~ Anita Nell Bech Albertsen
Abstract: This article maps out character complexity in Penny Dreadful by focusing on the intertextuality of monstrous female characters. The aim of this study is twofold. First, it seeks to examine show how mashup characters gain complexity through textual contamination as they are woven into an intertextual cobweb of signification. Secondly, it aims at examining how monstrous characters like Vanessa Ives can be conceived as mashups contaminated by different manifestations of the monstrous-feminine as coined by Barbara Creed. An overarching hypothesis of this study is that interfigural strategies contribute to character complexity of traditional female monsters usually seen in televisual horror-drama.
In the televisual landscape, a horror-drama TV hybrid has emerged in recent years – a sub-genre that stretches from Scream Queens (2015), Hannibal (2013-15), American Horror Story (2011-) to Fear The Walking Dead (2015-) among others. Period horror-drama Penny Dreadful (2014-16) has also contributed to this wave of New Gothic television. Set in the late Victorian era, it makes space for many strong and complex female characters who challenge the traditional Victorian male perception of women and the codes of morality.
By focusing on the intertextuality of (morally) complex female characters, this article – in dialogue with David Greetham’s The Pleasures of Contamination (2010) Brian Richardson’s work on transtextual characters (2010), and Barbara Creed’s well-known book The Monstrous-Feminine (1993) –will examine how characters like Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) can be conceived as mashups “contaminated” by different manifestations of the monstrous-feminine. Penny Dreadful’s mashup characters are woven from an intertextual cobweb which deepens the complexity of horror’s traditional female monsters. This article’s theoretical take on how characters gain complexity and depth through textual contamination draws on a range of well-known media and literary theories, such as Creed’s study and Wolfgang G. Müller’s literature-based theory in “Interfigurality – A Study on the Interdependence of Literary Figures” (1991), to capture new developments in recent horror television, focusing on monstrosity and character complexity and transtextual or mashup characters.
By mapping out character complexity in Penny Dreadful, this article aims to show how hybrid female monsters can be conceived as a locus for an ongoing negotiation of gender in horror, a site where stereotypical gender roles are transgressed and modified, then fed back into the circulation of social patterns. This argument thus challenges the classical conception that female monsters, such as the witch (Vanessa Ives), are entirely monstrous by claiming that supernatural female characters have emerged in contemporary horror which incorporate contradictory traits, such as being powerful yet vulnerable, empowered yet sexualized, possessing magical powers, yet suffering all-too-human doubts.
Using the monstrous-feminine as impetus, Penny Dreadful showcases some of the most complex (and conflicted) female characters in contemporary screen horror-drama, transgressing against more traditional and stereotypical performance of femininity through monstrous figures like protagonist Vanessa Ives and also Hecate Poole (Sarah Greene) and Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper). Although embodying female empowerment, they are also conflicted figures of pain struggling with (sometimes literal) inner demons of which Vanessa Ives reminds us by saying “The devil is in all of us. That’s what makes us human.” Thereby she pinpoints a feature shared by many monstrous creatures, such as the witch, in contemporary horror: the embedded humanity and ambiguity within the monster itself.
A Contaminant Cobweb of Gothic Stories
Penny Dreadful can be best described as literary mashup, as it embraces heterogeneous cultural and literary sources by merging nineteenth century high and low culture and weaves several mythical literary characters known from the late Victorian era into a new narrative patchwork, evolving and mutating material to fit new times. Thus Penny Dreadful breathes life into a genre – the fantastic – which according Tzvetan Todorov has been bled dry by modern age and in particular by the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis. The series does so by transforming classic texts through the employment of epigonic postmodern storytelling techniques like genre blending and diverse intertextual strategies including the adaptation practice termed ‘contamination.’ According to David Greetham’s The Pleasures of Contamination (2010) this practice occurs when “one mode of discourse . . . leaks into or infects another, so that we experience both at the same time” (1). In Penny Dreadful, creator John Logan demonstrates the practice of intertextual contamination – both at a thematic, an ideological and a narrative structural level – where several narrative elements and famous characters from nineteenth century novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) are blended together and through which these myths of gothic fiction ‘contaminate’ each other and the series itself. To further complicate this reading of adaptive and intertextual processes, these Victorian novels are themselves imitations and adaptations. (See Rikke Schubart’s and Toby Locke’s discussions of adaptation elsewhere in this issue).
Such epigonic techniques applied by Penny Dreadful transgress the textual and generic boundaries of the series by combining elements and characteristic traits of several text-types into a woven web of signification. In the opening credits, this method of intertextuality and hybridity appears to be represented by the image of a spider spinning a web. A similar method also serves as an underlying principle when language creator David J. Peterson constructs the artificial language Verbis Diablo for the series, the “devils tongue” spoken by anyone touched by the Devil. This language is not original, but a pastiche made up of several languages (Arabic, Middle Egyptian, Attic Greek, Latin, Farsi etc.). Peterson combined grammar as well as pieces of multiple words from many different languages in order to produce new ones, including portmanteau words, through a process of linguistic and semantic blending.
