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

(Figure 1, Image from ‘Zombie campaign’, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011)

(Figure 1, Image from ‘Zombie campaign’, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011)

On May 16, 2011, the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response for the United States Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Ali S. Khan, did something unusual. He did something that irrevocably changed the ways in which public health agencies around the world communicate to the public about pandemic preparedness. He titled his blog post of that day “Zombie Apocalypse” and discussed within it, the ways in which Americans could prepare for a zombie attack, his favourite zombie film (Resident Evil), and what actions the CDC would be taking “if zombies did start roaming the streets.”[1] The post was accompanied by a disturbing sepia-toned, photo-realist image of a young (female?) zombie, with dark smudges around its eyes and dirty fingernails, gazing malevolently at the reader over what might be laundry on a clothesline.

America was clearly startled that its foremost authority on communicable disease – typically somewhat stodgy in its communications — would be trafficking in a popular horror trope. The campaign arrested the attention of the public, the press, analysts, and other public health agencies around the world.

The original post received three million views and garnered more than five hundred comments. Posted on Monday, the CDC server crashed on Wednesday because of all of the traffic, and by Thursday, both “CDC” and “Zombie Apocalypse” were top ten Twitter trends.[2] Along with the blog post, the CDC released a graphic novel entitled, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic which follows the adventures of Todd, his sister Julie, and their dog Max as a zombie outbreak occurs in their city.[3] The comic concludes with an “All Hazards Emergency Kit” checklist. The campaign also included posters, a video contest, education packages for teachers, “zombie task force” t-shirts, badges, and widgets for use on personal webpages and social media. Subsequent blog posts by CDC staff followed suit, pulling preparedness advice out of AMC’s hit television series, The Walking Dead,[4] and providing stories about the “Zombie Nation.”[5] The CDC’s foray into the horror genre generated copycat initiatives by other public health bodies in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, as well as in various states within the United States.[6]

In this paper, we consider why the CDC adopted the zombie as its favoured preparedness figure and what work the zombie does in the campaign. We suggest that the deployment of the zombie by the CDC (and other public health agencies) is not surprising and cannot be adequately explained solely as a savvy borrowing of popular culture by expert discourse. We situate the CDC tactic in the broader context of the general proliferation of zombies in contemporary culture, suggesting that there are particular reasons for ‘why the zombie’ and ‘why now.’ Further, we argue that within what we are calling, pandemic culture, the zombie does very specific work to articulate and manage our collective concerns about disease, the diseased, and our own disease-ability.

The Work of the Zombie in the CDC Campaign

Disease and disaster preparedness discourse is not currently popular with the public or with government funders. Public health preparedness dollars in the U.S. have been cut by more than 30% since 2005.[7] With more than $100 million cut from public health preparedness programs in recent years, public education has taken on a greater importance as responsibility for readiness is being downloaded onto the public. And yet, research has shown that, despite these efforts of public health agencies, only 10-15% of the public is “aware of the need for preparedness.”[8] This was the context in which the CDC was exploring more effective mechanisms to communicate to the public and, in particular, to capture the attention of a younger demographic.

In many ways, the CDC zombie campaign is a narrative of the CDC’s social media coming-of-age. Interestingly, the catalyst for the embrace of the zombie apocalypse trope was crowd-generated. The CDC was hosting a Twitter discussion focused on radiation leaks related to the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and how to ramp up its information programs around hurricane season preparation when a participant asked about zombies. The topic of ‘zombies’ ignited the discussion, leading CDC staff person, David Daigle, to approach Khan with the idea. According to the CDC, Khan immediately saw the potential of this “light hearted” project, and embraced it, writing the post himself.[9] This initiated the CDC’s first venture into the use of Twitter and Facebook to launch a preparedness campaign that was not connected with, or responding to, a specific disaster. The CDC clearly conceived of the zombie as a ‘hook’. As another spokesperson put it, “You pull them [the public] in with zombies and they stay to check out your other content.”[10]

(Figure 2, ‘Zombie campaign’ poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011)

Figure 2. ‘Zombie campaign’ poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011.

And the hook worked. The representation of the zombie was dark and ominous, a clear contrast to other CDC imagery such as their preparedness e-cards, where smiling families gather around their emergency evacuation plan. The campaign resonated with the widespread circulation of zombies in popular film, television, fiction, board, mobile and video games, and even events such as ‘zombie walks’ and ‘zombie runs.’ It was a playful message about a serious topic to engage new audiences and grab attention. Khan’s post is transparent about this logic: “You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.”[11] We suggest that there are traces of caution visible in the CDC’s adoption of the zombie. The risks of such a campaign are articulated well by Bill Gentry, the Director of the Community Preparedness and Disaster Management Program at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health: “The CDC is the most credible source out there for public health information. You don’t want to risk demeaning that.”[12]

(Figure 3, Preparedness poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no date)

(Figure 3, Preparedness poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no date)

He reproduces the typical dismissal of science fiction and horror by those engaged in science communication: “… that doesn’t mean the agency should start using vampires to promote vaccinations or space aliens to warn about the dangers of smoking.”[13] The CDC is patently aware of such possible critiques. Khan’s ‘cool-quotient’ as a boss who would take such a risk without seeking the pre-approval of his superiors, who is a fan of zombie film and fiction, who appears in the graphic novel as a character, and who would be willing to promote the graphic novel at comic conventions, is frequently countered with his identity as a famous “disease detective” and his position as an Assistant Surgeon General for the United States. When interviewed in the early days of the campaign, CDC staff were quick to point out that the materials were all produced in-house by their creative team and that no additional funds were spent on the initiative. They are clearly worried about a potential public backlash over ‘frivolous’ spending.

Despite potential concerns, the dominant narrative of the American press coverage of the campaign, consistent with the frame promulgated by the CDC itself, is that the zombie apocalypse project was an unmitigated success. Both the trope and the media of its circulation are understood as contemporary, edgy, and hip, and are therefore assumed to be clearly more effective in speaking to young people. The CDC is represented as ‘finally’ adopting the successful strategies of using popular tropes, pushing them out through social media and calling for public participation in the form of user-generated content.[14] Thus, we suggest that, within the CDC zombie apocalypse campaign, both the zombie and social media are assumed to, and thus operate, in tandem, as technologies of viral communication.

While we do not disagree that the CDC campaign is an insightful use of popular culture and social media to render a potentially dull public message more eye-catching in an increasingly cluttered information environment, we suggest that there is a lot more that we can see in this campaign. We suggest that it is not at all surprising that out of all the possible popular culture tropes available to the CDC, it was the zombie that was suggested by the public and taken up by staff. The zombie means in particular ways in our contemporary cultural moment and the campaign benefits from, and capitalizes upon, this pre-existing cultural circulation thereby also serving to reproduce those meanings. In the following section, we explore some of those meanings.

The Proliferation and Play of Zombies

We are currently experiencing a renaissance in zombie narratives in film, fiction, and games.[15] Because of the timing of this zombie resurgence, a number of commentators have linked its reappearance, after a relative absence between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, to contemporary social, political, and economic events. In his much-cited article, Peter Dendle, for example, points out that,

[i]t is not without some justice, then, that the resurgence of zombie movie popularity in the early 2000s has been linked with the events of September 11, 2001…. The possibility of wide-scale destruction and devastation which 9-11 brought once again into the communal consciousness found a ready narrative expression in the zombie apocalypses which over thirty years had honed images of desperation subsistence and amoral survivalism to a fine edge.[16]

Dendle goes on to argue that the zombie has evolved since George Romero’s mass horde of slow-moving undead flesh was first introduced in the 1960s. Today, we have fast-moving, feral zombies who seem enraged, frantic, and insatiable. It is no longer homogeneity that scares us, but a lack of control, dignity, and direction.[17]

Night of the Living Dead (Dir: George A Romero, 1968)

Figure 4. Night of the Living Dead (Dir: George A Romero, 1968).

Other writers have taken up these themes and analyze the zombie as an engagement with social issues. From this perspective, George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a commentary on the violence of the Vietnam War.[18] It is also a reflection of “America devouring itself” during the Red Scare and the tensions and violence surrounding the civil rights movement.[19] Its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978), is a critique of contemporary consumerism and this analysis has been commonly employed to think of zombie films as critical of the soulless forms of subjectivity produced through capitalist relations.[20] Zombie films of the 2000s are linked to fears of terrorism after 9/11 and the movements of displaced peoples from around the world who are forced to endure conditions of bare life. These people form an exogenous group that appears threatening to social order and territorial control.[21] As a result, zombie films of the 2000s mark a shift in the type of fear that is foregrounded in the narratives – no longer primarily a critique of consumer capitalism, but rather an expression of fear of the failure of Western military, political, economic, and social security systems in the face of the pressures of globalization. The horror of the zombie is the way it reveals the fragility of our ‘civilization.’

A second theme that emerges from academic zombie analysis is its implications for subjectivity in increasingly posthuman times. Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry argue that unlike the liberating figure of the cyborg advocated by Donna Haraway in 1985, representations of the zombie expose the limits of posthumanism and assert that posthumanism can only be achieved with the death of the subject.[22] Zombies are manifestations of our anxiety about losing our consciousness as we become increasingly immersed in technology and complicated capitalist relations. We risk becoming bodies without minds and humans without agency. The zombie is both of these. It inhabits a liminal zone between binaries of life/death, centre/margin, conscious/unconscious, technology/nature, human/animal. These are the spaces inhabited by monsters and are the awkward spaces of indeterminacy that are always problematic in Western culture.[23] Not everyone views this position of indeterminacy in a negative light. Natasha Patterson, for example, echoes Haraway (1985) by arguing that from a feminist perspective, the viewing space of zombie films is one of self-annihilation: the female viewer experiences an ideological destruction of the self as a woman and a feminist because these categories become meaningless in a zombie pandemic. Consequently, zombie films restore pleasure to the female viewer because of the ambivalence of gender. The man/woman binary is also breached in zombie films and becomes largely meaningless, at least among the zombies.[24]

As a once human, but now dehumanized creature, the zombie shares certain features with other monsters of horror fiction such as the body snatcher/pod person where an alien parasite comes to inhabit a human host. In the process of this possession, the human individual is dehumanized, losing his or her identity, memories, knowledge, emotions, ambitions, and/or will to power.[25] Unlike narratives involving ‘pod people,’ however, zombie stories do not involve paranoia; there is no issue about who is ‘one of them.’ The zombie cannot ‘pass.’ The survivors retain their identities, memories, knowledge, passions, and search for power but these things often manifest in conflictual ways – the negative effects of individual freedom.

Linking zombies to contemporary global issues and to questions of identity and subjectivity in the twenty-first century take the zombie to a high level of metaphoric abstraction. More immediately and fundamentally, viral zombies are about apocalyptic levels of disease and contagion. Viewed in this way, zombie tales have a venerable historical tradition dating back to the Book of Revelation, through Medieval Black Death writings, to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), and onward to today’s popular culture thrillers. What these stories have in common is the experience of apocalypse as bodily suffering and the discerning of the damned and the saved through disease. However, pandemic, as a modality of apocalypse, also undermines the millennial promise of the utopia to follow by blurring the boundary between the elect and the non-elect. That line is always imprecise because everyone is potentially a victim of disease and the plague usually lingers on, becoming part of the background context of living.[26] The resulting narrative pattern is one of “panic, dissolution of socioeconomic structures, and despair, succeeded by a makeshift return to normality once the disease has run its course.”[27]

From the early modern period to today, plague and pandemic narratives can be seen as arising in response to the changes brought about by modernity and the spread of capitalism, with each historical period expressing its own particular economic, political, and social anxieties in and through stories of infection. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, for example, examine Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year within the context of the end of mercantilism and the beginnings of capitalist accumulation within the developing free market of seventeenth and early eighteenth century England.[28] This they compare to the recent zombie films Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) which they read as expressions of anxiety around the viral spread of global capitalism. One of the particularities of viral zombie stories is the denial of the haven of a potential return to normality. In most zombie narratives, the pandemic continues to spread and it becomes difficult to imagine how the few remaining survivors could possibly survive for any length of time, let alone return to some kind of (humanist) normality. In this sense, zombie stories reject millenarianism and offer only a bleak view of a future of perpetual disease and probable annihilation.[29]

Zombie narratives also throw into doubt the discourse of security that currently links health and social regulation. There is a considerable amount of scholarship examining the relationship between public health and security regimes. Altheia Cook examines how HIV/AIDS, SARS, and influenza have all been subject to securitization processes, which involve defining them as potential national and international security issues and developing plans for quarantines, and economic and political infrastructure maintenance in the case of a pandemic outbreak.[30] Concurrent with the securitization of pandemic disease outbreak has been the development of security regimes targeted at bioterrorism.[31] In 2004, the U.S. federal government passed the Project Bioshield Act, which authorized a $5.6 billion expenditure for stockpiling vaccines and initiating research programs that integrate disease and vaccine research into the defence establishment. Official public health statements pointed out that bioterrorism and disease outbreaks should be treated as the same thing, conflating health and defence within a militarized language.[32] The result has been the development of more and more extensive systems of technological control and surveillance from the level of the hospital to the level of international health security regimes.[33] However, despite these developments, there is a significant level of ontological insecurity, largely due to the porosity of borders and the ease of air travel.[34]

Zombie stories trouble faith in these biosecurity regimes. Jeremy Youde analyzes how the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations of 2005 would operate in the case of a zombie outbreak. He concludes that while they are an improvement over the earlier 1969 version, they allow for greater levels of surveillance. Further, although there are provisions for respecting human rights, there are no enforcement mechanisms. Consequently, in addition to dealing with the zombie outbreak, survivors would also have to navigate state authoritarianism.[35] Another common theme in thinking about pandemic is the ‘accident.’ Bill Albertini (2008) points out that popular outbreak stories involving viruses and/or zombies often involve accidental releases of a plague virus. This common trope is indicative of the inevitability of surveillance and containment system failures. While the biocontainment laboratory is often portrayed as a site of mastery over illness, it is a space where disease, complex technologies, and human bodies come into interaction and is, therefore, also always a site for the possibilities of containment failure.[36]

If we combine fears about subjectivity in a world overtaken by rapid technological change, with anxieties about unpredictable global political and economic processes, and insecurity about our ability to control infectious diseases within a globalized world of high mobility, we have a recipe for defining contemporary global society through an emergent master metaphor of contagion and pandemic. The most common popular culture vehicle for expressing this fear today is the figure of the zombie, which is a representation of concerns over the fragility of our security systems. Arguably, despite the 1960s optimism that followed the near-eradication of a number of devastating communicable diseases due to vaccination programs, after the plethora of recent outbreaks that threaten pandemic level contagion, there is an increasing sense that we are once again surrounded by disease. Confidence in our scientific, technological, and public health systems has been shaken in the face of potential contamination that comes from our exposure to the ideas, bodies, and diseases of the larger world around us.

Theorizing Pandemic Culture

Zombies operate, we argue, as a visual synecdoche for viral disease within pandemic culture. Pandemic culture is the shared experience of living in a society where we are regularly advised by trusted institutions and experts that we are indiscriminately vulnerable to the viral spread of disease. Indeed, we argue that pandemic culture is constituted, not in the proliferation of pandemics as medical phenomena, but in the explosion of communication about imagined, potential pandemics. Pandemic culture is produced, therefore, in the stories we tell about our vulnerability – as bodies and as societies – to deadly and devastating contemporary modes of disease.

Since the recognition of the pandemic nature of HIV/AIDS, we suggest that the rise in frequency, intensity and normalcy of potential pandemic events – Ebola, West Nile Virus, SARS, Avian Flu, H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, Coronavirus – has produced conditions such that we live in a symbolic and governmental state of perpetual pandemic threat. We agree with Mika Aaltola that these “pandemic scares” have had, and continue to have, significant social and governmental impacts; they are as important to study as the much rarer pandemics themselves.[37] Much is done in the name of pandemic risk. Western nations constitute specialized agencies to monitor communication about outbreaks, develop technical systems and forms of expertise to model disaster, endorse para-military global emergency response teams, reorganize health management systems to deal with mass outbreaks, and reshape relations between pharmaceutical corporations and governments. Yet, pandemic scares also have an affective dimension: “[w]aking up to a world that is experiencing a mysterious disease said to be extremely serious and deadly, instantiates a relationship of worry that is bound to have more than fleeting influence.”[38] It is the affective dimension of pandemic culture that we will focus on here, positing that the zombie serves as a divining rod, focusing disease anxiety in very particular ways. It is this anxiety that the CDC is implicitly invoking and assuaging in its zombie apocalypse campaign.

Various thinkers have posited that we live in anxious times.[39] Anxiety can be understood as the “tense anticipation of a threatening but vague event” or “uneasy suspense” in contrast with fear, characterized as a reaction “to a threat that is identifiable.”[40] Anxiety is less localized than fear; it is continuous; it is a dull throb. It becomes attached to different types of objects and object worlds, produces different subjects, circulates in, and is productive of, different affective economies, and therefore, invites different coping mechanisms. We adopt Wilkinson’s definition of anxiety as “a symbolic form of culture representing a state of mind and emotion by which we are made to be convinced that we are in a situation of threatening uncertainty.”[41] In pandemic culture, anxiety is about our understanding of our selves in relation to our future existence – the threat lies in the future at the same time that it threatens our future.

Brian Massumi claims that in the early 21st century, we live, not only in an epistemology of uncertainty, but also in what he calls, an ontology of “indeterminate potentiality.” The threat may never even emerge. It is amorphous, unanchored, and unpredictable. It is all around us, all the time. “The global situation is not so much threatening, as threat-generating.”[42] Dangers are notable in their “proximity to pleasure” and in their “intertwining with the necessary functions of body, self, family, economy.”[43] This ontological state is productive of what he calls “low-level fear” operating as “a background radiation saturating existence.”[44] Mika Aaltola links a similar generalized notion of anxiety inspired by general social decline specifically to pandemics, claiming that, “it is in this anxious affective climate of global insecurity, stemming from vanishing borders that pandemic scares have been epochally comprehensible.”[45] Penelope Ironstone-Catterall names this “anticipatory anxiety.”[46] We argue that the constancy of the threat is key: anxiety has become part of the environment rather than a response to an environment. Like Massumi, Aaltola, and Nick Muntean[47], we recognize that this ambient anxious context enables specific anxiety-causing agents (global warming, ‘terrorism,’ pandemic) to be linked in governmental performances of crisis management and in the public imagination, contributing we suggest, to the intertextual traffic in, and ease of circulation of, tropes of disease – such as the zombie – from one site of discourse to another. For this reason, the CDC embrace of the zombie apocalypse verges on the predictable.

Risk theorists (e.g. Beck 1992; Giddens 1990, 1991) have long argued that there is increasing public reflexivity towards forms of scientific knowledge as a result of various technoscience-authored disasters over the course of the 20th century. In a sense, our argument supplements and succeeds risk theory, asking what happens when the ideal of science being able to control risk is largely abandoned and we are left only with hopes for ‘acceptable’ damage control. Pandemic culture recognizes our always partial and inadequate knowledge of ‘nature.’ We no longer expect science to insulate us; we know that it cannot do so. Viruses will inevitably escape or exceed the lab, the hospital quarantine, or the South.

Following Massumi, we argue that the governing logic within pandemic culture has shifted from one of prevention to preemption. Prevention assumes a reliable, causal, knowable world and employs the logics of expert knowledge to react to knowable threats.[48] Preemption, in contrast, is a response to uncertainty where the threat has not yet fully emerged. It is strictly a potential and its nature cannot be fully specified. As a result, the threat becomes amorphous – it could manifest anytime, anywhere, when least expected, or at least unpredicted. The global situation is increasingly defined by our capacity to generate new potential threats to produce a condition of objective uncertainty. We find ourselves proliferating distinct organizations dedicated to monitoring and planning for unpredictable possibilities and re-ordering our social practices accordingly.[49] Since the threat is indeterminate, it remains undetectable until it moves. The logic of pre-emption, however, is offensive rather than defensive – you must move first to be secure.[50] Consequently, security agencies are involved in producing the threat in order to make it visible. For example, we must produce and reproduce pandemic viruses in our laboratories and in our imaginations in order to combat them through vaccines, thereby opening up the possibility of containment breaches or terrorist uses.[51] Within this pre-emptive rationality, viral disease is a compelling and resonant figure for understanding threats of all sorts in our current global situatedness. Viruses are uncertain, adaptive, and unpredictable just like terrorists, hurricanes, technologies, and ideas. They can appear anywhere and move in unusual ways. No one is safe.

(Figure 5, 'Zombie Pandemic'.  This image released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a public service poster on Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. "The zombies are coming!" says the Homeland Security Department. Tongue firmly in cheek, the U.S. government urged citizens Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, part of a public health campaign to encourage better preparation for genuine disasters and emergencies. The theory: If you're prepared for a zombie attack, the same preparations will help you during a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.) (AP Photo/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Figure 5. ‘Zombie Pandemic’. This image released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a public service poster on Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. “The zombies are coming!” says the Homeland Security Department. Tongue firmly in cheek, the U.S. government urged citizens Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, part of a public health campaign to encourage better preparation for genuine disasters and emergencies. The theory: If you’re prepared for a zombie attack, the same preparations will help you during a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack. (AP Photo/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

This endemic vulnerability invites and (re)produces a specific form of anxiety particular to pandemic culture – diseaseability. Diseaseability is an affective state resulting from living in conditions of constant vulnerability to infection, or feeling as though one is. This sense of vulnerability is ever-present in the social and physical environments and must quickly become part of the mechanisms and structures of adaptation for us as not-yet-infected subjects. It invites “politico-somatic techniques” at the level of the individual subject.[52] We engage in a variety of ritualistic coping behaviours, each of which simultaneously fetishizes and pathologizes our embodiment – from frequent hand washing, to our annual flu shot, to refraining from shaking hands in greeting. And yet we know, in a ‘real’ pandemic, our anti-bacterial hand wash will not save us, and vaccines are only effective against last year’s flu strain.

In addition to producing our body selves as already pathologized, diseaseability is productive of social borders. When a pandemic scare occurs, we look to, erect, and value borders – borders of communicability, of community, of containment. Yet at the same time, diseasability – unlike previous coping mechanisms such as quarantines or vaccines – reflects the sick realization that the quest for borders (and thus safe havens) is always, already a false and futile project. Diseaseability is also intimately entangled with the consumer economy of generalized (and generalizable) prudence. Our anxiety can be reduced, we are advised, through engaging in a program of purchasing and specific comportment that generates a range of new products, a pathologization of touch, and a reticence to be in public. Some of these become habits; some are abandoned as too demanding to maintain continually. Diseasability is simultaneously a profoundly anxious and ambivalent affective state, both terrifying and tiresome. Within pandemic culture, we are invited to self-manage our anxiety, rather than significantly address our risk, as the risk of viral disease is constituted in global economic practices that are outside of our control.

We argue that the traces of diseaseability are most easily recognized in the stories we tell ourselves about contagion and our relationship with it. These stories, much to the ongoing chagrin of epidemiologists and public health officials, are almost inevitably drawn from, produced in, and circulate in the domain of, popular culture. In particular, we argue, diseaseability is most clearly articulated in what has emerged as the model pandemic narrative, the viral zombie story.

We are inspired in this argument by Priscilla Wald’s claims that Western understandings of contagion over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries were characterized by a meaning making frame she calls the “outbreak narrative.”[53] The 1995 film, Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen, 1995) is archetypical she suggests. A previously unknown disease emerges in a primordial region; travels to and threatens the United States; scientists frantically work to find a vaccine; and the politico-military response oscillates between containment and purification. At the end of the day, humanist scientific knowledge triumphs over militarism and the disease is contained. Such outbreak narratives produce, Wald argues, boundaries between nations, subjects as healthy carriers and ‘patients zero,’ certain forms of expertise, and particular imaginings of the nation.

We suggest that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this dominant narrative of contagion has shifted to what we are calling, the “pandemic narrative.”[54] It is in the viral zombie film that we see an emergent archetype of the pandemic narrative. Contemporary zombies are faster moving, their hunger seems marked by rage, and zombieism is virally caused. This genre includes films such as 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), I am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), the Resident Evil franchise (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002 ongoing), Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009), the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), and the recent World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013). The viral zombie is also found in the zombie-mainstreaming television series, The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont, 2010 ongoing) and its graphic novel forerunner. Fiction has followed suit with a series of books and novelizations, including Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Handbook (2003) and World War Z (2006), Brian Keene’s The Rising (2004), and David Wellington’s Monster Island (2006) to name a few. We can sketch the emergent narrative structure: a deadly virus is developed, either by a military-industrial-scientific complex or a social outsider; the virus escapes containment due to scientific negligence or malice; global agencies struggle to contain the threat but it spreads across national borders, putting populations from both North and South in jeopardy; international attempts to control the spread of the disease fail and strategies begin to focus on containing the diseased instead of the disease itself; death tolls are in the millions; social infrastructures collapse; and viewer attention shifts to a small group of survivors struggling to preserve both their lives and their civility, often failing. The vaccine, if any is in fact discovered, is typically produced outside of the political and health infrastructures there to protect the population. If there is life after the pandemic, it is forever altered.

Pandemic narratives differ from outbreak narratives, we suggest, in three main ways. First, the spaces of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are shifting and are no longer defined by national boundaries. Othering divisions of ‘West’ and ‘East’ and ‘North’ and ‘South,’ are irrelevant to disease spread and its threat. The governmental problem thus transforms from one of regional containment to one of survival. Quarantine is no longer an effective tactic. Pandemic is a product of globalization, frightening in its easy mobility across national boundaries and its capacity to disrupt Western assumptions of invulnerability. The pandemic narrative manifests Western anxiety about the seeming irrelevance of the nation and its social institutions in the maintenance of ‘our’ safety.

Second, pandemic narratives are much more reflexive towards humanism than were outbreak narratives, figuring a turn to posthumanism. Posthumanism is a way of rethinking the values and ideals of humanism that characterized modernity and of reimagining the human in relation to technology.[55] In pandemic narratives, characteristic humanist ideals of truth, justice, goodness, reason and the search for an ultimate form of being are shown to be unattainable metanarratives. The threat of widespread disease cannot be contained through human goodness, ingenuity, or solidarity. Pandemic stories are populated by posthuman figures – amalgams of biotechnology and human, breaching the boundaries of consciousness and form by which we distinguish ourselves as centred subjects and as a species. In their most extreme forms, pandemic stories ask us to question whether or not the human race should survive.

The third element that distinguishes pandemic narratives from their outbreak story predecessors, is their specific apocalyptic tone. Drawing on the work of Elizabeth Rosen and Lee Quinby[56], we suggest a three-part typology of apocalyptic types: Judeo-Christian, Humanist, and Nihilist. The Judeo-Christian understanding of apocalypse is characterized by the judgment of an angry deity, who destroys the social order, punishes the ‘guilty,’ and rewards those meriting salvation with a ‘new Jerusalem.’ Humanist apocalypse is a modernist perspective that recognizes that humanity has produced the conditions of its own elimination, but offers a slim hope that the species will survive and rebuild. In these tales, technology is often the immediate cause of apocalypse, but its ultimate cause is the irrationality of a segment of the population. Therefore, technology can still be a source of redemption and rebuilding a just society if we can retain our rationality.

We suggest that pandemic stories are increasingly demonstrating elements of nihilist apocalypticism. The nihilist apocalypse posits humanity as having produced the conditions of its own elimination and as beyond redemption. No distinction is made between who deserves to be infected and who does not, between those who are culpable in pandemic creation or transmission, and those who are innocent. All are equally as likely to fall victim. Our species membership renders us simultaneously responsible and damned. We are all part of the system that produced this outcome. Unlike the other two types of apocalypse, nihilist apocalyptic narratives are not cautionary tales intended to turn us away from our current path toward redemption. It is too late for that. As a result, there is no promise of a better world after the apocalypse; nihilist apocalyptic tales are not prescriptive. This means there will be no rebuilding. History will end with the likely end of humanity and there will be no prospect for a utopian aftermath. The main difference between nihilist and other forms of apocalypse is the bleak outlook for the survivability of humanity and the lack of faith in a reified force – God or Science/Technology – that can save us. It is not so much a warning of things to avoid but rather a narrative of final judgment.

Zombies in Pandemic Culture

Viral zombie texts are currently the dominant form of pandemic narrative, and are increasingly nihilist in tone. The zombie, as a figure, does very particular work in pandemic narratives, whether found in the latest Hollywood film or the posters of the CDC’s zombie apocalypse campaign. Zombies work on three levels: as disease, as the diseased, and most importantly, to signal ‘disease-ability.’

As disease, viruses are invisible to the naked eye and yet, they pose a potentially deadly threat. Zombies operate to make visible the threat of the virus. In this way, in the CDC campaign, the zombie can be analogous to everything from hurricanes to influenza, as a generalized manifestation of the anxiety producing threat. In the case of pandemic, we realize how we can contract the disease – namely from being scratched or bitten by a zombie. We can verify for ourselves that a person has been infected; they wear the violence of infection on their body, and later in their comportment and loss of rationality. We do not need a microscope or expert medical confirmation. The fear of the zombie in contemporary pandemic narratives has shifted from being eaten (or killed) to being infected. For example, many viral zombie stories feature a character who realizes that they have been, or might have been infected, and she or he tries, for a short time, to disguise this fact from friends, family or colleagues. These characters are either killed by a friend in an act of mercy, commit suicide through self-sacrifice for the greater good (knowing they are doomed anyway), or are with much relief, revealed not to be infected.

Within viral zombie stories, the figure of the collective zombie horde works to represent the diseased, the plague-infested population. Zombieism (or disease more broadly) produces a mass of beings no longer guided by reason. Authorities cannot appeal to them to wear masks, wash their hands, or avoid human contact in order to self-manage their contaminated status. Containing the disease, therefore seems futile and accordingly, containment strategies must focus on containing the bodies of the diseased. The diseased become the threat in the pandemic narrative, replacing the disease as the object of governance. A variety of containment techniques are typically employed, on a continuum from quarantine to extermination. Much action in the pandemic narrative is driven by increasingly more extreme measures being taken to manage, control and contain the diseased. Dr. Khan’s blog advised that the CDC would be involved in tactics of “infection control” such as isolation and quarantine and in the graphic novel, security forces guarding the school where the protagonists are holed up with others of the uninfected are reluctant to shoot the zombie horde swarming the school: “We can’t just shoot them. These are our fellow citizens!” (emphasis in the original; CDC, 2011). There is an (inevitable) failure of containment of the diseased and the school is overrun.

Finally, we argue that the viral zombie as a theoretical construct operates as a visual synecdoche for the mode of anxiety particular to pandemic culture, diseaseability. In adopting the zombie as a master metaphor for a generalized sense of threatening-ness, the CDC is trading in and on the anxieties of pandemic culture, our sense of vulnerability to disease threat, despite our privileged geopolitical location, coupled with the implicit acknowledgement of inevitable systemic failure. In this way, the zombie apocalypse stands in for any emergency. As noted above, Khan’s blog post stated, “… maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.” Our anxiety can only be reduced by preparation. In the graphic novel, even though the CDC discovers a vaccine in record time, hospitals are overrun, armed guards patrol shelters, and citizens are encouraged via radio to remain isolated. Only those who can be self-sufficient can survive until the social infrastructure rebounds. Prudent citizens who have a disaster/emergency kit are best poised to survive the zombie apocalypse – they have embraced their responsibilization. Even in the CDC’s graphic novel, the shelter is overrun, threatening a nihilist apocalypse. However, the apocalyptic scenario is undermined in the final pages of the comic book when Todd realizes that it was only a horror-movie-induced nightmare. However, the dream operates as a cautionary tale to lead him and his sister to prepare an emergency kit and plan, “in case something happened.” The book concludes with the following counsel:

We hope you enjoyed reading this fictional story. It’s meant to be both educational and entertaining. Now that you’ve seen the importance of being prepared, take the time to put together an emergency kit with the items included in the checklist on the following page. You’ll be ready for any kind of disaster, even zombies.

The checklist is entitled, tellingly, “All-Hazards Emergency Kit.” The zombie is proferred as a generalizable trope of impending but uncertain and unspecified threat.

Our argument does not ultimately rest on the details of how the CDC used the zombie in its preparedness campaign of 2011, but rather on the fact that it did so. The coupling of zombies with an express language of apocalypse is a striking and powerful articulation of the norms and normality of pandemic culture. Pandemic narratives have replaced outbreak narratives as the dominant mode of disease risk story-telling, placing the zombie in high relief in all domains of communication. Pandemic culture constitutes us as diseaseable subjects easily located in an economy of preparedness practice, involving everything from militarized health security regimes to Todd and Julie’s stash of bottled water and hand-crank-operated radio. It is pandemic culture that renders both legible and likely the CDC’s zombie apocalypse preparedness campaign.



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[1] Dr. Ali S. Khan in Adrian Chen, “The Centers for Disease Control is Officially Prepared for a Zombie Invasion,”, posted May 18, 2011, (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[2] Reuters, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ campaign crashes CDC website,” MNN.COM, posted May 19, 2011, (accessed September 13, 2013).

Betsy McKay, “CDC Advises on Zombie Apocalypse … and Other Emergencies,” Wall Street Journal, posted May 18, 2011, (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).

[4] Maggie Silver, “Teachable Moments – Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted February 7, 2012, (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[5] Devan Tucking-Strickler, “Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted May 19, 2012, (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[6] Similar initiatives were undertaken in Douglas County, Minnesota, Kansas, Napa County, Delaware, and Ohio. U.S. Homeland Security prepared a press release about “zombie preparedness” and Texas Instruments created a zombie apocalypse program to teach high school students about diseases and pandemics. In Canada, Emergency Info BC deployed zombies and Quebec had a plan, subsequently cancelled, to stage a hypothetical zombie attack to test emergency preparedness. In the United Kingdom, Britain’s Ministry of Defence also issued a press release and Bristol’s municipal level emergency preparedness plan features zombies. In New Zealand, the Wellington City Council prepared a “Zombie Apocalypse Plan” and the Wellington Region Emergency Management team hosted a Zombie Island 5km run as an emergency preparedness event.

[7] McKay, posted May 18, 2011.

[8] Kim Carollo, “Will Budget Cuts Leave Us Unprepared for Zombie Apocalypse?” ABC News, posted May 19, 2011, (accessed September 13, 2013).

