Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Gothicism of American Gothic: "Doctor Death Takes a Holiday"

[For the previous entry, click here.]

"This is kind of a strange town, you know?"

These words from Dr. Billy Peele--a recent arrival in Trinity--perfectly capture the vibe of American Gothic.  There's no shortage of intrigue and lurking horror to be found in the bucolic Southern town, as evidenced by the episode "Doctor Death Takes a Holiday."  When Judge Streeter declines to get involved in Lucas Buck's latest scheme against Dr. Matt Crower (who has been digging up past nastiness by investigating Merlyn Temple's death), the sheriff responds by using his devilish gifts to prey upon the gambling addiction of Streeter's spouse, Charlotte.  The desperate housewife (driven to attempt suicide) is discovered lying in a bloody bathtub by the judge after she loses big in a Lucas-influenced poker game.

Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Angela has come to town, claiming to be Lucas's mother (she's actually a jilted ex-lover) and aiming to assassinate the sheriff.  When Dr. Matt jumps in to prevent the shooting, Angela is undeterred, working to manipulate the doctor into carrying out the deed himself.  She argues that Lucas is "pure, otherworldly evil," a supernatural equivalent of Hitler who needs to be snuffed out before he causes widespread suffering.  The moralistic Dr. Matt is slowly convinced that Angela is right, but when his attempt to shoot down the sheriff fails, he earns himself an extended stay in a staple Gothic setting--an insane asylum.

Angela is dying of brain cancer, and has been admitted to a room in the local hospital.  Conveniently enough, it's the same room where Caleb Temple's mom resided during the final days of her pregnancy.  Room 105 is "cursed" (as the nurse Sarah tells Dr. Matt), plagued by unexplainable cold spots and presumably haunted by Mrs. Temple's ghost.  The nurse also relates that just prior to giving birth to Caleb, the distraught woman raved that someone was trying to take her baby away.  Paging Ira Levin...

The episode also makes reference to one of the founding fathers of American Gothic fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Sitting with a book in hand in the boarding house parlor, Miss Holt tells Dr. Matt that she has chosen this particular author because reading Hawthorne is "like reading the human heart."  No doubt there's plenty of sin (secret, if not unpardonable) bound up in the hearts of Trinity's constituents, and nowhere more voluminously than in the town's duplicitous, corrupt(ing) law man.

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