I, Qassandra

United Kingdom, 1986, 88 Mins., Color, 01:28:00, English

Based on a real event that took place in June 1918, the three-day stay together in Villa Diodati of the renter, the infamous poet Lord Byron, his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, and their guests – the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lover-later-wife Mary, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, the movie, appropriating the name Gothic for its title, although its connection to this subject matter is vague at best, at least doesn’t fall into the trap of lifeless biopic and manages to present the viewers with a captivating plot that hardly equips its characters with psychological depth and motives but still manages to depict soul-stirring and disturbing emotional conflicts and torments that serves well this movie, who glides slowly toward a kitschy horror flick, or is it an intentional satire, as in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck of 1967. Byron teeth here are on Claire Clairmont neck at the top of the staircase, teasing not only her but her watchful and much well-behaved stepsister Mary. This is one of the obvious Goth symbols one must include in a Goth work, or is it not. And the event depicted here said to bring to live The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story, by Dr. John Polidori, first attributed to Byron. And of course, the most renowned Frankenstein of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.


Miss Godwin, called her Polidori, only to be corrected by Byron to “Mrs Shelley, by nature if not by name.” as although they already parented 2 children together, Shelley was still married to his first wife Harriet, and will only marry Mary on December 30th, 1816, not long enough after Harriet presumingly-suicide death, when Mary was pregnant again with their third child. Free love is what they aim to pursue, but will the self-centered Byron take responsibility for impregnating Claire who is madly in love with him, even though he is only concern with satisfying his manly needs and can’t refuse a woman presenting herself to him that way, a thing she is not unaware of, thus epitomizing the famous quote of his previous lover Lady Caroline Lamb, who coined the phrase “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know” (also namedroppingly mentioned here) to describe him, while also routinely fools around with his maid Justine, while she is wearing a mask we initially see hanging with the name Augusta beneath it, the name he so painfully murmurs, referencing the alleged sexual incestuous relationship with his paternal half-sister Augusta Leigh. Is the mask referencing the Roman Augustus with its laurel wreath, or is it a death mask, even though the real Augusta is still very much alive (she died in 1851 long after Byron). I find this core theme of this film not really Gothic although quite loyal to the real events. Claire did gave birth to Byron daughter Alegra, who was putted in the care of her father, who dumbed her in a convent, despite of her mother’s outcry, where she died at the age of 5.


Masks and wigs and mainly Dolls are at great presence in this movie, which brings me not only to the much later Jean Vigo, but also to the seemingly one of the obvious Gothic inspirations for this movie, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story Der Sandmann (The sandman) depicting a student who falls in love with the doll Olimpia, an automaton, which he mistakes for a real woman. The problem is that The Sandman was published only in 1817, so Byron couldn’t have known about it and there is no reference to indicate that Bryon possessed dolls in the villa or ever. This is another gothic characteristic that the movie creators freely used, in addition to a goat running free in the house. Byron explains that he can’t travel without his menagerie, but the goat is also a sign of the devil in Goth iconography. True to the story of Hoffmann, there is a well-dressed doll Olympia who plays the harpsichord, an instrument with a gothic sound, compared to the piano. And in the movie, an automaton doll playing the harpsichord, while Dr. Polidori is winding up her spring. Later this doll is static, next to Byron who plays. At one of the bedrooms, we get lost in this castle-villa – this is also a Goth characteristic, we do meet an automaton who gets undressed, but s/he serves the pervert theme of the movie, rather than its gothic one, although perverse is also a characteristic of the gothic.


As Goth is not about the perverted per se, as might be attributed to the incestuous Byron or the adulterous Shelleys in real life, but about an unearthly evil, a perversion might be one of its possible characteristics, its side effects, and its conflict with the good and the moral and the innocent. Is free love a perversion, did those celebrated writers indeed exercise or experiment perversion, and if so did they perceive it as such or as wrong doing. And if real-life perversions can be ascribed to them, did they all, who held Gothic creations in their portfolio of works (although clearly not Percy Shelley’s or Byron’s staples), truly lived a Gothic life, or did the movie impose all kinds of Gothic characteristics to portray this three-day gathering more attractively or satirically and then we should ask what motivated its creators to confront good and evil, God and the devil, conservative morals, and new social ideas in the 1980s, and whether they indeed managed to do so.