[9] Donald G. McNeil and Gardiner Harris, “Zombies Upstage a Routine Public Health Bulletin,” New York Times, posted May 20, 2011, (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[10] Sydney Lupkin, “Government Zombie Promos are Spreading,” ABC News, posted September 7, 2012, (accessed on September 14, 2013).

[11] CBS New York, “CDC Offers Tips on How to Prepare for the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’,” posted May 20, 2011, (accessed on September 14, 2013).

[12] Associated Press, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ advice an Internet Hit,” CBS San Diego KFMB Channel 8, posted May 20, 2011, (accessed September 13, 2013).

[13] Gentry in Associated Press, posted May 20, 2011.

[14] Chris Good, “Why Did the CDC Develop a Plan for a Zombie Apocalypse?” The Atlantic, posted May 20, 2011, (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[15] We suggest that since Night of the Living Dead, it is in the medium and genre of popular film that has acted as the primary definer of the central characteristics of the contemporary zombie.

[16] Peter Dendle, “The Zombie as Barometer of Cultural Anxiety,” in Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, ed. Niall Scott (Amsterdam: Rodop, 2007), 54.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kyle Bishop, “Dead Man Still Walking,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37, no. 1 (2009).

[19] Rikk, Mulligan, “Zombie Apocalypse: Plague and the End of the World in Popular Culture,” in Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity, ed. Karolyn Kinane and Michael A. Ryan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2009), 359.

[20] Steve Shaviro, “Capitalist Monsters,” Historical Materialism 10, no. 4 (2002).

Paul Datta and Laura MacDonald, “Time for Zombies: Sacrifice and the Structural Phenomenology of Capitalist Futures,” in Race, Oppression and the Zombie, ed. C.M. Moreman and C.J. Rushton (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2011).

[21] Robert Saunders, “Undead Spaces: Fear, Globalisation and the Popular Geopolitics of Zombiism,” Geopolitics 17 (2012).

Jon Stratton, “Zombie trouble: Zombie texts, bare life and displaced people,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 3 (2011).

[22] Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry, “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism,” Boundary 2, 35, no. 1 (2008), 86.

[23] Marc Leverette, “The Funk of Forty Thousand Years: or, How the (Un)Dead Get Their Groove On,” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008), 188.

Martin Rogers, “Hybridity and Post-Human Anxiety in 28 Days Later,” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008), 119.

[24] Natasha Patterson, “Cannibalizing Gender and Genre: A Feminist Re-Vision of George Romero’s Zombie Films,” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008), 114.

Donna Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 (1985).

[25] Ils Huygens, “Invasions of Fear: The Body Snatcher Theme,” in Fear, Cultural Anxiety, and Transformation: Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films Remade, ed. Scott Lukas and John Marmysz (New York: Lexington Books, 2009), 46.

[26] Elana Gomel, “The Plague of Utopias: Pestilence and the Apocalyptic Body,” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 4 (2001), 406.

[27] Ibid., 408.

[28] Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, “Infection, Media, and Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues to Postmodern Zombies,” Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (2010).

[29] Millenarianism refers to a teleological belief system that characterizes the past, present, and future as shaped by a battle between good and evil. An imminent catastrophe will create the conditions in which survivors can rebuild a more harmonious society where our intractable problems will finally be solved. See for example Cohn 1970, Gray 2007, and Lamy 1992.

[30] Altheia Cook, “Securitization of Disease in the United States: Globalization, Public-Policy and Pandemics,” Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy 1, no. 1 (2010).

[31] See the discussion of bioterrorism and health security in Chapter 5 of Gerlach et al. (2011).

[32] Melinda Cooper, “Pre-empting Emergence: The Biological Turn in the War on Terror,” Theory, Culture and Society 23, no. 4 (2006), 113.

[33] Jill Fisher and Torin Monahan, “The Biosecuritization of Healthcare Delivery: Examples of Post 9/11 Technological Imperatives,” Social Science and Medicine 72 (2011).

[34] Mika Aaltola, “Contagious insecurity: war, SARS and global air mobility,” Contemporary Politics 18, no. 1 (2012a), 63.

[35] Jeremy Youde, “Biosurveillance, human rights, and the zombie plague,” Global Change, Peace and Security 24, no. 1 (2012), 93.

[36] Bill Albertini, “Contagion and the Necessary Accident,” Discourse 30, no. 3 (2008), 451.

[37] Mika Aaltola, Understanding the Politics of Pandemic Scares: An Introduction to Global Politosomatics (London: Routledge, 2012b), 5.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

Zygumunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Leeds: Polity Press, 2000).

Anthony Giddens, Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation (London: Cassell, 1997).

S. Dunant and R. Porter (ed.), The Age of Anxiety (London: Virago, 1996).

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society (London: Sage, 1992).

Peter Stearns, American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Iain Wilkinson, Anxiety in a Risk Society (London: Routledge, 2001).

[40] S. Rachmann, Anxiety (Hove: Psychology Press, 1998).

[41] Wilkinson, 17.

[42] Brian Massumi, “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption,” Theory and Event 10, no. 2 (2007), 13.

[43] Brian Massumi, The Politics of Everyday Fear (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 10.

[44] Massumi, 1993, 24.

[45] Aaltola, 2012b, 18.

[46] Penelope Ironstone- Catterall, “Narrating the Coming Pandemic: Pandemic Influenza, Anticipatory Anxiety, and Neurotic Citizenship,” in Criticism, Crises, and Contemporary Narrative: Textual Horizons in an Age of Global Risk, ed. Paul Crosthwaite (London: Routledge, 2011).

[47] Nick Muntean, “Viral terrorism and terrifying viruses: The homological construction of the ‘war on terror’ and the avian flu pandemic,” International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 5, no. 3 (2009).

[48] Massumi, 2007, 6.

[49] Massumi, 2007, 13.

[50] This precept becomes mantra in the recent film version of World War Z (2013).

[51] Massumi, 2007, 16.

[52] Aaltola, 2012b.

[53] Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[54] It is important to note that we are not arguing that the pandemic narrative has fully replaced the outbreak narrative; both remain in circulation. Our position is that the pandemic narrative has become the preferred way of representing global viral disease events.

[55] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[56] Elizabeth Rosen, Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).



Neil Gerlach is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research interests include the apocalyptic imaginary within contemporary culture with a focus on “pandemic culture” arising out of global mobility. He has also written on the ways in which biotechnology is transforming governmental institutions in the twenty-first century. His published works include The Genetic Imaginary: DNA in the Canadian Criminal Justice System (University of Toronto Press), the co-authored Becoming Biosubjects: Bodies. Systems. Technologies (University of Toronto Press), and numerous articles on biotechnology and apocalyptic imagery in popular culture.

Sheryl N. Hamilton is Canada Research Professor at Carleton University in the School of Journalism and Communication and the Department of Law and Legal Studies. Currently she is researching and thinking about the ways in which ‘hand work’ is changing in the era of pandemic culture, including norms, practices, and regulatory modes of social touching, self-touch, and gestural etiquette. She is the author of Impersonations: Troubling the Person in Law and Culture (2009), Law’s Expression: Communication, Law and Media in Canada (2009), and co-author of Becoming Biosubjects: Bodies. Systems. Technologies (2011), as well as numerous articles and book chapters on science and media and communication and law. She and Neil Gerlach are members of the Communication, Risk and Public Health Crisis Research Group and are co-editors of a special issue of Science Fiction Studies on social science fictions.

Who is the Slender Man? – Naja Later

[Figure 1: Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009]

Figure 1. Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009.

The Slender Man is a monster that has crept into our frame of imagination in recent years. Invented on the Internet forum Something Awful in 2009, the Slender Man has developed into an entire multi-platformed transmedia mythos.[1] Defined by his liminality, he makes a difficult but valuable ‘text’ in the contemporary horror mediascape. I suggest that the Slender Man has the ability to challenge how we understand reality. I seek to situate the Slender Man in his political and technological era by illustrating his relationship with contemporary media theories. Slender Man mythology is communally developed, making it an example of the viewer/user/player relationship in new media ecologies, where one must be dynamically critical of realities and fictions. Using Jonathan Gray’s framework of paratexts and Alternative Reality Games, I discuss the Slender Man as a postmodern polycentric folklore phenomenon, displacing his fictionality. The challenges of studying a decentralised viral narrative illustrate how the Slender Man’s evolution can be understood in the context Slavoj Žižek’s post-9/11 ‘Desert of the Real.’[2] As the Slender Man slips through a mise-en-abyme of different media frames, he mirrors the cultural decentralisation of the ‘real.’ Those engaged in Slender Man’s world are using horror to challenge how and by whom media realities are presented, making a formidable critical monster. I contend that the Slender Man uses transmedia horror storytelling to destabilise our political and technological understanding of reality.

It is fundamental when seeking an understanding of the Slender Man that one takes into account his marginality and the communal nature of his canon. I cannot give a comprehensive understanding of his mythology, and attempting would curtail his significance: what merits study is that he is uncategoriseable and in a constant state of development. There is no authoritative version of the Slender Man, but an outline of his more popular incarnations follows. The Slender Man first appeared during a horror Photoshop competition on the Something Awful Internet forums in 2009.[3] Two black-and-white photographs, allegedly taken sometime in the late 20th century, display groups of children playing outdoors. Photoshopped in the background of each is a tall humanoid in a suit, with white tentacle-like arms emerging from its sleeves. Each photograph comes with a fictional caption, describing how these are theorised as appearances of the ‘Slender Man,’ who caused these children and many others to disappear.[4] From these photographs, three things are already apparent: that the Slender Man discourse is framed as ‘real’ urban legends, that he exists on the interlinked media of text and photograph, and that the Slender Man can transfer into other platforms or spaces, in this case being retroactively mythologised in the 20th century.

[Figure 2: Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009]

Figure 2.Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009.

From this ‘first’ appearance, the Slender Man canon has been expanded by many Internet users. His appearance and nature are open for interpretation, but usually contain a number of tropes: his height is between two and three metres; his face is featureless and white or obscured; he wears a black suit; he has either long skeletal fingers or tentacles for hands; his presence corrupts recording devices; and he hunts children or people in general. These attributes contribute to his readability as a monster of negotiated reality, as will be discussed.

Since the Something Awful phenomenon, many more photographs and written urban legends have circulated from different sources. Two of the most popular Slender Man stories are Marble Hornets, a film project hosted on Youtube, and Slender Game, a short horror video game, which I will use as case studies later in the paper.[5] Material such as this has has been collected and curated on a number of websites – literally sites in the polycentric sense – such as slendermanmythos and Villains Wiki.[6] The former discusses how various users contribute to the mythos, framing the activity as an ARG. The latter is one of the many examples in which the Slender Man is framed as real: like the Something Awful pictures, the Villains Wiki page uses a real-life ‘retrospective continuity,’ documenting appearances of the Slender Man in medieval mythology. This site alleges that Something Awful was not the myth’s genesis, and that the Slender Man has existed, either in reality or folklore, for centuries. A list like Villains Wiki suggests that there is no outward limit to what can be included in the Slender Man universe: he can comfortably infiltrate the ‘real’ world of history. These collections file Slender Man along with mythical and ‘real’ monsters alike, collapsing his exclusive categorisation in either.

Slender Man: MarbleHornets, entry #1

Slender Man is one of the more popular examples of an Internet trend of horror storytelling. Following the sensations of hyperlink storytelling and user-edited wiki pages, websites such as Villains Wiki, creepypasta, and SCP have become popular loci for horror narratives.[7] Such sites often have verisimilitudes that users obey or play with: SCP uses pseudo-institutional jargon, complete with fake censored omissions, to portray itself as the database for monsters and evil phenomena that must be Secured, Contained, and Protected. The Slender Man is one myth from this field that went ‘viral,’ I suggest in part because his transferability is endemic to his monstrosity.

As a multi-platform, multi-authored ‘text’, the Slender Man makes an excellent study for transmedia narratives. For the Slender Man, there is no workable medium from which he transitioned: all Slender Man media is transmedia. Multiple texts or canons must be considered to give a proper understanding of the Slender Man. There are edited photographs, games, videos, illustrations, short stories, costume role-play ‘cosplays’, and the aforementioned lists and wikis themselves. The Slender Man shifts with ease between these many platforms, without any ‘base’ necessary, transferring himself like a virus. To track the Slender Man, the spectator must make shifts in accordance with his: Stephen Dinehart’s viewer/user/player or VUP becomes a more workable term for those in the Slender Man’s world as they view photographs, use wikis, and play games with him.[8] These different approaches and platforms often compromise his fictionality. Levels of verisimilitude and realness, compounded by his appearance in a range of reputable-appearing sources, give the Slender Man an ‘edge’ of horror. If he can virally slip from a game to that story on Facebook about a disappeared friend-of-a-friend, can he slip into the real world?

Even the physicality of the Slender Man contributes to this fear. When he appears in a frame, whether fictional or ‘authentic’, he corrupts it. In his most terrifying incarnations, he is not immediately apparent: he defies centrism so much he cannot even appear central within his diegesis. He appears at the edges; in the background; and in the corner of one’s eye. In the Marble Hornets film series he makes random appearances stalking the film’s characters. When watching the short episodes of footage it can be a challenge to spot him outside a window or tucked in a corner. Later in the series he walks directly into the frame, causing the camera to malfunction badly. It is as though the medium itself cannot centralise him, with a horrific and aggressive adherence to his liminal territory.

One of the notes found in the Slender Man game.

Figure 3. One of the notes found in the Slender game.

In Slender Game, one must wander in first-person perspective through woods, collecting notes on the Slender Man. The notes urge the player away with messages such as ‘don’t look or it takes you.’[9] He gradually stalks a player, and if he is seen following you the only way to escape is to turn away and run. To stay and look at him causes him to approach rapidly, and one’s game quality deteriorates as he gets closer until the speakers are screeching and the screen has turned blank, at which point the game is lost. Put literally, the point of Slender Game is that you can never look directly at the Slender Man.

In still images, this defiance of visualisation is manifested by his facelessness: he has no facial features that can be seen, only a blank space. His physical slenderness enhances his ability to slip away and reappear. He defies visual capture as much as he defies narrative or medium capture. By literally occupying the margin of frames, he is poised to slip into the margins of other frames, whether that is another medium or the frame of the real.

The Slender Man’s intangibility gives him power as a contemporary horror monster. His name is only a basic descriptor, and without face, accurate imagery, or authoritative canon, he constantly evades what familiarity might reduce his frightfulness. The marginality that obscures him from this point of frame is complemented by the implication that he is always in a margin: he might appear in a game, or in a video, or in a picture, barely within the frame, and as his media slips closer to the real, he may be right behind you.

This transgression from the fictional spaces of screen media into the ‘real’ space is endemic to the media ecology of the 2010s. This is the age of media hybridity, viral marketing, and the Alternative Reality Game. As the various screens through which we frame and mediate the world proliferate, so do the ways in which we understand narrative as it moves through those spaces. The convergence of media collapses the ‘real’ space into another host for viral storytelling. According to Angela Ndalianis:

[…] in the fictional expansion that occurs across media the sensorium turns its attention to an intensive cognitive and sensorial immersion into fictions that are dispersed across multiple media environments, which also include the “spectator’s” actual geographical landscape.[10]

This actual geographical landscape becomes another medium amongst the multiple ones through which we view, use, and play with characters such as the Slender Man. The Slender Man makes a number of appearances – and disappearances – in the physical world. Due to his liminality, his seeming absence is as noticeable as his presence. The most obvious case of tangible Slender Men is in the activity of cosplay, where enthusiasts dress up in Slender Man costumes to role-play as the character in the real world; usually at pop culture conventions and the like. While cosplay is a common practice in fan subcultures, it is notable that the Slender Man canon does not exclude the possibility of running into him on the street. I use this example to illustrate how, as the ‘real’ becomes a medium, so does media become more ‘real.’

A Slender Man image found on the crappypasta site.

Figure 4. A Slender Man image found on the crappypasta site.

Žižek calls this symptomatic of the post-9/11 century, noting that ‘we begin to experience the ‘real reality’ itself as a virtual entity.’[11] This origin point, the anchor of reality, must be let go to understand the Slender Man: we have, as Žižek states, lost interest in the ‘hard kernel of the Real’ – ‘which we are able to sustain only if we fictionalize it.’[12] As the Slender Man slips between our margins of a realised fiction and  a fictionalised real, showing how quickly we follow from frame to frame, his greatest weapon is his verisimilitude.

As these central texts, media, or spaces become marginalised, the focus on the marginal centres gains significance. If one counts the ‘official’ genesis of Slender Man as the Something Awful pictures, then the incarnations that follow are, accordingly, paratexts. Jonathan Gray’s study of paratexts suggest that they are fundamental in understanding a contemporary text. How paratexts exist across media realities, unlike a contained ‘text’ such as a Hollywood film, is discussed by Gray:

[…] media growth and saturation can only be measured in small part by the number of films or television shows–or books, games, blogs, magazines, or songs for that matter–as each and every media text is accompanied by textual proliferation at the level of hype, synergy, promos, and peripherals. As film and television viewers, we are all part-time residents of the highly populated cities of Time Warner, DirecTV, AMC, Sky, Comcast, ABC, Odeon, and so forth, and yet not all of these cities’ architecture is televisual or cinematic by nature. Rather, these cities are also made up of all manner of ads, previews, trailers, interviews with creative personnel, Internet discussion, entertainment news, reviews, merchandising, guerrilla marketing campaigns, fan creations, posters, games, DVDs, CDs, and spinoffs.[13]

In the case of Slender Man, it is apparent that these interconnected paratexts are instrumental to understanding the monster and its social significance. From the pictures’ captions to the reaction videos of Slender Game players, the paratexts form what Gray calls a ‘city’ of narrative. Connected loosely and distributed socially online, these paratexts operate virally, as has become a popular promotional tool for horror texts in the 21st century.

As a viral collection of paratexts masquerading to some degree as reality, the Slender Man can be categorised as an Alternative Reality Game or ARG. Gray’s definition is as follows: ‘The ARG, a relatively new addition to the roster of games, is a multi-site, multimedia puzzle or game, often associated with a television program or film.’[14] Successful ARGs are often horror-oriented, such as those marketing campaigns devised by 42 entertainment for The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) and Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008). Ndalianis notes that the viral campaign has a natural partner in horror:

In fact, horror cinema is one of the most prolific in terms of adopting viral-marketing strategies, which isn’t surprising given that the most effective campaigns have played on the blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction – a key tactic favoured by horror.[15]

In anticipation of these ARG films, fans become players that collect material distributed virally with no apparent locus. The materials – the paratexts – masquerades within the narrative reality of the film being promoted. The hype, and the extended narrative world of the story, become fundamental when studying these texts: the paratexts subsume the importance of the text itself, as the case is often made by Gray. The same is argued by Gray for an early horror ARG promoting The Blair Witch Project, in which various paratexts suggested the actors were real people, and dead: ‘The Blair Witch Project has arguably remained as famous (if not more so) for its creative and masterful promotion as for the film itself, since in many ways, the horror began online and in front of the television, not simply in a movie theatre.’[16] For the Slender Man, we can take this hypothesis of the ARG subsuming the text a step further: in this case, there is no text.

The Slender Man is an outstanding example of the ARG, because it performs what campaigns such as 42 have only pretended to perform. Usually, an ARG is collected around a central text, the commodity being sold, with the paratexts being authored from this singular point for marketing purposes. While fans do engage on a more collaborative level for the average ARG, there is still a central text with one author distributing material. For Slender Man, fans take further what Daniel North describes in promotional ARGs:

[viral marketing] distributes the task of publicizing the film by urging spectators to become active participants, entering into the narrative space of the film, and drawing others in with them in order to collaboratively construct its meaning.[17]

The collaboratively constructed meaning of Slender Man is genuinely organic. It is polycentric in that there are no authoritative or comprehensive Slender Man sources. There is no product being promoted or sold, and no identifiable author or text. Every text is a paratext, and the narrative reality has no official canon. In this sense, the Slender Man steps up our former understanding of the viral Alternative Reality Game. The Slender Man’s mythological status is more authentic; it is more real.

The lack of an authoritative text or author is part of what makes Slender Man so fearsome. No media company owns him, and there is no ‘official’ Slender Man: a rare feat for a pop culture phenomenon. A lack of centrality is a lack of containment. I have been told rumours that the creators of the original pictures, Marble Hornets, and Slender Game are actually one person attempting to virally diffuse their idea. This insistence suggests a fundamental struggle with – even a fear of – a monster that has not been sanctioned by a definable source. That a single author only exists as a rumour exemplifies the Slender Man’s inability to be contained. This echoes the claim by Rick Altman: ‘[…] critics have never taken seriously the ability of audiences to generate their own texts and thus to become intenders, mappers and owners in their own right.’[18] As the only ARG of its size to be organically generated, this makes Slender Man a groundbreaking text. This enhances and undermines the horror of Slender Man: without an author, he has no anchor in the world of fiction.

The malleable and collaborative monster is hardly a new phenomenon, excepting its new media technologies. Approaching the Slender Man requires a similar framework to those used to study fairy tale and other premodern movements, which I suggest contort and confuse his fictional containment. There are distinctly contemporary aspects to the Slender Man which develop from these earlier frameworks: what makes this monster so curious is that while being symptomatic of the 21st-century mediascape, he also draws upon trends developed outside the dominant 20th-century Western storytelling model of Hollywood and its ilk. The polycentric collections of fairy tale; the disturbance of the frame in the baroque and neo-baroque; and the mise-en-abyme of the ARG are all applicable to the Slender Man. Each of these underpin his horror, as they break Slender mythology’s temporality and associate him with formidably long storytelling traditions.

As in fairy tale, there is no way to accurately capture or replicate an authoritative version of the Slender Man. These are stories, often horror stories, which develop organically and through communal retelling. Their subjects often concern uncanny monsters snatching children, retold in recent generations as aliens and child predators. These creatures shift in their guises, adapting to new stories, but their monstrous function is timeless. Just as there is no essential big bad wolf, we cannot distill Slender Man. The viral nature of ARGs, like fairy tales, are deliberately decentralised, as discussed by North:

Viral campaigns […] depend on relinquishing control: releasing key pieces of information in carefully chosen places, in the hope and expectation that it will spread organically by through [sic] the target audience, as a virus spreads from person to person within a population. A viral campaign is thus, by nature, difficult to study. It is too diffuse to be comprehensively catalogued, and too dependent on ephemeral forms of communication that leave few traces and no official documentation.[19]

North’s work suggests something uncannily primal about the Slender Man’s effectiveness. The monsters of folklore have a timeless ability to frighten, in part because they are so diffused within social spheres. I suggest that the Slender Man operates much as a contemporary fairy tale would: a child-eating monster that exists only in transient narratives, with an echo of realism to underpin his horror.

The placement of the viral campaign and the ARG in the history of storytelling is also theorised by Henry Jenkins. Jenkins observes the following resonance:

Alternative reality gaming could be seen as a 21st century equivalent of a much older literary form – epistolary fiction. Many early novels, including Pamela (1740) Les Liaisons Dangereuse (1782) or The Sorrows of Young Werther (1815), consisted of fictional letters, journals, diaries, and newspaper accounts, which were presented by the authors with little acknowledgement of their fictional status. The authors often claimed to have found the materials in an old trunk or to have received them anonymously in the mail.[20]

Most interesting here is how the author, and thus the fiction, is deliberately misdirected. In the case of the epistolary work, it enhances authenticity and worth: for the Slender Man, it also brings the element of fear.

The liminality that enables Slender Man’s transmedia nature can be likened to a baroque and neo-baroque style. Researched in detail by Ndalianis, the neo-baroque has a history with horror, especially horror which exceeds confinement in a single platform or frame. Ndalianis illustrates the significance of this neo-baroque trend in her work:

It is specifically neo-baroque spatial logic that is embedded within the postmodern that remains the primary point of reference. This central characteristic of the neo-baroque that informs the analysis that follows is the lack of respect for the limits of the frame.[21]

This characteristic is also what allows the Slender Man to be fearsome, and to be real: he does not only disrespect the frame but at times damages it. In Marble Hornets and Slender Game, the Slender Man’s presence actively corrupts the footage, and in less literal cases he does not remain framed within one author, narrative, or platform. One of the grossest violations of the frame occurs in a way that contextualises these historical movements within the realm of the Slender Man is continued from his ‘original’ incarnation: the violation of time, and with it truth.

From the ‘first’ Something Awful pictures, the Slender Man has been retroactively inserted in our cultural history. The captions for the pictures claim that the photographs are taken in the 1980s, rather than created in 2009. Reaching further back, the Villains Wiki page displays a woodcut supposedly from 1540 depicting the Slender Man.[22] Written ‘in-universe’ style, the Villains Wiki page suggests that the Slender Man is to be feared because he is known across cultures and histories in a number of guises. To participate in this kind of narrative indicates a recognition that the Slender Man has an element of timelessness, and is ‘real’ folklore, while situating the transmedia format of Internet storytelling in a long cultural tradition.

[Figure 3: ‘Der Ritter,’ 2011]

Figure 5. ‘Der Ritter,’ 2011.

What situates the Slender Man in the contemporary age is a confluence of genre and technology. The Internet forum; the ARG; the ability to ‘Photoshop’; the video game; the online video; the wiki; and the found footage film. Horror has taken great advantage of these media, using their newness to manipulate a fear of the unknown. What often comes forth in the media Slender Man spans across is authenticity: the Internet is an illustration of the space Žižek describes where virtualisation overpowers reality. The VUP of Web 2.0 uses stories such as the Slender Man to play with the collision of truth and fiction occurring on the Internet and across new media technology. The horror element of Slender Man operates by trapping a VUP in constantly mediated and reframed realities in which we must admit that either monsters are real, or we are not.

Two cases will be discussed in this paper in relation to the media slips of the Slender Man that generate his authenticity: the Marble Hornets film and Slender Game. Both employ popular 21st-century horror tropes to generate for the VUP a mise-en-abyme. The mise-en-abyme is an apt metaphor for the virtualised real and polycentric story. Its literal translation is an abyss, in this case an abyss that operates as the antithesis of the ‘kernel.’ The functional translation is the phrase used for two mirrors aligned: in this case, everything is a frame of endless reflections. When we observe the medium inside another medium, we cannot but notice that our own world, reflected endlessly, might likewise be contained in a larger frame: thus, we must consider reality as a medium. Cinematically speaking, the mise-en-abyme refers to a story-within-a-story, a common technique used in horror. In the case of the Slender Man, the narratives framing the various media – the photographs already discussed, and forthcoming the film and video game – operate under the verisimilitude of the ‘real’ world. When trapped between these many frames of reference, centres of narrative, and different media platforms, following a monster that deals in border territories, the ‘real’ slips away.

Marble Hornets is a film series made by a group of students that popularised the Slender Man to a wider audience, attracting millions of views. Uploaded as ten-minute episodes on Youtube, the film is recorded in the ‘found footage’ style that gained popularity in 21st-century horror cinema. The trend began with The Blair Witch Project, and experienced a boom in the mid 2000s as handheld recording technology and media distribution channels made this narrative style familiar. The Paranormal Activity films (Peli, 2007) are a flagship series, with Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008) and [rec] (Balagueró and Plaza, 2008) in the same vein. Like Marble Hornets, these films are presented as ‘real’ footage, found usually after the character/filmmakers’ demise. They have all the tics and flaws of homemade footage, with a diegetic acknowledgement of the camera in the story. Found footage has a particular verisimilitude, being scary because it seems ‘real.’ When these films have cinematic release, audiences approach on a dual level: one in which the paratexts such as cinema tickets and studio logos present it as narrative cinema, and one in which the format, and often supplementary material online in the form of ARGs, claim that the story is true and that monsters actually killed the characters/filmmakers. North explains that the nesting of the authentic footage within a fictional context: ‘This creates the pretext of an alternative ownership, and thus, creates a framework within which all subsequent images will be interpreted as a chronicle of actual events – testimony from an eyewitness.’[23] This entertainment of the subsequent images as authentic is substantiated often by ARGs and by the technology itself. Peg Aloi claims of The Blair Witch Project: ‘The accompanying web-based publicity campaign generated rumors of the film’s ‘authenticity’ (i.e. that the ‘found footage’ was indeed real), prompting some audience members to visit the film’s location in search of ‘what really happened.’’[24]

Within the films, Amy West discusses how the use of handheld cinematography mimics the real frame of reference we recognise for the lack of fictional ‘slickness’:

The hand-held handycam is the embodiment of human point-of-view image capture, resonating as it so often does with the physiological responses of the operator. In contrast, the unblinking, mechanical eye of the wall-mounted surveillance camera betrays no investment in the recorded scene. The construction of reality necessarily occurs differently within these contrasting modes of image production. The first ‘feels real’ because it fulfils a ‘powerful urge for a sense of contact with the real’, as it ‘inscribes’ this physiological contact on the recorded text (Fetveit 2002: 130).

This is a kind of real which is heightened by evidence of human error – the swoops and slips of a running, dancing, laughing, crying camera – which testifies to the amateur authenticity of the production. On the other hand, the second model ‘feels real’ because its inflexible recording position signifies its infallible and impartial omniscience, recording whatever occurs within its range 24/7 without preference or participation.’[25]

This is taken further with Marble Hornets, a film possessing all that handheld realness and engaging in a particular narrative that confuses reality and fiction. This is actual amateur film, with no cinematic affectations – it has no official distribution. Its effectiveness is in its ability to make a VUP forget that the footage is fictional. There are at least three levels to Marble Hornets: the first being the Youtube user marblehornets, who uploads clips between one and ten minutes long of ‘raw footage excerpts from [the fictionalised] Alex Kralie. A college friend of mine.’[26] The user marblehornets claims that Kralie’s footage is for a student film – also titled “Marble Hornets” – that marblehornets uploads unedited after Kralie disappeared ‘in 2006.’[27] The subsequent level of fiction, the one purporting to be Kralie’s real raw footage, is the one in which the Slender Man appears: ‘Kralie’ and his ‘cast’ and ‘crew’ have their shooting interrupted as they are stalked by the monster. The third level is the actual Marble Hornets movie, the aborted film that we see being created. The Marble Hornets” movie is a fiction made by the fictional Kralie uploaded by the fictional marblehornets user. That all three levels are referred to by the same name – typeset here as marblehornets, Marble Hornets, and “Marble Hornets” – creates quite a mise-en-abyme.

[Figure 4: Marble Hornets, 2009]

Figure 6. Marble Hornets, 2009.

The student film component of “Marble Hornets” serves as a misdirection, in which the verisimilitude of filmmaking footage and raw-looking Youtube uploads make the Slender Man seem authentic and unstaged. The middle level of Marble Hornets, the Slender Man’s level, uses his key horror tropes to craft a completely homemade horror movie. It establishes a framework of realism through the raw cinematography, depending on paratexts such as the uploader’s comments and the film-within-a-film making-of verisimilitude. It backdates the footage to 2006, before the 2010 Something Awful origin, again disturbing the timeline and building a fake history for the monster. It plays on the Slender Man’s liminality by never centering him in the frame and damaging the footage whenever he comes too close, as though he has the supernatural ability to not only see but violate his framing media. The paratexts that combine to form the Marble Hornets aspect of the Slender Man mythology illustrate the horrific problem of 21st-century media: it’s not just that the Slender Man might be real, but as we lose grip on what real means, he might as well be.

As a creature of liminality and obscurity, the Slender Man’s real-world presence is defined in ways by absence. Alex Kralie is such an absence. It is no exaggeration to say that after marblehornets claimed that Kralie disappeared, indeed no trace of Alex Kralie can be found. It is almost beside the point that Kralie was invented as a character for Marble Hornets. User marblehornets claims, with no indication that this is fiction, that Kralie is gone, and this is true. Whether he was taken by the Slender Man or never existed in the first place, the absence of an Alex Kralie falls within our working definition of ‘real.’

The VUP role becomes particularly salient when applied to Slender Game. Slender Game, also called Slender or Slendergame, is a short horror video game for computer platforms. In it, the player must wander through the woods, only able to control the direction, the running speed, and the use of a flashlight. The objective is to collect eight pieces of paper stuck to various landmarks, each with a written note warning the player about the Slender Man’s approach. At some point, he appears in the distance behind the player. One may escape if one runs away, but to look at him only quickens his advance. The game ends when he comes close enough that the graphic and sound quality deteriorates completely into white noise, and he attacks.

[Figure 5: Slender Game, 2012]

Figure 7. Slender Game, 2012.

The game’s bid for realism is subtler than in many other media. It uses techniques of immersion, such as the first-person perspective and control of the avatar’s movement. This level of activity – a level of playing – means engaging in a fictional reality beyond the role of a passive spectator. Rather than enter our world, we enter the Slender Man’s. The VUP becomes a character and the player’s world is another medium in the many levels of frames that constitute the Slender Man’s abyss. By entertaining multiple realities through playing not just the ARG but a first-person video game, the horror has greater weight and the Slender Man becomes more powerful. Gray notes this when discussing the work of Tanya Krzywinska: ‘She […] sees [a] game’s ability to give us a first-person perspective (only truly matched by The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield in film) as further placing the player inside the horror […].’[28] As the player aspect of the VUP, the transference of reality in a particular medium occurs slightly differently, where the player becomes part of the game medium.

A complementary part of Slender Man gaming culture also makes the Slender Game players into a medium of their own. As always, it is not only the text of the game itself that is of significance: it is the game’s paratexts that create the Slender Man’s mise-en-abyme. On the Slender Game’s most popular fansite is a banner with a number of pertinent links, amongst which one may navigate to ‘The Legend’ and ‘Reaction Videos.’[29] The former engages in the usual folkloric style, giving a brief biography that is often confusingly semi-fictional: ‘[…] created at the Something Awful forums […] no specific information has been found about his origins […].’[30] The latter is of great interest for my discussion of Slender Man and mise-en-abyme. Almost as popular as the game itself are the recordings of other players playing, from which one can draw great schadenfreude watching players become terrified when the Slender Man catches them. In these videos, one becomes a viewer, as other users upload webcam or game footage with sound recordings of their reactions as they play: a solid example of the interchangeability of the VUP relationship. It suggests that by entertaining levels of realism, collating information from a cohort of paratexts, and taking on multiple spectatorial and participatory roles, fans have an astonishingly complex approach to the new media environment.

