The Body as a Site of Horror in Gothic Fiction

March 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

‘Our experience of the world is through the transitory experience of embodiment’.[1] This statement by Marie Mulvey-Roberts exemplifies as to why the body is so prevalent when horror is depicted in the gothic; we exist only within our bodies and preservation of that body is key to our survival, and that body being compromised becomes the ultimate horror. Both terror and horror are key components to the gothic. Terror is fright, and the fear of what could be, whilst horror is terror becoming actualized. More specifically, terror seems to relate to the threat of damage to the body whilst horror is that corporeal threat being realized; in the form of damage caused by violence or illness, or even the evolutionary loss of the human body as we know it. This essay explores the idea that the response of horror when faced with the transgressed body is rooted in either a fear of death or the loss of humankind as a whole.

Pain infliction, as well as subsequent gore, is a common theme used to convey horror in gothic fiction. This trope becomes horrific due to the suggestion of our corporeal vessel being compromised and the corresponding implications. The further the body is beaten through violence, the further it resembles a corpse; a lifeless thing rather than a living human. And the more pain is inflicted the further the possibility of an actual death arises (‘the cruel one wishes to put me to death by draining away my blood drop by drop’,[2]Justine). The infliction of violence to the body carries with it the ability to turn a person from ‘human’ to ‘thing’ in the space of minutes. In Steven Bruhm’s Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction Bruhm states that ‘absolute pain is an aesthetic experience that threatens to render us unconscious, oblivious to any sensation or aesthetic experience’.[3] Thus, pain has the ability to strip one from all human experience, even if the end result is not physical death. Furthermore, there are many suggestions across philosophical literature that humans can experience pain empathy, which suggests that reading others experiences of pain can induce feelings of imagined pain onto the recipient. Philosopher Edmund Burke theorized that ‘the mind imagines a certain physical experience which it reproduces on the body as the experience of pain […] we feel the “wound” in our limbs or organs through a kind of sympathetic identification, one produced by the imagination’.[4] There are some refutations of this, with Adam Smith suggesting that ‘the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer’.’[5] What can be concluded is that we empathize with pain sufferers, yet find some relief in that we are not in the same position; the morbidity of vicariously experiencing pain elicits the reaction of horror, but the relief of affirmed safety of the Self in contrast to the suffer keeps us engaged and able to enjoy the genre. Moreover, violence toward the body can also transgress the body into the unfamiliar and abhuman (she would open with her bloodstained fingers the wounds wherewith you would have mutilated her’,[6]Justine). Evolutionary instincts render humans disgusted by abhumaness, as explored by Darwin, adding another layer of horror to depictions of violence against the body. Though novels such as Justine predate these scientific acknowledgments, the historical behavior of man is accounted for in displaying this innate behavior.

The instinctual human fear of mortality is embodied in Bram Stoker’s antagonist Dracula, in his 1897 gothic novel of the same name. Here the vampire acts as an abhuman entity which is simultaneously living yet not alive; a sentient personification of the dead. Not only making the human confront death due to its presence, but also proactively seeking out the living in order to turn them into the living dead. No peace can be found in death as this outcome is threatened by the vampire who seeks to extend one’s death, forcing one to experience it for eternity. One of the few compensations of death – that you do not have to experience it – is in this case taken away. As well as the vampire forcing the reader and human characters to confront the fear of death by engaging with a sentient representation of it, the vampire’s form also elicits an abject response of disgust, acting as an unwelcome foreshadow to ‘the inevitability of abhuman identities as theorized within Darwinism’[7] a few decades before the publication of the novel. Vampires continue to be a source of horror in the present day, but what makes Dracula so pertinent in the Victorian time period in which it was conceived is the vampire’s parallel with the infected body (‘As the Count leaned over me […] I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank’[8]). Not only do vampires mirror the infected body in characteristics such as pallor and smell, but a new vampire endures a period of being fatally unwell after being inflicted, before meeting a potentially eternal death (‘Lucy was breathing somewhat stertorously, and her face was at its worst, for the open mouth showed the pale gums.’’[9]). Infection was one of the primary causes of premature death in the Victorian period[10] and these dramatized depictions of the infection and infected body reflect the fear of death by infection and is used to elicit a response of horror in the gothic.

As Leila S. May suggests in “Foul Things of the Night”; ‘Significantly, Dracula, the walking, waking emblem […] disease and contagion infects not men (although the threat that he might do so pervades the text) but women, who, much like prostitutes, act as ‘reservoirs of infection’ and ‘potential pollutants of men’.[11] When turned, female vampires gain seductive characteristics, both in their behavior and their voluptuous appearances (‘there was a deliberate voluptuousness […] as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips’[12]). This connects the promiscuous woman with contamination, reflecting anxieties about female sexuality. In 1791 Sade’s Justine his female protagonist epitomizes innocence and is sexually exploited against her will, whilst in 1897 the innocent female is at risk of gaining sexual traction herself (‘Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness’[13]). She also carries the risk of corrupting the male and infecting him; ‘There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips’.[14] This somewhat supports May’s statement that ’the greatest anxiety seems to be that of moral and social decomposition, as if the stench of death might be detected in the very galleries of society’.[15] Though, building on that statement, whilst societal fears are displayed in Dracula and are the cause of horror, the basis of the fear is still one of human death. In this case fatal infection is the feared result of widespread promiscuity; promiscuity being a societal Victorian fear.

