Note: Unfortunately I won’t be able to post any images on this post because the exhibition wouldn’t allow us to take pictures. Boo!
A series of spacious dark rooms with black walls. Long, black curtains draping from the ceiling to the floor. Source of light? Only the spotlights lighting up multiple works displayed in glass cabinets. Somewhere in the distance, a high pitched scream. This is what one witnesses and experiences whilst walking through Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination.
The exhibition was divided into six sections each focusing on a different era of Gothic literature and how it progressed through the ages. The exhibition starts off with Gothic Beginnings where Horace Walpole is introduced. Through text and video we learn about his background and how he published the very first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. Moving on to the late 18th and early 19th century, gothic literature flourished and stories became increasingly violent and more outrageous which mirrored the escalation of violence during the French Revolution. The Victorian Era brought along a change of backdrop in gothic novels. Urban landscapes, such as towns and cities, became the new setting in which terror and wonder would occur. It also marked the first appearance of vampires, demon barbers and caped crusaders through a series of stories called Penny Dreadfuls. The short clip from the film Bride of Frankenstein playing in this room is discovered to be the source of the shrill scream that can be heard almost throughout the whole exhibition. The unstable transition from the old order to the modern world caused a dark awakening in gothic horror during the final decades of the 19th century. The human mind and body replaced the urban landscape and became the focal point in gothic horror as previous novels emphasizing the pursuit of pleasure and sensation were now inevitably seen as an association with moral and physical decay. Following this was a room dedicated entirely to one aspect of gothic horror – Dracula. This was a significant milestone and had a huge impact on gothic culture and as such warranted its own room.
Up to this point, the rooms were dim and somber and seemed to consist mainly of old books, transcripts and paintings. This changed drastically as we entered the modern era. The rooms were much better lit and monitors, computers and projections became more frequent. The increase of modern equipment could echo how technology “brought light” to new mediums, such as film and the internet, and helped enhance gothic literature. The last two rooms of the exhibition I thought were particularly interesting. The first was about the obsession that arose on the restructuring of the human form which consequently gave rise to the production of the zombie. Writers became interested in pushing boundaries and creating stories and films which included bodily terror. The room in which all these works were exhibited had bright red walls which perfectly represented the new fixation involving the human body. The final room was spacious with bright white walls on which vibrant photographs hung upon. Two mannequins dressed up in gothic-looking dresses stood in the middle of the room in big glass cases. I made my way around the room viewing the photographs whilst enjoying the gothic-punk music which filled the room. The pictures shown were taken during the Whitby Goth Weekend which has just entered its third decade. It is an event where Gothic enthusiasts dress up quite extravagantly and meet up to pay tribute to the history of Gothic culture.
The chronological order in which the art works were displayed made it easy to follow the evolution and growth of gothic literature throughout history. This also increased my ability to keep track of the artists and fully understand how each one influenced the other. Although the purpose of the see-through black curtains was to divide the various sections of the exhibit, I could not help but interpret them as ‘windows’ to the past that somehow linked all of the sections together – that although it is a different time in history, it is important for one to look back and learn about the origins of gothic culture. The increase of light as one moves further towards the end of the exhibit could also portray the gradual change of the public’s view on gothic literature over time. The dimly lit rooms at the start create a ghostly and mysterious atmosphere in which people naturally tend to become more cautious. Some might also feel slightly uncomfortable as it is not ‘the norm’ for one to be in place which lacks a considerable amount of light. This might be a representation of the reaction people had towards gothic literature when it was first introduced to them. They might have approached the subject with indecisiveness and discretion as one does when faced with something new and unfamiliar. The increase of lighting in the modern era could reflect how people slowly warmed up to the gothic culture and how they adapted to the change and slowly accepted it into their society and everyday life. The last room with the white walls proves that not only has the public grown accustomed to the culture, but has now move on to commemorating it at events made solely for the celebration of the gothic culture.