The Gothic, Lovecraft, and Society (1989)

or, For Once a Post That Has Nothing to Do With Politics

being the musings from a conversation on 4chan about Gothic horror.

‘Gothic’ horror has specific themes and aesthetics, though. The reason Castlevania adopts a Baroque fashion sensitivity for its protagonists, for example, is due to the Gothic’s uneasy relationship with decadence: the Victorian Gothic especially played up the idea of an elite class, enabled by wealth and social convention, being able to get away with literal murder and debauchery, set against a more modern, civilised, and temperate society. The Gothic celebrates and romanticises the role of the up-and-coming middle class and its associations with rationality and science in pushing back the ‘old darkness’ of superstition and fear.

That’s why >>39907781 and >>39908402, in pointing out

the tension of modernity butting against ancient corruption


creeping, festering evil bubbling up from underneath

both have their pulse on the core theme of the Gothic: fear of the past, that the superstitions and darkness are never far away despite the encroachment of civilisation.

While ‘Lovecraftian’ horror has certain superficial similarities in its fetishisation of the ‘Other’, the actual source of whatever fear each genre evokes is rather different: the Gothic suggests that darkness is never far away because it is somehow intrinsic to humanity, held in check by a thin veneer of modern social convention; Lovecraftian horror postulates a darkness that is utterly alien, completely outside humanity’s experience and ability to manage, intruding from the void between stars and stuff like that.

In a Gothic narrative, we fear ourselves, because we all have the potential to become monsters; in a Lovecraftian narrative, we fear the outside, because our humanity and potential are inconsequential before the vast scale and timelessness of cosmic evil and the nonchalance of inhuman gods.

If one focuses too much on the Baroque aesthetic of the Gothic, it can indeed lead to cheesiness (vampires with Hammer Horror accents in evening dress etc), but that’s because the symbols of decadence that we’ve come to fear are very different from those that the Victorians reacted to.

The Victorians may very well have perceived some kind of dark threat in the superstitions of the (largely Catholic) aristocratic, decadent, and effete societies of eastern Europe, in much the same way that they made bogeymen of the (largely pagan) decadent and effete societies of near and far eastern Asia. Dracula’s a great example of this, Dracula himself not only being a Balkan boyar but also historically having been associated with the extremely decadent, but in Stoker’s time waning, Ottoman Empire.

On the other hand, these days our symbols of decadence and excess have more to do with the trappings of wealth associated with Wall Street, Hollywood, and Washington. The 1989 film Society is a fantastic example of how these trappings are first fetishised and then deconstructed, parodied, and rendered into symbols of horror and alien Otherness.

Writers like Chuck Palahniuk do a pretty good job of updating Gothic themes with a modern aesthetic, and some of his works are rather chilling in how they make monsters of celebrities and the wealthy. The novel Lullaby features antique-traders and -auctioneers as the main antiheroes, for example.

I wonder what ‘Singaporean Gothic’ would look like. For all that our society fosters more than its share of finance-sector fat-cats and business-tycoons, we seem obsessed with wealth and decadence as personified not in the businessman or investment banker, but the government official, the politician, and the judge. Is this because we feel a greater sense of entitlement to proper behaviour from public officials than from private investors and businessmen? Or because the dominant Chinese majority has deep roots in commerce, and therefore tends to perceive businessmen as hard-working captains of industry rather than exploitative capitalists?


3 thoughts on “The Gothic, Lovecraft, and Society (1989)

  1. Thanks for this really interesting and perceptive analysis of the Gothic and Lovecraft’s interesting relationship to the aesthetic! You actually made he movie Society sound much more intriguing than I remember it being…I read a review for it that described it as Lovecraft-meets-American-Psycho and was revved to see it…then came away feeling confused and disappointed, alas!


    • Well, I thought Society was fun, and was a good example of how a trope ought to be used. You might be disappointed in it if you were looking for the Lovecraft angle, I guess: it seems more Gaslight than anything else!

      That and the acting was pretty painful. Ugh.


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