Summary and Keywords
Gothic criminology was developed in the first decade of the 21st century as a postmodern theoretical model, incorporating elements from key criminological/sociological texts and themes embedded in various literature and film genres, with the goal of highlighting the continued existence of monstrous evil in its various modern permutations. As developed by Caroline (Kay) S. Picart and Cecil Greek, the perspective has been used to compare reel and real-world criminal activity, including, for example, male serial killers (metaphorically depicted as vampires), female serial killers such as Eileen Wuornos, dirty cops (interpreted as Golem), suicidal terrorists, societal responses to chaos-induced contemporary global evil (the Behemoth), and supernatural malevolent forces taking possession of human bodies. The potential usefulness of the theory in explaining other expressions of dystopic societal deviance and crime appears to be expanding.
Origins of Gothic Criminology**
Over the twenty-five years there has been an explosion of books, films and television series that link violence, fear, images of images of the monstrous in everyday life with Gothic modes of storytelling and vision in American popular culture, academic writing, and politics. Gothic can be seen in Stephen King’s novels, M. Night Shyamalon’s films, zombie television such as The Walking Dead, and news media coverage of everything from the O. J. Simpson case (Greek, 1996) to the plethora of terrorist mass killings globally to the U.S. presence in wars in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan). American culture at large has become suffused with Gothic assumptions, with Gothic characters and plots. In the future things will only get worse, as Hollywood’s predominant perspective is one of a coming apocalyptic dystopia (see the Terminator, The Matrix, 28 Days/Weeks Later, and Hunger Games series, for example) in which only the equivalent of doomsday preppers armed for a potential return to “war of all against all” may survive (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
Gothic criminology was developed as an interdisciplinary approach focusing specifically on the complex blending of fact and fiction to create an exchange of ideas that encompasses both the humanities (film criticism, cultural studies) and the social sciences (communication, criminology, sociology) in exploring contemporary interpretations of the Gothic and the monstrous in film, media, and everyday life. Literature students will be long familiar with the Gothic from their readings of Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and other classic novels. The ongoing fascination with evil, as simultaneously irresistibly attractive and morally repellant, in Hollywood film, criminological case studies, popular culture, news media and even public policy points to the emergence of Gothic criminology, with its focus on themes such as fear, blood lust, compulsion, power and domination and godlike vengeance. Rather than assuming film and media accounts tell us little about the reality of crime and deviance, Gothic criminology recognizes the overlapping themes of academic and popular accounts of deviant behavior as intersecting with public policy. Gothic criminology moves us toward an account that drawn from both the realms of Gothic fiction and film, which entertains us with unreal horrors as depicted in the fictional world, and factual cases (e.g., stalkers, serial murderers, terrorists, rogue cops) framed in Gothic terms, which are essential to plotting the social construction of where evil resides within the modern world. Of course, discussion of the Gothic in contemporary modern life goes beyond film and visual media and would also include many contemporary oral tales, social media memes and even things such as horror theme park rides and attractions (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
The Criminological/Sociological Roots of a Gothic Criminology
While the phrase “Gothic criminology” may be new, the criminological and sociological elements of it can be seen in the writings of sociologists, criminologists, and social philosophers trying to come to grips with the ever-present problem of human evil and describing it in ways that can be interpreted as Gothic. While American sociology in particular attempted to remove any hint of potential bias in discussing evil by relabeling it as deviance (Greek, 1992; Vidich & Lyman, 1985) and psychology has transvalued sin to sickness (Conrad & Schneider, 1992; Menninger, 1973), one must ask what has been lost in removing the capacity to talk about evil from scientific language and academic discourse? Surely evil still exists?
The roots for a Gothic criminology may be seen in a number of sources, including the early writings of American sociologists such as E. A. Ross (1907) and Robert Park. University of Wisconsin sociologist E. A. Ross attempted to describe in Gothic terms the new types of evil made possible on a mass scale as a result of the capitalist exploitation of workers. His 1907 book Sin and Society was an example of the Social Gospel–influenced muckraking approach of early American sociology. Ross described a new breed of monster, the criminaloid, responsible for bringing great suffering to the masses through the practice of unmitigated greed and lack of concern about workers’ lives or their safety on the job. Ross was referring to the “robber barons” of turn-of-the-20th-century American capitalism and their horrible record on such issues as wages, excruciatingly long working hours, factory and job site safety, and employment of child labor. Ross (1907), a small-town Protestant by birth, was appalled at the class-based disparities in wealth and power that had emerged in America’s urban centers such as New York and Chicago. Ross’s ideas would be employed later by Edwin Sutherland (1949) in his studies of white-collar crime and Stanford Lyman (1978) in his discussions of the sin of greed (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
Robert Park, early 20th-century sociology chair at the University of Chicago, took a more global perspective on the phenomenon later identified as “vampiric capitalism” in his journalistic critiques of Western exploitation within Africa, both of its peoples and its resources (Lyman, 1990, 1992). The life blood of capitalism is profits. Without profits, capitalism ceases to function. In its quest for profits, early capitalism used imperialism to attain the cheap natural resources and access to labor power needed to fuel it. In American laws corporations are treated like persons, yet live on beyond the deaths of their founders. Thus, like a vampire, a corporation cannot be killed as it is already a dead entity. It should not be surprising to find that at the beginning of the 21st century, corporations have harnessed the forces unleashed by globalization and the communications revolution to once again locate cheap labor and displace workers in more developed societies (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
American sociology, after the 1920s, would reject the use of both journalistic and philosophical analyses of evil for a more thoroughly scientific “value-free” methodology (Greek, 1992). However, the discipline then was left with great difficulties in discussing evil other than as sign of social malaise or anomie (Orru, 1987), learned behavior (Akers, 1985; Sutherland, 2004) or socioeconomic inequalities and their impacts (Pfohl, 1994). It leaves treatises on the nature of evil to more ethnographically inspired writings such as criminal biographies, novels, plays, and ultimately screenplays. Sociology and criminology in general continue to find the notion of evil highly problematic and consign it to retrogressive pre-Enlightenment conservatism. To initially establish and to continually reaffirm the empirical status of the social sciences, all discussions of evil had to be eliminated. Such a position might have been justified had the facts of the 20th century not stood in such sharp contrast to this position. As one genocidal regime after another took the stage and demanded the world’s attention, it was quite clear that evil was not in retreat. Real attention needed to be paid the issue of evil and how to deal with it. Instead, researchers focused on so-called authoritarian personalities or why ordinary people would do the bidding of authority figures, even when they knew they were being asked to commit immoral acts against fellow human beings (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
Yet efforts within social science and philosophy to explain the primordial nature of evil surfaced periodically, but never quite amounting to a theoretical school. Examples included for discussion here are drawn from the work of Jack Katz, Lonnie Athens, Hannah Arendt, Denis Duclos, and Stanford Lyman. From their contributions it can be argued that a theoretical base within the social sciences for a Gothic criminology can emerge.
