pollution and horror

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Jack Morgan once offered the following explanation for the appeal horror has:

“As opposed to the comic sense of life or tragedy’s dignified sense of death, horror embodies a sense of anti-life or unlife; it takes note of the demarcation between the wholesome and the unwholesome, the healthy and the monstrous – a clarity essential to the organic life. “We love and need the concept of monstrosity,” Stephen King writes, “because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings”. That is the fundamental sense underlying horror’s various traditional tropes and conventions. In this genre the healthy mind reconnoiters the regions of the [-p.66] unhealthy. Noel Carroll correctly notes that horror creatures – and this would apply to the genre more broadly – provoke not just fear, but loathing.” (p.65)

The Gothic underscores the multifold miasmas, poisons, fungi, plagues, viruses, that are out there and able to destroy our individual or collective systemic order. “It is not the physical or mental aberration in itself that horrifies us,” Stephen King writes, “but rather the lack of order these aberrations seem to imply”. Horror focuses upon the terror of that which is bio-antithetical, bio-illogical, a fear as viable today as it was in the middle-ages or in the imagined middle ages of 18th century Gothic literature.” (p.70)

“The most famous of Poe’s tales concerns disintegration and decline – a single, organic dissipation taking in family line, the contemporary Ushers, the house and grounds. Life is flow, dynamic movement, constant refreshment, elasticity; thus, we are repulsed by what is stagnant, stale, desiccated, musty – we recognize all the latter as anti-life, entropic, unwholesome.” (p.72)

“…the remote vicinities within the dwellings in Gothic tale – cellars, attics, chambers long closed off, and so on. From what are they closed off? Essentially from life – air, sunlight, human presence and care. They are repulsive in that they bespeak abandonment and unlife.” (p.73)

The loss of all bearings, the absence of moral-ethical-rational compass, is an integral part of the horror illusion.” (p.76)

“But how to explain what Aiken and Barbald in 1775 noted: “the apparent delight with which we dwell upon objects of pure terror, where our moral feelings are not in the least involved, and no passion seems to be excited but the depressing one of fear…?” How is it that horror, as Emily Dickinson said of Hawthorne’s work, at once “appalls and entices?” How to account for the popularity of horror in its literary expressions – a highly unlikely popularity it would seem given the theory advanced here that the genre turns on our organic apprehensions – our fear of infirmity, pollution, and physical degradation?
It is first perhaps necessary to note the obvious fact that there is no pleasure to be gained from confronting the morbid and repulsive in real life; a ritual hunt-dance is not to be confused with the hunt per se. Ours is of course an aesthetic interrogation; it goes to the experience of the virtual morbid in the virtual space/time of literary art. The process is in part intellectual, but the experience of horror, like that of comedy, is centered in a bodily registration, a body-informed imagination. …
An hypothesis might be advanced here in keeping with the generally physiological nature of the thesis so far discussed. A small quantity of morbid material – smallpox vaccine for instance – provokes the body’s healthy energies to muster themselves, and tones them. Small doses of arsenic and like substances, according to homeopathic theory, can have the effect of invigorating the body’s immune responses, awakening listless organic functions.
Brought to a kind of analog confrontation with the horrid through the Gothic tale, readers are likewise reminded of the nature of their own participation in a biotic harmony and well-being. The virtual claustrophobic heightens our awareness of space in actuality; of good, well-oxygenate [-p.78] air in actuality; of our freedom in actuality. The demarkation between the healthy and the morbid is brought to consciousness and vivified. Our bodies take pleasure in the fact that we are not locked in some Gothic crypt nor the dismal, thirsty decks of the San Dominic, or walled-up hopelessly in the catacombs beneath an Italian city.” (pp.77-78)

“Through its negations, the macabre – canceling out its own morbidity – brings us round to a biological affirmation as comedy does, to an energized sense of our being-in-the-world. Stephen King recalls the effect 1950s horror films had on him: “There was that magic moment of reintegration and safety at the end…. I believe it’s this feeling of reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear and monstrosity that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical”.” (p.78)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Jack Morgan (1998) ‘Toward an organic theory of the Gothic: conceptualizing Horror’ Journal of Popular Culture 32:3, pp.59-80

Zombies and global mass culture

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In his analysis of zombie narrative – and of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, in particular – Gerry Canavan asserts that “the figure of the zombie now lurks at the very center of global mass culture.” (p.431)

He explains: “Steve Shaviro suggests in a 2002 special issue of Historical Materialism on “Marxism and Fantasy” that our preoccupation with the zombie originates out of the zombie’s relationship with contemporary global capitalism…. Remorselessly consuming everything in their path, zombies leave nothing in their wake besides endless copies of themselves, making the zombie the perfect metaphor not only for how capitalism transforms its subjects but also for its relentless and devastating virologic march across the globe.” (p.432)

Canavan reminds us that we must think about “the problems of subject position and identification that arise when speaking about the “universal residue” (Shaviro 288) called the zombie. The zombie’s mutilation,” he explains, “is not one that we easily imagine for “ourselves,” however that “we” is ultimately constituted; the zombie is rather the toxic infection that must always be kept at arm’s length. Because zombies mark the demarcation between life (that is worth living) and unlife (that needs killing), the evocation of the zombie conjures not solidarity but racial panic. To complicate Deleuze and Guattari’s proclamation in A Thousand Plateaus, then, the myth of the zombie is both a war myth and a work myth (425); one of the ways the State apparatus builds the sorts of “preaccomplished” subjects it needs is precisely through the construction of a racial binary in which the (white) citizen-subject is opposed against nonwhite life, bare life, zombie life—that anti-life which is always inimically and hopelessly Other, which must always be kept quarantined, if not actively eradicated and destroyed.” (p.433)

