Review: Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters

Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Judith Halberstam. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Pp. ix + 215.

Through a judicious selection of horror classics and gothic imagery, Judith Halberstam reexamines the classic “gothic” monster for the modern age. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters looks at how gothic monsters create and exemplify the cultural fears of both Victorian and modern times, revealing that the horror they produce in audiences has little to do with psychological fears that critics commonly cite and everything to do with their ability to embody the unexamined affects produced by the fear of the Other. Halberstam argues that formerly dominant psychoanalytic critiques of Victorian gothic novels and modern horror films fail to capture the source of monstrosity that leads to visceral reactions in audiences who embrace these works. By revisiting Gothic texts under an affective lens, she shows that the monsters that so frighten audiences channel nascent fears of sexual and cultural otherness. In this way, she shows how these depictions of monsters are more revealing about the societies that produced them than about the psychic troubles of individual characters.

Much of Halberstam’s analysis depends on her ability to recast widely recognizable Gothic works under the affect theories variously produced by Sigmund Freud, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari.  By discussing affect theory with direct examples from widely known novels and films, she shifts the study of the Gothic monster away from what she sees as a limiting psychoanalytic focus to an examination of how these figures produce horror within the audiences that consumed them.

One of the most prominent features of Halberstam’s book is her skepticism of the current focus on psychoanalytic criticism in relation to Gothic monsters. She believes that critics do not consider how the Gothic tropes within Victorian and cinematic depictions of horror create their own “psychology of self” and how cultural production factors into these narratives’ ability to create an affective reaction in their audiences (8). This stance leads her to challenge strictly psychoanalytic readings. However, she does acknowledge that psychoanalysis can assist with “negotiating between the psychic and the social and … show how some social mechanisms are internalized to the point that they are experienced as internal mechanisms,” a fact that she uses to enhance her own affective reading of the Gothic (8). Similarly, her readings of Freud’s paranoia case studies, especially those surrounding Schreber, “draw attention to the mechanics of fear production and to suggest the ways in which fear and desire seem to be produced simultaneously within the Gothic narrative” (107).  Comparing the traditional view of paranoia to this combination of fear and desire allows her to highlight the monster’s ability to garner a much more specific and visceral reaction than what Freud defines as paranoia. By juxtaposing her own work with psychoanalytic criticism, Halberstam defines her own position and affect theories within the critical study of Gothic horror.

At its base, Skin Shows discusses horror in Gothic literature and films as an affect produced by a foreign Other, who differs from the so-called normal in a variety of ways, producing terror by embodying the unknown. Most often, this Other appears in the form of a monster who is sexually different, and thus deviant, and audiences use that “doubled monstrosity … to fix meaning in the body of the monster” to experience horror at otherness while still maintaining enough distance to not acknowledge their own differences (84-84). As this fear is projected onto the body of the monster, they gain an outside look at their own perceived otherness, casting it as monstrous and defining themselves against it, thus enforcing cultural norms. However, even while refusing to acknowledge their own differences, their reactions to the Other through the symbol of the monster causes reactions ranging from pleasure to paranoia as “the subject [seeks] to gothicize ‘others’ while attempting to elevate or purify the self” (117). Gothic monsters thus serve as their creator’s attempt to codify and define that which is outside the audience’s ability to describe. The unnamed thereby gains a physical form that can be combatted, unlike a nebulous and unacknowledged concept that audiences do not know how to manage. By reimagining the Other in a somewhat familiar human form, authors and directors furnish their audiences a way to experience this fear of an Other without admitting to its presence within their own bodies.