Penny Dreadful makes numerous references to British literature (William Shakespeare, John Clare, William Blake, William Wordsworth among others) and also to horrific popular culture, of the nineteenth Century (Putney’s Family Waxworks – a gruesome version of Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Grand Guignol’s naturalistic horror theatre, press sensationalism, Victorian snuff theatre shows, spiritualist séances). Numerous intertextual references are rattling around inside the series’ storylines, their meaning shaped by strategies of quotation, plagiarism, pastiche, and allusion, all of which create an interrelationship between texts, adding layers of depth to Penny Dreadful and its characters by drawing on the viewers’ prior cultural knowledge.
Through its title and its imitations, plagiarism, and adaptation of popular texts and culture, the television series lives up to the reputation of the penny dreadfuls in the nineteenth-century. This publishing phenomenon was popular serial literature printed at a low cost and this literature was designed to shock and awe a mass audience by focusing on the sensational, adventure, horror, crime, and the supernatural. These genres also merge together into one hybrid form in Logan’s television series, creating a new work that appeals to (post)modern audiences with lurid tales of crime, transgressive sexuality, and the supernatural.
On an ideological level, Penny Dreadful furthermore adapts a multitude of ideas by synthesizing Christian theology, elements from Egyptian mythology, and nineteenth century spiritualism and imperialism. This remixing of ideas reflects postmodernism and the perspective that our traditions and their cultural content can be reimagined by taking material and merging it into a new original creation. In that sense, the series is a playful game of layering meaning into a contaminant cobweb of signification.
Postmodern Monster Mashup – Lucifer did not Fall Alone
In Penny Dreadful diverse characters from different literary works and traditions are brought together in a new fictional context and in this new constellation of characters each of them are changed. If re-used characters from several pre-texts are considered as organic parts of the subsequent narrative, the perception of them necessarily changes as the narrative itself generates change. Simultaneously, the mashup impregnates the original texts with meaning blurring the line between original creation and adapted material. By this mode of signification Penny Dreadful aligns with postmodernism in particular through its promiscuity and playful blending, also its collapse of the distinction between high art and mass/popular culture.
The only characters who are Logan’s own creation and don’t obviously originate directly from source texts are Ethan Chandler and protagonist Vanessa Ives (although articles elsewhere in this issue, by Locke, Amanda Howell and Lucy Baker offer insights into the literary origins of both). Throughout all three seasons of the series the main plotline focuses on Vanessa’s inner battle between faith versus religious despair as she wrestles with her inner demons – literally, as Lucifer (so it appears for two seasons) is haunting her and desires her as his bride. He believes she is the reincarnation of the mother of all evil, the Egyptian primordial goddess Amunet (meaning ‘the female hidden one’), the consort of the god Amun-Ra (a.k.a. the Dragon, Dracula and Dr. Alexander Sweet), who, if conjoined together, will plunge the world into eternal darkness. A number of subplots are interwoven into this main storyline about Vanessa’s battle and each subplot is related to different antagonists in each season of Penny Dreadful. In the first season the antagonist is a master vampire with different nests of vampires, and in the second season the series brings a villainous antagonist, the witch Evelyn Poole and her coven, the nightcomers. Nonetheless, the primary antagonist that seem to go throughout all three seasons is finally revealed in the third, at first disguised in human form as zoologist and director at the London Natural History Museum, Dr. Alexander Sweet, who befriends Vanessa in an attempt to manipulate her and in the end: seduce her. However, his true nature as Dracula is exposed in “Predators Far and Near” (3.02).
Logan reimagines and develops Bram Stoker’s original character as the brother of Lucifer expelled from Heaven, a fallen angel in his own right – contributing to a complex cosmology that blends a great deal of mythological source material – Egyptian and Christian mythologies interwoven with classical gothic elements. Within the storyworld of Penny Dreadful this cosmology is presented through, among other things, The Verbis Diablo, used on eleventh century relics inscribed by Brother Gregory– what Mr. Lyle refers to as “the memoirs of the Devil” (2.04). By deciphering the satanic memoirs the group led by Malcolm Murray learns that while Lucifer is a demon of spiritual essence who feeds on the souls of the dead in Hell, his brother Dracula is by contrast a demon of the flesh who fell to Earth, where he was cursed to feed on the blood of the living by night. As eternal rivals for ascension to the heavenly throne, they both quest for Vanessa in her incarnation as the mother of all evil. A prophecy says she is needed in order to complete the apocalypse where both are released from their bondage allowing them to reconquer Heaven: “And so will the Darkness reign on Earth, in Heaven, everlasting. And so comes the Apocalypse” (2.08).
For two seasons viewers were under the impression that Lucifer was the only one vying for Vanessa’s soul, but in the final season Vanessa is courted by Dracula from outside, while continuing to be haunted by Lucifer within. What’s particularly fascinating about this supernatural merged Dracula-Amun-Ra-demon-character is that a higher level of ambiguity and humanity is embedded within him than is usually seen in horror. For example, he wants Vanessa to reciprocate his romantic feelings. He is truly in love with her. Adding to his humanity, he is extremely powerful, yet he is not all powerful because he needs Vanessa to complete his masterplan and he has been patiently waiting 2000 years for this plan to be fulfilled. Although he is a mashup character from traditional figures of relatively uncomplicated evil such as Dracula and the Devil, Dr. Sweet, as indicated by his name, is a more morally ambiguous character, one who deconstructs the boundaries between monstrous and human, between supernatural and mundane.
