Losing Your Self with the Quay Brothers & Ryan Trecartin

The screen flickers between close-up images of graphite stained fingernails, bands of light oscillating over windows that snap open and shut, and eerie Martian landscapes. All are punctuated by the peculiar audio drones and pitches, an avant-garde soundtrack composed by  Karlheinz Stockhausen. So constructs the twenty minute psycho-drama directed by the Quay Brothers in the year 2000, In Absentia.

The Quay Brothers in 2001 for OffScreen

The short film follows the story of a woman, albeit lacking specific details. She is shuttered up in an institutional-looking manor. She obsessively sharpens pencils and writes letters, filling the pages with sentences laid atop sentences so that the meaning is indiscernible. She ritualistically places broken pencil tips outside her window. She drops the letters down a grandfather clock, whose base is visually filled with similar letters. Because she chooses not to postmark them? Because she is not allowed to? Because she is imprisoned? Because the letter recipient is dead?

Excerpt from film

These gaps in detail are left to simmer. Instead, the Quay Brother present a demonic animation roaming a hallway. They sometimes switches to a barren, wind-swept landscape dotted with indiscernible, hulking technology that suggests space travel.

They layer multiple horror tropes into this quiet, uneventful, but definitely nightmarish world. The manor is a haunted house — or perhaps even more specifically, a haunted asylum. The woman walks that thin line between mentally ill and demonically terrifying — viewers are conflicted about whether to pity or fear her. The entire set is haunted by bands of light that only temporarily illuminate the viewer’s frame.

The Brothers give us plenty of room to wallow in the uncertainty of this postmodern piece. Demon or human, alien or human, phantom or human, sane or insane…the viewer is left without concrete answers. In 2000, people had yet to experience social media or the ability to watch YouTube on a touchscreen phone. But the Brothers still incorporated some of the core anxieties about technological communication — how do we communicate? Do the tools we use to communicate connect us or isolate us?

The audio is peppered with the sound of the woman laughing. Quickly, that laughter is distorted and begins to sound like chimpanzee screeching, then all together alien. She traces words so carefully with her pencil on paper, following each stroke of the pencil with her finger, but when the viewer witnesses a shot of the page the letters are completely muddled. In both speaking and writing, her message is corrupted — the mediums, these human technologies meant to enable communication, betray her. She is trying to communicate and she fails.

The alien/demonic presence can be tied to the technological obsessions of the time. Starting in 1998, NASA’s New Millennium Program was launching probes to Mars and satellites into Earth’s orbit. Our reality was expanding with new, imagined worlds outside of Earth. The barren Martian landscapes of In Absentia point to the obsession with the mysteries of space. There seems to be a desire to explore this final frontier and make meaning out of what we can’t understand.

 

While the woman is seated at her chair, there are moments when a third hand slides up her back or across her shoulder. She is shown several times swatting and gripping at her neck, as if she continues to feel a ghostly touch in the otherwise empty room. Her internal world is haunted (suggesting the ambiguity of her sanity) while her external world is also haunted by those space age mystery landscapes. It is a hybrid haunting which expresses itself in various canonical forms: ominous alien light flickering over mysterious landscapes, a literal clay demon roaming the hallways, and the horror of possessed insanity.

Ultimately, the film dedicates itself to a real woman: “E.H., who lived and wrote to her husband from an asylum.” The Brothers said in an interview that they only later learned that audio creator Stockhausen’s “mother was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in an asylum, where she later died.” This directly connects the film to an important core piece of postmodern horror: body horror. The physical body become the irrational site of insanity, possession, evil — all societal fears channeled into an unsocialized body.

The Quay Brothers made their film eerie and horrific with gothic lighting, uncanny close ups, minimalism, and the vague suggestion of insanity, imprisonment, demons, aliens — the ambiguity is quiet and assured. Emerging in the the video art scene more than ten years later, Ryan Trecartin’s work is distinctly a product of current culture. Both artists embroil the viewer amidst many of the same themes despite dramatic stylistic differences. Trecartin’s shots are shaky and often hand held, shedding any professional aires, while the Quay Brothers so obviously labored to get big, serious shots. Trecartin immediately makes use of  in media res — dumping the viewer into the middle of action, no explanation. In Center Jenny, the initial shot is explosive: a car is being destroyed by people wearing green screen outfits, chattering manically in a green lined room. Girls with heavy handed make up screech and chatter, their voices synthed up and pitched to other-worldly as they roam a decrepit warehouse.

Ryan Trecartin performing in “Any Ever.” Still from YouTube.

Center Jenny follows several groups of girls who are all named “Jenny.” Each group is a reality television type archetype taken to the extreme — the Taylor Swift good girl, the Bad Girls Club drama queen, the boy-obsessed pretty girl, the Queen Bee, the girls who basically just background fodder hoping to get a personality assigned to them. They exist on various levels and are trying to level up to become a more potent “Jenny.” Everyone wants to become closer to the “The Source” — the Center Jenny, the ultimate, perfected Jenny.

The film uses extremes and maximalism to strip down the process of social norming, social cohesion, groupthink, and the way we construct identities. There’s a long process in which one “left of center” Jenny (meaning, non-conforming) is hazed by higher level Jenny’s and eventually re-inducted into the higher level group once she is rendered docile. Her eyes glaze over completely white and she gapes at the screen as if lobotomized. Obviously, she gets a cute makeover, too.

Another girl, with dramatic purple contouring, straight black hair and 90s Vans lounges on what looks like a makeshift MTV music video set: lawn furniture under multi-color lights in a warehouse. She leans back on a hammock as the lights flicker and her friend undulates to uncanny music — it looks as if aliens had found a time capsule from the coolest teenager in the early 2000s and tried to reconstruct the aesthetic. And that wouldn’t be off base for Trecartin; at one point, the girl looks up into the camera and drones, “The only thing I’ll ever study is Human Era Hazing and how awesome it is.”

There are several points in the film when the Jenny’s refer to the “human era” and the “Earth version” of various things, suggesting the MTV teenage cool girl and the gaggles of Jenny’s aren’t just extreme versions of culture today. The Jenny’s are futuristic, their uncanniness — the way the viewer can recognize social norms and identity archetypes but still feel so overwhelmed by the unfamiliar vehicle — stems from their literal alienness. They are not human; they are something else, approximating all human culture through the lens of our most popular media.