Canavan refers us to “Vivian Sobchack’s approach to sf in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film,” to establish some generic distinctions for his analysis of The Walking Dead; drawing on Sobchack, he writes: “In contradistinction to the Suvinian approach to sf prose, for Sobchack the important genre distinction to be maintained is not sf-vs.-fantasy but sf-vs.-horror, a divide she finds to be hopelessly muddled by a blurred and indistinct “no-man’s-land” between the two populated by hybrid films (in our case, zombie cinema) that arguably belong to both modes (26–27).
The horror film,” Sobchack says, “is primarily concerned with the individual in conflict with society or with some extension of himself, the sf film with society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other” (30). It is for this reason that we find a key distinction between horror and sf to be the question of scale; we expect horror to take place in a small and isolated setting (perhaps, as in Night of the Living Dead, as small as a single farmhouse) while sf expands to fill large cities and nations, even the entire globe. We might think, for instance, of England after the Rage outbreak in 28 Days Later, or how in the recent Marvel Zombies and DC Blackest Night [-p.434] storylines in superhero comics the zombie outbreak swells to fill the entire cosmos, even the entire multiverse. If we accept Sobchack’s genre definition, we find that the zombie subgenre starts out in horror in its earliest film formulations but winds up in sf in its later ones; while “horror” entries in this hugely prolific subgenre certainly remain, the most popular and influential mode of zombie narrative (especially during the Bush-era “zombie revival” period on which I focus) has been the “zombie apocalypse”: the large-scale zombie pandemic that leads to the rapid total breakdown of technological modernity and transnational capitalism on a global scale. To put this another way: For Sobchack the local scale of the horror film is concerned with “moral chaos”—the disruption of the natural order—while the broader scale of sf film lends it to “social chaos” (30). Unlike horror’s Monster, sf’s Creature is unparticularized and uninteriorized; it does not hate, nor seek revenge, and does not even “want” to hurt us. It just does (37). The sf Creature is an eruption that is only disruption—and it is for this reason that the sf film is so often preoccupied with the reaction of society to catastrophe (on the one hand) and to a dispassionate, spectacular aesthetics of destruction (on the other). In the end, Sobchack’s division between horror and sf comes down to the difference between terror and wonder (38). If in the horror film we feel “fear,” in the sf film we feel “interest.” In the horror film we find we want to close our eyes and look away, and the excitement is in forcing ourselves to watch; but in the sf film the narrative pleasure comes precisely in anticipating, and then seeing, what will happen next.
And so, having discovered the zombie right at the intersection of these two modes—the zombie is both local and global, personal
and depersonalized, symptom of moral chaos and cause of widespread social breakdown, grossout consumer of flesh and spectacular destroyer of our intricately constructed social and technological fortifications….[Canavan’s analysis of The Walking Dead begins]” (pp.433-434)

“In such a story the fear of “moral chaos” of the early outbreak will necessarily give way to “interest” in the way society changes in the wake of the zombie disaster—and so it’s no surprise that Kirkman uses the same “waking up from a coma” trope as 28 Days Later to “skip” the initial outbreak and get immediately to the postapocalyptic breakdown world.” (p.435)

“The rotting zombie corpse inevitably suggests the psychological horror Julia Kristeva called “abjection,” the disturbing of the boundary between object and subject.” (p.441)

“…we find the zombies allegorizing the racial forms of exclusion and extermination that already surround us. Zombie narratives are ultimately about the motivation for and unleashing of total violence; what separates “us” from “them” in zombie narrative is always only the type of violence used. They attack us (like “animals,” “savages,” or “cannibals”) with their arms and mouths; we attack them back with horses, tanks, and guns.
In The Walking Dead—as in any zombie narrative—the tools and technologies of empire are continually borrowed for the purpose of priming precisely this sort of violent colonialist fantasy. Swords and guns, tanks and trucks, repeated references to the brutal physical and sexual violence of slavery and to the cowboy or “frontier” imaginary (especially through the ubiquitous riding of horses and Carl’s cowboy outfit and mannerisms) are all employed in a bizarre postmodern pastiche of the history of U.S. imperialism, as different moments of its empire collide into a single simultaneous instant in the face of an essentially inimical and totally implacable racialized threat. There are few moments in the series that suggest this pastiche as well as the splash panel at the end of issue 12, when Rick and his group discover the abandoned jail in which they will make their home through the bulk of the series. The jail is drawn so as to visually double a frontier fort (and, for that matter, a modern military base); these locations collapse into a single spatial imaginary, with only the polarity of “inside” and “outside” reversed.” (p.443)

“Whatever else might be said about The Walking Dead, or about zombie narrative in general, its uncritical relationship to a particular pre-feminist narrative about the need to “protect” women and children cannot be glossed over. “Proper” control over wombs, and anxiety that they will somehow be captured, polluted, or compromised, is a kind of Ur-myth for the apocalyptic genre in general and the zombie sub-genre in particular; speaking broadly, the function of women in most apocalyptic narratives is to code the ending as “happy” or “sad” based on their continued availability to bear the male protagonist’s children when the story is over. This theme is so common in the zombie subgenre as to constitute one of its most ubiquitous and most central ethical clichés: the question of whether or not one should decide to “bring a child into” a zombie-ridden world at all—and, as is common in many such apocalyptic stories (as in, for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s 2009 novel The Road), the death of Rick’s wife and daughter, the moment the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut, is the moment that basically all hope is lost in The Walking Dead.” (p.444)

