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Gothic Themes in Love, Death & Robots (2019)

Love, Death & Robots (2019) is effectively a collection of short stories—of ghosts, monsters and demons. The stories, like their symbols and characters, are tied up in ambiguous material and superstition. I wish to write about it, here, specifically the episodes "Helping Hand," "Good Hunting," "Beyond the Aquila Rift," and "Sonnie's Edge."

Note: Lots of spoilers. Watch the show, first.

Rudolph Otto once wrote of the inexorable appeal of the ghost story—an "abortive off-shoot" of the Numinous, or object-feeling (stupor) in the presence of the numen (the "mysterious, tremendous, fascinating" stamp of God, or a god-like presence). He used Latin terms and religious symbols to describe the Numinous as going beyond ordinary religious experience. Often, according to him, the Numinous is teased out in "lesser," non-religious stories: ghost, but also daemonic (another register of the Numinous spectrum).

These four skits are not simply numinous; they are Gothic. Using horror and terror to hide and show monstrous components, they deal with visions—of a monstrous world, tied up in recursive materials (the palimpsest). Their outrageous situations excite overwhelming feelings through a Numinous presence. Yet, because they are Gothic, the Numinous occurs within a liminal state, the visit made through a partial crossing of various membranes, be they technological, sexual, or in the case of "Sonnie's edge," gladiatorial. Each story is one of survival, its characters surrounded by dangerous technology that conflates "love, death and robots." Each episode depicts an "unspeakable" violence (the kind whispered about, in real life). Old myths bleed into latter-day representations—of the sexes (men and women), but also of gender as free-form in the face of trans-human (the cybernetic) and post-human (the ultimate Other) considerations. While the character's physical well-being is under attack, so is their sense of identity (shared vicariously with the audience).

To be sympathetic, a character must be endowed with semi-relatable qualities. However, the ontological function of a Gothic character is pointed: to serve as a key to the strange, alien world the story offers. No matter how far-removed the world, or how unusual the characters onscreen are, there must be an unshakable familiarity to them. The characters in these four skits are all human (or humanoid, in the case of the fox-demon); or, they are human deceptions projected by an alien monster that can, despite its monstrous form, communicate telepathically with humans: the spider creature at the end of "Beyond the Aquila Rift." In short, nothing is black-and-white. Unspeakable horrors (and terrors) are not only present; they are erotic and brutal.

There are so many different ways to frame a liminal experience. The show is a plethora of visual styles that communicate different plights—of the character (and viewer) being overwhelmed through ambiguous doubles, of love, death and robots. Each episode looks different, and addresses a separate issue: the plight of the expendable employee in hostile conditions ("Helping Hand"); the gladiator's lot, in and out of the pit ("Sonnie's Edge"); the treatment of the exotic woman at the hands of colonial patriarchs ("Good Hunting"); and the dangers of exploration, and sex in outer space ("Beyond..."). The result is confusion—of strict ambivalence, but also paradoxical rapture. In other words, why does the audience enjoy what they see? Second, is it better to play with, or utterly ignore the ghostly contents, the sharp influx of monsters and demons?

The answers lies in demand, for what the show supplies. Its contents are what "proper" society delves into, the very things they abject from, or throw off of, themselves. Likewise, the characters in each skit are relatable through predicament, thrust into situations that, while partially familiar, contain elements they cannot control or fully understand. There, notions of power and comprehension are imperiled by expected ambiguity. There is a transparency to the tradition, however—a desire to feel the menace of a threatened heroine; of the man in love with a fox-demon (and later, a cyborg variant); of the gladiator's delight when manipulating the deceivers—the rich host and his femme fatale maidservant—sending them to ignominious deaths (a Gothic trope). All the while, the viewers traipse into a haunted house; they gleefully don the destroyer's clothes. They also permit—themselves, or notions of themselves illustrated by the characters—to become confused or destroyed. In either case, their submission is voluntary.

There remains an element of control, here: Later, the audience can safely dismiss the ordeal as a  cartoon, a series of animated images meant to evoke feelings of manufactured danger. Nevertheless, something troubling lies beyond the viewer's small realm of influence. The borders of the media they intake are overwhelmed, having already been bypassed and invaded. Love, death, and robots are, themselves, phobic objects. Using them, artists embellish what consumers fear, but also devour. All at once, the division—between viewer and cartoon—is an attempt to separate, but also confront what cannot be segregated, is already among the crowd. This unshakable presence of various societal fears—erotophobia, necrophobia, or technophobia—often elides into a singular experience. Such dangers are present, on-screen, but felt between the screen and the viewer, as well. Does media like LDR insulate the viewer, concealing from them life's truest horrors; or, do they hint at what lies beyond? A strict line between fantasy and reality cannot be drawn.

