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The public obsession with San Francisco’s dog-mauling case suggests that we need to spend more time thinking about what trials really do. Why did a crime that is hardly extraordinary — failing to control a dangerous dog — become a subject of such intense fascination? And what role did law play in stimulating a cultural spectacle? The answer is as simple as a salutation. “Good evening, Clarice,” Hannibal Lecter purrs in the greeting that ingratiated itself into popular culture. Deputy District Attorney James Hammer didn’t invoke Lecter’s salutation in the trial against Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, of course. But he might have. Indeed, Lecter’s welcome in “The Silence of the Lambs” embodies the case for the prosecution. For all their attention to trial technique, attorneys are notoriously resistant to substantive analyses of how litigation actually works. Understandably, lawyers — having long marketed themselves as masters of the fact-finding process — may be reluctant to reveal that they are in a different racket altogether. But trials don’t produce truth. Rather, courtroom battles respond to a more basic cultural need. The trial’s ritualized recounting of troubling events allows us to make sense of our lives — in essence, to determine meaning and context in the way civilized man appears always to have done: We organize facts according to what we know from familiar narrative formats; we draw conclusions based on the lessons of popular legend; we assuage our anxieties with story. Naturally, the jurors who sort through testimony don’t consciously look for antecedents in Aeschylus or the Brothers Grimm. And lawyers don’t consider fictional genres in deciding what witnesses to call. But, we ignore the kind of stories that contemporary litigators construct — what forms the scenarios take, what emotions they evoke, what fears they address — at our peril. And no presentation has imperiled our law more than the narrative constructed for public consumption in People v. Knoller. Selected by prosecutors and spun ad nauseam by the media, the facts of the dog-mauling case emerged in the format that critics have called the most coercive of all — a genre that preys on our attraction to the forbidden, speaks to our darkest anxieties, manipulates our emotions, penetrates our dreams and exhorts us to the complete abdication of reason. “It was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal and detestable,” horror-meister H.P. Lovecraft wrote of the Gothic story. But Lovecraft’s summary also describes the facts presented to the public as the Knoller case. Purveyors of the Knoller story may not consciously have recognized that the images they disseminated would evoke Western culture’s darkest genre. But they should have. Knoller emerged in an era infused by the Gothic — by “Buffy,” “The X-Files” and the collected works of Anne Rice — and the case played to an American audience mesmerized by Dr. Lecter. The facts we came to know in Knoller owed less to conventional advocacy than to Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto.” Descriptions evoked a psychologically portentous maze of dark hallways — claustrophobic, entrapping, roamed by wild dogs and their inhuman handlers. Notably, the prosecution’s principal exhibits — 24 gory photos of victim Diane Whipple and a set of gigantic teeth– offered up Gothic’s most pervasive symbols, blood and the fangs that draw it. Yet Gothic tales acknowledge, as trials do not, the nastier reasons for their power — the deeply Freudian bases of our interpretations, the fetishizing of objects that lawyers call evidence. We respond viscerally to blood and the instruments of terror, after all, because they evoke our unacknowledged awareness that bloodletting and lust arise from a primal instinct, that each of us shares that instinct, and that none of us is as far from it as we’d like to believe. The Knoller prosecutors argued that evidence of the defendants’ ties to neo-fascists was essential to their narrative theory; and it was. The taint of Nazism allowed trial devotees to recast the pudgy Robert Noel and pallid Marjorie Knoller as Nosferatu and his mate, the self-absorbed deviants whose unconventionality drives Gothic fiction. Apropos, the defendants’ actions became publicly comprehensible in the context of perversity: their rejection of professional proprieties as the Gothic character’s renunciation of rules; their preoccupation with dogs as the Prince of Darkness’ unnatural bond with beasts; their impoverished fantasies as the degeneracy of Rice’s vampire cults; their adoption of adult inmate Paul “Cornfed” Schneider as the Gothic protagonist’s renunciation of biological limits. Purveyors of Knoller capitalized on Gothic’s fascination with an egomaniacal villain whose ultimate pleasure lies in his own power to terrify: Eventually, Noel’s derision of a fearful victim — “a timorous, mousy blonde” — loomed as ominously in the public mind as Lecter’s epigram, “I ate his liver with fava beans and a good Chianti.” But Gothic fiction provides that the protagonist’s certainty of his own omnipotence also destroys him — Lecter trapped by self-confidence, Dracula destroyed by ambition, the defendants ensnared in their own interviews and letters. In the end, even the Gothic figure’s ultimate manifestation of power — an aura of impenetrable mystery — operated against Knoller‘s defendants. Denied any fact that made Noel and Knoller intelligible, the public predictably condemned what it could not understand: “They don’t have a name for what he is,” Lecter’s chief pursuer explains. For all its facial preoccupation with depraved nobles and debased aristocrats, Gothic is a genre of and for the middle class. Gothic tales attract mainstream audiences because they tap directly into the bourgeois consumer’s most pressing anxiety — his fear that conformity and comfort and the repression of his own violence have rendered him emotionally dead: “We’re designed to be hunters, and we live in a society of shopping,” the provocateur of “Fight Club” complains. As importantly, Gothic holds onto its audience by offering the consummate panacea to their fear — deviance, a rejection of convention that brings middle managers to life. Naturally, Gothic doesn’t force its devotees to risk real depravity. Instead, the genre allows us to sample the incidents of perversity without the necessity of committing to it. Knoller offered us an invitation to relish the images we normally repress — of women consumed by terror, or degraded in pornographic image, or captured in the prim restraints of “Victoria’s Secret”; to envision the conduct we normally edit from consciousness — sadism and sodomy and bestiality; to imagine the experiences we consciously forbid — the force and fury of a wild animal’s savage attack, the smell and sensation of being awash in blood. But our willingness to call up those images also repels us. The outcome — bitter public denunciation of what has been privately savored — is inevitably reactionary. Bourgeois literature cannot allow the unconventional to triumph. At story’s end, a representative of social order — a physician or a priest or a policing woodsman — slays the genre’s seductive beast. But the Gothic tale, unlike the criminal trial, never masks the reason for its horrific judgments. Instead, Gothic’s over-the-top endings expose the irony in our punishments: that the measure of our outrage is commensurate to our attraction; that we impose our harshest sentences on those who have offered our greatest titillation; that someone else dies for our sins. The incongruity suggests an explanation for Knoller‘s surprising verdict. Yet Gothic’s ideology may be less problematic for American law than is its origin. Progenitors of the genre had watched as the Enlightenment produced the French Revolution, and they wanted no part of Locke’s progressive reasoning. Instead, they issued a wild call to human emotion and illogic and excess. Revived with each new cycle of learning — a Victorian era that led to the carnage of World War I; a ’50s science boom that produced nuclear proliferation; an info-tech age of ancient biases that threaten world peace — Gothic has consistently urged the renunciation of reason. It does so today. Law extols its immunity to cultural movements. But analysts of the past decade’s Gothic renaissance note that the trial process is particularly vulnerable to the tales Gothic tells. Fortunately, Knoller offers a lesson to our manufacturers of courtroom stories. Litigators can ignore Gothic’s powerful elements and deny its pervasive influence. They can intellectualize its images and remain powerless against its seduction. Or they can identify Gothic’s elements and choose another format — a narrative that plays on how we reason rather than on what we repress; a narrative that rewards good sense over gross sensation; a narrative that renders the trial a far less frightening story. Contributing writer Terry Diggs teaches courses on law and film at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University law school.

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