Volume 26


  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith



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

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

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptation, simplification, and transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation and the child’s eye view

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paratexts, intertexts, and the complex world of Frankenweenie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Films cited

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

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

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

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

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



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

Volume 24, 2014


Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volume 24, 2014

Themed Issue: Intermediations

Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract: Digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and relating to others and this has fundamental consequences for being and for meaning. In this paper I map the development of concepts of intermediality and transmediality that are used to describe textual practice and audience engagement in order to explore these changes to communication practice. At the same time I explore the new kinds of audience engagement enabled by this technology, which includes active participation in the reconstruction of older narratives in new media and the potential this affords for new meanings. It also includes the dissemination of stories, old and new, across multiple platforms by both makers and audiences, who themselves become makers, and the proliferation of stories and meanings this enables. Finally I consider the possibilities for co-creationmy hardware, your software (or vice-versa)which can enable new forms of sharing and mutual knowledge-formation.

Sherlock (BBC, 2010-- )

Sherlock (BBC, 2010– )

1. On thinking about inter- and trans-

The research for this paper led me through a range of ideas and arguments about the meanings of intermediation and transmediation, as well as their relationship to intertextuality (for example, Bakhtin 1984; Jenkins 2006; Herzogenrath 2012; Stein and Busse 2012; Phillips 2012). It led me to think about a multiplicity of texts that are all inter in some way—either intertextually related texts and the kinds of meanings they make or intermediated narratives that tell their story across a range of media and platforms—and about texts, producers and audiences that are most definitely trans—deploying a range of media and platforms to create a composite and complex world, engage with that world, and generate new meanings. This textual multiplicity in the contemporary media environment in turn raised questions about what has caused or generated these differing ways of telling a story and what is the significance of these different modes of story-telling: whether this reflects simply a change in technology (if that is ever truly simple) or if that change has consequences that move far beyond the material technologies involved—the material artefacts and related communication practices—to our ways of thinking and of being in the world.

My argument is that digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and relating to others and that this has fundamental consequences for being and for meaning. Further, we are only just starting to realise the possibilities and potential offered by this technology for new forms of relationship, knowledge creation and sharing. I work through these possibilities by reference to a range of texts that were suggested by my research and which recur in discussions of these new modes of story-telling and text production. My interest is not only in digital texts themselves, but also in the new forms of engagement they offer to readers, viewers and listeners to become active producers or makers of meaning alongside the creators of the work. This engagement includes our participation in the reconstruction of older narratives in new media and the potential this affords for new meanings; the dissemination of stories, old and new, across multiple platforms by both makers and audiences, who themselves become makers, and the proliferation of stories and meanings this enables; and finally the possibilities for co-creation—my hardware, your software (or vice-versa)—which can enable new forms of sharing and mutual knowledge-formation.

This exploration of shared storytelling and textual production occurs through my engagement with the theory used by media and cultural analysts to understand transformations in creativity, knowledge-formation and being. This work includes the concepts of intermediation, which explores the possibilities opened up by new media and focuses on the textual practices that enable new forms of audience engagement, and transmediation, which also explores the effect of new technologies on meaning-making but shifts its focus from textual practice to audience response. This is a subtle shift as both concepts essentially study the same phenomena (including both textual practice and audience responses), but it mirrors what Henry Jenkins called the development of ‘convergence culture’: “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” (2006, 2). As I will go on to argue, this convergence, this sharing of and linking via new media technologies, has the potential to transform our experience of the world and, along with that, our formation of knowledge and fundamental understandings of being.

2. The Consulting Detective and The Doctor

My first thought when beginning this paper was to use the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) version of Sherlock (2010-) as my example of intermediation. One of the things that attracted me to this text was that it re-tells Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories in such a fresh and engaging way, not only through the revised characterisations of its principals (Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Moriarty, Mycroft) and the rapid editing and visual layering of the mise-en-scène that creates 21st century London as the technological and social successor to Conan Doyle’s 19th century industrial London, but also by the re-framing of familiar narratives to make them directly relevant to contemporary British society. For example, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) is re-written by Mark Gatiss as “The Hounds of Baskerville” (2012), a story about experiments with nerve agents and genetic mutation at a United Kingdom military base. The story focuses around a local man, Henry Knight who, as a child, saw his father torn apart by a giant hound on Dartmoor, near the Baskerville military establishment. Fear of the hound is produced not, as in the original story, by phosphorescence painted onto a large dog (though the local innkeepers have a large dog that they used to spread the ‘giant hound’ story to tourists), but by a hallucinogenic drug that is released into the air by nerve pads buried in a certain part of the nearby moors. We eventually discover that Knight’s father was killed accidentally when he wandered into the test area for these nerve pads. Under the influence of the air-borne toxin, Knight tripped and hit his head on a rock while attempting to run away from Baskerville scientist, Robert Frankland, who was wearing a gas mask and so appeared monstrous. The young Henry Knight witnessed his father’s accidental death but under the influence of the nerve toxin transformed the memory into the story of the giant hound, suggested to him by the initials H.O.U.N.D. on Franklin’s jumper.

Gatiss’s story uses elements of Conan Doyle’s original but reworks them into a contemporary story about the development of chemical and biological weapons and their production within an environment of secrecy that puts citizens’ lives at risk. The main characters (Sherlock Holmes [Benedict Cumberbatch], Dr Watson [Martin Freeman], Mycroft Holmes [Mark Gatiss] and Inspector Lestrade [Rupert Graves]) are also developed further in this story, including exploration of Sherlock’s ambiguous sexuality and his relationship with Watson, which is mapped explicitly onto the gay relationship of the local innkeepers. It is an engaging tale for the Conan Doyle enthusiast as it preserves the central motif of the narrative—the ghostly hound—but finds a way of re-presenting it that changes the story from one about evil aristocrats (the original Baskerville and his ruthless treatment of the local peasants) and modern greed (a villainous descendent of the original attempting to kill the successor to the title so that he inherits the family fortune) to one about weapons of mass destruction and government secrecy. It also presents a different ‘take’ on the sexuality of Holmes (also explored in the recent films directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson [2009, 2011]), opening up the possibility that he is either gay or bisexual whereas Conan Doyle presents Holmes as relatively asexual.[1] This re-working of the story and its characters constitutes the text as more than a period adaptation of Conan Doyle’s story, set in the late Victorian period with Holmes and Watson inhabiting the world of brougham cabs and steam trains. So is this an example of intertextuality or intermediality, with the literary creation of Conan Doyle cast as another text or medium that incorporates audience engagement with the story?

Perhaps the most obvious answer here is that this re-casting of the Holmes story is an example of intermediality, defined in an early essay by Dick Higgins as generated by “the desire to fuse two or more existing media” (1966). Berndt Herzogenrath notes, however, that Higgins saw intermediality not as the final text but as “‘the uncharted land that lies between’ … different media” (2012, loc. 129-142).[2] The intermediality generated by the Sherlock re-visioning of The Hound of the Baskervilles enables the presentation of different meanings (about weapons production and secrecy) while maintaining the bones of the original narrative (about the abuse of power and the production of fear). Herzogenrath notes that in Image-Music-Text (1977) Roland Barthes related intermediality to interdisciplinarity, which occurs:

… when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down—perhaps even violently, via the jolts of fashion—in the interests of a new object and a new language neither of which has a place in the field of the sciences that were to be brought peacefully together, this unease in classification being precisely the point from which it is possible to diagnose a certain mutation. (loc. 129)

This disciplinary transformation might seem a heavy burden to place on Sherlock, however it is certainly the case that this production of The Hound of the Baskervilles in a different medium tells different stories and interrogates different aspects of everyday life (military activity, government control, sexual identity) from Conan Doyle’s original. Moreover, as discussed further below, Mark Gatiss’s revision of The Hound of the Baskervilles might be seen as Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in practice with Gatiss’ story constituting another voice/telling that reiterates some original narrative elements whilst adding some and transforming others.

Jeremy Brett as/in Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)

Jeremy Brett as/in Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)

From a contemporary perspective the transfer from literary text to television may not seem a case of disciplinary violence, however, some time ago it did. When television was younger and literature was a canonical art form, the production of a literary work as a television program led inevitably to discussions of what was ‘lost’ by the transfer to such an ‘impoverished’ medium. It is only far more recently that we have understood that an intermediated work is offering something new and different, unconstrained by the disciplinary shackles of the past. This realisation enables Sherlock to be written as a contemporary series, while retaining characteristics of its Victorian predecessor—as distinct, for example, from the older BBC series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett (1984-1994) that retained the Victorian setting for the stories. This successful relocation of the narrative for Sherlock depends on viewers being able to read across media platforms without the disciplinary blinkers of an earlier time; they no longer consider the narrative confined to a particular space/time as defined by the originary text. Instead, as regular consumers of postmodern pastiche, they adjust their reading practice for the complex network of intertextual references and narrative transpositions that constitutes this contemporary Sherlock.

