“Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie – Erin Hawley

Abstract: In this paper, I explore the possibility of retelling Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in a children’s media text.  Like most material within the horror genre, Frankenstein is not immediately accessible to children and its key themes and tropes have traditionally been read as articulations of “adult” concerns.  Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  With this in mind, I consider how the Frankenstein tale has been transformed within the constructed space of a child’s worldview in Tim Burton’s 2012 animated film Frankenweenie.  I argue that the film neither simplifies nor expresses great fidelity to Shelley’s novel, but instead cultivates a sense of curiosity and cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and the horror genre itself.

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

The horror genre has long been considered “off limits” to children.  From the rewriting of fairytales to erase their violent and scary content (Zipes 1993) to the literal defacement of eighteenth century children’s literature to remove traces of the Gothic (Townshend 2008), efforts to disentangle children’s texts from horror have given rise to the notion that children cannot derive the same sort of pleasure from “being scared” that adults can.  Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that children can and do take pleasure in horror material.  In her work on child cinema audiences in Britain, Sarah Smith has found that horror films in the 1930s were “extremely popular with children” due to the “mixed feelings of fear and fun” they evoked (2005, 58).  Writing of James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931), Smith observes that children were “fascinated by its appeal and attended in droves” (2005, 70).  Similarly, David Buckingham’s research into children as horror viewers reveals that, while fright reactions to horror material can be powerful and long-lived, child audiences also take pleasure in the conventions of the horror text – they enjoy watching “evil destroyed” but also watching it “triumph”; they enjoy the feeling of fear itself and, like adult viewers, find pleasure in horror’s momentary destabilisation of societal norms (1996, 112-116).

The pleasures of horror from a child’s perspective have also been explored by Neil Gaiman (2006), who tells an interesting story about his daughter’s fascination with James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  “My daughter Maddy loves the idea of The Bride of Frankenstein,” he writes: “she’s ten”.  Such fascination leads to dress-ups and play, and eventually to young Maddy and her friend watching the horror classic under Gaiman’s supervision.  When confronted with the movie itself, however, the enthusiasm wanes: the kids don’t get it.  As Gaiman observes, “They enjoyed it, wriggling and squealing in all the right places. But once it was done, the girls had an identical reaction. ‘Is it over?’ asked one. ‘That was weird,’ said the other, flatly. They were as unsatisfied as an audience could be”.

To some extent, this reaction is not surprising.  The Bride of Frankenstein is based on Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, a text that – like most material within the horror genre – is usually read as an articulation of decidedly adult concerns.  From the original novel to its more recent manifestations in popular media, the Frankenstein tale is peppered with depictions of violence and violation, murder and misogyny; across the long history of its remaking in popular culture it has been interpreted as a story about genetic manipulation (Waldby 2002, 29), sexual transgression (Mellor 2003, 12-13), and post-partum depression (Johnson 1982, 6), to name just a few of its more adult-centric resonances.

Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  At its heart, it is a story about what it means to be an outsider and what it means to encounter, experience, and negotiate otherness; these are themes that have more recently been explored by writers of children’s and young adult fiction from Roald Dahl to Stephenie Meyer.  As Barbara Johnson has pointed out, Frankenstein is also essentially a story about parent/child relationships: with its themes of monstrosity and technology, Johnson tells us, Shelley’s novel explores “the love-hate relation we have toward our children” (1982, 6).  Building on Johnson we can suggest that by offering us a glimpse of the world through the monster’s eyes the novel also briefly presents this “love-hate relation” from the child’s perspective, and that decades of Frankenstein movies continue this by offering the misunderstood monster as an icon of all that is unruly, confused, and frightening about childhood itself.

The story Gaiman tells about his daughter’s fascination with The Bride of Frankenstein and her reaction – “that was weird” – to the movie itself is a lovely articulation of the way children may be simultaneously drawn to and locked out of the Frankenstein tale.  It is interesting to note that Gaiman’s daughter and her friend were not frightened by the film or put off by its horror elements (indeed, they seemed to enjoy this aspect of the movie, “wriggling and squealing in all the right places”); instead, it was a certain indefinable strangeness that informed their ultimately “unsatisfied” reaction.  All this suggests that children can engage meaningfully and pleasurably with material in the horror genre, especially if that material is rewritten with a child’s perspective in mind.

In this article, I explore the relationship between Frankenstein and young audiences and consider the possibility of retelling Shelley’s novel in a children’s media text.  My analysis is inspired by the recent appearance of characters from Shelley’s novel and its various adaptations in three children’s animated films: Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012), in which a boy named Victor Frankenstein reanimates his dog Sparky after a tragic car accident; Igor (Anthony Leondis, 2008), in which a hunch-backed laboratory assistant brings a female monster to life; and Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012), in which the Frankenstein monster and his Bride join Dracula and a host of other characters from the horror genre.  This trend towards engaging the Frankenstein myth in children’s media begs the question: how have such texts made Shelley’s tale accessible to young audiences, and with what degree of success?

Below, I take up this question with specific reference to Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.  Not only is Burton’s film (as we shall see) the most highly regarded and in some senses the most successful of these three texts, it is also the most complex and arguably does not “dumb down” its source material.  My analysis of Frankenweenie will examine how the film constructs a “child’s eye view” and transforms the Frankenstein tale so that its characters, themes, and narratives make sense within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I will demonstrate that Burton’s film captures the spirit of its source text without necessarily striving for fidelity.  I will also consider some of Frankenweenie’s extra-textual material, exploring how reviews, product tie-ins, and even the film’s intertextual references contribute to its overall project of transforming but not simplifying the Frankenstein tale for children.

Adaptation, simplification, and transformation

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton's homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton’s homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Frankenweenie is a stop-motion animation inspired by Burton’s earlier live-action film of the same name.  Here, the Frankenstein tale is relocated to one of Burton’s characteristic suburbia-scapes (“New Holland”), complete with manicured lawns, hedge sculptures, and monstrously mediocre residents.  Within this new narrative space, “Victor Frankenstein” is a child: a troubled, creative loner who spends his time tinkering in the attic, playing with his beloved dog Sparky, and making movies.  Tragedy enters Victor’s life when Sparky is killed in a car accident.  Inspired by his science teacher, the delightfully dour Mr Rzykruski, Victor steals Sparky’s body from the pet cemetery, drags the corpse back to the family home, and reanimates him in the attic.  When Victor’s classmates learn his secret, they try to replicate the experiment.  Chaos ensues as pets both living and dead are transformed into monsters who descend on New Holland, leading to a climactic showdown at the windmill overlooking the town.

The relationship between Frankenweenie and its source text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is complex.  Burton’s film both diverges from and intersects with Shelley’s novel, defining itself through patterns of fleeting fidelity and moments of spectacular transformation.  At the same time, the film makes reference to a plethora of other texts both within and beyond the Frankenstein mythos, thereby demonstrating the ways in which “adaptation” approaches and merges with “intertextuality” (see Elliott 2014; Martin 2009; Leitch 2003).  In other words, Frankenweenie is by no means a “faithful” retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It should be noted, however, that Shelley’s novel – despite being adapted many times in the centuries since its publication, across different media and in different genres – has not tended to inspire fierce fidelity in adapting authors.  As Albert Lavalley points out, Frankenstein tends to be “viewed by the playwright or the screenwriter as a mythic text, an occasion for the writer to let loose his own fantasies or to stage what he feels is dramatically effective, to remain true to the central core of the myth, [but] often to let it interact with fears and tensions of the current time” (1979, 245).

The notion of “fidelity” to an original text as the means of measuring an adaptation’s success, strength, and value has itself been thoroughly contested and problematised in recent years.  Fuelled particularly by the work of adaptation theorists such as Robert Stam (2005), Thomas Leitch (2003, 2007), and Imelda Whelehan (1999), this problematisation of the fidelity model has been an intervention in established ways of thinking about the relationship between an adaptive text and its source material.  As Will Brooker observes, though, fidelity criticism may be “outmoded and discredited within academia” but it has managed to “retain its currency within popular discourse” (2012, 45); in particular, it still informs the critical reception of films that adapt well-known novels or works of literature.  Even within academia, moreover, fidelity criticism has tended to linger in discussions of children’s media texts, particularly when the texts in question are retellings of classic or literary works.  It is often assumed that such adaptations carry some degree of responsibility for encouraging children to read and connect with the source material (Napolitano 2009, 81); in this way, the issue of fidelity becomes more urgent in the context of children’s media.

Concerns about fidelity in children’s adaptations are compounded by the issue of simplification.  Frankenweenie, for instance, is both an adaptation of a literary text and a reworking of classic horror films within the space of a child’s animation: the question we may immediately wish to ask, then, is “what has been lost in this process?”.  Both Shelley’s novel and the films of James Whale are today held in high regard as cultural classics, while the Frankenstein myth itself is a repository of ideas and cultural conversations about selfhood, embodiment, subjectivity, life, and death.  Potentially, the simplification of this myth for children would involve more than just a strategic removal of violent and sexual content in order to achieve a PG rating: it would be a process of dumbing down, a cleaning up of a story that works best when it is not “clean”.  It would also be a form of commercialisation, a reduction of a complex tale so that it can be packaged and marketed to young audiences.

These problems of simplification, commodification, and the dumbing down of source material are frequently mentioned by analysts of children’s adaptations, especially when the adaptation in question is a Disney product (as is Frankenweenie).  Writing in 1965 for the journal Horn Book, Frances Sayers refers to the “sweet” and “saccharine” nature of Disney adaptations and argues that, in order to both address and construct a child or family audience, Disney texts present life as lacking “any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence” (609).  Her concerns have been echoed by Hastings, who writes of the “conscious effort [by Disney] to produce children’s movies with no alarming moral ambiguities” (1993, 84).  Zipes, in turn, laments the way Disney has “‘violated’ the literary genre of the fairytale and packaged his versions in his name through the merchandising of books, toys, clothing, and records” (1995, 38).  Marc Napolitano’s work on the “Disneyfication of Dickens” is particularly relevant here because it explores the intersection between adult literature and children’s media.  Napolitano argues that the films Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol – both Disney texts that retell canonical works by Charles Dickens – are “simplified and sanitized adaptations of Dickens that were marketed to families by the Walt Disney Company” (2009, 80).  In Oliver & Company in particular, Napolitano argues, Disney “lightens the material significantly and uses cute, cuddly animal characters, all of whom would be reproduced as stuffed toys, McDonald’s Happy Meal prizes… and countless other types of child-friendly merchandise to market the film to kids” (2009, 82).

All such criticism of Disney’s treatment of literary material is important, and functions as part of a wider interrogation of the seemingly “apolitical” and “critically untouchable” world of children’s animated film (Bell, Haas, and Sells 1995, 2).  As analysts of Disney products, it is essential that we disentangle ourselves from our own enjoyment of the Disney “magic”; this is part of what Zipes has called “Breaking the Disney Spell” (1995).  At the same time, however, claims about “Disneyfication” can be problematic when they make sweeping assumptions about young audiences, their levels of media literacy, and the ways in which they engage with media texts.  In other words, when accusing a children’s text of simplification we ourselves risk making an overly simplified reading of the child audience.  The charge of simplification becomes especially problematic when it lapses into what Semenza (2008) has termed the “dumbing down cliché”: the notion that adapting a literary text for children must always and automatically involve a process of reduction and commodification.

In the context of these concerns, Frankenweenie provides us with an interesting example because it resists the simplification process and simultaneously encourages its young audience to reconnect with the source material through means other than fidelity.  The film’s refusal to “Disneyfy” the Frankenstein tale is signified by the transformation of the Disney logo in the opening sequence: lightning strikes the familiar Disney castle and the picture turns black and white, a suggestion that there will be no fairies or cute, singing animals in the film that follows; that there will be no attempts to render the Frankenstein tale “safe” and “simple” even as it is opened up for young viewers.  While this transformation of the Disney logo is indicative of the mediating presence of Burton in the adaptation process, and of the supposed clash between the Disney and Burton brands, it can also be read as a resistance to simplification – a suggestion that the film will be “Frankenstein for kids” but not “Frankenstein lite”.

In what follows, I explore how Frankenweenie transforms (rather than simplifies) the Frankenstein tale within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I use the term “transformation” with an awareness of its applicability to studies of animation as an art form, a technology, and a mode of representation.  As both Susan Napier (2000) and Paul Wells (1998) have noted, animation has metamorphic qualities that distinguish it from live-action cinema and that manifest at the levels of story, body, and space.  Wells has also argued that the process of adapting a literary text into animated film can involve “an act of literal transformation which carries with it mythic and metaphoric possibility” (2007, 201).  In this way, the idea of transformation allows us to discuss children’s animated films as adaptations without making assumptions about animation as a medium (for instance, that it is inferior to live-action cinema) or about children as audiences (for instance, that they are incapable of understanding textual and intertextual complexities).

