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'Hemlock Grove' as Gothic Tale

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The Netflix video series "Hemlock Grove" dares to employ authentic Gothic storytelling on television for a modern American audience. Using tropes of horror as well, the series unfolds its story in a deliberate and literary way. It doesn't shy away from layers of meaning, symbolism, mythology or complex characters. Deliberately, thoughtfully and originally, it tells the Gothic story of a community, family and finally two individuals, Roman Godfrey and Christina Wendall, who are disintegrating morally and falling into evil. These dark elements are interwoven and seem largely inevitable because of two families' secrets and past misdeeds.

NOTE: This article contains spoilers for Season 1.

Hemlock Grove - Behind the Scenes - Mythology & Horror02:23

Hemlock Grove - Behind the Scenes - Mythology & Horror

Wrters Choose Their Poison: Gothic vs. HorrorEdit

When anyone starts to write, direct or produce "horror" stories, or horror-type like "Hemlock Grove," one of the most helpful questions he or she can ask is "Am I really doing a horror story?" This may sound like a strange question, but actually there is much confusion nowadays between horror and Gothic storylines. The two genres are closely related but remain totally different animals. There are other similar questions the writer should also ask as well. If you want to do horror, is your story really Gothic with a horror disguise? Is it Gothic horror, and if so, how much is it one or the other?

Before talking more about the Gothic elements in "Hemlock Grove," it's time to give a short synopsis of the series, as presented in Season One. Better yet, go watch the series yourself. Then come back to this article of course!

Series Synopsis & Main CharactersEdit

It all comes back to the story. What is "Hemlock Grove" about? The series is set in the small town of Hemlock Grove (of course!), Pennsylvania. This village is a mixture of extreme wealth and poverty, since the closing of the town's steel mill a generation earlier caused many to lose their jobs. The town's main sources of employment are now the Hemlock Acres Hospital and Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Technologies. Run by the wealthy and powerful Godfrey family, the Institute is rumored to conduct sinister experiments on a daily basis.

The town's rumor mill turns even more twisted when two teenage girls are brutally killed and their bodies left for unsuspecting people to find the next day. Peter Rumancek, a 17-year-old Romani ("Gypsy"), is suspected of the crimes by some of the townsfolk and is also rumored to be a werewolf. While secretly, he actually is a werewolf, he is not the killer. Peter is more of a benign wolf "shape-shifter," while the true monster is the killer. Peter eventually joins forces with Roman Godfrey (also 17), the family heir and son of its matriarch, the domineering Olivia. Together the two boys set out to solve the mystery. Who or what is the "rogue werewolf" or varghulf responible for these murders?

Other characters include:

  • Dr. Norman Godfrey, Olivia's brother-in-law and lover, as well as psychiatrist and head of the hospital
  • Leetha, Norman's beautiful teen daughter whom Roman adores and Peter falls in love with (dies in the final episode of Season 1)
  • Christina Wendall, a young teen who first spreads the rumor that Peter is a werewolf
  • Shelly, Roman's shy, deformed and mute sister, whom he loves very much
  • Dr. Johann Pryce, Olivia's employee at the Institute and an apparent "mad doctor" type
  • Sheriff Tom Sworn, who seeks to find the killer and restore law and order
  • Dr. Clementine Chasseur, a wildlife expert who is really a werewolf "hunter" for the Catholic Church (dies near the end of Season 1)
  • Sheriff Michael Chasseur (becomes a main character in Season 2), a former "hunter"
  • Peter's cousin, Destiny, who is a psychic medium
  • An itinerant young woman in the story, Miranda Cates, who sleeps with Peter (Season 2)

For a more comprehensive rundown on the series, its actors and story, see the Wikipedia article on "Hemlock Grove."

All of these characters come together to create the main storyline of "Hemlock Grove." No matter how hard Peter and Roman try to stop the killer, more young girls' bodies are found. Could Letha be the monster's next victim?

The Basics of Gothic FictionEdit

So what is Gothic fiction? Before the story in "Hemlock Grove" is dissected further, please don't just take it as a given that it's a horror tale, even though it has some horror tropes. However, if it is Gothic and not horror, what exactly constitutes a Gothic storyline?

Most people can easily distinguish horror because it's scary, but they don't have a clue about what makes a story Gothic. Horror is not just scary, but morbid right? The fear element definitely predominates, but death always lurks somewhere. Gothic may or may not be scary, but it's always morbid. If it's Gothic and really scary, you have Gothic horror, a combination of both.

