Intermediality and Interventions: Applying Intermediality Frameworks to Reality Television and Microblogs — Rosemary Overell

Abstract: This article explores the usefulness of ‘intermediality’ approaches for understanding contemporary reality television. Through a case study of Intervention, it is proposed that intermedial frameworks illuminate reality television’s function as a “dream of presence”. The article focuses particularly on intermedial manifestations of the television program on the microblogging platform, tumblr. Building on studies of intermediality within cinema and visual cultural studies, this article highlights the liminal, affective and processual elements that arise from the intermedial movement of content. It does this through an application of ideas from non-representational theory as a means for expanding intermediality beyond the cinematic. This article suggests that liminality, affect and process are, in turn, presented in Intervention, and emphasised in the intermedial presentation of Intervention ‘screencaps’ on fan-made tumblr microblogs.

Figure 1. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to elaborate on the addict’s back story (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Figure 1. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to elaborate on the addict’s back story (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).


This article is an intervention into contemporary accounts of intermediality. Building on recent work in cinema and visual culture studies (Barker 2009; Bennett 2007; Pethő 2010; Pethő 2011; Rajewsky 2005),I propose that intermediality functions as a useful framework for understanding how contemporary popular cultural production works as what Derrida calls the “dream of presence” (1978) –a representational manifestation of a striving for significance and meaning in response to more than representational experiences. Here, I integrate work in non-representational theory (NRT) to elaborate on the more than representational potential of intermedial products.

Intermediality’s concern with the between-ness of media signifiers highlights the liminal, affective and processual aspects that arise via the movement of content between media forms. These, in turn, destabilise the apparent coherence and ‘purity’ of mediated representation and the presumption of media specific modes of spectatorship. This complements NRT approaches, which argue for a privileging of the more than representational dimensions of the cultural landscape. In particular, Mitch Rose’s (2006) elaboration on Derrida’s “dreams of presence” as an inclination and striving – but necessarily also failing – towards an ossified, accountable understanding of culture enlivens intermedial approaches. In this article, I apply the framework of intermediality to the reality television programme Intervention (A&E Network 1999 – 2013) and its surrounding fan blogs.


Intermediality rejects media specificity. It moves away from understanding media as discrete technologies of representation and, in particular, rejects assumptions that particular types of representation are bound to particular types of media (for example moving images with cinema). Furthermore, it differs from transmedia frameworks, which focus on how textual content and significance change when moved from one media form to another. While transmedia approaches acknowledge the mobility of media content, they still present media forms as discrete signifying systems, which produce coherent meaning – either across or within formats. Intermediality troubles this assumption by focusing on how media products come into being via the dynamic inter-relation between media. That is, intermediality is characterised by medial transposition. The process of the transposition of media content, and of one medium into another, also points to the instability of signification. Ágnes Pethő (2011) posits intermediality as constitutive of new mediated experiences in between media forms where media – and their associated significations – are radically dislocated and displaced. This is partly because, via this movement, traces of the originary medial form and content are incorporated into the new medial form and content. Pethő notes the possibilities constituted via intermedial relations and the potential of an intermedial perspective to highlight the multiple mediated relations that produce our comprehension of media content.

Pethő emphasises the affective elements integral to intermediality through her rejection of Kristevan intertextuality.[1] According to Pethő, intermediality is more than textual. It is also more than representational. It is about the myriad of experiences, which are beyond articulation and cognition via standard signifying frameworks such as language: “Intermediality … is not something one ‘deciphers’, it is something one perceives or senses” (2011, 68). Pethő thereby emphasizes the sensuous aspects of embodied spectatorship of cinematic products. She argues for a phenomenological approach to intermediality as a means of accounting for the pre-cognitive experience of cinema. Her understanding, then, is that the experience of intermediality is affective. Here, affect is defined in Massumian (1992; 2002; [1987] 2007) terms as a “prepersonal intensity” ([1987] 2007, xvi) beyond representational frameworks and descriptors such as emotions. The instability of a coherent cinematic mediality is highlighted precisely through intermediality’s concern with the liminal spaces constituted in the moments when media content and representations move between media. This, again, echoes Massumi who argues that affect can only occur in terms of process, passage and interaction between subjects, things and spaces.[2] Massumi posits process as primary to “every formation” (1992, 194) and notes that processuality works as “sites of passage that gather up movement and send it back translated” (ibid.). As Rossiter (2003) points out in his work on processual media theory, this movement between media formations is important, partly because such a dynamic changes the media’s form, content and reception, but also because, by understanding contemporary media as processual, space is made for understanding media as socially, and culturally contingent.

Figure 2. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to present ‘facts’ about addiction and health problems (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Figure 2. An example of the black and white titles used in Intervention to present ‘facts’ about addiction and health problems (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Intermediality as a “dream of presence”

I propose that we can understand intermediality in terms of non-representational theory (NRT) – a conceptual framework associated with cultural geography. NRT’s remit is to “enliven” the humanities through a privileging of affective experiences over representational—particularly textual—analyses (Thrift 2008; Anderson and Harrison 2010).

A key site for NRT analyses is “cultural landscapes”(Rose 2002; 2006). Rose broadens the geographical implications of “landscape” to include theoretical engagements with cultural practices and objects that attempt to “capture” such manifestations “into sense … into something that can be … imagined in a mental tableau” (2006, 537). Rose argues that the representational concerns of much cultural analysis ossify the vitality of cultural processes. Instead, he presents an NRT approach to culture as one that collapses subject and object into co-emergent becomings (538). In this way his approach is resonant with Pethő’s emphasis on intermediality as constituted through phenomenological correlations of the types of embodiment implied by different media forms.

Rose’s (2006) approach to cultural landscape further complements intermedial approaches through his understanding of cultural analysis as a ‘dream of presence’ instead of a ‘thingified’ culture. Rose claims that we are drawn to stable understandings of culture that mitigate the messy experience of engaging with the world. Rose dubs these inclinations – both in their manifestations as coherent, signifying systems and the process of striving towards these coherencies – dreams of presence. Here, he draws on Derrida (1978), who describes the “dream” of the “philosophical man” [sic] for “full presence, the reassuring foundation” (292). In Derridean terms, this is an impossible possibility because of the instability of language systems.

Nonetheless, as Rose posits, we are inclined to the certitude of teleologies, grand narratives and coherent signification. Rose provocatively suggests that cultural theory is itself a manifestation of this dream. Like other NRT theorists, Rose calls for the humanities to account for the “more than representational” (2006, 345). One means for doing this is a foregrounding of the process of these inclinations towards the “performance of closure and encirclement” (2006, 345) that goes with cultural analysis, but also permeates our everyday encounters with cultural products and processes. Despite the impossibility of stabilizing culture into a coherent landscape, we repeat this performance as a way of being in the world which Rose dubs “affective cabling that connects self and word” (ibid.). The privileging of the strivings towards meaning undercut claims to representational meaning.[3]

In terms of intermediality, Rajewsky gestures towards a similarly impossible—though desired state, arguing that the apparent material specificity of originary media is illusory. That is, intermedial products foreground the surface claims of media as inscribing a discrete materiality within their modes of representation. She notes that this foregrounding produces a particular ‘as if’ experience for the intermedial consumer: “the book reads as if it is a film”.[4] Here, we see the inclination towards coherent significations. Medial approaches are a “dream of presence” and intermedial approaches operate similarly to Rose’s work – in destabilizing the assumption of medial solidity. Pethő echoes a similar idea in her discussion of the viewer’s embodied response to cinema – the desire and striving to stabilise and decipher the intermedial experience. The work of the spectator in fostering what Rose dubs a “dream of presence” in fact draws attention to the intermediality of cinematic experience and the impossibility of a coherently signifying, cinematic product.

To summarise, intermediality is characterised by liminality, affect and processuality. These three characteristics highlight the significatory instability of media content, as well as the power of media themselves and of intermedial experiences to push beyond the representational systems that characterize discrete, medial, approaches. In turn, I propose that intermedial approaches are enriched through recourse to NRT frameworks that privilege the in-betweenness within all “dreams of presence”.

Figure 3. An example of how the production mechanisms of the program are shown on Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Figure 3. An example of how the production mechanisms of the program are shown on Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Linda” (A&E Network 2009a).

Case study: Intervention

Intervention was a reality television program that aired on the American cable channel A&E Network (A&E) between 2005 and 2013. The show was demonstrative of A&E’s shift from “Arts and Entertainment” programming – made up of imported British dramas and documentaries on opera, theatre and cinema – to a focus on reality television.[5] The premise of Intervention is the representation of an addicted subject, who undergoes a “Johnson Institute” – so called “ambush” – intervention for their addiction and is encouraged to go into rehabilitation.[6] The addict is contextualised through to-camera commentary from the addict and their family and friends. The intervention is overseen by a professional interventionist, and the program usually closes with a “catch up” clip, generally of the recovering addict in a rehabilitation clinic.

Intervention is formulaic. Certain formal elements are consistent across ten of the thirteen seasons. The stylistic changes in the final seasons were minimal, indicating that the show had found its formula. Common elements included the theme song, advertising break bookends which incorporated sirens over a blurred, fast moving image of flashing lights, the closing theme of The Davenports’ song about recovery “5 steps” (2000), the use of black-background-white-text inter-titles to inform viewers of personal information on the addict subject and ‘facts’ about addiction (Figures 1 and 2), the narrative of introducing the addict and showing their substance use and relaying the addict’s (often traumatic) personal history, the intervention, and then finally rehabilitation. Two of the interventionists appeared in all thirteen seasons, Jeff Van Vonderen and Candy Finnigan. Both Van Vonderen and Finnigan are themselves former addicts. Like other A&E reality programs, and reality television broadly, Intervention used a documentary aesthetic. Camera work, particularly in the initial section of each episode, where the addict is tracked in their everyday life, was handheld. The production staff was regularly revealed – particularly when interventions did not go to plan – talking to the addict and their family from either behind or in front of the camera. Camera operators and production equipment were often shown in mirrors or by second cameras (Figure 3). In the final few seasons, the intervention “scene” began with an overhead establishing shot that revealed the family and interventionist as well as the production staff, lights and cameras. This cinema vérité style was crucial to building the program’s generic classification as reality television,[7] and claim to an authentic ‘documentary’ portrayal of substance use. This aesthetic also positioned it apart from slicker programs with similar themes, such as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew (VH1 2008 – 2012) and Addicted (TLC 2010). The hand-held aesthetic of Intervention only lifts in the final scenes at rehab – where steady shots of doctors, counselors and the recovering addict are used.

Figure 4. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a hallway (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Figure 4. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a hallway (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006b).

Intervention is transmediated in numerous ways. Its content has crossed primarily from television to Internet platforms. Two popular memes have been created by viewers from the television episodes. The first shows a clip of inhalant addict Allison (A&E Network 2008) “huffing” computer duster and mumbling “I’m walking on sunshine” mashed up with the K. C. and the Sunshine Band song “Walking on Sunshine”.[8] The disconnect between Allison’s obvious desperation and the song’s upbeat lyric serves as the “punch line” for the meme. The second Intervention meme shows Rocky (A&E Network 2010e), a cocaine addict, emitting a high-pitched cry during his intervention. The meme became a viral video dubbed “The Best Cry Ever” and was remixed into clips of people expressing disappointment at ostensibly trivial matters.[9] These memes appropriate content from Intervention and re-signify it through incorporating it with apparently unrelated content from popular culture. There are also numerous other viewer-made YouTube mash ups of Intervention, including facebook fan pages and discussion boards focused on the program. Like many other reality television programs, Intervention has prompted various tumblr pages where users can share, like and upload primarily visual and video material. tumblr has a handful of blogs focused on Intervention where users screencap (still frame) and gif (moving frame) particular moments from the show and sometimes provide commentary on the program.

A number of academic articles have discussed Intervention. None, however, have looked at the intermediality of the program, nor its transmedia engagement by audiences. Instead, work on Intervention has critiqued the ethics and efficacy of the program from a health-science perspective (Kosovski and Smith 2011); the commodification of drug addiction and Intervention’s position within the wider genre of transformation reality television (Oriekose 2013); and the over-representation of white addicts as ‘wasted’ white citizens on the program (Daniels 2012).[10]

Intervention and intermediality

I propose that intermediality is a useful method for understanding Intervention, particularly “tumbld” interventions which emphasise liminality, processuality and affect. I argue that the intermedial characteristics of tumbld Intervention demonstrate the “dreams of presence” that Rose discusses via Derrida.

Figure 5. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a streetscape (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Figure 5. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, a streetscape (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Intervention, the television program, focuses on liminal spaces, experiences and subjects. These representations of in-betweeness gesture towards televisual media’s desire to overcome liminality in favor of neat teleology. However, the repetition and foregrounding of such spaces simultaneously highlight the inability of media to cordon off experience into coherent, self-contained narrative forms. The settings for all but the final section of Intervention (in rehab) are usually interim sites. We encounter squats, cheap hotel rooms, brothels, conurban housing estates, fast food outlets and, most of all, streetscapes (Figures 4 – 6). The chief ‘interim’ space common to every episode is the hotel conference room where the intervention occurs. The “beige blandness” (Daniels, 110) of the conference room signals liminality in a most banal way. It is striking how similar these rooms are despite being scattered across North America (Figures 8 – 10). This sameness indicates the purpose of such rooms – as inoffensive sites through which hundreds of professionals move every year. Further, the conference room works as a waiting room for each episode’s ‘cast’. Prior to the intervention, we see the family and friends waiting for the addict and anticipating the confrontation. During the intervention, the interventionist, family and friends wait to see if the addict will move on from the liminal site of the conference room to rehab. The repeated trope in the later seasons of zooming out to show the mechanics of the show’s production prior to the intervention further highlight the temporary function of the conference room. The wide shot gives an impression of urgent assembly of production equipment which will then be hastily dismantled so that the room can be used again by conference delegates.

Figure 6.One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, an image of a fast-food restaurant sign, presumably taken from a car (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Salina and Troy” (A&E Network 2006a).

Figure 6. One of the liminal spaces common to Intervention, an image of a fast-food restaurant sign, presumably taken from a car (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Salina and Troy” (A&E Network 2006a).

Furthermore, the overarching discourse of Intervention is that of “moving on” from one’s addiction. As Daniels discusses, Intervention’s narrative hinges on the transformation of the addict from the negatively framed substance (ab)user to a healthy citizen-subject.[11] This discourse requires a focus on the addict’s life as a series of transitional experiences. The instability of addiction is emphasised in each episode’s opening scenes where we see addicts scrounging for money, usually via illicit activities, and the apparently infinite risks of scoring and then consuming their substance. As with the waiting space of the hotel conference room, these scenes position the addict’s experience as liminal. The addict is almost always on the move – their experiences are framed as transient. This is most evident in the repeated trope of the addict resisting the format of the show itself. Usually this manifests in the addict storming out of a to-camera scene, removing their microphone and running away into the street. The addicts – by warrant of their addiction – occupy a marginal subjectivity. This is compounded by the regularity of the inclusion of addicts who signify marginality within dominant discourse. Intervention, though white-dominated, as Daniels observes, offers a parade of working-class people, abuse victims, prostitutes, non-heterosexual subjects and the mentally ill. The addicts also embody an interim subjectivity – relentlessly striving for, and dreaming of, a stable, present self via the use of drugs or alcohol, while simultaneously demonstrating the impossibility of this position through a heightened instability in the form of chasing their substance and waiting for a connect.

Figure 7. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

Figure 7. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Trent” (A&E Network 2007).

The liminality of Intervention – and by implication the televisual medium – is highlighted when screencaps and gif images of the program are presented on tumblr. “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 -) tumbls screencaps from Intervention without narrative linearity. Tumblr is a microblogging platform, launched in 2007, which is mostly used to post images. Users can ‘follow’ others’ blog posts and access them through a generic ‘dashboard’ which displays blog posts chronologically. That is, all the posts from bloggers one follows are collated onto the dashboard. Tumblr also follows an “infinite scroll” format. The screen refreshes with more posts each time the user appears to reach the end of a feed. Provided the user follows a number of bloggers, the dashboard is constantly offering new images, which may have little to do with the other images displayed.

If one follows a cute puppy blog and a feminist comic blog, for example, seemingly unrelated images from both will appear sequentially – as the blogger posts – producing a discordant series of images. Users can also personalize their individual blog interface through the application of ‘themes’ which determine font, layout etc. With “Ordinary Interventions”, images are displayed two across and rarely are images from the same episode placed alongside each other. The screencaps are of varying sizes, determined by the format of the video file from which the image was taken. They are hashtagged with the name of the addict, addiction as well as #intervention and #aetv. However, and unlike most tumblr interfaces, the hashtags are not readily viewable to browsers, though they can be searched on the blog’s search function or by clicking the ‘+’ button, though this is not readily apparent. Importantly, “Ordinary Interventions” does not include images of drugs, alcohol or substance use. That is, the blogger focuses on the ordinary, liminal moments of the addict’s everyday life – the interim moments between the spectacularised (through the television program in extreme close ups and repetition) instances of substance use. “Ordinary Interventions” provides no information about the blog’s author, no text or re-blogged images.

Figure 8. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006a).

Figure 8. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Tammi and Daniel” (A&E Network 2006a).

The apparently random collation of screencaps on “Ordinary Interventions” produces liminality through its un-anchoring of ‘moments’ from Intervention in a non-linear format. The ‘capping’ of people: crying and laughing, ordinary household scenes, urban landscapes, old photographs, direct-to-cameras against a blue background and the banality of the hotel conference rooms, lack narrative coherence. This is not a “remix” like the Allison and Rocky memes where elements from Intervention are incorporated into a new narrative for comic effect. Instead, “Ordinary Interventions’” presentation of Intervention appears meaningless. In fact, tumblr users without familiarity with the program would most likely find ‘Ordinary Interventions’ impenetrable. The very act of tumbling indiscriminate screencaps from Intervention radically dislocates the transformational, solidifying narrative of the program as televisual media. There is no rehabilitation or resolution, simply an endless scroll through interim moments. Instead, Intervention mobilises affect as crucial to the flow of each episode. The representation of affective responses to addiction, both from the addict and their loved ones, generates sympathy in viewers and a desire for the protagonist to “move beyond” the liminality of addiction to the apparent solidity of rehabilitation. Recall Massumi’s and NRT theorists’ understanding of affect as more than articulated, representable and cognized emotion. Instead it refers to the intensities one experiences through the movement from “one … state … to another” (Massumi 2007, xvi), hence the program’s liminality. Thus, while the affect gestured towards in the program may provoke an emotional response in viewers, affect is not synonymous with emotion. However, the subject’s containment of affect within language – through the 12-step process of ‘admitting’ a problem and containing affective responses within a pathologised discourse of “emotional trauma” – gestures yet again towards the inclination to pin down the instability of everyday life experiences.

 Figure 9. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Nichole” (A&E Network 2012).

Figure 9. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Nichole” (A&E Network 2012).

Affect is most evident in the liminal moments of the program. In fact, Rocky’s “Best Cry Ever” clearly demonstrates the more-than-ness of the experience of addiction and, accordingly, how affect is mobilized in Intervention. His cry is wordless, high-pitched and completely embodied. He shudders as he emits it from deep in his body. This moment, of what Dolar (2007) might call “voice” demonstrates the inadequacy of language for representing embodied experience.[12] Further, Rocky’s cry demonstrates affect’s own liminality. The moment occurs in the interim space of the intervention in a hotel conference room. Moreover, as Dolar writes, screams demonstrate the pre-cognitive “penultimate stage” (69) prior to the subject’s interpellation within representational structures.[13] Alongside affective moments, such as Rocky’s scream during the intervention, the program dwells on addicts’ repeated insistence that they are “without words” and that their subjectivity – bound to their addiction – is beyond representation. For example, addicts say: “wow I can’t even talk right now” (A&E Network 2010d), “it’s like having an orgasm; you can’t just describe it” (A&E Network 2010e), and “it’s kind of hard … that feeling you get” (A&E Network 2011).

Figure 10. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Greg” (A&E Network 2009b).

Figure 10. The hotel room, the site of the intervention, is ubiquitous and similar across episodes of Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ). The episode from which this is screencapped is “Greg” (A&E Network 2009b).

The intermedial presentation of Intervention’s representations of affective intensity on tumblr generates an affective response from tumblr users. Such responses can be understood as yet another variation of the “dream of presence”. The affective engagement with the program – generated through tumbling and commenting – foregrounds the impossibility of understanding either the program content, or the medium, as singular, discrete and, most importantly, representational.

“Fuck Yes Intervention” (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011 – ) is a tumblr, which presents screencaps alongside gifs from Intervention. Unlike “Ordinary Interventions”, the interface offers clear hashtags and information about the blogger, who is a drug addict.[14] “Fuck Yes Intervention” also encourages interaction from tumblr users. Followers of the blog can comment, ask the blogger questions and request that particular episodes be screencapped or giffed. “Fuck Yes Intervention” presents affective moments from the program that then generates discussion of viewers’ affective responses to Intervention. For example, responding to a screencap of crystal-meth addict, Cristy (A&E Network 2006c), radhabits writes: “i cried the first time i watched this episode, and every time I watch intervention” [sic] (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011a). Another Cristy post (Fuck Yes Intervention, 2011b) – this time showing Cristy’s experience of being high as she dances around her bedroom – prompted unintelligible responses from other users, unable to represent linguistically “what they just watched”:

dynomitemedley: uhhhhhh

luxuryintherough: what. the. fuck. did. I. just. watch???? luxuryintherough

zombiecupcake: I DON’T KNOW (ibid.).

Rather than the apparently straightforward governmental meaning of Intervention as a lesson in how not to be a good, healthy, citizen, the users of “Fuck Yes Intervention” present multiple, affective responses to the screencaps and gifs on the blog.

“Ordinary Interventions” also focuses on affective moments from Intervention. There are numerous images of addicts, family-members and friends in the liminal space of embodied intensity. Furthermore, the tumblr’s screencaps of the inter-titles and subtitles common to every episode undercut the apparent authority and hegemony of textuality not only in the program, but more broadly, in representational understandings of reality television. Intervention uses inter-titles to elaborate on the addict’s back-story as well as to present facts about addiction. Subtitles are used when the speech onscreen is inaudible. The haphazard insertion of text-based screencaps beside images of Intervention’s overwrought subjects produces a dislocation of language and image, which draws attention to the inadequacy of representational structures for expressing embodied experience. More importantly, the blog’s bricolage of images and text foregrounds the illusory claim of reality television forms to signifying authority. The affect – isolated in the screencaps of “Ordinary Intervention” – overwhelms pretentions to representational solidity. Writing on captioned visual art, Bennett indicates that rather than the printed words operating as a Barthesian anchor for the image they “run relentlessly unable to flow through the normal communication channels … register[ing] as pure intensity: affect characterised by … lack of attachment, disarticulated from motives” (442). “Ordinary Interventions” enacts this affective disarticulation in sequences, which themselves are sense-less. For example, an image of a woman laughing to camera is followed by an inter-title stating: “Coley has been collecting burl for the past three months. He has never sold any” (Figure 10). Next is a screencap of a woman petting a puppy on a mattress, then a middle-aged woman sitting in front of giant rosary beads, and so on. As Pethő points out in relation to cinema, the potential of intermediality to break up and dislocate signifying systems through a foregrounding of the disjunction between speech and image not only rejects a fixity of meaning for the content represented, but also the media form ‘doing’ the representing (61).

Figure 11.“Ordinary Interventions” offers a bricolage of disarticulated screencaps from Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ).

Figure 11.“Ordinary Interventions” offers a bricolage of disarticulated screencaps from Intervention (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ).

The presentation of the processual nature of addiction in Intervention resonates with intermedial understandings of media forms as mutable, changing and striving towards coherence, though never reaching it. The premise of the program, as discussed above, is a transformative ‘journey’ from addiction to rehabilitation. Using pop-psychological platitudes common to therapy culture, interventionists Finnigan and Van Vonderen encourage the addicts’ families to “process” the intervention and “work through” their own neuroses (often via a the “Betty Ford Family Program”) as a means of overcoming the co-dependency of their relationship with the addict. For example, in season 8, Van Vonderen tells the family before the intervention: “recovery is not a sudden landing. It’s a long journey” (A&E Network 2010a). In a later episode, Finnigan tells crack addict Vinnie’s family that addiction is “a progressive, terminal disease … nothing changes, if nothing changes” (A&E Network 2010b).

Despite its emphasis on process, Intervention rarely offers a straightforward transformation of either the addict or their loved ones. By frustrating deterministic narratives of self-improvement the show highlights both the desire for wholeness and progress, as well as its futility. This is clearly demonstrated in the closing inter-titles which regularly inform viewers that the addict “left treatment” before the proscribed ninety days, has “relapsed”, or simply refused to continue treatment and be “rehabilitated”. Over thirteen seasons, viewers, addicts and their families and friends repeat a desire for wholeness and wellbeing, which can never be achieved. The viewer who tunes in weekly finds pleasure in both the desire for narrative neatness, coupled with knowledge of the trajectory’s likely failure.

It is in its intermedial form on tumblr, presentations of Intervention demonstrate the processuality of intermedial transposition. We can understand the screencaps of “Ordinary Interventions” as foregrounding process, but like the content of the program itself, repeatedly failing. “Ordinary Interventions” presents a radical asynchronicity in its infinitely scrolling, random presentation of Intervention screencaps. It repeatedly interpellates users to “make sense” of the images while always undermining this through the random order in which the images appear. “Ordinary Intervention” does use tags, which could ostensibly sort the images. However, these tags are haphazard. Addicts have multiple addictions or their name or addiction is incorrectly tagged, and images of non-addict family members will often also be tagged with the substance name. Users remain stymied in their search for narrative clarity. This failure of comprehension highlights the processual nature of cognition and foregrounds our initial affective responses as unable to “fit” the signifying structures assumed by media forms.

The processual reconfiguation of Intervention via “Ordinary Interventions” is also reflexive. The blog draws attention to how affect is produced within the medium of television via its re-presentation on tumblr. It is therefore intermedial in the sense that it is concerned with the emergence of both Intervention the program and reality television more broadly. Rather than being presented with a one-way – or even dialogic – communication from media to consumer, “Ordinary Interventions” in the asynchronicity of its mediality is a porous “dream of presence”.[15] As “Ordinary Interventions” lacks clear narrative conventions, it fails to communicate a coherent explication of addiction. Instead, its interface generates a repeated experience of striving for and inclining towards present-ness. Even more than the repeated failures depicted in its televisual form, the transposition of Intervention through “Ordinary Interventions” will never offer resolution. When the medium migrates it is “reconfigured” (Bennett, 448) by its presentation in a new medium’s interface. The screencaps of addicts, their loved ones and the interventionists – for lack of a dialogic reverse-shot – seep into one another to potentially produce multiple, contradictory, affective responses which make any clear articulation in language difficult. The apparently random sequences of images resist the sequential reading to which televisual content lays claim.


In closing, I wish to briefly describe one of the most recent screencaps posted on “Ordinary Interventions” (Figure 11). It shows a black screen with a white blur. The blogger has clearly screencapped the interim moment between the affective enaction of the addict’s ‘process’ to intervention and the insertion of an explanatory title card. The hashtags are general (#substanceabuse; #addiction #intervention etc.) – they do not indicate the episode. The one unique, though perhaps predictably inadequate, hashtag is #blackscreen. The screencaps around it show a tattooed woman in profile, a hand reaching for an hors d’ouevre, and a close up of a woman crying. This image: #blackscreen, perhaps best embodies the intermediality of Intervention as transposed through tumblr. It is a representation of liminality, a captured microsecond in-between narration. Its position in relation to the affect-steeped screencaps around it foregrounds affect and refuses clear signification. Its lack of communication, despite gesturing towards textuality (it is obviously a fade from text to black), demonstrates processuality.

Figure 12.Recent posts on “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 - ).

Figure 12.Recent posts on “Ordinary Interventions” (ordinary intervention, 2012 – ).

This discussion of intermediality in relation to reality television and microblogging demonstrates the usefulness of intermedial frameworks for analysing and destabilizing popular cultural texts and media. Further, I want to suggest that the application of intermedial theory to Intervention’s televisual and tumbld manifestations could fruitfully be expanded through reference to NRT understandings of Derridean “dreams of presence”.






A&E Network. 2013a. “All Shows” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013.

A&E Network. 2013b. “Intervention: About the Show” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013.

A&E Network. 2013c. “Intervention: Meet the Interventionists” A&E. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Anderson, Ben and Paul Harrison. eds, 2010. Taking Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography. Farnham: Ashgate.

Barker, Jennifer M. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bennett, Jill. 2007. “Aesthetics of Intermediality.” Art History 30 (3): 432-450.

Tony Bennett and others, eds, 1981. Popular Televisions and Film. London: BFI Publishing in association with the Open University Press,

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Daniels, Jessie. 2012. “Intervention: Reality TV, Whiteness, and Narratives of Addiction.” Advances in Medical Sociology 14: 103-125.

The Davenports. 2000. “5 Steps.” Speaking of the Davenports. New York, NY: Mother West.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Don. 2013. “Walking on Sunshine” Know Your Meme. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Dolar, Mladen. 2007. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 2011 – . “Fuck Yes Intervention,” tumblr. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 25 August 2011a. “Cristy Intervention Vodka Bed,” tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 31 August 2011b. “Cristy,” tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013.

Fuck Yes Intervention. 27 May 2013. “Submissions?”, tumblr. Accessed: December 10, 2013.

Idah, Oriekose. 2013. “Viewer-Patient Confidentiality: Commodification of Illness in Contemporary U.S. Medical Reality TV.” Intersect 60 (2). Accessed November 7, 2013.

Kosovski, Jason R. and Douglas C. Smith. 2011. “Everybody Hurts: Addiction, Drama, and the Family in the Reality Television Show Intervention.” Substance Use and Misuse 46: 852-858.

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. “Word dialogue, and the novel.” In The Kristeva reader, edited by Toril Moi, 79-106. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Massumi, Brian. 1992. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Massumi, Brian. (1987) 2007. “Pleasures of Philosophy.” In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri. Translated by Brian Massumi, ix-xix. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ordinary intervention. 2012 – . “Ordinary Interventions.” tumblr. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Paech, Joachim. 2000. “ESF ‘Changing Media in Changing Europe’.” Paper presented at Artwork – Text – Medium: Steps en Route to Intermediality, Paris, May 26 – 28.

Pethő.“Ágnes. 2010. Intermediality in Film: A Historiography of Methodologies.” Film and Media Studies 2: 39-72.

Pethő, Ágnes. 2011. “Reading the Intermedial: Abysmal Mediality and Trans-Figuration in the Cinema.” In Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between, 55-94. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Rajewsky, Irina O. 2005. “Intermediality, Intertextuality and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality.” History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 6: 43-64.

Rose, Mitch. 2002. “Landscapes and Labyrinths.” Geoforum 33: 455-467.

Rose, Mitch. 2006. “Gathering ‘dreams of presence’: a project for the cultural landscape.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 537-554.

Rossiter, Ned. 2003. “Processual Media Theory.” symploke 11.1-2: 104-131.

Steez. 2010. “Best Cry Ever.” Know Your Meme. Accessed: December 10, 2013.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space|Politics|Affect. Milton Park: Routledge.


Moving Image Works Cited

A&E Network. January 8, 2006a. “Salina and Troy”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 5.

A&E Network. July 23rd 2006b. “Tammi and Daniel”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 14.

A&E Network. August 20, 2006c. “Cristy”. Intervention. Season 2, episode 18.

A&E Network. April 20 2007. “Trent”. Season 3, episode 5.

A&E Network. August 18, 2008. “Allison”. Intervention. Season 5, episode 9.

A&E Network. November 23rd 2009a. “Linda”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 1.

A&E Network. December 7, 2009b. “Greg”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 2.

A&E Network. January 4, 2010a. “Sarah”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 6.

A&E Network. January 18, 2010b. “Vinnie”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 8.

A&E Network. April 5, 2010c. “Rocky”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 14.

A&E Network. April 12, 2010d. “Ashley”. Intervention. Season 8, episode 15.

A&E Network. August 23, 2010e. “Ryan / Jason”. Intervention. Season 9, episode 9.

A&E Network. January 3, 2011. “Erin”. Intervention. Season 10, episode 4.

A&E Network. August 13, 2012. “Nichole”. Intervention. Season 13, episode 1.

Comedy Central. April 28, 2010. “Crippled Summer”. South Park. Season 14, episode 7.

Phillips, Todd. The Hangover Part III. 2013.

TLC. Addicted. 2010.

VH1. Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. 2008-2012.


[1] Rajewsky also discusses the difference between Kristeva’s framework of intertextuality and intermediality (Rajewsky 2005, 48). See also, Julia Kristeva (1986).

[2] Other scholars have looked at the potential for an affective becoming through the application of an intermedial methodology to understanding cinematic texts. Barker, for example, suggests that the interaction between viewer and film is one of emergence, rather than consumption. Bennett deviates from studies of cinematic intermediality in her work on visual arts that incorporate or gesture towards the moving image. However, she is also emphatic that intermediality is processual, liminal and more-than representational.

[3] See also, Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011). Berlant argues that it is the desire and striving for an end, which we know will always already fail, which is seductive.

[4] Pethő also discusses this: “we can always tell for example when a piece of prose writing or poetry in literature is unfolding like ‘moving images’, we recognize the characteristics of cinematic ‘framing’ or ‘montage’ whenever it is reflected in any other medium” (2010, 66).

[5] Examples of recent and current reality programs on A&E include Hoarders, Duck Dynasty, Rodeo Girls and Storage Wars (A&E Network 2013a).

[6] Says the website’s copy: “Each episode follows addicts through their daily life and the devastation their dependency has brought to their family and friends. Upon reaching the brink, their loved ones stage a surprise intervention conducted by one of four specialists” (A&E Network 2013b).

[7] The ‘recovered’ status of Van Vonderen and Finnigan also built the program’s claim to authenticity. Both interventionists regularly mentioned their own “struggles with addiction” in episodes and the profiles of Van Vonderen and Finnigan on Intervention’s website foreground this aspect of their history (A&E Network 2013c).

[8] A summary of the variations on the Allison meme are available on Know Your Meme (Don 2013). The “Walking on Sunshine” motif gained further status when it was included in an episode of South Park (Comedy Central 2010).

[9] A summary of the variations on the Rocky meme are available on Know Your Meme (Steez 2010).

[10] Daniels argues that white addicts in Intervention are moralized. Firstly – as addicted – they are framed as ‘failures’ in terms of their performance of normative whiteness. If the addict accepts the offer of rehabilitation, however, they are positioned as redeemed and “deserving” (2012, 114).

[11] This is also reflected in the lyrics to the program’s closing theme song. The lyrics include: “No reprimand / Deliberate, demand / With your two feet at hand / Get back / This train’s a comin’ down the track / Five steps you’re over” (The Davenports 2000). These lyrics presumably gesture towards the “Five Major Steps to Intervention”.

[12] Rocky’s cry is also reproduced in The Hangover 3 where the emphasis lies on the affective aurality of his cry (Phillips 2013).

[13] Here, and throughout the book, Dolar draws on Lacanian psychonanalysis.

[14] The blogger writes: “i don’t know if i have ever mentioned this on here but i am also an addict” [sic] (Fuck Yes Intervention 2013).

[15] See Bennett: intermedial gesture is a “tension … that it expresses … the experience of ‘being in’ an interaction – rather than … articulated communication” (2007, 441).



Rosemary Overell completed a PhD on extreme metal music at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After teaching in Melbourne, she moved to the University of Otago, New Zealand, to take up a lecturer position in the Department of Media, Film and Communication. Currently, she is researching how nikkeijin (Japanese-Brazilians working in Japan) relate to Japanese national space through their experiences in extreme metal music. Her book, Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes: Cases from Australia and Japan was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Editorial: Intermediations — Kevin Fisher & Holly Randell-Moon

This special issue developed out the Intermediations symposium held at the University of Otago on May 31, 2013,[1] and on the invitation of keynote speaker and Refractory Editor, Angela Ndalianis. Presenters at this symposium who have contributed essays here include Kirsten Moana Thomson (the other keynote speaker), John Farnsworth, Kevin Fisher, and Miriam Ross. Topics at the symposium ranged across the terrain of intermedia and transmedia theory, provoking new lines of inquiry on both fronts, and drawing into question the complex relationships between the two emerging paradigms. It is from the extended conversations during and following the symposium that the issue expanded to include essays by Anne Cranny Francis, Rosemary Overell, and Holly Randell-Moon. Some of these essays directly engage the intermedia/transmedia relationship. Kirsten Moana Thompson explores the affinities between animation and more ephemeral forms of theatrical exhibition at Disney theme parks in terms of the sensual dimensions of colour. Rosemary Overell considers the affective intermedial dimensions of the reception and blogging practices surrounding the rehab-based reality TV show Intervention (A&E Network, 2005-2013). Anne Cranny Francis analyses the development of the Sherlock Holmes story world within the convergence culture of transmedia.

Other essays, while working more decisively on one side of the inter/trans spectrum, challenge or expand upon existing approaches in ways that suggest new dialogues. Miriam Ross’s essay investigates sociotechnical debates around vertical framing that issue from the convergence of video and cell phone technologies, and explores their implications within her own media practices. John Farnsworth combines psychological theories of ‘attachment’ with affect studies to suggest how mobile devices simultaneously augment and substitute for social relations. Kevin Fisher describes how the use of 3D imagery in the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) stages the intermedial encounter between a human and pre-human consciousness. Holly Randell-Moon analyses how allusions to civil rights advocacy and debate in True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014) work in the service of the biopolitical management of difference under the aegis of transmedia consumer participation. Together, the essays constitute a critical inquiry into the emergence of inter- and transmedia in the disciplines of media, cultural and film studies and how these terms both illustrate and re-ignite sociotechnical forces and debates in digital media and convergence culture. In the following section, we offer a brief genealogy of inter/trans media analysis, focusing specifically on the terms’ phenomenological and ideological valences in scholarly reception and utility.

In between and among: a brief tracing of inter/trans media analysis

Over the past two decades academic discussions of intermediality and transmediation have undergone a parallel development within the context of what Henry Jenkins describes as digital convergence culture. However, the exponents of each have, with few exceptions, tended to talk past one another. This is paradoxical insofar as the phenomena they respectively describe are often intertwined in the media examples they differently engage. While transmedia analysis has been primarily concerned with the distribution of narrative across media platforms, intermedial analysis has interrogated the internal singularity and ‘specificity’ of those same medialities. The experience of transmediation involves the participation of interpretive communities in the co-creation of stories and the enactment of story worlds. By contrast, intermedial experience unfolds within the heterogeneous spaces generated along the various intersections of medial forms and traces within a given medium.

The subject of transmedia combines the active viewer of cultural studies and the social media user within an expanded understanding of narrative as an irreducible component of human experience, cognition and social activity. This anthropological notion of homo narrativus is shared by the academic methods of transmedia analysis as well as creative methods of transmedia storytelling co-emergent with commercial practices such as viral marketing. Scholarly interest in this ‘new’ form of storytelling can be traced to Alvin Toffler’s development of the term ‘prosumer’, coined to describe a shift in audience and consumer activity that was more self-directed, individualised and selective than the traditional mass media model of consumption and production (1980). Following on from this work, Axel Bruns (2008) and Henry Jenkins (2006) have explored how the ‘produser’ repositions the production and communication flows of media content from media companies and creators to the consumer/user. As Jenkins explains, “Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates consumption” (2003) and “A good transmedia franchise attracts a wider audience by pitching the content differently in the different media” (2003). Audiences can read media texts with an awareness of their transmedial dimensions or they can consume different media forms in isolation whilst still being interpellated into a broader transmedia story. Jenkins’ development of transmedia is thus an attempt to capture the new specificities of medial engagement that have emerged from digital convergence and new media formats. He identifies a number of transmedia modes of communication which include: transmedia storytelling, transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle (2011). [2]

There are two important implications to be drawn from this type of cross-media communication. The first is that transmedia forms of communication require an explicit appreciation of the intertextual (though not necessarily intermedial) elements of storytelling on the part of media producers. The second is that this type of media storytelling and communication recognises the social character of narrative and textual construction. Writing about transmedia fan activity, Jenkins speaks of “a new kind of cultural power emerging as fans bond together within larger communities, pool their information, shape each other’s opinions, and develop a greater self-consciousness about their shared agendas and common interests” (2007, 362-363). Kaarina Nikunen also suggests that fan activities reveal “the institutional and technological spaces of shaping the pleasures of media” which also “possibly reshape […] audience practises more widely” (2007, 111). What this type of media engagement does is shift political and ideological discussion of audiences’ (pleasurable and social) involvement in meaning making from the passive/active consumer debate to questions of the audience’s role in the economy of media production and consumption.

