“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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 24, 2014

Themed Issue: Intermediations

Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

Contents:

1. Editorial Introduction — Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

2. Animating Ephemeral Surfaces: Transparency, Translucency and Disney’s World of Color  — Kirsten Moana Thompson

3. Vertical Framing: Authenticity and New Aesthetic Practice in Online Videos — Miriam Ross

4. Attached To My Devices: Across Individual, Collective and Panspectric Worlds — John Farnsworth

5. The Ecstatic Gestalt in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams — Kevin Fisher

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

7. ‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

8. We are the Borg (in a good way): Mapping The Development Of New Kinds Of Being And Knowing Through Inter- and Trans-Mediality — Anne Cranny Francis

‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

Abstract: In this paper I examine the television program True Blood’s allusions to gay liberation in terms of the biopolitical and neoliberal implications of consuming civil rights as a transmedia story. In the program, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. Home Box Office’s (HBO) use of Tru Blood to market the show is premised on the commodification of a (vampire) rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, which remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. The consumption of the True Blood story by fans thereby enacts principles of biopolitical management and containment of civil rights groups through HBO’s and fans’ willingness to enact play-political consumption and performance of rights in a transmediated public sphere.

rm1The television series True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014), based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris, features a number of allusions to gay liberation and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) politics in its depiction of ‘vampire rights’. In the fictional town of Bon Temps, in Louisiana, United States, where True Blood is set, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. The production of Tru Blood as a commodity enables individual and collective groups of vampires to advocate for the civil and political rights enjoyed by humans. In the vampires’ attempts to become part of ‘mainstream culture’, there are several references to gay liberation. These include the American Vampire League, whose activism and media interventions mirror that of groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the use of the phrase ‘coming out of the coffin’ to describe the increasing numbers of vampires publicly acknowledging their existence to humans, and the prejudice directed at vampires by humans, particularly by those with conservative or evangelical Christian beliefs. This specific cultural, political and religious milieu for vampire rights is telegraphed in the opening title sequence by a brief shot of a church sign, which reads, “God Hates Fangs”. Amongst the ostensibly non-fictional images of Southern quotidian life—swamps, road kill, baptisms, church choirs, bar brawls—it is the only indication in the sequence of the program’s focus on the supernatural.

The diegetic plausibility of the vampire liberation movement is aided by various transmedia paraphernalia simultaneously operating outside of and in relation to events in the show’s narrative. This includes the availability of Tru Blood beverages and merchandise, Facebook and social media material for the advocacy groups featured within the show and partnerships between Home Box Office (HBO—the channel that broadcasts True Blood) and advertising companies, such as Geico insurance, to produce fictional campaigns targeted explicitly towards vampire consumers but implicitly, True Blood fans. In this extension of the program’s narrative of vampire rights to other types of media and forms of consumption, True Blood is exemplary of the new practices of transmedia storytelling championed by Henry Jenkins. He defines transmedia as

a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. (Jenkins 2011; original emphases)

For Jenkins, this type of storytelling enables and builds on audience participation in the meaning-making process of media texts (2006). This mode of storytelling is also closely associated with viral marketing, which utilises “pre-existing social networks like websites and YouTube in order to increase franchise or brand awareness” (Ndalianis 2012, 164). Transmedia forms of storytelling, like those employed for True Blood, can be quite complex and multi-faceted, involving the extension of a text across not only different types of media but also different geographical locations and consumer activities. In her excellent book, The Horror Sensorium (2012), Angela Ndalianis details transmedia stories and campaigns involving scavenger hunts, political rallies, social media tourism and urban graffiti that centre on the production of an embodied fan relationship with media texts. She argues that the transmedia stories deployed for texts such as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), Lost (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2004-2010)and True Blood “address the fiction/reality interplay by mitigating their stories more invasively into the social sphere” (165). They do this by encouraging fans and consumers to become ‘actors’ in a transmedia performance of a ‘living’ narrative (166). This performance produces a kind of meta-affect because fans “extract cerebral and sensory pleasure participating in and contributing to a highly crafted fictional world that’s in the process of unveiling itself” (169). An example of this type of meta-affective performance occurred in early 2009, in Auckland, New Zealand, when a series of wooden posters advertising True Blood were installed along public streets. Featuring information about True Blood’s airdate (the series was premiering on New Zealand television at this time), the posters had “In case of vampire” written across the top and “Snap here” at the bottom presented alongside flat wooden stakes. Potential fans and viewers of True Blood were invited to participate as performers in the program’s narrative by exercising vigilance and protection from the newly outed vampires by snapping off a wooden stake and carrying the physical textual detritus into their everyday lives.

trubloodbotWhat structures this kind of performance and participation by fans is the story and narrative used to extend a text via transmediation. In this paper I want to examine the execution of True Blood’s transmedia storytelling through a narrative of vampire rights that alludes to civil rights debates around gay liberation. I want to focus on the specifically transmedia dimensions of this narrative and how this particular media form interpellates viewers into a biopolitical and neoliberal mode of consuming civil rights. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of a rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. Fans’ affective investment in vampire rights is then managed via consumption in a transmedia format that mirrors biopolitical strategies of management and containment of minority groups through civil rights discourse.

“No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead”: Vampires and biopolitics

In her essay “Technologies of Monstrosity”, Judith Halberstam argues that “[a]ttempts to consume … vampirism within one interpretive model inevitably produce vampirism. They reproduce, in other words, the very model they claim to have discovered” (1993, 334). For this reason, in her analysis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula she argues that the central figure is “not simply a monster, but a technology of monstrosity” (334). Representations of monstrosity in texts like Dracula function not so much to reify particular characteristics of monstrosity (be it sexual immorality or corporeal difference) but to produce and disseminate particular discourses constituted as monstrous. So if we take a particular representation of vampires to signify for example, minority rights, we are also at the same time producing an understanding of what minority rights mean in popular and political culture.

Given that monstrosity is typically construed as a threat to human life, textual portrayals of monstrosity are also concerned with the management of that threat and the balancing of the value of human life with the containment of monstrosity. The development and application of various governmental strategies designed foster the life and health of citizens is defined by Michel Foucault as biopower (1991b, 263). In order to maximise the economic productivity of the state, governments and state institutions have “to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize … the living in the domain of value and utility” (1991b, 266). One way to organise social practices around ‘value and utility’ is to encourage citizens to invest in a racialised and heteronormative construction of the family as the site through which life can be fostered or neglected (1991a, 99). As the management of the economic and social life of the polity comes to pivot on heterosexual familial reproduction, non-heterosexual or non-normative sexualities can be positioned in biopolitical terms as threats to the ‘health’ and productive order of a society. In her essay “Tracking the Vampire” Sue-Ellen Case explains:

From the heterosexist perspective, the sexual practice that produced babies was associated with giving life, or practicing a life-giving sexuality, and the living was established as the category of the natural. Thus, the right to life was a slogan not only for the unborn, but for those whose sexual practices could produce them. In contrast, homosexual sex was mandated as sterile—an unlive practice that was consequently unnatural, or queer, and, as that which was unlive, without the right to life. Queer sexual practice, then, impels one out of the generational production of what has been called “life” and historically, and ultimately out of the category of the living. (1991, 4)

In a biopolitical paradigm, subjects deemed unable to contribute productively to the life of a society can be excluded from the rights and protections offered by that society. This exclusion is then overlain with a naturalising discourse, which works to justify the asymmetries of legal and social recognition as simply part of the ‘natural order of things’. This is why Case sees a link between the cultural discourses used to frame both vampirism and homosexuality. In a dominant heteronormative order that conflates a particular kind of social and political life with life itself, both vampirism and homosexuality become aligned with death or unlife.

rm3The representation of the various kinds of harm vampire rights pose to humans in True Blood then seems an apposite metaphor for the biopolitical exclusion of LGBTI people from certain state-based rights. As a number of scholars have pointed out, True Blood’s treatment of vampiresis characteristic of a wider shift in textual portrayals of vampires “from the right to exile … to the right to citizenship in the postcolonial United States” (Hudson 2013, 663). Bernard Beck sees “[t]he plain message of today’s vampire lore” as evidence “that we are becoming less fearful and hostile, more curious and sympathetic to those we insist on defining as strangers” (2011, 92). This narrative shift from exclusion to inclusion in representations of vampiric difference is reflective of a broader social and political consensus around managing minority groups through integration rather than expulsion from a neoliberal economic order. Deborah Mutch notes that the narrative framework for the acceptance of vampires in book series such as Twilight and The Southern Vampire Mysteries are premised on “accepting human definitions of nation and race which are then superceded by globalised trade” (2011, 75).

While the supernatural genre has the ability to, as Dale Hudson puts it, “decolonize our familiar habits of thinking”, particularly with respect to cinematic and televisual “political realism” (2013, 662), textual portrayals of supernatural creatures nevertheless tend to incorporate dominant biopolitical conceptions of human life as the normative narrative bedrock against which other kinds of lives or living is measured. Hudson points out that in True Blood, vampirism is constituted as species difference through reference to characters as ‘vampire Bill’, whereas human characters are not described as ‘white Jason’ or ‘black Tara’ within the diegesis of the show (666). Where vampirism is discursively positioned as bodily distinct from human-ness, the nation on which this embodiment is placed remains invisible. True Blood’s representation of First Nations peoples and their interaction with vampires (those old enough to have arrived in North America during colonisation) is limited enough to suggest an erasure of colonialism as significant to the historical formation of the United States. As Hudson notes, “Indigenous nations appear only in the realm of the supernatural in True Blood” (669). For Hudson, the program’s use of the supernatural allows an imagining of “the New South as a space inhabited by multiple species on multiple planes of reality” (664), which invites consideration of “the right to rights” (685). My interest in this paper is how True Blood’s portrayal of “the right to rights” is linked to the public management and presentation of rights-based groups via transmedia texts, which are dependent on public forms of consumption and fan activity.

“You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children”: Vampire rights

In True Blood’s narrative conflicts around vampire rights, there are several allusions to civil rights and equality movements. The series has been received predominantly as a commentary on gay liberation. A New York Post article, for example, contends that “the fictional vampires’ quest for the same rights and social acceptance enjoyed by” humans “has become synonymous with the very real fight for gay rights” (Shen 2009). The author of the novels on which the show is based also seems to encourage this association (see Solomon 2010). As with the gay rights movement, vampires’ attempts to achieve equality are perceived by their opponents as a threat to the social and cultural stability of the polity they inhabit. However, the crucial difference between vampires and LGBTI peoples is that the alleged ‘harm’ posed to society by granting the latter civil rights is symbolic and imagined whereas vampires, within the diegesis of the show, do perpetrate considerable violence. In this vein, a reviewer of the show opined, “[t]hese vamps are assholes, not oppressed minorities. They deserve to be hated. If these murderous, evil creatures are figures for gay people, then they are figures for the religious right’s worst nightmare of what gay people are” (Newitz 2008). The program’s creator, Alan Ball, also avers with this reasoning “because the vampires on our show are, for the most part, vicious murderers and predators, and I’m gay myself, so I don’t really want to say, ‘Hey, gays and lesbians are basically viciously amoral murderers’” (Grigoriadis 2010).

outdoor-advertising-aimed-at-vampiresThe question of whether rights should be reserved only for those who are morally deserving is addressed in an interesting way by the American Vampire League (AVL) within the show. In the first episode (“Strange Love”, 1.1), the AVL spokesperson, Nan Flanagan (in an interview with Bill Maher) refutes assertions that vampires perpetrate large-scale murder and assault against humans (for lack of documented evidence) and counters that humans themselves are responsible for slavery and genocide. Later on in the series, another vampire Russell Edgington uses this same logic—humans have caused irreparable damage to the environment and the species they share it with—to reach a very different conclusion regarding vampire-human relations. For Edgington, vampires are right to insist on their superiority to and difference from humans. He broadcasts these views on a live news program and after deboning the anchor, proclaims to the human audience, “You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children” (“Everything is Broken”, 3.9). Human anti-vampire bigotry meanwhile stems from a corporeal vulnerability to vampires’ biological requirement for human blood. In its extreme form, anti-vampire prejudice manifests as a speciest right to survival exercised by vigilante groups such as the one seen in Season Five. This group of men don Barack Obama masks as they inflict violence and in some cases, death, upon vampires and other supernatural beings. This group mentions and appears to be linked to the ‘Keep American Human’ movement, which has its own website and promotional material. This doubly imbricated right to ‘America’ and to life is framed by anti-vampire humans as exclusive. One of the vigilante characters complains, “it’s some sort of crime now being a regular old human” (“In the Beginning”, 5.7) as if the uniqueness of being human cannot be co-extensive with the existence of other species.

