For someone who begins by insulting horror fans as “losers,” Mark Edmundson has produced a work that is surprisingly as insightful as it is presumptive. Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic (1999) is essentially a long essay, broken into three related sections. His premise is bold: that we live in a culture saturated by the Gothic. The problem with his argument is glaring: his definition of “Gothic” is extremely broad.
“America is a nation of extremes,” he wrote, where the pessimistic and the optimistic, in equally unrealistic forms, constantly battle over the hearts and minds of the American public. On one hand stands A Nightmare on Elm Street and Oprah, and on the other side stands Forrest Gump.
It might surprise you to find Oprah Winfrey and Freddy Krueger in the same category. According to Edmundson, the single most important aspect of the Gothic is the hero-villain who does wrong, but is, in the end, internally conflicted. Since the guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show often satisfy that description, Oprah joins the ranks of the Gothic. So did news stories about the O.J. Simpson case, for that matter.
Therein lies the problem with Nightmare on Main Street. Edmundson considers any portrayal of a duel nature in humanity to be Gothic. Never mind the elements of setting, mood, or the supernatural that make Gothic literature and film so unique. Those are all pushed aside in favor of the broadest possible characterization.
This problem seems so glaring I’m surprised that neither Richard Rorty nor Michael Pollan, two scholars who Edmundson credited for helping to shape his argument, didn’t catch it right away. Just because something shares an aspect with Gothic literature and film doesn’t make it Gothic as well. If you made a Venn diagram, and on one side you had the Oprah Winfrey Show and on the other you had Gothic novels, the overlapping part would be comically small.
Aside from that glaring problem, Nightmare on Main Street is an entertaining and engaging work. Edmundson’s observations occasionally made me laugh out loud. Describing Scar, the main villain of the popular ‘90s cartoon The Lion King, he wrote, “Scar’s voice, courtesy of Jeremy Irons, is that of a cultivated, world-weary, gay man. He sounds like Gore Vidal with a significant hangover.”
His description of our therapeutic culture is dead on, beginning with Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump, a movie that rewarded sweet and innocent ignorance, was, ultimately, our answer to Nightmare on Elm Street. “Forrest Gump played large in America because it worked as a vacation, a few hours away from more pressing Gothic fears,” he explained. In a culture so saturated with death, destruction, and fear, Forrest Gump reassured baby boomers that despite all the tumult, everything would work out in the end, as long as you viewed everything through a detached, sentimental lens.
In his third section, Edmundson proposed that naked sadomasochism is what results when the culture of Gothic goes uncontested. “At the core of every Gothic plot is the S&M scenario: victim, victimizer, terrible place, torment,” he wrote. The growth of S&M culture in America is therefore the direct result of our inability to effectively counter the Gothic.
Edmundson concludes on a down note, with no prescription for countering the Gothic, other than that Forrest Gump and religion won’t suffice. He left it to his readers to discover a culturally redeeming art form. As a fan of the Gothic, I hope he has to wait for a long time.