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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body Genres

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

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

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

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

Figure 2. Arias in court, metrous.com, 2013.

A Cautionary Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Monsters, Ourselves

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

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

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

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

A Quest for Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

“In Her Own Words.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive. September 2008. Web.

“Jodi Arias Dirty Little Secret.” MyLifetime.com. n.p., 22 June 2013. Web.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2-13.

Notes:


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

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

[3] Ibid., 4.

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

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

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[23] Creed, Monstrous, 8

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

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

[26] Ibid.

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

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

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

[30] Ibid.

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

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

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

[34] “Obsession” Dateline.

[35] Ibid.

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

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 90.

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

Indiana UP, 1984), 119.

[40] Ibid.,119.

[41] Creed, Monstrous, 26.

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

[43] Ibid.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Structure of Higurashi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transmedia and Japanese Horror – Nostalgia and Technological Advancement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transmedia, Horror, and Desire

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pruett, Chris. “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading 4, no. 6 (2010): http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/90/87.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

[4] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 21.

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

[6] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] McRoy, Nightmare Japan, 96.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Ibid.

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

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

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

[33] Azuma, Otaku, 48.

[34] Azuma, Otaku, 53.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Asian Extreme, Tokyo Gore, and Sushi Typhoon: Selling Eastern Violence to Western Audiences – Jessica Hughes

Machine Girl, 2008.

Machine Girl, 2008.

This article considers a recent group of Japanese films and filmmakers that use Asian Extreme style to signal an awareness of international audiences, and it will argue for a set of central features typifying this category of film, which is referred to as ‘Tokyo Gore.’ Though not widely used, this label was first implemented by Michael Bonedigger on horrornews.net,[1] and references an early film of this style, Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008); it has also been applied retroactively to films released prior to 2008 using the same style. Central features defining this category include targeting Western audiences with exaggerations that address

Western perceptions of Asianness and Japaneseness, and deliberately exploiting conventions of female representation, particularly through schoolgirl fetishisation. These features contribute to Tokyo Gore’s undermining of dominant ideologies and assert exotic otherness and extreme violence as major contributors to their reputation in the stream of Tokyo Gore. Asian and, more specifically, Japanese Extreme is becoming a more commonly recognised style of filmmaking, having emerged in the late 1980s with the Japanese body horror, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 1989), and been exemplified by Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) with its portrayals of graphic violence and moral extremes. However, Tokyo Gore offers an alternative approach to the representations of excess made familiar in these influential films. These films, with the most popular examples including Machine Girl (Noboru Iguchi, 2008) and Tokyo Gore Police, typically focus on the highly sexualised, heroic fighting skills of troubled teenage schoolgirls. Between 2008 and 2013 alone, over a dozen of these horror-action-comedies were brought to the screens of both mainstream and niche (fantastic, Asian) film festivals around the world, and this article argues that the cult appeal of these films and their filmmakers is characterised by audiences drawn to the extreme content, predominantly involving social taboos such as bodily harm and mutilation. Focusing on two Tokyo Gore exemplars, Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura, I will consider the international reputation of their films and how content and style reflects their ability to attract predominantly Western audiences.

The release of schoolgirl fetish parody Sukeban Boy in 2006 marked the beginning of Iguchi’s international recognition as a Tokyo Gore filmmaker. The film had limited theatrical release through King Records in Japan in February 2006 and an international premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Fantastic Film Festival in July 2006. DVD release followed in Germany and Hong Kong in 2007 and the US (through Discotek’s Eastern Star label) in 2008. Although Noboru Iguchi had already worked on more than two dozen other films, his prior work was mostly part of an extensive career in the Japanese adult video (JAV) industry, directing films including The Neighbour’s Sister Has F-Cup (1999) and HyperTrophy Genitals Girl (2009). Japan’s pinku eiga (a range of films featuring adult content, mainly in the form of soft-core pornography) have been popular since the 1960s, hailing Japanese and foreign viewers alike, and have been made available on adult cinema screens, video and DVD around the world.[2] Despite rumours that the pink industry is on the decline since internet availability, Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain suggests otherwise: in 2003, “89 out of the 287 domestically-produced films that screens in Japanese cinemas fell into this category.”[3] In many ways appealing to both pinku eiga and Tokyo Gore fans, due to its explicit sexuality and violence, Sukeban Boy marked a successful shift for Iguchi from JAV to Tokyo Gore, especially with adult video star Asami starring in Sukeban Boy. Asami is also featured in subsequent Iguchi films Machine Girl (2008), RoboGeisha (2009), Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2010), Zombie Ass (2011), and Dead Sushi (2011).

Sukeban Boy, 2006.

Sukeban Boy, 2006.

Based on the manga serial Oira Sukeban (Go Nagai, 1974-1976), Sukeban Boy follows Asami’s character Sukeban, a teenaged boy who looks like a girl and, after endless bullying, is forced by his father to transfer to an all-girls high school. Through Sukeban’s complicated attempts to fit in, due to the endless foreign cliques involved with being a high school girl (in this case including: the Pantyhose League, the No-Bra League, and the Full-Strip League), the film introduces the recurring Tokyo Gore theme of schoolgirl fetishisation.

