The EcoGothic: When ghouls go green

Steve Asselin, Queen's University, EcoGothic, Literature, HalloweenThe seasons are changing, summer is over, yet winter hasn’t quite begun. Nature is in flux. In this liminal time of autumn, the changing winds cause disorder blurring boundaries between life and death, the material and the spiritual. Halloween is upon us, where worlds usually kept separate are allowed to freely intermingle and the ghosts and goblins emerge from their crevices.

Originating in harvest festivals of the Celts, Halloween began as a celebration marking the change of seasons. As it evolved, narratives about the conflation of worlds and the tumult of nature gained popularity. Thus, the stories we tell to frighten ourselves during this time of year have long been rooted in our relationship with nature, which becomes weird and threatening as All Hallows’ Eve approaches.

This transformation of the familiar into something strange and haunted has been termed unheimlich by Gothic scholars, which literally means “unhomely”. Building upon this phenomenon, the term ecophobia has come to describe the alienation of humans from the environment, allowing us to behave in a dismissive or destructive manner. (The prefix, “eco”, is derived from the Greek word for “home”.)

The recent emergence of the EcoGothic, then, studies the conjunction of horror and the environment. In my classes, I encourage students to think about this intersection in the fiction they read, and in the way they see nature depicted in their everyday lives.

My research investigates the way this fear of nature manifests in Gothic and disaster fiction, where nature becomes hostile, and, in the case of Gothic, supernatural entities, or at least the suggestion of them, are present.

The earliest works of Gothic fiction were set in remote locations: isolated castles, estates, and monasteries. This isolation increased the inherent suspense of the narrative, but so did the setting—dark forests, or cavern-strewn hills and mountains—that typically surrounded these lonely outposts. Such environments represented wild and savage nature where fear of the unknown lurked in untrammeled territories, whether they were bandits, beasts, or the supernatural beings that came to haunt Gothic fiction.

These now classic creatures were directly tied to our own anxieties over our place in the natural world. The werewolf, for example, represents the fear of our primal, bestial selves—the underlying recognition that, after all, we’re just animals guided by animal instincts.

Vampires are strongly associated with immortality and their ability to turn into animals like wolves and bats, or into weather phenomena like mist. They represent a threat to our perceived place as a dominant species. In feeding on our blood, vampires are higher on the food chain than we are, the true apex predator. Their immortality flirts with our fear and obsession with death.

Even the current zombie craze in the media functions as a thought exercise about how we would survive if we stripped away the veneer of civilization and plunged back into a state of nature, competing with one another and always in danger of being eaten.

Conversely, Gothic fiction has also helped us make sense of our relationship with the natural world. A prime example of this is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book about the usurpation of nature, as a being is brought to life from dead body parts thanks to industry and technology, which were radically altering the environment of Europe in the 1800s. Frankenstein created the myth of the mad scientist that remains with us in contemporary clashes over humanity, nature, and technology.

In today’s world, environmentalists label genetically modified organisms as “Frankenfoods,” hybrid entities which, like the eponymous monster, might come back to haunt us. Likewise, through centuries of industrial activity, we have created our own version of Frankenstein’s Monster—climate change, making our global environment harder to predict, more extreme and more violent.

Understanding and overcoming ecophobia is key if we are to halt and reverse the damage done to our environment. We must come to see ourselves as intrinsically part of nature, rather than alienated from it.

Steve Asselin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature in Queen’s University. His areas of study include the long 19th century, disaster fiction, ecocriticism, speculative fiction, polar studies, and the Gothic. He is also the published author of over a dozen speculative short stories in a number of independent press venues, including his own horror fiction.

See the second part of our Halloween series on Why We Watch Horror Movies.


Tagged: Arts & Culture, Environment & Sustainability

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