On the one hand, the reaction videos create a level of distance between the viewer and the Slender Man himself. On the other, it exacerbates the mise-en-abyme and plays into his world of mediated realities. This is some of the rawest, most realistic media pertaining to the Slender Man. Players feeling the need to record their games echoes the popular discourse that everything must be mediated and recorded for social media before it is truly ‘real.’ Chuck Tryon’s discussion of The Blair Witch Project suggests that the ploy for realism read with flaunting of unrealism should be seen in the context of the transmedia narrative:

Because of these two potential readings I see the film as inseparable from the promotional materials that framed its reception arguing that the film appeared as simultaneously hypermediated and unmediated. Thus, instead of merely returning to or contributing to an unmediated imagination of real horror, the film actually became a complex, if somewhat ambivalent, critique of electronic media.[31]

In Tryon’s example, the unrealism of The Blair Witch Project is the noticeably bad film quality. For the Slender Game reaction videos, the removal from the ‘real’ takes place watching other players playing the game. The reaction videos could be considered their own transmedia articulation, or they could exist as an extra framing paratext to the game: in either case, the issue of mediation and multiple framing echoes through the Slender Man lore. What gives the Slender Game its realist edge is that unlike the other texts, in this instance are we watching real people being afraid of the Slender Man. It is a case in which, as we viewers gaze into the abyss, those players recording their gameplay know that the abyss gazes back.

Now I will turn to a slightly harder kernel of the Real. From this paper’s discussion of how we approach a ‘real’ Slender Man, we may step forward to understand how the contentious role of the ‘real’ is a politicised, post-9/11 issue. It may seem abstract to connect the Slender Man to an event as catastrophic as 9/11, but the Slender Man is an excellent articulation of concerns that have plagued cultural theorists and demonstrates that a decade on, these are still deeply relevant. These questions – of mediated realities and the function of fear – are political questions that cannot be avoided in the 21st century. The ways in which we view, use, and play with transmedia horror suggests that we are equipped, philosophically and politically, to navigate the dangers of our contemporary mediascape.

To Žižek, the concept of a core ‘real’ in the world – the hard kernel – is marginalised by 9/11.[32] A few suggestions as to why are put forth, and echoed in post-9/11 discourse; whether because to most the event was experienced not in the real world but through a screen media; or because the era became defined by the absence of towers and the fear of an omnipresent but invisible terror; or perhaps, according to Žižek, what is ‘real’ simply is not as relevant.[33] When so much of our world is perceived through screen media, and all reality can only be understood when it is framed, the pursuit of a hard kernel falls to the wayside. Reality as an intangible, refracted medium is directly related to how 9/11 comes to shape the 21st-century West, as discussed by Žižek in the following:

We should therefore invert the standard reading according to which the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite the reverse – it was before the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, […] – and what happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality).’[34]

This idea of shattering is absolutely key to understanding the Slender Man. Slender Man is a shattered text: there is no ‘hard kernel’ of the Slender Man, only the prolific media through which we might follow his story. Underpinned by fear of terror, or fear of monsters, the real world becomes another medium. The way in which we navigate the Slender Man demands that we negotiate the realistic and fictional fears that are presented to us through media.

The Slender Man is a monster of terror. As an emblem of the shattered, decentralised realities that we live in, and as a monster that haunts our media. We can take this literally, and discuss his resemblance to the never-quite-identifiable ‘suits’ or ‘men in black’ that are often alluded to in 9/11 discourse. We might claim that his facelessness is also the facelessness of terrorism, always threatening but never quite identifiable. We might note that he is a scary story presented as real to us through news media, an issue that has fallen under heavy criticism in post-9/11 political media. The Slender Man truly belongs in this time and this place, where politics and technology have converged to create a culture deeply responsive to a monster that is a media fractal, one that demands we challenge how we think about reality.

As the politics of 9/11 ebb away with time, its impact on media becomes the event’s great legacy. Much has been written on the development of 21st-century media technology as complementary to terror. Web 2.0; handheld recording devices; and media convergence all have a symbiotic relationship with the politics of the real. Rather than interrogate deeply in this paper the background of these developments, I will succinctly suggest that smart technology require smart users. We are a society that has become accustomed to watching the news framed by the same device upon which we can play games. As a result, we have learned to transition between viewer, user, and player, maintaining an active and dynamic relationship with the media use daily. As news journalism relies more heavily on citizen-recorded data, we learn to unpack the fabrications and authenticities of particular frames – whether sourced through a blog or through NewsCorp. We learn to recognise the multiple fictional frames through a story like Marble Hornets. The problems of being recorded, whether as a monster, an actor playing an actor, a victim of violence, or a player of a video game, are demonstrated to us. We learn to search for a broader understanding of a phenomenon like Slender Man by collaboratively collecting information. We can watch layers and levels of storytelling, engaging in them as simultaneously realistic and fictional. We begin to focus on a world that exists through endless margins, frames, fragments, and liminal realities. If we were not capable of doing this, the Slender Man would simply be ineffective.

The Slender Man is a slippery creature, but he has a slippery following. To be a part of the Slender Man’s world, one must be an adept viewer, user, and player. A working knowledge of media, and there is the requisite ability to follow a narrative as it fragments through frames more and less fictional. The Slender Man is created by a generation that understands liminality and knows that the most dangerous monsters are those that can’t quite be seen. Even to have followed the Slender Man through this paper is to understand the abyssal nature of contemporary media and the malleability of time and space for a horror narrative. The Slender Man demonstrates how transmedia horror promotes a critical understanding of the real. What is terrifying, then, is not that the Slender Man might be real, but that the world is not.



Aloi, Peg. ‘Beyond the Blair Witch: A New Horror Aesthetic?’ In The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to reality TV and beyond, edited by Geoff King, 187-200. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005.

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI, 1999.

Goddard, Drew. Cloverfield. DVD. Directed by Matt Reeves. [Australia]: Paramount, 2008.

‘CREEPYPASTA.COM – Scary Paranormal Stories & Short Horror Microfiction.’ creepypasta. Accessed 20 October, 2013.

Gray, Jonathan. Show sold separately: promos, spoilers, and other media paratexts. New York: New York University Press, c2009.

Jenkins, Henry. ‘Chasing Bees, Without The Hive Mind.’ MIT Technology Review. 3 December, 2004.

‘Introduction.’ Youtube video, 2:00. Posted by ‘marblehornets,’ 20th June 2009.

Ndalianis, Angela. ‘Television and the neo-baroque.’ In The contemporary television serial, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon, 83-101. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.

North, Daniel. ‘Evidence of Things Not Quite Seen: Cloverfield’s Obstructed Spectacle.’ Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 40.1 (2010): 75-92.

Paranormal Activity. DVD. Directed by Oren Peli. [Australia]: Icon Film Distribution Pty Ltd, 2007.

 [rec]. DVD. Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. [Australia]: Asylum, 2007.

‘The SCP Foundation.’ SCP. Accessed 20 October, 2013.

‘Slender Fansite.’ slendergame. Accessed 20 October, 2013.

‘Slender Man.’ Villains Wiki. Accessed 20 October, 2013.

‘The Slender Man Mythos.’ slendermanmythos Accessed 20 October, 2013..

The Dark Knight. DVD. Directed by Christopher Nolan. [Australia]: Warner Home Video, 2008.

Tryon, Chuck. ‘Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film.’ Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2009): 40-51.

Victor Surge. ‘Create Paranormal Images.’ Something Awful. 10 June, 2009.

West, Amy. ‘Caught on Tape: A Legacy of Low-tech Reality.’ In The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to reality TV and beyond, ed. Geoff King, 83-92. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005.

Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London, New York: Verso, 2002.


[1] Victor Surge, ‘Create Paranormal Images,’ Something Awful, 10 June, 2009.

[2] Žižek, Slavoj, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London, New York: Verso, 2002).

[3] Victor Surge.

[4] Victor Surge.

[5] ‘Introduction,’ Youtube video, 2:00, posted by ‘marblehornets,’ 20th June, 2009,

‘Slender Fansite,’ slendergame, accessed 20 October, 2013,

[6] ‘The Slender Man Mythos,’ slendermanmythos, accessed 20 October, 2013,

‘Slender Man,’ Villains Wiki, accessed 20 October, 2013,

[7] ‘The SCP Foundation,’ SCP, accessed 20 October, 2013,

Villains Wiki.

‘CREEPYPASTA.COM – Scary Paranormal Stories & Short Horror Microfiction,’ creepypasta, accessed 20 October, 2013,

[8] Dinehart quoted in Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012), 173.

[9] ‘Slender Fansite,’ slendergame, accessed 20 October, 2013,

[10] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 165.

[11] Žižek, 11.

[12] Žižek, 19.

[13] Jonathan Gray, Show sold separately: promos, spoilers, and other media paratexts (New York: New York University Press, c2009), 1.

[14] Gray, 200.

[15] Ndalianis, 164-165.

[16] Gray, 57.

[17] Daniel North, ‘Evidence of Things Not Quite Seen: Cloverfield’s Obstructed Spectacle,’ Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 40.1 (2010): 84.

[18] Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI, 1999), 212.

[19] North, 80.

[20] Henry Jenkins, ‘Chasing Bees, Without The Hive Mind,’ MIT Technology Review, 3 December, 2004,

[21] Ndalianis, Angela, ‘Television and the neo-baroque,’ in The contemporary television serial, ed. M. Hammond and L. Mazdon, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 83-101.

[22] Villains Wiki.

[23] North, 77.

[24] Peg Aloi, ‘Beyond the Blair Witch: A New Horror Aesthetic?’ in The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to ‘reality’ TV and beyond, ed. Geoff King (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005), 193.

[25] Amy West, ‘Caught on Tape: A Legacy of Low-tech Reality,’ in The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to ‘reality’ TV and beyond, ed. Geoff King (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005), 85.

[26] marblehornets.

[27] marblehornets

[28] Gray, 189-90.

[29] ‘Slender Game.’

[30] ‘Slender Game.’

[31] Chuck Tryon,‘Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film,’ Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2009): 42.

[32] Žižek, 19.

[33] Žižek, 11.

[34] Žižek, 16.


Bio: Naja Later is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She is currently researching the relationship between New Horror, terror and screen technology. Her work draws together elements of journalism, marketing, new media, alternative reality, spectatorship, war, and political philosophy as they apply to cannibals, werewolves, aliens, poltergeists, zombies, serial killers, and other monsters. She is also a public speaker and guest co-editor of Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, showcasing the rise of transmedia horror narratives.

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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[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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[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”.

Cartographic City: mobile mapping as a contemporary urban practice – Clancy Wilmott

Abstract: As the contemporary city becomes a site of complex negotiations between technology and people, the ubiquity of digital maps is disrupting traditional spatial paradigms. Here, the texts of the urban imagination are becoming increasingly geo-coded, changing constantly on servers updated with information by millions of people and are accessed on multi-functional mobile devices. The future challenge for researchers is to find new methods and theoretical frameworks so that the wider implications of context-dependent digital mobile maps may be understood.


Figure 1 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Sydney

How many maps, in the descriptive or geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents? It is doubtful whether a finite number can ever be given to this sort of question. What we are most likely confronted with here is a sort of instant infinity, a situation reminiscent of a Mondrian painting. It is not only the codes — the map’s legend, the conventional signs of map-making and map-reading — that are liable to change, but also the objects represented, the lens through which they are viewed and the scale used. We are confronted not by one social space but by many indeed, by an unlimited multiplicity or unaccountable set of social spaces.[1]

 I opened Google Maps for Mobile and I searched for ‘Sydney’ (fig.1).


What I got was Sydney, city of foreshores and freeways, traffic routes and train stations. A Sydney so easily presented, just as if one day I happened to be flying over with the seagulls and snapped a picture, and then took it home to scribble over it with highlighters. In this Sydney, the sum of the inner suburbs are ordered with varying font sizes, eliminating Kings Cross and Redfern, Woolloomooloo, Wynyard Chippendale, Camperdown, Strawberry Hills and the Rocks – all geographically in the heart of the city, but not marked. There’s a big red pin dropped down on Town Hall, (co)incidently, marking ‘Sydney’, at its centrepoint (although more (co)incidently, not at Centrepoint). And over in the left-hand corner sits a little blue dot, myself, waiting patiently on the edge of a search result coded to be just wide enough to include both Sydney and I together.

This is a special kind of Sydney – it’s a Sydney that sits in my pocket, that I can look at whenever I want. It’s a Sydney that I can dress up in red and green traffic lines, or satellite images and coloured pins; or dress down into yellow streets and orange highways, and faded outlines of buildings on grey pantone blocks.

I could choose another Sydney. I could choose a Sydney that is covered in eating establishments, view tales of ice-cream and pancakes; or a Sydney full of friends conversing with one another, meeting up and drifting off.

Or, I could build my own Sydney – create my own places and add my own photos, tag my location and leave accounts of my experiences. I could document my street corner, or the chewing gum stuck to the footpath, the shops that have been shut down or my favourite pieces of graffiti. I can make almost infinite snapshots of Sydney through infinite accounts, stories that sit on digital maps carried about on mobile phones by thousands of people, which change information second to second, coordinate to coordinate, app to app.

The minute I switch on my mobile phone, I encounter these many versions of Sydney – and the possibility of many more. These interpretations may be cobbled together over the comforting and familiar backgrounds of traditional maps or hidden within the application’s functionality, entirely contrived by global positioning systems (GPS) and software code: “Facebook for iPhone Would Like To Use Your Current Location” – okay, if you say so.

The Sydney that I find on a mobile phone is a cartographic city. It is so completely dominated by and reliant on geo-coding systems, that it is impossible to avoid maps or to express the city without them. Maps form the architecture of the mobile city: they direct flows, produce spaces and position places. And the people who use them are engaged in everyday mapping practices, mediating their encounters with the city by reading maps and making maps, magnifying their experiences across multiple communities and landscapes.

As such, this paper proposes two things: firstly, that maps have moved beyond a simple textual interface to become dynamic and directive interfaces, capable of intertwining themselves into everyday practices; and secondly, that their influence on everyday practices is building new experiences and images of the city that are firmly grounded in epistemologies and ontologies – cartographic and otherwise.

The applications

Of all the maps and applications that may be used on mobile phones in Sydney, this paper focuses on just three – Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Google Maps for Mobile. Each of these applications has been selected because they perform subtly different functions, and are exemplary of the different ways that mobile maps engage the user, cartographic principles and the urban environment.

By choosing apps, rather than simply maps, this paper is also engaging in an expanded view of what constitutes ‘a map’. Not simply technical, cartographic drawings or prints, maps differ widely across time and culture. The rise of ‘critical cartography’ in the 1990’s saw a move away from assumptions that cartography was a scientific endeavour, which sought objectivity and accuracy as its aims. Instead, a new field of scholarship was produced, whereby critical geographers and cartographers built on the earlier work of theorists such as Michel Foucault[2] by deconstructing the map and arguing that the it, like any text was a deeply ideological social construct.[3]

Within critical cartography, however, discussion wasn’t simply limited to the power of maps: the argument over what constituted ‘a map’ was also important. Geographers such as John Pickles[4] and Mark Monmonier[5] pointed to a hegemonic western ideaology of ‘cartographic reason’ that privileged rhumb lines and politics. The consequences of this, they argued, was that is was forgotten that maps were simply representations of spaces and places, and that thousands of years of map-making practices, from cave drawings to Pacific Island tidal maps to the artworks and posters of the Situationist Internationale, had largely been ignored.

Thus, although two of the three selected applications, are not traditional maps, they have major roles in the contemporary popular representation of spaces and places. They also all operate using cartographic representations, and are based around the familiar framework of the map.

Facebook Places is an application developed from the social networking site Facebook, that utilises GPS technology to enable users to “check-in” at various locations by selecting a particular place from a list provided, specific to the user’s location. Combining location data and user information from Facebook, Facebook Places lists the ‘friends’ who have also checked-in nearby.

Similarly, foursquare can be integrated with Facebook and works in the same fashion as Facebook Places – as a ‘check-in’ style app that uses the phone’s GPS capabilities to provide a list of check-in locations. foursquare also houses a comment thread for each location, and the user with the most check-ins in the location is rewarded with a ‘Mayoralty’ in that location, a title that can bring benefits of discounts or bonuses, badges, and other incentives to continue checking in, in future.  Both apps allow users to record their own, personalised locations (for example, someone’s house), which can then be listed for other users to see and check-in.

Google Maps for Mobile is a more generic mapping application, using information from the Google Maps website optimised for a mobile platform.[6] It also incorporates GPS capabilities not available for its desktop version, that display’s the user’s location on the map via a small blue dot. Google Maps for Mobile’s main functionality is direction-based, with a search function, and information display options (style of map and traffic conditions) and can interacts with Google Latitude, an extended social networking tool that broadcasts the user’s location to a set of approved friends.

Mobile devices and software-texts

Even though these apps may be described as maps and are cartographic in nature, the assumption that ‘the map’ is a static representational object is no longer accurate, and deconstructionist approaches of critical cartography are no longer adequate for understanding digital processes of representation. [7]  A focus only on the semiotics of cartography, the glyphs and symbols that give the graphic map meaning hazards an incorrect underlying assumption that a screen is an easy replacement for paper.

Verhoeff[8] argues that the screens has seen a shift from representative cartography to performative cartography, via practices of navigation. For instance, depending on the device (I have an iPhone), a specific kind of tactility is required – tapping, clicking, pressing, swiping –  all of which eventually form a subconscious part of the process of calling on and adjusting the map. It is no longer as simple as ‘reading’ the map. Instead, the creation and navigation of the map is grounded in technological haptic practices that the user must engage in order to access information. I would go further to argue that haptic practices ingrains the map/cartographic imagination even further into the subconscious as traditional reading practices are subsumed by digital functionality.

Gone are the days when folding large maps down to the specific area required, or following the breadcrumb trail of adjacent pages on street maps, jarred the reader into a conscious act of ‘reading the map’, a specific skill that needed to be learnt. The ‘slippy map’[9], the continuous, boundless map that zooms in and out, and slides around, limited only by the size and resolution of the screen on which it is read. Navigating this map takes a finger and a thumb, moving the graphic field as required without searching for page numbers or following logic processes for the number of folds required.

Map readers do not even have to find themselves on the map anymore – with a tap, the device, in collaboration with the digital map, completes this arguably humbling process of self-location by adeptly and effortlessly offering to use your location and reconfigure the map egocentrically around the user[10]. Even when the device is not being used it is put away easily, where the ever-present possibility of the map sits heavily in the pocket of the user, and may be called upon and put away with comparative disregard.

Figure 2. Google Maps for Mobile 2012: bakery rozelle

The introduction of a divergent haptic engagement is the result of more fundamental changes to the medium of the map: with paper maps, the relationship between the text (i.e. the map) and the object on which it is represented (i.e. the paper) does not change. However, the mobile device that displays a map often also serves multiple other purposes. Depending on the model, it may also be a phone, a calculator, a camera, a music player, a sound recorder, a clock, a calendar, a compass, a notepad and/or any number of personalised applications. Sybilly Lammes[11] has expounded the shift between the static and the dynamic nature of texts and objects using a Latourian concept of the immutable mobile.  An immutable mobile is an object like a postcard or a photo which can be carried about, but whose image and purpose doesn’t change.[12]


Lammes refers back to traditional paper maps as immutable mobiles, and until recently paper maps could only be altered clumsily (with pen, by hand over the print)[13] or over time (with new editions printed every year, for example). Not only is this not true of apps like Facebook Places, foursquare or even Google Maps for Mobile whereby users can use digital interfaces to add information to the map with unprecedented accuracy, each of these particular examples are inherently mutable: the fields of representation, the texts, all change in consideration of the context in which they are viewed.

Because the map is not intrinsically fixed to the object, it needs to be ‘accessed’ or ‘loaded’: called upon by the device to be displayed from the digital server where it is being stored, as the app is opened. For instance, as I open Google Maps for Mobile, the device automatically accesses my GPS coordinates, and adjusts the map to suit my immediate surroundings. As discussed above, it may also adjust so that the map matches the direction that I am facing.  Via this process, the device and the digital map combine to become ‘the map’ which I then use to navigate.

But even then, this conceptual simplification ‘the map’ – is tenuous at best. The existence of ‘the map’ is dependent upon internet access, and a complex negotiation between people, space and technology. Data is flung through space: input on users’ experiences and memories is instantly reduced to one of a variety of programming codes and then transmitted via digital signals between mobile devices, radio towers, satellites and servers; reinterpreted by the devices and converted back into digital text and images to be read by other users, or adjusts to the required display. In doing this, this negotiation crosses multiple spaces: physical spaces of tactility and presence, virtual spaces of information[14] and the Hertzian space[15], the space of signals and bytes. Without every single one of these elements falling into line, the map would fail to exist.

Beyond the screen, the changes to ‘the map’ are even deeper. The map is a constantly updating, searchable digital text, meaning that it no longer manifests like a traditional text, but rather, a software-text whereby the data of the map is being constantly written and rewritten. In this case, the software-text is divided between the front end user interface that has the appearance of a traditional road map and the back end lines of code and scripting which give the map its interactivity.

Thrift and French[16] argue that software is a different kind of text to traditional representational and semiotic forms. Software is a series of coded, suspended instructions hidden behind the interface. It lies below the level of representation, below the familiar graphic of the map. These codes dictate the framework for the mapping application’s interactivity, determining what kind of information is displayed. Taking into account how the user reads the information, the way that it is displayed, and the way that information is entered, and placing it in the broader context of a spatio-temporal software text, it is evident that the software itself is ergodic,[17] subtly engineering practices of representation.

Let’s take as an example the ‘My Location’ circle on Google Maps for Mobile. By pressing a single button on the application, a little blue circle will appear with an approximation of your current location and a map of the surrounding area. This is more obvious when considering the expanded functionality of Google Maps for Mobile as well as Foursquare and Facebook Places. The process of mapping, of tagging information onto certain sites, or deciding a route to take, is so thoroughly overdetermined by the options provided by code that though it may appear organic and natural, it is in fact bounded by how the application works. It is not possible to direct the blue circle to another location, nor, if it’s in the wrong position, correct it, just as it is very difficult to have control over which 3 routes Google Maps provides (for example by excluding toll roads, busy roads, tunnels or major intersections).

Figure 3.1 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 1

Figure 3.2 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 2

Figure 3.3 Google Maps for Mobile 2012: Suggested route 3

Furthermore, Facebook Places and Foursquare depend heavily on pre-existing, user-entered locations, and certain specific sets of information being entered. You cannot enter a period of being ‘en-route’ or in constant movement (though admittedly, it is possible to tag yourself to a moving vehicle e.g. the 431 bus).

Software “…therefore is a space that is constantly in-between, a mass-produced series of instructions that lie in the interstices of everyday life, pocket dictators that are constantly expressing themselves”.[18] While Thrift and French wrote specifically about the role that interfaces like escalators and lifts play in producing space, it isn’t too far-reaching to say that, given the established relationship between maps and space and subsequent development from paper to digital maps, the role that software plays in producing space is reflected in the way that it produces maps (which in turn, produce space). While ‘the map’ may have the (familiar) appearance of being fluid and and malleable, the way that it operates and its limits of interactivity are determined by code which scripts the application.

Mapping moments: from digital maps to mapping practices

In attempting to study mobile maps given their dynamism and software, a consideration beyond the epistemology or semiotic structure of the map to include the ethnographic and the ontological is necessary. The importance of this inclusion is augmented by the most crucial difference between digital maps and mobile maps: mobility. Mobility means that mapping can now occur immediately in the same space that is being mapped. Each photo that is uploaded onto Facebook Places, or each comment that is left on foursquare is time-stamped, and adjusted relative to time, as well as space. For instance, so and so did such and such 42 minutes ago:

Figure 4 – Facebook Places 2012

This information is not static: it is simply the most recent point in a stream of continual tags, updates and other mapping activities. The map itself changes with new information, and while a screenshot (as used above) or photograph may capture the idea of what a map does in a particular geography, it doesn’t capture the way that it evolves over time. If I were to return to the exact same location where this map was created, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same. Other users may have come and left other tidbits of information, or deleted information, or done such and such only 4 seconds ago. The mobile map more closely reflects the urban landscape – as the café that I was visiting will erode and change over time, so too will the mobile map.

This, of course, makes it incredibly difficult to pin down. Rather than trying to capture a fluid text, perhaps it is more useful to view the creation and erosion of multiple mobile maps as parts of a continual process of situated mobile mapping, which occurs across both time and space. To do this, non-representational theories (such as those proffered by Nigel Thrift) offer a radical methodology that focuses on practices as the ‘stable feature of a world that is continually in meltdown’.[19]

Practices are not perpetual in and of themselves (they don’t last forever in their original form), but endure longer than representational forms (like books, art, or music) by leaving spectres and traces in contemporary habits. By studying mobile mapping practices, and trying to understand how mobile maps and mobile mappers may fit within them, it may be possible to transcend the ‘meltdown’ of the map as it loses its immutability.

Rather than attempting to capture the map as it shifts, I propose that it is far more useful to trace the multiple instances of situated mapping that occur in time and space. These instances may manifest differently, in either an automated or manual fashion. Overtly, applications like Facebook Places and foursquare while changing constanstly, do not do so at a consistent rate. Each piece of new information, each check-in, geo-tag and upload, adds to the map unevenly as users enter the information at varying and unpredicatable intervals, tagging the information onto the position. Differently, in Google Maps for Mobile the blue circle doesn’t just represent the location of the device, but also its movement over the landscape. As the user moves, the blue circle will also move, reflecting the changes in your position. Occasionally the signal is lost and the blue circle gets ‘stuck’ at the last known position, jumping to the correct location when service is restored. More evident in failure than function, although the blue circle may seem like a fluid representation of the users positionality, it ultimately is the product of series of microtemporal instances strung together to build a sense of movement. Thus, in defining the idea of ‘mobile mapping’ it is important to build an understanding of mobile mapping practices as ontological situated encounters imbued with immediacy, experience and affect.

However, it is difficult to demarcate these encounters in ontological terms, without privileging approaches that rely on time being suspended in an abstracted ‘moment’. Thrift suggests an approach stemming from the work of A. N. Whitehead which ‘is not willing to completely jettison the phenomenological (the lived immediacy of actual experience, before any reflection on it) and the consequent neglect of the transitive’.[20] As such, this conceptual moment is not isolated from other moments. Rather, affectual elements, ‘onflows’, flow from past moments through this moment and on into the future, giving a sense of continuum [21]. This increased fluidity of the conceptual moment also provides a more suitable basis for understanding the new dynamism in digital maps. By examining this ‘moment’, light may be cast upon the microcosm of activity and influence that underlies mobile maps, which neatly mirrors the intentions of more traditional maps. Simply put, to map is to take a ‘measure’ of the world.[22]

As such, it is via multiple instances that mobile mapping manifests as a kind of practice, as maps are developed through the evolving relationship between time, spaces, and people. This tripartite relationship becomes evident in examining a mapping ‘moment’; a period of time so brief that it is noted by the person recording it as a single button tap that posts an image, or phrase, but during which enormous amounts of information are transferred, invisible signals are sent and silent conversations between technology and space carried out, as discussed earlier in the section about software texts.

Using a ‘moment’ to isolate and magnify mobile mapping practice, it is clear that due to the sheer number of users engaged, making maps is no longer the sole domain of trained cartographers. The rise of the amateur mapper who can accurately tag and display information (or even make maps from scratch via alternative platforms such as Open Street Map) with relative ease and automation has resulted in a democratisation of cartographic systems[23], rendering them collectively accessible to a range of individual map-makers and a wide audience of map users. Familiarity with programming languages is increasing, and will contribute even more to this process of democratisation.

This, combined with digital publishing which has provided a low cost way to disseminate personal maps to thousands of people[24], has moderated the power of the professional cartographer by allowing multiple, contradictory, inaccurate and/or superfluous representations of space to be accessible, presenting a more diverse interpretation of spaces. This is conflated with the possibility for multiple users across space and time to work together collectively on the same map. Here, collaboration and crowd-sourcing becomes a key aspect in mapping practices.

For instance, structure of foursquare houses a vast amount of user-inputted information, which contributes to the blurring of the line between mapping practices and lived experiences. When arriving at a café or even a doctor’s surgery, it is possible via foursquare to see comments such as ‘try the couscous’ or ‘don’t get blood taken here, you’ll lose half your arm in missed veins’.  This kind of information works like word of mouth advice, if such advice sat suspended and anchored to the site in review, leaving the user to judge experiences by a combination of their own personal opinions and those of others lingering in the space, via software. As this information changes, it is then possible to trace its development via timestamps on each post.

Figure 5. foursquare 2012

Over time, space and a multitude of different applications, mapping practices become complicit in the everyday experience of the city.

Consider this – you wake up in the morning, and go for a run. An app traces your GPS movement, recording your route, the distance and the time taken. This information is stored, so you can assess this run in comparison to previous runs[25]; build a fitness routine, or log information for a trainer or team.  After your jog, you order your coffee via your phone, on the way to your local cafe[26]. On arrival you tag yourself and perhaps earn a discount or a free coffee for your loyalty, as the app tracks your visits and purchases [27]. You stop at a bus or tram stop to go into town, your phone noting where you are and when the next service should be arriving[28]. As you sit on the bus you pass various triggers that update you with information on the surrounding area[29]. Alternatively, you drive in and pay for your parking via your phone, adding credit throughout the day, when the app beeps to tell you your time is running low[30]. You can watch your movement on a map as you check out the traffic conditions ahead[31]. You can then select any number of applications that display specific information, goods and services within proximity of your GPS position: restaurants, retail stores, transport, events, cultural institutions, meeting points, monuments, tourist attractions. You can check out where your nearest friend may be[32] and meet them at a local cafe. In this everyday space, you can layer any amount of multiple user data, using your mobile device and software applications[33] – photographs taken by other users, minutes or weeks ago; articles detailing the history or significance of a place; recommendations of food venues and people’s experiences with retail or health services – an ever-growing archive of information that individual users have decided to make public, and link to a particular location.

As such, it is not too extreme to suggest that the experiences of the city are becoming heavily mediated through mobile mapping practices, to the point of being ontological. When I use maps in Sydney, the user-inputted data builds upon itself, and the sheer amount of too much information becomes overwhelming, culminating at its extreme in an experiential disorientation that leaves me unsurprised that people blindly follow satellite navigators into rivers, unwilling or unable to choose between their own sensory information and the mediated instructions from the application[34]. The continual disorienting presence of this cartographic information and its inclusion into everyday practices has become so pervasive that in many ways it exemplifies a hyperspace:

… postmodern hyperspace– has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment… can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects. [35]

In this reference above, Frederic Jameson describes the effects of post-modernity, whereby the subject is loses the perspective required to ground itself in the turmoil of media globalization. In the same way that Jameson described the signage foyer of Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a pithy attempt to provide capitalistic direction (to shops and such) in the turmoil of an overwhelming post-capitalist space, maps too have always attempted to make sense of an overwhelming world. [36]  Drawing borders, routes, places and territories has been the repertoire of map-makers for centuries, and the maps that they have made have been key actors in the building of empires, economies and identities. Benedict Anderson outlines the role of the map (along with the census and the museum) in nation-building, essentially stringing together imagined communities of strangers with little in common except geography and cultural practice.[37]  John Pickles takes this argument further:

The drawing and reading of a line, the historical emergence of cartographic reason, the production and circulation of a map and lived experience are so thoroughly and historically intertwined and over- determined.[38]

Pickles argues that maps are not only responsible for framing identity and community, they are also inextricably linked to the everyday existence of the people who live in mapped spaces. Planning surveys, transport maps, street directories, topographical maps, Global Information Systems, aerial/satellite photographs, weather charts (to name but a few) all contribute to the almost invisible representation systems that inform where roads shall go and buildings will be built, how people shall move from place to place and via what routes, how weather events are managed, when garbage will be collected and where drains exist, which suburb you live in, which language you speak. These maps are typically modern – they are objects drawn by people with the lofty aim of demarcating space so that the future may be navigated.

In contrast, the modern subject, the author, has been all but subsumed to a more fractured subject, who, being deeply susceptible to the ‘endless barrage of immediacy’ imposed by postmodernity, has become lost schizophrenic presentness. What is specific about Jameson’s account is his terminology of a ‘hyperspace’ that is so real and immediate, that there is no bodily or informational intermediary between space and experience. The subject is caught in a persistent and unyielding present Jameson’s postmodern hyperspace is filled with media and stimulations that have superceded the original and authentic.

While the modern subject may once have been the cartographer who authoritatively drew lines over the earth, the post-modern subject has been subsumed by sheer amount of media, such as that captured in large-scale mobile mapping practices. The ubiquity of mobile maps means that the world is inundated with simulations, information and infinite hybridity, and this occurs in a situated experience, like a blast, when you attempt to read all the maps at once. Thus, it is unsurprising that Jameson should turn to cognitive mapping as the answer with which to manage this immediacy.

But mapping is as much the cause of the ‘barrage of immediacy’, as its solution. Maps in hyperspaces generate hyperrealities, in the most Baudriallardian sense of the term. They produce and reproduce representations of space, and when applied to digital mobile maps, replicas of lived spatial experiences.[39] Referring to a story by Jorge Luis Borges of a 1:1 scale map that was made of a land, Baudrillard recounts the disappearence of ‘the real’ to be replaced with simulations (simulacra): “Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction. Because it is difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.[40] Here ‘the imaginary of representation’ the difference between real and representation, between original and fake is lost: “In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” [41]

While maps that speak about constructing ideology, mobile mapping points to the construction of experience. Facebook Places and foursquare do not exist as separate virtual spaces that users enter, as they once did on desktop computers. Rather, to the users who engage in them, mobile maps/apps are not virtual places burdened by representations but are instead, lived spaces and places where lived events happen. Through mobile mapping, heuristic knowledge, intuition and memory come into contact as I create referents of imagined, ontological and embodied space.

The most common and accessible images of the city, such as the birds-eye view of the thousands of walkers that Michel de Certeau described standing from the top of the World Trade Centre are reflected and simplified in the transmission of information from thousands of mobile mappers.[42] With the same ambition in Sydney, now, I would not have to climb to the top of the Centerpoint Tower to view the everyday acts of passing-by made by the city’s inhabitants. These acts are mirrored by the GPS signals emitting constantly from their phones. All I would require is an application like Google Latitude to trace these signals (as mobile phone providers already do) and present them on a map and a similar picture would be made from the ground.