This is more than simply a change in forms of entertainment or the emergence of new technologies. This radical unhooking of the narrative from its original space/time and the ability to read the stories for a different age, with different values and different concerns, is characteristic of the specificity and locatedness (sometimes read as relativism) of postmodernity. The postmodern producer appreciates the origin of textual forms and practices and is able to re-mediate them in order to make new meanings for a new time. Similarly, the postmodern consumer is able to appreciate the multiplicity of (textual) voices that constitute their world, and is not constrained to one major or canonical form of textual address as the bearer of cultural value. This is a reflexive consumer who maps networks of meaning extending beyond the confines of a specific text and its world; the viewer of The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) who knows to ‘follow the white rabbit’ to a looking-glass world that is our own world, and yet is not.

One of the means by which this reflexive writing and viewing practice has been understood is through the concept of intertextuality—used to describe the practice of referencing from one text to another via a character, icon, event or interaction, along with the meanings associated with that reference. Based on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin who saw every text as the premise for and related to every other text, via the heteroglossia (different voices) that constitute(s) our world, intertextuality is a way of mapping the complexity of communication practices and the meanings they convey, along with the impossibility of exerting total control over the meanings associated with a particular utterance (1984, 278). Intertextuality is about meaning and its constant deferral (in Derrida’s terms) not just the appearance of story elements in different texts. So intermediality acknowledges the use of different media or platforms to convey a specific narrative while intertextuality is a way of exploring the meanings constructed.

One way of mapping the possible meanings generated by viewer engagement with (intermediated) texts—including their constant deferral of meaning—is through the notion of genre, since this is the way that we typically classify texts in order to render them accessible. In a sense genre imposes order on the chaotic heteroglossia of our world so that it does not become an incomprehensible Babel in which each individual is isolated by a wholly idiosyncratic reading/viewing/meaning-making practice. Not only does genre identify the conventions or characteristics shared by the texts that we recognise as similar and so enable us to trace their history, it also identifies the kinds of issues commonly addressed by those texts. Science fiction, for example, commonly addresses the relationship between human beings and their technology, how technology influences our lives and even the fundamental nature of human being. This is evident in science fiction works such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and The Matrix (1999), both of which explore how we deploy technology and what this tells us about ourselves. And this exploration of identity and technology has its roots in what is commonly regarded the first science fiction text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ([1818] 1982), written at the height of the first Industrial Revolution in western societies, when steam power had transformed work practices and social relationships, obliterating older forms of labour and the classes who performed it and reconstructing society into new classes. This industrial context may not be explicit in every reference to Frankenstein but it echoes through portrayals of the angry, sad and abandoned creature and his deluded creator, who become the robots/androids of today and us, their sometimes deluded or unaware creators and users.

Sherlock and Moriarty

Moriarty and Sherlock

One of the striking features of Sherlock is its stylistic similarity to Doctor Who, generated by the visual aesthetic, costuming, editing, and the enigmatic and manic main character, Sherlock/The Doctor and his mirror self, Moriarty/The Master. This might seem unsurprising given that the same creative team is responsible for both programs; writers, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss devised the idea for Sherlock on the train to Wales to work on Doctor Who (which is produced in Cardiff). However, that fact does not explain the resulting program and its success. A generic analysis of the two series is suggestive, showing that both science fiction (Doctor Who) and detective fiction (Sherlock) have their story-telling roots in Gothic fiction, which was preoccupied with questions about being, the nature of the real, the nature of good and evil, and the dual (good/evil) nature of humanity. In science fiction those concerns are directed to an exploration of our relationship with new technologies, as discussed above.

The Doctor and The Master

The Doctor and The Master

Detective fiction focuses on the nature of knowing, personified in the detective, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant investigator, C. Auguste Dupin in stories the author described as “tales of ratiocination” (2010). Dupin employs a version of the scientific method (involving observation and analysis) leavened with imagination, which enables him to look beyond the obvious. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is even more scientific in his practice, but with the same disdain for conventional ways of thinking. This deployment of scientific method in order to solve social (rather than scientific) problems focuses attention on the process of knowledge formation (how we know and understand our world and each other) and its role in our understanding of morality (whether good and evil are easily identified) and of being (whether human beings are simply good or evil). The contemporary BBC Sherlock continues this tradition of the scientific detective informed by an eccentric imagination that enables him to step outside conventionalised patterns of thought and assumption.

Intertextually, Doctor Who and Sherlock share the Gothic preoccupation with interrogating the nature of being and of knowledge, which is evident in some shared generic conventions and preoccupations, though each also has other specific interests—technology (science fiction), the social construction of good and evil (detective fiction). The value of intertextuality is that it enables us to see how these texts are constituted by the kinds of meanings they are making. It allows us to understand why two genres that we now consider quite different can have shared ontological and epistemological preoccupations, because of a common generic ancestor.

Like intertextuality, intermediality is about textual practice. We saw above that the interdisciplinarity that was generated by the postmodern recognition of diversity and difference (and hence the rejection of certainty, grand narratives and canonical textuality) enabled the production of a Sherlock that is not a period drama but a contemporary construct, telling stories of today’s world. At the same time, as the brief intertextual study of genre shows, it also deploys a conventional detective with an eccentric mix of scientific method and artistic creativity whose ‘ratiocination’ at times leads him to find villainy not in evil individuals, but in the government and its representatives. Intermediality is useful for mapping that kind of practice, where a narrative devised in one medium is transposed into another where it deploys meanings enabled by its original production, but also produces new and different meanings that are generated via this transposition.

3. Spirituality and stained glass

The stained glass windows in Christian churches deploy a similar practice, taking stories from one medium (the Biblical word of God) and realising them in another medium (coloured glass). Interestingly the windows feature a complex iconography that would appeal to the modern gamer, with icons emblematic of values and ideas that cluster around the central theme and its story arc but open up depths of spiritual meaning. One reading of these windows is that they told these stories for illiterate peasants who had no access to written versions of biblical tales. Roger Homan notes: “The great transept window at Canterbury known as the Biblia Pauperium (poor person’s bible), for example, depends upon an extensive visual vocabulary of symbols and an awareness of the supposed theological links between the biblical scenes featured in adjacent panels” (2005). In this way the windows acted as a point of meditation for the viewer, recalling the story and its religious significance. Homan notes also that many scholars believe that preachers used the windows as a reference point in sermons, especially those delivered in the vernacular of the uneducated. They could literally point to the visual representation of the story and explain their exegesis, so that later viewings of the window would recall not only the details of the story but its religious significance.

In his study, Religious Art in France XIII Century (1913) Émile Mâle begins by noting:

To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know—the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts—all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch. (vii)

Mâle goes on to explain that this art is not easily decipherable to the modern viewer who may mistake elements of the works as purely figurative, bringing a momentary pleasure to the eye. By contrast: “In mediæval art every form clothes a thought; one could say that thought works within the material and animates it” (viii). Roger Homan adds to this an appreciation of the role of the material used in the art-work:

But there are properties of coloured glass that are of deeply spiritual significance and have been recognized by, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius in the first century and Bishop Grosseteste in the thirteenth. We view not an image but the light beyond which it mediates for us. The image owes its life to that ultimate light. This sense is much keener than it is in respect of the reflection of light upon opaque surfaces. The stained glass image is therefore like an ikon: we are not to look at it but through it. (2005)

If we regard the stained glass window as an intermediated presentation of religious and spiritual concepts and stories, then Homan’s analysis leads us directly to the point of intermediation—the light generated by the glass, which is as critical to the meanings of the windows as the images and icons created. Homan speaks of the role of the stained glass as being “to sedate light”: “A stained glass window slows us down; it inclines us to proceed reverently and lower our voices” (2005). The sensory effect of the coloured light produced by the windows is to remove viewers from the everyday world, locating them in an otherworldly space in which to contemplate religious mysteries and spiritual truths. This is surely the essence of the intermedial experience, not a translation from one art form to another, but a transformation of being and knowing generated by the (sensory) engagement of the viewer. Again note that although intermediality does address the effect on viewers of a particular form of text, its focus is on textual practice rather than audience interaction. Which is to say, the concept of intermediality tends to address primarily the ways in which the text positions the viewer, rather than the multiple active engagements of viewers.

4.   Boba Fett, children’s television and transmediality

The term that seems to best capture the active engagement of audiences or consumers of contemporary texts is transmediality. Henry Jenkins popularised this term in his influential study, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, first published in 2006. Writing about the Matrix phenomenon that had recently developed through the Wachowskis’ interrelated films, games and online comics, Jenkins identifies the work as transmedia storytelling as follows:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinct and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice-versa. (loc. 1974)

This directly confronts older canonical notions of the text as a bounded entity, with the roles of the reader, viewer or listener being to unlock the meaning of that text. Instead it acknowledges the active role of the consumer (who moves between these different media) in creating story and generating meaning that is implicit in the notion of intertextuality. However, this is a different consumer from the medieval worshipper, and the key to that difference is the accessibility of a range of media.

