Each gothic tale must have its suitably gothic setting. In his 1927 survey of English romanticism The Haunted Castle, Eino Railo writes, “The stage-setting with which before long the student of horror-romanticism is inevitably confronted is a species of old “Gothic” castle, the scene of innumerable horrors, capable of touching the imagination each time we see it” (Railo 7). As Railo catalogs in his book, the setting of the castle features heavily within gothic literature, aiding the gothic project to synthesize the imagined and the real together into romance. And yet, as the genre continued to grow, it would reach authors writing in lands without castles of yore in which to place their gothic tales. Still, there would be histories and structures in these new lands ripe to play off the gothic, and American authors would make strides in adapting the structure to fit the stories they were telling. While the haunted castle in traditional 18th- and 19th-century gothic literature can be read as a symbol of societal fears of ruination and corruption brought upon grand institutions and lineages, in both Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, the haunted castle serves not as a representation of corruption but instead a crystallization of a uniquely New World anxiety.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe’s unnamed narrator arrives at the titular House of Usher to see his childhood best friend Roderick, who resides there with his sister Madeline. Of the house, Poe writes:
Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great […] Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary degradation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. (Poe 93)
Immediately Poe brings to our attention the agedness of the house, conveying a deep historicity of the property. However, this might ring some alarms. If we were to suppose this tale is set in America, the country of the author’s provenance, then we might find ourselves unable to square the difference: the United States was a century old at the time of the story’s writing; settlers had only been on the continent for fewer than three centuries. Moving inside, the narrator observes “the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode” (Poe 93), further detailing a more Eurocentric abode, a twin to the European haunted castles of old.
It is not out of the question that Poe has decided to set this tale in Europe—it would not be the first time he has done so. But Lucy Caplan, writing in “The Fall of the House of Usher & Uncanny Truths of American Identity,” notes consistent rumors that Poe found inspiration for his tale in the dilapidated Usher House in Boston, of which there were further rumors that two skeletons locked in an embrace were found in the basement upon its demolition. True or not, that there had been a prominent Usher family in Boston who traced their roots to pre-Independence times certainly helps us reconcile Poe’s attention towards the antiquity of the property. During a time in which American authors were attempting to discern a national literary identity, Poe’s refusal to link his tale to America or Britain but instead locate it in a nonlocalized in-between place suggests a hesitancy to leave behind the hallmarks of British literature (the gothic genre included.) Instead, Poe has created a falsified history, one in which the early families of America have created grand lineages, and have an antiquity of their own. This historicized fantasy granted to real lineages superimposes itself onto the actual histories of early American settlement, conveniently ignoring the violences wrought by actual American settlement. But, as we see the fall of such lineages (and houses) in Poe’s work, we are privy to the anxiety that the old will inevitably fail.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe directly links the house, and the built architecture to the family residing within. He writes:
It was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the ‘House of Usher’ – an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion. (Poe 92)
Family as house becomes a useful way of viewing both the Ushers and the Armitages from Get Out. In both cases, the family supersedes the individual: in Poe’s story Roderick and Madeline, the last remaining members of the Usher lineage, seem inextricably intertwined—the two are twins, they suffer from similar illnesses, and the two die in each other’s arms. Roderick and Madeline, separated from each other, each seem to be living only a half-life (brought on perhaps by their illness) and thus their moment of physical connection creates a brief moment of fulfillment before the two pass away. Their illness, hinted to spring from incestual origins—“It was, [Roderick] said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy” (Poe 95)—further sets the Usher family as a closed loop, and further evokes a sense of oneness.
In Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Peele imbues the villainous Armitage family with a sense of oneness that becomes clear to both the protagonist Chris and the viewer after their project to implant white brains into Black bodies is revealed. As Chris, a Black photographer, journeys with his girlfriend Rose Armitage to her family’s upstate New York home for a weekend away, he slowly grows uneasy at her family’s interest in him, culminating with the revelation that they had been working to draw him onto the property since the inception of his and Rose’s relationship. The members of the Armitage familial unit work together to prevent their captive Chris’s escape from the grounds of the property, with every person Chris encounters during his time at the Armitage’s house revealed to be working within the mechanism of the Armitage’s plan. Indeed, one might look at the four members of the family as different limbs on a singular beast, with each family member assigned a specific function (Dean’s surgical practice, Missy’s hypnotherapy, Jeremy’s muscle, Rose’s position as honey pot) in order to move their grand scheme forward. In an interview with Seth Meyers, Allison Williams further sets this oneness into stone, contradicting viewers who might have attempted to extricate Rose from the Armitages’ collective self: “They’d say ‘she was hypnotized, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No! She’s just evil! How hard is that to accept? She’s bad!’ […] And they’re still like, ‘But maybe she’s also a victim?’ And I’m like, ‘No! No!’” (Williams). Thus, as we conflate the singular Usher to the House, we might conflate the singular Armitage to the House as well. Apart from Rose, who acts separately from the rest of the family (yet is revealed to be still connected to the body, almost like an anglerfish’s lure), we only meet the Armitages in the context of the house. Each is given their own domain (Dean’s operating suite, Missy’s office) where they work and ultimately perish: these domains become extensions of the body, further melding the two together—the surgeon’s knife and the teacup become weapons, the large chair Missy sits in while hypnotizing Chris seems to mesh with her, both engulfing and enlarging her while Dean’s operating suite is bathed in light the same blue as his scrubs, blending him into his arena. That the family unit is conflated with the house, both as Poe does with the House of Usher and as Peele suggests in Get Out, makes sense when considering both the gothic as a whole, and where the American gothic separates from the European stream.
The ruined castle, a mainstay in gothic literature, is tied to notions of heredity, titles, and royalty (in Castle of Otranto, the plot revolves around the rightful heir, whilst in Dracula, Dracula’s castle lends credence to Dracula’s role as royalty). In each of these cases, what remains crucial is the notion of time and of age: oftentimes, these ruinous, crumbling castles are physical attestations to a notion of legitimacy gained over time. Meanwhile in America, where castles and royalty are non-existent and have no “inherent” claim over land, money, and power still manifest in the built environment albeit in different, newer ways.
Similar to the European gothic narrative of decline, Poe’s story highlights anxieties surrounding the corruption and fall of a once-great lineage, and attempts to locate a place for this European trope within American literature. However, in Get Out, Peele takes this notion and flips it, changing it into a more disturbing, and yet more American worry: what if nothing has changed—what if the lineage was corrupted since its inception? The European gothic too has played on such worries—Dorian Gray, in one memorable scene in The Picture of Dorian Gray, takes in the portraits of his ancestors and wonders if they too had fallen victim to the same hedonism he has indulged in, and whether such inclinations were in fact baked into his personhood—but as Leslie Fiedler notes in Love and Death in the American Novel, the American landscape and history provides a unique fitting source for gothic tales:
Moreover, in the United States, certain special guilts awaited projection in the gothic form. A dream of innocence had sent Europeans across the ocean to build a new society immune to the compounded evil of the past from which no one in Europe could ever feel himself free. But the slaughter of the Indians […] and the abomination of the slave trade, in which the black man, rum, and money were inextricable entwined in a knot of guilt, provided new evidence that evil did not remain with the world that had been left behind—but stayed alive in the human heart, which had come the long way to American only to confront the horrifying image of itself. (Fiedler 127)
America, rather than serving as a bastion away from the horrors of the Old World, can be seen as built on these same horrors along with those more dreadful. A settler living in the New World has to confront the potential atrocities their ancestors might have committed in order to establish their place in it, and Americans, on a daily basis, are confronted with reminders of stolen wealth and blood money in the form of a gilded built environment. Innocence is revealed to be a lie and the gothic, a form suited to play off of the anxieties of the reader base, becomes uniquely suitable to dredge up the drama that springs from such worries.