Vampire prejudice thus goes beyond the simple fear of death or bodily harm and involves a speciest condemnation of vampire existence that is often inflected with a moral discourse. When the show begins, vampires have achieved a limited degree of civil equality such as the right to marry (in certain states in the US and if the unions are heterosexual) and are protected by anti-discrimination laws (businesses cannot refuse to serve vampires as customers), which are reluctantly enforced by police. There are also a series of moral and social codes, centred primarily on sexuality, that police vampire and human interactions. Humans who engage with or are thought to engage in sexual relations with vampires are derisively referred to as “fang-bangers”. The central character Sookie Stackhouse is often judged negatively in terms of her moral standing and character for her relationship with the vampire Bill Compton. The first season features a violent expression of this chauvinism in the form of a serial killer with a pathological hatred of women who sleep with vampires.

The corporeal vulnerability of humans to vampire attack is balanced by the portrayal of vampire blood as producing hallucinatory and amphetamine-like effects when consumed by humans. Vampire blood or V-juice is a highly sought-after but illegal commodity associated with the vampire bar scene and fang-bangers, which may allude to subcultural forms of clubbing and recreational drug use. In Season One, a lonely vampire named Eddie claims that he can only express and act on his homosexual orientation by trading his blood for sexual favours with human men (in particular Sookie’s co-worker and friend, Lafayette Reynolds). In an inversion of the life-giving connotations of heterosexual sex, one scene in the first season shows Sookie’s brother Jason and his girlfriend consume V-juice and make love whilst Eddie is tied up and tortured in the basement below them. Here it is an undead subject whose blood provides the impetus and facilitation of heterosexual sex.

The moral repugnance at the tarnishing of human life and sexuality bought about by vampire-human contact is aligned with most (although not all) forms of Christianity in True Blood. The second season features an evangelical group called the Fellowship of the Sun that promotes “pro-livin’ values” (Home Box Office 2012) and warns the human polity about the dangers of vampire rights and the “the wing nuts on the left” who advocate for them (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). In a television interview, the pastor of the church, Reverend Steve Newlin, explains that vampire rights threaten “the rights of our sons and daughters to go to school without fear of molestation by a bloodthirsty predator in the playground or in the classroom” (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). One of the advertisements produced by the Fellowship of the Sun, not featured in the show but distributed online and in poster form in some cities, depicts a young blonde boy with the caption, “To them he’s just a midnight snack” (Ndalianis 2012, 178).

The figure of the child here is important as Ben Davies and Jana Funke note, “the teleology of straight time is projected onto the sex act, which displaces its own meaning, significance or indeed non-significance for the production of the future” (2011, 6). In this way, the future viability of a heterosexual society is linked to the purity and protection of children. In a video press release for the advertising campaign, the elder Reverend Theodore Newlin passionately declares, “our children are our most precious resource, our lifeblood” (the video appears on YouTube under the category ‘Nonprofits & Activism’). On the Fellowship’s website, homosexuality is listed alongside vampirism as a social danger: “It’s nothing new for teenagers and young adults to flock to the newest trend, and it’s hardly uncommon for these fashion choices to be self-destructive, like smoking, drugs, tattoos or homosexuality. But the latest fad—a soulless eternity of drinking blood—can’t be undone with a laser treatment or rehab. Vampirism is forever” (Home Box Office 2012). While some organisations and US Republican presidential candidates view homosexuality as a choice or temporary lifestyle that can be cured or corrected, what makes vampirism especially pernicious for the Fellowship is that it cannot be erased or overcome, it’s “forever”. In another television interview, the younger Reverend Newlin says, “the vampires as a group have cheated death. And when death has no meaning, then life has no meaning. And when life has no meaning, it is very, very easy to kill” (“Nothing but the Blood”, 2.1).

Anti-vampire sentiment is not an opposition to the merits or otherwise of particular vampire rights, rather the opposition stems from the consequence that these rights serve to entrench vampire presence in civil and social spaces. It is precisely because vampirism constitutes a permanent state of being that the necessity of repealing vampire rights takes on an apocalyptic sense of urgency. Such rhetoric alludes to and perhaps parodies anti-gay rights activism, particularly the National Organisation for Marriage’s (NOM) Proposition 8 “gathering storm” commercials which featured activists and citizens expressing concern about marriage equality backgrounded by blue screens depicting severe lightening storms and flooding. Here the public recognition of difference is conflated with disaster. In the type of advocacy employed by the Fellowship of the Sun, and NOM, the out-group’s very existence seems to imperil a safe and normal social and political order.

Where NOM’s advocacy and rhetoric is left open to debate and parody in the marketplace of democratic political suasion, the Fellowship is clearly set up as an object of ridicule within True Blood. First Newlin (in Season Two) and then his wife Sarah (in Season Six) are positioned as villains whose attempts to instigate genocidal war against vampires figure as obstructions and then climatic battles against which Sookie and friends must contend. Hudson argues that “Steve’s punishment is to be ‘made’ vampire, presumably unleashing his latent desires for Jason” and he “becomes a self-defined ‘gay vampire American’” (2013, 672). Such a transformation is presented humorously as a revelation of the character’s moral and political hypocrisy because his hatred of vampires is ostensibly linked to a self-hatred of his orientation. The reading of groups such as the Fellowship as opposed to progressive social and political causes is reflected in scholarly and popular reception of the show. For example, J. M. Tyree explains the premise of True Blood by noting, “The resistance movement to vampire rights is formed out of the ideological dregs of fundamentalist Christianity” (2009, 32). An online recapper describes the vigilante Keep America Human group as “a bungling bunch of bigoted idiots who spew thinly veiled Fox News talking points like ‘lamestream media’” (Berkshire 2012).By framing the Fellowship and Keep America Human’s advocacy against vampires as villainous, True Blood can be seen as participating in progressive representations of civil rights wherein “proclaiming a future in which the current resistance to gay marriage will seem backward” allows those subjects who already accept civil rights to be “projected forward in time” (Davies and Funke 2011, 6).

True Blood’s vampire rights narrative enables the production and facilitation of a set of transmedia texts framed around advocacy. As various groups within the show vie for political, cultural, economic and species preservation, this sets up an affective biopolitical participation wherein fans and reviewers debate the merits of civil rights, equality and state protection. A positive reading of this biopolitical transmedia engagement with the show is that a popular political consensus around inclusion and integration encourages fans to view the contribution of violence and essentialised forms of prejudice to political debate in negative terms—whether in the form of the Fellowship’s moral inflection to humans’ right to life or vampires’ reduction of human ontological existence to food. In the next section of the paper, I want to unpack the implications of how this fan engagement with the biopolitics of vampire rights is achieved through transmedia storytelling as a specifically commodified activity.

“There’s no such thing as bad; or time for that matter”: Vampires and neoliberalism

Aside from some obvious corporeal differences—fast movement, sharp orthodontics, sartorial preference for dark, binding clothing—vampires in True Blood attempt, for the most part, to fit into the social and cultural environment around them. In an interview for The New York Times Harris explains that her vampires “are more sympathetic” than previous sanguisuge incarnations. Of Dracula she says: “He had disgusting personal habits. He had the three wives; he crawled up the sides of the buildings; he had the sharp teeth and fingernails. Mine are at least trying to look like everyone else, but it’s not working out too well for them” (Solomon 2010). While earlier representations of vampires tended to exacerbate their monstrosity as difference, in Harris’ novels and its televisual counterpart, monstrosity is framed around the problem with assimilation to a human-centred social and political order. This integration is premised on the presence of a biotechnological industry, economic infrastructure and political consensus enabling them to do so.

The AVL is able to advocate for the public acceptance of vampires, on the basis that they do not pose a threat to humans, because of the development of the synthetic Tru Blood replacement for human blood. Originally developed by a Japanese biomedical company as a solution for human blood loss and transfusions, an accidental side effect is that the product can provide sustenance to vampires. Thus while the show centres around the politics of integration, the fulcrum for this integration is the successful branding and marketing of Tru Blood as “a globally transported commodity” (Mutch 2011, 81). The second vampire we see in True Blood is shown purchasing the beverage from a 7-Eleven style convenience store. In this opening scene of the first episode, two bored white teenagers eagerly approach the store clerk, fashioned in dark clothing, piercings and long black hair, to inquire about the possibility of scoring V-juice. The clerk indulges the potential V customers, menacing them with intimations of violence, before abruptly revealing his status as human, to the delight of the male teenager and relieved anger of his female counterpart. A burly gentleman in military garb and a cap adorned with a Confederate flag comes forward to express his displeasure with the ruse. After the male teen excoriates the customer by saying, “fuck you Billy Bob”, ‘Billy Bob’ reveals his fangs and responds, “Fuck me. I’ll fuck you boy. I’ll fuck ya’ and then I’ll eat ya’” (“Strange Love”, 1.1). The vampire’s interactions with both the clerk and the young couple subvert generic expectations, from the characters within the show as well as the audience, of the vampire as reclusive and gothic. Hudson reads this scene as evoking “the lingering embers of ‘lost cause’ for white-male-human privilege” where “the privileged position of the white-male-human in the Old South might be restored only in supernatural terms in the New South” (2013, 672). Now a vampire, the Southern white Confederate man can still expect his purchasing power and public presence to proceed without humiliation or impediment.

The development and dissemination of Tru Blood for public consumption creates new forms of human and vampire interaction, which diverse sets of stakeholders attempt to negotiate and regulate in different ways. The AVL attempts to gain political enfranchisement through a Vampire Rights Amendment (VRA) while other supernatural species, such as werewolves, wait cautiously to see how vampires are treated before likewise revealing themselves publicly (Hudson 2013, 665). The means through which a pharmaceutical product propels the development of vampire rights reinforces Halberstam’s point that Gothic monstrosity is always “an aggregate of race, class, and gender” (1993, 334). In order to participate as good biopolitical citizens, vampires must have the capital to access Tru Blood as well as the legal protection to purchase and consume the product in a discrimination free environment. The fake commercials for Tru Blood, released on YouTube, attempt to help this economic and political process along by portraying Tru Blood consumption as alternatively cool and sexy or folksy and non-threatening. For example, in one commercial, three young white men approach a bar and place their orders in quick succession:

I’ll take that vodka with the really cool ad campaign.

Ridiculously expensive imported beer with a name I can’t pronounce.

I’ll have one of those exotic cocktails.

Their requests are interrupted by a conventionally attractive white woman who orders Tru Blood and then carries it to her wan date, languishing in the shadows of the bar. The men stare at the Tru Blood customer in astonishment and awe. The ad ends with the tagline, “Tru Blood, because you don’t need a pulse to make hearts race”:

The commercial has no branding for True Blood or HBO and is a self-contained transmedia text—the Tru Blood logo shown at the end even has small legalise advising potential consumers, “Synthetic blood products contain varied cellular content than actual blood. Please consult a Tru Blood Cellular Specialist for specific nutritional information”. True Blood fans are addressed as both consumers of the show and of the fictional Tru Blood beverage. These fans are positioned as savvy and media literate cognisors in a way that disarms the purpose of both the True Blood text and the Tru Blood advertisement to establish a blatantly commercial relationship with fans through a postmodern knowingness of alcohol marketing. The intended affective response here, as per Ndalianis, is to generate meta-pleasure in recognising the text’s transmedia connection to the show (in the absence of specific show branding) amidst the generic conventions of alcohol commercials.