Historically, the first true Gothic story (actually a novel) was written by Horace Walpole in England in 1764, a ghost tale of sorts titled The Castle of Otranto. Its success began a thriving literary trend, first in England and then, by the nineteenth century, all over the world. The horror genre sprang from this Gothic literature stream during the early 1800s, almost simultaneously in Great Britain and the U.S. By 1850, horror stories were a fast-growing genre all their own worldwide, along with their purely Gothic brethren. Incidentally, not only horror, but crime drama, Medieval-type fantasy (think "Middle Earth" or "Game of Thrones") and even science fiction all originated from the Gothic literary family tree.

So here's a good working definition of a Gothic story. Chris Baldick's "Introduction" to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales defines a Gothic text as being made up of "a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of  enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of a sickening descent into disintegration." I would add that the agent producing this disintegration is of a supernatural, preternatural (mysterious or unknown), or sick psychological origin.

Hemlock Cemetery Pic

Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard) and Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron) pause at the town cemetery about to dig up the past.

So, for a story to be Gothic, some kind of dark history has to be there. For example, an evil from the past confronts a group of people in an isolated area. The isolation equals claustrophobia. So how does this group react? If the fear element is strong, you have Gothic horror. If the fear factor is all there is (after the beginning), the story is probably horror.

On the other hand, such a story can also be merely suspenseful, without being scary at all. If a plotline like this is morbid with the characteristics cited above by Baldick, the story is probably Gothic. Keep in mind that the claustrophobic setting or "area" can also be within a person’s own mind, for example, someone in an extremely dreamy, deranged, drug-induced or nearly psychotic state. This was certainly the case with Roman's "Catabasis" dream during his coma. In fact, the claustrophobia in this sequence bordered on the psychotic.

An essential element of the Gothic is almost always "romance," either the erotic or literary type, or both. What is "literary" Romanticism? Well, check out the classic American horror author, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). His stories are mostly lacking in man/woman romance but are full of dark, literary Romanticism, that is, things like old castles and ruins, persons near madness, damned souls, unspeakable desires, darkly mysterious elements, people attaining "freedom" as stark isolation and so on. Just as Baldick leaves out the supernatural, which surely "haunts" much within the Gothic territory, he omits romance and Romanticism as well. However, some elements of the Romantic haunt every good Gothic tale. Also keep in mind that both horror and Gothic tales don't necessarily have to contain the supernatural.

Nowadays, if someone wants to write a quality Gothic story, especially one that sells, "romantic" almost always means a male and female in love. To hold your audience in today's world, a plot needs to have a strong romantic interest to help hold interest. "Hemlock Grove" is no exception, with its steamy, innocent and tragic love story of Peter and Letha. There's also, of course, the twisted but erotic love between Norman and Olivia. Since this is a Gothic story, at least one of  each love-struck pair must die before the tale is finished. Too bad!

Doomed or daunting love is the Gothic romantic love theme par excellence. However, one can also have it both ways, as does Emily Brontë (English, 1818-1848) in her novel Wuthering Heights. Brontë's main storyline is about a tragic romance (the lovers both die), but she manages to insert a romantic love subplot with a happy ending. Also, her story contains both literary and man-woman romance. Volumes have been written about the relation between the Gothic and Romantic. All you really need to know about the two is that to create a successful Gothic story, in the words of the song, "You can't have one without the other." Also, keep in mind that "Romantic" (capital R) means a lot more than just sex, love and "romance."

Interestingly,the Wuthering Heights story comes up in "Hemlock Grove," including its Byronic hero, Heathcliff. At one point Olivia even asks Peter whether the novel is about "Heathcliff as Byronic hero." In Season 2, Miranda Cates openly speaks of Peter as a "Byronic hero." Such heroes are a staple of Gothic stories, a trope or convention if you will (see below). The Byronic hero is a character, usually male, who has good, heroic qualities but ultimately succumbs to his dark, evil side. He's a good man gone bad. Such heroes are named after the great English poet and freedom fighter, Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel Byron, 1788-1824), who invented these heroes in his own writing. Nowadays, of course, there can also be "Byronic heroines," since modern Gothic stories center around women as well as men. Anyway, ff this type of hero sounds familiar from "Hemlock Grove," Roman certainly fits the bill, as he develops in Season One.