Under the heading ‘Zombie Ethics’, Canavan explains: “So while in zombie narrative the “enemy” who is killed is always first the zombie—who is unthinking and unfeeling, and can be killed without regret—as the story proceeds the violence inevitably spreads to other, still-alive humans [-p.445] as well. Anyone outside the white patriarchal community, anyone who is not already one of “us,” is a potential threat to the future who must be interrogated intensely, if not kept out altogether. Even those inside the community have to be surveilled at all times for signs of treachery, weakness, or growing “infection.” This is the second way in which the zombie infects us, besides the obvious; they infect us with their vulnerability, their killability make us “killable” too. One’s position in the state of exception is, after all, never secure; the class of dangerous anti-citizens, bound for the camps, tends only to grow. In this way zombie narratives make the latent necropolitical dimensions bound up in both “survival” and modern citizenship explicit….” (pp.444-445)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Gerry Canavan (2010) ‘We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative. extrapolation 51(3)Fall; pp.431-453

The zombies around us

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As part of his discussion of race in zombie narratives, (in the same, previously mentioned article), Gerry Canavan considers the way in which the New Orleans and Haitian disasters were conceptualised. He writes:

“When Haiti—of course, the ancestral home of the zombi, where this hybridized postcolonial figure first emerged as the nightmarish figuration of a slavery that would continue even after death—was struck by its devastating earthquake in January 2010, the same stories [as were told about New Orleans] were told: rumors of widespread rapes and murders reported breathlessly by the media as inevitable and obvious fact, baseless (and, in context, often nonsensical) accusations of “looting” hurled at poverty-stricken people of color just trying to survive in the face of an incomprehensible disaster. In her Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), Judith Butler writes persuasively of the way the inevitability of grief in human life might be employed as a ground for an Levinasian ethics of mutual vulnerability and shared precariousness, if not for the way ideology persistently codes certain lives as “mournable” and others not. Thinking both of the war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine, she writes:

[‘]Is a Muslim life as valuable as legibly First World lives? Are the Palestinians yet accorded the status of “human” in US policy and press coverage? Will those hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the last decades of strife ever receive the equivalent to the paragraph-long obituaries in the New York Times that seek to humanize—often through nationalist and familial framing devices—those Americans who have been violently killed? Is our capacity to mourn in global dimensions foreclosed precisely by the failure to conceive of Muslim and Arab lives as lives? (12)[‘]

In post-earthquake Haiti, as in post-Katrina New Orleans, as in Iraq and Palestine, we find the moral demand made by shared precariousness once again short-circuited in favor of a prophylactic Othering. Suffering Haitians were quickly recoded as bare life—zombie life—and thereby rendered unworthy of [-p.448] proper aid and protection. Haitians couldn’t be trusted, we were told, even to accept our help. An interview at Campus Progress with Dr. Kathleen Tierney of the Natural Hazard Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder memorably called this phenomenon the “looting lie.” Misled by this racist imaginary, the international aid response—coordinated, to widespread criticism, by that imperial agency par excellence, the United States military—focused on security over support, landing thousands of troops on the island while diverting international aid flights and before allowing a single food drop from the air. Fear of the poor, journalist Linda Polman argued in the Guardian, hurt rescue efforts: “CNN won’t stop telling aid workers and the outside world about pillaging (the incidence of which for the first four frustrating days at least —did not compare with what happened after Hurricane Katrina) and about how dangerous it would be to distribute food, because of the likelihood of ‘stampedes.’”” (pp.447-448)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Gerry Canavan (2010) ‘We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative. extrapolation 51(3)Fall; pp.431-453

A Biocultural Critique of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend – Mathias Clasen

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I am interested in how bioliterary criticism is applied, so this article caught my eye…. I am also interested in the narrative treatment of fear, so… Mathias Clasen writes:

“Richard Matheson seeded several weird fish in the deep and dark waters of the American myth pool, not least as a prominent screenwriter for the legendary 1960s TV series The Twilight Zone. I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic science fiction/horror novel, published in
1954 and set in 1976, remains one of his best known works. It shows up persistently on “Best of Horror” lists and is generally regarded as a milestone in modern Gothic fiction. What is it about this novel that has invested it with canonical status? It tells a surpassingly bleak story, one that seems to encode very specific and largely outdated cultural anxieties. And as prophecy, it falls rather flat: Matheson depicts a vampire holocaust, and the seventies came and went with no noticeable increase in the population of vampires, except perhaps on television. So why should anyone want to read this novel?
The historian David J. Skal rightly observes that “very little about the underlying structure of horror images really changes” over time. I Am Legend is the product of a troubled man in troubled times, at once intensely personal and highly dependent on local, sociohistorical anxieties. Yet, the story retains its power to engage and to disturb in contexts far removed from that of its production. I think an evolutionary perspective offers the best explanation for the underlying continuity in horror fiction. It also offers the best way to get at the continued fascination Matheson’s novel exercises on readers. Using an analytic scheme put into play by Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd, and other evolutionary critics, I get a fix on the novel by triangulating between universal human fears, local cultural conditions, and peculiarities of individual identity.” (p.313)