When disparate characters are blended and new creations (mashups) arise, the original characters interpenetrate one another so that audience recognizes and experiences each of them simultaneously. They are furthermore contaminated by a history of adaptations in literature, film and television that have transformed figures like Dracula over time and turned them into vehicles of cultural transmission. Paradoxically, mashup characters also trigger the opposite effect of familiarity – that is alienation – when original characters are re-introduced in an unfamiliar (merged) way that deviates from conventionalized representations. In other words, despite being shaped by intertextual strategies such as appropriation, mashup characters also create originality through deviation or what Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky calls defamiliarization. This aesthetic effect he defines as art’s capacity to de-automatize habit and convention by investing the familiar with strangeness in order to revitalize that which has become too familiar. Similarly, mashup characters are forcing audience to see mythical figures from a different and more complex perspective.
In all three seasons of Penny Dreadful monstrosity is a theme closely interwoven with motifs like doubt, repression, guilt, transgressive sexual desires, and not the least, with the confluence of good and evil that runs through the veins of many characters. This makes it postmodern in that sense that it stresses the equalization and levelling out the symbolic hierarchy between good and evil. Instead, as the episode title “Good and Evil Braided Be” (3.03) suggests, each character is simultaneously good and evil. This is what– among other things –makes characters in Penny Dreadful complex and morally ambiguous.
Lucifer (light bringer) and Lupus Dei (the wolf of God) are the most prominent traditional figures of ambiguity depicted in the series. Whereas Lucifer is a fallen angel (of light) expelled from Heaven and cast down to Earth, Lupus Dei brings about good by means of evil acts. As suggested by Ethan Chandler himself “We have claws for a reason” (2.07) indicating that there might be a higher (godly) purpose to his monstrous acts and nature. This is confirmed by The Verbis Diablo relics where “the Wolf of God” is mentioned as a long-fated protector of Vanessa and as such he turns out to be the key player in the battle against Lucifer and Dracula for her soul.
Dark Shadows and Human Complexity
Penny Dreadful’s thematic structure is characterized by a sort of confluent duality which is formulated in the second season teaser by each character in turn declaring that “There is no light without darkness. No courage without fear. No pleasure without pain. No salvation without sin. No life without death.” In other words, each character in the ensemble, assisting the adventurer Malcolm Murray in the search for his missing daughter Mina, is characterized by conjoined concepts: light-darkness (Vanessa Ives), courage-fear (Ethan Chandler), pleasure-pain (Dorian Gray), salvation-sin (Malcolm Murray) and life-death (Victor Frankenstein); accordingly, they depict ambiguous personality traits. Not only does this dualism resonate deeply with the Victorian idea of man’s dual nature – i.e. his sinister alter ego – but also with the debates of that time about the plurality of human consciousness and moral behavior, because moral concerns received special attention in the Victorian era as a consequence of people losing their religious beliefs.
The dichotomy between good and evil, light and darkness, is integral to Vanessa’s character. Simultaneously she is a practitioner of Catholicism, skepticism and pagan witchcraft: her catholic rituals often cross the line into other spiritual practices like clairvoyance and witchcraft; while she is praying she both makes the sign of the cross and draws her protective talisman, a scorpion, with her own blood, an allusion to Egyptian mythology. Much of the series has been devoted to the tension between Vanessa and her faith and eventually by the end of second season, her loss of faith – which is the ultimate consequence of her suffering in God’s absence. Vanessa’s psychological dilemma seems to capture the zeitgeist of the fin de siècle at the threshold to the modern era, which is the transformation and dissolution of theology into anthropology. In a state of religious despair Vanessa frequently seeks out her friend John Clare (Rory Kinnear) alias The Creature, whom she meets as they volunteer together in the cholera dungeon, for comforting debates on theology and poetry as they tend to the afflicted. He, on the other hand, seems to impersonate modernity and the rise of the new man emancipated from the chains of religion, because – as he explains Vanessa in “Verbis Diablo” (2.02) – “I believe in this world and those creatures that fill it. That has always been enough for me. Look around you. Sacred mysteries at every turn.” He presents a critique of religion that echoes the thoughts of German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach from Das Wesen des Christentums (1841), where he emphasizes that religion deprives man of temporal life by promising him eternal life and by teaching him to trust in God’s help it takes away man’s trust in his own powers. In other words, truth is considered profane according to John Clare. When asked if he truly doesn’t believe in heaven, John Clare answers by quoting four lines from William Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence (1863) “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand / And Eternity in an Hour.” In other words, by celebrating the worldly and profane instead of eternity John Claire has no fear of hellfire as most Christians. He and other pagans “can be who they are, good or ill as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we are accountable to no one but each other” (2.02). Thereby he unfolds secularism and anthropology as moral narratives of modernity, according to which the creature of modernity knows itself to be the true agent of its actions, in contrast to people of the Victorian era who displace their own agency onto gods, demons, and so forth.