UCLA criminologist Jack Katz (1990) in Seductions of Crime discussed evil in Gothic dimensions in his analysis of two types of homicides: righteous slaughters and cold-blooded, “senseless” murders. The difference between the two is that the first is a justified act of vengeance in the mind of the killer, while the second type is more primordial and inexplicable, even to the killers themselves.
Righteous slaughterers respond to the insults or affronts of other with indignant rage, “representing an impassioned attempt to perform a sacrifice to embody one or another version of the ‘Good’” (Katz, 1990, p. 12). With this statement Katz attempts to explain how the offender understands himself, his victim, and the scene at the fatal moment of killing. The motivation for righteous homicide is that the victim has shown disrespect for something the offender holds sacred. This humiliation is emotionally translated into rage, and as a result the victim must be killed and in some cases obliterated. An all-consuming response is required to compensate for the affront to the sacred.
Katz’s second category of homicides focuses on senseless killings that are part of a murderer’s crime spree. Katz argues that a traditional law enforcement explanation that such criminals are making sure there are no witnesses left at the crime scene doesn’t fit the facts of these cases. Instead, Katz offers a theory of primordial evil, attempting to retrieve original interpretations of deviance as “the sensual awareness of evil in forms of dread, defilement, transgression, vengeance, sacrilege, sacrifice, and the like” (1990, p. 282)—a description that is quintessentially Gothic. Those who encounter these offenders are forced to respond to them “negatively,” by avoiding contact and affront if possible. The parallel is to early humankind’s efforts to avoid offending sacred deities, who brought floods, plagues, and judgment, through aversion or placation. Another component of senseless murder is the fact that it most frequently takes place in locations and at times associated with the Gothic. For example, the murders typically take place in the middle of the night, occur in cellars or barns or other hidden places, and feature methods of killing bordering on the animalistic.
Lonnie Athens (1989) presented an analysis of violent criminals that explained the origin of the dread and primordial fear that Katz identified as part of the encounter with such offenders. In addition to being responsible for creating unexpected horrific moments in the lives of victims, Athens showed that these offenders themselves inhabited life spaces they came to self-define as potentially threatening at any time and thus filled with Gothic dread. He argued that a series of common life experiences resulted in the creation of monsters. This explanation goes far beyond the mantra that abused children later become abusers themselves. The stages in the development of the monstrous offender includes violent personal subjugation, horrification at seeing others attacked and feeling powerless to aid those individuals, a belligerent violence coach who goads the youth into acting out violently, and internalization that the world is a dark, dangerous place. Finally, if offenders’ experiences success at their first efforts at violently attacking others, they find their personal reputation has changed, resulting in higher self-esteem. This leads to further assaults when they feel threatened in any way or find their fragile self-esteem under siege. Gothic fear and dread is thus created and recreated, a part of modern society’s overall playing out of patterns of frustration and aggression present within so many dysfunctional family units. But what happens when brutalized individuals are never granted the opportunity to strike back successfully with violence themselves? For such outcomes, we turn to the writings of Hannah Arendt (Picart & Greek, 2007d, p.20).
One of Arendt’s contributions to Gothic criminology is her model of enforced zombification. German-born social philosopher Hannah Arendt (1973) barely escaped the concentration camps herself, but in The Origins of Totalitarianism she describes the camps set up under the Nazi regime as the ultimate form of human domination and subjugation. Using slave labor, starvation, and the imminent threat of annihilation, the Nazis attempted to extinguish any sign of human spontaneity itself from their captives. The concentration camps were constructed not to be productive factories but to turn human beings into walking corpses, prior to their own demise. While Arendt herself didn’t refer to the process as zombification, her descriptions can be interpreted as such. One might also note the similarities between Arendt’s prose and the visual images of workers which appear in German films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Perhaps this is also why Kracauer (2004) identified The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as the most insightful of all German expressionist films, as it presages the sleepwalking metaphor Arendt was to also recognize.
Commentators on Arendt have also focused on the notion of “radical evil” as depicted in the final pages of The Origins of Totalitarianism (Nieman, 2004). Carrying out the Holocaust required a systematic bureaucratic operation involving not only SS officers but also a slew of other state personnel and civilians who were involved in the movement of massive numbers of victims from their homes, to ghettos, and eventually on to final sorting and killing in death camps.
Arendt’s (2006) other major contribution to the discussion of evil, the concept of the banality of evil, has been both more influential and at the same time more controversial. In describing the actions of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt focused on his normality, seeing him as a Weberian bureaucrat just carrying out his expected duties. Thus, the propensity for banal evil exists within all of us. This aspect of evil appears in some of the discussions within Gothic criminology, particularly in the case study of corrupt cops as monsters (Greek, 2007).
A major European contributor, French sociologist Denis Duclos (1998), analyzed elements of serial killing by drawing upon cultural components of lycanthropy embedded into serial killing tales. Duclos built a Gothic analysis using themes that include humiliation, vengeance, the hunt and capture, and cruelty. Duclos remained focused upon the mythology that, he argued, there is a “beast at bay” within us all waiting to get out.