Poe’s story then, in its curious non-localization, is able to avoid addressing any of these anxieties. Yet, we still might see them arise within the woodworks of the story: how, for example, might one read the romance the narrator tells Roderick in which Ethelred forcefully breaks into a hermit’s lair only to find a dragon and a brass shield inscribed Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin / Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win? (Poe 196) Do we take this then to be a permission of forced entry and subjugation in an attempt to gain material goods? We see perhaps, in Poe’s penning of this tale, an attempt to justify colonial exploits back to European tradition (as, once again, justification is found through precedence and historicity.) But when Madeline suddenly erupts from her tomb at the same time the narrator finishes his story, we may read a fear that what has been laid to rest might not, in fact, be all that settled. Instead, perhaps these American worries of past misdeeds—enslavement, genocide—cannot truly be buried. They will always find their way back out.
If the crumbling European haunted castle serves as a representation of European anxieties that the once grand has fallen into ruin and evil (the Castle of Otranto falling into unrightful hands in Castle of Otranto, the imprisonment of Luisa Bernini by her husband in A Sicilian Romance, the chaste Ambrosio being tempted into rape and murder by Matilda in The Monk), then the American gothic house serves as an inverse—a grand, fortified institution built upon a history of subjugation and other impure acts. We might not see physical traces of it, but a gleaming facade hides that the house is built upon a foundation of rot. Underscoring “The Fall of the House Usher” is the suggestion that incest has streamlined the Usher line while in Get Out, the bland, typical American home is revealed to be host to a sinister order bent on kidnapping and stealing Black bodies. Thus, we see its destruction in the form of the repressed surfacing again from this tomb and erupting from the pristine facade—Madeline escaping her tomb, leading the house to crumble down around her and Roderick; Chris escaping the basement and accidentally starting a fire that consumes the house and the Armitages. Whereas perhaps the crumbling castles of the European gothic might hold dark secrets, the length of time has perhaps washed these sins into obscurity. On the other hand, due to the relative infancy of America, the sordid acts built into the foundations of the house are still fresh enough to cause us anxiety. Most notably, we may see this formula for the American gothic house in the plantation house.
In his 2019 book Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe writes on the plantation’s effect on the enslaved individual’s subjectivity, stating “In the context of the plantation, the slave’s humanity appears as the perfect figure of a shadow. Indeed, the slave’s condition results from a triple loss: loss of a “home,” loss of rights over one’s body, and loss of political status” (Mbembe 75). Here, we see the plantation as a liminal space; a type of zone in which, within the spatial limits of the plantation, the enslaved individual assumes a shadow existence, somewhere between death and life—“death-in-life” (Mbembe 75). We see this portrayed in Get Out within the realm of the Sunken Place: upon the completion of the Coagula procedure the Black individual is reduced to a shadow in the back of the mind of the transplanted brain, retaining a subliminal existence but triply deprived, as Mbembe notes, of one’s home, body, and political status. Peele’s film displays for us a matryoshka doll condition in which one has the Black body, of which a white mind resides, within which the Black mind is placed further in/behind. But while we might consider the Sunken Place as the Plantation in which the Black mind lives in the figure of a shadow, might we also see the Armitage compound as a Plantation as well, and that it too exists as a zone simultaneously in and excluded from the wider world?
