. By contrast, the game‘s Jon Hathorne is cast as a straightforward Grand Guignol villain, although unlike popular story structures there is no diegetic hero character. Hawthorne enacts Gothic role of the ‘false hero’, with his lack of bravery, compromise and plea for a player‘s help. It is however a player who acts as Hero of the piece: should they solve the game‘s fairly puzzles a player overturns the sins of the fathers to lift the curse and allow Hawthorne‘s ghost to rest. This task comes at little risk to, or effort from, a player; the puzzles are easily solved and can be ignored completely if a player fails to complete them within a specified time. Within the frame of my evaluative meta-reading this becomes emblematic of the way that the game evokes Gothic monstrosities only to disavow and bury them: resolution goal orientation is an approach common within popular Gothic texts and no less so in games. The interpellation of a player as hero of the piece is then where the game parts company with our first coordinate of Gothic and indeed from the pessimistic essence of Hawthorne‘s novels.
The mise-en-scène of MM:SWT is laden with Gothic configurations. The Salem setting for the game is the most prominent, with its court-house, graveyard and surrounding twisted woods, prison-house and witch‘s cottage. These provide the context that transforms ordinary objects, such as a cooking pot or doll, into Gothic ones. The game‘s objects are both ludically charged and highly economical adjectival devices for storytelling, afffordances activated by the use of a player‘s pre-knowledge of Gothic patterns and tropes. Acting as verbs within the game‘s hidden object puzzles layered and obscured, in other puzzles they are combined with other objects or used in certain orders to facilitate progress. Objects are therefore over-determined and auratic elements that are integral to the game‘s deployment of the hermeneutic code. These heavily over-determined, occlusional and intensively gothicised objects function ludically, narratively and intertextually. ‘Reading’ these magical objects is core to a player’s engagement with the game; mise-en-scène is no longer simply ‘setting’ or a means of storytelling but instrumental to the game‘s ludic structure. However, despite the auratic quality of the games objects, the sum of the attentive reading demanded of a player is nonetheless resolution and mastery thereby producing a form of affect akin to gratification and self-satisfaction that sits counter to the types of affect outlined in coordinate three expected of Gothic.
In Midnight Mysteries: Salem Witch Trials, the mainly cold and murky colour palette creates a melancholy milieu, lantern-light acts as a memorial to comfort and is oft overpowered by the electric-blue of lightning or the glowing outlines of the many ghosts that populate the game. The game’s visual style, our fourth coordinate of Gothic, combines high resolution, photographic texture-based images with far more cartoonishly drawn figures. This odd juxtaposition moves us worlds away from the cel-shaded, cheerful saturated primary colours of the Mario games for example; the mainly cold and murky colour palette creates a melancholy milieu, lantern-light acts as a memorial to comfort and is oft overpowered by the electric-blue of lightning or the glowing outlines of the many ghosts that populate the game. Movement is limited to the collection or combination of objects and there are a few simple three frame animations that lend the game an appropriately antique quality by invoking the minimal moving parts animation of magic lantern slides. In an otherwise meditative game, infrequent use of animations accompanied by sound works on occasion to startle a player, providing a schlocky, shallow entry into Gothic affect. High resolution images do however make the activity of find-the-hidden-object trickier and the presence of rich visual enigma-laden detail chimes with the ornamentation that often characterizes Gothic. As such the style of the game might be said to seek a visual approximation of Poe‘s adjective-encrusted prose. Games such MM:SWT do not depend on combat for their attraction; instead their pleasures are more analytical. Deductive reasoning and observation underlie the main tasks set by the game, a player is invited into the role of a Dupin or Sherlock Holmes. Rationality and logic are valued over carefully timed actions or manic button-bashing. Where games such as this are well designed, the puzzles are contextualized in such a way that a player should not have to guess or trial solutions. Careful observation is what the game asks of a player, even if the game provides safety mechanisms for failed challenges. Rationalism is a core driver of the momentum of gameplay and when conjoined with a strong sense of resolution further mitigates against the spirit of our coordinates of Gothic; there is no attempt in this game to undermine a player’s sense of mastery and unmitigated success. The function of Gothic here is therefore to lend meaning to play and to provide intertextual correspondences that will appeal to a target audience. Reaching beyond the simple evocation of iconography, what is perhaps most pervasively Gothic in terms of function is the way in which the hermeneutic code is written recursively to connect gameplay and story through the frame of the occult.
There is some unity of concept but any Gothic affect as defined by coordinate three is over- ridden and contradicted by the affect of resolution and mastery.