It is this seeming incorporation of fan and audience desire into the narratives of media production that has generated scepticism about the extent to which produsage challenges or subverts existing media structures. S. Elizabeth Bird for example, points out that “True produsers are a reality, but they are not the norm, and can often seem to be so in thrall to big media and technological ‘coolness’ that they accept the disciplining of their creative activities” (2011, 512). Indeed, the end goal of transmedia branding according to social media marketer Rick Liebling is “creating an environment that is so authentic and compelling that when consumers do generate their own content that utilizes your brand, they do so in a way that is in line with your existing messaging” (2011; emphasis in original). For this reason, fan activity as a form of produsage qua consumer action (or more idealistically, resistance) may also be understood as “a form of market-sanctioned cultural experimentation through which the market rejuvenates itself” (Holt, as cited in Kline 2009, 32). The critical distance between a marketing approach to transmedia activity and a more scholarly one is the extent to which audience activity can instantiate resistance or subversion to existing media and communication hierarchies. Indeed, such concerns as they relate to media’s enmeshment in other political institutions specifically inform Randell-Moon’s essay in this issue.

One of the more salient critiques of transmedia analysis is that medial specificity is subsumed within the overall importance of the story, even if as Jenkins argues, transmedia storytelling relies neither on the continuity nor homogeneity of its narrative. Still, according to Jenkins, “Most discussions of transmedia place a high emphasis on continuity—assuming that transmedia requires a high level of coordination and creative control and that all of the pieces have to cohere into a consistent narrative or world” (2011). For Ndalianis it is the “holes” within transmedia stories that create opportunities for audience co-creation and performance, and that these types of co-creation are among the most successful examples of transmedia campaigns (2012, 174). Yet, even with its emphasis on the cross-media processes of audience engagement, transmedia still implies a substrate of medial relations where there is an experiential sameness across platforms. As Bernd Herzogenrath notes, the transmedial version of intermediality “is built on the concept that there are formal structures (such as narrative structures) that are not specific to one medium but can be found (perhaps differently instantiated) in different media” (2012, 4). Consequently, transmedia analysis “has the problem that ‘media specificity’ cannot be conceptualized within it” (4). By contrast, the issue of media specificity takes centre stage in Francesco Casetti’s analysis of the “relocation of cinema” as medial form beyond its traditional substrate (2011), which also animates Ross’s examination of the convergence of video and mobile telephony in this issue. This centrifugal thrust of intermedial analysis against the internal coherence and specificity of medialities within what Rosalind Krauss terms “the post medium condition” (1999) provides a counterpoint to the centripetal force of narrative implied in Jenkins’ convergence culture.

In this issue, Cranny-Francis traces the term intermediality back to Roland Barthes, where he appeals to the interdisciplinarity required by new cultural objects that defy prevailing codes and classifications. She argues that intertextuality, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense of “heteroglossia”, provides the methodological link between intermedial and transmedial analysis. Transmedia storytelling is, in important ways, an inherently intermedial phenomenon because it depends on and generates engagement with media texts as multiple and heterogeneous. The forms of reading and engagement across transmedia stories, as outlined by Jenkins, have similarities with intermedia defined by Herzogenrath as “between the between” (2012, 2) in the sense that “we can only refer to media using other media” (3). In relation to what Cranny-Francis describes as a process of endless intertextual deferral, Herzongenrath observes: “Individual media do not exist in isolation, to be suddenly taken into intermedial relations. Intermediality is rather the ontological condition sine qua non, which is always before ‘pure’ and specific media, which have to be extracted from the arch-intermediality” (4). The intermedial thus constitutes “the quicksand out of which specific media emerge” as well as “the various interconnections” made possible between the audience and different types of media (3).

Other contemporary theorists, such as Ágnes Pethő (2011) and Joachim Paech (2011), insist that intermediality is altogether distinct from intertextuality, which reproduces the privileging of narrative characteristic of transmedia, conflating relations between stories with intersections between medialities. Pethő, for example, describes intermedial experience as extra-narrative, extra-representational, and a-signifying. Hence, “it cannot be read” (2011, 67). Rather, as an encounter with the ‘in-between’ generated along the interstices of different medial forms and traces, intermediality makes itself felt on the prereflective level of embodied sensation. Hence, for Pethő, and contributors Moana-Thomson as well as Fisher, intermediality is an irreducibly phenomenological experience. Other essays, such as those by Farnsworth and Overell draw upon affect studies and non-representational theory to approach the embodied aspects of intermediality that escape both medium-specific and hermeneutic containment of media texts. For example, Farnsworth explores the affective and psychoanalytical dimensions of attachment as a constituent feature of embodiment and sociality that become augmented or constrained through mobile technologies.

However, the emphasis of the intermedial on embodiment and affect over interpretation has also informed some strains of transmedia theory, in particular Ndalianis’ work on transmedia horror as predicated on affective participation in a particular “sensorium” (2012). The focus of intermedial analysis on the heterogeneous spaces and experiences between medialities also complements the methodological and historiographical projects of media archaeology (Elsaesser 2005, 2009; Huhtamo and Parikka 2011; Parikka 2012) and remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999). Paech, for example, echoes Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s logic of remediation by arguing that film has always been intermedial, though its experience as such becomes more pronounced or “hypermediated” during historical periods characterised by intensified sociotechnical change (1999). At this moment in time, renewed interest in medial co-creation is heightened by the shifting economies of convergence culture and the post-medium environment, in whose context the paradigms of intermedial and transmedial analysis will continue to be subject to the same exchanges and mutations as the medialities they describe. Such mutations occur, we would argue, as intermediations between audience, text, screen and body as a constitutive feature of medial meaning and sensation.

In this issue, we offer some intermediations on the changing dynamics of mediality in relation to embodiment, media specificity, and audience participation in and performance of textuality. We hope you enjoy reading the essays.



Bird, Elizabeth S. 2011. “Are We All Produsers Now? Convergence and Media Audience Practices.” Cultural Studies 25 (4-5): 502-516.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media.Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bruns, Alex. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Casetti, Francesco. 2011. “Back to the Motherland: The Film Theatre in the Postmedia Age.” Screen 52 (1): 1-12.

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2005. “The New Film History as Media Archaeology.” Cinemas 14 (2-3 Spring): 75-117.

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2009. “Archaeologies of Interactivity: Early Cinema, Narrative and Spectatorship.” In Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture, edited by Klaus Kreimeier and Annemone Ligensa, 9-22. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Herzogenrath, Bernd. 2012. “Travels in Intermedia[lity]: An Introduction.” In Travels in Intermedia[lity]: ReBlurring the Boundaries, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath: 1-14. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press.

Huhtamo, Erkki and Jussi Parikka, editors. 2011. Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2003. “Transmedia Storytelling.” Technology Review, January 15. Accessed June 28, 2014.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2007. “Afterword: the future of fandom.” In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington, 357-364. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2011. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, August 1. Accessed April 28, 2014.

Kline, Stephen. 2009. “Ronald’s New Dance: A Case Study of Corporate Rebranding in the Age of Integrated Communication.” In The Advertising Handbook (3rd edition), edited by Helen Powell, Jonathan Hardy, Sarah Hawkin and Iain MacRury, 24-33. London: Routledge.

Krauss, Rosalind. 1999. “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Liebling, Rick. 2011. “Intermedia—The Next Phase in Consumer Engagement.” How Soon is Now?: Culture in a 24/7 World, September 11. Accessed April 28, 2014.

Ndalianis, Angela. 2012. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing.

Nikunen, Kaarina. 2007. “The Intermedial Practises of Fandom.” Nordicom Review 28 (2): 111-128.

Paech, Joachim. 2011. “The Intermediality of Film.” Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 4: 7-21. Accessed May 7, 2014.

Parikka, Jussi. 2012. What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Pethő, Ágnes. 2011. Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Toffler, Alvin. 1980. The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books.



Ball, Alan. True Blood. 2008-2014. USA: HBO.

Herzog, Werner. 2010. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. USA: Sundance Selects.

Mettler, Sam. Intervention.2005-2013. USA: A&E Network.



[1] The “Intermediations” Symposium was organised by Catherine Fowler and Paul Ramaeker in conjunction with the Screen Cultures Research Group and the Department of Media, Film and Communication at the University of Otago.

[2] Of these types of transmedia communication, transmedia storytelling and branding appear to have captured scholarly and popular interest above the other significant and no less interesting forms of transmedia identified by Jenkins.

Volume 23, 2014

Themed Issue: Transmedia Horror

Edited by Jessica Balanzategui & Naja Later



1. The Comfort and Disquiet of Transmedia Horror in Higurashi: When They Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) – Brian Ruh

2. Jodi Arias in the Public Sphere: Rhetorics of Horror and the Monstrous Feminine – Elizabeth Lowry

3. Candid Cameras: Transmedia Haunting and the Paranormal Activity Franchise – Janani Subramanian

4. Everything in this World is Artificial:  Media Contagion, Theme Parks and the Ring Franchise – Jessica Balanzategui

5. Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: Crossing Boundaries of Genre, Media, Self and Other in New Supernatural Worlds – Leigh M. McLennon

6. Sinister Celluloid in the Age of Instagram – Marc Olivier

7. Who is the Slender Man? – Naja Later

8. Trafficking in the Zombie:  The CDC Zombie Apocalypse Campaign, Diseaseability and Pandemic Culture Neil Gerlach & Sheryl N. Hamilton

Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: Crossing Boundaries of Genre, Media, Self and Other in New Supernatural Worlds – Leigh M. McLennon

Fig.1 “Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series is one of the pioneering fiction series of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.”

Figure 1. Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series is one of the pioneering fiction series of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

The Emergence of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy

Although it emerged only in the 1990s, the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genre now exerts a powerful influence on representations of monsters and the supernatural in popular culture.  Over the last 25 years or so, urban fantasy and paranormal romance (hereafter abbreviated as UF/PR) has developed into a new, easily recognisable genre formula: sympathetic vampires (and/or other monsters) join magic-wielding (often leather-clad) heroines to solve mysteries and/or consummate transgressive romances. This genre is now prevalent not only in popular fiction, but in broader popular culture including television, film, comics, RPG, and pop culture and scifi conventions.

Academics, members of the publishing industry and readers alike have noted the prevalence and the commercial success of this new genre. For example, Angela Ndalianis suggests in The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses that “paranormal romance erupted as a runaway success in the 1990s.”[1] And in the years since 2000, UF/PR has continued to rise meteorically in popularity. In “P is for Paranormal – Still,” Lucinda Dyer of Publisher’s Weekly professed in 2010 that “Paranormal is le dernier cri in the romance category—its hold on readers and publishers alike defies any logic or explanation. In its first year it was a phase, then it became a definite trend. Now, it’s a sea change, with no evidence that the tide’s waning.”[2] And book critic and online reviewer Paul Goat Allen has argued that “the last ten years, specifically, in genre fiction have been nothing short of landscape-changing,” suggesting that from 2000 to the present time constitutes “a glorious Golden Age of paranormal fantasy.”[3] Further data from the publishing industry and online reviewers and fans clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the strong impact this new genre on the popular fiction industry and its consumers. [4]

Yet UF/PR remains surprisingly under-appreciated as a coherent body of genre texts. The primary difficulty in studying UF/PR as a genre is that although UF/PR has developed its own set of recognisable genre conventions (including character types, literary motifs and specific themes), these conventions have not been adequately defined or outlined critically. Pop culture industries have proliferated and even parodied[5] a successful genre formula, yet confusion remains for both fans and academics over distinctions between genre labels, distinctions between genres and sub-genres, and consequently over the inclusion or exclusion of particular texts as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, or something else altogether.

Critical confusion over the parameters of UF/PR is suggested by an over-abundance of new genre labels: should we properly label this genre “urban fantasy,” “dark fantasy,” “paranormal romance,” “paranormal thriller,” or “paranormal procedural”? An online search for genre labels such as “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” reveals a plethora of author- and fan-based blogs and websites debating the merits and niceties of using each genre categorisation. As Lenny Picker notes in Publisher’s Weekly, developing “a universally accepted definition of the boundaries of paranormal fiction” is a serious challenge. Picker further laments that “there’s just nothing even remotely resembling a consensus, even among some of the top authors with works included in the genre.”[6] Picker here highlights that it is difficult to define the limits of what is included as UF/PR, even for those who write this fiction. Critical analyses similarly have not reached  a clear consensus on how this genre is to be labelled and defined.

The relationship between UF/PR and other popular genres of fiction is also unclear. In Fang-tastic Fiction, Patricia O’Brien Matthews suggests there is also a critical confusion over how this newly-emerged genre relates to other, pre-existing categories of genre. O’Brien Matthews observes, “whether you search online, at a bookstore, or in a library, you will find no consensus as to where paranormal fiction titles are shelved.”[7] Angela Ndalianis similarly observes that “anyone can now walk into a bookshop” and find paranormal titles “in their very own paranormal romance section, but also under romance, horror, science fiction and fantasy, and crime – all in one store!”[8] If UF/PR is shelved in multiple sections in libraries and bookstores, do we understand this fiction as a genre, a subgenre, or a hybrid genre?

Given the newness of UF/PR and these confusions over what UF/PR itself actually constitutes (or is constituted by), it is unsurprising that to date few critics have provided a truly comprehensive and clear history of this genre. But (as will be discussed below) when critics analyse individual UF/PR texts, unless framed by a history of the genre, their analyses too often remain disconnected from significant intertextual and pop-cultural influences. Such intertextual influences extend across different forms in different media (for example, from novel to film, or novel to television). But studies of UF/PR in one textual medium do not often expand their inquiry to transmedia adaptations and iterations. Consequently, they do not recognise which conventions of this genre are transmedia; nor how different media formats may actually influence the conventions and content of UF/PR. The result is a general critical failure to recognise or analyse the significant textual influences of generic hybridity and transmedia formats in UF/PR. Critics subsequently fail to address how individual UF/PR texts operate as iterations that both uphold and subvert the strictures of genre. It is thus difficult to analyse the broader significance of how this popular genre trend is both inflected by and used to explore our own contemporary culture.

A broader history of urban fantasy and paranormal romance is needed. This article aims to provide a definition and history of UF/PR. In doing so, it will provide a platform from which we can better analyse and understand how individual UF/PR texts may generate and contest this genre’s formal and thematic boundaries. With this in mind, my definition of urban fantasy seeks to be specific, delimiting some of the key parameters and conventions of UF/PR, while also being inclusive, allowing for alternative approaches, histories and readings.  First, this article will establish a methodological framework for its genre study of UF/PR. Next, the article will critique several extant approaches to this genre. It will then offer my own original and complementary genre history and definition. Most significantly, this article argues UF/PR is defined in part by generic hybridity. It further argues that UF/PR is both formally and thematically concerned with destabilising boundaries – boundaries of genre, of media, of self and the monstrous Other.  Finally, the article will conclude that understanding how UF/PR transgresses the boundaries of both genre and media is crucial to understanding its current popularity and commercial success.

Genre Theory: A Methodological Framework for Defining A Genre

Before offering a history and definition of UF/PR, it is useful to critically summarise how this genre has previously been defined by academics, the publishing industry, and the fans who consume UF/PR texts. Critically assessing competing genre histories of UF/PR will better position this article to suggest a more comprehensive definition and history below. As Altman suggests, the work of the genre theorist is “to adjudicate among conflicting approaches, not so much by dismissing unsatisfactory positions, but by constructing a model which reveals the relationship between differing critical claims and their function within a broader cultural context.”[9] By critically assessing extant definitions of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, this article is better positioned to reveal and consequently provide evidence to confirm or dispute the conventions of this genre that have been heretofore proposed.

Considering previous genre definitions and histories of UF/PR also highlights (and better positions this article to avoid) two key problems prevalent in performing any genre study. First, there is a problematic critical tendency to view genre as existing in a perfect form at a fixed point in time. Altman suggests these critical problems stem from a traditional, “synchronic” approach to genre theory: “Genres were always – and continue to be – treated as if they spring full-blown from the head of Zeus.” They are analysed, Altman continues, as though they are “fundamentally ahistorical in nature,” existing in an abstract, perfect form that he likens to “platonic categories.”[10] Without an ideal model for a genre, it is difficult to decide whether individual texts uphold or subvert generic conventions. And yet such models are misleading because they suggest the structures of any given genre are “ahistorical” and static.

Second, there is a problematic critical tendency to construct genre history as an inevitable and linear development of what will become a fixed set of conventions. In contrast, Altman suggests that a diachronic approach to genre history ought to focus instead on “on chronicling the development, deployment, and disappearance of this same structure” of genre.[11] In other words, genre history should suggest that what may seem at a particular point in time to be a fixed generic structure is always a dynamic interplay of conventions. As Altman writes in Film/Genre, genre is not a static state but a “process of genre creation,” a “process of genrification” which is “continuous” and “ongoing.”[12] A diachronic approach therefore demands that critics understand genre as a developing set of structures which evolve, cohere and dissolve over time. Moreover, genre history should not tell of the straightforward development of a form of genre, followed by a number of variations on that form: instead, it must allow for the recognition that alternative histories and alternative developments in genre structures are always possible.

In addition to a tendency to ignore how genres continually undergo a process of formation and/or disintegration, previous critical attempts to define UF/PR ignore that this process is what Altman terms “a transactional process whereby conflict and negotiation among user groups constantly transform generic designations.” Altman highlights that the formation of a genre is a process that is engaged in by “user groups,” groups which influence both the “production” of texts and their “reception”: in other words, groups which include members of industry, popular and academic critics, and general audiences.[13] While Altman focuses on the film and television industry, in Popular Fiction Ken Gelder emphasises the importance of considering both production and reception when analysing popular fiction. Gelder argues that genre fiction is “not just a matter of texts-in-themselves, but of an entire apparatus of production, distribution . . . and consumption.”[14] He thus suggests that the process of commercial development and consumption also plays an important role in developing genre. Taking into account the “transactional” nature of the process whereby genre emerges through an “apparatus of production,” my genre definition and history differs sharply from previous critical attempts to define UF/PR because it also seeks to include the observations and analyses of various significant “user groups”: academic critics, authors, members of the publishing industry, and the audiences who consume these texts.

Problems in Defining UF/PR: Competing Histories and Definitions

There are several critical problems that recur in extant histories and definitions of UF/PR. By highlighting these recurring problems here, this article may then avoid them in the history and definition of UF/PR to follow. These recurring critical problems are as follows. First, critics tend to approach UF/PR as a subgenre that has been influenced by a single “parent” genre. Related to this, both critics and fans often exhibit a genre bias, filtering their genre history and definition through the lens of the genre that they perceive to be the primary influence on UF/PR. In attempting to define UF/PR as the generic offspring of another genre, these studies often incorrectly imply that UF/PR is primarily influenced by one other genre in particular: fantasy or romance or Gothic and horror. For example, Ndalianis offers an excellent analysis of “what happens when romance and horror meet” in the paranormal romance genre.[15] However, Ndalianis primarily approaches paranormal romance as a “subcategory” of the broader category of romance fiction (78), thereby disregarding significant influences on UF/PR from other genres such as fantasy or crime fiction. In their critical fan discussion of romance in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Wendell and Tan also suggest that UF/PR is a “subgenre” of paranormal romance.[16] Conversely, The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature includes “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” as genre categories in its study of fantasy fiction, suggesting that one might consider urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance primarily as fantasy genre texts.[17]

In one example of how genre bias may influence definitions of UF/PR, in “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” Kaveney gives a definition of a genre she categorises as “dark fantasy,” which includes paranormal romance as one of its subcategories.[18] However, her broad definition of dark fantasy literature fails to distinguish dark fantasy from Gothic and horror fictions more broadly;[19] and her more specific definition of popular dark fantasy relies on invoking conventions from another genre entirely, that of detective and crime fiction.[20] Moreover, Kaveney maintains that paranormal romance is a subcategory of dark fantasy, defined by “the extent to which its plot is determined by its erotic dimensions.”[21] This definition, however, problematically conflates “erotic” fiction with romance fiction, a distinction that is in fact highly significant.[22] Kaveney’s bias toward fantasy fiction in a critical anthology for that genre nonetheless limits her analysis of the significant influences of Gothic/horror, romance and crime genres on UF/PR.[23] Her categorisations of “dark fantasy,” “template dark fantasy” (urban fantasy) and “paranormal romance” are thus unconvincing.

The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature also offers an example of the second problem common to extant critical assessments of UF/PR: critical academic definitions of UF/PR may be alarmingly disconnected from industry and consumer definitions of the same texts. This Cambridge Companion broadly and inexcusably disregards the ways in which the terms “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” are used by those who produce and consume UF/PR texts.[24] For example, Kaveney’s use of “dark fantasy” as a genre label is highly problematic because “dark fantasy” is no longer a term popularly used or even recognised by current fans of UF/PR.[25] Irvine’s chapter “Urban Fantasy” similarly disregards the popular usage of this genre label. Irvine offers a very precise definition of this urban fantasy as “a group of texts . . . in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy were brought into an urban setting,” noting that the genre “quickly grew to encompass historical novels and overlap with . . . new wave fabulism or the New Weird.” Irvine emphasises heavily the role of the city in urban fantasy as both setting and actor in the narrative. But Irvine laments that “the writers of ‘paranormal romance’ have all but co-opted the term” urban fantasy, using it for an entirely different set of texts. In this respect, his focus on fabulist and “weird” urban fictions is starkly at odds with consumer definitions of UF/PR.[26] In fact, Kaveney’s “template dark fantasy” better aligns with the popular conception of “urban fantasy” as a genre category.

Figure 2. Laurell K Hamilton’s Narcissus in Chains (2001) marks a shift in Hamilton’s series from mystery-oriented horror to paranormal erotica.

Figure 2. Laurell K Hamilton’s Narcissus in Chains (2001) marks a shift in Hamilton’s series from mystery-oriented horror to paranormal erotica.

The third critical problem common to extant critical definitions of UF/PR is the way that these definitions consistently attempt to establish urban fantasy and paranormal romance as separate taxonomic categories. For example, by separating urban fantasy and paranormal romance taxonomically, the editors of the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Fiction strongly suggest that urban fantasy and paranormal romance are distinct modes of popular fiction. Fan outrage over a perceived misuse of these terms also suggests that a distinction can be made between “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance.” For example, Laurell K Hamilton is controversial among readers of UF/PR for abruptly transforming her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (1993-present) from urban fantasy into paranormal erotica in the series’ tenth novel, Narcissus in Chains. For more than a decade, Hamilton has endured significant criticism from fans and anti-fans whose genre expectations are disappointed by the genre shift within her series.[27]

One commonly-accepted distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is whether action/mystery or romance act as the primary narrative drive in the plot. For example, Gwenda Bond notes that in the publishing industry, “the terms urban fantasy and paranormal romance are often used interchangeably. But . . . while the two frequently cross over among audiences, there is a key distinction.” In support of her argument, she quotes Avon Publications’ executive editor Erika Tsang: “In paranormal romance the relationship between the couple is the focus of the main plot. In urban fantasy, the world that the couple exists in is the focus.” In other words, the extent to which the romance constitutes the primary narrative of the text determines whether or not it can be categorised as “paranormal romance”; texts in which a horror- or mystery-based narrative take priority may be more properly considered “urban fantasy.”

In the same article, Bond also quotes Heather Osborn, a romance editor at Tor Books, in another attempt to distinguish urban fantasy from paranormal romance. Osborn determines a genre distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance dependent on what romance fans such as Wendell and Tan commonly term the “Happily Ever After” convention:[28] “My number one consideration is if there’s a resolution of the romance at the end of the book. If there’s no resolution of the romance, and it’s in the romance section, readers will let their anger be known.” Bond suggests that for readers, a high content of romance and a romantic resolution play a crucial role in defining a genre text as paranormal romance and not urban fantasy. Bond’s article thus highlights how definitions of genre must negotiate between competing influences from consumers and the publishing industry.[29]

The above examples demonstrate how critics, authors and fans may offer differing and competing histories and definitions of UF/PR as a genre. Though these histories and definitions have been critiqued here, it is important to recognise that such definitions are not necessarily incorrect. Rather, they fail to be comprehensive. Moreover, they are misleading in that they privilege a genre model which understands UF/PR as a subgenre, or even as two distinct genres, which have evolved in a straightforward fashion from one or two parent genres. By attempting to categorise and understand UF/PR as subgenre of horror or fantasy or mystery or romance, and by distinguishing between urban fantasy and paranormal romance as separate subgenres, these definitions obscure the complex generic interplay which actually constitutes UF/PR.

A Genre History of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

Rather than attempting to distinguish between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, or trace a genre history through one specific parent genre, this article instead offers a genre history that focuses on how UF/PR has developed as a hybrid genre. In this way, it provides a complementary history to those definitions critiqued above. “Urban fantasy” first emerged as a genre label in the early 1980s. The term categorised a new form of popular fantasy fiction which dramatised a magical incursion into a fictional version of the contemporary, urban world. In this fiction, a human protagonist confronts fairies and elves from an alternative, magical world. In the 1980s and early 1990s, this early urban fantasy was produced by North American writers such as Charles de Lint, Terri Windling,, Emma Bull, and Mercedes Lackey.  In addition to a shared narrative plot, the early urban fantasy texts of these authors also share thematic conventions. First and foremost, early urban fantasy destabilises the boundaries between reality/fantasy and self/Other. Consequently, the protagonist in the text is forced to question his or her own identity and social role in relation to those boundaries. In effect, the protagonist must decide to reject the fantastic Other and maintain conventional binaries and boundaries, or to embrace the possibilities of a multiplicitous identity in new worlds no longer constrained by such binaries and boundaries.[30]

Figure 3. Terri Windling’s Borderland (1986) and Bordertown (1986) are two examples of early urban fantasy series in which the real world and fantasy fairylands collide.

Figure 3. Terri Windling’s Borderland (1986) and Bordertown (1986) are two examples of early urban fantasy series in which the real world and fantasy fairylands collide.

Over time, however, the term “urban fantasy” has been more broadly applied (sometimes retro-actively) to describe other popular speculative fictions.[31] Today it is also commonly used to categorise “weird fiction” by authors such as China Miéville, contemporary fantasy by authors such as Neil Gaiman, and steampunk fiction by authors such as Tim Powers, Scott Westerfield, and Gail Carriger. It is also commonly used to categorise much popular fiction centred on supernatural beings, including werewolves, witches, angels, and the seemingly omnipresent vampire.

Certain examples of vampire fiction in particular had already begun to merge into urban fantasy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many texts from this period can be retroactively labelled as UF/PR due to their generic blending of fantasy, horror, mystery and action conventions – for example, Lee Killough’s Blood Hunt and Bloodlinks, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files series, television series Forever Knight, Tanya Huff’s Blood series, and Laurell K Hamilton’s early Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels.[32] Early versions of vampire-centred urban fantasy (including novels by Killough and Elrod, and television series Forever Knight) typically follow a male human protagonist who is transformed into a vampire and subsequently struggles to solve a series of mysteries.

Figure 4. Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghosts and Shadows begins another early urban fantasy series in which the boundaries between the contemporary real world and an alternate fantasy realm dissolve. On its cover, two elves battle in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Figure 4. Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghosts and Shadows begins another early urban fantasy series in which the boundaries between the contemporary real world and an alternate fantasy realm dissolve. On its cover, two elves battle in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

To date, few academics have adequately accounted for the connection between fairy-centred early urban fantasy by authors such as de Lint, Bull, Windling and Lackey, and this early vampire crime fiction. Instead, critics tend to separate the two kinds of fiction into “traditional urban fantasy” and “contemporary urban fantasy,”[33] or suggest that the labels have been “co-opted” and incorrectly applied.[34] But if we consider formal and thematic hybridity and the transgression of boundaries to be the distinguishing elements of UF/PR texts, this explains how two apparently disparate trends in popular fiction (elves and vampires) merged into the broader category of “urban fantasy” after the year 2000.[35] For example, in early urban fantasy fiction, a human protagonist from the contemporary world is confronted with supernatural knowledge that challenges his or her understanding of reality and identity; similarly, in vampire crime fiction, a human protagonist who discovers the existence of vampires faces a similar challenge to his or her ideological worldview . The presence of a specific supernatural character trope (such as elves or vampires) is less significant than its combination with the broader generic structure of hybridity, a structure which inflects both form (transgressing genre conventions) and content (challenging the power structures of self/Other).[36]

Vampire literature in the 1980s and 1990s primarily explores the destabilisation between the boundaries of fantasy and reality, and self and Other, through the trope of the “humanised” or “good” vampire. The figure of the humanised, ethically and spiritually self-conscious vampire first emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in fictions by Fred Saberhagen, Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzy McKee Charnas, and George R. R. Martin. David Punter and Glennis Byron summarise how the vampire’s role in representing the social Other has changed over the last century due to “the modern humanisation of the vampire.”[37] They define how “in nineteenth-century fiction, the representation of the vampire as monstrous, evil and other serves to guarantee the existence of good, reinforcing . . . formally dichotomized structures of belief which . . . still constituted the dominant world view.”[38] But in vampire fiction in the late twentieth century, the vampire becomes “more sympathetic, closer to the human and much less radically the ‘other’”[39] as “the oppositions between good and evil are increasingly problematized.”[40] The vampires and other “humanised” monsters of UF/PR develop from this earlier trend begun in the vampire literature of the 1970s.

Figure 5. Detective Nicholas Knight from Forever Knight (1992-1996) exemplifies a trend from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which vampire detectives struggle to reject their vampiric nature and behave as “good” humans.

Figure 5. Detective Nicholas Knight from Forever Knight (1992-1996) exemplifies a trend from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which vampire detectives struggle to reject their vampiric nature and behave as “good” humans.

UF/PR in the 1980s and 1990s likewise destabilises the assumed connections between monstrosity, evil and Otherness. For example, vampires like Killough’s Garreth Mikaelian, Huff’s Henry Fitzroy and Forever Knight’s Nicholas Knight struggle against their monstrous ontologies in order to be “good people.” Many of these protagonists face torturous ethical struggles similar to those of Anne Rice’s well-known vampire aesthetes in Interview with the Vampire.[41] However, unlike Rice’s Lestat and Louis, who must drink human blood, vampires in 1990s urban fantasy differ on one important point: to be good vampires, they must refuse to drink human blood. Through their determined abstinence, the vampires of these early urban fantasy texts become the first truly “good” vampires in fiction, television and film. For the first time, vampire fiction in the 1990s broadly explored the concept of vampires who want to do and be good in the human world by acting as human as possible. Throughout this decade, the convention of the abstaining vampire remained popular.

Also in the 1990s, Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow this same humanist conception that to be a good vampire means to abstain from vampirism and behave as much like a human as possible. In the early 1990s, Hamilton’s vampire-hunting, crime-solving heroine Anita Blake feels conflicted in her attraction to vampires, believing that vampires must be evil if they want to feed from her.[42] Similarly, Joss Whedon’s titular heroine in Buffy the Vampire Slayer can only become romantically entangled with “good” monsters who refuse to feed on humans (for example, the vampire Angel, who possessed his soul; and later the vampire Spike, who was forced to stop feeding on humans).[43]

Anita Blake and Buffy are also exemplary UF/PR texts of the 1990s because they introduce arguably the most significant new genre convention to emerge in UF/PR in this decade: a strong female protagonist in the role of an investigator and action heroine. Characters like Huff’s Vicki Nelson, Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Whedon’s Buffy Summers manifest the contemporary cultural significance of girl-power, and post- and third-wave feminism that emerged the 1990s.[44] These heroines refuse the traditional position of victim in the horror genre. In UF/PR, they instead embrace the agentive role of the heroine.[45]

But in new fictional worlds that challenge the boundaries between fantasy and reality, these heroines struggle in new ways with the destabilisation of boundaries between the self and the Other. As Elaine Graham states in Representations of the Post/Human, “that which is different becomes pathologised as ‘monstrous’ and thus inhuman, disposable and dangerous …. So women . . . are designated inhuman by virtue of their non-identity to the white, male reasoning able-bodied subject.”[46] Graham here explains how women in a patriarchal society are constructed as socially Other, and this Otherness may be framed as monstrosity. Speaking of the role of the heroine in the horror text, Linda Williams argues, in “When the Woman Looks,” that the female protagonist in a horror text experiences “fear of the monster’s freakishness, but also recognizes the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference,”[47] the difference of female Otherness in patriarchal culture. Williams thus suggests that recognition of a shared Otherness can lead to new affinities between monsters and heroines. Female protagonists in UF/PR texts of the 1990s struggle with tensions between their role as heroines who must defeat monstrous Others, their romantic and sexual attraction to monstrous Others, and the recognition that they too are Othered in their role as feminist or post-feminist agents in a patriarchal society.

Figure 6. This season four (2011) poster for True Blood (2008-2014) emphasises the centrality of part-fairy female protagonist Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). Playing with the gaze, the poster represents Sookie simultaneously as a sexually empowered subject and an object of the monstrous male desire.

Figure 6. This season four (2011) poster for True Blood (2008-2014) emphasises the centrality of part-fairy female protagonist Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). Playing with the gaze, the poster represents Sookie simultaneously as a sexually empowered subject and an object of the monstrous male desire.

In the years since 2000, female protagonists have dominated UF/PR, typically narrating their own adventures from the first person perspective. In this era, the boundaries between self and Other, human and monster, and good and evil become further blurred. Protagonists no longer simply fight monsters, but themselves become increasingly monstrous. Heroines who began as mostly human in the 1990s become increasing supernatural. For example, beyond 2000 Hamilton’s Anita Blake develops from a mostly-human necromancer to a mostly-monstrous carrier of the lycanthropy virus and a succubus who feeds on sexual activity. And the heroine of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, Sookie Stackhouse, begins as a mostly-human telepath but learns she is actually an entirely different monstrous species, a fairy.[48]  In the twenty-first century, many other heroines also begin their series as supernatural creatures outright: for example, Kelley Armstrong’s werewolf heroine Elena Michaels,[49] and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson, a shapeshifting Native American skinwalker.[50]

As UF/PR has further developed after 2000, the now-supernatural protagonists of UF/PR often live in an innovative new supernatural, fictional world. Prior to 2000, monstrous horror texts generally depicted a protagonist who stumbled onto the secret existence of a supernatural being or even a secret, underground supernatural world. But since 2000, a new kind of fictional world has emerged in which the supernatural is openly acknowledged as a part of the everyday. In this supernatural-yet-everyday world, vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings live openly in human society, framed as social and cultural minority groups. Laurell K Hamilton pioneered the concept of the everyday-supernatural as a new setting in her Anita Blake series in the 1990s. Since 2000, the everyday-supernatural has become increasingly popular as a fictional setting and is now utilised in series by many popular authors including Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Illona Andrews, Chloe Neill, Kelly Gay and Faith Hunter.

Figure 7. Viral marketing for True Blood (2008-2014) drew on its “everyday supernatural” world model to play with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. A poster campaign here advertises the “Vampire Rights Amendment,” a fictional amendment to the US Constitution which would grant vampires rights as citizens in the human world.

Figure 7. Viral marketing for True Blood (2008-2014) drew on its “everyday supernatural” world model to play with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. A poster campaign here advertises the “Vampire Rights Amendment,” a fictional amendment to the US Constitution which would grant vampires rights as citizens in the human world.

In the everyday-supernatural world, monster hunters and slayers lose their moral certainty as protagonists, further destabilising the binaries of real/fantastic, human/Other and good/evil. As Graham writes, “One of the ways in particular in which the boundaries between humans and almost-humans have been asserted is through the discourse of ‘monstrosity.’ Monsters serve both to mark the fault-lines but also, subversively, to signal the fragility of such boundaries.”[51]  In texts which use everyday-supernatural settings, humans and monsters must constantly renegotiate the boundaries between self and Other in order to co-exist successfully. In these fictional worlds, heroines are no longer able to uphold human law and protect the innocent, because human law can no longer adequately account for cultural and ethical differences between the monstrous and the human inhabitants of society.

At the same time, in many UF/PR texts produced after the year 2000, vampires and other monsters are no longer required to abstain from their predatory hungers (both literal and sexual) to be considered ethically “good.” Instead, they now seek fulfilling, posthuman interconnections with others. Paranormal romances challenge the boundaries between self and the monstrous Other when a romantic attraction causes two potential lovers to re-evaluate their identities and philosophies. And, as Helen Bailie writes in “Blood Ties: The Vampire Lover in the Popular Romance,” in paranormal romance “the taking of blood . . . becomes a necessary element of the sexual relationship” and the vampiric bite “is an affirmation of . . . acceptance of the vampire lover and his environment.”[52] In UF/PR beyond 2000, vampiric feeding is no longer inherently evil. Instead, the vampiric exchange of blood becomes repositioned as a positive act of interconnection which also demonstrates acceptance of the lover’s Otherness.

The popularity of these new genre conventions in the years since 2000 suggests a significant posthuman shift in UF/PR as a genre. David Held has suggested “reason[ing] from the point of view of others” is a significant necessity in the “overlapping communities of fate” created by modern globalisation.[53] Such overlapping communities are geographic and social, but they are also cultural, technological, and ecological. These communities exist in posthuman worlds: worlds which necessitate, in the worlds of Neil Badmington, “a careful, ongoing . . . rethinking of the dominant humanist (or anthropocentric) account of who ‘we’ are as human beings. In the light of posthumanist theory and culture, ‘we’ are not who ‘we’ once believed ourselves to be. And neither are ‘our’ others.”[54] Posthumanist theory argues that the differences between the (white, patriarchal, dominant) humanist self and the (raced, gendered, queer, animal, technological, monstrous) Other have become destabilised in the contemporary world. Since 2000, UF/PR increasingly explores the possibilities and the difficulties of thriving in iterations of contemporary, global, monstrous and post-human worlds. In the twenty-first century, UF/PR uses its communities of monsters to suggest that as we are increasingly enabled and required to see the world from the point of view of the Other in the global world, we are increasingly unable to maintain clear boundaries between what is self and what is Other, who to include and who to exclude, and what is right and what is wrong.

A Definition for Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

As indicated by this history of UF/PR, the primary elements of this genre can be articulated in a variety of ways. The foregoing chronological history of UF/PR can be combined with Rick Altman’s syntactic and semantic framework for genre in order to give a more functional and specific set of definitions for UF/PR. Altman suggests that genre can be defined both syntactically and semantically to build a more complex picture of how particular genres develop and operate. He argues that

we can as a whole distinguish between generic definitions which depend on a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like – thus stressing the semantic elements which make up the genre – and definitions which play up instead certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders – relationships which might be called the genre’s fundamental syntax. The semantic approach thus stresses the genre’s building blocks, while the syntactic view privileges the structures into which they are arranged.[55]

In other words, a syntactic definition of genre outlines a narrative structure that broadly repeats within a genre, and a semantic definition refers to its recognizable conventions, tropes and motifs. Syntactic and semantic elements interact to create a specific genre text.

This model allows us to define UF/PR as follows. In terms of its syntax, or its basic narrative paradigm: UF/PR combines elements of romance, horror, mystery and/or thriller narratives to tell the story of a conflict and/or an alliance between a human (or human faction) and a supernatural monster (or supernatural faction). This story occurs in a world in which the boundaries between reality and the supernatural fantastic have been destabilised or re-ordered entirely. As the plot progresses, the conflict and/or alliance between factions destabilises the boundaries that define and distinguish self from Other and good from evil within this world. This definition is necessarily broad because UF/PR texts are highly flexible and may articulate this semantic structure in many different ways, hybridising it with a wide variety of conventions from other genre fiction.

A more specific paradigm for UF/PR as a genre can be established by identifying its most prominent semantic elements. These are as follows:

  1. UF/PR is paranormal fiction. Its stories contain paranormal, supernatural, fantastic and monstrous entities. This paranormal element is usually found in excess: UF/PR narratives usually contain not one kind of monster or magic, but many kinds.
  2. UF/PR constructs a specific setting for its fictional worlds. The fictional worlds UF/PR closely mimic our contemporary reality but contain additional supernatural content. Moreover, there are two significant variants of this setting. In one, the supernatural elements of the world are secret, underground and hidden from mainstream society. In the other, there the supernatural is an accepted part of the everyday, existing openly as part of contemporary society.
  3. UF/PR commonly follows a monster-hunter, investigator or detective as a protagonist, utilising a mystery or thriller plotline. Thus, the protagonist must typically work to resolve a conflict, crime or other mysterious event.
  4. The UF/PR protagonist generally possesses a supernatural power or monstrous nature, and often becomes increasingly supernaturally powerful or monstrous as the narrative progresses.
  5. The majority of protagonists in UF/PR are female.
  6. The majority of protagonists in UF/PR also narrate their adventures from the first person perspective.
  7. UF/PR is a hybrid and transmedia genre, utilising elements from many other genres and formats. In this respect, in transgressing the boundaries of genre and media, the form of UF/PR complements its content, which thematically transgresses the boundaries between reality and the fantastic and the self and Other.

Over time the particular elements which are blended in UF/PR from various popular genres have become formulaic. However, not all UF/PR texts use all of these semantic elements of genre all the time. And not all UF/PR series blend these conventions in the same proportions. This is where confusion typically arises over the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance.  This specific yet flexible definition of UF/PR suggests, however, that the significance of a distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance has been over-emphasised.