Intertextually contaminated by late Victorian literature and its exploration into the duality of human mind and into mankind’s choice to do moral and immoral acts, the series Penny Dreadful dwells on the shadow side of the human psyche associated with evil, repression, and demonization of the other self, i.e. the doppelgänger. Thus, on a thematic level, Penny Dreadful owes a lot to Stevenson’s portrayal of Dr. Jekyll’s struggle between his dual personalities of the honorable Henry Jekyll and his evil double Edward Hyde in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In contrast to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stevenson’s monster is not created by stitched-together body parts, but rather emerges from the dark side of the human personality – a sinister alter ego. This thematic resemblance between Stevenson’s work and Penny Dreadful is intertextually hinted by quotation in third season’s character-driven flashback episode “A Blade of Grass” (3.04) where the caring orderly (The Creature before his transformation) at the Banning asylum reads Stevenson’s poem for children “My Shadow” (1885) to Vanessa, while she is institutionalized, and shadows of beasts appear on the wall of her padded cell when she wrestles with her demons. Appropriately enough, Stevenson’s poem is about the dual nature of man – not unlike Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which takes duality of man even further by literally splitting the consciousness of Dr. Jekyll into two: a decent side suppressing desires that runs contrary to the restraints of society and an amoral side that seeks to gratify instincts. In Penny Dreadful and in Stevenson’s book the exploration of the idea of duality and its metaphor of light and dark is also a commentary on the duality of British society in the Victorian era. Even London itself has a dual nature in Penny Dreadful with its respectable streets side-by-side with crooked alleys and sinister areas. with blood-splattered theaters and underground private clubs where aristocratic gentlemen indulge in criminal behaviour (illegal dog fights) and macabre sexual proclivities such as snuff theatre shows.
Women of Complexity
In the course of the eighteenth century the concept of individuality in characterization in literature gained central importance and consequently character types were rejected as non-realistic, at least in high culture. Since then, the construction of character complexity through increased humanization and enrichment has been an ideal to strive for. This ideal is also emphasized by narrative theory, for example in Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s Narrative Fiction , where she proposes three axes to categorize literary characters in terms of the story: “complexity [one or more character traits], development [static vs. dynamic], penetration into the ‘inner life’ [the availability and details of mental life information]” (Rimmon-Kenan 41). Since interiority in visual media is a restricted area of access, viewers must use their cognitive mind-reading ability to infer characters’ beliefs and morality on basis of exterior clues including appearance, utterances, behavior and how other characters act towards and talk to them. Individual characters are given psychological depth, individuality, and complexity “mostly through (often conflict-laden) interaction with other characters. As spectators, we observe their behavior, errors, and twists and turns” (Trohler 468). The ideal of a representation of individuality can thus be approached by using a constellation of traits that “stands in apparent contrast to each other, or of which some are surprising to find in combination with the others” (Eder et al. 39).
This also applies to the style of characterization of Penny Dreadful. Vanessa Ives is contradictory in so many ways. She seems more terrified of happiness, conformity and normality – which she initially strives for – than of the darkness and its creatures haunting her. Eventually she rejects normality in the second season episode “And They Were Enemies” when confronted with Evelyn Poole’s Vanessa-fetish-doll possessed by the Devil (2.10). Through this demonized (hence distorted and fraudulent) self-image, the Devil asks Vanessa to face herself. He tempts her with a deep longing of hers by showing her the conventional life she could have – one that involves marrying Ethan and having adorable children – in exchange for her soul when she dies of old age. Already having given up on the possibility of being normal, Vanessa out-duels her look-alike doll by asking it: “You offer me a normal life. Why do you think I want that anymore? I know what I am. Do you?” and while chanting in verbis diablo she finishes the doll off by cracking its face open while saying “Beloved. Know your master!” (2.10). Thereby she releases the scorpions within the doll, her true nature, realizing what her struggle will be: to come to terms with the darkness in her.
In regards to characterization, one of the most captivating things about Penny Dreadful is how patiently it deepens the complexity of its characters by grounding them psychologically through flashback episodes. They provide a swift summary in which prior happenings leading up to the current point in story are recounted in order to fill in crucial backstory of its protagonist whose inward development is of crucial importance. As far as Vanessa Ives goes, her character is complex, meaning she is complicated and contradictory in so many ways. She has a variety of ambiguous and multiple traits to her personality – that undergoes important changes as the plot of the series unfolds. However, the various characters in Penny Dreadful are not grasped as having the same ‘degree of fullness,’ as E.M. Forster already recognized in Aspects of the Novel from 1927 with his distinction between flat and round characters. Considering how Rimmon-Kenan defines the character as a “network of character-traits” (Rimmon-Kenan 59) a round character’s complexity and psychological depth can be achieved by implementing several paradoxical attributes to it. Paradoxicality is what Evelyn Poole is lacking as character and therefore she is not grasped as having the same degree of fullness or psychological depth as Vanessa, Lily and John Clare/The Creature. This quote from Forster also supports the importance of complex characters acting in ways that challenge viewers’ expectations “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is flat pretending to be round” (Forster 231) In Forster’s conception, round characters cannot be summed up in a single phrase, as they are highly developed and complex, meaning they show a full range of emotions and have a variety of traits and different sides to their personalities that may create conflict in their character. In contrast, flat characters are schematically reduced and immediately recognizable on account of some few distinct traits. They are constructed around a single idea or quality and therefore identical with caricatures, types, and stereotypes.