Transformation and the child’s eye view

In her analysis of the filmic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Sarah Annunziato (2014) explores the construction of a “child’s eye view”, arguing that the film – while drawing attention and public comment for its scariness and mature themes – is appropriate for young audiences because it imagines the world as seen through a child’s eyes.  Similar claims can be made of Frankenweenie, which constructs a child’s view of the world and repeatedly invites its viewers to inhabit this childlike space.  In both these films, the creation of a child’s eye view specifically involves moments of scariness rather than excluding them.  The relationship between Frankenstein and Frankenweenie differs, however, from that between the book and film versions of Where the Wild Things Are because it involves a shift from adult to child audience.  In Burton’s film, therefore, employing a child’s perspective allows for a significant rethinking of the original tale.

In its simplest sense, this child’s eye view is visible in the depiction of New Holland and its residents.  While certainly reminiscent of some of Burton’s other visions of suburbia, New Holland is best described as a small town landscape seen through a child’s eyes: a place of long shadows and neat lines, of fantasy and darkness, of strange children and menacing adults.  The frequent use of low camera angles to depict some of these adult characters (such as the mayor Mr Bergermeister and the science teacher Mr Rzykruski) aligns us with Victor and invites us to adopt a child’s perspective.  While not menacing or imposing, Victor’s parents, too, are adults as seen by children: simplistic to the point of caricature, caught up in trivial or meaningless “grown-up” concerns (Victor’s father talks endlessly about his work as a travel agent; Victor’s mother is repeatedly seen vacuuming the house and/or reading romance novels).  On the other hand, the world of Victor (the child’s world) is depicted as complex, detailed, and intricate.  This is best represented by the attic, a cluttered space of creativity, invention, and play – and a notable contrast with the rest of Victor’s house and suburb, which are neat, sparse, and boring.

This inherent difference between adults and children – and the resultant conflict, always seen from the child’s perspective – is central to the plot of Frankenweenie.  From the opening scenes we learn that Victor is misunderstood by his mostly well-meaning parents, who worry that he spends too much time alone and will “turn out weird”.  His father encourages Victor to take up baseball, which leads inadvertently to Sparky’s death: the little dog meets his doom while chasing a ball hit by Victor.  The subsequent depiction of Victor’s grief is highly moving, all the more so because his parents do not seem to understand the extent of his sadness.  His mother offers clichés and platitudes: “If we could bring him back, we would” and “when you lose someone they never really leave you – they just move into a special place in your heart”, which Victor interprets as hollow and macabre (“I don’t want him in my heart”, he objects, “I want him here with me”).  These early scenes suggest a sense of turmoil beneath the calm surface of even the most loving parent-child relationship: a version, perhaps, of the “love-hate relation” that Johnson (1982, 6) detects within Shelley’s visions of monstrosity.  They also reveal that the world seen through a child’s eyes is not a simple place, even though it may be dominated by fantasies (such as the desire to bring Sparky back to life, which Victor soon fulfills).

It is through these early depictions of conflict, death, and grief that the film captures the thematic spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel.  In Shelley’s text, Victor Frankenstein is driven to create his monster by a desire to suspend mortality and escape the horrors of death and decay: Shelley’s Victor is both haunted and inspired by the death of his mother, Caroline, which leads him to seek out scientific means of “renew[ing] life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 1993, 43).  For children, the death of a pet is often a first experience of mortality; thus in Frankenweenie it is the dog, Sparky’s, death that allows Victor to confront the notion of perishability that so horrifies his predecessor in Shelley’s novel.  This experience of death and perishability also precipitates the story events and initiates the move into the horror genre by inspiring Victor’s act of monster-making.

The scene in which Victor reanimates Sparky provides Burton and his team with much opportunity to revel in horror movie history and to pay homage to the films of James Whale, particularly Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  Lightning flashes and thunder crashes as Victor sews Sparky’s body back together and fixes bolts to his neck; the body is then covered by a sheet and raised through the roof to receive the life-giving electric charge.  Yet here, too, the child’s eye view is at work.  Attentive viewers will notice that Sparky’s body is laid out on an ironing board, and that toys, appliances, and other household objects form part of the elaborate life-giving apparatus.  Signifiers of “childhood” and “ordinariness” are thus interwoven with the signifiers of life, creation, and monstrosity borrowed from Whale.  Instead of fingers twitching and eyes opening, Sparky’s “alive-ness” is signified by a wagging tail; and instead of proclaiming “It’s alive!” like his predecessor in the Whale films, young Victor Frankenstein says “You’re alive”.  This shift in language reveals that the monster has been created according to a child’s desires and wishes: the moment of creation is framed by Victor’s desire not only for Sparky to still be alive but for the friendship, happiness, and unconditional love that a pet often represents.  Accordingly, the child views the monster as a friend and companion (you) rather than as the product of an experiment (it).

This transformation of Frankenstein to suit a child’s perspective certainly involves a degree of softening, a removal of some aspects of violence and conflict that define the original tale.  For instance, Shelley’s novel and most of its adaptations are constructed around the conflict between monster and maker – this conflict is not present in Frankenweenie.  As we would expect given the film’s target audience, Burton and his screenwriter John August also de-sexualise the Frankenstein tale: another notable absence is Shelley’s sub-plot involving the creation of a mate for the monster, and the resultant murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.  This does not mean, however, that Frankenweenie shies away from an exploration of monstrosity and horror.  Indeed, while Sparky himself is not depicted as a true monster, the film is replete with images of monstrosity.  These come particularly in the form of the creatures that Victor’s classmates bring to life: pets and other icons of familiarity, domesticity, and innocence (sea monkeys, a fluffy white cat, a dead hamster) who become snarling, terrifying, rampaging beasts.  The image of these monsters running amok through the fairground of New Holland encapsulates the film’s transformation of its source material.  This scene is only tenuously connected to Shelley’s plot, yet it resounds with Frankensteinian questions and dilemmas, particularly as they might be understood by children: When you have created your monster, what are you going to do with him/her/it?  And what happens if your monster (your game, your story) escapes your control?  While exploring the lighter side of monster-making, then, the film also explores the darker side of play, re-interpreting the Frankensteinian themes of creativity, perishability, and the life/death boundary so that they are seen from a child’s perspective.

Paratexts, intertexts, and the complex world of Frankenweenie

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

While not a notable box office success, Frankenweenie received a generally positive critical reception.  The film is rated highly – at 87% – on the aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes, and is frequently described by reviewers as an enjoyable product for both children and adults (see, for instance, Paatsch 2012; Chang 2012; Mazmanian 2012).  Occasionally, charges of simplification are levelled at the film: Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes Frankenweenie as “a sentimental kind of retro gothic lite, appearing under the Disney banner” (2012), while A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes that “the movie, a Walt Disney release, also feels tame and compromised” (2012).  Other reviewers found the film dark enough to be entertaining, with many making positive mention of Burton’s ability to balance the sweetness of a children’s story with the darkness of a horror film.  Leigh Paatsch in the Herald Sun, for instance, commends the film for “deftly balancing blatant eeriness with a chipper cheeriness that excuses many a macabre event” (2012).  Lou Lumenick in the New York Post praises the film for its “creepy but basically sweet humor” (2012), as does Matthew Bond in the Daily Mail Australia who describes it as “strange, but also touching and lovely” (2012).  In Time magazine, Richard Corliss addresses the film’s boundary-crossing quality when he notes approvingly that “Frankenweenie’s message to the young” is that “children should play with dead things” (2012).

This positive reception sets Burton’s film apart from other recent children’s films that play with horror tropes and characters, such as the aforementioned Hotel Transylvania and Igor, both of which received lukewarm reviews.  Hotel Transylvania in particular was frequently criticised for its shallow approach to the narratives it draws upon, including Shelley’s Frankenstein (see, for instance, Reynolds 2012; Collin 2012).  L. Kent Wolgamott in the Lincoln Journal Star (2012) observes that while Frankenweenie did not perform as well at the box office as Hotel Transylvania, it is “by far, the superior film” (and he contextualises this comment by urging readers not to “consider box-office returns to be the only measure of a film’s success”, adding that with Frankenweenie Burton has created a “masterpiece”).

Some reviews of Frankenweenie mention the construction of a child’s eye view.  Adam Mazmanian in The Washington Times, for instance, identifies this as the means by which the film “draw[s] in young audiences”, adding that its “knowing winks at horror-movie history will appeal to grown-ups” (2012).  It is interesting that Mazmanian feels the need to separate the film’s audience into these two distinct categories, and that he distinguishes the “adult” and “child” sections of the audience by an ability (or lack thereof) to “get” the film’s intertextual references.  Wolgamott takes this further, praising the film for its references to classic horror movies but adding “that’s not anything the preschool through middle school animation crowd is going to get, or could possibly care about” (2012).  Both critics agree that intertextuality is a means by which Frankenweenie resists simplification and becomes something more than a light and fluffy children’s film.  At the same time, both critics produce distinct readings of the film’s child and adult audiences, and locate the qualities of media literacy and cultural awareness (which might enable the decoding of the film’s intertextuality) squarely within the adult space.

It is certainly true that Frankenweenie is littered with intertextual references: to other texts in the Frankenstein mythos (particularly the films of James Whale), to films in Burton’s oeuvre (such as Edward Scissorhands), and to texts in the horror genre more broadly (such as the Japanese monster movie Gamera).  This is coupled with a playful self-reflexivity that we often see in filmic adaptations of Frankenstein.  As Esther Schor (2003) has pointed out, adaptations of Shelley’s novel – from the early stage productions to the first known Frankenstein film in 1910, and beyond – often depict the monster’s coming-to-life in a spectacular and self-referential way; most filmic versions, in particular, play upon what William Nestrick (1979, 292) has termed the “myth of animation” – a thematic link or bridge between the Frankenstein tale and cinema’s own powers to bring a still image, body, or scene to life.  Frankenweenie, of course, is an animated film, and this brings new meaning to Nestrick’s “myth”.  The technologies of movie-making and, specifically, stop-motion animation are spectacularised in the image of Sparky’s coming-to-life, adding another layer of intertextuality to a film already rich with cultural references.

It may be tempting to assume, as do Mazmanian and Wolgamott, that children are excluded from this intertextual conversation.  Indeed, it has become increasingly common for children’s films to engage in a dual mode of address, enchanting children with stories, songs, and imagery while offering jokes, intertextual references, or clever moments of self-awareness to adults.  The implication is that long-suffering parents should be rewarded for watching films with their children or otherwise lured into the watching process by the promise of adult-centric entertainment.  Burton’s film is somewhat different because the intertextual references are closely bound to the narrative – they are less an amusing aside for adults than part of the film’s very fabric.  They are also, potentially, a means of encouraging audiences to connect with the source material.  While Frankenweenie does not openly strive to generate reverence for (or even awareness of) Mary Shelley, her novel, and the act of reading Frankenstein, it arguably promotes a more complex form of literacy that speaks directly to the process of adaptation itself.  By referencing the movies of James Whale, in particular, Burton positions his film within a web of Frankenstein texts and also destabilises the primacy of Shelley’s novel as source text: adapting Frankenstein, we are told, is a complex business that involves the engagement with already apparent intertextuality rather than the “recovery” of a single source text from out of the depths of adaptation history.

It is likely, furthermore, that many of the children who constitute Frankenweenie’s primary audience are able to decode the film’s intertextual references due to their familiarity with the horror genre and its tropes, characters, and conventions.  As noted above, children have traditionally been locked out of the horror genre; in recent years, however, encounters between young audiences and horror have been initiated through a plethora of child-friendly horror texts: as well as Hotel Transylvania and Igor, these include the films ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012) and Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, 2009), the video game Plants vs Zombies (PopCap Games, 2009), the books and television series Grossology (Sylvia Branzei, 1992-1997; Nelvana Limited, 2006-2009), and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl books (2013-2015), as well as older but still relevant texts such as The Simpsons (which frequently lampoons the genre through its “Treehouse of Horror” episodes).  Meanwhile, imagery and tropes from the Frankenstein tale have been so pervasively circulated in popular culture for such a long time that children are likely to have some degree of familiarity with the tale even if they do not connect it to its original source.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for children’s texts to make passing reference to the tale and its characters (for instance, an episode of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants is entitled “Frankendoodle”, while Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books contain a character named “Frankenbooger”).

It is also likely that children today are familiar with complex levels of intertextuality and are adept at negotiating intersecting currents of media; thus Cathlena Martin writes of the “overlapping intertextual nature of children’s culture” (2009, 86).  In her analysis of the transmedia adaptation of the novel Charlotte’s Web, Martin claims that an enjoyment and understanding of intertextuality may come more naturally to today’s children, who “experience transmedia stories on a regular basis” and therefore “no longer view the printed text as the only way to experience [a literary classic such as] Charlotte’s Web”, whereas adults are more likely to “resist multi-media adaptation, relying on the supremacy of print text as ‘high art’” (2009, 88).  This returns us to the concept of “fidelity” to an original text, and suggests that in discussions of adaptation for children fidelity is likely to be a concept imposed by adult readers and critics rather than something inherently understood or valued by children.  If this raises concerns over the disappearance of “the book” as a cultural object, it also demonstrates that “simplicity” is not a concept that sits well with the highly interconnected, transmedia quality of children’s culture today.

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled "Return of the Vampire Cat".

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled “Return of the Vampire Cat”.