This crystallizes towards the end of the film when a group of Jenny’s, waiting to level up or to be assigned a personality, meet a character who describes how they evolved from “animations,” which evolved from humans. This suggests that the Jenny’s are constructed from human archetypes and media, explaining why each Jenny acts like she’s in a reality TV fever dream while also being obviously aware that she is performing. The Jenny’s operate more as a collective hive than as individual, heterogenous humans — another indication of their archetypical identity. At one point, the MTV cool girl even screams at her friend — “Bitch, you’re not real! You’re just in my system!” Her friend fires back, “I am you, get out.”

Trecartin doesn’t use any traditional horror motifs — no gore, no jump scares, no supernatural activity. The the warehouse functions somewhat like a haunted house, with its sprawling, mysterious, inaccessible nature. The girls are alien animations, and the audio would surely meet Stockhausen’s standards for being avant-garde and creepy. But Trecarin’s real horror takes the form of a cultural mirror; the Jenny’s are the most derivative parts of our culture, norms, and socialization reflected back to us.

According to Jeffrey Cohen’s monster theory, horror villains represent the cultural anxieties of the particular era; the monster shows us how “our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality” created it, and also demand to know why we “have created them” in the first place. (20).

In Absentia presents isolation, insanity, and being subject to an outside influence you can’t control — whether demons or alien — as being horrific. Center Jenny is the product when the landscape of In Absentia ferments for thirteen years. The world is controlled by non-human aliens, the Jenny’s are mentally unhinged by human standards, and rather than living in isolated, lonely existence, socialization is totally oversaturated.

The most horrific thing for the Quay Brothers was the inability to communicate — your ability to speak and correspond becoming totally corrupted. The Jenny’s learned how to correspond and coordinate to an extreme degree — they are 2D copies of each other, a society of beings that are at once mimics and solipsistics. The chief curator and associate director of the New Museum, Massimiliano Gioni, described the subject of Trecartin’s videos as “the act of communication…We’re all trying to communicate, and what we communicate about is less and less relevant. When I watch his videos, I feel a speeded-up version of what we’re all doing.”      

Patrick Langley wrote that Trecartin “enacts a literal illustration of the electric mania of modern life.” But since we rarely perceive it to be as wild and desecrating as it actually is, when presented with an extreme portrait we are shocked and horrified. We are confronted by the biggest postmodern boogeyman: that we are not special, unique, sacred, or different.  Langley goes on to describe “the instability of Trecartin’s vision of human identity” expressed in his films:

“Our engagement with culture is rendered as a form of enmeshing or interbreeding. Empathy is metamorphosis: when a character identifies with an idea or person, they adopt their vocabulary or physical characteristics. Trecartin’s films reject the binarism of real and virtual, male and female, self and other, gay or straight, rationality and madness, surface and subtext, style and content, time and space.”

Trecartin imagines and renders an extreme postmodern society. Identity is boundless, completely fluid and up for grabs. Whether through extreme isolation or extreme socialization, the Quay Brothers and Trecartin end up at the same point. They warn us about total loss of self, knowledge, and reality — we are swept away by alien possession or merged into a manic hive mind. In either case, both artists seem to suggest we are loosing something human. Confronted by the postmodern void, do we become isolated shells or oversaturated replicas? 


Works Cited
Aita, Roberto. “Brothers Quay: In Absentia.” Offscreen. N.p., Sept. 2001.
Center Jenny. Dir. Ryan Trecartin. Vimeo. N.p., 2014. Web.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”
Speaking of Monsters (n.d.): 3-25. Web.
In Absentia. Dir. Timothy Quay and Stephan Quay. Perf. Marlene Kaminsky.
Vimeo. N.p., 2000. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.<vimeo.com/84313389&gt;.
Langley, Patrick. “Ryan Trecartin: The Real Internet Is Inside You.” The
White Review. N.p., Apr. 2012. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <www.thewhitereview.org/art/ryan-trecartin-the-real-internet-is-inside-you/&gt;.
Tomkins, Calvin. “The Experimental Videographers.” The New Yorker. N.p.,

From Peril to Power: Defying Weakness in the “NoSleep Podcast” and Hush

Introduction:

One of the critical features within the post-modern horror genre its ability to enhance all five senses. The voice, for example, enables the audience to not only hear the fear but connect to the speaker on an emotional level. In a sense, the voice becomes a body, which then becomes a whole entity. For the following analysis, I observe two different mediums that rely on one or more than one of the five senses to generate their respective stories: a horror fiction podcast, “The NoSleep Podcast” and a horror film, Hush. Both forms of media use the senses (or lack thereof) to make distinct statements about disability, mental illness, and women in peril.

The NoSleep Podcast: “He Won’t Stop Tapping” (2017)

The “NoSleep Podcast” is a space for amateur horror writers to broadcast their work. Stories are told in the first person which enables the listener to experience the action firsthand. All of the podcasts begin with a specific introduction, combining dark and harsh music with phrases such as, “We’re here to frighten you and mess with your head,” “You’re here because that’s what you want,” and “Join us as the sleepless hours take a pass” to welcome the listener into uncharted territory. Within one of the podcast’s series devoted to survivors, searchers, and strangers is a narrative written by Collette Akile entitled, “He Won’t Stop Tapping.” This is a story about an unnamed young woman who lives alone in a room in an attic that has only one window. She claims she is wary of loud noises, prone to sudden bouts of fear, and has a history of mental illness. The story examines the woman’s struggle as she becomes aware of a mysterious tapping on her bedroom window, which she refuses to investigate because she is convinced that her mind is playing tricks on her. When she finally decides to peer out of her window, she discovers a man perched on her slanted roof. She realizes that the sound is not tapping, but instead, it is the clacking of the man’s teeth. The story then follows her as she begs her male friend to spend the night to assuage her fears and to listen for the tapping to confirm the sound’s existence. The two hear the tapping, but when her friend goes to take a photograph of its source, the man on the roof escapes. The next morning, the narrator’s friend goes missing, which might indicate that he was killed by the mysterious man. The podcast’s final line, “I left my window unlatched” leaves the listener uncertain about the narrator’s fate.

