no. 14: Why is winter so Gothic?

in which Sydney gets at the heart of wintery Gothic stories, Rebecca dives into the lives of women in Gothic stories, and Kati recommends one of the best books to be published in the past couple of years

Scene in Jane Eyre 2011 of Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in a darkened room standing in front of a door and looking down at her
Mia Wasikowska may be the Queen of Gothic films... because she's in all of my favorites.

The holidays are in full swing, everything’s bright and cheery, so we must take a turn for the macabre. I love reading and watching Gothic stories during the winter because something about these narratives is so brooding, which fits right in with the mood of the season.

Is it really winter if it’s not Gothic?

Scene from Crimson Peak. Mia Wasikowska as Edith lays atop the snow in a bloody dress
Crimson Peak is one of my favorite Gothic movies ever

by Sydney Bollinger

A week ago I had the honor of hearing author Grady Hendrix talk about the phenomenon of a ghostly Christmas because the holiday used to be spooky, as evidenced by A Christmas Carol, everyone's favorite Christmas ghost story. In a season full of holiday cheer, I sometimes need to break away from the cheery facade and experience the true desolation of winter. December moves quickly, leading us to January and February, the two most brutal winter months in the Northern hemisphere.

The winter season—despite living in the South, where this season  is but a fleeting moment—hangs foreboding in the air. When I’m not watching Christmas movies during the holiday season, I seek out Gothic films, especially those set in the winter. In contrast with a more conventional horror film, Gothic narratives play into seasonality and the nostalgic factor of the holidays. Often these films take place decades, if not centuries, in the past, asking us viewers to consider the secrets hidden behind locked doors and spirits that lurk through dark hallways. Nothing is what it seems.

Whether or not Gothic narratives are set in the winter, these stories have an unparalleled Gothic sensibility, especially when they take place in some large English mansion in the countryside. My introduction to Gothic stories, Jane Eyre, follows the titular Jane over a number of seasons, throughout many years, and yet the novel evokes the feeling of a dark, brooding winter’s day.

Scene from Jane Eyre. Jane, played by Wasikowska, looks over her shoulder in a dark forest
Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

Winter is a shut-in season. Cold weather coupled with dark nights means staying. Depending on beliefs, this time of darkness may take on different meanings—perhaps it’s time to celebrate the birth of Jesus or maybe it’s time to connect with the ethereal plane while the Earth spends more time bathed in moonlight. Often Gothic stories feature shut-in situations, with protagonists finding themselves isolated from their usual lifestyle and their families, instead living among new people, navigating hard-to-explain situations.

The darkness, in particular, lends itself to the perfect setting for Gothic stories. In general, Gothic stories rely more heavily on setting than other stories. Place is often a character in these films. In Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the icy outside traps the young Edith (Mia Wasikowska) in her manor home where things are not what they seem. The house creaks, speaking to Edith—just as the titular Jane in Jane Eyre begins experiencing the unexplained in Rochester’s manor. Darkness and isolation are hallmarks of many favorite Gothic films and novels, especially those that take place in the United Kingdom.

When a setting acts as a character, it has to make a statement. Winter gothic films lean into the idea of a harsh winter. Crimson Peak’s winter does not let up, wrapping the characters in something frigid and dangerous. This, combined with the genre convention of ghostly presences and family secrets evokes a special kind of chilly atmosphere. Unlike the stiff, languid summers of Southern Gothics, the more “traditional” Gothic narratives use the cold and gray to trap characters in less-than-stellar situations.

Both Edith and Jane could leave the house and their situations, if they wanted to, but the cold makes it difficult to make that decision, pushing the story forward despite the long, shrouded halls.

The tortured women who haunt Gothic stories

Still of manor from Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Fog during the night clouds the view of a large manor.
Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1940)

by Rebecca Holland

Gothic stories have long been characterized by old, English manor houses like Manderly in Rebecca and the Sharpe Mansion in Crimson Peak. But what is most curious about them are the women that inhabit them.  

At the heart of Gothic stories, at the precipice of these grand houses, are women.

There are the ingenues, Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca and Edith Sharpe in Crimson Peak, wide-eyed and innocent, characterized by optimism as they cross the threshold of a larger-than-life door into cold, echoing halls. Like those doors, these women are framed at the edges of these houses, able to look in, but emotionally left out in the cold, like a piece of furniture that hasn’t been fully unpacked yet. We, the audience, are supposed to perceive them as naive. As secrets unearth themselves like spills of scarlet across snow, we question why they don't see it coming.

But why would they? Women in real life face the same revelatory shock at abuse at the hands of men in their homes, in the place they should feel most safe,which is where gothic fiction's "other" woman comes in, the ones that came before and now haunt the halls. These women are barely in the grave when the new wife arrives and their tortured souls cry out in agony. Yet, the sound of their voice becomes that of the husband, who reinvents the story from his perspective. A perspective that is impassive and self-victimising, blaming every woman in his life for his perceived misfortune and downfall.

The repressed Rebecca, shackled into marriage by societal norms in a patriarchal society, is branded a harlot, her crime of being a wild, free soul with a polyamorous outlook, which is justifiable for execution by Max. In Crimson Peak, each of Thomas Sharpe’s previous three wives is preyed upon and reduced to the value of her inheritance, money squandered by a man, like they were. Each wife was lured in on false promises of safety, duped by their desire for a place to call ‘home,' and bound by the societal expectations of marriage.

