We like being scared (and that’s nothing new)
By Alex Harris
According to scientific research, we like being scared. The human mind, amazing contraption that it is, has been shown to be capable of processing both pleasure and fear simultaneously. So when we sit down in front of a horror movie or curl up with the latest Stephen King novel, we are genuinely afraid—and, yet, we're also happy about being afraid.
Much of what scares us in books, film, and theatre today owes its influence to the Gothic tradition, which first appeared in England in 1764 (Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto) before crossing the Atlantic in 1798, with the publication of Charles Brockden Brown's novel Wieland. In its early incarnation, European Gothic fiction frequently dealt with the dark and evil deeds that happened behind dark and evil castle walls (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).
In coming to America, though, the focus turned towards the dark and evil deeds of settlers in a young and mostly unexplored country (Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleep Hollow). While eighteenth-century Americans may have thought our worst fears lied in the vast and unknown expanse to the west, Gothic writers of the time were telling us to look a little more closely—to the communities directly around us—to find our terrors.
Today, the Gothic tradition has grown to encompass just about anything involving horror, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses, or just plain evil behavior. Popular culture's current fascination with vampires, whether of the Twilight or True Blood variety, is further evolution of the path first paved by Walpole and Brockden Brown. (Though in the case of Twilight, some may argue, devolution would be a more appropriate term.)
In The K of D, haunted castles have been replaced by the scary house next door. The Headless Horseman that haunts Ichabod Crane has been become Johnny Whistler's father returning from the dead—and, like Irving before her, Laura Schellhardt leaves it up to us to decide where the kids' pranks end and the real haunting begins.
But perhaps Schellhardt’s most overt nod to her American Gothic influence is in her choice of setting: "Saint Marys, Ohio. Which is a real town. But which could be any small town you might pass on your way to some place else," she writes in the introduction to the script. Schellhardt hasn't placed this story in "a small town in Ohio." She’s chosen Saint Marys, with its 8,342 inhabitants just east of the Indiana border. And though we've seen ghosts in other towns and in other stories, we know that these particular ghosts could only exist here.
Even though American writers of today may not be surrounded by large, dark, damp, scary castles, environment is still at the center of our Gothic tradition. Tarry Town, the Dutch settlement that houses The Legend of Sleep Hollow; the old drafty house in Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart; and (in a more contemporary example), the Bates Motel of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho all trap us within a very specific place for evil deeds to happen. For those of us in the audience, there is no chance of escape. We are terrified...and overjoyed.