Interestingly, the promotional material for Frankenweenie played upon this ability in young audiences to understand and enjoy intertextuality.  Elliott reminds us that “[t]ie-in merchandise produces and distributes the culture of Disney beyond the cinema” (2014, 195); yet the marketing campaign for Frankenweenie took a very different route from the usual toys, games, and Happy Meals associated with Disney and with the process of Disneyfication.  Instead, the film was promoted through such unusual means as the release of six mock B-movie posters each featuring one of the child characters together with the monster he/she creates (including Night of the Were-Rat: a Tale of Terror featuring “Edgar E. Gore” and Return of the Vampire Cat featuring “Weird Girl”).  These promotional texts not only foreground the film’s child protagonists (as opposed to its adult characters) but serve to locate “childhood” within the parameters of the horror genre and within monster-movie history.  If entryway paratexts guide and instruct our viewing of a media text, as Gray (2010) suggests, these posters invite us to connect childhood with monstrosity in a way that “preps” us for the viewing of Frankenweenie itself (whether we are adults or children).  They also underscore the overall playfulness of the film and relatedly its resistance to the processes of Disneyfication and simplification.  Due to the foregrounding of the child characters, furthermore, the posters specifically address child audiences and clearly include them in the film’s intertextual conversation.

Another key aspect of the film’s promotion was the release of a free e-book entitled Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  Designed for audiences of all ages, the e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews, with particular emphasis on the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky (who we can view as a sketch, a 3-D model, and a finished “product”).  In this way, the e-book allows children access to Nestrick’s “myth of animation” and to the idea of animation as a “bridge” between the narrative and the technology of Frankenweenie.  The e-book also makes the film’s intertextuality more evident.  It begins, for instance, with a foreward by actor Martin Landau accompanied an image of the character he voices (Mr Rzykruski); Landau discusses his previous collaboration with Tim Burton, the film Ed Wood, and his role in this film as Bela Lugosi, star of the horror classic Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931).  A pop-up button informs us that Landau’s character is also “a nod to Vincent Price, the late actor known for his iconic roles in various horror films” (Disney Book Group, 2012).  The e-book thus enables or enhances the ability of any audience member (including children) to decode the film’s intertextual references – and even, arguably, leads young audiences back to the various source texts that inspired Frankenweenie.

In this way, the film (together with its promotional material) both assumes and encourages a level of cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and, more broadly, the horror genre itself.  As this analysis has demonstrated, the film’s intertextuality works together with its paratexts to cultivate an awareness of what lies beyond its own textual boundaries.  Frankenweenie thus imagines and constructs its audience to be a media-literate and curious child.

Conclusion

Prior to the release of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the thought of an animated film based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and released under the Disney banner might have horrified literary purists and fans of horror cinema alike.  An animated Frankenstein, in which darkness and moral conflict are replaced by cute animal side-kicks and catchy songs, may well have been taken as a sign of Disney’s cultural domination and its ability not just to appropriate literary material but to colonise sites of literary and cultural meaning.  Burton’s film, however, demonstrates that “Disneyfication” is not the only route to adapting a literary classic for children, and that the transformation of such a tale within the space of a child’s worldview need not involve a simplification process.  As noted above, we can contextualise Frankenweenie within a recent trend in media and popular culture that has seen the horror genre re-imagined for young audiences; yet Burton’s film can be read not just as an example of “horror for kids” but as a startlingly successful transformation of a previously inaccessible tale in line with the concerns that define a child’s world.  Importantly, Frankenweenie’s most powerful images are not cartoonish renditions of monsters and mad scientists – they are the images of Victor grieving for Sparky, and of the neighbourhood kids struggling to control the monsters they have unleashed.  These themes of loss, and of losing control, are central to the film’s re-imagining of a classic horror tale according to a child’s eye view.  In this way, Frankenweenie makes Frankenstein accessible to children and also gives adult viewers a sense of what horror, otherness, and monstrosity could mean to a child.

 

Works cited

Annunziato, Sarah.  2014.  “A Child’s Eye View of Where the Wild Things Are: Lessons from Spike Jonze’s Film Adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Picture Book.”  Journal of Children and Media 8 (3): 253-266.

Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells.  1995.  “Introduction: Walt’s in the Movies”.  In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 1-17.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Bond, Matthew.  2012.  “Dr Burton’s gothic horror has a heart: Frankenweenie is touching and enjoyable”.  Daily Mail Australia, October 23.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2221392/Frankenweenie-movie-review-Tim-Burtons-gothic-horror-heart.html

Bradshaw, Peter.  2012.  “Frankenweenie: first look”.  The Guardian, October 11.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/oct/10/frankenweenie-review-london-film-festival-tim-burton

Brooker, Will.  2012.  Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Buckingham, David.  1996.  Moving Images: Understanding Children’s Emotional Responses to Television.  Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Chang, Justin.  2012.  “Review: Frankenweenie”.  Variety, September 20.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/frankenweenie-1117948379/

Collin, Robbie.  2012.  “Hotel Transylvania review”.  The Telegraph, October 11.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/9602345/Hotel-Transylvania-review.html

Corliss, Richard.  2012.  “Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie Movie Review: A Re-animated Delight”.  Time, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://entertainment.time.com/2012/10/04/tim-burtons-frankenweenie-a-re-animated-delight/

Elliott, Kamilla.  2014.  “Tie-Intertextuality, or, Intertextuality as Incorporation in the Tie-in Merchandise to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (2010)”.  Adaptation 7 (2): 191-211.

Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  2012.  Disney Book Group.  Accessed August 20, 2014.  Available at https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/frankenweenie-electrifying/id557041056?mt=11

Gaiman, Neil.  2006.  “The Bride of Frankenstein”.  Neil Gaiman (official website).  Accessed 14 June 2013. http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/The_Bride_of_Frankenstein.  From Cinema Macabre, edited by Mark Morris.  Hornsea: PS.

Gray, Jonathon.  2010.  Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.  New York: New York University Press.

Hastings, A. Waller.  1993.  “Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid”.  The Lion and the Unicorn 17 (1): 83-92.

Johnson, Barbara.  1982.  “My Monster/My Self”.  Diacritics 12: 2-10.

Lavalley, Albert J.  1979.  “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 243-289.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leitch, Thomas.  2003.  “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory”.  Criticism 45 (2): 149-171.

Leitch, Thomas.  2007.  Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to the Passion of the Christ.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Lemire, Christy.  2012.  “Frankenweenie Review: Tim Burton Reminds Us Why We Love Him”.  The Huffington Post, October 2.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/03/frankenweenie-review-tim-burton_n_1935142.html

Lumenick, Lou.  2012.  “‘Frankenweenie is a Monster Piece!”.  The New York Post, October 5.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://nypost.com/2012/10/05/frankenweenie-is-a-monster-piece/

Martin, Cathlena.  2009.  “Charlotte’s Website: Media Transformation and the Intertextual Web of Children’s Culture”.  In Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities, edited by Rachel Carroll, 85-95.  London: Continuum.

Mazmanian, Adam.  2012.  “Movie Review: Frankenweenie”.  The Washington Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/oct/4/movie-review-frankenweenie/#ixzz37OlxdQap.

Mellor, Anne K.  2003.  “‘Making a Monster’: an introduction to Frankenstein”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 9-25.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Napier, Susan J.  2000.  Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke – Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation.  New York: Palgrave.

Napolitano, Marc.  2009.  “Disneyfying Dickens: Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol as Dickensian Musicals”.  Studies in Popular Culture 32 (1): 79-102.

 Nestrick, William.  1979.  “Coming to Life: Frankenstein and the Nature of Film Narrative”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 290-315.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paatsch, Leigh.  2012.  “Film review: Frankenweenie Enchants Adults Too”.  Herald Sun, October 25.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/movies/frankenweenie-enchants-adults-too/story-e6frf8r6-1226503055322

Reynolds, Simon.  2012.  “Hotel Transylvania Review”.  Digital Spy, October 9.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.digitalspy.com.au/movies/review/a422323/hotel-transylvania-review.html#~oM8bcdFfwKA0yf

Sayers, Frances Clarke.  1965.  “Walt Disney Accused”.  Horn Book 41: 602-611.

Schor, Esther.  2003.  “Frankenstein and Film”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 63-83.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, A.O.  2012.  “It’s Aliiiive! And Wagging Its Tail – ‘Frankenweenie,’ Tim Burton’s Homage to Horror Classics”.  The New York Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/movies/frankenweenie-tim-burto…age-to-horror-classics.html?smid=tw-nytimesmovies&seid=auto&_r=0

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón.  2008.  “Teens, Shakespeare, and the Dumbing Down Cliché: The Case of The Animated Tales”.  Shakespeare Bulletin 26 (2): 37-68.

Shelley, Mary.  1993.  Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Smith, Sarah J.  2005.  Children, Cinema and Censorship: from Dracula to the Dead End Kids.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Stam, Robert.  2005.  “Introduction: the Theory and Practice of Adaptation”.  In Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 1-52.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Townshend, Dale.  2008.  “The Haunted Nursery: 1764-1830”.  In The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders, edited by Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis, 15-38.  London and New York: Routledge.

Waldby, Catherine.  2002.  “The Instruments of Life: Frankenstein and Cyberculture”.  In Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, 28-37.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Wells, Paul.  1998.  Understanding Animation.  New York: Routledge.

Wells, Paul.  2007.  “Classic Literature and Animation: All Adaptations are Equal, but Some are More Equal Than Others”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 199-211.  Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whelehan, Imelda.  1999.  “Adaptations: the Contemporary Dilemmas”.  In Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 3-19.  London and New York: Routledge.

Wolgamott, L. Kent.  2012.  “Frankenweenie a box-office bomb, but superior film”.  Lincoln Journal Star, October 10.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://journalstar.com/entertainment/movies/l-kent-wolgamott-fran…b-but-superior/article_42409e82-89b9-5794-8082-7b5de3d469e2.html.=

Zipes, Jack.  1993.  “The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood”.  In The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, edited by Jack Zipes, 17-88.  London and New York: Routledge.

Zipes, Jack.  1995.  “Breaking the Disney Spell”.  In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, 21-42.  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

 

Films cited

Burton, Tim.  2012.  Frankenweenie.  USA: Walt Disney Pictures.

Leondis, Anthony.  2008.  Igor.  USA: Roadshow Entertainment.

Tartakovsky, Genndy.  2012.  Hotel Transylvania.  USA: Columbia Pictures.

Whale, James.  1931.  Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

Whale, James.  1935.  The Bride of Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

 

Bio:

Erin Hawley teaches in the Journalism, Media, and Communications program at the University of Tasmania.  Her current research interests include children’s media culture, adaptation, and media education.

Volume 23, 2014

Themed Issue: Transmedia Horror

Edited by Jessica Balanzategui & Naja Later

 

Contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Who is the Slender Man? – Naja Later

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

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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Rogers, Martin. (2008). Hybridity and Post-Human Anxiety in 28 Days Later, in Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (eds.), Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 119-33.

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

Saunders, Robert. (2012). Undead Spaces: Fear, Globalisation, and the Popular Geopolitics of Zombiism, Geopolitics 17, 80-104.

Shaviro, Steve. (2002). Capitalist Monsters, Historical Materialism 10(4), 281-90.

Shelley, Mary. (1994, original 1826). The Last Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Silver, Maggie. (2012). Teachable Moments – Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 7, http://www.blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/02/thewalkingdead/

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

Stratton, Jon. (2011). Zombie trouble: Zombie texts, bare life and displaced people, European Journal of Cultural Studies 14(3), 265-81.

Tucking-Strickler, Devan. (2012). Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 19, http://www.blog.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/category/zombies/zombie-nation/

Wald, Priscilla. (2008). Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Wellington, David. (2006). Monster Island: A Zombie Novel, New York: Running Press.

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

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

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

Youde, Jeremy. (2012). Biosurveillance, human rights, and the zombie plague, Global Change, Peace & Security 24(1), 83-93.

 

Filmography

Anderson, Paul W.S. (2002). Resident Evil. UK: Constantin Film Produktion.

Boyle, Danny. (2002). 28 Days Later. UK: DNA Films.

Darabont, Frank. (2010). The Walking Dead (Television Series). USA: American Movie Classics.

Fleischer, Ruben. (2009). Zombieland. USA: Columbia Pictures.

Forster, Marc. (2013). World War Z. USA: Plan B Entertainment.

Fresnadillo, Juan Carlos. (2007). 28 Weeks Later. UK: Fox Atomic.

Lawrence, Francis. (2007). I am Legend. USA: Warner Bros.

Petersen, Wolfgang. (1995). Outbreak. USA: Warner Bros.

Romero, George, A. (1968). Night of the Living Dead. USA: Image Ten.

Romero, George A. (1968). Dawn of the Dead. USA: Laurel Group.

Snyder, Zack. (2004). Dawn of the Dead. USA: Strike Entertainment.

Wright, Edgar. (2004). Shaun of the Dead. UK: Universal Pictures.