While MM:SWTs has a somewhat tenuous foothold on Gothic when measured against our coordinates, it is helpful to compare the game to a similar example in the same genre but which has an even weaker relation to Gothic in terms of gameplay, character and style principally because of its comedic approach. A Vampyre Story ostensibly occupies conventional Gothic grounds in terms of narrative trajectory and certain characters – although it is telling that there is no false hero. A vampire tries to escape from her maker‘s castle to follow her dream to become an opera singer. However, this scenario is not cloaked in the gloom of existential melancholy or the vibrancy of the grotesque (when compared to the existential crisis of Frankenstein’s monster for example); instead, it is all played for laughs. Cel-shaded two-dimensional characters underline the cartoonish approach, underlined by incongruous accents (a bat with a broad Brooklyn accent for example). The game‘s choice of verbs (the objects employed to solve puzzles) are often comic and wacky, only barely shaded darkly: for example fruit and nuts collected earlier have to be crushed in a torture device to make oil used to help open a lock. The game is delightfully playful yet it is only the iconography that links it to Gothic in the terms of our coordinates. Boundary crossing here is not of the order of existential transgression: crude puns and bodily humour earths Gothic, sending-up and exposing its ’emo’ artifice as preciousness through fleshy, life-affirming comedy. It is therefore only in the use of mise-en-scène that this game accords with our coordinates making far fewer connections therefore than MM:SWT.
Another point-and-click puzzle game, Drawn: Dark Flight (Big Fish, 2010), presents a helpful, further contrast to A Vampyre Story and MM:SWTs that hinges around a tightly unified fantasy world. The real world is not signified by a real place or by a historical time or figure as it is in Midnight Mysteries, nor as a parodic counterweight to fantasy as in A Vampyre Story. Located as a faraway place, it is a land falling from light through lifeless shadow into darkness. To restore colour and vitality, puzzles must be solved, the solutions to which are presented as a creative act on the part of a player – drawing objects for example.
As such, emphasis is placed on making changes through gameplay to the graphical and textural surfaces of the game, rather than opening doors or other more usual game play tasks. In this the game makes strange familiar game vocabulary and in addition marks out its aesthetic artifice: a tendency within Gothic to mark itself out as fantastic and in so doing producing the vertiginous effect of mise-en-abîme. The creative colourisation of the puzzle- solving also shifts emphasis away from the deductive reasoning mechanics that characterizes many such games. The puzzle-solving here is, therefore, referential within the game‘s system (rather than drawing on real-world knowledge as in MM: SWT), accruing thereby a whimsical ethereality well-suited to the sensibilities of a Gothic palette. Yet the game nonetheless pivots around restoration, bringing back colour, vibrancy and life. Once again, a player is hero.
What can be said here is that the ‘false hero’ becomes a pivotal feature for defining and evaluating Gothic in games when there are other features present that draw on Gothic vocabularies. When missing and when overrun by arrays of affordances for bolstering a sense of mastery and unproblematic empowerment, correspondences with our other coordinates become weakened. The propensity of games to play towards such pleasures and the implication of this for the gamification of Gothic is discussed in what follows.
Winning, Agency & (not) Death
“a plank in reason broke and I dropped down, and down – hit a world at every plunge and finished knowing…’ Emily Dickinson
What we are seeing here is a problem in the ability of these games to adhere fully to our coordinates of Gothic. Games and puzzles are built on the notion that there is a solution, a winning condition, and many games that we might easily call Gothic, such as Midnight Mysteries, are therefore caught up within a polarization between the generic vocabulary of games, where players are catalysts for redemption, and the inescapable sense of loss and entropy that characterizes Gothic. There are however different ways that winning can be treated and contextualized while still making use of generic game vocabulary, providing thereby a means to develop a specifically Gothic winning condition that grows out of story and function. Herein winning would not be triumphant, instead melancholy, experienced as a type of loss of something, someone lost—as occurs in Primal (SCEE, 2003) where Jen fails to save her boyfriend and loses something of the vulnerability that makes her human, or, perhaps, simply surviving in a metaphysically disturbed and physically hostile world. The total rejection of any winning conditions in a game may push the grammar too far and in ways that are simply aggravating to players, as with roguelike Indie game Don’t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013, 2014). Here there is no way to win, death is permanent and there is seemingly no overarching aesthetic framework to justify the absence of a winning condition, other than difficulty that is the rational outcome of an entropic game mechanic (having said this the game has however sold over 1 million copies to date, demonstrating an interest in counter-normative game vocabulary).
For those who have only a limited knowledge of games and their diverse forms, videogames are often emblemized by the first-person shooter. Rather than the gentle and observational mode taken by point-and-click games, these noisy, frenetic games are characterized by action and combat. This mode has an important effect on the meanings produced by the use of Gothic tropes. Doom 3, for example, demands deft, timely reactions from players if they are to avoid being ‘fragged’ by monsters. Here, as with other horror-based games using similar game mechanics, the gameplay verbs are located more firmly in the strident sphere of action- adventure, militating against the principle of the false hero. Nonetheless, in seeking to unnerve a player, and in using the game space as a kind of haunted house, Gothic is apparent, coloring the use of a staple science-fiction ‘alien invasion’ narrative. Rather than etiolated grey-eyes, the game‘s aliens are wrought into the guise of demons, as in earlier Doom games. The game‘s adjectives colour its verbs. Moving through a darkened spaceship with limited vision, finger on trigger but aware of limited ammunition supplies, proves a tense and suspenseful business and in terms of affect this certainly feels under the aegis of Gothic. Even if when repeating a section of the game a player knows what is around the corner, he/she still has the pressure of making sure he/she acts correctly this time around, providing a strong source of suspense of a type only imagined in other media. Noises of upcoming threats also create a sense of impending dread and even as we defeat one set of monsters, a new set spawns with such volume and relentless regularity as to seem generated by the Big Other.
