Happy Hallowe’en from Lady Lazarus!

death_the_bride

Myself dressed as “Death the Bride”. Halloween 2013.

My Hallowe’en costume this year is channelling the melancholic romanticism of a tragic, Edgar Allan Poe heroine*. On October 31st, I shall fall into a despair that leads to madness, succumbing to a death-like trance. This will prompt my bereaved loved ones to prematurely bury me in the family crypt. Afterwards, my restless ghost shall arise for revenge, and chocolate.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

*my costume is also channelling the morbid romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Thomas Cooper Gotch — a morbidity best captured by his 1895 painting entitled (as you may have guessed)  Death the Bride.

"Death the Bride" by Thomas Cooper Gotch. 1895. Oil on canvas

“Death the Bride” by Thomas Cooper Gotch. 1895. Oil on canvas

Nostalgic for sleaze, part I: sex, violence and newspaper movie listings.

“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
– Edgar Allan Poe.

The impossibly busty Chesty Morgan was a grindhouse fixture in the 1970s.

I may be dating myself here, but I am a child of the 1970’s. One of my favourite childhood activities involved sprawling across the living room floor with the newspaper, closely studying the movie listings in the Entertainment section. Why, do you ask, was a young child so thoroughly fascinated by the listings in the movie section? Simple. The latter two pages of the movie section were customarily reserved for advertisements for the drive-in theatres and the smaller, single-screen (and second-tier) movie houses, typically referred to as the grindhouse theatres. And these theatres promised that which you could not readily access anywhere else: the sleazy, the pornographic, the violent, the gory, and the shocking. In short, the lurid subject matter of the exploitation film. The hardworking Ontario Censor Board had effectively shielded my innocent eyes from viewing such troubling content on TV and in the movie theatres, but their efforts did not prevent me from finding it elsewhere. In fact, as the above quote from Edgar Allan Poe suggests, it was precisely due to the forbidden nature of this content that I felt compelled to seek it out. And so, my preadolescent self scrutinized those back pages of the movie section, trying to imagine — unsuccessfully, no doubt — just how “the vampires do it”, or marveling at the intimidating assets of Chesty Morgan. After all, it was the latter part of the 1970’s and the heyday of schlock and exploitation cinema.

A movie print advertisement for “4 orgies of evil”, as it would’ve appeared in the newspaper.

Now, for the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to place these grindhouse movie listings in the proper context. These listings served as my only window onto a dark, seedy and alternate world, one that ran parallel to the family-friendly bright lights of the local cineplex. While I was far too young to view these films, simply the knowledge of their existence thrilled me. This was the era that predated the proliferation of videotape, and was several years before the DVD or, yes kids, even the Internet. If, for instance, you wanted to view what a human being might look like after being turned inside out, you’d have to trek from the cozy comfort of your suburban home into the inner city and plunk your money down at the kiosk of a grimy grindhouse theatre. In stark contrast, in this digital age of the 21st-century, you would simply Google “horror movie in which people are turned inside out,” and discover that Roger Corman’s Screamers is the cinematic gem you seek, then set about finding a copy online*.

This preamble about nostalgia and 1970’s movie listings is my long-winded way of introducing a new series of blog posts on the exploitation film. As the topics I tend to fixate on typically involve gender, sex and violence, I plan to focus my discussion on exploitation films that most clearly address these subjects: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and naziploitation.

Next up, flogging as a form of foreplay in the nunsploitation film.

*Here’s some fun facts about Corman’s Screamers, a re-released US version of Sergio Martino’s The Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
— an excerpt from the narrative poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. First published in 1845.

In North America and most of Europe, the raven is a bird that symbolizes ill-omen and doom. Due to its jet-black plumage, eerie call and carrion-eating tendencies, the raven and its smaller cousin, the crow*, have haunted the imaginations of mankind from time immemorial. American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe famously employed the bird as a harbinger of doom in his poem “The Raven,” an excerpt of which is offered above. The poem tells of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man’s slow descent into madness. The narrator — whom, it’s been suggested, represents Poe himself — mourns the loss of his dead love Lenore. The raven flies into the room through an open window and perches itself (permanently, as it turns out) upon a sculptural bust of Athena that rests above the door. It then proceeds to torment the narrator to the brink of madness simply by repeating the poetic refrain “nevermore” at the end of each stanza. For his part, the narrator engages in a curiously self-defeating game of “20 questions” with the raven, peppering the bird with questions to which — he’s fully aware — it can only answer “nevermore.” In true Gothic tradition, Poe’s “The Raven” is epic, highly theatrical, and steeped in a melancholia characteristic of that literary genre.

