Gothic Horror in the Big Houses of “The Lodgers” and “Good Behaviour”

Photo by Eliane Zimmermann on Unsplash

A writer may pepper a novel with as many manuscripts and candlesticks as they please, and send half-a-dozen maidens in nightgowns running down half-a-dozen subterranean passages, but unless the reader finds themselves as bewildered, appalled and pleasantly corrupted as the characters between the pages, the Gothic is not truly present. (S. Perry)¹

This quote from the introduction to a modern edition of Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer surmises common trappings of the Gothic novel while identifying why many Gothic novels, despite featuring these elements, fail to work. Though a genre with a strong sense of visuals, Gothic often relies on the internal. Success lies not in the deployment of certain motifs, but in evoking a particular feeling. Two texts that evoke a similar feeling of fascination and revulsion are The Lodgers, directed by Brian O’Malley and Good Behaviour by Molly Keane. They exhibit a key motif of the Gothic — the decay of family. Irish Gothic fiction tends to focus on the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, and typically frames the Big House as a place of gothic horror (both overt and subtle). Both texts utilise the setting of the Big House in different ways but in pursuit of the same goal: To explore how decline of the Big House in Ireland is representative of failings within the Anglo-Irish family. Alongside our discussion of The Lodgers we shall also look into the history of the filming location of Loftus Hall and how this site might influence the analysis.

The Lodgers deals most overtly with this theme of familial decay and in the most obviously gothic way; the plot concerns the incestuous traditions of an Anglo-Irish family and how their adherence to this way of life has isolated them from the outside world and caused their home and selves to fall into ruin. The once important house no longer warrants the same respect from the local people, seen in Sean’s mother, the local shopkeeper, who views Rachel with disdain when she ventures from the house. Rachel seeks to break away from her hereditary way of life and is drawn towards outsider Sean (an outsider to them and in his own village), while Edward — sickly and frail — is determined to fulfil his obligation to the titular spirits.

In the Irish Gothic canon, particularly those texts that deal with the otherworld there is a “stoical unquestioning Irish acceptance of the belief that we are not alone, that we may be visited by spirits from beyond the grave, and while the experience will be fearful, we should not be too surprised” (Davies)². The locals accept that unnatural deeds have been performed at the big house and the viewer gets the impression that there is a belief that the grounds are unholy; when Rachel is being chased by local men, they stop when a gate closes on them of their own accord. Despite presumably being able to open said gate or climb it, the men leave Rachel be, happy to stay away from the grounds of the big house. This could either be because they believe it to be haunted or the remnants of a cultural collective view of the big house as the domain of the “others” and not the “commoners”.

The physicality of Loftus Hall is used to great effect, with shadows that seem to creep from all corners even when sunlight pushes them away and a suitably eerie gothic atmosphere. There is a beauty to the decay present in The Lodgers, as elegant wallpapers peel back to reveal the plain stonework underneath inasmuch as the external protective elegance of the Anglo-Irish family is being peeled back to reveal the dysfunctionality and to allow it to crumble away.

Loftus Hall exterior

It is interesting to briefly look at the history of Loftus Hall and its land and how it may shape our viewing of this film. Sitting on a wide expanse of flat open land on the Hook Peninsula, Loftus Hall rises solid and artificial from the soil. Though its greyness seems to blend into the sky and ground, it lingers between the two, in a liminal space between the natural world and the supernatural world. Naturally, this impression is informed by the ghost story, but centuries of troubled history seem to have left their mark on the house:

Even before the hall was built, this site witnesses savage brutality and murder. If a land can hold the secrets of its past, then the land around Loftus Hall can tell much about evil and troubled forces. (The Legend of Loftus Hall 3:39–3:52)³

The surrounding land has seen centuries of conflict and bloodshed, reaching back to at least the 12th century; for example, on “May Day in the year 1170, just three miles from Loftus Hall, three thousand local men were butchered here by invading Norman soldiers. One Norman warlord awarded himself the lands hereabout and established his feudal estate” (The Legend of Loftus Hall 3:53–4:09). This led to the first structure on this land, Redmond Hall. It stood for five hundred years until Cromwell’s conquest, when house and lands were added to the neighbouring Loftus estate. Redmond Hall was destroyed and a new house built in its place; the building as it exists today occupies the same space but was extensively renovated around 1750.