The feeling of isolation is largely associated with mental illness. Find source here.

One of the main areas of focus in the podcast is the concept of a mentally ill woman in peril. The narrator repeatedly admits that she feels like she is being “watched” or “hunted” and notes that she keeps a knife beside her bed just in case she needs to defend herself against an intruder. When she thinks about the threats that might lurk in the outside world, she repeats the mantra, “It’s not real it’s in your head” to herself. Instead of creating distance from the audience, the listener becomes trapped inside the head of the narrator. Even though the narrator is convinced that the tapping sound is just her mind playing tricks on her, we are aware that her mental illness plays a role in the severity of the problem. In his opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “Mental Illness Is Not a Horror Show,” Andrew Solomon writes, “It’s the proximity of mental illness rather than its obscurity that makes it so scary” (Solomon). The NoSleep Podcast invites the listener to tackle mental illness head on, which contributes to a heightened level of fear as it is unclear whether what is being presented is imagined or real. The narrator also tries to normalize her mental illness, commenting that her mother has also displayed signs of paranoia and anxiety and that her therapist makes her write about what is going on in her life. This, paired with a surprising level of self-awareness, makes the events seem more realistic, thereby lulling the listener into a false sense of security. The narrator admits, “My paranoia saved me. I also know it killed someone.” This level of self-awareness enables the narrator to show the listener that she is aware of the action that transpires. However, the fact that she leaks information such as, “I also know it killed someone” before we actually see who is killed and why makes the content more frightening because we experience the scare more than once.

The female gaze. Find source here.

It is crucial to examine how womanhood plays a specific role in the construction and outcome of this story. The tale is told through the eyes of a female, thereby providing her with control over the story and a sense of power over any other character. In a section entitled, “And Then She Killed Him…Women and Violence in the Slasher Film” within her book, Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing, Isabel Pinedo writes, “The surviving female’s appropriation of the gaze enables her to use violence to defend herself effectively and to drive the narrative forward. We see him from her point of view.” (Pinedo 76). The only information we receive about the man on the roof is what the narrator chooses to tell us, which forces us to trust the speaker because we see the story through her eyes. Yet, she feels the need to question whether or not the tapping was in her head and begs her male friend to spend the night. This indirectly aligns masculinity with intelligence and control and takes away the feminine power that was given to the narrator from the beginning of the story. In the end, the man outside her window does not choose to attack her, but instead he decides to kill her male friend. This gives the power back to the female but strengthens the idea that the podcast focuses on an unbalanced sense of who is in control to confuse and frighten the listener.

The podcast also utilizes real life sounds such as the moving of bedcovers, the noise coming from a television show, and running water from a sink to create a sense of familiarity and security. The tapping also creates a metronomic sound, which is soothing to the ears of the audience. This contrasts with the lack of security the narrator feels when discussing the police. She claims that they would not be able to do much with little evidence about the man sitting on the roof and is convinced that because the sound is in her head, the police would not believe her. When the narrator’s friend goes missing, the police tell her that there is nothing they can do unless he has been gone for twenty-four hours, as he is not considered “missing” until then. As it turns out, according to Uslegal.com, if a person is missing and believed to be in danger, there “is no twenty-four hour waiting period. The law enforcement agency will immediately enter information about the missing person into the Missing Person’s database and the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person File.” Although this is a horror fiction podcast, the distortion of real life facts is used to make the the listener feel vulnerable and unprotected. Therefore, our sense of security is violated because the police cannot make any immediate progress within the story.

Finally, the use of technology skillfully frames the narrative and makes the actions that occur more relatable. For instance, the narrator texts her friends in the middle of the night when she feels like someone is watching her and we hear her typing on her keyboard as she composes the text messages. Additionally, when the narrator’s male friend hears the tapping, he attempts to take a picture of the man outside on the roof, but before he is able to the sound cuts off and the man disappears. In a sense, the failure of technology adds to the terror because we are conditioned to believe that technology should always work. The uncertainty over technology also enhances what Pinedo writes in another piece within her book entitled, “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film” about the open ending. She claims, “in the end, the inefficacy of human action and the repudiation of narrative closure combine to produce various forms of the open ending” (Pinedo, 19). The open ending and our uncertainty about the fate of the narrator allows the listener to control how the story should end.

The trailer for Hush on Netflix.

Hush (2016):

Hush, directed and edited by Mike Flanagan, is a horror film that was released in April 2016 on Netflix. It tells the story of Maddie Young, a deaf and mute author who lives alone in an isolated house in the woods. After a seemingly normal and relaxing evening, Maddie’s friend Sarah is murdered by a masked, psychotic killer, with ambiguous motives outside her kitchen window. Maddie cannot hear any of this and continues with her nightly routine. Once Sarah’s masked killer discovers Maddie’s disability, he’s not content to merely take advantage of the situation and slay her; instead he breaks into her house, takes her phone, and begins taking photographs of her and sends them to her laptop to make her aware of his presence. When Maddie realizes she is being stalked, she locks herself inside the house. The film uses sparse dialogue and muted volume to place the viewer in Maddie’s shoes, and uses piercing and dramatic sounds to reflect the danger of the situation. Maddie makes several failed attempts to escape her house and eventually ends up stabbing the man to death. This film is similar in form and content to “Wait Until Dark” (1967) starring Audrey Hepburn, who plays a blind woman who unwittingly comes into possession of a heroin-filled doll. As a result, she finds herself harassed by three men who enter her home and threaten to stab and burn her alive if she does not give up the goods. The disabled woman in peril is a common trope in horror, but the fact that Maddie is victorious at the end of the film illuminates the idea that able-bodies do not necessarily equate invincibility.

Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” (1967). Find source here.