A common character within both manga and adult videos, the Japanese schoolgirl is an adolescent girl in middle school or high school, commonly expressing naivety and anxiety, which are qualities that have proved to be notoriously appealing to Japanese men.  The schoolgirl is a titillating double signifier of innocence and licentiousness, with ‘image clubs’ in Tokyo offering Japanese men the opportunity to “live out their fantasies about schoolgirls… [Choosing] from 11 rooms, including classrooms, a school gym changing room, and a couple of imitation railroad cars where to the recorded roar of a commuter train, men can molest straphangers [standing passengers] in school uniforms.”[4] In his New York Times article on the schoolgirl uniform functioning as an aphrodisiac, Kristof examines this major issue, which he describes as: “a disturbing national obsession with schoolgirls as sexual objects.”[5] This has led teenaged girls to become involved in a practice called enjo kosai, which is explained by Michael Fitzpatrick of The Guardian as a “transaction between clients and women who barter sexual favours for financial support in the shape of rent, dinner, and presents.”[6] While young schoolgirls are rarely responsible for paying for rent or meals, Japanese society has become increasingly obsessed with possessing imported name-brand goods and, in order to support this passion, getting paid between $300 and $800 to have sex with older men is seen as a small sacrifice for teenaged girls to fit in.[7]

Not only has this Japanese schoolgirl fetish been publicised through major American and British newspapers, but the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has also capitalised on the innocence of the schoolgirl image by incorporating it into their “Ambassadors of Cute” tourism campaign.[8] [9] Selected in February 2009, the Ambassadors (who, in addition to the schoolgirl, included girls representing Lolita and Harajuku fashions) are mostly 20-somethings playing the role of teenagers, thus highlighting a blurring of the line between reality and fiction that encompasses the entire notion of the Japanese schoolgirl. But with schoolgirl fetishism dating back to wartime, and having been marketed to foreigners as a part of Japan’s ‘cute’ culture for much longer than the MOFA campaign, there is little wonder why Iguchi chose to parody this in a film intended to attract Western audiences. In fact, in 1992, Japanese women’s lifestyle magazine, CREA, considered kawaii (cute) to be “the most widely used, widely loved, habitual word in modern living Japanese.”[10] While Sukeban Boy mostly uses cuteness in contrast to the sex and violence portrayed by the majority of the girls in the film (for example, when Sukeban joins the girls’ school and is trying to cover up his masculine characteristics), the sexuality of teenaged schoolgirls never fails to be the focus of the action, with great emphasis on both breasts and blood in nearly every scene.

Two years after Sukeban Boy’s release, Western audiences were drawn to another portrayal of the fetishised Japanese schoolgirl in Iguchi’s 2008 feature Machine Girl. With her skirt rolled high and socks extra-baggy (a technique believed to make their legs look longer and more slender, apparently to match the appearance of Western models), schoolgirl protagonist Ami (Minase Yashiro) looks much like the girls of Iguchi’s prior film, except for the machine gun attached to her arm. Seeking to avenge the murder of her brother Yu, as well as the loss of her left arm, Ami hunts down various members of a yakuza clan who she traces back to Yu’s death through scribbles about bullying in his diary. Ami’s new friends and partners in crime, the parents of Yu’s friend who was also murdered, design a machine gun to replace Ami’s arm, which is cut off during a graphic yakuza torture scene. Wearing a schoolgirl uniform throughout all of her violent acts of revenge, Ami’s white top is constantly saturated in blood, contrasting noticeably with the prim and proper, innocent expectations of girls typically wearing this outfit. Unlike Sukeban Boy, however, Ami is one of only two schoolgirls in the film, and they are set up in contrast to each other, with Ami being more of a tomboy, often in sports clothes and playing basketball, foreshadowing the strength she will display later in the film. Ami’s friend, Miki (Asami), on the other hand, is a perfect example of kawaii, with her high-pitched, childish voice, and a constantly dreamy look on her face.

Princess Mononoke, 1997.

Princess Mononoke, 1997.

This characterisation of Ami is not dissimilar to that of the shōjo, a pre-teen or teenaged girl character, typically between the ages of 8 and 18, often portrayed in manga and anime, who is on the cusp of adulthood and finds a proactive sense of agency throughout the course of the story, whether through deploying her femininity, gaining knowledge or power, or discovering other ways to make choices and act independently in the world. This character has been set up by Susan Napier as having one of two expressions: the classic shōjo, representing “ultrafeminity that is often passive or dreamy”; and the shōjo typically depicted by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke [1997]; Spirited Away [2001]), who is notably more “independent and active, courageously confronting the variety of obstacles before them in a manner that might be described as stereotypically masculine.”[11] Alternatively, Tokyo Gore films portray what I will call the ‘mutant shōjo’: a teenage schoolgirl who tends to be very feminine in appearance but not action, offering distinctly different values than Miyazaki’s heroines. While Miyazaki’s films downplay violence in favour of representations of a powerful heroine who avoids killing, Machine Girl and other Tokyo Gore films exaggerate the killing by depicting mutilated forms of the human body through elements of body horror (which will be discussed in more detail later in this essay). In all three senses of the term, the shōjo is a liminal figure that seems to have a strong appeal to Western audiences through the grrrl power discourse of postfeminist empowerment, however it is the mutant shōjo in particular that plays an important role for Tokyo Gore filmmakers. Acting as a strategic device for simultaneously critiquing Japanese culture and Western perceptions of it, the mutant shōjo character combines stereotypes of internationally recognised Japanese female figures (schoolgirl, geisha) and personality traits (naïve but sexy; sensitive but bold). It is not surprising, then, that Machine Girl was co-produced by New York-based production company Fever Dreams. After its initial release to the European film market in February 2008, Machine Girl toured fantastic film festivals and other genre festivals around the world, beginning at Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in Japan for its theatrical premiere in March 2008 and finishing at the Munich Asia Filmfest in November 2008, with screenings throughout Europe, North America and South America in between.

