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When Gothic Turns Comical: The Parodic and Melodramatic Aesthetics of the Surfaces in Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Show (1975) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991)

the Addams Family house screen capture from film

“The comic turn in Gothic is not an aberration or a corruption of a ‘serious’ genre; rather, it is intrinsic to a mode of writing that has been hybrid since its very inception.”1 So contends Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik in their book Gothic and the Comic Turn. In this book, Horner and Zlosnik conduct a detailed investigation into the comic dimension of English Gothic fictions and map the literary genealogy of the comic Gothic, arguing that humorous elements are inherent in the Gothic mode due to its prevalent hybridity.2 From this perspective, they suggest regarding Gothic texts as “a spectrum” that oscillates between spine-chilling horror and hilarious absurdity.3 This essay approaches “comic Gothic” as an unstable, ambiguous mode by drawing upon Horner and Zlosnik’s study, which provides an inclusive understanding of the term as it encompasses a wide range of works. Their definition of “comic Gothic” rejects the rigid distinction between “high art” and “low culture” and between the serious and the ludic, thereby resonating with postmodernism in critiquing literary elitism and embracing popular culture.

This essay will focus on the use of parody and melodramatic elements in twentieth-century American comic Gothic films and explore how comic Gothic engages in dialogue with Gothic conventions and postmodernism. I will start by discussing the interconnected relationship between the Gothic mode, melodrama, and postmodernism in terms of their aesthetic and stylistic concerns, especially their mutual interest in the “surface.” According to Horner and Zlosnik, the Gothic’s embrace of hybrid surface effects opens up possibilities for a comic turn that is inherently self-reflexive.4 I argue that in many comic Gothic films, the presumed opposition between surface and depth is deconstructed. Through parodies, incorporation of melodramatic performances, and exaggerated portrayal of the grotesque on the surface, comic Gothic foregrounds its own textuality and intertextuality, inviting the audience to enjoy the playfulness and humor of the postmodern aesthetics.

I will explore the ways in which comic Gothic plays with Gothic conventions at the surface level to produce comedic effects by comparing two widely popular late-twentieth-century films: Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991). Both films have enjoyed great commercial popularity and cultural impact. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (hereafter Rocky Horror) is adapted from Richard O’Brien’s musical The Rocky Horror Show (1973) and remained one of the most popular midnight movie for years. The Addams Family (hereafter Addams) is based on Charles Addams’s cartoons and David Levy’s TV sitcom of the same name (1964), whose box-office success has helped to consolidate the Addams family franchise’s status in popular culture, spawning several other sequels and spin-offs including, most recently, Netflix’s web series Wednesday (2022). Rooted in American popular culture, these two films exemplify the generic hybridity of comic Gothic, from musical film to family comedy, and their approaches towards settings, plots, and characters illustrate postmodernism’s revaluation of the surface aesthetics. Significantly, both films have played an important role in reinforcing a quintessential image of American popular culture — the haunted house;5 both parody this iconic cultural image and portray the eccentric inhabitants living in the houses to celebrate Gothic extremes and a melodramatic surface aesthetics, creating a tension between suspense and comedic effects. My analysis of the analogous gloomy houses and their quirky residents in Rocky Horror and Addams will revolve around the plot conventions of spatial travelling and the melodramatic characterizations of their inhabitants as a way to illuminate how comic Gothic exhibits some pivotal postmodern characteristics. Generally speaking, I endorse Catherine Spooner’s view that the Gothic’s participation in popular culture does not mark the decline of the “genre” itself — as if there were clear rules about what the Gothic really is — but embodies its intrinsic “adaptability.”6 Comic Gothic celebrates the Gothic aesthetics and makes fun of it at the same time, showing an inherent self-reflexivity that echoes with postmodernism.