This film takes a close look at the power of disability and the testing of its limitations. Even though Maddie cannot hear or speak, she utilizes the power of her mind and pen to become a famous and successful young author. It is clear that she remains in close contact with her friends and family and lives happily alone. The film begins with loud sounds coming from Maddie’s kitchen as she makes dinner — the chopping of onions, the sizzling of asparagus cooking in oil, and the placing of marinated meat into the oven. This aligns her disabled body with normal tasks involved in the preparation of a meal. Her body is also put in conversation with the technology that she surrounds herself with. Technology provides her with a voice and serves as one of the ways she can communicate with the people around her. She texts her friend Sarah on her cell-phone, composes the end to her next novel on her laptop, and video-chats her sister. Even though Maddie is disabled, she appears able-bodied as she performs everyday life activities with ease. This, in turn, creates an aura of normalcy around her. However, when the masked man learns of her disability, he decides to test it. He taps on the window, scratches his knife across the glass, and stands behind Maddie without her knowing. This gives him the upper hand in the situation and brings powerlessness to Maddie’s disability. As Angela Smith writes in her book, “The Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema,” “cultural narratives often use disability to generate a plot that ultimately reasserts and values normalcy” (Smith 5). Although we see instances where Maddie’s disability does not affect her ability to engage in “normal” tasks, the fact that the masked man can exert control over her because of her impairments provides him with more power at times. In the end, however, Maddie uses her disability to her advantage as she is forced to devise creative solutions regarding how to escape her house. Before she kills the masked man, she sprays insecticide in his eyes and blasts a fire alarm in his ears, thereby temporarily blinding and deafening him, which essentially evens the playing field. Because Maddie was afflicted with sense-crippling bronchial meningitis when she was thirteen she is caught between two worlds — unable to physically hear or talk, but still able to remember those features which enables her to conjure speech in her visions and dreams. Even though shifts between normalcy and disability are present, Maddie’s disability ultimately contributes to her victory.

The masked man tests Maddie’s disability by standing behind her. Find source here.

In her piece “…And Then She Killed Him: Women and Violence in the Slasher Film,” Pinedo argues that postmodern horror film develops a routine in which it stages the spectacle of the ruined body, particularly the female body, which calls for feminist analysis. She states that her discussion of the horror film is motivated by a “desire to disrupt the facile assumptions that the genre does not speak to women but only about them, and that it does this in a degrading manner” (Pinedo 70). I would argue, however, that Hush speaks to and about women in the opposite way as it aligns a disabled woman with power. Some could argue that the inability for Maddie to speak could represent the silencing of women in society, but it also reflects the ability for a woman to face and overcome hardships in spite of numerous setbacks. In her book, “Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic,” Linda Bradley admits idea that, “the discourse of feminism has given a new language to the horror film” and that many overlook the trend of “the male body becoming the object of focalization or invasion” in horror films (Bradley 104, 105). This idea is illustrated in Hush, as Maddie relies on herself to fight all of the battles and to destroy the male body.

The masked man steals Maddie’s phone, but that does not stop her from fighting back. Find source here.

The horror movie also explores explicit threats to the body, which substantiates what Pinedo writes in her article about the postmodern elements of the contemporary horror film, that “terror is the threat to the body and the concomitant sense that harm could happen to you” (Pinedo 26). The fact that we are shown blood, guts, and gore makes everything seem more human. During one of Maddie’s failed attempts to escape the house, the masked killer fires a crossbow bolt into her leg, leading her to bleed profusely and making it impossible for her to run. Flanagan spends a great deal of time focusing on the after effects of this injury so the audience empathize with her situation. Maddie’s wound is so severe that she is at risk of bleeding out and as a result, experiences many hallucination and visions. Therefore, the threat to the body is equated with a limited amount of time to survive. Maddie recognizes that time is her enemy and decides that the only way to survive is to murder the intruder. If it were not for the pressing nature of the severity of her wound, Maddie may have not made this decision. The harm to her body provides her with the agency she needs to move forward with her plan.

When time becomes the enemy. Find source here.

Synthesis:

The horror fiction podcast and the horror film focus on mentally ill and disabled women in peril. Although both end with the female protagonist in control of the story, they arrive at this point through the use of different and complementary techniques. First, the film and the podcast highlight the importance in the role of the audience as consumers of horror. In the podcast, we are unable to see what the setting, narrator, or killer look like, and as a result, must create a mental image of everything based on the descriptors we hear. Similarly, in the movie, we are unable to hear any of Maddie’s thoughts because we are placed within the confines of how she views the world because of her disability. In a sense, we have to think for her and devise strategies on our own, which directly incorporates the audience into the action. The two mediums also skillfully utilize silence and sound into the respective stories. The moments of silence in Hush contrast with the heightened audio when violence occurs,  which makes the audience feel trapped between two different worlds. Likewise, melodious yet mysterious sound of the tapping in the podcast creates both a sense of security and dread for the listener. Additionally, the two mediums explore how technology can serve as an impediment to the progression of a story. In Hush, all Maddie needed was her phone to call the police, but the masked man stole it from her. In the podcast, the narrator’s friend goes to snap a photograph of the man on the roof, but the man escapes from the shot. Technology could have easily saved the day in both narratives, but it does not, which draws on the importance of the protagonist as the sole force in control of the action. Although these mediums differ in form, they illuminate the power of the woman in post-modern horror narratives despite the labels and weaknesses she may given at the outset. As a result, the woman in peril becomes the woman in power. These two sources of media compliment each other in the ways they ascribe power to the female figure and serve as models for contemporary representations of women in horror.

Works Cited:

Akile, Collette. “He Won’t Stop Tapping.” NoSleep Podcast, 15 January 2017. Web 4 March 2017.

Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. Print.

Hush. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Intrepid Productions, 2016. Netflix.

Pinedo, Isabel. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video. 17-31. Print.

Pinedo, Isabel. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. “…And Then She Killed Him: Women and Violence in the Slasher Film.” New York: State University of New York Press, 1997. 69-97. Print.

Smith, Angela M. “Introduction.” Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. 1-33. Print.

Solomon, Andrew. “Mental Illness Is Not a Horror Show.” The New York Times, 26 October 2016. www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/opinion/mental-illness-is-not-a-horror-show.html?_r=0.