Fever Dreams also asked Machine Girl’s special effects and make-up artist, Yoshihiro Nishimura, to make another film for them: Tokyo Gore Police was Nishimura’s first commercial film as a director, having previously worked predominantly in special effects and makeup. No doubt finding it suited the mutant shōjo theme that had attracted Western producers to Machine Girl, he remade his earlier film Anatomia Extinction (1995), which had won the Special Jury Award at the Yubari International Film Festival, but had received little attention otherwise, particularly outside Japan. Much like Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police is about a young girl avenging the death of her loved one – in this case, her father. While, unlike most Tokyo Gore protagonists, Ruka is not a schoolgirl, she is still very much a mutant shōjo in her role as a young police officer seeking revenge. Despite her lack of physical mutations, Ruka’s emotional state (seeking revenge; wrist-cutting) provokes her battle for change, much like her other Tokyo Gore counterparts. Furthermore, Ruka’s challenging of the Tokyo Police Corporation for which she works is ultimately a fight to defeat practices like enjo kosai and fetish sex clubs, which are portrayed explicitly within the film, with both women and young girls being depicted as tremendously mistreated.

Ruka’s role as a mutant shōjo is also exemplified by her contrast with various portrayals of kawaii throughout the film. In spite of her drastic forms of crime prevention (typically in the form of explicitly violent methods of exterminating criminals), Ruka is depicted as quiet and down-to-earth. On the other hand, the only other woman seen in a police uniform is portrayed as excessively kawaii: rather than ever showing her in action, Tokyo Gore Police presents this character as some sort of dispatcher, giving the male officers and Ruka excessively cheerful support and encouragement in assigning their next tasks. Donald Richie describes Japanese cuteness as being, often manically, happy, particularly within the family setting.[12] He uses an example from a noodle advertisement to illustrate this, with a family sitting around the dinner table, mum “triumphantly pour[ing] hot water into the Styrofoam cup,” and dad “smacking his lips and beaming.”[13] Much like Ritchie’s description of the kawaii noodle ad, flashbacks of Ruka’s now-deceased family portray an initially happy and peaceful setting, but also hint at Ruka’s distinct role as a powerful female officer. Not long after the film opens, we see schoolgirl Ruka ready to blow the candles on her birthday cake, while dad is watching proudly and mum is preparing dinner behind them. However, when she turns away from the kitchen counter, we see she has actually been crying and, rather than slicing the vegetables, we see it was actually her arm, which is now covered in cuts and blood. With this sudden change of atmosphere, Ruka’s position as an aggressive and disturbed police officer becomes clearer, as does her contrasting role with the kawaii officer.

In some ways offering the potential for a postfeminist reading, Tokyo Gore Police fits with Lisa Coulthard’s list of recent films that have “foregrounded the presence of violent women in genres usually associated with male characters, actors, and audiences.”[14] Coulthard uses Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) as a particularly violent example, highlighting its use of young female characters as both victims and perpetrators of violence.[15] Similarly, Tokyo Gore Police presents Ruka as both a victim and a perpetrator as we are often reminded of her brutal childhood while at the same time watching her violently attack the film’s destructive, and often perverted, criminals. The decision to use Eihi Shiina in this role was that of the American production company, Fever Dreams, no doubt in an attempt to appeal to Western audiences already familiar with Shiina from her previous Japanese Extreme role in Audition.   

Tokyo Gore Police, 2008.

Tokyo Gore Police, 2008.

Following the success of Tokyo Gore Police at various niche film festivals around the globe, including an award for Best Asian Film at Montreal’s Fantasia, Nishimura collaborated with Naoyuki Tomomatsu to create Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009). Yet another gorefest surrounding the conflict of two schoolgirls (one already a vampire and the other turned into a Frankenstein monster) fighting for the same boy, Vampire Girl maintains the appeal to Western audiences with its adoption of two popular supernatural figures. It is also significant to note that the film is the third part in what is referred to as the Gaijinsploitation (foreigner exploitation) series.

In his 2011 IMDb post on “New Japanese Gore films,” Mighty_Emperor points out: “there are no foreigners in the films being exploited, so are the films themselves exploiting us, the foreigner viewer, giving us what we think we want to see in a crazy Japanese film?”[16] Traditionally, however, an exploitation film is considered to be one that exploits the success of other films, and we might alternatively question whether these films (the other three in the series are: Geisha vs. Ninjas [Go Ohara, 2008], Samurai Princess [Kengo Kaji, 2009], and RoboGeisha [Noboru Iguchi, 2009]) could be classified as such due to foreign viewers exploiting what they perceive to be ‘crazy’ Japanese culture. In this sense, the awareness of such Japanese practices as schoolgirl fetishism and enjo kosai leads to their exploitation in films like Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and RoboGeisha.