Gothic, Melodrama and Postmodernism

Before further analyzing Rocky Horror and Addams, I intend to highlight the intersections of the Gothic mode, melodramatic style, and postmodern aesthetics, especially their mutual preoccupation with the “surface.” According to Paul March-Russel, there is a long-established surface-depth model in Western literary criticism, in which the surface is regarded as superficial and insignificant.7 Meanwhile, the dominant depth model presupposes the existence of an underlying truth behind the surface of texts, and hence what is thought to be hidden or concealed has received more critical attentions. In a similar vein, the depth model has been privileged in film criticism for a long time.8 March-Russel notes that postmodernism focuses more on the “surface play,” “[deconstructing] this opposition between surface and depth.”9 The surface is no longer perceived as meaningless and in opposition to the depth, but rather as something meaningful in its own way. In this sense, melodramatic texts share with postmodernism the same interest in surface aesthetics. Juliet John argues that the expressionistic style of melodrama “[assumes] a synonymity between surfaces and depths.”10 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama denotes “a play, film, or other dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions.”11 Writing on the melodramatic characteristics of Charles Dickens’ Gothic villains, John points out that the melodramatic style inclines to “externalize the inner life” through depictions of external surroundings, characters’ appearance and behaviors as the method of characterization.12 In other words, what is inward becomes the most visible in melodramatic aesthetics. Thus, there is no distinction between surface and depth.

Likewise, the Gothic mode is largely about surface features and effects. Reflecting on the limitations of psychoanalytic criticism, which always seeks the “depth,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick revalues the “surface” and emphasizes its importance to the Gothic mode, suggesting that it contains “the most characteristic and daring areas of Gothic convention.”13 Horner and Zlosnik take a further step to underline the significance of surface effects in Gothic writing, saying, it is “the ‘surface’ element of Gothic fiction [that] allows for an easy dialectic between … horror and laughter” and thus opens up the comic dimension of the Gothic.14 There is no doubt that the Gothic is an equivocal concept that is difficult to define. Many critics do not view it as a “genre” due to its strong adaptability. Nonetheless, there are still some repeated “surface” elements and formulas that can be recognized in fictional works widely acknowledged as “Gothic.” For instance, Richard J. Hand and Jay McRoy list some repetitious features of Gothic films, such as decaying buildings, wild nature, and the tendency toward extremity in Gothic narratives.15 These features might not apply to every Gothic work, but they are all displayed in the two comic Gothic films that this essay intends to discuss: Rocky Horror and Addams. Comic Gothic reworks and parodies these surface conventions to make fun of its own “hyperbolic unreality,” which is defined by Jerrold E. Hogle as the Gothic mode’s intrinsic tendency to “[exaggerate] its own extreme fictionality.”16 Comic Gothic further magnifies this sense of fictionality to turn the horror into the comic. Just as Horner and Zlosnik note, “The comic Gothic turn self-consciously uses Gothic’s propensity to bare the device in order to allay the reader’s learnt response of fear, horror, and anxiety when encountering certain plots and tropes.”17

In the meantime, comic Gothic’s preference for self-parody and intertextuality shows a reflexive self-awareness that borders on the postmodern. In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon emphasizes the deconstructive impulse in the intertextual and parodic mode of writing. For Hutcheon, postmodern parody is inherently double: “it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies.”18 In other words, parody first exposes “the horizon of expectation … formed by recognizable conventions of genre, style, or form of representation,” then “[destabilizes] and [dismantles it] step by step.”19 By using parody, postmodern film “exploits its ‘insider’ position [in capitalist modes of production] in order to begin a subversion from within.”20 Analogously, comic Gothic films tend to adopt a parodic representation of Gothic conventions. In so doing, they destabilize viewers’ expectations of Gothic films and foreground their textuality to invite reflexive attention. Furthermore, comic Gothic film parody also “engages with subtly influential forms of coded discourse,”21 ironically converting social normality into amusing cliché. When horrible moments become ludicrous, the Gothic mode radiates deconstructive energy. As Horner and Zlosnik suggest, “the comic turn in Gothic writing offers a fresh perspective on modernity, seeing it as hugely entertaining and productive as well as threatening.”22 In what follows I will concentrate on the surface features and effects of the two films surrounding the cultural image of the haunted houses, including the parodies of traditional Gothic plots and settings, as well as the melodramatic method of characterization, the visual aesthetics, and acting style. Meanwhile, I will explore how the embrace of the surface allows comic Gothic films to negotiate between horror and humor as well as respond to some postmodern concerns and reflections on the surface-depth model in film criticism.