Today Loftus Hall is best known for its ghost story and since it is so well known we will not go into great detail here. Following the card game incident, Anne Tottenham was “carried to a room in the house known as the Tapestry Room. Here her health deteriorated, physically and mentally” (The Legend of Loftus Hall 12:12–12:20). Though tradition holds that she was kept in the Tapestry Room for ten years following her encounter with the devil, she was more likely kept in a disused room far from the main areas of the house before her death. It is through the story of her spirit being confined to the Tapestry Room via an exorcism that this conflation occurs. Folklore comes from a place of truth and the author believes this story conceals a more tragic truth of an ill young woman who was an embarrassment to the family and so was kept hidden away. Being visited by the devil seemed a more welcome alternative to a mad daughter. Appearances must be kept up, as in Keane’s Good Behaviour.

It is this history of death, violence and madness that Loftus Hall embodies to this day and visitors can the centuries of trauma in the fabric of the house itself; though the visitation by the devil may be folklore, the atmosphere inside is undeniable. Based on the view of the staircase from its right-hand side seen through the doors (see the shot at 39:55), it seems that the dinner scenes were filmed in the room used in guided tours as the Tapestry Room, where the tour guide tells the part of the legend which deals with the decline of Anne Tottenham’s mental state. Whether this is the actual room in which she was kept does not matter (and it most likely isn’t, being so close to the main areas of the house), as the ambiance is so heavy and oppressive that one cannot help but feel that something did happen there.

The tapestry room on the Loftus Hall tour.

The choice to use this room may have been a logistical one, as most of the house is unstable, but for the author it adds to the scene, suggesting that the dining room was the site of some terrible event in the past, perhaps even the site of the first incestuous pairing (given how food is often associated with hedonism and sexual deviancy), meaning that the twins are standing at the site of the primal scene. Gothic literature features women who are “seen as sexual prey at the mercy of their male relatives, rather than as co-carriers of the family blood, female avatars of the men in a family and by extension keepers of family tradition” (R. Perry)⁴. Though the dialogue suggests that the male and female of each pair have viewed this deed as essential, during a flashback we see the twin’s parents die; where the man charges into the water, the woman looks behind, pulling against him before he forces her head underwater. Violent sexuality breeds violence and this endless cycle of violence is a common trope and is seen in Yeats’ Purgatory. Rachel is seen as a sexual object and she must fulfil her duty. Relating back to the filming location, the fact that the Redmonds were able to maintain control over their house and lands for five hundred years suggests that there may have been incestuous pairings, adding another layer of history to inform our viewing.

From a filmic perspective, The Lodgers features tropes and themes common to gothic horror and indeed horror in general. As a point of thematic comparison, take The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton). Despite Bly House itself having extremely gothic features that heighten the night scenes, the house and grounds are not decayed but well-tended, an English big house in its prime — even so there are rumblings of internal issues. The trope of physical decay as a visual indication of internal decay is not present here in an obvious way, but it is hinted at more subtly early on.

When Miss Giddens arrives at Bly she is greeted by Flora who is wearing a pristine white dress. On entering the house, she admires a bowl of white flowers and goes to touch them, only to have their stalks wilt and petals fall. The housekeeper reassures her that it happens all the time. This moment suggests that all is not well at Bly and that the visuals are only skin deep, hiding something sinister. We later learn of the disturbing suggestion that two former employees, now deceased, “corrupted” the children. The whiteness of the flowers brings to mind the whiteness of Flora’s dress, indicating that the innocence of the child has been corrupted. Through Miss Giddens investigation we learn that this may be true:

Mrs. Grose: Rooms… used by daylight… as though they were dark woods.

Miss Giddens: They didn’t care that you saw them? And the children?

Mrs. Grose: I can’t say, miss. I don’t know what the children saw. But they used to follow Quint and Miss Jessel, trailing along behind, hand in hand, whispering. (The Innocents 53:45–54:12)⁵

This theme of corrupted youth and broken normality is reflected in The Lodgers, with Rachel and Edward forced into a life that they do not welcome nor thrive in. The sexual deviancy of their predecessors, in an effort to preserve their bloodline and way of life, corrupts them before they are born — an original sin.

At the end of the bathroom scene (around 25 minutes in) we see Rachel falling into Edward’s arms to escape the lodgers. Throughout the film these entities — or singular entity if we are inclined to view them as a hive mind — stalk and shadow the twins, constant reminders of their fate. The lodgers do not seem to possess any real power themselves — they are only capable of creating the illusion of power. They leave Rachel alone at the close of this scene because Edward has arrived and she has sought protection with him; their goal is not to physically harm her as they need her to repeat the cycle, but psychologically, driving her into her brother’s arms so that they may take their place on the family tree. At the film’s climax they crept up the stairs towards Rachel and Sean, but inexplicably vanish, unable to inflict actual harm outside their watery domain.