Figure 7. Viral marketing for True Blood (2008-2014) drew on its “everyday supernatural” world model to play with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. A poster campaign here advertises the “Vampire Rights Amendment,” a fictional amendment to the US Constitution which would grant vampires rights as citizens in the human world.

Figure 8.  The poster for Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (2012) shows protagonist Bella Swan, now transformed into a vampire, as she runs toward battle against the Volturi, the ruling vampire council. Even though the Twilight Saga is primarily romance, it thus utilises key conventions of urban fantasy.

For example, even in an apparently straightforward “urban fantasy” text with a male protagonist, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files,[56] we encounter a romance subplot. And even the texts most commonly categorised as “paranormal romance” may utilise elements typically found in urban fantasy. For example, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga bolsters its primary narrative of a love triangle between human Bella Swan, vampire Edward Cullen and werewolf Jacob Black with other semantic and syntactic elements common to urban fantasy. Typical of most UF/PR protagonists, Bella acquires her own monstrous and supernatural powers when she eventually becomes a powerful vampire herself. And the Twilight Saga includes detailed supernatural world-building, such as supernatural social conflicts which its heroine must resolve. Bella must mediate the broader supernatural feud between the vampires and werewolves of her world; she must also mediate between her good vampire family, and the dangerous vampiric political hierarchy of the Volturi.[57]

It is for this reason I suggest the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is unnecessary, and prefer to refer to the genre under the umbrella term “urban fantasy and paranormal romance.” Rather than imagining these two modes of fiction as distinct genres, or as distinct subgenres, it is more helpful to consider urban fantasy and paranormal romance as two ends of a broader genre continuum. The model of a genre spectrum allows a broad range of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance texts to be analysed in relation to the same syntactic and semantic elements of genre. Where exactly to place historical paranormal fiction[58] or fairytale retellings[59] on this spectrum is a matter for further analysis. It is almost impossible to account for all possible iterations, combinations and subversions of genre convention in one genre model. However, a conception of UF/PR as a genre continuum allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and the hybridisation of other generic conventions in texts which are considered UF/PR.

Crossing Boundaries: UF/PR as a Thematically Transgressive, Hybrid and Transmedia Genre

In understanding UF/PR as primarily influenced by one or two other genres, critics, authors and fans alike fail to consider the extent to which UF/PR is constructed through and characterised by genre hybridity. UF/PR transgresses traditional boundaries of genre by simultaneously hybridising, cannibalising and parodying generic structures from other numerous genres.[60] For example, from fantasy fiction, UF/PR may borrow conventions such as extensive serialised world-building, a quest narrative, and a band of unlikely companions as key characters. From the Gothic, it may borrow a vulnerable, emotionally sensible heroine. From American Gothic specifically, it borrows its fictional geographic locations, the challenge of puritan values through sexual deviance, and anxiety about the government of society. Drawing from monstrous horror, UF/PR explores the taboo and abject, the spread of contagion and the loss of self control. The prevalence of vampires in UF/PR also results in texts that invoke conventions of vampire literature, such as the late twentieth century convention of the morally conscientious vampire protagonist or lover. From romance, UF/PR borrows the conventions of a forbidden love (interracial, interspecies and across socio-economic class) and/or the love triangle. Borrowing from chick lit, female protagonists in UF/PR may explore gendered tensions between career and romance, or draw on the convention of the urban affective family. From detective and crime fiction, UF/PR frequently borrows the generic structure of a mystery format, as well as detailed descriptive attention to procedures and forensics, to violent action, and to guns and other weaponry. Like the noir detective, UF/PR protagonists are often social outcasts or loners; they emphasise the significance of toughness in the face of adversity; and they usually uphold a personal moral code that does not necessarily mesh with conventional morality. And UF/PR also draws on science fiction in its speculative nature, its use of advanced technologies and new medical procedures, and even in the construction of futuristic, post-cataclysmic and post-apocalyptic societies.

Kim Harrison’s Hollows series[61] provides a specific example of how these various conventions may blend together in one UF/PR series. Harrison’s protagonist Rachel Morgan combines character tropes from the horror and detective genres: she is a witch/demon who uses her supernatural powers to work as a tough-talking private investigator. Harrison’s fictional world model is a speculative alternative reality that is post-cataclysmic: Rachel lives in a fictional version of Cincinnati that exists after “the Turn,” a historical event in which a batch of genetically modified tomatoes generated a virus that wiped out a large percentage of the human population. The Turn also exposed the existence of supernatural species such as witches, werewolves, vampires, elves, pixies who were immune to this virus. Harrison’s world-model thus draws on conventions of science fiction, fantasy and horror, creating a speculative alternate reality in which creatures from fantasy and horror mingle with advanced medical and scientific knowledge. Rachel forms a detective agency with Ivy, a lesbian vampire, and Jenks, a pixy. As well as following a mystery format, the series also follows the quest narrative of high fantasy fiction when this band of unlikely companions work together not only to solve crimes but to save the city and/or the world from magical threats. Rachel’s band of unlikely companions is also another form of the urban affective family: Rachel, Ivy and Jenks live together and gradually welcome other friends into their close-knit and trusted family group. Harrison’s series also includes a number of romance subplots in which Rachel repeatedly falls for the wrong man – in mystery parlance, an homme fatal. Rachel also experiments with a same-sex relationship with Ivy, pushing the boundaries of heterosexual romance fiction. Harrison’s titles (for example, The Good, the Bad and the Undead and For a Few Demons More)[62] also parody titles in the Western genre. Harrison uses intertextual reference in her titles to position her heroine as a reworking of the Western outlaw-hero. Thus, Harrison’s series is a complex blend of conventions from horror, fantasy, vampire literature, science fiction, crime fiction, romance, chick lit and even the Western.

Figure 9. Kim Harrison’s Hollows series (2004-2014) exemplifies how UF/PR series blend genres.

Figure 9. Kim Harrison’s Hollows series (2004-2014) exemplifies how UF/PR series blend genres.

These examples are not intended as a comprehensive catalogue of the various conventions utilised in UF/PR: rather, the various conventions listed are intended to demonstrate that far from simply being a subgenre of fantasy, horror and/or romance, UF/PR is truly a hybrid genre. It draws broadly from the structures of a number of other genres and subgenres to both reinforce and subvert certain genre expectations. Individual UF/PR texts and series may not utilise all of these structures, but across the UF/PR genre, all these conventions and more are available for analysis. Genre hybridity is so prominent in UF/PR that it should be considered one of the most significant distinguishing factors of this genre.

In addition to crossing the boundaries of popular genres, UF/PR also crosses the boundaries of media. And in addition to a general critical failure to give adequate attention to UF/PR as a hybrid genre fiction, there has also been a general critical failure to analyse how UF/PR operates as a transmedia genre. UF/PR is most prolific as a category of popular fiction, usually formatted as serialised novels. But it also crosses into short story collections, world and series guides with exclusive new materials, ebook-only novellas and short stories (and other materials available via author websites), television, film, RPGs, graphic novels, web series, and even viral marketing and transmedia branding of consumer products.  Yet critics often fail to consider how cross-media adaptation and transmedia storytelling might impact the content and reception of UF/PR texts.

Henry Jenkins writes extensively on transmedia narratives in Convergence Culture[63] and on his blog, Confessions of an Aca-fan.[64] He defines “transmedia storytelling” as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”[65] He further suggests that transmedia storytelling encourages “the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society.”[66] In addition to this circulation of knowledge, Jenkins suggests that “the encyclopaedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results [sic] in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story… Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements.”[67] In this respect, transmedia texts are both participatory and performative. Such texts encourage ongoing audience speculation and discussion, and allow for audience participation and performance in media such as fanfiction and social media.

Jenkins distinguishes transmedia texts from those which are simply adapted from one medium to another, arguing that “we need to distinguish between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction.”[68]  However, he also emphasises the concept of multiplicity, “the possibility of alternative versions of the characters or parallel universe versions of the stories” that emerge as texts develop between media. Jenkins suggests that “Multiplicity allows fans to take pleasure in alternative retellings, seeing the characters and events from fresh perspectives.”[69] The pleasure found in this multiplicity is also possible from more straightforward adaptations between media. If we consider UF/PR as a genre rife with this multiplicity, an understanding of UF/PR as both highly adaptive and transmedia becomes more clear.

It may seem at first as though UF/PR involves primarily straightforward adaptations in which texts are translated from one medium to another. However, UF/PR actually blurs the distinction between adaptation and transmedia storytelling, revelling in the possibilities of multiplicity for its characters and fictional worlds. For example, L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries trilogy has been adapted to a popular television series of the same name.[70] As adaptation, the television series drastically changes the narrative plot and characters of the original series. Far from being a straightforward adaptation of fiction to television, the popularity of the tv series has resulted in the publication of a number of new novels in the series.[71] Moreover, the success of the television series has led to the publication of online-only, tie-in short stories on L J Smith’s official website.[72] Even more surprisingly, as Smith, the series’ original author, no longer writes official Vampire Diaries tie-in novels, she recently began publishing her own “fanfiction” on Kindle Worlds, an fanfiction publishing platform. Through the Kindle format, Smith thus offers fans yet another alternative version of the broader Vampire Diaries narrative.[73] Numerous other UF/PR authors have also produced a range of works that span novels, short story anthologies, world guides, online-only e-books and e-novellas, and graphic novels (for example, Laurell K Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Marjorie Liu, Patricia Briggs and Kelley Armstrong have produced texts across these media).

Figure 10.  True Blood offers an example of a transmedia UF/PR text. Beginning as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novel series (2001-2013), this text extends across novellas, short stories, companion world guides, as well as the television series True Blood (2008-2014), tie-in graphic novels, and True Blood’s viral and transmedia marketing campaign. Shown here is a viral billboard campaign.

Figure 10. True Blood offers an example of a transmedia UF/PR text. Beginning as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novel series (2001-2013), this text extends across novellas, short stories, companion world guides, as well as the television series True Blood (2008-2014), tie-in graphic novels, and True Blood’s viral and transmedia marketing campaign. Shown here is a viral billboard campaign.

Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series provides an even more dramatic example of how one UF/PR text can function as a transmedia text.[74] Harris’ series traverses various fictional genres: novels, short stories, novellas, a Sookie Stackhouse Companion including new “facts” about Harris’ fictional world (and even recipes mentioned in her fiction!), and an encyclopaedic series coda.[75] But Harris’ series also crosses into other media. Most prominently, it has been adapted as True Blood.[76] True Blood adapts material from Harris’ series, but it also contributes substantial new characters, plotlines and world-building to the series. True Blood itself has also crossed into ebooks and graphic novels. In 2008, a graphic novel prequel was released online only,[77]  and a number of tie-in graphic novels depict characters drawn after the corresponding actors in spin-off adventure narratives.[78] True Blood also has a wide transmedia viral marketing campaign that extends beyond the boundaries of traditional narrative media. The True Blood viral campaign includes extensive poster campaigns, tie-in advertising from real companies, functional websites promoting fictional settings and organisations from the series, social media campaigns, audience competitions, behind the scenes footage and bonus scenes made available online (and on dvd), and even a character blog supposedly produced by teen vampire Jessica Hamby.[79]

In The Horror Sensorium, Ndalianis provides a useful analysis of True Blood’s transmedia viral marketing. Ndalianis writes that as a transmedia text, True Blood “participates in a performance that’s about meta-horror – we take delight in the playful fiction that insists that, like the series, vampires are a part of our community . . . the transmedia fictions invite responses of amusement and cognitive play.”[80] Ndalianis suggests here that meta-textuality allows consumers to find pleasure in the blurred boundaries between reality and the fantastic. This suggestion also resonates with the way that UF/PR as a paranormal and hybrid genre also generally blurs these distinctions. For example, UF/PR juxtaposes fantastic conventions from horror with the gritty realism of detective and crime fiction, or treats as mundane the fantastic, supernatural and sometimes absurd hurdles that interfere with romantic relationship-building. This generic hybridity thus also invites “amusement” and “cognitive play.”

An understanding of UF/PR as a genre that crosses boundaries of both genre and media provides a crucial insight to understanding this genre thematically. The boundary-crossing form of UF/PR is echoed in the thematic transgression of boundaries and binary configurations prevalent in its content. As these highly speculative texts transgress the boundaries between mystery, horror, fantasy and romance, and between various media, they also transgress the boundaries between the broader category of the real and the fantastic. In unsettling normative reality to explore the non-normative supernatural worlds, they unsettle established social categories such as self/Other.


Over approximately the past 25 years, urban fantasy has developed into a coherent and recognisable genre of popular fiction. It is likely that the popularity of this genre in this era partially stems from its potential to register and reflect contemporary socio-cultural anxieties, such as the shifts in post- and third-wave feminism, globalisation, and posthumanist shifts in technology, environment and community briefly registered in this article. However, a comprehensive analysis of UF/PR must also offer a commercial and industrial explanation for its popularity.

The serialised, hybrid-genre, adaptive and transmedia formats of UF/PR are essential to its success in popular culture industries. First, as a hybrid-genre, UF/PR becomes accessible to a broad number of fiction readers who may typically read fantasy, or romance, or crime fiction, and may become interested in how these genres blend with elements of the paranormal. Second, the seriality of UF/PR texts defers conclusions, inviting continued consumption over a number of years and sometimes decades. As Jenkins writes, the open end of the serialised text creates “a strong enigma which drives the reader to continue to consume the story even though our satisfaction has been deferred.”[81] Third, both seriality and a transmedia format invite consumers to become invested and to participate in the open spaces of a narrative, spaces which Jenkins describes as “gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story.”[82] Fourth, as a highly adaptive and transmedia genre, UF/PR is also highly accessible to consumers: Jenkins suggests that transmedia storytelling “reflects the economics of media consolidation” and as such “may expand the potential market for a property by creating different points of entry for different audience segments.”[83] In addition to a strong emphasis on extensive fictional world-building, the deferred conclusions and other open spaces of the narrative invite consumers to seek out other points of accessibility to the broader narrative. In short, the serial, hybrid-genre, adaptive, and transmedia formats of UF/PR contribute strongly to its popular success as a new genre, creating a number of points of accessibility for a broad range of audience members from various other genres and media, and inviting continued playful and participatory consumption.

Since the 1980s, urban fantasy and paranormal romance has developed into a fully coherent and extremely popular new genre. By identifying the destabilisation of boundaries as a broadly recurring thematic element in UF/PR, it becomes possible to consider how this genre might register real, contemporary social anxieties about unstable boundaries. And by identifying UF/PR as a hybrid, serial, adaptive and transmedia genre, we may better understand more generally how genre structures can be invoked in broad yet highly complex ways. UF/PR now predominantly shapes our representations of monsters and the supernatural in popular culture. But only time will tell how long UF/PR may remain popular in its current form and content before it further develops or disintegrates into something new again.


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Forever Knight. Created by Barney Cohen and James D. Parriott. 1992-1996.

Ghost Ghirls. Created by Maria Blasucci, Jeremy Konner and Amanda Lund. 2013.

Once Upon a Time. Created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. 2011-present.

The Vampire Diaries. Created by Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson. 2009-present.

True Blood. Created by Alan Ball. 2008-2014 (projected end date)


[1] Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc, 2012), 76. Ndalianis specifically cites the work of Rebecca Paisley, Nora Roberts, Laurell K. Hamilton, Susan Sizemore, Christine Feehan and Maggie Shayne as evidence of this new romance genre. (For more on early paranormal romance, see Little, Jane, “The Pioneers of Paranormal Romance”).

[2] Lucinda Dyer, “P is for Paranormal – Still.” Publishers Weekly, (date access November 7, 2013).

[3] Paul Goat Allen, “The 20 Best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Last Decade.” Barnes and Noble, (accessed November 7, 2013).

[4] While the romance genre began to produce a number of paranormal titles and even dedicated imprints in the 1990s (such as the Silhouette Shadows imprint from Silhouette), as this article will later argue, UF/PR only crystallised into its now-common genre conventions following the year 2000. Reviewer Paul Goat Allen suggests in “In LKH’s 21st Anita Blake Novel, Her Iconic Heroine – and Her Saga – Continue to Evolve” that “a boom in paranormal fantasy” began in 2001 following the success of Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. In 2006, Belinda Luscombe noted in Time magazine that “More than 170 sagas of paranormal amour hit the shelves in 2004, twice as many as two years before” and noted that popular author Christine Feehan at that time was selling approximately 500,000 copies of each of her new paranormal romance releases (74-75). In the same year, Carol Memmott of USA Today observed a continuing boom in paranormal romance, citing that “Nearly 20% of all romance novels sold in 2005 had paranormal story lines, compared with 14% in 2004, according to Romance Writers of America figures.”  Tim Holman, publisher at Orbit Books, noted that in 2008 urban fantasy accounted for 45% of best-selling science fiction and fantasy fiction, commenting that “the rise of urban fantasy has without any doubt been the biggest category shift within the SFF market of the last 10 years in the US” (in Hogan, Roy, “Urban Fantasy: Science Fiction’s Future?”). In 2009, Tor Publishers officially recognised “urban fantasy” as publishing imprint label,  suggesting that despite the fact that they have long published similar popular fantasy and horror titles, urban fantasy had now gained popular traction as a recognizable genre label (see “Tor Books Now Offering Urban Fantasy Novels, But They Always Have, Too!”). And in 2012, Bloggers at suggested that the number of paranormal texts released each year had risen to over 750, which is a marked leap from the approximately 170 cited by Luscombe in 2004 (it should be noted, however, that don’t provide a source for this statistic). This selection of data from the publishing industry and online reviewers and fans clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the strong impact of the emergence of this new genre on the popular fiction industry and its consumers.

[5] For examples of UF/PR parodies, see the mockumentary series Death Valley (created by Spider One and others, 2011); novel Team Human (Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, New York: HarperTeen, 2012); and Ghost Ghirls, a Yahoo-based web series (created by Maria Blasucci and others,, 2013).

[6] Picker, Lenny, “The New (Para)Normal,”, (accessed 19 October 2013)

[7] Patricia O’Brien Matthews, Fangtastic Fiction: Twenty-First Century Paranormal Reads (Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2011), 2.

[8] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 80.

[9] Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” (Cinema Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring, 1984, 6-18), 6.

[10] Ibid., 8

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), 70.

[13] Ibid., 166.

[14] Ken Gelder, Popular Fiction: the Logics and Practices of a Literary Field (New York: Routledge, 2004), 2.

[15] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 80. See Ndalianis for useful and detailed history of paranormal romance filtered through the lenses of the both history of the romance genre and the history of Gothic fiction.

[16] Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, New York: Touchstone, 2009, 280.

[17] Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[18] Roz Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 214-223), 220

[19] Ibid., 215

[20]Ibid, 219. In fact, the influence of crime and detective fiction is broadly underestimated even in texts where the influence of the mystery genre is overtly referenced. For example, author Charlaine Harris considers her popular Southern Vampire Mysteries novels (2001-2013) to be mystery fiction. Harris stated in an interview with that “All the Sookie books are mysteries, too. I never think of them as horror, and I’m always astonished when they’re shelved with horror” (Alisa McCune, “A Conversation with Charlaine Harris”). For more on UF/PR as a detective and crime genre, see Linda Holland-Toll’s analysis of the Anita Blake series in “Harder than Nails, Harder than Spade: Anita Blake as ‘The Tough Guy’ Detective”; and the MA thesis of Caroline Stikkelbroeck, “Monstrum: The Vampire in the Detective Study.”

[21] Roz Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” 220

[22] Writing predominantly from a fan perspective in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Wendell and Tan highlight that fans and readers may perceive a marked distinction between romance novels and erotica in this genre (112-114).

[23] Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” 215.

[24] For examples of author histories and definitions of their own genre, see in the references to this article: Kerri Arthur, “Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy: Defining Two Popular Subgenres”; Carrie Vaughn, “The Long and Diverse History of Urban Fantasy” and “Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I”; and  Laurell K Hamilton, “Vampires and Paranormal Thrillers”. For examples of fan-based definitions of UF/PR, see blog entries such as:

For more fan-based definitions of UF/PR, see blog entries such as: “Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: What’s the Difference?” by Larissa Benoliel; “Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance,” by Marsha A Moore; “Escape to Romance: Paranormal Romance vs Urban Fantasy” by “BooksavvyBabe”; and “Paranormal vs Urban Fantasy, What is the Difference?” by Sue Grimshaw.

[25] For example, in 2013 the organisers of Dragon*Con, the largest science fiction and fantasy convention in the USA, divided their popular “dark fantasy” fan track into two separate tracks, “horror” and “urban fantasy” because these terms were more easily recognisable for genre fans. On the former Dark Fantasy Track Blog, the organiser states, “Simply put, I got tired of explaining what I meant by ‘Dark Fantasy.’ There are several different subgenres that are described as ‘dark fantasy,’ and it became necessary to pick one” (“FAQ: Dark Fantasy Fan Track”). See also “New Tracks for 2013” in the Daily Dragon online. This statement suggests that fans of both urban fantasy and the horror genre more broadly do not utilise “dark fantasy” as a genre label, and that Kaveney’s use of this label is therefore inappropriate.

[26] Alexander C Irvine, “Urban Fantasy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 200-213), 200

[27] For a succinct summary of the controversy, see Paul Goat Allen’s blog post, “The Controversial Saga That’s Good for Genre Fiction—and Society.” See also Laurell K Hamilton’s response to critical fans in her own blog entry, “Dear Negative Reader.”

[28] Wendell and Tan, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, 142-43.

[29] Gwenda Bond, “When Love Is Strange: Romance Continues Its Affair with the Supernatural,” Publisher’s Weekly, (accessed 20 October 2013).

[30] Other recurring thematic content includes the disruption of the distinction between the pastoral and the urban, as traditional pastoral elements of fantasy intrude on contemporary cities. Some texts explicitly take an ecocritical approach to this breakdown between the pastoral and the urban. For example, Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghost and Shadows (1990) pits an evil real estate developer in contemporary Los Angeles against the elves who reside in its last remaining park spaces.

[31] See also Irvine, who prioritises and analyses these forms of urban fantasy.

[32] Lee Killough, Blood Hunt, (New York, NY: Tor, 1987) and Blood Links (New York, NY: Tor, 1988); Forever Knight (created by Barney Cohen and James D. Parriott, 1992-1996); P N Elrod, The Vampire Files (13 novels. 1990-2009); Tanya Huff, Blood series (5 novels, 1991-1997); and Laurell K Hamilton, the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (22 novels, 1993-present).

[33] See Nanette Wargo Donohue, “The City Fantastic” (Library Journal, 1 June 2008, 64-67).

[34] Irvine, “Urban Fantasy,” 200.

[35] Early urban fantasy is a hybrid genre because it combines genre of traditional high fantasy such as elves with genre elements from horror, including not only supernatural beings like witches but horror-inflected descriptive material of magical violence. It also combines the traditional fantasy quest narrative of the hero with the mystery narrative of the investigator who must solve a mysterious problem, usually involving a crime. Contemporaneous vampire crime fiction is a hybrid genre because it combines established tropes from vampire literature with elements of detective and crime novels including the lone tough guy protagonist, the femme fatale, and the mystery narrative of an investigator who must solve a mysterious problem, usually involving a crime.

[36] In this sense, “hybridity” is the focus of much post-colonial criticism. Key sources for this use of the term include the work of Mikhail Bakhtin (The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981) and Homi Bhabha (“Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi,” Critical Inquiry 12. No.1, 1985: 144-65).

[37] David Punter and Glennis, Byron, The Gothic (Malden, MA: Blackwell 2004, 270-272), 272.

[38] Ibid., 270.

[39] Ibid., 271.

[40] Ibid., 270. For more on the humanization of the vampire in the 1970s, see also Joan Gordon, and Veronica Hollinger, “Introduction: The Shape of Vampires” (1-7), and Zanger, Jules, “Metaphor into Metonymy: The Vampire Next Door” (17-26) in Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture (eds Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, 17-26. Philadelphia, P.A.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). See also Nina Auerbach’s seminal history of the vampire text in Our Vampires, Ourselves (London: University of Chicago Press, 1995). More recent analyses of the changing conventions in vampire texts into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries can also be found in  William Patrick Day’s Vampire Legends in Contemporary America: What Becomes a Legend Most (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Milly Williamson’s Williamson, Milly. The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (London: Wallflower, 2005);  and Ken Gelder’s New Vampire Cinema (London: BFI, 2012).

[41] Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976); and The Vampire Chronicles and New Tales of the Vampires, 1976-2003.

[42] Hamilton, Laurell K, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (22 novels, 1993-present). See particularly Hamilton’s novels in this series from 1993-1997.

[43] Buffy the Vampire Slayer (created by Joss Whedon, 1997-2003).

[44] For useful discussions of postfeminism and third wave feminism, see Sarah Gamble, “Postfeminism,” in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Post-Feminism (edited by Sarah Gamble, New York: Routledge, 2001, 36-45); Yvonne Tasker and Dianne Negra, Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham : Duke University Press, 2007); Stephanie Genz, Postfeminities in Popular Culture (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Benjamin A. Brabon and Stephenie Genz, Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

[45] Buffy in particular has been much-analysed as a figure of post- and third-wave feminism. For example, see Irene Karras, “The Third Wave’s Final Girl: Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory & culture, vol.1 no.2, March 2002,; Patricia Pender, “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food: Buffy as Third Wave Feminist Icon” (in Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, edited by Stacy Gillis and  Gillian Howie, New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan Press, 2004); and Elana Levine, “Buffy and the ‘New Girl Order’: Defining Feminism and Femininity” (in Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Ann Parks, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). For an exploration of postfeminism in contemporary Gothic texts, see also Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture (edited by Benjamin A. Brabon and Stephanie Genz, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[46] Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 53.

[47] Williams, Linda, “When the Woman Looks.” (Re-Visions: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, eds. Linda Williams, Mary Ann Doane and Patricia Mellencamp. Frederick, MD: the University \Publications of America and the American Film Institute, 1986, 83-99), 87-88.

[48] Charlaine Harris, The Southern Vampire Mysteries (13 novels, 2001-2013).

[49] Kelley Armstrong, Women of the Otherworld (3 novels, 2001-2012).

[50] Patricia Briggs, the Mercy Thompson series (7 novels, 2006-present).

[51] Graham, Representations of the Post/Human, 12.

[52] Bailie, Helen T. “Blood Ties: The Vampire Lover in the Popular Romance” (Journal of American Culture 34, no. 2, 2011, 141-48), 145.

[53] Held, David. “Regulating Globalization?”(in The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew, 420-30. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 200) 425-6.

[54] Neil Badmington, “Posthumanism” (in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, edited by Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini, New York: Routledge, 2011, 374-384), 374.

[55] Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” 10.

[56] Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files (14 novels, 2000-present).

[57] Meyer, Stephenie, The Twilight Saga (4 novels, 2005-2008).

[58] For example, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010).

[59] For example, popular television series Once Upon a Time (created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, 2011-present); the fairytale retellings of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (London: Gollancz, 1979); and Marissa Meyer’s cyborg Cinderella novel, Cinder (New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012).

[60] Critics such as Jacques Derrida, Tzvetan Todorov and Janet Staiger question the use of the term “hybridity” in genre analysis. in “Hybrid or Inbred,” Janet Staiger rejects the use of the term “hybridity” in genre analysis, arguing that “since poststructuralism hypothesises [the] breaching of boundaries and impurity to be features of  every  text, then any text located as an instance of genre would also, ipso facto, breach generic boundaries.” Staiger thus argues that to some extent, any text may be read as hybrid-genre.

Staiger’s analysis echoes the genre criticism of Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov suggests that all genres may be distinguished by this breaching of boundaries: “transgression, in order to exist as such, requires a law that will, of course, be transgressed.” Todorov thus implies that the laws of genre are only able to be distinguished by comparing how specific iterations of genre transgress those laws.  Staiger also echoes Derrida, who similarly argues that “every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic, and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark.” Derrida suggests here again that genre is a process in which texts participate; moreover, that it is common for texts to belong to multiple genres. Thus, as these critics suggest, it is common for individual texts to transgress the boundaries of genre, or to attempt to recombine elements of multiple genres in new ways.

However, is nonetheless possible to define hybridity as a significant, distinguishing factor of UF/PR because UF/PR utilises these hybrid structures not just in individual texts that participate in genre: it utilises hybrid structures of genre overtly, across the UF/PR genre as a whole. I would even suggest that paranormal texts which do not perform some hybridisation of structures from other popular genres do not qualify as UF/PR at all. As UF/PR has developed, this hybridity may become taken for granted – for example, hybridising conventions from romance fiction with conventions of vampire literature is now common. But it nonetheless remains definitive. Again, the prevalence of this hybridisation throughout UF/PR is again suggested by the compound labels given to this genre. Compound, two-pronged genre labels such “urban fantasy,” “popular romance,” and “paranormal procedural” imply that the combination of multiple popular generic structures in these texts is so prominent as to be definitive. See: Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre” (Critical Inquiry, 7, no.1, 1980, 55-81), 65; Tzvetan Todorov, “The Origin of Genres” (New Literary History, 8, no.1, 1976, 159-170), 160. Janet Staiger, “Hybrid or Inbred: the Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History,” (Film Criticism 22, no.1, 1997, 5-20), 9, 15-16

[61] Kim Harrison. Hollows. 12 novels. 2004-present.

[62] Kim Harrison, The Good, The Bad and the Undead (New York, HarperTorch, 2005) and For a Few Demons More (New York: Harper Voyager, 2007).

[63] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York, NY: New York University, 2006).

[64] Jenkins, Henry, Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins (WordPress:, 2013).

[65] Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, (accessed 03 November 2013).

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Henry Jenkins, “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday),” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins,  (accessed 03 November 2013).

[69] Ibid.

[70] L J Smith, The Vampire Diaries, 4 novels, 1991-1992; The Vampire Diaries (created by Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson, 2009-present).

[71] L.J. Smith, The Vampire Diaries: The Return Trilogy and The Vampire Diaries: The Hunters Trilogy; Aubrey Clark, The Vampire Diaries: The Salvation Trilogy (2013-present).

[72] “Matt and Elena – First Date” (2010), “Matt and Elena – Tenth Date: On Wickery Pond” (2010), “An Untold Tale: Elena’s Christmas” (2010) and “Bonnie and Damon: After Hours” (2011), available at

[73] L.J. Smith, “Blogs from 2014: L J Smith’s new Vampire Diaries series,” L J Smith Official Site, (accessed 15 April 2014).

[74] Charlaine Harris, The Southern Vampire Mysteries (13 novels, 2001-2013).

[75] Charlaine Harris, The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, New York: Ace Trade, 2012, and After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse, New York: Ace, 2013

[76] True Blood, created by Alan Ball (2008-2014; projected end date).

[77] David Wohl, Jason Badower and Blond, True Blood: The Great Revelation, TopCow Productions Inc and Spacedog Entertainment, 2008.

[78] Alan Ball and others, True Blood Volume 1: All Together Now (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011); Marc Andreyko and others, True Blood Volume 2: Tainted Love (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011); Mariah Huehner and others, True Blood Volume 3: The French Quarter, (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2012); Michael McMillian and others, True Blood Volume 4: Where Were You? (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013).

[79] The blog “” ( includes written blog entries and video entries starring actress Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Jessica on True Blood.

[80] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 181.

[81] Jenkins, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn.”

[82] Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101.”

[83] Ibid.


Bio: Leigh McLennon is currently a PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. During her candidature at the University of Melbourne, she has also participated in a graduate exchange with the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include genre fiction, popular culture, Gothic literature, Shakespeare, 19th century literature,  posthumanism, and feminist theory.


Everything in this World is Artificial: Media Contagion, Theme Parks and the Ring Franchise – Jessica Balanzategui

The Ring Franchise

Figure 1. Publicity poster for Sadako 3D (2012)

Figure 1. Publicity poster for Sadako 3D (2012).

The circuits of transnational production sparked by Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)[1] — which remains Japan’s most commercially successful domestic horror film ever released — are polyvalent and anfractuous, constituted of almost unprecedented levels of cross-cultural exchange, regeneration, and diversification across multiple mediums and platforms.  The Ring films[2] have become such a powerful cultural phenomenon that a varied range of insightful criticism about them exists[3], most of which concentrates on the first Japanese film and the equally influential American remake, The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002).[4] Yet considering that the Ring texts’ mythos of an uncontainable transmedia virus increasingly extends beyond the fictional diegesis to underpin the real life mechanics of the franchise, I suggest that their evocation of contagious transmediation has not yet been adequately examined. This is hardly surprising considering that the extent to which this contagion would creep into the real could barely be appreciated until recently: the newest film additions to the Ring franchise, Sadako 3D[5] and Sadako 3D 2[6] (Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2012 and 2013), have been surrounded by a swirl of visceral and engaging promotional texts which destabilise the traditional dichotomy between the films as ‘main events’ and the secondary media that promote them. Considered instead as a multiplicitous array of texts offering variegated modes of embodied participation and engagement, I suggest that in Japan the recent additions to the Ring franchise (subsequently referred to collectively as ‘Ring’) have augmented trans- and cross-media mechanics to such an extent that Ring is becoming less a film franchise and more like a disembodied theme park. Just as the thematic locus of the Ring series is a monstrous eruption through media boundaries, the film series that is Ring increasingly mutates and extends its tendrils beyond the cinematic frame.

Partly as a result of this intense media saturation in Japan, the basic narrative framework underlying the Ring franchise has reached the status of almost universally recognizable cultural fairy tale.[7]  The mythemic nucleus of Ring’s plot —which remains in some form across the vast web of Ring texts — is that a young girl with vague supernatural powers (called Sadako in the Japanese versions) is brutally murdered after being thrown down a well and left to die.  Her vengeance festers while her spirit remains trapped in the well, and she uses her psychic powers to implant her thoughts, a series of surreal images which eerily undermine any conception of narrative coherence, onto a videotape or another optical media apparatus. When her images are viewed, the spectator becomes ‘infected’ by them and is doomed to die within a week unless they copy and pass them on. The culmination of Sadako’s curse involves her eruption through the screen on which her image appears, killing the reluctant spectator. Ultimately, the anxieties projected by Ring constellate around the capacity of mediated images for uncontainable, contagious proliferation, and the resultant threat that media technologies may infect and overcome the human subject.

Figure 2. Sadako emerges from the television. Ringu (1998).

Figure 2. Sadako emerges from the television. Ringu (1998).


Tracing the movements of the Ring texts demonstrates that, in parallel to the thematic core of the Ring universe itself, the franchise has propagated like an infectious virus: constructing linear models of progress from originals to remakes and reboots is largely a fruitless task.  A brief outline of the emergence of the franchise at the turn of the millennium in Japan illustrates this condition. The first film Ringu was based on the bestselling novel Ring (1991) by Koji Suzuki, who is commonly known as the “Japanese Stephen King” (Suzuki has also suggested that he was inspired by Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)[8]). While the movement from Suzuki’s book to Nakata’s wildly successful film has been much discussed, elided in current discourse on the Ring franchise is the fact that Nakata and his screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi were also informed by a made-for-television movie version of Suzuki’s novel titled Ring: Kanzenban (Ring: The Complete Edition, Fuji Television, 1995).[9] A sequel to Ringu was produced concurrently with Nakata’s film featuring the same cast, but with a different crew: Rasen (Spiral, 1998), directed by Jôji Iida, who also wrote the screenplay for Kanzenban. This film, which closely followed the plot of Suzuki’s book sequel of the same name, performed poorly at the box office in comparison to smash hit Ringu, so the production company, Omega Project, rapidly developed a new sequel which deviated from the plot of Suzuki’s books, Ringu 2 (Nakata, 1999), which was a moderate success.

The same year, another television series was produced by Fuji, Ringu: Saishûshô (Ring: The Final Chapter – like the previous “Complete Edition”, a rather ironic title). The series consisted of twelve hour long episodes, and would be followed by a second, ‘sequel’ series (which in fact diverged greatly from the first), Rasen, constituted of thirteen hour long episodes. In 2000, a prequel to Nakata’s Ringu was released, Ringu 0: Bāsudei (Birthday, Norio Tsuruta, 2000), a year which also saw the release of two Ring videogames, The Ring: Terror’s Realm (Asmik Ace Entertainment) for the Sega Dreamcast and Ring: Infinity (Kadakowa Shorten) for the Bandai WonderSwan, a Japanese handheld gaming deviceIn parallel to this vast array of texts, multiple manga volumes have been produced (eleven to date), all of which both re-imagine and extend Ringu’s story to varying degrees. Suzuki also continues to add new additions to his Ring series, which currently is constituted of three novels and one collection of short stories. Suzuki’s subsequent books have been strongly influenced by the myriad of other texts ‘based’ on his original novel. There has also been a Korean remake of Ringu, The Ring Virus (Dong-bin Kim, 1999). In addition, the aforementioned American remake, The Ring, was successful both with critics and at the box office, and spawned a sequel directed by Ringu’s Nakata (The Ring Two, 2005). The focus of this essay, Sadako 3D[10], has been termed a reboot in English language media coverage, but it in fact stems from the story of the first three films, while building on the 1999 television series Ring: The Final Chapter and Suzuki’s Ring sequels Loop (1999) and S (2012, as yet unpublished in English).

Clearly, the Ring franchise is an unruly beast, extending into a multiplicity of rhizomatic mutations which distort the boundaries between specific mediums and narrative worlds. In fact, as both Chika Kinoshita and Thy Phu have pointed out, the term “J-horror”, used transnationally to denote “Japanese horror”, does not necessarily signify a nationalized film genre, but, to use Kinoshita’s term, more of a “movement.”[11] As Phu observes “the prefix [J] functions as a floating signifier aptly capturing the relative fluidity with which these films [and, I would add, non-filmic texts] circulate….The term anticipates and allows for its adaptability.”[12] While the Ring franchise undoubtedly represents a constellation of both trans- and cross-media texts in functional terms, it in turn unsettles clear delineations between these two categories, and in fact the chaotic transgression of media boundaries is central to both the aesthetics and uncanny affects of the franchise.

In fact, this disruption of the borders between texts, screens and mediums and the underpinning disturbance of the distinction between ‘real life’ and ‘mediated artificiality’ ultimately overpowers (or perhaps defies the possibility of) any hermetic notion of narrative coherence across the franchise. In this sense transmedia contagion — conceived as a mutation between platforms as opposed to a coherent cross-media retelling or extension of narrative — has become the ideo-aesthetic core of the franchise, and is not just an extra-diegetic condition of its delivery.  This contagion occurs because Sadako functions as a transmediated being who infects the real. Her viral curse reduces humanity and technology to the same function by using both as vessels for the proliferation of her image, which in turn works to fuse audiences into this monstrous incarnation of a transmedia universe. In so doing, Sadako also embodies a collapse in the boundaries between reality and its signification, exposing what Jean Baudrillard refers to as the “tactical hallucination”[13] involved in maintaining outmoded dichotomies between authenticity and artifice, signifier and signified in a simulacral, postmodern society.

While Ring extends beyond national boundaries as a result of both the transnational success of the original Japanese film and through subsequent remakes in the US and Korea, this article narrows its focus to the Japanese Ring tradition because it is within the context of its cultural homeland that the franchise has been the most enduring and influential. I suggest that this is largely because the franchise works through particular anxieties about the over-determined relationship between national progress, technology and cultural authenticity in Japan. In particular, this article explores the ways in which the Ring franchise increasingly expresses anxieties surrounding the theme park — an important symbol of troubled progress in Japan.

FIgure 3. On of the screen crawling shots of Sadako from Ringu (2012)

Figure 3. One of the screen crawling shots of Sadako from Ringu (1998).

The Ring Sensorium

The Ring texts have always implicated audiences in the horror of their fictional universes: they imply that as a result of being subjected to Sadako’s cursed video in the process of watching the film, the viewer, mirroring the on-screen victims, has become infected by Sadako’s curse. Thus, a central component of the mythos is a monstrous form of transmediation in which the human viewer becomes just another machinic conduit for Sadako’s image. As Anthony Enns states: “Ringu takes the logic of the mind-machine interface [to extremes] by suggesting that … processes of psychic transference can actually work in both directions: [Sadako’s] mind is certainly capable of transmitting and storing images directly onto optical media, but such stored images can also imprint themselves onto the perceiver’s psychic apparatus.”[14] That Sadako’s cursed images extra-diegetically infect the viewer’s mind is invoked with further potency by the conceit that Sadako has the ability to erupt through the screen which projects her image and enter the real space of the spectator. Such a mechanism impels the spectator to become a participant within the narrative, instead of an observer outside of the on-screen universe.