So, instead, by understanding practices of mapping rather than maps, we can come to understand how the cartographic imagination becomes embedded in everyday ontologies and practices. Here the original point of the map, navigation, returns to the forefront as the user returns to the comfort of authoritative direction. As was mentioned earlier, it is unsurprising that Jameson should posit that cognitive mapping may ground the postmodern subject. Ironically, this is what mobile mapping is already attempting to do. As the user is inundated with an almost unmanageable level of other people’s mapped information, as they are caught in a whirlwind of mapping practices, moving people and multiple contradictory recounts of experience, they turn on app, “What is the best place to eat in Sydney?”, and the mobile map steps in to helpfully present a solution to a problem that is at least, in part, of their own making.

The cartographic city

As a graphic register of correspondence between two spaces, whose explicit outcome is a space of representation, mapping is a deceptively simple activity.[43] Maps are no longer static texts. Rather than immutable representations of space, they display ever-changing information dependent on time and location and, thus, are deeply ontological, as well as epistemological. Mobile maps are concerned with the specific context of each user, and influencing that user’s conceptualisation of themselves and their world by placing them at the centre of the map, and the map as the centre of their knowledge of the world around them. But it is not enough to say that the map has changed: the culmination of the transformations to the fundamental manner in which a map is conceived, communicated and read suggests a different kind of cartographic activity that is more casual, more subconscious and more performative.

In mobile maps, we may find the tales of the city, the stories of the places that certain groups occupy. In mobile mapping, we find the experiences of the city, the way that people operate and move, their daily routines and haunts. This is evident in the way that maps have been transformed into far more complex systems of representation that rely on technology, space and users to ‘come into being’, and the fact that these new interfaces have been disseminated to everyday users. It is also evident in the way that mobile mapping does more than build imagined communities and bounded spaces: mobile mapping builds ontologies, ways of being and seeing and communicating, and provides another terrain on which urban practices may be marked.

The hierarchies that exist in the city – the power that map-makers, urban designers, planners and other professionals exert to subtly orchestrate the experience of the city – is slowly dissipating, being undermined by amateurs with a few coding skills and the desire to have a conversation about what spaces and places, and, more specifically, home, means to them. For some, this results in an inundation – how can researchers ever hope to capture the volume of maps and mapping instances and explore their significance? But, for the cartographic city this multiplicity is important. While for now, it may be that users fall back on traditional representations of the landscape, fall back of maps to guide them it may also mean that via mobile mapping, new meanings are explored and new ontologies formed. Though this is partially because the hierarchies inherent in maps are also being broken down by the inclusion of infinite variations of information, it is the new mappers and new practices that ultimately form the basis of this transformation. The silences that left out people and places on traditional maps; the gaps that exist in between mapped locations, the absences of personal mobility or temporality, are slowly being filled in by the people that were forgotten.

To return to Sydney, a contested city that was built on the projection of a colonial empire, the everyday experience of spaces and places is slowly being transformed by cartographic practices. In the age of reason and rationalism, the maps that were made of Sydney reflected a particular way of thinking about the world that considered itself as being far removed from the subjective. Though traces of other people can be found at Bennelong and Barangaroo, the early maps were dominated by a powerful few who drew their names over streets, and named suburbs like Glebe after their churches and Ultimo after their avarice.

Such domination is not easily undone, but the potential of a Sydney that can fit in your pocket is to present a multiplicity of experiences and meanings, which are only just beginning to be examined. In a contemporary context, it is the practice of mapping Sydney that holds the real key to understanding what Sydney means. The act of stopping to tap a piece of information into a phone, to document your day to day experiences, to write paths on landscapes that stray off main routes, may tell a story of a different city than that shown by maps in previous eras: this Sydney may be filled with pedestrians or cyclists, street musicians, bands of roving party-goers, small bars, cheap eats or anything else that mappers desire. Perhaps, in time, our maps of Sydney will be filled with millions of tracings of people, their paths through the streets and their experiences of places. They may come to include not just the roads and the suburbs that were marked out in the original intent of empirical mapping, but may also accommodate new cartographies and reclaimed cartographies, with new lines, spaces, and boundaries. Our mappings of Sydney may show how spatial practices are written on the landscape, where, in turn, they may be rewritten across new landscapes. This Sydney must be understood as a city being mapped continuously and pervasively, a city bound by a new kind of cartography that is an experiment in everyday practice.



Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, (1991).

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994

Black, Jeremy. Maps and politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

de Certeau, Michel. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

Cosgrove, Denis. Mappings. London: Reaktion, 1999.

Crampton, Jeremy. “Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization.” Progress in Human Geography no. 2 (2001): 235-254.

Dodge, Martin, Kitchin, Rob and Perkins, Chris. Rethinking maps : new frontiers in cartographic theory. Abingdon: New York, Routledge, 2009.

Dolan, Andy. “£96,000 Merc written off as satnav leads woman astray,” Daily Mail Online, 16 March 2007,,

Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian tales: electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1999

Harley, John Brian. Deconstructing the Map in Writing worlds : discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape, edited by Trevor Barnes and James Duncan. London: New York, Routledge, 1992.

Ingold, Tim. Lines: A brief history. London: Routledge, 2007.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, Duke University Press, 1991.

Lammes, Sybille. “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices” in Think, Design, Play. Hilversum, 2011.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1991

Monmonier, Mark. Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

Peterson, Michael. ‘Elements of Multimedia cartography’ in Multimedia cartography edited by William Cartwright, Michael Peterson and Georg Gartner. Berlin: New York, Springer, 2007.

Pickles, John. A history of spaces: cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Rød, Jan Ketil, Orneling, Ferjan et al. “An agenda for democratising cartographic visualisation.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift. no. 1, 2001.

Thrift, Nigel and French, Shaun. “The automatic production of space.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers no. 3, 2002.

Thrift, Nigel. Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect. London: Routledge, 2008.

Verhoeff, Nanna. Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.


[1] Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1991.

[2] Foucault’s work was accompanied by a host of other philosophers and sociologists who used maps as exemplars of social, cultural, economic and political tools. For instance, Michel Certeau (1984) in The Practice of Everyday Life also wrote about the role that maps played during the medieval era in constructing the principles of modernity and Benedict Anderson (1991) in Imagined Communities wrote about the map as a tool that reinforced nationalism, and solidified the imagined national community.

[3] John Harley. Deconstructing the Map in Writing worlds : discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape edited by Trevor Barnes and James. Duncan. London ; New York, Routledge, 1992. Jeremy Black, Maps and politics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997; Jeremy Crampton “Maps as social constructions: power, communication and visualization.” Progress in Human Geography 25(2): 235-254, 2001; Mark Monmonier, Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004

[4] John Pickles, A history of spaces : cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York, Routledge, 2004, p.5

[5] Mark Monmonier. Rhumb lines and map wars: a social history of the Mercator projection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

[6] Mobile platforms include mobile phones, as well as tablets. That said, optimisation is still heavily dependent on operating systems.

[7] Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins, Rethinking maps: new frontiers in cartographic theory, New York, Routledge, 2009

[8] Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012

[9] The term ‘slippy map’ was coined by the Open Street Map community. See for further information.

[10] See this YouTube clip for a full explanation of the how the blue circle works:

[11] Sybille Lammes. “The Map as Playground: Location-based Games as Cartographical Practices” in Think, Design, Play. Hilversum, 2011.

[12] c.f. Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins, 2009.

[13] c.f. Tim Ingold, ‘Lines’ London: Routledge p.85-86, 2007

[14] To take the approach of Manuel Castells in the Rise of the Network Society (1996) in distinguishing the physical space, or the space of places, and virtual/informational spaces, or the space of flows.

[15] The term ‘Hertzian space’ was coined by Anthony Dunne in his book Hertzian Tales. The term was used to describe the aesthetic quality of the invisible ‘sea-like’ landscape of Hertzian signals that penetrates the physical landscape

[16] Nigel Thrift and Shaun French, ‘The automatic production of space.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. 3, 2002.

[17] Espen Aarseth. Cybertext : perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore, M: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[18] Nigel Thrift & Shaun French 311

[19] Nigel Thrift, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect, London, Routledge, 2008, p. 8

[20] Nigel Thrift 2008, p. 6.

[21] ibid

[22] Denis Cosgrove. Mappings. London: Reaktion, 1999.

[23] Jan Ketil Rød, Ferjan Orneling et al. “An agenda for democratising cartographic visualisation.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift no 1. 2001, p.38-41.

[24] Michael Peterson 2007, ‘Elements of Multimedia cartography’, in Multimedia cartography edited by William Cartwright, Michael Peterson and Georg Gartner. Berlin: New York, Springer, 2007.

[25] MapMyFITNESS, ‘MapMyRUN’, computer software, 2007, last update 2012

[26] BeatTheQ Pty Ltd, BeatTheQ, computer software, 2011,

[27] foursquare, foursquare, computer software, 2009,

[28] Public Transport Victoria, Public Transport Victoria iPhone App, computer software, 2011,

[29] University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Tram Trail, computer software, 2011,

[30] Parkmobile International, Parkmobile, computer software, 2008,

[31] Google, Google Maps for Mobile, computer software, 2006,

[32] Google, Google Latitude, computer software, 2009,

[33] Layar, Across Air

[34] c.f. Andy Dolan,  “£96,000 Merc written off as satnav leads woman astray,” Daily Mail Online, 16 March 2007,,

[35] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991, p. 44

[36] Frederic Jameson 1991

[37] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1991.

[38] John Pickles, A history of spaces : cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world. New York, Routledge, 2004, p.5

[39] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994

[40] Jean Baudrillard, 2

[41] ibid

[42] Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984

[43] Denis Cosgrove, Mappings. London, Reaktion, 1999.


Clancy Wilmott is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Manchester, researching mapping, mobile phones and urban environments. As part of this project, she will be examining the impact of digital mobile mapping practices on place-making, wayfinding and the spatial imagination in post-colonial cities.


Creating Godzilla’s media tourism: Comparing fan and local government practices – Craig Norris


Fan pilgrimages to media locations have been variously described as fads or underground activities. More recently there has been a trend to consider cult media tourism as increasingly incorporated into official tourism branding and promotion strategies. This article details how fans and industry ‘play’ with popular culture to experiment with their surroundings in new and novel ways. This phenomenon is observed through two cases: first, Saitama City’s attempt to appear in a Godzilla movie as documented in the BBC series Japanorama; and second, the experience of western Godzilla fans travelling to Japan. By discussing the similar ‘fan tools’ which are used by different stakeholders this article will show how locations can be reimagined into popular culture portals serving a variety of agendas.

Figure 1: Godzilla destroys Tokyo in Godzilla (Ishirō Honda, 1954)

In 2002 the BBC series Japanorama hosted by popular British entertainer Jonathan Ross ran an episode on Godzilla and the Japanese city of Saitama’s attempts to be destroyed in the next Godzilla film. As Ross explains, ‘Japanese cities crave the publicity that comes with a visit from Godzilla, and Saitama with its brand new city centre is a perfect setting for some Godzillian demolition’. Following a replay of Godzilla destroying various cities in Japan we are introduced to Saitama’s town planner Tetsuo Takahashi who tells us that he has arrived at a unique way to pitch Saitama to the Toho Company. To make Saitama stand out from the other cities vying for Toho’s attention Takahashi has written a script for a new Godzilla movie that shows how spectacular Godzilla’s destruction of Saitama could be. Sadly Takahashi explains his concern that ‘we haven’t heard back from the Toho Company’. The episode then centres around helping Saitama appear in a Godzilla movie. We are shown Takahashi touring the city with various Saitama civil servants and two actors who played Godzilla in the films. A variety of strategies are discussed to help Saitama’s destruction by Godzilla and the audience is left feeling optimistic about Saitama’s chances to appear in the next Godzilla movie.

This Japanorama episode poses both conventional and unconventional ideas about media tourism. We are told that local governments want the publicity that appearing in a Godzilla film brings. Possibly based on the assumption that connecting Saitama to Godzilla will give them an audience or particular relevancy they otherwise would not have. We can imagine potential economic rewards from tourism or some positive cultural capital through being associated with a popular entertainment icon like Godzilla. Yet there is very little information about the business and branding of media tourism. We don’t see a Toho spokesperson discuss the decisions that go into choosing locations, or council plans to erect Godzilla statues and design tourist information. Instead the episode concentrates on the fun practices and processes of participating in Takahashi’s Godzilla vision. A movie script is written, a Godzilla toy is used to destroy a scale model of Saitama, buildings are discussed in terms of how exactly Godzilla would stomp on them and tear them apart, and people act out their fantasies of being Godzilla by destroying small cardboard models of Saitama’s cityscape.

The audience is left knowing less about the business and marketing of media tourism and more about the fun of being a Godzilla fan and media tourist. The town planner’s script is a type of fan fiction, the Godzilla performances are typical of the alternative identities fan’s adopt through cosplay⁠1, and the use of scale models draws on the simulations and games fans create. The assistance Japanorama offers Saitama’s Godzilla bid seems to be based on the creative forms and collaborative problem-solving of fan-culture. For Saitama the hope is that these fan-type practices are the best way to show how and why Godzilla would destroy Saitama and, more importantly, why Toho should use this location.

The use of appropriation, game-play, mash-ups, and Godzilla performances in Japanorama is an example of the increasing appropriation of what were once marginalised activities of hard-core fans into moments of professional discourse and mainstream entertainment (Green and Jenkins 2009). Normally a town planner wouldn’t write a Godzilla movie script or use a plastic Godzilla toy to explain why his city is interesting and important. But here these approaches are used to solve problems and experiment with how to reimagine a city. What we may be seeing is a variation on converging the practices of production and consumption similar to ‘prosumers’ (Toffler 1980) or ‘produsers’ (Bruns 2008) where the consumer increasingly acts as a creator, distributor or curator of information and resources. In this case Saitama City is producing the very Godzilla story they hope will position them as a city to be used by Toho.

Alternatively the moves Saitama is making towards fan practice may be related to what Jenkins (2007a) refers to as the phenomenon of astroturfing where media industries create fake grassroot campaigns to appeal to particular consumers. While Saitama’s effort to convince fans and Toho of its Godzilla credentials through using fan-like practices is similar to astroturfing, nevertheless it is not attempting to hide its involvement. A stronger parallel may be with the phenomenon of ‘affective economics’ (Jenkins 2006a) which describes the industry enthusiasm to secure the loyal viewers of a cult property. It is based on the hope that over the long term a small cult audience will yield bigger profits than a numerically larger, but less engaged, general audience. In a similar way, the enthusiasm shown in the Japanorama clip to create a Godzilla cult geography in Saitama suggests that there are efforts being made by local councils to tap in to the loyal viewers of cult media to rejuvenate visits to a city. At the same time, however, the lack of any interest from Toho in Saitama’s Godzilla pitch since the broadcast of this episode in 2002 suggests that it has struggled to build a relationship or feedback loop between Toho or Godzilla fans. In this context, Saitama’s efforts to get some ‘Godzillian destruction’ may be a reminder of the challenges that face non-industry players who want to be more directly involved in media production or utilise media properties for their own ends. However, as I will show, appearing in the media through Japanorama may still secure a foothold in Godzilla’s cult geography for Saitama.

Additionally, this has to be understood within Japanorama’s agenda as a television show with a need to tell a particular ‘weird and wonderful Japan’ story to their audience. The show has been edited to best meet these commercial and creative agendas and there is a gentle ‘laughing at’ the town planner’s over-enthusiasm for the destruction and pleasure Godzilla would find in terrorising citizens of Saitama. While this does limit the power Saitama has to control the representation of their Godzilla bid, it does give them an audience and a profile they otherwise would not have. As I will show in this article, this profile is built on the types of fan skills that can be brought into problem-solving (Brabham 2008) and experimenting with notions of place (Longhurst, Bagnall, and Savage 2007; Brooker 2007; Couldry 2007; McBride and Bird 2007).

As I will argue in this article, embracing fan practice can solve some of the challenges found in transforming a city into a pop-culture tourism phenomenon. Rather than Saitama council positioning itself around more conventional top-down strategies to convince fans and the Toho Company, they position themselves as creating a cult-geography by using the bottom-up practices of fans. To explain this we need to look beyond the divide of an active fan community or exploitative industry agenda. The fact that this is a town planner appropriating fan practice reveals a more complex hybrid media ecology at work (Benkler 2006; Jenkins 2006a; Jenkins and Deuze 2008). As my explanation will show there are various stake-holders (fans, government and industry) involved in constructing this cult geography. To explore the interdependent and conflicting factors that facilitate this I will compare Japanorama’s framing of Saitama’s Godzilla bid to the experiences of Western Godzilla fans who have travelled to Japan.

By comparing Japanorama’s portrayal of media tourism practices with the way fans speak of their own Godzilla-tourism this article will connect cult geographies to the discussion around the emergence of a ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler 2006). In Benkler’s consideration of the stakeholders within new media networks, for example, he emphasises the ongoing struggles around competing purposes for the same media space. He suggests that as well as bringing people together networks are also spaces where various complimentary and conflicting agendas such as profit, persuasion, enlightenment and entertainment are played out for ‘benefits to reputation’ (Benkler 2006, 43). Green and Jenkins (2008) refer to Benkler’s argument as defining the emergence of a hybrid media ecology where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, and educational media producers interact in ever more complex ways, often deploying the same media channels towards very different ends. Within Godzilla’s hybrid media ecology this article will focus on the relationship between two of these stakeholders – local government and fans – and their shared strategies but diverging purposes for creating a Godzilla cult geography.

Before analysing the practices of fans and industry, I wish to briefly outline how the data for this study of Godzilla fandom was collected. The focus of the fan data was the Toho Kingdom community (, a large website ‘committed to covering all aspects of the film company Toho Eiga [Film]’ and is not affiliated with the Toho Company. With over 500 members, total posts over 90,000 and total topics over 3,000 it provides one of the largest and most extensive portals into Toho films in English. Godzilla, as one of the most famous Toho properties, features extensively throughout the site with various topic focusing exclusively on the significance and continued relevance of Godzilla. I posted a link to a survey on this forum targeting Godzilla fans who had travelled to Japan. The link directed them to a short survey of ten questions which addressed the role Godzilla played in their travels around Japan. In total I received 51 responses. The data was collected during a period of three months in 2010.

From media tourism to cult geography

To return to the earlier quote by Japanorama’s host, ‘Japanese cities crave the publicity that comes with a visit from Godzilla.’ This comment reveals just how much the act of visiting media-locations has become commonplace, and it is now routine for tourists to plan their trips around an interest in popular culture. Fans can visit specific places made famous for them through popular culture and perform typical tourist acts such as photographing themselves in front of these recognisable landmarks or icons, buying merchandise and so on.

While we may be familiar with media tourism clearly the Japanorama clip shows that the practices occurring here go far beyond the mere recognition of a media location. As Hills’ (2002) argues, participating in a cult geography involves more elaborate fan practices.  In Fan Cultures Hills (2002) further refines cult geography as the ‘diegetic and pro-filmic spaces (and ‘real’ spaces associated with cult icons) which cult fans take as the basis for material touristic practices’ (144). This process of fans visiting locations and sites based on their interest in their favourite pop culture text redefines that location’s meaning around their fan interest. The main aim of this article is to show how various fan practices facilitate the production of a Godzilla cult geography.

Previous research in media tourism has discussed the tours and pilgrimages to the locations that were used in popular culture such as the X-Files (Hills 2002), Dracula (Reijnders 2011), Blade Runner (Brooker 2005), Inspector Morse (Reijnders 2009), The Sopranos (Couldry 2007), Sex in the City (McCabe and Akass 2004), and The Lord of the Rings (Tzanelli 2004). While this work has addressed various aspects of the tourist and industry experience of media place, I wish to combine existing fan theory approaches within this field, in particular Hills’ (2002) concept of ‘cult geography,’ with Gee’s (2007a) ‘affinity space’ approach from participatory culture and education studies. Drawing on fan theory and participatory culture research in this way will shed new light on the impact spatial imagination has on the meaning of place and text.

Through these approaches I will show how local government and fan alike use particular fan practices to transform locations into cult geographies. Focusing on the Japanorama episode and fan community, I will map three practices used to create a Godzilla cult geography. Firstly, improvising a cult geography through play. Secondly, generating authenticity through fan practice. And thirdly, combining narrative, place and travel in an ‘affinity space’ (Gee 2007a). These practices will show the interdependent and interrelated production and consumption processes at the core of these practices. It will also show how popular culture can be used to participate in foreign spaces with a powerful sense of purpose.

Creating a cult geography

In discussing Godzilla’s cult geography both Japanorama’s Saitama town planner and the fans emphasise a sense of ‘play’. Recent research into new media literacies (Jenkins et al. 2006; Knobel and Lankshear 2007) has approached the idea of play as a core skill that needs to be further understood. This research has linked play to the serious work youth do addressing issues such as ethics, judgement and identity while playing video games (Gee 2007c), participating in social networks (Lyman et al. 2009) or using google search and wikipedia (Jenkins 2007b). A key value of this play is that it encourages people to engage deeply and fully with complex material and issues (Gee 2007c). This use of play to attain deeper learning was evident in both Takahashi’s performance on Japanorama and the stories Godzilla fans related in their survey responses. Takahashi hopes to create a space for a deeper engagement with Saitama through Godzilla and, as I will show later, fans use various types of play to experiment with their surroundings to solve problems, improvise identities, or understand real world events and histories. However the particular characteristics of how this play is configured and becomes established differs between these two cases.

Figure 2: Jonathan Ross, host of the BBC series ‘Japanorama’

To return briefly to the Japanorama episode, while fan practices are emphasised, playing is also configured as a business undertaking. Takahashi has a responsibility to find a way to make Saitama popular and relevant, this is aligned with a belief in the Godzilla brand association to generate interest around specific locations. Again this is framed as a key motivation of Saitama’s hoped for media tourism, and was emphasised throughout the Japanorama episode by the frequent use of clips showing Godzilla’s destruction of specific landmarks and cities. Takahashi’s positive belief in his ability to use Godzilla to change the public’s perception of Saitama’s brand new city centre is reinforced through three fan practices: appropriation, performance and simulation.

Consider, for example, the attention given to Takahashi’s Godzilla movie script:

So far Godzilla has destroyed most of the famous architecture in Japan. Saitama New Urban Centre is the only place he hasn’t destroyed. We sent our proposal to Toho, Godzilla’s film production company. Apparently a lot of cities are doing the same thing. But what we did was send them an original script to give them a more precise idea – and they found this an unusual approach.

Here we see the value of appropriation through the emphasis given to it as the ‘unusual approach’ Saitama has taken to show that it can be transformed into Godzilla’s cult geography.  Writing the movie script will show Toho that they understand Godzilla and can contribute to the Godzilla community and brand. This approach is underpinned by a belief in the positives of what good fan play is. In particular, the advantages of meaningfully remixing media content (Black 2005; Thomas 2007; Jenkins 2006b). Writing about fan fiction, Jenkins et al (2006) identifies important skills being developed by these writers such as demonstrating knowledge and creativity through ‘an appreciation of the emerging structure’ and ‘potential meanings’ (32) of the original text. The hope for Saitama is that their movie script expresses knowledge of the Godzilla universe and convincingly links their city with the ‘emerging structure’ and ‘potential meanings’ of the films in a creative way. But more than telling a good story it needs to persuade Toho to film there. Fan fiction here becomes one of the council strategies to make their bid stand out and transform Saitama from just another city into a cult geography inhabited by Godzilla.

In addition to appropriation, Saitama’s bid is also explained through the common fan practice of performing Godzilla’s destruction through simulation. YouTube is full of clips where Godzilla fans film themselves smashing poorly constructed cardboard models and cityscapes. In Japanorama Takahashi demonstrates how Godzilla would destroy Saitama by using a plastic toy Godzilla leg on a stick to enact Godzilla’s destructive trail across a large-scale model of the city:

With this stick here I will show you how Godzilla will destroy Saitama City Centre. Godzilla appears from the south and destroys each building. He appears with the Godzilla theme song [Takahashi hums the tune]. Then he finds a new building he turns around and hits the building. The people run around screaming everywhere [Takahashi imitates the sound of people screaming]. He torches two building [Takahashi lets out a roar]. Godzilla loves train stations, he destroys the whole station and the people there are in a big panic. There is a bullet train by his side and he picks up each coach and throws them everywhere. And that is my idea of Godzilla demolishing Saitama New Urban City.

By positioning himself as the knowledgeable Godzilla expert describing Godzilla’s destruction on a detailed map Takahashi performs one of the core practices of cult geography – adopting the identity of key characters and expressing the theme of the series. Hills’ (2002) analysis of X-Files tourists and Couldry’s (2007) analysis of The Sopranos tour highlight the moments where tourist practices and problem-solving reinforce the broader themes in the series, such as The X-Files’ hiddenness or The Sopranos’ tension between the private and public. For Hills (2002),

the manner of this quest [to find the filming locations] replays the ‘hiddenness’ of The X-Files own tropes and secrets: ‘signs’ and ‘informants’ leak out of the text, as if it provided a guide for the cult fans’ creative transposition. This transposition is one of the key aspects of ‘cult geography’ (148)

A similar ‘creative transposition’ can be seen in the Japanorama clip. Takahashi, through his simulations of a Godzilla attack, evokes some of the motifs of military and scientific advisors in the Godzilla series. The films often feature sequences where military advisors and scientists crowd around a map plotting Godzilla’s trail of destruction and interpreting its actions. Alternatively this performance of planning and controlling the movements of Godzilla may also emulate the villain masterminding Godzilla’s assault on a city. Although the importance of adopting the alternative identities and tropes from popular culture have been previously examined, my concern here is how these performances also function as an authenticating strategy for those working in local government or industry.

Figure 3: Japanorama talks with Saitama New Urban Center director Tetsuo Takahashi who shows how Godzilla can smash his new urban development on a model of the city.

Figure 4: The close up is Godzilla’s foot destroying the model train station.


The goal for Saitama is to make their new city centre an authentic location on a tour of Godzilla’s destruction of Japan. While they can’t guarantee a Toho Godzilla film featuring Saitama they can imagine it. They can play, perform and construct models as if the city had been destroyed in a Godzilla film. They can rely upon the generic aspects of the city which already fit the canon of Godzilla’s favourite things to smash (train stations, skyscrapers and new buildings). And tell a story of Saitama within the narrative of Godzilla arriving, destroying buildings, terrorising the population and leaving. In a way the broadcast of these practices on Japanorama already bestows a type of pseudo-authenticity onto Saitama as a Godzilla cult geography. Even without an official Toho film endorsing Saitama it has been filmed and promoted as offering a virtual experience of mapping and co-ordinating Godzilla’s destruction. What is produced is an unofficial tour conducted by Saitama’s town planner, produced by the Japanorama TV program and circulated through broadcast and online media.

Like a fan’s creative transposition when they photograph themselves reenacting scenes in front of landmarks (Hills 2002, 149) Japanorama’s mediation of Saitama’s Godzilla cult geography generates a type of authenticity through the meaning the ‘fan’ acts give to a location. The process of turning a train-station, a skyscraper and other structures of Saitama’s cityscape into the raw materials of a Godzilla film gives them a new symbolic meaning. This is not just a train-station, this is the train-station Godzilla destroys, or the location where people fled from Godzilla. As Hills’ (2002) argues, the fan’s ability to make these locations meaningful through this creative transposition:

allows for a radically different object-relationship in terms of immediacy, embodiment and somatic sensation which can all operate to reinforce cult ‘authenticity’ and its more-or-Iess explicitly sacralised difference. The audience-text relationship is shifted towards the monumentality and groundedness of physical locations (149)

Takahashi’s goal is to transform Saitama from just another big city in Japan into the ‘radically different object-relationship’ of a cult geography. The movie script, re-enactment of Godzilla’s destruction, and walking-tour of Saitama hope to give an authenticity to Saitama’s Godzilla cult geography. Having these performances filmed and circulated through the Japanorama program pushes Saitama into the realms of becoming a media place  – one in which the Japanorama program and Godzilla have shaped our perceptions of it.

However, such positioning towards cult authenticity do not go unchallenged. While Takahashi is defined around his confidence and status, this is undercut somewhat by his own performance during the episode. He hums a different tune to the iconic Godzilla soundtrack during his re-enactment of Godzilla’s destruction, and later is corrected by the Godzilla actors on how Godzilla would destroy large buildings. Raising the question of if Takahashi is really a fan or only interested in Godzilla for the profile it might bring Saitama.

Such questioning of Takahashi’s Godzilla knowledge challenges the hoped-for alliances between Saitama and both Toho and the fan audience. While Takahashi can generate local portals into Godzilla’s cult geography, does he really share a passion for Godzilla films, and is his vision shared by others in Saitama council? These ambiguities between production and consumption are significant. As authors such as Green and Jenkins (2009) point out, while companies are re-evaluating the opportunities offered by fan participation there remains ‘potential conflicts since fan and corporate interests are never perfectly aligned’ (219). Scholars in tourism studies have also been aware of the complexity and ambiguity of authenticity ‘particularly in the context of mediated representations and externally managed tourist experiences’ (Karpovich 2010, 12). For example, media tourism to sites featured in the film Braveheart with its origins in Scotland yet filming in Ireland raises as many questions about heritage and popular culture as the tours appear to celebrate (Aitchison, Macleod, and Shaw 2000). To explore this complexity further this article will now discuss how Godzilla fans define their cult geography practices around both authentic and improvised moments.

Improvising Godzilla’s space

During the Japanorama episode the use of fan practice establishes a clear vision of what it is to inhabit the cult geography of Godzilla’s Japan. In contrast to the slickly produced Japanorama performances, more personal and improvised notions of cult geography are evident in the survey results from the Toho Kingdom community. For these fans travelling to Japan as a Godzilla fan is connected to being a tourist. While this engagement reflects the typical practices of tourism – such as leisure, travel, and souvenir collecting – it is also connected to the motifs and narrative of Godzilla. They are tourists travelling around Japan but they are also adopting Godzilla fan identities to improvise, discover and experiment with their surroundings. In some cases, the fans’ creative transpositions are used to establish their active involvement and participation in the landscape around them.

Godzilla locations

That Saitama could be framed so strongly as a tourist location through the Godzilla text can be understood by considering how Japan’s landscapes – rural, industrial and urban – can become portals into a Godzilla space. To understand the complex relationship between text, fan practice and place I will focus on two ways that fans use creative transposition to move between the Godzilla text and the real geography around them: first, the use of significant and banal locations as portals into the text; and second, the process of using Godzilla’s destruction trope to frame historical events and places.

The locations which Godzilla fans use as portals into the fantasy space of Godzilla includes typical monuments which evoke recognition and awe. Godzilla has destroyed the Diet Building (the seat of Japanese political power) and other important historical structures such as the Osaka Castle, and significant architectural and cultural landmarks such as Ginza’s Wako department store and clock-tower.  These are locations within the Godzilla space which are privileged because of their political, historical and cultural significance  as well as the dramatic action surrounding their destruction in the films. These monuments feature prominently in the advertising for many Godzilla films and  appear in many fans’ recollections of travelling to Japan. As the comment below attests:

My first morning in Japan, travelling south from Tokyo station on shinkansen [bullet train], I was looking at bright, shiny modern skyscrapers and suddenly the Diet building’s cold grey concrete, came into view for a second or two. It was a dreamlike, cinematic moment, making me think Godzilla might come into view next.

As well as the monuments one would expect to evoke media tourism portals Godzilla’s cult geography extends to more banal, everyday locations such as train stations, power lines, oil refineries, hills and even the view out to the ocean. These portals reveal not just how acts of cult geography turn something banal into something spectacular, but also how the fans foreground their role as choreographer of these cult geographies. For example, in the following comment we see how being a Godzilla fan changes a typical tourist act – travelling from one city to another – into the process of generating a Godzilla space.

I think that I had two moments that could be considered Godzilla moments. The first Godzilla moment I had was when I was in the JR Rail going to Fukuoka from Osaka. While taking in the scenery, I noticed the high voltage electrical lines that are shown in many Godzilla films. In my mind I started to play Godzilla‘s theme by Akira Ifukube (

A banal aspect of tourism – looking out the window of a train and noticing the landscape – is here presented as evoking the landscape of a Godzilla film. Again, what is interesting is how banal the portal can be — in this case the many power lines that cover Japan. In contrast to reducing these structures to straight-forward explanations of power supply or barely noticing them beyond their global familiarity, here the Godzilla fan becomes cult geographer by turning these power lines into the power lines often used to battle Godzilla. The ‘Godzilla moment’ is further established by recalling the Godzilla theme music from the composer Akira Ifukuba onto this view of the landscape. Acts that remind us of Takahashi’s similar use of music in his re-enactment of Godzilla’s destruction of Saitama in Japanorama.

The use of Godzilla’s narrative and motifs as scaffolding over the Japanese landscape gives the location a new relevance and excitement. It also casts the cult geographer as an active participant in making this geography. In this way the cult geographer sees themselves as improvising an exciting and stimulating environment far removed from the actual banality of these locations.

A further remixing can be seen in the sampling of discourses combining personal travel diary, fan knowledge, and the language of cinematography in many of the responses. For example, in a later comment the same fan positions themselves as less of a tourist and more a film-director:

As I continued to Fukuoka, I saw a refinery and immediately my thoughts went to naming monsters that have destroyed refineries in Godzilla movies. Finally on the JR Rail I noticed two things that I saw in the 1993 Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. They were the Fukuoka Tower and how the color of the ocean from the sea of Japan is really a pink color as the sun sets. My other Godzilla moment was when I was on the island of Kikai-Shima. The island itself is nowhere near Tokyo, but I could not help to think of the first image of Godzilla shown on the big screen. Like in the movie there was a hill on the island that I was walking up and my mind had a flash back to the movie. I kind of chuckled and said to myself, wouldn’t it be something if I felt the ground shake and look up to see Godzilla himself roaring.

Figure 5: The poster for GODZILLA VS. SPACEGODZILLA (Kensho Yamashita, 1993) showing the Fukuoka Tower in the middle of the battle.

The Godzilla space exists here in parallel with these locations. The fan improvises a Godzilla geography through specific ‘concrete’ triggers in the environment around them. From monuments (the Diet Building), recognisable architecture (the Fukuoka Tower), banal industrial locations and structures (refineries and power-lines), cityscapes (skyscrapers) and geographical formations (a hill). The combination of witnessing monumental locations, large natural formations, and imposing man-made structures while choreographing their destruction by giant monsters generates the portal into the narrative and practices of the Godzilla text.