Stanford Lyman (1978) has made the most significant effort to date to return the discussion of evil to the social sciences in his work The Seven Deadly Sins. By focusing on each of the sins (greed, sloth, lust, envy, anger, pride, and gluttony) in turn, Lyman draws upon both historical and contemporary examples to demonstrate the continued presence of evil within society. Sin and evil have not disappeared from the world because the social sciences no longer have a language adequate to discuss these phenomena. This slippage of language and modes of representation in relation to evil is not unique to criminology or the social sciences.
Gothic Criminology’s Origins in Gothic Literature and Film
Gothic criminology does not draw upon the classic criminological and sociological works alone; it is also dependent on the critical examination of themes and concepts apparent in the Gothic literary tradition and how this tradition has embedded itself into certain film genres such as film noir. What follows is a brief sketch of the history and development of Gothic literature and its 20th century spread through several forms of popular culture, particularly cinema.
Critical for this project is the discussion of the development of Gothic literature. This now widely recognized genre was developed in works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). These are constantly cited as defining the Gothic genre, though the discussion of these works as canonical happened much later. Sociologically, these tales represented a reaction to the age of reason, order, and politics of 18th-century Europe which was attempting to reorient society based upon Enlightenment rationalism. The settings and trappings of the Gothic have become such a hallmark of horror that they have become cliché gimmicks, not only in literature but also in film and television (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
Before proceeding to discuss the transference of the Gothic from literature to visual representations, a brief summary of the major themes and settings of the Gothic universe as first envisaged in print (Picart & Greek, 2007d). The hallmarks of the early Gothic novel included the graveyard and the convent, moats and drawbridges, dungeons, towers, mysterious trap doors and corridors, rusty hinges, flickering candles, burial vaults, birthmarks, tolling bells, hidden manuscripts, twilight and ancestral curses. Crucial to the outlines of the Gothic landscape is the concept of extreme contrasts: “the Gothic landscape plunges from extreme to extreme; from the height of an airy bell tower to the depth of a dungeon vault; from the mass of heavy stone walls to the delicate illusive spider web; from utter darkness to a candle’s flicker; or from the hollow silence to a high-pitched squeak” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 22). Revealing an affinity with postmodernism, its descendant, the Gothic landscape, whether it be an external panorama or an internal landscape, is marked by the assault on clear boundaries and distinctions by haze and darkness, ambivalences and uncertainties, permitting an infinite spectrum of moral and aesthetic possibilities that the classical or Enlightenment traditions of inquiry attempted to exorcise. Thus, there is an affinity in the way mental disorders coexist with settings of ruins in Gothic novels. Insanity may be envisaged as a form of mental deterioration, an internal ruin of the mind, the self, the very concept of what is human. The instability of the deranged mind in the Gothic novel corresponds with the instability of the world outside the self, so that the lines between health, normality, and the “real” versus the sick, abnormal, and the “imagined” become less fixed. As the Gothic writer explores the universe of the twisted mind, he enlarges his imagined outer cosmos to allow for unusual, often supernatural incidents, “simultaneously plunging inward and outward, into the perceiver and beyond the perception, thereby developing the dimensions of reality in both possible directions” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 39).
Gothic literature, in so far as its goal is to overcome the strictures of neoclassicism and the Enlightenment tradition, portrays all states of mind that concentrate or intensify normal thought or perception. “The Gothic novel,” Haggerty (1989, pp. 16–17) tells us, “finds its most fruitful mode of evocation in delineating an imaginative response to the objective world that is grounded in the emotions.” Consequently, dream states, drug states, and states of intoxication are consistent motifs of the Gothic novel because repressed thoughts can surface in them; in such liminal states, inhibitions are minimized, and the scope of consciousness broadens.
Gothic scenes are heavily populated with images of decay, decadence, disease, and death: crumbling architectural remains, rotting old houses, ancient relics, and even decrepit, senile people are always quintessential. According to Bayer-Berenbaum (1982), the gravitation to ruin and decay is symptomatic of the general Gothic abhorrence of restriction, such as the aesthetic restriction to health or beauty, just as Gothicism anarchically revolts against sexual, political, or religious taboos. The proliferation of themes of disease and decomposition signifies escape from the confines of beauty. “The weak, the rotten, and the offensive are hallowed by the Gothic mind in and of themselves, and are then set in contrast to strength, vigor and beauty” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 28).
Similarly, agony, or at least the attempt to experience it imaginatively, intensifies perception; to the Gothic imagination, pain is panacea for the spiritual and aesthetic malaise of apathy and insensitivity, passivity, and moderation—which can kill off the Gothic spirit. Death is attractive in Gothicism because of its absolute liminality, for the infiniteness of its void, and for its dissolution into primordial chaos.
In addition, sexual perversions are key in Gothic literature because they are spawned by severe repression and their imaginative exploration allows for the expansion of the parameters of sexual practice. Homosexuality, sodomy, incest, rape, group copulations, necrophilia, and coprophagia are often part of the plots in order to destabilize the comfortable boundary line between the normal and the perverse. Rape is yet another narrative motif, and it unmasks the socially repressed link between male sexuality and aggression and reveals the Gothic imagination’s preference for power over beauty or conventional mores. Gothicism is drawn to all eruptions of unbridled sexuality, and the politics of gender involved in rape is as significant as the sexual aspect of the act (Picart & Greek, 2007d). The contrast between the triumphant evil of the rapist and the helpless innocence of the victim accentuates the magnitude of the villain’s power—a narrative feature we find in criminological accounts regarding the phenomenology of the godlike rush of power a perpetrator of violence feels in relation to his victim, as we shall see in the case studies on vampiric serial killers in particular (Picart & Greek, 2003).
In addition, Gothicism and Christianity have always had a strong and intimate relationship characterized by an ambivalent blend of kinship and rivalry (Picart & Greek, 2007d). In its belief in God and life after death, in its miracles, mystical visions, and transubstantiation, Christianity resembles Gothicism, and Gothicism, like Christianity, pays homage to the holy as it pays tribute to the horrible. The Gothic imagination, like the religious imagination, reverently acknowledges awesome and terrible spiritual forces operative in the world. Thus, the forces of good and evil are configured as being at war, and compromise is impossible; absolute victory and defeat are the only possible scenarios. As Bayer-Berenbaum notes, here “the juxtaposition of extremes is psychologically drawn” (1982, p. 39).