I suggest that this visceral mode of ‘spectatorship’[15] can be explicated through the lens of Angela Ndalianis’ “horror sensorium”, a concept which illuminates the “kind of experiences the senses mediate and give meaning to in our encounter with contemporary horror cinema.”[16] Ndalianis’ sensorium denotes the indissoluble fusion of cognition, emotion and sensation involved in audience engagement with horror films. Thus, the sensorium provides a model for the relations between film and audience which allows consideration of the deep entwining of the cognitive and the visceral that constitutes the Ring franchise’s mechanics. The texts under discussion foreground and revolve around the manner by which they interface with audiences, accentuating our conscious acknowledgement of the space where “the medium and the human body collide.”[17] This visceral collision of medium and body in turn enunciates the collapsing together of mediated images/corporeality and artificial signs/reality that underpins the increasingly theme park-esque dynamics of the franchise. In addition, as will be shown, the Ring franchise employs theme park aesthetics to express deep cultural anxieties associated with national progress in Japan. The analytical framework provided by the sensorium helps to uncover how the Ring franchise’s mediation on complicated cultural tensions is intertwined with the texts’ aesthetics and visceral affects, and not by any means separate from them.

In compliment to Ndalianis’ concept of the horror sensorium, I will draw on insights garnered from Scott Lukas’ astute analysis of the theme park and its increasingly ubiquitous position within contemporary culture — the effects of which I suggest are particularly prominent within the Japanese cultural consciousness. In parallel, I refer to the anxieties raised in particular by Baudrillard about the theme park as the apex of simulacral illusion, a space which fosters the misapprehension that in our contemporary hyperreal society there remains a clear distinction between signs and reality. The presence of the theme park is not only increasingly rendered in the Ring franchise through the visceral affects of the films (which are in themselves ever drawing closer to theme park attractions), but because the anxieties raised by Sadako and her media-proliferated virus echo those surrounding the sinister invasion of the theme park space into the very core of reality. As Lukas explains, critics from Alan Bryman to Baudrillard “are concerned that [the] movement of the theme park form [from an enclosed space to a cultural mode] will result in a loss of the authenticity of life. Like a virus, a terrorist or a moral panic, the theme park threatens everyday life itself.”[18] Anxieties constellating around the theme park thus parallel those central to the Ring: that media technologies have staged an insidious take-over of the real.

The Ring media enact this invasion by impelling audiences to interact with Sadako’s universe and the tensions it expresses in participatory and embodied ways. As Jackson observes of the first film, “the viewer’s feeling that she, too, may have been “infected” by the film’s images situates the horror of the experience in the body. This disallows the purging experience that the horror movie . . . could provide, and instead leaves an anxious trace behind it.”[19] In the last few years in particular, the Ring franchise has started to play with this distortion between mediated artificiality and reality by extending Sadako’s reach into the physical world via theme park-like spectacles, attractions and events which insist on the primacy of embodied participation rather than passive ‘viewing’.

For instance, to promote the release of Sadako 3D, a walk-through maze attraction was established at the indoor theme park Sega Joypolis in Tokyo — a tradition which has been in place since the release of Ringu, ensuring that Ring has had a near constant presence at Joypolis for over a decade. The maze reproduced the narrative of the film in micro-form, placing participants ‘inside’ Sadako’s world by echoing the media hybridity of theme park attractions, layering brief clips from the film with simple audio-visual effects and a real life ‘tour guide’, playing the part of a computer technician, who mediated the participants’ interface with the attraction. He led us through different rooms featuring computer and television screens which reacted to our presence in mysterious ways. Predictably, the final room contained a mossy well. Throughout the attraction, “Sadako” (a person in costume) would emerge from unexpected spaces in each room and stagger towards us, and the experience culminated with her chasing us out of the attraction.

Also in conjunction with Sadako 3D, on the main street in Tokyo’s Shibuya (in fact, at the world’s busiest intersection, Shibuya crossing) a “Sadako parade” was held, in which fifty “Sadakos” (people dressed as Sadako-emerging-through-the-screen) marched up and down the street, interacting with spectators. The parade culminated in a large float, akin to those featured in theme park character parades, featuring a giant Sadako dragging herself through a screen and reaching out towards onlookers. Sadako also became a part of the pre-game entertainment at a major baseball game at Tokyo Dome, throwing the first pitch, as seen in the video below.[20]

Sadako throws the first pitch, Tokyo Dome, 2012

Figure 1: Sadako 3D Parade at Shibuya Crossing, images from, 2012.

Figure 4. Sadako 3D Parade,, 2012.

This trend of the theme park-like attraction or spectacle began early in the franchise with ‘pranks’ on Japanese television programs (such as the video below, which aptly went viral on youtube), in which “Sadako” physically emerges from some space ‘behind’ the television screen at the climactic moment in the film. This constitutes a fourfold layering of spectatorship — viewers of such pranks watch people watch Ringu, who are in turn watching fictional character Ryuji watch Sadako’s monstrous emergence from the television screen. Such mise-en-abyme mirrors the stacking up of media experiences and layers of engagement central to the theme park. Pranks like this one encourage a form of active, playful spectatorship, in which we enjoy the vicarious thrill involved in watching others in modes of extreme sensorial engagement.

Japanese Pop Group ‘Morning Musume’ fall prey to a Sadako prank.

The experience of watching others screaming out of terrified delight on rollercoasters and similar thrill rides is sewed into the spatial and experiential geography of the theme park. Thus like the Ring franchise, theme parks revolve around a temporally plural mode of spectatorship, fostering anticipation, and perhaps exhilarating dread, for our own future engagement with thrill rides, and also re-invoking our experience from the recent past. Such theme park-esque incitement of the sensorium deepens the implication in Ring that our fusion with optical media is disruptive to our own subjective wholeness, placing the human body frighteningly at the mercy of media technologies even as we willingly conflate and engage with them. At the core of many theme park rides is the thrilling realization that we are placing our comparatively fragile bodies under the control of formidable machines, which draw us to the extreme limits of sensorial engagement; we are rendered powerless when fused to such machines, before being thrust into a realm of exhilarating simulated danger.

The aesthetics that have come to dominate the Ring franchise in recent years thus allow a playful engagement with the hybridization and layering of different mediums, technologies and experiences that similarly constitute the theme park. Ndalianis explains that:

contemporary horror is marked by an excess of self-referentiality and remediation that is as multifarious as the conglomerate structure that produces it. It gives rise to a hybrid logic that has significant ramifications for genres and the critical models used to analyse them and, in the case of the theme park attractions, this is all the more so because of the excess media hybridity.[21]

As the Ring franchise develops beyond the first decade of the new millennium, the play on this media hybridity and transgression between boundaries of technologically-mediated artificial world and the ‘real’ has become central to its mechanics — exceeding any specific focus on character or narrative. The locus of Sadako’s monstrosity is in fact her inscrutable lack of a subjective core, leaving it impossible for audiences to discern where she is placed on the human-machine continuum. Yet as well as being central to her eerie affects, this lack of a coherent character paradoxically ensures  that Sadako can be a very adaptable media darling, as her image is rendered endlessly re-locatable across Japanese media. For instance, Sadako recently appeared as “Hello Kitty” in Sanrio’s Sadako 3D—Hello Kitty tie-in, which featured stickers, mugs, and notebooks available for purchase at film-screenings and at the Joypolis park. Evidently, Sadako’s inescapable hybridity and penchant for disseminating her cursed image across multiple mediums has far exceeded the confines of a unitary fictional narrative.

Figure 2: Sadako 3D and Hello Kitty tie-in, images from, 2013.

Figure 5. Sadako 3D/Hello Kitty tie-in,, 2013.

Lost Decades and Cursed VHS Tapes: Sadako and the Collapse of Technological Progress

Sadako’s indiscriminate incursion of Japanese media texts, and the comingling of fear and playfulness that underlies it, relates to her resonant embodiment of the collapse of secure narratives of technological progress in Japan.  Technology has been central to Japan’s hyper-accelerated transition to modernity since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 – 1912, a rapid socio-cultural shift undergirded by what Susan Napier refers to as “highly conscious ideology of national progress”[22]: in pursuit of global agency after opening to Western trade, Japan’s feudal structure was replaced with a market economy and the country underwent a rapid process of industrialization. From the Meiji period onwards, fixations on futurity became mediated through the sparkling horizons promised by technological advances. Following Japan’s traumatic defeat in World War II and the subsequent Allied Occupation (1945-1952), this fixation with progress was resurrected with deepened exigency and impetus, albeit set along new axes: the quest for progress became anxiously determined as the means by which Japan could overcome its victim status and reconfigure a sense of national identity.

Yet even before the War, beneath preoccupations with national progress lurked a series of tensions. The ambivalence is summed up in the saying wakon-yosai (Japanese spirit, Western technology), which became something of a mantra pre-war, but continues to characterise Japanese attitudes towards technology. From the time of the Meiji Restoration onwards the quest for modernity, while overtly successful, was underpinned by an unstable series of dichotomies. As Kevin Doak elucidates, “modernity was defined in a variety of ways (and therefore tended toward obscurity): at times it represented a foreign influence — the West; at other times it referred to the Meiji state and its ideology of ‘civilization and enlightenment.’”[23] Narratives of rapid technological progress attempted to reconcile this discordant constellation of principles, and in some ways served to uneasily suppress them.

Throughout the Meiji period strong emphasis was placed on ‘catching up’ with the West through technological and industrial development, and in some cases this process included the conscious disavowal of ancient Japanese traditions.  Both Gerald Figal[24] and Ramie Tateishi suggest that one of the most prominent reforms of the Meiji education system was Tetsujiro Inoue’s discourse on “monsterology”, which emerged in the late 1890s and attempted to eliminate any reference to supernatural folklore in favour of a more ‘rational’, Western-style ideology. As Tateishi explains, “coded as illogical and chaotic, and thus antithetical to the project of modernisation, such elements were targeted as the embodiments of those qualities that needed to be eliminated in the name of progress.”[25] ‘National progress’ became even more anxiously determined after the War: a condition of the Allied Occupation was that Japan must abandon important tenets of its traditional culture, such as the sacred power of the Emperor and state Shinto, enforcing the wholesale re-modelling of Japanese cultural identity. The resolute quest for rapid economic and technological progress once again became the way in which the Japanese negotiated this cultural upheaval.

Japan’s extremely rapid, and, under the circumstances, rather astonishing economic and technological progress following WWII has long been held up as an example to be emulated and respected, and promptly became central to the rebuilding of the nation’s sense of pride in overcoming traumatic defeat. In fact Napier suggests that “post-war Japan has become something of a myth if not a full-blown fantasy.”[26] Yet despite being  extremely successful, this was an investment in technological progress that was always to be somewhat fraught, especially considering the uneasy repression of Japan’s pre-modern past that became a necessary (and at the time of the Occupation, enforced) side-effect of this progress.

As galvanized by the postwar constitution imposed on Japan — which includes a provision that Japan must forever renounce war and global conflict — much of the emphasis of Japan’s post-war economic advancement was placed upon leisure technologies, which rapidly became central to the way in which the nation projected its image both domestically and globally.  At the pinnacle of Japan’s rapid economic progress from the 1970s to the late 1980s, one such technology was the VHS video tape — the eerie conduit for Sadako’s curse in Ringu — invented by the (at that time) independent Victor Company of Japan.  As Phu explains, the VHS tape sealed in “its victories with competing developments such as Betamax, the laserdisc and electronic disc, Japan’s much envied stature as a technological superpower” and became associated with the “dominance of a ‘national’ innovation.”[27] VHS was the unlikely success story of an independent Japanese company which won the hard fought battle for technological domination of the home entertainment sector at that time.

At the time of Ringu’s domestic release in late 1998, VHS was still ubiquitous, but the DVD had been introduced in America only a year before; subsequently, VHS was faced with a swift obsolescence. By the time Ringu and its sequels were marketed heavily overseas by DreamWorks and Universal Studios in the early to mid-2000s (particularly with the release of the box-set Ringu Anthology of Terror in 2005), the films were largely released on DVD. The aesthetics of Sadako’s curse amplify the temporal lag and liminality underlying the Ring franchise’s global emergence at the fold between analogue and digital video storage. Sadako’s VHS curse is presented entirely in grainy black and white, consisting of images constructed using frontal lighting which produces an extremely flat and thin spatial aesthetic, recalling the frontal lighting and resultant flattened aesthetics of very early Japanese film (which was in turn mimetic of Kabuki theatre).[28]  Sadako’s tattered long white gown and angular movements are evocative of even more distant pasts: emerging as she does from a well in a forest clearing, Sadako appears like one of the vengeful female ghosts of pre-modern Kabuki, Noh and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) centred on kaidan, or ancient ghost folklore.  Thus at the brink of the millennial turn, Sadako, a monstrous remnant of both prior stages of technological development and Japan’s ‘chaotic’ spiritual past, infected a device which symbolized Japanese technological supremacy at the very moment when it was tipped to be overcome by the new, ‘purer’ digital technology.[29]

Enhancing this eerie sense of the past reinstating itself in a disturbance of technological progress, Ringu was released in the midst of the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy. This sudden breakdown in economic progress proved extremely hard to overcome, and the period of economic stagnation from the mid-1990s into the new millennium became known as the “lost decade.”[30] As indicated by the terminology, the lost decade figured a sweeping ideological rupture to narratives of unbridled national progress — a phenomenon that had not occurred on such a scale since WWII. As Fletcher and von Staden elucidate, “the experience of the lost decade has been traumatic for Japan ….Observers no longer claimed that Japan was ‘number one’…. [T]he effects of the economic stagnation linger as the nation has not found a way out of its economic purgatory of slow growth over the past two decades.”[31]  Emerging as it did in this milieu of collapsed progress, Ringu’s raising of a pre-modern spectre who possesses supposedly ‘current’ VHS technology just as it was faced with impending obsolescence — harnessing this technology to project images redolent of the earliest stages of Japanese film history — held a disruptively asynchronous power.

Despite the fact that VHS is now obsolete, the VHS tape curse of the original film remains deeply uncanny in its raising of a premature, but seemingly prescient, ‘analogue nostalgia’ for the fitful, grainy qualities of the VHS. In fact, even in 1998, Nakata consciously endeavoured to enhance the imperfection of the analogue image by passing it through a computer and applying a special effect to enhance the washed-out, snowy quality.  It is as if the unruly, repressed elements of Japan’s cultural history are rendered by the snowy aesthetic of Sadako’s cursed tape. In fact audio-visual static heralds Sadako’s imminent appearance in Ringu, while posing a threat to the protagonists by obscuring the already enigmatic images and audio contained on the tape — images that the characters are tasked with decoding in their attempts to ‘solve’ the mysteries of Sadako’s curse. These efforts to penetrate the static and decipher the cursed video are ultimately doomed, because Sadako’s curse is buttressed not by humanistic reason but by her mechanistic impulse to reproduce and disseminate the grainy images. Sadako’s curse, it seems, works to deconstruct linear models of progress, reducing coherent images of national identity into a meaningless swarm of seething pixels.

Sadako’s Cursed Video, Ringu, 1998

[Abandoned] Theme Parks

As the Ring franchise develops and the VHS tape becomes increasingly culturally extraneous, the franchise has gradually ungrounded its ties to any one particular technology by instead adopting the mechanics of the theme park: less a singular media technology than a technologically-mediated realm, in both a physical and immaterial sense. As Lukas suggests, “as architectural objects theme parks are solidified forms, but as imaginative objects they are ephemeral, gaseous, rhizomatic”[32], and Baudrillard, using Disneyland as a metonym, suggests that the theme park “is a perfect model of all entangled orders of simulation.”[33]  In this realm, as in the Ring universe, humans willingly become sutured into an asymmetrical relationship with a dizzying array of mediated images and machines. Unlike the VHS tape, the theme park remains culturally relevant not only through the wispy tendrils of nostalgia for something lost— although in many ways, as will be shown, the Japanese theme park is also steeped in a nostalgia for the past rendered unsettling — but as a prominent spatial and cultural presence in Japan. Like Sadako herself, the theme park is a domain which mutates in accordance with technological developments, yet at the same time draws attention to the constructed-ness of teleological, linear models of progress.

In his discussion of Disneyland, Umberto Eco contends that the theme park represents a space in which “absolute unreality is offered as real presence”[34] as the artificial sign unashamedly lays itself bare as the real thing. For this reason, Eco describes the theme park as the “Absolute Fake” borne “of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.”[35] Contemporary Japan can be considered as such a depthless present, characterized by the falling away of the master-narrative of technological progress which had previously buttressed conceptions of cultural identity, a future-fixated model which also reconciled the concomitant displacement of traditional cultural modes inherent in Japan’s shift to modernity. In fact, anxieties about the loss of cultural authenticity had seethed beneath this model of progress from the earliest decades of the 20th century, yet are disconcertingly exposed in the wake of the lost decade. As Tetsuo Najita explains, writing soon before the collapse of the economy, since the Meiji Restoration “technology as a system of knowledge and production belonged to the Western Other, and had been directly imported into the native historical stream rendering much of that history artificial.”[36]  Especially when considered alongside the spectre of the abandoned theme park — a ubiquitous and eerie presence throughout Japan — the theme park can be seen as a receptacle for the anxieties surrounding technological progress and cultural authenticity which have come to haunt contemporary Japan.

The theme park amalgamates all of the ambivalence surrounding the wakon-yosai formulation writ large and in feverishly neo-baroque form.[37]  Spaces akin to early amusement parks, such as America’s Coney Island, began to emerge in Japan in direct coincidence with the opening of Japan for Western trade in the final years of the Edo period. The first, Hanayashiki Amusement park in Asakusa, Tokyo, was opened in 1853, soon after the arrival of Matthew Perry’s US Naval fleet. It was first designed as an attractive commodification of traditional Japanese customs and to showcase Japan’s natural beauty to the Western interlopers: Hanayashiki means “flower viewing place.” Yet during the Meiji period, it gradually transformed into something of an exhibition space for ever more advanced attractions and rides, extravagantly expanding on ideas borrowed from the West, such as the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster. Hanayashiki is still in existence, and throughout its over 160 year life span increasingly advanced rides and attractions have been stacked into what is quite a tiny space. Baudrillard suggests that “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning,”[38] as the simulated reconstruction of the past — a tangible yet artificial (re)construction of “pastness” — comes to stand in for the past itself. He suggests that nostalgic images of “pastness” become anxiously over-determined in post-modern, simulacral societies because “our entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view.”[39] Evidently Hanayashiki plays such a cultural function, attempting to conceal the cultural hollowness of the present by frantically amassing remnants of a lost past even as it projects a narrative of continual progress.

Figure 3: Hanayashiki Amuseument Park in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by, 2013

Figure 6. Hanayashiki Amusement Park in Asakusa, Tokyo,, 2013.

The maintenance of the past’s visibility is a particularly important yet precarious exercise in Japan, for, as the example of Hanayashiki demonstrates, narratives of Japanese cultural identity attempt to balance an ideology of rapid national progress — both an import of and reaction to Western cultural imperialism —with traditional Japanese customs. At Hanayashiki, the spectres of the park’s historical purpose as a flower viewing garden remain in simulated form: at the centre of the park is an artificial mountain which contains a flower viewing area, and there is also a man-made lake surrounded by kitschy incarnations of traditional Japanese shrines and artefacts. Even the entrance ticket visualises the park’s existence as thread to the past, depicting a faded, black-and-white image of the park as it was in the 1850s bordered by a technicoloured, neo-baroque frame which stands in for the frenetic Hanayashiki of the present. The park ultimately crumbles any distinction between ‘authentic’ cultural history and the artificial reconstruction of it in the present: the convoluted space presents a disorienting simulacral archaeology of national progress. Notably, Hanayashiki makes a brief appearance in failed Ringu sequel Rasen, reflected as an eerie space in which protagonist Ando engages in a moment of haunted nostalgia for his dead son, the memory of the dead child and the retro theme park united in their evocation of troubled progress.

While Hanayashiki has been active since 1853, many Japanese theme parks have in fact had a strangely transitory existence. Throughout the period of Japan’s immense economic strength from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, a great number of theme parks were built all over the country. Theodore Gilman explains that “theme parks were a popular economic development tool in the 1980s in Japan, and the spread of these facilities to the most rural regions is due entirely to policy diffusion supported by both local and national governments.”[40] These spaces have often been held up as peculiar incarnations of the wakon-yosai formulation due to their specific themes, many of which offer warped simulacra of Western cultural modes or spaces. Such parks have included Gulliver’s Kingdom (a space at the base of Mount Fuji which incarnated the world of Gulliver’s Travels), Western Village (a Wild West park in Tochigi, complete with animatronic cowboys and a miniature Mount Rushmore), and Nara Dreamland, a Nara park modelled on Disneyland (yet without the necessary copyright permissions), complete with a magic castle and spatially identical main street.  With the sudden bursting of the economic bubble and subsequent economic downturn of the late 1990s which continues to loom over contemporary Japan, many of these extravagant theme parks have been forced to close down.

Without the economic support to either sustain or completely remove them, there are now many abandoned theme parks dotted around Japan in various states of disrepair, including each of those listed above. While many of them have been vandalised or damaged extensively (which, in the case of Gulliver’s Kingdom did eventually lead to the removal of most of the larger structures), some sit largely intact on the edges of cities concealed beneath overgrowth and rust, or in the case of Nara Dreamland, locked up and patrolled by a single security guard. The decaying remnants of such parks, which were nostalgic for imaginary pasts even in their prime, are eerie incarnations of nostalgia at the interface between the personal and the cultural, representing times of joy and sanguinity both within the personal lives of many Japanese and as a cultural symbol of the boom period of the 1970s and 1980s. The utopian models of the theme park have thus broken down in these spaces; representative of a feverish optimism that is now overcome by melancholic silence, inertia and decay, these ex-parks linger as spectres of the period of rapid economic growth and technological development that has since been lost, while embodying the present economic stagnation.

Figure 4: Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi, and the derelict “Gulliver’s Kingdom”, which was demolished in 2007, at the base of Mount Fuji. ‘John Wayne’ image by Michael Grist,, and ‘Gulliver’ image by Old Creeper,

Figure 7. Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi,, 2013. “Gulliver’s Kingdom” at the base of Mount Fuji,, 2011.

While the abandoned theme park retains a haunting presence within Japan’s socio-cultural and physical landscape, the few major theme parks which have withstood the lost decade and attained some level of permanence are prominent components of contemporary Japanese culture. The Japanese version of Universal Studios is the most lucrative tourist attraction in Osaka, while Tokyo is home to a number of hugely popular theme parks: Tokyo Disneyland was the first Disney park to be built outside of the US and has long been the third most visited theme park in the world behind the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California, while the nearby Tokyo DisneySea is the fourth most visited.[41] Tokyo is also home to Fuji-Q Highland at the base of Mount Fuji, which recalls Hanayashiki in its harnessing of Japan’s environmental iconography to create a technologically mediated, tourist friendly fantasy space.

Figure 5: Abandoned Nara Dreamland.1st image by Ralph Mirebs,, 2nd by Bram Dauw,

Figure 8. Abandoned Nara Dreamland,, 2013.

The dialogic relationship between the active and the abandoned theme park — the former representing the successful continuation of the national narrative while the latter signifies its dark underside and failure — invokes on a grand scale the aesthetic of distorted progress previously outlined as a condition of Sadako’s cursed videotape. This mechanism is particularly potent when considering the extent to which theme park aesthetics seep into the Japanese every day. Baudrillard suggests that in an American context:

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact …America [is] no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality… but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.[42]

However in Japan, it seems that acknowledgement of the hyperreal register of society can barely be suppressed any longer, so ubiquitous are processes of imitation and simulation: as Donald Richie quips, “looking at Tokyo one …wonders why the Japanese went to all the trouble of franchising a Disneyland in the suburbs when the capital itself is so superior a version.”[43] Theme park aesthetics have found their way into the very core of everyday architecture and practices — from elaborate themed shopping malls (such as Odaiba’s “Venus Fort”, styled after 17th century Venice), restaurants (like the “Robot Restaurant” in Shinjuku) and Love Hotels (for instance the Jurassic Park themed “Hotel Jzauruss” in Beppu), down to the ubiquitous plastic food models which stand in for menus in the shopfronts of many Japanese restaurants. Even city main streets, such as Dotonbori in Osaka, adopt the conditions and aesthetics of a theme park: in addition to a giant Ferris Wheel, Dotonbori’s defining signifier is its huge animatronic crab, and it is a frenzy of lights, sounds, screens and hyperbolic performative architecture.  Thus in Japan, the borders between the overtly hyperreal zone of the theme park and ‘reality’ are by no means clear or fixed, suggesting that the ‘reality principle’ Baudrillard refers to has long been unstable in Japanese culture.

Figure 6: Dotonbori, Osaka – City Main Street as Theme Park. Images by JKT-c, and, 2013

Figure 9. Dotonbori, Osaka – Main Street as Theme Park, JKT-c/, 2013.

Sadako 3D

Drawing on Baudrillard’s concern that the theme park space undermines the dichotomy between reality and hyperreality even as it seems to reinforce it, Lukas explains that “the performance of architecture … is based on a definitive crime against reality”[44] as imagined fantasy features indistinguishably intermingle with those imitating ‘real’ buildings or places, destabilizing attempts to locate a reference point based in reality.  This process is akin to what Baudrillard refers to as “the murderous capacity of images” [45], the ‘perfect crime’ in which the artificial murders the real without the perpetrators or the ‘corpse’ of the real ever being traced. Baudrillard characterises this condition as the third-order of simulation, as we exist in the realm of hyperreality while deluding ourselves of its solidity and reality.[46] The suggestion here is that the real has been replaced by simulations before we were even aware that it was missing: a mechanism which characterizes Sadako herself. In fact, the threat that reality has already long disappeared even as the characters strive to maintain a ‘real’ existence forms the underlying core of Sadako 3D: the film enacts the failure of the reality principle, as the characters come to the uncanny realization that they exist within an endless realm of artificial simulations which cannot be distinguished from ‘originals’.  A minor character in the film twice repeats the rhetorical suggestion, “Isn’t everything in this world artificial?”; long gone are the days when Sadako’s mediated realm was contained within the cavity of a videotape.

The film depicts in carnivalesque form the revelation that while Sadako may have once been limited to the TV screen in your living room, now that screens, signs and images have become ubiquitous in the contemporary theme park of Japan, nowhere is safe. Throughout the development of the franchise Sadako has displayed an adept litheness in response to technological change, shifting her curse from video tapes to cameras, floppy disks and computers, and in Sadako 3D she infects the internet, a pervasive presence in Japan. In so doing, Sadako crumbles illusions of progress, as each new technological development is reduced to the same function: to relentlessly proliferate Sadako’s image. Sadako 3D further collapses the distinction between Sadako’s mediated realm and the real by suggesting that victims no longer even have to watch her video to be subject to her curse, they merely need to stumble upon one of the internet webpages where the video was once embedded, rendering the simple “404: Page Removed” error life-threatening. Multiple characters are killed after Sadako bursts through their cell phone screens, and one man is killed via his tablet screen as he waits for a bus. Towards the end of the film, a central character runs out onto the street in an attempt to escape the screens that surround him in his home, and presses his body against a truck in relief, as this comfortably tangible, quotidian object seems to reinstate the primacy of the real. Yet, unbeknownst to him, it is an ‘advertruck’ which carries a huge video billboard, and Sadako drags him beyond it. This moment of course parallels the aforementioned ‘real life’ Sadako advertruck which was driven around the streets of Shibuya to promote the film’s release.

The implication in Sadako 3D that Sadako’s virus may have already insidiously taken over the real resonates strongly with the contagious proliferation of theme park aesthetics in Japan, an anxiety that is also expressed by Sadako’s eerie lack of a coherent subjective core. Like the ring imagery which is metonymic of the franchise and evokes Sadako’s endless cycle of contagion, the Ring increasingly side-steps the need for a discernible centre, freely proliferating without extending any particular or unitary narrative thread. The horrors of this lack of a narrative core are central to the first film, Ringu. The protagonists spend the duration of the film frantically trying to solve the mystery of Sadako’s videotape in order to appease her and lift her curse, as realized through a quest to uncover the secrets of her death and locate her corpse, and to subsequently provide her with proper burial rights. Yet in the final moments the protagonists learn that this quest has proved fruitless, as Sadako does not operate according to humanistic motivations. Despite the fact that Ryuji helped to exhume Sadako’s remains from the well, she erupts through his television screen and murders him in his living room, mechanistically enacting her curse — Ryuji may have attempted to honour her memory, but he did not copy her videotape and pass it on to another. Recalling Baudrilllard’s discussion of the “murderous capacity of images”, this twist entails the uncanny realization that the corpse of the ‘real’ girl can never be found and perhaps never really existed.

Sadako 3D further extends this centre-less device, offering not a horrifying glimpse of a Japan devoid of literal referents as in Ringu, but instead plunging audiences full-throttle into the abyss. The theme park aesthetics which dominate the film — and in fact overwhelm any coherent sense of character or plot — serve to enunciate this rejection of a discernible narrative nucleus. Like the dark rides featured in theme parks (indoor roller coasters/track-based rides which combine animatronics and audio-visual effects), Sadako 3D foregrounds the visceral 3D effects over the threadbare plot[47], which, like that of a dark ride, exists only to provide the movement from one spectacle to the next. The dark ride aesthetic is crystallized during the climactic scene, when a swarm of mutated Sadakos attack the central character. That there is now a multiplicity of Sadakos as opposed to a single character embellishes on a grand scale the suggestion that she is not grounded by a discernible core, and instead represents a heterogeneous process of viral reproduction— much like the franchise as a whole. This Sadako 2.0 is rendered through a combination of puppetry, stop-motion and computer graphics: she is a towering, rust-hued creature who bears down on her victims by pivoting back and forth on inverted frog-like legs (which also resemble metal A-frames) while emitting a repetitive metallic howl. The newly imagined Sadako thus fetishizes the jerky, recurrent movements of outdated theme park animatronics and their hydraulics. That this final showdown takes place in a huge abandoned building further evokes the aesthetics of spatial and technological decay epitomized by the abandoned theme park.

Figure 7: Sadako 2.0 as abandoned theme park attraction, Sadako 3D, 2013.

Figure 10. Sadako 2.0 as abandoned theme park attraction (Sadako 3D, 2012).

The film endeavours to employ its 3D effects to thrust viewers inside Sadako’s world through a theme park-esque overload of the sensorium. The opening scene positions the audience at the bottom of the well in which Sadako died as a man peers over the edge, a claustrophobic engagement of the senses which simultaneously entails a cognitive plunge into a web of associations with prior Ring texts, an effect enhanced by the lack of explanatory preamble.  As we watch from the bottom of the well, ‘Sadako’s’ corpse plummets down towards us — inciting the sensation of free-fall — before the camera angle shifts downwards to depict the body splashing into the well’s murky water amongst a floating pile of identical looking corpses (a shot which also signals to the audience that we have been positioned in amongst this pile of bodies). Angling upwards once more, the camera rapidly ascends towards the well’s opening, inciting a sense of vertigo enhanced by the 3D effects. Much of the film is constituted of rapidly edited sequences in which Sadako reaches out through screens ‘towards’ the viewer, either via her arms or her monstrously strong hair. The protagonist, Akane, is able to scream at a pitch and volume that breaks glass, a device which facilitates numerous scenes depicting shards of glass flying ominously towards the viewer, provoking sensory, instinctual processes of fear and avoidance. In addition, Akane’s ability to smash the screen through which Sadako emerges (with inconsistent results) also works to break down the illusion of ‘screen as border’: drawing back to the film’s suggestion that “everything is artificial”, it seems that the ‘artifice’ was that we ever used the screen to make a distinction.

The threat that this all-encompassing artificiality poses to our sensorium is entangled with Sadako’s deconstruction of linear temporal structures. A number of analyses of the Ring franchise assert that Sadako’s eerie power is constellated in her evocation of post-humanity[48], yet this suggests a progressive movement from one stage of human evolution to the next. I contend instead that Sadako is uncanny in powerfully subversive ways primarily because she is asynchronous: she is at once atavistic and futuristic — as exemplified by her appearance in Sadako 3D, formed using a mix of outmoded and ‘cutting-edge’ visual effects techniques— realigning temporal stages that are diametrically opposed on a linear continuum to become a heterogeneous simultaneity.  In some ways, Sadako represents in monstrous form the “Japanese Spirit” of the wakon-yosai formulation, ensuring that the technologies that signify Japan’s over-determined relationship with ‘Westernised’ ideologies of national progress become home to an irrepressible spectre redolent of Japan’s pre-modern past. In doing so Sadako makes circularity out of progress, as each new technology becomes the vessel for the same tensions between the archaic and the post-modern, rather than functioning as a sign of national advancement.

The uncanny affects of this temporal looping reverberate throughout Sadako 3D, in ways that mirror the spatial and sensorial geography of the theme park. Lukas explains that “in many contemporary theme parks the feeling of geographic disassociation is used to create thrill in the patron and generate profits in the company.”[49] Yet after visitors have traversed the theme park, propelled by the seemingly endless array of sensory delights, “in most cases this feeling is [revealed to be] illusionary since the patron soon discovers that she has been walking in a loop.”[50] This is ultimately the rather disorienting affect of Sadako 3D, which hints at an array of plot strands before ultimately diverting from almost all of them, leaving the audience spiralling aimlessly between a range of different characters as they approach their demise at the hands of Sadako. Instead of following a unitary linear narrative to its end point, the audience is caught in a visceral loop as each scene builds to an inevitable sensorial attack, usually enacted by Sadako’s image simultaneously puncturing both the diegetic screen on which it appears and the ‘real’ screen on which the audience watches the film, via the 3D protrusion of grasping arms and shattering glass. The film thus functions as Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attraction”, denoting “early cinema’s fascination with novelty and its foregrounding of the act of display”[51] over narrative and character development — a reinstatement of early cinematic techniques and priorities which evokes temporal looping on a grand scale, echoing the antiquated aesthetics of the cursed tape in Ringu. Yet in contrast to Ringu, in which Sadako’s tape is embedded within a relatively conventional horror narrative presented via coherent cinematic syntax, in Sadako 3D the audience is completely enfolded within this carnivalesque cinema of attraction (the attractions of which, paradoxically, are rendered through the film’s 3D effects, which constitute the most extensive use of current special effects technologies seen in the franchise to date).  Thus mirroring the mechanics of Sadako herself, the film folds both the diegetic narrative and broader trajectories of historical development back onto themselves, contorting linear time into a loop.

That Sadako 3D functions primarily as cinema of attraction is further reinforced by the novel marketing techniques accompanying the film’s release, ‘attractions’ which were just as central to the experience of Sadako 3D as the film itself. For the release of Sadako 3D, the cinema-space itself became akin to a theme park: for major screenings in large multiplexes, artificial wells were placed inside the cinema, fog effects were used throughout the film, certain cinema chairs would suddenly jolt or viewers would be ‘grabbed’ from beneath, and Velcro was placed on some armrests to give the effect that the viewers’ arms were being pulled by Sadako. In addition, at the climax when dozens of monstrous Sadako mutations attack the film’s protagonist onscreen, a horde of real-life “Sadakos” (people in costume) invaded the cinema.[52] Here, the audience’s participation and active performance of fear and pleasure becomes central to the experience, as in the theme park ride. The recently released Sadako 3D 2 endeavours to extend this theme park mode of embodied engagement for even those audiences who are not lucky enough to attend a special screening: the film is accompanied by a downloadable mobile phone application which viewers can activate during the film, which vibrates, shows clips and plays sound effects to coincide with certain moments in the film to invoke the affect that viewers are being ‘attacked’ by Sadako via their own cell phones. The promoters have even suggested that the mobile phone effects may not cease once the film has ended, implying that patrons will be subject to Sadako’s curse long after they ‘escape’ the theatre.[53]

Figure 8: Sadako Attacks! Promotional Image for Sadako 3D 2 and its companion mobile phone app, image from, 2013

Figure 11. Sadako Attacks! Promotional Image for Sadako 3D 2 and its companion mobile phone app.

Evidently, the ludic transgression of boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘artificiality’ — and a concomitant collapse in linear models of temporal progress — has overtly become the theme of the Ring franchise, a preoccupation which is rendered with particular effectiveness because the viral proliferation of this fictional universe is ungrounded from any specific geographic space, to which the architectural theme park is bound. Lukas suggests that “to be able to deal with the contradictions of the artificial and the real … is an essence of understanding the nature of any theme park”,[54] and in their playful interfacing with the viewer’s sensorium, the latest additions to the Ring franchise draw forth and work through the deep cultural anxieties surrounding what has long been an unstable dichotomy in Japan. There is currently a new Sadako attraction at Sega Joypolis to accompany the release of Sadako 3D 2, in which participants walk through a haunted maze-like structure similar to that of 2012. Yet in this incarnation, participants take on an active role in the narrative, playing reporters who take photographs of certain events that occur within the attraction, constructing an ever more recursive droste effect through the layering of reality and artificiality.

Figure 9: Sadako’s ‘Hair-dog’ and ‘well juice’, images from Sony Joypolis, 2013

Figure 12. Sadako’s ‘Hair-dog’ and ‘well juice’, Sony Joypolis, 2013.

The theme park is also offering menu items to accompany the attraction, including the Sadako ‘hair-dog’ and Sadako’s ‘well-juice’, complete with a candy worm clinging to the straw. Now patrons can literally eat (artificial) components of Sadako’s (artificial) being, so that she can become incorporated within their own body. The gleeful approach to this collapse in boundaries between signification, artificiality and reality demonstrates the sense of pleasurable catharsis derived from this process. In the cultural theme park that is Sadako’s world, participants are offered the opportunity to fully acknowledge and play with the tensions which are usually submerged beneath conceptions of contemporary Japanese identity: to plunge into the deep well between authenticity and artifice with the eerie possibility that one may never again crawl back out for air.

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Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. London: Pan Books, 1987.

Enns, Anthony. “The Horror of Media: Technology and Spirituality in the Ringu Films.” In The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, edited by Kristen Lacefield, 30-44. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000.

Fletcher III, W. Miles and von Staden, Peter W. “Epilogue: retrospect and prospects: the significance of the ‘lost decades’ in Japan.” Asia Pacific Business Review. 18 (2): April 2012. 275-279.

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Gunning, Tom. “‘Now you see it, now you don’t: the temporality of the cinema of attractions.” Velvet Light Trap Fall: 1993. 3-26.

Jackson, Kimberly. “Techno-Human Infancy in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring.” In The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, edited by Kristen Lacefield,  161-175. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

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Suzuki, Koji. Loop. Translated by Glynne Walley. New York: Vertical Inc., 2006.

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[1] Ringu, DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata (Japan: Omega Project, 1998).

[2] For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the original film throughout as ‘Ringu’, and the franchise as a whole as ‘Ring’. In fact the title ‘Ringu’ is somewhat problematic as it was not the original translation given to the film’s title (which was initially simply ‘Ring’). The literal Romanization ‘Ringu’ came in to use to differentiate Nakata’s film from the American remake.

[3] See for instance Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univeristy Press, 2008), Kristen Lacefield, The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing 2010), Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano, Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), Thy Phu “Horrifying Adaptations: Ringu, The Ring and the cultural contexts of copying” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 3 (1) (2010) and Valerie Wee, Japanese Horror Films and their American Remakes (London: Routledge, 2013).

[4] The Ring, DVD. Directed by Gore Verbinski (USA: DreamWorks, 2001).

[5] Sadako 3D, Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa (Japan: Kadokawa Pictures, 2012).

[6] Sadako 3D 2, Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa (Japan: Kadokawa Pictures, 2013).

[7] Ring’s strong cultural currency in Japan can also be understood through Ringu’s reconfiguration of some of the most famous Japanese kaidan (or ghost folk tales) about the vengeful female ghost, most markedly Banchō Sarayashiki , in which a young woman, thrown into a well by her Samurai master and left to die, returns to haunt him from her watery sepulchre.

[8]  Anthony Enns, “The Horror of Media: Technology and Spirituality in the Ringu Films,” in The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, ed. Kristen Lacefield (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 32.

[9] In fact, unlike the Hollywood model, it is very common in Japan for film franchises to move between television and cinema. Attendance of domestic films at the cinema in Japan remains relatively low, especially when considering that Japanese movie theatres are among the worlds most expensive. The vastly reduced production costs and ability for rapid development ensure that made-for-television films are common and popular; successful ones often become feature films, either in the form of sequels or as remakes, before continuing their narratives on television once more. Sometimes, the franchise is simultaneously continued on both television and film, forming two parallel diegetic universes in the same franchise. This was the case with another popular J-horror franchise, Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, 1998-2009).

[10] At the time of writing, Sadako 3D 2 has recently been released in Japan.

[11] Chika Kinoshita, “The Mummy Complex: Kurosawa’s Loft and J-Horror,” in Horror To the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, ed. Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 105.

[12] Phu, “Horrifying adaptations”, 55.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, “The Orders of Simulacra”, in Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 117.

[14] Anthony Enns, “The Horror of Media”, 40.

[15] Terms like ‘spectator’ expose the entrenched ocular bias in film studies — an imbalance which Ndalianis’ work seeks to overcome — but for the sake of simplicity I will use the common terms ‘spectator’ and ‘viewer’ in reference to audience members, as an interrogation of such terminology is beyond the scope and focus of this article.