Cult geography as an affinity space

Recent research into the impact of new media and online networks on learning provides a useful comparison. In his study, Gee argues that the strength of a learning environment can be best measured in terms of its ‘affinity space’ (Gee 2007b) rather than focusing on the people who inhabit a space and their ‘communities of practice’ (Lave 1996). Gee defines an affinity space as the organisation of an area around a shared purpose and the processes which support or inhibit participation, collaboration and the circulation of expertise and knowledge. His research reveals that spaces are organised around generators (things which give the space content) and platforms (things which give users access to content). For Gee what matters is more than just identifying these two processes, the significance of an affinity space lies in measuring the relative strength of the feedback loop between portals and generators. As Gee (2007a) argues, ‘we want to know whether content organization and interactional organization reflexively shape each other in strong or weak ways, not just whether they do or not’ (96).

While Gee focuses on learning and education, affinity space does offer an insight into some of the key features of a cult geography – particularly in terms of understanding how the meaning of a place can be reordered around its connection to popular culture like Godzilla. To return briefly to Japanorama, at one level the episode builds an affinity space by trying to generate as many Godzilla portals as possible with the aim of influencing Toho’s next Godzilla film. While Saitama is making an aggressive effort to directly contribute to official Godzilla content, affinity spaces also underpin many of the more modest acts of informal learning and sharing performed by the Godzilla fans I surveyed.

As the Godzilla fans travelling to Japan show, experiencing Godzilla’s cult geography is part of a larger social and place based participation. They draw upon various resources that offer support for achieving a successful pilgrimage. Survey respondents mention various websites and travel publications devoted to Godzilla fans travelling to Japan. In addition to online forums like Toho Kingdom, examples included the fan-produced The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan (Vaquer 2009), tours to Japan organsied by fan clubs such as G-Fan, and the Japanese wikipedia site for Gojira. Through these sites fans have planned their trips to Japan, offered advice to others, and shared information and knowledge. It is exactly this type of participation and engagement that Takahashi and the Saitama council hope to foster for their city through Godzilla.

Experiencing Godzilla’s cult geography not only draws upon these online and published resources, but also the motifs and fictional narrative of the films and the generic and monumental resources of one’s surroundings. When the fan visits the Diet Buildings or sees an oil refinery or power line and transposes a Godzilla narrative over it they draw upon these portals to also generate a Godzilla experience of their own. In the process of transforming a power line into a Godzilla space we can see that there are particular ‘raw ingredients’ which help generate this new, remixed content. Two of these have already been discussed: the use of banal and monumental locations, and adopting alternative identities. Both show that the Godzilla fan travelling in Japan is more than an awed witness they are the choreographer of virtual mass destruction by giant monsters menacing Tokyo.

A third portal which Godzilla fans use to access Godzilla space are the real stories of destruction which have befallen places and buildings featured in the films. Here Godzilla fans present themselves as navigating grand but tragic portals of Japan through Godzilla’s destruction. These creative transpositions include terrifyingly real catastrophes both within Japan and overseas, as the following comment reveals:

I’ve been to NY (assuming you include the 1998 American Godzilla movie in the study). I feel all the locations are important, because it shows that no place is safe or off limits, especially to catastrophe or a rogue force of nature.

The allusion here to the 9/11 terrorist attacks locates Godzilla’s meaning squarely in its indiscriminate destruction of monuments and places where ‘no place is safe or off limits’. This theme suggests one of the core meanings of Godzilla. As Tsutsui (2004) points out, Ishiro Honda, who directed the first Godzilla movie in 1954,  approached ‘Godzilla as a means of “making radiation visible,” of giving tangible form to unspoken fears of the Bomb, nuclear testing, and environmental degradation’ (33). Within the survey results members of the Toho Kingdom community repeated Honda’s reading of Godzilla as a cautionary tale of ‘unspoken fears’. For example, one respondent echoed this as the reason Godzilla destroys cities: ‘Godzilla destroyed these buildings because he is furious at mankind’s use of atomic weapons. He is an instrument of nature’s wrath and will continuously destroy Tokyo’.

Fans draw upon Godzilla as a ‘tangible form to unspoken fears’ as they interpret and construct a parallel story of real-world destruction through their travel to Godzilla locations. The convergence of places and their destruction, both fictional and real, asserts the fan’s engagement with some of the feelings of fear and vulnerability that lie in the intersection between the text and their surroundings. For example, the convergence of history, narrative and place is seen in the recent fan-produced travel guide, The monster movie fan’s guide to Japan (Vaquer 2009). In the following entry for Ginza and Hibiya Park we see the shift from specific locations in Tokyo’s Ginza area to the Godzilla narrative and then to the destruction visited upon these locations during WWII.

Ginza is Tokyo’s upscale shopping district. It first appeared in Godzilla (1954) as a detailed minature. The craftsmen at Toho faithfully recreated Ginza well enough to give viewers an idea on how the district looked in 1954. During Godzilla’s nighttime rampage in Tokyo, the clock atop the Wako Department store at Ginza Crossing gonged the hour and thus annoyed the giant beast. Godzilla then proceeded to tear down the clock and the department store along with it. He also torches the Matsuzakaya Department Store, one of Tokyo’s priciest retailers. Across the street from the Wako Building, is the Mitsukoshi department store. The Mitsukoshi was one of the first Western-style department stores in Japan. It sustained heavy bomb damage in World War II, but has been rebuilt and is still a thriving department store. (Vaquer 2009, 28) In this example Godzilla’s presence in Tokyo is a destructive force: it commits ‘nighttime rampage’ on Tokyo, ‘tear(s) down the clock’ and ‘torches the Matsuzakaya department store’.  For Vaquer, the destruction of Ginza by Godzilla replicates the wartime destruction of Ginza by Allied bombers.

Like the process of ‘narrative leakage’ described by Hills (2002), one of the key practices in the cult geography is the move from the fictional narrative space to one’s surroundings through the process of meaningfully remixing both.


The analysis presented in this article has explored the strategies used by fans, local government and media to transform the environment around them. The focus on Saitama’s Godzilla bid and’s fans has revealed a number of similar strategies used to remix Godzilla into one’s surroundings. These strategies could be broadly labeled as ‘fan practices’ including appropriation, performance and simulation. These practices also impart an authenticity onto these locations through meaningfully reordering them as spaces of Godzilla affiliation. In many of these examples Godzilla was also used as scaffolding for other purposes – such as drawing more attention to Saitama, or reflecting on the real historical destruction of those locations.

Differences between Japanorama and TohoKingdom also empahasise the conflicting purposes that exist between the stakeholders within this hybrid media ecology. On one hand Saitama is hoping to exploit a potential synergy between their new city centre and Godzilla’s destruction of significant landmarks. Whereas for Godzilla fans they seek to improvise a Godzilla experiences when and where they want to. Convergence cultures, as Jenkins (2006a) has argued, change the way media are circulated and engaged with and have  meant we need to move beyond power relations based on a weak or strong audience/producer divide.

Issues of power still remain, but need to be addressed from multiple perspectives and sympathetic to alternative norms. For example, while Saitama and Japanorama use fan practices, fans are absent from the episode. We are only provided with the opinions of professionals. In a way this keeps the actual labour fans have done to re-circulate, comment on, and contribute to popular culture like Godzilla largely invisible. While there remain important concerns around the diverging agendas of various stakeholders, the fan practice ‘tool kit’ outlined here is evidence of the forms of participation which are being learned and appropriated between stakeholders. By valuing the types of practices of fans and trying to appear loyal to the spirit and enjoyment of Godzilla, Saitama may still appeal to the hard-core Godzilla fan audience. Even without the direct involvement of the Toho company Saitama may yet become a cult geography.



1 A Japanese term that has been adopted by fans globally to refer to dressing up as a character from popular culture.


Japanorama episode reference

Japanorama. Horror. Season 1, Episode 6. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Hotsauce TV, 1 June 2002.


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Craig Norris is a lecturer in Journalism, Media and Communications in the School of English, Journalism & European Languages at the University of Tasmania, Australia. His research in media studies focuses on popular culture, audiences and fandom. He has published articles in the area of global media and the dissemination of Japanese popular-culture (particularly anime, manga, video games and cosplay). His current research explores the relationship between media and place through global media tourism and fan pilgrimages to media locations. Norris teaches courses on youth media, media flows and spaces, as well as honours level seminars in media theory and methods.

The Pinball Problem – Daniel Reynolds

On January 21, 1942, pinball machines and their operation were made illegal in New York City. Raids on pinball venues—arcades, bars, and shops—commenced immediately, and thousands of the machines were seized within the following weeks. The banning of pinball in the city represented the culmination of a long and passionate effort by the city’s popular mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. A triumphant LaGuardia had many of the confiscated machines piled up for press conferences at which he smashed their glass tops and scoreboards with a sledgehammer while being filmed and photographed by the press.

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Acculturation of the ‘Pure’ Economy: Sci Fi, IT and the National Lampoon – Rock Chugg

We are still living under the banner of medieval technology.
Umberto Eco (1986)
The medieval system, based on graded ranks, of course knew no economic quality.
Lewis Mumford (1961)

Science and technology are locked into an unbreakable dualism that differs from traditional binaries, like mind and body, through assumed complementarity rather than a variant relationship. Yet they are far more differentiated than the latter implies or the former conceals. Handed down via a cloistered academic lineage of discovery, paradigm shift and conditions of contestation, the scientific context of industrial development is ironically overlooked in our eternal present of supposed ‘economisation’. I argue in this paper that such neglect results in the fictionalisation (‘sc fi’) of science, enabling change of emphasis to the cultural correlative of technology (‘IT’), while retaining only a diminishing superficial appearance of science. The proof of neoliberal deindustrialisation (‘national lampoon’) is sufficient, before calling on linguistic grounded ‘deconstruction’ to demonstrate ‘essentialism’ of arguments supposedly teetering between foundationalist or metaphysical ‘objectivity’, divorced from historical conditions. Even basic scientific facts have been reinterpreted in terms of technological social construction or cultural readings, according to values ranging from sociological conceptions of ‘methodological individualism’ (see Smelser and Swedberg, 2005 passim) to structuralist ‘anthropomorphism’ (Schutz, 1974).

Fictionalisation of science to a point of assumed everyday technologisation convergence, involves assimilation and incorporation of beliefs and values from one social group to another, in a process of ‘acculturation’. Acculturation is a concept borrowed from anthropology and social psychology to chart the normally one-sided dominance of national host community cultures over minority cultures (Walker and Le, 1999). Although recent success of ‘Cultural Turn’ theories, like Cultural Sociology or Cultural Economy imply a cultural determination of all social levels, politics and economy are still considered of equal though variant importance. Williams’ cultural definition of ‘a whole way of life’ was not absolute. However, recurrent ‘contradictions’ suggest that ‘there is something fundamentally wrong with theories and research on acculturation’ (Rudmin, 2006).[1] While this research claims to find answers in ‘naïve’ phenomenology, postmodernism described the ‘paralogy’ as politicised cultural identity meta-narratives (identity politics or multiculturalism).[2] But if acculturation employs neutral cultural media (technology) between economy and politics, corresponding to the three main social groups (rulers, producers and communicators), alleged contradictions can be decoded into these straightforward distinctions. 

While not wishing to dwell on ‘methodological police’ issues, Bourdieu has shown how less-educated producers are socially excluded from opinion-styled research in sample procedure, question formulation and survey comparison (Bourdieu, 1987/1990; see also Myles, 2008; Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983). ‘Social research methods to uncover the belief systems of ordinary members’ (Smith and West, 2003: 648) in Cultural Sociology, for example, are geared to middleclass populism characteristic of neither producers nor rulers. If, like the Eco and Mumford epigraphs above, technology regresses to medieval hierarchy, the tendency of surveyors to reflect their own ‘dominated dominant’ petit bourgeois intellectual values is merged with a tall-poppy strain of ultra-nationalism in loaded answers ‘very proud to be Australian’ (‘pride’, of course, is the medieval ‘Deadly Sin’). Smith and West inaccurately describe their (vested) interesting 70 per cent result as an ‘identity’ (2003: 648). But identity is a political or police category (‘tradition’ names it the first ‘law of thought’)[3] whereas a national interest is economic. Transcribing neoliberal values of bureaucratic interviewees in Canberra, Pusey seemed aware of these variations in his acclaimed early data on economic rationalism (1991). Yet, predictions that ‘humanities’ educated bureaucrats would differ was disappointed in my own much smaller sample presented here.

Bourdieu found the remedy of ‘scientific critique’ to control the false ‘value-free’ disinterestedness of empirical research in ‘a sociological analysis of the institution’ (Bourdieu, 1987/1990: 174). This he undertook in Homo Academicus (Bourdieu, 1988 – also providing my reference point for publication of respondents’ names due to high public profiles (278) in this research.[4] Unfortunately, his exclusive ‘institutional’ focus repeats a sort of sci fi ideal of the elite personality network pursuing its own heroic ivory tower genius (as do radical histories, like Werskey, 2002). The candid comments excerpted in the following sections, though not a major axis of the argument (from smaller groups than the breakthrough work of Pusey), might confirm unexpected consistency of opinion across otherwise diverse cultural boundaries. After tracing his own institutional history of science, Bourdieu (1973) argued how innovation results from ‘organization’ not technology (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). Thus the neutral technology milieu of ‘acculturation’, upheld by historians like McQueen (1983), is a basis for my own thesis on paradigm or field exclusion, ‘purified’ of work organization (economy) and science (reality).  
Two cultures (sci fi):
Although Snow held that science and technology separation was ‘untenable’ (1993), his disputed ‘two cultures’ did admit of ‘contradictions’ between scientific knowledge and the cultural ‘field’. Yet Bourdieu thought ‘literature…is on many points more advanced than social science’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992), while an academy-based Sociology of Knowledge still saw scientific and everyday knowledge as ‘extraordinarily similar’ (Meja and Stehr, 1999). Conversely, for Merton (1967) a generalisable ‘science, as distinct from the arts’ (69) of particulars ‘is public, not private’ (72). When I queried beliefs on ‘two cultures’, literary critics like Ross Gibson made their intellectual reference group position on a science/economy assimilation to culture/symbolic capital clear: ‘I am not interested in the distinction [science and culture] basically, because to be interested in that distinction is to validate it in some way. And I am much more interested in just proceeding with totally other terms that describe a history of intellectual endeavour in a society.’ Similarly, post-structuralist philosopher Paul Patton indicated his collective order of enunciation position as a cultural intellectual (surprisingly like Pusey’s bureaucrat, 1991). ‘It is not clear to me…that [the] two cultures distinction [science and culture] is any longer the most appropriate one…The intellectual situation in this country is considerably more complex than that.’ [My italics]  

While a more ‘institutionally’ (laboratory/academic) scientific sample could be expected to communicate answers with shared assumptions (Connell and Wood, 2002), consistent culturalist assimilation of beliefs by ‘arts and humanities’ interviewees was also widespread. When I posed the ‘two cultures’ question to professor emeritus of English studies John McLaren, his acculturocentric response was significant as another apparent exception to Pusey‘s observations about Australian ‘anti-intellectualism’. ‘I think the distinction [science and culture] is a false one…I think the attempt to draw a boundary between science and the humanities has always has been absurd … there is only one culture.’ However, this shared self-interest of cultural individuals does not really contradict their intellectual social position. Even Bourdieu, who criticised the symbolic violence of economic capital subordinated to cultural capital favouring the dominant over the weak (‘art for art’s sake’), occasionally fell victim to his own critique of this ‘distinction’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). It took non-humanities industrial researcher John Buchanan to distinguish current acculturation trends away from ‘Keynesian demand’ as ‘primarily due to a fairly effective campaign by neoliberals, in the business and especially financial sectors, teamed up with leading economic policy agencies. I think the end result of that kind of policy mobilisation is social fragmentation.’   

1 Sci fi economics: ‘The Ax’

The Luddites were skilled workers who looked backwards to medieval craft traditions and forwards to modern trade unions.
Barry Jones (1983)

Whether criticised as same and ‘other’, ‘complex’, or ‘false’ distinctions (like the responses above), what Bourdieu saw as an ‘idealist’ consensus on the meaning of science and culture today appears to be taken for granted. A hypothesis breaking with this truism and resuming possibility enabled by the new historical contexts of a post-Cold War era might again see the generalisation differently:

1) Culture signifies the ‘customs, conventions, and language’ of a community – the art of communication (Huxley, 1963; Milner, 1991).
2) Science is logical facts ‘generalised’ from natural (‘hard’) and social (‘soft’) productive reality – the economy of knowledge (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Norris, 2007).

Without the conventions of culture we cannot describe our environment, let alone gather knowledge about it. Conversely, culture could not signify without referring to science or knowledge. Thought can be discovered in the simplest action: the two are inter-dependent (Jones, 2000: 512). In the ‘ideal’ tradition of academic institutions exorcised or purified of economic production, science was fictionalised (Kuhn, 1962/1996; Parrinder, 1980)[5] until a ‘renaissance’ of Western knowledge and industry, recycling ‘classical’ or ancient ideas (Hodges, 1971). Apart from Islamic science (Alatas, 2006),[6] an undifferentiated church and state Middle-Ages won no claim to scientific progress. Yet according to Kropotkin, the foundational discoveries of modern science were made in the free medieval cities (1976). Lyotard noted the ancients’ failure to link science to technology (1984), while Veblin saw the surviving separation as ‘industry’ versus ‘conspicuous consumption’ (1899/1980). Mental math or ‘learning of the mind’ for the ancients (Feyerabend, 2002), modern science and technology merged (with Cartesian dualism) via applied mathematics (Grace, 1993). Culture and economy gradually became interwoven in goods and services production during an ‘industrial revolution’ (Tillet, Kempner and Wills, 1978).    

Recent twentieth century stages of this passage include ‘Fordist’ mechanisation, ‘Sonyist’ electronisation and ‘Taylorist’ managerialism (Wark, 1992). Taylorism, pioneered by systems expert Taylor (Tillet, Kempner and Wills, 1978), met with resistances ranging from dissent to confrontation in lately industrialised and urbanised workforces. AKA ‘speed-up’, Taylorism incited industrial strife and defensive legislation in modern economies like Australia or America (Iremonger, 1973; Lash, 1984). But where early mechanical Fordism and later electronic Sonyism objectified scientific change in work organization or content, mid-term managerial Taylorism represented technological change in work control or form. In effect, one economy and one culture, not ‘two cultures’. Industrialisation developed over a history of ‘pre-capitalism’, from primitive, ancient and medieval ‘modes of production’ (Hindess and Hirst, 1975; Veblen, 1899/1980), and earlier phases of labour devalued as fit only for ‘slaves’ or ‘serfs’. As Cultural Sociology suggests, it was never purely a ‘convenient fiction’, even if ‘no economy could consist of a single mode of production’ (Beilhartz, 2002: 177). A capitalist ‘work ethic’ demand and ‘division of labour’ supply resulted, enabling greater professional ‘specialisation’ (Durkheim, 1893/1964).        

Moves toward post-industrial or knowledge economy, intensifying consumption and cutting production, cemented geographic North/South divisions of labour into ‘value added’ First World vertical mental service demand, and ‘cheap’ horizontal manual goods supply seconded to the Third World. A monopoly of access to ‘capital’ intensive markets by professional socialisation or mental upskilled ‘higher education’, was formerly balanced in closed shops of ‘labour’ intensive or manual unskilled ‘collective bargaining’ by trade unions. ‘The formation of trade unions was a historical response to the perceived unfairness of markets for labour’ (Streeck, 2005: 262-3) in order to close the gap between economic allocation (efficiency) and social valuation (exploitation). Recent data indicates that acculturated free trade in ‘specialist professional knowledge’ (Brint, 2001) of Luddism craft-style associations, has displaced the protected sale of ‘tacit knowledge’ objectified or ‘present in person’ (Streeck, 2005: 262) of trade union labour. Yet the social value of Fordist industrial (rather than Sonyist enterprise) union ‘collective action’ persists for ‘restructured’ employee ‘team work’ outcomes, through still reachable benefits of a conflict approach over co-operation with management (Bacon and Blyton, 2006).     

Acculturation mystification of the ‘two-cultures’ has again moved rapidly in post-war times (Stearn, 1968) toward short-term, insecure, nonstandard, employer-employee blurred casualisation, even ‘decriminalisation’ of ‘oldest professions’ sex trafficking, doping and gaming. Socially polarising Western and developing economies increasingly capitulate to the ultimatum of free trade from international NGOs and overkill professionalised resistance. Fragmented economic actors or ‘dividuals’ are undergoing ‘deindustrialisation’ (Bluestone and Harrison, 1983), while work teams and project managers regularly get The Ax, in filmmaker Costa Gavras’ words, under pervasive ‘fixed-term contracts’ (Streeck, 2005). Abstract Empiricist ‘economic knowledge’, (Steiner, 2001) expurgated from Lazersfeldian market research (Frenzen, Hirsch and Zerrillo, 2005) and reinforced in Grand Theory multiculturalism (Gunew, 1992) is the propaganda for neoliberal biopolitical strategies (class, race, sex, age) of institutionalised inequality (for ‘Abstract Empiricism’ and ‘Grand Theory’, see Mills, 1959). Growing wage/salary gaps ensuing from sci fi economics, in value-added inter-linkages of under-producing and over-financed exchange, ‘network’ a technology acculturation revolution of under-protection i.e. ‘un-Australianisation’.

Information technology (IT):

As the major form of bygone 20th century art, an influential Australian advertising industry eighty per cent foreign owned and controlled (Sinclair, 2006) is the costly effect of a digital image revolution, apparently defeated long ago. What has replaced the once mixed economy (‘public and private’, see Williams and Stevenson, 1981) of agriculture and manufactures, now labour-shedding, restructuring, downsizing, relocating, and moving offshore in freetrade, trans-national capital transition since 1985: a simple deregulation and privatisation phase? (Thompson, 1999) For my next respondent, linchpin arts editor Ashley Crawford of pop to futurist media and perhaps provisional ‘information’ convert, the effect of acculturation is complex: 

What we now have post Cold War is a world without geographical borders because of electronic communication. If you could put a date on that, I suppose it was the fall of the Berlin Wall, where the Cold War in effect was over … But the bottom line is the old geographical borders are falling apart from WWII status. You could almost look at the Cold War as being WWIII status, because all these electronic information units or systems were set up in order to spy on West versus East, et cetera. The whole idea of electronic mail, the whole idea of the Internet was an American system established to have no boundaries, to have no central system, which is why it is now turning rampant. In fact, what you have got is the kind of post-border period established by electronic communications, by American media in the Cold War as equivalent of the new boundaries set up by the Second World War … So it is a whole new world.

In this widely shared post-industrial lebenswelt (Edwards, 1993), global ‘electronic communications’ are channelled by rapid technology that has overtaken production [see Table]. Only in that sense is a Technological Revolution as ‘real’ as Snow’s Third Scientific Revolution. Along with First Agricultural and Second Industrial Revolutions, the ‘two cultures’ remain ‘the only qualitative changes in social living that men have ever known’ (1993: 23). Yet while the above quotation translates the trans-avant-gardism of an ‘arts and humanities’ intelligentsia, ‘neoliberals tend to emphasise the entrepreneur as financier’ (Grossberg, 2005: 114) not the artist – even though ‘the growing dominance of finance capital over industrial capital’ means ‘“fictive”, “unreal”’ money is only making money (122). Debating Weber’s unfinished social science, critics warned of a technology, ‘used in such widely differing senses that it eventually becomes unintelligible’ (Freund, 1970: 282). Confirmed by speculation ‘ten times the value of global production’ as early as 1997 (Grossberg, 2005: 122), this is because technology is a neutral medium or culture and not a science (Milonakis, 2002; Werskey, 2002).


2 IT culture: ‘Tilt’

[Luddites] were chiefly downdraughts, bankrupts, men always in debt and often in drink – men who had nothing to lose, and much in the way of character, cash and cleanliness – to gain.
 Charlotte Bronte (1849) [7]

Social research has embraced new technology in sweeping language, like ‘Information Society’ (Lyon, 1988), ‘Mode of Information’ (Poster, 1984) or ‘Managerial Revolution’ (Burnham, 1962). Advancing a phase from earlier scientific innovations of ‘Industrial Revolution’ (Dosi et al. periodise prior stages as ‘Steam’, ‘Steel’, and ‘Oil’ – 2005: 694), information technology is applied to industrial activity for ‘commercial and managerial uses’ (Hall and Jefferson, 1976). It is a long anticipated and increasingly realised managerial control technique (Rose, 1969; Deleuze, 1992; Postman, 1993). By mediating forms of control (administration and management), new technology (cultural and commercial) ‘speeds up’ industrial practice, such as Fordism mechanics (‘steel’ and ‘oil’) or Sonyism electronics (‘media’ and ‘information’), augmenting productivity for new markets, like bio-technologised genetics, agriculture or medicine. New technology is a ‘mode of information’ (Poster, 1984) or performance culture, developed between two phases (mechanisation and electronisation) of the late capitalist mode of production – alongside mounting ‘managerialist’ ownership changes and ‘Taylorist’ control techniques (Burnham, 1962; Coriat and Dosi, 1998).   

Prompting a vast research program from ‘arts and sciences’, like Science and Technology Studies, Cultural Economy, Economics Imperialism, and Social Construction of Technology, technology analysis is stuck in ‘two cultures’ tilt (in the video game sense), between the subjectivities of ‘technophile’ (Postman, 1993; Krips, 2008), and ‘technophobia’ (Marshall, 1997; Ryan and Kellner, 1990) altered perception. In technophobia mode, for example, Krips revives one of many scientifically (if not culturally) dubious futurist ideas of perception altered by technology, arguing that ‘childhood is changing and in ways that we can scarcely imagine’ (Krips, 2008: 51). Conversely, Ryan and Kellner examine technophile romance, applauding ‘reconstruction of the social world’ in a sexless union of human and android (Ryan and Kellner, 1990: 65). Bellicosely labelled ‘Science Wars’ of the 1990s encapsulate these tendencies, reviving ‘two cultures’ debates now militated around ‘postmodern science’ (Sokal, 1996; Ross, 1996). Lampooned in a ‘hoax’ submission to Social Text magazine by scientist Sokal, in Postman’s words postmodernism was a ‘social technology’ (1993) becoming conscious of its own ‘accident’ (Virilio, 1982: 124) or acculturation. Perhaps an ‘ideal type’ or generalisation based on recurring traits can help to account for this misunderstanding: "Technology value adds to goods with capital intensive services – the culture of performance"(Jones, 1983; Lyotard, 1984; Nelson and Rosenberg, 1998).

The ‘Social Text Affair’ was remarkable (like ‘two cultures’ over thirty years before) not simply for over-reactions it provoked from a veritable bandwagon of reputable technologists and scientists (Dawkins, 1998; Nagel, 1998; Derrida, 1997; Fish, 1996). Those not denouncing ‘postmodern’ cultural studies technology readily highlighted the differential criteria apparently undigested by scientists triumphant. Assertions of ‘objectivity’ behind culture interestingly resumed Mach and Lenin style economic debates, glossed over by decades of Popper and Kuhn oriented institutionalism. In the as yet untapped post-Cold War context of information, nobody noticed that neither side got it wrong despite their mutual institutional membership. People interacting with new technologies in communication society refer to it as Information Technology or ‘IT’ (Lyon, 1988). The central medium of IT is a personal computer. Research and Development recently endowed computers with performance upgrades in size, capacity, and cost (if not ‘equal access for all’ – Willis and Tranter, 2006 [8]). The huge volume of private computer finance exchanged everyday (Hartman, 2005) for example, was preceded by major bank branch closures and staff retrenchments (McQueen, 1983: 218).  

Computers encode information by ‘converging’two forms of capital: 1) cultural, and 2) political. More than communicating cultural symbols, political rules are services. The computer merely extends the earlier nineteenth century typewriter (McLuhan, 1967: 275-82): its two dimensions are ‘number’ and ‘line’ (like ‘Hindu algebra and Greek geometry’ amalgamated in the invention of ‘calculus’, see note [6]). The one is quantitative (political) and other qualitative (cultural), and neither is real (economic). A computer is an administrative and managerial control machine. The word ‘control’ merges this dual etymology of numerical ‘counter’ and linear ‘roll’. Acculturating the mental/manual division of labour, computers remodel (mental) ‘consumer’ political capital of use value services, with (matrixal) ‘commercial’ cultural capital of exchange value symbols, both derived from (manual) ‘productive’ economic capital of surplus value goods (Poulantzas, 1979). Philosopher of science Hilary Putnam (Magee, 2001: 205-6) saw a computer ‘paradox’ in autonomous technology software ‘function’ (‘programme’, ‘rules’), now purged of science hardware or ‘what has that function’ (‘physics and chemistry’). In mental terms, the ‘soul’ of the computer is control or repression (206). Bourdieu also mistrusted ‘disinterested’ cultural capital (like autonomous technology) because of this ‘denial of the economy’ (Bourdieu, 1986).   

Rapid transmission of micro-data from internet memory banks programmed for silicon chips, amount to no more than permutations of noneconomic capital’s vehicle (the capital was assembled over a century ago). Williams formulated this sort of distinction of technological form (vehicle) from content (programming) for his study of earlier televisual media (Williams, 1974). Yet cultural studies uncertainty about technology-form and science-content is recognisable in Snow’s 1950s ‘two cultures’, McLuhan’s 1960s ‘medium is the message’, Baudrillard’s 1980s ‘precession of simulacra’ and Virilio’s 1990s ‘information bomb’. The growing dissociation of derealised post-Cold War information, largely escaping everyday notice, emerges acutely in the identity biopolitics of multiculturalism (Gunew, 1992). The unreconstructed political-culture of expelled economic capital exacts a stubborn inequality of institutionalised racism, prompting worst case scenarios of ‘unscientific’ usage.[9] For example, in Australia: the film ‘Wogboy’, radio ‘Dykes on Mics’, theatre ‘Il Dago’, sport ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters’, advertising ‘Bugger’, and revealingly academic ‘Queer Theory’. [10] The estimated seventy per cent ‘pornification’ (etymology ‘whores’ – Caddick, 2010) dominated internet is just another side effect.[11]

The itinerary of social capital, from Cultural Economy (Hinde and Dixon, 2007) and Economics Imperialism (Fine, 2001) to segregated segments of biopolitical practice and neoliberal niche markets, like ‘gay’ games or ‘women-only’ gyms, sidesteps socialisation by productive business or labour (Bourdieu, 1986). Numerical valued ‘mono’, ‘dual’ or ‘multi’ culturalism policy is political aestheticisation without economics. Even Bourdieu, while granting ‘economic capital at the root of all other types of capital’ (1986: 252), did not distinguish productive economic reality as the origin of abstract market exchange ‘relations’ or politically embedded ‘culture’ (let alone surplus value). Whether academic and business agencies on respective sides of Demand/Supply-side economics wangle or weasel over ostensible commodification and economisation of society, industrial science should re-distinguish acculturated ‘post-industrial’ technology from economy. ‘Perhaps a particularly ostentatious form of bad faith is required of any latter-day “literary intellectual” who composes on a word processor and then faxes to a journal a jeremiad about the wholly negative effects of scientific advance’ (Collini, 1993). Yet both ‘technophile’ and ‘technophobic’ acculturation or assimilation of (in this sense relativised) science only increases that bad faith.     

The national lampoon:
Angered or xenophobic as media technology can get, or deregulating and pure trade-liberalised as ‘globalisation’, mixed economic protections continue to characterise developing nations like China, India and even the USA (each affected by neoliberal inspired finance crises). Similarly, Smelser still sees nation states as ‘the effective agency of normative control’ asserting globalisation really ‘increased the salience of states’ (2003). Australian government proposals for state led recovery from a ‘global financial crisis’ (GFC), and critique of crisis inducing ‘financial liberalisation’ (Rudd, 2009) are consistent with Smelser’s observations. Yet, this policy is betrayed by overawe (see Botsman and Latham, 2001) for Shock Doctrine IMF ‘predictions’ or Third Way ‘economic modernisation’ of Hawke and Keating, who ‘removed protectionist barriers’ (25) in the worst imprudence the national interest has known (Jaensch, 1989). By locking-in to such pure post-industrialism, acculturation gaps (salaries ‘twenty five times’ wages – Greer, 2009: 6) of ‘extreme capitalism’ are consolidated. ‘Electronic space is going to be far more present in highly industrialised countries than in the less developed world; and far more present for middle class households in developed countries than for poor households in those same countries’ (Sassen, 2002: 367).  

In the now familiar refrain, Smelser thus predicts international culturalist restoration of ‘religious diversity’ from future globalisation, not economic or scientific progress (2003). ‘Even the most liberal theorists caution against selling off utilities’ says Greer, noting that, ‘Australians detest being patronised’ (2009: 7, 8). For example, asked about state welfare replacement, like already overstressed religious charity, humanities and arts interviewees await inevitable industrial and environmental crises. For radio’s Stephen Walker, ‘the notion of civilisation is a far more tenuous thing ironically enough in Australia, than it is in a lot of other countries. Because you are imposing a cultural grid on what is primarily a very physical and geographical kind of identity that the country has got. So it is not as if…we keep the ball rolling, this civilisation can keep going the way it is. It looks like it was all built yesterday’. On the workplace, IT researcher Marcus Breen ads, ‘the industrial category, for example, is not any one industry but the entire structure of the society. The inequitable distribution of resources produces some pretty dreadful outcomes…Social democracy or a society like Australia attempts to come to terms with some of those things. But it has generally failed because [of] the pressures from the vested interests …like the capitalist class’.   

3 Acculturation politics: ‘Auto de fé’

Large scale destruction of machinery…occurred in the English manufacturing districts…largely as a result of the employment of the power-loom, and known
as the Luddite movement.
Karl Marx (1867)

A measure of how fatal protection issues became in Australia, might be personified by tensions exposed in conservative politics after the 1967 death, even assassination/suicide of Prime Minister Holt (ABC, 2008). Declassified documents recount a subsequent ASIO raid on the home of staunch free trade supporter, senior Minister, and future Prime Minister McMahon. The Minister was found with incriminating evidence of tariff secret sales to Japan which, jeopardising the future of the party, plausibly led to Holt’s auto de fé. As if cued by the rarity of secret ‘intelligence’ agents acting responsibly, later free trade policy also underwent erratic fortunes. Successive research favouring (at that time) anti-Australian ‘pure’ unmixed free trade (see Williams and Stevenson, 1981; Anderson and Garnaut, 1987; Costa and Easson, 1991) was implicitly adopted without ‘fear’, even adversely influencing, it is argued, Thatcher and Blair (Greer, 2009). Surplus value creating capital in the Australian economy (food, shelter, and clothing) has as a result largely disappeared (Webber and Weller, 2001). Garnaut’s unchecked high-status, in unhinging more equitable economics, failed exploitative Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), to deindustrialising mineral Super Profit Tax (Stilwell, 2008) is alarming. Endorsing Economic Imperialism charges of ‘indifference to the real world’ (Fine, 2001), pre-crisis cumulative data on this growing inequality was registered, both from within the ‘UN consensus’ of the ILO (Gunter and van der Hoeven, 2004) and macro-research (Galbraith, 2002); and without by micro-research (Klein, 2007) and sociology (Frankel, 2001).  