One striking and presumably unique aspect of human mental architecture is decoupled cognition, our capacity for mentally producing and hosting elaborate imagined worlds. Decoupled cognition gives rise to a [-p.315] range of imaginative behaviors, from pretend play in young children to futuristic science fiction stories. It is perhaps unsurprising that natural selection has favored an ability to construct imaginative scenarios, but an ability to go from imaginations of future food sources and hunting strategies to imaginations of life on Mars and zombie invasions is more striking.
However, not each and every single one of the literally endless imaginative scenarios that could be produced by the human mind would have the power to fascinate a substantial number of persons: the what if’s that interest people are severely limited, and so is the possibility space of viable speculative narratives. As Brett Cooke observes, since science fiction “so readily outruns human experience, it typically probes the limits of human interest.” In turn, human interest is circumscribed by our evolutionary heritage. I Am Legend offers a speculative account of what happens when basic human needs are suppressed. Matheson portrays the struggles of a man completely cut off from fellow human beings and trapped in a severely threatening environment. In this way, Matheson taps into an intuitive understanding of human nature—an evolved folk psychology—to make his tale believable and interesting.” (pp.314-315)

Apparently, Richard Matheson “has pointed out, “the leitmotif of all my work . . . is as follows: The individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive”” (p.316) and it is from this perspective that Clasen approaches I Am Legend:

Fear is probably the key word in Matheson’s work, and the defining affective feature of horror fiction. It is a striking fact of human anxiety that the things we fear are non-randomly distributed: humans acquire fear not just of any old thing, but of things dangerous in our evolutionary past. That does not mean that we are born pre-programmed with a completely inflexible fear system. Like so many other human capacities (such as language), the innate fear system depends on interaction with the environment for its development and optimal functioning. This [-p.317] makes sense in an evolutionary perspective, since our environments have been changing rapidly and frequently during the last several tens of thousands of years, especially due to human migration. Thus, while certain dangers have remained constant in various environments, others have changed. The threat from snakes, spiders and other people—so often the objects of phobias—probably constituted a constant selective pressure, whereas a variety of large mammals have preyed on humans during our evolutionary history. Hence, fierce predators with sharp teeth and claws play a prominent role in modern horror fiction, even as they are now, in industrialized civilization, relegated to zoo cages and televised nature programming.

“The abstract fear of death can be fleshed out in locally specific, context-dependent ways. In one context it’s the fear of a large carnivore attacking at night; in another, the fear of bombings. The adaptive fear response is largely generalized, and the physiological fear response is triggered by a range of diverse threats, from thunderstorms to predators, from darkness to social separation.” (pp.316-317)

“…we should not lose sight of the vampire’s literal presence: the vampire is, first and foremost, a predator….” (p.318) “Predation is the central theme in horror fiction. Being threatened by powerful forces, whether ghosts, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, or vampires, is a powerful motif, probably because the selection pressure from predation has been a ubiquitous fact of human existence for millennia. However, I Am Legend is slightly atypical as a horror story in that the horror of the monster is pushed somewhat to the rear. The vampires prowl relentlessly in the periphery, craving Neville’s blood, but the reader is not treated to lengthy descriptions of the bloodsuckers.” (p.318)

“For members of a social species such as ours, the horror of isolation is very real and very rational. Solitary isolation in the criminal justice system is considered an especially severe form of punishment. […] Other people have for millions of years been a crucial component of our species’ ecological niche; we are highly adapted to social life and depend on culture for our mental development. Sociality is and has been crucial to human ontogenetic and phylogenetic development. We depend on other people not just for reproduction and survival, but for psychological and emotional growth and fulfillment. This is the common-sense observation that is conveyed by I Am Legend….” (p.320)

“It is reasonable to regard sub- or para-human horror monsters as meditations on the human: zombies and body-snatchers, for example, offer apt metaphors for the masses and mindless humanity, whereas the vampire—a vastly overdetermined figure—has somewhat different connotations. The horror critic Mark Jancovich identifies a group of 1950s horror texts, I Am Legend included, that are characterized by a “preoccupation with the figure of the outsider, and their experience of alienation, estrangement and powerlessness.” As he notes, the concept of conformity in 1950s USA was not just highly prevalent in social discourse, but highly ambivalent. The paradoxical motif of being alone among others is one that finds currency in a paranoid Cold War cultural climate.” (p.321)

(While he is perhaps oversimplifying the traditional role and reception of folklore,) Clasen also comments on the figure of the vampire: “As the historian Paul Barber has convincingly argued, the modern vampire has its origin as a pre-scientific explanation for infectious disease. Before the germ theory of disease, a vampire was as good an explanation for the outbreak of lethal disease (such as tuberculosis) as any….” (p.323)

The contagious aspect of vampirism remains an essential characteristic of the archetype.” (p.323)

In fact, one of the most disturbing and dramatically effective qualities of several traditional horror monsters—vampires, werewolves, and zombies—is their contagiousness. Characters battle not just ferocious beasts, but monstrous germs, as well.” (p.324)

The vampire has adapted cunningly and with panache to ever-changing cultural ecologies over the centuries, yet never losing its essential predatory nature and its defining violation of biology, its undeadness.” (p.324)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Mathias Clasen (2010) Vampire Apocalypse: A Biocultural Critique of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.  Philosophy and Literature 34(2)October, pp. 313-328