As character Vanessa is highly developed, dynamic, and complex, capable of unexpected and surprising behavior as demonstrated in the two-part finale of Season Three, including episodes 8 and 9: “Perpetual Night” and “The Blessed Dark.” Many viewers and critics were surprised by Vanessa’s choice of embracing perpetual darkness in the form of Dracula, and they were struck by disbelief about her eventually choosing death rather than the Apocalypse. However, those viewers seem to have ignored Vanessa’s previous choices to consciously act evil – for instance by seducing her best friend’s fiancé on the evening before their wedding in “Closer Than Sisters” (1.05) and later by chanting a spell from Joan Clayton’s book Verbis Diablo to have Sir Geoffrey’s dogs kill him in retaliation for his burning of Clayton. In other words, not unlike other characters in Penny Dreadful, Vanessa is both good and evil, and she makes a choice in second season to abandon her faith in God, and later in third season to embrace her dark destiny as well as her evil nature. After abandoning her faith, Vanessa experiences like many other characters in Penny Dreadful the downside of modernity as described by existentialism – that is, the loneliness which is an unavoidable condition of humanity in a world without God. “So we walk alone” (2.10), Ethan declares in his letter to Vanessa, emphasizing that loneliness is the only villain that nobody can defeat in the series’ storyworld.
Plots can be operationalized as story events that make it difficult to predict how a protagonist will behave, but Vanessa’s inner conflict between good and evil place viewers in a position of predicting how she might choose to act. Her unexpected and surprising behavior prompts viewers to reconcile her actions with their understanding of her basic dispositions. Considering Vanessa’s long-term inner struggle, her heart-wrecking loneliness after her loss of faith, and her longing for love and companionship, it wasn’t really such a surprise that she eventually gave in to Dracula, as this seems to be a perfectly logical emotional choice. Furthermore, death seems to be a logical conclusion for Vanessa’s moral choices – for instance in “A Blade of Grass” (3.04) where she tries to starve herself to death at the Banning’s asylum, and in “Possession” (1.07) where she asks Ethan to end her life when the moment is right.
But after all, did Vanessa give in to Dracula? When embracing him by saying she was accepting herself rather than accepting him she chose herself over him. Thus, she alone is master of her fate, and without her faith this act of choosing herself simultaneously situates every Heaven and every Hell on Earth; or, as coined by Vanessa herself in the final episode, “Fear not old prophecies. We defy them. We make our own Heaven and our own Hell.” Thereby she is – similar to the human being in modernity – condemned to her own freedom, leaving her with the decision of right and wrong. Metaphorically speaking, similar to any autonomous existence Vanessa is emancipated from the chains of religion and must thus be the governor of her moral life and face her inner darkness. And in the end, she eventually demonstrates her ambivalence about the evil inside her by using her own death to subvert her previously choice of the apocalypse and thereby saving Earth from perpetual darkness. Thus, despite being a character of repression Vanessa Ives is actually empowered throughout the series as her storyline takes shape, gradually developing her from being a tortured institutionalized deviant, unwillingly possessed by the Devil and tormented by witches into a woman who personifies female empowerment. In other words, Penny Dreadful subverts the traditional woman-in-peril storyline when Vanessa surrenders to Dracula and simultaneously declares “I accept… myself” (3.07). Thereby she finally accepts her dual nature and finds her own subjective truth: the very same thing that makes her monstrous also empowers her and makes her who she is.
Something Borrowed – Intertextual characterization
In his article “Interfigurality” (1991) Wolfgang G. Müller presents a widely applicable theory of transtextual characters showing how literary characters gain depth and resonance by sharing elements with characters in other works. Accordingly, ‘interfigurality’ refers to the intertextual fragments of characters or to intertextual markers manifesting through characters. Müller’s theory could also be used to analyze the complex characterization in visual narratives such as Penny Dreadful and the series’ pastiche-like combination of original characters from very diverse pre-texts to new creations (mashup characters). Additionally, the series is based on character combinations, where familiar figures from different pre-texts are brought together and made to interact with each other. According to Müller, the clearest type of interfigural reference is contributed by the names of characters related. Names are also the most obvious device of relating characters of several heterogeneous sources in Penny Dreadful. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Alexander Sweet, for example, is a contamination of three different mythical figures: Dracula, the Devil and the Egyptian god Amun-Ra. Now Dr. Sweet cannot be simply interpreted as an amalgamation of these three mythic figures, as Dracula is the primary model for Dr. Sweet, whereas the other two figures seem subordinate to Dracula/Dr. Sweet. Braided together with these two figures Dracula/Dr. Sweet is not only provided with backstory. Simultaneously, he is woven into a bigger mythology surrounding the Devil and Amun-Ra contributing to build up Penny Dreadful’s own fictional world and complex mythology. Such mashups of re-used characters can be considered as an extreme type of interfigurality, in Müller’s conception, which emerges “whenever a literary figure is extricated from its original fictional context and inserted into a new fictional context” (107). In other words, mashups can be considered as a deviation technique meant to undermine original figures – meaning that characters re-emerging in later works are more than just duplicates as they are “marked by a characteristic tension between similarity and dissimilarity with their models from the pre-texts” (Müller 109).