A key, and often taken for granted ‘social fact’ (Durkheim, 1895/1966) from unfairly discredited theories of capital (Poulantzas, 1979), cultural studies (Hall andJefferson, 1976) and sociology (Rose, 1969; Deleuze, 1992; Postman, 1993), free trade ‘managerialism’ reinforces unequal hierarchies, re-scaling if not neutralising national borders. ‘As the national scale loses significance along with the loss of key components of the state’s formal authority, other scales gain strategic importance. Most notable among these are subnational scales such as the global city, and supranational scales such as global markets’ (Sassen, 2002: 371). According to idealist historical paradigms, nationhood is a modern experience facilitated by new technologies of print media circulating among ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1991). The ‘nation’ is ambitiously seen only in ungrounded ‘imaginary’ terms of political culture, and not economically in the ‘fragile civilisation’ with ‘industrial resources’ noted above by real media and IT respondents (Bourdieu, 1986: 241). Beilharz shifts that imaginary to Australian ‘antipodes’, defining nation as a false universalism (2001: 187) and (like Bourdieu) modes of production as ‘relational’ (192). A Global Village only enlarges this ‘imaginary’ Freudian slip. It ‘does not mean that old hierarchies disappear, but rather that re-scalings emerge along side the old ones which can often override the latter’ (Sassen, 2002: 371).

For historian Anderson, modern nations first emerged in the American New World. In a rehabilitated technology Age of Information, we could logically anticipate that (delimited) national ‘imagined community’, formed earlier around new print media, would intensify in this (unlimited) media era of TV, PCs and mobiles. For example, the recent pre-crisis most ‘profitable industry’, non-productive ‘financialisation’ totalled over 43 percent of global Gross Domestic ‘Product’ (Frankel, 2001: 51, 67, 77). A conservative estimate of ‘specialist professional knowledge’ is 36 per cent of all employment in the United Sates (Brint, 2001: 118). Yet national intensification clearly has not emerged in times some term ‘post-national’ (Docker, 1994). The ‘value adding chain’ framework of Economic Sociology links the ‘integration of world trade’ to a ‘disintegration of industry’, no longer driven by undifferentiated ‘commodities’, but based on ‘geographical fragmentation’ and ‘organizational fragmentation’ of global industry (Gereffi, 2005). In that economy of ‘deregulated markets and unhampered international markets’ (167) the ‘modern world is stateless’ (171), and ‘globalisation appears to have gone furthest in the area of finance’ (163): services not productive goods

An economy fragmented by Information Age inequality, and labour interests managed out of contention, arises from over-controlling national ‘deregulation’ favouring globalisation. Production chains, trade networks and the managerial cyberspace web are tagged an Information Society or Knowledge Economy. If there is controversy over the merits of its private business (Nelson and Rosenberg, 1998) or public university (Brint, 2001) funded research, it is assumed that ‘institutionally, the mental demand of the work is clearly an important organising factor as well’ (114). Brint’s intricate study provides an unscientific division of practical, standard and professional ‘knowledge’. But concedes, ‘all workers have economically valuable, practical knowledge and can, in this sense, be considered “knowledge [or science] workers”’ (113).[12] ‘Standard’ (formal) knowledge only routinises ‘professional’ (theoretical) knowledge. Status quo ‘mental’ information stressed [13], ‘manual’ knowledge excluded from the division of labour lampoons the information/knowledge distinction (Sassen, 2002: 373; Dosi, Orsenigo and Labini, 2005: 688: Chugg, 2006). This national lampoon (economic goods) by sci fi IT (consumer services/commercial matrix) acculturates to break-off point where:

‘Information’ is identified as a ‘factor of production’ or knowledge (Lasch, 1984: 285; Guattari, 1984: 285; Williams and Stevenson, 1981: 64).

‘Economic efficiency’ (goods production) is identified with ‘performance culture’ (commercial delivery).

Two-dimensional information speed up of quantity and quality is only enabled by the third-dimension of productive capital (Brint, 2001; Fine, 2001). This acculturation/assimilation of economic science (Steiner, 2001) to the politics/culture of technology (Sassen, 2002) is a ‘category mistake’ instance of ‘mythology’ noted in the ‘philosophy of mind’ (Ryle, 1980: 17), or again in the Social Text Affair (Sturrock, 1998). Forthcoming research might ascertain whether this bodes a return to the medieval craft ‘Luddism’ censured by two cultures (Snow. 1993) or behaviourism, ‘because their [skilled] jobs were threatened’ (Skinner, 1977: 60, [my italics]); or reverts to ancient scorn for manual labour (and by inference youth and women). Like advertising (Sinclair and Spurgeon, 2006: 50; Chugg, 2006), information mythology rescales economy in a managerial net for ‘new types of political actors’ (Sassen, 2002: 382), reviving inequality (neoliberalism, new Labor) in all industries under imaginary empire-building globalization (Giroux, 2008). Meanwhile ‘virtual society’ debate remains ‘heavily polarised’ (Barraket, 2005: 20) as auto de fé ‘de-industrialisation’ spreads job insecurity (McQueen, 1983).

Concluding remarks: ‘Military alms’

The real machine breakers [Luddites] in Australia today are the free trade dogmatists.
Humphrey McQueen (1983)

In the interests of science ‘valid for all times and for different societies’ (62), Merton intended to ‘distinguish between a theory, a set of logically interrelated assumptions from which empirically testable hypotheses are derived, and an empirical generalisation, an isolated proposition summarising observed uniformities of relationships between two or more variables’ (66). Merton was accused of assorted ‘Capitoline’ and ‘Marxist’ tendencies, as if to confirm the cross-fertilisation of his ‘middle range theory’ between Grand Theory and Abstract Empiricism. In our ostensibly globalised moment of uncommonly acute inequality, acculturation theory fulfils these conditions. When culture subordinates economy, it produces ‘a delightful contradiction’ as Boer puts it: ‘the less historically reliable such a story is, the more powerful it is as a political myth’ (Boer, 2008: 75). ‘Globalisation’, removing production to the Third World, fills the vacuum with ‘religious’ panic. Neglect of science is not also ‘delightful’, but we can say ‘that should they also sell their means of production, then the Christian communities would quickly starve’ (71). This fact unrecognised, an acculturating West’s turn to military arms (Sparrow, 2009) only deters any ‘logic of alms’ (Boer, 2008)[14] to remedy our rashly relinquished reality.  

Before we jump to this conclusion, let us get away from money values and think in ‘real’ terms, that is, of the goods that are produced.
Morris Williams and Keith Stevenson (1981)

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[1] Spivak refers to ‘the sophistication of the vocabulary and the poverty of the conclusions’ in this research (2004: 569).
[2] Recent research distinguishes at least three multiculturalisms divided between practical versus commercial activity: ‘corporate’ (Grossberg, 2005), ‘metropolitan’ (Spivak, 2004) or ‘cosmopolitan’ (Hage, 1997). The opposition can be clarified by revisiting Benjamin’s two-sided usage of politics/culture to theorise main continental ideologies in the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ (1982). Fascism was dubbed culturalisation or ‘aestheticisation of politics’ and communism the ‘politicisation of aesthetics’ or culture. The multiculturalisms of Grossberg, Spivak and Hage remain delimited by these terms (see section 2 below). In our own neoliberal ‘age of information’ updated terms include aestheticisation and politicisation of economy or deindustrialisation in the West. It is argued here that this is acculturation.
[3] See Russell, 1988: 40. Perhaps this view is behind Weber’s idea of violent nationalism preceded by ‘abuses of self-accusation’.
[4] Hage refers to this methodological approach as ‘supply side interviews’ (see 1997: 149).
[5] An ‘epistemological break’, when science is appropriated to ‘form a division between mental and manual labour’. But it is ‘in the last analysis the result of the accumulated experience of the direct producers themselves’ (see Poulantzas, 1979: 236-7).
[6] On ‘Islamic science’, Butterfield’s History of Modern Science refers to ‘Hindu algebra and Greek geometry’ linked in a calculus already discovered by eighth century Baghdad – ‘the centre of civilisation’ – 900 years before Leibnitz, Newton and Descartes(cited in Grace, 1993).
[7] Like ‘IT’, for Thompson Luddite skilled/craft labour was defined by ‘superb’ communications, passwords, security, and secrecy (1963).
[8] In a cybernetic-styled technophile analogy, biologist Cohen and mathematician Stewart estimate that the human brain is composed of some 10 billion brain cells or ‘neurons’, and that each one could be like ‘an entire computer’…‘If so the brain would be far more massively parallel than most people think, and much further beyond the reach of present technology’ (1995: 454).
[9] (ABC, 2006). Moorhouse (2002) praises Lumby for her critique of censorship but exempts ‘racial vilification’ from everyday interest. Yet an express motivation in Lumby’s work is criticism of feminist tendencies to form alliances with reactionary groups (1998).
[10] Apart from rationalising his own irrational ‘hate’ pathology, Clemens blames poststructuralists for ‘Queer theory’ (1997). Bourdieu speaks rather of self-exclusion/assimilation dilemmas motivated by resentimment: ‘the worst thing that the dominant impose on the dominated’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 82, 212). A rehabilitating logic ‘which leads stigmatized groups to claim the stigma as a sign of their identity’ (Bourdieu, 1987/1990: 155).
[11] (SBS, 2007). Spivak characterises such multiculturalism as ‘a class division dissimulated as a cultural division’ (2004: 569).
[12] Gramsci could say ‘all men (and women) are intellectuals’ [my brackets] – cited by Poulantzas (1979: 254), who refers to ‘secrecy and the internalised monopoly of knowledge’ of bureaucratisation (175).  This differs from acculturation, which eliminates economy/knowledge.
[13] Technology acculturation researcher Metusevich (1995) claims, ‘knowledge doubles every two years’ with ‘a shelf life of approximately one and half years’: (2, 4, 5). Yet technology transmits ‘information’, not scientific ‘knowledge’. As Nelson and Rosenberg argue, ‘technology’ is distinct from science: ‘often this science was so old that it was no longer considered by some to be science’ (1998: 50).
[14] Rudman suggests ‘Anglo-Saxon settler societies [the United States, Australia and Canada], may be the worst places in the world in which to develop a general theory of acculturation’, because they are both ‘too similar to each other’ and ‘too atypical of the world’s societies’ (Rudmin, 2006).  


Author’s Bio
: Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne,
specialising in science and technology, the information age, deindustrialisation,
media studies, subcultures and civil regulation, with recent research published
in Continuum, Refractory, and Meanjin. Contact:

The Classic Hollywood Town at the Dawn of Suburbia – Stephen Rowley


This article examines the depictions of small towns in a number of Hollywood films from the 1940s, and describes some of the ideals of community that were shaping (and reflecting) the community attitudes that would underlie the post-war suburban boom. Two points are of particular interest. Firstly, what are some of the common physical and social characteristics of the communities as depicted in these films? And secondly, what can we glean from the films about the attitudes to community and suburbanisation that existed at the dawn of the suburban age?

The origins of the modern suburb can be traced back to the mid 19th Century, with streetcars and the railroad spurring the development of commuter suburbs, and industrialisation increasing the urge to escape the pollution and overcrowding of cities and also spurring the creation of company towns for workers. [1] The appeal of the suburban ideal is not hard to understand, with urban hinterlands long having been recognised as harbouring the potential to provide the best of urban and rural lifestyles. Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 conception of “three magnets” is a classic expression of this urge, with “town” and “country” each offering a dubious mixed bag of blessings and faults, but “town-country” giving an irresistible blend of both:

Beauty of Nature, Social Opportunity. Fields and Parks of Easy Access. Low Rents, High Wages. Low Rates, Plenty to Do. Low Prices, No Sweating. Field for Enterprise, Flow of Capital. Pure Air and Water, Good Drainage. Bright Homes & Gardens, No Smoke, No Slums. Freedom, Co-operation (1946, 46). [2]

Howard conceived of stand-alone master-planned garden cities, but the edges of existing cities represented a more readily accessible site to pursue the balance of the space and beauty of the country and the opportunities and society of the city. Yet the mass adoption of the suburbs as a dominant mode for middle-class residential living – rather than as a haven for the extremely wealthy – can be traced to the period immediately after World War II, to the point where the popular conception of suburbia is inextricably linked to the 1950s: the expression “sitcom suburbs” raises an instant image of a particular type of lifestyle, most stereotypically embodied in 1950s sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver (Gomalco Prodcutions and Kayro-Vue Productions, 1957-1963), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (Stage Five Productions, 1952-1966), and Father Knows Best (CBS, NBC and ABC, 1954-1960). [3] At the conclusion of World War II, a number of factors combined to lead to the mass expansion of suburbs in the United States and Australia (and to a lesser extent in Europe and the United Kingdom). Without war and depression to stifle growth, automobiles could realise their latent potential to reshape the built landscape (Kay 1997, chapter 10); mass production reduced construction costs, with home construction shifting sharply away from owner-builders to developer-builders; (Hayden 2003, 132) and affordability was artificially spurred by direct and indirect government subsidies for suburban development, including highway construction and direct financial assistance such as the United States’ Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. [4] With suburbia more accessible than ever before, populations eager to realise the hard-won fruits of victory (and in the midst of a post-war baby boom) flocked to suburban communities. Between 1950 and 1970, central cities in the United States grew by 10 million people, but their suburbs added 85 million (Fishman 1989, 182). The paradox created by this mass adoption of the suburban lifestyle was quickly recognised, and has been much discussed since: the scale of the suburban roll-out meant that the original “best-of-both worlds” ideal was quickly extinguished. Road networks became increasingly extravagant even as they became ever-more congested; the dispersal of uses meant the urban environment became vast and centreless; the mass-production of houses led to dull and lifeless street environments; and the actual urban / rural interface continually leap-frogged each new ring of development, stripping communities of the access to open landscape they had previously enjoyed. Such problems were quickly apparent: as urban historian Lewis Mumford noted in 1961, “[a]s soon as the suburban pattern became universal, the virtues it at first had boasted began to disappear” (490-491). Yet despite this prompt identification of the perils of suburban development, the continued popularity of the model attests to the powerful pull of the suburban dream. If anything, disappointment in actual suburbs only strengthens the urge to find that elusive community that can approximate the imaginary ideal of community, spaciousness, and aesthetic appeal. These are essentially the qualities associated with the quintessential small town, to the point where the imagined virtues of suburb and small town are inextricably linked: suburbs are an attempt to mass-produce an affordable version of the perfect small community. It is therefore of interest to look at the ideal of the small town as depicted in Hollywood films at the dawn of the suburban explosion. These have much to tell us about the community ideals that drove post-World War II suburban expansion.

As Rob Lapsley has noted, “[i]t has become a cliché of contemporary writing that the city is constructed as much by images and representations as by the built environment, demographic shifts and patterns of capital investment” (1997, 187). As is often the case, this notion has become a cliché because of its common-sense usefulness and intuitive correctness: it is easy to appreciate how our mental conception of a place such as New York City is shaped by its frequent depiction in film, television and literature. However, the importance of representation becomes even more important when one considers the case of notional places: representations that we use to define and describe a general category of place (eg “suburbia,” “small town,” “big city,” “Main Street”). In these cases, there is no single real-world referent, and so the overlay of multiple depictions of such communities becomes all-important. Our idea of the small town is, as Kenneth MacKinnon puts it, “an amalgam of elements much less to do with actual American small towns than with manifold literary descriptions and repeated cinematic treatments” (1984, 18). Such depictions are of interest because, as MacKinnon argues, the imaginary small town is a “storehouse of American values” and as such a study of the depiction of them is a means of exploring the nation’s psyche; the ubiquity of Hollywood entertainment means that these then have wider international currency (1984, 16). In the current context, it is the ideals of community enshrined in Hollywood’s depictions of the small town that are of interest. In this article I will therefore examine the depictions of small towns in a number of Hollywood films from the 1940s, to attempt to describe some of the ideals of community that were shaping (and reflecting) the community attitudes that would underlie the post-war suburban boom. Two points are of particular interest. Firstly, what are some of the common physical and social characteristics of the communities as depicted in these films? And secondly, what can we glean from the films about the attitudes to community and suburbanisation that existed at the dawn of the suburban age?

Two films are of particular interest in framing this discussion. The first is Our Town (Sam Wood, 1940), based on Thornton Wilder’s play from 1938. As both MacKinnon and Eugene Levy argue in their respective studies of small town films, the 1930s saw a proliferation of particularly sympathetic portrayals of small-town life, with the Depression prompting a romanticisation of traditional values and rural lifestyles in response to the perceived failure of urbanisation and industrialisation (MacKinnon 1984, 9; Levy 1990, 66-67). Wilder’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, appeared towards the end of this cycle of works and its film adaptation appeared at the start of the 1940s sequence of small town films. The film therefore represents a very useful starting point, as a work that makes a determined claim to a status as a definitive depiction. Our Town’s deliberate authoritativeness is marked by many factors: the title; its omniscient birds-eye narration; the focus on typical “day-in-the-life” goings-on; the humorously ultra-rational account of the town’s geographical and anthropological history; the narration’s insistence on the town as representative of many others; and the decade-spanning storyline. Equally interesting is It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), which has a strikingly similar sense of summation: it has been described variously as both a “culminating work” for Capra, and as an “ideological summation of an era” in Levy’s study of small town films (Maland 1980, 131; Levy 1990, 88). Whether by coincidence or design Capra’s film repeats many specific motifs from Our Town: the omniscient point of view, with the narrator manipulating the “playback” of events; characters who are resistant to embracing the commitments of domestic life; divine intervention allowing someone to view and reappraise their own life from the outside; and the climactic expression of a will to live. It also shares the earlier film’s strong thematic emphasis on the positives and negatives of small town life. Capra’s film, as will be discussed, is unusually explicit in its consideration not only of the attractions of small town life versus big city life, but also of its hero as a potential developer / urban planner (George Bailey declares he wants to “build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities”) whose actions shape a particularly malleable urban environment. It’s a Wonderful Life is also of note as the most widely revived and remembered of the 1940s small town films, due to the ongoing popularity of its star and director, and its status as a seasonal “standard”. [5] Its vision of the small town therefore remains one of the most culturally pervasive of Hollywood’s depictions. Turning to the questions posed above, we find that in both these films, and the other films considered – The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942), Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943), Meet Me in St Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944) – there is a high degree of consistency in the physical and social landscape of the imagined small town. Interestingly, however, the thematic approach to notions of community suggests a great deal of anxiety about such communities both in their historic form as small towns, and also as a model for future communities.

The Physical and Social Properties of Hollywood’s Small Towns

The recurring features of the depicted communities in Our Town and the other small town movies cited can be summarised as follows:

A distinct retail and social hub (particularly a Main Street).
Institutions prominently present in social hierarchies and architectural design.
Locally owned and socially integrated businesses.
Predominance of classical forms of architecture.
Fluid interface between the public and private realm.
A walkable community (compact physically).
An intimate and well connected community (compact socially).
A close link between town and country.
Family units as the essential building blocks of the community.
A population that has a multi-generational link with the community.
De-emphasis of cars and emphasis on various forms of non-car transport.
A period setting, or a sense of the place being “out of time.”

These points will be explained further and elaborated upon below.

A Distinct Retail and Social Hub (Particularly a Main Street)

“Running right through the middle of the town is Main Street,” declares the narrator, the druggist Mr Morgan, at the opening of Our Town.[6] The idea of a strongly defined commercial and social hub, usually in the form of a central shopping street but also present in other forms, such as a town square, is integrally associated with conceptions of small towns. “Main Street” can be identified and studied as a distinct notional place in itself, as historical geographer Richard Francaviglia has, notably in his book Main Street Revisited: Time Space and Image Building in Small-Town America. Francaviglia studies the role that various actual Main Streets play in real communities, as well as the influence of artificial Main Streets in literature, film, and historical / theme park recreations. Francaviglia notes the way in which Main Street becomes an icon closely equivalent to small towns themselves, and in particular one associated with nostalgia for small town life:

As it evolved in time and space, Main Street became the commercial and social heart of the American small town; as it developed in our collective thought, Main Street became an integral part of American culture. Because many people left small towns in the early to mid-twentieth century, these places became repositories of memories (1996, 130).

The Main Street is both a key ingredient in conceptions of the small town (as its commercial and social heart), and also as an iconic – in the semiotic sense of a part that stands for the whole – representation of the town. [7] In a design sense, too, Main Street also serves an important function in underlining the presence of a geographically centred community: this is not the dispersed, placeless built form of the suburbs. Main Street’s power as a signifier increases as real Main Streets become less familiar due to the populations leaving small towns (as Francavaglia suggests) and also as real examples become less common, displaced by other modes of retailing such as stand-alone car-oriented malls, “big box” retailing and highway-side shopping strips. The depiction of Main Street in these 1940s examples therefore deserves a particularly detailed consideration.

In Our Town, we see relatively little of Grover’s Corner’s Main Street, despite its prominent name-check in the opening lines of dialogue; the focus in this film is much more firmly on residential areas. Where Thornton Wilder’s stage play stipulated that no scenery should be used (strengthening the idea of Grover’s Corners as a generic and imagined place rather than a specific locale) (Wilder 1938, 9) [8], the film uses relatively elaborate backlot sets, but these are predominantly of houses and residential streets. Main Street is vaguely suggested in the distant aerial view of the town at the opening of the film, and there is one Main Street set: a shopfront for Morgan’s drug store, which we see most prominently as Morgan hosts us a scientific account of the town (from a professor and the town’s newspaper editor) and then later (from the interior) when it is the setting for the young couple Emily and George to discuss their future. In the discussion with the newspaper editor, the editor leans out of the upper storey window, but we see nothing else of the facade: this economising with sets means Our Town’s notional Main Street is largely constructed through editing and imagination rather than an actual physical construction or a visual depiction. The editing of the conversation between the druggist and newspaper editor establishes that these two important commercial enterprises are within extremely close proximity, but otherwise we see little of the physical setting of the Main Street. What we do see, however, establishes the sense of the street as an “old-fashioned” space: a few brief shots establish that the drug store’s Victorian shopfront is in extremely close proximity to the un-made street surface, behind large trees, and with a pitching post for horses in front (figure 1a). This latter point reflects Morgan’s dialogue at the start of the film describing the town in June, 1901: “Along Main Street there’s a row of stores with hitching posts and horse blocks in front of ’em. The first automobile is going to come along in about five years.” A later shot (figure 1b), as George and Emily enter the drug store, lets us see from the interior to the exterior: this shot shows us the prevailing Victorian architecture, and implies through the orientation of visible buildings that the drug store (and hence the newspaper building) actually faces an unseen town square. (The town square is the other prominent model for a community hub and serves essentially the same role as Main Street in films; however, it is somewhat less common and appears comparatively fleetingly in the films examined for this article) [9].


Figure 1: Drugstore Interior and Exterior, Our Town

Similarly curtailed views of Main Street are found in the predominantly residentially-set Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Meet Me in St. Louis. In Kings Row we see Main Street only in one scene, when Drake McHugh visits the bank: while only briefly seen, it is attractive and well populated, with a wide median (figure 16a) and a monument prominently erected at the centre of the street. In The Magnificent Ambersons Main Street is present through several long shots (see, for example, figure 5) and in close-up as George Minafer and Lucy Morgan discuss their estrangement; while the close-up scenes in particular give a sense of it as busy, there is little sense of Main Street as a distinct place in Welles’ film. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis features one scene – its most famous, the Trolley Song scene – on a Main Street that is shown most clearly through a brief scene at the trolley depot as the passengers gather to board the trolley, and then through largely obscured back-projection. Nevertheless, despite its brief appearance, the Main Street we see is clearly prosperous, with well-kept shopfronts and wide streets. [10] Compared to these period films (all set around the turn of the century), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt makes an interesting comparison: like Meet Me in St Louis, it presents a cosy image of a small town through its depiction of leafy tree-lined streets with grand housing. However, its Main Street is the odd one out in the films studied here, being the only one that is both set at the date of production (1943) and also shot on real streets, in the actual town – named in the film – of Santa Rosa, California (Reeves 2006, 347-348; Neuman 2008, 89-90). Its street scenes (see figures 2a – 2d) are notable for a number of factors: unsurprisingly given the use of real streets, there is a strong sense of verisimilitude in its street scenes, and the streets are noticeably busier than in the other examples, in some shots feeling decidedly urban in their character. The establishing shot of Santa Rosa (figure 2a) gives a sense of the clash of small town versus urban iconography. Urban elements include the crowdedness of the streets, dominance of cars, and the subservience of pedestrians to vehicle traffic: pedestrians cross as directed by traffic police. However, there are also still comforting elements of the small town community in this shot: the classically inspired architecture, prominent civic buildings, the inviting streetscape element of the verandah framing the shot, and the reassuring presence of the local policeman (who is picked out through close-ups at several points through the film). Later, as Charlie and her uncle walk to the bank, we get a brief shot of a town square fronted by civic buildings (figure 2b) and a long view of the streetscape showing a street level vibrancy but also urban elements such as the high billboard style signage visible in the background and a disproportionately wide vehicle carriageway (figure 2c). An early shot showing the family driving to the station to pick up Uncle Charlie (figure 2d) underlines the sense of a small town teetering on the edge of urbanisation: this shot – which pans right to reveal the railroad station – gives a strong sense of the size of the town, with the railroad station apparently on the town’s fringe and a Main Street receding to a town centre distantly visible in the background. It should be noted that all these elements are contextualised by their contrast with particularly seedy urbanism (see figure 18) earlier in the film and the aforementioned attractiveness of the residential precincts; furthermore, Dimitri Tiomkin’s jaunty musical cues emphasise the positive aspects (vibrancy, excitement) of the Main Street rather than any negative connotations. The predominant view is therefore still of a Main Street that represents a social hub and civic centre, rather than a degenerated, urban style “downtown”.


Figure 2: Main Street, Shadow of a Doubt

Preston Sturges’ wartime comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek also depicts a noticeably bustling town centre, although here Sturges’ intent is humorous, emphasising the way the town has been overrun by soldiers and (through his consistently busy compositions) creating a general sense of comic hubbub. Sturges, however, was using a back lot: his town is Paramount’s back lot street set, which had been used in other films during the 1930s, and (probably apocryphal) accounts suggest Sturges wrote the film partly to save the set from demolition (Neuman 2008, 92-93). While Sturges’ approach to the material is aggressively comedic and subversive in tone (with its emphasis on scandal and its provocative plot about an unmarried mother), the film is notable for the loving attention it gives the small town environment. Sturges stages several long dialogue scenes that unfold over extended tracking shots that follow characters through the backlot set, and these scenes are rich in detail of Morgan Creek’s Street Life. A particularly good example occurs as Trudy and Emmy Kockenlocker discuss Trudy’s scandalous pregnancy while walking through the centre of town. In one lengthy shot, the camera follows the pair from the lawyer’s office, past a series of wooden buildings that would not look out of place on a western set (figure 3a), attractive shopfronts, a miniature town square consisting of a planted median with seating and a small rotunda, and more substantial brick buildings. As they walk, the pair pass various bits of small-town “colour:” a street vendor (figure 3b), shoe-shiner (figure 3c), a policeman chatting to an attractive woman, and a street cleaner (the last three figures all in figure 3c). Despite Sturges’ satirical tone throughout the film, the overwhelming impression in its presentation of the Main Street is of a vibrant, functional community hub.


Figure 3: Street Activity Details, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – probably the best-remembered of the mid-twentieth century depictions of small town life – offers a similarly rich back lot Main Street. The film was shot on a three block long purpose-built set on RKO’s ranch in Encino, California (Willian 2006, 6; Neuman 2008, 95). The Main Street (Genesee Street) is shown at various time periods: first in 1919; then prominently shown again as it exist in the late 1920s and early 1930s; and finally as it exists in 1945. (It also appears as “Pottersville,” an alternate urbanised version of the town, in the fantasy sequence, but the implications of this form of the street will be discussed later.) We are first shown the street in the flashback to 1919, when the young George Bailey is working at the drugstore: as in Our Town, the drugstore is shown as a centre for socialising where sodas, milkshakes and sundaes are enjoyed, and romances blossom. Later, in the 1928 sequence, the drugstore is shown as particularly busy and well-patronised (figure 7). The street itself is wide, bound by one and (predominantly) two storey buildings, generally of loosely Victorian appearance, along each side. It has an avenue of established trees along the centre, with seating installed (figure 4a); this recalls both the two-lane avenue seen in Kings Row (figure 16a) and the similar centre-of-the-street seating shown in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. While cars are present on the street in all the sequences, the street remains a pedestrian dominated space: in the first shot of the street, George and his friends hold up a car by linking arms as they walk along the street (figure 4a), and in other scenes characters freely walk along the roadway (figure 4b). Capra sets enough action on the street, and frames enough of his shots to prominently feature the businesses in the background, that it is possible establish the tenancies for most of the three-block set. As reconstructed by Michael Willian, on one side the street features the sporting goods store (where George Bailey picks up his bag at the start of the 1928 sequence), an antique shop, a bakery, “Bedford House” (presumably a boarding house), a florist / beauty shop, barber, telegram office, emporium, bank dance academy, a café, and library. The other side of the street features a candy shop, art store, music store, theatre, Gower’s drug store, The Bailey Building and Loan, a butcher, newspapers office, tailors, bicycle shop, garage, and a bowling alley/pool hall. At one end Genesee Street is terminated by a cross-street, which features civic buildings, such as the courthouse (which faces up Geneesee Street), gas company, telephone exchange and police station (Willian 2006, 8-9). The intersection of these two streets is marked by a monument and a small circular garden that transforms this into a miniature town square (figures 4c and 4d; these are part of the same shot, with the camera panning left from the frame 4c to that at 4d). The basic layout of a circular ceremonial garden within a street intersection is very close to the circle-in-a-square “Philadelphia” plans used in some real American towns, and which was later an inspiration for the layout of Disneyland’s Main Street USA (Francaviglia 1996, 97-100). This end of the street also houses the library building on the opposite corner, and its role as a civic precinct is underlined by its use as the setting for the Homecoming celebration in honour of Harry Bailey. The street therefore is shown to include both a bustling retail precinct and a more ceremonial civic area: while viewers of the film are unlikely to put together this geography of while watching the film, the overall effect of this attention to detail is a remarkably convincing portrait of a functioning and attractive town centre.

Figure 4: Genesee Street details, It’s a Wonderful Life

It is especially interesting to compare Capra’s Bedford Falls with Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa from Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock’s film, as noted, presents a particularly realistic Main Street: the buildings and streets are genuine, and in many of the longer shots, it seems likely that much of the background action consists of genuine passers by (since some shots, such as that in figure 2c, would have required closing multiple city blocks if the production had attempted to control the entire street). There is therefore an almost documentary-like sense of realism in these street scenes, and to some extent the realism cuts against the portrait of Santa Rosa as a sleepy haven of old-fashioned values that is established in the rest of the film. In Capra’s film, there is enormous attention to the layout of the town, with a great deal of set detailing and background action dedicated to selling the community as real. At the same time, however, that extent of stage-managing allows the town to be unfailingly picturesque (excepting, obviously, the Pottersville scenes), and through design and necessity the street and buildings are of a more intimate scale than Santa Rosa streets (compare the street in figure 4a with that in figure 2c, or the square and courthouse in figure 4c with that in figure 2b). The resultant street scenes create an imaginary town that in many ways is more persuasive, and with more distinctive character as distinct “place,” than Hitchcock’s more reality-based Santa Rosa Main Street. It’s a Wonderful Life (and, to a lesser extent, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) emphasises the ability of a fully controlled back-lot set to create a “realer-than-real” archetypal environment. In his study of classical Hollywood set design, Juan Antonio Ramírez quotes production designer William Cameron Menzies on this idea:

…if, for example, you film a romantic place [on location] like a picturesque European street, you can achieve an exact reproduction – but that will still be minus the atmosphere, texture, and colour. So it’s always better to replace it with a set [erected in the studio] which gives the impression of the street, as it exists in your mind, slightly romanticized, simplified, and overly textured (2004, 86).

It’s a Wonderful Life’s Genesee Street is a particularly compelling example of this principle; it as at once so attractive and persuasive – so full of “atmosphere, texture and colour” – that it approaches the ideal of what architect Paul Goldberger (speaking of Disneyland’s Main Street USA) has called a “universally true” Main Street (Francaviglia 1996, 160).

Institutions Prominently Present in Social Hierarchies and Architectural Design

The presence of a prominent civic precinct (comprising courthouse, library, police station and utility buldings) in Bedford Falls raises the importance of civic and religious institutions and their buildings in the archetypal small town. This is emphasised by the Morgan’s description of Grover’s Corners at the start of Our Town:

Running right through the middle of the town is Main Street. Cutting across Main Street on the left is the railroad tracks. Beyond the railroad tracks is Polish town; you know, foreign folks who come here to work in the mills, a couple of Canuck families, and the Catholic church. You can see the steeple of the Congregational church; the Presbyterian is just across the street. The Methodist and the Unitarian are up a block. The Baptist church is down in the hollow, by the river. Next to the post office is the town hall. Jail’s in the basement. [William Jennings] Bryan once made a speech right from those very steps. It’s a nice town, know what I mean?