Some thirty years ago, as a creative consultant to a network television producer of children’s programming, my job was to construct the world of a particular television program. Like Lucas’s enormously influential Star Wars series it was set in a different space—a set of planets orbiting a small star, each with their own names and characteristics. I no longer remember the details of the exercise but the project report was about forty pages long, and detailed everything a child might want to know about living on that planet. The aim of the exercise was to create a world that all the separate sequences of the program—games, stories, cartoons, write-in quizzes, the club—could refer back to, so that the show maintained a basic coherence. We wanted our viewers to feel at home in that universe, to feel a sense of engagement and belonging.

Lucasfilm led the way with this kind of world-formation by marketing a series of products that not only capitalised on viewers’ responses to the films, but also provided them with the tools to repeat and enhance that experience imaginatively. And, as Jenkins noted in Convergence Culture, Lucas did not simply endlessly repeat the story of the movie: “When Star Wars went to games, those games didn’t just enact film events; they showed what life would be like for a Jedi trainee or bounty hunter” (2006, loc. 2172). Later in the same chapter Jenkins notes that Lucas found that the value of developing toys based on secondary characters was that they might take on a life of their own: “Boba Fett eventually became the protagonist of his own novels and games and played a much larger role in the later films” (loc. 2273).

Again we might argue that this has happened before, with stories based on earlier texts that expand their imaginary world, including some based on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: for example, Nicholas Meyer’s novel Seven-Per-Cent Solution ([1974] 1993) presents a back-story to Holmes’ addiction to cocaine (the novel was made into a film of the same name in 1976). What is new, however, is both the number of different media to which consumers have access and the degree to which they can engage with those media. Jenkins quotes Janet Murray’s assessment of the ‘“encyclopedic capacity’ of digital media, which she thinks will lead to new narrative forms as audiences seek information beyond the limits of the individual story” (2006, loc. 2283). Jenkins goes on to argue that, unlike some critics, he does not see this as leading to the death of narrative: “Rather, we are seeing the emergence of new story structures, which create complexity by expanding the range of narrative possibility rather than pursuing a single path with a beginning, middle, and end” (loc. 2323). Of course, it is crucial to know who is developing these new stories and how they relate to the original text.

If we use the example of the Matrix franchise, the whole massive narrative edifice stayed effectively in the control of the Wachowskis. For some viewers it was too complex to try to follow its development and they found the films increasingly difficult to understand, whilst the more dedicated fans were unhappy with the Wachowskis’ attempts to explain every aspect of their narrative, as Jenkins documents (2006, loc. 2436-2446). A fine line exists between the authorial control required to maintain the integrity of the narrative and the dictation of detail that closes down the engagement of the audience. Andrea Phillips discusses this in her practical introduction, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (2012). She argues “the most effective tool is to actually create a small piece of your world and give it to your audience to play with” (41).

Phillips’ description of transmediality is subtly different from that of Jenkins, perhaps because of their different roles (Jenkins as critic and theorist, Phillips as maker). In her role as storyteller Phillips is concerned not to shut out the audience, so describes her world-building in a way that prioritises audience engagement. In Chapter 8, “Writing for Transmedia Is Different” Phillips notes that “we’ll be concentrating mainly on the requirements of telling a single, highly fragmented story across multiple platforms, and most particularly across digital platforms—you might call it social media storytelling as much as transmedia. That’s because this is where the methods of traditional single-platform or flat narratives become inadequate” (74-75). She goes on to explain this distinction in terms of the strategies used to enable the world of the narrative to be expanded by the audience: “Transmedia storytelling is an exercise in open-ended storytelling, boundless where a traditional single-medium story is finite” (75). Phillips explains that the storyteller should suggest to the audience that the world of the narrative includes more stories than the one that they have been given (75).

As noted earlier, one of the great successes of Star Wars is that its narrative is not confined to a specific set of incidents, rather the narrative contains the seeds of many other stories, featuring characters such as Boba Fett whose role in the core narrative is relatively minor but has the potential for new storytelling and world-building. By contrast, die-hard Matrix fans were disappointed when the Wachowskis attempted to lock down the meanings of the trilogy to a specific story by resolving the mystery, leaving little scope for imaginative retellings by fans. Instead Phillips notes the value of deliberately leaving loose ends that might become the source of new stories, which directly contradicts conventional advice given to writers. Though she also notes that these narrative possibilities have to be executed judiciously so that you do not “accidentally create narrative expectations that never achieve any kind of payoff” (76). Hence her earlier point about the importance of a clear story arc: “It is especially important in transmedia to have a plot that goes from beginning to end before you launch” (57). Another strategy to enhance narrative openness is “to create story elements in one medium that have their payoffs in another medium” (78), such as a game based on a film. All of this has to be achieved in relation to the basic premise with which she opens the study: “every single element of a transmedia story has to be fulfilling a narrative purpose, without exception” (40-41). And as she notes the aim of transmedia storytelling, as well as the marketers who use it, is engagement: “Transmedia storytelling can provide more engagement and more potential points of sale for any given story, and when it’s done well, each piece can effectively become a promotional tool pointing toward every other piece of the whole” (39). Every strategy used by the storyteller, therefore, should be about giving the audience “things to do, not just things to consume” (117).

Phillips’ Guide addresses textual practice directly in relation to audience or consumer engagement, though Phillips also stresses the need for a critical understanding of textuality (63). This engagement is the both the reason for transmedia production (to sell products, to tell a story) and the result of audience access to multiple media. As Phillips reiterates in her book, this engagement, and the textual openness that enables it, makes transmedia storytelling different from earlier forms of media narratives and audience-media relationships.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

5. The joy of discovery and the fossilised dolphin

I return here to Jenkins’ crucial insight in Convergence Culture, that this different form of storytelling, described so well by Phillips, and common to the popular culture that preoccupies most children, signifies a new way of being and knowing:

Our workplaces have become more collaborative; our political process has become more decentered; we are living more and more within knowledge cultures based on collective intelligence. Our schools are not teaching what it means to live and work in such knowledge communities but popular culture may be doing so. (2006, loc. 2477)

For Jenkins this makes literacy training for children essential so that they can “develop the skills needed to become full participants in their culture” (loc. 5295), as Phillips argued when she stressed the need to be critical. The joy of transmedia engagement is that of discovery, of finding a way to contribute to the meanings of a text through your own creativity so that your stories are woven into that ever-expanding composite text. As Jenkins notes, however, this is more than a solitary venture. It is about being able to collaborate with others and to contribute to a collective venture without feeling a loss of individual achievement.

Digital technology has enabled this kind of sharing on an extraordinary scale—whether through kids playing games online with others across the globe, researchers collaborating on a project across cities, countries or continents or fans world-wide expanding a beloved narrative. It is also evident in the ways that older media such as radio and television use online resources to expand their research, engage their audiences, and incorporate audience responses and knowledge into their broadcast formats. Museums and libraries too are sharing resources and inviting visitors to become part of the knowledge-production for the institution. For example, by checking the digitisation of older manuscripts and newspapers for verisimilitude. On the one hand, this reflects economic necessity and the poor resourcing of many public institutions. On the other hand, it creates a wholly different, expanded knowledge base for the library, an enhanced level of engagement for visitors. Effectively, this visitor/user involvement changes the nature of the library from that of a central authority giving access to knowledge to a collaborative, creative, knowledge-building project. In December 2013 the British Library released an archive of over 1,000,000 images onto Flickr Commons for free use and reproduction. Dan Colman reported in Open Culture (2013):

The librarians behind the project freely admit that they don’t exactly have a great handle on the images in the collection. They know what books the images come from. (For example, the image above comes from Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y islas de Tierra Firme, 1867.) But they don’t know much about the particulars of each visual. And so they’re turning to crowdsourcing for answers. In fairly short order, the Library plans to release tools that will let willing participants gather information and deepen our understanding of everything in the Flickr Commons collection.

Many other libraries and art galleries around the world have released part of their archives to open access and at the same time invite visitors to join them in becoming producers of knowledge.

Recently the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. announced Smithsonian X 3D, a web portal that enables visitors to use the museum’s 3D scans of artefacts to build their own models using 3D printers. Günter Waibel, Director of the Digitization Program Office, explains:

These projects indicate that this new technology has the potential not only to support the Smithsonian mission, but to transform museum core functions. Researchers working in the field may not come back with specimens, but with 3D data documenting a site or a find. Curators and educators can use 3D data as the scaffolding to tell stories or send students on a quest of discovery. Conservators can benchmark today’s condition state of a collection item against a past state—a deviation analysis of 3D data will tell them exactly what changes have occurred. All of these uses cases are accessible through the Beta Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, as well as videos documenting the project. For many of the 3D models, raw data can be downloaded to support further inquiry and 3D printing.

