The Gothic within Alcatraz


In the Film, Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Alcatraz Island as well as the actual prison evokes a feeling of Gothic terror throughout the film. The first instance of this would be when Clint Eastwood is in the Warren’s office. The warren outlines all of the rules that are in place with the intention of oppressing the inmates. Among those rules are that the prisoners will be housed alone, and have no knowledge of the outside world outside of what the prison staff dictates. This sparks a deep sense of entrapment and isolation that the setting imposes, by the cells being so small and inhabited by only one person, making it seem as though the actual prison is the source of the prisoner’s oppression. Prisoner’s being housed alone is one characteristic that many dungeon-like settings in gothic novels illustrate (Fludernik pg.64).  Alcatraz is also on an island in the middle of the San Francisco bay, the water then serves as another agent to further isolate the prisoners of life outside of the prison. Alcatraz is a modern, “new” prison intended to be presented as an “old” prison, slightly resembling a dungeon. This is especially found to be true in the way that the prisoners are being grouped together for meals, and often spend their times in their dark cells, where they communicate with one another. In fact, many new-age types of prisons are presented in Literature and film as more of an old-school dungeon scene in part because of the popularity of the Gothic novel, and the popularity of having a setting be oppressive and terror-evoking (Fludernik pg 45)

Many of the main scenes in the movie occur in the dark, where the prisoner’s are trying to plot their escape while trying to avoid being caught by the Warden or other inmates. In the movie, darkness takes on both a protective quality, and a fear-inducing quality because it serves as an agent to further trap and horrify the inmates, being that guards could be hiding in the darkness waiting to ruin their plans and place them in D-block. This “pervasive and free floating anxiety” (Botting pg 141) shows that this is a hybrid between the “new” idea of horror, and the “old” dungeon-type prison that Alcatraz embodies through the grime, filth, and community that the inmates share (Fludernik pg 61). The threat of darkness is another force that works to manipulate and suppress the inmates throughout the film with the persistent threat of being placed in D-block. D-block is an area/ floor of the prison that is dedicated for inmates that have fought or misbehaved in some way. The cells in this area are smaller, have no windows or beds, are separated by concrete walls and metal doors (as opposed to bars), and are completely dark. When placed in D-block, the inmates lose all perception of time, and therefore, lose yet another connection to the rest of the world, not only isolating them from the rest of society, but also from the rest of the inmates. The sort of isolation and lack of community in D-block forces the inmates to submit to the authority that the prison staff imposes on them once they are placed back in their normal cells. Thus not only making the prisoners fear the darkness in the hallways of A, B, and C blocks, but also forcing the prisoners to submit out of fear for the darkness (and therefore isolation) of D-block.

1) Fludernik, Monika. “Carceral Topography: Spatiality, Liminality and Corporality in the Literary Prison.” Textual Practice 13.1 (1999): 43-77. Print.

2) Borel, Petrus. “Petrus Borel, Prison Horrors, and the Gothic Tradition.” Forums on Fiction 2.2 (1969): 143-52.

3) Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22-27. Print.

4) Botting, Fred. “Future Horror (the Redundancy of Gothic) Gothic Studies (1999): 133-55.


2 responses to “The Gothic within Alcatraz

  1. This is a well written analysis of the setting in Alcatraz and how each aspect of the setting conveys a sense of imprisonment and fear in the inmates. Good job!

  2. The entrapment and lack of outside interactions are two comparable elements to the “Murder House.” With both settings, their dwellers feel trapped and are unable to leave, whether due to physical guards and enclosures or by a supernatural barrier. I like how you included the different sides of darkness and how they pertained to your setting. I was also interested in how you related your setting to a known element of Gothic Horror, i.e. a dungeon.

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