Subtext | European Gothic

Born in the 18th century, “gothic fiction” is a genre defined by three key elements: supernatural elements (either actually present or implied), the fear of the unknown, and the idea of the present being haunted by the past. While we most commonly associate it with the “penny dreadful” pulp novels of the 19th century, a lot of modern works fit all the definitions of gothic fiction. In fact in recent years a new tradition of European gothic serials has emerged, drawing on sources as diverse as David Lynch and Stephen King, the Scandinavian “Nordic Noir” genre, and even “true crime” podcasts. Here’s a few examples.

Dark (2017)

Still from Dark

Dark is a German show produced by Netflix, the first one they fully financed in the country. They gave the creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese a great deal of freedom in creating it. They were able to lay out the plot and series timeline they wanted, and to cast the actors they felt best fit the roles, rather then famous names. (Incidentally while the show has an English dub, I highly recommend the German original – the performances are worth catching.) Netflix had originally offered to create a series based on Friese and Odar’s film Who Am I? (a thriller about computer hackers), but they persuaded them to fund something original instead – a science fiction suspense story. Friese and Odar were inspired by their own experiences growing up in small German towns, as well as works like Stephen King’s It and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, to make a story about the secrets hiding behind the closed doors of the fictional town of Winden. The disappearance of two young boys in 2019 turns out to be linked to a disappearance in 1986 and two bodies found in 1953, in a 33 year cycle of secrets where events are far more connected than they seem.

The town’s nuclear power plant plays a pivotal role in the story, reflecting an era when Germany lay under the threat of both nuclear war and the fallout of Chernobyl. As the show goes on each season opens up a new layer of intricacy, lending context to previous events and revealing even more secrets behind the doors of Winden. Friese and Odar planned the show’s three seasons out in advance, allowing them to craft an incredibly satisfying ending that meshes together like clockwork and that I was turning over in my head for weeks afterwards. With Dark concluded, the pair are currently working on a new show, 1899, that should release this autumn. Unsurprisingly, it’s probably my most anticipated show of the year.


Black Spot (2017)

Still from Netflix show Black Spot -

On the surface, the parallels between Black Spot and Twin Peaks seem obvious. A quirky investigator (Laurent Capelluto as prosecutor Franck Siriani) arrives at a small logging town full of eccentric characters to help investigate the murder of a young woman. But past that surface level, the differences begin to show. The local logging mill is closing down, with protesting workers and labour activists threatening violence. The mayor’s daughter went missing months ago, without a trace. The local murder rate is six times the national average. The true main character is police chief Laurène Weiss (Suliane Brahim), a single mother haunted by last memories and convinced the same mysterious figure who kidnapped her as a child has taken the mayor’s daughter. As she and Siriani investigate the increasingly strange cases in the town, the ever-present forest looms large. These are the woods that swallowed up the Roman legions without a trace, and something from that ancient time still lingers…

A French/Belgian co-production, Black Spot’s original name was Zone Blanche, meaning “White Zone”. Both names are slang for an area without any cellphone coverage – the modern definition of the absolute ends of the earth. Villefranche, the fictional setting, is a town where tradition runs deep and a land that wears civilisation lightly. Violence and hidden agendas lurk beneath the surface, from the powerful Steiner family’s stranglehold on the town to the criminals that Weiss and her department confront. The second season goes deeper into the more ancient mysteries of the town, ending on a cliffhanger that sadly seems unlikely to be resolved as there has been no word of a third season since 2019. Still, as it is Black Spot has a host of well-developed characters and a gripping set of mysteries in a uniquely beautiful setting.

Equinox (2020)

Still from the Netflix show Equinox -

Equinox actually began life as a podcast, though admittedly a higher end one. Equinox 1985 was created by Danish director Tea Lindeburg for DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, in 2017. In the podcast Tea plays a version of herself in a “fictional true crime” format, talking about how a group of high school students from her home town disappeared in 1985, when she was 8 years old. Piecing together the accounts of survivors, the podcast is (so I’ve been told) a masterpiece of paranoia and suspense. (As long as you can speak Danish – and if you can find it, as it’s been taken off the internet after the TV show launched.) Tea had originally conceived the story as a TV show, and when Piv Berthn (the head of drama at DR) left to found her own company Tea asked her about producing that show. They offered it to Netflix, who provided the financial backing needed to make it happen.

The story changed somewhat between the two mediums, but the basic outline is the same. The main character (renamed Astrid, and played by Danica Curcic) is a radio host who one day fields a call talking about the disappearance of her sister (along with an entire class of high school students) twenty-one years earlier. Spooked by the call, and haunted by old memories, Astrid takes a leave of absence to investigate what really happened that night. As she does, she discovers an occult conspiracy that she may be more tightly bound to than she realises.

This is only one half of the story, though. The second half takes place in 1999, as Astrid’s sister Ida (played by Karoline Hamm) makes her way through her final few months of high school. Slowly the chain of events leading up to her disappearance becomes clear. Ida and her class disappeared during their studenterkørsel, a traditional graduation ritual where they all put on white caps and ride around in a decorated truck partying until dawn. This drunken rite of passage is not the only ritual Ida has become involved in though, and shadows of the ancient pagan past haunt both sisters. As Ida’s story moves towards its inevitable conclusion, Astrid’s own growing obsession threatens to destroy her as well.

These three shows only scratch the surface of the European shows that follow in the grand tradition of Gothic fiction, and it’s something we may revisit in the future. Until then, stay safe and remember – secrets lurk all around you, unseen. Sweet dreams!

All images via IMDB.