Steven Bruhm

Dep artment of English, Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3M 2J6 (

Work in Progress:

The Gothic Child


In his 1898 The Turn of the Screw, Henry James observed that to include a child in a ghost story is to add a "particular touch," to give an effect of horror that goes "beyond everything." Such a statement turns two screws at once: first, James’s nineteenth-century child increases the effects of horror because s/he is presumed innocent of those complex and repressed emotions that constitute the Gothic. Indeed, James’s story pivots on the discrepancy between how much the narrating governess presumes the children see and what little--at least by way of the supernatural--they do see. But second, James’s proto-modern children do have secrets, they do know, and their knowledge is nuanced and layered. Like the child that Freud would soon theorize, the Jamesian child is by no means tabula rasa or Rousseauistic innocent. Rather, young Miles’s eviction from school registers an array of possible transgressions from stealing to lying to sexual dalliance. Thus, James touches on, if only vaguely, the crisis that twentieth-century Anglo-America would inherit in its definition of The Child: suspended between the blank slate and the desiring id, between humanistic perfectibility and a ravenous death instinct, the twentieth-century child is innocence always already sullied, virtue always already in distress, a Romantic revolution/revelation degenerated into a Reign of Terror. The Gothic Child, the book to arise from this research project, will tease out that treacherously suspended place as it articulates how the child in contemporary culture seems doomed to representation by Gothic tropes.

And the Gothic child has become a phenomenon in the twentieth century. Gaining momentum in 1950s novels like John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos or the 1957 blockbuster film The Bad Seed, the Gothic Child--both recipient and agent of terror--exploded into the late 1960s and 1970s, ranging from the demonically sired Rosemary’s baby and The Omen’s Damien Thorn, to the demonically possessed Regan MacNeil of The Exorcist, to the vampire children of Stephen King and Anne Rice. As my preliminary bibliography shows, Gothic children are big business, and the Jamesian "particular touch" that a child gives to the contemporary horror tale has seemed to eclipse every other. I propose to read this proliferation alongside another: baby and child-rearing manuals which, while not new to this century, have expanded into an enormous body of pseudo-scientific discourses. These discourses, I argue, continue the work of late eighteenth-century philosophy which attempted to construct the child as an autonomous being with a soul, intellect, and social rights distinct from those of the parents. However, these texts also create in "the child" a peculiar contradiction: their child is simultaneously a fully-fledged and developed human personality and an infinitely malleable, formable being who can turn out right if only the proper strategies are employed. This contradiction is made visible in the Gothic. Invented at the same time as Rousseau’s inauguration of the cult of child-worship, and coupled with an overtly Freudian recognition of the child’s sexual aggressions, psychological tensions, and forbidden desires --desires that problematize every aspect of our status as adults--the contemporary Gothic is a legible testament of the contradictions and anxieties around child-rearing. Thus, I want to analyze the anxieties of a culture bent on child-adoration, a culture that demands the worship of the child at the same time that it resents and fears that adoration. And I want to do so in two ways: first, by closely reading texts and film through the lens of a psychoanalytically based queer critique; and second, by conducting personal interviews with the four major authors of the contemporary Gothic child: Stephen King, Ira Levin, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub. Unlike existing interviews with these authors, I want to ask them theoretical ly informed questions: why do their works center so consistently on the horror of children’s knowledge? What accounts with the popular fascination with (and horror of) children’s sexuality? How do they see their characters’ imperatives to write as part of this cultural phenomenon? How has the Freudian project inflected the way the Gothic--and the Gothic child--get conceived in our culture?


