If I Concentrate Extra Hard With My Lady Brain

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In Katie Alender’s The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, turn of the century mental health plays a prominent role as some of the women who were housed in the institute weren’t so much “troubled” as they were troublesome, either in behavior or just by being unmarried and aging. The book also touches on the fact that mental hospitals were sometimes used as genteel ways to deal with women who did truly terrifying things such as murder. In a time period where women were seen as the paragons of virtue, it didn’t do to have a murderess in a well to do family if her crime could be claimed as insanity or better yet, discretely brushed under the rug and the perpetrator quietly disposed of into a mental hospital to not be worried about again.

The mid-nineteenth century had seen an evolution in mental health care from just confining people under the assumption that they were “afflicted” as some sort of punishment from God. Women, who have always been the victims of the stereotype that they were “weaker” mentally often were seen as particularly susceptible to mental breakdowns. The Victorian era led to improvement in the area of mental healthcare, but with little actual training many of the treatments were bizarre at best and cruel at worst. Women seeking education were considered especially prone to mental illness, as the education was thought to tax their delicate brains too much. Any woman showing signs of what we would consider depression or even having emotional outbursts were seen as prime candidates for treatment. Possibly the cruelest use of mental institutions was their use as a way to corral any woman seen as an intellectual threat to men. If a woman evidenced any opinion that was contrary to the social rules of the day she could be locked away to be subjected to bed rest, seclusion, bland diet, and prohibited from such stimulating activities as reading under the diagnosis of “hysteria”. Obviously this sort of treatment could drive even the healthiest person to madness, so many women were cautious in stepping out of their assigned role as housewives for fear of being carted off to asylums.

None of this is to say there weren’t women reformers at the time. One of the most influential was Dorothea Dix, who spent much of her life trying to improve the situation in mental asylums. Some treatment from this time period wasn’t intentionally bad, but the lack of information about what to do with people who had legitimate mental health issues led to some misguided treatments (such as a chair that spun patients around at a high rate of speed in an attempt to “reset” their brains). Unfortunately the history of mental health for women has involved some truly unfair treatment based on stereotypes and abuse of patriarchal power.

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Our Princess Is in Another (Ominously Haunted) Castle

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I have just watched Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s ode to the genre of Gothic horror, and am reminded again that I am a sucker for this overwrought style of writing. Everything about it is over the top, from the tyrannical male antagonist to the moldering house that is clearly bad for everyone’s health but everyone refuses to move out of to a damsel in distress that won’t stop fainting. Traditional Gothic literature shouldn’t be confused with Southern Gothic (which has its own brand of sweltering creepiness) or Gothic monster literature. Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are all considered part of the Gothic pantheon by the general public even though they lack the elements to really make them Gothic.

The genre itself combines horror, death, decay, ruin, and Romanticism into a melodramatic soup that came into being in reaction to the rise of technology and reason through the late 1700s through the mid 1800s. Horace Walpole is generally credited with the creation of the classic Gothic novel in his The Castle of Otranto which was imitated by plenty of other writers afterwards. Walpole’s novel contains the traditional elements of Gothic horror:

  1. You need a castle. If you can’t find a castle a rambling, unkempt mansion will do. Extra points if the castle has a labyrinth underneath it. If your house of horrors isn’t graced with a labyrinth, hope for a really large ominous basement. Buried bodies are a plus.
  2. You need an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. What did that sinister local mean when they talked about the “last lady of the house” in that tone? Was that the wind or a spirit making themselves a nuisance? Where did all these dead bodies come from? The more threatening unknown the better.
  3. Someone needs to have uncovered some sort of ancient prophecy in connection to either the castle or its occupants. Generally vague and unhelpful enough that no one figures out the meaning of it until it’s almost too late.
  4. Someone better be having visions and talking about omens. Disturbing dreams? They aren’t from last night’s chili. See something out of the corner of your eye? It’s not the house cat. Nothing is harmless in a Gothic novel.
  5. Supernatural events happen with the frequency of a normal person going into the kitchen to look for a snack. Fire, ghosts, inanimate objects all seem to have a mind of their own.
  6. Every emotion is over wrought. Someone is fainting, screaming, wailing, or having a case of the nerves every five minutes. No one has a normal, calm conversation. Ever.
  7. There is a woman in distress. Generally a lot of distress. Generally in a nightgown. Generally fainting.
  8. An ominous male is threatening someone, usually the leading lady. He can be magnetic sometimes, but his major character trait is that he’s not someone you want to meet on eHarmony.
  9. There is no description of anything that doesn’t involve gloom and horror. The wind is always howling. The doors are always on rusty hinges. Someone is gracing us all with crazed laughter. If there is a sunny day, you’re not in a Gothic novel.