Whereas the body in both Dracula and Justine are used to engage the human instinct to preserve the Self, the transgressed body in The Island of Doctor Moreau is effective in playing on man’s instinctual urge to preserve the human species as a whole. ’Anxieties regarding the period’s progress in science, and how it could have a detrimental effect on humanity, is reflected here as Moreau intercepts the biological human design renders them animalistic in their behaviour and habits. As seen in Dracula, the bodies of the beast people elicit a reaction of disgust to Prendick, for not adhering to a typical human form. But whilst the vampire in Dracula can pass for human, the beast people – whilst having many human characteristics – are not quite human in appearance and movement, making them uncanny. The uncanny is a concept defined as a being or object that is very similar to a human but subtle with differences, which creates a response of uneasiness and disgust (‘I saw only their faces, yet there was something in their faces […] that gave me a queer spasm of disgust’,[16]Moreau). As Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses in Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film, ‘the suspicions that something ‘other’ lies just beyond what the eye can see creates a sense of uncanniness that generates horror; the Beast folk are ‘unnatural’ and ‘repulsive’ and eventually threatening’.[17] But not only are the Beast People uncanny, their uncanny, non-human characteristics are primitive and regressive, making them particularly disturbing and horrific due to their implication of evolutionary regression (they swayed from side to side in the oddest way, and beat their hands upon their knees […] these grotesque dim figures,’[18] Moreau). These components account for Prendick’s continual disgust when faced with the beast people. Kelly Hurley argues that ‘with new understandings of the body (Darwin, criminal anthropology, contemporary psychology) the exciting discovery of the possibilities of the human body is […] also fraught with extreme fear about its limits’,’[19] though, as seen in Moreau, the real horror is that transgression of the body through science can be limitless, with the results being more grotesque the further the digression from evolutionary norms. Throughout the novel are also references to Moreau being comparable to a God. Gorman Beuchamp suggests that ‘the pain that Moreau inflicts upon the creatures of his little island re-enacts microcosmically the macrocosmic process of evolutionary creation through suffering. God is thus Moreau writ large’,[20] though Moreau’s evolution is unwanted. The promotion of evolutionary progression is inherent in man, but those with a cognitive bias towards creationism rather than evolution can still outwardly fear Moreau. Moreau is a demonised personification of scientific breakthrough and brings to life religious anxieties which would be heightened at the time due to scientific advancements. He embodies the theist’s ultimate fear by having supreme power over humanity and actively regressing God’s creations into something abhuman.

To conclude, the body is commonly used as a site of horror in gothic literature. The pained, transgressed, violated or infected body conveys unease due to uncanniness, pain empathy, fear of infection and more, with the underlying crux being man’s instinct for self-preservation. These elements are effective in generating horror it ‘relies on the readers’/viewers’ awareness of their own bodies, particularly of their vulnerability and shared experience of projected pain through vicarious feelings’.[21]

[1] Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal, 2016, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 1.

[2] Marquis De Sade, Justine (Toronto: Joe Books Inc, 2005), p. 92.

[3] Steven Bruhm, Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 6.

[4] Bruhm, Gothic Bodies, p. 16.

[5] Bruhm, Gothic Bodies, p. 16.

[6] Sade, Justine, p. 25.

[7] Kelly Hurley,The Gothic Body Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 26.

[8] Bram Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Group, 1994), pp. 28-29.

[9] Stoker, Dracula, p. 92.

[10] L. S. May, ‘’Foul Things of the Night’’: Dread in the Victorian Body’, The Modern Language Review, 93.1 (1998), 16-22 (p.18).

[11] May, ‘Foul Things of the Night’, p. 18.

[12] Stoker, Dracula, p. 51.

[13] Stoker, Dracula, p. 253.

[14] Stoker, Dracula, p. 51.

[15] May, ‘Foul Things of the Night’, p. 18.

[16] H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau (Tunstin: Xist Publishing, 2005), p. 15.

[17] Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014), p. 4.

[18] Wells, Moreau, p. 35.

[19] Hurley, The Gothic Body, p. 5.

[20] G. Beuchamp, ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau as Theological Grotesque’, , Papers on Language & Literature, 15.4 (1979), p. 408 (p. 408).

[21] Reyes, Body Gothic, p. 2.

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