Such devices, working alongside the grimy textures and brown-red-black colour palette, certainly call on the fear mechanics of Victorian Gothic and Grand Guignol, even if the accent of the activity is geared by a sense of mastery of technology, space, and threat. However, winning in this context is vastly different to the quiet winning in Midnight Mysteries, even if in both games winning is marked as heroic (either as an action-based hero or as a rationalising hero). One of the features of winning is its allegiance with bolstering for a player a strong sense of agency. The ‘affect’ coordinate of Gothic identified by this paper is predicated on precisely the opposite and affect makes potent our other coordinates and provides the basis on which we can say that there can be no conventional straight-forward, cost-free heroics or winning. So how might games that have some form of claim on Gothic cope with this seeming intractable problem? To address this, a closer look at the functional specificities of videogame form is required.
Videogames have an important difference from games played with cards or on boards. When board or card games are played, each player must be in possession of knowledge of a game‘s rules to play the game. In the case of videogames, rules are embedded in the logic-based machinations of an invisible computational layer. Players see and feel the effects of those rules but not often the rules themselves. More generally, and as a constituent of their unique character, videogames act as complex feedback systems: a player‘s actions produce feedback from the computational system and vice-versa. This reciprocity is often termed the ‘cybernetic’ dimension of games and it is the basis of interactivity. However, the ‘occulted’ nature of a videogame‘s rule-keeping systems, which determine the scope of a player‘s field of possible actions, also have a secondary dimension (as I have argued elsewhere, Krzywinska, 2002). Their hidden yet controlling and deterministic character yields potentially an important evocative textual function, especially when placed in a pervasive Gothic context. This highly resonant and modally apposite consequence might, further, help to explain the popularity of Gothic in games. Under Gothic aegis, a game‘s algorithmic system accrues a mysterious, godlike power that steers choice, behaviour and morality through arrays of determinants and positive or negative reinforcements (a feature used thematically and resonantly in Bioshock [Irrational Games/2K Games, 2007]). The knowledge that a game has an occulted layer that presides with such potency over a player‘s actions and which determines the extent and appropriateness of those actions provides the key for unlocking the potential of a special functional bond between videogame form and Gothic, and which gives additional scope for a player to experience in a ludic sense the position of the false hero.
Not all horror-based games pass easily into the category of Gothic, as we‘ve seen. The on- rails shooter series House of the Dead (Sega, 1996–present), for example, has a player shooting hordes of zombies that pop up somewhat as one might expect of a shooting gallery in a fairground. There is no free-form exploration, just hair-trigger gunplay at a pace set by the game. Dead Rising, a shooter that draws heavily on Romero‘s zombie films, does allow a player some degree of freedom to roam and solve puzzles, acting as punctuation between bouts of shooting hordes of zombies in and around a shopping mall. This game bears similarities to Left 4 Dead (Valve/EA, 2008), where the format is extended into small-group multiplayer game mode played over the internet. Games such as these, where a player is afforded a sense of immediacy and quick victory despite the presence of zombie hordes and a survival mechanic, make for a gameplay experience that is not so easily described as Gothic. Players have little agency even they are interpellated as heroes. In many respects these games have more in common with action genres and, in the case of Left 4 Dead, squad-based shooters. The effortless action of mowing down hordes of zombies, aliens, or demons plays against their Gothic iconographic heritage. Gameplay is a largely mechanical and guilt-free operation unhampered by complex characterizations, ambiguous morality, or rich narrative.
This is not however Grand Guignol as the emphasis is on containment and not the passive frisson of fear, a position that Shaviro persuasively argues for (1993). Through their use of tropes established within popular fiction, these games can be regarded as providing a more- than-symbolic means of mastery over that which represents the other or the return of the repressed. I argue that this lies in opposition to the logic of our coordinates.