Another commercial features a group of mostly white men camping and enjoying beer around a fire. We then see the group through a point of view shot from the darkness in a way that appears to show a predator sneaking up on them. In a reverse shot, a vampire emerges behind one of the men and snarls. The men are startled and then begin to laugh as they welcome the vampire as a recognised friend. “You boys got something for me to drink?” the vampire chuckles as his friends hand him a Tru Blood.

These commercials generate a convivial affective connection to the show anchored through transmedia commodity relations that mirror the internal commodity relations between characters in True Blood. The success of Sookie and Bill’s relationship for example, is implicated in the proliferation of cheap pharmaceutical substitutes. After a passionate bout of lovemaking and bloodletting, Bill tenderly instructs Sookie to take vitamin B-12 tablets to compensate for and replenish her blood loss. Coming out of the coffin is also made more consequential for some vampires due to their social media proficiency. Hudson notes that, “Unlike Jessica today, whose ‘babyvamp’ blog  is part of the series’ multiplatform format” Bill “could not interact with a human society that knew him to be a vampire” (2013, 665). Here the internal narrative of the show permits a younger character to be expanded into its transmedia storytelling in a way that would seem implausible and inauthentic to Bill’s character (at least before he is recruited as an AVL figurehead in Season Three). These video blogs, which are performed by the actors in character, also function to link consumption practices to vampire integration. One vlog has the vampire Pam dispense fashion advice to Jessica and her ‘audience’ about where humans should shop to avoid wearing silver (a metal that enkindles vampire flesh in True Blood). Extra-textually, the real brands that Pam lists off as acceptable for human-vampire contact also confirm to True Blood viewers which consumption practices will identify them as fans of the show (below).

Where once vampires could be seen to attest to “the consequences of over-consumption” (Halberstam 1993, 342), the vampires in True Blood reflect a different set of economic and biopolitical concerns. Writing for Newsweek Jennie Yabroff posits that the current crop of vampire films and televisions shows are permeated by “vampires who have enough self-control to resist the lure of human blood, reflecting, perhaps, the conservative direction the culture has taken” (2008). The popularity of vampires who are able to exercise self-control is politically conservative insomuch as it reflects a neoliberal focus on improving and maximising the capacities of the self. In such an economic climate, Stephen Ball writes that workers are encouraged “to think about themselves as individuals who calculate about themselves, ‘add value’ to themselves, improve their productivity, live an existence of calculation” (2001, 223). That this neoliberal calculation and control could be construed as vampiric speaks to cultural shifts in assessing social and economic success. In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett writes that workers who flourish in the contemporary business climate are “oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience”. This type of employee “is—to put a kindly face on the matter—an unusual sort of human being” (2006, 5). While this continual need to improve, calculate and enhance oneself and one’s resources can prove taxing to a living human, vampires have the physical capabilities as well as an endless amount of time to adapt to and thrive in volatile neoliberal economic conditions.

Vampires who are able to successfully pursue their business and political endeavours recognise the strategic value of performance. Despite her exhortations that vampires can ‘mainstream’ through the consumption of Tru Blood, the AVL’s Nan Flanagan presents herself quite differently to humans in comparison with her fellow vampires. In the episode, “Everything is Broken” (3.9), Russell Edgington kills a human on live television and Nan is revealed watching the event unfold mid-snack on a female human. When Bill is invited by Nan to appear at the AVL-sponsored Festival of Tolerance (“Let’s Get Out of Here”,4.9), he queries the political efficacy of only having three vampires present at the event, “it’s like having a civil rights protest without any black people”. In response, Nan scolds him, “They’re called African Americans and maybe those protests wouldn’t have turned into the blood baths they became if they hadn’t been there, ever consider that?” This cynical and racist understanding of minority groups as responsible for the institutional and social violence inflicted on them is an instrumentalised version of strategic essentialism (see Spivak 1987). The disjunction between Nan’s private ‘life’ and the AVL’s public management of vampire behaviour and comportment draws attention to the ways identity politics bargains on the securing of certain rights at the expense of the lived, or undead, complexity of the identities being politicised.

The shifting between rights discourse in Nan and Bill’s conversation, from the African-American Civil Rights Movement to vampire rights, is indicative of True Blood’s dual treatment of historical inequality as a topic that is both serious and linked to a post-industrial commodification of identity politics. The program typically presents critical views of the US’ racist history through the character of Tara. She is sceptical of Bill’s intentions when they first meet because he admits that his family owned slaves (“The First Taste”, 1.2) and complains, “People think just cause we got vampires out in the open now race isn’t an issue no more” (Hudson 2013, 674). Later Tara is ‘outed’ as a vampire to a former high school classmate who patronisingly affirms her identities by saying, “now you’re a member of two minorities!” (“Somebody That I Used to Know”, 5.8). The politics of being ‘out’ as a vampire are also refracted through allusions to racial segregation. Where Eddie and Steve Newlin’s status as vampires allows them to act on their sexual attraction to men (albeit in different and limited ways), other vampires do not have “built-in privileges of masculine whiteness” (672). For Tara, her body reads as both vampire and African-American, Bill meanwhile is discursively positioned as simply ‘vampire Bill’. As Arlene Fowler explains to her child (upon seeing Bill), “No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead” (“Sparks Fly Out”, 1.5), whiteness and race are embodied by the living first and non-white bodies second. While the AVL stakes an authoritative claim to what constitutes ‘good’ vampire behaviour, vampires must negotiate their public presence among humans along normatively defined lines of race, gender and sexuality.

These intersections of vampire rights and human-centred identity politics are dramatised in transmedia texts which portray vampires’ attempts to police themselves according to competing sets of claims about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vampire behaviour. In one of her vlogs, Jessica politely advises Tara to avoid saying phrases like “it sucks” now that she is a vampire, for fear of alarming her audience and the public at large (see vlog below).

The ways in which vampires in True Blood are portrayed “both as a threat and as a fully paid up part of civilian life” (Matthews 2011, 200) exemplifies a biopolitical order which depends on the self-policing and disciplining of subjects according to social norms so that excessive external coercion by the state is not required (Foucault 1977). In this sense, True Blood is the culmination of a representational trajectory of vampires as ostensible outsiders to ciphers for sensible consumption, civic pride and business ethics. In an AVL sponsored Public Service Announcement entitled “Accept the Truth” (below), various vampires describe themselves as ordinary “Americans”, for example, “I’m a short-order cook in New York City, I’m cold to the human touch”, and “I run a horse ranch in Northern Montana, sunlight turns me to ash”.

These dramatic declarations of nationality read as humorous precisely because audiences are used to seeing vampires as obviously different from and suspicious of human life. The extension of the True Blood narrative primarily through these media texts, which simultaneously exhort and parody ‘good’ performances of citizenship and consumption, interpellates fans into a transmedia public sphere along the same lines, through HBO-approved forms of consumption. In the final section of the paper, I want to unpack the distinctions and comingling of political-play as consumption and activism in terms of the role of transmedia storytelling and marketing in disciplining the use of public space.

But please remember I can rip your throat out if I need to”: Vampires and political-play consumption

I have argued so far that True Blood’s vampire trope conjoins civil rights with consumption and civic pride based on a neoliberal performance and management of the self. The program’s focus on the performance of vampirism enabled by a state protected mode of consumption is carried over into fans’ engagement with the show through officially sanctioned forms of consumption. The program’s production and broadcast through the premium HBO cable channel enables a much more explicit and liberal portrayal of sex and violence than traditional broadcast television, and this is undoubtedly a significant reason the show was pitched to and commissioned by HBO. The positioning of the show as both risqué and compatible with a politically progressive demographic is used in marketing material for the show.

For example, one HBO commercial (above), advertising the Season Two DVD box set, has a white family unwrapping Christmas presents from a young woman, presumably their daughter. In response to her Grandma’s query, “What’s this honey?”, the woman gives a quick recap of the season culminating in this description, “and the whole town has a huge orgy. Merry Christmas Grandma, I love you so much”. The commercial’s tagline is “The perfect gift for almost everybody” . The marketing of True Blood’s sexually explicit and graphically violent content as different to or in opposition to the ‘safe’ television programming that your grandmother enjoys sits at odds with the class and cultural capital required to actually consume the show. This includes access to premium cable or at least reliable broadband Internet to download or view the program as well as the supplementary web material that accompanies the program and is designed to satiate audience interest in between episodes and seasons. Whatever form of risk or subversion the vampires in True Blood present to the existing textual order of vampirism is incorporated into an already safely established mode of television production and consumption.

As Ndalianis points out, the goal of an effective transmedia campaign and story is to make audiences “forget that they’re a marketing strategy devised to sell a product” (2012, 166). Fans are encouraged to immerse themselves “in an emerging narrative that isn’t fixed or pre-staged but which they perform a key role in unraveling” (189) and “the participant is invited to literally play and become part of a performance as if it’s real” (172; original emphases). The unfolding of transmedia participation in ‘real-time’ is precisely how the constructed nature of the story is obfuscated. While fans can unravel or make sense of a transmedia story in diverse ways, the underlying narrative which structures the assemblage of transmedia texts is nevertheless necessarily fixed or pre-staged in order to generate an economy of performance that will move the story along.

The framing of transmedia stories around questions of rights, survival or torture can legitimate biopolitical performances through the commodification of fan activity. For instance, Ndalianis describes an aspect of The Dark Knight campaign, which “included phoning a security guard and trying to convince him to save someone being tortured” (168). In this scenario, fans can ‘create’ their own story based on their conversations with the ‘security guard’ but the narrative economy of bargaining over torture still remains intact. An interesting feature of the transmedia campaigns analysed by Ndalianis are the attempts to import ‘real’ protest into the fictional political campaigns devised for Harvey Dent, the protagonist/antagonist in The Dark Knight,and True Blood’s AVL. In the former, Dent’s campaign website was overlain with graffiti that painted his image with clown make up, signifying the Joker’s growing ‘invasion’ of the movie’s promotion (186). In the latter, AVL ads promoting the VRA were covered over, after their initial ‘clean’ public presentation, with anti-vampire slurs such as ‘Killers’ (179). The more consumers interacted with the campaigns, the more oppositional dissent was introduced into their advertising. This ‘dissent’ then becomes an entertaining spectacle, in which fans can participate, that drives the unfolding transmedia narrative as a story about biopolitical conflict; i.e. what are the democratic limits to expelling the Joker and criminals from Gotham City and vampires from public space in True Blood respectively.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argues that the “impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion” (2006, 19). To illustrate this point he talks about the impossibility of staging a ‘fake’ bank robbery and assumes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements” (20). It is impossible therefore, to stage something that remains “close to the ‘truth,’ in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation” (20). I would argue however that successful transmedia campaigns illustrate the degree to which the simulacra of political and juridical order is routinely accomplished by corporate and commercial interests and even accommodated by municipal councils and local governments. These transmedia activities seem to be premised on an expectation and acceptance that political campaigns which ostensibly aim to address crime and inequality will inevitably meet public backlash or violent acts of civil disobedience. Contestation over rights and public space are a normalised feature of transmedia campaigns.