There is an inventory list of Gothic characteristics in this short video of The British Library hosted by Prof. John Bowen, I find very useful when approaching this movie. It seems that all of them are present here.

  1. “Place – Gothic fiction is fascinated by strange places. On the one hand very wild and remote landscapes and on the other, to very imprisoning places.”

I was thinking about Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) that brings the goody-goody Brad and Janet to a spooky house in the middle of a storm. Don’t you think Byron here took after his predecessor Dr. Frank N. Furter, the master of the ceremonies with all its admirers… Moreover our 3 guests approach the villa in a rowing boat on Lake Geneva, as if crossing the river Styx or the river Acheron to the afterworld, but without a Charon. Shelley, referring to the intimidating lightening, says “it was like the end of the world.” To which Byron replies: “so let us live and love – so that people would say – the devil as well as god is an Englishman.” Are those doomed exile English people trying to seek their way between heaven and hell, to find heavenly piece to their hell tormented souls, or to choose between Victorian morals (what we usually assign to the Gothic, as the genre saw it second and mostly memorisable wave thriving in the late 19 century Victorian age), and the new ideas raised in the previous Regency era, the era during which this event took place, as in the writings of the prominent and influential thinkers Mary Wollstonecraft and of Samuel Godwin, Mary Shelley’s parents.

Not only that our guests are trapped in the villa because of the bad weather, imprisoned in the gloomy mostly dark inside and gazing at the mostly bright outside (should it be the other way around), this Georgian villa was transformed in this movie into a kind of haunted house, with many huge almost empty windblown (mostly bed)rooms, and a dark underworld, i.e. a cellar full or spider webs and rats. Not so much transformed visually from modern villa to an old castle, as it is the same house when not in a Laudanum trance, but by the rushing around or bustling about of its inhabitants. Being in a trance, those can also wander into imaginary rooms, such as the black room with the five doors that contributes to the feeling of trying to escape a labyrinth.

  1. Time – that’s very typical of all Gothic fiction. It wants to see the relationship between the modern world and the past – not as one of evolution or development – but of sudden juxtaposition and often violent conflict, in which the past erupts within the present and deranges it and one of the most powerful motifs of that is, of course, the ghost. The thing that you think is dead but comes back vividly alive in the present.”

In this respect, I find little of this anticipated motif here. There is no juxtaposition of various times, only mere insinuations of the dead daughter of the Shelleys that Mary would give everything to bring back to life and her fear of losing her other child (who in real life would eventually die at the age of 3), when she picks at his funeral by the water fountain in the bright daylight outside. In the absence of real-life ghosts, this movie invents a “thing” that is brought to life by a séance, which keeps them in the house, unable to protect their child who is left outside with a nanny. This is really unreliable, even as a joke.

  1. Power – So, at the heart of Gothic fiction is the question of power. On the one hand it tends to be drawn to very powerful, often supernaturally powerful, or obscenely powerful figures and on the other, to people who are completely vulnerable. He seems to want to do this to explore the limits of what it is to be human – to be driven by either internal desires or forces outside yourself that make you or compel you to do things you don’t want to do. And that, of course, gives it an enormous scope to explore the positions, say of women, in 19th-century society or 18th-century society – the way that women often are forced into situations in which they are confronted by irrational kinds of desire or need to which they are vulnerable and which may make their very life at risk.

