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    The Physiology of Fear: Defining WWII Gothic(17 Apr 2014)
    By Miss Vanessa Velez


    One of the primary tenets of exercising a Gothic narrative is to mark drastic changes in the order of the social sphere and to reveal how individuals respond to those transformations. As Punter and Byron explain, “the Gothic is an entirely serious attempt to get to grips with difficulties in social organization, or in the organization of the psyche” (The Gothic). An example of this is when Shelley elucidated upon the consequences of the Scientific Revolution in Frankenstein, and when Stoker used the developments of technology to combat the villains of the past in Dracula. However, when it comes to the Gothic and its revelations of the Second World War, an event which severely impacted the human psyche as well as our understanding of the severity of political fanaticism, scholarship into how the genre expressed the moment appears to be wanting.

    This period of time that would become part of the definition of twentieth century society seems to lack the amount of scholarship it deserves when it comes to investigating the Gothic texts that emerged from the era. The one definitive work of scholarship that I have found, titled Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London, written by Sara Wasson, illuminates  upon authors who represented, through the Gothic mode, the British response to the war. Wasson notes of her work that, when it comes to writers who represented the British experience, that their works “present counter-stories to the dominant national mythology of British survival and emotional resilience.” Taking this statement into consideration, I have become curious about other narratives which may play a part in subverting “dominant national mythologies” of WWII aside from the British experience. For an event that so deeply impacted the structuring of Western politics, human rights, and political accountability, there has to be more out there that interprets this horrific historical moment from a Gothic point-of-view.

    As an answer to this question, within the pulp collections I have been reviewing I have found that there is in particular one story that can forge a pathway into understanding the impact of this historical moment from a Gothic perspective. Within the short fiction of C.S. Forester, although he is mainly known as being a writer who focuses on warfare, there can be found decidedly Gothic narratives that classically represent, on numerous levels, the Gothic response to the atrocities of World War II.

    Featured in the Pan Book of Horror Stories: Volume 1 as well as in his 1954 short story collection The Nightmare, C.S. Forester’s “The Physiology of Fear” is the story of Dr. Georg Schmidt’s experience with the terrors of existing under the Nazi Party in 1940 Germany. Forester crafts a tale that revolves around the dualities of Schmidt’s life, who is not only a surgeon, but also an unwilling, yet compliant medical officer for the Nazi agenda. The story calls to the reader’s attention the inner conflict the individual experiences when concerns of conscience and self-preservation collide. Additionally, the story also brings to light how the Nazi Party transformed the tangible world into a nightmarish existence for those living under their rule.    

    When considered a work of twentieth century Gothic literature, “The Physiology of Fear” redirects the focus of the sense of fear and the uncanny towards the real-life sociopolitical horrors which took place in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Actual horrific events become all-too-real expressions of modern existence, where the individual finds themselves struggling to navigate “the disruptions of scale and perspective” of their realities, which are caused by the horrors of political turmoil.

        The story begins with the Dr. Georg Schmidt questioning his own comprehension of the current, physical world. From the onset Forester calls to attention the paradoxical state in which Schmidt is forced to exist. Underscoring Schmidt’s cynicism towards proponents of the Nazi Party’s belief that the Third Reich would exist for millennia, Forester uses this cynicism to accentuate Schmidt’s cowering compliance to the Nazi agenda in the name of self-preservation. The narrator describes of Schmidt:


    Dr. Georg Schmidt was not a young man, and perhaps because of that he sometimes found it hard to believe that this was a real, permanent world in which he was moving and living. He had qualified as a doctor in the days of the Kaiser, before 1914. A man who had vivid recollections of the Hohenzollern empire, with all its traditions and appearance of permanence, and who had then seen the Weimar Republic come and go, and who had lived through the inflation of several revolutions, abortive and otherwise, found it a little difficult to believe in the prospective existence of the Third Reich for a thousand years, which its supports predicted for it.


        Calling to attention Schmidt’s disenchantment with the idea of the permanence of present conditions under the Nazi Party, we experience an impression of a character who is struggling to define the tangibility of his own reality. This struggle is emphasized further by the narrator due to Schmidt’s “cynical turn of mind, with his cynicism accentuated by a scientific education”.  Schmidt is essentially facing “a moment of incompatibility and conflict”, where his own logic is conflicting with that of the historical moment in which he is currently existing.

        Moving on, no matter how inconceivable Schmidt may find the current presence of the Nazi Party, this is still not the central conflict of the story. This is revealed as he meets with his nephew, Heinz, who is a Research Fellow working in tandem with the Nazis to discover the human physiological locus of fear.

            On leave from his duties at the concentration camp, Schmidt goes to visit his nephew, who is currently working at a university on an experiment Heinz calls “The Physiology of Fear”. Believing that fear is a physical ,and not psychological, response, Heinz, who wants to tackle the subject “quantitatively and scientifically”, escorts Schmidt to the laboratory that is provided to him by the Nazis. Heinz is described by Schmidt as being brought up in a world of “Nordic superiority”; however, Schmidt still found it “hard to believe that a scientist, a scientist with a good mind--even though completely heartless in his work--could possibly give any weight at all to those old theories”. This position of denial is what generates the ultimate shock Schmidt experiences as he discovers the true nature of Heinz’s experiments. As he enters the lab, it is revealed that instead of using animals to test his theories, the Nazis have provided Heinz with human subjects who are “destined for liquidation”. Like a medieval torture chamber, with his subjects lined up upon benches with scientific instruments covering their naked bodies, Heinz explains how exactly he measures his subject’s bodily responses to the anxiety of fear:


    Each one had a roulette wheel in front of him, and was spinning it and was dropping the little ivory ball into the basin as he spun it… ‘It is simple,’ explained Heinz, ‘as practical ideas usually are. They spin their roulette wheels, as you see. The numbers that turn up are immaterial. It is the red and black that count...It is explained to each subject when he is brought here that when he spins eight consecutive reds it is the end for him...And so these subjects are spinning their roulette wheels, and that is how I get my quantitative results. It is remarkable how exact they can be. A man spins a single red, and he hardly cares. Two, he is not much more concerned either. With the third and the fourth the physiological effects become more marked, and when it reaches seven the graphs show a steep incline.