Presumably this is entertaining in the context of a performance for a fictional text, albeit one that requires performance in the non-fictional social and political realm of everyday life, but we might compare this transmediation of political contestation with the everyday disciplining of activism in the public sphere. For example, in 2012, pro-Israel advertisements placed in New York subways by the American Freedom Defense Initiative were defaced with words such as “Racist” and “Hate Speech” and activists such as Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy were arrested for spray-painting over them (Holpuch 2012). Here the spectacle of the invasion and countering of advocate discourse is swiftly disciplined by police and security forces, who acted to protect the purchase of advertising space by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. In New Zealand, 2007 saw a series of anti-terror raids resulting in heavy fines, long court proceedings and jail time for anarchist and Māori activists. Among the evidence used to surveil and arrest the defendants were recorded conversations detailing an apparently jocular suggestion that former US President George W. Bush could be assassinated on his next visit to New Zealand by launching a bus at his person (see Operation 8 [Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright, 2011]). Vijay Devadas (2008) provides a thorough examination of the events by situating them within the convergence of government and private security agendas during the ‘war on terror’. I note here that in distinction to transmedia campaigns that compel play-performance of public safety and order issues, parodic suggestions in the execution of advocacy by marginalised communities exacerbate rather than diminish their biopolitical position as threat.

Of course the difference between these ‘real’ events and transmedia storytelling is that the latter involves “a cognitive and sensory satisfaction that relishes in the performativity and playfulness of the text” (Ndalianis 2012, 183). The playfulness and enjoyment of transmedia fan participation seems to occur by virtue of the lack of substantive social and political consequences to transmedia performances. Where Baudrillard might see such performances as testing the authoritative apparatus of juridical and state institutions in such a way as to restate the latter’s epistemological authority to delineate ‘real’ from ‘fake’ civic activity, I would argue that transmedia activity, provided it is authorised by corporate and municipal bodies, does not test ‘the apparatus’ of a juridical and institutional order so much as it ‘simulates’ this order safely and with a positive affective disposition protected by officially authorised forms of consumption.

Ndalianis’ work maps out a framework of analysis, which takes into account the embodied, affective and urban social participation of transmedia storytelling as a significant dimension of fan activity. Given that transmedia storytelling involves the cultivation of activity and participation in the public sphere and urban environment, by connecting private acts of consumption to a theatre of public brand performance, it would be productive to extend Ndalianis’ analytic framework to an investigation of the types of affective relations emerging between fans, the public sphere, media texts, corporate industry and processes of social and political inclusion and exclusion. Does transmedia storytelling encourage a positive affective relation to biopolitical performance so long as this performance is confined to the ‘fictional’ realm? Do media scholars need to account for the consequences of transmedia ‘play’ such as the mass-shooting which took place in an Aurora, Colorado, cinema during a screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises by a young man impersonating a character from the Batman textual archive? How might we compare the increasing surveillance of political advocacy and creative protest with the seeming acquiescence of municipal and city councils to permit corporate branding to invade civil and public spaces for transmedia storytelling campaigns? Notwithstanding the possibility for resistance or divergence on the part of fans with the ‘intended’ transmedia story, the type of narrative used to anchor transmedia campaigns nevertheless frames and orients fan relations to texts through modes of consumer engagement that are legitimated by corporate, state and municipal institutions. Although my focus here has been on the ways in which transmedia consumer engagement legitimises biopolitical modes of performance and debate around civil rights, it may prove fruitful to investigate other types of relations that emerge from embedding fans into state institutions and discourses via transmedia storytelling.

Conclusion: “That’s the sickest shit I’ve ever seen … and I watch Dance Moms!”

In this paper, I have examined how biopolitical imperatives and constraints around vampire integration in True Blood are mediated through transmedia forms of storytelling and marketing. The transmediation of vampire rights involves fan immersion in discursive and representational practices which (re)produce vampirism as an allusion to gay liberation and LGBTI politics. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of identity politics but also attests to the permeation and popularisation of a rights-based consensus for minority groups. In a positive reading of the program’s allusions to gay rights, True Blood’s transmedia storytelling appears to evince an inclusive textual and representational landscape for LGBTI politics. At the same time, the program draws attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order rather than the identities these rights are attached to. In this sense, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse that measures some rights against others in terms of the strategic economic and social benefits such rights grant to the polity or fan community as a whole. This weighing up and measuring of rights in terms of who deserves social and political life, and what ‘life’ can be ‘good’ for the community, is surely more monstrous than anything True Blood’s vampires are capable of.

 

References

Ball, Stephen. 2001. “Performativities and fabrications in the education economy.” In The Performing School: Managing teaching and learning in a performance culture, ed. Denis Gleeson and Chris Husbands, 210-226. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean. 2006. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Beck, Bernard. 2011. “Fearless Vampire Kissers: Bloodsuckers We Love in Twilight, True Blood and Others.” Multicultural Perspectives 13 (2): 90-92.

Berkshire, Geoff. 2012. “‘True Blood’ recap: Roman’s fate revealed ‘In the Beginning’.”

HitFix, July 23. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.hitfix.com/monkeys-as-critics/true-blood-recap-romans-fate-revealed-in-the-beginning.

Case, Sue-Ellen. 1991. “Tracking the Vampire.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2): 1-20.

Davies, Ben, and Jana Funke. 2011. “Introduction: Sexual Temporalities.” In Sex, Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture, edited by Ben Davies and Jana Funke, 1-16. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Devadas, Vijay. 2008. “15 October 2007, Aotearoa: Race, terror and sovereignty.” Sites 5(1): 124-151.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1991a. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1991b. “Right of Death and Power over Life.” In The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, edited by Paul Rabinow, 258–272. New York: Penguin Books.

Grigoriadis, Vanessa. 2010. “The Joy of Vampire Sex: The Schlocky, Sensual Secrets Behind the Success.” Rolling Stone, September 21112: 54-59.

Halberstam, Judith. 1993. “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Studies 36(3): 333-352.

Home Box Office. 2012. Fellowship of the Sun. Accessed January 1, 2012. fellowshipofthesun.org. [site archived here: http://archive.today/9Nr9]

Holpuch, Amanda. 2012. “Activist Mona Eltahawy released after arrest in New York subway protest.” The Guardian, September 26. Accessed April 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/26/mona-eltahawy-released-new-york-subway.

Hudson, Dale. 2013. “‘Of Course There Are Werewolves and Vampires’: True Blood and the Right to Rights for Other Species.” American Quarterly 65 (3): 661-687.

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

Jenkins, Henry. 2011. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, August 1. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html.

Matthews, Nicole. 2011. “Noughties Reading.” In The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure, edited by Peter Bramham and Stephen Wagg, 195-210. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mutch, Deborah. 2011. “Coming Out of the Coffin: The Vampire and Transnationalism in the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse Series.” Critical Survey 23(2): 75-90.

Newitz, Annalee. 2008. “Let’s Face It: ‘True Blood’ Hates Gay People.” io9, November 1. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://io9.com/5071755/lets-face-it-true-blood-hates-gay-people.

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

Sennett, Richard. 2006. The Culture of the New Capitalism. London: Yale University Press.

Shen, Maxine. 2009. “Flesh & ‘Blood’.” New York Post, June 23. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://nypost.com/2009/06/23/flesh-blood/.

Solomon, Deborah. 2010. “Once Bitten: Questions for Charlaine Harris.” The New York Times, April 30. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02fob-Q4-t.html?_r=0.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1987. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen.

Tyree, J. M. 2009. “Warm-Blooded: True Blood and Let the Right One In.” Film Quarterly 63(2): 31-37.

Yabroff, Jennie. 2008. “A Bit Long in the Tooth.” Newsweek, December 15. 152(24).

 

Filmography

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

King-Jones, Abi and Errol Wright. Operation 8. 2011. NZ: www.cutcutcut.com.

Lieber, Jeffrey, Abrams, J. J., and Damon Lindelof. Lost.2004-2010. USA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Nolan, Christopher. 2008. The Dark Knight. USA: Warner Home Video.

 

Notes

[1] My thanks to the anonymous referee for their thoughtful comments and suggestions for improving the paper’s analytical focus. I am also grateful to Kevin Fisher for sharing his insights on Baudrillard and transmedia during the writing of this paper and to Katharine Legun for her help with improving the clarity and coherency of the paper. An early version of this paper was published in the magazine Cherrie. The original version of the paper can be found here: http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/feature/vamps-and-queers-5136.html

 

Bio: Holly Randell-Moon is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her publications on popular culture, gender, and sexuality have appeared in the edited book collections Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television (2008) and Television Aesthetics and Style (2013) and the journal Feminist Media Studies. She has also published on race, religion, and secularism in the journals Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, borderlands and Social Semiotics and in the edited book collections Religion, Spirituality and the Social Sciences (2008) and Mediating Faiths (2010).

 

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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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. 

 

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

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

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

The Emergence of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre Theory: A Methodological Framework for Defining A Genre

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

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

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

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

Problems in Defining UF/PR: Competing Histories and Definitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Genre History of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Definition for Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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Andreyko, Marc and others, True Blood Volume 2: Tainted Love. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011.

Armstrong, Kelley. Women of the Otherworld. 13 novels. 2001-2012.

Ball, Alan. True Blood Volume 1: All Together Now. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011.

Brennan, Sarah Rees and Larbalestier, Justine. Team Human. New York: HarperTeen, 2012.

Briggs, Patricia. The Mercy Thompson series. 7 novels. 2006-present.

Butcher, Jim. The Dresden Files. 14 novels. 2000-present.

Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber. London: Gollancz, 1979.

Clark, Aubrey. The Vampire Diaries: The Salvation Trilogy. 2 novels. (2013-present)

Elrod, P N. The Vampire Files. 13 novels. 1990-2009.

Grahame-Smith, Seth. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.

Hamilton, Laurell K. Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. 22 novels. 1993-present.

–        Narcissus in Chains. New York: Berkley Books, 2001.

Harris, Charlaine. The Southern Vampire Mysteries. 13 novels. 2001-2013.

–        The Sookie Stackhouse Companion. New York: Ace Trade, 2012.

–        After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse. New York: Ace, 2013.

Harrison, Kim. Hollows. 12 novels. 2004-present.

–        Harrison, Kim. The Good, The Bad and the Undead. New York, HarperTorch, 2005.

–        Harrison, Kim. For a Few Demons More. New York: Harper Voyager, 2007.

Huehner, Mariah, and others. True Blood Volume 3: The French Quarter. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2012.

Huff, Tanya. Blood series. 5 novels. 1991-1997.

Killough, Lee. Blood Hunt. New York, NY: Tor, 1987.

–        Blood Links. New York, NY: Tor, 1988.

Lackey, Mercedes. Knight of Ghost and Shadows. Wake Forest, NC: Baen, 1990.

McMillian, Michael, and others. True Blood Volume 4: Where Were You? San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight.  New York: Little, Brown, 2005.

Rice, Anne. The Vampire Chronicles. 10 novels. 1976-2003.

–        Interview with the Vampire, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976.

–        New Tales of the Vampires. 2 novels. 1998-1999.

Smith, L.J. The Vampire Diaries. 4 novels. 1991-1992.

–        The Vampire Diaries: The Return Trilogy. 3 novels. 2009-2011.

–        The Vampire Diaries: The Hunters Trilogy. 3 novels. 2011-2012.

–  “Matt and Elena – First Date.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/184-matt-and-elena-first-date. 2010.

–  “Matt and Elena – Tenth Date: On Wickery Pond.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/96-matt-and-elena-tenth-date-on-wickery-pond. 2010.

– “An Untold Tale: Elena’s Christmas.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/281-an-untold-tale-elenas-christmas . 2010.

– “Bonnie and Damon: After Hours.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/384-after-hours. 2011.

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

FILMOGRAPHY

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Created by Joss Whedon. 1997-2003.

Death Valley. Created by Spider One, Eric Weinberg and Curtis Gwinn. 2011.

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

Ghost Ghirls. Created by Maria Blasucci, Jeremy Konner and Amanda Lund. http://screen.yahoo.com/ghost-ghirls/. 2013.