And he concludes:

With only 1% of collections on display in Smithsonian museum galleries, digitization affords the opportunity to bring the remaining 99% of the collection into the virtual light. All of these digital assets become the infrastructure which will allow not just the Smithsonian, but the world at large to tell new stories about the familiar, as well as the unfamiliar, treasures in these collections.

This venture confirms many of Jenkins’ earlier predictions about how digital technologies will change our ways of producing knowledge. One of the artefacts currently available is the fossilised skull of an unknown species of dolphin, found in rocks that are 6-7 million years old. The Smithsonian X 3D website now supplies the software and instructions to print your own 3D copy of the skull. Even though this will not be the original skull, the value of a tactile engagement with the reproduction should not be underestimated. As a number of recent studies have argued (see Classen 2005, 2012; Howes 2005; Chatterjee 2008; Candlin 2010; Cranny-Francis 2013) tactile contact, indeed all kinds of sensory engagement, generate bodily responses that in turn produce new ways of knowing and understanding an object and our relationship to it. By sharing these knowledges, we learn more about not only the objects, but also ourselves.

6. Conclusion

The terms intertextuality, intermediality and transmediality map the development of new communication technologies through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. They all effectively interrogate older canonical notions of textuality and of reading, as closed practices controlled by the author. Intertextuality was used to argue that texts have never been closed but part of an infinite conversation to which all texts contribute, and that each textual reading adds another voice to the conversation. Intermediality reflected the beginnings of popular access to multiple media, enabling users to explore the ways in a particular narrative or text may be transposed from one medium to another, expanding or enhancing the original story or idea. Transmediality is an articulation of convergence culture, whereby audiences are able easily to traverse and correlate a range of media in order to explore a complex and growing narrative or argument. The difference between intermediality and transmediality is not simply quantitative, however, it reflects a new way of understanding our relationship to texts, knowledge, and each other. It reflects, as Jenkins notes, the development of a collective knowledge culture in which collaboration is a key component of thinking and being. Further, the materials and practices that new technologies are making available, which incorporate bodily knowledges into this collaborative production of knowledge, presage new kinds of understanding and self-knowledge. As both Jenkins and Phillips argue above, the element required to leaven this heady mix is critical awareness—of the texts we produce and the meanings we make.



Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text: Essays Selected and Translated by Stephen Heath. Translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana.

Candlin, Fiona. 2010. Art, Museums and Touch. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Chatterjee, Helen, ed. 2008. Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Classen, Constance. 2012. The Deepest Sense: a Cultural History of Touch. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Classen, Constance, ed. 2005. The Book of Touch. Oxford: Berg.

Colman, Dan. 2013. “The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix.” Open Culture, December 1. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://www.openculture.com/2013/12/british-library-puts-1000000-images-into-public-domain.html.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. 1981. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” In The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, 669-768. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Cranny-Francis, Anne. 2013. Technology and Touch: the Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies. London: Palgrave.

Herzogenrath, Berndt, ed. 2012. Travels in Intermedia(lity): reblurring the boundaries. Kindle edition. Hanover, NH: Darmouth College Press.

Higgins, Dick. 1966. “Synaesthesia and Intersenses: Intermedia”, originally published in Something Else,Newsletter1, No.1 (Something Else Press). Accessed May 19, 2014. http://www.artesonoro.net/artesonoroglobal/intermedia.html.

Homan, Roger. 2005. “Who Looks on Glass? The Spiritual Significance of Stained Glass.” The Social Affairs Unit, August 3. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000536.php.

Homan, Roger. 2006. The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art and Architecture. Farnham: Ashgate.

Howes, David, ed. 2005. Empire of the Senses: the Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.

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

Lavigne, Carlen. 2012. “The Noble Bachelor and the Crooked Man: Subtext and Sexuality in the BBC’s Sherlock” in Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations.Kindle edition, edited by Lynette Porter, 13-23. London: McFarland & Company.

Mâle, Émile. 1913. Religious Art in France XIII Century: A Study in Mediaeval Iconography and Its Sources of Inspiration. Kindle edition. London: Dent.

Meyer, Nicholas. (1974) 1993. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. New York and London: W.W. Norton.

Phillips, Andrea. 2012. A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences Across Multiple Platforms.Kindle edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 2010. The Dupin Mysteries with The Gold Bug. London: Capuchin Classics.

Shelley, Mary. (1818) 1982. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, edited by Maurice Hindle. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Stein, Louisa Ellen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2012. Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Kindle edition. London: McFarland & Company.

Waibel, Günter. “About Smithsonian X 3D.” Smithsonian X 3D. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://3d.si.edu/about.



Cox, Michael. 1984-1994. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.London: BBC.

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Gatiss, Mark, and Moffat, Steven. 2010-. Sherlock. London: BBC.

Gatiss, Mark, and Moffat, Steven. “The Hounds of Baskerville.” Sherlock, series 2, episode 2. Original airdate 8 January 2012. London: BBC.

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Ritchie,Guy. 2009. Sherlock Holmes. USA: Warner Bros.

Ritchie,Guy. 2011. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. USA: Warner Bros.

Ross, Herbert. 1976. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. USA: Herbert Ross Productions, Universal Pictures.

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[1]Steven Moffat has been reported as saying that he sees Sherlock as asexual. However, the iconography used with Sherlock and the way in which his relationships with Watson and Moriarty (among others) are presented allow for the many fan readings of him as gay or bisexual—as Carlen Lavigne argues (2012).

[2]References to Kindle books are given as locations, unless the book also provides page numbers.

Bio: Anne Cranny-Francis is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. Her recent work includes ARC funded projects on the sense of touch and its deployment by new technologies, described in Technology and Touch: the Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies (Palgrave, 2013), and on ex-patriot Australian writer, Jack Lindsay.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll have one of those exotic cocktails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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


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

Abstract: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) has been celebrated as the first non-gratuitous use of 3-D: perfectly suited to revealing the interior of the cave and the naturalistic environment in which it is situated, as opposed to immersing the spectator within computer-generated artificial worlds. I will dispute this reading of the film, describing its use of stereoscopy as instead expressive of an anti-naturalistic ecstatic gestalt by appeal to Ágnes Pethő’s concept of intermediality and the film phenomenology of Vivian Sobchack. Moreover, I will read the figural tropes generated through the film’s use of stereoscopy through George Bataille’s analysis of the emergence of human consciousness, which I argue reciprocates a key thematic of Herzog’s filmmaking.


Figure 1: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Figure 1: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)


This essay began with the desire to read the use of “3D” stereoscopic imagery in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) as an expression of one of the film’s central themes: the enigmatic consciousness of those early humans who left their renderings and cultural artifacts in the Chauvet cave in southern France. Indeed, the film, and Herzog as narrator, both reflect on the cave paintings as a form of proto-cinema, and reciprocally upon cinema as an analog of primitive consciousness. In its reflexive layering of media forms and metaphors between the bookends of what Herzog claims to be the oldest know examples of human representation and the most current cinematic technologies, the film engages in what Ágnes Pethő, in her book Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between (2011), describes as elaborate forms of mirroring characteristic of “abysmal intermediality”. For Pethő, intermedial confrontations open onto an in-between space (or abyme) that transcends medium specificity but instead foregrounds the embodied situations that negotiate them. In this respect, intermedial analysis has phenomenological implications, in relation to which, like Pethő’s own work, I will invoke the film theory of Vivian Sobchack. In describing the structure of the particular abyme onto which Cave opens, I will also draw upon Georges Bataille’s anthropological speculations about the co-emergence of human consciousness, tool use and the order of things to reflect upon the meaning of the particular correlation in which the film configures spectator, object and world, which I will elaborate as its ecstatic gestalt.

Intermediality and Phenomenology

For Pethő, what differentiates intermediality from intertextuality, as well as from more closely related theories of remediation, is the former’s emphasis on embodiment as the primary axis of analysis. As she asserts: “While in intertextuality we have an object that dissolves into its relations, in cinematic intermediality we seem to have moved closer to … a quasi-palpable, corporeal entity in its intermedial density” (2011, 47). In other words, the intermedial resides at the intersections among the embodied situations implicated both by the different media invoked within a given film, and the specific embodied situation of the spectator. She argues further, that as a result of it’s irreducibly embodied nature, “the intermedial cannot be read, at least not in any conventional way that we understand reading … because it is not textual in nature” (67). She continues: “It is not something one ‘deciphers’, it is something one perceives or senses” (68). This assertion involves some contentious assumptions regarding the relationship between embodiment and signification in the context of Pethő’s adaptation of Sobchack’s phenomenology. I’ll return to this issue towards the end of the essay, as it will be exemplified in the analysis that follows. However, I want to assert from the outset that notwithstanding this concern, it is the general phenomenological commitment of Pethő’s theorisation of the intermedial that marks its particular applicability to Cave. Reciprocally, I hope that my reading of the film will also lend some clarification to an approach that is at times as vague as it is provocative. For as Pethő herself acknowledges, “the possible import of phenomenological approaches to film in the interpretation of cinematic intermediality has not been stressed enough…. The phenomenology of intermediality, although hinted at … is yet to be spelled out” (69).

