Reading the Gothic on a break


We would normally be meeting next Wednesday 4th March but I am away. According to the fortnightly pattern we would then meet on Wednesday 18th March, however, I am still away.

I will be back on Wednesday 25th March which I propose should be the date for our meeting. Feel free to comment, text, email, Facebook, tweet me to let me know your thoughts. I’d also like to know what you think our next text should be.


Hannibal: It’s enough to put you off your dinner …


Due to a technical malfunction and my back up plan failing, we ended up watching the Episode 1, Series 1 of Hannibal. It is my new dark/ Gothic series du jour as I wait for the return of Penny Dreadful. 

It is a challenging watch: dark, scintillating, slick and incredibly visceral. I usually find that I can’t eat meat for a good 24 hours after watching an episode. It is also problematic which becomes abundantly clear during this episode. The storyline follows a man who kills young women who look like his daughter as a way of coping with the fact that she is leaving to go to university. The murderer is a hunter and ‘respects’ his victims by using all of them. (Hint: he and his unknowing family eat them). In a key scene, he states about killing a deer: ‘It isn’t murder if you use all of them’. Given the viewers knowledge of the crimes of Hannibal Lecter, this episode immediately engages with concepts of consuming meat, how we kill, and who we think it is acceptable to kill. The murderer in this episode is no sadist – he does not torture the girls and gives them the painless death that most people hope for their chosen meat.

The key interplay in finding the murderer is between Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne), a behavioural psychologist in the FBI; Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a lecturer in the psychology of serial killers who was rejected by the FBI due to failing a personality test; and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who is the psychiatrist Jack asks to protect/ work with Will. Mikkelsen is excellent as Lecter – seductive but still keeping the viewer uncomfortably aware of the danger inherent in his presence. It is suggested from the outset that Will failed the personality test due to being on the autistic spectrum. Will’s awkward social interactions – his closest companions are stray dogs who takes into his home – are contrasted with the cultured and charming Lecter.

However, whilst it is positive to see a character on the autistic spectrum presented on our screen, there are a few issue with the presentation of Will. Firstly, Will’s ability to get into the mind of a killer is directly associated with autism. This gives the impression that all forms of behavioural issues and mental illness are linked. Secondly, secondary characters regularly treat Will as though he is a potential threat. Yet these secondary characters are FBI agents who specialise in abnormal psychology and would in all likelihood be aware that Will’s autism does not make him any more dangerous that other characters. Thirdly, the two women who show interest in Will do so in a way that suggests he is a lost puppy (made more explicit by his connection to dogs) that they want to ‘look after’ or ‘fix’ as opposed to a functional person in his own right. This trope of presenting Will as adorably damaged is insulting to both the character of Will as someone on the autistic spectrum and the female characters who show romantic interest in him.

Just as worrying is that the first episode centres around dead young women. It should be noted that later episodes feature a vast array of dead people but the lingering shots of dead young women in this episode almost made me stop watching. During the show we were in agreement that frankly the trope of the young, female victim was overdone and tired. We also took the time to research if it was even realistic – and it isn’t. Most figures suggest that you are more likely to be murdered if you are male and female murder victims tend to be killed by their partners and not a serial killer who carves his victims into disturbing tableaux. The image of the dead female can be seen in everything from fashion shoots to the anatomical Venus. There is a prurience in the desire to see dead women, which is played on in this episode of Hannibal, that moves wanting to see under the clothes and sexual penetration to wanting to see under the skin and violent incision. Elizabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body was the text that I read as an undergraduate that helped elucidate the uncanny sexualisation of the female corpse that recurs in many texts – especially Gothic ones.

Of course, the obsession with the female corpse, moved us to the next question in regards to Hannibal. Why are we so interested in psychopaths? Silence of the Lambs is often held up as the archetype of the seductive villain. Yet Iago was more engaging than Othello long before Hannibal. And is the very act of watching programmes like Hannibal betraying our own prurient nature and perverse desire to see the horrific acts laid bare for us? Not only do we want our killers to murder repeatedly we also want them to do so in increasingly bizarre and theatrical ways. We want a theme and, more importantly, a pattern. It is this pattern that can then allow us to get under the serial killer’s skin in order to understand why they are killing and thus discover their identity.

Hannibal fulfils this desire in an effective way – it mixes hyper-real caricatures of serial killers with a muted visual palate, crisp acting, and understated tone. What it fails to do, and this is its biggest downfall, is that it does not critique why we find such a morbid subject matter so entertaining. Perhaps there is no single answer to why this is the case but I would be interested in watching a drama about serial killers that at least tried to engage with the question.

The Results Are In!


Exciting news! More than one person voted (which would have been me) and I managed to insert a poll into a post and I managed to find the results.

So the results are, with 3/4 of the votes, the first episode of Penny Dreadful! I am super excited by this.