Furthermore, Pam Cook points out: exploitation films “are made with specific markets in mind, hence the development of ‘sexploitation’ and ‘blaxploitation’ categories referring to the capture of the soft-core pornography film audience and black youth audience respectively.”[17] Similarly, gaijinsploitation is designed to capture gaijin audiences. Playing with what Leon Hunt refers to as ‘Asiaphilia’ in various essays,[18] [19] which works as an alternative to the term ‘Orientalism,’ these films target audiences who are known or thought to fetishise Asian culture. Though both ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Asiaphilia’ refer to the East’s exotic appeal to the West, Orientalism focuses predominantly on Western depictions of Eastern culture, while Asiaphilia more commonly relates to the Western fetishisation of it. In their discussion of Asian films and cult cinema, Mathijs and Sexton point out: “Often, the qualities that Western audiences find so attractive in Asian cinema are a result of Western viewers’ curiosity for and confrontation with systems of representation they have difficulty understanding (and that therefore violate practices, routines, habits).”[20] As a result, ‘exotic’ aspects like Japanese schoolgirls, all things kawaii, and women dressed as geisha tend to be even more appealing to Western audiences than domestic ones.

RoboGeisha, 2009.

RoboGeisha, 2009.

Iguchi and Nishimura’s inclusion of these stereotypically Japanese characteristics in their films is likely related to their classification of them as ‘gaijinsploitation.’ In an interview with Twitch, Iguchi suggests why they have a bigger international following than domestic: “Things like ninja and geisha are actually not that popular in Japan. It’s mostly foreigners who really go for that.”[21] In Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, the Japanese traditions of Valentine’s Day and White Day are explained with an English subtitle in the opening of the film – the first indication of many that the film has been made with a Western audience in mind. Similarly, one of the ‘monsters’ of RoboGeisha introduces herself at the beginning of the film: “Don’t you know what a Tengu is? Tengu are traditional Japanese goblins whom are a phallic symbol.” While it is likely that Japanese audiences would already be familiar with the Tengu folklore, the anticipation of foreign spectators requires this explanation to be incorporated into the dialogue.

This portrayal of the Tengu figures, with their phallic noses and nipples, as well as Yoshie, and the other geisha-turned-robots, allows for an explicit connection between these women’s mutations and violence. While Yoshie, the protagonist, is focused on defeating the egotistical, perverted businessmen who intend to destroy all of Japan, most of the battles involve the Tengu warriors attempting to prevent Yoshie from taking control. Between the hell-milk the Tengu shoot from their breasts (which look like goblin faces with elongated noses) and the implied sexuality associated with geishas, RoboGeisha has no shortage of sexual references, all corresponding to the girls’ differences or mutations. This style of horror, based on the destruction of the body and reminiscent of the films of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, 1983; The Fly, 1986) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo 1&2, 1989, 1992), exploits the mutations of all Tokyo Gore characters (from Sukeban Boy to Yoshie in RoboGeisha), to offer maximum violence and gore in every scene.

In The Horror Sensorium, Angela Ndalianis relays the different ways body horror can trigger our senses. Noting how, in what she calls ‘New Horror,’ spectators are “ruthlessly confronted by violence, intense gore and, often, a social critique that refuses to hold back the punches,”[22] she later adds that this would have little impact without the “sensory and emotional experiences that are at the core of these films.”[23] Ndalianis lists several ways we might be ‘touched’ by these films, from “laughing at or recoiling from the over-the-top displays of gore and body desecration” to “recognizing the social critique embedded in the narrative.”[24] While she uses specific examples of this ‘ping pong’ effect from The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1997; Alexandre Aja, 2006), much of this also holds true in Tokyo Gore films. Following RoboGeisha, Iguchi’s next feature film was a collaboration with Nishimura and Tokyo Gore actor-turned-director, Tak Sakaguchi. Much like Ndalianis’ description of The Hills Have Eyes, Mutant Girls Squad offers a constant sensory overload as the focus shifts back and forth between the gory action sequences and the implicit social commentary.

The film depicts a war between two distinct groups of Japanese: the ‘new race,’ defended by the Japanese army, and the Hiruku clan, a ‘mutant race.’ While the mutants, or rather a select group of teenaged mutant girls (with Rin, the protagonist, discovering early on that she is a half-breed), are the focus of the film, the climactic battle sequence is a cry for peace, for both races to live as one, rather than a championing of the underdog. Instead, the film is more interested in going over the top to play with stereotypes of women as benign or submissive (such as juxtaposed shots of the opening credits on flowers and teenaged girls slaughtering the Japanese military); it is not necessarily about the mutants winning, but the girls taking control of a dire situation. Rin is set up as the ‘other’ from the beginning of the film due to the loss of control of her right hand, but one particular early scene emphasizes this with the juxtaposition between a television news reporter’s kawaii characteristics and Rin’s mutant shōjo characteristics. While both kawaii and shōjo figures are common across Japanese media, Mutant Girls Squad depicts Rin as the ‘other’ to emphasize the prevalent ‘normal vs. outcast’ binary within Japanese society.