 

Blaxploitation: Social Commentary in “Blacula” and “Get Out”

The origins of the trope, Blaxploitation

The decade of the 70s saw a sudden surge in the popularity of movies termed ‘Blaxploitation’. Usually produced, directed and starring an all black casts (except for the white villains, of course), these movies were made for urban filmgoers. Meant primarily to entertain black audiences, they increasingly became films about black justice and morality- even though a preponderance of the films’ antiheros and antiheriones were people who lived outside the law or skirted on the edges of it for personal and racial reasons. They, in short, and for all their foibles in production values, became the voice of a culture longing for true justice and acceptance on their own terms (Cook).

Trope

Blaxploitation‘ filmmaking contributed to the social construction of race during an era where the ideologies of black nationalism and black pride became dominant social expressions of racial identity for African Americans. These films depicted a stronger and more capable image of African Americans who triumphed over (frequently racist) white antagonists. The effect of this change on the construction of cinematic narrative was to flip the terms of the hierarchical white-black opposition (Benshoff 33).

As these movies became more popularised, both African American and white filmmakers began to create political films that intentionally critiqued the white power structure in the US at the time (Benshoff 34). This post will be exploring the ways two popular films featuring African American leads from vastly different times connect to each other through this trope.

William Crain’s Blacula (1972)

Blacula as depicted in “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy” on Cartoon Network.

 Blacula held an overtly political significance compared to its horror counterparts at the time, and it rose as a commercial box office success in 1972.

Blacula touches on the conventional African American experience in the 1970s. It has a direct reference to the history of slavery as well as the existence of police brutality implemented upon young African Americans. One reviewer stated, “I have . . . chosen to look upon the entire film as an effort by those responsible to show satirically the black man’s plight as a victim of white vampirism . . . Those who enjoy seeing the establishment take a whipping will be interested in the number of L.A. Police done in by this midnite creeper” (Benshoff 35).

References to Slavery

The “white vampirism” mentioned above is an explicit metaphor for slavery: “bitten by the racist Count Dracula centuries ago, the curse of vampirism becomes the lingering legacy of racism” (Benshoff 38). The white Count Dracula transforms his victim, Prince Mamuwalde, into a vampire who is forced to perpetuate this cycle of enslavement for centuries. Count Dracula gives Mamuwalde the name, Blacula, when the transformation was completed. Count Dracula robbed the prince of his name, life, and identity as a human being. This, “parallels the deculturization process of the slave industry, which denied African prisoners their families, religions, and even names,” (Benshoff 39).

Commentary on Police Brutality

Police brutality permeates throughout the movie and is directly referenced through lines such as, “Funny how so many sloppy police jobs involve black victims.” As in many blaxploitation films, “the police department here is full of racist officers, more than willing to share their racist statements with anyone who will listen,” (Hefner 66). Mamuwalde’s never turns any of his white police victims into vampires, instead he generally kills them by smashing their heads against walls. This violence intentionally acts a cry of defiance against the unjust killings of African Americans by police officers, and it resonated with the audience.

This theme is visited again in Peele’s Get Out and is especially poignant after the latest string of deaths of African Americans caused by police brutality.

Redefining the Monster

Although monstrosity in horror films has often worked to demonize difference (whether racial, sexual, or otherwise), Blacula reverses this dynamic. (Hefner 63). Instead of being seen as a monster, the vampire transforms into an agent of black pride and black power. Blacula is on a quest for revenge, and his goal is to clean up the streets.  This character is used as an empowering black figure instead of a reprehensible monster, which serves as a clear break from the vampire tradition (Benshoff 37).

Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)  

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Chris and Rose upon arriving at Missy and Dean’s manor.

Please watch the trailer here .

 Get Out is a stinging criticism of the white liberalism that carries itself as empathetic towards blacks, but that empathy only extends as far as white control. Peele isn’t taking aim at neo-Nazis and other whites who would angrily shout the n-word. They’re a lost cause. Instead, he’s looking at those who profess their lack of racism, but only do so if they can maintain their dominance over black people in the most insidious manner possible. As Chris pointedly notes to Rose at [a] party full of white people, “Has anyone here ever met a black person that didn’t work for them?” (Goldberg)

References to Slavery

Nostalgia reeks through the provincial “Old South” setting. First of all, the setting is a plantation in the middle of nowhere. Additionally, there is an antiquated television set in the basement,  elderly white folk, Bingo, and an excessive use of  photography. Photos play a crucial part in this movie, but none of the photos are digital – they are all physical copies (like the ones found in the shoe box – dun dun duun!).

These are all examples of remediation, because they take an antiquated form of technology and transports it to modern times. The use of remediation builds an atmosphere that is reminiscent of the “Old South,” and the pervasiveness of microagressions along with the presence of elderly white people builds on top of the anxiousness of the setting. It’s almost as if the audience is being transported to another era. The way that the characters are dressed is not  contemporary (spoiler: Logan, pictured below, has been brainwashed and was formerly known as a street-wise artist named Andre), and the old fashioned etiquette and setting feels both familiar and unsettling. This becomes especially true when we learn that there are two African Americans working on the house grounds. This is a direct reference to slavery, and it is brought up by the owner of the house, Dean, who essentially tells Chris, “I know it looks bad… white land owners and black workers…  but we’re not racist and it’s not what you think.”

Moments before Logan’s “malfunction“.

Peele uses a clever tactic to reveal how African Americans are being subjugated to conform to a greater white power structure in modern day society. The two African American workers, Georgina and Walter, are extremely uncanny. Although they are all smiles, there is a real fear and sense of resentment and hostility hiding beneath their bright demeanours.

Time for a few more spoilers…

The family uses a ploy to capture African Americans and take their bodies. Literally, the father, a neurosurgeon, takes the consciousness of an elderly (usually disabled) white person and puts it into the body of an African American. All of the microagressions Chris faced revolved around his bodies act as a direct reference to the way society views black bodies – especially male black bodies – as sexually viable, athletic, capable, and exotic, which is exploited by this film. Why use black bodies as opposed to laser-shooting robots, young white athletes, or awesome chimera hybrids? Why black people?

