By CARINA CHOCANO
September 2, 2011
In the blustery wilds of Suffolk County on Long Island, in a seaside hamlet that was once a thriving whaling village, a young girl is raised by a prominent family. Her father — an impulsive and reckless figure given to fits of sudden rage — had been beset by legal troubles and was sent to prison for three years. During this time, the girl is pressed into service, perhaps to help with the cost of rearing her younger siblings, and soon she is projecting her phantasmagoric doppelgänger out into the cinemas of the world.
When the patriarch emerges from prison, he is enraged to find that the girl’s affairs are being controlled by what he considers to be his wife’s parasitic family. The girl, meanwhile, has taken up residence in a gloomy and most certainly haunted chateau perched atop a hill overlooking a somewhat frenetic village. There, she experiences a series of mysterious afflictions and is repeatedly institutionalized by patriarchal figures amid struggles to gain control over her estate and mental health. The excesses of her ancestors (cocaine abuse, alcoholism and D.U.I.’s) come back to haunt her. After a valuable necklace mysteriously appears in her possession, the girl, now escaped from the haunted castle, finds herself imprisoned once again, this time in her home. Her mother, meanwhile, is declared mad in a Mother’s Day poll of “10 Craziest Hollywood Moms” on Hollyscoop.com. That pretty much seals it. And thus we recount the tragic tale of Lindsay Lohan, modern gothic heroine.
Lindsay, Britney, Paris and all the lesser lights (if such dimness can be conceived of) who reside in the world of tabloids, both paper and online, may seem like a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon. And it’s tempting to see our obsession with their stories as yet further proof of our (at best) inability or (at worst) unwillingness to confront the true horrors of our modern age: war, recession, mass layoffs and endless financial panic. But 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. In the wake of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade described the resurgence of the genre as “the inevitable product of the revolutionary shocks with which the whole of Europe resounded.” As Fred Botting writes in “Gothic,” the genre reflects our unresolved feelings about “the nature of power, law, society, family and sexuality,” along with issues of social disintegration and collapse. A rebellion against rationality and the ego, gothic represents both the irrational id and all our fears about that id.
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.
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.
One reason for the enduring appeal of the gothic genre is that while it tends to trot out the same old images and literary devices, it takes care to cloak these devices in a contemporary guise. Victorian gothic, for instance, was haunted by the theories of evolution and the unconscious; the changing roles of women in society; and rapid advances in science and technology. The crumbling castles of yore gave way to crime-infested urban centers, while fear of villains and ghosts were supplanted by anxiety about primitive impulses, incipient madness and barely repressed moral depravity. (See, for example, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”)
If all this felt scarily inescapable back then, what came next was more pervasive. In the 20th century, Botting writes, “gothic is everywhere and nowhere,” as its “narrative forms and devices spill over from worlds of fantasy and fiction into real and social spheres.”
If 2007 seemed like the year in which real-life celebrity gossip turned gothic, it’s probably because new-media outlets that stormed the industry — outlets like TMZ and PerezHilton.com — had by then ditched the business of worshiping celebrities for the more lucrative business of persecuting them. Suddenly, we found ourselves transfixed by tales of young women moving unprotected (or legally emancipated) from the relatively sheltered condition of parent-managed child stardom (because who, nowadays, is more cut off from the world than a child star?) into a corrupt and dangerous world where they exist in a constant state of uncertainty and peril. And they were often placed in this peril by the very outlets that then shaped their resultant antics into thrilling, chilling tales of suspense.
So the trajectory of the modern tabloid starlet does not recall the 18th-century, Brontëan model, in which the heroine emerges from her ordeal stronger and happier, thanks to her intelligence, independence and strength of character. (Lohan is nobody’s idea of a contemporary Jane Eyre.) Rather, the modern starlet harks back to the 1790s, when Ann Radcliffe was writing “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” which is considered the archetypal conservative female gothic. As Maggie Kilgour notes in “The Rise of the Gothic Novel,” the literary critic David Durant has called Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolpho” a novel of anti-education, or unbildung, because its heroine suffers enormous losses and endures terrible ordeals before reclaiming her inheritance and reuniting with her true love — and yet she remains essentially unchanged by her experiences. (What could sound more like modern tabloid exploits?) This also recalls the much darker vision of Radcliffe’s contemporary, Matthew Lewis, whose novel “The Monk” was a kind of reaction to her conservatism: it reimagined the plot of her book as one in which every foreshadowed horror is eventually, inevitably, gruesomely played out. Lewis’s characters live in a world in which innocence can never be restored, but can only be destroyed.
This same tension — between horror as morality tale and horror as decadent spectacle — is still at play in tabloid stories about wayward starlets. The way their stories are framed depends to a large extent on whether they “sort themselves out,” in the manner of the erstwhile cautionary tale Nicole Richie, or they don’t. What matters, ultimately, is the appearance of a specific kind of normality. As Kilgour writes, it was in “The Monk” — the story of a depraved monk falsely believed to be virtuous — that we first saw a division between “an appearance of innocence and integrity, and a reality of evil and doubleness,” opposites that “hypocrisy superficially reconciles” in the story “by confusing the natural and the artificial.”
Of course, confusing the natural and the artificial is now the defining tactic of the world of tabloid gossip and reality TV. As recounted in a recent article in The New York Times, sites like TMZ and Radar Online set out to create “addicts online” by inventing a business model that passes off celebrity gossip as breaking news and then provides a continuous flow of such gossip, sometimes more than 30 exclusive items a day. In describing the predatory practices of contemporary tabloids, the article made reference to the scandal sheets of the 1950s, which not only paid for dirt on stars, but also demanded celebrity “sacrifices” in exchange for protecting the reputations of bigger stars. A different Times article, this one on tabloid practices and the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, pointed out that TMZ is owned by Time Warner, the same conglomerate that owns Warner Brothers and People magazine. Back in the 1950s, tabloid magazines’ practices cost the studios money. In these days of vertical integration, it’s hard to say which is more profitable for the parent company — a hot young actress making a movie or the same hot young actress making a scene at a nightclub. That’s Franken-synergy at work.
Maybe Paris and Lindsay intuitively understand something about the business of being a celebrity in the 21st century that wasn’t true back when the studios were outing actors like Rory Calhoun to protect more bankable stars like Rock Hudson, as Henry E. Scott describes in his book, “Shocking True Story.” Maybe they understand that being famous in the 21st century has almost nothing to do with a part in a movie or a TV show, and that the business of being famous has not only transgressed its original parameters but quite possibly vacated them.
Fame is now just a crumbling, haunted castle where the counterfeits (e.g., tabloid and reality stars) await the inevitable return of the repressed (e.g., a hidden criminal record, a stripper past, bankruptcies, secret children or a history of spousal abuse). In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, formerly of MTV’s “The Hills,” talked about how they labored for years under the illusion that they were in control of their own narrative — even going so far as to fake every breakup and reunion — only to find that the story they invented will, in reality, never cease to haunt them. The recent suicide of the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” husband Russell Armstrong underscores this point. 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, sometimes more than 30 times a day.