Mashup characters share several attributes, prominent traits, and large and complex story elements (such as fragments of storyworlds and environments) with diverse characters in other works. Through John Logan’s intertextual characterization, i.e. the intertextual links manifesting through blending characters, he plays with audience’s prior cultural knowledge, adding complexity and psychological depth to each of the series’ mashup characters by absorbing them “into the formal and ideological structure of his own product, putting [them] into his own uses” (Müller 107). Accordingly, a mashup character’s degree of complexity depends on it being recognized by viewers as something familiar and antecedent. In other words it should be considered as a re-used slightly distorted character where names provide clues for further interfigural links, encouraging viewers’ memory to make connections between different characters and different stories. Thus, intertextual characterization is rooted in cognitive processes of the viewer and, therefore, the mashup character is not just a bundle of traits based on different textual data. They are also mental constructions based on viewers’ knowledge and previous experiences of other texts and characters from which mashups draw much of their appeal and content.
This also applies to the monstrous dimension of Penny Dreadful‘s female characters. In Monstrous-Feminine Barbara Creed unfolds a psychological reading of female monsters and focuses her analysis on seven faces or manifestations of female monstrosity in horror films, where monstrosity is produced at the border:
… between human and inhuman, man and beast … in others the borders are between the normal and the supernatural, good and evil . . . or the monstrous is produced at the border which separates those who take up their proper gender roles from those who do not . . . or the border between normal and abnormal sexual desire (Creed 11).
Creed’s theory is formulated in reference to Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection which refers to what threatens life and therefore “must be radically excluded” (Creed 11) – that is the distortions of the feminine created from subconscious male fears. Creed outlines such misogynist fantasies about female monstrosity – faces of female monstrosity – as the archaic mother, monstrous womb, vampire, witch, possessed body, monstrous mother and castrator. These archetypical representations of the monstrous feminine simply form a catalogue of typical horror-film iconography, and due to the reductionism of such categories they might seem rather insufficient for dealing with the complex female characters in Penny Dreadful. Acknowledging that complex characters rarely fit into firm categories as the monstrous feminine, both Vanessa and Lily are, however, essentially reminiscent of pastiche-like combinations of Creed’s seven guises of the monstrous feminine, adding an archetypical dimension and further depth to these characters. They are complex, multidimensional and have morally ambiguous character traits and therefore capable of surprising and culturally subversive behavior. Yet, they tend to be innovative variations of well-known (stereotypical) character types. Furthermore, as a merged character Vanessa is woven into an intertextual cobweb that adds layers and depth to her personality. Besides her gift of being a clairvoyant and a medium, both Evelyn Poole and the Ferdinand Lyle believe Vanessa is the reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian goddess Amunet (1.02). However, given the fact that Vanessa’s sigil, the scorpion, in Egyptian mythology belongs to the Goddess of protection named Serket, originally the deification of the scorpion, Penny Dreadful takes certain liberties with Egyptian mythology by merging the lore surrounding Serket and Amunet into one character.
To further the mystery surrounding Vanessa’s character it is revealed in second season that she is also a powerful witch and if there is one monstrous role that belongs entirely to women in horror it would be that of the witch. This character is a focal point in horror and fantasy where it has been attributed stereotypical traits and thereby turned into a stock character – partly because of frequent use in popular media fictions. In many cases, stereotypical media stock characters owe their existence to few influential works, and in horror the representation of the witch consistently foregrounds her sexual nature, her supernatural powers, and her being closer to nature than men (see Rikke Schubart’s discussion of Vanessa as witch in this issue). According to Creed, the witch is defined as an abject figure in that she “sets out to unsettle boundaries between the rational and irrational, symbolic and imaginary. Her evil powers are seen as part of her ‘feminine’ nature.” (Creed 76). The complexity of Vanessa’s character is not only caused by characterization but also by her merged and interfigural nature. She is intertextually contaminated by several archetypes of female monstrosity – including “the possessed monster” and “the witch.” Thus, what characterizes the witch in Penny Dreadful is a playful subversion of key aspects of the witch trope that appears by merging it with other iconic character’s and archetypes of the monstrous-feminine – such as “the monstrous mother” and “deadly castrator” – as impersonated by Evelyn Poole, who also merges many traditional witch tropes such as “the enchantress,”“the diabolic priestess,” and “the child-hurting villain.”
