Suffice to say, I think it is pretty obvious to most people who know me that I am a huge fan of the show. There are many reasons, and one of it is its clever use of literary tropes and themes. Each episode is named after a book, and there were so many literature Easter eggs sprinkled across the entire arc. I have watched the entire series twice and each time, I come away with new findings. It’s really fun!
Anyway, I cannot claim credit for all of the findings. Some of it, I gleaned from fan forum; others were shared with me by Justina, who is even more of a lit geek than I am. I have enjoyed every moment of the show and this is definitely one of the bright sparks in what has so far been a weird and shitty year.
Imagery of light and dark
Ah, this must be one of the most commonly used lit technique. I swear, the imagery of light and dark must be used in almost all of the literature textbooks that I studied during my GCE O’ and A’Levels! (PS: I did Gothic literature during my junior college years and it was so. Much. Fun.)
So, light and dark. Super prevalent in the show. Our first glimpse of Ko Moon Young (MY) is in the restaurant. The director took pains to draw attention to her dark attire: her black dress, those gorgeous black Jimmy Choo heels and her luscious long hair tumbling down her back. You can see that her nails are painted black, and she subsequently made that little girl cry by telling her that in her books, it’s the witch who is pretty. It’s clear that the director and writer want to set the tone for MY’s character here – she is the witch, the epitome of darkness.
Contrast that with Moon Kang Tae (KT). He gets off the bus in his first appearance, and is seen walking into the light. When the two first meet at the rooftop of the hospital, she is dressed in a black dress while he is in his light-coloured hospital uniform. Later in episode one, when she sees him in the SangSangESang office, he is bathed in a halo of light.
(She also says WOW in a way that makes me love her. Just sayin’.)
As the show progresses and MY’s cold heart thaws, the colour of her nails also changes to light pastels and white. Her outfits too become lighter. For example, that floaty mint green dress she wears the day after she cuts her hair, the white tweed outfit in the series finale (sob sob). When she decides to confront Park Ha-jaeng (PHJ) in episode 15, her nails go back to black, showing that she has to revert to the hardened, cynical person that we met at the beginning, in order to tackle the situation.
In episode four, KT zips out of his house to search for MY after hearing from Jae-Soo that she had been choked earlier by her father at the hospital. When he finally finds, and embraces her, the lighthouse momentarily shines its light at them. It’s a visual cue, that they now have a light – each other – to find their way out of the darkness.
When Sang Tae (ST) and KT move into MY’s house in episode six, they also brought the light in with them. The castle was known as the haunted castle, and it was super eerie with rattling doors and ghostly wet footprints. Yuck. But when the Moon brothers became inhabitants, the house immediately took on a lighter and more welcoming note. In their first morning, the brothers opened the front doors to let in more light, and are seen making breakfast in the kitchen, which is also bathed in light.
The use of terror and horror
There are plenty of scary shows out there (and I hate watching them because the images and emotions stay with me for a long, long time). Terror and horror are used extensively in gothic literature and the difference, according to writer Ann Radcliffe in her essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, is that terror is very much psychological and larger than life. It is the fear of the sublime, it escalates and makes you feel like you are drowning.
While terror is largely all in your mind, horror is a fear of what you have seen, a reaction. For instance, watching that Freaky Friday guy in a mask stab at his screaming victim violently at the movies – you feel horrified just looking at it (which is why I don’t pay to watch horror movies at the cinema!). It’s a visceral reaction to something you have observed or encountered.
In IOTNBO, there are allusions to both terror and horror. The terror, of course, refers to MY’s great fear and revulsion of her mother. Even though she knows that her mother is most likely dead (she saw her mother’s broken and bleeding body), psychologically, she still allows the memories of her mother to influence her behaviour, her thoughts, her actions. It manifests as sleep paralysis in her case and in episode seven, she tries to cut her hair off but she simply could not bring herself to do so.
What we, the audience see, are the cheap horror tricks employed by the director to visualise her fear. Honestly, I don’t think the tools – those watery footprints, rattling of doors, ghostly figure hovering above her etc. – added any value to the story but I suppose they were needed to establish the hold that the memories of her mother has over her, and to illustrate the abusive childhood that she had.
As with many Gothic Literature texts, which are all about terror and/or horror, IOTNBO also contains many similar elements:
- A haunted castle or house: CHECK
- A damsel in distress: CHECK, sorta for while MY is someone with a distressing life, she can take care of herself, thank you very much
- Melodrama: CHECK
- A sense of mystery and/or suspense: CHECK
- A hero with a burden or a past: CHECK (I mean, KT is like a walking baggage of pain and sorrow and mental abuse)
- Dreams/nightmares: CHECK (my husband watched the sleep paralysis scene with me and he was like, is this a horror drama series?)
