“Buckle up, bitches. Nothing is as it seems”: Gothic conventions in Pretty Little Liars
Andrea Braithwaite / University of Ontario Institute of Technology


Rosewood — the sleepy suburb with big secrets
The town of Rosewood is full of secrets. Its sleepy, bucolic streets and charming old homes hide scandal, treachery — and murderers. The setting for ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars (PLL; 2010-present),1 Rosewood is simultaneously peaceful and frightening; we are more likely to hear crows cawing than children playing. Here, four high school girls — Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer, known collectively as the Liars — try to figure out what happened to their friend Alison, presumed dead at the start of the series. Their efforts are hampered by a mysterious figure called “A,” who seems to know their every move and deepest secrets. The Liars are thus caught between searching for answers about Alison, uncovering A’s identity, and keeping their school, family, and love lives on track.

PLL is indebted to the dramatics of teen TV and the melodramatics of the Gothic. Emerging in the late eighteenth century with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto(1794), and typified in works like Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), the Gothic is a flexible and adaptable genre, “provid[ing] authors with imaginative ways to address on Grademiners.com contemporary fears”.2 It’s also often regarded as a way to explore women’s anxieties and vulnerabilities. As Anne Williams explains, “gender is crucial in the Gothic”.34

Surveillance and paranoia, doppelgängers, and high levels of emotional intensity are mainstays of both the Gothic and PLL. Throughout the series, the Liars’ every move is carefully monitored by A — the cryptic letter used to sign the threatening notes, texts messages, videos, and creepy packages they receive. From the very first message (“I’m still here bitches, and I know everything”), A is set up as a malevolent and omniscient figure.

A’s messages to the Liars fall into two categories: critique and instruction. The former are pointed reminders of A’s ongoing surveillance, as they tend to pick apart the Liars’ actions throughout the day: “Now I know TWO secrets. Hanna got dissed…and Emily got KISSED!” (“Reality Bites Me”); “Look at you, all alone in a crowd. I win!” (“The Goodbye Look”); “Hey Em, some cream with your coffee?” (“Save the Date”); “Cut Mona off? Big mistake. You’re not the only one who can slice and dice” (“Mona – Mania”); “I buried your mom the same way I watched her bury you” (“Run, Ali, Run”). The feeling that someone is always watching is characteristically Gothic, echoing classics like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), in which a heroine is trapped under the watchful eye of a powerful, often capricious, figure.

A also exercises power over the Liars’ behaviour through instructional messages — commands to be obeyed out of anxiety and fear. In “Know Your Frenemies,” for instance, A preys on Hanna’s insecurities about her weight by directing her to a local restaurant to pick up an order for “Hefty Hanna,” and to eat the entire thing in full view of anyone passing by. From dictating nerdy dance partners (“Careful What U Wish 4”) to forcing Emily to come out to friends and family (“Keep Your Friends Close”), to just “Act normal, bitches” (“No One Here Can Love or Understand Me”), A monitors and manipulates the Liars’ behaviour. Like other Gothic stories, PLL is “full of constraint, entrapment and forced actions. Scenes of extreme threat and isolation — either physical or psychological — are always happening or about to happen”.5

test from A

A typically unnerving text from A
A message

A’s messages even appear in private spaces, such as bedrooms
The paranoia and suspicion generated by A’s constant surveillance reminds us that in Rosewood, no one is who they claim to be: “people and events that initially seem innocent and straightforward become dark and sinister when viewed more closely”.6 True selves and real motivations are hidden behind facades of doting boyfriends, caring parents, and do-good cops — a typically Gothic theme of doubles or doppelgängers that further complicates the messy threads of identity and guilt the Liars are trying to unravel. Their dawning realization that A isn’t an individual person, but rather a host of unknowns working together is one of the show’s most significant doublings. It amplifies the level of menace: A is no longer a singular threat, but multiple ones, and none of A’s potential identities are clear. Doubling exacerbates the show’s larger climate of fear and distrust, for if A isn’t one but many, then the potential for betrayal increases as well.