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

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

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

Notes:


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

[2] Lucinda Dyer, “P is for Paranormal – Still.” Publishers Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/43272-p-is-for-paranormal-still.html (date access November 7, 2013).

[3] Paul Goat Allen, “The 20 Best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Last Decade.” Barnes and Noble, http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Explorations-The-BN-SciFi-and/In-LKH-s-21st-Anita-Blake-Novel-Her-Iconic-Heroine-and-Her-Saga/ba-p/1347550 (accessed November 7, 2013).

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

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

[6] Picker, Lenny, “The New (Para)Normal,” Publishersweekly.com, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/51394-the-new-para-normal.html (accessed 19 October 2013)

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

[8] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 80.

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

[10] Ibid., 8

[11] Ibid.

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

[13] Ibid., 166.

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Ibid., 215

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Gwenda Bond, “When Love Is Strange: Romance Continues Its Affair with the Supernatural,” Publisher’s Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20090525/12458-when-love-is-strange-romance-continues-its-affair-with-the-supernatural.html (accessed 20 October 2013).

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

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

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

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

[34] Irvine, “Urban Fantasy,” 200.

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

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

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

[38] Ibid., 270.

[39] Ibid., 271.

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

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

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

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

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

[45] Buffy in particular has been much-analysed as a figure of post- and third-wave feminism. For example, see Irene Karras, “The Third Wave’s Final Girl: Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory & culture, vol.1 no.2, March 2002, http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/viewArticle/karras/50); Patricia Pender, “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food: Buffy as Third Wave Feminist Icon” (in Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, edited by Stacy Gillis and  Gillian Howie, New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan Press, 2004); and Elana Levine, “Buffy and the ‘New Girl Order’: Defining Feminism and Femininity” (in Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Ann Parks, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). For an exploration of postfeminism in contemporary Gothic texts, see also Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture (edited by Benjamin A. Brabon and Stephanie Genz, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[65] Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html (accessed 03 November 2013).

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Henry Jenkins, “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday),” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/the_revenge_of_the_origami_uni.html  (accessed 03 November 2013).

[69] Ibid.

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

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

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

[73] L.J. Smith, “Blogs from 2014: L J Smith’s new Vampire Diaries series,” L J Smith Official Site, http://ljanesmith.net/blog/2014/635-l-j-smith-s-new-vampires-diaries-series (accessed 15 April 2014).

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

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

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

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

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

[79] The blog “BabyVamp-Jessica.com” (http://www.babyvamp-jessica.com/) includes written blog entries and video entries starring actress Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Jessica on True Blood.

[80] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 181.

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

[82] Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101.”

[83] Ibid.

 

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

 

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

The Ring Franchise

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ring Sensorium

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sadako throws the first pitch, Tokyo Dome, 2012

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

Figure 4. Sadako 3D Parade, japanator.com, 2012.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadako’s Cursed Video, Ringu, 1998

[Abandoned] Theme Parks

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

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

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

Figure 3: Hanayashiki Amuseument Park in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Tallon4.com, 2013

Figure 6. Hanayashiki Amusement Park in Asakusa, Tokyo, Tallon4.com, 2013.

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

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

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

Figure 4: Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi, and the derelict “Gulliver’s Kingdom”, which was demolished in 2007, at the base of Mount Fuji. ‘John Wayne’ image by Michael Grist, MichaelJohnGrist.com, and ‘Gulliver’ image by Old Creeper, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mutantmandias/334922922/sizes/o/

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

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

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

Figure 8. Abandoned Nara Dreamland, ralphmirebs.livejournal.com/konbini.com, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

Sadako 3D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio Visual Sources:

Poltergeist. DVD. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Atlanta: Turner Home Entertainment, 2000.

Rasen. DVD. Directed by Jôji Iida. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2007.

Rasen. Television Series. Directed by Yoshihiro Kitayama. Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1999.

The Ring. Blu-ray DVD. Directed by Gore Verbinski. California: Paramount, 2012.

Ring: Infinity. WonderSwan Videogame. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2000.

Ring: Kanzenban. Television Series. Directed by Chisui Takigawa. Tokyo: Fuji Television, 1995.

The Ring: Terror’s Realm. Dreamcast Videogame. San Jose: Infogrames, 2000.

The Ring Two. DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2005.

The Ring Virus. DVD. Directed by Dong-bin Kim. San Francisco: Tai Seng, 2004.

Ringu. DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Richmond, Victoria: Madman Entertainment, 2000.

Ringu 0: Bâsudei. DVD. Directed by Norio Tsuruta. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2007.

Ringu Anthology of Terror. DVD Box set. Directed by Hideo Nakata, Jôji Iida and Norio Tsuruta. California: DreamWorks/Universal Studios, 2005.

Ringu: Saishûshô. Television Series. Directed by Fukumoto Yoshito. Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1999.

Sadako 3D. Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. Tokyo: Kadokawa Pictures, 2012.

Sadako 3D 2. Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. Tokyo: Kadokawa Pictures, 2013.

References:

Balmain, Colette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Volume One), edited by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laura A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan and Jeffrey J. Williams, 1732-1740. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Orders of Simulacra.” In Simulations, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Phillip Beitchman, 81-159.  New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Choi, Jinhee and Wada-Marciano, Mitsuya. Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Doak, Kevin. Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity. California: University of California Press, 1994.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffers, Gene. “Global Attractions Attendance Report”. Burbank, CA: Themed Entertainment Association, 2012.

Kinoshita, Chika. “The Mummy Complex: Kurosawa’s Loft and J-Horror.” In Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, edited by Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano, 103-123.  Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Lacefield, Kristen. The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Lukas, Scott A. Theme Park. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

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

Miyao, Daisuke. The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Film. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013.

Najita, Tetsuo. Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Napier, Susan. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature. London: Routledge, 1996.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. North Carolina: McFarland, 2012.

Ndalianis, Angela. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics in Contemporary Entertainment. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Phu, Thy. “Horrifying adaptations: Ringu, The Ring, and the cultural contexts of copying.” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 3, no 1 (2010): 43-58.

Richie, Donald. “The ‘Real’ Disneyland.” In The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing On Japan, edited by Arturo Silva, 169-173.  Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001.

Suzuki, Koji. Ring. Translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. New York: Vertical Inc., 2004.

Suzuki, Koji. S. Tokyo: Kadokawa Corporation, 2012.

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

Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” In Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, edited by Steven Jay Schneider, 295-305. Surrey: FAB Press, 2003.

The Tokyo Times. “Sadako 3D 2 will use smartphone app to scare audiences.” The Tokyo Times, http://www.tokyotimes.com/2013/sadako-3d-2-will-use-smartphone-app-to-scare-cinema-audience/ (accessed 30 October, 2013).

Wee, Valerie. Japanese Horror Films and their American Remakes. London: Routledge, 2013.

White, Eric. “Case Study: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Ringu 2.” In Japanese Horror Cinema, edited by Jay McRoy, 38-51. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Yu, Eric K.W. “A Traditional Vengeful Ghost or the Machine in the Ghost? Narrative Dynamic, Horror Effects and the Posthuman in Ringu.” In Fear Itself: Reasoning the Unreasonable, edited by Stephen Hessel and Michele Huppert, 109-123. New York: Rodopi, 2009.

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Ibid, 3.

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

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

[20] In what is becoming a tradition, Sadako has now thrown the first pitch at a number of baseball games in Japan. In fact, in this case four Sadako’s were involved in the first pitch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7Jas2gEeb0

[21] Ndalianis, Horror Sensorium, 17.

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

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

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

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

[26] Napier, The Fantastic, 2.

[27] Phu, Horrifying Adaptations, 53.

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

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

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

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

[32] Lukas, Theme Park, 9.

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

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

[35] Ibid, 7

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

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

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

[39] Ibid, 1739.

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

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

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

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

[44] Ibid, 1739.

[45] Ibid, 1735.

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

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

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

[49] Lukas, Theme Park, 104.

[50] Ibid, 104.

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

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

[53] The Tokyo Times, “Sadako 3D 2 will use smartphone app to scare audiences”, The Tokyo Times, http://www.tokyotimes.com/2013/sadako-3d-2-will-use-smartphone-app-to-scare-cinema-audience/ (accessed 30 October, 2013).

[54] Lukas, Theme Park, 22.

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

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

In 2008, Steven Spielberg received a DVD screener of Oren Peli’s micro-budget horror film Paranormal Activity; after watching it, Spielberg claims his bedroom door mysteriously locked from the inside, forcing the director to call a locksmith. [1] He quickly returned his copy of the film to his DreamWorks offices, wrapped carefully in a plastic garbage bag, terrified that it was haunted.[2]  Whether this Hollywood urban legend was a publicity stunt or not, it highlights the ways the Paranormal Activity phenomenon, from its inception, infused our everyday media objects – and the spaces where we use them – with fear.  The incredible success of the first film (thanks or no thanks to Spielberg) spawned three more sequels and prequels, with more on the way, and while each film is cheaply made and has a set and devoted fan base, it is the franchise’s translation of its haunted-house narrative into digital marketing campaigns that continues to feed its popularity. The franchise’s marketing campaign expanded the world of each film to various digital platforms, including Easter-egg filled trailers, demon-finding apps, and “haunted” websites, revealing the way contemporary horror must rely on sophisticated transmedia storytelling techniques to stay both relevant and frightening. While the monster of the PA franchise is supposedly a demon haunting generations of young home-owners, I argue the real horror of the films exists in the boundaries that both connect and separate the frightening events from the audiences – the technologies recording each narrative and the digital platforms used to market each film, and what those technologies suggest about our constantly shifting relationship to domesticity, security, and surveillance.

On the surface, the Paranormal Activity (PA) franchise is a series of gimmick films that combine “old” horror conventions such as haunted houses and demonic possession with a variety of “new” home recording technologies and gadgets.  Alongside the franchise’s investment in a larger, multi-part narrative arc involving witches and demons, each film adds to the franchise’s transmedia universe by multiplying the number and kinds of home surveillance technologies used to film and market each installment.  As Emanuelle Wessels argues in her study of post 9/11 transmedia branding, a science fiction/horror film such as Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), for example, expresses “one sense in which post-9/11 protocols of security-citizenship, particularly utilizing consumer recording technologies to remain on ‘high alert’ for terrorist activity, can manifest in popular film as a form of cultural pedagogy.”[3]   Similarly, the PA films raise questions about the uses and abuses of these same technologies to monitor domestic spaces, extending the reach of “security-citizenship” into the more intimate spaces of suburban homes. Each film begins by endorsing the way individuals use home recording devices as means to securing domestic spaces, yet ultimately uses the conventions of horror to call attention to the ways these devices can both fail and terrify us. The failure of these technologies to protect suburban domesticity taps into contemporary anxieties about home ownership in light of the current economic and housing crises, highlighting the limits of individuality and individual security in the face of greater terrors.[4]

The constant multiplication of devices in and outside of each film also relies heavily on an audience awareness of the franchise’s aesthetics and mythology, a central tenet of transmedia storytelling that scholars such as Henry Jenkins have argued defines contemporary Hollywood.[5]  The emphasis on audience knowledge of a film’s transmedia universe has an odd relationship to horror as a genre, which often depends on a slow, suspenseful release of knowledge and information to create and maintain fear; as the PA franchise reveals, building fear across new technologies and platforms keeps the informed transmedia consumer scared.  I begin this essay by looking briefly at the PA franchise’s stylistic and thematic predecessor, The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), and then examine the ways each installment of the PA franchise uses technology within and outside of its narrative.   Alongside efforts to involve audiences in the promotion and exhibition of the franchise, the films turn interactive technologies into frightening entities, calling attention to our ambivalent relationship to the increasingly sophisticated technology that governs everyday life.  As post-9/11 surveillance culture continues to manifest itself in myriad ways in popular culture, the PA franchise, its use of technology as both source of and protection against outside horrors, and its transmedia reach reveal the ideological cracks in the idea that technology – and its ability to document, record and monitor – guarantees safety and security in and outside the home.