Challenging normative masculinity and femininity in children’s horror – Heinecken

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According to Dawn Heinecken:

Horror fiction for children, including stories of the gothic, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the occult, is a dominant genre within present-day children’s literature. To date, the developing scholarship around this phenomenon has focused on the works of contemporary writers (Brennan et al., 2001; Jackson et al., 2008; Gooding, 2009). Absent from existing scholarly discussion is a consideration of [-p.119] earlier novels by writers whose works of horror fiction clearly precipitated this trend. [/] Most notable among these early practitioners is John Bellairs.” (pp.118-119)

“Featuring disturbing and uncanny imagery and plots revolving around ghosts, witches, possession, and the resurrection of the dead, his novels emerged as a significant contrast to the serene tone of children’s literature in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (MacCleod, 1985). Popularly as well as critically acclaimed, fan websites such as Compleat Bellairs and Bellairsia.com attest to his continued significance as a major writer of children’s horror (Stasio, 1991; Sutherland, 1980).
Yet despite Bellairs’ importance in the development of children’s horror fiction, there has been no serious examination of his work to date. While popular accounts of Bellairs’ success often point to the ways that the chills of his novels are mediated by humorous elements and a reassuring message of adult love and protection (Stasio, 1991), such framings overlook the ways that his books may nonetheless be experienced by readers as terrifying, if only temporarily. Indeed, more significant than the reassuring resolution of his novels is their particular construction of the monstrous and the horrifying.

As critics of adult film and literature have noted, horror is a constantly evolving genre, whose shifting forms and content express the uncertainties haunting a society at any given time; it has been particularly expressive of fears related to gender and sexuality (Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 4; Williams, 1995, p. 7). Horror may function in a ‘‘reactionary’’ manner, punishing transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes, or it may function to subvert existing structures of power located around race, class, gender, and sexuality (Badley, 1995, p. 102). This essay provides a close reading of Bellairs’ foundational trilogy, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), The Figure in the Shadows (1975), and The Letter, the Witch and the Ring (1976), to argue that, like works of adult horror, the trilogy is usefully understood as an exploration of the period’s fears and
anxieties related to gender and sexuality.
Published in the early and mid-seventies, Bellair’s trilogy may be situated against the mainstreaming of horror for adult audiences during the Post-Vietnam period (Schweitzer, 1999, p. 1; Carroll, 1990, p. 2; Colovita, 2008, p. 7), a mainstreaming which has been tied to the upheaval of traditional gender and sexual relations brought about by the feminist, anti-war, civil rights and gay rights movements (Clemens, 1999, p. 185; Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 2). These movements radically transformed discourses surrounding masculinity, destabilizing Cold War notions of a (white) masculinity built around an ideology of toughness and the image of the breadwinner and suggested the need for ‘‘a range of alternative masculinities’’ to replace this ideal (Winter, 2003, p. 118).” (p.119)

Clover […] observes that the reframing of masculinity in horror films is often dependent upon particular constructions of femininity and the female body that displace women to even more marginal realms of feminine excess (p. 105).
The three occult novels forming the original trilogy of Bellair’s series reveal a similar pattern of masculine revision and feminine displacement at work in children’s literature. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the larger culture of the late sixties and seventies, the trilogy rejects hegemonic notions of masculinity and proposes a new form of manhood for young readers built around a reevaluation of the relationship between masculinity and femininity. However, the series continues to reinscribe heterosexist norms at the same time femininity remains tied to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.120)

“As Barbara Creed notes, horror is often dominated by images of the ‘‘monstrous feminine,’’ those qualities of Woman that are ‘‘shocking, terrifying, horrifying and abject’’ (p. 67).” (p.121)

“Often citing the biographical features of his novels, John Bellairs worked to challenge existing gender norms through the construction of shy, clumsy loners as his protagonists. Like other forms of children’s literature emerging in the seventies, his works of children’s horror are particularly reflective of the period’s changing discourses around masculinity (Herzog, 2009, p. 72). However successful his novels are in deconstructing hegemonic masculinity, they are less so in challenging dominant notions of femininity and sexuality. Despite the apparent gender nonconformism of his characters, women and the feminine are closely related to the monstrous in Bellairs’ trilogy, and ultimately female identity remains linked to loss and uncertainty.
After the completion of the original trilogy in 1976, Bellairs worked primarily on two other horror series featuring the adventures of Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon. He died in 1991 before the completion of a proposed fourth novel in the series, The Ghost in the Mirror, which was substantially fleshed out and published posthumously by Brad Strickland in 1993. Using the drafts and notes left by Bellairs, Strickland authored three subsequent novels in the Lewis Barnevelt series.” (p.129)

“While children’s horror of the seventies suggested the need for a refreshed, renewed masculinity, it was left up to later works of horror to formulate power as a necessary ingredient of femininity.” (p.130)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Dawn Heinecken (2011) Haunting Masculinity and Frightening Femininity: The Novels of John Bellairs. Children’s Literature in Education (42):118–131

Abstract: “While developing scholarship around children’s horror fiction has focused on the works of contemporary writers, this essay provides a close reading of the novels of John Bellairs, a leading and early practitioner of the genre. It argues that the first three novels in his Lewis Barnevelt series may be understood as addressing some of the same anxieties related to gender and sexuality as those found in adult works of horror. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the late sixties and seventies, Bellair’s novels propose a new form of manhood for young readers at the same time they continue to tie femininity to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.118)

The language of fear

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“We all understand the language of fear, but men and women are raised speaking different dialects of that language.”
~ Liza Tuttle (quoted, p167, Gina Wisker)

Ref: p167 Gina Wisker ‘Love Bites: Contemporary Women’s Vampire Fictions’ pp.167-179 Ed. David Punter (2001) A Companion to the Gothic. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, UK; Malden, Massachusetts.