My answer to that question is because African Americans, along with other marginalized communities, are still being treated as second class citizens. This film serves as a commentary on white power in a supposedly “enlightened” society. Although we understand that racism and prejudice are wrong, these long established views of African Americans continue to be held by the ruling upper (white) class.

One moment that stands out is a brief interaction between Chris and Georgina, the housekeeper. Chris runs upstairs to escape the oppressive party and is confronted by Georgina. When Georgina asked why Chris is in the room, he replies, “When there’s too many white people I get nervous.” Suddenly, Georgina’s smiley face breaks down. Georgina struggles to refrain from crying and tries to soothe Chris by saying, “No, no, no, no, no.”

Source

She proceeds to tell Chris, “That’s not my experience/ They’re so good to us/ They treat us like family.”This is obviously a lie, because the amount of sheer distress Georgina feels directly contradicts the statements coming out of her mouth.

Georgina is actually one of Rose’s ex-lovers who was lured into the family home, brainwashed, and now inhabited by Rose’s deceased grandmother. This dual personality represents the double consciousness that African Americans hold as they try to reconcile their history in a white-dominated space. “Double consciousness” was coined by W.E.B Dubois and is a term that describes the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society.

Commentary on Police Brutality

Rose and Chris are pulled over by a cop in the beginning, and the cop treats Chris as if he is a criminal. Luckily, Rose stands up for Chris and points out the cop’s racist actions (he asked for Chris’s driver’s license even though Rose was the one who was speeding). This interaction is a direct critique on the police department in the US, who is often criticised for being racially biased against African American men.

It’s not the police, but the TSA, who come to the rescue.

I’ve never heard an audience clap and cheer as loud as they did when Rod, Chris’s TSA best friend, stepped out of what we assumed to be a police vehicle in the final scene.  Rose is lying on the ground with a gunshot wound to the stomach pleading for help. This is a historical reference to stereotype of the white female victim vs. black male perpetrator. The white female was historically viewed as passive and innocent, while the black male was viewed as sexually aggressive and corrupt. Historically, even if there was no evidence of rape or sexual assault, black men were routinely tried and even lynched for interacting with white women under the assumption that they were a danger to white women. Here, the story twists this stereotype on its head because it was Rose who was chasing Chris with a shotgun. Chris managed to get the gun from her and take her out instead. Suddenly, what looks like a police car comes onto the scene and the audience collectively recoils and gasps, “Nooooooo!” We all knew what was about to happen – Chris was going to be arrested and tried for murder, and no one was going to believe his story about Rose’s twisted family. That’s why when Rod stepped out of the car, the audience cheered with relief and joy (he steals the scene with his sense of humour every single time!).

Redefining the Other

 Get Out draws on the visceral experience of being objectified or colonized by another consciousness (Wilkinson).

There is a presence of hyper mediation throughout the film, which is accomplished by changing the point of view to from the objective cinema camera lens to Chris’s photographic camera lens. During the (surprise!) reunion party where all of Rose’s elderly relatives come to the house, Chris is faced with micro aggression after micro aggression on comments on his physical features, genetic build, and bodily capabilities. Chris is paraded about like a spectacle. Chris, in his own way, turns Rose’s family into a spectacle. His camera acts as a tool for hyper mediation, and the audience gets to see through Chris’s point of view. Through the camera lens, we see Georgina waiting for Missy’s next instruction. We also see Dean and a crowd of his relatives pointing towards Chris, as he tries to take a snap shot of them.

Dean pointing towards Chris during the party scene.

They eagerly try to lure him over, but Chris looks away and pretends not to notice. Suddenly, the camera lens is gone and the scene breaks from Chris’s point of view. As he rushes up the stairs to Rose’s bedroom for air, the chatter dies down and everyone turns to watch him leave.

Although Chris is not redefining the vampire, he is redefining the role of African American men in media. He is a genuinely nice guy, a gifted photographer, and a respectable person. He is not a thug, a villain, or an ex-convict. He is just an average guy with no ill-intentions at all. He isn’t the monster in this story, the family is.

Technology

Technology plays a critical role in the movie. For example, Chris’s phone is his only connection to the outside world. He uses the phone to talk to his best friend, Rod, and joke about the odd situation he is in. Strangely – whenever Chris charges the phone, someone else comes and unplugs it.

Additionally, the hypnosis that Logan, Walter, and Georgina are under is reversible by the flash setting on Chris’s phone. When Chris accidentally snaps a photo while trying to videotape Logan’s odd behaviour, the flash goes off and Logan breaks out of his spell. With a stream of blood running down his nose, Logan screams at Chris to, “Get out!”

Redefining a Community through Media

What do these films accomplish? Both box-office hits, these two films redefine the role of African American men and act as a tool for social commentary in a traditionally white space. They each critique the white power structure and serve to remind the audience, symbolically, the plight African Americans have and continue to take. Although they were written with a significant time gap in-between, they tackle similar issues including police brutality and African American identity.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry M. “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” Cinema Journal, vol. 39, no. 2, 2000, pp. 31–50.

Blacula. Dir. William Crain. American International Pictures, 25 Aug. 1975.

Cook, Nickolas. “Top 13: Best of Blaxploitation Horror.” The Black Glove: Horror Culture and Entertainment. Awesome Inc., 04 Nov. 2009. Web.

Get Out. Dir. Jordan Peele. Blumhouse Productions, QC Entertainment, 24 Feb. 2017.

Goldberg, Matt. “‘Get Out’ Review: Jordan Peele Paints a Terrifying Picture of Modern Enslavement.” Collider. 22 Feb. 2017. Web.

Hefner, Brooks E. “Rethinking Blacula : Ideological Critique at the Intersection of Genres.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 40.2 (2012): 62-74. International Bibliography of Theater & Dance with Full Text

Pinedo, Isabel. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video48.1/2 (1996): 17-31.

Wilkinson, Alissa. “Get Out Is a Horror Film about Benevolent Racism. It’s Spine-chilling.” Vox. Vox, 24 Feb. 2017. Web.