Survival horror, a name used by developers and publishers to differentiate these games from other horror-based games, stands in significant contrast to such ―pseudo-gothic games. The difference might be characterized as that between a confident major key and a cautious minor. This does not make survival horror any less affectively geared, however, as Perron notes, ‘People playing survival horror remain thrillseekers’ (2009: 141). In survival horror, the character through which a player interacts with the game is far more hapless than heroic and stumbles unintentionally from the sphere of normality into nightmare, constituent of the role of the false hero. He/she struggles to survive rather than exhibiting flamboyant and superhuman skills of strength, agility, or expert weapon use. In Silent Hill, for example, the main character seeks out his missing wife in a town twisted and possessed by the return of the repressed; puzzles must be solved and clues looked for, and where fighting occurs it is often clumsy, awkward and limited by meager supplies of ammunition; a player-character acts out desperation, panic and confusion. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued that Gothic is emblemised by claustrophobia, often channeled through metaphors around ‘live burial’ (1986: 5). Survival horror games use and amplify this metaphor in ways that action-based horror games do not. The metaphor is hard baked into gameplay, as well as into narrative, representational and thematic dimensions – hooked in therefore to all five of our Gothic coordinates. In games such as this Gothic is distilled into a player‘s capacity to act, or more precisely not-act, through his/her character and through the game‘s interface. The live-burial metaphor is found, for example, in the blinding and disorienting fog that cloaks the eponymous Silent Hill and it has an important restrictive effect on a player-character‘s sphere of agency. This fog reduces a player‘s capacity to act decisively in and on the game world, as I have argued elsewhere in writing about agency in horror games. Unable to see more than a few feet, players are forced to rely on the presence of white noise emitted from a portable radio to signify that a monster is close by. Yet the radio‘s small one-directional speaker cannot reveal the direction from which a monster comes. A player must swing the in-game camera around, looking left, right, up, and down, to engage effectively with an incoming monster. Throughout the game, activities are accompanied by discordant and unnerving sounds that serve to signify the town‘s disturbance. There is no raucous heavy metal music to inflate a sense of supremacy, as in Painkiller (People Can Fly/Dreamcatcher, 2004). In addition the player-characters of the first two Silent Hill games are despite effort unable to enact redemption, cannot win as they fail to bring back their loved ones and restore normality. Instead, they are embroiled in an endless dream cycle of horror; survival is simply deferral of the inevitable rather than triumph and it is strongly intimated that a player’s character is implicated in creating the situation, a trope taken up by Alan Wake (Remedy/Microsoft, 2010, 2012), the eponymous author, and false hero, of his own Gothic horror. The false hero logic of survival horror games ensures their place in the history of Gothic fiction.
Claustrophobia and the sensation of inaction and panic is then a principle coordinate of Gothic and it is also found in other game types. Escape-the-room games (digital and material) also weave the claustrophobia metaphor into the organization of space and gameplay. In other games, timed puzzles can produce a similar sense of panic, and in all cases panic reduces a player‘s control and thereby reduces their sense of agency. In the multiplayer online game The Lord of the Rings Online for example, player-characters are often stricken with dread when encountering evil and become unable to move – dread is formalized into a statistical game mechanic and is completely in keeping with the franchise‘s close relationship to horror. This device and its affect keys tightly into Gothic even if the franchise draws on other traditions and genres.
‘To act’ (and to act in a timely and correct manner) is the leading currency of interactive games and ‘to be unable to act’ is Gothic articulation, or perversion, of this currency in games. In Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (Headfirst/Ubisoft, 2006), a player- character must often run from situations rather than stand and fight. There is no gun provided early in the game, no chance to prove an unconditional action hero. Following Lovecraft‘s pessimistic mythos/ethos on which the game is based, the game places a player-character as subject to events rather than their master. This is symbolized by periods of madness and fear that interfere with a player-character’s ability to act. Core to creating the sensation of claustrophobia, a palpable sense of vulnerability is essential to Gothic‘s affective intent. In many games the opposite pertains; for many players pleasure is found in the sense of invulnerability they generate. In the gendered economics of popular culture, vulnerability is often represented by a female character, which Carol Clover argues provides a means of allowing men to experience fear safely at one remove (1992). In some Gothic games, female characters are played against gender trope as skillful and resourceful: for example, Alice of American McGee’s Alice is highly rational and capable even if the entire world has become irrational and nightmarish, while Jen in Primal (SCE, 2003) develops demonic attributes in her quest to save her kidnapped boyfriend. In these cases there is an altered relationship with power afforded by play against gender convention. The presence of a player-character as false hero is the lynchpin on which a game can transform into a more affectively potent and pervasive Gothic configuration. Games are repeatedly sold to players as affording agency and skill, where the deft practice of hand-eye coordination and acute timeliness is rewarded with positive feedback; these work in contradistinction to existential dread, claustrophobia, paralyzing fear, and an inability to act that are constitutive of Gothic. Within the ‘hero‘ structure of many games, Gothic elements are mobilized, but only to be overcome and mastered; the Other recompartmentalised, the real of the body and difference subdued and normative notions of human sovereignty reinforced.