Spatial Traveling and Comic Gothic Parody

In applying Horner and Zlosnik’s notion of the Gothic spectrum to examine Rocky Horror and Addams, it is fair to say that both films are closer to the side of “nothing … to be taken seriously.”23 Whereas the former is widely acknowledged as a “cult” musical film,24 thrilling and hilarious at the same time, the latter is more of a lighthearted family comedy with a Gothic coating. Rocky Horror follows the footsteps of Janet and Brad, a middle-class American couple, as they enter the castle/spaceship of the alien, mad scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, where they experience a series of bizarre and crazy adventures. Addams revolves around an unusual family residing in an eerie mansion, whose members have gothic predilections. Whereas the former turns to an equivocal ending with three human characters crawling in the mist, the latter ends with a happy family reunion, and all the villains get their comeuppance (though the Addamses look more like stereotypical villains, they are not the villains in the film). Despite the differences in form and content, both films employ the cultural image of a haunted house, parody Gothic conventions to celebrate non-traditional lifestyles and create comedic effects, and mobilize formulaic plot, setting and the character’s stylized reactions. My analysis will be based on Hutcheon’s definition of postmodern parody, demonstrating the double process in which the two films “[bare] and thus [challenge] convention.”25 I will also explain how this strategy embraces an aesthetics of the surface and produces comedic effects that resonate with postmodern playfulness.

Spatial traveling is a common way to organize the structure of the narrative in Gothic films, which always involve a physical moving from a seemingly “normal” space to an “abnormal” haunted building. So many Gothic films employ spatial traveling to unfold the story that it has become an overused trope. For example, the protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) marries a rich man and moves to his isolated estate, Manderley; the young solicitor Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) travels to an antiquated castle where vampires reside; the narrator Markway in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) steps into a sinister mansion. Likewise, Rocky Horror and Addams both mobilize a formulaic Gothic plot: a journey into a creepy house. However, their mise-en-scène is different from other twentieth-century Gothic horror films, thus producing hybrid, incongruous effects that are evident on the surface. In the opening sequences of Rocky Horror, the viewers are limited to the perspective of the couple, Janet and Brad, without knowing what will happen next, while an intrusive narrator reminds the viewers of how unforgettable this journey will be, but offers no details. Although this narrative strategy seems analog to the Gothic convention that aims to create suspense and provoke fear, its sense of horror is largely undermined by the blatant fictionality of the film’s setting and the characters’ dramatic performance. On the one hand, the setting of the film is saturated with abundant visual representations and aural effects of Gothic clichés. The fierce storm, sudden lightning, dark night, iron gate, drooping branches, gigantic building — the traditional Gothic imagery is so excessively patched together that they seem flamboyant, especially the close-up shot of the warning sign on the gate, which writes “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!!.” As Sue Matheson notes, this sign parodies the “Gothic convention from the late night science fiction genre.”26 This conspicuous sign with informal punctuation evokes an incongruous feeling when comparing it to the Gothic setting that is conventionally meant to establish a spooky atmosphere. In this light, the two strong exclamation marks on the warning sign push a sense of fakery to extremes, forecasting how excessive and exaggerated the Gothic elements will be rendered in the following scenes.

On the other hand, compared with those conventional, sensitive but innocent characters who are about to be helplessly trapped in a sinister habitation, Janet and Brad are portrayed as more reckless when they pass through the darkness and approach the castle, singing, “there is a light.” Here the film uses two sets of point-of-view shots, shifting from the hopeful faces of the couple to a close-up of the visibly gothicized building with the alternation of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds of singing. Given that the non-diegetic sound “over at the Frankenstein place” with a Gothic allusion is inserted into the song right after Janet’s joyful line “there is a light,” this scene is endowed with an ironic undertone. Janet and Brad’s elated, exaggerated facial expressions are placed in contrast to the gloomy setting. The mismatch between the setting’s atmosphere and the characters’ responses heightens the fictionality of the Gothic setting, thereby creating a comic sensation. By “baring” the conventional Gothic plot and outdated setting, Rocky Horror draws the audiences’ attention to the film’s surface effects, its own textuality, and even the fictionality of the Gothic itself. If the traditional Gothic films require the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief,”27 comic Gothic films tend to retrigger the sense of disbelief, providing a space for the articulation of the tension between belief and disbelief. Rocky Horror invites the audiences to simultaneously celebrate and laugh at what conventionally has been considered as “serious” or “sublime,”28 demonstrating comic Gothic’s self-mocking impulse that echoes with postmodern introspection.