Such pointed selection beckons a paradoxical attraction—between what is correct or safe, and what is not. These skits are fashioned to lull the viewer into feeling ephemerally secure. Yet, during the lull, they can still sense something amiss. The result is oscillation, of movement back and forth (the quintessential Gothic sensation). The apprehensive captain in "Beyond the Aquila Rift" lusts for a woman he knows is false.  So can the viewer doubt while they are vicariously mislead (assuming she is their type). Even when Sonnie knows the maidservant works for the villain, she is lead astray by her own sexual desires. Yet, neither she nor the audience were ever endangered. Instead, they labor under such intelligence, and confront a curious divide: the separation from, and conjunction with, the lethal, erotic symbols in front of them.

Consider Sonnie: the monstrous variant, in the tank, and her "human" form. Both are symbiotically interlinked, but ontologically as well. Yet, the misappropriation—of where she can be found—occurs through a manipulation of confused senses. Where Sonnie actually "is" and how genuine her feelings are—involve a duplicitous arrangement of symbols and interactions the audience has knowingly entered, beforehand. If there was no foul play nor twist, a refund would be in order. Likewise, a certain amount of ambiguity is required, without which the desired horror and terror become moot. To be blunt, the mind-fuck (tied up a Gothic context) is the whole point.

LDR also explores the forbidden or taboo. Violent fantasies are realized, as is the inevitable confrontation with their embodied counterparts (monsters) as a kind of tradition. Forbidden Planet (1956) once explored the dangers of repressed desire realized through powerful technology gone awry. So does "Sonnie's Edge" and "Good Hunting." Art allows the artist to express such notions without committing any crime. All the same, the deed is observed, and related towards, by the audience—all through technology whose diegetic perspective toys with the viewer's feelings towards, and their ability to comprehend, a variety of nebulous, freighted symbols.

Desire does not translate to concrete action; media lies somewhere in between. Does it advocate for the brutality on display? In such stories, the audience can explore their abject selves, albeit inside a container. Often, it is anisotropic, the meaning determined by direction ("Beyond the Aquila Rift" is much different, in tone, once you realize the truth behind the images). Attraction remains, as does oscillation. Certainly "love, death, and robots" persist, in media, as contested topics/sources of controversy that stretch back hundreds of years: mad science, forbidden love, and intimations of death and trauma. Likewise, the notion—of thinking a thing into existence—is superstitious, a belief tied up in the same phobias, of exploring scandalous media. Does violent art beget violence; sinful art, sin; deadly art, death?

I would argue that such things are not going away anytime soon. Neither are the repressed thoughts encircling them, nor the so-called "righteous" ideals that abjure liminal narratives (for a far more opaque, black-and-white presentation). These normalized, sanitary approaches are far more insidious and destructive than the liminal explorer—i.e., killing in the name of God, or one's nation or corporation. The religious zealot, colonial mastermind, and neo-liberal overlord are all tyrants of the Gothic tale. Across great distances, they extend out of the past to invade the present, a double of the viewer's own world. Such media is not strictly escapism because the doubled world is not totally removed from the audience's sphere. Amid the handsome steampunk, "Good Hunting" conveys the plight of an indigenous population: the humble manservant and the wild, exotic female (told through an Oriental lens). Both consist of the Chinese populace beleaguered by British colonizers. "Helping Hand" relays the plight—of the little guy pitted against a frontier colonized by unfeeling corporations; it is also modeled after Creative Assembly's Alien: Isolation (2014), Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (2013) and Ron Cobb and company's retro-future aesthetic from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). This history builds, and responds to itself, as a living force.

There are other benefits. The overwhelming emotions of such proximity are rapturous, much like Otto and his all-powerful numen; or Lovecraft and his Weird; or the Romantics and their Sublime; etc. Each of them, and all together, are different iterations of a human condition: being so very small, in a dark, meaningless universe—or rather, a world whose meaning is defined by the actions of people whose desires run counter-current to ubiquitous societal structures. Love, sex—these are a part of what it means to be human. So is death. Technologies communicate these, and bring with them animal qualities, the maker's mark. All the while, death reminds the viewer of its presence—when the woman breaks off her frozen arm, or the pit-fighter faces her doom inside the beast (an extension of her monstrous self, realized through patriarchal violence).

At times, the double is right in front of us; at times, not—is more a dream the waker feels on the cusp of. At times, it is forbidden. The fox-demon is attractive despite its demonic qualities; not simply female, she is nubile. It can assume different shapes—the Self, the Other or the uncanny in between. Yet, no matter how alien, these feelings, and the images tied up in them, belong to the world people live inside. Likewise, the palimpsest—of the various styles artists use to bring these feelings to life—come from older material, sponsored by patrons who, at one time or another, produced similar creations: Tim Miller and David Fincher. All overwhelm in some shape or form; all are gratuitous, be that gratuity transparent (a horror) or peripheral (a terror).

