April 2009 Entries
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“Turkish” Gothic: In Search of a Definition(25 Apr 2015)
By Miss Tugce Bicakci
For the last three weeks, I have tried to draw a very broad picture of the most popular Gothic themes and characters used in Turkish literature and film in the 20th and 21st centuries. In my first post I showed the 21st century interpretations of the early 20th century novel Gulyabani bring together myth and popular culture, while in the second and third, I explored how Islamic Horror narratives feed on centuries-old religious tradition and regional folklore. The popularity of mythical and folkloric characters in these Turkish works, however, has only been possible through Western Gothic tropes transformed and embedded in Turkish narratives.
The interaction between Western Gothic (mostly British, American and French) and Turkish texts resulted in adaptations of existing texts. In fact, the first horror film of Turkish cinema is also an adaptation. Dracula in Istanbul (Drakula Istanbul’da, 1953) directed by Mehmet Muhtar is an adaptation of Ali Riza Seyfi’s novel named Vlad the Impaler (Kazikli Voyvoda, 1928) which is itself an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Inspired by Stoker’s Gothic vampire tale and its epistolary style, Kerime Nadir’s The Night of Terror (Dehset Gecesi, 1958) tells the story of a female vampire living in an eastern mountain in Turkey. Both Seyfi’s and Nadir’s novels use the vampire figure – a character that originally gained popularity through Western narratives – in order to convey discourses of national identity which comply with the social and political contexts that the works were published in. Moreover, as an adaptation, Dracula in Istanbul, too, makes use of Turkish national identity by changing Mina’s profession from that of a teacher to a professional dancer. The belly-dancing scenes in the film are shot in front of a palace setting which evokes an oriental atmosphere.
A few other cinematic adaptations such as the adaptation of The Exorcist (1973), Seytan (1974) – which I discussed briefly in my previous post – were released in the 20th century, yet towards the new millennium a new movement emanated by the Information Age and globalisation process provided Turkish people with Gothic examples from all around the world and encouraged writers and directors to produce original Turkish narratives drawing inspiration from modern fears and anxieties of common Turkish people. Very similar to early examples in the 20th century and unlike the ones that use Islamic tradition, these narratives draw on the social and political anxieties of Turkey and convey these through Gothic tropes. Thus, they manage to reflect several identities that Turkey encloses in itself and actually become “Turkish”. I believe that the key to the definition of Turkish Gothic is hidden in between the lines of these narratives.
The best example that reflects this idea and what Turkish Gothic can mean is The Little Apocalypse (2006), a psychological horror film directed by the Taylan Brothers. The Taylan Brothers, Durul and Yagmur Taylan, are well-known directors in the Turkish cinema and TV industries. Their films mostly revolve around horror, mystery and psychological thriller genres. Their second film, The Little Apocalypse was not a box office hit, yet it won awards and according to Turkish box office archives, it was watched by more people than The Hills Have Eyes (2006) which came out almost seven months earlier the same year. This popularity was due to the film’s appealing story particularly for those who experienced “the big earthquake”.
The 1999 Izmit Earthquake started at 3:01 am on 17 August 1999. It continued for 45 seconds costing almost twenty thousand people’s lives and leaving six hundred thousand people homeless. The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.6 and made history as the last biggest earthquake of the 20th century. This traumatic event wounded Turkish people deeply in many ways. Besides thousands of casualties, many people were trapped in the wreckage and their bodies have never been found. Some became permanently disabled or traumatised. Some had to live in prefabricated houses or tents for years after the tragic event. Disaster scenarios about an inevitable Istanbul earthquake were discussed in media for years and in fact is still mentioned time to time. Therefore, the tragedy has been inscribed into the minds of Turkish people with capital letters.
In The Little Apocalypse, the Taylan Brothers use the fear of an Istanbul earthquake that this traumatic natural disaster caused in the region. The film starts with the view of two tall blocks of apartments which look exactly alike creating a claustrophobic effect from the first moment. The main character, Bilge, and her family are introduced during their preparation for a vacation in the south coast. Before they leave, a small earthquake occurs very early in the morning but does not affect their plans. When they arrive at the summer villa they rented, a weird looking watchman welcomes them. Soon, Bilge starts to see claustrophobic nightmares and all the family experience strange events.
Spoilers after this point!
Throughout the film we witness Bilge’s fear of losing her family, especially her children. First, her daughter encounters a wild dog at night by herself and then a scorpion tries to climb onto her baby boy’s bed. When they are swimming, Bilge sees cuts on her daughter’s face under water and another day on the beach, freaks out with the rising waves reminding her of tsunami waves. All of these are visions, of course, but the Taylan Brother do not let the audience know their symbolic meanings in the story until the end. The watchman also plays an essential role in the story since, in the end, he is revealed as the Angel of Death or in other words, Azrael. When Bilge understands the watchman’s symbolic meaning she finds herself in her home in Istanbul, trapped in the earthquake wreckage and gives one last fight to save her children from the wreckage.
The Taylan Brothers create a gloomy atmosphere throughout the film and end with an apocalyptic view of Istanbul very similar to what Izmit looked like just after the 1999 earthquake. The film not only conveys Bilge’s fear of earthquake but also reflects the wider anxieties of Turkish culture at that time. As such it is a quintessential example of Turkish Gothic.
As we are coming to the end of April, the Turkish Gothic series will also end with this post. However, I will still be tracking down Turkish Gothic narratives. I am sure that our roads will cross at some event or a conference soon but until then, if you need some Eastern creeps, find me!