This rhetoric of human mastery is also apparent in the way games regularly mobilise technology within their diegesis. Gothic has had a special relationship with technology – from that used to build a medieval cathedral through to Frankenstein‘s monster and the communication devices used to narrate and fight the arch-vampire Dracula. As with Dracula, Gothic games too involve technology in their diegetic content as extensions of the senses and agency. In Fatal Frame for example, the normative game rhetoric of shooting is shifted to photography – a camera made by an occultist becomes a weapon with which to dispense with ghosts. Typing of the Dead (Sega, 2000), in every way a zombie shoot-’em-up, has a player type words that appear above zombies‘ heads to kill them (providing us with a ‘Goth’ typing trainer). Both these games use technology as a means of dispensing with that which represents the irrational, the out-of-order, the imps of the perverse – a trope that is so heavily over-determined that it acquires the status of mise-en-abŷme. The distancing capacity of cameras, as formularized by Susan Sontag (1977) can be said in Fatal Frame and Dead Rising (Capcom, 2006), to provide for players a means of disavowal of the ―real‖ of the diegetic situation, providing therefore a sense of mastery over the other; rather than a threat to the human, as occurs frequently in science fiction, here technology works for increased agency. It should not be forgotten that the screen itself acts as a kind of camera in the context of most games. In this way, threats that arise through the rhetorical flourishes of Gothic provide a chance for a player to manage and control fear, by virtue of various distanciation devices and modal frameworks. In Fatal Frame and Dead Rising, in-game camera technology indicates how ‘games of fear’ might be regarded more generally in terms of their psycho-dynamics: a means of extending the reach of human agency and supporting the ego in its efforts to retain a sense of control of and purchase on the world, time and others. This can be contrasted with the fearful, anti-human technologies of other Gothic fictions where technology becomes a portal for the unnameable to pass into the rational world, or acts as a means to provoke hubris. or where it becomes individualized, demonic, either possessed or seeing humans as invasive pests, as in Event Horizon (1997), Donald Cammell‘s Demon Seed (1977) and Lawnmower Man (1992). Unlike cinema, games rarely demonize technology and this may well be a genetically-derived manoeuvre. Games have an anti-Gothic, rationalist motor which may be said to mirror the fact that game developers are firmly embedded in ‘geek’ culture and therefore regard technology as in their control and extending their own agency and human reach into the world, rather than curtailing it. Gothic ‘other’ of technology returns instead in many games as enigmatic dark magics and Manichean binary structures (where good-versus-evil leads all too easily to anti-Gothic hero structure). It is the realm of the supernatural rather than science fiction that we most often find Gothic within the context of games. But the invisible driving mechanism of the whole (un)merry-go-round of our Gothic coordinates and thereby our evaluative method is the real of death.
Death in real life is the final act of curtailing our agency (even if the effects of our acts might be felt after our demise). Many games provide a denial of the finality of real death and it becomes simply a prompt to try harder to learn what the game requires for a player to progress. Death has a very and functional presence in games as feedback mechanism. It is not the source of wonder and liminality as it so often is in Gothic, even if it often has a plot mechanic function it also has a metaphysical and sublime dimension. Being killed in a game often means for a player-character that they are returned to an earlier save point. When a player-character ‘dies’ they return, but in the most un-Gothic of ways; they do not haunt the screen (although this might be said to be the case in Dark Souls 210) and in and of itself the return is ‘canny’ rather than uncanny – canny in the sense that you get to retry and re-write your game history. This raises a question around the nature of death in Gothic: has it to be signified as ‘real’ for any returns from that state to be meaningful? The ghost of Hawthorne for example, in MM:SWT is the result of a real death – underpinned by historical fact.
However, the heroic player-character cannot die and is never in danger of doing so. In combat-based games, being ‘killed’ is essentially a movement back in time, so that a player can attempt that section of the game again and ‘live up’ to heroic status, following a trajectory of perfection, as is the case for a player-character in Doom 3. Painkiller gets around the problem of death trope by making a player‘s character already dead and doomed to repeat. In most games, and in echo of Freud‘s notion of the death drive (2003), a lack of progression is constitutive of how death signifies – a form claustrophobic inability to act. As such, in games death is given meaning through an oscillating movement between action and inaction and progress and stasis (Krzywinska 2002, 2009). To prevail is to progress effectively denying the real of death that gives Gothic its fearful symmetry. The way in which death is realized and how it is tied to the game mechanics has then an impact on the realization of Gothic and a game‘s claim on the nomenclature. I would offer the following: the more meaning and intensity assigned to death, the more intently are activated our five coordinates and therefore the more intently ‘Gothic’ a game can be deemed to be.