The power afforded the Anglo-Irish class was a fabricated one, held up by the acceptance of said power, though lacking any basis in reality. This real-life horror of unwarranted power is shown in a gothic way in this film. The unnatural nature of their power is also seen by the way in which water falls upwards in their presence. Much like similar effects in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola), the laws of nature are corrupted in the presence of an unnatural force and, in the case of this film, the unnatural relations break not only social taboos but the natural order itself.

In a way these shades function as living portraits that threaten the twins with their simultaneous past and future, echoing a fabricated identity much like the aesthetic choices made by inhabitants of big houses:

These country gentlemen liked sport, drink, and card-playing very much better than they liked the arts — but they religiously stocked their libraries, set fine craftsmen to work on their ceilings and mantlepieces and interspersed their own family portraits with heroicised paintings of foreign scenes. (Bowen)⁶

It is all in the pursuit of an effect. They are desperate to endure even as their proud home falls to ruin and must ensure their survival.

The climax of the film pushes against this desperate survival and sees Rachel leave the house. Both men in her life have died — there is a pathetic moment as Edward says as he lies dying: “Then we could be together?”⁷ Without fulfilling his purpose of continuing the family, in his mind there is no need for him to live, hence it feels as though he gives up once his purpose has been taken away. Rachel alone has survived contact with the house but as she leaves it behind she casts a backward glance, and in in the final moments pauses at the gate softly sing: “Long as your blood / Be ours alone / You’ll see us ever / From below.” In this brief moment of hesitation we see what Killeen means when we wrote that the Anglo-Irish were in a perfect position to develop an important tradition in a literary tradition that emphasises hesitancy over certainty, and which refuses to dissolve binaries such as living/dead, inside/outside, friend/enemy, desire/disgust” (Killeen)⁸.

Uncle Silas frontispiece by Charles Stewart, 1947

She hesitates because in order to be free she must leave her life and brother behind, but who is she if not a member of this family? As she walks away we are treated to a beautifully framed gothic image: a young woman in a dark cloak, walking down a rural country road away from the past and towards an uncertain future, as the trees on either side threaten to reach out and pull her back in. The crow seen hovering above her in the last seconds implies that the supernatural will never be far behind her.

Of a supremely gothic nature is the fear that we shall never be able to escape our past. It is present in many works of le Fanu, particularly Uncle Silas, which spends much of its wordcount untangling the past. In all the ghostly visitations, the holding on to the past present in Irish gothic, there is above all the feeling that the trauma of the past will never leave — apt considering how the collective consciousness of the Irish people holds onto to the generational trauma of eight hundred years of British colonialism.

Contrasting with The Lodgers, a film which revels in the physical nature of the big house as a site of very visual gothic horror, Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour works on a more internal level. The horror comes not from creeping shadows or generations of degeneracy, but from the creeping dread that you are watching the implosion of the Anglo-Irish family. There is never a great physical sense to the novel, the events taking place in a seeming never-never land of an estate. What little visual descriptors we get provide with some idea of the geography of the estate, but Keane focuses more on the people within the house. To Keane the most important thing is not the house, the house is merely a vessel that contains the most interesting aspect of Anglo-Irish life: the people. Their contradictions and eventual inability to support those contradictions and their lifestyle. The big house is not a physical entity in Good Behaviour but a metaphor for the artificiality of Anglo-Irish family life.

Molly Keane, photographed with John Gielgud, circa 1930

Molly Keane was a native of Kildare, a county which has featured its share of big houses throughout the years, one of the best kept and surviving being Castletown House in Celbridge, the “largest and grandest Palladian country house in Ireland” (Clerkin)⁹. One can imagine these buildings and their kin were the backdrops to Keane’s early life, with a focus placed on appearances and social events. Despite being part of this world, she was keenly aware of its flaws, her novels witty exposes of the times she lived in: “Keane used her sharp eye and mischievous wit to satirize the personal intrigues and pursuits of the leisure class, to which she herself belonged” (Encyclopædia Britannica)¹⁰. It is clear even from our current time, many decades removed from the social life of Keane’s time that she had a brilliant eye for people and used it to full effect in her works. As an integral part of the Anglo-Irish set, she was in a prime position to satirise. Aroon stands in for a generalised young Anglo-Irish woman, clinging to a past that is gone and lamenting its loss: “It was glorious then. There are no beauties now like the beauties of the twenties; theirs was an absolute beauty […] Today I can still feel the grip of cloche hat over my earphones of hair” (Keane)¹¹.