The more of these themes that are present in any analyzed writing or visual description, including criminological treatises, the more powerful the rhetoric of the Gothic becomes. In some cases, the themes appear in transvalued form and may not be readily apparent. For example, Lonnie Athens’s (1989) previously discussed analysis of how brutal violent criminals are produced uncovers a micro-Gothic world in which such offenders are raised, then to go on to become bringers of fear and dread themselves whenever they appear. To sum up the definition of the core elements of the Gothic universe:
Gothic literature delves into the macabre nature of humanity in its quest to satiate mankind’s intrinsic desire to plumb the depths of terror. Seven descriptors frequently appear in works called Gothic: 1. the appearance of the supernatural, 2. the psychology of horror and/or terror, 3. the poetics of the sublime, 4. a sense of mystery and dread 5. the appealing hero/villain, 6. the distressed heroine, and 7. strong moral closure.
As Gothic criminology has to date been predominantly applied in the discussion of film (and its comparison to television and other mass media accounts) rather than focused on literature, it is important briefly to trace the transformation made by the Gothic from the page to the screen (Picart & Greek, 2007d). Film, which first appeared at the turn of the 20th century, offered the ability to recreate Gothic mood using moving visual imagery, a technology Hugo Munsterberg (1916) first identified as dreaming while awake. As he wrote: “The photoplay tells us a human story by overcoming the forms of the outer world, namely space, time and causality, and by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely attention, memory, imagination and emotion” (p. 37). Using both visual and sound techniques, film became an effective vehicle for re-envisaging Gothic stories. Over time, a set of stock techniques for lighting, camera locations, depth of field and angles, set design, music and sound, special effects, and editing were developed (Philips, 2001; Rabiger, 2003; Zettl, 2015), most famously associated with the Hollywood horror/terror genre pictures and film noir (Borde et al., 2002; Hirsch, 2001). Both horror/terror and film noir frequently contain elements of the Gothic. Viewers have become so familiar with how certain stylistic techniques (e.g., low key lighting, canted camera angles, high-and low-angle shots) signify these genres that they now can easily be parodied in films like Van Helsing (2004) or The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
We realize “horror” and “terror” are aesthetically opposed within the Gothic literary tradition, but the cinematic tradition tends to be more fluid than its literary counterpart (Picart & Greek, 2007d). Strictly speaking, for Gothic authors of the early period (ca. 1764–1820), “horror” and “terror” were distinctly contrasting aesthetic categories. “Terror” tended to be the “genuinely aesthetic” category, because it evoked “the sublime” as set forth by Burke in his Philosophical Inquiry Concerning the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757); “terror” operates within the imagination, whereas “horror” is a physical response—nausea in reaction to some terribly disturbing sight. In Ann Radcliffe’s view terror and horror were “so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a higher degree of life,” while “the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates” (Bayer-Berenbaum, 1982, p. 32). Terror thus emerges as more potent, purer and more genuinely stimulating and thus the more properly authorized “Gothic” emotion. Such strict divisions are more elements or “moments” rather than clear binaries in the realm of film as popular entertainment, while acknowledging the literary roots of the opposition between “terror” and “horror.”
Because one of the penultimate concerns of the Hollywood film is the existence of evil within the world (and an explanation for its occurrence), film provides variations of existing criminological theories and implicitly proposes new ones as well. However, films with criminological themes only sometimes rely on Gothic elements in the telling of their stories, and when they do, these elements are often signified through stylistic elements rather than overtly mentioned in the script. What we more broadly can refer to as “criminal justice films” do not constitute a genre, but some very definitely do fit into established genres, including comedy (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop, Super Troopers). Many criminal justice films are docudramas based upon real facts but fictionalizing the major characters to make them more interesting. Others fit into the police or court procedural category, demonstrating the maintenance of law and order within society. In comparison, Gothic criminal justice films often depict a world like those in the film noir tradition, in which corruption is pandemic and heroes and villains are virtually indistinguishable (Rafter, 2000). For example, many police corruption films fit into this category, showing deviant cops as monstrous (Greek, 2007).
In fact, one of the most controversial aspects of the Gothic crime film is its depiction of criminals as monstrous. Arguably, one of the strengths of the Gothic view of evil is that it frequently maintains the humanity of its monsters. Thus, werewolves shape shift from human to monster and back again, while Count Dracula is a vampire depicted as an aristocratic sophisticate. Similarly, Hannibal Lecter would make a fascinating guest lecturer or dinner host when you are not on the menu. The presence of evil in a contemporary Gothic crime drama, set within a world in which a literal Devil is dead, is often explained in a complex manner (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
The classic Fritz Lang crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) is an example of a Gothic crime film demanding an engagement with several layers of meaning (Gunning, 2000). In the film, an interlocking conspiracy of crime syndicates is being directed by the evil criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. However, as revealed in the film, Dr. Mabuse is a patient in an institution for the criminally insane, whose criminal master plans started as incoherent scribblings that only after years of writing became decipherable. Mabuse himself dies early in the story, but crimes continue to be done, invoking his name, and he seems to reappear as a ghost to those who willingly carry out his schemes. Nevertheless, the motivation for the monstrous criminals implementing his evil plans remains unclear. Has Mabuse possessed their souls, somehow hypnotized them with his gaze, or is the film simply a confrontation with the realization that there will always be plenty who will turn to crime when given the opportunity? Can the evil Mabuse really control anyone from beyond the grave? As Gunning says, in Testament, “the figure of Evil disperses. One can no longer assign it a body; it has become an idea that transmits itself” (2000, p. 145).
