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By Kristopher Woofter, Ali Byers, Yana Iossel, Katrina McGaughey, Violet Pask, Carole Anne Williams March 23, 2015

The American Gothic: a TRANS– Discourse.

In the spirit of this year’s S.P.A.C.E theme TRANS––, I asked a group of students from my American Gothic English Reflections course to share their work on one of the 20th century’s most interesting hybrid works, Truman Capote’s 1966 novel, In Cold Blood.

I teach the Gothic less as a genre than as a discourse that offers a transgressive mode of expression for authors, filmmakers and artists. This mode challenges—and often annihilates—the boundaries of the mundane realities of our lives to shock us into awareness of the contradictions of our moment. The American Gothic in particular, from its first fictional publication in 1798 by Charles Brockden-Brown, Wieland; or, the Transformation, has offered a psychically-charged reality, tinctured by—or crossed with—the irrational, the emotional, and the nightmarish. American Gothic artists concern themselves with exploring the darker realities underscoring America’s origins in a conflicted cocktail of Puritanical dread and Enlightenment thinking. The American Gothic, from its literary origins to later popular forms like film noir, the detective novel, and crime television, is a trans- discourse. Its main concepts and conceits—the uncanny, spectrality, abjection, dread, yearning, and eruptions of violence—and their infiltration of the mundane speak to a critical collapsing of the moral, ethical, political, and social “certainties” that undergird the philosophy of the United States.

In one section of the course, we discuss the concept of Gothic documentary, or “gothumentary,” my (2012) term for a strain of recent documentaries from the late 20th century that cross conventions and representational strategies of horror and the gothic with documentary to offer a picture of an America that is haunted by the specters of a brutal past, unsure and anxious about its present, and in dread of the possibilities of the future. In this trans- context, we study the 1999 docu-fiction film, Wisconsin Death Trip, an uncanny anecdotal evocation of Midwest America at the turn of the 20th century where the breakout of a seemingly inexplicable epidemic of violence, madness and mania uncannily disrupts the order of a small community to belie deeper truths about America as a space haunted by longing for something more—a promise of an American Dream unfulfilled.

The texts that are summarized below (click on links to access full texts) are the product of an assignment that asked Reflections students, in groups of six, to take on a work parallel to the course readings that only they would read, doing their own analysis, creating a semester-long Weblog discussion, and finally presenting their conclusions in class. This group reads Capote’s docu-fictional novel within a context of documentary works that speak to what Eric Savoy calls a “darkly hypothetical” reality. These students’ work captures Capote’s Gothic interest in unsettling the real, and in illuminating the contingencies of the past and present to open up cultural critique.


Trans– discourse in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, 2015

VIOLET - Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood seems to fit perfectly with the S.P.A.C.E. theme of this year: Trans-. Trans-, to me, as an prefix, before being attached to any word, hints of crossings over, of blurred boundaries, of lines being crossed or erased. It challenges our inherent sense of category, of things having their place, which is what I have attempted to describe in my essay on Capote’s In Cold Blood. This “non-fiction novel” inherently challenges boundaries even as a genre, where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. The novel speaks to this theme in its inability to give answers to the questions it seeks to understand, which reflects on a larger scale, our inability as a species to accept our limitations in understanding. In Cold Blood serves as a crossing of a boundary, but into the unknown. It blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and in doing so, questions our ability to truly know.

CAROLE-ANNE - In Cold Blood is Capote’s search for meaning in a violent crime; an attempt to find order and reason in senseless violence. The discussion on how accurate Capote’s interpretation succeeds in being is not often brought up because it complicates the events even further; it is easier to accept Capote’s version of events as the absolute truth and analyze from there. The question of the accuracy of his text is never resolved and it looms over the reader as they read the omniscient perspective, the minute details of the text and Capote’s obvious bias in favor of one of the murderers. It leaves readers in an uncanny state of limbo, of mistrust, asking the question, “How do we know what we know?”

KATRINA - Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a very American novel, showing the two sides of the American dream. In my essay, I explore the implications and untruths of the American Dream. Everyone wants to live the American Dream; however Capote shows that there can be extreme violence in order for some to fulfill their idea of the American Dream. Truman Capote explores the question of whether the American dream is actually a realistic goal or not, as well as the theme of nature versus nurture when it comes to violence.

YANA - “The Morality of a Crime Committed In Cold Blood” discusses the inherent nature of violence. Capote’s In Cold Blood follows the gothumentary prototype by describing facts through a lens which allows the gothic undertones of the event to become prevalent. The events at the Clutter house, as eerily depicted by Truman Capote, offer perspective into human nature and force instropection in the reader when presenting the ultimate question: “What brings a man to murder?”.

ALI – The Gothic uses the haunted house trope as a space of reflection and manifestation of the subject’s psyche. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood uses this idea to enhance the meaning and understanding of the seemingly senseless but unquestionably violent crime depicted in the novel. The house is extremely present throughout the novel as a psychic space and gives a deeper understanding of the killers, the victims, and the crime itself. While giving insight into the characters, the house and its role in the text brings into question the role violence plays in a society where the American Dream is the ideal.

About the author

Kristopher Woofter teaches English at Dawson College and is a PhD candidate in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University. He is a programmer for the Montreal Underground Film Festival, co-director of Montreal's Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and co-editor of the recent book, Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington 2015).

Ali Byers is a first year environmental studies student who took Reflections as a way to deepen her understanding of literature. She is currently preparing for a six week internship in Mexico centred around sustainability.

Yana Iossel is a student in Dawson’s Psychology profile. She joined Reflections because friends of hers that had been through its different classes had given them all rave reviews, and she was intrigued to see whether or not they were right. (They were).

Katrina McGaughey is a CALL student in the languages profile. She's studying languages to broaden her opportunities and perspectives in the world.

Violet Pask is a student in Cinema Video Communications and she'll try to invite you to the oscar after party when she's a famous filmmaker.

Carole Anne Williams is a studying health sciences at Dawson College. She loves literature and the Reflections course she took at Dawson was allowed her to broaden her knowledge and provided a great learning experience.

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