Whereas Rocky Horror bares the formulas to create comedic effects by following the traditional Gothic plot of introducing the castle from the outsiders’ perspective at the beginning, Addams starts its story from inside the house, first introducing the unusual family dwelling in the gloomy mansion, then moving to the uninvited “outsider” guests: the family lawyer Tully Alford and his wife Margaret, as well as the imposter doctor Abigail Craven and her “son” Gordon (who is later revealed as Uncle Fester, Gomez Addams’s missing brother). This narrative method ensures the viewers’ proximity to the Addamses in the opening sequences, inviting the viewers to suspend moral judgment and enjoy the funny parodies of Gothic elements. In so doing, the eccentric lifestyle of the Addams family is established as the “normal” in the diegetic world of this film from the beginning, whereas the traditional American middle-class family is put under the spotlight as the antithesis to be ridiculed. The film’s mockery of the traditional American family resonates with Rocky Horror’s implied sarcasm towards the banality of the normative romance between Brad and Janet. In Addams, this mocking attitude is expressed more obviously through constant juxtapositions between the Addamses and other American families throughout the film. In the opening sequences, the film deliberately brings two types of settings into comparison. Just like Rocky Horror, Addams’s visual parodies of the traditional Gothic setting are excessive as well. It exhibits a haunting mansion, a desolate graveyard, a secret chamber, a vine-covered greenhouse, a cobwebbed bedroom, a macabre kitchen, and a room full of torture devices. All these Gothic spaces are elaborately designed with exquisite ornaments and props. They are not intimidating alongside the brisk and lively score, as well as the amusing performance of the actors, in the opening sequences. Instead, the Gothic elements in these spaces are fully embraced as a decorative aesthetic in this film, visually pleasing and fascinating. These Gothic spaces are juxtaposed by the neighbor’s well-tended garden and his symmetrical villa, which are reminiscent of the houses in many American family sitcoms. In this sense, the Addams family itself is an inversion of the traditional middle-class family ideal, or to use a Gothic term, a dark-version “double” of the happy American family in a collective cultural imagination. This ideal has been repeatedly performed on television and American cinema screens into the present day. The film’s sequel Addams Family Values (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993) showcases the rejection of this family ideal even more directly: the Addams children are terrified of watching Disney and other family films. In Addams, the film’s major themes and concerns are conveyed directly through its surface strategies; therefore, any attempt to distinguish surface and depth becomes pointless.

Similar to Rocky Horror, Addams also draws upon the conventional plot of spatial traveling. However, this time the visitor is not as innocent as those in the classic horror Gothic films. Instead, the traditional innocent outsider character is replaced by a man with a scary appearance and ulterior motives. At his first entrance on the screen, Gordon demonstrates his intimidating qualities by turning Tully upside down against the wall. While the unrealistic scene manages to produce a sense of humor, Gordon has established a strong, animalistic villain image. Despite his strength and “wickedness,” viewers will soon find him falling into the same predicament as those traditional helpless Gothic victims after he enters the Addams house. This twist brings a series of comic moments, especially when the film adopts the “villain” Gordon’s perspective, with the formulaic plot of a trespasser’s spatial traveling in a maze-like habitation becoming even more comical. Instead of terrifying others as a “villain,” Gordon is prone to be shocked and frightened. For example, on the first night of his stay in the Addams home, he is even frightened by the disembodied hand, an adorable Addams family member who shows its lovableness at the beginning of the film by stretching its fingers, jumping off the side table, and walking down the hall briskly like a small animal. In this episode, the film parodies many surface conventions of the horror Gothic films, including the creaks of the door, the ominous shadows, the clap of thunder, and the winds that dramatically blow open the windows. Identical to the classic Gothic films, the combination of visual images and sonic effects, along with the actor’s exaggerated facial expressions, stimulate the audiences’ multiple sensations and thus create suspense. However, since the Gothic devices used here are “outworn,”29 to borrow Horner and Zlosnik’s phrase, and the terrified character is presented as a less sympathetic “villain,” this moment becomes comic rather than frightening.