For those who are tired of romance, is there a darker side to the Gothic? Indeed there is! Here's where the morbid part comes in. If Emily Brontë (and her sister Charlotte, 1816-1855) typify the romantic end of the Gothic spectrum, authors like Poe and H.P. Lovecraft (also American, 1890-1937) champion the horror side. With these authors, the evil from the past usually confronts and overwhelms its lonely, forsaken victims, and they're damned forever. Whether the main characters in Gothic horror are trapped in a threatening location or within their own tormented souls, they writhe in abject fear until they meet their untimely demise, or worse, a "lifetime" of living death, insanity, agony or eternal condemnation. Gothic stories have similar characters. Think: Norman trapped in Olivia's house forever or Clementine's twisted life and tragic fate.

Dark Storytelling in Hollywood & Film Edit

At this point, a few cinema examples are in order. In film, an excellent representative of a "purely" Gothic tale is The Sixth Sense (1999). Called by Hollywood a "supernatural thriller," this story is actually Gothic in the best sense of the word. Without retelling the whole plot line here (the film is available on DVD if you haven't seen it), let's check out why Gothic story elements clearly predominate.

The main character feels trapped by what happened to him in his own past history and senses a disintegration and isolation in his life, all of which he cannot understand. The theme of the supernatural is established early on by the boy with strange visions of dead persons. The romantic element clearly predominates, with the focus on the main character's relationship with his wife, and in fact this entire story turns on this man's undying love for her. In the end, the tragic reason his life has "fallen apart" stunningly reveals itself. Death has indeed triumphed over love, but there's a final hope that love can be stronger than death. This is authentic Gothic stuff and could have easily been penned by a modern American version of Emily or Charlotte Brontë. The film's writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan (Indian-American, b. 1970) went on during the next decade to establish himself as one of the Gothic masters of Hollywood film.

Draculaffc 1255

Count Dracula is a time-honored staple of Gothic horror stories. The photo here is from the film "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992) with Winona Ryder as Mina and Gary Oldman as the Count, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

On the other hand, take stories like those in the Friday the 13th film series (the first film directed by Sean S. Cunningham in 1980, spawning a raft of sequels and a remake!). These films represent total horror for better or worse. Cunningham (American, b. 1941) and his successors didn't throw much of the Gothic or romantic into these stories, in any sense of either word (these films also available on DVD, if you don't mind the blood). The films' plots are like gory "funhouse" rides and depend entirely on shock, panic and the fear factor.  In most horror stories, good conquers evil, but often the opposite can happen as well. Regardless, these stories invariably end in a feeling of devastation, a kind of breathless exhaustion like most people feel after a traumatic or terrorizing experience.

In better-done virtually "pure" horror stories, for example, The Exorcist (1973, American, directed by William Friedkin) fear compounds fear until a final suspense sequence pays off with near-unbearable fright. The conflict between good and bad characters (or bad "monsters") becomes a near-epic struggle against jeopardy that, at every turn, could possibly end in death. On the other hand, really bad horror tales have a near-pornographic feel to them as plot and characters come off as just "filler" between the often grisly, blood-filled scare or torture scenes. One feels a sense of impatience when there's no violence or gore happening, a desire to "speed things up" so the plot can get on to the next horrific scene.

Keep in mind that horror can be gory and visual or driven by more psychological, unseen menaces. The offstage tends to be more powerful because it leaves much to the imagination. For example, in "Hemlock Grove," it becomes well known that Olivia is a grisly murderer, but the audience never actually watches her kill. An unseen, ubiquitous menace has the uncanny ability to generate powerhouses worth of suspense.

However, in pure horror shock and awe predominate, and good creators in the genre milk human hormones, sexual, as well as adrenalin and others, for every drop of thrill they can provide. Suspense is a necessary ingredient of any good plot, and of course, "Hemlock Grove" is no exception. Above all, in Gothic tales, suspense must prevail over shock. A good Gothic story always implies much, much more than it shows and delays its suspenseful payoffs as long as possible.

