Writer and Director: Adrian Munsey
A notoriously vague term, ‘Gothic’, when applied to the arts, resists easy categorisation. We can picture it, the usual suspects: the unsettling gaze of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, William Blake’s otherworldly art; tales of pure imagination from Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. But there’s more to it than thrills and chills. In an attempt to wrestle with this concept, get to grips with its history and what it means in the 21st century, director Adrian Munsey’s 4-part series, Wonderland Gothic, explores Gothic’s origins and how it has been interpreted by film-makers, writers and artists.
Munsey sets out the perimeters early: In discussing early Gothic, contributor Dr Lyndall Gordon dubs Frankenstein “outsider art”: Instead of a universal story of nature versus nurture, we have Shelley’s response to her father’s act of abandonment. The monster, through this lens, becomes far more ambiguous. Dr Maisha Wester offers fresh readings of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – the Byronic anti-heroes (Heathcliff, Rochester) are not romantic idols but demonstrate behaviour – violent, controlling – more rooted in horror.
Wonderland Gothic is not just a deep dive into Gothic’s Greatest Hits. Munsey’s contributors expose the realities that inform this genre. Gothic is not only a response and reaction to societal norms: it is the counter-culture; the language of the oppressed. The series covers Black Gothic particularly well: films by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Nope) and Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man not only allude to a fear of history, the past not staying buried, but the racial othering experienced in contemporary society. The visceral experience of slavery detailed in Toni Morrison’s Beloved is re-interpreted in the creeping manipulation enacted on Chris Washington in Get Out. As Wester points out, slavery still exists, but “masking under a different name”.
Framing Gothic as an articulation of anxiety – personal, political and cultural – takes us to some interesting places. Bram Stoker’s Dracula speaks of not only ancient evil, but earlier societies and a lawless sexuality. It is not immoral, but amoral – a theme reflected in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the punishing ghosts of M.R James’ short stories. In examining Imperial Gothic, the series illustrates the British Empire’s problem in assuming racial superiority. Munsey asks how Rudyard Kipling, for example, can write within a genre that labels him as the monster?
There’s no neat conclusions, either. Presenting these ideas, Munsey deliberately (and wisely) does not draw sharp divisions. With this expansive and panoramic video essay, there is so much cross-over, that boundaries – real, imaginary – are futile. In handling an unwieldy subject, Wonderland Gothic anchors itself with detailed analysis, delving deep into the psyche of Gothic: a light is shone in every corner. While Gothic evades a final definition, what we do get in this series is a well-timed and wide-ranging summary of how Gothic is expressed. We see it in the outcast, the oppressed, the marginalised. In rejecting conformity and conventionality, Gothic’s popularity is no accident. Re-emerging in turbulent times, Gothic is once again having its moment.
Wonderland: Gothic premieres on Sky Arts at 9pm on 21st November.