[quote apparently taken from the Introduction to Liza Tuttle, ed. (1990) Skin of the Soul. London: Women’s Press.]

Using speculative fiction in the classroom

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I agree, Leith Daniel! …

“The mistake many teachers make is to choose a film with a theme, or – worse – a subject, almost identical to the novel they’ve studied. And so there’s no intellectual effort required on the part of the students to see the theme or even values. You’ve essentially given the students the answer to a test before the subject’s been taught. And often, this is then reinforced by having the students study a text a which overtly deals with the issue in its plot. You’re not only handing the answer over to the students, you’re telling them the answer is in the plot and not the construction of the film itself.” (p.45)

Ref: Leith Daniel (2011) bugs, Buffy, and Santa’s Giant Sack: why speculative fiction is the best fiction to use in the English classroom. English in Aotearoa 74 July. pp42-49

Note I think there is also a copy available at: http://fablecroft.com.au/swancon-edustream

Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight – Bode

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I really enjoyed Lisa Bode’s critical analysis of reviews of the film Twilight – and how constructions of female adolescence are drawn on by film reviewers to patrol the (gendered) boundaries of genre. Great article! …some quotes:

“The critical reception of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s first teen vampire romance novel, though, repeatedly mobilizes an idea of its audience that is not just female but adolescent. This is hardly surprising as the Twilight novels were marketed in the young adult sections of bookshops, and the film features a dangerous romance between an ordinary 17-year-old girl, Bella, and a 108-year-old teen vampire, Edward. However, what is interesting in film reviews for Twilight is how [-p.708] often a (mainly) female adolescent audience, and associated mode of viewing, is evoked, and how this is variously used to denigrate or legitimate the film and its pleasures. The lowly cultural status of the teen girl audience has been examined before in Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti’s work on Leonardo DiCaprio’s disavowal of his teen idol identity (Nash and Lahti 1999, 72) in the wake of his role in Titanic (James Cameron 1997). However, Twilight’s critical reception provides us with the opportunity to see some of the variations in how differently situated film reviewers define and deploy the teen girl. [/] For some reviewers, the teen girl audience taints the film, and the film taints the girl, and both are to be reviled. But for others, the film, and the adolescent girl who is imagined to be captivated by it, become objects of a somewhat romantic fascination. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (pp.707-708)

“Film critics perform an important role in pre-shaping audience reception (Barker 2004). In the words of Pierre Bourdieu they often influence ideas of ‘what is worthy of being seen’, what is unworthy, and ‘the right way to see it’ (Bourdieu 1984, 28).” (p.708)

“Film reviews […] are useful to analyse not only for what they foreground of the struggles over cultural meaning but also for what they [-p.709] reveal of the dynamics of power in classification of films and their audiences, and the ways in which such things as gender, age and class are linked in this process of classification.” (pp.708-709)

“…when reading the reviews it is often difficult to separate the evaluation of Twilight from the reviewer’s disposition towards the teen girl audience. For instance, in the negative reviews is Twilight a ‘bad’ film because it is supposedly made for teen girls, or are teen girls deficient because they like Twilight and reveal their intense engagement with the film and, notably, its display of young male beauty, through gasps and shrieks?” (p.709)

“While all the reviews examined describe Twilight’s audience as ‘teen’, ‘tween’ or ‘adolescent’, the more negative the review, the more derisive is the language used to describe the audience, and maintain distance between the taste of the reviewer and that of the audience. Repeatedly, adolescent females are maligned for their lack of cultural capital, described as ‘indiscriminate’ (Ochieng 2008) or said to have ‘insipid’ (Burns 2008), ‘banal’ (Brayton 2008) or ‘less discriminating palates’ (Chang 2008). Dehumanized and de-individualized as the film’s ‘designated demographic’ (Ochieng 2008) and described in animalistic terms as ‘swarming’ (Puig 2009) and ‘mallrat masses’ (Ochieng 2008), they are presented as easily targeted and manipulated by a cynical market-driven mass culture. Accordingly, Twilight is seen as a crass commercial ‘product’ (Hanke 2008), a ‘cash machine’ (Vasquez 2008) designed to feed the gaping maw of this indiscriminate swarming squealing mass, and part them from their money.” (p.710)

“…reviewers use the girl as a means to leverage their own cultural superiority: their individualized and aesthetically informed responses to the film; their detached, rational and critical disposition; and importantly, too, their knowledge of vampire and horror film genres that enables them to distinguish between greater and lesser examples.” (p.710) … “For instance, horror film aficionado Felix Vasquez Jr complains bitterly that Twilight’s trailers promised ‘vampire action’ to ‘non-fans’, but failed to deliver, being hybridized or rather, polluted, by the teen and romance genres. He curls his lip at the way female authors such as Anne Rice have popularized the ‘emo’ vampire who struggles with his or her monstrosity instead of gleefully predating, and reveals that by his definition a ‘good’ vampire film should foreground blood lust, gore and ‘action’ rather than moping introspection (Vasquez 2008). Vasquez’s particular definition of the vampire genre, as a subgenre of horror, appears to exemplify the way some horror fans use their ability to ‘stomach’ onscreen blood, viscera, gore, and transgression as a marker of a rather masculinist distinction, or what Hollows calls ‘the ritual test of masculine hardness’ (Hollows 2003, 44). Clearly, Twilight, Anne Rice and the ‘emo’ vampire provide little opportunity for viewers to test themselves in this way. However, by positioning these films generically, Vasquez and others work to patrol the boundaries of their idea of what the vampire genre should be, and determine who it is for (and not).” (p.710)

