Horror and quality: when the Gothic gets gruesome in The Haunting of Hill House.

Curator's Note

Contemporary television has seen both a rise in what might be deemed as 'quality' drama content, and of horror content. The cultural prestige of Gothic literature adaptations feeds into the notion of quality television. But what happens when the perceived cultural legitimacy of the Gothic, and its suggestive and atmospheric attitude to terror, meets a more visual approach to horror? The clip presents us with clear codes and iconography from the Gothic. But the hanging sequence is unequivocally and terrifyingly horror. It melds the Gothic sublime with the visual manifestation of the horror event, the repetitive hanging of Nell.

To look at the Gothic, Nell ascends the spiral staircase serving as a manifestation of her disorientation. Olivia hands over the locket to her daughter, passing on her madness and suicidal tendencies. As Nell grasps her neck she understands her own actions, and finds herself on the wrong side of the banister. The child in Nell once more calls to her “mommy,” who administers a kiss of death. Nell drops and her neck snaps. Nell is still aware, she drops and snaps again and again, traveling in a backwards chronology of her own previous visions of the Bent Neck Lady. Nell realises that she is the Bent Neck Lady and has been haunting herself all these years.

This relentless and tragic suicide by hanging is opposed to the traditionally suggestive nature of the Gothic text. Instead of hinting at the terror of Nell haunting herself, Hill House is instead explicit in the visual manifestation of driving this home. That such a visual scare erupts from this tragic scene demonstrates shifts between horror and perceptions of quality. The Gothic and associated conventions are combined with a feeling of freefall felt by the viewer, as the rope repeatedly strains and the neck repeatedly snaps. The base pleasures of horror (fear, shock and physical response) meet head to head with the more cerebral, ‘quality’ Gothic. In The Haunting of Hill House, the Gothic turns gruesome and truly horrific.


There's so much television out there at the moment that treads this line between quality and horror and I had never thought of it in terms of the Gothic before, but it makes perfect sense.

I would be interesting to examine whether or not the more a programme is coded as Gothic the more it is presumed to be a quality text!  

From my other research I have found that the prefix Gothic serves as a greenlight as it were, to either explore horror on the part of the makers, or to enjoy horror on the part of the critics. For television, as it starts to play with the many facets of horror, Gothic has become a useful term for distinguishing one horror serialization from another. With some series being incredibaly popular (The Walking Dead), the Gothic in television might be a way to elevate a series away from all the other TV horror going on. Its not just another zombie show, or a show that is gleefully violent, its Gothic. Come and watch!

There's certainly a scholarly and critical persistance in distinguishing 'horror' from 'the gothic' that in many cases relates to heirarchy and legitimacy - as per both Shellie and Stella's comments above. I think this often ignores the ways that certain texts have been produced, marketed and watched as horror (a kind of de-contextualisation), and also doesn't embrace the ways creators have infused or intertwined the two modes to the point they become indistinguishable. 

As an aside, I'm struggling to think of any scene in recent TV history that upset me more than this. The reveal is horribly heartbreaking.

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