The Blair Witch Effect

Figure 1: The Blair Witch Project, 1999

Figure 1. The Blair Witch Project, 1999.

In 1999, The Blair Witch Project began the now-ubiquitous trend of the “found-footage” horror film and shifted paradigms of film marketing, independent film, and the generic conventions of 21st century horror.  The film relied on the then-new phenomenon of viral Internet marketing to create early anticipation among its young audiences, subsequently becoming one of the most profitable films in history.  As Jane Roscoe describes, Internet rumors about the film’s veracity came from the filmmakers, the studios, and curious audience members: “Initially there was no conscious decision to set the film up as a hoax, but because of the early responses to the film, this uncertainty over its ontological status was capitalized on by the filmmakers, who refused to confirm or deny that it was a true story.”[6] Roscoe goes on to explain that the Internet became a place to advertise the film, communicate with other filmgoers, and create and view spoof trailers and videos; most importantly, though, it also became an integral part of Blair Witch’s transmedia approach to horror in the new millennium.

Figure 2: The Blair Witch Cult, 1999

Figure 2. The Blair Witch Cult, 1999.

As Jenkins has argued, transmedia storytelling is about world-creation across multiple platforms, allowing viewers/consumers to explore and piece together the fictional universes that make up their favorite entertainment franchises; it also provides media conglomerates with the opportunity to pursue synergy across various media outlets.[7]    The Blair Witch Project’s website, for example, provides a timeline of pseudo-historical events related to the film – a picture of a rare book from 1809 describing the town’s curse, current pictures of the sites where disappearances occurred – which round out the mythology surrounding both the filmmakers’ disappearance and the film’s mysterious, unseen witch.  The proliferation of websites that add bits and pieces to the film’s mythology works particularly well with horror as a genre, as horror franchises, like science fiction and fantasy, are built around uncertain and intricate histories – who and what the monsters are, how long they have been plaguing us, and the long list of victims foolish enough to try and vanquish them.

The Blair Witch phenomenon traded heavily on this uncertainty to foster curiosity about its subject, yet equally crucial to its popularity and mystique was its style.  The film’s mock documentary aesthetic with shaky video and film cameras, improvised footage and on-location shooting lent itself well to an Internet-based marketing campaign; in 1999, both documentary and the Internet traded on their uncertain relationship to the “real.” As Roscoe argues, Blair Witch’s use of documentary codes self-consciously raised questions about the film’s subject, the status of the students filming it, and the ontological claims of documentary itself. Such uncertainty, I find, travels to and through the websites used to speculate and spread rumors about the film’s veracity to tap into our ontological distrust of the Internet itself – where does this knowledge exist?  Who is putting it out there? J.P. Telotte says in his analysis of the film’s Internet presence: “Or more precisely, [Blair Witch’s] project is to blur some common discrimination, to suggest, in effect, that this particular film is as much a part of everyday life as the Internet, that it extends the sort of unfettered knowledge access that the Internet seems to offer, and that its pleasures, in fact, closely resemble those of the electronic medium with which its core audience is so familiar.”[8]   Rumors about the film proliferated across the Internet in one of the first examples of “viral” film marketing, and the spread of information hinted at the negative implications inherent in the word “viral,” as information spreading like a disease could not possibly be trustworthy, yet it commanded the attention of both audiences and film studios.

While Blair Witch instigated a shift in horror film style and marketing, horror films of the early 21st century manifested a more thematic obsession with film, television and the Internet as potential sites of horror.  Chuck Tryon describes films such as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (Joe Berlinger, 2000), The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002), FeardotCom (William Malone, 2002), White Noise (Geoffrey Sax, 2005) and Cloverfield as “imply[ing] that electronic media will lead to fragmented social relationships because of their illusion of authenticity and their potential to further isolate people from a larger community.”[9] As Tryon argues, these films are, on the one hand, “media-savvy” in their recognition of the constantly evolving “practices of watching horror movies,”[10] and, on the other hand, ultimately critical of the technological advances accompanying these practices as threatening to the stability of the nuclear family and home.  In the American version of The Ring, for example, a deadly videotape circulates among teenagers, and the film’s adult protagonist attempts to solve the tape’s mystery in order to protect her young son; as Tryon argues, the film “implicitly links the dangers of TV and video spectatorship to parental fears about protecting their children from dangerous or harmful images.”[11] In some ways, the PA franchise fits into Tryon’s argument, as the transmedia texts used to advertise the films as well as their unique, static-camera aesthetic emphasize the act of watching as integral to the horror experience. In addition, the PA films, all set in comfortable, upper-middle class suburban homes, represent recording technology as an extension of the many appliances that regulate and monitor everyday suburban life – ranging from computers to automated pool cleaners – documenting supernatural activity but also standing in for the viewer’s voyeuristic experience of seemingly mundane domestic spaces and activities. But in contrast to the films that Tryon mentions which ultimately suggest that technology (videos, cameras and computers) is a threat to private, domestic life, the PA films make no direct connections between technology and family strife, but in fact figure technology as a means initially to ensure the safety of each household. The films and their paratexts are less about demonizing technology, so to speak, and more about using that technology to document, catalog and personalize fear, both in and outside the world of the films, building a franchise brand based on watching and experiencing horror rather than on the horror itself. In addition, the PA franchise’s efforts to extend its brand into social media presents an extension of its central theme – the way electronic media has insinuated itself into domestic space – and the way transmedia horror and branding can often unwittingly call attention to the way we engage with consumer technology in our daily lives.

PA 1: Static Cameras and Screen Space

Figure 3: Paranormal Activity, 2007

Figure 3. Paranormal Activity, 2007.

As the recording devices multiply from film to film, so too does the PA franchise’s narrative arc, which involves multiple generations of one family being haunted by a demon trying to capture the family’s first-born son; the continuation of the storyline across multiple texts is inextricable from the technology being used to capture it.  The films are seen primarily from the perspective of static cameras, and these various recording technologies form the thematic and narrative center of each film, providing characters and viewers with visual evidence of the house’s strange activities as well as revealing crucial pieces of the franchise’s backstory.  The cameras – digital camcorders that record through the night in PA 1, security cameras in PA 2 (Tod Williams, 2008), clunky VHS cameras in PA 3 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2011), and webcams and Xbox Kinect cameras in PA 4 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2012) – generally remain in one place, not guided by human hands, a marked distinction from the shaky faux-verite footage produced by the amateur filmmakers of Blair Witch or more recently Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) and The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010).  PA 1-4 are about houses and families haunted by demonic forces, yet they are also about the technology we use to mediate our daily lives; the grainy, static-camera footage of seemingly innocuous suburban domestic spaces points to our fascination with and fear of the increasingly mundane nature of surveillance technology.

The first film, made on a shoestring budget by video game designer Oren Peli, surprised film studios with its runaway success, fueled in large part by Internet marketing tactics focusing on the audience’s control of its distribution.  Early articles about the film in the trade and popular press focused primarily, like Blair Witch, on the production and distribution aspects of the film rather than content alone and praised Paramount’s forward-thinking digital marketing campaign.  The campaign was two-fold – one, cameras were installed in theaters to capture audience’s reactions to the film, and two, the studio used the website eventful.com to encourage people to demand the film to play in their towns, what EW’s Owen Gleiberman called “old school, groundswell marketing.”[12] The dual emphasis on the viewer – viewers’ reactions and seeming control over the film’s distribution – personalized the horror experience in a way that set the stage for the franchise’s transmedia development.

The trailer for Paranormal Activity (2009)

The trailer featured images of the film playing in the theater intercut with the green-hued shots of the audience in night vision; as the film builds tension, the audience’s reactions get more and more extreme as they gasp, hide their eyes, and jump in their seats.  The trailer ends with the movie’s title, complete with slight blips to again replicate the experience of watching the amateur footage of the film.  The trailer brings the film’s audience and the space of the theater into its world, previewing the franchise’s efforts to extend the spaces and technologies of each film into the personal spaces, technologies and experiences of the viewer.

The first PA film’s main attraction was its use of the static camera, which became the film’s main selling point and what invited discussion and imitation among fans. As Tryon points out, The Blair Witch Project’s use of handheld video “correlates video with subjective vision rather than the objective, impersonal shots associated with a standard film,”[13] and PA 1 makes an effort to distinguish handheld footage from static footage, or the point of view of the young couple trying to capture what’s haunting them from that of the camera alone.  The film begins with the boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) playing with his new, professional camera, filming himself and then his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) as she pulls up to the house and interrogates him about how much he spent on it. The opening scenes alternate between handheld and static footage as the couple prepares dinner and tests out the camera’s capabilities; through shaky footage and strange angles, we get a sense of the spacious, comfortable kitchen, dining and living rooms of the couple’s suburban home.  We see them later setting up the camera on a tripod and figuring out exactly where to place it in the bedroom, and the first title, “Night 1: September 18, 2006” comes on screen. Through a series of fades, we watch footage of the couple sleeping that is marked by successive time stamps.  The static camera’s objectivity is interrupted by the fades and fast-forwards of the night footage, emphasizing a central question of the mock found-footage film – who found the footage, and who is watching it?  The use of edits within this footage points to these films’ artificiality, for someone has put the pieces together to form a narrative, but the question of who is watching also helps build a transmedia world of sequels and paratexts. In the case of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the original film’s footage motivates a group of curious horror enthusiasts who then suffer a similar fate.  In the case of the PA franchise, the status of the footage from 1, 2 and 4 remains unknown, but the question of “who is watching” is shifted outside the world of the film, to the viewer and his or her ability to explore PA mythology and characters on DVD players, computers and even phones, again explicitly incorporating the viewer into a transmedia experience of the PA universe.

The static camera aesthetic in particular lent itself to a viewing experience focused less on plot and more on the viewer’s relationship to the spaces on screen and to the various recording devices used in each film, forging a connection between space, viewer and device that the franchise would eventually extend into the digital. Hahner, Varda and Wilson argue that the juxtaposition of haunted house conventions and minimalist style of the first and second film produce an ambivalent relationship to the idea of consumption in and around each film:

While the films ask the audience to enjoy the suffering of indulgent main characters, the protracted tempo and claustrophobic visual space simultaneously induce viewers to surveil the films ravenously.  In this way, consumption becomes abject insofar as the audience is enticed to consume the screen as the film punishes the homeowners for the same appetite.[14]

The static camera footage in the PA franchise, in contrast to the handheld footage of outside spaces in Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, immobilized and domesticated what Wessels calls the “surveilling gaze,” locating it specifically in the intimate spaces of suburban domesticity and encouraging audiences to “consume” the spaces they saw on screen.[15] At the beginning of PA 1, the nights are marked a relative lack of activity, and while audiences are cued to watch for these slight movements by the fast-forwarding, there is still a relatively long period of waiting and watching (which gets shorter when the middle-of-the-night episodes become increasingly bizarre and ominous).  The handheld footage captures Katie and Micah’s conversations about the hauntings, alternating between each one’s point of view, but the static camera is the one that captures the objective proof of a supernatural presence without any human intervention.    The lack of a human hand and first-person perspective guiding the camera in these moments of the film make us strikingly aware of the space being filmed and any movement within that space. Within the horror narratives of the PA franchise, this is of course ideal as we as viewers are encouraged to participate – to rewatch and discuss – seemingly insignificant events that eventually add up to a bigger and more terrifying picture.  The static camera taps into the frightening notion that cameras can have an uncanny ability to know and see what we do not; the PA brand builds itself on the eerie nature of machine intelligence by increasing the number of seemingly sentient devices inside and outside each film.