Unlike Rocky Horror which still contains some conventional dark and violent plots such as murder and cannibalism, the core of Addams is a family comedy devoid of horror. Therefore, its Gothicism is largely manifested in its parodic visual representations of the Gothic elements, including the setting, makeup, and costume. Addams can be regarded as what Spooner calls “a new kind of Gothic founded in visual rather than narrative motifs.”30 In spite of their differences, Rocky Horror and Addams both parody the surface aesthetics of the Gothic and create humorous moments, thereby exemplifying a postmodern playful spirit. Apart from the spatial details, the weird inhabitants are an essential part of the cultural image of the haunted house. In Gothic cinema, grotesque bodies and haunted houses usually stay in a co-constitutive relationship: houses provide a space for bodies to inhabit and exert influence on the surfaces of bodies, and bodies, in turn, shape the space. In the next section, I will further discuss the two films’ extensive application of Gothic and melodramatic visual aesthetics in the characterizations of the haunted houses’ eccentric residents.

Melodramatic Aesthetics and Comic Gothic

Taking up Peter Brooks’ perspective on melodrama, Horner and Zlosnik discuss the interactive relationship between melodrama and the Gothic from the birth of the two modes. One of the parallels is their tendency to “[polarize] and [hyperdramatize] ‘forces in conflict.’”31 Another is their mutual preference for mobilizing scenes of “high feeling.”32 Hand and McRoy note, “the Gothic is never far away from melodrama and dialogues are frequently pitched for maximum emotional intensity.”33 Thus, melodramatic aesthetics has been a part of the Gothic convention since its birth. As mentioned above, melodramatic and Gothic aesthetics are both closely related to the play of the surfaces. Hence, in the case of Gothic films, extreme conflicts and feelings are expressed through the surface features, such as exaggerated characterization, melodramatic actions, and hyperbolic language. Comic Gothic follows this tradition, celebrating the expressionistic aesthetics of melodramatic style and integrating it with the grotesque. The expressionistic aesthetics of melodrama, as Peter Brooks emphasizes, is achieved “through acting out [which] takes place on and through the body.”34 Therefore, I will analyze how the grotesque bodies of the characters in Rocky Horror and Addams take on melodramatic aesthetics and illustrate how the Gothic’s embrace of melodramatic style induces laughter. Moreover, I will continue to demonstrate that comic Gothic films, like many postmodern texts and criticisms, resist the dominant mode of reading in film criticism that presumes an opposition between surface and depth. At this time, this resistance is achieved through the incorporation of melodramatic style into characterization and performance.

For instance, the mad Transylvanian scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, is designed as a visually memorable character in theatrical costume with heavy makeup. This character not only parodies the name of the scientist Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s eponymous novel, but also draws on circus traditions. Anna-Sophie Jürgens demonstrates the blend of the mad scientist archetype and “violent clowns” in the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, emphasizing the importance of physical appearance and bodily movements in representing this figure.35 The exaggerated makeup and theatrical costume of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (dark red lips, heavy eyeshadow, shining black corset, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels) evoke a hybrid cultural image of the clown. According to Horner and Zlosnik, melodrama and clown performances are intertwined with the Gothic mode, for they all embrace the surface and elicit “ambivalent response,” namely terror and laughter at the same time.36 Likewise, Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a clown-like character in that audiences would find him simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. The mixture of seemingly opposing traits is conveyed through his exaggerated facial expressions, as well as melodramatic performances. For example, in the laboratory scene, Dr. Frank-N-Furter shows a drastic emotional change in a short span of time. After the birth of Rocky, Dr. Frank-N-Furter cheerfully explains his plan for Rocky in the form of singing with exaggerated smiles, dramatic actions, and overtly emotional language. When Eddie breaks into the room with his motorcycle, the joyful atmosphere reaches its climax. Meanwhile, the film inserts a few close-ups of Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s grumpy face into a sequence of shots of the cheerful Eddie and the dancing servants. This contrast is comical because Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s reaction is presented as childish rather than ominous on the screen. But the cheery atmosphere suddenly spirals downwards when he begins to attack Eddie with an ice pick: the buffoon clown unexpectedly turns into a callous, violent one. As soon as Eddie has been killed, he quickly changes back to the role of a burlesque “clown.” On Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s ambivalent, grotesque body, the surface directly expresses his personality, as well as his psychological state. The surface does not conceal anything: it is highly expressive. The melodramatic performances of Dr. Frank-N-Furter not only reflect the “maximum emotional intensity,”37 but also embody a sense of instability that is intrinsic to the Gothic mode. This instability permits the coexistence of horror and comedy in Rocky Horror, thereby complicating the characterization of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and the transgressive lifestyle he represents.