This is undoubtedly explored in this movie, so much so, as more than everything it seems to be a movie about Mary Shelley’s inner struggle when all others seem to be extras or supporting characters to this spiritual journey, her sister by setting a comparison to a woman totally eaten by her mad desires to a powerful man, obscenely powerful man, who doesn’t love her, exploits her, humiliates her, and gets her pregnant. Mary also bared children to her married lover, whose his first mistress she testified was laudanum. But this reunion seems to be, in the movie and in real life, a loving one, after all. Why Byron seems so powerful here, was he like that in real life. Did he possess this kind of extraordinary charisma, almost supernatural – or so he and others might believe, for he has already become legendary for that (the Lady Lamb quote) – that not only attracted his many lovers, but also inspired reverence among his friends. But it is not Byron who exercises his petrifying might on Mary. He is not that powerful after all. The movie creators have to summon (through a séance) some unnamed “thing” to be responsible for this, and it’s hardly convincing.

  1. Sexual Power – Gothic novels are full of perverse, weird and dangerous kinds of sexuality. It’s often fascinated by incest, by same sex desire, by violence, by abduction, by rape. So, Gothic is a kind of writing that can make explicit, what is often held back within more normal kinds of writing. On the one hand, it’s fascinated by total sexual power, by these obscene patriarchal figures, who seem to be able to have no restraints whatsoever on their desire. It’s also constantly drawn to the figure of the vulnerable young woman and her possible triumph over these apparently, unbeatable forces.

Same as the above. And add checkmarks next to incest (Byron-Augusta Leigh) and next to sex same desire. Dr. Polidori seems to have tormenting unquenched entrancement with Byron, and when he presents his prank with the leaches, you can’t help but wonder if he wants to suck Byron’s blood or let Byron suck his own. In this respect, he may assume the role of a “woman” in the gothic narrative. But then, on different level he represent the staple gothic character of the mad scientist, as his daunting room, filled of jars with spooky dead or alive substances, seems to be his inner-world lab, where he can present himself to us in his nakedness, meaning bald, or is it only in Mary’s imagination.

The power of creating life. Is it through sex, as our four protagonists indulged in kind of a boredom-to-pass-the-time orgy, with Polidori frantically peeping at them and praying, or is it through imagination or lightning. As they were interrupted with their routine-like sexual activity by a shadow of a tree resembling a human being, which turned out to be a tree struck by lightning. On the other hand our protagonists continuously also deal with death and the afterlife is only represented here as putrefaction. A particularly impactful and memorable scene arises when Byron exercises his power over Claire, physically holding her and causing her to spit up, thus creating a very powerful visual image that bring good life of gluttony and death so close together.

Gothic (1986) - Ken Russell - Putrefaction Scene

Retrospectively, being able to make explicit a life style that is uncommon in other circumstances, as adulteress or as they prefer to call it free love, although mostly doing so to eventually allay readers’ fears and concerns of the new and reaffirm the mainstream predominantly more conservative ideas, we may identify here the rise of the counter-culture phenomenon, that promotes new social more liberal ideas, and while co-existing side by side with the mainstream, it balancing it from retrograde and actually making the adoption of the new ideas more digestible, as more often than not the mainstream gradually adopts counter culture way of thinking. Examples are: the Romanticisms, the Pre-Raphaelites, the bohemian artists phenomena, the beatniks, the flower children (Hippies), the civil right movement, the feminist movement, the punks, the goths, the metalists, the new age people, the LGBTQ+ subculture, the environmentalists (Greta Thunberg) …  and also Freemasonry, but being so secretive, it doesn’t publicly stands against mainstream norms.

  1. The uncanny – One really useful term for thinking about Gothic writing, is the uncanny. Now this is a term that comes from Sigmund Freud – so something that’s new but that also takes us back to something, either in our own psychological past, or something in the world that’s archaic. Often Gothic fictions drive onwards to these uncanny moments for the reader, in which you suddenly recognise somebody who seems unfamiliar and strange – in fact, has an identity that you already know. So, figures that are not quite human, that look human but are not entirely human, like dolls, wax works, automata – these are very characteristic marks – not just of Gothic but particularly of the uncanny.