[16] Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 30.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18] Scott A. Lukas, Theme Park (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), 217.

[19] Kimberly Jackson, “Techno-Human Infancy in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring” in The Scary Screen, 171.

[20] In what is becoming a tradition, Sadako has now thrown the first pitch at a number of baseball games in Japan. In fact, in this case four Sadako’s were involved in the first pitch:

[21] Ndalianis, Horror Sensorium, 17.

[22] Susan Napier, The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature (London: Routledge, 1996), 144.

[23] Kevin Doak, Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity (California: University of California Press, 1994), 295.

[24] Gerald Figal, Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000).

[25] Ramie Tateishi, “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak” in Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, ed. Steven Jay Schneider, (Surrey: FAB Press, 2003), 296.

[26] Napier, The Fantastic, 2.

[27] Phu, Horrifying Adaptations, 53.

[28] See Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013), for a discussion of the development of Japanese film lighting techniques. Miyao points out that early film techniques were much indebted to the flat aesthetic of Kabuki theatre. In fact, as Miayo explains, there was much resistance in the early decades of the Japanese film industry to three point Hollywood lighting techniques, so integral was this ‘flat’ aesthetic to ideas of Japanese cultural authenticity.

[29] While the DVD was also technically ‘invented’ in Japan, its development was strictly managed by a number of international conglomerates such as Panasonic, Time Warner, and Phillips.

[30] In fact, this term is often revised to be “the two lost decades”, as Japan struggles to overcome this period of economic stagnation.

[31] Miles W. Fletcher III and Peter W. von Staden, “Epilogue: retrospect and prospects: the significance of the ‘lost decades’ in Japan” Asia Pacific Business Review 18, no 2 (2012).

[32] Lukas, Theme Park, 9.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch and William E. Cain, (New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 1741.

[34] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, (London: Pan Books, 1987), 7.

[35] Ibid, 7

[36] Tetsuo Najita, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 11.

[37] See Ndalianis’ Neo-Baroque Aesthetics in Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005) for a discussion of the continuities between the ideo-aesthetics of Baroque art and contemporary mediascapes, in which Ndalianis argues that the current predilection for seriality and reflexivity and the ways in which such modes engender spectator immersion reflect the poly-centric forms of the Baroque period.

[38] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, 1736.

[39] Ibid, 1739.

[40] Theodore J. Gilman, No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 79.

[41] Gene Jeffers (Ed.) Global Attractions Attendance Report (Burbank, CA: Themed Entertainment Association, 2012), 16-17.

[42] Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra, 1741.

[43] Donald Richie, “The ‘Real’ Disneyland” in The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing On Japan, ed. Arturo Silva (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001), 169.

[44] Ibid, 1739.

[45] Ibid, 1735.

[46] In the first order of simulation, representations function as place-markers for the real, having a clear and direct relationship with the reality that they depict and being inferior to the richness of the real. In the second order of simulation, signs and images do not point directly to the real that they signify (as there is a web of simulations and copies), but do signal the existence of an abstruse reality which is not quite encapsulated by the representation.

[47] The rather vague and convoluted plot tells of an artist’s attempt to ‘resurrect’ Sadako’s curse (what he refers to as the “resurrection of S”). He orchestrates his own cursed video and throws a number of long-haired women in white gowns into the well in which Sadako died: a process which raises a horde of mutated Sadakos. At the end of the film, an image of the ‘original’ Sadako emerges from one of the characters’ cell phone screens and enters the body of Akane, the central character. Yet, as the words “everything is artificial” once again overlay the final scene, it is suggested that this image of Sadako (which appears different both from the creature who emerges through optical media screens throughout the film and the ‘mutated’ Sadakos) is yet another version of the intangible creature that is “S”: in entering Akane’s body yet another ‘copy’ has been created of which there is no traceable original.

[48] See Enns, The Horror of Media; Eric White, “Case Study: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Ringu 2” in Japanese Horror Cinema, ed. Jay McRoy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and Eric Yu, “A Traditonal Vengeful Ghost or the Machine in the Ghost? Narrative Dynamic, Horror Effects and the Posthuman in Ringu” in Fear Itself: Reasoning the Unreasonable, ed. Stephen Hessel and Michele Huppert (New York: Rodopi, 2009).

[49] Lukas, Theme Park, 104.

[50] Ibid, 104.

[51] Tom Gunning, “‘Now you see it, now you don’t’: the temporality of the cinema of attractions”” Velvet Light Trap Fall 1993, 3 (1993).

[52] Such techniques echo the playful gimmicks used by William Castle, such as ‘Emergo’ during House on Haunted Hill (1959) during which glowing, plastic skeletons floated above the audience, the “fright break” during Homicidal (1961) and ‘Percepto’, seats wired with vibration devices, in The Tingler (1959).

[53] The Tokyo Times, “Sadako 3D 2 will use smartphone app to scare audiences”, The Tokyo Times, (accessed 30 October, 2013).

[54] Lukas, Theme Park, 22.

Bio: Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate at The University of Melbourne, Australia. She has taught film, literature and media studies at James Cook University and The University of Melbourne. Jessica’s doctoral thesis explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films from America, Spain and Japan. She has published work on the uncanny child, madness and asylums in the horror film in refereed journals such as Etropic and Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, as well as a number of soon to be released edited collections, and reviews for Media International Australia. She recently co-edited the special issue of Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media titled “Transmedia Horror”.

Jodi Arias in the Public Sphere: Rhetorics of Horror and the Monstrous Feminine – Elizabeth Lowry


The Jodi Arias Trial has been described as one of the most peculiar and salacious murder trials in American history.[1] In May 2013, Arias, a 32 year-old woman, was found guilty of murdering her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander in Mesa, Arizona on June 4th 2008. Alexander, a Mormon motivational speaker, was discovered to have been stabbed between twenty-seven and thirty times and had also been shot in the head. In the five years that elapsed between the murder and the trial, the word “monster” surfaced in a variety of contexts. To begin with, Arias claimed that “monsters” had broken into Alexander’s apartment and killed him in front of her. Later, Arias claimed that Alexander himself had been the monster–more specifically, a “sex monster,” whom Arias had been forced to kill in self-defense. Next, as more sordid details of the trial came to light, the popular press seized on classic horror conventions to frame the Arias narrative. Finally, the jury deemed Arias herself to be the monster–and therefore eligible for the death penalty.

This paper situates the Jodi Arias Trial within an American cultural tradition of monster-making and the role of social media and public participation in twenty-first century news reporting. I argue that the public construction of Arias as a monster was accomplished primarily by drawing on horror conventions and rhetorical tropes in order to exploit what Barbara Creed refers to as “monstrous feminine” archetypes. According to Creed, the “monstrous feminine” is identifiable via her association with the abject, her identity as a castrator and “her mothering and reproductive functions.”[2] We are cued to relate far differently to the “monstrous feminine” than we are to a “monster.” The monstrous feminine is not merely the female counterpart of a male monster. She is horrifying in a more gendered way: “she is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity.”[3] While the monstrous feminine is associated with the same sick and violent acts that we attribute to a monster, the monstrous female is the soul of duplicitousness and a skilled seductress—qualities that evoke all the more fear and loathing on the part of her victims. With this in mind, I offer an analysis of how the collective imagination is stimulated by a melding of highly affective genres. Why was it necessary for Arias to be constructed as a monster? What social need does the monster—particularly the female monster—address? What was the rhetorical impact of circulating this specific trial narrative—and what distinguishes this narrative from others of its ilk? What can the Jodi Arias trial tell us about the gendering of a monster and where the “monstrous feminine” belongs in the millennial cultural imaginary? Finally, what does a reliance on horror archetypes combined with Oedipal constructions of truth reveal about American cultural attitudes toward the subjectivity of violent criminals?

The Jodi Arias trial began on January 2nd, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona—but audiences were already familiar with Arias. By then, she had been the subject of a press conference shortly after her arrest in 2008, and, more significantly a documentary entitled “Jodi Arias: In Her Own Words” aired in 2009 by CBS’s 48 hours. While CBS and NBC produced periodic documentary episodes on the Jodi Arias saga to keep the public apprised of new developments in the case, the most comprehensive coverage of the day-to-day aspects of Arias’s five-month trial was covered primarily by HLN. Ever since her arrest in July 2008, Arias’s lawyers had dissuaded her from providing television interviews, however, she evidently paid them no heed. On September 24th, 2008, four months after Travis Alexander’s murder, Arias appeared on camera for a jailhouse interview with Inside Edition. She then began a relationship with the producers of CBS’s 48 Hours that would eventually become the 2009 “In Her Own Words.” [4] This initial 48 Hours episode, hosted by Maureen Maher, attempts to suspend disbelief—and to consider the possibility that Arias might be innocent. In this interview, Arias “admitted that she was present when he was murdered, but she said that his death occurred during a home invasion…the intruders, whom she described as a man and a women dressed in black were armed with a knife and a gun. At one point, she said, the man pointed the gun at her but she was miraculously spared.”[5]

Figure 1: Jodi Arias in the CBS program “48 Hours”, 2008.

Figure 1. Jodi Arias in the CBS program “48 Hours”, 2008.

In August 2011, Arias admitted that she had murdered Alexander, but claimed that she had acted in self-defense. This was confirmed by Angela Arias, Arias’s younger sister, who, in a response to a Huffington Post query, said that while Arias had lied about the home invasion, she did so because of her love for Alexander: “She was so in love with that man she did not want people to know what a monster he really was…My sister is innocent of the crime they are accusing her of…She did kill Travis, but it was not in cold blood, it was not for revenge, it was because she was afraid for her life.”[6]

The jury selection for the Arias trial began on December 10th, 2012. Ten days later, twelve jurors and six alternates were sworn in.[7] On January 2nd, 2013 the trial began. On January 19th, 48 Hours aired “Picture Perfect” and on March 1st, 2013 NBC’s Dateline aired “Along Came Jodi.” In May 2013, when the necessary evidence for a conviction had emerged, and Arias’s guilt was confirmed, 48 Hours produced a final episode entitled “Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias,” which offered a retrospective of the trial and various earlier interviews with Arias. That same month, NBC’s Dateline also aired an episode providing a retrospective and commentary on the trial entitled “Obsession: The Jodi Arias Story.”

Body Genres

Through media coverage of this trial, we see the ways in which mythic and psychoanalytic underpinnings of fear, lust, and self-identification shape how news is produced and consumed. As information about the Arias trial circulates from one media outlet to another, we see a melding of genres—horror, whodunit, erotica and reality tv—but arguably, the most prevalent of these genres is a blend of erotica and horror. This particular combination bears a significant influence over the representation of a female criminal, especially if she is young and attractive. Both erotica and horror are deeply affective genres provoking a physiological response in audiences. Throughout the Arias trial, use of these “body genres”[8] worked in concert to foment a sense of intrigue, while personal investment in the trial was galvanized by opportunities to participate in online chats and opinion polls sponsored by major news networks. Over the course of the trial, opinion polls revealed what appeared to be a widespread consensus that Arias deserved the death penalty. However, this consensus was coupled with the peculiar irony of Arias’s growing celebrity: she had a friend open a Twitter account on her behalf and began to sell her pencil drawings and other items over eBay to enthusiastic buyers. From there, the trial proceedings saw unprecedented media hype and merchandising, including a made for tv movie,[9] mass-market publications on the trial[10] and the production of Jodi Arias T-shirts and stickers. Meanwhile droves of people lined up outside the Maricopa County courthouse in Phoenix hoping to get a ringside seat.

Public discourse on various elements of the Arias narrative brought to light during the trial were shaped by allusions to classic horror films of the mid to late twentieth century. The fact that Alexander was stabbed to death in the shower draws numerous comparisons to the film Psycho; the iconic “shower scene” itself reenacted by HLN’s “After Dark” hosts who built a replica of the crime scene in their television studio.[11] In addition to Psycho, the story of Arias and Alexander’s relationship is frequently compared to the plot of the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, in which a sociopathic woman attempts to destroy the family-life of a man with whom she has had an affair. A forensic psychiatrist[12] and a Phoenix defense attorney compare Arias to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—ostensibly in an effort to help the public better understand “who” Arias is.[13] These comparisons are made repeatedly by Alexander’s friends and reporters, shaping the representation and interpretation of Arias and Alexander’s ill-fated affair. Interestingly, Arias herself also draws on the narrative conventions of a thriller or horror film. In an attempt to argue for her own innocence, she casts herself in the role of Carol Clover’s iconic “Final Girl.” An archetype that Clover popularized in her analysis of femininity in horror films, the Final Girl is sexually pure—sometimes a tomboy—who, after everyone else has been killed, is left to fight the monster alone. She, the Final Girl, is the character that the audience ends up rooting for.[14]

As stipulated earlier, Arias offers three different versions detailing how Alexander came to be found dead in his shower. In the first version of the story, Arias claims that she had no idea that Alexander was dead and that she had been nowhere near his home. In the second version of the story, once photographic evidence had established that she had indeed been at the crime scene, Arias describes a home invasion, detailing how a man and woman had come into Alexander’s home, stabbed Alexander and then tried to shoot Arias, who, fearing for her life, took off running. In the third “official” version of the story, that which was recounted in court, Arias speaks of how Alexander—enraged that Arias had dropped his new camera while she was taking nude photographs of him in the shower—had “body-slammed” her to the bathroom floor and that, fearing for her life, she shot him in the head.[15] By the time this narrative was delivered from the stand in 2013, Arias had adopted a plainer look—one that favored drab colors, large glasses, and no make-up. Adopting the beleaguered, de-sexualized ethos of the “Final Girl,” Arias describes how Alexander—even with a bullet in his head—kept coming at her, which was why she allegedly had no choice but to stab him in self-defense. This, of course, is reminiscent of the classic horror film trope where the monster—believed to be dead—rises up, is again a threat, and must be “killed” once and for all.

Figure 2: Arias in court. Image from, 2013.

Figure 2. Arias in court,, 2013.

A Cautionary Tale

Monsters inspire fear in order to deter us from inappropriate behavior. In this sense, the construction of Jodi Arias as a monster, particularly as the “monstrous feminine,” serves to warn the public about the dangers of giving in to lust; the perils of engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior. Alexander is unable to resist Arias. He allows lust to get the better of him, and so, as a result, his sexual indiscretions kill him when he becomes the victim of a she-demon.

As mentioned earlier, Arias is compared to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—a woman who would destroy her sexual partner rather than see him with someone else. Numerous cultural stereotypes support the narrative of the evil seductress luring a more or less “innocent” man to his death. Evoking the vagina dentata, Arias acts as a warning to men who may consider engaging in illicit sexual activity, just as Fatal Attraction famously became a “parable about the dangers of indulging in unsafe sex”[16] Tales such as these, evoking archetypes of the succubus and the siren, serve to maintain social purity by promising punishment to those who succumb to sexual urges. Fatal Attraction is particularly potent in this regard because of its depiction of a perceived “attack” on the sanctity of the family unit; the desecration of family values. It is precisely this issue that comes into play in the Arias trial, which at first seems surprising because neither Alexander nor Arias is married, and neither has children. What matters, however, was that—before his death—Alexander had professed himself to be a devout Mormon and an aspiring family man. Apparently an advocate for conservative family values, Alexander had taken a vow of chastity and was actively looking for a wife with whom to start a family.[17] Needless to say, Alexander did not consider Arias to be appropriate for marriage—and was conscious of the fact that his relationship with her could be construed as a betrayal both of the conservative ideology he represented and of his potential “family.” In short, Arias was cast as representing a similar threat to American family values as Glenn Close’s character had. The burden of responsibility for Alexander’s sexual transgressions is placed on Arias, although there is plenty of evidence that Alexander’s behavior was not beyond reproach.

Although the Fatal Attraction analogy played a significant role in the Alexander/Arias narrative, audiences of the trial (as evidenced by bloggers and media pundits) seemed to be equally inspired by connections made between the murder case and the movie Psycho. For instance, NBC’s Dateline documentary “Along Came Jodi” summarizes Part 3 of the documentary thus: “Travis Alexander, in a scene reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho is found dead in his shower. Everyone suspects Jodi Arias.”[18] Further, a blogger from Crime and Court News contended that Arias had actually intended for parallels to be made between the shower scene in Psycho and Alexander’s killing.[19] The blog included a visual component that juxtaposed images of Janet Leigh in the shower in the film Psycho with photos—taken by Jodi Arias—of Travis Alexander in the shower.[20]  Had Arias staged this murder as an homage to Hitchcock?

Figure 3: Visual comparison between Arias’ photographs of Alexander and the shower scene from Psycho, Crime and Courts News, 2013

Figure 3. Visual comparison between Arias’ photographs of Alexander and the shower scene from Psycho, Crime and Courts News, 2013.

Associating Arias with the deranged Norman Bates who dresses like a woman (more specifically his mother) in order to stab his prey seems to add a new dimension to the Arias story—that of gender indeterminacy, or what Clover refers to as the “phallic female”–that is, when a woman takes up a knife or a phallic object, she becomes masculinized in the eyes of the viewer.[21] Hitchcock adds a twist to the Freudian “phallic female” with the suggestion that by dressing as a woman and using a butcher knife as a phallus, Bates is attempting to reclaim the masculinity so denigrated by his monstrous-feminine mother. With these references to Psycho and Fatal Attraction, Arias is portrayed at once as an overbearing mother-figure and as the stalker ex-mistress who frequently shows up unannounced at Alexander’s home, even crawling into the house through a dog-door when she has no access to keys. As the suffocating emasculating “mother,” Arias allegedly cleaned Alexander’s home, read his cellphone messages, hacked into his Facebook account and “snooped” through his possessions. Alexander’s friends describe how, like a child attempting to claim its independence, Alexander repeatedly tries to break away from Arias, but she will not let him go; a mother failing to give her child the freedom he needs—or, as Travis’s friends put it—a stalker.[22]

In Freudian terms, the idea of a female picking up a knife and stabbing a man with it often plays out in a rape revenge fantasy—metaphorically, she is raping him in return by appropriating the phallic power of the male. But Creed challenges Freud’s theory that men are afraid of women because women are “castrated.” Instead, she proposes that men are afraid of women whom they see as castrators.[23] As such, Creed discusses two types of woman in horror films: the phallic woman and the castrator. The phallic woman penetrates a man’s flesh by wielding a weapon, whereas the castrator—who eliminates his manhood altogether–is represented by the vagina dentata. But although the vagina dentata emblematizes the notion of the monstrous feminine, Creed points out that the female as castrator can often come across as being somewhat sympathetic because she is taking revenge against a man who has wronged her or sexually humiliated her—just as Arias claimed to have felt wronged at the hands of Alexander.[24] But while Creed’s 2002 work on the concept of “monstrous feminine” would likely cast Arias—the female slasher—as being a castrator, Clover’s older work of the 1970s prefers to conceive of the female slasher as being phallicized—that is, temporarily relegated to a state of sexual ambiguity. Ultimately, both archetypes are at work in portrayals of Arias. Audiences who interpret Arias as a castrator might see her in a somewhat sympathetic light, believing her to be abused. However, audiences who do not believe that Arias was abused see her as unattractively masculine—the knife being a means by which to assault the vulnerable male. These unconscious hints at gender indeterminacy and the feminizing and subjugation of Alexander, further lend to the notion of duality—the demonic Other that is Jodi Arias.

Our Monsters, Ourselves

The sensational documentary films aired by 48 Hours and Dateline combined with the increasing role of social media platforms inviting viewers to chat and share opinions set the reality show tenor for the Arias Trial. The trial reporting introduced Alexander’s friends and family—all of whom seemed so ordinary that viewers could not help but identify with them. However, in treating Arias’s legal proceedings like a reality show, the public seemed to have stopped thinking of Arias or her family as “real” people. Thus arises a paradox inherent to the reality tv genre: the phenomenon of both identifying with the protagonists of reality tv because they are “real” but somehow feeling that their circumstances or life experiences are distinctly “unreal.”

For decades, parents have complained about children being influenced by depictions of violence in genres that are recognized as exclusively fictional. The suasive power of those fictions has long been considered to be dangerously potent. Creed acknowledges this, asserting that “movies” influence the viewer in a more insidious fashion than reality tv.  According to Creed, “intimate events” in “movies” as such, “unfold in a context which hides its modes of production and pretends that the spectator is viewing unmediated reality.”[25] On the other hand, reality tv makes no such pretense since “the contestants have agreed to put themselves on display in a live context.”[26] In other words, since reality tv does not hide its modes of production it does not trick the viewer into thinking he/she is watching unmediated reality. The viewer can still tell fact from fiction—he/she knows that in a movie, reality is mediated by actors and producers. In other words, reality tv can be considered more authentic simply because it admits to its own artifice. But Shohini Chaudhuri’s interpretation of feminist film theorist Claire Johnston’s work suggests that Johnston would challenge Creed’s perspective by asserting that the very fact that reality tv does admit to its own artifice actually makes it less authentic, because not all of its artifice is made transparent.[27]  Therefore, to Johnston, reality tv has more insidious suasive power than a movie because it tricks us into thinking we are experiencing immediacy when we are not. Yet, the Arias trial is complex enough in terms of its blended genre conventions that neither Johnston nor Creed’s theories seem to hold up in its context. Indeed, reality tv is insidious because it tricks us into thinking we are experiencing something “real,” but that is far from being the problem—the problem is how we actually process and internalize what we see. Evidently even our enjoyment of the “real” does not actually play out as being “real” in the cultural imaginary. Instead, it becomes a spectacle that causes people to forget that others can be deeply affected by their actions. However, it could be argued that the lack of a sense of reality during the trial had to do less with reality tv than with the initial presentation of a stylized murder narrative. Because the Arias story had already been so deeply marked by horror conventions, its rebranding as reality television caused profound cultural confusion.

The confusion seemed to extend to public responses to the trial proceedings which  revealed that due process is unimportant to a culture in which the line between reality and unreality is so easily blurred.  During this time, it seemed that the viewing public had entirely forgotten that this trial was a matter of life and death. In online chatrooms and commentaries on social media platforms such as Facebook, Arias’s defense lawyer, Kirk Nurmi, was excoriated for doing his job: honoring Arias’s right to a trial. Participants in online chats and viewer commentaries on the websites of major news outlets complained bitterly about Nurmi. For instance, HLN viewers complained that the soft-spoken, overweight Nurmi was “boring” and that he looked like a “slob.”[28] Instead of critiquing the very real arguments about justice—not only for Alexander, but also for Arias—presented in the trial, viewers critiqued what they felt to be failures of the entertainment industry: Nurmi was supposed to be good-looking and entertaining. He was not supposed to speak in Arias’s defense because as far as public opinion was concerned, Arias had already qualified for execution.

In this regard, “Obsession” the Dateline episode of May 10th, 2013, is significant because it provides more reflective coverage on the public’s reaction to the “Jodi Show” than other major news outlets. The trial is described as a “uniquely twenty-first century event” in terms of its attraction to audiences “hooked on the action” and emphasizes the trial’s reality-show style appeal.[29] This Dateline episode refers to “trial tourists”—that is, people from other states flying into Phoenix to try to get a seat in court. Dateline also points out that this type of public interest is problematic. Treating the trial it as if it were as “unreal” as a reality show, meant a heavily biased jury—who had not been sequestered—and defense lawyers who apparently feared for their lives. Equally problematic was the fact that the prosecuting attorney, Juan Martinez, was signing autographs and posing for pictures outside of the courthouse. Michael Kiefer, an Arizona Republic reporter interviewed on site expressed dismay that people were reacting to an event this serious in such a frivolous manner: “This is not Jersey Shore. This is life and death. This is a death penalty case.”[30] But nobody seemed particularly concerned with the provision of a fair trial. The Arias case had given the public an opportunity to express its bloodlust: The condemnation of Arias’s violence had evidently given rise to a socially acceptable and legally sanctioned violence of its own.

A Quest for Truth

The persistence and pervasiveness of social media helped the American public to participate minute by minute in a heavily dramatized trial ultimately cast as a quest for “Truth.” Unified toward this ostensibly noble end, the public followed Juan Martinez’s cross-examination intently, trying to understand who Jodi Arias really was. In this manner, trial-addicted viewers found online affinity groups either for or against (although the majority was clearly for) the death penalty. A consensus of sorts was constructed by media outlets such as HLN and CNN conveying a sense that the American people had unified in order to uncover the “truth” and participate in the ritual slaying of a monster.

When media outlets begin to represent Arias as being a complex character, that complexity is quickly undermined by resorting to a strictly Manichean worldview. For example, Dateline’s “Along Came Jodi” shows an image of Arias wearing red while posing against an acid green background. The picture is replicated multiple times to signal multiple personality disorder. And later, pictures of Arias in her various avatars (blonde bombshell, domestic violence victim, mousy librarian) are presented along with a voiceover alerting viewers to “the many faces of Jodi Arias.”[31]However, the “many faces” are not meant to show complexity, they are meant to inspire fear; to demonstrate that Arias’s negative traits are legion and that her capacity for trickery is unlimited. The possibility that there might be a “good” Arias among these avatars becomes irrelevant when her representation will ultimately be reduced to a good/evil binary. This sense of duality is seen in sharp relief when viewers are repeatedly shown old pictures of Arias.  The difference is stark. The pre-murder Arias had platinum blonde hair, wore makeup and contact lenses and sexy brightly colored clothing. The accused pre-trial Arias transitioned into a more modest brunette; still soft-spoken, pretty, and concerned with grooming and makeup. This change in Arias’s image was used to suggest that she was “hiding” something[32] –an allegation that grew when the Arias on trial later seemed to have changed dramatically even from her transition phase; wearing large unfashionable glasses, no makeup, and drab colors. Newscasters drew frequent attention to this, calling Arias’s new look that of the “mousy librarian.”[33] Now, seemingly all too aware of her folly in having sought the spotlight, Arias appears to shrink from the public eye lamenting that details of her sex life with Alexander have gone public. But when the narrator of Dateline’s “Obsession” asks: “Who was she?” it doesn’t seem as if the documentarians themselves had much doubt as to who Arias was. Although both CBS and NBC aired documentary episodes attempting to attest to Arias’s multiplicity, their efforts were disingenuous. This disingenuousness comes to light in a Facebook chat that invites viewers to weigh in on whether or not they believe the defense’s version of Arias’s story. Dateline muses over Arias’s transformation from “sexy wannabe photographer to Plain Jane killer.”[34] This concept is rhetorically problematic. Why could Arias not have been both—or why was she necessarily either? How would one category have precluded her from the other?  How, could a “sexy wannabe photographer” be pitted as a logical antithesis to being a killer? This rhetoric is evidence of the degree to which duality plays a role in the construction of the monstrous feminine, beginning with the archetype of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve, characterized both as being easily tempted and as a temptress herself, leads Adam into sin. During the trial, this feminine duplicity is remarked upon repeatedly—as are Arias’s good looks. How could an attractive person actually be a killer?[35] Indeed, Dateline’s labels—“sexy wannabe photographer” and “plain Jane killer”—foments the idea that we cannot quite conceive of killers as being attractive people. Therefore, it is possible that Arias actually lost credibility by eschewing the blonde bombshell look in favor of the librarian. On the other hand, however, perhaps it was a savvy rhetorical tactic. Unattractive female murderers such as Aileen Wournos are merely female monsters—and people feel sorry for them—whereas attractive women who commit murder are branded as siren-like; somehow supernatural. This element of the uncanny incites us to recognize these women as being as excessively evil as they are excessively feminine.

Figure 4: Pre-murder photograph of Arias. Image from, 2013

Figure 4. Pre-murder photograph of Arias,, 2013.

In his article “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Igor Kopytoff speaks of the analogous relationship between how people and things are constructed within a culture. In particular, he compares the difference between these constructions within a “small-scale” society versus a “complex” society.[36] In a small-scale society “a person’s social identities are relatively stable and changes in them are normally conditioned more by cultural rules than by biographical idiosyncrasies,” while a complex society is radically different by virtue of the fact that “a person’s social identities are not only numerous but often conflicting and there is no clear hierarchy of loyalties that makes one identity dominant over the others. Here, the drama of personal biographies has become…the drama of identities—of their clashes, of the impossibility of choosing between them…”[37] Taking Kopytoff’s theory of identity into account, I argue that during this trial, major television networks “mediated” by providing signals to help the viewing public choose between possible identities for Arias (monster or sex kitten?). Indeed, the uncertainty of identity is one of the most disturbing elements of the monstrous feminine; the biggest problem to be reckoned with: “classifications and reclassifications in an uncertain world of categories whose importance shifts with every minor change in context…the drama here lies in the uncertainties of valuation and identities.” [38] It is this categorical instability, this uncertainty of valuation, the contrived either/or dilemmas facing viewers that lead to the shaping of the Jodi Arias trial as a “whodunit.”

The “whodunit” aspect of the Arias trial stems from its narrative attention to the element of horror, particularly with regard to the characteristics of multiplicity and duplicity integral to the construction of the monstrous feminine. The fact that the trial is framed as a mystery can be aptly explained in terms of Teresa de Lauretis’s theory of the Oedipal quest—the idea that the woman is enigmatic and Sphinx-like; a riddle to be solved; a code to be cracked.[39] Ultimately, the way the Arias narrative is framed invites viewers to participate in a sense of discovery; the illusion of uncovering a secret. But is there really a secret? After all, we already know that Arias committed the crime. Apparently, now the question is which (of two or more) versions of Arias committed the crime, and who is she really? The idea that there is some “Truth” to be uncovered is the driving factor in de Lauretis’s discussion of the Oedipal quest. “So many films follow an Oedipal trajectory, usually figuring a male hero-individual, who embarks upon a journey that will involve him crossing a boundary and penetrating the ‘other space’.”[40] The “other space” that is being penetrated is the feminine. The hero must conquer her. Creed too, comments on this dynamic. When the male hero enters the ‘other space’ the “Sphinx, who…knows the answers to the secret of life…[is] no longer the subject of the narrative, [she] has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.” [41] Thus, the trial narrative is set up as a conundrum—the prosecutor will extract the Truth from the accused, and the Truth is dependent, of course, on how the debate itself is framed: abused woman or cold-blooded killer? Although the Arias case is not particularly mysterious, and Arias herself is not exactly an enigma, she must be presented as such because in order to answer the question of who she is, more information—the kind that can be provided only by those closest to the action—is always necessary. However, “Information can’t solve the problem because the problem is one of belief, not knowledge.”[42] In other words, according to media theorist Jodi Dean, once a belief about a particular situation has been fomented, no amount of empirical knowledge is going to change that belief if its supporting narrative continues to be structured in the same way. Dean goes on to say: “The technologies believe for us, accessing information even if we cannot. Permanent media bring us closer to the secret but continue to hold it just out of reach. The secret thus no longer sutures together the split public. Installed in new technologies it now functions as the stimulus and currency of the information economy.”[43] In other words, the idea of building consensus, the notion of constructing a common monster for the sake of unifying the public has now become secondary to the process of building beliefs. The very idea of withholding information, the rhetorical process of suggesting that any day now we might be granted access to the “right” piece of information—the privileged knowledge which will illuminate everything—is what really drives viewers to tune into the “Jodi Show” day and after day. No matter how many “facts” emerge about the case, no matter whose Twitter feed we follow, no matter who is reporting on the drama occurring in the courthouse, as Dean points out, the information is unlikely to challenge what we have already been primed to believe about who the monster is and the position she occupies in the public consciousness. The tactic of genre-melding in the Arias narrative is therefore used as a blind—it appears to be supplying the viewer with new information, but in fact, it is being used primarily to foment belief in the viewer—a belief that there is a Truth to be uncovered.


Certainly, constructing criminals as a monsters serves to dehumanize them, but what does such a construction say about us—those who are engaged in crafting the monster narrative? Monsters do significant cultural work. They act as deterrents or correctives to bad behavior, they instruct or show us about ourselves, and they unify us by providing us with a perceived common enemy. Constructing Arias as a monster serves to promote the idea of social purity, engages viewers by making them feel personal investment in the trial proceedings, and ultimately bonds them in a public quest for “Truth.” In particular, the construction of the monstrous feminine in characterizing the Arias/Alexander story is crucial to generating public interest. Although the case presents what appears to be a drama of identity, the fallacious binaries conveyed to viewers reinscribe the trope of the monstrous feminine. In Hollywood, the monster is always killed, but in real life we attempt to sublimate–or “rehabilitate”–our monsters by sending them to correctional facilities. However, the presence of the death penalty as well as popular constructions of the monster suggest that we do not believe that monsters can be “corrected.” Ironically then, perhaps what we end up attempting to sublimate is not the monster per se, but our own desire to kill it–a desire that inevitably finds expression at an increasingly indeterminate border between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy.


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— “How Would You Grade Kirk Nurmi?” Dr. Drew on Call. HLN. Cable News Network, 23 Apr. 2013. Web.

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“Jodi Arias Secrets Revealed.” Cable News Network, 18 Apr. 2013.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things” The Social Life of Things:

Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Lohr, David. “Jodi Arias Case: Twists And Delays In Alleged Femme Fatale’s Murder Trial.” The Huffington Post., 29 Dec. 2011. Web.

— “Jodi Arias Timeline (UPDATED).” The Huffington Post., 24 May 2013. Web.

“Obsession: The Jodi Arias Trial.” Dateline. NBC. 10 May. 2013. Television.

Pelisek, Christine. “Will Jodi Arias Go Free?” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 03 May 2013. Web.

“Picture Perfect: The Trial of Jodi Arias.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive, 19 Jan. 2013. Web.

Schwartz, David. “Arizona Jury Foreman Says Believed Jodi Arias Was Abused.” Reuters US Edition., 24 May 2013. Web.

Skoloff, Brian and Josh Hoffner. Killer Girlfriend: The Jodi Arias Story. Waterfront Digital Press, May, 2013.

“The Closely Guarded Secret of Jodi Arias’ Trial.” Inside Edition. n.p., 03 May 2013. Web.

Thomas, Alexandra. “After Dark Reenacts Arias Killing.” Cable News Network, 29 May 2013.

“Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive, 17 May 2013. Web.

Van Horn, Charisse.  “Did Jodi Arias Recreate Psycho Scene with Travis Alexander?” Crime and Courts News. Blogger, 8 May 2013. Web.

Velez-Mitchell, Jane. Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias. William Morrow, August 20, 2013

—  “Verdict Watch Life or Death?” Transcripts. Cable News Network, 21 May 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991):



[1] “Obsession: The Jodi Arias Trial.” Dateline. NBC. 10 May. 2013. Also, Colleen Curry, “Jodi Arias Trial Puts Mormon Sex Rules in Spotlight.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 1 Feb. 2013. Web.

[2] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. (London: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] “Jodi Arias: In Her Own Words” is no longer available online. It was used as evidence of Arias’s cover-up during the trial, and was then removed from the 48 Hours site. Content from this original interview was incorporated into two later episodes of 48 Hours: “Picture Perfect” and  “Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias.”

[5] David Lohr “Jodi Arias Case: Twists And Delays In Alleged Femme Fatale’s Murder Trial.” The Huffington Post., 29 Dec. 2011. Web.

[6] David Lohr “Jodi Arias Timeline (UPDATED).” The Huffington Post., 24 May 2013. Web.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Linda Williams  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991): 2-13.

[9] “Jodi Arias Dirty Little Secret.” n.p., 22 June 2013. Web.

[10] Most of these were written hastily by journalists, sold as ebooks and updated periodically. Noteworthy examples are HLN reporter Jane Velez-Mitchell’s Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias, William Morrow, August 20, 2013 and Associated Press Reporter Brian  Skoloff’s Killer Girlfriend: The Jodi Arias Story. Waterfront Digital Press, May, 2013.

[11] Alexandra Thomas “After Dark Reenacts Arias Killing.” Cable News Network, 29 May 2013. Web.

[12] Dr. Stephen Pitt quoted in Obsession, 10 May, 2013.

[13] Pelisek, Christine. “Will Jodi Arias Go Free?” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 03 May 2013. Web.

[14] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (Princeton NJ: Princeton, UP. 1992), 35.

[15] Shanna Hogan. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story; A Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Brutal Murder. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 270.

[16] Angie Errigo, “Fatal Attraction: Glenn Close Turns into a Monstrous One-Woman Adultery-Deterrent” Bauer Consumer Media, n.d. Web.

[17] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 18.

[18] “Along Came Jodi.” Dateline. NBC. 1 Mar. 2013. Television and Web.

[19] Charisse Van Horn, “Did Jodi Arias Recreate Psycho Scene with Travis Alexander?”

Crime and Courts News. Blogger, 8 May 2013. Web.

[20] These images had originally appeared on the Justice4Travis Twitter feed.

[21] Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, 101-102.

[22] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 108 and 117.

[23] Creed, Monstrous, 8

[24] David Schwartz. “Arizona Jury Foreman Says Believed Jodi Arias Was Abused.” Reuters US Edition., 24 May 2013. Web.

[25] Barbara Creed Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003) 37.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. (New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006) 21-23.

[28] Dr. Drew Staff. “Grade Kirk Nurmi’s Closing Argument” Dr. Drew on Call HLN. Cable News Network, 3 May. 2014. Web. Also, “How Would You Grade Kirk Nurmi?” 23 Apr. 2013. Web.

[29] “Obsession” Dateline. NBC. 10 May, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The idea of Jodi Arias having “many faces” was also taken up by several other news outlets. An example is Howard Breuer and Jill Smolowe. “The Many Faces of Jodi Arias.” Time Inc., 08 Apr. 2013. Web.

[32] “The Closely Guarded Secret of Jodi Arias’ Trial.” Inside Edition. n.p., 03 May 2013.

[33] Boedecker, Hal. “Jodi Arias: Will She Talk Herself to Death?” Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Newspaper, 22 May 2013. Web.

[34] “Obsession” Dateline.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Igor Kopytoff “The Cultural Biography of Things” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 89-90.

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 90.

[39] Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. (Bloomington, IN:

Indiana UP, 1984), 119.

[40] Ibid.,119.

[41] Creed, Monstrous, 26.

[42] Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002),40.

[43] Ibid.

Bio: Elizabeth Lowry received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Arizona State University where she now holds a Lecturer position in Rhetoric and Composition. Her research interests include, nineteenth century feminism, historiography, sustainability, public spheres theory, material culture, and women’s autobiography. Her published work appears in the Rhetoric Review, Aries, Word and Text, and in edited collections.


The Comfort and Disquiet of Transmedia Horror in Higurashi: When They Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) – Brian Ruh

It has been common in recent years for a Japanese entertainment property to encompass multiple forms of media. In fact, it has become unusual for a media product to not exist in more than one format. There are many different paths that this media progression can take – a manga (comics) series can be adapted into a TV anime (animation) series, a video game can receive a manga spinoff, a television drama can be adapted from a novel, as well as countless other permutations and extensions. In this regard, the case of the Japanese property Higurashi: When they Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) is an intriguing one. The media franchise began as a series of visual novels[1], which are computer software produced by the intersection of text, static illustrated characters, and background images. Some visual novels may have a degree of interactivity, in which the user makes choices that determine the outcome, although Higurashi did not. These visual novels wetrre sold at Comiket, a large biannual gathering in Tokyo for fans to buy amateur-produced goods, particularly comics. The popularity of Higurashi led to the development of the story being retold in multiple media – comics, animation, live-action film, and additional computer games. These subsequent media not only took the stories from the original visual novels and adapted them in different formats, but they expanded upon the narratives, sometimes showing different events or different aspects of the characters.

Figure 1: Menu screen of Higurashi: When They Cry visual novel, and the introductory screen to the Onikakushi-hen (‘Abducted by Demons Arc’), 07th Expansion, 2002

Figure 1. Menu screen of Higurashi: When They Cry visual novel, and the introductory screen to the Onikakushi-hen (‘Abducted by Demons Arc’), 07th Expansion, 2002.

Marc Steinberg proposes a specific approach to contemporary media properties in Japan that he calls the “anime media mix” that can help to explain what is occurring within the Higurashi property. Steinberg asserts that the media mix (media mikkusu in Japanese) in general is “the Japanese term for what is known in North America as media convergence.”[2] In the book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses this phenomenon at some length. By this term, he means “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.”[3] One of the results of media convergence is the growth in “transmedia storytelling,” in which individual (and sometimes self-contained) narratives are communicated in different ways through multiple media that all contribute to an overarching story. According to Jenkins, this is “the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.”[4] In other words, transmedia storytelling is the idea of using multiple media to tell a single cohesive story through various means, be it film, television, comics, online websites, and the like, all of which contribute to the singular “fictional world.” It should be noted that although Jenkins’s examples and the cases like Higurashi both involve a kind of storytelling across various media, there are some key differences. The examples that Jenkins describes, which are primarily American and in English, seem to fit what Steinberg would term the “marketing media mix,” which “aims to use the synergetic effect of multiple media in concert to focus the consumer toward a particular goal—the purchase of the advertiser’s product as the final endgame.”[5] In contrast, Steinberg describes the “anime media mix” as having “no single goal or teleological end; the general consumption of any of the media mix’s products will grow the entire enterprise.”[6] Since Higurashi as a media property has multiple points of entry, it has developed into a good example of the anime media mix, although as we will see it did not initially begin that way.