 

Notes:


[1] Dr. Ali S. Khan in Adrian Chen, “The Centers for Disease Control is Officially Prepared for a Zombie Invasion,” Gawker.com, posted May 18, 2011, http://gawker.com/5803076/the-centers-for-disease-control-is-officially-prepared-for-a-zombie-invasion (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[2] Reuters, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ campaign crashes CDC website,” MNN.COM, posted May 19, 2011, http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/computers/stories/zombie-apocalypse-campaign-crashes-cdc-website (accessed September 13, 2013).

Betsy McKay, “CDC Advises on Zombie Apocalypse … and Other Emergencies,” Wall Street Journal, posted May 18, 2011, http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/05/18/cdc-advises-on-zombie-apocalypse-and-other-emergencies/ (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, http://www.blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/02/thewalkingdead/ (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, http://www.blog.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/category/zombies/zombie-nation/ (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, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/federal-funding-cuts-put-us-risk-zombie-attack/story?id=13638676 (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, http:nytimes.com/2011/05/20/health/20cdc.html?_r=0 (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[10] Sydney Lupkin, “Government Zombie Promos are Spreading,” ABC News, posted September 7, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/09/07/government-zombie-promos-are-spreading/ (accessed on September 14, 2013).

[11] CBS New York, “CDC Offers Tips on How to Prepare for the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’,” posted May 20, 2011, http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/05/20/cdc-offers-advice-on-how-to-prepare-for-the-zombie-apocalypse/ (accessed on September 14, 2013).

[12] Associated Press, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ advice an Internet Hit,” CBS San Diego KFMB Channel 8, posted May 20, 2011, http://www.cbs8.com/story/14688932/cdcs-zombie-apocalypse-advice-an-internet-hit/ (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, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/why-did-the-cdc-develop-a-plan-for-a-zombie-apocalypse/239246/ (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).

 

Bios:

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.

 

References:

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. http://www.creepypasta.com/.

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. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/403444/chasing-bees-without-the-hive-mind/.

‘Introduction.’ Youtube video, 2:00. Posted by ‘marblehornets,’ 20th June 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wmhfn3mgWUI.

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. http://www.scp-wiki.net/.

‘Slender Fansite.’ slendergame. Accessed 20 October, 2013. http://slendergame.com/.

‘Slender Man.’ Villains Wiki. Accessed 20 October, 2013. http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Slender_Man.

‘The Slender Man Mythos.’ slendermanmythos Accessed 20 October, 2013.. http://www.slendermanmythos.com/.

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. http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591&userid=0&perpage=40&pagenumber=3.

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.

Notes:


[1] Victor Surge, ‘Create Paranormal Images,’ Something Awful, 10 June, 2009. http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591&userid=0&perpage=40&pagenumber=3.

[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, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wmhfn3mgWUI.

‘Slender Fansite,’ slendergame, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://slendergame.com/.

[6] ‘The Slender Man Mythos,’ slendermanmythos, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://www.slendermanmythos.com/.

‘Slender Man,’ Villains Wiki, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Slender_Man.

[7] ‘The SCP Foundation,’ SCP, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://www.scp-wiki.net/.

Villains Wiki.

‘CREEPYPASTA.COM – Scary Paranormal Stories & Short Horror Microfiction,’ creepypasta, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://www.creepypasta.com/.

[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, http://slendergame.com/.

[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, http://www.technologyreview.com/news/403444/chasing-bees-without-the-hive-mind/.

[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.

Sinister Celluloid in the Age of Instagram – Marc Olivier

When The Exorcist hit theaters in 1973, televangelist Billy Graham was widely rumored to have said that evil resided in the very celluloid of that film.[1] Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012) derives horror from a similarly perverse faith in film stock as a vehicle for evil. Although a digital production, Sinister incorporates digitized Super 8 footage and foregrounds analog as the medium of choice for an ancient child-eating pagan deity named Bagul.[2] Under Bagul’s power, and equipped with camera, film, and tripod, children are transformed into homicidal auteurs who document their families and then murder them on Super 8 before disappearing into the demon’s archive of horror. Echoing Graham, Derrickson explains, “Evil resides in the very celluloid of these Super 8 films”—a statement that recasts the televangelist’s 1970s warning as a twenty-first century horror director’s aspiration.[3] Whether as a denunciation of a horror movie or as its premise, the notion that evil can inhabit film stems from a gothic belief that media forms that are in decline, like decrepit houses, make better dwellings for malefic spirits.

Despite its morally conservative message, Graham’s rumored reaction to The Exorcist is technologically progressive. At a time when theater owners were turning to grindhouse and exploitation movies to fill their empty seats, the televised gospel and the gospel of television formed a happy alliance. In contrast, Sinister’s retrogressive premise suggests a crisis of faith in emerging technologies. For while the film’s protagonist owns all the latest Apple products, Derrickson himself seems conflicted about the place of analog horror in a digital era. Sinister’s crisis, and perhaps that of all modern horror films that engage the current media climate, is not which side to take in a battle of new vs. old media, but rather how to cope with the transmediative détente that guarantees their mutual coexistence.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Sinister emerged from the unconscious of co-writer C. Robert Cargill, who, after viewing the analog media-centric remake The Ring (2002), dreamed that he found a film in his attic depicting the hanging of a family.[4] In Cargill’s script, true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into a house that, unbeknownst to his wife and two children, is the murder site of the family hanging that Oswalt has chosen as the subject of his next book. In the process of unpacking, the writer discovers a box of Super 8 home movies in the otherwise empty attic, and conveniently, a projector, which soon have him transforming his home office into a makeshift screening room. [figure 1] After tacking a sheet to the wall and figuring out how to thread the machine, Oswalt runs the first reel: “Family Hanging Out.” The grainy, nostalgic footage depicts a family of five picnicking in the yard, father and son throwing a football, girl playing on a tire swing that hangs from the large branch of an old tree. Suddenly, the reel cuts to footage of four of the five family members hanging, burlap sacks over their heads, from the same tree that held the tire swing.

Figure 2

Figure 2

In one reel, Oswalt has encountered two opposing extremes associated with the Super 8 medium: the first, the nostalgic home movie, and the second, the sinister snuff film.[5]  [figure 2] Derrickson predisposes the moviegoer to the horrific reading of the medium by projecting the hanging in “Family Hanging Out” in lieu of opening credits. In place of Oswalt’s linear encounter of nostalgia followed by horror, the audience’s viewing sequence is cyclical—a loop rather than a line. The difference between the protagonist’s linear view and the audience’s looped view serves not only as an effective strategy to create a horror-inflected brand of nostalgia, but it also signals a broader theme of linearity and looping in the context of horror, media, and nostalgia.

“This is a film about film,” says Derrickson.[6] Or, to be more precise: Sinister is a digital film about Super 8 analog film that gets digitized. This is a film about interaction with material film in a world where a person may never have physical contact with celluloid unless a demon leaves reels of it in their attic. Critics have questioned why a story set in the present would use such an improbable medium. After all, if you are an ancient Babylonian demon who feasts on the souls of children, it stands to reason that Snapchat, Vine, Youtube, and their ilk might serve as more efficient vehicles for disseminating evil than 1960s film stock. Movie critic Peter Howell, of the Toronto Star, blames budgetary concerns for the anachronistic media.  He writes: “Sinister is a low-budget horror film trying for old-school shocks. But the production can’t afford a pre-Internet setting.”[7] Although Howell is correct that at $3 million, the film qualifies as low-budget by Hollywood standards, his critique otherwise misses the key point that Sinister’s return-of-repressed analog media theme would not have been possible in a pre-internet setting. In fact, for better or worse, the film would not have had the same resonance in a pre-Instagram setting.

The ten-year lag between Cargill’s Ring-induced analog nightmare and Derrickson’s digital production results in a work that engages a different brand of media anxiety than the film that indirectly inspired the script. As Michael Fisch contends in his analysis of Ringu (1998) and its American remake, The Ring (2002), a delay of even a few years can vastly impact technology-driven narratives.[8] Old nightmares must adapt to new media. According to Fisch, the crucial change from Ringu to The Ring is that the newer film depicts digital media as a threat to a temporal structure inherent to analog recordings. “If in Ringu the temporality of analog media provides the haunting premise, in The Ring it is the perceived disappearance of this temporality in the anticipated obsolescence of the videotape that is horrific.”[9] Digitally extracted from its privileged indexical relation to time and reality, the analog ghost is a fish out of water. That is not to say that the supernatural is no longer possible amid what Fisch calls the “algorithmic irregularity of the digital,” but rather that twenty-first century ghosts “cannot be the same kind of ghosts that have been haunting us for over the last century.”[10] For a film that is inspired by, but also produced ten years after, The Ring the question becomes: how are representations of the supernatural adapting to the current media environment?

As visual norms and technologies change, so do the presuppositions of the viewing public. Derrickson, for example, assumes that Super 8 movies are “just inherently creepy”—a belief most likely informed by the snuff film aesthetic in which inexpensive, grainy film stock and poor production quality connote grisly authenticity. But one person’s evil celluloid might be another’s hipster nostalgia. Newsday critic Rafer Guzman faults the retro technology for being too warm and fuzzy. “[C]elluloid is such a warm, friendly old format that it seems unlikely to contain the spirit of, say, a child-eating demon. It’s like imagining Satan hiding in your cassette deck.”[11] Indeed, Sinister’s home movies are meant to evoke the warmth of Kodak moments with titles such as “Pool Party ’66,” “BBQ, ’79,” “Lawn Work, ’86,” “Sleepy Time, ’98,” and “Family Hanging Out, ’11,”; each label captures a dull archival domesticity that acquires a menacing irony as Oswalt screens each reel. Clearly, Derrickson relies on nostalgic associations to heighten the shock effect of the sudden shift in content. In that regard, nostalgia is at the heart of his strategy to evoke horror. The risk, as seen in Guzman’s critique, is that the message of the medium has the potential to remain in the “warm” mode even after the content has shifted to cold-blooded murder. The clash between friendly celluloid and creepy celluloid stems from textural signifiers (i.e. the grain and other properties of analog film stock) that are currently in a volatile state of semiotic flux, vulnerable to constant reinterpretation across media forms. The demonically uncanny specter of celluloid that haunts Derrickson’s film risks impotence in a society that fetishizes rather than fears dead media.[12]

Complicating the meaning of grain in all digital forms is the now ubiquitous faux analog aesthetic best exemplified by Instagram. Kevin Systrom, the company’s co-founder, has stated that early adopters downloaded the app not because they were looking to join a photo-based social network, but because they wanted a filter to remedy the “uninspiring” look of cell phone photos.[13] During the developmental phase of Instagram, Systrom noticed that the top ten free photography apps on the iTunes charts were “all filter apps of some kind.”[14] Systrom simply capitalized on the fact that the image-making public had already adopted a nostalgic strategy to legitimize and correct the perceived shortcomings of iPhonography. Replicated as “filters,” the noise, contrast, and chromatic properties associated with emulsions and papers served as camouflage for the noise of sensors and compression that plagued early cell phone cameras. The fetishized flaws of photography, such as vignetting and unstable pigmentation, helped to socialize snapshots within a recognizable tradition.

Since that time, the digital imitation of retro film imperfections has become so pervasive that it has met with a defiantly filter-free backlash. Increasingly, Instagram users are rejecting the digital veneer of historicity provided by filters as a superfluous affectation, much in the same way that Modernist photographers of the last century rejected the heavily manipulated and painterly photographs of the Pictorialists.[15] The hashtag “nofilter” is now routinely tacked on to millions of photos as a badge of honor, making #nofilter the 25th most popular hashtag in January 2013.[16] In short, the nostalgic strategy that socializes new media falls victim to its own success. The brush strokes and blur of a pictorialist photograph that once connected the camera to the canvas, or the faded colors and soft focus of an “Earlybird” filter that once gave digital images the cachet of a time-worn family album, lose their relevance when the disruptive technologies they help to legitimize are no longer viewed as disruptive. Formerly a sign of authenticity, the noise imported from earlier media is progressively dismissed as superfluous artifice. The implications of twenty-first-century insta-pictorialism and its #nofilter backlash bleed over into all forms of digital representation, including moving images. By the time that the mimicry of analog as a stylistic mode saturates digital forms, even the direct digitization of bona fide vintage media (such as the non-simulated Super 8 in Sinister) is subject to disdain, or at best, associations with a certain precious mannerism. Consequently, an entire horror aesthetic so heavily indebted to the grit and gristle of its analog past finds itself in danger of connoting a filter rather than a temporal reference or a physical medium.[17]

In Sinister, the use of Super 8 footage within a digital film engages the theme of “remediation,” broadly defined by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin as “the representation of one medium in another.”[18] Bolter and Grusin note that one of the goals of remediation is the rehabilitation or improvement of another medium, as indicated by its Latin root, the verb remederi—to restore to health, to heal.[19] Almost without fail, the rhetoric surrounding new media is based on reform. High definition television, for example, supposedly brings the viewer closer to reality than lower definition. The low-to-high model of new media takes part in a teleological narrative that views screens and noise as obstacles to be overcome. For the sake of clarity, I will call the low-to-high model a “linear remediation,” as opposed to Instagram’s strategy of looping new technology back through the noise of the past, which I will refer to as “nostalgic remediation.”

