The Gothic in Resident Evil

I’m not a long-time Resident Evil fan. This and Silent Hill – I really feel very underqualified to talk about any of these games, especially in terms of the longer running reception. Really the extent of my exposure is that I watched a playthrough of Resident Evil 7 in 2017, and then I obviously heard about Lady Dimitrescu when Resident Evil 8 was released in 2021. Hard to ignore everyone losing their shit over a nine foot vampire mommy who steps on your throat. And I guess I’m kinda getting around to playing them now. In terms of narrative structure, 7 and 8 are as close to identical as it gets. You find yourself trapped with a group of super-powered mysterious enemies, and you have to travel around different areas and tear them down one at a time. Resident Evil 7 (subtitled Biohazard) is a classic survival horror: its mysterious enemies are the members of a Louisiana family, mutated by a deadly virus. Resident Evil 8 (subtitled Village) is closer to a sort of schlocky fantasy horror – in the best way, of course, but it’s very campy and silly, and there aren’t really as many moments of explicit horror, especially compared to Biohazard. Its mysterious enemies are a merman, a sad lady with evil dolls, a machinist who looks like Van Helsing, and, of course, the nine foot vampire mommy. It also has werewolves.

In terms of the Gothic, then, Village was the first one to catch my eye – because it does seem to draw on classic Gothic character types in that pretty straightforward way. It’s got vampires and werewolves, and it’s set in Eastern Europe. Easy. And Village also has a very specific dynamic around how it manages those supernatural elements. A key feature of the Gothic is this dynamic of fear and repression. There’s this constant sense that Gothic authors are letting something horrifying out of the box – just for a minute – and then stuffing it back into place as quickly as possible. The psychological function of the Gothic so often seems to be as a sort of societal pressure valve, in that sense. That’s why you have so many great Victorian Gothic novels – Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Picture of Dorian Gray. Village has a similar dynamic of fantastical elements bursting through into the fabric of the game, and then their lengthy suppression at the hands of the game’s heroes. Vampires! Werewolves! It’s fine, they’re dead. They were at large, but they’ve been beaten. Normal service has been restored.

Crucially, Village wrestles not only over the fate of these Gothic villains, but over how we understand them. In the game’s final act, the player moves from controlling main character Ethan Winters to a supplementary character, Chris Redfield. Redfield functions sort of like Baron Vordenburg in Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 lesbian vampire novella Carmilla. He’s a dude who enters in the final act, and his whole job is to restore peace and order by killing off the Gothic horror. He is the re-establishment of the patriarchy, if you like, the enforcer of social norms. In Village, he explores around and finds a series of scientific case studies on the game’s villains. They aren’t real vampires, the case studies explain, they have a parasitic mold and a hereditary blood disease. The merman has experienced genetic mutations, and the man who can control metal with his mind has electric organs “similar to the electric ray, Narke japonica.” The supernatural is set back into a scientific frame – no longer fantasy, no longer supernatural, but rationalised and measured and quantified in (frankly) a bit of a boring way. The game’s Gothic structure plays out not only in the action, but also in how we interpret and understand the underlying narrative structure. You might have thought you were playing a game set in a fantasy world with vampires and werewolves, but it’s really all just scientific phenomena. Back in the box, fantasy. You’ve had your fun. You’re banished.

As I say, I haven’t played all that much Resident Evil, but what I have played makes me confident that this is a repeating pattern. After you’ve defeated Lucas in Resident Evil 7, the game steps back in time to explain the scientific (and very rational) backstory on how the Baker family became these monstrous beings. In Resident Evil 2, you similarly move from a zombie-filled police station to a laboratory, where all the scientists and viruses parade along in front of you like a big dreary seminar on rational thinking. All of these games start with a shock, with some disorientation – zombie plague, kidnapped by a magic murder family, baby stolen by werewolves – only to spend the next several hours unpicking that instigating event and explaining how it all came to be – how it wasn’t, in fact, a shock, except from a certain uneducated point of view. Resident Evil games, from what I’ve seen, seem to take this trajectory routinely, moving from the outlandish to the grounded, from fantasy to science. They are games of containment. The supernatural bursts violently into the foreground, and is slowly winched back in. And, as with all Gothic fiction, the ending often feels unsatisfying. The horror is contained, but we know it’s still there. The veneer of rational thought is whisper-thin. Nobody cares about the scientific explanation. We keep coming back for the monsters in the deep.

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