An Insiders’s View of “The Undead 18th Century.
Last fall, when I was going through the English Course offerings, searching for the final English class to take in order to complete my major, my heart stopped at the title “The Undead Eighteenth Century.” Something about this mysterious title triggered my interest, because, honestly, I had no inkling as to what it might entail. Ghosts? Graveyards? Zombies? I’m in.
I soon learned that maybe it wasn’t about zombies. But I still thought the supernatural aspects of the course and the blurring of distinctions within Gothic literature sounded like something that would be right up my alley. I signed up with no hesitation. When I asked Professor Scherwatzky why he designed this particular course, he said, “This material is great fun. It touches on issues that really matter to the students, like gender, family, and faith, but with unsettling twists. It really attempts to come to terms with that which we don’t immediately understand.”
Having now taken the course, I would echo everything Professor Scherwatzky said. We began the course with Graveyard poetry, including Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Robert Blair’s The Grave, and Thomas Parnell’s A Night Piece on Death. Each of these poems contains their own gothic elements and messages. All of them address the matter of death, burial, and the afterlife. Graveyard poets tackle the fear of death and anxiety towards what might come after. In Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, my personal favorite of the graveyard poems, Thomas Gray delivers the message that death is the great leveler. No matter who you are in life, whether you’re rich or poor, male or female, educated, or uneducated, we are all going to end up in the same place, six feet under ground.
After finishing with graveyard poetry, we read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. This philosophical essay established the elements of the sublime, which became some of the main tropes in Gothicliterature such as terror, obscurity, power, privation, and darkness. Edmund Burke wrote that something could only truly be terrifying if it is obscure or unclear in some way. As a class, we began to see this for ourselves when we started reading the gothic novels.
We began with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and then read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk by Matthew Lewis. At the very beginning of The Castle of Otranto, a large supernatural helmet falls on and kills the young heir to the property on his wedding day. From this scene on, the reader is left with the anxious sensation that the castle is coming alive and taking fate into its own hands. In Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the biggest source of anxiety and terror is the possibility of what could happen to the protagonist, Emily St. Aubert, who is held against her will in a ruined castle by her heinous step-uncle. But whereas in Radcliffe’s novel all apparently supernatural occurrences ultimately have a rational explanation, Lewis’s The Monk defies logic and holds nothing back. The fear many of the characters feel is very real. The corrupt Monk, Ambrosio, is capable of great evil and turns out to be under Satan’s spell. Each of these novels contain gothic elements like darkness, obscurity, isolation and fear. However, the authors portray their version of the gothic in different ways and for their own literary purposes.
In his Enquiry, Edmund Burke establishes the distinctions between the sublime and the beautiful that many 18th century authors adapt in their gothic works. Ann Radcliffe, however, differentiates horror and terror for her readers. She says while terror is an expansion of the soul, horror is a contraction. According to Radcliffe, we feel terror in anticipation of something dreadful, whereas we experience horror when we see what we dread before us. For example, The Mysteries of Udolpho relies on terror, while The Monk mainly implements horror. The characters in The Monk face clear and present danger, while the characters in the other novels’ fears are often generated by what they do not know. This distinction is relevant in each of the Gothic novels we studied and is satirized in the final novel we read, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey provides a humorous retort to this distinction by exploring how the protagonist, Catherine Morland, lives in hopeful – and sometimes fearful – expectation that her life will mirror the gothic novels she loves to read.
My absolute favorite part of this course, however, was the discussion of gothic elements in popular culture today. Each student in this course chose a genre of music, a book, a television show, a movie, or anything that contains aspects of the gothic that we have identified. Most horror movies or films have adopted 18th -century gothic tropes, often in familiar ways but sometimes in ways that we don’t always recognize at first glance. Students presented on a range of topics, including television shows like Stranger Things and American Horror Story, movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Phantom of the Opera, to musical genres such as Southern Gothic.
Personally, I presented on a Netflix show, Supernatural, that I had binge-watched last semester. I watched this show before taking this course and really had no clue what “gothic” was, except for a fashion trend of wearing all black. However, once in the class, I immediately started making connections to this show. Obviously, Supernatural contains many supernatural elements, hence the name. However, I hadn’t realized until now how it uses the tactic of obscurity to generate terror in both the characters and the viewer. The settings of the show are often very gothic places like graveyards or very poorly lit locations. The scenes are frequently shot at night, and often the person who is being haunted is isolated and alone.
Professor Scherwatzky hopes that his students take away from this course, “a greater appreciation of the ways in which the past shapes who we are today and how the popular entertainment we enjoy tells us something about our deepest fears.” I definitely think that “The Undead Eighteenth Century” has done exactly that. Not only is the Gothic literature we read extremely entertaining and chock-full of supernatural elements and creepy scenarios, but it provoked us to study our favorite forms of entertainment and examine the different elements that have origins in the English 18th century. If you love scary movies, supernatural activity, or any literature that includes drama or scandal, I would highly recommend taking “The Undead 18th Century.” You may never look at your favorite show the same way again, but you definitely won’t regret it.
By Kileigh Stranahan
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