The crows begin to assemble on the play equipment behind the local school in Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963).

The crow, the raven’s smaller yet equally foreboding cousin, gets its moment in the spotlight in British film director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film “The Birds”. A profoundly intelligent and resourceful bird, a flock of crows is called a murder because “…the group will sometimes kill a dying cow.” Hitchcock capitalized on the silhouette of the menacing crows — not to mention their violent reputation — in his classic horror film in which birds inexplicably attack humans. Oh sure, the idea of violent attack from a single budgerigar seems ludicrous. However, as one character in the film points out, birds significantly outnumber humans on this planet, and if they did group together to get rid of us…

Mrs. Bundy: Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.

Salesman: Your captain should have shot at them… Gulls are scavengers anyway. Most birds are. Get yourselves guns and wipe them off the face of the earth.

Mrs. Bundy: That would hardly be possible… Because there are eight thousand, six hundred and fifty species of birds in the world today, Mr. Carter. It is estimated that five billion, seven hundred and fifty million birds live in the United States alone. The five continents of the world…

Salesman: Kill ’em all. Get rid of them. Messy animals.

Mrs. Bundy: …probably contain more than a hundred billion birds.

Drunk: It’s the end of the world.

Sebastian Sholes: Those gulls must have been after the fish.

Mrs. Bundy: Of course.

Boy: Are the birds gonna eat us, Mommy?

Mrs. Bundy[explaining that birds of different species never flock together] The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t have a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?

Like the drunk guy said, “It’s the end of the world.”

*What’s the difference between a raven and a crow? Read more here to find out.

Surrealism, alter-egos and private mythologies; conclusion.

The concluding chapter of my essay on the Gothic aesthetic and my thesis project The Disobedient Dollhouse. These excerpts from my thesis began with The Gothic House and The Abject…, respectively.

“In 1930, after having furiously and methodically composed my
novel ‘La femme 100 têtes’ I was visited almost daily by Loplop,
Bird Superior, a private phantom very much attached and devoted to me.”
— Max Ernst

Fig. #8. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the "Disobedient Dollhouse", 2009-10, lithograph.

Poised amongst the brood of bird-children sits the nanny, a character within my Disobedient Dollhouse that was modeled after myself. Downstairs in the kitchen, a second version of ‘myself’ cast as the household cook struggles with an absurdly large cooking utensil. These characters are the result of an amalgamation of Gothic heroines I have borrowed from sources such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and, most especially, Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Costumed in a fashion reminiscent of a Victorian girl, my ribbon bonnet, puffed sleeves and crinolined skirt (fig. #8) recall the famous wood engravings of Alice by British illustrator John Tenniel. By incorporating my own image into these characters, I have effectively embedded myself within this miniature world. This role-playing is one of the creative strategies I employ in order to generate a private mythology.

Throughout my visual art practice, I have used various legends and myths as cultural ready-mades into which I introduce my own personal symbolism and meanings. Over the years, these pre-existing myths have been absorbed into my artistic lexicon, contributing to a complex language of symbols by which I construct a private mythology. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which I can attach my idiosyncratic story.

Fig. #9. Jennifer Linton. "The Bitter Seed", 2000, coloured pencil and ink on Mylar.

Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.

The construction of a private mythology is a procedure that allows an artist to explore deeply personal and intimate subject matter while simultaneously maintaining a level of psychological distance. In my own work, I employ the strategy of role-playing as a means to address autobiographical content. In an earlier body of work entitled The Bitter Seed (fig. #9), I combined images of myself as a child with the character of Persephone, a heroine borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology. By adopting the role of Persephone, I universalized the idiosyncratic – depersonalizing the personal content. This process provides a psychological distance while simultaneously rendering the work more readily accessible to the viewer.
The mythological character Persephone has supplied my artwork with its most recurrent of symbols: the pomegranate. My series The Bitter Seed took its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:

“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter ‘…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…’”

To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. Persephone personified the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.

Fig. #10. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the "Disobedient Dollhouse", 2009-10, lithograph and digital image.

