Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Gothic Literature & Film Noir

By the nineteenth century this style of writing which “characterized elements of fear, horror, death, gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion (; was made notable by authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe & Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was the works of these authors that eventually created the new era of “film noir” shortly after.

           Film noir translated as French for “black cinema”, quickly brought the same kind of darkness and fear to the air that Gothic Literature had. Emerging in the early 1940s, Film noir gave the public a first view of what we call today, “the thriller”. Like Gothic Literature, film noir paved the way for the use of interior settings which included supernatural elements. It is these supernatural elements that brought desire, weariness, confusion, and nightmare to film; presenting the audience with an alternate world from the real (Cobblestones and Doppelgangers 18). In addition to creating a whole new look on setting, the Gothic Literature created new atmospheric conditions for the world of film. Emotions being one of the key conditions that these writers worked from was also a way for them to convey expressionism on the movie screen. The expressionism of the films emotion was created in the way that the scenes of the film were shot by camera. The emotions could be brought to life by the way the camera glided across the face of a character showing a brief expression of uneasiness or fear. One of the other common ways these Gothic works were expressed was through weather; where most of the time the climax of the story being told would take place. Another key theme taken from Gothic Literature and placed in the noir film was the theme of “insanity”. It was the psychological themes that were prominent to this era of film because it is what brought to life the overwhelming paranoia and anxiety that viewers would feel while watching these films.

           It was film noir that first brought the idea of psychoanalysis to film/cinema. Brandon Lanthem, the author of a journal titled “Cobblestone and Doppelgangers: How Gothic Literature Contributed to the Dawn of Film Noir” gave the best explanation behind the use of psychoanalysis in the noir: “psychoanalysis is the pursuit to explain an individual’s actions by uncovering deeper, subconscious desires and fears…” (20). The use of psychoanalysis is what created Alfred Hitchcock’s notable cinematic thriller Psycho (1960), and the forefront to the use of the “double” in film. This kind of use of the “double” can be seen in films such as Psycho and a few others which I will later analyze. The use of the “double” can best be described by Freud in his essay The Uncanny:

“They involve the idea of the ‘double’ (the Doppelgänger), in all its nuances and manifestations - that is to say, the appearance of persons who have to be regarded as identical because they look alike. This relationship is intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of these persons to the other - what we would call telepathy - so that the one becomes co-owner of the other’s knowledge, emotions and experience. Moreover, a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own. This self may be duplicated, divided and interchanged.” (141-142)

As you can see there was a lot of material from Gothic Literature that influenced film noir, and continues to have an influence on film today.

           The theme of the “double” has become popular over the past centuries because of the work that nineteenth century authors published. However, while the theme of the “double” has continued to stay popular, the interpretations and meaning(s) behind it have not stayed as popular. Here again lies the question of “what is it about the theme of the “double” that causes the uncanny/fear in a person; especially in film/cinema. In a section of Pilar Andrade’s text Cinema’s Doubles, Their Meaning, and Literary Intertexts, Andrade makes a discerning remark about the “double” and how it is perceived.

“But the double can also be contemplated from a different perspective, because it breaks, as the Romantics/Gothics knew well, our usual perception of reality. With the presence or appearance of another self or “other,” some important doubts emerge questioning first the identity of this double (who are you?), but also and as a counterpart, the very self-identity of the original (who am I?) and of his/her perception of reality (is what I am seeing real? Is it imagination, hallucination?). Thus, the double questions one of the basic rules of logic: that of non-contradiction. It makes evident that (being A the original and B the copy) the proposition “A is always equal to A and different from B” is incorrect. An exact copy of a human being works with another proposition: “A is always equal to A and equal to A and equal to B...”(2)

Andrade’s statement from above is a very well thought break down of how the “double” is perceived in reality. His statement also points out how in film the use of the “double” plays on what is real and what is just imagination; it is this point of view that he says develops that thriller genre of the “double” in film. In terms of perceiving the “double” in the actual context of film(s), it is used in relation with the protagonist character. For the most part, the “double” is represented as a fragmented division of the character’s psyche. Most importantly, just as the myths about doppelgangers say: the double appears because the character is being plagued by their fragmented psyche.


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