The first film not only invited more intense viewer response through its static camera aesthetic, but also left its narrative unresolved; the theatrical version ended with Katie, now fully possessed by the demon, killing Micah and escaping.  Attempting to translate the film’s surprising success to a new medium, the producers began a transmedia branding campaign featuring short digital comic entitled “Paranormal Activity: The Search for Katie,” which was available for download on the iPhone.  The use of a handheld device was the franchise’s first attempt to tease out transmedia narrative strands on a digital platform, but ultimately the comic’s more conventional format did not capitalize on the film’s distinct technological aesthetic.[16]  The comic follows a demonologist mentioned in the first film, Dr. Johann Averys, who unfortunately goes out of town as the horrors intensify and is unable to help Katie and Micah when they most need it.   The last scene of the film had demon-Katie lunging towards the camera, nearly consuming it before the screen goes black, a marked departure from the camera’s unobstrusive presence throughout the rest of the film.  The comic picks up right where the first film ends, as Averys regretfully informs us alongside an illustrated close-up of Katie’s demonically possessed face: “[Katie] was desperate for my help.  I arrived too late.  Now her boyfriend is dead at the hands of something inexplicable.”  While this first panel taps into the shock of seeing Katie’s demonically possessed face in extreme close-up, the rest of the comic does not imitate or refer back to the film’s static camera aesthetic, merely following Averys’ initial investigation into a larger demonic conspiracy and teasing out the potential for a combination horror/crime procedural narrative.  There were no further issues of the comic, though, suggesting that the PA audience was not interested in the kind of transmedia approach to horror undertaken by the Blair Witch team; instead, the demonic presence that Dr. Averys begins to investigate relocates firmly in the technologically mediated domestic spaces of the second, third and fourth installments of the franchise.

PA 2: Building the Mythology On and Off screen

Figure 4: Paranormal Activity 2, 2010

Figure 4. Paranormal Activity 2, 2010.

The second film in the franchise not only teases out more details of Katie’s supernatural family history by focusing on her sister Kristi’s (Sprague Grayden’s) family, but also amplified the franchise’s emphasis on domestic surveillance by increasing the number of static cameras used throughout Kristi’s suburban home.  PA 2 also began to further shift the film’s technologically-oriented fear to the viewer’s private spaces and devices via an Easter-Egg filled trailer.  The official trailer on the film’s website featured vague footage from security cameras in a suburban home, yet hidden underneath were “Easter Eggs” that unlocked other, mysterious clips and stills if the viewer dragged the video progress bar backwards at specific points.  While the Easter Eggs do not reveal any clear story information, they appear to come from old, disintegrated footage and photographs.  Allowing the user to access these via a web trailer sets up a disconcerting juxtaposition between “old” and “new” media (and in many ways anticipates PA 3’s central conceit) while also suggesting Katie and her sister Kristi’s mysterious history.


The trailer for Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Although in a different vein than PA 1’s trailer, PA 2’s web trailer also emphasizes the experiential facet of contemporary horror films via a digital platform – the idea, outlined by Tryon, that 21st century horror draws attention to the act of watching and experiencing the films in a new media saturated market.  The viewer, acting as virtual detective, navigates the footage and unlocks secrets, a logical extension of the franchises’ play on voyeurism and haunting, activating the web as a site where the film’s demon mythology unfolds and where the user/viewer experiences horror at his or her fingertips in the seemingly private spaces of the home.

The idea of fear pervading the intimate spaces and technology of the home structures the narrative of PA 2, which is told predominantly from the point of view of security cameras around the house.  PA 2 was unique in its placement on the franchise timeline in that it begins before the first film and ends after it, expanding on Kristi’s role within the family’s demonic history while also following up on the ending of the first film’s narrative (somewhat answering the question of “Where is Katie” that the comic book also attempted to explore).  Like the first film, each night of the haunting is labeled, and the strange activity increases in intensity until Night 19, after which Kristi’s husband Dan (Brian Boland) and his teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) are forced to perform a kind of spell that transfers the possessing demon to Katie.  The security cameras capture multiple rooms and spaces throughout the house, and each night scene goes through the same cycle of rooms, showing a few seconds of footage of the front path, the pool, the kitchen, living room, front hall, and the nursery, in that order.  The footage is filmed from a high angle, capturing the rooms in their entirety, and for the first half of the film, not much happens in these rooms except for small, seemingly inconsequential movements.  When I first viewed this film during its initial theatrical release, the audience giggled throughout these scenes, presumably amused by the absurdity of staring at empty domestic spaces. What I find revealing about this experience in the theater is how the uncomfortable nature of these scenes, as with PA 1, involves a spectatorial identification with/alienation from the camera itself.  The cameras are merely appliances within a seemingly mundane suburban milieu and capture a great deal of domestic inactivity, yet the audience and the film’s characters rely heavily on these appliances for crucial information and “clues.”  Locked into whatever position the camera is, we read each scene closely for any disruption of domestic space, including doors moving, lights flickering, pots and pans shaking, nursery mobiles slowly turning, or automated pool cleaners malfunctioning. Through such unrelenting observation of inanimate everyday objects turned “possessed,” the PA franchise provides a tongue-in-cheek representation of the true horrors of suburban domesticity – having out of control appliances disturb a comfortable and privileged existence.  Yet the cameras remain steadfast, constant and unrelenting, providing us and the family the only documented evidence of the house’s demonic presence although ultimately failing to save them by the end of the film.

The destruction of the family in PA 2 despite their increased visual security re-emphasizes the connections the franchise consistently makes between domestic (in)security and technology, as increasing the amount and sophistication of the cameras  fails to protect domestic space from outside threats. The notion of security and domesticity via technology are heavily gendered in the first and second film; Hahner, et al argue that the large, affluent houses in the first two films, as well as the futile attempts of the male protagonists to save these houses from destruction via expensive technology, “positions the main characters as worthy of punishment” because of their excessive investment in consumption.[17]  Dan installs security cameras in the house after the family suffers an alleged break-in, and like Micah, he believes that technology will not only reveal what is rational (a.k.a. seeable), but will also provide some degree of protection for his family.  His foil in this endeavor is the family’s housekeeper Martine (Vivis Colombetti), a woman of Hispanic origin who senses the demon in the house and attempts to convince the family of its danger.[18] Dan dismisses Martine’s belief and fires her, only to call on her later for help when Kristi becomes fully possessed.  Martine of course represents the tired cliché of the domestic helper of color who has a mystical/psychic connection to spiritual forces, yet she also proves to be a somewhat worthy opponent to the demon and an intriguing alternative to Dan’s male and technologically supported domestic authority.[19]  Similarly, Dan’s teenage daughter embraces technology, including a handheld camcorder and her computer, as a means for investigation, which provides the film’s teenage audiences with a point of identification that adds a tech-savvy facet to the teen rebellion present in many horror films. The daughter moves through domestic space via her handheld camera, filming her family and the housekeeper jokingly at first and then using the camera to try to document the horrifying events; in contrast, her father appears predominantly from the vantage point of the static security cameras, stuck in the spaces of his own domestic fortress and more symbolically immobilized by his inability to acknowledge the unknown. In the franchise’s fourth installment, this notion of the power of technologically-motivated teenage girl consumption provides a heavily brand-oriented addition to the series’ transmedia universe, but it also re-asserts the franchise’s emphasis on the ways each family’s patriarch fails to protect domestic space even with the most “secure” technology.

PA 3-4: Ghosts in the Transmedia Machines

Figure 5: Paranormal Activity 3, 2011

Figure 5. Paranormal Activity 3, 2011.

The third and fourth films of the franchise engage even more specifically with viewer consumption by promoting and expanding the PA storyline across more personal gadgets and devices. As Hahner, et al argue, the open-ended nature of each film – the unresolved endings and suggestions of complex backstories – invites viewers to participate further in the franchise’s ambivalent take on consumption: “the films work to disgust viewers with the overconsumption of the main characters,” to ask “the audience to consume the films by scrutinizing the screen,” and, of course, to keep them returning to the theaters to quench their curiosity.[20] Yet as the devices multiple in and around each film, the consumption that is punished in the narratives of the first two films becomes more explicitly linked to the individual viewer’s acts of consumption, specifically through the failure of these consumer technologies to keep the unseen horror of the films at bay.  The third film in the franchise, a prequel that explains some of Katie and Kristi’s haunted backstory, was the most financially and critically successful of all four films.  Set in 1988, the film is made up of VHS footage of Kristi and Katie’s odd interactions with an invisible friend named Toby, later of course revealed to be the demon.  It is structured the same way as the first two films with increasingly strange activity happening over the course of a few weeks, yet added two elements that increased its appeal – the use of haunted/haunting children and a retro VHS-aesthetic, the latter of which several reviewers commented elevated the film past its two predecessors; recalling the use of mysterious VHS tapes to promote The Ring, the production team passed out vaguely labeled copies of PA 3’s trailer on VHS at festivals.  The second marketing technique PA 3 used was also somewhat delightfully retro, yet, crucial to its transmedia reach, staged as an iPhone or Android phone application called “Demon Summoner.”  Referencing a scene in the film when the sisters and their babysitter play the “Bloody Mary” game in front of a bathroom mirror, the app prompts the user to “Go to a dark room with a mirror” and then “hold the phone upright at eye level.” A flickering candle appears, and then the words “Turn the phone around so the candle faces the mirror and say Bloody Mary 3 times.”  The app then snaps a picture of the user in the mirror, superimposing a strange silhouette over the picture to show photographic proof of a demonic presence alongside the user’s face. PA 1-3 all set up contrasts between classic horror movie props and conventions such as Ouija boards, purification rituals and exorcists and their digital/video aesthetics, and using a phone or mobile device to play a nostalgic parlor game represents a continuation of this tongue-in-cheek clash of horror moments.  Even further, though, the phone app continues the franchise’s attempt to call attention to the multiple devices and gadgets that we use in various spaces, in this case by having users actually carry their devices into their own bathrooms, bedrooms, etc., adding an even more personal and intimate communication device to its transmedia reach. Wessels argues that the explicit use of cell phone camera footage in films like Cloverfield, as well as its use outside of the film in studio sponsored fan-videos, “demonstrate(s) usage of goods integral to the performance of citizenship” that are then “integrated into consumer regimes of self-governance,”[21] feeding into post 9/11 surveillance culture’s emphasis on individuals as protectors of national security.  The PA franchise’s emphasis on consumer recording devices is not directly tied to political context the way Cloverfield’s is, yet performs a similar kind of corporate-sponsored endorsement of watching and protecting domestic spaces and the nuclear family.  That said, those same recording devices are linked explicitly to fear – capturing events out of the ordinary – and using a cell phone to capture demonic activity in your own home, for example, seems to invite domestic disturbance rather than prevent it.

The third film in the franchise was also the first one to utilize Twitter fully as a marketing platform, encouraging fans to “Tweet To See it First” to bring early premieres of the film to their cities, echoing the franchise’s early attempts to harness fans’ curiosity as a publicity tactic.  The official twitter handle of the franchise, TweetYourScream, soon served a variety of capacities, including marketing and publicity for the fourth film, a news feed for upcoming releases, and a means for fans to continue their conversations about the franchise.  In 2012, the fourth film of the franchise not only utilized Twitter for advertising purposes, tweeting pictures of fans lined up for early screenings and re-tweeting excited, anticipating fans, but the studio also incorporated Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube and Google Plus into a viral campaign creating an additional character in the PA world, a divorced dad named Jacob Degloshi.  About two weeks before the premiere of the fourth film, Mr. Degloshi showed up on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, with pictures and videos of his daughter Sarah coming to live at his house.  At some point Jacob finds a VHS tape in Sarah’s suitcase, with a scratched off symbol of the coven from PA 3, and, after struggling to procure a VCR, watches the tape, which contains footage from 1988 of Katie and Kristi talking with their grandmother.  Katie play-acts being pregnant with a boy named “Hunter,” of course referring to the little boy who is kidnapped in PA 2 and who reappears in PA 4.  Strange events begin plaguing Jacob and his daughter after he watches the tape (which breaks before he can watch all of it), which prompts him to set up cameras to begin documenting the activity.  As with the films, things heat up quickly, leading to his mysterious death, captured on video with his daughter stonily looking on.