In addition to creating a tension between horror and humor in the narrative, Rocky Horror’s employment of melodramatic style foregrounds the film’s own textuality and fictionality. Writing on the surface value of the Gothic, Sedgwick mentions some traditional surface features of the Gothic fictions, including “two-dimensional characters.”38 Similarly, Juliet John notes that many critics tend to link melodramatic aesthetics with an appetite for “flat” characters. She argues that this “flatness” is in fact a unique strategy, resulting from “the expressionistic tendencies of melodrama” that reject the surface/depth distinction.39 In some cases, comic Gothic characters are so exaggeratedly designed to accentuate certain characteristics that they are close to the level of caricature. In Rocky Horror, the handyman Riff Raff, who is also a parody of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked servant Fritz in James Whale’s classic Gothic film Frankenstein (1931), exemplifies this caricaturing style. This character embodies the Gothic convention of the grotesque with his easily identifiable physical features: sunken eyes, gloomy face, and enormous hump. All these characteristics are combined to strengthen the Gothic atmosphere that is established in the film. It is noteworthy that Riff Raff’s grotesque body also produces a humorous effect, exactly through his presence as a copy or a simulation of the Gothic icon Fritz. In this sense, Riff Raff can be seen as the caricature of Fritz, foregrounding the hyperbolic fictionality of this Gothic figure as well as the intertextuality of Rocky Horror. Additionally, Riff Raff’s personality is externalized on his face: his sullen face exposes his hostility towards other characters. This is also a melodramatic method of characterization. Just as John notes, the externalization of characters’ inner life is a strategy prevalent in melodramatic aesthetics.40 Sedgwick underscores the significance of the “faces” in the Gothic novel, saying, “[faces] tyrannize here neither by beauty nor by ugliness, nor even by an oppressive numerical excess, but by their very freight of meaning.”41 In this sense, a face can be regarded as a metonymy of the “surface” of the comic Gothic. Just as “surface” usually equals “depth” in melodrama, the faces of the characters in Rocky Horror embody their personalities and articulate their psychological states.

Compared with Rocky Horror, in which the protagonists and some other characters oscillate between the horrible and the comical, the ones in Addams are less frightening and more comical. Like Rocky Horror, the film also tends to use the melodramatic method of characterization, embracing theatricality and emotional extremity. Also like Rocky Horror, Addams portrays the characters through physical appearances. Given that these characters are derived from Charles Addams’s cartoon series, they are assigned a cartoonlike characteristic in the film adaptation, with certain physical features distorted or exaggerated. For example, the mother Morticia is a tall woman with distinctive high cheekbones and long black hair, always wearing black; the grandmother is a hunched witch with frizzy white hair; the tall somber butler Lurch resembles Frankenstein’s monster in Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931). Their physical appearance is distinctive and easy to recognize, accentuating their characters. The film likewise employs melodramatic rhetoric, as well as exaggerated performances, to play with intensified feelings. For instance, Gomez, the father in the Addams family, is portrayed as an extremely romantic and passionate person through hyperbolic actions and a melodramatic way of speaking. In the opening sequence, when he stares at his wife Morticia, who is lying in bed, he gives a passionate short speech, “look at her. I would die for her. I would kill for her. Either way — what bliss.” After a short conversation with Morticia, he suddenly pulls out his rapier, using the sharp point to close the blinds. This is a highly dramatic moment in which the passion of Gomez is fully expressed in the melodramatic body language of the actor. In the meantime, this melodramatic scene also creates comedic effects due to its theatricality and unnatural performance. Humor reduces the distance between the audience and the Addamses, making them look more amiable. Therefore, in Addams, the grotesque body is not terrifying, but rather invites empathy and wins the favor of audiences. Addams’s approach towards characterization is as expressionistic as Rocky Horror, accentuating the significance of a surface reading model, in which the surface is no longer viewed as “lacking depth”, but instead as a way for audiences to engage with postmodern joy and aesthetic pleasure.

