Our theme for the month of March is “cities.”

It’s not every day I get to boast about a proud-teacher moment, let alone two in one class period. In the first, one of my undergrads, looking thunderstruck, raised his hand to observe that SpongeBob SquarePants had adapted the Edgar Allan Poe story we were discussing. “You know,” he said, “the episode with Mr. Krabs and the squeaky boots?” I told him I did know. I told him it was in fact my extreme and unironic delight to know, it being (I can only assume) a uniquely millennial aspiration to connect serious, college-level study back to him who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

Naturally the second proud-teacher moment—a lucid and particularly insightful conversation about Poe and the urban Gothic—suffers somewhat by contrast. But we take our victories where we can.

The Poe story in question was “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Published in 1843, it imagines the first-person confession of an unhinged narrator who, having smothered an old man to death, chops him up into tiny pieces, hides those pieces beneath the floorboards, and then admits the whole thing to the cops when the phantom thump-thump-thump-ing of the titular heart becomes too much to bear. It’s among Poe’s more famous pieces and has inspired a raft of adaptations, not least the redoubtable “Squeaky Boots” episode. Pedagogically, it’s also a helpful story for mapping the differences between the Gothic and the urban Gothic.

The former, for most readers, is the more familiar. The flipside of utopian strains of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism, the Gothic transposed into a more darkly brooding key Romanticism’s optimism about the powers of emotion and intuition. It’s the stuff of Frankenstein and, later, Dracula—strange and sometimes fearful tales haunted by distant pasts, set in feudal castles or estates, and tinged by the encroaching, maddening threat of the irrational and even supernatural. In comparison, the urban Gothic retains this fascination with madness and the weird, even as it relocates those tropes to the modern city. Poe’s homicidal narrator carries out his guilty deed, for instance, not in the damp confines of some far-off, vaguely European fortress. He does it instead in an urban environment where neighbors can and do overhear him, and where law enforcement can and does intervene.

This change in locale reflects more than just a casual reskinning of an established genre. The early nineteenth century, especially in the US, saw rapid urbanization, motored along by the emergence of an industrialized market economy. Capitalism, in other words, was hitting its stride. And in newly built-up cities, the promises of modernity—the glitz of commerce, the progress of technology, the rapturous diversity of human experience—were slamming up against its darker side: poverty, overcrowding, overwork, alienation. A story like “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one consequence of that contradiction. Ushering readers into a tale claustrophobically defined by the ravings of a murderer, it turns its urban environment into a nightmare world of paranoia and estrangement. “You should have seen,” Poe writes, “how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.”

When you live cheek to jowl, the story asks, with so many people, can you really know your neighbor? Can you really trust them?

Meanwhile competing stories of this historical moment emerged alongside Poe’s, in the US and abroad. One of these, by a German social scientist, also took to the conventions of the Gothic to narrate the grim consequences of industrial development: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

As I discussed that day with my students, the social anxieties of the urban Gothic did not disappear with the 1800s. Aesthetically, they persist—no, not in SpongeBob, but in games like Bloodborne, in comics like Batman, and even in slasher films like Halloween and Scream, which displace the Gothic again from the city to the lily-white suburbs. Politically, too, elements of the urban Gothic—its dangerous possibility, its possible dangerousness—continue to crop up in discourse about today’s sprawling, hypermodern cities. Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles look nothing like Poe’s Baltimore or Richmond. Yet depending on speaker and audience, these cities veer in the public imagination from generatively weird and maddeningly enchanted to crime-ridden and drug-addled.

In both cases, the urban Gothic provides a compelling narrative grammar. Doubtless it helps that the contradictions that gave rise to this grammar have not substantively changed.

One hundred and eighty years may seem like a long time. It’s really not.


  1. Laura Sheppard Song

    Your writing is so rich and lovely, Ben! Thanks for sharing all your knowledge here – I’d read a book written by you on this topic if you’re ever inclined to write one. I’m flashing back to my mental SpongeBob catalog and getting excited alongside this student to make the connection.

    As an aside, the first time I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” I found it underwhelming because I’d already seen it re-enacted on what seemed like a thousand cartoons. Funny how we encounter classics first by their parodies and references before the original text.

    • Ben DeVries

      I’m grateful for the kind comment, Laura. 🙂 It’s good to know I’m not the only one who keeps a SpongeBob reference catalog.

      Re “The Pit and the Pendulum”: hard agree. And it’s not just cartoons! One of the many Saw films, I think, borrows exactly this premise for one of the traps.


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