Revolt of the Monstrous-Feminine
In Monstrous-Feminine Creed challenges the mythical patriarchal view that women terrify because they are castrated. Instead she argues fear of the feminine arises due to castration anxiety. Thus, as emphasized by Creed the concept of border is also essential to the construction of the characters’ monstrosity in Penny Dreadful where that which crosses or threatens to cross the border is abject – in the Kristevan sense of the word. Many female characters, including Vanessa Ives, Lily Frankenstein, Dr. Florence Seward, Joan Clayton, and Catriona Hartdegen, can be perceived as distortions of the Victorian ideal of womanhood. They all fight social restraints imposed upon them by a male-dominated society, as when Lily – after her resurrection, empowerment and vendetta against men – escapes Victor Frankenstein’s plans to domesticate her by turning her “into a proper woman” (3.07). By “proper woman” he means a tamed, obedient, and silenced woman who loves him but has no independent thoughts or impulses, basically destroying Lily and through medical treatment reducing her to a controllable thing.
In a sense, both Lily and Vanessa are victims of a male-dominated medical discourse and as characters they allude to the way deviant women were treated in the nineteenth century. The flashback episode “A Blade of Grass” (3.04) contains an embedded narrative about Vanessa’s five-month institutionalization in an insane asylum. The framing narrative takes place entirely in Dr. Florence Seward’s office, where Vanessa under hypnosis recalls her first encounter with Dracula in her padded cell where she undergoes all sorts of horrific medical practices of the nineteenth century such as isolation, hydrotherapy, lobotomy and the use of gags, strait-jackets, and forced feeding. Vanessa insists she is being tortured through these practices which the orderly calls science and Vanessa believes is meant to make her “normal, like all other women you know. Compliant. Obedient. A cog in the social machine.” What Vanessa critically calls torture is in her opinion social control of women, manifested by the asylum, over female deviance and it has stripped away her identity and purpose by refusing to see her as a subject. According to Vanessa, conformity is forced onto women who deviate from the cultural norm in terms of role, sexual orientation, demeanor, and so on.
The character Vanessa hides almost endless complexity. She seems smooth on the surface visualizing the Victorian ideal of the domestic and socially restricted woman. First of all, she embodies the ideal of submissive womanhood by being a ward under a male guardian (Sir Malcolm Murray) and secondly through her Victorian clothing, such as her tight-lacing and high-necked dresses, that clearly perfects a message of willingness to conform to submissive pattern and to repress her sexuality. However, Vanessa’s inner demons lurk beneath this surface of equanimity and they are released every time she gives in to her true sexual nature liberating herself from social restrictions.
In the episode “Possession” (1.07) Vanessa’s recurrent episodes of demonic possession return triggered by her falling for libertine Dorian Gray, which unleashes her dark side during sex with him. By constantly drawing connections between feminine desire, sexuality, aberrant feminine behavior, bodily vulnerability, and abjection this episode aligns with one of the archetypical representations of the monstrous feminine as coined by Creed, that is, woman as possessed monster. This episode’s portrayal of Vanessa as a possession victim belongs to the lineage of dual personality horror figures and it owes a lot to The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Both as demonic possessed and as medium Vanessa is regularly invaded by another personality which according to Creed is abject as the “boundary between self and other has been transgressed” (ibid.). In her states of possession Vanessa is aggressive and violent, has supernatural strength, and is capable of telekinesis and levitation. She speaks with a hoarsely mocking, guttural, and malicious voice, crawls around like an animal, leaps up onto the ceiling and utters obscenities. She also directs her rage at the most taboo sexual desires of men, for example when she asks Malcolm about pornographic necrophilia: “There is a brisk trade of photographs of dead woman, did you know that?” (1.07).
Despite the combined endless efforts of Malcolm, Ethan, Victor and Sembene, Vanessa is possessed for weeks. As much as this frustrates the men, Vanessa’s battle against her inner demons is hers to fight, hers alone. Therefore “Possessions” seems, in terms of gender roles, to be an exploration of female monstrosity and the inability of patriarchal order to control the woman those perversities is expressed through a rebellious body which is transformed into a playground for bodily filth – for instance her hair hangs in a greasy tangle and her skin erupts in sores. The graphic display of a rebellious body is central to the construction of the abject in “Possession,” in particular through signs of bodily excretion like spittle, blood, urine, and sweat – filth that stains Vanessa’s clothes and bedlinen. As possessed body, Vanessa is monstrous because she breaks major taboos. Thus, she is abject by disturbing the paternal symbolic which is govern by “identity, system and order” (Creed 1993 37), that serves to establish and maintain a proper self and body.
Vanessa’s recurrent episodes of possession are consistently linked to her deepest desires and sexuality – as some sort of psychosexual hysteria caused by guilt brought to the surface by unrestrained sexual activity, which is how Dr. Frankenstein interprets her possession. As revealed in the flashback episode “Closer Than Sisters,”(1.05) a major cause of Vanessa’s possessions is her mother. Vanessa becomes susceptible to evil in her early adolescence when she spies on her mother, who is fornicating with Malcolm. Rather than being repulsed by their adultery, she enjoys watching them and simultaneously an evil presence ignites within her.
