Dale Bailey’s 1999 book, “American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction,” said that “the tale of the haunted house, while rooted in the European gothic tradition, has developed a distinctly American resonance; since Poe first described the House of Usher in 1839, the motif of the haunted house has assumed an enduring role in the American tradition.” This couldn’t be more true.
Before scientific mindsets were the norm, there was little room to doubt that someone’s place was decided by gods or monsters. Talk of inalienable rights and individual liberty would become a hot topic during the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the American Revolution in the 18th century. The United States was founded as an experiment, a beacon of liberty that anyone could participate in — as long as you were a wealthy white male.
The exclusivity of early American society haunted those who felt Enlightenment ideals were being suppressed. This was eventually characterized in American gothic literature as an indifferent force so massive that it was almost supernatural. Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” of 1764 established the domestic sphere (a house, castle or estate) as a central motif in the gothic, where the obstacles within represent the protagonist’s own inner journey. If our nation’s past is what haunts the American house, then Bailey is correct, but I’d like to focus on one spook in particular.
Disturbing allegations against former studio executive Harvey Weinstein have kicked up a firestorm about sexual harassment in Hollywood and spawned the #MeToo trend on social media. Call it sister solidarity because all women — not just actresses — have the same problem, and certain men who’ve known about Weinstein are just now coming forward. As I will demonstrate in a moment, such acts of righteous protests have happened before and it seems little has changed. How many more are necessary to make real progress? The scarier question to me is will there ever be progress? I’m no feminist expert (I’m not even a woman), but my rationalization for such fear is based in history.
Patriarchal institutions are as old as human civilization, with biblical and legal justifications for the subjugation of women consolidated over millennia. When the Enlightenment first emerged as a philosophical reevaluation, this situation was questioned. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke proclaimed women to be equal to men. Mary Wollstonecraft — whose daughter, Shelly, would write the gothic classic, “Frankenstein” — called for the general education of women well before any widespread movement, but a man was still free to “correct” his wife with force.
Romanticized ideas of marriage at the time contradict the dark reality. This is the essence of the “female gothic,” a feminization of the traditionally male-led gothic genre that established its template with Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” (1794). These stories starred young maidens trapped inside maze-like homes with a cruel patriarchal figure. The ending often married the woman to a better man. They did stress a woman’s individuality and virtue, but no radical changes to society. For future generations, a better husband wasn’t enough. Take Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).
The unnamed female protagonist is brought to an ancestral estate to recover from a “temporary nervous depression” by her physician husband, John. He doesn’t believe she’s sick — he believes in only what he can physically see — and forbids her mental stimulation so her imagination doesn’t get the best of her. He’s not malicious. He simply places more faith in his medical expertise than his own wife when she voices her discomforts, a common occurrence at the time. Continued dismissal would ironically lead to her becoming obsessed with her bedroom wallpaper and she projects herself onto its pattern until she thinks she sees a woman in a cage. So she tears the walls down.
The house in the female gothic is a symbol of male dominance. Ripping off the wallpaper is a reclamation of a woman’s lost voice. It’s Perkins Gilman’s way of making gothic more inclusive. What’s key is that some women were really losing their patience to the point of mad action, but the rationale behind it was anything but crazy. Ill treatment would persist even after women won the right to vote. As film grew popular, new problems of representation arose. Early melodramas depicted hard-working women out on their own and made them suffer for daring to step outside the kitchen. The glam queens of the ’50s and ’60s were all spectacle and no brains, and even today that carries into film.
It happens at our school. My workplace orientation lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the only etiquette discussed was ethnic sensibility. I’m all for diversity in the workplace, but an hour should’ve been spared for sexual harassment. It remains a principle issue for us to tackle — not just in America, but the entire world. Weinstein was a big ghost to bust, but let’s not hang up the atomizers until Gozer is dispatched — happy Halloween.