Halberstam begins her analysis with an in-depth examination of the Victorian novels that serve as a foundation for the Gothic monster and the horror films on which the second half of Skin Shows focuses. She argues that the Victorian monster owes its existence to a cultural terror about the outsider as Other. Beginning with a study of Shelley’s Frankenstein, Halberstam presents monstrosity in physical form, as “Frankenstein’s monster makes flesh itself Gothic and … therefore, maps out a new geography of terror and finds fear to be a by-product of embodiment rather than a trick played upon the body by the mind (28). Since the creature literally embodies a multitude of other individuals and bodies outside the control of Victorian society, it serves to bring together various Victorian fears of foreign influence. Focus then shifts to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, as both The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray reflect an anxiety about the immoral outsider hidden within what appears to be an upstanding British citizen, leading to paranoia and displaying the constant struggles to know who belongs within Victorian society. Halberstam finishes her look at Victorian gothic novels with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose titular count is a foreign sexual force that threatens the chastity of British women and thus generates fear in an audience desperately seeking to maintain its own perceived superiority over outside forces. Through this close reading of Victorian texts and their affective power over nineteenth-century audiences, Skin Shows concludes that Gothic monsters serve as vessels for fears about the unknown.

After having established the monstrous outsider that horrified Victorian audiences, Halberstam moves to the evolution of these monsters into the Other and “its ability to be multidimensional in terms of the horror it produces” that dominates depictions of monsters in modern horror films (110). Her sixth and seventh chapters explore how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs translated Victorian gothic forms to reflect a fear of monstrous sexuality in modern horror movies. “The ease with which the monstrous form can take the imprint of race or sexuality, of class or gender” forms the basis of these analyses, as they suggest “Gothic form is precisely designed for the purposes of multiple interpretations” (84). Under this reading, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre explores the body itself, twisting what is intimately familiar into a gruesome source of destruction, reducing the body to splatter. The process “simultaneously pulverizes otherness and sutures it to new and increasingly odd subject positions” as the audience watches the “becoming-monstrous of a woman” who crafts “a massacre of [her] own making” (160, 143). One of the case readings that most clearly utilizes affect theory, the look into paranoia in The Birds, discusses a “transference of horror from a specifically unnatural body to nature itself” (24). Through this imagery, “the supposed horror of the masses coming together to assault the cozy existence of the middle classes” becomes realized for the film’s audience, thus feeding into and realizing their paranoia (137). In Halberstam’s final chapter on Silence of the Lambs, the Other is made even more horrifyingly unknown, as the movie’s questioning of gender and sexuality through the character of Buffalo Bill and his obsession with female skin illustrates the horror of the seemingly ordinary that conceals a monstrous interior. This film “represents the horror of the extraordinary and the horror of the ordinary side by side” and in doing so reveals similarities (26). By examining these well-known horror films, Halberstam shows how the Gothic tropes of Victorian novels fit the public’s fear of the Other within themselves that, unlike their Victorian counterparts, acknowledges the horror contained within their own skin.

By concentrating on close readings of popular Gothic works, Halberstam exhibits both the greatest strength and weakness in her analysis. The limited focus on explaining the affect triggered by specific characters can make it difficult to apply her ideas to other Gothic texts, especially those that do not have such defined monsters. She largely ignores the historical evolution from Victorian Gothic novels to modern horror movies, choosing to focus on affects of pleasure, pain, horror, and paranoia created in the two time periods as opposed to examining how those affects developed over time. Despite this, by basing her analysis on such specific works, she clearly explains affect theory, popularizing access to this new way of viewing the Gothic and encouraging other critics to provide the expansion of her theories that she does not.

Overall, Halberstam provides a compelling analysis of the evolution of monstrous affect in Gothic works, tracing the development of how authors used fears of “otherness” to produce horror. Her close readings of well-known Gothic texts allow her audience to better understand her analysis of the influence of Victorian and contemporary fears on the Gothic monster and how it produces horror, as she connects well-known concepts to the affect theories that her audience are most likely not familiar with, especially in relation to Gothic works. Skin Shows provides an insight into the components of the experience produced by Gothic fiction that highlights the social effects that are both reflected and perpetuated through Gothic tropes, inspiring affective reactions of horror and paranoia through the symbol of the monstrous Other.

Stephanie Derochers