As suggested above, such a “spelling out” must attend to the modalities of embodiment implicated in cinematic intermediality. On one hand, intermediality is itself predicated upon an understanding of film and other moving image based media as intrinsically expressive of situations of embodied consciousness. On the other hand, as Pethő points out: “‘reading’ intermedial relations requires more than anything else, an embodied spectator” (69). In elaborating both sides of this correlation, Pethő relies on Sobchack’s phenomenology of film experience: in the first instance her concept of “film’s body” (1992), and in the second her notion of the spectator as “cinesthetic subject” (2004).

According to Sobchack, “a film must constitute an act of seeing for us to be able to see it” (1992, 129). Insofar as “vision is an act that occurs from somewhere in particular; its requisites are both a body and a world” (25), an observation she applies “not only to the spectator of the film, but also to the film as spectator” (49). What she calls the “film’s body,” like our own bodies, is experienced primarily and prereflectively not as a visibly represented body-object, but as the implicit means of perceiving a visible world. She writes:

Each film projects and makes uniquely visible not only the objective world but the very structure and process of subjective, embodied vision—hitherto only directly available to human beings as the invisible and private structure we each experience as “my own”. (298)

Figure 2: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Figure 2: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

In this respect, the spectator’s own embodied situation functions as the common denominator through which the film’s body is made sensible and intelligible within a “double occupancy of vision” (260). As Sobchack argues, the fact that cinema communicates directly through sound and vision alone does not mean that the film experience is reduced to those channels of perception. Rather, through the phenomena of synaesthesia, the lived body automatically and prereflectively transcodes visual and auditory perceptions indirectly across the other sensory registers. In Cave this is most apparent in the way the proximate relation of the camera to the walls of the cave invokes the tactile qualities of the surface within the lived body of the spectator—as if touching through one’s eyes. The cinesthetic subject is thus neither disembodied—reduced to a transcendental gaze—nor is its experience of film equivalent to direct unmediated perception.

In qualifying this mingled “intermedial density” as “quasi-palbable”, Pethő seems to corroborate Sobchack’s point that the film’s body is never experienced as identical to that of the spectator, nor collapsed or conflated in experience. As she asserts, “I never merely ‘receive’ the film’s vision as my own … ” (271). While they might overlap and intersect in ways uniquely enabled by their intermediation, each still retains a mutual exteriority or otherness so essential to the preservation of that “in-between space” on which the intermedial relies. For Pethő it is precisely the unique openness of the film’s body to that of the spectator combined with the distinct differences between the two that marks the intermedial nature of film experience. She cites Jennifer Barker’s reflections on Sobchack’s phenomenology in this respect:

We exist—emerge really—in the contact between our body and the film’s body… a complex relationship that is marked as often by tension as by alignment…. so that the cinematic experience is the experience of being both “in” our bodies and “in” the liminal space created by that contact. (2009, 19)

What I will explore in this essay is how the use of stereoscopy in Cave of Forgotten Dreams augments this tension, both in relation to the embodied situation of the spectator and the embodied situations implicated by other medialities within the film.

Pethő is equally concerned with intermedial relations within film insofar as the incorporation of other media forms involves exchanges among the modes of embodiment implicated by each. In an article not mentioned by Pethő: “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic Presence” (2004), Sobchack prefigures this move as she traces how the “techno-logic” of each medium implicates a particular “phenomo-logic”:

Insofar as the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic have each been objectively constituted as a new and discrete techno-logic, each has also been subjectively incorporated, enabling a new and discrete perceptual mode of existential and embodied presence. (139)

For example, Sobchack describes a scene in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) where Deckard re-animates a photograph belonging to the replicant Leon through a fictional electronic device. She observes how “transmitted to the television screen, the moving images no longer quite retain the concrete, material and objective ‘thingness’ of the photograph, but they also do not achieve the subjective animation of the intentional and prospective vision objectively projected by the cinema” (154). Sobchack’s description of the transmuting force of this remediation anticipates the in-between status that Pethő attributes to the intermedial.

The example from Blade Runner is also indicative of the capacity of film’s body to generate other embodied situations as correlatives of the actual and speculative technologies represented and emulated within its fictional world. In Cave there are a peculiar series of shots, peppered throughout the film, in which scientists researching different aspects of the cave paintings each stand (either alone or with their partners) inside the cave while displaying a printed image of a painting towards the camera. Rather than taking on an enhanced appearance it is the anemic two-dimensionality of the displayed images that is accentuated in relation to the stereoscopically enhanced environment they occupy. While their affect is one of scientific seriousness, the intermedial figuration of these images within the stereoscopic world of the film offers no enhancement of the representational field within their frame, but instead serves to diminish both their objective presence and signifying power. It’s as if stereoscopy is being turned against representation to reverse the relations of containment between the remediated photos and their referents. The insertion of the two dimensional images within the stereoscopically augmented world of the film thereby exemplifies the “abysmal” power of the intermedial to figure one media element against the other as ground, so as to throw some limitation into relief (Pethő 2011, 44).

Pethő describes how intermediality can also generate traces or metaphors from other media that reflexively allegorise embodied situations within the film (65). In one instance, the film’s remediation of the digital image processing techniques of Tossello and Fritz, who in Herzog’s words “used the dimensionality of the surface to create a powerful contrast” by dissecting the palimpsest of marks on the walls (from bear scratches to rendered figures) into discrete layers, offers a reflexive model of his own use of stereoscopy to hold certain intermedial elements in suspension. In another example, the computer-generated model of the cave, a geometric structure of luminous pixels rotating within a blackened virtual space, quite literally turns the unfathomable negative space into a stereoscopic positive—an objective correlative for Sobchack’s description of the film’s body as subjective embodied vision turned inside out and made visible onscreen. However, in Cave the reversibility of film’s body finds itself at an impasse qua abyme relative to the consciousness of the cave painters, which according to Herzog’s voice-over, we “will never be able to understand”.

Figure 3: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Figure 3: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Stereoscopy and Documentary

One key advantage of Pethő’s account of intermediality as intercorporeality is that it bypasses reductively empirical and technologistic definitions of media specificity while restoring the phenomenological grounds for describing (without reifying) the experiential differences among media. For example, within the context of this study an intermedial approach aids in exploring the tensions between assumptions regarding stereoscopy, documentary, and Hollywood cinema that, according to Barbara Klinger, many of the critical celebrations of Cave of Forgotten Dreams have sought to neutralise. For instance, emphasis has been placed on the fact that “Cave … focused on a real-life marvel rather than a CGI-manufactured landscape” and that it was shot in 3-D as opposed to other films “converted in post-production and thus considered as ‘fake 3D’” (Klinger 2012, 38). On this basis the film is regarded as “one of the few justifiable recent excursions into 3D” (Hoberman 2011), “necessary” for revealing the interior of the cave and the natural environment in which it is situated (Klinger 2012, 38). It’s worth noting how the criteria of indexical documentary realism implicated in the aforementioned defenses of Cave, on the one hand, and the connotations of 3D with Hollywood spectacle, on the other, constitute a problem that must be resolved by these same critics through the recuperation of Cave’s “naturalism”.[1] However, such apologies ring false in the face of Herzog’s own rejection of the documentary tendency (of which he accuses Cinéma Vérité in particular) that “confounds fact and truth” (2002, 301). Instead, he insists that “there are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization” (301). Thus, “ecstatic truth … is the enemy of the merely factual” and a counterpart rather of the sublime (2010). The notions of media specificity that haunt the critical reception of the film also conspire to diminish what Pethő identifies as the productive tensions of the intermedial both within the film, and between film’s body and spectator. It is thus no surprise that the radical intermediality of Cave must be quelled in order to preserve a received sense of its “documentariness”.

Klinger herself is suspicious of this critical mobilisation of stereoscopic CGI in the Hollywood blockbuster as foil for Cave’s “naturalism”. As she writes:

Cave’s relationship to 3D is more paradoxical and interesting than such contrasts suggest…. In fact [the] film is [reflexively] as much about 3D as it is about its archaeological site…. [Specifically] the stylistic choices of deep focus cinematography (which presents foreground, middle ground, and background in focus) and a dynamically mobile camera help to wed spectacular natural phenomena and the spectacle of space. (39)

Her strategy is thus to argue that Cave transcends the presumed antagonism between the conventions of naturalism and spectacle qua stereoscopy by becoming reflexive in its spectacular naturalism. In so doing, Klinger responds to, but also reproduces, a tendency to understand stereoscopy as mimetically reflecting [or enhancing] structures and properties belonging to the objective world. Contrary to this tendency, and consistent with intermedial analysis I’d like to focus instead on the role of stereoscopy in its production of a mode of subjective embodied consciousness. In this context it is worth recalling Sobchack’s fundamental insight that any cinematic representation of a visible world entails the primarily invisible structuring presence of an embodied viewing subject—what she calls film’s body.