Horror Comparative Analysis: Fearing the Unknown, the Predicament of Modern Horror

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Joshie & Schultz, 2001: p.255). Whether it’s the dark, or death, or disease, or any phobia really, it always relates back to variables which are unknown. If you think about it, would death be frightening if we knew for certain there is another life after this one? Of course, when everything is known there is complacency, so I am not claiming that life would be great if we knew everything and nothing would be worrying or terror-inducing. But it just so happens to be that when the future or present is uncertain, there is usually fear along with it. This is the basic theory and philosophy behind any horror narrative. Scary stories that are told around the campfire often include inexplicable details coupled with tension created by a well-paced narration, which result in an audience on the edges of their seats, waiting to hear more, hoping for an explanation. Of course, just like for the magician, when the unknown is explained, it immediately stops being interesting. Storytellers must walk a fine line between explaining enough to keep interest, but not enough where interest is lost, but again, explaining enough where the audience doesn’t feel like their time was wasted experiencing an unresolved story, but not enough again where everything is obvious. The result is the difference between a good horror story, and a bad horror story, which is basically the crux and point of stories.

This brings me to the actual point of this analysis, which is that we find ourselves in quite a predicament today. The rapid growth of technology in the last decade has dramatically shifted the way we think about the world, what we know about it, and how well connected we are. In summation, we know much more about the world, across the board, than we ever did (with information readily available wherever there is a connection to the internet), and we are much better connected as a result, both in real time, and in cultural discrepancies (again, with the introduction of the internet). So this obviously does not bode well for horror stories, which, as established in the introduction, kind of depends on the unknown – keeping the audience in the dark, literally and metaphorically works wonders, until someone turns the light on, and then it stop working entirely. So now we have an influx of horror stories which simply aren’t that scary any more, and we have a whole legion of plotlines and ideas that are entirely irrelevant today, as a result of the technological shift the world has experienced. I will explore both of those points and their implications through the analysis of two movies The Ring (2002) and 28 Days Later (2002).

The Ring is a 2002 remake of the Japanese original Ringu, a movie about a mysterious video tape said to curse whoever watches it with a phone call in which only the words “seven days.” are spoken, after which the person who watched the tape dies seven days later. The video tape features a creepy video of some seemingly disorganized and random snippets, along with the yurei character called Samara who is the ghost in the story that does the killing. The movie itself can be terrifying and leave lasting effects (TV static is never the same after watching the movie) on its viewers. And it is truly interesting how it uses the technology of its time to convey the old ghost story in a new light, literally bringing it to your living room. It’s an interesting premise that you could bring a ghost in your own home through technology. It’s part of its appeal and what makes it so unnerving. We all have TV sets, we’ve all seen TV static, upon watching the movie, the TV set and static are both given new meanings, and serve as unpleasant reminders of Samara. We also mostly know what VHS tapes are and usually have had one around at the time the movie was relevant. In summation, the movie immerses itself in the technology of the time and builds a solid narrative around it, as Kirkland says “Old media technologies contribute a sense of the real perceived as lacking in digital media, yet central to a generically-significant impression of embodiment”. In his paper he makes an argument about remediation, how old and analog technology usually plays the role of a mysterious artifact, tied to the past, and as such, can better be used to convey horror – versus digital technology. If we take for granted that tapes can be haunted, then the logic makes sense. Below is a video of how analog technology, with its stuttering and crudeness, is used to convey a sense of uncertainty and ultimately horror.

28 Days Later is a zombie apocalypse horror-thriller set in London. It was one of the first places to feature the “infected” zombie type, known for its rabid behavior, and terrifying speed, compared to the slow Romero zombies. The movie follows a comatose, Jim, who wakes up in the midst of an apocalypse, entirely unaware of the situation. He roams the abandoned city and reads signs put up by people warning of impending danger and doom. It is all very cryptic at first, but Jim soon finds out the nature of the danger and how much better he had it when he wasn’t awake. A few times in the story, characters offer their experiences of how the whole situation became so bad so quickly, and how everyone was caught off guard. The movie very successfully maintains an aura of mystery through various means. The quick, chaotic editing which serves as foreshadowing of chaos and the deconstruction of moments of order and calm is one method that helps maintain suspense. The music and sound design is another aspect through which the movie keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Overall the movie is able to maintain its suspense to create truly horrifying and panic-inducing moments through various means, including its plausible story. In the video below, we get a prime example of suspense with meaning. The scene is not just meant as a shallow jumpscare, instead, the shocking nature of the shots end with Mark, one of the survivors, becoming infected and ultimately not be one of the survivors any more.

Suspense scene (make sure your volume is not all the way up!)  

 

This brings me to a major point about both movies. Their plots only seem plausible in the time they are set, but beyond, make little sense. The Ring just received a sequel a month ago, the technological shift meant the story had to change as well. A glaring issue becomes apparent in that, VHS players are not that readily-available today and VHS tapes are just as irrelevant. It doesn’t make sense to continue the old plot, but then any shifting into a new technological direction brings about more questions than it solves. For instance, today, we mostly stream things, would it make sense that Samara has now shifted into cyberspace and haunts its viewers through streaming software? So what happens when someone streams the haunted video on a phone? Do we get a pocket version of Samara? Who exactly dies? The owner of the IP? Why would the video even be streamed on any famous site? Would someone have to upload it to a site like YouTube? Wouldn’t that garner an international following and all traces of the video would inevitably be deleted? You get the point. The world is so connected nowadays, and information travels so quickly, it’s hard to imagine that any of these things could remotely remain tucked away as just a “spooky story” or some myth. In a paper by Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, and Sue Moon called “What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media? ” we are  offered some statistics on how digital information including news can travel.  According to the study, once a tweet is retweeted, it almost instantly continues to do so, indicating an incredibly rapid diffusion of information (Kwak et al., 2010) .

In 28 Days Later we get a similar problem. All the explanations of how the infection spread so quickly was through chaos and lack of information. We see posters and papers posted everywhere warning of the danger which leads the viewer to think, in today’s world, social media would be a very effective way to let people know very quickly what the entire situation is. With information travelling so quickly, and being so accessible, and news outlets not being the sole method for hearing breaking news, it becomes hard to imagine how so much chaos could ensue before anyone could react. Many people make the claim that, if you can suspend your disbelief and believe in the “infected” you should also believe that the infection could spread the way it does. But this brings about a crucial difference that again extends not only to both of these movies, but to narration and storytelling as a whole, and how it’s affected by the technological shift of the day.