        Heinz continues to explain to Schmidt the results he has found through the increase in his subjects’ respiration and blood pressure as they inch closer towards their own demise. They are surrounded by SS guards, who, upon their final spin, shoot the men in the neck. Yet, Heinz expresses his discontent with the experiments, and this is due to the fact that he only has “Poles and Czechs” to work with, and not “Nordic types”. Ultimately, what Heinz hopes to reveal is that one’s response to fear is due to their racial background.

        Schmidt takes leave from his nephew and returns to his post at the concentration camp, all the while reminding himself that “he was in a real world, with these things actually happening in it, and yet he found himself still wishing wildly that he would awake from the nightmare”. After his meeting and exposure to Heinz’ experiments, the central conflict of the story arises. Schmidt receives a letter from Heinz’ wife saying that he has been taken captive by the Nazis. Her letter pleads with Schmidt to use his power within the Party to discover what became of Heinz. Schmidt, however, does not need to investigate this. Heinz turns up as a prisoner at the camp to which Schmidt is the chief medical officer, where Heinz is one of the many who are waiting in line to be picked for the gas chamber. Schmidt ignores Heinz’ presence, “lest they should talk and should involve him in Heinz’ catastrophe”.  With fear overpowering the will of his conscience to petition for his nephew’s release, Schmidt refrains from acting in the right.

        Schmidt later discovers that the reason why Heinz was taken captive by the Nazis was because his research proved that “Nordic types” have the same physiological response to fear as those of “the lesser races”. A higher Nazi official speaking to Schmidt retorts in response to Heinz’s discovery, “Can you imagine anything more insane or more treasonable?” To which Schmidt resignedly replies, “No”.

        With “The Physiology of Fear” Forester crafts a complicated modern tragedy of life during wartime that echoes the Gothic on many different levels. First we have the paradoxical quandaries of Schmidt’s own subjective reality. Schmidt can be considered both an enabler as well as a victim of the Nazi agenda. He is an enabler to the Nazis in the sense that his fear prevents him from acting in opposition to their practices; however, it is this same fear that causes him to be the victim. He is a tragic character with whom the audience can empathize and also disparage. In a classic use of a Gothic paradigm, Schmidt is used as a mirror to reflect the influence fear has upon the human spirit, an influence that mentally immobilizes the subject, allowing for that fear to dominate and shape their moral and ethical realities.

    Additionally, his knowledge of life before the Nazi’s took over Germany gives him insight into the past. However, although he has experiential knowledge that the atrocities of the Nazi’s cannot persevere, his habit to constantly reassure himself that he is living in reality, and not a nightmare, reveals that he internally doubts what he outwardly convinces himself to be true. Therefore, from a Gothic perspective, we have the classic take on the blurring of physical and psychological boundaries. In the original Gothic texts this concept would either be reserved for the merging of the natural and supernatural worlds, or additionally, in the works of Radcliffe, we would see this presupposed coalescence of reality and the unreal quickly negated by a Romantic sense of logical acumen. Yet, in the twentieth century reality of Schmidt, Forester creates a supernatural impression of the almost unintelligible and nightmarish nature of real life that would come to define the social events of the era.

    Furthermore, in “The Physiology of Fear” Forester is making a bold suggestion regarding the contentions between the scientific turn of mind versus that of political fanaticism and the emotional nature of the human psyche. His message could be interpreted as suggesting that even with the most reasonable mind, a person’s fear will always overcome their logic, no what their background may be. For example, a person such as Schmidt will disregard all his past knowledge of the rise and fall of empires when faced with the threat of his own death by similar powers. Similarly, Heinz, who was once a shining example of Nazi thought and education, finds himself victim to the demise his own subjects experienced.

    Undoubtedly, the Gothic nature of Forester’s “The Physiology of Fear” needs more investigation. However, from this short analysis we can see that Forester’s entry in The Pan Book of Horrors: Volume I provides an excellent example of twentieth century Gothic literature. His work exposes the transferring of once supernatural stories into terrorizing narratives that deal with modern events, exposing the truly Gothic nature of the era. Moreover, he reveals almost a post-modern impression of the subjective experience of a modern character trapped in the nightmare of modern sociopolitical events. “The Physiology of Fear” challenges us to extend our understanding of Gothic psychology, where we leave the specters of the past behind to comprehend the nightmarish world of literary realism.





    C.S. Forester. “The Physiology of Fear.” in The Pan Book of Horror Stories: Volume I. ed. Herbert Van Thal. London: Pan Books Limited, 2010.


    David Punter and Glennis Byron. “Gothic Postmodernism.” in The Gothic. ed. Jonathan Wordsworth. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.


    Sara Wasson. Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.