Mark Edmundson’s Nightmare on Main Street is divided into three disparate, but connected, chapters. In the first chapter, “American Gothic,” Edmundson outlines the rise of the gothic sensibility in his own psyche and in popular American culture. In the second chapter, “The World According to Forrest Gump,” he examines some cultural themes that constitute a weak and somewhat pathetic response to the premillennial gothic mode. In the third chapter, “S & M culture,” he searches for signs of a visionary force that might provide a counterpoint to the negative impact of the gothic impulse on American cultural reality.
Edmundson begins with a premise that hardly needs arguing: Terror and fear are increasingly becoming fundamental features of the American psyche. The American conviction that lust, perversion, and crime are the three pillars of public life, the national obsession with horror and degradation in entertainment, from motion pictures such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to the Oprah Winfrey show, and the insatiable desire for real-life gothic, epitomized by the trial of O. J. Simpson, all point to a major shift in the American sensibility from can-do, Emersonian self- reliance to a pervasive sense of danger, dread, and impotence in public and private life.
Edmundson finds that there are three main strains of gothic sensibility in contemporary American life. The first he calls “terror” gothic. Terror gothic has a long and somewhat prestigious history. One can trace its stirrings to the French writer Marquis de Sade and the real-life terrors of the French Revolution. In terror gothic, it is the individual who is menaced, and early literary masters such as Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis constructed novels with gothic conventions so compelling that they persist as a model for gothic traumas, both fictional and real, right up to the modern day: a ruthless, dark-browed tyrant, a beautiful and suppliant heroine, a haunted house or landscape, trusty servants, moonlight, eroticism, and knives. These are all ingredients in a formula well known since the middle of the eighteenth century. The question is why do these old gothic trappings reassert themselves so vividly in the 1990’s in America. Why, for example, did the murder trial of O. J. Simpson, containing a mystery no less perplexing than the one presented in Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), command center stage and hold the entire nation in thrall? What did the national obsession with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Michael Jackson, the Menendez brothers, and John Wayne Bobbitt say about the temper of contemporary America? How did these real-life melodramas connect with the fictional terrain of popular motion pictures: Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs (1990)? The gothic mind inevitably sees evil lurking everywhere and sees hypocrisy in all high places. This mind wants slasher films and lurid details. It savors the episode between American ice- skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding as much as the Richard Nixon tapes. It manages, in fact, to take a very few instances of terror and dissembling in public life and distort them into a worldview that fosters unwarranted suspicion and paranoia, if not full-scale fin de siècle despair—the ubiquitous “whatever.”
Edmundson dubs a second strain of gothic sensibility in American life “apocalyptic.” Instead of merely personal menace, the apocalyptic gothic promises to haunt the society at large. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, is the ur- apocalyptic gothic work. In it, the prototypical mad scientist, in full hubris, tampers with the sacred prerogatives of nature and attempts, through the agency of humankind’s puny technology, to usurp the godlike power of creating life. Nothing good can come of it. This basic schema was most successfully exploited in contemporary American film by director Stephen Spielberg in his blockbuster, Jurassic Park (1993). In the 1990’s, apocalyptic terror was evoked by fear of impending ecological disaster: Global warming, acid rain, and, most especially, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) all entered the national consciousness as righteous revenge for humanity’s incessant, egotistical, and immoral tampering with Mother Nature’s ways.
Edmundson, who wrote Towards Reading Freud: Self Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson and Sigmund Freud (1990), returns to familiar territory when he describes the third strain of the gothic impulse—“internalized” gothic. It is not enough to be beleaguered from the outside. Since the nineteenth century and the popularization of the ideas of psychoanalytic pioneer Sigmund Freud, it has been well known that the most gripping hauntings, or obsessions, or neuroses, or psychoses, as they are typically referred to today, are generated from within. No outside source can know a...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)