THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE ATTIC! But what could it be? And what does an attic symbolise in Gothic Fiction?
The Crows is such an old house that there’s something in the cellars as well, and pretty much everywhere else, but I couldn’t resist including this trope for fun… so, in Chapter Five, there is indeed Something In The Attic which comes to light after sixty years.
The Gothic Attic™️
The attic (or attics, if there are connected mazes of them across a larger floorplan), is/are a spooky place to be. You can also replace “attic” with “cellar” and the effect is the same, although the cellars are arguably far more atavistic in terms of aesthetic and mood, and tap into long-buried, deep dark fears, or reflect them by adding actual fear-of-the-dark or claustrophobia into the mix. The Transgressions Cycle has a good post on the Victorian Gothic which looks at this in more detail, too.
In many ways, attics are the oubliette of the Creepy Old House, a place for the owners to discard and hide things they’d rather forget about, but they conversely act as the house’s memory, too. After all, all those old boxes, objects, mummified remains, inconvenient spouses and concealed incestuous children haven’t vanished off the face of the earth. The house knows they’re there, and preserves them.
At some point, a protagonist (bonus Gothic Bingo Points if clad in a diaphanous nightgown) will brave the elements somehow billowing into the house, not to mention the owner’s or housekeeper’s wrath, and head into the attic to find out what exactly is going on up there. This is almost always a Bad Idea, but it at least helps quicken the story on to its Big Reveal or conclusion.
There are lots of thoughts about what attics symbolise in dreams and literature. The attic can reflect one’s subconscious, and haunted attics may symbolise hidden memories and suppressed desires bubbling to the surface, at least, according to this Dream Dictionary. In their feminist criticism of nineteenth-century literature, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that Bertha Mason, the eponymous and original Madwoman in the Attic of Jane Eyre fame, is a manifestation of Jane’s own repressed rage and sexuality.
V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic also deals with hiding one’s past regrets (in this case, four children by the mother’s first husband) in the attic of their grandmother’s mansion so that their mother can inherit her father’s fortune. A few days turns into years, and they are not allowed out until their grandfather’s dead and their mother can cheat the codicil in his will that prevents her from inheriting anything if it can be proved she had kids with her husband. There’s some arsenic poisoning and consensual sibling incest (of course) as well, because the attic becomes the survival ground for the children, and they grow up with no other peers. Will they ever escape the attic? Or survive?
In Andrews’ book, the attic is a parallel to Bertha’s prison in Jane Eyre, probably better than killing the children off (though this is later attempted) and more humane in many ways than sending your spouse to a lunatic asylum where some horrific things happened to the inmates. The attic is at once a place to hide the “sins” of the mother, but also a place for them to take on a life of their own. Just as it becomes imperative for Rochester to hide his wife from his betrothed to get his own Happy Ever After, it’s imperative for the mother to hide her children from her father to achieve hers.
If the attic is where we hide our repressed selves, the bits of our souls we don’t want to think about or the memories we don’t want to admit are there, then it makes sense that when we hide people or entities in attics, they act in transgressive ways. Similarly, objects found in attics can be possessed (sort of counts as an entity) or reveal a dark secret.
In Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, Dorian Gray keeps his Portrait in the attic, hidden from prying eyes – something only he knows is there, but something he can visit and view at his leisure, or pretend doesn’t exist. When he tries to improve its marred features with charity work, he only succeeds in adding the sneer of hypocrisy to its already hideous visage. As a reflection of his soul, of course it would be kept upstairs in the attic, and the lofty position within the house suits the symbolism. (If of interest, the British Library have a free-to-read article on this novel by Greg Buzwell, The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist).
What is in your Gothic Attic? Duality, regret, forgotten history, repressed memory or emotions, or something else?
As writers/readers of Gothic Fiction, do we see haunted or prison-attics as containing something Other, or are we actually haunted by a fragment or reflection of ourselves?