What follows is a forecast of where I would like the book to go:

Introduction A Nightmare on Sesame Street

The theories of Locke and Rousseau mark out a child very different from that of Freud; the former imagine an almost infinitely construc table tabula rasa that is opposed by Freud’s biological and relational determinism. However, these three theorists can be brought together around one primary concept: the function of parental identification or incorporation through imitation as determining the child’s personality and character. As Eve Sedgwick has shown, a mandatory yet panicked incorporation of the other provides the fundamental structure for the paranoid Gothic, one no less operative in the figuration of Gothic children than it is in documents of homosexual panic (the subject of Sedgwick’s early work). Indeed, a Gothic panic is built into the very constructio n of the ego in psychoanalysis: Anna Freud was the first to suggest that the subject’s identification with an aggressor plays a necessary role in the formation of the superego, and Jacques Lacan argued that the superego is often associated in fantasy with a "ferocious figure." Through the mechanism of identification, the construction of a moral, social capacity in the child is synonymous with a kind of Gothic terrorism in that the moral order, represented by the figure of the superego, comes to be indistinguishable from the ravenous, licentious, and murderous id. In other words, the child’s identification with the parent makes the seemingly disparate agents of id and superego identical. By this logic, every act of subjectivation is potentially a site of Gothic terror. And in a way I hope to make clear, that terror belongs not only to the child or his/her subjectivity, but to the parent as well.

In my primarily theoretical introduction, I will establish the two chief areas of inquiry opened up by the problem of identification. The first is the child’s identification with the adult, the means by which a gendered identity is established. If identification involves incorporating the parental ego into the juvenile one, how does our culture regulate what aspects of the ego get absorbed? What parts of the parental adult self are to be taken up and what must be abandoned or occluded? How can we ever guarantee that that occlusion will take place? I establish here the fundamental contradiction of a mandatory identification that must police the very boundaries it needs to erode. With a certain turn of the screw, this contradiction structures the second major focus of the book, the adult’s investment in the child. From Wordsworth’s assertion that the child is the father of the man, to current child-rearing guru Penelope Leach’s claim to write from "babies’ and children’s points of view," to the New Age dictum to discover the child within, modern culture has sought to identify with and take up the psychic place of the child (a premise also underlying psychoanalytic and regression therapy). But such an identification not only does violence to the child by presuming it beforehand as a fully formed ego to be identified with, it also exposes the vicissitudes of "parent" as a cultural construct. Here I follow the work of Diana Fuss and Judith Butler on identification: they both argue that while identifications institute psychic connection and loving community, they also institute a series of repressions, repudiations, destabilizations, disidentifications that constitute the unconscious. These identifications, according to Freud, proceed from an earlier trauma or loss, producing ghosts that haunt the ego. Thus does adult identification with the child produce a range of Gothic terrors and psychoanalytically inflected anxieties. And it will be the purpose of the three main sections of the book to analyze those anxieties as they appear in particular Gothic narratives.


Section One The Self-Possessed Child

In the wake of psychoanalysis, child-rearing practices took on the imperative not to inhibit or repress the child’s "natural" desires, so that even in the conservative 1950s we see the influence of "progressive" theories of self-expression and freedom. However, cultural texts since the 1950s demonstrate that we are as afraid of the spirited child as we are determined to foster it. In this section of the book, I analyze this anxiety in two parts. The first, "The Child in Religion," will focus on Blatty’s The Exorcist (arguably the most famous articulation of the Gothic child). While the novel and film ostensibly reflect the horror America felt after the sexual and secular revolutions of the 1960s, they more properly open up anxieties about identification and its effects on the spiritual state of the child. Regan MacNeil may house a demon, but that demon was discovered by the exorcist Father Merrin on an archeological dig in Iraq. The priest seems to be a conduit for evil across geographical, generational, and gender boundaries. Like the other priest in the story, Fr. Kerras, he is caught between science and religion (he is both archeologist and priest, Kerras is both psychiatrist and priest), and is unable to keep these boundaries from blurring. Instead, it would appear in the tacit logic of the story that he implants evil in the body of the child and then reads it there, offering his own body as the receptacle that will incorporate and thus exorcize the demon--which doesn’t happen; Kerras’s body must absorb what Regan’s and Merrin’s give off. The narrative ultimately suggests that the religious purity with which Christian America would have its children identify is that which makes those children vulnerable to evil.