Good Behaviour was Keane’s first novel in three decades, which allowed her to use it as a retrospective of the big house. Having been born in 1904 and dying in 1996 she lived a remarkably long life and bridged the gap between the time of the big house and the modern-day: “With age, Keane has achieved a chilling distance from her Anglo-Irish heritage, a distance which allows her to cast a cold eye on life and to view it with comic detachment” (Kreilkamp)¹². As the novel opens readers are met with a gothic atmosphere:

“Gulls’ Cry, where Mummie and I live now, is built on the edge of a cliff. Its windows lean out over the deep anchorage of the boat cove like bosoms on an old ship’s figurehead […] The stairs, with their skimpy iron bannister, bring you up to the hall and the drawingroom, where I put all our momentoes of Papa when we moved here from Temple Alice. The walls are papered in pictures and photographs of him riding winners.”

It is appropriate that we open in a house on a cliff, as Aroon’s family themselves are perched on a precipice, ready to fall away and be lost. It’s a gloriously gothic image that brings to mind the covers of old gothic paperbacks, such as the ones by Marilyn Ross (pen name of Dan Ross, best known for the series of 32 tie-in novels for the original Dark Shadows TV series) with paintings of women fleeing from a house by the sea with a single lit window.

Even as the St. Charles fortune is slowly lost, their notions of class and behaviour do not diminish. This is a world wherein tradesmen are thieves when they are rude enough to send bills: “‘The most appalling bill came from the butcher today,’ she went on. ‘I’m quite used to dishonesty, but this is unbelievable.’” A world where a boy is beaten ostensibly for lying but in reality for reading poetry:

“Nannie took the book of poetry straight to Lady Grizel, who talked it over unhappily with the Captain. His response was a genuinely worried one: ‘Yes, we’ll have to put a stop to this bookworming. No future in that. […]’

‘That’s hardly the point, is it? The awful thing is, he told me quite a fib.’

‘That’s more natural — it’s this poetry that bothers me […]’ ”

Reading poetry seems an unnatural pastime for boys within Anglo-Irish society, perhaps stemming from a place of homophobia. Gothic literature is awash with characters who stand in for queer sexualities, such as le Fanu’s Carmilla, but here we see a real-life embodiment of the fear of having a gay son. While this homophobia may have roots in religious beliefs and developed social disdain, at its core is a fear of non-procreative sex.

As the Anglo-Irish class was so focused on ensuring the survival of said class, the concept that a family tree might die as a result of a son with no son to continue the line was a threat to their life. Gothic literature is primarily a genre of decay and is usually based around times of transition and the concerns therein. Gothic horror in its purest form is the threat of death, of an end to your line, of disappearing from history. The big houses ensured that the Anglo-Irish family would be visible to all around, but it functioned as a threat: Keep the house alive or else you will die. We see houses as sources of very real danger in many gothic works (The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson for example) and though this is a more subconscious fear in Good Behaviour, the danger is still there.

For the people outside the house, the power of its inhabitants is dangerous if they are crossed, for the people inside the upkeep and fear of annihilation is the danger. Homosexuality is viewed as deviant, but Aroon exposes the hypocrisy of men and women who are respectable by day but are “by night richly dressed, sweetly scented, and out for further adventure” (Keane). Hardly good behaviour.

As Aroon grows into a young woman she begins to develop feelings for her brother’s best friend Richard; he is friendly to her and she convinces herself that he too has feelings for her, failing to notice what is plainly obvious to the reader about Hubert and Richard’s relationship. This leads to one of the novel’s funniest moments as Aroon knocks on Richard’s door and after a moment he calls her in:

“Hubert was sitting on the edge of the bed, wrapped in one of those great rough bath towels, sampler-stitched in red, which must have been fifty years old even then. He stretched out a bare arm for Richard’s cigarette case. Neither of them offered one to me.”

She completely fails to realise what she has walked in on, both because of her naivety and because Hubert is expected to carry on the family name and she is expected to marry into another house and produce its progeny. There is one room for difference — having to hide oneself in order to fit in is a horror in itself and being expected to fit into a singular role is just as horrific.