The reuse of Gothic patterns lends familiarity and intertextual depth; as Michael Gamer notes, Gothic acts as ‘marketing tool for writers anxious to gain access to popular reading audiences’ (Gamer, 29). Such patterns are clearly useful for the game industry which has relied on clear communication with its target market to get a return on their development investment. In game terms the use of ritualised textual patterns also has the function of manifesting the ‘magic circle’, Huizinga‘s term for the way that we enter a different mindset and social relation when playing a game (1971). In this sense the conflation of ‘Gothic’ and ‘Game’ becomes a fast track means of constructing the space of the Other, where normal utilitarian functioning is given over to something for its own sake; but what function this evocation has for constructing Gothic affect remains variable and is all-too-often lack-lustre when not fully realised conceptually. We might therefore be celebrating the mutability of Gothic mistakenly, when in fact that mutability is testimony to misappropriation and recombination conducted for commercial, rather than aesthetic, gain. Such misappropriation undermines the affective potency of Gothic; the latter achieved only when the forces of entropy are stitched into to every aspect a game, into story structure, character arc, mise-en- scène, affect, style, function and where each of these are integrally plugged into game mechanics. When this occurs we can confidently use the term ‘Gothic Game’ in a meaningful and apposite manner. This Gothic can be mobilized to put into question reified assumptions and fictions that we use to shore up and solidify our existence. In some few videogames, with room for more, Gothic becomes a mode through which the very borders and capabilities of this new expressive medium can be explored, as Kirkland suggests videogames are ‘developing new modes of storytelling, combining modes and media’ (2009: 76). With their coded base, easily manipulated by the cognoscenti, their branching narratives, and provision in some cases of tools for adding to their content, games share with Gothic the appeal of collective myth and a type of immersion and participation that disturbs and transforms. While Gothic certainly pulls in a different direction from some of the normative features of videogame vocabulary, particularly the idea that games can be ‘won’ and where death equates to ‘trying again’, games are nonetheless pregnant with potential to exploit for affective ends a dynamic relationship between action and inaction, progress and stasis, that produces a new and powerful ways of experiencing the transformational vertigo of the sublime Gothic. This experience extends far beyond the bounds of representation to produce affect, moving into the plane of a player’s sense of self and agency and felt most palpably through the inability to act when it is most required. Game designers need therefore to be braver in their engagement with Gothic, take up the torch carried by Dear Esther and create the type of sophisticated Gothic found in novels such as Thomas Pyncheon‘s The Crying of Lot 49 or in the poetry of Emily Dickenson.
1 While there is work focused specifically on horror games, such as Perron’s collection Horror Video Games (2009), there is no book or edited collection on the topic of Gothic in games. The author has however written several articles on the Gothic in games including entries in Blackwell Guides to the Gothic.
2 Ludologists claimed that game mechanics were what defined games, not story. Now, most game scholars regard stories (where they are present) as important elements of the game-play experience that give meaning to the procedural elements of games. For a useful précis of the narratology/ludology debate and the building blocks of Game Studies see First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (2004)
3 An odd stance to take, as a comparative approach has proved very useful in efforts to reveal what is new and different, as is evident, for example, in Henry Jenkins‘ work on transmediality and media convergence (2006) and that undertaken more generally within the Comparative Media Centre at MIT).
4 Examples include Phantasmagoria (Sierra Online/Kronos, 1995), Myst and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. (id/Activision, 2001)
5 As well providing a framework for uncovering some of the normative assumptions of earlier work on games and indeed in terms of games themselves, Carr‘s work on ability and disability is also highly relevant to the articulation of the Gothic in videogames.
6 Applying with some caveats Saussure‘s axes of langue and parole to genre, Rick Altman writes, ‘..language is… dependent on a different selection of paroles’ (1999, 174).
7 For the purposes of this essay, the hero and the false hero could be either male or female.
8 Warcraft and World of Warcraft players might recognise Arthas‘ journey from Hero to False Hero as one way that this game calls on and makes use of the Gothic.
9 Hawthorne (1804-1864) is the author of novels and short stories, such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851) set mainly in New England and which presents the Gothic through a lens of corruption, sin and the moral weakness of humanity.
10 Thanks to Jack Hackett for drawing my attention to Dark Souls 2 (From Software/Namco, 2014).
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Dangerous Agencies: Norns, Games and Aesthetics of Emergence.
|Þaðan koma meyjar
þrjár ór þeim sæ,
er und þolli stendr;
Urð hétu eina,
– skáru á skíði, –
Skuld ina þriðju;
þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
|20. Thence come the maidens
mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling
down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named,
Verthandi the next,–
and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there,
and life allotted
To the sons of men,
and set their fates.
Extract from Poetic Edda, Völuspá
Among many other commentators on gender, Hélène Cixous (1989) has convincingly argued that femininity is aligned with and defined by passivity, evidenced through social roles and cultural representations. Masculinity is therefore placed on the side of activity and aligned with the power to act on the world. These are, of course, abstractions of lived gender. In the real practice of our everyday lives, power is not simply the preserve of masculinity, instead it is enacted in many different messy ways by both men and women. Nonetheless the abstractions still hold, affecting the way we regard ourselves through the lens of gender.