Back to Gothic & Horror: Combining the GenresEdit

Gothic horror provides a broader story canvas because it can blend and play off both genres. Poe and Lovecraft demonstrated this ability in its most classic sense. Modern authors like Stephen King (American, b. 1947) and Anne Rice (American, b. 1941) continue writing in this tradition. Examples of Gothic horror abound, including stories about vampires, werewolves, exorcists, Frankenstein types, succubae, incubi, and undead ghosts. In film and television, storytellers who delve into these elements turn to the Universal Studios 1930s classics of the genres, like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1932) and The Wolf Man (1939).

The author of "Hemlock Grove," Brian McGreevy, has said he drew from his experiences in high school for his story and considers the book's setting as a Through the Looking Glass version of his hometown of Pittsburgh. He also commented that while the Godfrey "kids," Roman and Shelley, were derived from the fictional characters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula, he drew more from the 1930s films based on these "monsters," as well as from Greek mythology as a whole. These ancient Greek stories contain a huge number of Gothic types, for example, the titan Prometheus, doomed to be chained to a rock and tortured for all eternity.

Vampire stories are excellent examples of marrying the Gothic with horror. Of course, "Hemlock Grove" evokes the vampiric via the vampire-like legend of the upir. By its very nature, the vampire tale can combine themes of entrapment, evil history, disintegration, and the supernatural equally with stark, awesome terror. In nice addition, the male vampire, as an object of desire, can pump the hormones totally while inspiring romance at the same time. Lately, even female vampires have been stirring up their share of fictional and cinematic libido, just as Olivia stokes Norman's passion. Vamps are such an amazing character type! Bram Stoker (Irish, 1847-1912) created the model of the modern vampire with his classic 1897 novel Dracula. These ubiquitous blood-suckers have become a main staple of Gothic horror ever since, and McGeevy's upir are simply a variation on the same theme.

All right, so enough of vampires, literature, history and mythology. What about "Hemlock Grove?" How does this series fit into all of this "genre" talk?

Gothic Tropes & Storylines in the SeriesEdit

The Gothic literary genre express itself in "Hemlock Grove" via a multitude of plotlines and conventions. Actually, in this series (as in all stories), the Gothic shows itself two major ways: through the storylines and the use of Gothic tropes (literary conventions). This section explains both and seeks to link these elements to historic Gothic subjects, as discussed earlier.

Series StorylineEdit

As the previous synopsis explains, the "Hemlock Grove" story is mainly a crime drama, or "whodunit" (itself a derivative from the Gothic genre), and a mystery with a supernatural twist. The plot throws together two young men, Peter and Roman, as a kind of "Hardy Boys" pair who try to track down a savage serial killer. Is it human or animal? People suspect one or the other. At first Roman and then eventually the entire community are seized by chaotic feelings and paranoia by bizarre circumstances surrounding the murders. 

Here are the essential Gothic elements of the story:

Welcome

Here's a different poster for the series "Hemlock Grove." Note the caution.

  • Dark History: Several flashbacks during the series show the Godfrey family's tragic, evil and dysfunctional history. Also, much of the sad Romani history of Peter's family shows itself too, via his Uncle Nikolai. Essentially, "Hemlock Grove" is a tale of two families, the Godfreys and Rumanceks, who seem to be polar opposites. The families contrast rich and poor, community-bound and nomadic, simple and complicated, cold and loving, loyal and unfaithful, jaded and hopeful, cynical and romantic. However, both families are bound by common threads. First, supernatural beings are central to their heritage, upir and werewolf. Also, both families have enough dark misdeeds in their history to create a dynamic past that comes back to "bite" them in the end (no pun intended).
  • Claustrophobic Present: A small town is an ideal closed-in environment. Hemlock Grove is the name of the series and forms the tight boundaries of the story. It's a friendly community but is also prone to gossip, racism, pettiness, hate, snobbery, poverty and even lynch-mob violence. At one point, Peter and his mother, Lynda, try to run away, but they cannot. Clemtine Chasseur wants to leave town and her holy order once her "job" is finished, but she dies before she can make it. The Godfrey famiily is "stuck" there for better or worse. The town encloses them all and becomes a claustrophobic barrier no one can escape. Peter does leave at the story's end, but will he be able to stay away for good?
  • Inevitable Disintegration: As the tale progresses, a sickening sort of disintegration sets in, eating at the hearts of all the major characters. Circumstances trap Peter and Lynda, and they cannot leave, indeed they turn from hunters into hunted. Roman tries to be a hero and ends up becoming a monster. Norman desires a new life and ends up turning into a kind of "living dead." Letha wants to be a mother and instead dies durng childbirth. Clementine seeks freedom and finds death. Christina wants to be a superhuman being but degenerates into a serial killer. Even the town itself moves from order into chaos as paranoia incite the sheriff and community to mob violence against the Rumanceks.
  • Supernatural Agency: The werewolf, varghulf and upir beings propel the story along as dynamic agents of change from the supernatural. These creatures are products of Medieval folklore and history, and the author uses them to serve the plot appropriately. All stories turn on "plot points" when the main characters' motivations change. The main characters here are Peter, Roman and Christina. They drive the story, and they all are or turn out to be one of these supernatural agents, werewolf or vampiric, whose characteristics become clearly defined by the telling of the story.