There are, of course, old trends that crop up through the exploration of the monstrous, in LDR. Sex, for one, is dangerous. Or, it is monstrous. However, because America is still highly Puritanical, nudity and sex are far more likely to be censored than violence (the gore in "Sonnie's Edge" or "Helping Hand" is far more gratuitous than any of the sexual imagery). Exceptions can be made in terms of the erect penis, or the female labia, provided their use is educational, monstrous, or cartoonish. Anything else is pornographic and censored. For example, in "Beyond the Aquila Rift" and "Sonnie's Edge," the animation styles are digital, three-dimensional. Meant to convey a sense of visual realism, their sex is treated like any live-action movie's: R-rated, not X-rated. "Good Hunting," on the other hand, has a cartoonish style, with hard lines and flat colors. This allows it to get away with more. The teenage fox girl's vagina is an actual slit, bare and exposed, but also never fully excised from a traumatic context. She is the constant prey of male hunters, in rural and urban locales. The erect cock of the abuser, in "Good Hunting," is treated as belonging to a rapist, but also a victim killed by a female monster.

Notice, here, that whatever criticism to be had is embodied and explored amongst scenery and imagery that has no clear, set meaning. Instead, the haunted house (the location) or the monsters inside (the occupants) are neither here nor there; they are ontologically uncertain, their presentation one of fragile sensory hermeneutics (the act of interpretation). The symbols beheld are either part of the beholder, or indicative of something monstrous they contend with. But where is the monster? What is the monster? What is the monster according to where it is, or vice versa? In Gothic stories, such boundaries fall apart and send the viewer into a liminal state, but also a rapturous one. For example, the fox-demon's natural form is beautiful; once transformed, her metal body's actions are reclaimed in apotropaic fashion. She becomes a destroyer who remains, all the same, an exhibit to behold. Something monstrous lingers upon her, as a symbol to viewed. Yet, her plight and imagery engender sympathy bound up with any monstrous component.

There are other considerations, including the familial. A pupil of Freud, Otto Mark once described birth trauma as separation from the mother (not from the physical trials of actual birth). Born, a child would spend its life trying to return to the "womb state," a kind of reverse-birth. Yet, in Gothic psychoanalysis, the mother is often a site of fear and disgust, the Archaic Mother a site whose Ancient Womb sends the trespasser into an infantile state of wordless gibberish. The home and upbringing are common in Gothic tales; so is confrontation with the sire as parthenogenetic. For example, the Creature in Frankenstein (1818) lacked any sense of parentage—to move beyond Freud's pleasure principle with the help of a "good enough mother" (as per Donald Winnicott). For him, Victor was his mother and father. Returning to Victor brought the Creature to the source of the Creature's perpetual anxiety (of being alive); this return eventually sends both down a path of mutually assured self-destruction. The same is true of virtually any Gothic hero, but also the audience. To quote Dr. Morbius, "One does not behold the eyes of the Gorgon and live." Beholding them through a buffer, however, the audience can effectively feel the rapture of a deathly presence without dying. Is it orgasmic ("to die the little death")? It certainly is tied up in sexual imagery. Just look at the xenomorph; or, in LDR, the cybernetic fox-demon, the phallic woman (the xenomorph had male and female qualities, could kill and reproduce without a mate). Eat your heart out, H. R. Giger.

Stories like those in LDR echo an ancient quality—of the beholder being guided by primitive, animal facets: desire, but also fear—of death, or death associated with sex and technology (which includes the written word and other forms of media). To thread the labyrinth, the dungeon or the castle, the hero must tap into a primal side of themselves. Moreover, these settings are of the wild, untamable world, whose unknowable qualities are felt through civilization as a constant threshold. Out in the wild, we are animals; captive inside our homes, we feel civilized—a feeling encroached upon by reminders of the past that are carried forward by media we relate to, in the present. It is symbiotic, a constant relationship experienced over time. This greater feeling—of proximity with the monstrous past—is something brushed up against through recycled material.

In this sense, LDR is merely a continuation of old themes, whose meaning evolves as biological and technological elements relate back and forth. Otto, himself, remarked on the tenacity of the ghost story. No matter how much time has passed, or stories already crafted on the subject, ghost stories remain prolific and germane. Anxieties about the world being fraught with danger do not vanish, nor does the tendency—for such concerns to be given a supernatural slant (especially among artists, who communicate through emotional stimulation).

In horror stories, the visual world is untrustworthy, must be navigated by tapping into feelings that are, themselves, misleading. Of course, such feelings hinge on artistic presentation. Luckily the animation offered by LDR is superb, but also varied. It promotes feelings of forbidden delight in outrageous, horrifying scenarios. The viewer is meant to recognize the plight, but also revel in it. Much of the mayhem is hilarious or gruesome, meant to overwhelm; pushed into the abyss (another Gothic trope), the viewer feels at home.

I can only hope that these skits (or the six shorts made for Alien's 40th birthday) are made into feature length films, at some point. There's clearly a demand from them. Like Neill Blomkamp with his private studio, Oats Studios, these stories shouldn't be relegated to the fringes of the cinematic universe. Then again, do giant companies like Disney know what they're doing, or are they merely playing with Promethean fire?


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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