In contrast to the way that the audience is portrayed in the negative reviews as swarming indiscriminate mallrats, positive reviews have an empathetic or affectionate regard for Twilight’s perceived or imagined audience, and for female adolescents and adolescence in general. While the positive reviewers still mostly identify themselves as ‘not the film’s target’, these writers strive to reconnect with their own adolescent yearnings (either as romanticizing or wryly commenting on their younger selves) or produce a reading of adolescent imagination as a complex and liminal state, on the cusp of cultural and sexual knowledge. This attempt to see the film in relation to a teen girl perspective is in part predicated on the way the positive reviewers tend to frame Twilight generically as a teen romance film, rather than as a vampire film. Evaluating it as a teen romance produces a very different set of cultural and cinematic reference points, and it means that if there is evidence of an affective link between teen girls in the audience and the teens represented on the screen then it testifies to the film’s success. For instance, Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for the Daily Telegraph (UK), refers to the vocal responses of girls in his screening as evidence that the film has succeeded in conveying an ‘emotional truth’ that connects with its audience (2008). [/] While this type of assessment casts the teen viewer in a more favourable light, it is nevertheless the case that neither in the positive nor in the negative reviews is the adolescent girl mode of engagement imagined as rational, mindful or critical. If negative reviewers see the female adolescent as uncritical and easily enthralled, the positive or more ambivalent reviewers describe her as ‘estrogenic’ (M. O’Sullivan 2008) or ‘hormonal’ (Knight 2008). Such labels do not in this case necessarily mark the teen girl viewer as ‘more easily seduced’, but rather as one who experiences a natural, complex and mysterious state, that makers of teen films rarely manage to connect with or capture.” (p.713)

“In the reviews of Twilight I have surveyed, the affective contagion of the teen or preteen girl audience is much more usually disavowed or resisted. Even positive reviewers of the film appear to need to bring in references to legitimate culture, such as the nineteenth century romance novel, not just as a means of elevating Twilight but invoked as a kind of talisman against a teen girl pop contamination of their adult critic identity. How does this reconcile with the fact that grown men and women happily confess to enjoying Transformers (Michael Bay 2007) or The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan 2008), and that so many reviewers of Transformers in particular tap into a 13-year-old boy viewing mode? For instance Ebert, who as we saw above was keen to delimit Twilight’s audience, but in his review of Transformers, however, he self-consciously slips out of his stuffy adult critic persona with lines like: ‘it’s goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good’ (Ebert 2007). Ebert willingly submits to an uncomplicated joy in dumb kinetic violence and spectacular explosions, and revels in the hoots and cheers of the audience with which he shared the screening. Perhaps, then, more so than age, it is gender that functions here as a key factor in the relative status of taste formations....” (italics in original, p.716)

“This article has examined some of the different ways in which film critics, in their reviews of Twilight, construct the film’s teen girl audience and, in relation to this figure, reaffirm both their own taste formations and their cultural values. Although film reviewers are often reporting upon the vocal behaviour of actual girls attending their screening, these writers use the adolescent girl as an imagined ‘other’. Thus, references in reviews to girls as a dehumanized swarming mass or as the giggling bearers of complex longing, reveal more about the cultural values and social position of the film reviewer than that of actual adolescent girls. Moreover, childhood and teenhood (unlike other social categories such as race, ethnicity or gender) are thought to be temporary states, transitional phases that are passed through on the way to an adult identity imagined as ‘fixed’. Because of the teen girl’s temporary occupation of her identity, and the sense that she is not yet properly initiated into systems of culture, and not yet fully sexual, reviewers appear to denigrate or sentimentalize her without guilt. Where does this leave the adult audience and fandom, those of us old enough to ‘know better’ and yet confess to drawing pleasure from Twilight?” (p.717)

Ref: (my emphases in blue bold) Lisa Bode (2010): Transitional tastes: Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24:5, 707-719

Abstract: “Reviews of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s enormously popular screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire romance novel, reveal a focus on both the gender and age of the film’s audience. The teen, tween or adolescent girl, her tastes and affective response, are evoked in different ways by many reviewers to denigrate the film. However, the adolescent girl is also used in positive reviews to legitimate Twilight and its pleasures. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (p.707)

the “seek-it-out-and-destroy-it” pattern

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Hmmm:

Kratter writes : “In his well-known sociological study Image and Influence, Andrew Tudor writes that it is possible [‘]to distinguish a single basic horror narrative to which all conform, something we might label the “seek-it-out-and-destroy-it” pattern. . . The whole genre revolves around the creation or discovery of an it, its recognition, seeking, and destruction.[‘] (209)” (Kratter, p.41)

Ref: Matthew Kratter ‘Twilight of the Vampires: History and the Myth of the Undead’ Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Volume 5, Spring 1998, pp. 30-45