- Ghosts or monsters: CHECK
- Grey, gloomy weather: hmm…there was quite a bit of rain in the show? Also, that scene in episode two when MY hunted down KT at the OK Psychiatric Hospital – you can’t miss the (deliberate) ominous thunder/lightning
One thing I noticed about the denouement was how easily and swiftly the villain was dispatched of. Do Hui-Jae was built up to terrifying levels in the show: we know that she is cruel, intelligent, sadistic and possibly suffering from APSD and/or narcissistic personality disorder. And yet her downfall is at the hands of a man who hit her with a thick tome of fairy tales? How ironic, isn’t it? (Yet another literary motif! Irony!)
I am guessing that the message that the writer is trying to share is that the only thing we should fear, is fear itself. Because when that sense of terror is manifested in real life – AKA PHJ – it really isn’t scary or difficult to beat. In The Wizard of Oz, which the show heavily references (in the last episode, ST refers to Director Oh as “the wizard of Oji-gun”), how the Wicked Witch of the East and West died were pretty comical. West was killed when Dorothy’s house landed on her while East died when Dorothy tossed water on her. Also, did you realise that DHJ’s books are called The Murder of the Witch of the West?
(PS: Justina shared that she does not think PHJ is really DHJ, and I have to agree!)
In literature, the Other is the outsider, someone who fundamentally does not belong. It could be someone of a different race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or origin. The Other is seen by the group as different and therefore treated or seen as a lesser or inferior being. Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Rebecca are some examples of literary works that has a strong theme of The Other – the latter two were also referenced in IOTNBO (the hunchback in the Bluebeard scene, and the cruel and clever way in which Rebecca manipulated her husband is paralleled in how DHJ treated Ko Dae Hwan.
In IOTNBO, all the three protagonists are shown to be The Other in their own ways. ST, being autistic is treated carefully and differently by the people around him. For instance, KT did not dare to be honest with him when he spent the night with MY, thinking that his brother might not understand and preferring to walk on eggshells around him. ST saw himself as different too, as seen in episode six. When KT explained that the villagers reviled Bluebeard because of his, well, blue beard, ST asked, “Is being different something to be afraid of?”
As for KT, he never did grow up, as Jae Soo explained to MY. Since the age of 12, he has been his brother’s keeper and one day, he woke up and he had become an adult. He believed that he could never lead a normal life, which explains why one of his dreams, as he shared with MY in episode 11, is to go to school just like every other kid.
(On another note, I just loved how the writer/director treated KT. When he first appears in the show, we only see his back as he walks towards the school to speak to the principal about ST’s outburst. The first time we see KT’s face is through ST’s eyes, when ST was peeping at KT from outside the principal’s office. His first words are “are you hungry?”, complete with that fake “Joker” smile that he uses to keep his true emotions hidden from ST. In other words, his identity was tied strongly to ST right from the start.
Contrast that to the end, when he has finally found his smile, and is shown driving in opposite directions from his Hyung. That scene always makes me cry! It illustrates such growth in both characters, but most especially, I feel, KT’s. He used to be defined by his brother and they were in the most unhealthy co-dependent relationship but they have become their own individuals. Sniffs.)
MY has always been The Other since she was born, thanks to her mother. We know from the prelude that she was always stuck in the castle in the forest and had no friends. And when she finally tried to befriend the village kids, they ran away from her after seeing her offerings of two dead birds.
(Also – that animation has to be my of my favourite things about the show. It’s so Tim Burton/Coraline-esque!)
From the flashbacks, we know that her mother had deliberately raised her in her own likeness. She was not allowed to have friends, and she had to obey her mother in every single aspect of her life. She was, as CEO Lee noted, extremely lonely but unable to fit into the conventions of society due to her upbringing.
There’s probably more…
…but I think that’s all I can think of right now! I have enjoyed this series thoroughly. Watching it unlocked a lot of memories in me and I was really emotionally drained for a while. But since then, I have started seeing a counsellor and it’s been helpful in many ways. Rewatching the show – at a slower pace because my first viewing was sheer binging – has allowed me to enjoy the nuances and characters very much. It was clearly a labour of love and a lot of thought and heart was put into it. Truly one of my favourite shows of all time.