In pursuing the question of what structure of consciousness is manifested by the use of stereoscopy within Cave, one source for an answer can be found in Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer where he argues that the “lack of planar unity” in the nineteenth century stereoscope produced a fragmented observer quite distinct from the unified observer of the camera/photograph (1990, 128). I want to suggest that the reflexivity of Cave hinges upon a structurally analogous “structural/planar disunity of the perceptual field” (128) that prevails in normative cinematic experience, and a correlative fragmentation of the viewing subject/spectator (though to different effect). Following Crary’s account of the experience of stereoscopic photography, my analysis proceeds from a rejection of the naturalism ascribed to Herzog’s deployment of stereoscopy. Instead, I want to argue that the combination of stereoscopy with deep focus cinematography and camera movement (especially inside the cave), which Klinger refers to as “gold standards … of achieving ‘3Dness’” (2012, 40), often result in a hyperbolic space that exaggerates the separation of figure from ground towards the center of the frame while attenuating it at the peripheries through anamorphosis. The effect is especially amplified during instances of negative parallax (objects appearing to protrude through the screen) in addition to the film’s more persistent positive parallax (the appearance of supplementary depth behind the screen).[2] This emphatic demarcation of figure from ground produces what I describe as the film’s ecstatic gestalt. It is ecstatic in the double sense of ekstasis: as a literal standing out of figure from ground, and as the existential sense of what Herzog describes as “a person’s stepping out of himself into an elevated state” (2010). These two meanings of the ecstatic also relate to the two principle correlations within the gestalt: figure and ground within the perceptual field, and subject figured against the perceptual field as object of perception.

Figure 4: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Figure 4: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

I want to argue that stereoscopy exaggerates the configuration of figure/ground relations within the cinematic image that, according to Sobchack, provides the most fundamental expression of the intentional activity of the film’s body as viewing subject. As she writes: “perception—as an irreducible correlation of figure and ground—forms and organizes a perceptual field(1992, 70). In this respect, every relation of figure and ground implies the intentional activity of a viewing subject as an irreducible element within the gestalt (figured against the perceived world), whose literal and intentional movement reconstitutes the perceptual field, altering and potentially reversing the relation of figure and ground within it. Because this changing configuration of subject/figure/ground is accomplished by “the radical and prereflective deliberation of the body-subject” (Sobchack 1992, 70), we are typically unaware of the co-constituting force of our embodied intentionality, which remains latent to consciousness. However, for Crary this latency is counteracted in stereoscopic photography, which impressed upon consciousness the productive power of the apparatus/observer couplet as projective of dimensionality—experiencing it where it did not objectively exist: within the representational field of the two dimensional image (1990, 129). Or, as Martin Jay summarises: “its three-dimensional images were only in the perception of the viewer—the stereoscope called into question the assumed congruence between the geometry of the world and the natural geometry of the mind’s eye” (1994, 152).

The highly mobile camera in Cave redoubles this effect by associating the exaggeration of its stereoscopic demarcation of figure/ground with the intentional movements of a viewing subject rather than with some natural geometry inherent to the represented world. Put simply, the effect follows the movement of the camera, as in the three-hundred and sixty degree pan around the so-called “cave of the lions” where the sense of added stereoscopic depth, or positive parallax, fluctuates with the distortions of perspective caused by the rotation of deep focus cinematography within such a tight space. The awareness of stereoscopic perception as constituted by the visual subject is also reinforced inside the cave by the spotlight on Herzog’s helmet (or that of the camera person), which creates a sort of iris within the image that circumscribes a zone of greatest effect. Taken together, these representational strategies install a persistent reflective awareness of the productive power of the film’s stereoscopic body within the otherwise prereflectively constituted visual field.

The expressionism of this ecstatic gestalt is also critical to recognition of the intermedial fissures opened in-between the spectator and film’s body. Barker’s earlier remarks to this effect corroborate Sobchack’s argument that the “double occupancy” of the film experience also creates a potential site of tension since the film’s body “in its visible and visual intentional activity, exists within our vision but not as our vision” (1992, 142). As such, “in so far as the visual space I see before me is not completely isomorphic with the bodily space from which I see, there will be a pressure from, an echo of, the machine that mediates my perception” (179; original emphases). This phenomenon of “echo focus” takes on a persistent quality in Cave given that the 3D effect is unlike both non-stereoscopic film and the extra-cinematic space lived by the spectator. The ecstatic gestalt is thus experienced not just as a transformation of the ordinary dimensionality of film, but also of the quotidian three-dimensional world of the spectator.

The “inner landscape” of stereoscopy

Herzog refers to the cave paintings in voice-over as “inner landscapes … of long forgotten dreams”. The notion of an inner landscape is a potent phenomenological and intermedial metaphor which Eric Ames has analysed as exemplary of how Herzog’s representation of “[outer] landscapes serve to conjure unseen words of affect and spirituality, even as they represent the physical world we inhabit” (2009, 58). For example, in his voiceover narration for The Dark Glow of the Mountain (Werner Herzog, 1984), Herzog remarks: “We weren’t so much interested in making a film about mountain climbing per se, or about climbing techniques. What we wanted to find out was what goes on inside mountain climbers who undertake such extreme endeavors…. Aren’t these mountains and peaks like something deep within us all?” During Herzog’s voice-over the camera pans across the peaks and valleys of the range, providing what Ames describes as a “graphic representation” (58) of the affective highs and lows of the climbers’ inner landscape. In Cave’s ecstatic gestalt, I want to locate a related system of correspondence. Though in this case the graphical axis of the inner landscape has been rotated from the vertical and horizontal (peaks and valleys) to the perpendicular (figure and ground), and from the syntagmatic to the paradigmatic.

Figure 5: The Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Figure 5: The Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

In Cave as in other film’s such as The Grizzly Man (2005), the expression of inner landscapes connects with another persistent theme from Herzog’s oeuvre: exploration of the boundary between human and pre-human or animal consciousness. The relationship of gestalt philosophy to such themes is well established. In his reading of gestalt theorist Jean Piaget, Habermas describes how the emergence of a reflexive capacity within figure/ground relations in the development of the human child (to constitute oneself as figure against the world) recapitulates a stage in the evolution of human consciousness (1979). This is not to deny that infants, pre-human ancestors, or animals possess some ability to delineate figure from ground. The assumption rather is that they are incapable of bringing the gestalt to reflection, and of thereby figuring themselves within it. As Georges Bataille observes in Theory of Religion, although “the animal can be regarded as a subject for which the rest of the world is an object, it is never given the possibility of regarding itself in this way” (1989, 19).[3] Rather, for Bataille, “the animal is in the world as water is in water” (23). For example, the difference between the eater and eaten within the animal world is never qualitative but only ever quantitative: “In the movement of the waters he is only a higher wave overturning the other, weaker ones” (18-19). The animal is in a state of immanence, intimacy and immediacy within a world defined by continuity.

It is only through the correlated emergence of tool use, language and representation that human consciousness becomes reflectively aware of itself within a world of atomized and discontinuous ‘things’ defined by their function within a scheme of utility. For Bataille, the birth of the tool is intricately connected to that of the object and the subject. An instructive rendering of this event can be found in “The Dawn of Man” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) when the hominid has an epiphany in which it suddenly perceives/conceives a bone lying on the ground as a weapon. Simultaneous with this realisation is its ability to imaginatively extrapolate the application of the tool into other situational contexts (from breaking other bones on the ground, to smashing the head of an animal, to killing the leader of a rival group at the water hole), as well as into hypothetical temporalities, such as planning future uses of the tool. As a result, discontinuity is introduced into the world by an object that is perceived indirectly according to what it does rather than directly in its immanence and immediacy: “the purpose of a plow is alien to the reality that constitutes it” (Bataille 1989, 41). In what Bataille describes as “one of the most remarkable and fateful aberrations of language […] men situated on the same plane where the things appeared (as if they were comparable to the digging stick or the chipped stone) elements that were nonetheless continuous with the world, such as animals, plants, other men, and finally, the subject determining itself” (28, 31). So in other words, the question of what a thing is automatically devolves to a question of its use value, so that all things refer in their utility to humanity, and humanity in turn to God. Through a certain contagion of thought, “the transcendence of the tool and the creative faculty connected with its use are confusedly attributed … to the entire world” (32).

