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Subversion of a (Gothic Horror) Genre - 'Frankenstein and What Lies Beneath'

Sep 07, 2008 1321 Words
Genre is the French term for type, or class of composition. It is the classification of literary works according to common conventions and elements of content, form, or technique so as to prevent audiences from mistaking it for another kind. Today, traditional genres are being adapted to suit modern context to better represent the values and beliefs of modern society. The gothic horror genre is an example of a genre that has been adapted to remain relevant and suit modern context through the subversion of its canonic conventions and the incorporation of modern values. Mary Shelley’s canonic text ‘Frankenstein’ and Robert Zemeckis’ modern film ‘What Lies Beneath,’ are both examples of traditional and modern adaptations of the gothic horror genre. The novel, ‘Frankenstein’ contains the hallmarks of a canonic gothic horror text, and represents the context and values of the time that the genre was developed. The film ‘What Lies Beneath’, however, contains subversions to incorporate the feminist rhetoric but still retains the hallmarks displayed in ‘Frankenstein’. The gothic horror genre developed around the time of the industrial revolution in Britain. New technology and the advancements in science led the writers of the time to express their ideas and beliefs about the rejection of god for science in the form of fiction. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was written during the nineteenth century in Europe, a time of patriarchy, where scientific advancement was taking place and people feared the rejection of god. Dr Victor Frankenstein represents the rationale of the era with his enthusiasm for natural philosophy and science in all its forms. He becomes obsessed with the creation of life and how to obtain the secret of life. Rejecting ethical and moral values and religion, Frankenstein sets out to create a Man, skipping the birth process, rejecting god, and testing the advancement and possibilities of science. Frankenstein creates his monster, and abandons it. It then seeks revenge for its abandonment and the hatred shown towards it and seeks out to destroy everything Frankenstein had loved. The monster represents the tyrannical male of the genre, overpowering the female characters in his desire to seek revenge on Dr Frankenstein. ‘Frankenstein’ contains all the hallmarks of a traditional gothic horror text. Traditional gothic horror elements and conventions are present throughout the whole text. . One of the major elements is the idea of man creating life, skipping the birth process and therefore casting god completely out of the picture, giving the text a dark and unpredictable feel. This feeling is emphasised with the fact that there is more than one setting throughout the text as the characters travel from place to place. All the locations they venture to have the same lurking, secluded, and melancholy atmosphere. In the beginning of the story Victor Frankenstein dreams that the monster he created would kill the love of his life; Elizabeth. This ‘prophecy’ is fulfilled in chapter twenty three when Victor, worried for her safety, sends his wife to her room using the line, “I earnestly entreated her to retire”. He then checks the house in every place possible for the monster, building up suspense and an atmosphere of mystery as he searches for his foe. The mystery and suspense reaches its peak when Victor hears a “shrill and dreadful scream”, also showing the traditional convention of the “damsel in distress”. The suspense is intensified when Victor hears the scream of Elizabeth and is frozen in a moment of horror, its described in the line “ My arms dropped, the motion of every muscle and fibre was suspended; I could feel the blood trickling in my veins and tingling in the extremities of my limbs. This state lasted but for an instant…” He rushes to her room only to find her lying dead on the bed. She was overpowered by the large tyrannical male and murdered. Victor goes through a lapse of high, overwrought emotion, and this is shown effectively in the line, “fell lifeless to the ground.” He then finds her dead in her room, and instead of chasing the monster, faints to the ground. The context of the time is revealed throughout the text by the values, and patriarchal views of the characters. The male characters are the smart, successful, strong, and powerful beings whilst the women are seen as the possessions of men, treated like sensitive, vulnerable beings, and play the role of the emotional and loving carers, and supporting partners to the men. It is a very patriarchal context and this is shown with the women being killed off one by one and not defending themselves with anything other than a “shrill scream”. The women in Frankenstein’s time had a negative effect on feminism. They were seen as possessions of men rather than equals. Feminism draws on many issues from sexuality, to a woman’s place in society, to relationships and is a perspective that is relevant and distinguished in today’s society. It also means to stand up for the rights of women. Unlike the women in “Frankenstein”, the women in ‘What Lies Beneath” show strong signs of feminism, where Claire, the fragile housewife who has been forced to give up her ambitions to become the obedient wife whose only role is to support her husband, subverts the convention of the ‘damsel in distress’, becomes a powerful character as opposed to the vulnerable victim. Claire becomes a feminist and overcomes the overpowering tyrannical male that is her husband; Norman. “What Lies Beneath” uses some traditional gothic horror conventions, but some of these conventions have been adapted to meet the values of modern context. In ‘What Lies Beneath’, Norman plays the role of the overpowering tyrannical male; He lives in his dead father’s large, old home by the lakeside. The house appears to be gloomy and secluded as the weather and the atmosphere intensify throughout the movie, creating suspense and mystery. Madison is a victim of Norman, and is the Supernatural being that helps Claire to solve the mystery of her murder. There are supernatural encounters throughout the film, in the form of images appearing in water, dogs barking, the picture frame falling constantly, and the computer screens loading MEF. Together, Claire and Madison go through a series of event to overpower Norman, the tyrannical male. Therefore creating the Female protagonist, breaking the patriarchal mould of gothic horror, and promoting feminism. Claire’s attire at the start of the film is always light coloured and seems peaceful and domestic, however the transition to feminism is represented in the scene where Claire seduces Norman in the red dress. From then on Claire’s attire changes from peaceful colours to stronger, more dominant colours, representing her new found strength. ‘What Lies Beneath’ is a symbolic pun in the sense that it pretty much sums up the entire theme of the film. There is something ‘beneath’ the surface, dishonesty beneath the surface, and the whole theme of deception and things hidden under the surface. The film contains a bluish tinge, working with the water to emphasise the supernatural element that is the water. The name is also symbolic of this. The most supernatural encounters occur whilst the characters are in the bathroom, where the water is a means of communication for the supernatural being, and the water is the means of overpowering the tyrannical male. The bathtub scene is an example of the subversion of ‘damsel in distress’ and is so because, unlike the Justine in “Frankenstein”, Claire fights for her life, and with the help of Madison, injures Norman, and saves herself from death.

It is evident that, for the gothic horror genre to remain relevant. The genre has adapted to modern context to incorporate modern values and beliefs into its conventions and hallmarks. The comparison between the classic “Frankenstein” and the modern “What Lies Beneath” proves that if the gothic genre doesn’t adapt, it loses its relevance in today’s modern context.

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