While Degloshi’s videos, pictures and messages intersect with the PA world in certain places – the symbol and more VHS footage from PA 3, mentioning the names Hunter and Toby from the entire franchise, his daughter’s friendship with Alex (Kathryn Newton), the main character in PA 4 – what was more interesting was his documentation of the haunting in real time via social media. The studio aimed to reproduce the experience of watching the footage of the films via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube, interspersing Degloshi’s descriptions of what was happening with pictures and videos made in the handheld/static footage style of the films.  Degloshi’s story echoes that of the other films – a male homeowner attempting and failing to protect his family via recording technology – yet the use of social media to document the invasion of Degloshi’s private spaces also invades the viewer’s more intimate technological spaces (Twitter, Facebook), continuing the franchise’s blurred boundaries between “outside” (demonic, unseen terrors) and “inside” (domestic spaces, both technological and not).  Degloshi’s existence itself is a phantom in some unseen machine, and while the film’s fans realized early on that Degloshi was the franchise’s creation, there was something unsettling about how easy it was to create, develop and insinuate this character into one’s mundane techno-existence.  Building on this extension of horror into the everyday, the film’s official website also featured a “chat with Alex” link that turns the viewer’s computer screen into a Skype conversation with PA 4’s teen protagonist, Alex, and allows the viewer to witness, via the computer’s camera, frightening scenes involving Hunter and Katie.  As you are chatting (or, rather, listening to Alex chat), the computer screen fills with pop-ups of various cameras placed around the house.  Taken together, the Jacob Degloshi campaign and the “chat with Alex” feature produce small narrative tidbits for the franchise’s expanding storyline yet continue to shift its focus to the immediacy of horror experienced via household technology, specifically in the case of PA 4, computers and video game consoles.

PA 1 and 2 used cameras explicitly as devices meant to protect domestic space, but PA 4’s use of recording technology is more insidious, calling attention to the fact that more individualized consumer devices can “watch” us in unexpected ways. The fourth film is a true sequel, taking place about 5 years after the end of PA 2, where Katie and her strange son Robbie (Brady Allen) have moved across the street from a family in a Henderson, Nevada suburb.  The family’s teenage daughter, Alex, begins to notice strange interactions between Robbie and her brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), which she and her friend Ben (Matt Shively) begin to document via various recording devices.  The fourth film uses the same combinations of handheld and static footage, yet its primary technological conceits were the family’s Xbox Kinect and the webcams on the family’s laptops, rigged by Ben to capture footage in various rooms. While filming with the laptops’ cameras merely replicates camcorder footage, we become aware of the computer interface when Alex “Skypes” with Ben on her laptop and his image pops up on the lower right side of the screen. As filmmaker Henry Joost says of the choice of webcam, “When you’re video chatting with someone, you can’t see behind you, but the audience watching this can. That plays a pretty big role in the movie.”[22] Joost takes the horror convention of the audience seeing something creeping behind the protagonist and transfers it to an everyday communication device, drawing attention to the ways we position ourselves in relation to those devices in domestic space and the ways these devices appear to “watch” us back. The Xbox Kinect, set up in the family’s living room, is also a device that we do not associate with recording footage, but it unwittingly records strange events in the green, pixilated footage of the Kinect’s motion-capture feature.  Unlike the cameras in the other films, the Kinect does not reveal any crucial events in the film’s narrative but instead hides eerie faces and shapes for effect alone, prompting critics to deride its use as pure Microsoft product integration. That said, both the laptops and the Kinect translated well into the franchise’s most developed transmedia marketing campaign, a full-blown Twitter campaign that continued after the film’s release on DVD. The franchise’s Twitter account encouraged viewers to play with their own Kinect motion-capture footage, to tweet pictures of themselves watching the film (preferably on an Xbox) to enter an Xbox sweepstakes (#PA4onXbox), and to tweet pictures of “demon signs” in their own houses to win a DVD prize package (#DemonSigns).  While the pictures themselves were humorous and tongue-in-cheek (haunted pets was a particularly goofy trend), these campaigns encouraged viewers and fans yet again to focus on the experiential aspects of watching and re-watching the films. Hahner, et. al claim that “Tweeting or posting one’s experience with the films allows the ambiguity of consumption to move further beyond the space of the films proper,”[23] and asking fans to document their experiences watching the DVD on various devices and in different rooms of their houses encourages the continuing consumption and promotion of the franchise via various platforms. Jenkins says that films inviting intense audience involvement (i.e. that ones that can lead to a plethora of transmedia strands) “must provide resources consumers can use in constructing their own fantasies,”[24] and the sheer simplicity and mundaneness of the static camera, the Xbox, and the webcam, along with the extension of the franchise into social media, prompt viewers to imitate and parody the franchise’s style and content on multiple platforms.  That said, the imitations also emphasize the interactions between camera, space and body that the franchise foregrounds, and locating and documenting fear in these intimate, mundane spaces and devices unwittingly calls attention to the limits of technology to capture and protect us from the unknown.

Conclusion

In this essay, I have attempted to trace the transmedia branding campaign of the Paranormal Activity franchise through its four installments, focusing specifically on the franchise’s use of various recording technologies to create a viewer-centered horror experience that translates to a variety of personal devices.  I argue that the use of a static camera aesthetic and haunted websites, iPhone apps and Twitter campaigns ultimately draws attention to the ways that what Wessels calls “security-citizenship,” or the use of personal recording devices for safety and protection, fails.  There is a disjuncture between the ways that the families in each film make futile attempts to protect their homes using technology and the ways the franchise promotes itself through that same technology, asking fans, by the fourth film, to document their own experiences with fear in ways similar to those of the possessed, dead and otherwise disenfranchised characters of the four films.  The PA franchise has been read against the Great Recession and Housing Crises of recent years in its punishment of white, wealthy homeowners, yet its use of technology also recalls the way surveillance culture in recent years has become increasingly individualized, from the FBI’s request for cell phone footage of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings to the ongoing allegations of the NSA’s spying on private phone and Internet use.  To “Tweet Your Scream,” then, is to participate in a brand campaign, but perhaps also to consider – for a split second, even – that neither the device you are using nor the space you are using it in is “safe” from the prying eyes of whatever and whomever is watching.  The PA franchise has successfully extended its reach into the personal spaces and devices of its fans, yet its use of transmedia horror reveals a deep ambivalence about how and why we use technology in our everyday lives.

References

Carvell, Tim. “How The Blair Witch Project Built Up So Much Buzz: Movie Moguldum on a Shoestring.” Fortune Magazine. August 16, 1999. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1999/08/16/264276/.

Cornet, Ruth. “Interview: ‘Paranormal Activity’ director Oren Peli in ‘Paranormal Activity 3.’” Screen Rant. October 20, 2011. http://screenrant.com/paranormal-activity-3-oren-peli-interview-rothc-137180/.

Gleiberman, Owen. “‘Paranormal Activity’: A marketing campaign so ingenious it’s scary.” Entertainment Weekly. October 7, 2009. http://insidemovies.ew.com/2009/10/07/paranormal-activity-marketing-campaign/.

Hahner, Leslie A., Scott J. Varda and Nathan A. Wilson. “Paranormal Activity and the Horror of Abject Consumption.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 5 (2012): 362-376.

Horn, John. “The Haunted History of Paranormal Activity.” The Los Angeles Times. September 20, 2009. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/entertainment/ca-paranormal20/1.

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

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. March 22, 2007. http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.

Lobdell, Scott (writer) and Mark Badger (artist). Paranormal Activity: The Search for Katie, IDW Publishing (December 2009). iTunes.

Roscoe, Jane. “The Blair Witch Project: Mock documentary goes mainstream.” Jump Cut 43 (2000). http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/BlairWitch.html.

Sullivan, Kevin P. “‘Paranormal Activity 4: Five Secrets Revealed.” MTV.com. August 29, 2012. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1692810/paranormal-activity-4.jhtml.

Telotte, J.P.  “The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet.” In Nothing that Is: Millennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies, edited by Sarah Lynn Higley and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, 37-51. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004.

Tryon, Chuck. “Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures and Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video 61, no. 3 (2009). 40-51.

Wessels, Emmanuelle. “’Where were you when the monster hit?’ Media convergence, branded security citizenship and the trans-media phenomenon of Cloverfield.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 17, no. 1 (2011): 69-83.

 

Notes:


[1] I would like to thank Jorie Lagerwey, Ali Hoffman-Han, Naja Later, Jessica Balanzategui and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback on this essay.

[2] John Horn, “The haunted history of ‘Paranormal Activity’,” The Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/entertainment/ca-paranormal20, October 13, 2013.

[3] Emmanuelle Wessels, “‘Where were you when the monster hit?’ Media convergence, branded security citizenship and the trans-media phenomenon of Cloverfield,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 17, no. 1 (2011): 70.

[4] See Hahner, et al for a list of critics that related the first film explicitly to the recession and housing economy. “Paranormal Activity and the Horror of Abject Consumption,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 5 (2012), 363.

[5] As Jenkins says, “The New Hollywood …demands that we do research before we arrive at the theater.” Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 104.

[6] Jane Roscoe, “The Blair Witch Project: Mock documentary goes mainstream,” Jump Cut 43 (2000), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/BlairWitch.html, August 1, 2013.

[7] Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, March 22, 2007, http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html, October 4, 2013.

[8] J.P. Telotte, “The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet,” in Nothing that Is: Millennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies, ed. Sarah Lynn Higley and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004), 42.

[9] Chuck Tryon, “Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film,” Journal of Film and Video 61, no. 3 (2009): 40.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Ibid., 44.

[12] Owen Gleiberman, “‘Paranormal Activity’: A marketing campaign so ingenious it’s scary,” Entertainment Weekly October 7, 2009, http://insidemovies.ew.com/2009/10/07/paranormal-activity-marketing-campaign/, August 2, 2013.

[13] Tryon, 43.

[14] Hahner, et al., 367.

[15] Wessels, 74.

[16] Scott Lobdell (writer), Mark Badger (artist), Paranormal Activity: The Search for Katie, IDW Publishing (December 2009), iTunes, August 30, 2013.

[17] Hahner, et al., 367.

[18] A Paranormal spin-off entitled The Marked Ones (to be released January 3, 2014), teases out Martine’s “spiritualism” and appeals to the franchise’s sizable Hispanic audience with an entirely Latino cast and an East Los Angeles setting. http://news.moviefone.com/2013/10/17/paranormal-activity-the-marked-ones-trailer/

[19] “As characters, [Micah and Dan’s] manifestation of abject consumption iterates a logic that propels capitalism generally and narratives about the housing crisis specifically.  These men cannot resist the lure of consumption even as they are threatened with being consumed.” Hahner, et al., 370.

[20] Ibid., 369.

[21] Wessels, 75.

[22] Kevin P. Sullivan, “‘Paranormal Activity 4: Five Secrets Revealed,” MTV.com August 29, 2012, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1692810/paranormal-activity-4.jhtml, September 7, 2013.

[23] Hahner, et al., 372.

[24] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 97.

 

Bio: Janani Subramanian is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis.  Her research focuses on representations of race and gender across popular culture, and her work has been published in Science Fiction Film and TelevisionCritical Studies in Television, and Studies in Popular Culture.  Her book manuscript, Alien Visions: Fantasy, Race and Representation, is currently under contract with Rutgers University Press.