Mutant Girls Squad was the first release from Sushi Typhoon, a subsidiary of Japan’s oldest film studio, Nikkatsu Corporation. With Nikkatsu’s reputation for the extreme, having a history of producing violent gangster films and Japan’s 1970s ‘Roman Porno’ line, it is no surprise that producer Yoshinori Chiba teamed up with them to create Sushi Typhoon, which sought to “satisfy audiences who crave the good taste of bad taste, and for whom too much is never enough” (Chiba).[25] Chiba has an equally extreme history as a producer, working with influential Asian Extreme filmmaker Takashi Miike on Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), and Iguchi and Nishimura on Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. Chiba’s main goal in creating Sushi Typhoon was to be able to continue creating a platform for this type of film by making and distributing them “on a level for the fans abroad,” even if they have a limited audience in Japan.[26] While these films rarely get multiplex screenings, they have proven popular at festivals, selling out at Montreal’s Fantasia and San Francisco’s Comic-Con. As one online Fantasia reviewer notes: “Mutant Girls Squad is exactly the movie you’d expect three ‘extreme cinema’ guys from Japan to make after seeing Americans eat the likes of Tokyo Gore Police, Be a Man! Samurai School and Vampire Girl Versus Frankenstein Girl up.”[27]

Just missing the Summer 2010 New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia run, Nishimura’s next project, Helldriver, premiered at Austin’s FantasticFest and then made its international genre festival rounds in Europe, North America, and Asia through most of 2011 before DVD release in September of that year. The third of eight Sushi Typhoon releases in 2010 and 2011, Helldriver was already being recognised as part of a cult series. WeLoveCult.com refers to the film as “ultra-violent” and “ultra-cheesy,” and claims: “ if [the synopsis] doesn’t make you add the film to your queue, then I don’t know what will.”[28] Furthermore, the DVD Verdict review for Helldriver notes: “With Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Mutant Girls Squad, and the unforgettable Tokyo Gore Police already under his belt, Nishimura has built up a cult following, with his effects work gaining him a reputation as the Japanese answer to Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead).”[29]

Citing Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) as an example of cult films offering “extreme spectacles of … difference,” Bruce Kawin argues that films that glory in such otherness (additional types of ‘otherness’ in his list include rebellion, “wacko power,” and “wacko banality”) present “unifying visions for an alienated audience, uncompromised celebrations of another integrity.”[30] Thus, the glorified difference of the mutant shōjos presented in Nishimura and Iguchi’s Tokyo Gore films is a starting point for defining it as a cult text. Equally important to the film’s content in determining cult status, however, is the audience’s relationship with the text.

Matt Hills’ discussion of horror and the “monstrous fascination” in The Pleasures of Horror uses, and frequently contradicts, Noel Carroll’s philosophy on ‘art-horror’ audiences (as opposed to ‘natural horror,’ which refers to real-life events).[31] While Carroll suggests that our attraction to horror has much to do with the curiosity of non-human and almost-human characters, Hills argues that this is a weak connection because we have come to expect monster characters in horror films, so there must be something stronger drawing our attention.[32] Hills suggests that rather than a curiosity of the monstrous, it is the omnipotence of these characters that attracts horror fans. In films like Mutant Girls Squad and The Machine Girl, the intent seems to be to attract viewers to the spectacle of the human body metamorphosing into something more powerful. Also, emphasizing the importance of audience interaction in defining cult, Hills adds that pleasure taken from a horror film may not always be about the content, but rather appreciation of a star’s performance.[33] With Tokyo Gore, there is no doubt that most fans are drawn to the over-the-top extremities presented on-screen but, for some fans, there is surely an appeal to seeing Audition led Eihi Shiina to perform another extreme role in Tokyo Gore Police, for example. Furthermore, by using the label Sushi Typhoon, audiences are more likely to be drawn to Tokyo Gore films and, more specifically, those directed by Iguchi and Nishimura, because they know they can expect a certain type of horror.

Zombie Ass, 2012.

Zombie Ass, 2012.

It is no surprise, then, that Iguchi released four more feature films that were officially selected for Fantasia festival and that subsequently made the rounds on the international festival circuit in 2011 and 2012. While only two of the four films, Karate-Robo Zaborgor (2011) and Zombie Ass (2012), were made under the Sushi Typhoon label, all four were collaborations with Nishimura who, as usual, was responsible for the special effects. Sushi Typhoon’s film festival success is not surprising due to the niche nature of festivals like Fantasia, and the Canadian premieres of Tokyo Gore Police and Zombie Ass as midnight movies is not insignificant. In her Cult Film Experience contribution, “Midnight S/Excess,” Gaylyn Studlar begins: “Excess defines the midnight movie, a cult phenomenon that seems to catalogue perverse acts with the same enthusiasm as nineteenth-century sexologists.”[34] Fetishism and transvestitism are amongst Studlar’s list of sexual ‘abnormalities’ sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing cited in his Psychopathia Sexualis, which, not coincidentally, have a recurring presence in Tokyo Gore films. While Tokyo Gore Police’s representation of this is explicit in its portrayal of a fetish club with grotesquely mutilated female bodies, films such as Sukeban Boy and Machine Girl include a more implicit reflection of the Japanese schoolgirl fetish, as outlined above. Studlar goes on to discuss how midnight movies “crystallize… the s/excess of perversity in a feminine though not always female figure,” citing such examples as Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972) and Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975).[35] However, while there’s no doubt about Tokyo Gore’s ‘s/excess’ (Sukeban Boy and Kisaragi in Mutant Girls Squad are both examples of the feminine characters outlined above), a more explicit form of excess is found within the films’ violence and gore.