Within this world’s set of guidelines, for a boy to read poetry and use a rope to climb to and from a treehouse are ripe for gossip and embarrassment, while deaths that occur in shocking or traumatic ways aren’t spoken of, nor is any real emotion shown. Contrary to the emotional heights common to gothic literature, as Aroon recalls her life we get the image of a family incapable of showing or receiving emotion lest it insult the morals of their society, even as it threatens to boil over. When Hubert dies his mother starts to laugh hysterically and is taken away from view. She is mourning the death of her child (a common trope of gothic horror and horror in general) but even among family members grief is an ugly thing to shunned:

“Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.”

This is the source of horror in Good Behaviour, the good behaviour of the title. As Perry writes in the quote at the head of this essay, the gothic needs to make its readers feel as bewildered and appalled as the characters they follow. Though Good Behaviour can hardly be called an appalling novel, the reader does find themselves bewildered as they follow these characters, with their almost less than human reactions and stifling regulations. We feel as confused at times as Aroon, though for different reasons.

Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash

Flowers are common images in gothic works and are used in this novel to symbolise the decline of the Anglo-Irish class, once strong but now dramatically weakened: “I looked through the streaming window panes, out to the terrible dahlias, lately so flaming with life and colour; they were sodden and rotting now, their flowers jelly, their leaves gross and blackening.” Aroon and her mother are some of the last of their kind, struggling to survive a time of transition. They still have Temple Alice but there is a suggestion that the time of the Anglo-Irish is over and no matter how much they try to cling to their past, all they will be left holding onto are ghosts.

Both of these texts deal with the consequences of breaking the rules or norms. Whether that is the threat of a ghostly other or the threat of social embarrassment, the big house is primarily concerned with self-preservation, even when this leads to horror and trauma.

For many generations the big house was a core part of Irish country life; even now they form a central part of tourism, but the days when every aspect of “life was affected by the fortunes of the landed class and their vast estates” (Grant)¹³ are a thing of the past, yet refuse to vanish entirely. They remain a point of fascination and allure, from “ghosthunters” to those interested in Irish history. Above all, we are drawn to a sense of their gothic nature, of the horror they have seen and the aura of gothic horror — of the inevitable destructive passage of time.

Photo by Morgan Lane on Unsplash

Works Cited

[1] Perry, Sarah. “Introduction.” Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin. Serpent’s Tail, 2018.

[2] Davies, David Stuart (editor). Irish Ghost Stories. Collector’s Library, CRW Publishing, 2010.

[3] The Legend of Loftus Hall. Directed by Rick Whelan. Self-published, DVD-R, 1993.

[4] Perry, Ruth. “INCEST AS THE MEANING OF THE GOTHIC NOVEL.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 39, no. 3, 1998, pp. 261–278. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41467695.

[5] The Innocents. Directed by Jack Clayton, performances by Deborah Kerr and Megs Jenkins. 20th Century Fox, 1961. BFI DVD release.

[6] Bowen, Elizabeth. “The Big House.” The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature, no. 9, 2017, pp. 85–91. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/48536144.

[7] The Lodgers. Directed by Brian O’Malley, performances by Charlotte Vega, Bill Milner, and Eugene Simon. Tailored Films, 2017.

[8] Killeen, Jarlath. “Irish Gothic: A Theoretical Introduction.” Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, no. 1, 2006, pp. 12–26. Irish Gothic Journal, https://irishgothicjournal.net/copyright/issues/

[9] Clerkin, Paul. “Castletown House, Co Kildare (Alessandro Galilei & Edward Lovett Pearce) — Irish Architecture.” Irish Archiseek, Apr. 2009, archived via Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20090422053711/ireland.archiseek.com/buildings_ireland/kildare/celbridge/castletown/introduction.html.

[10] Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Molly Keane.” 18 Apr. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Molly-Keane.

[11] Keane, Molly. Good Behaviour. VMC, Virago Press, 2001. First published 1981.

[12] Kreilkamp, Vera. “The Persistent Pattern: Molly Keane’s Recent Big House Fiction.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 28, no. 3, 1987, pp. 453–460. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25089899.

[13] Grant, Adrian. “The Big House.” History Ireland, vol. 21, no. 5, 2013, pp. 50–51. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41988330.

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Writer — Folklorist — UCD Graduate — Film Studies MA Student

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Alan Corley

Alan Corley

Writer — Folklorist — UCD Graduate — Film Studies MA Student

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