Monday, 22 February 2016

Forshadowings: Performance Gothic in 'Over the Garden Wall' (Featuring 'Penny Dreadful' and 'American Horror Story')

In our next session, Sheffield Gothic is continuing with this semester’s theme of ‘performance Gothic’. This week, we turn to the silver screen: Penny Dreadful, American Horror Story and Over the Garden Wall. Frequent visitors to this blog will perhaps recall that I’ve gushed about Over the Garden Wall, Patrick McHale’s 10 part 2014 animation about two brothers searching for a way home, here before. Last time, I refrained from discussing the show in depth so as not to give too much away. But this would be a relatively pointless post if I did that again so consider this your spoiler warning.

Like Penny Dreadful and American Horror Story, Over the Garden Wall is firmly rooted in Gothic tropes and conventions. As I discussed previously, though its premise is hardly original in itself, OTGW treads familiar ground with new and very different feet. Visually and thematically it exists within the tradition of American Gothic, of Edgar Allan Poe and of New England Gothic. Over the Garden Wall uses these familiar Gothic elements to encourage certain expectations in us as readers (or in this case, as viewers). We see the forest, with its autumn leaves and its roads that lead to many strange places but never to home, and we begin to anticipate certain things. In the second episode, Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee, our protagonists, Wirt and Greg, stumble upon a remote village enjoying their harvest festival dressed in odd costumes (it’s pumpkins, they’re wearing pumpkins). The show plays on our expectations, encouraging our suspicions and leading us down the well-trodden path only to lead us astray at the last moment. Our pumpkin headed villagers mean the brothers no ill will: the holes they’ve had Greg and Wirt dig are not in fact their own graves, but the existing graves of awaited villagers. Who are skeletons. They’re all skeletons.

What a wonderful harvest...

Our prior experiences of the Gothic have trained us to be weary of certain signifiers and Over the Garden Wall plays with this. The fifth episode, Mad Love, draws heavily on elements of both classic eighteenth century texts and the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Wirt and Greg, accompanied by girl-turned-bluebird Beatrice and Fred the talking horse who wants to steal, travel to the mansion of Quincy Endicott to acquire money for a ferry crossing. Endicott, alone in his sprawling mansion decorated with Georgian sensibilities, is in love with a portrait. Or, the ghost of the woman he has seen in a portrait. A gentleman of questionable sanity, alone in house steeped in antiquity in love with a portrait- stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But what we expect never occurs. As it happens, the woman in the portrait is in fact Endicott’s neighbour and business rival. Their mansions are simply so large, they’ve joined together without them realising. They merge their businesses and live happily ever after. No horror, no terror, no tragedy, no fall.

Of course, as experienced consumers of the Gothic we are also trained to be doubtful of the signs and signifier’s texts offer us. But regardless of whether or not we spot the twists or notice the false leads, Over the Garden Wall leads us (literally) into the unknown. In the first episode, the Woodsman warns the brothers to beware the Beast that stalks the Unknown for lost souls. Wirt dismisses the warning and the shows distracts the viewers as it follows the boys through their series of misadventures. Whilst there’s much to say of the Beast itself and the shows conclusion, that I will continue to refrain from discussing. Amongst the pumpkin clad skeletons, singing frogs and demon possessed girls OTGW distracts us from the real danger to be found in the Unknown. It creates a world that exists within the sphere of familiar, well-worn Gothic tropes and conventions yet manages to create something original from within it. 

Typical reactions during a reading group meeting...

Over the Garden Wall is many things, but perhaps one thing that it is not is tired or clichéd. Often when conventions are recycled or reimagined, the resulting product is predictable and unimaginative. OTGW proves that it’s possible to avoid that. Of course a cast of excellent voice actors, catchy musical numbers, and memorable one liners don’t hurt. 

Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield. She likes potatoes and molasses... if you want some, oh, just ask us!

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