Whereas the eccentric Addamses gain audiences’ favor through melodramatic characterization, some outwardly “normal” people are revealed as villains and the ‘normal’ family is portrayed as dysfunctional in the film. Unlike the classic horror Gothic films, the true villains in Addams are not in the gloomy house, but come from the outside. The eccentric Addamses are not villains; instead, the seemingly ‘normal’ people are actually bad, such as the greedy lawyer Tully, the suited woman Abigail, and the unjust judge. As is mentioned above, the Addams family is an inversion of the traditional family ideal. This inversion is also represented through a juxtaposition between the Addamses and other “normal” people. For example, the film draws two sets of comparisons: one between the Morticia-Gomez couple and the Margaret-Tully couple and the other between the “mother-son” relationship of Abigail and Gordon (Fester) and the kinship of the Addamses. These comparisons are developed through some surface elements, such as their physical appearance as well as melodramatic performances. While Morticia and Gomez are portrayed as a loving couple in spite of their unusual taste, the relationship between Margaret and Tully is dysfunctional. The film employs melodramatic rhetoric and actions to magnify and comedize the quarrel between Margaret and Tully when they are on their way to the Addams house (“Why did I marry you?”/ “Because I said yes!”). Besides the unhappy couple, the “mother-son” relationship between Abigail and Gordon (Fester) is also full of problems. Abigail is an authoritarian “mother” despite her “normal” and even “professional” appearance (striped shirt, grey suit, tie and watch). Her manipulation of Gordon is manifested in their melodramatic interactions and dialogues: in one scene, when Gordon tells her about his dancing in the Addams family ball, talking excitedly with dizzying gestures, she sits back from him, pulling a long face until he crawls to her for forgiveness. In contrast, the parents of the Addams family rarely interfere in their children’s activities. Through playing with the surface elements, Addams conveys its thematic concern: if the Addamses’ gothicized characterizations seem flamboyant and incredibly fake, the “normal” American family is also a fabricated myth. From this perspective, the surfaces of comic Gothic films are not meaningless; rather, they express a postmodern skepticism towards totalizing narratives and a focus on the marginal as well as a will to invite the devalued critical mode of reading.


As I have demonstrated, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Addams Family can both be placed in the comic Gothic spectrum theorized by Horner and Zlosnik, and both exemplify the prevalent applications of Gothic elements — in particular the haunted houses and their usual inhabitants — in popular culture, as well as the mode’s hybrid nature. While Rocky Horror is a Gothic musical film full of theatrical elements and absurd plots, but still contains some scary moments, Addams is a family comedy in which the Gothic merely functions as a visual aesthetic or a means of eliciting laughter. Despite all the differences, both films celebrate non-traditional ways of living by playing with Gothic conventions, as well as through melodramatic elements on the surfaces. In this way, they deconstruct the opposition between surface and depth, inviting the audiences to enjoy the surface aesthetics of the Gothic mode, including the Gothicized settings, theatrical costumes, background music, and melodramatic performances. In this light, both films respond to some postmodern concerns; they celebrate Gothic aesthetics but also turn the spotlight on the Gothic mode itself in a joyful self-reflexive attitude. Unlike many classic Gothic works that emphasize anxiety and horror, comic Gothic films provide a refreshingly humorous way for audiences to see and experience things, a way that might not be more subversive but can enable an introspective dialogue between cinematic texts, generic conventions, and critical discourse.


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Matheson, Sue. “‘Drinking Those Moments When’: The Use (and Abuse) of Late-Night Double Feature Science Fiction and Hollywood Icons in The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture, ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, 17-34. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel,” in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, 140-175. New York and London: Methuen, 1986.

Sharman, Jim, dir. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 1975; 20th Century Fox

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

Sonnenfeld, Barry, dir. The Addams Family. 1991; Paramount Pictures

Sonnenfeld, Barry, dir. Addams Family Values. 1993; Paramount Pictures

Spooner, Catherine. “Introduction: Post-Millennial Gothic,” in Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic, 1-28. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. .

The Oxford English Dictionary [online], s.v. “Melodrama,” accessed February 3, 2021, (

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. “Introduction: It’s Just a Jump to the Left: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture,” in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture, 1-16_._ New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Wise, Robert, dir. The Haunting. 1963; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Whale, James, dir. Frankenstein. 1931; Universal Pictures.