OK, checkmarks for dolls, mask, wigs, automata. Some of them evoke the past – the mask of Augusta for instance. Other reveal the inhuman evil aspects of the people you think you are familiar with, like Dr. Polidari, who is transformed into a monster by his desires, a bald creature, that kind of takes on the form of a human with the aid of a wig. Don’t we all mask our primordial wild selves.

  1. The Sublime – In the mid 18th century, critics and writers became more and more fascinated by experiences that don’t seem to fit within their normal category of what’s beautiful and what’s pleasurable. They get fascinated by – what’s it mean to be in the middle of a storm at sea, or to see a shipwreck, or to be on the top of a high mountain in a great wind. And the work that they use more and more to describe this is – the sublime. The sublime isn’t harmonious, balanced and beautiful – which had traditionally been the concern of the aesthetic but is often terrifying and awesome and overwhelming and Gothic is absolutely at the centre of that move to the sublime and sublimity in understanding the world.

Goth lies within the conflict, the tension, that the juxtaposing of terror and beauty creates. Freud, following Jentsch earlier work and Hoffmann’s The Sandmen, suggested a psychoanalytic explanation to the intimidating sensation one feels when unable to differentiate a human from a machine, which he termed Unheimlisch (The Uncanny in English) in 1919. In 1970, professor Masahiro Mori, a robotics researcher, coined the term The Uncanny Valley – to encompass the range of androids that induce this feeling of uncanniness. But I suggests that these are old ideas already present in the highly influential A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) by Edmund Burke, so pertinent to goth literature, for instance “WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (I, 7) or “Let us recollect in what state we have found our minds upon escaping some imminent danger, or on being released from the severity of some cruel pain. […] We have found them in a state of much sobriety, impressed with a sense of awe, in a sort of tranquillity shadowed with horror.” (I, 3). So, as I see it, when you resolve this uncanny feeling, that terror-driven agitation – you may experience a sense of sublime. Or what I sometime refer to as The Horror Catharsis – like when you leave the theatre not with good and elevated spirit, but with bothersome thoughts that trouble you for quite a while.

  1. Crisis – Gothic particularly tends to appear at moments of political and social crisis, so there’s an enormous increase in the number of Gothic novels written in the 1790s. There’s another burst at the end of the 19th century, so at moments of great political change, particularly following the French Revolution in 1789, the Gothic seems a way of trying to master and understand these enormous changes. That’s a religious crisis too. The Catholic Church is despoiled, its abbeys and its monasteries are closed and that feeds into the Gothic sense of doubt about the supernatural.

What interests me here is not a crisis that might have influenced the writing of our happy branch here, but rather the crisis or crises that influence the creators of this movie in the 1980s and made them turn to the gothic genre so many years after its peak. The Gothic existed at the background all along since its heydays (with numerous vampire and Frankenstein movies over the years), but the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new surge of interest in the Goth, eventually giving rise to the Goth subculture that is still thriving today. As this period witnessed great disillusion of the liberal ideas that led to an unprecedented economic crisis and the adaptation of new and much radical conservatism, to be known as Thatcherism, or the late-stage piggish capitalism. Later there was also the AIDS epidemics. Young people was not nice as their Hippie predecessors, and instead of practicing free love they declared sex as boring. They were angry and mad and struggling to find meaning in this chaotic world. The reaction, weirdly enough, reached both the old and the new, as on one hand, youngsters embraced the romanticism of the past, in the form of the neo-romanticism movement, and on the other hand, produced a new kind of rebel music such as punk and new wave, that offers exciting and stimulating new alternative to the early 1970s boredom while at the same time provides a sense of escapism to a better past or a brighter parallel universe, like the night clubs – the main venues of this scene. This led, among others, to the creation of a bunch of new wave futuristic gothic movies, such as Liquid Sky (1982), Breaking Glass (1980), The Hunger (1983, featuring Bauhaus’s ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’), and also this movie, featuring music by Thomas Dolby, a new wave soundtrack that seamlessly complements the past occurrence depicted here and contributes significantly to the movie’s disturbing sensibility.