Can’t wait to see everyone and get our discussion on.

Review of ‘In the Flesh’, Series One, Episode One


After viewing the first episode of In the Flesh, the point was made that perhaps it was for the best that it was not going to get a third season. Whilst this may fly in the face of normal fandom, I found myself agreeing. It does not seem possible that a series could sustain such a degree of subtlety and intelligence that is expressed throughout In the Flesh.

Episode one manages to cover huge amounts of ground but in an entirely believable and understated manner. Whilst the premise may seem ridiculous – following a zombie attack in the UK, the zombies are rehabilitated back into society – it manages to peel away the layers of fear and hatred that create intolerance. The metaphor power of In the Flesh cannot be simplified. In many ways it is what you want/ need it to be. The Partially Diseased Syndrome patients (PDS, for short, and the medical terminology for zombism) could be those you are suffering any form of oppression: xenophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, or due to mental illness. The anti-zombie political parties within the series are noticeably prescient of the rise of UKIP – just transpose the word ‘zombie’ for ‘immigrant’.

The most powerful aspect of the series is that it never creates good or bad guys. Instead it helps you understand how people move towards extremism – there are dangerous people on both sides of the arguments regarding rehabilitating PDS sufferers. More importantly, it never lets you forget that PDS sufferers are potentially dangerous and that they are the monsters of your nightmares. You can entirely empathise with those who are scared of ‘zombies’ and rely on acts of hatred to ensure that they feel safe again.

By engaging with class issues and the rhetoric of the North/South divide, Dominic Mitchell, the show’s creator, shows how injustice breeds injustice. Many of the people who are against the integration of ‘rotters’ are those who are isolated within society. The Human Volunteer Force, who protected Northern communities when the government failed to provide protection, consists mainly of unemployed people and disenfranchised youths. When the approach towards zombies moves from aggression and destruction to rehabilitation and compassion, the members of HVF are left feeling useless and understandably frustrated that they have to return to less exalted roles within society.

As the terminology I have used throughout this review suggests, language is incredibly important and a marker of your allegiances. The head of the local HVF branch calls zombies ‘rabid rotters’ whereas the councillors in the rehabilitation centres call the them ‘PDS sufferers’. The subtle nuances of naming (with the potential for shaming) are implicit within the terms. If in doubt regarding the power of language consider the debates following Benedict Cumberbatch using the term ‘coloured’ in an interview – it is hard to be dispassionate when you are at the receiving end of intolerance. Regarding the different terms for zombies, in both cases the language of disease is evoked but whereas ‘rabid’ suggests incurability and danger, ‘PDS sufferers’ asks for sympathy for the diseased and hides the less PC term ‘zombie’ behind medicalised effacement. Importantly, ‘sufferers’ also suggests a lack of culpability for your actions – we are reminded that the PDS sufferers ‘did not decide to attack’.

Lest we should become too complacent about our liberality the PDS sufferers, it is noticeable that the rehabilitation centre (which is situated in Norfolk – a veiled comment about the inhabitants?) is a cross between a prison and a medical institution. The doctors may be sympathetic but there are armed guards posted at regular intervals. Recently there have been similar concerns about how many people suffering with mental illness are being imprisoned rather than treated. The parallels between In the Flesh and the ‘real’ world are many proving the intelligence of this programme.

The look of the series is understated and epitomises ‘kitchen sink’ drama. Palettes are natural and muted undermining the possibility of melodrama given the subject matter. There is also something delightfully British about the reaction to a zombie uprising – only the British would fight zombies with pamphlets and pass ‘Protection Acts’ following the decision to rehabilitate PDS sufferers. This attention to detail, from the pro-zombie posters in the schools to the painfully realistic visit from a local MP who is entirely out of touch with his constituents to vocabulary that surrounds the uprising – engulfs the viewer immediately. It seems impossible not to become emotionally engaged with the programme and its characters. The denouement of the first episode delivers a scene of such acute tension and pain that it leaves you breathless. Personally, I would love to see this series shown during PSHE lessons in secondary schools. It’s hard to believe a programme about zombies could have quite so much heart and soul and brains.

Details for the next Reading the Gothic and a Poll


The room for the next meeting of Reading the Gothic is booked. We will be meeting on Wednesday 18th February, 2.00pm – 5.00pm, in W102. This is the same room as last time and is full of light and within easy access of the Law Court cafe.

Now comes the hard bit. In order to prevent people from having to do extra reading we are going to keep with the theme of watching Gothic media. At the moment there is a split between watching the first episodes of GrimmPenny Dreadful, or Hemlock Grove. They are all excellent choices so in the name of democracy, I thought we should have a poll.

Ooh, it’s like trying to decide who to vote for in the next general election. If we have a tie or too few people vote, I will pull a name out of a hat.

See you next time!