  1. Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 4. ↩︎

  2. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 4. ↩︎

  3. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 4. ↩︎

  4. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 3. ↩︎

  5. Sylvia Ann Grider points out that Charles Addams’s cartoons and their screen adaptations made essential contributions to “[standardizing] the stereotypical image of the haunted house” in America popular culture, and those in Rocky Horror and some other films are “remarkably similar to Charles Addams’s creepy mansion.” For more, see Sylvia Ann Grider, “Haunted Houses,” in Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore, ed. Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Ann Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007), 159-161. ↩︎

  6. For more, see Catherine Spooner, “Introduction: Post-Millennial Gothic,” in Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 8-11. . ↩︎

  7. Paul March-Russel, “Postmodernism and the Short Story,” in The Short Story: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 228-229. ↩︎

  8. For more information on the surface-depth model in film criticism and philosophy, see Catherine Constable, Matt Denny, and Timotheus Vermeulen, “Introduction: The Surfaces of Film-Philosophy,” Film-Philosophy 22, no. 2 (June 2018): 143-147, . ↩︎

  9. March-Russel, “Postmodernism and the Short Story,” 229. ↩︎

  10. Juliet John, “Melodramatic Poetics and the Gothic Villain: Interiority, Deviance, Emotion,” in Dickens’s Villains: Melodrama, Character, Popular Culture (Oxford: Oxford Academic, 2010), 111. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198184614.003.0005. ↩︎

  11. The Oxford English Dictionary [online], s.v. “Melodrama,” accessed February 3, 2021, ( ↩︎

  12. John, “Melodramatic Poetics and the Gothic Villain,” 103-106. ↩︎

  13. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The Character in the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel,” in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York and London: Methuen, 1986), 141. ↩︎

  14. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 9-10. ↩︎

  15. Richard J. Hand and Jay McRoy, “Introduction,” in Gothic Film: An Edinburgh Companion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 1-2. ↩︎

  16. Jerrold E. Hogle, “Introduction: the Gothic in western culture,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Gothic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14. ↩︎

  17. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 4. ↩︎

  18. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2004), 97. ↩︎

  19. Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, 110. ↩︎

  20. Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, 109. ↩︎

  21. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 36. ↩︎

  22. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 18. ↩︎

  23. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 4. ↩︎

  24. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, “Introduction: It’s Just a Jump to the Left: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture,” in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 2. ↩︎

  25. Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, p. 110. ↩︎

  26. Sue Matheson, “‘Drinking Those Moments When’: The Use (and Abuse) of Late-Night Double Feature Science Fiction and Hollywood Icons in _The Rocky Horror Picture Show__,“_ in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture, ed. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 25. ↩︎

  27. This phrase is borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Kamilla Elliott. For more information, see Kamilla Elliott, “Gothic—Film—Parody,” Adaption 1, no. 1 (March 2008): 37, . ↩︎

  28. The notion of “sublime” has a great influence on the Gothic mode as well as Gothic criticism. It is often connected with the Gothic because it is associated with feelings of terror and incomprehension, as described by Edmund Burke. For more information on “sublime”, see Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1990; reis., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). ↩︎

  29. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 13. ↩︎

  30. Spooner, “Introduction: Post-Millennial Gothic,” 25. ↩︎

  31. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 2. ↩︎

  32. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 4. ↩︎

  33. Hand and McRoy, “Introduction,” 2. ↩︎

  34. Peter Brooks, “Body and Voice in Melodrama and Opera,” in Resonant Themes: Literature, History, and the Arts in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Europe, ed. Stirling Haig (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 95. ↩︎

  35. Anna-Sophie Jürgens, “Comic in Suspenders: Jim Sharman’s Circus Worlds in The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show,” Journal of Australian Studies 42, no. 4 (2018): 508. ↩︎

  36. Horner and Zlosnik, Gothic and the Comic Turn, 7. ↩︎

  37. Hand and McRoy, “Introduction,” 2. ↩︎

  38. Sedgwick, “The Character in the Veil,” 142. ↩︎

  39. John, “Melodramatic Poetics and the Gothic Villain,” 110-111. ↩︎

  40. John, “Melodramatic Poetics and the Gothic Villain,” 106. ↩︎

  41. Sedgwick, “The Character in the Veil,” 158. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Yuwen Yan is currently living in Huzhou, China. She received her master’s degree in Comparative Literature from University College London and bachelor’s degree from Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. Her interests span from Gothic stories to science fictions

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