Figure 3

Figure 3

The linear remediation fantasy is typified by the Esper photo analysis machine in Blade Runner (1982)[figure 3], with its near infinite information retrieval from a single analog snapshot, or more recently, by the ubiquitous portrayals of computer-aided image enhancement in televised crime dramas.[20] Sinister creates tension through the competing strategies of linear and nostalgic remediation. As the film’s director, Derrickson hopes to infuse his digital horror with “inherent” creepiness by remediating analog film. His protagonist, also in search of a winning horror narrative, uses digitization as part of a linear rehabilitation of the analog footage. While viewing the reel, “Pool Party,” which depicts a family being drowned in their swimming pool, Oswalt notices a strange masked figure lurking under water.

Figure 4

Figure 4

He pauses the projector and approaches the screen to examine the presence more closely, but the heat from the bulb ignites the celluloid, and as flames burst from the machine, the image dissolves before his eyes.[21] [figure 4]In response, Oswalt turns to his laptop and googles “how to edit super 8 films.” In no time, he has recut the footage, digitized the projection by setting up a camcorder on a tripod, and opened the digital file as a window on his laptop.

The incendiary celluloid represents a technological denial of user-centered control; a fiery reminder that motion pictures are not made to be paused. The burning also foreshadows the threat to celluloid within the destructive logic of linear remediation. Oswalt’s digital camcorder, complete with its own flip-out screen, displaces his former perspective, and moves him from the position of projectionist/spectator to that of remediator and editor. Now digitized, the filmed projection takes on a        separate life as a QuickTime movie. The original is no longer necessary.

 

 

Figure 5

Figure 5

Where once he could only briefly pause the projector and approach the screen for a closer view, Oswalt now has access to QuickTime A/V controls that can adjust contrast, color, brightness, and tint. [figure 5] The move to the laptop introduces what Bolter and Grusin call “the logic of hypermediacy”—the multiplicity that characterizes the windowed world of the graphical user interface.[22] The digitized recording of his analog projection, relegated to a window within the screen of a laptop, is now subject to the software-driven editing environment that promises to remedy the technical limitations of the analog projection and to attenuate the aggression of the cinematic screen.

The screen of television, video, and film, is aggressive, or “dynamic,” according to Media theorist Lev Manovich, because it attempts “to take over, rendering nonexistent whatever is outside its frame.”[23] To move “Pool Party” from the cinematic screen to the computer screen, therefore, is to engage in a battle with the tyranny of the dynamic screen. Or, if we accept as fait accompli Manovich’s pronouncement in 2001 that the “era of the dynamic screen that began with cinema is now ending,” the scene of film digitization is in essence a battle reenactment.[24] In place of the dynamic screen, we see a “splitting into many windows” or far less frequently, a “complete takeover of the visual field in VR” in new media.[25] We cannot, however, simply declare Oswalt the victor in a master-slave media dialectic.

Figure 6

Figure 6

 

Rather, he occupies a middle ground between media forms, visually and conceptually framed between the new laptop in the foreground and the old film projector in the background.[figure 6] To his right, hangs the sheet he has repurposed as a screen, tacked between bookshelves designed to have the appearance of filmstrips (another reminder of the continuing cycle of remediation). To his left, a bulletin board collage of notes, articles, and photos provides an analog parallel to the desktop environment of his laptop. [figure 7] The proliferating media that surround Oswalt work in concert to resist simple linear remediation. Although the window-bound digitization asserts Oswalt’s control, he must now contend with the consequent multiplication of the object of horror across media.

 

Figure 7

Figure 7

The fantasy of a purely linear remediation requires a repression or destruction of the former media object (i.e. the celluloid) that Oswalt fails to achieve. Even lighter fluid and a barbecue grill, as we will see later in the film, prove no match for the persistence of old media. Instead of replacing the old with the new, he is left to grapple with transmediative simultaneity. Derrickson literally depicts the simulcast representation of remediated horror after Oswalt awakens in the middle of the night to the telltale whirring sounds and flickering lights of the projector. The writer follows the sound and light to his office where he sees the “Family Hanging Out” film projected onto the sheet on the wall. [figure 8] He turns to see his laptop playing the digital version of the film in perfect synchronization with the projector [figure 9], and then glances at the bulletin board with its printed screen grabs of the digitized projection [figures 10-11]. Accentuated by a percussive sound cue, the shot cuts back to the sheet-screen [figure 12] and then pans quickly to the identical scene simulcast on the laptop. [figure 13]

Figures 8-19

Figures 8-19

More slowly now, the camera pans a final time from one screen to the other, one remediation to the next, and then follows Oswalt as he shuts down the projection in the same order. After flipping the “off” switch on the projector, Oswalt proceeds to his laptop to stop the moving image. [figure 14] As he does so, the video zooms [figure 15] to the same still frame that is tacked to the bulletin board as an inkjet print [figure 16], once again offering a simultaneous representation of the same image across media. Oswalt advances to the bulletin board, and untacks the noise-riddled print that seems to depict a face or a masked figure peering from the bushes just outside the window. He then approaches the window, printout in hand [figure 17], and extends the image at arm’s length between himself and his view of the real bushes just outside. The camera cuts to Oswalt’s point-of-view, so that we see the printout nearly full screen, like a movie frame severed from context. [figure 18] Instinctively, we try to focus on the face, when suddenly Oswalt lowers the print and reveals the demonic face, now outside the house in the bushes exactly where its fuzzy form appeared in ink on paper. [figure 19] Despite noise and imperfections, the multiplication of the signifier has had an incantatory effect. Thus, access to the supernatural is achieved (albeit momentarily) through transmediative simultaneity and looping rather than through the complete replacement of old media.

To those familiar with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), the still image of the demonic face in the bushes is uncannily familiar. In fact, there are striking visual and thematic similarities between Sinister and Blow-Up, both highly process-driven contemplations of media wrapped in a plot about an amateur crime investigation. Each film deals with a scrutiny of images across forms, although in different temporal, technological, and generic contexts. As media theorist Garrett Stewart has remarked, Blow-Up is not simply a film about film, but rather a film about photography’s relation to film.[26] In Blow-Up, a photographer dives into ever increasing graininess (the opposite of the hi-res linear remediation fantasy) and existential uncertainty as he magnifies a series of still photos and arranges them as if piecing together frames in a film. After Thomas, the photographer, has created a proto-cinematic storyboard sequence on the wall of his studio, Antonioni further cinematizes the images by presenting them full screen in succession at a pace that evokes the movement of film without losing the frozen character of each frame.

Stewart uses the term “photogram” to refer to the discrete units that make up the illusion of continuity and movement created by film projection. That single frame that flies by faster than the eye can seize it becomes the “specular unconscious” of film apparitions.[27] Stewart’s “specular unconscious” should not be confused with Walter Benjamin’s celebration of “unconscious optics,” although the two are connected. Benjamin famously refers to photography’s power to freeze time and to reveal hidden or uncanny aspects of otherwise fluid movement.[28] In contrast, Stewart’s “specular unconscious” is what is produced when static images pass through a projector at 24 frames per second, repressing their fixed nature in order to convey movement. Benjamin’s unconscious optics seek to turn movement into a corpse-like image that one can dissect, whereas Stewart’s specular unconscious reanimates the image-corpse through endless deferral.

Both Blow-Up and Sinister construct a murder-narrative through the process of remediation. In Blow-Up, still photos are cropped, enlarged, re-photographed, and organized until they resemble cinema. In Sinister, moving film is captured digitally, analyzed frame-by-frame, and then reduced to a few stills that are sent to a home printer. In a general sense, one could say that Blow-Up leads from photography to film and Sinister from film to photography, but such oversimplification ignores the fact that a printed screen capture is not a photograph. Neither is it a photogram. More accurately, we might say that a printed screen capture is to photography what a QuickTime file is to cinema: a visually familiar replication masking a radically altered logic. In spite of its similarities to Blow-Up, Sinister’s essential conflict is not between a filmic conscious and a specular photogrammatic unconscious. In Stewart’s reading of Blow-Up, the “slippery ellipsis of presence” that obstructs Thomas’ investigation becomes a technological allegory of cinema’s fundamental ontological paradox: motion through rapidly discarded still images.[29] In linguistic terms, the photogram is the phoneme of filmic speech. Thus, Blow-Up’s preoccupation with revealing that structure is in essence a structural analysis of the language of film. Sinister represents instead a dialogue between two different languages, each with its own logic: that of film and that of computerized media. The one is not the component of the other in the way that a still image is a component of film’s illusory movement. A more nuanced reading of Sinister must account for the differences between those two languages.

The most visible distinction between film and its computerized double is the loss of the dynamic screen emphasized by Manovich and other media theorists. Anne Friedberg, for example, remarks that window is but “a subset of its screen surface: an inset screen within the screen of the computer, one of many nested on its “desktop.””[30] By nature, the computerized mediascape perpetuates a multi-windowed coexistence of variable, navigable, and scalable image and text formats that are no longer anchored by a static viewpoint. Accordingly, the desktop space negates the dynamic screen, even if its “full screen” mode is capable of impersonating it. Reduced to, or split across, “one of many” windows, the media object appears to suffer the same postmodern fate as human subjects. This pervasive but ultimately misleading narrative is summarize by media historian Jeffrey Sconce as follows:

Where there was once stable human consciousness, there are now only the ghosts of fragmented, decentered, and increasingly schizophrenic subjectivities. Where there once was “depth” and “affect,” there is now only “surface.” Where there was once “meaning,” “history,” and a solid realm of signifiers,” there is now only a haunted landscape of vacant and shifting signifiers.[31]

Sconce cautions that the “postmodern occult” tales of a soul-destroying electronic netherworld are merely the recycled and amplified views that have accompanied nearly every advance in communications technology since the nineteenth-century fantasy of a spiritual telegraph.[32] Depending on context, the prospect of an electronic realm has been alternately described as liberating or terrifying. Whatever the effects of the “postmodern occult” on the human psyche, the corollary danger of that view is the assumption that the multiplied, fractured subject corresponds to a multiplied, fractured media object.

Even if we accept that remediation splinters the human subject, we cannot assume that the same is true for non-humans. More accurate is the counter-intuitive proposition that the heterogeneity of the windowed world is superficial. That is, if we dig into the strata of Oswalt’s MacBook in Sinister, we will find that beneath the screenshots, the movie files, and the documents of its Cocao (application) layer (to use media developer terminology) there lies a unified media layer. Beneath the media layer, the core services. Beneath the core services, the core OS, until finally, we arrive at the Kernal. Within the media object’s logical framework, Oswalt’s digitization of the film reels is therefore a move away from the fractured specular unconscious that haunts film. In its remediated form, the Super 8 footage becomes part of an environment undergirded by numeric unity. Thus, even if new media divide the human subject, the effect of analog-to-digital remediation on the film itself is anything but schizophrenic.

Figure 21

Figure 20

As Oswalt’s investigation advances, windows pile up and overlap on his computer screen: drawings from the attic digitally captured on his iPhone share space with remediated tape, stills, video chats (with a professor who holds prints up to his webcam), and footage of Oswalt falling, iPhone in hand, through the weakened attic floorboards. [figure 20] The treacherously permeable attic—the architectural unconscious of the home—is the space where analog resides, and to which it returns once Oswalt has digitized it. The attic serves as a screening room where the ghosts of young children watch the demon Bagul in ritualistic silence. Oswalt discovers the retro-media-obsessed ghosts the night following the simultaneous projections in his study. He awakes, as before, to the flickering light and hum of the projector down a hallway. He first enters his office—the site of the earlier film and computer synchronous displays—and runs his hand across the empty spot where the projector once stood. He exits to the hallway and sees the attic ladder extended to the floor, its rungs animated like frames of film in a projector’s flickering light.The effect of the illuminated ladder in the darkened hallway visually conveys Oswalt’s ascent to the attic as a retrogressive draw toward a repressed, haunted medium. [figure 21]

Figure 23

Figure 21

Oswalt walks up ladder where he witnesses the ghostly attic screening. Oswalt’s intrusion into the attic projection leads to the climax of the film’s second act: a series of four jump scares that place analog film in the role of the supernatural slasher figure that refuses to die. The first of the four scares is the face of Bagul, whose sudden appearance makes Oswalt fall back down the attic ladder. The following three jump scares are of old media. With a sudden thud, the archival home movies box drops from the attic. One second later, the projector crashes to the floor.

Figure 27

Figure 22

Finally, the reels of film drop and push Oswalt into a state of utter terror that Derrickson frames to evoke Shelly Duvall’s reaction to the “Here’s Johnny” moment in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).[33] [figure 22]

Like Jack Torrance breaking through the door with his axe, old media burst from the ceiling with violent force. Clearly, the medium itself is as dreaded as the demon. In fact, not once does Oswalt fight the demon in the course of the film. Neither does he physically take on any human foe. Instead, he battles reels of celluloid as one might try to defeat Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees—and with equally futile results. After the climactic series of jump scares, Oswalt recovers enough to grab the film and heap it onto his backyard grill for incineration.

Figure 24

Figure 23

A close-up of the burning celluloid closes the scene, and Oswalt and family drive to their former residence assured that the worst is over.[figure 23] The viewer, of course, knows better.