A pomegranate motif appears repeatedly throughout my Dollhouse. A highly stylized version of this fruit is featured in all of the stained-glass windows, and pomegranates adorn the wallpaper of the bedroom and the head and footboard of the bed. Two of the framed, miniature pictures that hang on the bedroom wall also contain the pomegranate. One of these framed pictures features a self-portrait, in which the curly locks of my hair transform into undulating, snake-like vines (fig. #10). These vines terminate in a single pomegranate, delicately suspended above my open palm. This self-portrait, however, makes only a vague reference to the pomegranate from the Persephone myth. Within the narrative of my current project, I no longer inhabit the role of this Greco-Roman goddess. The pomegranate serves not as a symbol of sexual subjugation – as it does within the Persephone myth – but rather as a symbol of female empowerment. The partially opened vulviform shape evident on the pomegranates throughout the Dollhouse make the linkage to female sexuality quite explicit.

Whenever an artist includes self-portraiture, the temptation for the viewer is to read autobiographical content into the work. Such is the case in my work, although this content is largely mediated through my use of symbolism and mythology. The grotesque and dreamlike imagery of the Disobedient Dollhouse obscures any straightforward reading of autobiography, softening the distinction between ‘the invented’ and ‘the real’ elements. The dark, psychologically tumultuous material that the Gothic would seek to conceal, and the Freudian psychoanalytic model to repress, my Dollhouse opts to place on display, albeit cloaked in myth and symbolism.

Blurring the boundaries between ‘the invented’ and ‘the real’ through the creation of a private mythology was a strategy often employed by artists who subscribed to the idiom of Surrealism. The fantastic and frequently grotesque imagery of Surrealist art closely relate to my Dollhouse’s otherworldly and Gothic-inspired content. In fact, the aims of Surrealism – to question rationality and uncover sublimated fears and desires – seem to echo the urge of Gothic novelists like Brontë to expose the concealed darkness of the human psyche. “Surrealism and the Gothic share a decisively anti-Modernist stance,” wrote curator Christoph Grunenberg, “rejecting Modernism’s emphasis on order, rationality, and purity.” One of the most ‘gothic’ practitioners of Surrealism – and an artist whose work was dedicated to the manufacture of a private mythology – was the visual artist Max Ernst.

The collage-based books and graphic work created by Ernst possess an especially heightened quality of the Gothic. To a large extent, this quality derives from the source material Ernst used to construct his collages, which included wood-engraved illustrations taken from 19th century French popular fiction. The subject matter of these ‘pulp’ fiction books and periodicals generally involved:

“…torrid love, torture, crimes passionels and the subsequent incarcerations and executions (by guillotine), hatreds and jealousies among the very wealthy and the very indigent…”

These are the same dramatic, sinister and darkly romantic themes that typify Gothic fiction. Ernst’s disjointed juxtapositions only served to amplify the already emotionally charged content of his source material.

Fig. #11. Max Ernst. Illustration from the novel "Une Semaine de Bonté", 1933, engraving based on collage.

One of Ernst’s most famous collage novels is Une Semaine de Bonté (fig. #11), in which the days of the week are represented by seven seemingly arbitrary “deadly elements” such as the “Lion of Belfort,” bats, serpents and dragons, and the mythological character of Oedipus. It is in the latter chapter concerned with Oedipus that the bird-headed creature named ‘Loplop’ first makes his entrance into Ernst’s novel. The hybrid bird-man Loplop was a creation with which Ernst closely identified. His identification to the bird-headed man prompted many of his contemporaries to view Loplop as the artist’s alter-ego, an association that Ernst strengthened through his writing in Notes pour une biographie. Ernst frequently mixed actual autobiography with his Surrealist art, making it impossible to distinguish between the artist’s life and his wildly inventive stories. In one such account, Ernst forges a strong link between his early life and his artistic creation Loplop:

“1906. Head Bird Hornebom. A friend by the name of Hornebom, an intelligent, piebald, faithful bird dies during the night; the same night a baby, number six, enters life. Confusion in the brain of this otherwise quite healthy boy – a kind of interpretation mania, as if newborn innocence, sister Loni, had in her lust for life taken possession of the vital fluids of his favorite bird. The crisis is soon overcome. Yet in the boy’s mind there remains a voluntary if irrational confounding of the images of human beings with birds and other creatures; and this is reflected in the emblems of his art.”