We can apply the same matryoshka doll metaphor of the Sunken Place to the Armitage compound as Peele utilizes a striking visual verticality to express the layers in which the Armitage family operates: as Missy instructs Chris to sink, we see him physically lower through the chair into the Sunken Place. Later, as the family prepares to complete the operation on Chris, he is taken to the basement of the mansion—a visually off-putting space that skews both the hunting lodge and the man cave into a manifestation of predatory white masculinity, conjoining a space of trophies and ping-pong tables with the surgical operating room. While set by press materials and vague mentions of the “City” as Upstate New York, as Susan Scott Parrish notes in “Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the Mediation of History,” the filming, having taken place in and around Fairhope, Alabama, places the location in flux. We do not see New York, or Alabama, but instead a liminal in-between. Shots of Chris and Rose traveling to the manse aren’t accompanied by any signage or indicators of where we might be headed (or what lies ahead), but instead a maze of trees that appear to be constricting or closing in on the car. During this disorienting sequence, we are met with Chris and Rose’s car hitting a deer, a destabilizing event (due to its similarity to Chris’ mother’s death) that we can see bifurcating (perhaps unevenly) the film into “New York City” and “Elsewhere.” By the time Chris and Rose arrive at the Armitage mansion, despite its haunting familiarity, it is clear that where we are cannot exactly be pinned down. Connection in the bubble to the outside world is deliberately severed (as we see with Georgina/Marianne unplugging Chris’ phone) and the life of Chris is reduced to a shadow, not by physical force as it historically was on the plantation, but instead by both social expectation and racist microaggression. As Rose walks Chris through the party, he is subject both to comments and actions tearing away his lived experience to get at what interests the other conversants: his skin.
Parrish suggests that the liminal localization of the Armitage mansion serves both as an exploration of New York and the North’s own use and profit from slavery, as well as a symbolization of the fusion of racial hierarchy with physical place. Drawing from George Lipsitz’s How Racism Takes Place, Parrish writes: “Because of practices that fuse the ongoing social invention of race with material and intergenerational realities of place, whiteness comes to seem ‘‘natural, necessary, and inevitable’’ and is able to perpetuate its seemingly natural advantages intergenerationally” (Parrish 115-116). Thus, she denotes, place is undeniably shaped by racist practices in order to create localized zones in which whiteness is able to take advantage. The Armitage house then, modified or built to house the necessary loci for the Order of the Coagula, takes after the architecture and place of the South in which there is/was a proliferation of buildings historically built for similar purposes. But this misplacement, of Alabama in New York, evokes as well a startling effect at first glance—the substitution of the South for the North, while perhaps not arousing any immediate suspicions, is enough to set doubt into the viewer. The historical bifurcation of America into North and South has been sewn back together into a Frankenstein’s monster of an unlocatable location, familiar but just out of reach, the sight of which leaving the viewer with a sense of spatial lethologica. Just as Poe has vexed us by conflating America and Europe, Peele places us somewhere between North and South. And yet, whilst Poe employs this enmeshment in an attempt to use the gothic language and form to create (false) American histories, Peele uses this confusion in order to lay bare actual histories.
We see then, through these two examples, how through time American authors have grasped the gothic to tell their own tales founded upon uniquely American anxieties. In each tale, the setting provides a gothic liminality based upon the infancy and history of America. In Poe’s tale, the meshing of America and Europe excavates worries of America’s infancy and lack of history upon which memories of atrocities lay just beneath the surface in the recent past. In Peele’s film, the meshing of North and South, past and present, brings to the fore the suggestion that liberal stylings disguise still bubbling animosity and vitriol. The American gothic castle, throughout time, has gone from a clone of the European gothic setting to a uniquely American haunted house that resembles and symbolizes the uneven and flawed founding of America itself: there will always be rotting foundations, there will always be skeletons in the closet, there will always be secrets in the basement threatening to erupt and bring down the house.
- Caplan, Lucy. “The Fall of the House of Usher & Uncanny Truths of American Identity,” In the Wings, 25 Jan. 2021, https://blo.org/usher-and-uncanny-truths-2/.
- Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). Meridian Books, 1962.
- Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. Duke University Press, 2019.
- Parrish, Susan Scott. “Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the Mediation of History,” Representations, vol. 155, no. 1, Aug. 2021, pp. 110–38. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2021.155.5.110.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Penguin Books, 2003.
- Railo, Aino. The Haunted Castle. George C. Rutledge & Sons, 1927.
- Tyler, Rollin Usher. “Notes on Usher Genealogy.” The New-England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 54, Jan. 1900.
- Williams, Allison. Interview by Seth Meyers, 30 Nov. 2017.