The Overlap of the Gothic and the Criminological
Discussed previously was the transvalued Gothic themes written into a number of academic criminological and sociological treatises. To date, no comprehensive theoretical model had been developed to explain the linkages and overlaps between these topics and themes that appear in Gothic literature and film. Gothic criminology attempts to link literature, film, and social science. From the extended glossary of Gothic terminology and themes developed by Douglass H. Thomson (2004), themes that appear in both the Gothic and criminology include (in alphabetical order) body-snatching, claustrophobia, the devil, imprisonment, exorcism, the grotesque, the Inquisition, masochism and sadism, necromancy, possession, the pursued protagonist, pursuit of heroines, revenge, reason, somnambulism, superstition, transformation/metamorphosis, and witches and witchcraft (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
A few of these criminological concerns are highlighted here. Among the more obvious overlaps are the fascination with prisons and entrapment and concerns about women as pursued heroines. Within the Gothic tradition, imprisonment is a favorite horror device. One finds a person confined or trapped, such as being chained to a floor or wall or locked away in some dark prison cell or castle dungeon. The feeling of there being no escape from such a trapped condition contributes to the claustrophobic psychological feeling of Gothic spaces. Within criminology, the discussion of life in prisons is less visceral, reduced to descriptions of the “pains of imprisonment” (Sykes, 1958) or the psychological impacts of prison overcrowding or doing “hard time” (Johnson, 2002). One must turn to the autobiographical writings of prison inmates or correctional officers to get a more emotional sense of prison as the potential hell it can be (Conover, 2001; Martin & Sussman, 1995). The horrors that prisons sometimes become are rarely shown to the public, thus making the release of the thousands of personal prison torture photos taken in Iraq by U.S. military personnel even more noteworthy (Sontag, 2004). Prison and concentration camp guards traditionally avoid including themselves in their torture photos. The Iraq Abu Ghraib photos featured the torturers themselves showing off those they have victimized, as hunters or fisherman would pose with their kill or catch.
Another often featured aspect of Gothic literature is the attacks on female heroines, now often discussed as a subgenre, the Female Gothic. According to Thomson (2004), the Female Gothic hinges on the potential victimization of a virtuous and idealistic young woman by a villain, frequently stereotyped as an immoral, older but still sexually potent aristocrat. While in many early Gothic novels this pursuit is set against the exotic backdrops of a deep forest and/or through a subterranean labyrinth, later iterations of the Gothic are not limited to such locales. This pursuit signifies a threat to the heroine’s ideals and morals (more precisely, her virginity). In keeping with ideals concerning femininity, in the early Gothic works, the imperiled young woman responds defensively, displaying a passive courage. In later Gothic tales heroines progressively become more active and occasionally successful in their attempts to overturn gender hierarchy. Consequently, the Female Gothic may also serve as a venue for the critique of patriarchy and as an expression of female independence. One distinctive trait of the Female Gothic is that it usually prefers plots that revolve around an unexplained supernatural event or entity compared to more explicit scenes of violence and sexual perversion characteristic of horror literature and film.
Within criminology, concern over female victimization has become a major research and policy area, but only in the last quarter century. This can be seen in the development of rape shield laws; increasing concerns about date rape, marital rape, and the sexual victimization of young girls on college campuses; the development of the battered spouse defense; and the creation of a separate section within the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice focusing on Violence Against Women and Family (NIJ, 2004). Of interest is the focus on the crime of stalking, a crime overwhelmingly committed by men against women. The ethnographic descriptions of this crime parallel those of Female Gothic (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2001). In the modern fictionalized version of Female Gothic, stalker crime films typically have the female heroine destroying the monstrous criminal during the final scene, yet surprisingly show that the brutal monsters who repeatedly stalk and attack women may have a human side (Picart & Greek, 2007d).
A final example for comparison is the Gothic’s fascination with the personification of evil through its focus on the Devil, exorcism, possession, and witches and witchcraft. The Devil has had many names and guises through the centuries (Russell, 1986, 1987a, 1987b, 1990). Within the Gothic tradition, an appearance by the Devil is often shrouded in supernatural mystery. The type of visitation often is a clue to the moral universe of the story. For example, when the “Devil’s visitation is arbitrary and he selects a good or innocent person as his victim, we witness a dark, pessimistic moral universe, in which an expansive sense of evil randomly blights the human world. If, on the other hand, the victim deserves demonic punishment, his appearance signals a more traditional and Christian moral universe, in which sinners receive their due punishment” (Thomson, 2004). While criminology long ago sought to eliminate discussions of the Devil or persons influenced by the Devil to do evil, the topic continues to return periodically. Such was the case in the 1980s and 1990s as reports of satanic crime ran rampant. While the crime reports themselves turned out to be almost always hoaxes and overreactions by parents and some law enforcement officials (Richardson et al., 1991), the occult remains of interest to teens and some adults. Rather than simply condemn such exploration, one would want to ask what types of ideas are being explored. Why does interest in the occult and the Gothic continue to re-appear in each generation, despite its exorcisms and debunkings? The re-occurrence of the Gothic, as aligned with crime and evil, forms the terrain of this theory.
The Case Studies
One of the first case studies in Gothic criminology was focused on serial killing: “The Compulsions of Serial Killers as Vampires: Toward a Gothic Criminology” (Picart & Greek, 2003) demonstrated the overlap of vampiric themes in “based on real case studies” serial murder films. Like vampires, serial killers develop a bloodlust that can only be satiated through repetitive killing. The essay also showed how “primordial evil” became recognizable as an essential narrative feature of the dread that “senseless murderers,” like serial killers, sought to inspire, eliciting the same type of response as a vengeful deity. As Jack Katz (1990) stated: “Our original sense of deviance is through a nonreflective, sensual awareness of evil in the forms of dread, defilement, transgression, vengeance, sacrilege, sacrifice, and the like.” Such narrative patterns were discernible in the films that were examined.
The essay also tracked a significant change in the depiction of the vampire in more recent literary Gothic popular novels. In Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape (1975), Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), and Jody Scott’s I, Vampire (1984), vampires authored their own tales. In crafting their own narratives, they became more sympathetic, more superhumanly human and much less radically the “other.” “They are more likely to offer a site of identification rather than a metaphor for what must be abjected, and with the movement from the metaphorical to the metonymical, the vampire increasingly serves to facilitate social commentary on the human world” (Punter & Byron, 2004, p. 271).