Both Iguchi and Nishimura’s involvement with the American anthology film The ABCs of Death (2012) further solidifies their reputation for portrayals of excess, with their contributions including “F is for Fart” (Iguchi) and “Z is for Zetsumetsu” (Nishimura) (zetsumetsu is the Japanese word for ‘extinction’). The silliness of Iguchi’s narrative comes as no surprise, considering the title, as well as his reputation and history with JAV. The short film portrays a teenaged schoolgirl faced with two potential problems: she’s too embarrassed to fart in public, and she’s in love with her teacher, Yumi sensei. However, the arrival of a grey cloud of smoke that appears to be taking over Tokyo, allows her to overcome both of these dilemmas as she is faced with the life-or-death situation of seeking refuge. In a dream sequence that spans the remainder of the short film, the young girl winds up alone with her teacher in an empty corridor of their school, where Yumi sensei agrees to fart on her as protection from the other gases threatening to kill them. The fart scene climaxes as we see images of the teacher and student sharing the sensual experience of passing and inhaling Yumi sensei’s gas (further sexualised with moaning and, later on, kissing), juxtaposed with students in other parts of the school inhaling the black cloud and crumbling to ash. Similarly, Nishimura’s film offers another connection between death and sexuality with the different characters in his film representing destruction (extinction?), including a swastika hat, a tattoo of the twin towers and an airplane, several bombs labelled ‘Little Boy,’ and an outline of Japan with ‘3/11’ written above it. The film ends with all of these characters exploding as the madman, who is assumed to be at the root of all this evil, points to his erection and shouts: “It is standing!”

The anthology premiered as part of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series and, with later releases through iTunes and Video On Demand (VOD), as well as a short US theatrical release following the festival rounds, was set up to be more mainstream than Iguchi and Nishimura’s prior projects. Furthermore, aligning their names with 24 other genre filmmakers from around the world, including Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes [2007]) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List [2011]), The ABCs of Death brought positive attention to Iguchi and Nishimura and showed that they were not exclusive to Sushi Typhoon productions. Despite some negative response from viewers who were there to see the more serious pieces from Vigalando (“A is for Apocalypse”), and thought “F” and “Z” were too silly, other reviewers offered fan appreciation, such as Jason Gorber from Twitch, who found the Japanese contributions to be exactly what he had expected, referring to “F is for Fart” as “one of the more charming of the lot, silly and stupid in a way that these J-pop, school girls-in-uniform fetish pieces often are, but without any pretense of seriousness.”[36] When asked, in an interview with MovieWeb.com, about the connotations of farting in Japanese culture, Iguchi explained:

[In Japan] farts are perceived as one of the origins of humor… For Japanese people, that’s the number one basis for humor, I think. Japan has a lot of particular fetishes, and there’s a huge amount of eroticism that doesn’t involve anything sexual. For instance, scatology has a firm popularity among some people, and there’s even a sub-genre in AV (Japanese pornography) that specializes in farts.[37]

Further questioned about his awareness of the current “Fart renaissance” happening in America, Iguchi responded: “I’m always interested in the subject!”[38]

The Japanese attraction to silliness that Iguchi describes is not unlike that in America, which is discussed by Michelle Ann Abate in her essay “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” Much like the silliness that Abate outlines, which appeals to American viewers of The Muppet Show, Tokyo Gore films can also be “seen as containing innocuous comedic content [as well as encoding] sharp cultural critiques and, at times, even subversive social commentary.”[39] For example, in both cases, the “general chaos, mayhem, and disorder” portrayed invokes questioning of notions of power and control.[40] This holds true in the teaser for Iguchi’s upcoming film, Gothic Lolita Battle Bear (2014), which suggests a similar mixture of nonsense and social commentary, with the return of the kawaii character, this time simultaneously representing the shōjo character, rather than working in contradiction to it. Such representations of cuteness is a reflection of Kinsella’s suggestion that cute is a form of anti-social behaviour: “By immersion in the pre-social world, otherwise known as childhood, cute fashion blithely ignores or outrightly contradicts values central to the organization of Japanese society and the maintenance of the work ethic.”[41] With this in mind, it is no surprise that Iguchi has combined his two prevailing female characters to offer yet another portrayal of a Japanese society that is too hung up on feigning normality.

Similarly, the trailer for Nishimura’s latest, Zombie TV (2013), co-directed with Naoya Tashino and Maelie Makuno, suggests the film offers a typical questioning of societal norms through the zombie metaphor by returning to the recurring Tokyo Gore theme of ‘normal vs. outcast.’ However, in a unique twist, the trailer’s subheadings such as ‘Pink Zombies,’ (the quintessential kawaii characters), and ‘Zombie God,’ imply a new sort of zombie hierarchy without necessarily placing the ‘uninfected’ at the top. Tokyo Gore consistently offers this binary between at least two opposing groups, in most cases it is ‘authority vs. other,’ but in other films, like Sukeban Boy or Zombie TV, it tends to be ‘other vs. other,’ where two (or more) outcast or ‘abnormal’ groups battle against each other. Ryan Turek from ShockTillYouDrop.com describes Zombie TV as: “A Monty Python-esque collection of shorts, animation, sketch comedy, instructional videos and more,” explaining that the film “showcases the natural evolution of zombies in the 21st century.”[42] The Monty Python comparison here is an apt one, particularly considering the way both types of films approach comedy through the grotesque. In Janis Udris’ PhD dissertation “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” she quotes Terry Gilliam on his use of shocking material: “We’ve got to maintain a certain level of offense; otherwise we’re just entertainers. It’s one way of proving to ourselves that we’re not just in it for the money.”[43] Similarly, both Iguchi[44] and Nishimura[45] have commented on the importance of working on a low budget to maintain the freedom to make unique films with the goal of turning shocking images that would normally only been seen in manga and anime into live action (examples of this include geisha shooting bullets from their breasts, schoolgirls farting yellow gas, and mutant girls with ‘butt saws’).

