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The Gothic Tropes

Setting

Common Gothic settings often include old castles, caves, cliffs, ships, ruins, and tombs.

The setting is meant to invoke feelings of entrapment, claustrophobia, and danger. Often, the landscapes and other setting elements constitute the sublime, meaning that it creates emotion and often fear in the characters or audience.

The setting in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is Gothic. Most of the movie takes place on ships in the middle of the sea, in caves full of treasure, or near cliffs that drop straight down into the sea.

At the beginning of the film, Norrington proposes to Elizabeth. Panicked and also suffering from wearing a tight corset, she faints and falls off a cliff into the sea below, narrowly avoiding death by the rocks below. No one can follow without risking their lives.

The characters often need to get away from enemies, but there is no escape. In the caves, Barbossa is confronted by his men with nowhere to go (as seen to the right). When the cursed crew and Jack’s crew fight, it is in the middle of the ocean, and escapes are limited to somewhere on the ship, the water, or the enemy ship (none of which actually allow for an escape).

Mystery, horror, and suspense

Elements of the unknown creep into the Gothic narratives, keeping you guessing. There is a fear of the unknown created by the imagination attempting to figure out what could happen or what could be there. This creates a threatening and frightening atmosphere for the characters, and often the audience.

Examples of the unknown include:

  • Inexplicable events
  • Characters that act in unusual ways
  • Disappearances

When Elizabeth is captured towards the beginning of the first movie, she dines with Barbossa. There is plenty of food and he encourages her to dig in. But when he is unusually eager to have her try an apple next she pauses, afraid that it is poisoned. For a moment, she does not know if the food is safe to eat and this causes suspense for not only her, but also the audience as we are all left wondering for a moment if her death is imminent.

Immediately afterwards, she attempts to escape and stabs Barbossa. When he does not die, but simply takes the knife out, Elizabeth (and presumably the audience) is left in suspense and horror. Without an explanation, we do not yet know why he did not die and our imagination is likely to assume that he may be invincible. He could be capable of anything. This inexplicable event therefore makes us fear for Elizabeth’s life as we imagine that he is unstoppable. In this case, it is also the power that he possesses, which isn’t entirely clear to us, that makes him threatening and provides suspense.

A legend, prophecy, or curse

Legends, prophecies, and curses foreshadow what is to come in the narrative. In addition though, they create an illusion that the events are inevitable. Once events are set into action, there is no stopping what will happen next.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, this Gothic element is prevalent from the very beginning because the title itself lets the audience know that the curse of the Black Pearl will affect the events and characters. As pirates, the Black Pearl crew will be inclined to take any gold that they can get their hands on. Once they take the cursed gold, they are inevitably turned into the undead. This curse also introduces supernatural elements into the narrative and gives the characters less control over their own lives, which creates suspense and elements of the uncanny, turning familiar things into the unfamiliar (the humans turn into walking skeletons).

The supernatural

The supernatural is very prevalent in Gothic stories. Gothic literature often incorporates ghosts, gods, vampires, the undead and demons. Sometimes natural explanations are given or hinted at, but many times they are left unexplained and are meant to be truly supernatural. These elements tend to push the story forward rather, forcing the characters to act in a certain way or helping them achieve a goal (whether negative or positive). Also, because of their ungodly nature, they are meant to invoke fear in the characters and readers.

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are centered around supernatural characters, events, and legends. The antagonists in The Curse of the Black Pearl are pirates cursed to live as skeletal figures in the moonlight. Dead Man’s Chest centers around Davy Jones and his cursed pirate crew of humans that have become sea creature-like. Somehow, Davy Jones’s heart still beats though it is cut out of him and locked away in a chest. Supposedly more powerful than humans because of their cursed nature, these characters cause terror and wreak havoc on the movies’ protagonists, who then must fight these ungodly creatures though they remain unsure if they can defeat these enemies and rescue the person(s) in danger (which is often themselves).

Death and decay

Death and decay can be found in most examples of Gothic literature from ghost stories to stories involving murders. Gothic stories attempt to draw on fear to create dark tales that invoke deep emotion within the audience. Fear is possibly our most powerful emotion because it is essentially our survival instinct kicking in, telling us that something is wrong or that danger is present, and because of this need to survive, people tend to fear death. This makes death a powerful tool in the Gothic world.

Watch Pirates of the Caribbean, and you will have no doubt that death is a factor in most aspects of the story. Citizens of Port Royal hangs skeletons of dead pirates by their port to discourage more pirates from coming. When Elizabeth thinks the food is poisoned, a look of terror crosses her face because she is afraid she will die. Not only are people afraid of their own death, but they are also afraid of losing someone they love to death. When Elizabeth is directly threatened by Jack, Norrington and the governor do everything Jack asks so that he will spare her life.

Though, in the first movie, Barbossa and the crew of the Black Pearl are technically invincible, they are not actually living and therefore cannot feel anything, depriving them of the sensation of life. They are unsatisfied and afraid of “living” like they are dead that forever. 

Elements of romance

Yes, even with all of the death and terror running rampant through Gothic literature, much of it also incorporates romantic aspects like powerful love. Common themes included parted lovers, doomed relationships, and tension between love and expectations. Sometimes, love overcomes the negative aspects. More often, the tension and doomed nature wins out in Gothic literature (though sometimes the lovers reunite in death, showing the true power that love can have). Love, like fear, drives characters to certain actions and makes the story move forward.

In the movies, Will Turner’s actions are all driven by his love for Elizabeth. He joins forces with Jack in order to save the woman that he loves. Will, unlike any other character, is willing to sacrifice himself for Elizabeth. The tension stems from the fact that Will and Elizabeth come from two different classes (the lower and upper classes respectively). Therefore, they are essentially forbidden to be together. After his daring rescue though, the two manage to announce their love and are able to be together.

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