However, where this move toward establishing the monstrous other as a site of identification became particularly disturbing is with the serial killer, the most compelling media-fueled monster of the last part of the 20th century. While “sympathy” is not precisely the word to describe the response encouraged by serial killer narratives, in partially fictional serial killer films there is often nevertheless a certain ambivalence in the representations of modern monsters. In docudramas such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and Ed Gein (2000), the serial killer as an abused abuser emerged; in horror films such as Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Immortality (1991), aristocratism and romantic sex appeal became key features of the mythic serial killer. Often viewed as merely symptomatic of an increasingly violent and alienated society, the serial killer might seem to call for the most emphatic reassertion of social norms and the strongest reaffirmation of conservative values. This happened in the creation of the new FBI Behavioral Science Unit but was not, however, the case in fictionalized narratives (Punter & Byron, 2004, p. 265).
Rather than being established as the demonic other that must be exorcised from mainstream society, the serial killer was explicitly identified as modern society’s logical and inevitable product: society, rather than the individual, thus emerged as a primary focus of horror. In such narratives, there is rarely any assurance that the threat could be contained; rather than being staked, the serial killer, society’s “monstrous progeny,” was simply left to carry on with his mission. Even in the most reassuring serial killer narratives, often those in which a criminal profiler was offered encouraging evidence that the monstrous can be identified and contained, many texts remained at the very least ambivalent about the ultimate demise of the monstrous. The stability and autonomy of the self and the other, and the clear separability of good and evil, were frequently undercut through a particularly emphatic use of the traditional Gothic Doppelgänger. The killer may ultimately be caught and punished, but this was often brought about by the profiler’s overidentification with the killer, as in Clarice Starling’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill under the mentorship of Hannibal Lecter. “Such narratives insist that the potential for corruption and violence lies within all, and the horror comes above all from an appalling sense of recognition: with our contemporary monsters, self and other frequently become completely untenable categories” (Punter & Byron, 2004, p. 266).
In a follow-up study, Picart and Greek (2009) looked at the female serial killer. The overwhelming number of such murderers fall into the “death angel” category: female doctors, nurses, nursing home workers, etc., who may believe they are taking pity on those who may be already near death and take it upon themselves to end suffering by either poisoning, pulling the plug, or suffocating those in their care. Male death angels are much rarer, although this author actually lived next door to one in St. Petersburg, Florida, a man, Brian Rosenfeld, responsible for perhaps over a hundred nursing home deaths (Murderpedia, 2015). The most well-recognized female serial killer, however, is Aileen Wournos, played by Charlize Theron in the docudrama Monster (2003) and the subject of two Nick Broomfield documentaries, Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). What set Wournos apart from her female serial killer cohort was her adoption of the characteristics of traditional male serial killers (including dress, mannerisms, and mode of killing) combined with the reversal of the victim–assailant roles. Wournos worked as a prostitute, the frequent victim of many male serial killers, but she turned the table on her johns, and instead murdered them and stole their money. But her ultimate motivation was perhaps a traditional gender role one, as Wournos robbed men to provide for her female lover, the only family she believed she had.
Continuing the examination of the complex ways in which fact and fiction intersected in Gothic discourses, Cecil Greek’s (2007) “The Big City Rogue Cop as Monster: Images of NYPD and LAPD” traced the trajectory of rogue cops in Hollywood films, arguing that each film generation of rogue cops becomes envisaged as an increasingly greater threat. The essay used the Jewish mythic figure of the Golem running amuck to represent the dirty cop. Like the Golem who is brought into existence to rescue Jews from their oppressors, police departments were created to protect and serve the public, not abuse them. But in the end, as the Golem becomes destructive, similarly, police who either focus only on ends and ignore the constitutionally allowed means of maintaining the peace or degenerate into criminals themselves, become community oppressors.
The essay compares NYPD rogue cops depicted in the films of the late Sidney Lumet, such as Serpico (1973) and Prince of the City (1981) to the pre- and post-Rampart LAPD officers depicted in films like Training Day (2001) and television shows like The Shield (2002–2008). In addition, the films are discussed in comparison to the actual corruption scandals upon which the films are based. Together, these fact-drawn depictions exposed the overwhelming corruption and decadence that inhabit police forces doing their jobs without proper direction and supervision or empathy toward the citizens they swore to protect. The essay also builds upon the Victorian literary depiction of the landscape of the modern city as a Gothic environment, particularly at night. Here, it is not principally the criminal underworld or the poor that are implicated as a source of horror in the modern urban metropolis, but the legally created social control mechanisms in place within these communities.
The persistence of the banality of evil, a theme derived from Hannah Arendt’s (2006) explanation for why “ordinary” men like Eichmann and other SS officers were capable of “extraordinarily monstrous” acts within the context of the Holocaust, is also discussed. Carrying out the police department’s directives to control crime and criminals can turn otherwise normal human beings into those who do monstrous things, yet able to return home and love their families.
In another essay, “The Terrorist as a Gothic Criminological Case Study” (Picart & Greek, 2007c), the focus is on suicidal mass murderers. A plethora of Gothic discourses regarding this most feared contemporary monster, the terrorist, have emerged in mass media and film, characterized as an exotic, religious fanatic (typically a follower of Islam) with affinities to the male serial killer, but one motivated by a clear death wish, unlike the domestic male serial killer, who seems to want to escape capture. While the more traditional serial killer may be seeking some form of recognition if discovered, the suicide bomber/killer may leave behind messages for his pursuers to find and interpret. Also, in comparison, the suicidal terrorist appears to be seeking recognition and reward beyond the grave, while leaving behind only exploded remnants of his rage.
