Tim Burton made a wonderful short-stop film in the early 1980s called Vincent. A huge Vincent Price fan, Burton made the film about a little boy who aspires to be Vincent Price—that mainstay of American horror movies. Here’s the thing, the boy Vincent in the film is only seven years old. It’s a wonderfully endearing film, narrated by the great Vincent Price himself, and containing several references to Price’s own classics such as House of Wax, and the Roger Corman films based on Edgar Allen Poe’s works throughout the 1960s. What’s most striking is how the boy Vincent’s addiction to melancholia is so aptly put into perspective by his own mother at one point, reflecting what happens when we also go too far down the Gothic rabbit hole, so to speak.
This realistic perspective is a cold shock to the system—much like Ann Radcliffe’s reasonable explanations of the Castle Udolpho’s mysteries, Washington Irving’s subtle hints at real life causes of supposedly supernatural occurrences, or Jane Austen’s loving parody of Gothic fiction in Northanger Abbey. It’s all well and good to allow your system the delights of all the thrill and chills of ghosts and devils in the shadows, but there are real Gothic terrors which don’t take place inside dilapidated castles. Look at Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria or The Wrongs of Woman, for instance.
The problem comes in when you become addicted to the emotions and you reject the emotional purge which Gothic and it’s subsidiaries provides. That is, in effect what Tim Burton’s Vincent gets at very entertainingly. We sometimes call this being a “glutton for punishment” or masochism. When you are addicted to the pain of purgation, what horrors awake then?
The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady.Edgar Allen Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Poe’s “The Black Cat” addresses this in part, by showing us how the mind of a man devolves from loving husband and cat parent to murderer of both. “The Fall of the House of Usher” goes even further because here, we have the mind of a man so mentally ill that it pervades not only the house but the very landscape around it until the house itself can no longer stand.
It is the House of Usher itself which gave me the idea for this blog post. On the outside it looks sturdy except for a faint fissure which runs up the side and down in to the still waters of the tarn or lake which sits beside the house. There are signs of decay everywhere—from the dead trees, the mossy stonework, the barren countryside, and the silent tarn, to the worn and haggard appearance of Roderick Usher himself.
When I returned to the House of Usher for this post, I was struck this time with just how much like the mind the house was and how Roderick himself is so very much like one who suffers from acute depression. The story, of course, hints at other means for the eeriness of the house and its occupants, but when you consider Roderick’s actual maladies, and Poe’s for that matter, I personally think “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a metaphor for mental illness.
He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.Edgar Allen Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Having suffered from depressive episode of varying intensity for most of my life—most recently in the past month—I recognize some of Roderick’s symptoms I as my own. The fear, the terror, the inability to leave the house and yet the simultaneous fear of the house itself, and even the acute sensitivity to any physical sensations all bears out in classic symptoms of mental illness. In each case, the symptoms are a desperate attempt to put an external locus for the symptoms—the human mind is remarkably reluctant to admit its own illness.
Yet, all these symptoms, like with ny mental illness, do not have their origin externally. They can be set off externally—that is certainly true enough. Mental, emotional, and physical abuse especially can set off those symptoms and make it all look perfectly natural.
If you’ve read “The Fall of the House of Usher” then you know how the story ends—Lady Madeline Usher is buried alive, Roderick Usher goes mad and the entire house collapses into the tarn the narrator had noticed upon his arrival to the estate. For Roderick and his sister Madeline, there was no escape from their diseased castle primarily because neither even tries to do so. Roderick is complacent in dealing with his own morbidity—like Vincent Malloy—and Madeline wastes away without any hope of a cure. In the end, they and their house wither away and sink into the tarn at the foot of the house without ever having made even the slightest attempt to escape.
And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe in one unceasing radiation of gloom.Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher
Whether they didn’t find themselves worth the effort (as Roger Corman’s House of Usher posits), or, as is more likely, they are a reflection of Poe’s own endless struggles with mental illness, their fate does not have to be our own any longer. Doctors in Poe’s day had nothing on which to base treatment for melancholia. Psychology didn’t exist yet and there were no such things as therapists.
We, living in the real world, and living in a century where the disease of the mind is better known, however, do have a chance at escape and we do have an obligation to ourselves to try.
Like little Vincent Malloy—whose life is quite thoroughly undramatic—the drama all takes place in our heads. While, as we all know, dismissing anything as being “all in your head” bears its own consequences, there is some truth in little Vincent Malloy’s story. We do need to control our own emotions and our own reactions to our perceptions. While Vincent Malloy lived entirely in his head, despite his mother’s objections, we have to take his mother’s advice for ourselves—the story we are telling ourselves may not actually be the story of our lives.
This is easier said than done, but it begins by being aware that we are in a house with a fissure running up the side—just as the House of Usher had a fissure which ran up its side. Roderick Usher may have been aware, but he certainly couldn’t rouse himself to do anything about it. He was already too lost in his own misery to even care about anything but the end. You and I must be careful that we do not succumb to the same emotions.
“You must not–you shall not behold this!” said I, shuddering to Usher […] “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon[…]”Edgar Allen Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
This begins by not only recognizing the danger of having the fissure in our minds, but by constantly monitoring it and by recognizing that it’s always there—and will always be there more than likely. When we have realized that, then we can start to change the narrative. Think, for instance, of the first Avengers movie. What was Dr Banner’s answer to the question of how he kept from getting angry? The answer was that he was always angry. The first time I heard that, it always struck me as being applicable to mental illness.
How do we escape the castle of our minds? Oddly enough, Vincent Malloy’s mother has the answer. Go outside. The key to escaping the castle isn’t finding a door or fighting off guards—it’s as simple as physically leaving the house. Getting out of our own heads can sometimes be easier said than done, but the easiest way to do so is as simple as changing our surroundings—even if only for a little bit.
There are other techniques, of course, some of which I have covered. Whether we change our self-talk, take joy in the simple pleasure of life like a hobbit, or simply make a quick grocery run to get out of the house (one of my own standbys), there are ways of preventing our own minds crumbling away into nothingness like the House of Usher.
Of course, one of the best ways is to turn the story of horror into a story of mystery, but that is for the next post…