These four fundamental story elements are classic Gothic themes, and working together, they form the basis from which the entire "Hemlock Grove" plot springs. 

Series TropesEdit

Here are some prominent examples from the series, of classic Gothic tropes that figure importantly in the story:

  • Werewolves and vampires (in this series, upir): Supernatural beings as explained earlier.
  • Ruined buildings: Ruins of a factory (the "Castle Godfrey") and a church.
  • Young girls/women trapped or doomed by circumstance: Shelly and Letha.
  • Byronic heroes: Roman and Peter, as explained earlier.
  • Exotic, primitive or nature-attuned peoples trespassing in the today: The Romani people.
  • Magic spells and evil cults: Especially if they become important elements in the story.
  • Innocence that cloaks profound or supernatural evil: Christina.
  • Serial killers: Again, Christina.
  • Ancient religious orders: Clementine and the Order of the Dragon.
  • The mad scientist: Dr. Pryce.
  • Historic evil invading the present and causing disintegration: As explained earlier.
  • Claustrophobic setting: As explained earlier.
  • Freakish and deformed individuals: Shelly.
  • Decadent aristocratic family in an old mansion: Trying to control all events.
  • Individuals with good intentions becoming evil: Roman and Christina
  • Vulnerable young women innocently drawn into evil, like Miranda

Note that most of these tropes, used differently of course, can be Romantic conventions as well. Also, these are standard tropes of horror, when used for that purpose. 

For a good example of the author's employing one of these tropes, think of the Godfrey family. Here is a decadent, eccentric and aristocratic (also wealthy) family with a generations-old mansion, a dark past and control over the surrounding community. The family additionally nurtures supernatural beings. The mansion houses a son who is the essence of a Byronic hero and a girl who is repressed, watched over, freakish and sure to meet a sad end. The family head (here a matriarch) rules and broods over the family like an evil empress. Hanging over all members, there's a sickening aura of death. This is a typical Gothic situation. It may not be scary, but it is certainly decadent and morbid, as well as damned interesting!

Could 'Hemlock Grove' Be Horror?Edit

Most of the same tropes mentioned above could easily exist in a horror tale as well. For example, werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, ancient evils, Byronic heroes, serial killers and claustrophobic settings all occur in horror stories. However, the author of "Hemlock Grove" creates a Gothic, not a horror story. The proof is in the story itself.

Aristocrats

Roman and his mother, Olivia Godfrey, talk at a party while cousin Letha looks on. From left are actors Skarsgard, Penelope Mitchell and Famke Janssen.

To discover whether a tale is horror or Gothic, ask the simple question: "Does the fear factor dominate the story?" The purpose of "Hemlock Grove" is drama, not fear. Of course, there are definitely fearful and suspenseful moments in the story. One can argue that, even in comedies, there are moments of fear. Still, fear does not dominate the tale, nor is it even the story's main point. The drama among the characters and between the two families drives the story along. Fear is just a by-product and spicy seasoning. 

As video series go, check out "The Walking Dead" for an excellent horror tale. "Hemlock Grove" serves as an excellent example of the Gothic.

Just a Good Gothic StoryEdit

So, the main rule is don't confuse the two genres. Folks may not be able to define "Gothic" (hopefully you can now!) or even horror, but they still get a definite feel for an underlying story genre as they comprehend what's going on in what they watch or read. More importantly, folks do sense it when a genre has been botched.

"Hemlock Grove" is a true Gothic urban fantasy set in moder -day America. It wisely uses its tropes and storylines to create an excellent modern Gothic story. It may not be "horrifying," but it is quality entertainment. As a video series it has equal parts of drama, intrigue, thrills and just plain fun.

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