Engaging with Morally Ambiguous Characters
Multifaceted narratives like Penny Dreadful are constructed to encourage viewers to empathize with morally ambiguous character, because the series’ style of characterization sets up oppositions then fades black and white into greyscale areas of morality, presenting a multifaceted vision of people and the world, which resonate with postmodern audiences and cultural norms beyond a good-and-evil dichotomy.
Vanessa Ives is an example of one of those highly individualized complex characters, “who resist abstraction and generalization, and whose motivation is not susceptible to rigid ethical interpretation” (Scholes et al. 101). When viewers respond to and evaluate morally ambiguous characters, the question of right or wrong cannot be put so easily to their actions because such characters’ behavior and/or beliefs seem to complicate viewers’ common sense concepts of good. Vanessa, for example, has a built-in tension as there is always the question whether her evil nature will be able to take over, causing her to fail her quest. Although Vanessa may behave in morally questionable ways the negative effects on viewers’ moral judgements of these characters may be diminished by character motivation. In a 2013 study “What makes Characters’ Bad Behaviors Acceptable?” Maja Krakowiak and Mina Tsay-Vogel (empirically) tested how character motivation and a story’s outcome influence how viewers’ perceive characters. Their findings suggest that many viewers may even sympathize with characters acting morally ambiguous, because “they are able to excuse these actions through the process of moral disengagement” (Krakowiak & Tsay-Vogel 180). The process of moral disengagement may be facilitated if certain cues are present in a narrative. For example, it can be easier to excuse an immoral action if the character’s motivation is altruistic rather than selfish or if the immoral act produces a positive rather than negative outcome. This also applies to Vanessa, who in the final episode makes an altruistic sacrifice so that everyone else can live.
Penny Dreadful’s Victorian period setting and female characters reflects the beginning of social changes that led to redefining gender relation questioning the foundation of paternalistic society in an attempt to consolidate women’s rights. Similar to contemporary television series such as Game of Thrones (2011-present), the series takes part of a growing trend of strong female characters revolting against social norms and masculine supremacy. Both series present some of the most compelling and interesting female characters on screen where plot and complex characters blur the line between good and evil, reflecting changing social ideas about modern women and their roles. In both television series female characters are shaped in contradictory ways by gender norms of today’s culture and contemporary mythologized ideas about the past in such a way that today’s gender roles are remade through the depiction of an inherently misogynistic past. In both series there is an underlying narrative of moral ambiguity and female empowerment that touches common ground and resonates deeply with modern audiences reflecting moral complexity as a modern human condition.
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 “Portmanteau” refers to a linguistic blend of words in which multiple words – both their sounds and the meanings of its components – are combined into a new word. An example of a portmanteau word would be brunch which is a contraction of breakfast and lunch. This linguistic technique of combining words in various ways is also used in Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass (1871) where Humpty-Dumpty explains to Alice what “mimsy” means. “Mimsy” means miserable and flimsy which are packed up into one word.
 There are many literary references in Penny Dreadful. For example, episode “Resurrection” (1.03) opens with Victor Frankenstein contemplating on the brutality of mortality, quoting lines from Wordsworth’s poem Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807) referring to the way modernity (modern science) has corrupted the romantic ideal of beauty. This is hinted by Frankenstein’s creation Caliban alias the Creature when he equates himself with the age of industry asking Frankenstein: “Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now … were you really so naïve to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?” (1.03).
 Victor Shklovsky introduced this concept in his seminal essay “Art as Technique” from 1917.
Being God’s creatures both Lucifer and Lupus Dei personate the problem of evil which is an argument against the existence of God. This problem is related to the traditional conception of God as all-knowing, all-good-willed, and all-powerful which implies that if God Exists then he knows how to, wants to, and is able to prevent evil and all suffering. Evil and suffering, though, are parts of the world around us and thus there is no such God. There are many different philosophical answers to this problem but none of these are entirely satisfactory alone – one of them is presented by John Mackie in “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955).
 A similar point has been made by Thomas Henry Huxley in his 1886 essay “The Evolution of Theology: An Anthropological Study” where he argued that the proper use of theology was as a subject to be studied by science within the realm of anthropology, which itself he considered a subdivision of biology. For further reading on English religion in the Victorian period, please see Herbert Schlossberg: Conflict and Crisis in the Religious Life of Late Victorian England (2009).
Bio: Anita Nell Bech Albertsen is an Associate Professor of Danish Literature at the University of Southern Denmark where she has taught courses in Danish literature, Literary theory, Media studies and Creative Writing. Her research interests include narrative theory, e.g. text world theory, anti-narration, and cognitive theory. In 2007 she was a visiting scholar at Project Narrative, Ohio State University, working under the auspices of Professor David Herman – on a PhD thesis on cognitive theory, phenomenology and anti-narration (published in Danish 2010). Her recent publications include Danish articles on televisual documentaries and narrative theory.