Gothic dimensions embedded within accounts of terrorism appear in the criminological literature. The phenomenon of global terrorism combines Gothic themes from both traditional terror and horror genres; in fact, terrorists use the creation of real horror to bring nightmares to life. Thus, the methods used to carry out the strategic objectives of modern global terrorism are themselves Gothic. Major objectives of terrorism are to create feelings of fear and hopelessness among the population. That is why terrorist perpetrators attack symbolic targets in a horrific manner, as the psychological impact will far exceed the physical damage of the strike. The repertoire of horrific tactics used includes bombings, arson, assaults, hijackings, kidnappings, and taking and executing hostages, often in horrific ways such as beheading. Both weapons of mass destruction and cyberterrorism are expected to be used in the near future, thus broadening the impacts and increasing panic among the populace (White, 2003, p. 16). Horrifying video footage is either filmed by journalists who arrive soon after the carnage, or home-made, like the rape-torture-murder from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), and offered to media organizations for broadcast or announcement on websites. None of this is senseless violence, as targets and methods of killing are chosen that will maximize the mixture of drama and dread and create acute feelings of insecurity within targeted countries and populations. As Kegley (2003, p. 72) states, terrorism “presents people with a danger that seems ubiquitous, unavoidable and unpredictable.” Besides attacking symbols of government authority or American global capitalism, terrorists also choose to launch vicious indiscriminate attacks at normally tranquil urban locations that citizens visit (e.g., markets, cafes, public transit, tourist sites) to create a “paralyzing sense of foreboding among the public” (Kegley, 2003, p. 73). The Paris 2015 attacks targeted restaurants, a soccer match and a rock concert simultaneously. If anything can happen to anyone at any time, who is safe? The essay compared media coverage to Gothic images of terrorism that appeared in three films, The Siege (1998), Maryam (2000), and The Sum of All Fears (2002).
In the next essay, “Globalization and the Rise of the Behemoth: A Study in Gothic Criminology” (Greek, 2016), a discussion of terrorism, particularly in the film Syriana (2005), is expanded to include the identifiable trend toward focus on the negative impacts of globalization. Embedded within certain Hollywood films themes related to how modern militarized societies attempt to maintain order, often by using overwhelming force and domination, there appears to be an effort to offer a unique sociological interpretation of understanding postmodern international relations. The essay identifies this phenomenon as Behemoth and offers a historical, theological and sociological perspective on the potential utility of this concept for understanding contemporary global evil. An anti-globalization perspective appears to be the underlying predominant assumption of Hollywood globalization films. Bringing the world closer together has multiplied the possibilities for evil doing. The dominant cinematic interpretation of these events takes on a particular Gothic characterization, focusing on the perceived unleashing of “chaos” in the world and the responding efforts to restore control and order.
The predominant perspective on the contemporary world as depicted in the discussed films—The Constant Gardener (2005), Battle in Seattle (2007), Lord of War (2005), and Syriana (2005)—is one of chaos. Durkheim might have referred to this phenomenon as an aspect of anomie, but in these films the issue is not that individuals do not understand the predominant social mores, or that mores are even in flux; instead there is something deeply amiss at the very core of modernity itself resulting in a dis-ease or “liquidity” felt by all (Bauman, 2006). When viewing any of the above films one feels an uneasy queasiness that seems to build dramatically as the films progress, driven by the filmmakers’ toolkit of suggestive lighting, disorienting background music and sounds, as well as the interplay of foreground and background visual and textual elements keeping the viewer off-center. What is the source of this feeling that the world is not right and that chaos might overtake us at any time?
Franz Neumann (1963) first offered the social sciences the concept of the Behemoth to explain a historical manifestation of chaos, the Nazi state. Neumann (1963, p. vii) noted the origin of the Behemoth in Jewish eschatology—of Babylonian origin—as the monster, sometimes depicted as a giant beast or ox, ruling the land (the desert). Described in Job 40 and Psalm 50 as the first of God’s creation, and elsewhere in Jewish literature as “so big he sits on a thousand mountains,” with an insatiable thirst able to “drink up all the waters of Paradise” (Dennis, 2007, p. 31), Behemoth was partnered with the Leviathan, the sea monster, featured also in the book of Job (Mathewson, 2008). Both are monsters associated with chaos, making this concept an essential part of the ancient Jewish understanding of reality (Whitney, 2006). According to Levenson (1988, p. 17), even though God’s creation had established the world in an orderly manner, the potential for the rise of chaos as part of the continuing existence of evil was a given part of the earthly condition. “The confinement of chaos rather than its elimination is the essence of creation, and the survival of orderly reality hangs only upon God’s vigilance,” ensuring that the cosmos remains orderly. Thus, the world is not inherently safe, instead it is inherently unsafe and precarious.
In the chaotic worlds of the present, constructed for film audiences as realities rather than science fictions, there is little hope for improvement of contemporary conditions. To restore control, and in some cases, perpetuate and capitalize on political and economic chaos, a Behemoth-like response structure emerges, one that requires going beyond the rule of law and traditionally accepted political activities, moving on to the condoning of violence, murder, and, in some cases, the threat and use of massive force. In each of the films, “conspiracies of power” are the norm. In Lord of War (2005), the end of the Cold War has resulted in the inability of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who are also the five major sellers of weapons, to control the illicit distribution of arms. Massive amounts of weapons, previously under Soviet control, have flooded onto the market and been sold to Third World regimes involved in civil wars or political strife. While the global community uses Interpol agents to try to control the gunrunning, ultimately if the receivers are politically aligned with current U.S. interests, the weapons shipments can continue. In Syriana (2005), oil companies, government officials, and the CIA all conspire to make sure that the flow of oil from the Middle East to the West continues unabated. Moderate or reform Arab leaders must be eliminated to ensure that Western control of oil is maintained. In The Constant Gardener (2005), the conspiracy involves a global drug company, a drug testing company, British political officials, and the British Secret Service. Together they are willing to kill investigators who might reveal their plot to unwittingly test hazardous new drugs on impoverished African populations. In Battle in Seattle (2007), to ensure continued world economic policy domination, the global superpowers must employ the local police and political officials to ensure that counter messages conveyed by protesters are successfully silenced. Voices of dissent must not be allowed to unite. The continuance of the Behemoth-like structures ultimately depends upon such conspiracies going largely unrecognized by the public and the use of propaganda to demonstrate that the battle against chaos must continue unabated.