Ernst’s motivation behind this conflation of his art and autobiography remains unclear. While writers such as Werner Spies describe Loplop as an “autobiographically tinged bird-creature”, there remains a degree of mystery surrounding Ernst’s personal attachment to his alter-ego. His complex vocabulary of recurrent symbols and characters, including the omnipresent Loplop, may have been more the result of a Surrealist intellectual game than a deeply personal expression of psychological catharsis. Driven by a fascination with psychoanalysis, Surrealist artists like Ernst frequently engaged in game-playing as a means to access the random machinations of the unconscious mind. The technique of collage was particularly well-suited to this end. Thus, Ernst’s juxtaposition of disparate images, such as a male figure topped with a bird’s head, could well be the result of his Surrealist investigations into randomness. Regardless, inspired by the psychoanalytic writings of Freud, his private myth-making created a forum in which he unearthed and explored the repressed material of the human psyche.

The bird-headed women that populate my Disobedient Dollhouse can be viewed as the great-granddaughters of Loplop. Female counterparts to Ernst’s invariably male creation, they inhabit a similarly enigmatic role. While it is enticing to read these bird-women as extensions of myself, this close association remains ambiguous. My own image is represented in the appearance of the ‘nanny’ and ‘cook’ characters. Cast in these roles, my social status within this world appears subservient to the two bird-headed women, one of whom leisurely plays at the piano. Has my character/s been enslaved by these menacing creatures and forced to care for their offspring while they lounge? Given my real-life status as artist, wife, and mother, one could easily attach this autobiographical reading. Caution should be exercised, however, to interpret these images too literally. Similar to the private myth-making of Max Ernst, my work contains as much theatrical artifice as it does legitimate psychological exploration. Steeped in dramatic excess, my Dollhouse is self-consciously prone to hyperbole.

The genesis of my bird-women has little to do with Surrealist explorations of the unconscious mind, but instead, are visual evidence of my recent interest in dioramas. In fact, the figure of the bird-woman holding the skeletal rodent was not only the very first image I created for this project, but she derived entirely from a taxidermy diorama I viewed online at the A Case of Curiosities web site. Anthropomorphic taxidermy dioramas were a strange passion of the Victorians. Walter Potter, one of that era’s most celebrated practitioners of this macabre art form, was renowned for his complex and large scale tableaux such as his Kittens’ Tea & Croquet Party (fig. #12). The ghoulish spectacle of Potter’s taxidermy dioramas neatly encapsulates the type of grotesque art to which I am drawn as an artist, and therefore, it is not the least bit surprising that these provided the creative ‘jumping-off point’ for my dollhouse project.

The hybrid bird-women and host of other grotesques that populate my Disobedient Dollhouse represent the wild, unruly and random elements of the psyche that stubbornly resist the process of repression. The nostalgic impulse that seeks to construct a too-perfect version of the past – one that suppresses the ‘dark family secret’ or other psychologically troubling material – is thwarted by these defiant monsters. The idyllic view of domesticity generated by nostalgia rejects the ugly, soiled, imperfect and dissonant. This romanticized construction is illusory and cannot be maintained. Shaken to its very foundations by the uncanny creatures that swarm its interiors, it will inevitably falter and collapse like the ill-fated House of Usher.

Epilogue: A Perverse Thrill

“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
— Edgar Allen Poe

The music builds to a crescendo that ends in a sudden, resounding crash, followed by silence. “She’s dead”, pronounces Dr. Markway after he grasps the arm that dangles limply from the open car window. This is the dramatic finale of Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, in which the character of Nell meets her end in a fatal car accident on the grounds of Hill House, remaining forever as the caretaker of the vindictive ghost who haunts the nursery in this classically Gothic house. “It was what [Nell] wanted, to stay here…” explains the clairvoyant Theo, “…she had no place else to go. The house belongs to her now, too…maybe she’s happier.”

Moviegoers have flocked, myself included, to horror films like The Haunting in order to vicariously experience the eerie and macabre. What is it about these frightening experiences that we find so intriguing? Much like the malevolent spirit of Hill House that beckoned to Nell, we feel urged by an inexplicable force to seek out the locked doors, hidden rooms and dark, mysterious corners of the Gothic house. The more we have been instructed by the rationality of science to reject the nonsensical, the superstitious, the absurd and otherworldly, the more we seem compelled to seek these out. The shadowy interiors of these cinematic and literary haunted houses have significantly shaped the construction of my oneiric house, the one that I dream with the endless doors and secret passageways. They also inform the grotesquery of my Disobedient Dollhouse. Rather than reject the absurd and uncanny, my Dollhouse celebrates it.