This succinct description of the layout of the town as anchored by its civic facilities (post office, town hall, jail, railway station) and religious institutions (six churches, four specifically identified as within about a block of each other near the centre of town) emphasises the importance of such institutions in framing the community. The prominent role of religious institutions on this list is notable for reinforcing the emphasis on traditional and conservative values (we later learn the town is 86% Republican), and would be of interest to critics focussing on Althusserian notions of the role institutions play in perpetuating ideological frameworks (Althusser 1994, 151-162). This is not, however, my focus here. The presence and proximity of all these institutions (religious and civic) is instead of interest primarily for their role as centres of community engagement and participation. Decreased involvement in community activities is an often-cited failure of the retreat to dispersed, privatised suburban lifestyles: as Mumford put it in 1938 – co-incidentally the same year Wilder’s play was published – suburbs represent “a collective effort to live a private life” (1938, 215). Intriguingly, while declining community participation is often identified as a post-1950s (and hence post suburbia, post-television) phenomenon, Robert D. Putnam’s study of community engagement suggests many measures of social participation – church attendance, for example, as well as membership in chapter based associations, the PTA, unions, and professional associations – showed similar slumps also occurred during the 1930s, as communities were buffeted by the Depression, before rising again in the 1940s and then dropping away again after the 1950s (Putnam 2001, 54, 57, 70-71, 81, 84). This suggests that there may have been some recent impetus for nostalgia for the participatory communities of earlier days even in the early 1940s, and particularly in 1938 when Our Town first appeared as a play. Regardless of the cause for such nostalgia, a strongly defined and localised presence of civic institutions is a meaning-laden trait of the archetypal small town, symbolising a close-knit community and a strong social order.

As suggested by the above monologue, the church plays a particularly strong role in Our Town. The wedding of George Gibbs and Emily Webb is a central sequence, and the church is one of the few non-residential buildings we see in Grover’s Corners. The church is also a centre of socialising and gossip; a subplot concerns the interest of the town’s women in the drinking problem of the church organist, and his eventual suicide. The context in which the church appears reinforces my suggestion that it is less important, here, as a source of religious and moral guidance (the drunkenness of the organist and the uncompassionate response of the townsfolk make that clear). Instead, the church acts as a source of community cohesion, both as a gathering place for socialising and as the socially sanctioned means for couples to form unions. Where in daily urban and suburban life it is increasingly common for socialising to be centred on the workplace, in Our Town we never see any characters’ place of employment, with a few very telling exceptions: Morgan is shown at work in his drugstore, but this is itself a community hub; we see the newspaper office only from the street, a place of public interaction; and we see several characters – the newspaper boy and the milkman – whose workplace is the street. [12] The other films studied for this article share this de-emphasis of places of workplace socialising in favour of concentrating on the institutions that define the town physically and socially. In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we see community celebrations in the church basement and at the country club. A similar party occurs at the local high school in It’s a Wonderful Life where George and Mary start their romance. Those people we see at their place of employment are usually involved in enterprises that are involved one way or other in linking or building the community: newspaper offices are shown in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and, as mentioned, externally in Our Town; and we see a lawyer’s office in Kings Row and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. (The father in Meet Me in St. Louis is also a lawyer, but we never see his workplace, in accordance with the film’s extremely strong focus on the domestic sphere). Banks also figure prominently: the family patriarch is employed at a bank in It’s a Wonderful Life and Shadow of a Doubt, as is the aspirational patriarch Norval in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; scenes take place in the bank in all three films. Drake McHugh also visits the towns’ bank in Kings Row; the plot-line in which he is ruined by a bank scandal and turns to property development anticipates It’s a Wonderful Life, and both films emphasise the importance of the bank in the welfare of the community.

The importance of all these community institutions is emphasised by their prominent featuring in the films and their close physical integration into the fabric of the town. As noted, the geography of Grover’s Corners in Our Town is laid out in terms of the location of churches and other civic buildings. We later see a shot of an impressive schoolhouse, standing on what seems to be a hill outside of town; likewise the opening shots of Kings Row show us that town’s school. Banks have prominent positions on the Main Streets in It’s a Wonderful Life, Kings Row, Shadow of a Doubt and The Magnificent Ambersons (in which it is one of the only Main Street buildings we clearly see – although a long shot also shows a prominent civic building, probably a town hall, facing down the street, see figure 5). Shadow of a Doubt’s streetscape also features what is probably a town hall (figure 2b), and the town has a particularly attractive ivy-covered public library. As already discussed, It’s a Wonderful Life’s Genesee Street terminates in a town hall and a miniature civic precinct; in a similar fashion, the Main Street in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek terminates in the newspaper building and a fire station (figure 6). In Hail the Conquering Hero, made by Sturges in the same year and using the same Main Street set, a church sits in this position (Neuman 2008, 93).


Figure 5: Main Street, The Magnificent Ambersons


Figure 6: Main Street, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Locally Owned and Socially Integrated Businesses

I have already noted the prominence of the drugstore as a social centre in both Our Town and It’s a Wonderful Life. The drugstore takes the role for meeting and socialising that might be fulfilled by either a coffee shop or a bar in more recent films, but without the negative connotations of the somewhat seedy bars we see in the Pottersville sequence of It’s a Wonderful Life, or in Shadow of a Doubt. Indeed, as Nezar AlSayyad points out, the drugstore is notable in the film as a social space that brings children and adults together (2006, 87). It is a safe, socially acceptable place for boys and girls to meet and thus be initiated into the social rituals of courtship and dating: it is in the drugstore that Mary and Violet first compete for the attention of George Bailey, and in Our Town it is in the drugstore that George Gibbs and Emily Webb discuss their future. In It’s a Wonderful Life, particularly, the drugstore is seen as a bustling, wildly popular venue for young and old alike, with people crammed around tables and at piled up at the bar (see figure 7). Crucially, both druggists are known by name – Morgan in Our Town, Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life – and are seen to be well-recognised by the townsfolk. They also know their customers well, to the point where Morgan doesn’t hesitate to let George leave the store without paying for his drinks. (Even when George offers to leave his watch as surety and come back with the money in five minutes, Morgan insists that won’t be necessary: “I’ll trust you for ten years.”) This kind of one-on-one relationship with local retailers recurs throughout the small town films studied, and stands in contrast to most modern experience of retailing. Shops are shown as locally owned, by a recognisable storekeeper, as opposed to the multi-national or chain branding that dominates retailing today. Where retail signage in modern shopping centres tends to identify only an established brand, which is trusted to communicate function (eg “Borders,” not “Borders Books”), signage on the depicted Main Streets is overwhelmingly directed to identifying an owner’s name and the store’s function: hence along Genesee Street we have Gower Drugs (visible in figure 7), Peterson’s Tailer Shop, Violet’s Beauty Shop, Jenkins Art Store, and so on. (An example of such signage from The Magnificent Ambersons can be seen in figure 9, and function-only signage – “Pharmacy” – is visible in figure 6, from Miracle of Morgan’s Creek).


Figure 7: Drugstore as a social centre in It’s a Wonderful Life

This identification of owners is one example of the way in which business owners are integrated into, and well known by, the community. So in Shadow of a Doubt the whole family knows Mrs Henderson from the postal union office; while in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek a passerby knows that the soldiers will be able to find the attractive – and, it is implied, available and promiscuous – Trudy Kockenlocker at the music store. The passer-by also knows that Trudy is the policeman’s daughter. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey has a strong personal relationship not only with Gower the druggist but also the owner of the luggage store, and bar-owner Martini. George also has a close relationship with his customers at the Bailey Building and Loan. The whole film turns on this point, when at the conclusion many of his customers come to his aid, but George’s close relationship is demonstrated earlier in the film by the way he addresses them when there is a run on deposits: as he pleads with customers not to panic and sink the business, he refers by name to “Charlie,” “Joe,” “Randall,” “Ed,” “Tom,” “Mrs Thompson,” and “Mrs Davis” (as well as the houses belonging to “Mrs Maitland” and “The Kennedys”) and can cite details of their individual financial circumstances. He also echoes Morgan’s actions in Our Town by not asking for paperwork as he gives out loans from his own money: “You don’t have to sign anything; I know you, you pay it when you can, that’s okay.” Even Bailey’s rival Potter, the symbol in the film of the hard-nosed and uncaring businessman, is well known to the community (although he makes a point of not knowing them).

Another striking example of social integration of local business people is seen by the various figures whose place of business is the street and the home. This is most striking in Our Town, where in the opening minutes we are introduced to Joe Crowell delivering the papers, Howie Newsome the milkman, and Doc Gibbs returning from a house-call to deliver twins. The doctor chats to both Crowell and Newsome, exchanging community news (the marriage of Joe’s teacher, the birth of the Polish twins) with each. Howie Newsome’s relationship with his customers is shown as particularly intimate: his horse stops out of habit at particular houses even after they have ceased delivery, and Howie enters the houses of his customers (whom he addresses by name) to place milk directly into their iceboxes (figure 8). In Meet Me in St. Louis, Mr Neely the ice man has the same problem with his horse having memorised his route, and knows the family well enough to take the 5-year-old Tootie along on his deliveries. In addition to Doc Gibbs in Our Town, doctors are also shown making house calls in Meet Me in St. Louis and in Kings Row. As in Our Town, the various doctors we see in Kings Row (Dr Gordon, Dr Tower, and in the latter parts of the film Parris Mitchell) are seen as deeply embedded in the social fabric of the town, with the good Mitchell and Dr Tower fighting the corrupting influence of the malignant Dr Gordon. In It’s a Wonderful Life we get further prominent examples of the on-street community with Bert the policeman and Ernie the cab driver, both of whom know George Bailey by name and who collaborate on the staging of his romantic wedding night. All these figures contribute to the sense of a residential population closely interweaved socially with the community’s businesses, and where socialising occurs in business spaces and business occurs in social spaces.


Figure 8: Deliveries to the icebox in Our Town.

Predominance of Classical Forms of Architecture

The architecture of the depicted small towns emphasises stability and traditional values. On Main Street, it takes the form of a domination of Victorian architectural styles, particularly more formal designs such as elaborate Italianate shopfronts, or classically inspired civic buildings (figures 2 and 5). Richard Francavaglia notes that in the United States shopfront design “came of age” in the mid 1840s to 1850s, with increased mobility allowing increased awareness of European design styles, and improved technology (plate glass) allowing much larger windows for the display of goods (1996, 23-26). He argues that the emergence of this style at this time then solidified a more unified, formal style on typical Main Streets:

Whereas many earlier (pre 1850) buildings on Main Street were vernacular in design and a few reflected high styling, things changed rapidly when trained architects entered the picture. Most new buildings on Main Street were now likely to be formal in style and more standardized in construction, for high-style fads or trends were promoted in journals and magazines that became commonplace after about 1870. By the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian Italianate and Gothic styling influenced all types of buildings – residential, institutional, and commercial. Victorian styles superseded earlier styles such as the Greek Revival by the late 1860s, and the 1870s witnessed the nearly complete acceptance of Victorian styling for commercial architecture… It is this wholesale acceptance of Italianate commercial style architecture that gives Main Street such a recognizable identity by the late nineteenth century (1996, 24-26).

The ubiquity of the Victorian shopfront on real American Main Streets was increased by the retrofitting in the late nineteenth century of earlier buildings with catalogue-ordered false shopfronts, and a general standardisation of design sweeping the country during a period of early industrialisation and prosperity. In the films studied there is some diversity with regards to elaboration and materials, but variations of the large-windowed, formally designed Victorian shopfront can be seen throughout the films studied (see figures 1a, 1b, 4b, 6, and 9). In film, the use of such a style obviously simply reflects in part the reality of these constructions, particularly for the examples set at the turn of the century. However – as the real California street landscape of Shadow of a Doubt streetscape seen in figure 2 hints – such street forms were under pressure by the mid twentieth century, as building technologies changed, and as cars altered both the way the street was viewed, and the way it needed to be laid out physically (to allow for parking, vehicle carriageways, and the like). [14] The dominance of particularly fine examples of such streetscapes therefore carries an element of nostalgia and reassurance. It should also be noted that in the case of the back lot streets in Our Town, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and It’s a Wonderful Life, the Victorian shopfront has a pragmatic advantage in that the style is based on a dominant facade that conceals the roof form behind, and which is constructed boundary-to-boundary: this makes it an ideal template for set construction, since only one face of a building generally needs to be built.


Figure 9. Shopfront with Italianate detailing and large windows, from The Magnificent Ambersons.

As Francaviglia notes, such Victorian styling can also be seen in residential architecture in small town films, although here there is more variation: residential precincts are less formalised and more variable spaces than Main Streets. However, most prominent are Victorian and Edwardian examples, with associated architectural adornments such as turrets, dormers, bay windows, canopies, and verandahs (see examples in figure 10).[15] Detached family homes are the overwhelmingly favoured housing model, and they also tend to be, by modern standards, extremely spacious: in Meet Me in St. Louis the children complain of having to move to New York and being “cooped up in tenements,” and well they might given the lavish accommodation on evidence in these examples. The houses are usually two storey and set on relatively large grounds, with ample setbacks from the street (although there are exceptions: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, for example, shows houses with a more intimate relationship with the street: see figure 11c). Architectural harmony is a consistent feature of the residential areas shown: while there is some variation in architectural styles across examples, there is a general consistency of architectural styles evident on the streetscapes within the examples. This is of note because it shows streetscapes resisting trends away from such stylistic uniformity. In the first half of the twentieth century mass-production of kit houses had eroded the notion of localised architectural traditions, and led to an eclectic variation along streetscapes in emerging suburban communities as owners chose pre-fabricated versions of the traditional styles of their choice (Hayden 2003, 106-110, 116). [16] Such chaotic streetscapes are not in evidence in the films studied, which evoke earlier patterns of development through their depiction of harmonious streetscapes bound together by a common architectural style. As illustrated in the examples in figure 11, streetscapes are also generally wide, lined by mature trees, with houses having either low timber picket fences or no fences at all. The timber picket fence is significant in marking property boundaries in a manner that does not seek to aggressively exclude the private space beyond from the public realm; indeed, the adoption of the common fencing material means that the fence itself becomes a contribution to the shared streetscape architecture. Exceptions, such as the iron pickets for Dr Tower’s residence in Kings Row or the high front fence for the Ambersons’ mansion in The Magnificent Ambersons, tend to be revealing of character: these are figures who see themselves as above the community, or who wish to keep the community at a distance. Gardens are well tended and attractive. Residential streets are places of activity, with children in particular playing in the street and in the front yards of houses. Together these elements typify an ideal of the residential street that can still be seen in film and television (for example, in the street scenes of a television program such as Desperate Housewives), as an ideal for both small town and suburban streets.


Figure 10: Housing


Figure 11: Residential Streets

Fluid Interface between the Public and Private Realm

As suggested by the preceding discussion, these small town films show the street as an active and inviting space in both residential and commercial precincts. This is reflected by the way that domestic spaces interact with public spaces; the boundary between the public and realm and private realm is constantly shown as fluid. In the residential sphere, for example, much use is made of transitional spaces such as front yards and verandahs as a setting for action. These spaces (particularly verandahs) are notable for being private, domestic spaces, but ones which are actively conducive to involvement in public life and enjoyment of the activity occurring on the street. In The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, in particular, Preston Sturges stages a great deal of important action on verandahs: for example, Norval and Trudy discussing their engagement, and Norval’s conversation with Trudy’s father as he cleans his gun. In Meet Me in St. Louis Vincente Minnelli’s fluid camerawork shows the way a party spills between exterior and interior by starting on the verandah (figure 12a) and moving in a single shot through the door into the interior space (figure 12b), underlining the permeable nature of the public / private interface. Earlier in the film we see the potential for verandahs as a social space when Esther and Rose admire their neighbour and attempt to be seen by him (underlining that verandahs are a space for display, as well as simply surveillance; see figure 13). In It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey discovers the perils of the private surveillance of the public realm when he is heckled by a verandah-bound resident for his clumsy courtship of Mary. Characters are also shown interacting with characters outside their houses from their windows. Most prominently, in Our Town, George Gibbs and Emily Webb talk about their homework from house to house; in other examples, Parris addresses Drake from the street to an upper storey window in Kings Row, as George Bailey does to Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life.


Figure 12: From exterior to interior, Meet Me in St. Louis


Figure 13: Domestic verandah as a space for social display, Meet Me in St. Louis

Commercial buildings show similar traits. As already noted, the Victorian shopfront is characterised by its large window to address the street. While the primary purpose of such a large window is of course for display of goods, it also serves a purpose in linking the interior of shops and offices to the public life occurring out on the street. Given the complications of constructing sets and staging action so that exteriors are visible from the interior, it is conspicuous how much trouble the directors in these films take to stage scenes in a manner that shows the street life occurring outside. Such depictions are sometimes very rudimentary, as in Our Town (figure 1b), but in other cases sets have been deliberately constructed alongside the standing street set to allow interaction between interiors and exteriors. It’s a Wonderful Life’s Genesee Street features three shop sets constructed adjacent to the backlot street: in addition to the drugstore (figure 7) there is also the sporting goods / luggage shop (figure 14) and the bank. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek also features three interiors with visible exteriors: the music store (figure 15), the newspaper office, and the bank. In Kings Row our best view of the town’s Main Street is through the door of the bank (figure 16a). While in the bank Drake McHugh takes the president’s chair and shows off to Randy Monaghan, thereby explicitly addressing the exterior space (figure 16b). All these scenes highlight the semi-public nature of these interior spaces: the businesses address the street and the spaces along each side of the Main Street become a transitional space that form a continuum with the civic space outside. This reinforces the previously discussed role of the local retailing as part of the community, and their close physical integration on the Main Street (as opposed to a remote, privatised location such as a shopping mall.)


Figure 14: Shop with visible exterior, It’s a Wonderful Life


Figure 15: Music Store, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek


Figure 16: Interaction between interior and exterior, Kings Row

A Walkable Community (Compact Physically)

I have already noted the pedestrian friendliness of most Main Streets depicted in these films, the level of street activity evident in residential areas, and the close link between businesses and the community that is evident. All of these factors point to the physical compactness of the towns depicted, in which residents can walk to their friend’s houses, institutions such as churches and schools, and the Main Street. Throughout these films, it is striking how many scenes are staged with characters walking through their community. In Our Town, George walks Emily home, and in another scene to the drugstore. Doc Gibbs walks home from Polish town after delivering twins, and the women of the church choir walk home by themselves after dark. In Kings Row, Drake and Parris first bond over an afternoon spent roaming the town. In Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie and her uncle seem to walk from their home to the bank; Charlie also walks around town with detective Jack Graham. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George and Mary walk home from the school dance. I have already discussed one of the several scenes in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek where characters walk around town, but another particularly interesting scene is that in which Norval and Trudy walk to the cinema: in one unbroken three minute shot, they go from typical picket-fence residential street (figure 17a) to the movie theatre on the typical Main Street (figure 17b), making quite explicit a physical proximity that is usually only implied. A similar single shot transition from residential to commercial precincts occurs in The Magnificent Ambersons as George and Lucy discuss their future while travelling by horse and cart; although the characters are not on foot in this instance, Welles’ unbroken shot serves a similar purpose of showing the close proximity of the two precincts. The emphasis on walking emphasises the compactness of the towns depicted, and strengthens the impression of a strong community. Walkability is closely connected with the idea of social connectedness, since the presence of people on the street, combined with the previously discussed physical attributes that activate the public realm, means that streets become social spaces rather than purely functional circulation spaces.


Figure 17: Walking to the movies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

An Intimate and Well-Connected Community (Compact Socially)

Many of the points already discussed have noted the importance of social interconnectedness and familiarity to the depiction of the small town, with retailers knowing their customers intimately, and so on. This one-on-one connectedness emphasises the small scale of the communities in question (the population of Our Town’s Grover’s Corners, for example, is explicitly stated to be 2642). In addition to the aspects of interpersonal familiarity already discussed, two other points are worth making that underline the sense of the town’s population comprising as an identifiable, unified community (rather than people being part of a larger undifferentiated mass of residents, as might occur in a suburb). The first notable point is the downside to social interconnectedness, with the power of gossip being a recurring theme. In Our Town, it is implied that the organist has taken his life at least partly because of the gossip of the congregation. In The Magnificent Ambersons the townsfolk are seen gossiping about George Minafer and hoping for his downfall. In Kings Row both Dr Tower and Dr Morgan are motivated at various points by the desire to hide the hysteria of their daughters. Good-time girl Violet feels the need to leave town in It’s a Wonderful Life after, it is hinted, one personal scandal too many. Similarly, the plot of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is propelled by Trudy Kockenlocker’s fear of public shaming after she becomes pregnant but can’t remember who she married. All these points show the negative side of small town life, but they still underline the sense of community: the gossip would not exist, or at least not have the same power, in the anonymity of the suburbs. A more positive aspect of the sense of community interconnectedness is the emphasis on communal celebration: events that bring much of the community together to mark events together. Such occasions include the dance at the school in It’s a Wonderful Life, Harry Bailey’s homecoming ceremony in the same film, and the dances for the troops in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. In addition to this, there are the large domestic parties we see in Meet Me in St. Louis and The Magnificent Ambersons: the latter, in particular, is noted as “the last of the great long-remembered dances that everybody talked about,” suggesting the departure of the days in which an event held by a single family can be remembered as an important occasion for a whole community.

A Close Link between Town and Country

The idea of compactness, both physical and social, reinforces the sense of the town’s clearly defined geographic identity. Unlike suburbs, which tend to bleed into each other with a continuous built form, small towns such as those depicted in these films can be distinguished by a change at their boundaries to non-urban forms. In practice, in the American small town movie, that non-urban form is a rural setting. A close link to rural landscapes emphasises the desirable proximity to the countryside that cities and suburbs lack (harking back to the ideal of a balance of community and accessed to nature embodied by conceptions such as Howard’s “Three Magnets”); while a link to rural lifestyles evokes a nostalgic sense of simpler times and old-fashioned values. Our Town underlines Grover’s Corners’ rural situation through its framing device: Morgan narrates the film from a hilltop overlooking the town, giving a clear visual sense of its location in the countryside. In keeping with the film’s economical but very communicative use of sets, the hilltop sports a dilapidated boundary fence and a smattering of trees, evoking both farmland and a genteel form of wilderness. Morgan further underlines the town’s closeness to farmland by contrasting the townsfolk’s sleeping habits with those of the rural workers in its hinterland:

The only lights on in the town are in a cottage over on Polish town where a mother’s just giving birth to twins, and down in the depot where Shorty Hawkins is just getting ready to flag the 5:45 to Boston… Of course, naturally out in the country all around there have been lights on for some time, what with milking and so on, but townsfolk sleep late.

While a contrast is drawn between the farmers and the townsfolk here, the proximity between the two is nevertheless underlined, and dawn is still marked by a rooster crowing. In Kings Row, the rural context is instead emphasised through scenes that highlight the availability of rural landscapes for healthy recreation: Drake McHugh’s vitality prior to losing his legs is communicated largely by his fondness for buggy rides into the country, and a number of scenes take place in the idyllic countryside around the town. The film particularly emphasises the countryside as a location for romance. In the opening scenes the young Parris Mitchell and Cassandra Tower play together along a stream, and as adults both Drake and Parris have romantic encounters in the countryside around the town (Drake with the Ross twins and later Randy Monaghan, and Parris with Cassandra and Elise Sandor). A similar trip through the countryside is shown in The Magnificent Ambersons, when George Minafer’s buggy encounters Eugene’s car in the snow-covered landscape just out of town. Again the sequence emphasises both wholesome outdoor activities (the occupants of the two vehicles laugh and frolic in the snow) and romance (George steals an awkward kiss from Lucy after they fall off their buggy). There is, however, something of a bitter edge to the sequence, and the pressures on the rural landscape are hinted at by the spluttering smoke from Eugene’s car (the spoiling of the landscape by cars is a recurring theme to which I shall return).

It’s a Wonderful Life echoes the themes evident in these earlier films. It, too, shows the landscape around town as a site for youthful adventure, with the first scene in Bedford Falls showing George and Harry Bailey, as children, tobogganing with their friends in the woods. Even in this early sequence, however, there is a subtle foreshadowing of the potential loss of the rural land: a sign behind George Bailey reads “No Trespassing – Henry F. Potter,” implying that this is the land that will become the Potter’s Field housing estate. This almost subliminal hint that the land development on which the plot turns is eating up the rural land around town is made more explicit later in the film, when Potter’s rent collector describes how the site of George Bailey’s housing development had been fifteen years earlier: “squirrels, buttercups, daisies – I used to hunt rabbits there myself.” Even as he helps contribute to the town’s growth, however, George Bailey clings to the ideal of the town as a rural haven, and shares the predilection of Drake McHugh in Kings Row for using the countryside as a site for seduction. After telling his mother (of all people) that he is off to “find a girl and do a little passionate necking” he meets the sexually aggressive Violet in the centre of town and suggests they “make a night of it.” His idea of the night is steeped in appreciation of the enjoyment of the natural environment:

Let’s go out in the fields and take off our shoes and walk through the grass… Then we can go up to the falls; it’s beautiful up there in the moonlight. And there’s a green pool up there, and we can, ah – swim in it. And then we can climb Mount Bedford, and smell the pines, and watch the sun rise against the peaks, and we’ll stay up there the whole night, and everybody’ll be talking, and there’ll be a terrific scandal!

Violet, although initially keen, is at first puzzled and then aghast at George’s suggested activities: “Why, it’s ten miles up to Mount Bedford!” Robert Beuka has argued that this scene shows that George is “clinging to his nostalgic vision of a primarily rural Bedford Falls” and is largely oblivious to the changes that have come across the town since his childhood. I will return to this idea of the town being under pressure from development, but more important here is George’s attitude to the countryside, rather than whether or not that landscape has already been spoiled. Violet’s concern is not so much how far away the grass is: she is appalled at the very concept, which underlines her romantic unsuitability for the more whimsical George. Yet George, always the human embodiment of everything that is best about Bedford Falls, understands the importance of the town’s rural hinterland to the community. Despite the film’s wider difficulty reconciling the competing aims of affordable housing and preservation of the environment, George’s speech underlines the importance of a pastoral setting to the idealised small town.

Family Units as the Essential Building Blocks of the Community

The scene between George and Violet immediately precedes his visit to the more responsible Mary Hatch; his marriage to Mary is the primary narrative expression of George’s embrace of a domestic life and responsibility. This key turning point underlines the primacy of family groupings in structuring society in these small town films. This is of interest because of the particular importance of family housing in post-World War II suburbia developments. While families have long held a central role in the structuring of societies, the ad-hoc construction of traditional cities and towns ensured a variety of housing types, including smaller apartments to cater for different household sizes. Mass-produced suburbs, however, entrench the family as the key social structure in their very fabric through the embrace of multi-bedroom detached houses on large grounds as their basic unit of construction: suburbia is made up of little other than family housing. The resulting monoculture is one of the key criticisms of the suburban model of urban development, and is criticised for isolating the very families whose needs it is supposed to serve. As Lewis Mumford puts it:

Instead of centering attention on the child in the garden, we now have the image of “Families in Space.” For the wider the scattering of the population, the greater the isolation of the individual household, and the more effort it takes to do privately, even with the aid of many machines and automatic devices, what used to be done in company often with conversation, song, and the enjoyment of the physical presence of others.

The perils of such social isolation are often underestimated in traditional suburban development because the social life is expected to occur primarily at home, in the family unit. Suburbs represent a structuring of the city based on the assumption that family is community.

This family-centric outlook is reflected in the films studied. Families are the window through which we view these communities, with the films centering on family groups: The Webbs and Gibbs in Our Town; the Ambersons / Minafers in The Magnificent Ambersons; the Newtons in Shadow of a Doubt; the Smiths in Meet Me in St. Louis; the Kockenlockers in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; and the Baileys in It’s a Wonderful Life. Only Kings Row, where the crucial relationship for the parentless Parris Mitchell is with the surrogate father figure of Dr Tower, bucks the trend somewhat (although an important subplot relates to the dysfunctional relationship between Dr Tower and his daughter). These family groups are the window through which we see the towns depicted, and as such, the fates of the families and towns are closely intertwined. In The Magnificent Ambersons, for example, the decline of the Amberson / Minafer family parallels the declining fortunes of the town, the wider shift to an industrial economy, and the resultant passing of a way of life. In Shadow of a Doubt the small town family is susceptible to the malign influence when Uncle Charlie arrives from Philadelphia; the family dynamics play out a wider collision of their small town values with his corrupting urban influence. The role of families in reconstructing the town by replicating the family structure from generation to generation is also foreground through an emphasis on inter-generational relationships and child-rearing. In most of the films we see three generations of the central family, and explore the lessons passed from one to the other (most directly in the paternal lectures delivered to George Bailey and George Gibbs by their fathers in It’s a Wonderful Life and Our Town). Children are much more prominent than in most Hollywood films, with significant time spent chronicling their activity and play in Our Town, Shadow of a Doubt, Meet Me in St. Louis, and It’s a Wonderful Life. In two of the films (Kings Row and It’s a Wonderful Life) we follow characters from childhood to marriage, and in Our Town we have a similar flash-forward from late adolescence to marriage and children. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek derives comedy from taking this reproductive obsession to its extreme, with the titular miracle being the birth of sextuplets. This emphasis not just on romantic coupling – which is ubiquitous in all Hollywood genres – but also on growth, intergenerational relationships, and having children, underlines the role of the family in constructing and reconstructing society.

By placing families in such a central role, small-town films are closely associated with the genre of family melodrama, although in fact only two of the films studied here – Kings Row and The Magnificent Ambersons – comfortably fit the description [17]. However, the link to melodrama, a genre frequently analysed in terms emphasising its subversive depiction of families as repressive and dysfunctional, raises the issue of whether there is a darker undertone to the foregrounding of family. Thomas Schatz has argued that in the 1940s “even apparently optimistic films… rely for their impact on the gradual erosion of our cultural confidence in the nuclear family”, (1981, 227) and Eugene Levy makes a similar point about small-town films across time periods: “The inadequacy and malfunctioning of the nuclear family (single or two-parent) has been a dominant motif in small-town films: the family is often a malignant structure… The attitude to the family is at best ambivalent: it can be supportive but, more often than not, is repressive” (1990, 263, emphasis in original). Levy finds this idea of familial repression to be more strongly found in the small town films of other decades, notably the 1950s, and indeed the warmth of many of the family scenes in the studied films would not support a generalised conclusion that family life is seen as repressive. However, it is interesting to note that the two films that make the structure and functioning of the town most central to their narrative (Our Town and It’s a Wonderful Life) both foreground the ambivalence of their protagonists about marriage and family.

In Our Town, the idea that there is something almost suspect about not marrying and starting a family is stated unusually baldly as Morgan introduces the film’s second section, which he titles “Love and Marriage.” Summarising the events of the three years since the introductory sequence, he notes:

Nature’s been pushing and contriving in other ways, too. A number of young people fell in love and got married. Most everybody in the world gets married; in this town there aren’t hardly any exceptions. Most everybody climbs into the grave – married.

In Our Town the courtship of George and Emily is a compressed version of time-honoured structures for romantic narrative: he seems stand-offish, but they resolve their differences and resolve to spend their life together. Yet instead of placing the wedding at the conclusion of the film, Our Town makes it a central scene about two-thirds through the film, throughout which the film focuses on the attitudes of the various participants by giving us their thoughts in voice-over. These offer a far from conventionally romantic view of the ceremony, starting with the jaded attitude of the minister:

I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. “M” marries “N” – millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the country, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will. Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.

The couple themselves are even less enthusiastic. As Emily stands in front of the church, her internal monologue is one of loneliness and resistance:

I’ve never felt so alone in my whole life. I don’t want to get married! Why can’t I just stay for a while as I am?

Meanwhile, George is pacing nervously, with similar misgivings:

Gee, I’m going to get married. I’m grown up. I’m getting old. I don’t want to get old. Taking on all these responsibilities. Why’s everybody pushing me so? All I want to do is be a fellow. And I’m gonna get married.

Yet when his teary mother enters, he suppresses his thoughts, telling her: “Cheer up mom, I’m getting married!” The film ends on an ultimately upbeat note; in a departure from the source play, Emily survives after nearly dying from complications related to the birth of her second child. Her will to live is affirmed after she is magically able to observe her earlier family life; seeing her parents and her younger self she learns to appreciate the bonds that underlie everyday domestic events. Yet the idea that unspoken fears and regret hang over the institution of marriage significantly qualifies Our Town’s otherwise affectionate depiction of family life.

This depiction is closely echoed in It’s a Wonderful Life, which amongst its other themes is an extended reflection on George Bailey’s reluctance to settle for a conventionally domestic existence. As an adolescent, George boasts of being nominated as a member of the National Geographic Society and talks of far-off lands, and is largely oblivious to the infatuated Mary. Yet George’s life of adventure is constantly thwarted by family obligations. At first these are those of his immediate family: first he is pressed into working for the family business after his father’s stroke, and then the marriage of his brother Harry prevents him offloading those responsibilities. In the later parts of the film, Mary and his children become the source of his frustration. This is most clearly articulated in the scene where the pair finally starts their romantic relationship after previous false starts. As already discussed, George has been urged to visit Mary by his mother, but only does so after Violet – the film’s embodiment of commitment-free sex appeal – rejects him. Mary is transparently desperate to recommence their interrupted romance, but George is at first surly and rude to her, cruelly rebuffing her advances. Yet his attraction to her overwhelms his doubts as they both talk on the phone to potential romantic rival Sam Wainwright, who offers to get him in on the “ground floor” of the plastics industry.[18] Overcome by his attraction to her, he drops the phone and seizes her roughly, telling her:

Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married ever, to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do… and you’re… and you’re…

Unable to continue, he breaks down, hugs and kisses her – and we cut to their wedding. George’s barely repressed resentment of Mary is further underlined as they honeymoon in Bedford Falls, in a run down house Mary has purchased for them and decorated with pictures of the island paradises he had earlier talked of visiting. By the time he hits rock bottom after the loss of $8000 from the Bailey Building and Loan, George’s bitterness has extended to his children as well. In a nightmarish sequence that anticipates the more literal nightmare of the Pottersville sequence, George paces through his house on Christmas Eve, pestered by his children and voicing his dissatisfaction with his life, starting with an expression of disgust when told their families will be visiting: “Families? I don’t want the families over here!” As Mary tells him of their daughter’s cold he continues, bitterly venting his frustration at the life that Mary has dragged him into:

It’s this old house – I don’t know why we don’t all have pneumonia. Drafty old barn! It’s like living in a refrigerator. Why did we have to live here in the first place, and stay around this measly, crummy old town?… You call this a happy family? Why did we have to have all these kids?