That Regan MacNeil is famous for her sacrilegious sexual knowledge raises the problem I will address in the second half of this section, "The Child in Sexuality." Here I will argue that while we want our children to imitate gender norms, the very act of imitation (identification through incorporation) opens up two disturbing conflicts. First, imitation of or identification with parental gender explicitly foregrounds the sexual in a way that we cannot accept in our children. Since Freud’s study of the Wolf Man--his own Gothic child--gendered positions are taken up with reference to one’s place in the act of genital coitus: paternal phallus, maternal lack. Yet, such clearly sexualized and genital positioning threatens an awareness in children that we have elsewhere declared is inappropriate, exploitative, even traumatic. Heteronormativity depends upon the child’s becoming the gendered parent while the primary signifier of that gender identity--one’s place in coitus--is to be banished from the child’s psychic register. This banishment creates a second and related problem: since gender is constituted as much by what it represses or repudiates as by what it performs as "natural," to demand imitation is to risk the child’s incorporation of these rejected eroticisms, these eroticized rejections. In texts and films like The Exorcist, King’s Pet Sematary and The Shining, Straub’ s Ghost Story, and Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, we see the problems of the child incorporating a gendered identity that we want to be without corpus. Parental identification comes to authorize exactly those sexual possibilities that parental identity repudiates.


Section Two Making Babies: The Gothic Child and the Paternal Crisis=

While the Gothic arose historically as primarily a woman’s mode, it directs much attention to the relationship between fathers and their children. This section of the book considers that relationship in both psychoanalytic and historical terms. If the paradox of mandatory and precluded identification produces the anxiety of Gothic sexuality in the child, then what investments might we discern in the parent, the supposed model for that identified sexuality? Here I consider the proliferation of Gothic texts within two fictions of male sensitivity: the rise of Sentimentalism with its Man of Feeling in the 18th century and the reconstructed straight male of late twentieth-century feminism. In both discursive projects, the male is simultaneously disempowered by the perceived cultural privileging of the feminine and empowered by the emphasis that such cultural privileging places on the emotional: men’s sensitivities, their roles as gentle parents, and their whole place within the heterosexual matrix are made the subject of a congratulatory discourse. In the first part of this section, "The Midwich Cuckolds," I will consider the place of the sensitive father within reproductive technologies. Fictions like Frankenstein, The Omen series, and It’s Alive use science and technology to fulfill the promise of the bourgeois heterosexual family that otherwise might not exist (and paradoxically, Victor Frankenstein’s actions ensure that the bourgeois family doesn’t exist). Yet, as The Boys from Brazil makes clear, genetic manipulation since the Second World War (if not since Shelley’s novel) connotes the building of the unnatural, the monstrous, the demonic. Gothic texts register a crisis in paternity by suggesting that the invention of the child as daddy’s boy--he who completes the political, financial , and social legacy begun by the father--destroys "natural" patrilineage. This destruction revolves around confusions of identity, such as when Frank Davies of It’s Alive admits that he had always thought Frankenstein was the name of the monster child, not the father creator: "So mehow the identities get all mixed up, don’t they?" Like a number of contemporary Gothic narratives, this one solves the crisis of paternity by reconstructing Frank as the sensitive, loving father (thus re-writing the Shelley novel) at the same time that he surrenders his child to death =2E Freud and Kristeva may be right to suggest that identifications, like that of the father for his son, are the result of trauma, but the trauma in the contemporary Gothic is the loss of paternal confirmation, the loss of the ability to gloss over the contradiction of paternity where the performance of fathering is that which puts the father most out of control