So what’s the appeal of the genre? Probably the over the top quality of everything. Sometimes you just enjoy a soap opera. It’s almost in the realm of fantasy because you know this sort of thing will never happen and because of that the whole atmosphere has a haunting, frightening appeal. The recent trend in Gothic horror has been for the damsel in distress to do some saving of her own, something woefully lacking from classic Gothic.

Some Gothic novels you might want to consider:

Classic Gothic Horror-

  1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  2. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  5. The Woman in White by Wilke Collins
  6. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Young Adult options-

  1. Dark Companion by Marta Acosta
  2. The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron
  3. The Poisoned House by Michael Ford
  4. The Fall by Bethany Griffin
  5. Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey
  6. Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin
  7. Asylum by Madeleine Roux
  8. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke

The Rise of Halloween

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With the refusal of Millennials to give up the costume and candy side of Halloween, the holiday that kicks off the season of major holidays has become a huge money maker. Just in my life experience Halloween has made a meteoric rise in popularity, from being a holiday that was traditionally just for children to now involving costume parties, haunted attractions, massive decorations,  television channels touting their Halloween movie line ups, and pop up Halloween stores cashing in on the craze. Halloween has turned into an $8 billion dollar juggernaut of profit according to DDB Worldwide.

So where did this now heavily commercialized holiday come from? Histories generally end up tracing back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-win) that ushered in the Celtic new year and celebrated the end of summer. Many mass-media histories of Halloween seem to indicate that the holiday has been passed to current times looking almost the same as the original festival, but according to David Skal in Death Makes a Holiday, Halloween is a hybrid of many different cultures, cultivated in America, which may explain the popularity of a holiday that is such a hodge podge of cultures. A mishmash of Samhain, All Soul’s Day, Guy Fawkes Day, and Roman festivities all combine to form a celebration that America in particular has embraced and created into its own image. Halloween has weathered World Wars, urban legends of tainted candy, and all out assaults from conservative churches to become what it is today.

Denise Delahorne of DDB Worldwide gives some insight on the popularity of the holiday, especially with adults. “There’s no stress to it. You don’t have to travel or deal with relatives. You can wear whatever you want and not be judged. There’s not the holiday pressure to find a date if you are single. There’s the fantasy, role-play element. If you think about it, it’s surprising that 90% of people don’t feel it’s their favorite holiday.”

The National Retail Federation predicts that more than 157 million people plan to celebrate Halloween this year, spending on average roughly $74. I myself have probably already spent more than that if we consider $30 for a haunted attraction, roughly $30 collecting parts for Halloween costume that really isn’t that elaborate, $18 on a ticket to a costume ball at the symphony, and any other random expenses on cute holiday decorations. But if you think about it, how can Thanksgiving and Christmas really compete? Thanksgiving is often the “boring” holiday of the three, involving work on food preparation and only a minimal amount of excitement in decorating and activities. Christmas brings the pressure of finding the right gifts and the expense, though it involves a level of nostalgia that Halloween has yet to conjure up. Both holidays involve family, and lots of it often times. Halloween is the party before two months of relative togetherness. No wonder Halloween has seen such a massive adoption.