This article analyzes Higurashi as an example of contemporary transmedia horror, paying attention to how its horror elements are explicated across different media. In order to understand this, I begin by explaining in detail how the worlds of Higurashi are structured and the various media in which it participates. From these examples, I demonstrate that the function of the Higurashi media is twofold – through their use of the horror genre, the media both reassure and disturb the viewer. In order to analyze the dual functioning of horror in this manner, I proceed with an investigation of Kunio Yanagita’s early twentieth century ethnographic study Tōno monogatari.[7] Finally, I examine the theories of critics Hiroki Azuma and Eiji Ōtsuka and what they say about Japanese transmedia properties in order to explain how people interact with and consume a series like Higurashi. Through my analysis I will demonstrate that the transmedia horror of Higurashi is effective not only because of the tension between its familiar and unfamiliar elements, placing comforting nostalgia and isolating dread at odds with each other, but also because its multiple media forms allow the consumer to alternately experience enjoyment being around the characters and the shocks and gruesomeness of the deadly mysteries at the heart of the series.

The Structure of Higurashi

The story of Higurashi is intentionally complex and intricate, and its structure is worth analyzing in some detail. It was originally released as a series of eight visual novels from 2002 through 2006. Each visual novel was called a hen, or arc, and told part of the events that happened in the rural Japanese town of Hinamizawa in June 1983. There are certain plot elements common to all eight of the arcs. For example, in each one a teenaged boy named Keiichi has recently moved with his family to Hinamizawa and has begun making friends with four girls in his class – Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. There is an annual event in the village called the Watanagashi (or “cotton-drifting”) festival, around which has swirled mystery and whispered rumor. For the past few years, following the Watanagashi festival, one person in the village has been killed and one person has mysteriously disappeared. These events are said to stem from the curse of Oyashiro-sama, the local deity who protects the town. It is said the god is still angry that years ago there was a plan to build a dam in the area, which would have submerged all of Hinamizawa. (It is also said that the villagers are descendants of demons who originally rose up from a local “bottomless” swamp and were subsequently pacified and given human form by Oyashiro-sama.) All of the people who have suffered the curse were involved, either directly or indirectly, with the dam project. In June 1983, the curse strikes again when two people – Takano, a nurse from the local clinic, and Tomitake, a photographer who regularly visits the town – are both mysteriously killed.  While these narrative conditions are set, the arcs of the eight original stories that make up Higurashi take divergent paths.

For example, in the first arc, Onikakushi-hen (or Abducted by Demons Arc), Keiichi is tentatively beginning to become accustomed to village life. He seems to be good at making friends with Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. However, he begins perceiving that his friends and the rest of the town are keeping secrets from him regarding the Watanagashi festival, and his suspicions only increase when he finds a sewing needle in some rice balls his friends have made for him. In the end, driven by paranoia, he bludgeons Rena and Mion to death with a baseball bat in his room. Soon after, Keiichi dies from blood loss after feeling compelled to claw out his own throat.

In the second arc, Watanagashi-hen (or Cotton Drifting Arc), the events set up in the previous arc play out in a different manner. For example, in this arc Keiichi meets Shion, Mion’s twin sister, who goes along with Keiichi, Takano, and Tomitake to sneak into a sealed building containing sacred ceremonial instruments during the Watanagashi festival. (These instruments all happen to be sharp, nasty-looking implements of torture.) However, when Takano and Tomitake end up dead after the festival, Keiichi and Shion are fearful that they will both mysteriously disappear like the others who have run afoul of Oyashiro-sama’s curse. In the end, Mion confesses to being involved in the murders, after Keiichi discovers she has abducted and imprisoned her sister. Shion is rescued by the police, but Mion escapes custody. She later seeks Keiichi out to talk with him, but ends up stabbing him. Although Keiichi survives, he finds out from the police that they had found Mion’s dead body on her family estate before she met with him. That same night, Shion is found dead, having fallen from the balcony of the apartment where she was staying. The story ends with a ghastly Mion clawing her way onto Keiichi’s hospital bed to kill him.

A full account of the remaining Higurashi arcs would be beyond the scope of this article, but they all involve a combination of comforting friendship (the bonds being forged between Keiichi and his classmates) and the horrors of one or more character eventually killing some of the others in often gruesome ways. Although the arcs seem to reiterate ongoing cycles of paranoia and murder, toward the end of the sixth arc, Tsumihoroboshi-hen (Atonement Arc), Keiichi seems to remember some of what happened in the Abducted by Demons Arc, even though it does not make sense to him and does not reconcile with the fact that he knows he did not kill Rena and Mion in his current world.

It is not until the penultimate arc of the visual novel series, Minagoroshi-hen (Massacre Arc), that the overall structure of Higurashi is presented to the reader in full. We learn that Keiichi’s friend Rika has been repeating her life in Hinamizawa in June 1983 for over a hundred years, remembering everything that happens each time around. There is always some variation to the repetition, and the various arcs that have been presented so far are reflections of how Rika has organized her knowledge. She had been despairing that she no longer had the will to keep repeating the worlds alongside Hanyuu, a young female god who is the actual Oyashiro-sama and whom only Rika can see. However, Keiichi’s ability to see across the worlds in the Atonement Arc bolstered her confidence that she could effect change and end the cycle of repetition. The remainder of the Massacre Arc as well as the final Matsuribayashi-hen (Festival Accompanying Arc) consist of the group of friends trying to figure out how they can all escape the endless loop of June 1983.

The openness of the Higurashi text has allowed for a wide range of adaptations and expansions through multiple media. The original eight visual novel arcs were adapted into manga as well as an anime television series that ran for 50 episodes in 2006-7. These new media also expanded on the original themes of the visual novels by introducing new story arcs along with the adaptation. Additional story arcs were later introduced in later visual novels that could be played on systems like the Nintendo DS.[8] The fact that Keiichi and his friends often get together and play competitive games (card games, board games, word games, sports) has enabled further spin offs that are thematically related to the original Higurashi property, such as Higurashi no naku koro ni jan (a mahjong game)[9] and Higurashi Daybreak (a third-person shooting game),[10] both for the PlayStation Portable. Such properties prominently featured the Higurashi characters while often downplaying the horror elements.

However, it could be argued that the horrific elements of Higurashi stem from the lengthy depictions of Keiichi’s everyday life and the close interactions among his friends juxtaposed with a creeping sense of dread, as well as the brutality of the acts of assault and murder that often happen later in the story arcs. This violence is expressed in different ways across various media. Since Higurashi began as a visual novel, its composition presents an intriguing challenge for the construction and sustainment of horror effects, and the genre is not typically associated with the medium. As mentioned previously, visual novels in general communicate their narratives  through a combination of onscreen text, background images, manga-style character images, sound effects, and music. There is generally little to no onscreen movement, as well as infrequent choices to direct the course of the story. In Higurashi, however, the user is not presented with the opportunity to branch or deviate from the story. In his analysis of the visual novel, John Wheeler asserts, “The most important function of the algorithm in Higurashi is the lack of freedom it affords the player within the game-space. In this way, Higurashi is nothing like a print or digital novel, which offers the reader freedom to peruse the text and search within it either via an index or by using a digital search function.”[11] Indeed, the only options one is given in terms of interaction are where to save your place in the story and the speed at which the text appears onscreen. Unlike a traditional novel, it is not even possible to skip ahead. (I unfortunately encountered the consequences of this when one of my saved files became corrupted. Even though I knew my location in the story, I had to start the visual novel from the beginning.)

In contrast to the limitations of the visual novel, both the manga[12] and the anime adaptations[13] of Higurashi are able to be more expressive due to their greater use of framing and distinct approaches to characters and backgrounds. Although the manga format is generally constituted of black-and-white line drawings on paper (with the occasional color plate), there can be great variation in things like angle and panel composition from page to page. While an anime television series gains elements like color, movement, and sound, it can be constrained by a budget that may limit the number of shots or drawings per second, resulting in a product that may appear flat or static in places. However, each medium of adaptation provides its own unique pleasures. According to Wheeler, “As few of the background story elements and characters change fundamentally from iteration to iteration, part of the appeal of Higurashi as a property becomes the medium-to-medium translation itself, seeing changes in the perspective and style used to essentially tell the same stories.”[14] He goes on to argue that the anime “retains some of the static qualities of the visual novel, and a degree of continuity of visual aesthetic is established across adaptations” yet it is with the manga that the series “gains a true visual depth that reflects both the psychological states of its characters and the striking horror of its storyline.”[15] However, what is most important to realize is that all of the various Higurashi media serve as valid entry points to the series. Although it is not necessary to, say, read the manga after one has watched the anime in order to understand the characters or grasp the series’ mysteries, the fact that the various media emphasize different elements of the series encourages fans to seek out and experience the franchise in multiple forms. Unlike the Jenkins’s conception of convergence culture, this is not to “fill in the blanks” of missing elements and to make a single storyline more coherent, but rather to experience multiple, yet similar, storylines that occur in subtly separate narrative worlds. It also allows the viewer to spend more time with the characters as well as see how the different media depict the tension and horror of the story. As we will see with Tōno monogatari, the twin effects of comforting and disturbing the viewer are rooted in an approach to Japanese folklore and ethnography.

Figure 2: Shion comes for Keiichi in his hospital bed in the Higurashi manga version, Ryukishi07, 2008.

Figure 2. Shion comes for Keiichi in his hospital bed in the Higurashi manga version, Ryukishi07, 2008.

Transmedia and Japanese Horror – Nostalgia and Technological Advancement

Another key aspect of the horror of Higurashi is cultural, relating to concepts of technological representation and the role that the rural Japanese village plays in conceptions of “Japaneseness.” As alluded to above, many of the plot points in Higurashi rely on the idea of the curse of Oyashiro-sama. At various times throughout the story, different characters believe that they have been cursed by Hinamizawa’s guardian deity. Such curses are far from uncommon in Japanese film and comics. As Jay McRoy states, “the onryou, or ‘avenging spirit’ motif, remains an exceedingly popular and vital component of contemporary Japanese horror cinema.”[16] As McRoy points out in his chapter on contemporary Japanese horror directors Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu, a great deal of current horror is intimately related to structures that are both comforting and confining (such as the family). For example, he identifies Shimizu’s film Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) as both conservative and progressive, saying that while “the film’s articulation of an apparent nostalgia for disappearing ‘traditions’ in the face of an emerging ‘modern’ socio-economic climate resonates with a conservative ideology that borders on the reactionary” it is also true that “the film advances a critique of a Japan still very much steeped in patriarchal conventions.”[17] Higurashi similarly walks the line between conservatism and progressivism. There is an emphasis on traditions, along with a fight to keep things the way they are in the village. For example, the Hinamizawa villagers are loath to have outside investigators looking too deeply into the Watanagashi incidents for fear it may either drive people away or may expose the people in power they think are responsible. Similarly, in one arc Keiichi has to stridently oppose the school and municipal systems in order to try to protect Satoko from her abusive uncle. He is continually told that he is being too much of a nuisance and that he should stop making waves. However, the solutions to problems in the Higurashi arcs often emphasize the need to rely on others and the power that comes from group action, emphasizing the power of love and acceptance, sometimes to an almost radical degree. For example, through persistence and hard work, Keiichi is finally able to rally the town to his cause and they are able to help Satoko escape from her uncle. Even though all of the characters of Higurashi have dark histories in one way or another, they are able to stand up for one another and brave seemingly insurmountable odds because they have acceptance and love for each other Such a scenario emphasizes the potential inherent in the “traditional” rural Japanese village that can occur when everyone is able to strive toward a common good. However, at other parts in Higurashi, the power of the village is suspect when Keiichi is trying to solve the mysterious deaths and he perceives himself as an outsider and that everyone is out to get him.

The fact that Higurashi was originally received on a computer screen as a kind of a “game” that required interaction puts it in good company with the themes of many other horror video games. (Although, as mentioned above, its interactivity was rather limited, the experience of the graphics, text and sound is probably closer to a game than it is to a book, comic, or animation.) Although the pairing of the video game medium and the horror genre is not unique to Japan, many such games are Japanese. As Chris Pruett writes, in games the “horror genre is home to a wide range of styles, including first-person games, third-person games, action oriented games, puzzle games, and even text-based games. Whatever the style of play, one fact cannot be ignored: the vast majority of horror video games come from Japan.”[18] Higurashi also shares commonalities of setting and subject matter with other Japanese horror video games. For example, Higurashi’s setting of an isolated Japanese village and the power and persistence of a local religion are similar to the Japanese game Siren, which was released in November 2003, shortly after the release of the first Higurashi visual novels. Pruett locates part of the source of the antagonistic horror of Siren in a tale from Japanese folklore: “The story of Yaobikuni involves a woman who eats the flesh of a mermaid and becomes immortal only to find that everlasting life is full of pain.”[19] However, in the case of Siren, it is the flesh of an alien creature that is eaten, rather than that of a mermaid. Interestingly, in the Atonement Arc of Higurashi, Rena has delusions that the Hinamizawa syndrome is due to an alien invasion, and that Oyashiro-sama is an alien, too. Similarly, Pruett argues, Siren demonstrates a contemporary Japanese discomfort with “cults and splinter religions.”[20] In Higurashi, Oyashiro-sama is, for the most part, discussed as something to be both respected and feared as a matter of precautionary common sense. However, characters who want to reinvigorate the widespread popular worship of Oyashiro-sama as a major deity are often depicted as antagonists. In many ways, this coincides with Jolyon Baraka Thomas’s analysis of representations of religions in anime and manga in which they have come “to be popularly associated with violence, brainwashing, and fraud.”[21] As demonstrated through these examples, references to mythology, folklore, and religion often play a strong negative role in Japanese media culture, and this is often the case throughout much of Higurashi.

In addition to religion playing a major role throughout Higurashi, the story makes specific references that situate the visual novels as specifically Japanese products. For example, in the second arc of the Higurashi visual novel, the group has a curry cooking competition at their school. They all fight their hardest, sometimes even resorting to trickery. In the end, Keiichi’s curry gets knocked over, and he ends up serving the judges rice balls with tea. Keiichi tries to convince the judges that “curry and the rice ball is virtually the same thing [sic]” He goes on to argue that “The Japanese have come up with many different dishes, but they all had one common theme: we are always looking for the best way to eat rice! … Both curry and rice balls are…the fruit of our precious culture!!” Mion then relates the story of a French chef who came to Japan and refused to use imported French ingredients, instead using what he could find locally. She says, “There should be no rules in the culture of food. It’s simply culture. If it comes to Japan, it blends with the Japanese culture and becomes something new. Therefore curry and rice balls are both part of Japanese culture.” Such references highlight Higurashi’s conceptualization as a Japanese product, but the franchise’s incorporation of Japanese folklore provides an even stronger emphasis.

In spite of its modern nature, Higurashi engages with a strain of Japanese folklore of the type seen in Kunio Yanagita’s famous Tōno monogatari  (The Legends of Tōno). This literary account of the oral folk tales found in the Japanese city of Tōno related to Yanagita by local informant and collaborator Kizen Sasaki, published in 1910, is often acclaimed as the starting point for Japanese folklore studies. In it, “Sasaki offers the vision of a typical Japanese villager who grows up in a world fraught with dangers from invisible forces and malevolent creatures shuttling between the human and animal kingdoms.”[22] As Ronald A. Morse points out in his introduction to the English translation, Yanagita’s account begins and ends with depictions of a festival, indicating the centrality of such events to village life.[23] The book details accounts of local gods who get jealous, people who mysteriously disappear without warning, villagers who violently kill other villagers, the behavior and worship of other local deities, and mysterious deaths as well as the return of people from the dead.

In Higurashi, one can see how these folkloric elements have been incorporated into a contemporary horror scenario. The life of the village of Hinamizawa depicted across various media still centers on a festival that celebrates the local guardian deity. Even the people in the village who are not active worshippers of Oyashiro-sama in their daily lives are shown according respect to such beliefs. Additionally, across the many Higurashi arcs, the line between the human world and the supernatural is shown to be thought of as being fluid. Even though many of the incidents depicted in Higurashi are later shown to be either delusion or the work of human actors, it is important that the belief persists that such events could occur. This is similar to Yanagita’s work in Tōno monogatari – the tales were related as factual not because the ethnographer necessarily believed they occurred, but because these were the stories that circulated in and around Tōno.

Not only are the stories in Tōno monogatari often seen as foundational for the field of Japanese ethnology, they are closely tied to concepts of the Japanese nation. Anthropologist Marilyn Ivy discusses that Tōno monogatari was written “at a time when regional beliefs and practices were being threatened by the comprehensive state ideology of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika).”[24] It was around this same time in the early twentieth century that saw the building of communication and transportation infrastructure, as well as mass emigration from the countryside to the cities (particularly Tokyo). This increasingly technologized nation created official policies that extolled “’traditional’ agrarian lifeways all the more effusively the more its policies destroyed those lifeways.”[25] Stories like those in Tōno monogatari were held up as being quintessentially Japanese, even as the irrationality of the stories served as a counterpoint to the government’s emphasis on reason and rationality. Ivy relates Yanagita’s tales to Freud’s ideas of the uncanny, noting that the fact that they had been generated around the same time was not coincidental.[26] According to one translation of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” “the nearest semantic equivalents in English” of the German word unheimlich “are ‘uncanny’ and ‘eerie’, but [it] etymologically corresponds to ‘unhomely.’”[27] Therefore, such stories are intimately related to a sense of comfort or home. Similarly, throughout the 1960s and 70s, Tōno and its stories became explicitly associated with the cultural idea of furusato or hometown. (This furusato concept can be applied in a general sense – it does not have to be one’s personal hometown.) Ivy writes, “Precisely because of the eerie character of its tales, Tōno became a particularly haunting and complex example of a generalized ideal.”[28]

In this analysis, we can further see in Higurashi that the horrifying allusions to Tōno monogatari and the sense of belonging Keiichi feels in the Hinamizawa as he makes new friends are in fact two sides of the same coin. The depiction of the rural Japanese town as both frightening and welcoming is not accidental. In fact, the two aspects necessarily coexist within contemporary concepts of the Japanese hometown. According to Ivy:

With the idea of Tōno as a furusato, then, there is a fusion of two horizons of desire. First, the desire to encounter the unexpected, the peripheral unknown, even (and even especially) the frightening–a desire that repeatedly reveals itself under the controlled and predictible conditions of everyday life in advanced consumer capitalism (in Japan as elsewhere); and second, a countervailing desire, pushed by an opposite longing, to return to a stable point of origin, to discover an authentically Japanese Japan that is disappearing yet still present, to encounter the always already known as coincident with one’s (Japanese) self. The desire for the different and unknown…is framed within the boundaries of a return to pastoral hominess, security, and (not the least significant) identity.[29]

In Tōno monogatari and its contemporary reception, elements of longing for home, horror, and identity exist in necessary tension with one another. These aspects also may be key elements that contribute to the attractiveness of Higurashi among consumers, as well as its longevity as a media franchise. Since the original visual novel was released in 2002, there has been a fairly steady stream of Higurashi-related media products and spinoffs. As befits Higurashi’s genesis as a product produced by a small team and sold at Comiket, this includes a significant number of amateur comics, many of which, but not all, involved portrayals of the characters in a sexual manner. This highlights the fact that, in spite of the fact that Higurashi is at its core a horror series, users will take the characters and appropriate them to fulfill their own desires.

Transmedia, Horror, and Desire

Due to the multi-arc structure of Higurashi, there are two aspects to the ways that the horror in the franchise is depicted – the narrative and the characters. In terms of the narrative, there are two levels. The first is the arc-level narrative, which encompasses everything that happens within a particular arc in the story. As mentioned previously, there were eight original arcs in the Higurashi visual novel series, but this has since been greatly expanded with additional arcs in anime, manga, and video games. Encompassing all of these arc-level narratives is a second, franchise-level narrative. Although the arc-level narratives have internal consistency, the larger franchise-level narrative cannot and does not reconcile the arc-level narratives. The number of arc-level permutations is near infinite, which means that the characters may undergo any number of horrific ordeals. However, these would not mean much to the viewer if they had become attached to the characters. The primacy of the Higurashi characters over narrative is particularly noticeable in some of the series’ recent incarnations. A four-episode direct-to-video anime series released in 2011-12 called Higurashi no naku koro ni Kira (dir. Hideki Tachibana) shifts the overall tone from horror to what might be called “erotic slapstick.” For example, the first episode is called Batsukoishi-hen (Penalty Love Arc) and is adapted from the epilogue of one of the original visual novels. It consists mainly of Keiichi and some of the other male characters fantasizing about the female characters dressed up in a variety of fetishized outfits. It has little to do with the plot of many of the other narrative arcs, but allows the viewer to spend more time with the characters and fantasize along with Keiichi. In this way, Higurashi points to the tension between two approaches to contemporary Japanese media properties – the theory of “narrative consumption” as put forth by Eiji Ōtsuka and the theory of “database consumption” put forth by Hiroki Azuma.

In his 1989 book A Theory of Narrative Consumption (Monogatari shōhiron), Ōtsuka analyzes how viewers interact with media properties. He asserts that such media succeed by “setting up their grand narrative or order in the background in advance and by tying the sales of concrete things to consumers’ awareness of this grand narrative.”[30] This grand narrative lies at the heart of a particular worldview, but is not something that can be directly sold and marketed itself. Therefore, “consumers are tricked into consuming a single cross-section of the system in the form of one episode of the drama, or a single fragment of the system in the form of a thing.[31] In other words, what is ultimately promised as the pinnacle of consumption in this media system – the grand narrative – can never be obtained by consumers. They can, however, access and purchase slivers of the narrative. In the case of Higurashi, Ōtsuka’s concept of the grand narrative is the overarching franchise-level narrative. However, in order to be able to access pieces of this narrative, consumers have to purchase a game, read a manga, or watch an anime episode. It must be said that the grand narrative in Higurashi is more fragmented than most Ōtsuka has in mind because is it not possible to reconcile all of the individual narrative arcs, due to the fact that they are permutations of possible worlds. This makes the grand narrative of Higurashi even more distant and difficult to access – not only are the fragments that the consumer can obtain pieces of a larger story, each larger story in Higurashi is an arc in an even bigger overarching narrative.

In his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: otaku kara mita Nihon shakai) originally published in 2001, theorist Hiroki Azuma says that with the advent of postmodernity (a term he uses to “refer broadly to cultural conditions since the 1970s”[32]), Ōtsuka’s modern model of media consumption collapsed. Instead of a “tree” model, in which texts are derived from a deeper source with meaning, Azuma proposed a “database” model that solely works at the level of surface and does not point to a deeper meaning. According to Azuma, “As a result [of this shift], instead of narratives creating characters, it has become a general strategy to create character settings first, followed by works and projects, including the stories. Given this situation, the attractiveness of characters is more important than the degree of perfection of individual works.”[33] In such a model, “individual projects are the simulacra and behind them is the database of characters and settings.”[34] We can see that without Azuma’s theory of database consumption, some of the adaptations of Higurashi would not necessarily make any sense. For example, the Penalty Love Arc does not serve to advance the narrative of Higurashi in any way. The viewer does not discover anything new about the world or the characters. In the narrative consumption model, it is rather superfluous. However, in the database consumption model it makes perfect sense. Dedicated viewers have presumably spent many hours before the Penalty Love Arc watching and thinking about the characters, and perhaps fantasizing about them. Rather than presenting a part of a larger narrative world to consume, such texts present familiar and easily consumable characters.

Although Azuma presents his database consumption theory as a historical successor to Ōtsuka’s narrative consumption theory, it seems to fall prey to the assumption that the two models are in binary opposition. It seems more likely that, even in postmodernity, the two models can coexist. Higurashi is an excellent example of these two ways of theorizing media texts working simultaneously. There is certainly a narrative model at work in Higurashi, as the main emphasis of the original visual novel arcs is to try to figure out a way out of the curse of the repeating years and the gruesome deaths of the characters. The drive to solve this overarching mystery is at the heart of the consumption of Higurashi products. However, plenty of time is also spent with the characters as they interact with each other and help one another out with their problems. This then simultaneously emphasizes the characters, laying the groundwork for additional Higurashi products and adaptations that are divorced from the horror roots of the original visual novels.


As a franchise, Higurashi evolved from a small series of amateur-produced visual novels into a multimedia franchise in just a few years. As we have seen there are a number of elements that may have contributed to this rapid growth. Structurally, Higurashi uses the horror genre to constantly create a degree of threat to the characters the viewer is growing increasingly familiar with and attached to. By evoking the milieu of a rural Japanese village, Higurashi uses folklore to create a space that is both exciting and comfortable, unsettling yet familiar. Additionally, its multi-arc structure allows for near-unlimited narrative expansion, providing countless opportunities for fandom and consumptive practices. Within such expansive narrative spaces, though, there are definite constraints. Although some arcs in Higurashi take place before or after the events of June 1983, it is really only in that particular time period that all of the main characters are in the same place. This means that the majority of the narratives, both official and fan-created, will take place in this narrow strip of time, creating a kind of utopian space within the overall horror of the tragic events that the story is built around.

Existing in such paradoxical utopian spaces is not necessarily unique to the Higurashi franchise. In her analysis of the background art in Japanese games and anime, Kumiko Saito discusses the use of regional representations in the background art of Japanese anime and games, writing, “With the rapid introduction of digital technology to animation and game productions, the visibility of regional representation quickly grew with the success of anime / game works that feature background art by background art specialists.”[35] The emphasis on pastoral settings in so many games and anime “suggests an imagined locus of ‘middle ground,’ between urban and rural, or present and past” which “presents strong nostalgia toward suburban or rural everyday life, often presupposing the viewer’s non-diegetic knowledge that this happiness of mediocrity is ending soon.”[36] According to Saito, this is often associated with how such narratives play with concepts of temporality, including time travel, amnesia, and the ability to stop or delay time. Although Saito does not mention Higurashi specifically, it is clear that the franchise participates in these larger trends.

Even though Higurashi has its horrors, it still reliably provides the viewer with a comfortable space to which they can return and reunite with their favorite characters. As Saito asserts, “With multiple endings already tailored for repetitive gameplay, games and their anime adaptations, especially, invite the player to stay in the time loop between the beginning and the end, or between amnesia and recollection.”[37] Such contemporary media properties provide a way of remaining in a rarified space that exists outside of larger economic or geopolitical concerns. In the case of Higurashi, the perpetual June 1983 takes place before the bubble economy of the late 1980s, but still at a time of optimistic economic prosperity. However, as Saito puts it, continual engagement with such texts and franchises can have a negative impact on the perception of history, writing, “The regionalist narrative in popular visual media helps reestablish national pride in Japanese particularity, but only within the safe range of the personal and emotional without recovering the memory of Showa’s war and postwar periods or the nation’s geo-ethnic varieties. The inaccessible nature of background art as beautiful tableaus of Japan[‘s] paradoxical nature securely freezes the image of Japan.”[38] Perhaps it is this refusal to accept history and adapt, and a subsequent preference for continual states of play and the consumption of counterfactual worlds, that is the real horror.

Works Cited

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Dorson, Richard M. Foreword to the 1975 edition of The Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita, xv-xix. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Ivy, Marilyn. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2008.

Ōtsuka, Eiji. “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative.” Translated by Marc Steinberg. Mechademia 5 (2010): 99-116.

Pruett, Chris. “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading 4, no. 6 (2010):

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Onikakushi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Watanagashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Tatarigoroshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2003.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Meakashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Tsumihoroboshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Minagoroshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Matsuribayashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2006.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ichi Kan Tatari. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ni Kan Sō. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai San Kan Rasen. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2009.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Yon Kan Kizuna. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2010.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi: When They Cry: Abducted by Demons Arc, Vol 1. New York: Yen Press, 2008.

Saito, Kumiko. “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism: Japanese Landscape in the Background Art of Games and Anime from the Late-1990s to the Present.” In Asian Popular Culture: New, Hybrid, and Alternate Media, edited by John A. Lent and Lorna Fitzsimmons, 35-58. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.

Sims, Higurashi no naku koro ni Jan. Tokyo: AQ Interactive, 2009.

Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Thomas, Jolyon Baraka. Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

Twilight Frontier. Higurashi Daybreak. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Wheeler, John. “The Higurashi Code: Algorithm and Adaptation in the Otaku Industry and Beyond.” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2011): 25-29.

When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni). Directed by Chiaki Kon. 2006. Long Beach, CA: Geneon Entertainment, 2007. DVD.

Yanagita, Kunio. The Legends of Tōno. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

[1] Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Onikakushi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Watanagashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Tatarigoroshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2003); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Meakashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Tsumihoroboshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Minagoroshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005); and Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Matsuribayashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2006).

[2] Marc Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 135.

[3] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

[4] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 21.

[5] Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix, 141.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kunio Yanagita. The Legends of Tōno. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[8] Such as the Kizuna series of visual novels for the DS, each of which included a new arc. Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ichi Kan “Tatari” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ni Kan “Sō” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai San Kan “Rasen” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2009); and Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Yon Kan “Kizuna” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2010).

[9] Sims, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Jan (Tokyo: AQ Interactive, 2009).

[10] Twilight Frontier, Higurashi Daybreak (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008).

[11] John Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code: Algorithm and Adaptation in the Otaku Industry and Beyond,” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2011): 27.

[12] Beginning with Ryukishi07, Higurashi: When They Cry: Abducted by Demons Arc, Vol 1 (New York: Yen Press, 2008).

[13] Beginning with When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni), directed by Chiaki Kon (2006; Long Beach, CA: Geneon Entertainment, 2007), DVD.

[14] Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code,” 28.

[15] Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code,” 29.

[16] Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2008): 75.

[17] McRoy, Nightmare Japan, 96.

[18] Chris Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading… 4, no. 6 (2010): 2.

[19] Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear,” 8.

[20] Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear,” 9.

[21] Jolyon Baraka Thomas, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012): 125.

[22] Richard M. Dorson, Foreword to the 1975 edition of The Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008): xviii.

[23] Kunio Yanagita, The Legends of Tōno (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[24] Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995): 70.

[25] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 71.

[26] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 85.

[27] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny. (New York: Penguin Books, 2003): 124.

[28] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 105.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Eiji Ōtsuka, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” Mechademia 5 (2010): 107.

[31] Ōtsuka, “World and Variation,” 109.

[32] Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009): 16.

[33] Azuma, Otaku, 48.

[34] Azuma, Otaku, 53.

[35] Kumiko Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism: Japanese Landscape in the Background Art of Games and Anime from the Late-1990s to the Present,” in Asian Popular Culture: New, Hybrid, and Alternate Media, ed. John A. Lent and Lorna Fitzsimmons (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013): 40.

[36] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 41.

[37] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 49.

[38] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 48.


Bio: Brian Ruh earned his PhD in Communication and Culture from Indiana University in 2012 with his dissertation “Adapting Anime: Transnational Media between Japan and the United States.” He has contributed articles and chapters to journals such as Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and the Fan Arts and Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media as well as books like Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese AnimationEast Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, and The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Spirited Away. A second edition of his first book, Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2014.

Passing Time and Ruin: Michael Richards and the Afterlife of Performance in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – Elliott Logan

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

This article appreciates the Michael Richards episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s online video series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle, 2012-).[1] I claim the episode is distinguished among the series by its unexpectedly poignant images of Richards giving performances, and of people watching them. The episode achieves this distinction and poignancy by treating Richards’s onscreen presence, both within the episode’s limits and beyond, as a ruin. This treatment stems from the history of Richards’s image built-up through his decade-long role as Kramer in the sitcom Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998), and of the shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during a 2006 stand-up routine at a Los Angeles comedy club. It will also been seen to rely upon the way long-running television representations are related to the concepts of fragment and ruin developed in Romantic criticism.

Jason Jacobs has pointed to this relationship as a way of thinking about how television serials develop as a series of fragments, of individual episodes and seasons formed as discrete works with their own borders, which are at once clearly demarcated “yet also blurred” by their relationship to the show’s past history, and to its future history that will yet unfold. Under the pressure of time, Jacobs writes, “[c]haracters and their shows become ruins” (2001, 444, 445). Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee treat Michael Richards as a ruin in order to excavate the long history of his image as a television performer. This excavation does more than show Richards’s current inhabitation of self to be a palimpsest of past performances. Rather, our continued witness to his singular performative presence in the here and now evokes his past talent and reveals its continuing present vitality, as a force seemingly able to overcome Richards’s fractious personal history to restore, from its tarnished, time-worn condition, an earlier sense of his comic persona. Does television’s deep bank of history (such as that accumulated by Seinfeld’s decade-long run), and its capacious future histories, make its performers peculiarly susceptible to ruinous degradation over time? But does it also allow them a special capacity for the gradual restoration or recovery of that ruined presence and self?

Before investigating these claims and questions about Michael Richards in Comedians in Cars, it should be acknowledged they might be seen as a bit grand for what could appear to be a fairly ephemeral piece of online curiosity, one intended to do no more than while away fifteen minutes of cheap time. Indeed, it seems right to greet the altitude of my claims with some scepticism, and so therefore necessary to more strongly justify my treatment of the series in the terms above. The scepticism feels appropriate because my claims to poignancy and profundity appear substantially at odds with the initial appeal of the series itself. As noted, the series is distributed online, through both a stand-alone website and YouTube. So it already courts insignificance by being placed on the Internet, a media flow that, in my experience at least, strongly lends itself to a fickle mood conducive to only momentary fragments of absorption, flotsam quickly lost amidst a sea of distraction. Another important aspect of this is Seinfeld’s heritage as a “show about nothing”. The style of Comedians in Cars does little to upset these assumptions about the demands it will make on our attention, yet, if closely considered, reveals time and its pressures to be a central concern. The opening moments of the first episode, which features Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, give us a good lesson in these aspects of the show. “Larry Eats a Pancake”, the title already framing events as inconsequential in the extreme, begins simply with a series of close-up and long shots of a well-kept blue Volkswagen Beetle. These are relatively banal images that quietly invite our gentle admiration of the vehicle’s endearing design, and of the owner’s obvious appreciation and care for it, registered in the perfect sheen of the paintwork and the beaming chrome inside the engine bay. The sense that not very much is being asked of us is encouraged by the music, a generic jazz-funk muzak number, the kind of thing you’ve heard a dozen times while being kept on hold; music to wait patiently to. This interest in evoking an experience of time develops as the episode gets past its first segment, in which the vehicle and guest are introduced. As Seinfeld and Larry meet up, the music moves into a related but changed mood, from being on hold to waiting in the cocktail lounge of a hotel lobby; it’s all light and jangly piano keys with lots of space in-between, space in which to wait for friends to arrive, to share in the leisure of passing time, together. Just prior to the announcement and introduction of the guest, the title design of each episode also inducts us into a world of undemanding simplicity. The background is an image of milk being poured into black coffee, over which the straightforward, right-to-the-point title appears, word by obvious word.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

But what especially ushers in a sense of homespun, nostalgic innocence is the font. Each word is rendered in a hand-drawn white outline, hastily crosshatched, as if sketched in a hurry on an easel-mounted chalkboard. This evokes the elementary, returning us to a childhood time in which our materials were more straightforward, the stuff of play insulated from a world of adult dilemmas, which are difficult to straighten out and put right. But by evoking the classroom, the font also suggests we are entering a world concerned with something like education, that a kind of learning might be at stake. However, this more serious suggestion is for the moment only a slight undercurrent. It is soon after submerged by the more immediate sense that we are in for a day of leisurely time wasting and the avoidance of serious obligation. This is declared in the voice-over recording of Seinfeld telephoning Larry and inviting him to coffee, the first instance of what will become a structural motif given varied repetition across each of the episodes. Seinfeld asks Larry if he wants “to do something”, a proposition about which Larry is enthusiastic, prompting Jerry to be amazed that he even has the time: “Really, you’re free?” Larry gives a painful groan of uncertainty, but then eventually buckles: “Yeah, I can be free.” Variations on this exchange are repeated each episode. One of my favourites is the one with Alec Baldwin, who features in the fourth episode of season one. Baldwin responds to the invitation with a sharp fit of disbelief (“Right now?”), but almost immediately recognises the appeal of an unexpected excursion, and puts away his other plans: “Uh, I’ll be downstairs in what, thirty minutes?” Or consider Sarah Silverman, excited in episode one of season two: “Come pick me up! What am I, busy?”

At this point it has to be acknowledged that, of course, the outings are organised ahead of time, and the participants are possibly renumerated for that time. (Don Rickles, at the very beginning of season two’s fourth episode, concedes this in a crusty wisecrack: “Okay, listen, hurry up, ‘cause for the money you’re payin’ me, this should be over.”) However, these factors only amplify my claims, because they mean these exchanges early in each episode take on the character of deliberate performative choices, further licensing us to ask: Why are they here, like this? The matter of the intention behind them becomes both legitimate and urgent. It is urgent because these exchanges are something like bedrock for one of the series’ central attractions, a crucial component of what makes it so pleasurable to watch. They evoke a world in which there are no impediments to unplanned propositions to hang out and chat, or at least one in which there are such obstacles, but they are not so serious that they can’t be overcome.

So Comedians in Cars declares itself as a strange species of talk show, which Stanley Cavell, in his essay “The Fact of Television”, understands as the format that has “the most elaborate” of television’s “requirements or opportunities for improvisation”.[2] This elaborateness comes from the format’s “monologues, and hence the interruptions and accidents that expert monologues invite, and with their more or less extended interviews” (Cavell 1982, 87-88). These qualities of television talk are central to what Cavell sees television to be a medium for. Cavell claims that through television we “monitor” what we fear is “the growing uninhabitability of the world” (1982, 95), that it can “no longer be humanly responded to” (1982, 88). Important to my argument about Comedians in Cars, a talk show whose attraction is spontaneous conversation, is Cavell’s claim that the strongest sign of the continued existence and force of such human response is “improvisation” (1982, 88). In a brilliant recent essay that takes up Cavell’s under-utilised ideas, Alex Clayton writes that “[f]oregrounding the capacity for improvisation, aliveness to one another … is one way in which the medium pacifies this terrible thought” (2013, 91), the thought of the world’s “growing uninhabitability”. The implication of Cavell’s essay for my argument is that the time Seinfeld and his guest spend together becomes a measure of the continued availability and power of improvisation and conversation in a world otherwise pressurised against these forms of human response, a potential pressure registered by the initial (or implicit) uncertainty of each episode’s opening moments of talk.

What Seinfeld and his guests then go on to talk about, and the way the show handles this talking, links the series’ ambient interest in time and improvisation to its other major concern: performance. The wonderful Alec Baldwin episode gives a good example. In an early segment the pair drives around New York City, discussing their respective lives and careers in terms of effort expended and reward gained over many years. Shortly after Baldwin mockingly characterises Seinfeld’s life as “one unbroken boulevard of green lights”, Seinfeld asks Baldwin “Who do you think has worked harder to get where they are: you, or me?” Then, once Baldwin has had a chance to do an amazing bit of impression about the petty professional rivalry between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, he and Seinfeld get lunch. Among other things, the two talk about whether Seinfeld ever wished to pursue a career as, in Baldwin’s words, a “straight” actor, and whether or not he possesses that ineffable quality that earns brilliant screen actors the right to so powerfully compel our attention and imagination; “You can look in my eyes, you can see it’s not there,” Seinfeld says. (Baldwin notes it might be more a matter of whether or not Seinfeld has the psychological wherewithal to realise those qualities more fully.)

After many digressions that allow Baldwin to demonstrate his skill at improvisation and impression, not only to Seinfeld as his audience but also to the camera, their conversation leads Seinfeld to observe that Baldwin’s misfortune (albeit an enviable one) is to be a “gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” (The rhythm and alliteration of “unbroken boulevard of green lights”, the spilling tumble of which evokes an accidental but miraculously graceful roll downhill, is one display of Baldwin’s talent for writing, even if that talent is realised through improvised performance of mock outrage: acting as writing on the spot.) So the free-ranging attention of their restless conversation, which seemingly alights on whatever will throw up some laughs at lunchtime, has a consistent and strong undercurrent about the individual capacities of body, voice, and mind that these two actors each possess, and about the gifts and torments and rewards and regrets that attend the exercise (or waste) of those capacities before a wide public over time.

The Alec Baldwin episode is a useful illustration of Comedians in Cars because it clearly reveals how one of the show’s central interests is worrying about performance. Indeed, in each episode, Seinfeld and his guests can be said to reflect on what George Kouvaros, in his astonishing study of the Magnum photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits (Huston, 1961), identifies as a central subject of the changing postwar image of acting: “acting as labor” (2010, 88). In these photographs, “the emphasis is on the backstage business of being a star: the moments of preparation and waiting that are normally out of public view” (Kouvaros 2010, 84). Kouvaros traces how these images form part of an emerging postwar tradition or subgenre of photojournalism oriented around, and exerting influence upon, Hollywood star image and the related image of acting during the period.

