Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

The Aesthetics of the Tangible: Haptic Motifs and Sensory Contagion in Gothic Terror Films

Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

The Aesthetics of the Tangible: Haptic Motifs and Sensory Contagion in Gothic Terror Films

Article excerpt

I want to hold you in my arms. My hands will glide over your hair and I will feel your body trembling beneath my hands.

-from The Hands of Orlac (dir. by Robert Wiene, 1924)

The cinematic gothic experience is intricately cross-modal and multisensory. With their highly sensorial images, by which I mean images that appeal vividly to the senses, gothic films facilitate and promote experiential engagement in their viewers. Touch, in particular, holds a privileged place in the gothic imagination, with the image of the hand featuring as a recurring iconographic motif. Elizabeth D. Harvey observes that touch 'occupies a complex, shifting, and sometimes contradictory position in the representation of the five senses in Western culture'.1 Throughout history, Harvey explains, touch has been depicted in myriad ways, either hailed as the most invaluable sense or, conversely, as the basest.2 In scholarly criticism on gothic cinema, the sense of touch has so far remained understudied, with priority usually being given to sight and the eye, along with the co-related notions of 'voyeurism' and 'the gaze'. Nonetheless, there is much to learn from the careful exploration of other related sensory modalities, namely the haptic.3 Luís Rocha Antunes claims that 'the medium [of film] is audiovisual, yet our experience is multisensory' 4 In agreement with Antunes, I suggest that by switching the focus from sight and hearing to touch, we can better understand how certain films use the senses as a central strategy to create gothic spaces. Specifically, this essay employs Georges Braque's concept of 'tactile' or 'manual space', and Fredric Jameson's understanding of the senses, as purveyors of memory, as useful lenses through which to understand the space of the haptic in gothic films.5 'Touch' is understood here in a broad sense, and includes what might be called the 'hapticity' of certain filmic sequences - that is, 'the way vision itself can be tactile', as Laura Marks defines it.6 In particular, in this context, this essay asserts that such tactile motifs and spaces have acquired singular contours in the gothic cinematic tradition, where they build on the terrifying and horrifying potential of touch.

Since the 1990s, many scholars have researched the experience of watching film as an embodied act of perception, often in connection to the audience's visceral responses to horror.7 The image intensity of body horror, however, moves beyond the kind of evocative cinema that concerns me here. Instead, this essay focuses on mapping the sensorial routes of the characters in gothic spaces, and examining the ways in which touch is used to convey a sense of terror in a number of mid-twentieth-century films that should be categorised specifically as gothic, rather than as horror films. Paul Rodaway employs the expression 'sensuous geographies' to convey the idea that the senses constitute a privileged lens through which to address the physical rapport between the human body and its surroundings.8 The gothic, I argue, can be read in terms of a sensuous geography, whereby the senses guide both the actions of the characters and our experience of the story. Moreover, underlying the gothic's sensuous geographies, this essay argues, is a resilient process of sensory contagion between bodies, places, and objects. As Mark Paterson reminds us, touch 'is a sense of communication'.9 Gothic films often treat this 'communication' in frightening terms - as a matter of contamination, of the self being infected by the other via sensory contact - so that to explore the vast sensorium of the gothic is also to engage with questions surrounding the construction of identity in the films examined here.

This article is structured around five case studies, examining three well-known productions - William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946), and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) - and two relatively unknown films that have largely eluded critical study - Marcel Carné's gothic fantasy Juliette, or Key of Dreams (1951) and John Harlow's bizarre possession story, While I Live (1947). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.