Reference is to:  Tudor, Andrew. 1974. Image and Influence: Studies in the Sociology of Film. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Inspiration for the horrific imagination

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According to Clive Bloom, “The twentieth century has had two major sources of inspiration for the horrific imagination. The first is Hollywood, where modern cinematographic technology has been used to reproduce the Romantic Gothic worlds of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Gaston Le Roux’s Phantom of the Opera and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The work of Universal and other studios’ horror movies has been widely distributed and are well known, appearing nowadays regularly on television. The second major influence is the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a pulp-fiction writer whose short life ended before the Second World War. Where the studios were motivated by publicity and commercialism, Lovecraft was motivated by horror of publicity and by a disgust with commercial enterprise. Lovecraft remains, fifty years after his death, an enigmatic writer and a strange and stranded personality. He wrote ‘popular fiction’ which never was and still is not popular; he considered himself a man of letters who wrote exclusively for pulp magazines; he instinctively felt that he was a gentleman but was actually the son of a commercial salesman; and he was a writer in the early twentieth century who owed nothing to the work of James, Eliot, Pound of Lawrence. His output was small, consisting of two novellas (one published after his death) and some short stories, many of which were completed by others after his death. In many ways Lovecraft has been an influence on film makers (especially Roger Corman) and on other writers (Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Colin Wilson, Ramsay Campbell and Stephen King), but Lovecraft himself remains locked away – a cult interest for fantasy fanatics (who are rare) and academics or intellectuals (who are rarer).” (192)

“Who was H.P. Lovecraft and what did he do?” Bloom continues. “He was born on 20 August 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island.” (192)

Stephen King says that Lovecraft [-p.201] ‘has been called a hack, a description I would dispute vigorously, but whether he was or wasn’t, and whether he was a writer of popular fiction or a writer of so-called ‘literary fiction’ (depending on your critical bent), really doesn’t matter very much in this context, because either way, the man himself took his work seriously.’

David Punter confesses, ‘perhaps little more needs to be said about Lovecraft: his writing is crude, repetitive, compulsively readable, the essence of pulp fiction.” (200-201)

“In order to understand this ambivalence over Lovecraft’s work it is necessary to see that Lovecraft’s personal traumas were, in fact, the social traumas of the group from which his work emerged and to which his work was addressed. …Lovecraft’s work emerged at a certain point coincident with the emergence of modern mass literacy in America and the growth of vocational self-improvement and literary escapism. Magazines such as Weird Tales met these needs follosing the decline of dime novels. The adolescent, mostly male readership that emerged during this period looked to magazines which included the petit-bourgeois writers such as themselves who represented the world of a class and a culture that felt it had no voice. This was a class that saw itself as neither proletarian nor bourgeois and that felt itself exploited by bourgeois cultural requirements. (Lovecraft emerged from such a class, being self-educated, aspiring to be an eighteenth-century gentleman yet the son of a travelling salesman.) This petit-bourgeois-generated antagonism left it feeling bewildered and disenfranchised (hence Lovecraft’s hatred of others, especially aliens). The readership of one class unknowingly united with another readership of fantasy tales – the bourgeois intelligentsia, who also felt (and feel) disenfranchised. In both classes a desire for a period before technological specialization (the very period from which these classes emerfe) led to an alliance among the pages of Weird Tales. Such an alliance manifests itself in a distaste for money (Lovecraft’s disinterest in publishing fiction or editing magazines) and a paradoxical love of ostentatious consumption (lovecraft’s taste for the life of a gentleman and, in his tales, for ’empires’ and for prehistoric [-p.202] gods and ‘heroes’, who do not have to earn a living). this paradox is represented in the fiction by a ‘revival’ of a mythic past, a romaticized past of Gothic or feudal origins and a whole mythology of warring gods being a rewriting in fantasy terms of the myth of Genesis.” (201-202)

“This construction of another (quite separate) history to the world other than the official bourgeois history reflects the petit-bourgeois belief in a conspiracy by ‘those at the top’. This conspiracy involves the translation of social factors into black magic and occult forces which because they are about to return suggest they are outside human (therefore bourgeois) control.” (202)

“In Lovecraft’s tales public action is public only because it indicates private motives which are openly represented by a character’s hostility or withdrawal from public life.

Like the heroes of his tales, Lovecraft’s life was public but always anonymous (conducted with many people but only by letter). Like his characters, the pulp-fiction author has no biography: his cult is that of a name to a text only. The author’s authority is ensured by the repetition of his name on the cover of a work or magazine – a name without personality. Hence, like the tales of the fabulous that he produced, the author himself becomes fabulous, and this [-p.204] fabulousness is both projected away from and determined by his ordinary existence.” (203-204)

“Lovecraft’s name on his stories stands for a type of story which anybody can create and which allows a tradition to emerge: even in his lifetime he rewrote other people’s stories, and August Derleth completed Lovecraft’s unfinished works after the author’s death. The essential element thus emerges which constitutes the industrial processes within which Lovecraft tales exist. Always different, ‘Lovecraft’s stories (whoever writes tehm: Colin Wilson, Robert Bloch, August Derleth or Ramsay Campbell) are, at the same time, always the same: they reflect the need for a production-line process and an unchanging product in an unchanging world – a world whose unchangingness reassures as it terrifies. But it is a world where the production process is always out of control. …Lovecraft’s nightmares are about the products of the production line – things with their own history: a production line that he exorcized and reproduced in his fiction.” (204)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London