Fantasia’s 2013 festival program markets Bushido Man (Takanori Tsujimoto, 2013) to those with a taste for “out-there Asian action film,” referring to the “Sushi Typhoon wave” to attract viewers looking for a type of film containing “over-the-top absurdities.”[46] While Bushido Man was not actually released under the Sushi Typhoon label (with the last update on their blog being over two years ago, it can be assumed the label is currently inactive[47]), it is significant that the name is now being used to define a specific ‘wave’ of films, rather than simply as a production and marketing label. This is reflective of the evolution of Tartan’s ‘Asia Extreme’ label, which is now distinctive as a style of Asian filmmaking, and suggests the future of Sushi Typhoon, as no longer a production label, but instead a recognizable type of film offering over-the-top violence and nonsensical humour. This recognition allows for the cult fandom that is becoming a part of Tokyo Gore’s reputation through screenings at festivals like Fantasia, where audiences are more likely to interact with the absurdities of these films.

In closing, if we are to define Tokyo Gore films like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police as cult texts, it is necessary to consider the different implications of the term, as these films are in the process of building a cult-like fan base, rather than having verifiably established a cult following. While, compared to established Asian Extreme cult filmmakers Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook, Iguchi and Nishimura are still emerging as such, there is no denying the implications of the types of audiences they are attracting to niche film festivals around the world. A Fantasia review of Dead Sushi (2012), observes that it: “serves up a particular brand of silliness that [is] hard to resist, especially when sitting among the sold-out enthusiastic throng that is the Fantasia audience as they chanted ‘SUSHI’ again and again.”[48] With Iguchi and Nishimura’s names now so closely associated with Tokyo Gore and Sushi Typhoon, they signify a very distinct style of over-the-top, gruesomely violent filmmaking, setting up audience expectations before they go into their films, and ultimately drawing a particular kind of (predominantly Western) audience to their screenings.

 

References:

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Brown, Todd. “Yoshihiro Nishimura Talks TOKYO GORE POLICE!” Twitch Film,  http://twitchfilm.com/2008/06/yoshihiro-nishimura-talks-tokyo-gore-police.html

Cook, Pam. “Film Culture: ‘Exploitation’ Films and Feminism.” Screen 17, no. 2 (1976):122-127.

Coulthard, Lisa. “Killing Bill: Rethinking Feminism and Film Violence.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 153-75. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

DiGiovanna, Alex. “Fantasia 2012: Interview with ‘Dead Sushi’ Director Noboru Iguchi and Star Rina Takeda.” Movie Buzzers, http://moviebuzzers.com/film-festival-coverage/fantasia-2012-interview-dead-sushi-director-noboru-iguchi-star-rina-takeda

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Studlar, Gaylyn. “Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse.” In The Cult Film Experience, edited by JP Telotte, 138-55. Austin: UTP, 1991.

Turek, Ryan. “Tune in to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Zombie TV.” Shock Till You Drop, http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/340665-tune-in-to-yoshihiro-nushimuras-zombie-tv/

Udris, Janis. “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.” Diss. University of Warwick, 1988.

Vijn, Ard. “IFFR 2011: An Interview with NOBORU IGUCHI.” Twitch Film, http://twitchfilm.com/2011/02/iffr-2011-an-interview-with-noboru-iguchi.html

Walkow, Marc. “The Sushi Typhoon.” http://sushityphoon.blogspot.com.au/

 

Notes:


[1]Michael Bonedigger, “Tokyo Gore Style: A Retrospective on the Films and Trends,” Horrornews.net, posted July 19, 2011, http://horrornews.net/37084/tokyo-gore-style-a-retrospective-on-the-films-and-trends-tokyo-extreme/ (accessed November 13, 2013).

[2]Jasper Sharp, Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, (Surrey: FAB Press, Ltd., 2008), 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Nicholas D. Kristof, “A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac,” New York Times April 2, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/02/world/a-plain-school-uniform-as-the-latest-aphrodisiac.html (accessed Nov 11, 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Fitzpatrick, “From Schoolgirl to Sex Object: White Socks and Prim Navy Suits Unleash Male Libidos in Japan,” The Guardian July 8, 1999, http://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/jul/08/gender.uk (accessed Nov 11, 2013).

[7] Ibid.

[8]Laura Miller, “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology  20 (2011): 18-29.

[9]Sarah Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure: Renegotiation of Power Through Societal Construction, Masking a Crisis of Masculinity,” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2012).

[10] Sharon Kinsella, “Cuties in Japan,” in Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995), 221.

[11]Susan J. Napier, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 154.

[12]Donald Richie, The Image Factor: Fads & Fashions in Japan (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2003), 58.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Lisa Coulthard, “Killing Bill: Rethinking Feminism and Film Violence,” in Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 163.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Mighty_Emperor, “New Japanese Gore Films,” IMDb.com, created on October 5, 2011, http://www.imdb.com/list/IRI4DX5uI2o/ (accessed Nov 15, 2013).