The palatial old house is a suitable setting for a gothic haunting, complete with a thunderstorm and a cavernous fireplace crackling with fire. Despite his destruction of the films, Oswalt has not yet deleted any of the digital files on the desktop of his MacBook. When he opens his computer, he finds an email with three scanned images of Bagul. He immediately contacts Professor Jonas, the expert he has previously consulted via iChat, and soon his monitor is displaying the three image scans in overlapping windows, as well as a video chat window of the professor. [figure 24]

 

 

Figure 24

Figure 24

Behind the windows, we see a partial view of the QuickTime files and clippings on his desktop. “There’s been so little written on Bagul that nobody has ever bothered to scan any of this material before,” explains the professor. “You’re looking at an engraving, an old sketch from the Dark Ages, and fragments of a deteriorated fresco.” The video chat allows Derrickson to establish the mythology of his demon creation. We learn that early Christians believed the demon lived in images— gateways into his realm—and that the demon could possess the viewer, impel them to commit acts of violence, and then abduct them into the image. Children, he says, were especially vulnerable.

The quick exposition of Bagul’s mythology also lets Derrickson reintroduce, and more importantly, discard with very little ceremony or resistance, the windowed digisphere of hypermediacy. Oswalt’s deletion of all the Bagul files is uneventful. The cavernous room and the storm raging outside the physical window try in vain to heighten the drama. A series of procedural shots show Oswalt close the video window, quit Preview, select, and then trash the files—a very dull horror battle compared to the hellfire spectacle of burning celluloid. Although Bagul can inhabit any image, be it engraving, fresco, film, or computer, we have no doubt which format Derrickson’s demon prefers.

Figure 29

Figure 25

Next, follows a trip to the attic, a series of joltingly loud audio cues as Oswalt finds the box, opens the lid, and sees the reels, not only unscathed, but with envelopes of additional footage for the “extended cut endings.” Once unsure of how to thread a projector, Oswalt now assembles, splices, and edits film like a pro. [figure 25] He is no longer the empowered remediator digitizing analog film; he has returned to old school editing of film pure and simple. The demon of celluloid has already won.

Although Sinister shares similarities to Blow-Up, the ending has more in common with the bittersweet longing of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). Oswalt’s compilation of extended-cut footage might well be the infernal counterpart to Cinema Paradiso’s touching montage of redacted kissing scenes. In Tornatore’s homage to the silver screen, a world-weary film director regains his faith in the power of good old-fashioned movies with the help of film clips spliced together by a projectionist from his village. Sinister’s ending, though disturbing, is equally nostalgic. Spooling past the flickering lens from a single edited reel flow the snuff films of each homicidal child director. One by one, each child disappears in an editorial blip (not unlike the disappearance of Thomas at the end of Blow-Up), forever to remain in a world of communal analog screenings, long after their living peers have moved on from YouTube to the next big thing.

Once Oswalt has viewed the reel that he has been complicit in compiling, he too will be “edited” along with his family, by his daughter who wields an axe in one hand (another reference to The Shining) and a vintage 8mm camera in the other.

Figure 30

Figure 26

[figure 26] The violent dismemberment of her family (which is not depicted) is almost incidental to their capture on film— another form of dismemberment. Just as the axe descends to behead the father, the film cuts to the analog footage captured by the daughter for her addition to the horrific boxed set. A flash of noise from a crudely taped edit severs the scene and indicates the return of the dynamic screen with a vengeance. “House Painting” now fills the theater just as “Family Hanging Out” did at the beginning of the film. The noise of the projector and the visual noise of 8mm overtake our field of vision as we watch the daughter drag her axe down a long blood-spattered hallway.

In the ultimate act of retrogression, Derrickson grounds film in humankind’s earliest form of analog expression: cave painting. As the daughter walks down the hall, we see her gruesome artwork finger-painted in blood. Most striking among her mural depictions are the horse heads that are nearly identical to 31,000 year-old drawings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France. [figure 27]

Figure 28

Figure 27

As nostalgic remediations go, a journey back to Paleolithic art is about as big a loop as one can get. In the end, there is no doubt that Bagul intends to keep his movie collection in its analog form. He abducts the girl into his netherworld, and “House Painting” takes its place alongside the other reels in the archival box, ready and waiting for the sequel.

The eternal return to Super 8 in Sinister puts transmediation in the service of haunted, nostalgic media. Celluloid becomes the center around which new and ancient forms of representation orbit. The supernatural is therefore amplified not by linearity, but through a looping process that mimics the feed of film reels through a projector. Sinister is not alone in its proposition that occult narratives, even when they engage the latest technology, are enhanced by the gothic housing of analog forms. Other current horror films, most notably, V/H/S  (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013), suggest that cycles of remediation best reflect our archeological relation to media. The need to depict the excavation of dead forms is nothing new. Finding film reels in one’s attic or VHS tapes in a basement might be the current equivalent of unearthing a supernatural force from an ancient tomb. What best characterizes the state of remediative cycles in contemporary horror is not our desire to excavate old forms, nor an intent to kill them, but rather our impulse to rebury them so we can dig them up, and in the process, find something new. Whether Sinisters celluloid seems quaint or reassuringly frightening is ultimately a matter of faith.

 

Notes:


[1] Colleen McDannell, “Catholic Horror: The Exorcist (1973),” in Catholics in the Movies,  ed. Colleen McDannell (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2008), 202. See also Warner Brothers website, which refers to the rumor as if it were fact. “True Stories,” accessed September 20, 2013. http://theexorcist.warnerbros.com/cmp/truebottom.html

[2] Also spelled “Bughuul” within the film.

[3] Sinister, directed by Scott Derrickson (2012; Santa Monica, CA” Lionsgate, 2013), DVD, audio commentary.

[4] ibid.

[5] The urban legend that 8mm snuff films were routinely produced in South America and circulated in underground networks in the U.S. was fueled by the grindhouse movie “Snuff,” which was shot in Argentina in 1971 as “Slaughter” and then rebranded and released in America in 1976 amid protest and morbid curiosity. In spite of its being revealed as pure fiction, the legend endures. See Scott Aaron Stine, “The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend,” Skeptical Inquirer vol. 23, no. 3 (May/June 1999), accessed on October 16, 2013. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/snuff_film_the_making_of_an_urban_legend/

[6] Sinister, audio commentary.

[7]Peter Howell, “Sinister review: Mr. Boogie, meet scarier Mr. Google,” accessed September 30, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2012/10/12/sinister_review_mr_boogie_meet_scarier_mr_google.html

[8] Michael Fisch, “Ringu/The Ring: Tracing the Analog Spirit in a Digital Era,” Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, July 18, 2010. http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2010/07/18/ringu-the-ring-tracing-the-analog-spirit-in-a-digital-era-michael-fisch/

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Rafer Guzman, “Sinister Review: Snuff Stuff,” accessed April 3, 2013, http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/sinister-review-snuff-stuff-1.4098107

[12] The zombie romance-horror hit Warm Bodies (2013), in which a zombie’s budding romance with a living girl is intertwined with a shared love of vintage vinyl records and polaroid photos perfectly captures the current infatuation with undead media.

[13] “Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom–Foundation,” accessed August 13, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IPigMKugJhY#!

[14] ibid.

[15] For an overview of Pictorialism, see Alison Devine Nordström, Thomas Pade, and J. Luca Ackerman, Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945 (Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre 2008)

[16] Brian Honigman, “The 100 Most Popular Hashtags on Instagram,” accessed on August 23, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-honigman/the-100-most-popular-hash_b_2463195.html

[17] The possible effects of Instagram on the “grunge” horror aesthetic, in particular, merits attention. For an analysis of noise and the tradition of horror, see Greg Hainge, Noise Matters: Towards and Ontology of Noise (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 85–112.

[18] J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, “Remediation,” Configurations 4, no. 3 (1996), 339.

[19] ibid, 350.

[20] On the Esper Machine, see Alan Trachtenberg, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Photography and Cultural Memory,” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, Collective Memory and Collective Identity (Spring, 2008), 111-132.

[21] From a technical viewpoint, the fire is extremely unlikely, Thematically, however, it triggers the impulse to remedy one medium with another.

[22] See J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000), 31-44.

[23] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 96.

[24] ibid, 97.

[25] ibid, 97-98.

[26] Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 298.

[27] ibid, 1.

[28] Possibly the most quoted passage about photography by Benjamin is the following: “Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces use to an unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1986), 237.

[29] ibid, 302.

[30] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 1.

[31] Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 170–171.

[32] ibid, 187.

[33] Derrickson showed Hawke shots of Duvall in The Shining to inspire the actor’s performance.

References

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn, 217–252. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Bolter, J. David and Richard A. Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin, “Remediation.” Configurations 4, no. 3 (1996), 311–358.

Derrickson, Scott and C. Robert Cargill. “Commentary.” Sinister. DVD. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate, 2013.

Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006.

Fisch, Michael. “Ringu/The Ring: Tracing the Analog Spirit in a Digital Era.” Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, July 18, 2010. http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2010/07/18/ringu-the-ring-tracing-the-analog-spirit-in-a-digital-era-michael-fisch/

Guzman, Rafer. “Sinister Review: Snuff Stuff” http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/sinister-review-snuff-stuff-1.4098107

Hainge, Greg. Noise Matters: Towards and Ontology of Noise. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Honigman, Brian. “The 100 Most Popular Hashtags on Instagram” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-honigman/the-100-most-popular-hash_b_2463195.html

Howell, Peter. “Sinister review: Mr. Boogie, meet scarier Mr. Google” http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2012/10/12/sinister_review_mr_boogie_meet_scarier_mr_google.html

Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom–Foundation

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001.

McDannell, Colleen. “Catholic Horror: The Exorcist (1973),” in Catholics in the Movies, edited by Colleen McDannell, 197–225. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Nordström, Alison Devine, Thomas Pade, and J. Luca Ackerman, Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945. Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 2008.

Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Stine, Scott Aaron. “The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend,” Skeptical Inquirer vol. 23, no. 3 (May/June 1999) http://www.csicop.org/si/show/snuff_film_the_making_of_an_urban_legend/

Trachtenberg, Alan. “Through a Glass, Darkly: Photography and Cultural Memory.” Social Research vol. 75, no. 1, Collective Memory and Collective Identity (Spring, 2008), 111-132.

Warner Brothers. “True Stories” http://theexorcist.warnerbros.com/cmp/truebottom.html

Filmography

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. 1982.

Blow-Up. Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni. 1968.

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso). Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. 1988.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. 1973.

The Ring. Dir. Gore Verbinski. 2002.

Ringu. Dir. Hideo Nakata. 1998.

The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1980.

Sinister. Dir. Scott Derrickson. 2012.

Snuff. Dir. Michael Findlay, Horatio Fredriksson, and Simon Nuchtern. 1976.

V/H/S. Dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, et al. 2012.

V/H/S/2. Dir. Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, et al. 2013.

Warm Bodies. Dir. Jonathan Levine. 2012.

 

Bio: Marc Olivier is an associate professor of French Studies at Brigham Young University, where he teaches critical theory, literature, and photography. His publications include work on a variety of topics such as microscopy, entomology, photography, film, literature, and technology. His research is particularly focused on the relation between emerging technologies and nostalgia. 

 

“Fear is a Place”: The Asylum as Transgressive Haunted House in Brad Anderson’s Session 9 – Jessica Balanzategui

Abstract

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001) features a gothic, abandoned mental asylum, a decaying relic of the past whose uncanny power is reinforced through the extra-diegetic fact that the Danvers Asylum of the film was a real abandoned asylum in Boston until its demolition in 2006.  In the decaying space of the Danvers Asylum the supernatural and the unconscious realms are united through the (invisible) figure of Simon who, as the malignant genius loci of the asylum, assumes a position of duality between supernatural and psychological realms, internal and external worlds. This essay examines how Session 9 binds the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum to the construction of madness and the eerie return of the repressed.

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The figure of the mental asylum looms as an unsavoury cultural emblem of oppressive and sometimes violent confinement, typified by the semi-legendary institution, Bedlam. Asylums metonymise the sinister power of madness, which is frequently represented in popular culture as an inherently uncanny and abject condition. The human potentiality for madness is a dark shadow lurking in the social unconscious, the acknowledgement of which is repressed in the quest to present a rational and coherent identity. This domain of repressed social otherness — represented by madness and symbolised by the asylum — often re-emerges in dramatic fashion in the horror film. As J.P. Telotte suggests, the horror genre typically expresses fears that “the otherness in ourselves lurks just beneath the normal human veneer and threatens to resurface some day with all its horrors” (1985, 34). This notion evokes Freud’s concept of the uncanny, a cognitive dissonance induced by the re-emergence of something once familiar to conscious thought that has been estranged through repression.