For Bataille, “the world of things is perceived as a fallen world. It entails the alienation of the one who created it…. The tool changes nature and man at the same time: it subjugates nature to man, who makes and uses it, but it ties man to subjugated nature” (41). The subjugation lies in the fact that, in contrast to the reversibility of figure and ground within the discontinuous world, the figuration of the discontinuous human world against the ground of the continuous pre-human world is irreversible. The thing becomes a reducing filter within consciousness, as perceptions become indiscernible from the concepts projected, which take on a sort of autonomy inseparable from the world in-itself. As a consequence, states Bataille, “nothing is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended…. We can never imagine things without consciousness … since we and imagine imply consciousness, our consciousness, adhering indelibly to their presence” (20). Nevertheless, as Bataille asserts: “There is every indication that the first men were closer than we are to the animal world; they distinguished the animal from themselves perhaps, but not without a feeling of doubt mixed with terror and longing” (35). An anthropologist that Herzog interviews concurs that the cave painters did not merely see the animals they painted as things but as spiritual entities in a relationship characterised by greater “fluidity and permeability” than the modern world. By contrast, for Bataille, “The sense of continuity that we must attribute to animals … derived a new significance from the contrast it formed to the world of things … [and] offered man all the fascination of the sacred world, as against the poverty of the profane tool (of the discontinuous object)” (35). In Cave as in other films such as Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Herzog is most interested in the inner landscapes and unconscious drives of the scientists he interviews, such as Julien Monnet who reports that after going into the cave he couldn’t stop dreaming of lions and paintings of lions, and that he was possessed by “a feeling of powerful things and deep things, a feeling of understanding things, that was not a direct way”.

Indeed, Bataille concurs with Herzog that indirection is the only means of approach to such depths. The “abysmal” quality of this reciprocal mirroring between the human and the animal is illustrated traumatically in Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) through the folly of Timothy Treadwell’s desire to “enter the secret world of the bears”. Narrating over a close-up shot of the face of the bear that likely killed and ate Treadwell, Herzog senses: “no understanding, no kinship, no mercy, only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me there is no such thing as the secret world of the bears and to me this blank stare speaks only of a half bored interest in food” into which Treadwell was (at his own peril) anthropomorphically projecting an “inner landscape”. Hence the irony (and the poetry) that the false opening through which Treadwell imposed himself on the world of the bears was reprised by an open mouth, the only way into the animal world being the reduction of the self to pure immanence, since one could not become animal and maintain any vestiges of human subjectivity and sovereignty.

Here we might begin to grasp the function of Cave’s stereoscopic ecstatic gestalt: to return its spectator not just to the physical site of the cave, but to a consciousness still astonished by the novelty and discontinuity of the thing figured in unnatural and quasi-hallucinatory fashion against a continuity that it occluded, but from which to quote William Wordsworth on his recollections of early childhood, it was “still trailing clouds of glory” ([1919] 2008, 536). In this way, my reading of Cave’s ecstatic gestalt through Bataille’s speculative anthropology also resonates with Paul Arthur’s elaboration of Herzog’s “metaphysical realism” in which:

As self-professed intermediary between opposing worlds—modern/pre-modern, prosaic/myth, accessible/recondite—Herzog’s strongest moments revolve around what can’t be shown, what exceeds or beggars representation … [and to] that which testifies to his own inadequacy and, by extension, that of cinema’s meager communicative tools. (2005, 5)

This metaphysical realism is reflected, for instance, in the way that Cave points from objective to non-objective forms of transcendence, between that from which the camera is merely physically blocked and that which is existentially inaccessible. For example, the reverse side of a large stalactite in the “cave of lions” on which is represented the one arguably human figure in the cave, cannot be viewed directly from the walkway to which the camera crew is restricted. “You’ll have to make do with a partial image”, observes the scientist supervising the filming. Undaunted, Herzog’s crew mounts the camera in reverse on a boom and extends it into the space to capture the opposite side of the formation. The effect of negative parallax is pronounced as a result of the proximity of the camera to the surface, which seems to bulge through the screen. While the attempt to get around the backside of the representation yields a full image, it reveals a partial human: resembling a bison from the waist up and what appears to be a female nude (reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf) from the waist down. The desire to get behind the image leads paradoxically to an image of the desire: the fundamentally conflicted impulse to merge human and animal modalities of embodied consciousness (via “fluidity and permeability”) through the means of representation.

Cave’s ecstatic gestalt involves both the literal sense of ekstasis as a figural standing out, and the metaphorical/metaphysical sense of an extraordinary pronouncement of being that defies representation. Writing in relation to a group of non-stereoscopic films invested in the expression of the spiritual through the material,[4] Sobchack observes how “the camera seeks a parallel ekstasis in the ‘flesh’ of the world: it offers up a profane illumination of objective matter that … opens into an apprehension of something ultimately unfathomable, uncontained and uncontainable—not only in the thing on which we gaze but also in ourselves” (2004, 298). In Cave the intensity of stereoscopic effects wax and wane relative to the film’s intentional objects. It is significant in this respect that the most pronounced instances of negative parallax accompany the exhibition and demonstration of pre-historic artifacts including weapons and tools, whose figuration within the film re-enacts—and commutes to the spectator—the sudden eruption of discontinuity that, according to Bataille, would have issued from their originary invention. The reflexivity of this intermedial reading is corroborated by the fact that in addition to pre-historic tools, the only similarly ecstatic expressions of negative parallax relate to representations of the tools of filmmaking, such as boom microphones and lighting equipment.

Indeed, negative parallax has a special affinity for tools that extend intentionality into space. However, it is telling that these stereoscopic representations of tools (both old and new) transcend the film’s explanatory function of their utility, and “illuminate” (to use Sobchack’s term) something in excess of their functionality. In this way, inadvertently perhaps, the film also invites intermedial reference to the very gratuitous deployments of stereoscopy from which critics have been so determined to distance Cave. For example, anthropologist Wulf Hein’s demonstration of replica prehistoric spears by thrusting and throwing them into negative parallax finds analogs in Hollywood films from Bwana Devil (Arch Oboler, 1952) to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012). However, the effects of negative parallax are most profound in relation to a different category of objects worked by tools but gesturing towards that continuous world whose opening—like a trompe l’oeil—they simultaneously block. The first of these objects is the figure of a chimerical lion/man rotated against a darkened backdrop, and offered as a complement to the image of the bison/woman on the stalactite. The second figure is the Venus of Hollifers, about which anthropologist Nicholas Conard makes the unintentional pun: “this one … stands out. It’s the absolute root of figurative depiction as we know it” (emphasis added). The effect of negative parallax is even greater here than in the previous example. Suspended in a glass box, the small sculpture seems to float in front of the screen in a state of ecstatic discontinuity from the surrounding world. The autonomy and disconnection that these objects achieve relative to their environment resonates with the emphasis on their being the “firsts” of their kind. Through the hyperbolic use of negative parallax, the spectator is invited to return to the moment of their radical “newness” in which their startling discontinuity would have been tantamount to a special effect, like the obelisk before the hominids in 2001.

I don’t offer these examples to imply that Herzog’s use of stereoscopy attempts to directly capture the inner landscape of a pre-human consciousness. For as Bataille declares: “There was no landscape in a world where the eyes that opened did not comprehend what they looked at, where indeed, in our terms, the eyes did not see” (1989, 21). Rather, I want to argue that Herzog cultivates this ecstatic gestalt in order to commute to the film spectator the startling novelty and transformative power that would have accompanied the eruption of the capacity for tool use, representation, and reflective consciousness against the ground of a pre-human world—which is why Herzog refers to the cave as the site of “the birth of the human soul.” In this way, Ekstasis thus accedes to ekphrasis, by which according to Pethő cinema incorporates intermedial relations to point beyond its own limits (46).


In concluding, I’d like to return to Pethő’s assertion that intermedial relations, because they occur at the prereflective level of embodiment, are not textual and cannot be read (69). This position is further grounded in her statement that “phenomenology does not see images as representations or signs; it sees them foremost as events and corporeal experiences” (70). This argument might at first glance seem to concur with that of Bataille. However, where he is content to be silent, Pethő wants description without signification. In this sense, her argument is in contradiction to the existential phenomenology of Sobchack in the context of which she advances it. In The Address of the Eye, Sobchack is explicit that she pursues a “semiotic phenomenology,” meaning that the structure of all systems of signification emerge from and recapitulate the structure of embodied prereflective perception (1992, 8). Thus embodiment appears as a theme only by virtue of being brought to reflection, but it can only be brought to reflection because it is already signifying. Hence for Sobchack, embodiment can be read, and she writes of “a textualizing of the sensing body” (69) which is a correlative of the fact that “in its existential function—perception is always semiotic” (70). The consequence of Pethő’s misreading is a potential mystification of the intermedial and romanticisation of the cinematic, in so far as the intermedial must be non-signifying yet embodied and cinematically expressible.