The argument Kouvaros patiently elaborates is a deeply rich exploration of traditions of absorption and theatricality in eighteenth century painting and twentieth century photography in relation to changing historical understandings of the private self in public life.[3] Important to my purposes is his summary of the how these changing ways of photographing film stars like Monroe impacted the image of acting in the postwar period. For Kouvaros, these photographs reveal how “the glamour and ease once associated with playing to the camera has been transformed into something tentative and fundamentally uncertain” (2010, 101). That Comedians in Cars also understands acting and performance as tentative and uncertain can be seen in the way it treats them as professional activities that need to be obsessively turned-over and worried about through talk. The conversation between Seinfeld and Baldwin is evidence of this: it shows two highly successful actors focussing on how the demanding effort to pursue excellence and recognition through their craft over time produces not only the rewards of success, but also regret, weariness, and rivalry. This is crystallised in their attempts to measure their respective reservoirs of confidence and energy, which they acknowledge to have diminished in comparison to the over-brimming vitalities of youth. As Baldwin puts it in one of the episode’s final lines: “Only young people can keep those flames burning, those pots boiling all that time.”

Kouvaros’s writing helps to illuminate one way acting is talked about in Comedians in Cars in general: as a form of labour. Beyond this, he suggests a richly generative framework within which to consider the special poignancy of the Michael Richards episode in particular, and the way it handles the history and ruin of Richards’s image as an actor. Kouvaros provides this framework when he goes on to describe what thinking about acting as labour implies, which is “an understanding of acting untethered to action or to any clear outcome: acting as bearing witness to time” (2010, 143-144). The phrase is useful to the extent that it resists static definition in order to be powerfully evocative. This being said, it runs the risk of falling prey to the kind of fuzzy incoherence that often attends this sort of high-altitude abstraction. So to bring things more down to earth, what might “acting as bearing witness to time” look like onscreen? Kouvaros gives the example of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, in particular L’Eclisse (1962). He writes that the movie’s “sense of tiredness indicates that L’Eclisse begins at the point after something has ended. Although we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily on the actors’ gestures and actions” (2010, 144). Kouvaros sees this tone as a product of Antonioni’s “temporal elongations”, the way he tends to allow shots and moments to linger longer than seems necessary, choices which “give rise to a form of acting based on qualities of observation and attention … to events and people that, for all intents and purposes, are incidental” (2010, 144-145).

We can understand Comedians in Cars as being generally linked to Kouvaros’s idea of “acting as bearing witness to time” through its own mode of apparently drifting, seemingly aimless attention. This is a kind of attention that, as I pointed out above, is mainly anchored by an interest in capturing objects, places, moods, gestures, and spoken words that cleave in various ways to the inexorable passing of time. Within this general tendency of the series, the Michael Richards episode especially resonates with “acting as bearing witness to time” through its particular connection to Kouvaros’s description of L’Eclisse. This connection is established through the scenes of Michael Richards performing in the episode, which gradually evoke and work-over the history of his image as a performer: the image sedimented through his nearly decade-long television role as Kramer, the shameful public shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during the 2006 stand-up meltdown, and his subsequent appearance alongside Seinfeld on David Letterman’s Late Show. Even this broad summary should make apparent the episode’s parallel with Kouvaros’s account of “acting as bearing witness to time” in L’Eclisse: that it “begins after the point something has ended”, and that even if “we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily” (2010, 144).

This connection is useful because through it the Michael Richards episode gives us an opportunity to consider the opportunities television provides for “acting as bearing witness to time”. As mentioned above, television series like Seinfeld are long-running works that rely for their force on a particular sense of time and the building-up of histories: histories of fictional worlds and characters, and histories of our relationships to those fictions. Serial television, in other words, has a particular “ability to generate a shared history with us”, and partly relies for its force on “our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (Jacobs and Peacock 2013, 12). So serial television, as a medium of “mutual inhabitancy” over time, is one that produces works that—like cities built atop ruins—continually accrete layers of history as both they and we live into our shared, indeterminate futures. Might these attributes of television—what Horace Newcomb called its qualities of “intimacy, continuity, and history” (Newcomb 1974, 245)—allow for not only the close, long-range tracking of corrosion upon the features and presence of Richards, but also for the gathering, from that same history of collapse, some form of resource for recovering and reviving our earlier sense of his talent and gift?

These issues are quite difficult to clearly make out, but a way to consider how the episode presents them will emerge if we precisely note how, in the segment when Seinfeld introduces the vehicle, a sense of “time weighing heavily” first becomes apparent in the episode. As mentioned in my description of the Larry David episode and the blue Volkswagen Beetle, the series’ cars might at first seem to function as objects photographed merely for our appreciation of their autonomous formal qualities, whether for their elegant ease of line (a 1967 Austin-Healey roadster), or jolly oddity of angle and temperament (a run-down 1950 Citroën). The sense of pleasure for its own sake also stems from the connection between these vehicles and Seinfeld’s image as a wealthy collector of Porsche 911s, a mark of opulently pointless eccentricity. However, the Michael Richards episode finds a particular expressive relationship between Seinfeld’s chosen vehicle and his guest. The car is a 1962 Volkswagen van with a flatbed tray. As we watch the beaten-up oddity trundle about the streets of Los Angeles, Seinfeld informs us, in a voiceover that strikes the distanced appreciation of a car salesman on his shop floor, that the coat is “Dove Blue, Primer Grey, and Rust. The interior is grey vinyl, and duct tape.” Seinfeld tells us he was attracted to the weathered van because it was used as a service truck for a Porsche repair shop, but his voice betrays a stronger note of satisfaction in revealing that, in addition to the flatbed and two rows of seats, it has “an extra door on one side!” The shots of the car, and Seinfeld’s description spoken over them, immediately evoke and demand attention to the sedimentation of built-up exterior layers, and to their gradual erosion, revelation, and disintegration over time.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

As well, Seinfeld’s enjoyment of the strange asymmetrical design (“an extra door on one side!”) raises eccentricity as a nicely surprising refusal of conventionally reassuring balance. So the car in this instance functions as more than just a pleasurable excursion into the lives of the well-off. With its visible layers of built-up and peeled-back paint, its wounded, barely held-together interior, and its off-kilter design, the Volkswagen is put to work as an emblem of Richards himself. In doing so, it instructs us about the episode’s interest in Richards: as a shifting palimpsest of character and persona that has been dynamically built-up and ground-down over time, his fictional exterior as ‘Kramer’ rudely ripped apart one night in a Los Angeles comedy club, our superficial idea of him stripped away to reveal a more pathologically eccentric and manic psychology than we ever imagined was contained within the oddball onscreen.

The metaphorical resonance between this vehicle and Richards is important because it asks us to revise our consideration of the role that the bodies of cars, and their surfaces, play in relation to the presence of performers in the show. What this means is that, despite the apparently undemanding simplicity of its style, Comedians in Cars requires consideration of a complex synthesis of the human presence of performers onscreen with other aspects of film style, such as camera position, mise-en-scène, and sound. Andrew Klevan describes well this relationship of mutual integration when he appreciates V.F. Perkins’s writing on coherence of performance and film apparatus in The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942): “The actor’s and the camera’s behaviour are mutually considerate; each trusts the other to enhance understanding and to relieve them of the sole burden of making themselves known” (2005, 14).[4] There is of course at least one important difference between the kind of work Perkins and Klevan admire in Welles, and that being undertaken by Seinfeld and his collaborators in Comedians in Cars. This point of difference is that the comedian’s talk show series is also a documentary and so does not display the type of intentional mastery and control of mise-en-scène that Welles engineered and enjoyed.[5] Nevertheless, the Michael Richards episode of Comedians in Cars uses its documentary attention to details as they pass by to find, in the world, a real-life mise-en-scène of significant relationships between setting, space, gesture, voice, and history.

Attending to these relationships reveals the episode’s testament to the effects of time’s passage on Richards’s image as a performer, and the way his presence as a performer can be seen to somewhat reverse this passage. It does so by calling forth memories of his earlier image that are able to in some way transcend the marks left by time. What I evoke is  a process that works upon the relationship between memory and physical aging that Walter Benjamin describes in his account of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. For Benjamin, the passage of time “in its most real—that is, space-bound—form … nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and ageing without” (quoted in Kouvaros 2010, 109).[6] In the Comedians in Cars episode, Richards’s long history of performance is the basis for memories that are shown to in some way overcome, if only for moments, aging without. I want to call this the afterlife of performance. It is a continued force of compelling human presence that is here accrued by our long history of intimate acquaintance with Richards’s inhabitation of Kramer. An objection could be that I am just describing something like ‘star presence’ or charisma, the capacity of some individuals famous for screen acting to continue compelling our attention and admiration beyond any single onscreen appearance. But here I think the word ‘afterlife’ captures something peculiar to the connection between Richards’s long, marbled history as Kramer, and his appearance in Comedians in Cars. It is to do with the episode’s negotiation of the potentially fatal damage caused to his image as Kramer by his catastrophic outburst on the Laugh Factory stage in 2006, and how certain moments of performance in the episode show him able to overcome this ruin.

Figures 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

The first instance of such performance occurs during an early segment of the episode, which also works to frame the history of Richards’s persona and star image in terms of ruin. As the pair drive north along the California coast towards Malibu, Richards points out to Seinfeld the monumental Getty Villa perched atop the cliff above them, and the camera’s views of the mansion make clear its dilapidation. The once-proud stone walls are marred by threatening structural cracks, and the swimming pool has already collapsed down the cliff face, exposing an empty void that was once a place of spirited frolicking and enjoyment, but is now only a testament to the inevitability of ruin as the world gives way beneath us.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

For Richards, this becomes the topic of a sprightly comic ‘bit’, improvised to the incredible delight of Seinfeld, clearly enraptured by the company and performance of his long-time friend. Basking in the afterglow of his hysterical laughter, Seinfeld says to Richards: “You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.” Seinfeld recalls in particular a moment from their show’s eighth season, the Kenny Rogers chicken episode (“The Chicken Roaster”, 8.18), in which Kramer opens Jerry’s door to the hallway and is snapped over backwards by the red light shining into Jerry’s apartment from across the corridor.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Despite not remembering the moment, Richards seems quietly pleased, and tells Seinfeld he gets the sense that being around his old friend will cause him to slowly become “that crazy character” again.

Across this segment, the episode quietly seizes and works upon the documentary detail of the day’s events so that the minutiae of two men’s ordinary words and gestures, as they pass, meet the grand scale of a monument of cultural achievements, collapsing as the earth subsides beneath it. The camera shows the villa as a fragile housing of riches, which attempts to recover a history that has in one sense passed, but that still presses on the present. One way the collapsing building and cliff connect with Richards is through their ambient resonance with how his face is also marked by time, not only by the fact of biological aging, but surely also by the inner travail of his terrible public shame and exile. Richards was of course not a young man by the time he was starring on Seinfeld, but his presence on the show was characterised by a seemingly irrepressible inner brightness that shone through a face able to always carry a mood youthful in spirit if not in flesh. What we saw of Richards in the wake of his meltdown, an image that ghosts his presence here, is something like what confronts Kouvaros in Richard Avedon’s portrait of Humphrey Bogart: “His bow tie and sportcoat link him to his screen roles. But, positioned inches from the lens, the iconic stature of Bogart’s face has crumbled. We are still looking at the face of Bogart, but what we also see is a face whose age and mortality compete on equal terms with its iconic status” (2010, 109).

This sense of competition between ageing and iconicity is heightened when Seinfeld evokes Richards’s bit of sprightly slapstick on their sitcom. This implicit juxtaposition of bodies reminds me of the way Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950) harnesses the moving image’s powerful testament to ageing by giving Gloria Swanson a dual presence onscreen, through her role as a former silent film star, and through the screening within the film of those earlier starring roles. As Stanley Cavell writes, “when we watch her watching her young films, the juxtaposition of the phases of her appearance cuts the knowledge into us, of the movie’s aging and ours, with every frame” (1979, 74). Wilder’s movie is a tragedy at least in part because the yawning gulf between images, personas, and times cannot be bridged, and so the Gloria Swanson character is attended by a sense of irrecoverable loss. By comparison, Comedians in Cars displays Richards as a man who still possesses his earlier performative capacities, and can find spaces and audiences hospitable to their exercise. The Getty Villa segment suggests these might overcome the ‘crumbling’ of his image and persona. This suggestion is in the effect of Richards’s bit about the villa’s disintegration, which sees Seinfeld given over to intense laughter, through which he remembers their wonderful work together so many years ago.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

So the moment not only evokes past joy, but reveals also the ongoing availability of Richards’s vital companionship as a fellow comic performer, his continuing capacity to enliven Seinfeld despite what has fallen apart in the years in-between. Indeed, it is to Jerry’s reaction as a witness to performance that Richards responds with his promise he might become Kramer once more, recognising in Jerry’s hilarity the continued, present force of his own past, supposedly ruined comic persona.


Indeed, the episode’s views of Richards reveal how Kramer’s mannerisms of speech and gesture live on as a substrate of Richards himself, that ‘Kramer’ is still available for him to assume, an availability surely in part opened up by the deep intimacy between performer, character, and audience accrued over Richards’s decade inhabiting the role on television. This can be seen in intermittent shots of the pair making their way along the footpath, in which Richards unselfconsciously ambles in Kramer’s trademark gait, balancing between an elegant dignity and an ungainly lack of self-possession and awareness. A key moment that points to Richards’s boundary-blurring capacity to conjure an idea of his own ‘self’ while also being a conduit for the image of ‘Kramer’ is when, interrupting his meal with Seinfeld in the Malibu café, Richards acts-out his dramatic encounter with a homeless, chess-playing savant on a street in Hollywood, a man who seemed like a bum but beat Richards twice in quick succession and refused to play him again. Richards handles this story in a way that makes it a piece with one of Kramer’s more memorable moments of one-man performance in Seinfeld. This is the scene from “The Fire” (5.19) in which Kramer re-enacts for Jerry and George his experience frantically commandeering a city bus to drive an amputated toe to hospital while fighting off a mugger and making scheduled stops (“Well, people kept ringin’ the bell!”).

As in that scene, in the Malibu café we are again reminded of Richards’s wonderful capacity to not only craft a performance of himself as he narrates his own past, but also to turn, in an instant, his own typical manic gestures in ways that allow him to convincingly and generously bring to life the individuality and essence of other people, and to inhabit them before us. But the scene Richards conjures here, as he turns a café floor into a temporary stage, is more compelling than the Seinfeld moment precisely because of the way Richards uses his body to deftly manage our point of view, incrementally reversing our early view of his standing in relation to the homeless man. Clayton notes how moments of slapstick “metamorphosis” can “externalize[e] a dialectical negotiation between two potential selves” (2007, 188). Here we see that slapstick negotiation of an embodied ‘split’ take particular form in Richards’s enactment of a wish to transcend the limitations of past and body, and the boundaries they each erect around the future. This can be found in the way the scene serves as a microcosm of the ruination of Richards’s own image, and a wished-for rehabilitation of his self. Across the short skit, Richards’s initial superiority is slowly degraded moment-by-moment, until at the end he is left charging desperately after the homeless player, Richards now the beggar, pleading for another chance to re-set the game and begin again on an equal footing. Richards embodies the savant challenger and victor, on the other hand, so that what at first looks like clueless disconnection from the world shifts into a peculiar expression of dignified self-possession, a distinct elevation from his starting position down in the gutter, the lowly subject of Richards’s curious and superior gaze from above. The performance pivots on Richards’s fluent balance between his competing qualities of ungainliness and dignity, the sliding of one state of being into the other tipping him between duelling comportments that each compete for hard-won respect, and that pursue the chance for past failures to be set aside in order for Richards’s central appeal to be found afresh.

So there is not only a transformative quality to Richards’s capacity to slip his usual self and inhabit, within the same skin, an alternative but overlapping identity, but also in this slippage a desire for transformation, a wish that something in the past, or about the self, could be overcome or evaded. In this respect it is telling that the episode explicitly mentions only one moment of Richards’s long performance on Seinfeld: Kramer’s reaction to the red Kenny Rogers Chicken light. The brilliance of that gesture, described above, is to imbue the light with a physical power and force its appearance onscreen would otherwise not carry, indeed to transform what we can see of it. Through Richards, light onscreen is less an ethereal presence we see, and more a physical force we feel. Similarly, in Seinfeld’s enraptured fixation on Richards’s story of the former television superstar’s run-in with the homeless chess savant, we see that Richards’s talent is still to make the world become more present and alive to us. The juxtaposition of star image in Sunset Boulevard is attended by the irrecoverable loss of an unbridgeable gap between an image then and its ruins now. For Jodi Brooks, aging female film star characters like Swanson’s are connected to “forgotten moments of cinema”, and that, as “sole witnesses to their own disappearance, they have, it would seem, only one option—to reproduce and direct that disappearance, now with an audience, through performing an excessive visibility” (2001, n. pag.). Unlike Gloria Swanson’s film presence in Sunset Boulevard, Richards conjures his past television role as Kramer in ways that acknowledge it has passed, but is not lost, not “forgotten”. It is as if Richards’s long inhabitation of Kramer has, in our imagination of the two figures, fused them in such a way that Richards’s return from exile does not purely restage that exile, but seems able to recover from collapse the transformative force of his earlier image and comic persona. They persist not as mere remains of the past, but by remaining present, and powerful. What does the episode say about the source, nature, and limits of this continued presence and power?

The source, nature, and limits of this presence, call it Richards’s talent, are plumbed by the episode’s final segments and closing moments, which hinge around a matter raised when Seinfeld and Richards first arrive in Malibu: the weight of public performance. This weight can be understood as one cost of the labour of acting. Kouvaros describes how, in the images of Monroe on the set of The Misfits, this labour is attended by external and internal pressures of visibility that produce expressions of exhaustion, alienation, and anxious uncertainty.[7] The Comedians in Cars episode is first touched by such moods when Richards and Seinfeld step out of their car to walk across the coffee shop parking lot. Richards appears genuinely anxious about appearing in such an ordinary public place, and goes to the extent of wearing a wig and dark glasses in a comical attempt to disguise himself.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

At this point the as-yet unspoken memory of Richards’s last, so infamous public appearance pushes-in on the episode to the point of discomfort, although its seriousness soon dissolves when his awful disguise almost exactly matches the real haircut of a man nearby.[8] By the episode’s end, this weight lifts in silent images of Richards pleasantly interacting with groups of people as he and Seinfeld make their way back to the truck.

Crucial to the point of these images in relation to the weight of public performance is the way Richards’s 2006 Laugh Factory disaster is raised following the chess savant routine. Richards’s controversial history comes up when he and Seinfeld reminisce about their nine years of sitcom work together, from which Richards takes the lesson that the ideal mode in which to perform is one of “selflessness”, and that his failure on the Laugh Factory stage was a mark of his more typical “selfishness”. The catalyst for this conversation is Richards’s comment that performing “was always a struggle”, a remark accompanied by hand gestures that conjure a broiling inner tempest, ceaselessly churning over-and-over within. Richards’s effort to perform his easy-going role as Kramer is captured in Seinfeld’s observation that Richards would rehearse his lines with his face pressed up against the set’s walls. This is an image of an actor struggling to eke out whatever privacy he can from the publicity of the set, forcing his otherwise private self into a mode of being that could support appearing in public as someone else. The image is relevant to the weight of performance because its evocation of a face pressed into a surface expresses as a flattening burden the pressure that attends such highly public visibility. Seinfeld’s story of the way Richards would prepare on-set, and Richards’s tempestuous hand gestures, are important because each suggests why Richards might be invested in the perpetuation of his image and persona as Kramer, in the continued vitality of that presence. This is because the story and the gestures convey the mood of troubled despair to which Richards seems vulnerable when he is left without a marked-out context in which to perform some version of himself to a receptive audience, such as in those anxious moments of waiting and preparation before taking the stage. Richards’s collapse into violent, racist profanity on the Laugh Factory stage can be thought of as another moment in which he troublingly slipped the reassuring boundaries of his typical self-performance.[9] On David Letterman’s Late Show, Richards’s own, disturbing account of his experience that night legitimates this claim. Defending himself as “not a racist”, Richards nonetheless conceded: “And yet it’s said. It comes through. It fires out of me.” These acknowledgments frame the event as one beyond the control of deliberate performance, an unrestrained expression of unmediated interior ferment, one hinted at by the anxieties that marked his daily effort to perform in Seinfeld.

Yet, although the pressure of performing on the long-running sitcom was something of a torment for Richards, it is evident his performance on the show, one that drew heavily on his own personal qualities, also provided him some relief from torment. This can be seen in a YouTube video, “Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like [sic] When his Co-Stars Mess Up”, a compilation of Seinfeld out-takes in which other cast members ‘break’, accidentally shedding their act in fits of hilarity.

In one exemplary moment, Jason Alexander as George cannot help but slowly break into laughter during a scene. Richards stays frozen in place as if to preserve the fictional moment before its interruption, and, barely even prepared to move his mouth, quietly says “George, please … You don’t know how hard this is for me, please.” That Richards refers to his fellow actor by character name betrays the strength of his need to sustain the performative space of the fiction around him; he understands this need to be greater than that of his fellow actors, who seem to more breezily enjoy the breakdowns.

In the context of Seinfeld’s anecdote about Richards’s habitual preparation on the sitcom set, the YouTube compilation helps us understand the importance of the long-running television series to one dimension of the continued afterlife of Richards’s performance. It suggests the nine-year sitcom provided an ongoing space in which Richards could continue to sustain a performance of self that might stave-off the inner uncertainty and anxiety that evidently haunted him to some degree outside of that space. That Richards desired this sort of continuity is revealed in the initial moments of his reflection on the Seinfeld days and the Kramer character. “I could have played Kramer for the rest of my life,” Richards says. “That character would have fit into any situation, there was a great universality to the soul of that character.” These words carry a wish for some form of unity and acceptance: to become a person who can keep alive a state of being in which he can stand to inhabit the world. The ongoing improvisation within sitcom scenarios and characters on Seinfeld provided just this.

What they also provided was a deep history of shared public witness to, and memory of, Richards’s wonderful performances. This is what Jacobs and Peacock, quoted earlier, describe as the long-running television series’ “ability to generate a shared history with us, and our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (2013, 12). This history and mutual inhabitancy explains another dimension of the continued force of Richards’s talent that is so movingly on display in Comedians in Cars: his ongoing capacity to enliven and transform the experience of those who bear witness to him. To borrow Benjamin’s words once more, Richards’s presence allows his audience’s memories within to overcome ageing without. This is best displayed in the episode’s closing moments, the montage of Seinfeld and Richards leaving the café and moving to the car. The fragmentary images are silent but for the underscore of slow piano jazz, which evokes a mood of retirement to a comfortable chair, to sit out the evening on one’s own in contemplative stillness and quiet. As they pay, a man recognises Richards as the actor reaches his beanpole arm across the counter, and a wonderful, child-like smile of pleasure spreads over the man’s elderly face, surely in welcome and gratitude for this unexpected visit from his memories of Kramer.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

As Seinfeld and Richards walk to the car, we see them greeted and enjoyed by passers-by. One group pose for photos with the pair, and Richards takes their camera, clowning for them, snapping his own close-ups, imprinting his personal stamp on these mementoes of that time they met Jerry and Kramer. If the episode announced its interests in the place of Kramer the character within Richards the performer by considering the ruins of a once-monumental villa crumbling into the sea, then the ending of the episode is telling about that place. This is because the image of an elderly man’s face enlivened with a child-like smile reveals the power of Kramer still alive inside Richards, still able to compel the attraction and enjoyment of everyone he is shown to meet, able to withstand the marks of age, to tap a youthfulness within himself and others that shines through the reminders of history and mortality without. The memory of all those episodes and moments of comic brilliance live inside Richards’s body, not entirely snuffed out by the darkness of that rageful night at the Laugh Factory and the melancholy despair of the Letterman appearance, although those past moments continue to haunt his present image with their shadow.

Richards’s talent for improvised performance is to make the world more alive to us, and it provides him a mode of response to the world that keeps at bay a pressing sense of, in Cavell’s words, that world’s uninhabitability. Yet the closing moments of the episode ask us to consider that this talent is not his gift, as its exercise is presented as a difficult form of labour, not without risk, loss, or pain. It is instead revealed as a gift to the world as Richards passes through it, one that allows the personal ruins left by time to be momentarily overcome by the afterlife of brilliant human performance, and by our witness to it. Our intimate ‘mutual inhabitancy’ of his sedimented role as Kramer allows Richards to recover in public view from the ruin of the Laugh Factory catastrophe. But the very final moments of the episode suggest these intertwined histories carry a considerable weight, the deforming pressures of which defy the possibility of erasing the marks of time’s passage on the memory and image of Richards. As he and Seinfeld drive back down the coast, the final words of the episode are these of their lasting friendship:

Seinfeld: I do hope you consider using your instrument again, because it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen.

Richards: Oh, Jerry— thanks, buddy.

As these words are spoken, the last image we see is their van driving into a tunnel, a row of guiding lights running down each of its sides.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

This is an apt way to close the episode because tunnel imagery provides opportunities for evoking moments of balanced suspension between past and future. This instance in particular contains the striking details of the twinned rows of lights stretching into the darkness, figuring benign guidance into an unknown future, towards a new light and view of the world. Yet in a final acknowledgment that Richards’s future is unlikely to fully shed the burden of his past, perhaps destined to become an irrecoverable ruin, a finally mute instrument, the choice is made to keep that light from view, ensuring it remains out of sight around a corner yet to come. As we absorb the silent wake of Richards’s thanks, the tunnel’s darkness engulfs the small truck.


Benjamin, Walter. 1992. “The Image of Proust.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, 197-210. London: Fontana.

Brooks, Jodi. 2001. “Performing Aging/Performing Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Senses of Cinema 16.

Cavell, Stanley. 1979. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Cavell, Stanley. 1982. “The Fact of Television.” Daedalus 111 (4): 75-96.

Clayton, Alex. 2013. “Why Comedy is at Home on Television.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 79-102. London: Bloomsbury.

Clayton, Alex. 2007. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson: McFarland.

Fried, Michael. 1980. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fried, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jacobs, Jason. 2001. “Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (4): 427-447.

Jacobs, Jason, and Steven Peacock. 2013. “Introduction.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 1-20. London: Bloomsbury.

Klevan, Andrew. 2005. Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, Short Cuts. London: Wallflower.

Kouvaros, George. 2010. Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: “The Misfits” and Icons of Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Newcomb, Horace. 1974. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Perkins, V. F. 1999. The Magnificent Ambersons. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI.

Perkins, V. F. 2006. “Moments of Choice.” Rouge 9. h

Sennett, Richard. 1977. The Fall of Public Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yancy, George. 2012. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moving Image Works Cited

Antonioni, Michaelengelo. 1962. L’Eclisse. Italy: Cineriz.

David, Larry, and Jerry Seinfeld. 1989-1998. Seinfeld. USA: NBC.

Huston, John. 1961. The Misfits. USA: United Artists.

“Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like when His Co-Star Mess Up.” YouTube video. Posted by “Ryan Evans”, December 8, 2011.

Seinfeld, Jerry. 2012-. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. USA: Crackle.

Welles, Orson. 1942. The Magnificent Ambersons. USA: RKO.

Wilder, Billy. 1950. Sunset Boulevard. USA: Paramount.


[2] My interest in Comedians in Cars as a talk show is not to relate the show to its genre more broadly. I instead aim to use Cavell’s ideas about talk shows within his broader account of television to think about performance and improvisation in the Michael Richards episode.

[3] In making these arguments, Kouvaros draws on Michael Fried’s art history on traditions of theatricality and absorption in eighteenth century painting, and Richard Sennett’s sociological history of transformations to public society since the same period. See: Fried (1980), Sennett (1977). For Fried’s later exploration of absorption and theatricality in photography, see: Fried (2008).

[4] Internal citation: Perkins (1999, 58-9).

[5] For a clear illustration of Welles’s mastery of his workspace and mise-en-scène on The Magnificent Ambersons, see Perkins’s account of Welles’s requirement that the sets for the movie’s outdoor scenes be built inside a refrigeration plant: Perkins (2006).

[6] Internal citation: Benjamin (1992, 207)

[7] These moods are given expression in photographs described throughout Kouvaros’s book. For exemplary instances, see: Kouvaros (2010, 99-101, 114-15, 125, 136-37).

[8] Early on, the episode is explicit to declare all events in the episode a coincidence, with the grave onscreen title: “Some events in this episode appear set up. They were not.” I think we should take the episode’s more outlandish events (such as the visit to Sugar Ray Leonard’s house that interrupts the visit of Seinfeld’s acquaintance to the house of Jay Mohr, a stand-up) as mere coincidence and chance, if only because the scenarios’ mildly amusing comic pay-offs hardly seem worth the effort that would have been required to orchestrate them. More than this, the episode’s need to declare their happenstance nature betrays the importance it places on improvisation.

[9] George Yancy reads Richards’s Laugh Factory outrage and his subsequence appearance on the Late Show in terms of an “opaque white racist self” that resists conscious self-knowledge and examination, “one that is alien to itself” (2012, 168-69). (Thanks to Fiona Nicoll for bringing this to my attention.) If Richards’s slapstick metamorphosis, in Clayton’s terms, hopes to overcome his alienation from some aspect of himself, it makes sense that the breakdown of such performance might result in the expression of an “alien” aspect of the self. The frightening exposure of this unmediated anger is perhaps what is most deeply unsettling about the footage of Richards’s tirade, as it tears down the more reassuring channelling of mania through so many years of performances.


Author bio:  Elliott Logan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. His work covers a range of topics related to film and television aesthetics, particularly issues concerning film style, meaning, and evaluative criticism. His current project is an appreciation of acting and performance in recent US serial television fiction.




Hyperreality with Tentacles: David Cronenberg, Memes, and Mutations – David Faust

Abstract: This paper attempts to examine three films by director David Cronenberg, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and  eXistenZ in an effort to understand his ideas regarding the transformative nature of information on the body and mind. As a filmmaker, Cronenberg is unique in that his major influences are writers, in particular transgressive writers like William S. Burroughs and Vladamir Nabokov rather than other filmmakers. This perspective imbues his films, especially his earlier horror and science fiction films with  ideas befitting his inspirations. In Videodrome, information passes from person to person in the form of pirated video cassettes and transmissions which results in (possible) physical deformities while raising the mind to a higher level of perception. Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch discards most of the novel’s (non) narrative and instead focuses on the protagonist, William Lee trapped in a world that might only exist because of a combination of language and a drug derived from centipede carcases. His 1999 film eXistenZ is a capstone that combines ideas from Videodrome and Naked Lunch where bio-mechanical video game systems interface with people’s spines and transports them into a hyperreal existence.


The Brood (1979)

The Brood (1979)

Jorge Luis Borges, in his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, first published in 1940, tells of a fictional world, Tlön, created by a group of intellectuals who disseminate bits of information about it in various books, magazines, encyclopedias, and dictionaries throughout the world so that as people begin to learn about this fictional reality, it gradually imprints itself on the real world, re-writing reality with its own paradigm. What began as a minor entry in an obscure encyclopedia becomes more and more ubiquitous, the more that people read and learn about it. The fictional world of Tlön  spreads over the earth like a virus, a virus composed of information, mutating reality (Borges 1962, 3-18). David Cronenberg has been exploring similar themes in his films since the late 1970s, beginning briefly with The Brood (1979), and then fully with Videodrome (1983), his adaptation of William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch (1991) and eXistenZ (1999). Cronenberg’s films show a fascination with media, information, and their power over the human body and mind. 

Cronenberg began making films in the late 1960s in his hometown of Toronto, Canada. Toronto did not have much at all in the way of a film industry, so he and other filmmakers had to create everything from scratch:

There wasn’t a film industry here, so there wasn’t even a film industry where you could plug in and say, ‘OK, if I work my way up from assistant director or third assistant director, eventually I’ll be directing.’ There wasn’t that opportunity, and so I don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the 60s and the underground film movement. I might not have become a director at all.(Cronenberg 2006, 14)

This ‘do it yourself’ approach to film making was influenced largely by underground art film directors working in New York at the time. Cronenberg says our inspiration really was more from the New York underground filmmakers: Kenneth Anger and Ed Eschwiller and Jonas Mekas and the Kuchar Brothers (Cronenberg 2006, 14). Author J.G. Ballard, whose novel Crash would later be adapted into a film by Cronenberg in 1996, says that in the 1960s, [t]here was a major change in the way the mass media began reshaping reality (Ballard 2005, 177). This change that Ballard speaks of seems to relate to the ubiquitousness of television in the homes of people all over the world and the effects that rapidly disseminating information, like the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald and nightly reports about the war in Vietnam, had on people who were largely unaccustomed to seeing such violent images at all, and then suddenly to have these images beamed into their homes: a saturation of information. It seems as though this saturation of media influenced a lot of Cronenberg’s own ideas on film making and storytelling.

Cronenberg’s inspirations, however,  come largely from writers rather than other filmmakers. Browning says [t]he kind of literature towards which Cronenberg seems to be drawn is best known to academic or cultish circles rather than populist best-sellers (Browning 2007, 27). In fact, Cronenberg initially wanted to be a writer, but as Beard says Nabokov and Burroughs initially inspired Cronenberg to be a writer, but it was a sense that he could not escape their influence which led to a rejection of that particular ambition (Beard 1996, 827). Browning adds that although he changed mediums from the page to the screen, the influence of his literary mentors did not disappear altogether (Browning 2007, 109). Cronenberg’s films are first and foremost about ideas. Like the authors Jorge Luis Borges, Vladamir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and J.G. Ballard, Cronenberg uses his chosen medium of film to explore concepts. Character development often takes a back seat to the philosophical concerns he presents in his films. Cronenberg seems to be particularly fascinated with exploring the spread of information through media and the effect this spread of information has on the human mind and body. In Cronenberg’s films, information in the form of memes has a mutating effect on the body as well as the mind. This effect in turn often causes a kind of paradigm shift regarding perceptual distortions of reality. The mutations of the body lead to a perceptual awakening to  the nature of reality.   This paper will examine in detail three films by Cronenberg, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ  in an attempt to understand Cronenberg’s ideas on the impact information has on the body and how these information viruses or memes mutate the body and move the mind to a higher state of perception or consciousness.

What are Memes?

The Brood (1979)

The Brood (1979)

To begin with, it is important to understand what exactly memes are and how they work. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense canbe called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, in can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.(Dawkins 1976, 192)

Additionally, Blackmore says, regarding memes that: [t]he human language faculty primarily provided a selective advantage to memes, not genes. The memes then changed the environment where genes were selected, and so forced them to build better and better meme spreading apparatus. In other words, the function of language is to spread memes (Blackmore 1999, 99). Memes are ideas that spread like a virus from person to person. The fictional universe in the Borges story mentioned earlier functions like a meme that re-writes the rules of reality. Regarding the psychological aspects of memes, Brodie says: the memes in your head cause behavioral effects. Likening your mind to a computer, memes are the software part of your programming; the brain and the central nervous system. Produced by your genes is the hardware part (Brodie 1996, 7).

Cronenberg first began to touch upon this concept of viral ideas in his film The Brood from 1979. In The Brood, a psychiatrist, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed a method whereby a patients’ fears and psychological traumas are, upon discovery, manifested physically in the form of lesions or tumors. The patients convert this information into illnesses, sores, lesions.  Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar)’s trauma manifests itself in an ever-increasing brood of mutant children who kill. In The Brood, information becomes an agent of mutation: [m]emes are to a human’s behavior what genes are to our bodies: internal representations of knowledge that result in outward effects on the world (Brodie 1996, 7).

Videodrome: The Video Word Made Flesh

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome, released in 1983, is where Cronenberg truly begins to explore the idea of information as an agent of mutation. The story concerns the owner of a cable TV station, Max Renn (James Woods) who discovers (or as we find out later, is led to) an underground TV show called Videodrome. From the moment Max sees Videodrome, his reality begins to shift, subtly at first  with Max’s bedroom changing into a kind of temple while having sex with Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and then gradually increasing in intensity and frequency until Max (and we, the viewer) has no idea what is ‘real.’ The character Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a so-called media prophet  provides most of the exposition regarding the nature of Videodrome and its purpose. In the film, O’Blivion appears only on television screens, his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) says the monologue is his preferred method of discourse.  That O’Blivion prefers monologues is significant, not because he has been dead for some years and only appears via videotape, but because he is primarily interested in the transference of information, specifically the Videodrome meme.  The origin of Videodrome is somewhat unclear. O’Blivion, in a taped message tells Max,  I had a brain tumor. And I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumor and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce and become flesh, uncontrollable flesh. But when they removed the tumor, it was called Videodrome. As for what caused Videodrome to manifest in the first place or the reasons behind it, Cronenberg does not say. That it exists is all that is important.

But what is Videodrome? Masha (Lynne Gorman), a producer and dealer of underground and soft core porn videos tells max that, it [Videodrome] has a philosophy. That’s what makes it dangerous.  Later, Max learns that Videodrome is not a show, as he first believes, but rather it is a subliminal signal, the Videodrome signal, transmitted subliminally through any television broadcast begins to alter the brain of anyone from the first moment they see it. Sperb notes that [t]he tumor [like effect] is what emanates from the Videodrome broadcasts and which then pre-personally constitutes perception [hallucination] for Max (Sperb 2006). The Videodrome meme closely resembles William Burroughs’ conception of an electronic virus, in the electronic revolution a virus is a very small unit of word and image…such units can be biologically activated to act as communicable virus strains (Burroughs 1974, 14). O’Blivion tells Max that massive doses of the Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality.  O’Blivion sees Videodrome as a means of altering the perceptions of humanity, of evolving human consciousness. After all, O’Blivion says, there is nothing real outside of our perception of reality.  Concerning the film itself, Harkness states that [t]he inexorable logic of Videodrome is that the illusion is the reality, and when dealing with a medium as insidious as television, it doesn’t make any difference which is which (Harkness 1983, 25). O’Blivion’s goal seems to be for everyone to eventually evolve beyond flesh and bone into a kind of electronic soul, becoming pure information, he speaks of Total Transformation. Kill the old, become the new.

Regardless of what O’Blivion’s intentions are, there is another group who seeks to co-opt Videodrome for their own purposes. This group, Spectacular Optical, is a conglomerate that makes  inexpensive glasses for the third world and missile guidance systems for NATO. Spectacular Optical seeks to use Videodrome to kill off a certain segment of the population of North America, specifically the segment who enjoys the kind of sex and violence programming Max broadcasts through his network. It is Harlan, Max’s friend, technician, secret agent for spectacular Optical, and the man who introduced Max to the Videodrome meme who explains it, saying North America is getting soft, patron. And the rest of the world is getting tough…we’re entering savage new times, and we’re gonna have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them. Spectacular Optical uses the Videodrome signal to reprogram Max, like a computer or robot to become an assassin. He kills the other executives at his network, so that Spectacular Optical can take over and begin broadcasting the Videodrome signal, and then attempts to kill Bianca O’Blivion, but she reprograms Max again to murder Harlan and Barry Convex, the chief of special programs at Spectacular Optical. What was once a tool intended for enlightenment and evolution has now been turned into a weapon, bringing to mind military experiments with psychoactive substances like LSD.

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)


The hallucinations that Max experiences throughout the film are bio-mechanical in nature. Max sees Videodrome mutating his body, which is exactly what it’s doing, except it’s also mutating his mind. The first time Max gets exposed to the Videodrome signal for an extended period of time, he sees and feels a large vaginal opening appear on his chest. Into this opening he inserts a gun, which he will use later to kill the executives. Later, when he is reprogrammed by Barry Convex, this scene is presented visually as convex inserting a videotape into Max, which is how Max perceives it. When Max attempts to kill Bianca O’Blivion, Max perceives a gun coming through a television screen, shooting him, the wounds in his chest manifesting themselves on the screen. Max is then reprogrammed, reborn as the video word made flesh. Concerning these bio-mechanical hallucinations, Cronenberg says we absorb it [technology] into our nervous systems  and into our concepts of reality and into our bodies (Porton 1999, 8). The blending of the mechanical with the biological is a theme that runs through many of Cronenberg’s films, particularly The Fly (1986) Naked Lunch, Crash (1996) and eXistenZ. In Videodrome, the hallucinations of cyberneticism seem to presage a move toward a new and higher level of consciousness. In the end, Max watches on a television screen an image of him committing suicide, the final act before becoming (perhaps) pure information, like Brian O’Blivion and Nicki Brand before him, living forever as part of Videodrome.

