Gothic is felt before it is understood…
I took a year 7 class studying gothic; they’d had a few lessons with another teacher and I learned that no-one had told them what gothic was. Their definition of gothic was predictable and understandable: dark, gloomy, monsters and horror, so I gave them two words: decay and confinement and drew out what they thought these meant. We talked about decay of place, spirit, mind, family, character. I didn’t mention graveyards and blood-sucking vampires, or dungeon walls dripping with the dank sweat of an ancient castle.
I didn’t mention adverbs. I’m sorry.
I put on the board a hypothesis (not a learning objective): can we understand what gothic is from by looking at a couple of sequences from Dracula? Can we get a feeling of what it is? Does gothic communicate its being-ness through its content?
I showed them Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula – the sequence when Renfield (the Jonathan Harker figure) goes to Dracula’s castle. The journey through the Carpathians along winding mountainous roads that clung perilously to the sides of infinitely deep gorges; the cavernous castle, its sublime vaults dwarfing the minute character of Renfield as he makes his way unwittingly into the lair of the vampire. The subtleties of Lugosi’s Dracula (he’s like the Count in Hotel Transylvania, they said) – the way he disappears through the cobwebs, the hesitations in his delivery.
So what is gothic, I asked them? They talked of how, despite the huge emptiness of the castle, Renfield seemed confined: the vaulted archways, the spider’s webs, the shadows all combining to entrap him in the open spaces. The darkness, the chiaroscuro lighting (they didn’t say this – they talked about the shifting shades of darkness and light). It’s about deception, about what lies beneath the veneer of life.
Then we watched Coppola’s Dracula: the scene when Harker first meets Dracula. They talked about shadows, the crumbling body of Oldman’s Count, the decaying mind as he turns from benevolent host to psychotic warrior (“it ish no laughing MATTER”). Of course, they initially laughed at the baroque exuberance of the costume and Oldman’s hair-do, but they also understood the sense of peril communicated through the disembodied shadows, the allegiance to a long-dead lineage.
We put some more words on the board:
I wanted to do some writing. This wasn’t in the original plan – I meant them to do a little comparison but we’d got some momentum, a mood, and I wanted to capture it. I put a starter sentence on the board, and asked them to write their own gothic story set in the modern world. What happens if the castle is a house on our street? If the vampire is some creepy guy who won’t come out? (These are the students who in a couple of years time I would introduce to To Kill a Mockingbird, then they’ll understand southern Gothic!)
As always, I have a go at writing with them. I write WITH them, making my mistakes, redrafting, layering …
Here are some of their attempts – written in 15 minutes. (Next week we’re going to polish them)
Louis decided he wanted to tell the story from the killer’s perspective; I didn’t expect this, but look at his use of words – ‘engulfed in this gloom this darkness” and that short sentence at the end “In not out”.
And the one above was Louis’ redraft using the layered writing technique (see this blog here). I like the simile he added and notice he also adds in some accurate semi-colons.
Above – first draft; below second. Again, layered writing technique.
Above: I love the house lurking at the end of the road AND “lurking around in my mind”. This is straight from Poe – a sort of objective correlative – and what about ‘a silence that could turn a man deaf’? Brilliant!
This one does the ‘gothic thingy’ a bit too much but is still effective.
We ended the lesson with a chant: “gothic is a feeling, an atmosphere, a mood” – seriously, they repeated it after me and loved it.
I didn’t mention adjectives and metaphors, similes and anadiplosis. I didn’t want to. Maybe I should do next time; maybe.