(or, relatively well-off first-world people borrowing trouble from others because their own suffering is insufficient to justify how sorry they want to feel for themselves.)
The Danse Macabre, as ritualized by so-called goths, was once described to me as, “mourning death.” Not any particular person’s death, but simply the existence of death as a fact of life (no irony intended). Most goths at the time were teenagers or immature twenty-somethingers, most of whom didn’t even known anyone who had died. Goth culture was often criticized as having no substance and being merely a fashion identity. Indeed, looking back, I can see that most goths probably dressed that way so they could feel they were sharing in whatever fantasy world they had imagined after reading so many Anne Bishop novels (the characters of which also engaging in ridiculous amounts of self-pity).
Teen angst has been a real thing among the last few generations, but few mature adults believe in it because it has no cause. It seems that teenagers invent emotional pain for themselves simply because having such pain elevates them from ordinary to a status of having more depth and meaning uniqueness than would otherwise be true of an unremarkable middle class kid in America.
Most people grow out of this just as soon as life throws real problems their way. When you work your ass off and you can’t pay your bills, afford health insurance, or pay off your student loans, and your car breaks down, and you have to go to the doctor, you tend to forget all about mourning death. But some people don’t. I don’t know, maybe they are immune to maturity. Because even with all of that going on, they still need to feel less mundane about themselves. So their high school music, dress, and claimed values cling to them like a stain. They persist in their Victorian sensibilities (which have evolved into steampunk and comics by now), and they continue to think and behave like children into their thirties.
Enter Penny Dreadful, a wet dream for people who need to put on angst like a cloak. 19th century fashion? Check. Characters who endure extraordinary emotional suffering? Check. Vampires, werewolves, demonic possession, and people brought back from the dead? Check. Monsters who adore poetry and appreciate the beauty in life? The show is a veritable menagerie of angsty characters who have good reason to be angsty. They don’t do much, but they sure do feel bad and dress lovely.
In one scene, Vanessa Ives is asked by a stranger about her relationship with God and the church. She chuckles and responds that she and God are lately not on such good terms. This is a legitimate response from her: she has been the victim of demonic possession and psychic visitations, and she has sinned greatly. However, her line of dialog is exactly the sort of thing you hear all the time from kids who have turned away from religion because God didn’t save them from their imaginary suffering.
Other unhealthy platitudes and attitudes are reinforced. One pivotal statement is that the past cannot be escaped, “It’s who we are.” Miss Ives continually withdraws within herself, refusing help from others, insisting that no one can help her, that she must go it alone. It’s as if she is talking about depression rather than being hunted by witches. She tells people that she is not like anyone else; her burden is uniquely terrible.
These characters are designed to resonate with this group of people. The characters demonstrate the emotional pain that these people want to feel, and they justify it by having real (though supernatural and fictitious) causes behind their suffering. They identify with the characters, yet at no point does it occur to them that their life is nothing like those of the characters, that their own troubles are the boring, ordinary sort, and that they have no business mourning the non-existent tribulations of their life.
Edit: I keep adding to this, and the structure of my thought has been lost to a flood of further epiphany. I may have to re-write this post as, “What Penny Dreadful has taught me about teen angst.” The more I think about it, the more this show seems to confirm that many teens feign dramatic emotional suffering because it makes them unique and brings them attention. The show repeatedly reinforces the notion that emotional suffering will draw people to love you, care for you, and seek to save you even against your protests. It reinforces the fallacy that your quiet anguish will not go unnoticed by those around you, that there is no need to cry for help, and that in the end your needs will be satisfied even if you resist help or fight it.
The most fascinating thing about Penny Dreadful is the question of whether it was written by someone with clinical depression, intensely low self-esteem, and suicidal tendencies, or if it was coldly calculated to appeal to such people.
I am also beginning to wonder how much Penny Dreadful will contribute to teen suicide over the next few years. Not only does it promote unhealthy attitudes about safeguarding one’s emotional health, but it is clearly setting the central character on the path to suicide. She is not just someone with difficulties. She has been marked from birth for her struggle, specially singled out as a victim by powers beyond this world, destined and “meant” to suffer. This is exactly how many people suffering from clinical depression feel, and it seems to those people that there is no way out but death. Penny Dreadful seems to confirm that, yes, some people really are preordained to suffer, and there is no escaping it.
I am only beginning the second season, but I am making a prediction: at some point before the end of the second season, Miss Ives will attempt to take her own life, but the attempt will fail, and everyone else will rush to help her, and they will successfully defeat or stave off her enemy.