This heightened emotional bond with the son and its attendant violence comprise the focus of the second discussion in this section. "Daddy’s Boy" considers the ubiquity of the Gothic pedophile in the imperative to fatherhood. As the work of James Kincaid makes clear, Romantic child-worship authorized the construction of the pedophile who could safely siphon off our libidinal investments in children. This blurring of the boundary between the father’s natural and the unnatural desire for sons is explored in Gothic texts as early as M. G. Lewis’s One O’Clock and Godwin’s St. Leon. But in the post-Freudian arena, the child suggests more than attractive innocence. Freud and Kristeva sexualize nostalgia by seeing in the child an identificatory return to primary narcissism, to a time prior to our rupture from the mother. By this logic, sensitive fathers take up the position of the maternal as a way of healing the pain of maternal abjection. However, if we accept Fuss’s and Butler’s argument that identifications institute a series of repressions and repudiations, indeed that identifications are made out of repudiations, then the heteronormalizing of the maternal thesis seems less convincing. I suggest here that the Gothic horror surrounding the pedophile is, among other things, fueled by a crisis in the male’s mirror identifications, by the construction of the ego as an other that is self, a self that is other, and that libidinally invests the infant male body with an aura of desire. Using Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s reading of the body as phallic signifier in Lacan, I trace the mechanics of this crisis in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining. Ultimately, I argue that the Gothic child enacts the specular replication of the very process of phallic selving: the Gothic child is the incarnation of a mirror self who is simultaneously castrated (weakened, a child) and powerful (monstrous, knowing, desirable). (Part of this discussion is forthcoming as "Picture This: Stephen King’s Queer Gothic," in The Blackwell Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter.)


Section Three Fetus Papyraceous: Writing the Gothic Child

The Freudian concept of identification as incorporation of the other--a concept that has become crucial to the definition of panic and paranoia in this study--literalizes itself in the phenomenon of fetus papyraceous, the absorption in utero of one fetus embryo by its twin. Albeit a medical anomaly, this phenomenon is strikingly prevalent in the representation of the Gothic child. In Omen IV: The Awakening, for example, Delia (daughter of Damien and granddaughter of Satan) carries inside her the embryo of her brother which is then transplanted into her birth mother. Another such internalizing occurs in King’s The Dark Half, where Thad Beaumont absorbs the fetus of his twin brother in the womb. But in King’s text, the aspect of the "papyraceous"-- that which deals with or resembles paper--is literalized. The child whom Thad incorporated becomes his authorial pseudonym George Stark, the successful writer of horror fiction who saves Thad’s career as a novelist. Th ad writes, but George (as invention, as another part of Thad, as fetus papyraceous) writes what people want to read. When Thad kills George off by exposing him as fiction, George returns from the dead to take on a murderous life of his own. In the first part of this section, "The Insignificant Child," I read the dead child through Derrida’s analysis of prosopopeia. Mourning, says Derrida, is the act of giving language to that which is gone--most fundamentally, the self from which the language of mourning proceeds. In The Dark Half and Pet Sematary, the dead child comes to signify signification itself; but the attempt to incorporate or internalize the dead child, and thus to find a language for loss, results in further loss. To the degree that language fictionalizes and displaces the self that utters it, it finds its own apt metaphor in the murderous Gothic child.

If the Gothic imagines writing as an act of incorporation early in childhood, it in no way makes that identification humanistically healthy or politically correct. I end my meditations here with a close reading of Peter Straub’s story "The Juniper Tree." Here a young boy is repeatedly molested by a wino in a movie theatre. As in the Grimms fairy tale from which the story takes its name, the child’s ego is devastated, shattered by the trauma of sexual invasion. The story then becomes one of mourning childhood innocence. But also as in the Grimms tale, such fragmentation makes reconstruction possible: the narrator-child has not only i ncorporated Jimmy the Wino to the degree that he continually searches and longs for him, but he comes to name both his penis and his mirror reflection Jimmy: the twin phallic components of his identity are identified with his molester. And it is precisely this identification, this destabilizing of the ego through trauma, that allows the narrator to become a writer. What we see in this text is a version of Leo Bersani’s argument in "Is the Rectum a Grave?": that it is only the decentered subject who is open to desire, to exploring that which is repudiated by normative culture. In a startlingly dangerous move, Straub invites his readers to reconsider the sexual trauma of molestation--a kind of pedophilia papyraceous-- as a possible starting place for writing.


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