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The Gothic House; an excerpt

The following text is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis written, in part, on the topic of the Gothic aesthetic. I felt that this chapter of the paper might be of particular interest to those that read this blog. The “Disobedient Dollhouse” project to which I make reference was the visual art component of my MFA thesis. To view images from this project, click on the Gallery page located above the header of this blog. Enjoy.

“It was an evil house from the beginning – a house that was born bad.”
— The character of Dr. John Markway from Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting

I confess to being an avid fan of gothic horror films and ghost stories, a confession that may not seem overly surprising given the content of my work both past and present. The castles and aristocratic manors that I mentioned earlier as being critical to the formation of my ‘house of dreams’ arise from these sources (fig. #2). The heightened theatricality of a medieval cathedral, castle or historic manor has been incorporated into my oneiric house and translated into its endless doors and dark, secret passageways. The term ‘gothic’ that I use to specify a certain subgenre of horror fiction refers not to the tribes of ancient Germanic people from whom the name originally derived, nor is it related to the medieval art that also bears this name. Instead, the term derives from a chiefly British literary genre of the 18th and 19th centuries, originating with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel entitled, appropriately enough, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Gothic literature combined elements of both horror and romanticism and its themes typically involve death, ghosts, the supernatural, transgression, patriarchy and the female heroine. Much like the staged interior of a dollhouse, the Gothic novel reflected a similar tendency towards the staged and theatrical. Gilda Williams, editor of the contemporary art anthology The Gothic, described ‘Gothic’ as “a studied, adopted stance,” that is “cultured, sensual and affected”, a description that concisely captures the Gothic’s propensity for dramatic hyperbole.

Fig. #2. Film still from Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting.

A central motif to the Gothic narrative is the house, especially one haunted by ghosts – both literal and metaphoric – and the disturbing family secret that has been shut away in an underground crypt, a dark attic, or behind hidden doors. Beginning with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the genre has maintained a continual fascination with architecture. Perched on a hilltop overlooking a grey and perpetually soggy landscape, the dilapidated old aristocratic manor provided the Gothic narrative with its characteristic atmosphere of gloom and foreboding. Not merely a setting for the narrative to unfold, the Gothic house was frequently cast as a character itself, imbued with an uncanny – and often malevolent – sentience. This notion of a sentient house that is, by virtue of some inexplicable phenomenon arising from its very construction, a conscious being, is best exemplified by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in which the titular house claims the lives of the family that dwell within it. In Poe’s short story, the character of Roderick Usher believes that his family home is sentient through some mysterious combination of masonry and vegetation, and that the illness which plague both he and his sister Madeline have been caused by this house. Poe’s use of adjectives such as “eye-like” to describe the windows belonging to the House of Usher bestow an anthropomorphic quality to the structure, a quality which further underscores the notion of a sentient house:

“I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down – but with a shudder even more thrilling than before – upon the remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.”

In the dramatic conclusion, the moral and spiritual decay of the Usher family physically manifests in the destruction of the house itself – the building literally splits in two and sinks into the surrounding landscape.

Fig. #3. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the Disobedient Dollhouse, 2009-10, mixed media.

The structural features belonging to my Disobedient Dollhouse, while not as malevolent as those of the House of Usher, share some of the qualities of anthropomorphism and otherworldliness with its literary antecedent. Reminiscent of the “eye-like” windows of Poe’s creation, the windows featured on all of my exterior-facing walls are comprised of a stylized stained-glass pomegranate design that closely resembles the slit-shaped eye of a cat. These “cat’s eye” windows – all of them grouped in pairs – are most clearly evident from the brick exterior of the dollhouse, where they stare out, unblinking, at the viewer. Additionally, a repeating pattern of disembodied eyes gaze outward from the wallpaper of the kitchen (fig. #3), suggesting that the house itself bears witness to the strange events that are unfolding within. Upstairs on the wallpaper in the nursery, a legion of tiny, open mouths appear to silently scream in a gesture that mimics the endless squawking of the bird-children that inhabit this room. Much like the sentient house of Poe’s story, these anthropomorphic elements propose a house possessed of consciousness – one that not only contains supernatural events, but may also be the generator of them. The desired effect I aim to achieve is a disquieting exchange between the Dollhouse and the viewer, as the walls of the dollhouse uncannily return their gaze.