Madness represents a central source of the uncanny; Freud asserts that “the layman sees [in madness] a manifestation of forces that he did not suspect in a fellow human being, but whose stirrings he can dimly perceive in remote corners of his own being” (2003, 150). Julia Kristeva’s (1982) theorisation of the abject can be used in tandem with Freud’s notion of the uncanny to elucidate the symbolic power of madness. Abjection involves the cognitive exclusion of elements that threaten or subvert conceptions of the self as a unified, distinct entity. It details the nightmarish emergence of these excluded thoughts, feelings or images, both personally and culturally.  More specifically, the abject assists in providing a ‘visual’ evocation of the uncanny, in that the abject does not “respect borders, positions or rules”, it is an “in-between  …  which disturbs identity, system and order” (Kristeva, 4). Ultimately, the spectacle of madness in others is an inherently uncanny and abject experience which is frequently exploited in horror cinema, especially those films that centralise an asylum as a setting. The construction of the asylum in many horror films both centralises and fetishises repression and the chaotic power of the unconscious, implanting the abject and uncanny condition of madness into the space of the asylum.

These “asylum horror films” constitute a long-standing and persistent subgenre of horror film; one of the earliest horror films, the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), is a formative representation of the subgenre. Recent incarnations include Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010). The focus of this essay is Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001) which centres on the abandoned Danvers Asylum — an asylum that actually existed in Boston until its demolition in 2006 to make way for an apartment complex. The Danvers State Asylum opened in 1878 and officially closed down for the final time in 1992, standing abandoned for over ten years (John Gray, 2009, n.p.). In its abandoned, decaying form the asylum represents a dark symbol and metonym of the violently oppressive past of mental illness treatment. This is highlighted by the various decaying implements of ‘treatment’ and oppression which linger in the hospital, and by the allusions to histories of treatment and de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill in the dialogue[1]. Through an uncanny fetishisation of its past, the abandoned asylum stands as a variation of the haunted or, to use Robin Wood’s broader term, “terrible house” figure (1985, 188). The contemporary symbol of the haunted house is a precise reflection of the uncanny, dramatising the unhomely qualities central to the German unheimlich. Like a haunted or terrible house, the abandoned asylum in Session 9 is inhabited by a ghostly presence named “Simon”, which exists as the malignant genius loci of the gothic building. The assimilating of the asylum with the haunted house is also underscored by the ways in which Session 9 echoes the qualities of another paradigmatic “terrible house” film, The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)[2].

In Session 9, Anderson centralises sound in his construction of madness and the uncanny. The sounds of the asylum, in particular the sinister voice of Simon, evoke the experience of auditory hallucination. Simon’s disembodied voice represents what Michel Chion (1994) has termed an “acousmetre”: a “character whose relationship to the screen involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation” (129). This oscillation, fostered from the character’s visual absence, enforces Simon’s transgressive existence between supernatural and psychological realms. In addition his status as an acousmetre ensures that the spectator shares in the sensory and mental disorientation of delusion. Through the disorientating duality embedded in the soundscape, the entire figure of the abandoned asylum comes to represent the mythical space of madness, repression and the unconscious.

Unlike many asylum horror films, such as the aforementioned Shutter Island, the diegetic world of Session 9 is not entirely contained within the confined space of the asylum. Instead, the protagonist, Gordon (Peter Mullan), is a functioning member of society who has come with a team of workmates to clear asbestos from its decaying walls. Gordon and his colleagues appear to be everyday working men, concerned with getting their work finished on time, acquiring enough money to care for their families, and fantasising about being prosperous and successful members of society. Gordon struggles with the pressure of family life, having just become a father. On arriving at the abandoned asylum to start working on the hazardous asbestos, he is spoken to by a mysterious voice (later identified as “Simon”). Simon, who is never visually represented, is not given clear borders of definition — he seems to exist as a disembodied incarnation of the malignant genius loci of the abandoned asylum, and also as an agent of repressed memories and thoughts. Simon has the power to vanquish the controlling forces of the ego, which leads to the disastrous release of Gordon’s repressed aggressive drives. The audience is forced to follow Gordon’s perception of events so that the spectator, like Gordon himself, is unaware of the extent of his actions until the final scene. Thus, the spectator shares Gordon’s destabilising experience of madness and the uncanny return of the repressed. While the audience becomes aware of Gordon’s ongoing cycle of violence and repression towards the end of the film, it seems that Gordon does not. In the final scene he occupies the room of a former inmate of the asylum, Mary Hobbes (Jurian Hughes), and is found speaking to his dead wife on a phone with no battery in it — Gordon has become a ‘patient’ in the uncanny space of the abandoned asylum.

The decaying implements which litter the abandoned asylum serve as silent but potent spectres of oppressive authority. A decrepit wheelchair sitting in a hall of the asylum becomes one of Session 9’s recurring images: the film opens with an inverted shot of this lone wheelchair. Through being framed upside-down the image is immediately imbued with a jarring, uncanny quality which underscores the way in which perception imposes meaning upon visual stimuli. The camera slowly rotates upright, accompanied by the ever increasing sound of dripping water, suggesting that something intangible has been roused within the asylums mouldering walls. This opening image introduces the mysterious genius loci of the abandoned building, as it is upon Gordon’s sighting of this wheelchair that Simon’s voice first emerges. Thus, the lingering power of these decaying implements of oppression is foregrounded from the opening shot of the film.

Figure 1: The opening image of the sinister wheelchair.

In addition to the eerie wheelchair, the asylum’s hydro-baths remain decayed but intact, still filled with murky water. The guide (Paul Guifoyle) explains that these were used to “soak the nut-job in water”, an act which evokes Michel Foucault’s discussion of the various “water therapies” that have existed throughout history as treatment for madness, which he argues functioned as a symbolic “christening” into the world of reason (2001, 164). The guide further explains that “if that didn’t work, [patients] were given a pre-frontal lobotomy”, which was “perfected at Danvers”. The lobotomy is another of the film’s recurring motifs, symbolising the ultimate form of oppression which reduces the human to a ‘zombie’ robbed of his conscious will, similar to somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The image of the empty wheelchair condenses these anxieties, standing in for a human who — through madness, oppression and ultimately death — is no longer ‘fully’ present, yet whose uncanny affects are still sensed; thus signifying an abject non-presence.  As well as the wheelchair and hydro-baths, the camera lingers on an electro-shock machine attached to a gurney and strait-jacket.

All these implements, like the overbearing asylum itself, compose a sordid spectacle of the oppressive past, symbols of humanity’s attempts to control the powerfully uncanny otherness of madness. The decaying asylum and its implements are ultimately a representation of repression on a cultural scale. Standing cordoned off from the present ‘normal’, functioning society of Danvers, protected by security guards and gates and hidden by forests on the outskirts of the city, the asylum stands as a concealed reminder of a long-stretching history of violent treatment of mental illness. The asylum’s metonymic position as an uncanny, culturally repressed space which threatens to nightmarishly re-emerge and intrude upon the present is further underscored by recurring aerial pans over the asylum’s sharp and sprawling rooves and steeples, in which the roads and houses of Danvers can be seen beyond the asylum’s menacingly jagged topography.

Figure 2: Danvers Asylum and the town beyond its bounds.

 

This menacing and decaying asylum is akin to the haunted or “terrible house” horror topos —a horrific, engulfing space, which represents the “dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future” (Wood, 188). The overbearing asylum with its rusted, decaying exterior provides a powerful visual evocation of this “dead weight of the past”.  The ambience of decay is often echoed in the filtering of rust-hued lighting throughout the mise-en-scene. The film fetishises a horrific past by dramatising the symbolic link between cultural and personal repression, utilising the asylum itself as a symbol of the unyielding power of the repressed past and unconscious drives. As Carlo Cavagna points out, in Session 9 “the past comments on the present, colouring the atmosphere and everything that transpires” (2001, n.p.).  This effect can be seen in the way in which the cells of past patients, known in the fiction of the film as “seclusions”, are presented.  The pictures and cut-outs that patients have stuck to the walls of their rooms remain intact, albeit in the faded, time-tainted form that characterises the asylum itself. Gordon becomes transfixed by the images on the walls of these seclusions, and the spectator follows his slowly panning gaze as he scrutinises them.

The pastiche of images and quotes on the wall comment on and hint at the future trajectory of Gordon and his workmates. One clip-out reads “Suddenly it’s going to dawn on you”, foreshadowing both Gordon and the audience’s sudden revelation at the film’s climax that Gordon himself is the violent monster of the film. This clip-out also prefigures the game the film plays with its audience, a device common to asylum horror films, in which the audience’s alliance with the mad protagonist’s point of view results in a sudden jolt at the climax when the ‘real’ framing story — and what has been repressed by the central character — is revealed. That this clip-out is accompanied by an image of a smiling mother and child is a further taunt to both Gordon and the audience, as the realisation that occurs at the film’s denouement involves the gruesome undermining of the myth of blissful motherhood and family life.

The other cut-outs on the wall play a similar role in using the sordid spectacle of the past to comment on the future and the present. For instance, one tattered clipping reads, “A man of peace, an act of violence”, a prediction and comment upon Gordon’s soon to be committed “act of violence”. A black and white image of five men lying in coffins presages Gordon’s murderous violence against his five workmates within the asylum’s walls. Thus, these creepy relics of the asylum’s past exude an uncanny yet powerful relationship with the present, just as Gordon’s repressed memories influence his present actions and perception. Through these images, there is an uncanny repetition embedded in the film’s narrative and imagery. The first clipping on the wall that is made clearly visible reads, “No one will leave feeling neutral”. Like the ambiguous voice of Simon himself, this clip-out reads like a menacing threat from the genius loci of the asylum, implying that the characters (and the audience) have entered an uncanny domain from which there can be no return to a life bound by the normal order.

Figure 3: The asylum’s past threatens to engulf Gordon in the “seclusion” room.

It is revealed to the audience at the close of the film that Gordon has constructed his own “seclusion”, which symbolically acts as psychological seclusion from truth and his repressed memories. He has occupied the room of former patient Mary Hobbes, sticking photos of his own family all over the walls of the cell, making himself a part of this “terrible house” which represents a sordid, culturally repressed past. As S.S. Prawer argues of horror film:

The cinematic tale of terror has played on apprehensions connected with the mystery of time as well as space. It likes to remind the viewer of the ‘I have been here before’ feeling, a feeling which we all know and which powerfully  suggests that the future is something determined, something that in a way is already here, already in the present. (1980, 79)

This effect replicates déjà vu, one of Freud’s central examples of the uncanny. The abandoned asylum becomes not just a symbol of the specific past of mental illness treatment, but of a disorientating and uncanny intrusion of the past in general upon the present. This inescapable intrusion of the past constructs a world in which “the past piles up”, ensuring that the future and present are crushed “by the ever increasing weight of the past” (Foucault, 1987, 85). The audio tapes which hold the psychological sessions of former patient, Mary Hobbes, underscore the ever mounting intrusion of the past upon the present throughout the film. Initially, these tapes exist as a mere relic of the past, as Mike (Stephen Gevedon) listens to them momentarily before turning them off and resuming his work. But as the film progresses, the tapes continue to play as Mike leaves the room — even after his death — eventually invading, merging with, and overtaking the diegetic sound. In fact the playing of these tapes is overlaid upon the entire climax of the film, as it is Simon’s voice, as recorded on Mary’s Session Tapes, that concludes the film, leaving the viewer trapped with Gordon inside the asylum’s past. This echoes Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) own merging with the past of the “terrible house” of The Shining, in which the final shot shows Jack’s face in one of the black and white photos which adorn the hotel’s walls.

As is common to the asylum horror film, the viewer does not become entirely aware of the nature or content of Gordon’s repression until the end of the film, sharing his confused perception of events. However unlike in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Shutter Island the viewer is not entirely trapped inside Gordon’s delusional world, as the cinema audience is offered observations on Gordon through the voices of other characters. Early in the film, Hank (Josh Lucas) remarks that “Gordo is the Zen-master of calm, I’ve never seen old Gordo lose it”. The fact that Gordon is established as so in control of his repressed drives renders Gordon’s susceptibility to Simon’s demands more unexpected and confronting. As the film progresses, Gordon’s ‘self-control’ appears to entirely erode. He is often shown wandering around the grounds of the asylum with a vacant facial expression, as though he is sleepwalking or a zombie. His pronounced limp further symbolises his deteriorating stability, while echoing the limping gait of Jack in The Shining. The loss of control of the rational self is further likened to sleepwalking at the end of the film, as Gordon is shown attacking Hank with a blank expression and closed eyes. Furthermore, in the final scenes an imaginary incarnation of Gordon’s best friend, Phil (David Caruso), tells him continuously to “wake up” — to regain control of his self and consciously acknowledge his repressed memories.

Gordon’s ‘sleepwalking’ and his blind following of Simon’s instructions also render him analogous to the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As Prawer says of Cesare “he is a human being robbed of an essential part of his humanity: his consciousness and his will. He is a human dreamer forced, by a malevolent agency, to lose himself in his dream” (180). These aspects become a large component of Gordon’s emergence as an uncanny figure, a source of fear for the viewer. At certain moments throughout the film, his limbs seem to move independently of his body, as if he is a puppet being controlled by a malicious puppet-master. In one scene at the climax of the film, Gordon’s blood-covered hand slowly emerges from out of shot and smears blood across his eye. It is as if Gordon is not in control of his own limbs, as if Simon (whose laughter accompanies the shot) is confronting Gordon with the monstrous violence of his actions. This fear of the human as an agent of chaos and violence when robbed of his consciousness emerges as a central purveyor of the uncanny in a number of horror subgenres, particularly the zombie and possession film[3]. As well as revealing anxieties about the subversive danger of repressed drives, the depiction of Gordon as a puppet-like sleepwalker encodes abject transgressions of the borders of humanity — like Cesare, Gordon comes to exist in a space of hesitation and duality between living and dead, subject and object.