Seeking ways for disturbing simplified gender alignments, my art work sets out to articulate a more complex take on gender and power. Motherhood is certainly one clear form of power, one that causes all kinds of trouble – perhaps the original trouble. Instead, my current work concentrates on power of a rather different kind. What I am interested in is Fate. In particular, the way in which Fate is embodied by the Norns of Norse of Mythology: the three women who appear to preside over the destiny of ‘men’. I propose that The Norns provide our own culture with a way of thinking about our own ability to make choices in a world full of contingency. As such, I’m calling on the figures of the Norns in my painting (and here in my writing) as a means of drawing into question how we think about our agency and power to act on our world. I’m calling onto the field of play those big metaphysical and existential questions that are so often marginalised within the seductive immediacy of consumer culture. As such, it should be borne in mind that my repurposing of the Norse Norns is always an imaginative and hermeneutic engagement rather than a literary or historical one. I am putting us in danger – a necessary danger – of calling time on the ‘hero’ narrative that we often have about ourselves to remind us how alienated and subjugated we all are.
Sometimes represented as witches, as with Macbeth’s semi-comedic weird sisters, or as prophets or harbingers, sometimes as gods, the Norns are diversely represented. In the existing Norse Sagas and Eddas, they are figured as eternal and supernatural. They are however indisputably women (even if in Shakespeare’s Macbeth they cause Banquo confusion about their being and gender [Act I, Sc iii]). While they might have an allegorical dimension, they are certainly, embodied as women, sometimes of three distinctive ages, as is the case in the recent film of Macbeth (dir. Justin Kurzel, 2016). In whatever guise taken, the Norns are undoubtedly ‘dangerous’ women because they can be said to stand testimony to the folly of men’s inflated sense of agency. As evidenced within the verses of the Edda cited above, they make the laws that govern the life of men ‘Laws they made there, and life allocated to the sons of men, and set their fates’ (Völuspá). In another text we hear from hero Svipdag that, ‘No man can deny Urd’ (The Ballad of Svipdag published in Crossley-Holland, 1980: 125). Of the three Norns, Urd embodies the principle of Fate, Skuld represents Being, Verdrandi Necessity. Unlike Shakespeare’s weird sisters, and apart from these three allegorical designations, in Norse myth the Norns are also guardians who care for the tree ‘that suffers, that cares for all living creatures and ensures continuity’ (Crossley-Holland, xxiii). Power is therefore theirs in many different ways.
Within these various configurations, the Norns are often imagined as weavers of fate and circumstance, shaping thereby the narrative of human lives; certainly this is the role of the Greek fates. In Norse myth they might not be quite so hands-on, instead standing as representatives of the factors that determine the course of lives. In whatever guise, they necessarily raise the issue of ‘free will’, a principle so central to more modern thought and culture. By contrast, free will is not a concept with purchase in Viking culture. It is this historical and cultural difference that so draws me in and that brings mythologies’ relevance to our own age. For me, the Norns deftly represent the push-pull of agency against determination as manifest in contemporary culture and discourse. Fate, necessity and being – these powerful and fundamental principles are embodied in female form. They are not deities, nor goddesses. They cannot be appealed or sacrificed to, making them more dangerous and unresponsive to the will of men, yet they bring to the stage the very nature of the human condition and make present the occult nature of the complex and largely unseen web that circumscribes our lives and choices. There is then a subtle and dangerously destabilizing configuration of power to be gathered here and, critically (fatefully), one that actively undermines Vitruvian notions of men’s earthly dominion.
I imagine that the Norns preside ambiguously over what we might call, using game development parlance, the ‘decision tree’ of our lives, therein bearing witness to its inherently contingency on othered, multitudinous, tidal forces. In this reading, the Norns are not causal agents, but instead connected to dimensions and flows invisible to the human eye. Here we return to the language of Celtic and Viking culture. According to Brian Bates (2013), ‘wyrd’ refers to the vast and complex web of intertidal connections that can be read but never altered by a shaman. The Anglo-Saxon term ‘wyrd’ is synonymous with Uror in Norse, Uror the anglicized version of Urd (our first Norn). In Beowulf, wyrd is translated by most interpreters as fate (‘Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel!’, ‘Fate goes wherever she shall’), yet it implies the inseparability of being, circumstance and fate – rather than simply predestination, as we might read the term now. Some element of choice, of agency, is core to being human and yet we are rarely our own master; a notion and experience that feels for many threatening and existentially belittling. Norns then have the capacity to be read in ways that reflect our own contemporary dilemmas, emblemizing rather beautifully the push-pull between agency (the ability to act in and on the world in terms of free will and choice) and determination (resulting from the constraints that bind our choices and ability to act in and on the world).
Games are often designed to allow players a temporary respite from diminished mastery in everyday life (much as Freud argues for popular fiction). The sense of power that games can afford to players (the ability to act effectively in the game world and be more dominant than other players) is, as evident currently on certain internet fora, coincident with the notion that masculinity is synonymous with power. That definition of gender is seen as under threat by more nuanced practices.