The crowning glory of any Gothic house is, of course, the attic. Similar to its close relative the cellar, the attic is a mysterious and seldom-used room where items – both material and psychological – are stowed away. The attic located within Bachelard’s oneiric house is a place of light and rationality, whereas he characterizes his cellar as the “dark entity of the house” that “partakes of subterranean forces” of the irrational, unconscious mind. In an inversion of Bachelard’s house, the attic that tops my Dollhouse is a shadowy place that offers a single window through which the dark interior may be viewed. Following the convention of most contemporary dollhouses, a cellar room is not represented in my Dollhouse, although the small cupboard door beneath the stairs – through which vine-like tentacles emerge from darkness – seem to hint at the “subterranean forces” present in Bachelard’s cellar. Peering through the attic window, the viewer encounters a snake-tentacled monster with a single, gigantic eye returning their gaze (fig. #4). This strange Cyclops is positioned slightly off-centre and is thus partially obscured by the outer wall, the bars of window frame, and the darkness within. The very purposeful positioning of this creature follows the time-tested horror film adage that “a monster you can’t see is scarier than one you can”, granting the viewer only enough information to understand that something sinister lurks within this space.

Fig. #4. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the Disobedient Dollhouse, 2009-10, mixed media.

The attic is the only enclosed room within my Dollhouse, allowing a very limited access to its interior. As such, it is the most private and mysterious of all the rooms. If I imagine myself descending from the attic onto the second story of my Dollhouse, where the nursery and the bedroom are located, the level of privacy compared to the attic decreases. While a bedroom is generally considered a very private and intimate space, the contents of my bedroom are fully on display, thus negating privacy. One of the crucial features of a dollhouse is the lack of complete enclosure of the miniature, thereby admitting access to its interior. This access facilitates play in a children’s dollhouse, and allows for display in the dollhouse designed for adults. Whereas the ground floor and second story of my Dollhouse adopt this convention of display, the enclosed attic rejects it. Whatever monsters and dark, troubling secrets hide within its shadowy corners, the attic will not reveal too readily. In this regard, the attic is the most “disobedient” of all the rooms.

The dusty and cobwebbed attic, dark and infrequently visited, provides the optimal place in which to discard the disused, unwanted, and the surplus. It can supply storage space for the cherished items of the past, no longer in use, as well as a hiding place for family secrets and other psychologically troubling material. The attic is a quintessentially ‘gothic’ space, where suppressed secrets threaten to rise up like a vengeful ghost. Given that my Disobedient Dollhouse is a Victorian-themed dollhouse, it is not difficult to imagine all of the wild, violent passions forbidden by that era’s strict social codes might be banished into the hidden corners of this room.

Concealed family secrets that slowly reveal themselves, threatening to unravel the apparent order of the household and causing a “…forced reckoning with a long buried piece of family history” is a classically Gothic trope. Like the ‘sentient house’, whose malevolence has assumed solid form within the structure of the house itself, the Gothic ‘family secret’ often physically manifests as an individual, or a ghost. In Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, the ghost of Madeline Usher rises from the family crypt – after having been interred there whilst still alive – and claims her deadly vengeance upon her brother Roderick. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, the violently insane Bertha Mason has been imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield Hall, literally bound by chains and guarded. Described as a “beast”, a “wild animal”, a “monster”, and likened to “the foul German spectre – the vampire”, the insane first wife of Edward Rochester represents the darkest and most dangerous of family secrets.

Literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their study of women writers entitled Madwoman in the Attic, draw a provocative parallel between the characters of Jane and Bertha in Brontë’s classic novel. They suggest that Bertha represents the “truest and darkest double” of Jane, embodying all of the wild, destructive passions that the genteel Jane consciously rejects. She can be likened to the wild, tangled vines that grow spontaneously from the chairs and bedposts in my Dollhouse, or the snakes that magically slither out from the folds of the bed sheet. Forced to dwell in the shadows of the attic for years, she reemerges into the light with an unchecked fury. The wild randomness of her actions, much like my snakes and vines, disrupt the social niceties occurring elsewhere in the house, serving as a forceful reminder that hidden secrets will inevitably “see the light of day”, and that the repressed will always return.

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