This post was originally presented as a paper at the 2017 Gothic Bible Conference in Sheffield. It has been reproduced here with minor changes and corrections.
The hit television series American Gods (2017–present), created by Brian Fuller and Michael Green, and distributed by Starz and Amazon Prime, adapts Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name. Both are fantastical narratives. In both the book and the television series, an agnostic named Shadow meets and begins working for an old man named Wednesday, who turns out to be more than he first seems (the Norse god Odin). With Wednesday, Shadow travels across America, stumbling into a war between old, immigrant gods and new, secular ones. All are personified in humanoid form—they are real people who feed on human belief. Without giving too much away, through his experiences Shadow eventually discovers the power of faith, and how it relates to his own identity as a mixed-race American.
WIRED Magazine suggested that Fuller and Green’s television reimagining of American Gods ‘gives “faithful adaptation” all-new meaning’. And the show does indeed manage to capture the wild, dark, and strangely reverent world of Gaiman’s novel. There are a few key differences that are especially interesting to examine in light of this conference, however. Specifically, where Gaiman’s novel is whimsical and fantastical, engaging primarily with pagan mythology and the heroic epic, as I will show, the television adaptation explicitly links itself both to contemporary visual Gothic, and to Christianity.
Strictly speaking, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is not a Gothic novel. There is no innocent heroine, no villain with terrible appetites. The novel is set in the present, not the past, and while it contains supernatural elements, they are designed to inspire awe and wonder, rather than horror, terror, or apprehension. Generically American Gods is difficult to categorise, however. As Gaiman himself puts it in the Author’s Preferred tenth anniversary edition, American Gods was ‘fortunate enough to receive a number of awards, including the Nebula and the Hugo (for, primarily, SF), the Bram Stoker (for horror), and the Locus (for fantasy), demonstrating that it may have been a fairly odd novel and that even if it was popular nobody was quite certain which box it belonged in’. It has made its way into the 2016 Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by William Hughes, David Punter, and Andrew Smith, where it appears once, under the entry ‘secret histories’, but it is rarely found on scholars’ definitive lists of contemporary Gothic fiction, or even contemporary American Gothic.
The show, in contrast,adopts a very distinctive visual Gothic mode, which is also a staple of its co-creator Bryan Fuller. WIRED elsewhere speaks of ‘Fuller’s gothic sensibility’, and Fuller’s previous series Hannibal (2013-2015) also employed extensive religious iconography. Talking about the season one episode ‘Coquilles’ (Episode 4, 23 April 2013), The AV Club wrote that it has ‘a Gothic, almost religious, sensibility to it’. Critics are often vague about what it is that gives Fuller’s work this ‘gothic’ quality, and scholarship on his shows is still ongoing, but if we look at American Gods we can see a number of distinctly Gothic visual markers, which can also be found across Fuller’s other shows (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, etc.), and which are often built around religious motifs.
Gilda Williams argues that the Gothic forms a ‘flexible cluster of visual traits, combined with a narrative-based and often dramatic context recounting a set of oppressive conditions usually inherited from the past’. Williams catalogues several aesthetic qualities that are particularly prominent in the visual Gothic, including ‘fragmentation, subverted notions of beauty, dramatic lighting’ as well as its recurring ‘visual triggers’, like ‘the emphasis on surface and texture’, ‘the literalization of idea into form’, and ‘claustrophobic space and disintegration, signalling a history of unhappy relations with the past’.Together, these characteristics help distinguish the things we call Gothic from related categories in the visual arts. Catherine Spooner likewise suggestsa number of features that can be identified as part of the ‘Gothic style’, breaking them down into two broad categories. In popular culture, this includes ‘intensive chiaroscuro, crowded space, intricate detailing, distorted proportions, a saturated colour palette, ornate fonts and deliberately retro or aged styling’. Gothic in the fine arts, in direct contrast, is often ‘governed by the adoption of narrative themes and tropes of the Gothic rather than a consistent “look”’. The title sequence for American Gods is a good example of this:
Not only does this clip contain a number of Gothic visual traits—darkness, claustrophobic space, chiaroscuro, saturated colour palette, retro styling—but the music, which combines Gothic Industrial beats with higher-pitched trumpets and squeals, is also designed to create discordance and discomfort. The show maintains this audio-visual aesthetic throughout the eight episodes of its first season, especially in the ‘Coming to America’ vignettes that punctuate each episode. We’ll come back to those in a minute.