This is exactly what happens when parts of A’s identities are exposed. The first A to be unmasked is Mona Vanderwaal, one of Hanna’s closest friends, who is determined to exact revenge for feeling she has lost Hanna to the Liars. In another classic Gothic move, Mona is committed to Radley Sanitarium – an dark, imposing building crawling with ivy and surrounded by intricate wrought-iron fences. Toby, Spencer’s boyfriend, is next A to be identified, although his motives differ from Mona’s. Toby’s behaviour is itself a deceit, a strategy to protect Spencer from A’s more nefarious machinations. Even deception is doubled in PLL: Toby’s betrayal of Spencer is actually a betrayal of A.

Radley sanitarium

Radley Sanitarium, where Mona is committed after being unmasked as A
The most recent A to be uncovered is Ezra, the high school’s English teacher and Aria’s on-again off-again boyfriend. However, Ezra’s true purpose in Rosewood was to get to the bottom of Alison’s apparent death for a true-crime novel he’s writing. Seducing Aria was premeditated, part of Ezra’s plot to worm his way into the heart of Alison’s story. Yet even this isn’t the end of A. Ezra is shot by a shadowy figure in a dark hoodie, indicating that A’s identity has once again doubled. The Liars are far from safe – each time one A is revealed, another steps up to take over. The broader atmosphere of surveillance and suspicion is relentless; the Liars, it seems, will never truly be free, and never fully know whom to trust.

Another A

The shadowy figure, presumably A, taking aim at Ezra
These elements help tie the show’s strong Gothic underpinnings to its teen TV setting. Part of what makes A so chillingly effective is how A and the Liars — like so many other characters on contemporary teen TV shows — are always plugged in. The technologies of https://grademiners.com/dissertation-help that mediate relationships and identities are key to the series’ deceptive and manipulative practices. An incoming text message may be the show’s most ominous sound effect, as we never know if the message will be helpful or hurtful. These devices create “a distinct sense of paranoia, where women feel that their behaviour is being continually observed and subsequently judged”.7

Yet the Liars have an unshakable faith in one another, if not in themselves. While teen TV is usually known for its dramatically shifting allegiances, Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer stand by each other throughout all of A’s attacks and the not-unreasonable idea that any one of them could be A. Their resolve challenges early Gothic tropes of female passivity and victimization.8 ; although they may always be a step behind, they never stop trying to write essays out of A’s labyrinthine schemes — even after years of terror and abuse. Part of “a long and shifting generic mode able to articulate female fears at different historical moments,” PLL’s Gothic elements are central to the show’s depictions of growing up female in the age of smartphones and social media.9 Because, as Alison tells her friends, “Sometimes lies are more interesting than the truth.”

Image Credits:
1. Rosewood — the sleepy suburb with big secrets
2. A typically unnerving text from A
3. A’s messages even appear in private spaces, such as bedrooms
4. Radley Sanitarium, where Mona is committed after being unmasked as A
5. The shadowy figure, presumably A, taking aim at Ezra

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  1. Pretty Little Liars. ABC Family, 2010-present. []
  2. Buzwell, Greg. “Gothic Fiction in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Mutating Bodies and Disturbed Minds.” British Library, n.d. <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-fiction-inthe-victorian-fin-de-siecle> []
  3. Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of the Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. P.100 []
  4. see also: Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London: The Women’s Press, 1976. []
  5. Bowen, John. “Gothic Motifs.” British Library, n.d. <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-motifs> []
  6. Buzwell, Greg. “Man is not truly one, but truly two’: Duality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” British Library, n.d. []
  7. Johnson, Tracy. “The Fear Industry: Women, Gothic and Contemporary Crime Narrative.” Gothic Studies 4.1 (2002): 44-62. []
  8. see, e.g., Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender From Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998. []
  9. Hanson, Helen. “From Suspicion (1941) to Deceived (1991): Gothic Continuities, Feminism and Postfeminism in the Neo-Gothic Film.” Gothic Studies 9.2 (2007): 20-32. []

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