[17]Pam Cook, “Film Culture: ‘Exploitation’ Films and Feminism,” Screen 17, no. 2 (1976): 122.

[18]Leon Hunt, “Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur: Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson,” in East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, ed. Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 220-36.

[19]Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters (London: Wallflower, 2003). 

[20]Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2011), 121.

[21]Ard Vijn, “IFFR 2011: An Interview with NOBORU IGUCHI,” Twitchfilm.com, posted February 7, 2011. http://twitchfilm.com/2011/02/iffr-2011-an-interview-with-noboru-iguchi.html (accessed November 26, 2013).

[22]Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012), 15.

[23]Ibid., 28-9

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25]Elliot Gay, “Interview: Sushi Typhoon Founder Yoshinori Chiba,” Scifijapan.com, posted November 18, 2010, http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2010/11/18/interview-sushi-typhoon-founder-yoshinori-chiba/(accessed September 30, 2013).

[26] Ibid.

[27]Jay Seaver, “Mutant Girls Squad,” Efilmcritic.com, originally posted August 21, 2010, http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20849&reviewer=371 (accessed October 1, 2013).

[28]Rob Lammle, “What to Watch – 12/23/2011,” WeLoveCult.com, posted December 23, 2011, http://www.welovecult.com/2011/review/watch-12232011/ (accessed November 26, 2013).

[29]Judge Paul Pritchard, “DVD Verdict Review – Helldriver,” DVDVerdict.com, posted November 22, 2011, http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/helldriverr2.php (accessed November 26, 2013).

[30]Bruce Kawin, “After Midnight,” in The Cult Film Experience, ed. JP Telotte (Austin: UTP, 1991), 19.

[31]Matt Hills, The Pleasures of Horror, (London: Continuum, 2005), 14.

[32] Ibid., 16.

[33] Ibid., 17.

[34]Gaylyn Studlar, “Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse,” in The Cult Film Experience, ed. JP Telotte (Austin: UTP, 1991), 139.

[35] Ibid.

[36]Jason Gorber, “Review: THE ABCS OF DEATH Encourages Letter Skipping,” Twitch.com, posted March 13, 2013, http://twitchfilm.com/2013/03/review-the-abcs-of-death.html (accessed November 26, 2013).

[37]B. Alan Orange, “F is for Fart: Exclusive The ABCs of Death Interview with Noboru Iguchi,” MovieWeb.com, posted January 13, 2013, http://www.movieweb.com/news/f-is-for-fart-exclusive-the-abcs-of-death-interview-with-noboru-iguchi (accessed November 22, 2013).

[38] Ibid.

[39]Michelle Ann Abate, “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 42, no. 4 (2009): 601-2.

[40] Ibid., 602.

[41]Kinsella, 251.

[42]Ryan Turek, “Tune in to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Zombie TV,” ShockTillYouDrop.com, posted November 25, 2013. http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/340665-tune-in-to-yoshihiro-nushimuras-zombie-tv/ (accessed November 27, 2013).

[43]Janis Udris, “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” (PhD diss., University of Warwick, 1988), 168.

[44]Alex DiGiovanna, “Fantasia 2012: Interview with ‘Dead Sushi’ Director Noboru Iguchi and Star Rina Takeda,” MovieBuzzers.com, posted on July 31, 2012, http://moviebuzzers.com/film-festival-coverage/fantasia-2012-interview-dead-sushi-director-noboru-iguchi-star-rina-takeda (accessed November 22, 2013).

[45]Todd Brown, “Yoshihiro Nishimura Talks TOKYO GORE POLICE!,” Twitchfilm.com, posted June 25, 2008, http://twitchfilm.com/2008/06/yoshihiro-nishimura-talks-tokyo-gore-police.html (accessed November 22, 2013).

[46]Rupert Bottenberg, “Bushido Man,” Fantasiafestival.com, http://www.fantasiafestival.com/2013/en/films-schedule/10/bushido-man (accessed October 1, 2013).

[47]Walkow, Marc. “The Sushi Typhoon.” http://sushityphoon.blogspot.com.au/ (accessed January 14, 2014).

[48]Peter K., “Fantasia 2012 Review: DEAD SUSHI,” Twitchfilm.com, posted July 24, 2012, http://twitchfilm.com/2012/07/fantasia-2012-dead-sushi.html (accessed October 10, 2013).

 

Bio: Jessica Hughes is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Her dissertation focuses on Western perceptions of graphic violence and otherness in Asian Extreme cinema. She received her MA in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her article “In the Bathhouse” was published in The University of British Columbia’s Cinephile (“The Scene,” 5.2) and articles on the ‘postmodern vampire’ have appeared in Image & Text and Cross-Cultural Studies journal. She was also editor-in-chief for Cinephile (“Sound on Screen,” 6.1) in 2010.

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

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

Introduction

The Brood (1979)

The Brood (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

What are Memes?

The Brood (1979)

The Brood (1979)

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

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

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

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

Videodrome: The Video Word Made Flesh

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

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

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

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

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

 

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

Naked Lunch: Exterminate all Rational Thought

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

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

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

eXistenZ: Death to Realism

EXistenZ

eXistenZ (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ (1999)

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

Conclusion

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Abstract

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

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: The opening image of the sinister wheelchair.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:


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

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

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

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

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Filmography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bio

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