As the ambiguous entity which possesses both Mary and Gordon is named Simon, madness is characterised in the film as a sinister game of Simon Says, in which the power of the malignant Simon is absolute when cracks in the unity of the rational self appear in those he possesses. As Simon tells the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes, “I live in the weak and the wounded”. Simon seems to assume control when Gordon and Mary experience moments of acute physical pain; their violence erupts after Simon’s voice is heard saying, “Do it, do it now.” Simon crystallises the ambiguous power which underlies many asylum horror films: an uncanny force that blurs subject and object boundaries, and which transgresses the borders between the psychological and the supernatural. When the doctor on Mary’s Session Tapes asks who he is, Simon simply replies, “You know who I am”, words he has also said to Gordon in one of the film’s early scenes. Thus, Simon becomes associated with a dark and primal force inherent to human experience — his contradictory (non)presence fetishises the unknowable depths of the unconscious. Simon’s transgression of boundaries evokes a realisation that “the deepest level of the psyche  …  is the point at which we enter a completely different reality operating outside the conventional laws of the known world” (Victoria Nelson, 2004, 114). Through the juxtaposition of his disembodied voice with the decaying images of the asylum, Simon becomes the sinister soul of the abandoned asylum, and the asylum itself becomes a symbol of the uncanny.

Sound plays a central role in representing the uncanny genius loci of the abandoned Danvers State Asylum. Diegetic sound such as birds chirping and the ticking of car indicators are electronically distorted to render the film’s soundscape uncanny and destabilising, encoding a blurring of boundaries between subject and object, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, so that the spectator experiences mental and sensory disorientation. The uncanny distortion of supposedly ‘normal’ diegetic sound merges with the non-diegetic soundtrack, usually made up of a sparse chromatic piano line and a long electronic monotone.  This ambiguity of sound categories forces the viewer to share Gordon’s destabilising perceptions, as supposed ‘reality’ is increasingly rendered uncanny and the borders of the filmic real and Gordon’s interior perceptions become inseparable.  As Foucault explains, madness is defined by an inability to see beyond the limits of selfhood, that “in his delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage” (1987, 23).

Through a soundscape which blurs the boundaries of what is diegetic and non-diegetic, the Danvers Asylum comes to represent the disorientating mirage of madness for the spectator as well as Gordon. The film opens with a flurry of distorted, high pitched sounds which merge a number of the film’s sound motifs: bird sounds, vague electronic noise and dripping water. These sounds give way to the cavernous electronic monotone which can be heard often throughout the film, a sound imprinted upon the abandoned walls, halls and wheelchair of the decaying asylum, accompanied by dripping water. The opening shot abruptly cuts to Gordon waiting in his car, bombarded by the electronic static and disembodied sounds of the car radio. The radio noise closely resembles the curious sounds which opened the film; the distinctly unnatural and unfamiliar sounds of the opening have been jarringly assimilated with noises which should be comfortingly familiar. Thus for the audience, the space of the abandoned asylum has already rendered uncanny the everyday sounds outside of the asylum’s gates. This uncanniness is connected in particular to Gordon himself, as the wheelchair shot promptly cuts to a close-up of the back of his head. Eventually, among the convoluted sounds of the car radio, another character’s voice, Phil’s, is heard out of shot. Phil’s voice is initially almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the radio. In addition, because Phil is out of shot and there is instead a close-up on Gordon’s face, it is as if Phil’s voice exists inside Gordon’s mind. Gordon’s ear takes up the centre of the shot, and the camera slowly tracks around his ear to a profile shot of his face. The centralising of the ear in the shot further underscores the importance of interpreting and distinguishing these convoluted auditory sensations.

This problematising of perceiving and filtering the auditory world foreshadows the uncanny emergence of Simon.  Simon exists as what Chion calls an “acousmetre”, a term coined by Chion to describe a voice with no visually represented source which is “neither inside nor outside the image” (129). Chion elaborates that “it is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source … is not included. Nor is it outside since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary ‘wing’ …  and it is implicated in the action” (129). The acousmetre assumes a position of hesitation between offscreen and onscreen which mirrors Simon’s dual existence between the internal and external, psychological and supernatural worlds. Simon’s position as an acousmetre evokes an experience of auditory hallucination for the spectator. Foucault points out that those experiencing an auditory hallucination “hear voices in mythical space  …  in which axes of reference are fluid and mobile: they hear next to them, around them, within them, the voices of persecutors, which at the same time, they situate beyond the walls, beyond the city, beyond all frontiers” (55).

For both Gordon and the audience, the voice of Simon does indeed seem to arise from some sinister “mythical space”. As Gordon is transfixed by the wheelchair, a sourceless, flickering electronic sound gradually crescendos, overtaking the sounds of dripping water. As the sound grows, Gordon’s face becomes shrouded in shadow, until finally a disembodied voice — rendered particularly uncanny by its vaguely lingering electronic quality — emerges from the metallic drone, and remarks “Hello Gordon”. The sound does not seem to arise from any particular source; there are no visual cues connecting the sound with any specific area or object. This menacing auditory invasion, accompanied by the still images of the decaying asylum, combine to emit an uncanny and disorientating ambience which evokes the mythical space of madness. The mysterious locale of the abandoned asylum has produced an uncanny voice that seems to emanate from some shadowy dimension of the asylum itself, which, as in the auditory hallucination, neither Gordon nor the audience can pin down to a specific person, entity or space. This untraceable voice signifies an incarnation of the intangible “Elsewhere” outlined by Gilles Deleuze — a “disturbing presence … a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogenous space and time” (2005, 18).

Chion asserts that the acousmetre “draws its very force from the opposition and the way it transgresses [boundaries of onscreen and offscreen]” (131). This powerful transgression of coherent borders is also evident in the connections which arise between the dead Mary Hobbes’s “dissociative personality disorder” and Gordon’s own experience of madness, and the way in which these connections are structured and represented. Throughout much of the film,  “Simon” is merely the name of Mary Hobbes’ mysterious, unheard third “alternate personality”, the mention of which provokes extreme fear, anger or avoidance responses from Mary’s other personalities. He finally reveals himself on the Session Tapes at the climax of the film, a time when all pretence of solidarity is finally lost among the work-crew. Because the audience is already familiar with this voice, when it finally emerges on the Session Tape under the guise of Simon it is immediately imbued with a further layer of uncanniness. The nameless, ambiguous voice that both the audience and Gordon have been struggling to position within the context of the Danvers Asylum and Gordon’s descent into madness is now associated with a dead patient who was once confined at the asylum.

The voice of Simon within Mary Hobbes provides an example of what Peter Hutchings describes as “monstrous ventriloquism” (2004, 132), as the deep, metallic voice of Simon clearly does not match the photos of the mousy, middle-aged woman, Mary Hobbes. This disconcerting mismatching of the sound to its source denotes that Mary’s mental illness “is not bound by the natural order” (Hutchings, 132) but is an abject transgression of femininity and identity. This abject affect is heightened for the viewer by the fact that the performer who voiced Simon is not listed in the film’s credits, suggesting (but not confirming) that female actress Jurian Hughes did in fact produce this deep, menacing timbre. The appearance of Simon in Mary Hobbes’s Session Tapes complicates his relation to Gordon even more, further blurring boundaries between self and other, and the internal and the external world. Vague connections between the deceased Mary Hobbes and Gordon are suggested throughout the film: in one scene Gordon sits above the broken headstone of Mary Hobbes’s grave (marked merely by a patient number); in another, the wheelchair that transfixes him on arriving at the asylum sits outside the door of Mary Hobbes’s cell; and finally, during a climactic scene, an image of Mary’s face is overlaid on a close-up of Gordon’s own visage[4]. Thus, it becomes particularly difficult for the audience to situate Simon as either an entirely supernatural or psychological force. The asylum comes to represent an abject space between supernatural and psychological realms, thus evoking Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of ontological hesitation as central to the subject’s experience of the uncanny in acts of readership or (in this case) spectatorship (1975, 46).  The disorientation is emphasised by Simon’s acousmatic qualities. The spectator is thus placed in a disorientating position of hesitation, and the asylum houses, and ultimately represents, transgressive forces that breach the boundaries between subject and object, supernatural and psychological, and onscreen and offscreen.

Figure 4: Gordon, Mary, Simon or something in-between? An abject transgression of the borders selfhood.

Ultimately in Session 9, the figure of the abandoned, decaying asylum is utilised as a metonym for both personal and collective repression. The rust-coloured, corroded building is presented as a menacing spectre of the past invading the normality of the present. The past itself becomes an intrusive and eerie figure in Session 9, represented in solid form by the asylum but also in the stories of repressed pasts and memories central to the narrative. Before its destruction in 2006, the ‘real’ abandoned Danvers Asylum was a source of fascination and fear among the community of Danvers. Prior to its demolition, Danvers local Michael Puffer explains that “the massive red-brick gothic landmark that stands atop Hathorne Hill has been given many names during the past 129 years” and that “[t]hese names stand as evidence of the special place the building, and Danvers State Hospital, holds in the minds and mythology of the people of Danvers, the North Shore and beyond” (2003, n.p.). Director Brad Anderson has revealed that he was driven to make Session 9 because of the eerie lure of the abandoned asylum building, which he saw often while living in Boston. The asbestos which lingers in the walls of the asylum in the film invokes the powerful, corruptive impact of the asylum’s past upon the present. As Gordon’s work-mate Hank explains early in the film, “already a piece of [asbestos] might have got into your lungs; it incubates in your lungs and tissue … like a ticking time-bomb”. The asbestos which imperceptibly drifts throughout the asylum in Session 9 metaphorises the abandoned asylum’s ongoing powers of corruption and infectious taint.  As the promotional tagline for Session 9 suggests, “Fear is a place”: the abandoned asylum literalises the intangible depths of the unconscious, the blurred boundaries of time and space, and figures a realm in which the uncanny reigns.

Notes:


[1]Discussions about the history of the asylum litter the film, including therapy methods and the period of de-institutionalisation stretching from the 1960s to the early ’90s. The guide proclaims that “nearly all these places were closed down in the ’80s, you know, budget-cuts – feds called it de-institutionalisation.” Hank adds, “the loonies are outside in the real world and we have the keys to the loony bin, boys”, delineating the asylum itself as the domain of otherness.

[2] Though technically a hotel, The Overlook functions as a large-scale “terrible house” in The Shining, adapting and embellishing haunted house tropes.

[3] Simon, like the demon in seminal possession film The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) “is an expression of the fear that beneath the self we present to others are forces that can erupt to obliterate every vestige of self-control and personal identity” (Noel Carroll, 1981, 18). As in possession and zombie films, Simon’s power over Gordon fetishises and dramatises a fear that lurking beneath the human veneer is a dangerous otherness which may one day disastrously erupt. The Exorcist (while not an asylum horror film) also features a scene in a ‘house of horror’ asylum, and represents psychiatric tools of treatment as sinisterly invasive.

[4] This effect echoes the final shot in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), in which the skull of Norman’s mother is overlaid upon a close-up of Norman’s face. Both shots conflate ‘madness’ with an abject blurring of boundaries between the dead and the living, male and female, supernatural and psychological.

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Filmography

 Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The. Dir. Robert Wiene. Decla-Bioscop AG, 1920.

Exorcist, The. Dir. William Friedkin. Hoya Productions, 1973.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Session 9. Dir. Brad Anderson. USA Films, 2001.

Shining, The. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1980.

Shutter Island. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Ward, The. Dir. John Carpenter. FilmNation Entertainment, 2010


Works Cited

Carroll, Noel. “Nightmare and the Horror Film: The Symbolic Biology of Fantastic Beings.” Film Quarterly 34.3 (1981): 16-25.

Cavagna, Carlo. “Session 9”. Aboutfilm. August, 2001. 12 July, 2010. <http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/s/session9.htm>

Chion, Michel. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. Ed and translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Trans. David Cooper. Great Britain: Routledge Classics, 2001.

—. Mental Illness and Psychology. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

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

Gray, John. “Chronicles: Constructing a New Danvers.” The Danvers State Asylum. 2009.   30 Sep. 2010 <http://www.danversstateinsaneasylum.com/2006.html>

Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Puffer, Michael. “The lore, and lure, of the Danvers State Hospital”. Danvers Herald.October 2003. Accessed through the Haunted Salem Website, 12 July 2010. <http://www.hauntedsalem.com/news/oct03-dh-danversstate.htm>

Telotte, J.P. “Faith and Idolatry in the Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 20-35.

Todorov, Tzvetzan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western University Press, 1975.

Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharret. London: Scarecrow Press, 1985. 164-200.

Bio

Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate in the department of Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films originating from America, Spain and Japan.