The Gothics were, of course, the literature of terror and horror of the late 18th and 19th century. The Gothics began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and ended around 1830. The most common male character in the Gothic is the Hero-Villain. The roots of the Hero-Villain lie in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Satan’s combination of admirable and objectionable qualities–his dignity, evil, and defiance against a power he knows he cannot beat–have led many critics to see him as the hero of the poem. Milton’s Satan was influential on the Romantics, and through them the Gothics, as was Sensibility, the privileging of emotions over rational self-control and the indulgence of what Goethe called the dämonisch, or “daemonic” impulse, the unquestioning trust in the correctness of one’s instincts and emotions, regardless of the laws of morality and society.
The Gothic writers used the model of Milton’s Satan and the Sensibility/dämonisch to create the Hero-Villain, the dominant villain of the Gothic genre. The Hero-Villain commits evil but is never purely evil. He is a mix of violent passions and uncontrollable impulses which he knows to be evil but cannot resist or overcome. He has great intellectual and physical gifts, great strength of character and will, but uses them for evil ends. The Hero-Villain is attractive to the reader because of his passion and great abilities as well as for his temptation and suffering, but he is villainous because of his final surrender to evil. The Hero-Villain is tormented by his own dark urges at the same time that he torments others. He is, in the words of Charles Maturin, one “who can apprehend the good, but is powerless to be it.” He is not an anti-hero, for he is set in opposition to the hero or heroine of the Gothic, and his downfall is the hero’s triumph and the victory of good. But the Hero-Villain is a waste of potential and a lesson in what the inability to resist temptation and one’s impulses can lead to.
I give you Michael Jackson, the world’s biggest fan of the Gothic. Does not the preceding description fit what we know about Michael Jackson? More, doesn’t his life embody not just the Hero-Villain, but the Gothic itself?
Consider the main themes and symbols of the Gothic. There is the villain as ethnic Other--Jackson turning himself from African-American to some sort of visually Unheimliche being. There is the scary castle with secret passageways--Neverland Ranch. There is weather as an objective correlative (physical manifestation of emotion and other immaterial things) for the protagonist and villain–the sunshine of Santa Barbara (home of the Neverland Ranch), like the sunshine of Southern California, is too bright, too sunny–a kind of desperate and even ominous sunshine, like a smile that widens and widens until it is literally rather than figuratively from ear to ear. There is the notion of the body as monstrous–witness what Jackson did to his face.
The Gothic has innocents threatened and pursued by the Hero-Villain, and we can only imagine what horrors went on in the Neverland Ranch when one of Jackson’s overnight guests didn’t want to cuddle in bed with Jackson. The Gothic has the supernatural as an accepted part of life–and “Thriller” introduced more people to zombies than every George Romero film put together. The Gothic had high-pitched emotions aplenty, including swoons and fits–well, just read Jackson’s lyrics. In the Gothic, patriarchal figures are almost always revealed to be tyrants–and we all know about the abuse which Michael’s father inflicted on him. In the Gothic, clergy are nearly always corrupt–something the adult Michael said about the Jehovah’s Witness authorities who were a part of his childhood. In the Gothic, birthmarks are often crucial in the resolution of a plot–as was Jackson’s vitiligo and the marks on Jackson’s penis which Jordan Chandler described in the 1993 sexual abuse case against Jackson.
Consider, too, the categories of Gothics. The two main ways of categorizing Gothics have always been male-vs-female and external-vs-internal. The “male Gothic” puts a male figure at the center of a story of social, sexual, and/or religious transgression and usually reduces the heroine to the status of object, to be sexually and physically threatened, rescued, and eventually married. Jackson’s life was full of transgression–sexual (the pedophilia), racial (from black to Unheimliche), and religious (from activist Jehovah’s Witness to atheist, both of which Middle America fight transgressive). And how else can we describe Jackson’s “marriage” with Lisa Marie Presley but his acquisition of a thing, an object, which he can use as a shield against rumors?
The “external Gothic,” or socially-oriented Gothic, is concerned with the home: the lineage and patrimony of the hero, his disinheritance by the villain, and the revelation of the hero’s true identity and the restoration of his estate. In the external Gothic the home is defined by the male’s possession of it (or the lack of same). Doesn’t this define Jackson’s entire life? His patrimony (the atrocious, abusive Joseph Jackson), his disinheritance (Jackson’s estrangement from his father), and Jackson’s quest for the epiphanic revelation of his true identity (what else can we call the ongoing transformation of his face) and for the restoration of his estate? The external Gothic is about regaining the true home--remember what Frost wrote in “Death of the Hired Man:”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Jackson never got either, did he? He had to create his own home, and fill it with odd animals, and ship in children who could however briefly fill the role of the “they” who had to take him in, and take part in a painfully awkward arranged marriage so unconvincing that his wife had to reassure the public that they were, in fact, having sex.
I call that devotion to the Gothic, and to performance art–taking your embrace of the Hero-Villain role and the core elements of the Gothic. Well done, Michael Jackson, well done.