As in Our Town, it is a magical intervention that turns George around. After visiting the alternate world of Pottersville – which is populated by singles and broken families, with Mary now an “old maid” and cab driver Ernie having been deserted by his wife – George finally comes to appreciate the value of his domestic bonds. Yet as in the earlier film the bitterness cannot be entirely expunged. As Robin Wood puts it: “It’s a Wonderful Life manages a convincing and moving affirmation of the values (and value) of bourgeois family life. Yet what is revealed, when disaster releases George’s suppressed intentions, is the intensity of his resentment of the family and desire to destroy it… ” (1977, 49). Both films give voice to anxiety about family life, and particularly the sacrifices it requires people to make. Yet this doubt actually only underlines the film’s insistence on family as the building block of community: the entrapment of these characters occurs largely because the social pressure on them to start a family is so overwhelming. This sense of family existence as either inevitability or even something close to a civic responsibility foreshadows the social organisation of suburbia. The lesson learnt by George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life – that domestic bonds are ultimately all that is needed to make life rich and rewarding – can be seen as an expression of the principles that would underpin postwar suburban development.

A Population that has a Multi-Generational Link with the Community

The emphasis on family as the structuring element of society, and on inter-generational reproduction of that social structure, raises the closely related idea of the town’s continuity over time. We have seen a suggestion of this in the town’s physical form, with the emphasis on classical forms of architecture: these imply a reassuring permanence and a link with history. However, we also see a similar historical grounding in the town’s social structures. The social equivalent of the long-standing civic building is the long-established family that is widely known to the townsfolk: the Ambersons in The Magnificent Ambersons are the definitive example of such a respectable “old money” family in the films discussed. Yet such links are not confined to the aristocracy. In Our Town Morgan notes that many local families have a history with the town that extends back to the seventeenth century:

The earliest dates on the tombstones up there in the cemetery say 1670. They’re Grovers, and Cartwrights, and Gibbses, and Percy’s. Same names as you’ll find here now.

This point is reinforced in the film’s final part as Morgan takes a walking tour of the cemetery, commenting upon the lives of those buried there. This kind of link with history is echoed in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey, drunk, drives his car into a tree. A resident emerges from a nearby house and scolds him: “My great grandfather planted this tree!” Interestingly – and in defiance of the story’s internal logic – when George Bailey is in the nightmare version of the town, that history has been erased. The same man walks past and George asks him where his car has gone, referring to himself as “the fellow that owns the car that ran into your tree.” Yet now the man makes no reference to his personal tie to the tree, simply asking: “What tree?” Here the specific logic that the Pottersville sequence hinges on George’s non-existence is overwhelmed by the underlying sense that in Pottersville everything good about Bedford Falls is subverted: that includes the population’s link to its history, even if there seems no way that George could have effected the actions of the man’s great grandfather. What the town loses when its history is erased is a key differentiation from suburbs. Suburbs are a form of town with no history: recently constructed, populated by new arrivals with no shared background, and thrown together by a property developer. The emphasis on the history of small towns, by contrast, makes the community seem somehow more genuine and permanent than their ersatz suburban equivalents.

De-Emphasis of Cars and Emphasis on Various Forms of Non-car Transport

Cars are present in most of the films studied, and in some cases (notably The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Shadow of a Doubt) we see streets that are bustling with cars. However, cars are de-emphasised both in their visible presence, and in their influence on the physical environment. This occurs in a number of ways. Firstly, cars are generally seen in motion, with relatively few parked cars visible on streets, particularly in residential areas. There are no signs of a physical environment that has been redesigned for cars: we see no parking lots, for example, and the Main Streets we see are still pre-car era streets that happen to now be used by cars (rather than, for example, highways with roadside retailing). In residential areas, garages are not a prominent element in the streetscape architecture: even in Shadow of a Doubt, where the presence of a garage on the family house is a plot point, it is tucked away beside the house and is not prominent in establishing shots (figures 10c and 11e). As already noted, Main Street remains a pedestrian-dominated space and the fabric of the town remains sufficiently physically compact that many trips can be completed on foot.

The role of cars is also downplayed through the prominence given to non-car forms of transport. This is, for obvious reasons, most notable in the period films mentioned, in which horses and carts are prominent on the street. However, Preston Sturges also frequently shows horse-drawn vehicles in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, suggesting the old-fashioned nature of that community, even as it is buffeted by the social change embodied by the visiting troops; cars, meanwhile, are associated with sexual promiscuity as Trudy Kockenlocker drives from party to party during the binge in which she falls pregnant. In Kings Row Drake McHugh is frequently seen on his buggy, and some dialogue scenes take place as characters travel on it; Orson Welles stages scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons in the same manner, most notably as Lucy rebuffs George Minafer’s discussion of marriage. In Meet Me in St. Louis and The Magnificent Ambersons we see streetcars employed. In the former film they signify excitement and romance, while in Ambersons they typify a slower and more dignified time, as explained by the narrator:

The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the girl what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.

The other particularly prominent non-car transport is the railroad. In Our Town, the start of the day is marked by the arrival of the train, and the train station is a recurring feature in these films, marking important arrivals and departures: Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt; Parris Mitchell in Kings Row, George and Isabel Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons; and Harry Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. As the chief form of intercity transport, and the jumping off point for international travel, railroads suggest adventure (or, for George Bailey, foregone adventure). The trips taken by characters by train would almost certainly be undertaken by car or plane today, but trains provide a stronger focal point for to mark such comings-and-goings: unlike cars, they provide a central building from which trips commence; while unlike airports, the railroad station can be located within small towns and close to the centre of town, and thus become a true civic building physically embedded in the fabric of the community.

The passage of time, of course, has made the train a more exotic form of transport than it was at the time these films were made; much of the romance of the railroad perceived by the present-day viewer may be applied retrospectively. However, there is still basis for assuming that the railroad was considered in a somewhat nostalgic light even at the time of production when one considers the strong antipathy shown towards cars in the films. The association of cars with the decline of small towns is striking. In Our Town, after George concocts a story about Emily nearly being struck by a horse and cart, Morgan observes how the arrival of cars threatens to change to town:

Now with all these automobiles coming along, it looks to me like the only safe place to stay is the home. Gracious, I can remember the time when a dog could lie in the middle of Main Street all day long without anything coming along to disturb him.

I have already mentioned the way the car fouls the rural environment in The Magnificent Ambersons, and throughout that film automobiles are used to amplify the interpersonal conflict between the aristocratic George Minafer and the inventive industrialist Eugene Morgan. The exchange between Eugene, George, Uncle Jack, and Major Amberson about automobiles is particularly prophetic in its discussion of the impact of the car on the town. Discussing the opening of a new horseless-carriage shop “out in the suburbs”, Major Amberson suggests: “perhaps the two of you will get together and drive all the rest of us off of the streets.” Eugene, with characteristic geniality, responds that “we’ll even things up by making the streets bigger,” anticipating the changes that traffic engineering would visit upon the urban fabric. They discuss the implications of running streets out to the county line (Jack fears this will cause a slump in property values in the old town), and Major Amberson asks if Eugene really thinks cars will “change the face of the land.” Eugene responds that this is already happening and can’t be stopped, prompting an outburst from George that “automobiles are a useless nuisance.” This prompts Eugene’s expression of doubt about the genie that he has helped unleash:

I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilisation. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls. I’m not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. It may be that George is right. It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George: that automobiles had no business to be invented.

The automobile thus becomes a key sign of the decline of the town: while we are encouraged to sympathise with Eugene, rather than the spoilt George, the film’s tone is elegiac and suggests that the rise of the industrial age – and the car in particular – is extinguishing a particular way of life. Late in the film, the narration spells out the fate of the town: “it was spreading incredibly, and as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its sky.” The speed, mobility and pollution of cars are here painted as fatal to the small town way of life.

A Period Setting, or a Sense of the Place Being “Out of Time.”

The anxiety expressed about the coming of the car, and the sense of anxiety about the golden age of small towns passing or having passed, helps explain the setting of so many of the films in the past: the romanticising of the town is nostalgic in tone, with the town associated with values of an earlier time. Even the films explicitly set contemporary with production show towns that hark back to earlier times: in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek horses remain commonplace, and It’s a Wonderful Life includes flashbacks that show the centre of town to have changed little between 1919 and 1945. The use of an approximately turn-of-the-century time period is particularly common in these 1940s examples. Our Town commences in 1901, and concludes in 1913; Kings Row takes place between 1890 and 1905, and the start of the new century is specifically marked in a sequence set in 1900; The Magnificent Ambersons takes place between 1873 and 1904; and Meet Me in St. Louis takes place in 1903 and 1904. A number of complementary reasons can be suggested for this. In discussing the appeal of Disneyland’s Main Street USA, Francaviglia has argued that the very loose time period between the end of the American Civil War and World War I is the subject of a “deep collective longing for pre-urban Anglo America that was and indeed still is widely embraced by Americans of all backgrounds” (1981, 143). With World War I having been closely followed by the Great Depression and then the onset of World War II, the attractiveness of the period of perceived calm between the Civil War and these events is not difficult to understand. As alluded to in the preceding discussion of The Magnificent Ambersons, this was also a period of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, with much of the population moving from small towns, and the towns themselves being transformed by the presence of industry (or swallowed up by the cities as railroads and then cars increased the ability to commute). As has been noted, the car becomes both a symbol of the wider industrialisation, and also a chief agent of change in its own right. The turn-of-the-century setting therefore strategically allows the films to address industrialisation and the arrival of the automobile. Finally, there may simply be a tendency to always locate the site of idealisation a few decades before the time in which cultural works are produced; this is a time in living memory, in the youth of many of the film’s contemporary audience, and the association of nostalgic yearning with such recent past is easily understandable.

This latter point is supported by the fact that in more recent films such as Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1999), and Blast from the Past (Hugh Wilson, 1999), the 1950s or early 1960s become the time period associated with many of the idealised traits identified in this article. In those films, however, the location embodying the ideals has switched from the small town to early suburbia, suggesting some of the continuity between the ideal of the small town and that of the idealised suburb. Of course, such films often mingle genuine nostalgia with a mocking, ironic awareness: they contrast the (perceived) naivety of the 1950s, and the expectations of communities at that time, with the realities of modern suburban lifestyles and values. However, I would suggest that we tend to overestimate the credulity of previous generations. This leads into the next point for consideration: the attitude to suburbanisation in the films discussed.

Portents of Doom: The City and Suburb in the 1940s Small Town Movie

Thus far, I have concentrated on those aspects of the small town life that typify the idealised form of such communities, and have referred only in passing to the elements of the films that suggest threats to that existence. The small town is, I suggest, generally painted as an alluring and attractive place; even in a film such as Kings Row that spends a great deal of time on the community’s hidden scandals, the town itself seems very attractive. However, there are also suggestions in the films studied of the perils facing the small town. These are expressed both through anxiety about the town’s vulnerability to corruption from malign urban influences, and also in the consideration of the ability of the small town to survive the coming age of suburbanisation.

I have already noted that Shadow of a Doubt is of some interest for showing the small town on the cusp of suburbanisation, with its relatively urbanised Main Street. Hitchcock, still new to America, clearly wished to use the film to explore the United States’ self image, rather than simply its potential as a family melodrama: revealingly, he brought in Thornton Wilder, who wrote Our Town, and Sally Benson, author of the original stories that inspired Meet Me in St. Louis, to help provide an appropriate sense of small-town flavour and to strengthen the depiction of the family (Philips 1984, 104; Spoto 1992, 117). In this context, it is interesting to note the film’s association of Uncle Charlie with the moral and physical corruption of the city. The film’s opening sequences associate Uncle Charlie with a particularly bleak, run-down vision of Philadelphia (figure 18). The city is defined visually by industrial waterfront, huge bridges, abandoned vehicles, empty lots, abandoned buildings, rubbish in the streets, and a lack of pedestrian activity. As Colin McArthur notes, the scenes foreshadow images of the inner city as an urban wasteland that would become prominent in American films of the 1980s and 1990s (McArthur 1997, 27); when contrasted with the Santa Rosa scenes, the film becomes a veritable advertisement for the abandonment of the inner city. More interesting, though, is the way Santa Rosa itself becomes more urban and threatening as Charlie becomes suspicious of her uncle. The town centre is increasingly seen at night, and assumes noir-ish overtones. The first hint of this is in the night-time scene when Detective Graham tells Charlie that her uncle may be a wanted man. Later, as Charlie’s hysteria grows, she half-runs through the streets and Hitchcock’s compositions become more cluttered and busy: we see Charlie through store windows, surrounded by people and with the background filled with signage and cars (figure 19a). Moments later, her distress is marked by her being nearly run over by a car. Later, when Uncle Charlie pursues her to confront her about her suspicions, the imagery becomes even more urban and threatening: the pair enter a seedy-looking late night bar (“’Til Two”), marked by neon signs advertising cocktails (figure 19b). The younger Charlie protests that she’s “never been in a place like this:” the bar is dark and smoke-filled, and packed with disreputable characters and sullen waitresses. It is as if Uncle Charlie’s corruption, and his view of the world as a “foul sty,” has reshaped Santa Rosa into a previously suppressed noir urban form[19].


Figure 18: Decaying City, Shadow of a Doubt


Figure 19: Noir Santa Rosa, Shadow of a Doubt

A similar moment of association between vice and urbanity occurs early in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George, Bert, and Ernie ogle the attractive Violet. Violet is established as sexually aggresive, in contrast to the domestically inclined Mary. Capra echoes Hitchcock’s approach by emphasising her looser morals through more urbanised imagery: as she leaves, we get a shot of her on the street that is the most urbanised view we get of the “real” Bedford Falls (figure 20). Capra uses a long lens, and positions the camera facing down the street, so that layers of signage, telegraph poles and street furniture are cluttered together, in contrast to the more sedate compositions we see of the street elsewhere. [20] The shot is framed with a car on the right, and another enters on the left mid-shot: again the device of someone nearly being run over is used as punctuation, although here for more comic effect. Violet has a similar influence later in the film, in the sequence already discussed in which George meets her in the street and tries to lure her into the countryside. In this sequence we once again see a more urbanised Bedford Falls: as Robert Beuka puts it, the town here seems to have become “a rather sophisticated, even racy town” (Beuka 2004, 51). Again there is a sense that the town’s visual landscape responds to the morals and interests of the characters who inhabit it.


Figure 20 – Good time girl as force for urbanisation, It’s a Wonderful Life

A much more dramatic explosion of urbanity, however, is the “Pottersville” sequence, in which guardian angel Clarence creates a world in which George Bailey hasn’t been born. The nightmare of the sequence is conveyed not only by what has happened to the people of the town – depravity, prison, and spinsterhood – but also through the physical changes to the town. As both Frank Krutnik and Robin Wood have argued, Pottersville sees the intrusion of a noir city into what has previously been an idealised Middle-American community (Krutnik 1997, 85086; Wood 1977, 49) (figure 20). Instead of the benign retailing previously seen along the street, the street is filled with uses associated with vice: bars, dance halls, burlesque / strip joints, pawnbrokers, and boxing establishments. Signage has switched from traditional painted signs to a proliferation of neon and other illuminated signs: even the discreet “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” sign (figure 4d) has been replaced by a strident neon “POTTERSVILLE” sign (figure 21d). As Michael Willian points out, even the road signs take a hectoring tone, suggestive of the way in which the pedestrian’s freedom of movement exhibited in Bedford Falls has been curtailed: signs read No Parking, Keep Moving, No Left Turn, No Dogs Allowed, No Loitering, and Keep Off the Grass (Willian 2006, 105). Importantly, what distresses George the most is his anonymity. While this is motivated in the film by the fantasy premise of his never being born, it underlines the way in which the intimacy of the small town has been snuffed out and replaced by the anonymity of the city. As Krutnik puts it, a structure of society bound by social norms and shared experience has been replaced by a community characterised by impersonality and self-interest:

The folk community of Bedford Falls resembles Thomas Jefferson’s pastoral ideal, a realm of localized Americanism protected from the pestilence of urbanity. And Pottersville is a corrupted city of strangers that has betrayed the Edenic promise of America – a world in which consensual social bonds have been obliterated under the pressures of unchecked capitalism (1997, 87).

Those two extremes are, in this instance, represented visually by the binary opposition of “small town” versus “urban;” Clarence’s magical intervention has swung the town from one side of that opposition to the other. As is often noted, however, one of the slightly unnerving things about the film is the narrowness with which it avoids the all-pervasive gloom that it contemplates as George loses his faith and descends into Pottersville (Ray 1985, 202, 213-215; Wood 1977, 49). As Robert B. Ray puts it, the film “implicitly [discredits] every common man but George, without whom average citizens become drunkards, poisoners, old maids, prostitutes, bullies, madmen, and embittered old women” (1985, 202). In the current context what is interesting is how little needs to change for the city to overrun all the virtues of the small town. The small-town character of Bedford Falls is literally shown to hinge on one man; without George Bailey the rapacious developer (Potter) would overrun the town.

Figure 21: Pottersville, It’s a Wonderful Life

In these examples the tension is between the loss of small town charm in the face of urbanising forces: the city represents anonymity, sin, and unbridled capitalism. However, there is also some reflection in the film of the tension underlying the conversion of small towns to suburban living, as ways are found to accommodate all those who need housing. In its preoccupation with this theme It’s a Wonderful Life echoes and expands upon Kings Row. In that film, Drake McHugh and his girlfriend Randy Monaghan take a sojourn in the country: Drake, it is clear, has sex on his mind but Randy takes him to an idyllic piece of countryside (figure 22a) and suggests he buys it. “This junk?” he says incredulously, but Randy persists: “It can be cleared and drained. After all, there are lots of people who work in the claypits and the mills and the coal mines who would like to own homes too.” Later, after Drake loses his legs in an accident, he supports himself by realising Randy’s idea: we even see the plans of his subdivision (figure 22b), the first tract of which has been sold. It is a classic residential grid, with no sign of anything other than housing lots and the creek that bisects the land. [21] “The claypit workers took most of them,” says Drake with pride. “Low prices but they make wages and pay off.” The role as a community builder gives the otherwise shattered Drake a sense of purpose. There is no intimation in Kings Row of the loss of the countryside that might go with the exercise of building cheap and plentiful homes for all, and at the film’s conclusion Drake’s recovery is signalled by his desire to take one of the lots and move out of the cheap downtown accommodation he shares with the Monaghans, and to take an allotment in his subdivision.

Figure 22 Subdividing the countryside, Kings Row

It’s a Wonderful Life also shows us how George Bailey’s life is given meaning by his community building, but delves into the subject in some more detail. As such, it exposes more of the conflict inherent the process of suburbanisation. George’s role as community builder is crucial to the lesson he learns in the film, as he comes to appreciate the town he repeatedly disparages early in the film (referring to it as a “crummy old town” and expressing disbelief that someone could miss Bedford Falls). His thwarted ambitions as an architect / urban planner are redirected into the Bailey Building and Loan, which is gradually revealed to be crucial to resisting Potter’s urbanisation. The film neatly sums up the genuine concerns with pre-suburban and inner-urban housing by using Potter to highlight the poor quality of residences prior to widespread suburban rollout. Potter is depicted as a slum landlord, keeping residents renting – “living like pigs,” as former resident Martini puts it – in his Potter’s Field estate. During the run on the Building and Loan, George tries to dissuade the townsfolk from busting him by reminding them of the poor quality of Potter’s housing. We briefly glimpse Potter’s Field as Martini moves out of it: the estate is shown to have an almost shanty-town appearance, with run-down buildings and unfeasible number of people milling around the frame (figure 23a). Martini has now achieved the dream of home ownership, and Potter’s business is dwindling: his rent collector enthuses about the quality of the Bailey Park Estate and its homes, telling Potter that “Potter’s Field… is becoming just that.” The struggle over the built form of Bedford Falls that occurs in the film’s fantasy sequences, and (as previously mentioned) at times in its visual structure, is made more literal in the struggle between George Bailey and Potter over how the town’s residents should be housed. George has realised his ambitions by making housing affordable for everybody in Bedford Falls, and this is key to the appreciation of the community that drives the redemptive final sequence. Capra thus suggests George is the agent of a more benign type of developer, one for whom personal profits are secondary and community building is paramount. At one level, therefore, the optimistic and populist Capra strongly endorses the suburban ideal of home ownership, suggesting the actions of George Bailey make housing affordable for everybody.


Figure 23: Potter’s Field and Bailey Park, It’s a Wonderful Life

What is striking about the Bailey Park sequence, however, is how drastically Bailey Park differs from downtown Bedford Falls, and the ideals of community discussed in this article. As Robert Beuka notes, Bailey Park seems “… a visual aberration, in that it depicts a landscape so markedly different from everything else we have seen in the film… the small, fairly uniform ranch houses of Bailey Park, with their distinctly postwar suburbia look, seem a step out of the film’s timeframe” (2004, 62). The Bailey Park we see is filled with characterless bungalows and largely devoid of trees (figures 23b-23d); it completely lacks the charm evident throughout the sequences in the old town of Bedford Falls. Nezar AlSayyad notes this contradiction:

…in contrast to Bedford Falls, there is no street life in Bailey Park. There are no trees, only lawns; no porches, only private back patios. Moreover, it is constructed on what was once the cemetery, thereby erasing traces of lineage and history… George and Mary continue to live in the old part of town, making it new by rebuilding and repairing it (2006, 58).

Both AlSayyad and Beuka suggest that this somewhat conflicted view of Bailey Park reflects “anxiety… over the sense of the small-town American landscape in transition,” (Beuka’s phrase) where Bedford Falls finds itself in limbo “between inside and outside, present and future, small town and big city, community and society, tradition and modernity” (AlSayyad’s description) (Beuka 2004, 62; AlSayyad 2006, 58). Much of this underlying tension in the film as a whole is clearly deliberate, given the way Capra sets up Potter and George Bailey as competing forces fighting for the soul of the town. Yet I would argue that given Capra’s unequivocal association of George Bailey as a force for good (and for the protection of the town), and Potter as force for evil (and for the debasement of the town), it was not his intent that the sequence at Bailey Park be ambivalent. On the contrary, this is the moment where by associating suburbia with George Bailey, Capra is expressing confidence in the suburban future. George Bailey is shown not only to preserve the traditional character of Bedford Falls (by averting its urbanisation) but he is able to make it affordable for all.

The difficulty with the Bailey Park scene arises because of shortcomings with the iconography of the attractive community. Capra has established Bedford Falls as an attractive place to live by trading on the multi-faceted iconography of the small town that have been discussed. I have suggested that the appeal of the suburb is based on the notion that it can deliver the benefits of the small town, and I think it should be apparent that many of the traits outlined in this article inform the stereotype of the idealised suburb that we now tend to associate with the 1950s sitcom. In this sense, the idealised suburb and the idealised small town blur together. Kenneth Mackinnon notes this in his study of small town movies, suggesting that while he considers Meet Me in St. Louis a small-town film, it is a difficult film to categorise because “movies set in the suburbs of cities deliberately take on the look, and therefore share the charisma, of the small town movie” (MacKinnon 1984, 24). I would suggest that of the films studied here, Meet Me in St. Louis is of particular interest as an early example of the idealised small town depiction transforming into the stereotyped / idealised suburb. In particular, its virtual absence of any sense of a town centre, and reliance on a purely residential conception of community, foreshadows suburbia’s separation of uses and focus on the domestic sphere as the main site of community togetherness. The problem Capra faces in the Bailey Park sequence is that this equation of “good suburbia” with the properties of a small town leaves him with no established system of signs for showing an estate that is not a small town (since we need to understand we are in Bailey Park, not old Bedford Falls) but which is nevertheless suburban and good. To visually signify that Bailey Park is suburban, rather than the old town, Capra has no choice but to make it visually less appealing. This gives us a hint of the semiotic problem suburbia faces. If there is a need to distinguish a space as specifically suburban, and not a small town, its suburban-ness will tend to be defined in the negative: through the absence of a Main Street, the absence of people on the street, and so on.


In this article I have outlined in some detail the qualities of the iconic filmed small town, as it existed at the dawn of the postwar suburban boom. I expect few of the traits I have outlined are surprising, as such: my point is more to highlight the sheer pervasiveness of those traits. This is of interest when we consider the extreme disconnect between the depictions of community in these films and typical lived experience in a modern suburb; the familiarity of the idealised small town tends to obscure its strangeness. Compare, for example, the experience of buying a suitcase from a typical suburban mall with that of George Bailey in It’s Wonderful Life. In real life this would be a humdrum excursion, most likely undertaken by car, and with little scope for community engagement or social interaction. George, by contrast, walks to a store that fronts a high street, rather than driving to inward facing mall tenancy; the shop owner knows his name; the luggage is paid for by another shop-owner with whom George has a longstanding friendship; he marches out of the store and is hailed from windows by his friends; a beautiful woman makes a pass at him as he goes. It is at once irresistible and yet completely alien.

It is little wonder that our everyday experience of suburbia feels wanting by comparison with such a life. This generalised dissatisfaction with the suburban environment, and its relationship to our cultural depictions of community, raises important questions about how our expectations of our social and physical landscape are shaped. There is a complex interplay at work here. In one sense, it could be argued that the disparagement of suburbia is based on a confusion of fantasy and reality. When we compare our cities, and our lives, to those of characters in films, we will always come off second best, as their environment is always narratively purposeful. Characters know everybody they meet because it conveys story information and conveys information about character; their interactions are meaningful because they all serve the relentless drive of a classical narrative pattern; their physical environment is attractive because it is designed in support of an escapist genre entertainment. The randomness of real-life events, and the messiness of genuine environments, will not bear comparison with such a world. On the other hand, that fantasy is not without a real-world basis. In seeking to depict a pleasing idea of community, filmmakers draw on particular real world precedents, and draw on the much the same design principles as real-world architects, planners, and urban designers. These are design approaches that were frequently forsaken in suburban planning after World War II, and the problems of physical and social isolation in such suburbs are genuine. The nostalgia that is at work when we watch Our Town or It’s a Wonderful Life is not purely sentimental, or the product of misplaced confusion between fantasy and reality. It also reflects real shortcomings in our physical environment. Our filmed depictions of community are of interest not only as escape: they have become important shared reference points in the quest to find (and rediscover) better ways to build our urban environments.


AlSayyad, Nezar. 2006. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. New York & London: Routledge.
Althusser, Louis. 1994. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, edited by John Storey, 151-162. Cambridge: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Beuka, Robert A. 2004. SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. Palgrave Macmillan.
Bruegmann, Robert. 1989. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Fishman, Robert. 1989. Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic Books.
Francaviglia, Richard. 1996. Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image Building in Small-Town America. Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press.
———————-. 1981. “Main Street U.S.A.: A Comparison/Contrast of Streetscapes in Disneyland and Walt Disney World.” The Journal of Popular Culture. 15, no. 1: 141-156.
Haberman, Donald. 1989. Our Town: An American Play. Boston: Twayne.
Hall, Peter. 2002. Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. Third edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hayden, Dolores. 2003. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon Books.
—————-. 2006. “Building the American Way: Public Subsidy, Private Space.” In The Politics of Public Space, edited by Setha Low and Neil Smith, 35-48. New York: Routledge.
Howard, Ebenezer. 1946. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Edited by F.J. Osborn. London: Faber and Faber.
Jackson, Kenneth T. 1985. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaufman, Gerald. 1994. Meet Me in St. Louis. London: British Film Institute.
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Lapsley, Rob. 1997. “Mainly in Cities and at Night: Some Notes on Cities and Film.” In The Cinematic City, edited by David B. Clarke, 186-208. London & New York: Routledge.
Levy, Emanuel. 1990. Small-Town America in Film: The Decline and Fall of Community. New York: Continuum, 1990.
MacKinnon, Kenneth. 1984. Hollywood’s Small Towns: An Introduction to the American Small-Town Movie. Metuchen, N.J. & London: Scarecrow Press.
Maland, Charles J. 1980. Frank Capra. Boston: Twayne.
McArthur, Colin. 1997. “Chines Boxes and Russian Dolls: Tracking the Elusive Cinematic City.” In The Cinematic City, edited by David B. Clarke, 19-45. London & New York: Routledge.
Mumford, Lewis. 1961. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. San Diego, New York, London: Harvest Books, 1961.
—————–. 1938. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1938.
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[1] For complementary overviews of various pre-World War II suburban models including semi-rural garden communities, industrial towns, and railroad / streetcar suburbs, see Hayden (2003, chapters 3, 4 and 5); Mumford (1961, chapters 15 and 16); Bruegmann, ( 2005, chapters 2 and 3); Jackson (1985 chapters 1 to 10); and Hall (2002, chapter 4).

[2] This book originally appeared in a somewhat different form, as To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Land Reform, in 1898.

[3] The phrase is Hayden’s (2003 chapter. 7).

[4] Federal subsidy of housing commenced in the United States during the 1930s – during which time its impact on suburban expansion was counterbalanced by the Great Depression – and continued in the more prosperous post-war era, when it led to an explosion in housing construction. See Hayden (2006, 35-48); Jackson (1985, chapters 11 and 13); Hayden (2003, 121-132).

[5] The film’s afterlife and ongoing appeal as a seasonal classic is discussed in Peary (1981, 162-163).

[6] I have referred throughout this article to the film’s narrator as Morgan (the surname of the druggist), as this is the way he is presented in the film. In Wilder’s play it is clearer that the narrator (“stage manager”) is not actually the druggist, but “steps into” the role of Morgan for the scene in the drug store.

[7] That the notion of Main Street still serves a powerful rhetorical value as representative of the best of middle-America was underlined by the contrasting of “Wall Street” and “Main Street” in the dialogue of candidates in the 2008 US presidential election; here a real place – Wall Street, New York – and a notional place – Main Street – are pressed into service as representations not just of different sectors of the economy, but the values seen to be held by participants in those sectors. For example, both candidates contrasted and parallelled the issues facing Main Street and Wall Street in the first presidential debate on 26 September 2008. For transcript see “First Presidential Debate – McCain and Obama – Transcript,” New York Times Website, September 26, 2008, Accessed 1/2/09.

[8] For a detailed discussion of Wilder’s use of an empty stage to create “realism and generality,” see Haberman (1989, 18-22).

[9] Francaviglia sees linear (Main Street) and nodal (town square) town centres as essentially identical and treats them as such in his study of Main Streets (1996, xx). It seems likely that Main Streets are more popular in cinematic representations because they are more suited to the construction of sets on finite budgets and within constrained spaces of studio backlots.

[10] The classical appearance of the street is scarcely surprising: while the set for the trolley depot was purpose built for this film, the street in the back-projected footage is almost certainly part of the MGM studio’s pre-existing complex of sets at their Culver City studios (Kaufman 1994, 18; Neuman 2008, 90-91).

[11] This similarity is strengthened by the fact that – from the limited visual evidence in the film – the Bedford falls set seems to use much the same rounded-off triangle “cheat” that Disney’s Main Street USA uses to create the impression of a circle in a constrained, terminating space.

[12] In Bowling Alone Putnam discusses the idea of a shift to “vocational communities” and suggests that while such socialising does account for increased proportions of our social networks, such friendships are less likely to be “intimate and deeply supportive.” This would support the idea that there is a sense of nostalgic longing associated with widespread use of other non-workplace institutions as social hubs (2001, 85-87).

[14] For the mid twentieth century pressures on such streets, see Francaviglia (1996, 41-51). Discussion of the physical impacts of the car on Main Streets can be found throughout Kay (1997) but see especially chapter 7.

[15] Interestingly, two of the houses, from The Magnificent Ambersons (figure 10d) and It’s a Wonderful Life (figure 10f) are so very similar – except for a lengthened second storey and heightened turret – that the house in the latter appears to be a redressed version of the same set: shots elsewhere in It’s a Wonderful Life establish that even the design of pickets on the front fencing and detailing of balustrading matches.

[16] After World War II the pendulum would swing back to conformity of a more industrial kind as post-war developers mass-produced estates with minimal variation in housing types.

[17] For consideration of the link between the small-town film and melodrama, see MacKinnon (1984, 47-52. Of the films discussed here, MacKinnon considers only Kings Row a melodrama “in the sense in which the term might be used after [Douglas] Sirk” but notes the affinity with the genre of both The Magnificent Ambersons and Shadow of a Doubt.

[18] Sam’s repeated insistence on plastics as the growth industry of the suburban age is an interesting foreshadowing of the more famous such reference in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967).

[19] Robin Wood notes this explosion of noir in the “’Til Two” scene in his famous essay on Shadow of a Doubt and It’s a Wonderful Life (1977, 50).

[20] At one other point in the movie we see a view of the non-Pottersville Bedford falls resembling this; this is in the sequence where George and Uncle Billy search for the missing money out on the street. In that case the more hectic composition echoes their panic and harassed state of mind.

[21] Whilst one would not want to ascribe too much significance to the throwaway detail of the subdivision diagram, it is intriguing to compare the plan to genuine subdivisions from the film’s approximate timeframe, as found in Hayden (2003, 63, 81, 85). Drake’s plan lacks the attention to street form, landscaping and general refinements of plans prepared by architects such as Fredrick Law Olmsted; in its more “industrial” approach it is a more genuinely pre-suburban design.

Author Bio
Stephen Rowley is an urban planner, and a PhD candidate in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne. His article “False L.A.: Blade Runner and the Nightmare City” appeared in The Blade Runner Experience, ed. Will Brooker (London: Wallflower Press, 2005). He is co-editor of the magazine Planning News.

Refractory Volume 8, 2005

Edited by Angela Ndalianis and Wendy Haslem

Some of the essays in this special bumper issue were presented as papers at the Men in Tights! Superheroes Conference, which was held at Melbourne University, June 2005.


1. True Lies: Do We Really Want Our Icons to Come to Life – Louise Krasniewicz

2. The Comicbook Superhero: Myth For Our Times – Nigel Kaw

3. Toys and Grrls: Comparing Figures in the Merchandising of Television’s Action Heroine – Miranda J. Banks

4. What the *Hezmanah* Are You Talking about?: Alien Discourses in ‘Farscape’ – Jes Battis

5. Xena’s Double-Edged Sword: Sapphic Love & the Judaeo-Christian tradition – Ivar Kvistad

6. Romancing the vampire: the lives and loves of two vampire slayers: Anita and Buffy – Ingrid Hofman-Howley

7. Smallville’s Sexual Symbolism: From Queer Repression to Fans’ Queered Expressions – Anne Kustritz

8. Cyborg girls and shape-shifters: The discovery of difference by Anime and Manga Fans in Australia – Craig Norris

9. The Bold and the Forgetful: Amnesia, Character Mutability and Serial Narrative Form in The X-Men – Radha O’Meara

10. All’s Well, the Twentieth Century Dies: David Bowie as Postmodern Art Detective Professor – Kellie A. Wacker

11. Side FX – the Aura of Electronics in the Information Age – Rock Chugg

12. More than Meets the Eye: the Suburban Cinema Megaplex as Sensory Heterotopia – Leanne Downing