Digital games can be described as forms of learning curves that hook players into various powerful feedback loops, where ‘cause’ is seemingly granted to players to produce spectacular ‘effect’. This produces a strong (if illusionary) sense of power and agency within the context of the game. Games therefore provide players with a sense of agency and mastery in terms of actions taken or in terms of displaying skill, determination (as in dogged pursuit of a goal) and dexterity. In horror and action games for example, disruption (let’s say a zombie apocalypse) is often contained by a player’s action giving them a sense of being a hero. Few games undermine this as it provides a proven recipe for financial success. Small wonder then that alternative approaches lead some of the noisier net-based commentators to fear the loss of this power in what they regard as a ‘feminisation’, rather than diversification, of gaming pleasure.
Games can take many forms and some work outside of and sometimes counter to the normative rhetorics of mastery and skill, competition and agency (The Stanley Parable for example). Games are far more frequently sold on an ability to make a player feel powerful; something that appeals in a world and culture that requires so much conformity. When conventional figurations of player agency are challenged by game designers with a ‘diversity agenda’, it would seem that a certain form of witchery is taking place to some commentators: dangerous women these game designers – these Norns, these feminist witch women, conceived as ruining the pleasures of male ‘real’ gamers who fear changes to normative figurative representation and guiltless gaming masteries. Dangerous women are then those that threaten the status-quo; who give lie to the narrow alignment of power and gender that Hélène Cixous identified.
The Norns allow an understanding of the vicissitudes of power that interleaves with my interest in the pleasures offered by games (as offering stable, rule-based choices). Games have been at the centre of my academic and creative work over the past 30 years. I’ve sought to understand the relation of games and their formal features to the metaphysical and mythological, as well as being alert to the types of power they offer to players. This includes the ways in which games play dice with agency, a ‘Nornic’ dimension often overlooked by rhetorics of mastery.
Many games, digital or not, have elements of chance built into them. In digital games this is often quite hidden, as opposed to dice throws in a board game or in the many possible permutations of card games. The connection between the throw of the dice and luck/fate is a long one that has existential and metaphysical reverberations. Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Dice Man (1971) sees the main character throwing dice to make decisions. This novel invokes the ambiguity of the Norns in relation to existential matters through its focus on choice and randomization. The protagonist seems to abnegate responsibility for his choices, yet the intention behind this choice to use dice is more accurately an attempt to appropriate god’s power to play dice with the universe. It all comes down to garnering a sense of agency to face-off against existential panic. The role of chance in games then seems to have a special relationship with this crisis.
Through my art practice I have been experimenting with ways to reveal and bring to witness these Norn figures that I’m claiming carry such an potently disruptive myth for our age. It is therefore the ambiguous relationship between of agency and determination that I am engaged with in an attempt to show the knottiness of their relationship. In trying to find ways of bringing the Norns to life through painting, I was faced with a dilemma. Painting feels oddly concrete when it comes to the figurative. An image seems to have more solidity and clearer meaning than words, which are always virtual and indirect. Words float and slide, while images of bodies seem weighed down with judgement and physicality. Paint a female figure and it is subject to regimes of beauty and judgement of the surface.
Through a workshop run by artist Kate Walters (www.katewalters.co.uk), I was introduced to a method that sought to bypass express intention and which provided access to a more fluid and emergent process. Working with watercolour and a reductive process, alongside a meditative approach, allows images to emerge and new affordances to manifest. The emphasis of my Norns paintings then is on my attention to what is happening, rather than a planned image-making exercise. This opens out space for the unexpected and for that which comes from the place of the Other. This seemed the most suitable technique to give figuration to those indeterminant yet embodied Norns with their ambiguous relation to Fate. I was endlessly surprised during the process: figures took shape out of the swirl of water and pigment. The making process itself therefore carried something dangerous, an experience of letting go and allowing the determining forces of the materials and process take over. In contrast to the clockmaker approach necessary within game development, where even the random is planned, painting allows for a practice grounded in emergence and which can embrace indeterminacy for aesthetic means. As Diane Purkiss writes of the Norns in Macbeth, ‘The witch-figure can stand for nothing concrete, but must evoke the disorder of the play’s notion of order by indeterminacy.’ (1996,211).
Brian Bates, The Real Middle-Earth. Pan Books, 2013.
Hélène Cixous ‘Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays’ in Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (eds.) The Feminist Reader. MacMillan, 1989.
Kevin Crossley-Holland, ‘The Ballad of Svipdag’ in The Norse Myths. Penguin, 1980.
Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. Routledge, 1996.
Tanya Krzywinska is a Professor in Digital Games at Falmouth University and an artist. She is the author of several books and many articles on different aspects of digital games, including most recently exploring remediations of the Gothic in games. She is currently working on a monograph, entitled Gothic Games.