Unravelling the layers buried underneath the story that each man presents is a painful truth. Although gothic fiction presents a grander, richer version of domestic life, the tortured women who haunt gothic stories are us, and we are them. Real women, like me, who have been overpowered or undermined by the strength of a man’s voice, and who, on false promises of security, are inexplicably drawn to these gothic manors on screen, and all-too-real versions in our own lives.

When we step outside societal norms, we are Rebecca, and when we remain trapped within them, we are Mrs de Winter. I like to think we could be Edith, each of us tearing down these manors, these cages built upon the bones of women, and using our voices to build new foundations. Spaces that keep us safe. Walls that don't whisper warnings to us in the night. Houses that we can call home.

Screen Break — Mexican Gothic

Cover of Mexican Gothic. A young Mexican woman sits wearing a red gown and holding gathered flowers

by Kati Bowden

One of the year's biggest titles in Gothic literature is Silvia Moreno-Gacia's Mexican Gothic, a horrifying exploration of the genre through a fresh lens. As the title suggests, this story takes place in Mexico and captures an alternate perspective than those traditionally seen in the genre's staple texts. Mexican Gothic stars Noemi Taboada, a glamorous socialite from 1950s Mexico City whose usual MO is finding a cute gown to match whichever boy she'll be dancing with on any given night. But when Noemi receives a distressing letter from her newly-wed cousin, she finds herself en route to High Place, the estate of her cousin's Englishman husband.

Noemi doesn't know what she expects when she drops in on her new in-laws, but it isn't her cousin's menacing new husband Virgil, nor the ancient patriarch of the family and his disturbing fascination with Noemi. Both men have an entitlement to Noemi's body and personal space, as well as the bodies and space of the Mexicans who their family has employed in the past and forcefully built over to create a legacy of greatness. Once the heads of a mining empire that capitalized on the labor of locals, the Doyle family sustains itself on fading greatness and an ever-shrinking fortune. But time has not been kind to the Doyles, nor to the High Place estate. Both the Doyle legacy and the bricks of High Place crumble as the years pass. Both need fresh, strong blood to be renewed.

Noemi has that blood. She also has suspicions, fears, and a spirit that the Doyles fight to break. Throughout her stay at High Place, Noemi experiences horrific visions of violence, madness, and doom. From the English graveyard in the backyard, to the dust-coated shelves of the libraries and studies, there seems to be no safe space for Noemi to rest. Yet she finds one ally—shy, intellectual Frances Doyle, the youngest and kindest man in the family. Frances seems to be on Noemi's side as she tries to rescue her frantic cousin from the confines of High Place, but he still hides family secrets from both women, secrets that could mean death if they aren't shared soon.

Through a critical post-colonial lens, many of the parallels between the residents of High Place and earlier European invaders in the Americas are quite obvious. The Doyles relied on the work of locals to build their home and their empire, then discarded their bodies when they broke under the weight of the work. They stole resources, land, and lives. And, of course, the Doyles rely on the inherent superiority of their English pedigree to reinforce their God-given right to everything they want. The Doyles are religious, powerful, and undeniably influential in the community. Through another lens, an argument could be made that very little differentiates the Doyles from the heroes of other tales, especially from the Gothic genre. However, Mexican Gothic is told from the other side of the colonial coin, and the Doyles are no ones' heroes.

In Mexican Gothic, just as in history, the colonizing white invaders are the clear enemies of good, the "bad guys" to Noemi's role as a "heroine," rather than the protagonists we must root for that other Gothic stories have presented to readers in the past. Their atrocities are not only known and acknowledged in the text, but central to the development of Mexican Gothic. Without colonialism, there would be no Doyle family in Mexico; without the Doyle family, there would be no hidden, haunting evil embedded in the mountains. Everything that the Doyles represent must be faced and fought with claws out and teeth bared.

With a dark mystery at its core surrounded by the classic elements of Gothic literature, Mexican Gothic presents a new look at the genre defined by what other texts have historically lacked—a centering of colonized voices. The horrors of High Place reflect those of Mexican colonialism in ways that are far from subtle, and the dark energy radiating from the estate and into Noemi's mind illustrates the long-term effects of invasion. Smart, poignant, and terrifying, Sylvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic is the perfect new entry into the Gothic genre, and I hope that more of its kind will follow soon.

January Call for Pitches

We’re planning out the first few months of 2022, which means we have a slew of new pitch calls. Take a look below for January’s pitch calls. Expect to see February and March pitch calls next week.

Comfort TV

Release Date: January 20, 2022

We all have that one show or movie that we put on when just need something comforting. Maybe it's seasons 5-7 of Doctor Who or some slasher film from the 80s. Why do we have comfort media? What does it mean that we choose to watch the same things over and over? For this issue, I'm interested in pitches about why your comfort show is the ultimate comfort, what makes something a good comfort, how winter lends itself to the need to be comforted, and whatever else you come up with.

Pitch Sydney (hello@thursdaymatinee.com) by Thursday, January 6.

Essay due Thursday, January 13.

From Fanfiction to the Screen

Release Date: January 27, 2022

Fanfiction has been reworked and published as a book and then made into a movie and now we are all consuming fanfiction whether we know it or not, right? Fanfiction also gives our favorites life after the screen turns black. For this issue, I want to see your pitches on anything related to fanfiction and the screen. Tell about your experience with fandoms online, your favorite movies that were once fanfiction, the resurgence of everyone's love for Twilight, and anything else you come up with.

I will not accept pitches on SuperWhoLock for this issue as there is an issue dedicated to that planned for March.

Pitch Sydney (hello@thursdaymatinee.com) by Thursday, January 13.

Essay due Thursday, January 20.