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The new gothic horror: Madness and mystery in celebrity tabloid culture

It wasn’t one of my subscribed RSS feeds, Google alerts, or Twitter streams that alerted me to a recent and really interesting essay at The New York Times about the uncanny parallels between classic gothic literature and modern tabloid culture. Rather, it was my sister, who, appropriately enough, is a journalist based out of witch-haunted Salem, Massachusetts. How she found it before I did — short of supernatural interventions, that is — I’ll never know.

The essay appeared on September 2 at the Times website under the title “Tabloid Trainwrecks are Reinventing Gothic Literature.” It also appeared in the paper’s Sunday Magazine as “The Tragic Heroes and Doomed Heroines in Our Collective Tales of Terror.” Its thesis is that our collective obsession with the nutty, twisted antics of the celebrities who populate our modern media landscape — and by “our” I’m assuming the writer, media critic Carina Chocano, is referring mainly to current American and British culture — is a contemporary expression of the same psychological impulse that underlies the popularity of the classic gothic fantasies written by the likes of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Summaries of the unspooling celebrity meltdowns and crises reported (created) in the tabloid media recall the standard plots and themes of these older stories, right down to the fact of sounding the same tropes of tragic heroines (think Lindsay Lohan, Anna Nicole Smith, Heidi Montag, Paris Hilton), dark psychological afflictions, intergenerational family conflicts and secrets, and so on.

I dig the suggestion that we’re all now “participating in some kind of weird gothic metanarrative in which the celebrities were cast as monsters and the rest of us were standing around holding pitchforks or, at least, rolled-up copies of Us Weekly.” This really resonates, and I choose to interpret it as more evidence of the truly apocalyptic (veil-lifting) nature of our unfolding collective cultural moment here in the 21st century. Terrence McKenna said again and again that our future lies in the imagination, in a world where what we can imagine is truly what we are, once we’ve reached his envisioned omega point in which human consciousness fulfills its evolutionary arc by actualizing on the material plane the realities encountered in psychedelic experiences. As a confirmed fan of John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, a movie in which the merging of individual psychic life with deep ontological reality unleashes an overtly Lovecraftian situation, I can’t help speculating about the unpleasant possibilities inherent in the bard McKenna’s vision, and this is surely one reason why I find Ms. Chocano’s exploration of the very real gothic-horrific aspects of our collective psychic projections in the tabloid media to be so charming.

When people talk about a contemporary gothic revival, they’re usually talking about Romantic fictions like “Twilight” and “True Blood.” But it’s in the so-called real world of the tabloids, Internet gossip sites and reality TV that the genre is truly thriving. With their troubled heroines, haunted castles (or bad-vibe hotels), fakes and counterfeits, long-buried secrets, madwomen, controlling patriarchs, damsels in distress, reckless cads, depravity and the looming threat of financial ruin, these stories are striking for their endlessly recurring themes of excess, addiction, decadence and madness. And like the pursued heroines of 18th-century novels, the waifs of the tabloid stories seem at once abject — doomed to wander the wilderness while being poked at by the villagers wielding sticks and telephoto lenses — and trapped: sealed off in the glass dungeons of their fame.

… As frightening as the actual news has been, these tabloid tales aren’t mere escapism. In fact, there’s something about these familiar narratives that exquisitely embodies the hysterical excess, madness and sheer existential nihilism of the moment. Gothic is the genre of fear, and our fascination with it is reliably revived during times of anxiety and upheaval.

… This kind of neo-gothic tabloidism seemed to spike right after the death of Anna Nicole Smith in early 2007 — a starlet who, up until the moment of her demise, was a more traditional kind of horror show. In the same month, Britney had checked herself out of rehab, walked into a hair salon in Tarzana, Calif., and shaved off all her hair. By then it was clear that we were all participating in some kind of weird gothic metanarrative in which the celebrities were cast as monsters and the rest of us were standing around holding pitchforks or, at least, rolled-up copies of Us Weekly.

… Celebrities in the new gossip economy are simply the ghostly, gothic embodiments of our shared anxieties: about privacy, identity, social decay and the increasingly blurred line between reality and fantasy. They’ve willingly become the tragic heroes and doomed heroines in our collective tales of terror, abjection and ridicule. And in the eternal return of the Internet, they come back to haunt us as they themselves are haunted.

Full story at The New York Times.