Written by Rebekah Edwards.
Vampires, werewolves, zombies –– all manner of supernatural creatures have been making a comeback. Recently, scores of films, novels, and television shows have been incorporating Gothic elements to better enthrall audiences.
However, although the Gothic continues to influence modern pop culture, it has only begun to do the same in academia. Frequently dismissed as illegitimate in a collegiate setting, the benefits of studying the Gothic genre have remained overlooked.
Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is currently teaching an Honors class entitled “Vampires and Dandies.” Richmond-Garza attributes the Gothic’s systematic delegitimization to precisely what drives the genre’s mainstream popularity –– its ability to enrapture its readers.
The component of Gothic literature that makes it equal parts engaging and horrifying, is its exploitation of humanity’s fear of the unfamiliar, the foreign, and the Other. This feeling of unease and discomfort is precisely why an assortment of works, including Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Oscar Wilde’s “A Picture of Dorian Gray” were not considered real literature, even as recently as Richmond-Garza’s undergraduate tenure in the late 1980s.
Viewed within the context of Victorian England during which Stoker and Wilde wrote, it makes sense why these authors’ works were categorized as potentially dangerous. In blatant defiance of the strict morality imposed during the period, “Dracula” and “A Picture of Dorian Gray” opt for more scandalous and shocking subject matter. From Dorian Gray’s celebration of hedonism, to the sexual overtones of the various human-vampire encounters in “Dracula,” both novels are antitheses of Victorian ideals.
Richmond-Garza suggests that the unsettling themes of these works, as well as Gothic literature in general, often presented “challenges, if not actual threats, to a rational, masculine, heteronormative, white order.” By depicting alternative moral codes, the Gothic pushed dominant masculine forces to act in order to keep society in check. She notes that people began to reject the Gothic “as being sensational” and started “privileging rational engagement” as a way to counteract the social anxieties that such novels exposed.
The feminization of the Gothic soon followed as a way to restore the supremacy of this established cultural structure. The long-standing association of women with irrationality and inferiority was strategically used as a tool to delegitimize the genre.
According to Richmond-Garza, the academic community was consequently able to claim that “women,” specifically “those silly young women who are overemotional and haven’t gotten properly married,” and “malcontents and foreign people are the ones who will be into [the Gothic].”
The fact that women, immigrants, and social outcasts typically received little formal education relative to their male, aristocratic counterparts only intensified these claims. By default, Western male academics would find such works trivial and scholastically useless.
But Richmond-Garza understands the opposite to be true. By virtue of its strange content, Gothic works harbor many clues about the ideological values and taboos of the societies in which they were written. As a result, they can be “used it to explore identity politics” as well as “questions of imperialism and colonialism.” Naturally theatrical and extreme, the genre has the capacity to “demonstrate [these issues] very boldly” in a way that would not be as visible in a “more repressed text.”
For Richmond-Garza, the fact that “most people rather enjoy reading [Gothic literature]” is not a deterrent. Instead, she believes that the study of Gothic literature is a genuinely fun, yet worthy and “serious,” intellectual engagement.