Finally, in “A Depiction of Evil, Order and Chaos: The Symbiotic Relationship of Law and the Supernatural in Film and Television” (Greek & Britto, 2016), the topic returns to Gothic elements embedded in contemporary horror film and serial television. In combining religious/supernatural and criminological themes within the horror genre, patterns begin to emerge that can be discussed through the application of several theoretical perspectives, including Gothic criminology. The data for this research included six films and two television series. The films included The Awakening (2011), Sinister (2012), The Possession (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Oculus (2013), and Deliver Us from Evil (2014). The two television series were the extremely popular zombie serial The Walking Dead (2012) and American Horror Story: Asylum (2013). For this project, films and television episodes were chosen based on stories situated within the realm of the paranormal (a very prominent subcategory) as opposed to serial killer films, for example.
Although none of the films/episodes could be categorized as realistic depictions of crime, elements of the justice system response to evil and criminological themes are present in the majority of them and are an important point of analysis. What role could the legal system possibly play when faced with the possibility of monstrous, supernaturally induced evil? Paradoxically, the scripts’ treatment of law enforcement serves to validate the presence of ongoing supernatural evil. To instill a sense of believability in the supernatural, police and the criminal justice system must be depicted as ineffective. Humans, even police officers, cannot fight the forces of supernatural evil. The justice system cannot capture, judge, or punish that which is preternatural, and thus cannot reform, deter, or incapacitate a demon or spirit. The supernatural exists beyond the realm of natural law’s jurisdiction. In many of the films, the possessed human beings cannot be held accountable for their evil actions, since it was the demons within, and not their own free will decision-making, that caused deviant behavior. In a post-apocalyptic world like that depicted in The Walking Dead, law cannot maintain order if the population does not recognize the symbols of law, nor respect the persons that attempt to employ them. The horror genre thus sends a disturbing message to its audience: law and order is not sustainable, as it is not grounded in the realities of a universe subject to the intervention of Gothic forces. Only if people believe in this construction of society and the consensus of the power of symbols can a semblance of order be maintained. The absence of a viable governmental and law enforcement institution in these apocalyptic filmic examples amplifies “repressed cultural anxieties,” pointing to national security emergencies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as instances that coincide with a renewal of zombie narratives in popular television and film media. Thus, when disasters happen in the real world, widespread fear and anxiety is played out visually in film and television through the horror genre and Gothic visualization.
Gothic criminology may have also an aesthetic dimension. Picart and Greek in their studies emphasized the changing role of the monster – from classical Gothic narratives to recent Gothic fiction and movies. This invites us to reflect on the common aesthetic features that unite contemporary Gothic products. Khapaeva proposes a concept of Gothic Aesthetic (Khapaeva, 2013) that can be regarded as complimentary to Gothic criminology. It contributes, from an aesthetic perspective, to the question that has been asked earlier in this essay, namely “what has been lost in removing the capacity to talk about evil from scientific language and academic discourse?” and to what extend has this incapacity to talk about evil made the aesthetic of rejecting humanness a dominant trend in contemporary popular culture?
Since the early 1990s, the monster of the popular culture products affected by Gothic Aesthetic has acquired a new role. Contemporary audiences are supposed to identify with monsters and to see the world through their eyes. However, it would be mistake to consider this monster as the Other – a marginalized victim of oppression, for instance. Vampires, zombies, cannibals or serial killers are murderous monsters, who are idealized by the creators and the consumers of popular culture. No matter what romances may be part of such narratives, the primary role of these monsters is to denigrate people, reducing them to food, or to instrumentalize them. The monsters are so widely acclaimed precisely because of their cultural function, which is to deny the value of human life and reject the idea of human exceptionalism. They are expressions of the radical antihumanism that has become the popular culture’s most desired commodity (Khapaeva, 2017).
Another feature that unites current blockbusters featuring monsters – such as Twilight, The Harry Potter series, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Hannibal (TV series), etc. – is that their plot and setting work to immerse their audiences in a nightmare-like trance. Plots organized around a pursuit, magical powers resembling dream state experiences, sound and visual effects (or their equivalents in fiction) are all used to undermine ordinary perception. The ultimate goal is to disconnect the audiences from the reality of one’s own self, to allow them to become “liberated” from the “humble human nature,” facilitating self-identification with a nonhuman monster. Over the past two decades, the imitation of nightmare has become the most popular setting and plot, and a state sought out by readers and viewers because the nightmare creates an ideal framework for a radical rejection of humanness and human subjectivity (Khapaeva, 2013).
Another important contributor to the ongoing development of this theory is British criminologist Michael Fiddler (2007). In particular, he has focused upon dark spaces, particularly prisons, as depicted in film. His discussions of Shawshank Redemption and other films build upon Gothic criminology further enriching his analysis with additional concepts such as Freud’s notion of the uncanny. In a second case study, Fiddler (2013) analyzed recent British home invasion films from a Gothic perspective. Rather than being a protective haven in a heartless world, home invasion films show that evil easily penetrates the home, bringing unreason and potentially fracturing identity.
The Future of Gothic Criminology
Given the growing overlap between mass media accounts of real-world examples of monstrous evil and their fictionalized counterparts in film and television, it would appear that there is a growing need for theoretical models that attempt to seriously analyze this phenomenon that go beyond the current fascination with “fear” (Bauman, 2006; Curtis, 2004; Glassner, 1999). Recognition of the continuing influence of the Gothic, and its overlapping use by Hollywood, the news media, and, increasingly, the plethora of social media outlets spawned by the Internet, including those spreading dark tales that constitute fake news, can assist in the understanding of how primordial and monstrous evil has impacted human history, influences our present condition, and is predicted to be part of the future.
The Gothic model seems already deeply embedded into Hollywood’s overall take on the future, pictured as a dark, dystopian existence brought on by humankind’s own unwillingness or inability to deal with contemporary global issues such as overpopulation, climate change, competition over scarce resources, and the propensity for solving problems through violent conflict. One of the unique aspects of the Gothic model is its ability to root both contemporary and future interpretations of evil as an ongoing phenomenon which was much more easily identified perhaps in the past and currently; nevertheless, human behavior seems to persistently demonstrate our inability to overcome our darker natures.
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