Another relevant difference between American Gods the novel and American Gods the TV series (for today’s purposes at least) lies with the specific gods Fuller and Green chose to bring to the screen. Like the novel, the television series introduces godsfrom Norse, Slavic, and Ancient Egyptian mythology. But in Gaiman’s novel, Christianity is noticeably absent, as is Jesus. The word ‘Jesus’ appears only 16 times in American Gods (a book of some 400 pages), and just three of those refer to the Christian deity personified. The rest are expletives.
Gaiman originally intended to include Jesus in American Gods, and even wrote a scene in which Jesus and Shadow meet over a glass of wine, but ultimately Jesus didn’t make it into the published novel. Gaiman discusses this omission in the tenth anniversary edition of the book, writing:
‘I’d been looking forward to writing the meeting of Shadow and Jesus for most of the book: I couldn’t write about America without mentioning Jesus, after all. He’s part of the warp and the weft of the country.
And then I wrote their first scene together in chapter fifteen, and it didn’t work for me; I felt like I was alluding to something that I couldn’t simply mention in passing and then move on from. It was too big.
So I took it out again.’
In the novel this makes sense. Gaiman is writing about religion and national identity in a pre-9/11 world, and while the political and nationalist tensions behind Christian identity were certainly present in the late ‘90s, they were perhaps not as pronounced as they have become since. Nor were they as easy to weave into a religious immigrant narrative.
Christianity is something Fuller and Green’s American Gods IS able to tackle, though, and Jesus plays a prominent rolein the television series. Moreover, Christianity is explicitly Gothicised and politicised in thisversion of contemporary America. Framing the act of worship or belief as a personal and political revelation, in the show’s first season Fuller and Green directly link religion to contemporary identity politics. This television adaptation also engages in a deeper and more nuanced portrayal of the Christianities that populate America’s repressed histories than Gaiman’s novel does. In the show, Jesus is still doing well in the sense of having many followers, but something has gone wrong. Fuller and Green have taken Gaiman’s idea of multiple Jesuses for multiple countries and run with it. So where the rest of the American gods have one incarnation, Jesus has many—he is a fragmented deity. America may be ‘one nation under God’, but each American has a different understanding of what that god looks like. In episode 3, ‘Head Full of Snow’, Wednesday introduces Shadow to this concept:
“You’ve got your White, Jesuit-style Jesus, your Black African Jesus, your Mexican Jesus, and your swarthy Greek Jesus.”
“That’s a lot of Jesus.”
“Well there’s a lot of need for Jesus, so there is a lot of Jesus.”
In Fuller and Green’s American Gods, then, the Christianity of the Puritans is not that of the Southern evangelicals, and certainly not that of the Catholics, but all of them merge and collide in Christian America, producing not just one Jesus, but multiple Jesuses.
Proceeding from Chris Baldick’s definition of the Gothic’s ‘fearful sense of inheritance in time’, many critics again point to the continuing importance of historicity and the past in Gothic fiction. Markman Ellis argues that the Gothic ‘is itself a theory of history: a mode for the apprehension and consumption of history’. Sean Silver, likewise, describes how important ‘the Gothic way of telling history’ has actually been to ‘the development of the modern British nation-state’. The genre’s anachronistic way of imagining grand and ancient pasts impacts how we view our national history in the present, he argues, and perfectly describes ‘the experience of modernity as continually routed through and ruptured by the past’. This is precisely the approach Fuller and Green’s American Gods adopts as well, particularly in its ‘Coming to America’ sequences, which dramatise past events—from 14,000 years BC to recent history—in order to comment on the present. In the show (as in the novel), each ‘Coming to America’ vignette tells the story of how a god first came to America, following their worshippers.
In their Gothic re-imagining of Gaiman’s American-road-trip tale, Fuller and Green use godly avatars to represent the country’s repressed colonial and racial tensions, speaking directly to contemporary concerns. This reading is encouraged precisely through the juxtaposition of contemporary Gothic and religious iconography. In American Gods, America’s gods are at war because their worshippers can’t live together peacefully. The traditions, cultures, and worship of the old gods are being colonised, usurped, and erased by those of the new. In Fuller and Green’s television adaptation this colonial metaphor is made even more explicit with the addition of Christianity. Writing a year before the show’s release, Fuller and Green state:
We wanted to get an indication of the relationship between the old gods who have retained their power and old gods who have lost their power. Jesus Christ, being 2000 years old and some change, is a relatively “new” god of the older god category—and has done quite well for himself, in terms of worship. Bringing him in is a compare-and-contrast for how Christianity usurped and absorbed many other religious iconograph[ies].
We see this particularly clearly in season one’s final episode, ‘Come to Jesus’, where Ostara (the ancient goddess of spring) is holding an Easter party for Jesus and herself.