Music and Fashion were the main aspects of this wave of counter-cultures, as some of its predecessors, and while costumes and set design mostly adhere to the regency style accurately, some weird wardrobe inaccuracies are discerned, as all women, including the servant, the free-spirit Claire and even our quiet and poised conservative heroine Mary, are not wearing corsets and their chemises are freely re-patterned to only serve the purpose of getting dirty and being presented half-naked, vulnerable and helpless.

  1. The Supernatural and the real – Gothic is fascinated by the supernatural. In Matthew Lewis’s famous novel, The Monk, Satan himself appears at the end of the book and the main character, Ambrosio, sells his soul to the devil. But, there’s also a very different kind of writing, like that of Ann Radcliffe, who’s the other great Gothic novelist of the 1790s, where there is no supernatural. There do appear to be ghosts but, in fact, by the end of the novel all those ghosts have been explained in a naturalistic way. So, there are two different kinds of Gothic – one that uses the supernatural, as it were, and expects us to believe in it – and the other that gives a natural or realistic explanation of it.

Operating within the re-emerging gothic scene of the early 1900s, our protagonists, while not exclusively gothic writers, were indeed familiar with its staple creations, took an interest in expanding their knowledge, and actually entertained themselves with the new offerings of this genre, they here and there also got their hands dirty with. In the movie, Byron counts, namedrops, 3 of the most renowned books of first wave of Gothic literature: The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764) – considered to be the first Gothic novel, Vathek (William Thomas Beckford, 1786) and The Monk (Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1796). They are also reading Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German ghost stories, translated anonymously by Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès and published in 1812, a collaborated fact regarding this event, and pretending to have something with the devil, with little success. They are not malevolent creatures. They are just bored humans who look for some sense of empowerment, by envisioning themselves as god or his counterpart of quite the same power. They yearn for experiences of beyond reality, which is why they immerse themselves in mind changing substances, primarily laudanum, the drug of the day, known to induce supernatural-like visions and nightmares, while also capable of stimulating creativity. One of the greatest works in English literature, Kubla Khan by S.T. Coleridge (1797), was written under the spell of laudanum and never completed, as someone awaked the writer of its trance, leaving it forever a fragment. This movie adopts the Radcliffe approach and provides a reasonable explanation for all this – a laudanum trance that causes Shelley to get on the roof naked, in the pose of the gnome from the 1781 oil painting by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, later featured and revived in the movie.

The real supernatural phenomenon discussed here is the resurrection of dead children. With skyrocketing death rate of infants, this was a source of great sadness and concern in those days, as much later expressed in Mahler’s song cycle – Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children, 1904). People tried to communicate with the world beyond with various means, such as through séances. A resurrection or abiogenesis of a human being is the main theme of Mary Shelley’s future Frankenstein, but is it really her mourning of her late daughter that invigorated her interest in the subject, or is it the movie’s over-explaining.

Mental illness has also been considered throughout history as a phenomena beyond understandable and excusable behavior. Regarded as something of a supernatural nature that mainstream human society cannot tolerate, it often led to the exclusion of those affected from society. On the other hand, since ancient times, it has also been the source of prophetic visions and bursts of creativity, thereby elevating the artist figure, especially from the romantic era onward, to a kind of a mad genius, who often withdraws from society during periods of creative surge. This movie, however, gives much room to Claire’s real-life “fits of horrors”, to partially excuse her mad and ill-fated attraction to Byron, but also attributes some maddening traits to Shelley, Mary and the doctor, as if we are trapped in an escape game of Asylum.


Analyzing this movie through those motifs may partially explain why it fails to be a truly gothic. After all, it seems to be more of a cliché collection of a biopic then a genuinely effective thriller, and the attempt to blend period-based true story movie with a horror movie, no matter what the thematic connections that may bring them together are, successfully produces neither.

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