Naked Lunch: Exterminate all Rational Thought

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

In 1991, Cronenberg released his adaptation of  William S. Burroughs’ controversial novel Naked Lunch. Published in 1959, Naked Lunch is a surreal and nightmarish collection of hallucinatory  routines mostly centered around a place called Interzone, which is modeled on the city of Tangier, where Burroughs lived for a few years in the 1950s. According to Beard in the book The Artist as Monster, Cronenberg as early as 1981 expressed the desire to make a film version of Naked Lunch (277). However, as an adaptation, Naked Lunch is, to say the least, a very challenging book:

Naked Lunch has no coherent narrative or even narrative line. It is a disparate series of sketches or ‘routines’ (as Burroughs referred to them) populated by flat, stylized characters regularly modulating into modernist poetic diction, and suffused with with cruel humor and a savage satirical edge. In effect it is a collection of separate fragments…giving the impression of having been individually composed and throw together in a collage-like mannerwhich indeed was the manner of the book’s initial writing and later assembly. (Beard 2006, 277)

Because of the challenges presented by the nature of the book, as well as the amount of sex and violence within it, Cronenberg, a lifelong Burroughs fan, chose not to film Naked Lunch as an adaptation. Instead, he combined elements from the bookmostly creatures like the Mugwump and giant insects and characters like Dr. Benway and Bill Lee along with biographical elements from Burroughs’ own lifethe shooting of his wife, his friends Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberginto a film that blurs the line between fantasy and reality and deals with the creative and destructive power of language and information. Thus, Naked Lunch is a film about Burroughs as well as Cronenberg’s interpretation of Burroughs, in making Naked Lunch, Cronenberg rejected any notion of a direct translation and instead attempted to get himself in aesthetic sync with Burroughs (Browning 2007, 127).

Naked Lunch, the film, is the story of William Lee (Peter Weller), a failed writer who is working as an exterminator. He and his wife both become addicted to the powder used to kill insects. In an attempt to get clean from the bug powder Lee consults with the mysterious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) who introduces him to The Black Meat— the dried flesh of the aquatic Brazilian Centipede, which Benway mixes with the bug powder as a means of weaning the addict off the powder. Benway describes the Black Meat, saying that it will disappear completely. There’ll be no smell, no discoloration. It’s like an agent, an agent who has come to believe his own cover story, but who is in there, hiding, in a larval state just waiting for a time to hatch out. It is while under the influence of the Black Meat that Lee shoots his wife Joan (Judy Davis). Lee then hides out in a bar where he meets a reptilian creature called a Mugwump who tells him to buy a typewriter and go to a place called Interzone. There, Lee will write reports on the shooting of his wife as well as the activities he sees and the people he meets in Interzone.

Most of the film takes place in Interzone, a city modeled on Tangier where Burroughs lived and where he wrote most of the material that would become Naked Lunch. Although Interzone may be modeled on a real place, in the film, Cronenberg seems to suggest that Interzone is a hallucination or an alternate reality, not unlike the fictional country Uqbar in the Borges story. When Lee’s friends Martin and Hank come to visit him, Lee says I must be hallucinating, to which Hank replies: this is probably the first time you haven’t been hallucinating in a long time. Interzone is a kind of simulacrum, or a hyperreality, constructed by Lee. According to John Tiffin, a hyperreality creates virtual reality to be an experience in the physical reality, so that virtual reality and physical reality react with one another. Virtual reality provides virtual worlds that seem more ‘convincing’ to those who experience it. However, hyperreality, provides ‘HyperWorlds’ that blurs the line between what is ‘real’ and what is virtual and make it appear ‘natural’ (Tiffin 2001, 31). Jean Baudrillard, in his essay The Precession of Simulacra says that:

The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices memory banks and command modelsand with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal, the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. (Baudrillard 1983, 3)

Interzone is a pastiche of memories, nightmares, fiction genres, and people both known and unknown, and to Lee it is very much a real place. But how was it created? In Videodrome, Max’s reality gets altered by the Videodrome meme, which is embedded within a television transmission, in other words: through media. In his book Understanding Media: The extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan describes media as being of two types: hot and cool. The distinction between the two is one of participation, a hot medium is one where  hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are therefore, low in participation and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience (McLuhan 1964, 23). Relevant examples of hot media that McLuhan gives are books and printing.  The typewriters in Naked Lunch could be seen as a hot medium, since throughout the film, Lee is seen writing what the Clark Nova typewriter dictates. However, McLuhan goes on to say that no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media (McLuhan 1964, 26). In Naked Lunch, that other medium is the Black Meat. The Black Meat is a very cool medium, very open to participation and completion by an audience,  in the case of Naked Lunch, the audience is William Lee. The combination of the hot medium of the typewriter and the cool medium of the Black Meat produces Interzone, the simulacra within which Lee finds himself trapped. Trapped, but also protected. Lee remarks that the zone takes care of its own.

Interzone acts as a kind of protective shell for Lee that both shields him from the outside world and also keeps him from confronting the truth about the murder of his wifethat he alone was responsible for her death.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

The Clark Nova typewriter tells Lee that  you were programmed to shoot your wife Joan Lee, it wasn’t an act of free will on your part. Ultimately for Lee, in order to break out of the  Interzone simulacrum, he must accept responsibility for killing his wife. In attempting to escape, Lee tries to save Joan Frost (Judy Davis) who is the exact image of his late wife. But before he can cross the border into Annexia, Lee must kill Joan Frost, and he does so in the exact way that he killed his wife. Thus, Lee accepts responsibility for his actions and is able to leave Interzone.

Cronenberg uses Burroughs’ novel as a starting point for exploring his own ideas about media, reality and control. William Lee lives in a simulated reality that he has inadvertently created. Within this reality is a scenario revolving around secret agents, double agents, reports made to shadowy organizations, and seductions and assassinations. Like Max in Videodrome, Lee sees himself as an agent of Interzone. This espionage fantasy exists as a means of controlling Lee and keeping him bound to the simulacrum he has created. Like Max in Videodrome, information has altered Lee’s mind and it has created a prison.

eXistenZ: Death to Realism


eXistenZ (1999)

In 1999, Cronenberg released eXistenZ, a film that, as de Laurentis says is a reflection on the new technologies of postmodernityinformation, communication, and biotechnologies and new interactive mediaa reflection in the twofold sense of speculation (theory) and specularization (techne) of the effects they produce in human reality, the social imagery, and individual fantasies (de Laurentis 2003, 547). eXistenZ is the story of a game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose games are so lifelike that and addictive that underground organizations (called Realists) have targeted her for assassination. During a test run of her newest game, eXistenZ, Geller and her security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) find themselves on the run and surrounded by people they cannot trust. While hiding out, Geller and Pikul both port into the eXistenZ game to see if it has been damaged in all of the chaos, and find themselves enmeshed in another reality, again surrounded by people they cannot trust and on the run, unsure as to whether they are agents working for or against the Realists. A series of twists and turns in the storyline follow that threaten to spiral out of control, with the film descending into chaos until the end, when it is shown that the world of eXistenZ is itself, a game and Pikul, Geller and all of the other people encountered throughout the film are players testing out a new game called TransCendenZ, which, unlike eXistenZ does not plug into the body, but instead rests upon the head and is spider-like in appearance.

eXistenZ presents three distinct levels of reality: the story world (level 1), the world inside TransCendenZ inside that story world (level 2), and the world of eXistenZ inside TransCendenZ (level 3) (Mathijs 206). These levels bleed into each other, producing a kind of hyperreality,  much the same way that the Black Meat together with the typewriters create the simulacrum of Interzone in Naked Lunch.  The world of TransCendenZ has within it a whole other level of reality, the world of eXistenZ. Much of the film takes place within in the world of eXistenZ, yet a significant portion of the film takes place within the world that exists within the eXistenZ game. With eXistenZ, Cronenberg presents a simulacrum within a simulacrum and a complete distortion of reality. The last words spoken in the film by the man who played the character of the Chinese waiter, are we still in the game? reflect this distortion. At one point in the film, Pikul wants to pause the game and go back to his ‘real’ life. Once out of the game, Geller asks How does it feel, your real life? To which Pikul replies, it feels completely unreal. Of course Pikul’s ‘real’ life is not real at all, it is his life in the TransCendenZ game. With eXistenZ, Cronenberg presents an idea very similar to the idea of eternal life separate from the body, the mind becoming in a sense, pure information, existing within machines.

For Videodrome, the machines are televisions and video equipment. In eXistenZ, the machines are game pods. One of the players comments at the end that if you could stay your whole life in the game world, you could live for about 500 years. Regardless of the kind of machine, the idea is still the same: the mind becomes pure information, a meme that can be transmitted through mechanical devices and spread to anyone who watches a video or plays a game. When Allegra is trying to coax Pikul into playing the eXistenZ game, she says, referring to his physical form, this is the cage of your own making which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest possible space forever.

Like the simulacrum of Interzone in Naked Lunch, the world of  eXistenZ, or rather TransCendenZ,  is one of paranoia, espionage, and duplicitousness.  Everyone is an agent, either with the Realiststhose who see the hyperreality escape provided by the games as a detriment to society, or the competing game companies Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, who have a vested interest in developing newer and better escapes from reality.  The espionage elements in Naked Lunch seem reminiscent of Cold War-era thrillers befitting both the years in which the original novel was written as well as the setting of the film. In eXistenZ, the paranoia comes from elements of both corporate espionage and religious fundamentalism, which reflects the events like the ongoing turmoil in the Middle-East as well as the Dot-Com bubble, all taking place in the years leading up to the film’s release. Similar themes are also present in Videodrome as well. Although Videodrome was released in 1983eight years before Naked Lunch and sixteen years before eXistenZit has within it the elements of both cold war and corporate paranoia. Unlike Naked Lunch, where the spy scenarios function as a kind of trap for Lee, the espionage elements in eXistenZ exist simply as part of the game, but at the same time, they point to real concerns outside of the game.

At the climax of the film, when it is revealed that everyone has been playing the TransCendenZ game, the game’s designer,  Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) remarks that the game they all just played was very disturbing, that it had a very strong, very real anti-game theme. It began with the attempted assassination of a designer. Nourish’s assistant Merle (Sarah Polley) asks, do you think this must’ve come from one of our game players? At the end it is revealed that both Pikul and Geller are agents for the Realist movement, and assassinate Nourish, with guns that they have concealed on their dog. This is hinted at, earlier in the game where several times a dog is seen carrying one of the bone guns used in the eXistenZ world to get around metal detection devices.  The game takes information from the people playing and weaves it into their collective hyperreality, creating what Tiffin refers to as a HyperWorld.  A HyperWorld, according to Tiffin, is not only one where what is real and what is virtual interact, it is where human intelligence meets artificial intelligence (Tiffin 2001, 33). Within the reality that exists inside of eXistenZ, there is a plot by the Realists to infect all game pods with black spores, killing them. The game pods in the eXistenZ world are bio-mechanical in nature and the spores work like a virus on them. When the spores are released, Geller and Pikul port out of the game, only to discover that the spores followed them back into the next level of reality, infecting and killing Allegra’s game pod. Cronenberg says, regarding this bleed into realities that,  I had an idea…of doing a movie…that would connect somewhat to Naked Lunch and the Burroughsian concept of the things that you create becoming living things that can come back to hurt you, or haunt you, or things you have to deal with (Cronenberg 2006, 163). Concerning the realist movement, not very much is known. At the climax of the film, when Pikul and Allegra confront  Yevgeny Nourish and reveal themselves to be Realists, Pikul says,  don’t you think the world’s greatest game artist ought to be punished for the most effective deforming of reality? Earlier, when Pikul and Allegra are in the TransCendenZ game, they take refuge in a ski lodge where some game-developer friends of Allegra live and work. Pikul, whose character has supposedly never played games and seems oblivious to their impact asks, what happens if someone comes here and really wants to ski? to which Allegra replies, nobody actually physically skis anymore. It appears that the games have become so life-like, indeed much more than life-like to the point that people prefer to do traditionally physical activities through the games. Baudrillard says that [i]t is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary (Baudrillard 1983, 36), and if that is the case then in the world of TransCendenZ, reality is being tossed-out in favor of hyperreality.

eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ (1999)

Like Videodrome, eXistenZ examines the use of memes by corporations as a means of control. The opening scenes of eXistenZ show a group of people gathered together as a kind of focus group or test audience for a new game system. Throughout the presentation, the group leader (Christopher Eccleston) constantly pairs the name of the game, eXistenZ with the name of the company that makes it, Antenna Research. This same pairing of product with company also occurs at the end of the film, once it has been revealed that eXistenZ was actually part of another game called TransCendenZ, the seminar leader, Merle always carefully pairs the name of the game with its company, PilgrImage. This using the rhetoric of advertising with carefully weighted repetition, according to Browning, emphasizes the commercialization of language and the commodification of the spiritual (Browning 2007, 168).  Brodie goes on to say, concerning repetition that, [r]epeating a meme until it becomes familiar and  part of your programming is one method of mind-virus penetration (Brodie 1996, 143). Whether machine code housed in a bio-mechanical game pod or an advertising slogan, Cronenberg uses eXistenZ as a means of  exploring the impact of information upon the human psyche. The information from the games creates a separate and often preferable reality in the minds of the players while the near-constant pairing of product with company inspires loyalty among the people who have become addicted to these hyperrealities.


Considering the character-driven nature of the films Cronenberg has released since 1999, it seems that Cronenberg has, for the time being, decided to shift his focus away from technology and its impact on the human body and mind. Perhaps this is because with Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, Cronenberg feels that he has taken the subject as far as it can go. After all, it is a subject he has worked on since 1979, when he first began exploring the impact of information, in the form of psychotherapy, on the body with The Brood. In the subsequent films, Cronenberg focuses his attentions on technology through media and its impact on humanity. With Videodrome he examines television and video, with Naked Lunch it is a combination of the written word and drugs, and with eXistenZ it is the world of immersive electronic games. In each of these films, Cronenberg metaphorically shows that information can cause change in the human body and mind, with the physical mutations that lead to alterations in perceptions of reality. Yet, with the way that technology is growing and the way that media is becoming more immersive, and more a part of daily (and sometimes hourly ) life, it is possible that the metaphorical worlds presented in these films by Cronenberg might soon become real. As O’Blivion says in Videodrome, you’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.


Ballard, J.G. Conversations. V. Vale, ed. 2005. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. trans.  Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. 1983. Semiotext[e].

Beard, William. 2006. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

—. 1996. Insect Poetics: Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch Canadian Revue of Literature/Reue            Cannadienne de Litterature Comparee. 23.2: 827.

Blackmore, Susan. 1999. The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. trans. James E. Irby and Donald Yates. 1962. New York, New Directions.

Brodie, Richard. 1996. Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Carlsbad: Hay House.

Browning, Mark. 2007. David Cronenberg: Author or Filmmaker?. Bristol: Intellect.

Burroughs, William S. and Daniel Odier. 1974. The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs. New York: Penguin.

Cronenberg, David, dir. 1979. The Brood. Perf, Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle. New World             Pictures.

— and Serge Grunberg. 2006. David Cronenberg Interviews. London: Plexus.

—, dir. 1999. eXistenZ. Perf. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe. Dimension Films.

—, dir. 1991. Naked Lunch. Perf. Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider. Twentieth Century Fox.

—, dir. Videodrome. 1983. Perf. James Woods, Deborah Harry, Jack Creley. Universal Studios.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. 1976. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

de Laurentis, Teresa. 2003. Becoming Inorganic. Critical Inquiry. 29: 547-570.

Harkness, John. 1983. The Word, the Flesh and the Films of David Cronenberg. Cinema Canada June 1983.

Mathijs, Ernest. 2008. The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero. London: Wallflower.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Porton, Richard. 1999. The Film Director as Philosopher: An Interview with David Cronenberg. Cineaste. 24.4: 4-9.

Sperb, Jason. 2006. “Scarring the New Flesh: Time Passing in the Simulacrum of Videodrome.”Kritikos:An International and Interdisciplinary Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image.

Tiffin, John and Nobuyoshi Terashima, eds. 2001. Hyperreality: Paradigm for the Third Millennium.       New York: Routledge.


Bio: David Faust is an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts Department of Dongguk University in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea. He is originally from Alabama and has lived and worked in South Korea since 1999. His primary research interests include comics, science fiction and horror films, and pop culture in general.

Red Riding Hood (2011): The Heroine’s Journey Into the Forest – Athena Bellas

Figure 1: Red Riding Hood as powerful hunter, armed with a weapon in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood

In the closing scenes of Catherine Hardwicke’s recent teen film Red Riding Hood (2011), heroine Valerie, armed with a dagger, journeys into the forest to hunt and kill the big bad wolf. After slaying the beast in a bloody battle, Valerie does not return home to be chastised by the traditional well-known moral of the tale: ‘do not stray from the path’.[1] No such moral exists at the end of this particular ‘Red Riding Hood’ retelling. Instead, Valerie rejects her family home and takes up residence in the forest with another wolf, her lover Peter, and the film closes on the blissful contentment of their (paranormal) romance. This article charts how, in this contemporary teen film, the trope of the female adolescent’s voyage into the forest represents an empowering entry into personal freedom, power, and self-definition. At the same time, the film displays the contemporary teen media landscape’s obsession with fairy tale and paranormal romance, with its emphasis on the pleasures of heterosexual romance between the desiring heroine and her ‘dark lover.’ The journey into the forest in contemporary teen films and television is significant to chart, because it is through the journey into this space, and the magical transformations that she undergoes there, that provides the heroine with a unique opportunity to shift into a position of power and liberty.

Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood emerges in a current teen screen media landscape obsessed with this aspect of the fairy tale and the paranormal romance. Interestingly, many of these texts, including blockbuster films like Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke 2008), The Hunger Games (Gary Ross 2012), and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders 2012), as well as television series like The Vampire Diaries (Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson 2009-) and The Secret Circle (Andrew Miller 2011-2012), situate their heroine’s journey centrally within a forest space. As she journeys into the forest, the heroine undergoes an often supernatural transformation into a beast or beast-like creature such as a werewolf or vampire. During this metamorphosis, the heroine develops physical strength and prowess, bravery and fearlessness. The journey into the forest is the catalyst for the heroine’s beastly transformation, and her evolution into an empowered position in the world. In these teen screen texts, the enchanted forest space has become an imaginative horizon on which to explore and celebrate female mobility, agency and even aggression.

But at the same time, the heroines of these texts also encounter and fall in love with a magical male creature in the forest – werewolves, vampires, warlocks, and ghosts are particularly popular. In television series The Vampire Diaries, for example, heroine Elena becomes a vampire and as she discovers her extraordinary physical strength and her lust for blood, she also enjoys a romantic relationship with vampire boyfriend Stefan (as well as potential lover Damon). Similarly, in Hardwicke’s film previous to Red Riding Hood, the wildly successful teen blockbuster Twilight (2008), grounds the paranormal romance between vampire Edward Cullen and human Bella Swan in the lush geography of the woods.

In this way, these texts enact postfeminist rewritings of the fairy tale – retaining a focus on the pleasures of romance but also incorporating new elements like the female-as-hunter and the celebration of her agency, aggression and power. The representation of strength, freedom and mobility, coupled with an emphasis on the heterosexual romantic union, is particularly inflected by the postfeminist sensibility that surrounds much of contemporary teen screen media today. The postfeminist signifies a ‘move away from easy categorisations and binaries, including the dualistic patterns of (male) power and (female) oppression on which much feminist thought and politics are built.’[2] Rather than representing the heroine’s empowerment and agency in conflict with the romance narrative of the ‘dangerous lover’, the postfeminist text often unites these elements, allowing both to exist in a non-binaristic way, and not having to give up one element for the other.[3] In Red Riding Hood, for example, the story emphasises the importance and power of independent female mobility through the figure of Valerie as a powerful lone hunter journeying into the forest to slay the beast. But at the same time, it also emphasises the theme of escape through romance with the prioritisation of the heterosexual relationship. So this postfeminist fairy tale film wants, and has it, both ways; it navigates both paths through the fairy tale forest at the same time. On the one hand, it champions Valerie as an independent hunter but on the other hand it also promotes an image of fulfilment through love and a heterosexual romantic coupling. This film promotes an image of mobility across spaces but also across identities, for Valerie is both violent hunter and romantic lover in the forest. She is not locked into either identity, but rather is able to occupy both.

Fairy tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega writes that in contemporary retellings of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale, ‘straying from the path is necessary’.[4] Red Riding Hood constructs this necessary straying across the filmic landscape to celebrate the errant journey of heroine Valerie. Rebelling against the strictures of her daily life, Valerie escapes into the forest and is rewarded with knowledge, agency, power and the fulfilment of her desire. The film utilises the geography of the fairy tale forest to tell a story of female mobility and agency. Hardwicke’s film rewrites and revalues Red Riding Hood’s wayward journey in the forest – straying from the path is represented as not only necessary, but also positive, satisfying, and empowering for the heroine. This journey leads her to traverse broad new horizons of independence and transformation.

Figure 2: Snow White battles against fearsome creatures in ‘The Dark Forest’ in Snow White and the Huntsman. Like many heroines of contemporary fairy tale teen films, this Snow White discovers strength, power and bravery within herself in the forest space.

The moral of the tale, ‘don’t stray from the path’ dissipates in many contemporary revisions in favour of errant travel, and indeed, it is nowhere to be seen in Hardwicke’s retelling of the tale. No longer a didactic emblem[5], the path through the forest is presented as a positive opportunity for the heroine’s independent travel, which allows for a rebellion against the strictures imposed upon her as well as a transformation into a mobile, empowered position in the world.

Red Riding Hood: Pursuing An Errant Path

In both the Perrault and Grimm versions of ‘Red Riding Hood’, the heroines’ straying from the path has negative consequences – in the former she is killed, and in the latter she is devoured and only narrowly escapes death when the huntsman rescues her from the belly of the beast. Bacchilega reads these gruesome endings as punishments for heroines who have acted up and disobeyed orders[6], writing that ‘[t]he girl has learned her lesson: obey your mother and don’t give in to errant desires’.[7] In her extensive study of the evolution of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale in popular culture, Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (2002), Catherine Orenstein similarly points out that these endings functioned as ‘warnings’ for young girls to not disobey authority.[8] The admonishing warning ‘do not stray from the path,’ coupled with the heroine’s death at the end of the story highlight the negativity in which this forest voyage has been shrouded. However, in postfeminist cinematic retellings like Hardwicke’s, the heroine is not punished for her errant travel into the forest; her journey is not represented as a shocking transgression that must be corrected. Rather, the journey comes to represent the heroine’s agency and empowerment and the film celebrates this by allowing her to defeat the wolf, and rewarding her with the pleasures of an alternative path outside of her everyday life.

Marilyn C. Wesley points out that often ‘women’s travel serves as a trope of female agency.’[9] To undertake a journey, beyond the limits of what is familiar and set, is to expand into spaces of ‘alternative possibility.’[10] Contemporary retellings of the ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale, including those seen in the teen film genre, have revised the tale to tell stories of female mobility and agency. In contemporary teen films like Red Riding Hood, Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett 2000), Ella Enchanted (Tommy O’Haver 2004) and Snow White and the Huntsman the fairy tale forest is invoked as the grounds for female travel where ‘alternative possibilities’ of identity, experience and desire can come into play. In these films, the heroine journeys from the limiting boundaries of her home and into the forest where she not only finds escape from these limits, but also undergoes empowering and powerful personal transformations.

The wide-open spaces of the forest in these teen films are liminal zones for adolescent transformations. Anthropologist Victor Turner writes that the liminal, the ambiguous territory of ‘betwixt-and-between’, provides a ‘time of enchantment when anything might, even should, happen.’[11] This ‘time of enchantment’ provides room for play, experimentation with multiple identities, and purposefully breaking rules.[12] Adrian Martin has applied Turner’s observation of liminality to teen cinema. He writes that ‘teen stories are about…the liminal experience: that intense, suspended moment between yesterday and tomorrow, between childhood and adulthood, between being a nobody and being a somebody, when everything is in question, and anything is possible.’[13] Catherine Driscoll similarly remarks that this is a utopian space for teen film, providing a ‘fantasy of freedom.’[14] This utopian sense of expanded possibilities and freedom in the teen fairy tale film is particularly embodied in the space of the forest, where magical transformations can occur (for example, Ginger’s transformation into a wolf in Ginger Snaps), magical powers can be accessed (for example, the teen witches who perform spells in the forest in The Craft [Andrew Fleming 1996] and in The Secret Circle) and encounters with paranormal or magical creatures take place.

This encounter with the magical and the supernatural in the fairy tale forest announces this space as one of potential to go beyond the structures and strictures of daily life, displaying the fairy tale’s ability to provide ‘open spaces for dreaming alternatives…announcing what might be.[15] What is particularly interesting about these contemporary cinematic rewritings of ‘Red Riding Hood’ is how the heroines’ straying from the path is positively valued, and her encounter with the wolf or other magical being is empowering rather than victimising. Indeed, as Catherine Orenstein notes, the heroine is now often reclaimed ‘from the belly of the beast and put in the place, and even in the fur, of the wolf.’[16] Orenstein goes on to assert that this contemporary shift in the dynamics of the tale ‘has turned out to be one of the most fertile and surprisingly recurrent themes [in contemporary fairy tale revisions]: the power of the wolf’s pelt to transform the heroine.’[17] These teen films mobilise ‘witch and werewolf identities to symbolise forbidden emotions such as power, lust, and rage.’[18] Sue Short notes ‘what is remarkable about The Craft and Ginger Snaps’, and indeed, I would add Red Riding Hood, is that ‘the female outsiders willingly embrace these castigated images [of wolf and witch] as an alternative to existing norms, adopting them as a measure of dissatisfaction and refusal.’[19] This subversion of expectation and movement into another territory altogether is what precipitates change and transformation, magic and enchantment, pleasure and power, for Valerie in Red Riding Hood.

The scenes set in the town are shot in often claustrophobic close-ups, and lit low-key to shroud figures in darkness. These tightly framed, darkened shots of the town, along with multiple scenes set in prison cells and tiny attics create a lack of space and freedom to move. Valerie is literally cramped in in the town, her movements and gestures restricted and made small by a lack of space. Set in vaguely medieval times – though the date is never specified – Valerie lives in a culture ruled by the severe strictures dictated by fathers and lawmen. She has been betrothed to a man she does not desire to marry, and has no choice in the matter. She is forbidden from speaking her mind, making plans for her own life, or even venturing out of the town and into the forest. Fred Botting writes that in the female Gothic, the heroine must often flee her home and enter the forest in order to escape from a ‘cruel and tyrannical familial order’.[20] Into the forest she goes, where her ‘desire wanders, off course, flying to “wild zones” where femininity encounters the possibility of becoming something other: the ruins and forests that are uncharted places of darkness and danger are also loci free from the restraints of law.’[21] However, Botting also points out that the heroine’s journey is often circumvented at the end of the novel when she is brought out of the forest, and she is re-domesticated.[22]

However, in Red Riding Hood, no such re-domestication occurs. Valerie violates all of these bans and decides to travel a forbidden path into the forest as a permanent escape, as a refusal of these expectations. She does not return home but rather permanently situates herself on the forbidden path. Traveling this forbidden path is a subversive move for Red Riding Hood. Her resistance to the limitations imposed upon her begins when she sets out on her journey into the woods, unsatisfied by the terms that limit her life set by her parents. The further into the forest that Valerie travels, the more expansive and panoramic her views and paths become. In contrast to the cramped, suffocated spatiality of the town, in the wide-open space of the forest, her strides are long, fluid, and assured. She shakes off these restrictions and is released into wide-ranging spaces open to errant traversals and multiple unbounded routes.

It is here that she finds a measure of freedom that she does not want to relinquish. In Red Riding Hood, the forest expands beyond the limits of the town Valerie lives in. When Valerie enters the forest, going beyond the barriers of the town, she is able to express anger, power, and desire – emotions ordinarily considered taboo for young women to express.[23] Mapping herself into this geography through errant travel, Valerie expresses anger and violence, and claims her power when she kills the wolf.

She declares in her voice-over narration that ‘I could no longer live there [in the town]. I felt more freedom in the shadows of the forest. To live apart carries its own dangers, but of those I am less afraid.’ While Valerie does not literally become a wolf as in other recent teen films like Ginger Snaps, she does nevertheless adopt a wolf-like identity. Valerie not only discovers that she has the potential to become a wolf – she is descended from ancestors who were wolves and thus has wolf blood coursing through her veins – and one bite from another wolf would activate her own becoming-wolf process. While this is not a process she chooses to undergo, she does decide to reside in the ‘shadows of the forest’ with the wolves whose language she is able to speak as a result of her lupine lineage, and she chooses this outside space as her residence. But rather than being punished with death, as in Perrault’s and the Grimm’s popular versions of the tale, Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood is actually rewarded. Having undertaken this subversive secret journey away from the familiar strictures of daily life, Valerie attains a space of her own and a lover of her choosing.

Figure 2: Snow White battles against fearsome creatures in ‘The Dark Forest’ in Snow White and the Huntsman. Like many heroines of contemporary fairy tale teen films, this Snow White discovers strength, power and bravery within herself in the forest space.

Deborah Lutz observes that this decision to reside on the outside with a ‘dangerous lover’ constitutes an overwhelmingly dominant trajectory for contemporary romances.[24] Recent teen-girl films inflect their fairy tale forests with this overtone of romance, particularly of the Gothic variety, and Red Riding Hood, along with other popular films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Twilight, displays this inflection. Landscape unleashes romantic pleasures as the heroines of teen cinema navigate the tender geographies of the forest. The liminal movement from civilisation to forest is announced as an amorous, tender passage. Mapping herself into this geography, the heroine permanently situates herself on the edge, refusing to return to the orderly and the civilised. This decision to permanently occupy this outside-space registers dissatisfaction with what the civilised has to offer. Turning to the wilderness, the girl finds that it unfolds as the fabric of her desire. Remarkably, this is not a fleeting interval to be pursued before returning to the regimented world; it constitutes a real escape from it.

In these films, the girl’s passage through the wilderness is driven by a quest for knowledge. Valerie undertakes a journey into the forest in order to discover who the wolf is. Bound up with this knowledge quest is Valerie’s path towards romantic love with her gentle wolf-lover Peter.[25] Escape through love is, as Deborah Lutz points out, the dominant trope of many contemporary romances,[26] and films like Red Riding Hood follow suit. Escaping the regimented world by entering the fairy-tale forest with a beast-lover, a romantic map of tender exploration unfolds before the heroine. Some contemporary teen films like Red Riding Hood and Twilight, as well as popular teen television series like The Vampire Diaries celebrate the male wolf or beast as a romantic, gentle figure who brings out the latent wildness of the heroine. The teen girl journeys into the forest to hunt down and encounter magical creatures like vampires and werewolves; she then chooses them as lovers. Her desire is at the forefront of the rite-of-passage journey, and it becomes the very texture of the fairy-tale forest space.

Indeed, Marina Warner comments that postmodern rewritings of the fairy tale are overwhelmingly dominated by the idea that ‘Beauty stands in need of the Beast’ and that ‘He no longer stands outside her, the threat of male sexuality in bodily form…but he holds up a mirror to the force of nature within her, which she is invited to accept and allow to grow.’[27] In these rewritings, the beast is not a deadly, dreaded danger to the innocent heroine; rather, his gentle beastliness is attractive to the heroine and she pursues him as a romantic partner. Cristina Bacchilega comments that this romantic reconfiguration of the physical dynamic between wolf and girl is particularly potent: ‘By acting out her [sexual] desires the girl offers herself as flesh, not meat. The “carnivorous” nature of their encounter is transformed’ into a tender embrace.[28] This transit has become a mode of transformation, both for the hero and heroine. In this postfeminist retelling of ‘Red Riding Hood’, the heroine journeys into the forest and is transformed: she is given the space to act out violence and anger, but also desire and romance. In undertaking this journey, Valerie’s agency is activated and her desire mobilised.

The Fairy Tale’s Mobile Map: Errant Views, Expansive Vistas

In Red Riding Hood, the heroine’s physical mobility and liberty is echoed by the camera as it moves across the filmic landscape, and as the viewer’s eyes also move across this screened space, the mobility of the film’s cartography is revealed. It is significant that the teen viewer is so strongly aligned with the heroine’s mobility in this way, for this mode of filmic travel acts as an invitation to explore imaginative horizons and locations in which female liberty and agency is prioritised. This invitation to errant visual travel aligns the viewer with the active, empowered heroine and her mobile perspective.

The film’s and viewer’s movements across this landscape can be considered via Giuliana Bruno’s ‘moving theory of site.’ As the camera navigates its way through cinematic space, it becomes ‘a vehicle of travel.’ When ‘the movie camera becomes a moving camera’ it can literally become ‘a means of transport’ for the viewer.[29] Bruno is particularly discussing the mobile camera in urban spaces and scenes, but her moving theory of site is useful in this instance of fairy tale forest geography too. From the very beginning of Red Riding Hood, during the opening credits, the forest is announced as a map designed for errant travel, motion, and wide-ranging journeying. This opening scene provides the viewer with a moving map of the fairy tale forest space that will be navigated throughout the rest of the film: we are given an elaborately extensive visual itinerary of rushing rivers, jagged precipices, emerald green thrushes of trees, and soft snow-covered expanses. Each point on the map is lingered on and recorded in turn, creating a detailed itinerary of the fairy tale forest’s landmarks. In this way, the viewer is presented with a cinematic map of this space right from the outset of the film, situating attention in this geography and creating a map that we are invited to traverse throughout the rest of the film.

Figure 4: Venturing far from the limits of the town, Valerie finds beautifully expansive landscapes to traverse and vistas to behold

In panoramic aerial views, the camera pans and glides across these expansive locations throughout the film. This continuous, fluid, gliding motion of the camera across this topography highlights the mobility of this map. The viewer offered many multiple views of different points on the map to visually discover: rivers and rocks, trees and sky, snow and mountains. In being offered so many multiple places and vistas to visually contemplate, the viewer is invited to move their attention from location to location, perspective to perspective, across sweeping panoramas, encouraging us to encounter this map through transitory motion. As the viewer visually explores these vistas, the camera is always in motion, panning and moving across this geography to create a moving map of the fairy tale forest. This motion of the camera across the forest allows the viewer to explore and visually roam about this filmic map, visiting many points on its itinerary and exploring them from many angles, distances and perspectives.

This wide-ranging, roaming camera across open spaces presents an invitation for wandering, exploring, voyaging on an unbound map, echoing Valerie’s own freewheeling traversal of this open space. Viewers are invited to travel across this dynamic panorama of the forest in a similar way to Valerie, and it becomes a visually traversable geography. Aligned with Valerie’s point of view in this way allows the teen viewer to explore and consider the heroine’s unique position of liberty, mobility and agency. Conley asserts that the landscape in film ‘propels narrative but also, dividing our attention, prompts reverie and causes our eyes to look both inward, at our own geographies, and outward, to rove about the frame and to engage, however we wish, the space of the film.’[30] The wide shots of landscape, and the constantly moving camera across these stunning vistas, promotes a viewing of the film that is mobile. Conley writes that this mobility of vision can be thought of as ‘applied distraction’ and ‘free attention’, ‘being errant but available to fix upon and discern different mental and physical sites.’[31] The mobility of vision across this cinematic geography of the fairy tale forest can be considered an inherently errant process: it invites vision to roam across moving panoramas freely, and to explore the map in an unruly way. This errant roaming provides an invitation for the viewer to explore expansive imaginative horizons on which female mobility and agency are prioritised.

The forest emerges as a geography through which to explore female power and liberty in this film. As the heroine journeys into this space, as she travels deeper into the forest, her supernatural powers are gradually revealed to her and then exercised and enjoyed. The errant journey into the forest signifies a journey into power and freedom for the heroine undergoing a beastly becoming or a beast-like becoming. This geography provides an itinerary of the heroine’s transformations, and the viewer is invited to travel that itinerary of her evolution.

Figure 5: Aerial views of the forest geography in Red Riding Hood provide the viewer with a mobile map of the enchanted forest space during the opening credits

The cartographic encounter with the fairy tale forest, both for the heroine and the viewer, is an unruly one in Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. For Red Riding Hood, this unruliness is expressed through the forest journey. She ventures into the forest as a measure of her dissatisfaction with what everyday life has to offer, and refusing the terms it sets, she escapes into the wild. In the forest, she is able to access and express anger, violence and desire – actions and emotions ordinarily deemed taboo for the young girl to express. But rather than being punished for expressing these taboo emotions, and violating the restrictions that forbid her going into the forest, Hardwicke’s fairy tale rewards its heroine with a romantic union. Choosing a wolf as a romantic partner, and deciding to live in the wolf-inhabited woods, Valerie finds herself in a wide-open space that she can navigate as she pleases. Hardwicke’s cinematographic representation of the forest invites the viewer, too, to navigate this space in a similarly errant fashion. The viewer is presented with a map of expansive vistas and panoramas with a mobile camera, a detailed, sprawling, moving geography of the enchanted fairy tale forest. Given such mobile, extensive views, the audience is given the opportunity to visually explore and roam about this map, enacting an errant visual voyage across the image which allows for an imaginative exploration of a space defined by female mobility, agency, and liberty. The film celebrates such unruly travel, as not only a necessary act for Valerie to undertake to discover and kill the big bad wolf; it is also represented as a pleasurable journey, for she finds an independent space to inhabit and chooses the wolf lover that she wants. She has strayed from the path, and having found both agency and romance on the fringe of the forest, this Red Riding Hood stakes her claim on it as her own.



Bacchilega, Cristina, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997

Botting, Fred, ‘The Flight of the Heroine’. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Genz, Stephanie and Brabon, Benjamin A, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007

Bruno, Giuliana, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2002

Conley, Tom, Cartographic Cinema. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007

Driscoll, Catherine, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011

Genz, Stephanie, Postfemininities in Popular Culture, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009

Lutz, Deborah, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006

Lutz, Deborah, ‘The Haunted Space of the Mind: The Revival of the Gothic Romance in the Twenty-First Century’. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Goade, Sally, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007

Martin, Adrian, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of our Popular Culture. Victoria: McPhee Gribble, 1994

Orenstein, Catherine, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. New York: Basic Books, 2002

Short, Sue, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006

Sweeney, Kathleen, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age. New York: Peter Lang, 2008

Turner, Victor, Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1979

Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage, 1994

Wesley, Marilyn C, Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women’s Travel in American Literature, New York: State University of New York Press, 1999



The Craft. Dir. Andrew Fleming. 1996

Ella Enchanted. Dir. Tommy O’Haver. 2004

Ginger Snaps. Dir. John Fawcett. 2000

The Hunger Games. Dir. Gary Ross. 2012

Red Riding Hood. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2011

The Secret Circle. Exec Producer Andrew Miller. 2011-2012

Snow White and the Huntsman. Dir. Rupert Sanders. 2012

Twilight. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2008

The Vampire Diaries. Exec. Producers Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson. 2009-



[1] Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Red Cap’. The Great fairy tale tradition: from Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm: texts, criticism. Ed. and Trans. Jack Zipes (New York: W. W. Norton 2001), 747

[2] Stephanie Genz, Postfemininities in Popular Culture (UK: Palgrave MacMillan 2009) 24

[3] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 12. And Deborah Lutz, ‘The Haunted Space of the Mind: The Revival of the Gothic Romance in the Twenty-First Century’. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Goade, Sally, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2007) 90-91

[4] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 68

[5] Catherine Orenstein comments on this didacticism of the Grimms’ version of ‘Red Riding Hood’ when she writes that ‘the Grimms’ overarching aim – the clarify their lessons, teach morality to children, and promote their German middle-class values for the new Victorian family: discipline, piety, primacy of the father in the household and, above all, obedience’ in Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 55

[6] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 69

[7] ibid 58

[8] Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 55

[9] Marilyn C Wesley Secret Journeys: The Trope of Women’s Travel in American Literature, (New York: State University of New York Press 1999) xvii

[10] ibid, xv

[11] Victor Turner, Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. (New Delhi: Concept Publishing 1979) 94 original emphasis

[12] ibid, 38

[13] Adrian Martin, Phantasms: The Dreams and Desires at the Heart of our Popular Culture. (Victoria: McPhee Gribble 1994) 68

[14] Catherine Driscoll, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. (Oxford and New York: Berg 2011)


[15] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage 1994) xvi emphasis added

[16] Catherine Orenstein Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books 2002) 153

[17] ibid,163

[18] Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006) 36-37

[19] ibid, 105

[20] Fred Botting, ‘The Flight of the Heroine’. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Eds. Genz, Stephanie and Brabon, Benjamin A, (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007) 175

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[23] See: Kathleen Sweeney, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age (New York: Peter Lang 2008) 131-137; and Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2006) 35-37

[24] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 5

[25] See also Ella Enchanted (Tommy O’Haver 2004), where Ella journeys through the forest to find out about the curse of obedience bestowed on her at birth. This quest for understanding the curse leads to her undoing it and finally becoming autonomous. As in Red Riding Hood, there is a simultaneous romantic rite of passage alongside the knowledge quest, as Ella meets a prince in the forest, has adventures with him, and falls in love.

[26] Deborah Lutz, The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-Century Seduction Narrative (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2006) 87

[27] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage 1994) 307

[28] Cristina Bacchilega, Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1997) 63-4

[29] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso 2002), 15, 135 and 24

[30] Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press 2007) 1

[31] ibid 18