Wednesday and Shadow crash the party, and Wednesday upsets both Ostara and the Jesuses with the following tirade:
Wednesday:Until the day that Jesus Christ crawled out of his stinky old grave, folks would paint eggs with dandelions and paprika. For her to exchange as gifts at the first sign of spring in her name. […] Serious question, my dear. I have no doubt that millions upon millions exchange tokens and observe the rituals of your festival, all down to the hunting of the hidden eggs, but does anybody pray in your name? Do they say it in worship? Oh, they mouth your name, hmm, but they have no idea what it means. […] Same every spring. You do all the work, he gets all the prayers.
Jesus Christ:I feel terrible about this…
Easter:[consoling Jesus] No. No!
Wednesday:It’s her day. You took it. You crucified her day. When they started following you, everybody else got burned. In your name. Happy fucking Easter.
This parasitic relationship serves as a metaphor for the American gods (and for America) in general, and the show ultimately positions the old, immigrant gods (Odin, Anansi, and even Jesus)against the new, dominant, ‘post-religious’ gods (Media, Technology, Globalisation), who have appropriated all the nation’s belief (even in Jesus).
This point about American Christianity’s place between the old religions and the new, and its relationship to both religious devotion and capitalist exploitation, is made earlier in the series as well. Crucially, our first meeting with Jesus in American Gods is in one of the show’s ‘Coming to America’ vignettes, from episode six, ‘A Murder of Gods’.
In this clip, which displays all the markers of the popular visual Gothic highlighted by Williams and Spooner, we also get a horrifying (and highly politicised) portrait of American Christianity, played out as a Gothic history. Mexican illegals, who worship a Catholic Jesus, are gunned down by American vigilantes—ironically also Christian, as we can see from the inscriptions on their guns: ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, a quote from the KJV translation of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. The scene is based on real-life accounts of of US border militia, where, as Fuller and Green put it, ‘these people who think of themselves as defenders will quite legally go hunting for immigrants’.
It is arguably one of the most darkly Gothic scenes in the series, avoiding the carnivalesque overtones present in much of the show. Again, this is a result of the way the show adapts past events to fit the needs of the present. American Gods finished production during the election of Donald Trump as US President, with all the surrounding immigration debate—a debate clearly reflected in this scene, which Fuller and Green chose to add, and chose to give a darker tone following the election. Green explains:
[A]s a result of the election and the ugly rhetoric that has become all too common[…] this is the only Coming to America we have so far that doesn’t have either wonky charm or humor. All of our Coming to Americas occupy a tonally different space, but this one is more reverential and liturgical and ultimately quite terrifying. We made an effort to make sure that the blood we see in this one is not our typical “candy blood.” When blood flies and is spilled, it hurts. It hurts our feelings to see, because it’s such a perversion of the American dream to see these people be hunted.
Later in the episode we discover that the guns and bullets used to kill Jesus were manufactured by the Vulcan Corporation, owned by the Roman god of fire, forge, metalworking, and volcanoes, who has learned to “franchise” his faith from the new gods, and tapped into the commercial culture of gun-worship. It is him the killers are actually worshipping when they hunt down immigrants.
In Fuller and Green’s adaptation of American Gods, then, they are able to tackle a subject that Gaiman considered ‘too big’ for his novel. They do so precisely by probing the Christian heart of America, with its Gothic multiplicity, fragmentation, and historical baggage. Fantastical Gothic fictions do not necessarily pretend to be objectively realistic, or to convey historically plausible events. Instead, they suggest how history itself is both uncomfortably real and increasingly distant or surreal. As Baldick argues, ultimately the Gothic’s ‘historical fears derive from our inability to convince ourselves that we have really escaped from the tyrannies of the past. The price of liberty, as the old saying tells us, is eternal vigilance’.
Gilda Williams, ‘Defining a Gothic Aesthetic in Modern and Contemporary Visual Art’, in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 412–24 (pp. 420–21).
Williams, ‘Defining a Gothic Aesthetic’, p. 420.
Catherine Spooner, ‘Twenty-First-Century Gothic’, in Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, ed. by Dale Townshend (London: British Library Publishing, 2014), pp. 180–205 (pp. 184–85).
Chris Baldick, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, ed. by Chris Baldick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. xi–xxiii (p. xix).
Markman Ellis, The History of Gothic Fiction(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 11.
Sean Silver, ‘The Politics of Gothic Historiography, 1660–1800’, in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 3–14 (p. 6).
Silver, ‘Politics of Gothic Historiography’, pp. 9, 12.
Baldick, ‘Gothic Tales’, p. xxii.