Relative to this discussion, it is intriguing that where Pethő touches briefly on “3D”, she asserts its antagonism to intermedial phenomena by drawing a contrast between “the intrusive ‘tactility’ of 3D images” and “‘haptic’ images” that, by contrast, “preserve a quality of openness towards intermediality” (105 n. 18). She continues that intermediality depends upon an “aesthetic distance”, which is preserved so long as the film is emulating some other mediality, such as painting or photography—a capacity cancelled by the “illusory display of objects in space that act upon our senses (as in the case of 3D imagery)” (105 n. 18). This critique seems overly proscriptive in light of the intermedial elements clearly apparent in a film like Cave. Also, when read in relation to Pethő’s dissociation of signs from corporeality, one might diagnose that it is precisely stereoscopy’s exaggeration of the signifying power of embodied consciousness through its ecstatic gestalt that troubles her.

There is also another way in which what Pethő refers to as stereoscopy’s “illusory display of objects” reflexively turns back upon the illusion of the object. In this respect, I would argue that Cave’s ecstatic gestalt induces a sort of impromptu phenomenological reduction upon the familiar, everyday world of things whose taken-for-granted dimensional extrusion as discrete and autonomous objects it renders strangely artificial, and quasi-hallucinatory. This is nowhere so apparent as in the opening scene, when the novelty of the stereoscopic effects would seem most pronounced to the unaccustomed eyes of the audience. The camera glides down a row within a vineyard that borders the area of the Chauvet Cave. Against the undifferentiated manifold of nature the vines are doubly objectified: both as “raw” nature “cooked” (to use Claude Lévi-Strauss’s [1969] terminology) into the useful form of a vineyard, and as figures of vision unnaturally extruded from their ground through the instrumental movement of our own language-laden consciousness. It is in this way that the novelty of Herzog’s use of stereoscopy doubles for that of the more primordial innovation of which cinema is itself an extension. By breaking the plane of representation and the illusion of depth to which the cinematic spectator is habituated, Cave simulates the world-rupturing force of a much more fundamental discontinuity in the perceptual gestalt and (importantly) provokes reflexive awareness of this event.



Ames, Eric. 2009. “Herzog, Landscape, and Documentary.” Cinema Journal 48 (2): 49-69.

Arthur, Paul. 2005. “Beyond the Limits: Werner Herzog’s Metaphysical Realism.” Film Comment 41 (4): 42-47.

Bataille, Georges. 1989. Theory of Religion. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books.

Bataille, Georges. 2005. The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, edited by Stuart Kendall. Translated by Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall. New York: Zone Books.

Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1979. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Herzog, Werner. 2002. “The Minnesota Declaration: Truth and fact in documentary cinema.” In Herzog on Herzog, edited by Paul Cronin, 301-302. New York: Faber and Faber.

Herzog, Werner. 2010. “On the Absolute, the Sublime and Ecstatic Truth.” Werner Herzog: The Only Official and Authentic Website of Werner Herzog. Accessed June 13 2013. http://www.wernerherzog.com/117.html.

Hoberman, J. 2011. “Cave Man: Werner Herzog Can’t Get Out of His Own Way in Forgotten Dreams.” The Village Voice, April 27. Accessed January 12, 2014. http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-04-27/film/cave-man-werner-herzog-can-t-get-out-of-his-own-way-in-forgotten-dreams/.

Jay, Martin.1993. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Klinger, Barbara. 2012. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Meditations on 3D.” Film Quarterly 65 (3): 38-43.

Klinger, Barbara. 2013. “Beyond Cheap Thrills: 3D Cinema Today, The Parallax Debates, and the ‘Pop-Out’.” Public Journal: 3D Cinema and Beyond 47: 186-99.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume One. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wordsworth, William. (1919) 2008. “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections on Early Childhood.” In The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900—Volume II, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, 536. Alcester: Read Books.



Herzog, Werner. 2010. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Creative Differences.

Herzog, Werner. 2007. Encounters at the End of the World. Discovery Films.

Herzog, Werner. 1985. The Dark Glow of the Mountains. Sudfunk Stuttgart.

Herzog, Werner. 2005. The Grizzly Man. Lions Gate Films.

Jackson, Peter. 2012. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. New Line Cinema.

Kubrick, Stanley. 1968. 2001: A Space Odyssey. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Oboler, Arch. 1952. Bwana Devil. United Artists.

Scott, Ridley. 1982. Blade Runner. Warner Bros.



[1] Such critical tactics are ironic given Herzog’s self-reflexive stance towards the realist strategies he routinely deploys. Evident here, for example, in his penchant for testing the credulity of the audience, such as the apocryphal story about albino alligators mutated by radiation that concludes Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

[2] For a discussion of debates surrounding the value of negative and positive parallax, see Barbara Klinger, “Beyond Cheap Thrills: 3D Cinema Today, The Parallax Debates, and the ‘Pop-Out’” (2013).

[3] Over the span of his life, Georges Bataille produced a collection of short essays and talks on prehistoric cave art (from 1930 to 1957) compiled in The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture (2005). However, his Theory of Religion (1989) reproduces many of these ideas in more systematic form, especially with regards to the relationship between tool use, language, and the emergence of human consciousness.

[4] She refers specifically to Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950), Thérèse (Alain Cavalier, 1986) and Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987).

Bio: Kevin Fisher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media, Film & Communication at the University of Otago. His research interests include phenomenology, special effects and audio-visual analysis, and documentary. His essays have appeared in the anthologies Meta-Morphing (2000), The Lord of the Rings: Studying the Event Film (2007), Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2008) and The Fourth Eye: Mäori Media in Aotearoa/New Zealand (2014) as well as journals such as Science Fiction Film & Television and The New Review of Film and Television and The New Zealand Journal of Media Studies.


Editorial: Intermediations — Kevin Fisher & Holly Randell-Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenkins, Henry. 2003. “Transmedia Storytelling.” Technology Review, January 15. Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/401760/transmedia-storytelling/.

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

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

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

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

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

Liebling, Rick. 2011. “Intermedia—The Next Phase in Consumer Engagement.” How Soon is Now?: Culture in a 24/7 World, September 11. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.rickliebling.com/2011/09/11/intermedia-the-next-phase-in-consumer-engagement/.

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

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

Paech, Joachim. 2011. “The Intermediality of Film.” Acta Univ. Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 4: 7-21. Accessed May 7, 2014. http://www.acta.sapientia.ro/acta-film/C4/Film4-1.pdf.

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

Volume 23, 2014

Themed Issue: Transmedia Horror

Edited by Jessica Balanzategui & Naja Later



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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Who is the Slender Man? – Naja Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Work of the Zombie in the CDC Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proliferation and Play of Zombies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theorizing Pandemic Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies in Pandemic Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Betsy McKay, “CDC Advises on Zombie Apocalypse … and Other Emergencies,” Wall Street Journal, posted May 18, 2011, http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/05/18/cdc-advises-on-zombie-apocalypse-and-other-emergencies/ (accessed on September 13, 2013).

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

[4] Maggie Silver, “Teachable Moments – Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted February 7, 2012, http://www.blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/02/thewalkingdead/ (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[5] Devan Tucking-Strickler, “Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted May 19, 2012, http://www.blog.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/category/zombies/zombie-nation/ (accessed on September 15, 2013).

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

[7] McKay, posted May 18, 2011.

[8] Kim Carollo, “Will Budget Cuts Leave Us Unprepared for Zombie Apocalypse?” ABC News, posted May 19, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/federal-funding-cuts-put-us-risk-zombie-attack/story?id=13638676 (accessed September 13, 2013).

[9] Donald G. McNeil and Gardiner Harris, “Zombies Upstage a Routine Public Health Bulletin,” New York Times, posted May 20, 2011, http:nytimes.com/2011/05/20/health/20cdc.html?_r=0 (accessed on September 13, 2013).

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

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

[12] Associated Press, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ advice an Internet Hit,” CBS San Diego KFMB Channel 8, posted May 20, 2011, http://www.cbs8.com/story/14688932/cdcs-zombie-apocalypse-advice-an-internet-hit/ (accessed September 13, 2013).

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

[14] Chris Good, “Why Did the CDC Develop a Plan for a Zombie Apocalypse?” The Atlantic, posted May 20, 2011, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/why-did-the-cdc-develop-a-plan-for-a-zombie-apocalypse/239246/ (accessed on September 15, 2013).

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

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

[17] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[27] Ibid., 408.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[38] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[41] Wilkinson, 17.

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

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

[44] Massumi, 1993, 24.

[45] Aaltola, 2012b, 18.

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

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

[48] Massumi, 2007, 6.

[49] Massumi, 2007, 13.

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

[51] Massumi, 2007, 16.

[52] Aaltola, 2012b.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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