A story can suspend disbelief even with fictional elements, so long as it abides by its internal logic. If a story defies its own rules, or has faulty logic, the issue directly affects how much a viewer can suspend disbelief. For this reason, technology today, and its development, is so fast, that directors seem to be struggling with catching up. Finding effective ways to portray all this technology, and all of its implications, with a story that maintains mystery and the unknown is becoming increasingly difficult, with sub-par solutions and movies that simply aren’t scary because of their inability to suspend the viewer’s disbelief. Most horror movies depend on the disability of a character to contact anyone for help, which in today’s society is a glaring issue in that we have so many ways of contacting everyone around us, it is hard to believe that secrets and myths, such as the one in The Ring can remain secrets for long. Today, we have easy access to news that isn’t related to news outlets at all. Phones equipped with high definition cameras and high-speed access to the internet even not connected to Wi-Fi (cables aren’t a thing when it comes to connectivity), but through data, allows for quick sharing of events from the spot. Social media becomes a news outlet of its own, with personal stories and accounts being shared with the public on the regular. All of this means that there are less dark places in the world, less places and ideas shrouded in mystery, and ultimately, less things to be afraid of. For horror, this is detrimental, and for horror movies to remain relevant, there needs to be either change on the development front, or even newer technologies which bring about more of their own questions. Regardless, horror movie directors need to desperately find a way to tackle new technologies in making creative new and relevant plots.

 

Work Cited:

Carleton, R. Nicholas. “Into the Unknown: A Review and Synthesis of Contemporary Models Involving Uncertainty.”Journal of Anxiety Disorders, vol. 17, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 30-43. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.02.007 [16 May 2017]

Joshi, S. T. and Schultz, E. David.  H.P. lovecraft encyclopedia. 1st edition. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Kirkland, Ewan. “Resident Evil’s Typewriter Ewan Kirkland Games and Culture.” Games and Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 115 – 126. Available from: doi: 10.1177/ 1555412008325483 [16 May 2017]

Kwak, Haewoon, et al. “What Is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?” Proceedings of the 19th International World Wide Web (WWW) Conference, Raleigh, North Carolina, April 26–30, 2010. Edited by Kwak, Haewoon, et al., International World Wide Web Conference Committee, 2010, pp. 1-12.

Comparative Horror Analysis: The Horror of Isolation

Warning: Possibly triggering material ahead!

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From their very origins, human beings opted to survive in groups, rather than alone.[1] This came with the realization that there is strength in numbers. But even more so than just numbers, there is efficiency and more room for growth in teamwork, task allocation, and dependency on one another. Individuals can specialize and focus on certain tasks which help the collective, trusting that others will do the same, and the entire group will prosper as a result. When a community is formed, its problems and threats are diminished. It is only natural to assume that this behavior, so crucial to our progress and survival, remains an integral part of what it means to be human. To be human, beyond the individual level, means being a part of a collective consciousness where skills like empathy and understanding are necessary for healthy development. As such, over the centuries, like a vestigial organ, our ability to thrive alone has almost disappeared. We are specialized versions of our ancestral selves, thriving in an environment into which we are molded through our childhood, learning necessary social skills to simply pick up where everyone has left off. Having said all of that, it then becomes evident how problematic for an individual, completely dependent on society and others, it is to survive alone. Like throwing a person that never learned to swim, in the sea, the effects of isolation are not an illusion, they are real, and they can adversely affect health[2] and as an extension facilitate fear.

This knowledge isn’t anything groundbreaking and novel, it is common to us all and it’s safe to assume that we’ve all at some points in our lives experienced some separation from those we love and the panic that ensued. It seems logical as well that when in a state of stress and fear, caused by isolation for instance, we experience other fears more intensely[3]. Horror stories exploit this fear of being isolated, to generally create a more terrifying experience. However, the effect is achieved to varying degrees of success. I find the effect to be most effectively conveyed in video games actually due to their interactive nature. Empathy is only so effective in subjecting a viewer to the difficulties a character in a book or film feels. A video game’s interactivity places your very own interests at stake, creating the strongest bond between character and “audience” since arguably the beginning of all storytelling. In this analysis I will explore how isolation is used as a tool to evoke fear in players, how the narrative and game world supplant that fear, and what the varying effects can be in subtly different approaches and design decisions. The games which I will analyze are Outlast (2013) and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2004).

In Outlast the player takes on the role of freelance journalist Miles Upshur who receives anonymous intel that there are inhumane experiments being conducted at Mount Massive Asylum. The premise sets a powerful tone for the story. It uses common tropes and themes to literally “cut to the chase”, the setting is not at all something unique and fresh, but it gets the job done. The job being letting the player know they’re in for a terrifying ride. It’s clear the game does not set out to create a narrative that’s never seen before, instead, it plays up the fact that it’s a game, offering a fresh gameplay experience first and foremost, everything else is secondary. Ever since you start the game you are alone, you reach the asylum by car and cannot use the front entrance, you must find an alternate route, further emphasizing that you are not welcome and that you do not belong. Being unwelcome is a crucial part of feeling alone and isolated. For example, we feel alone if we find ourselves in a situation where others around us do not want us around in the first place. Outlast uses every trick in the book to isolate you as much as it can. Everyone you talk to is either insane, wants to kill you, or both. Needless to say, it is very effective in its methods. As a bonus, there is no method of combat, stripping you of all power in your surroundings – you’ve guessed it, alienating you even more.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth[4] is a far more outdated game, and despite the many game-breaking bugs present in its final release, it belonged to an era of video game development when developers were more inclined to experiment and the mainstream was still in the process of being defined. Call of Cthulhu employs many similar “tactics” to instilling fear in its players, yet still does it in way that’s very different to Outlast. The game opens with a cinematic in Arkham Asylum (unrelated to Batman, and yes, Asylums are used a lot in horror stories), then moves into the first section of gameplay at a manor inhabited by obscure cult members who are holding off a police siege. The protagonist, Jack Walters, manages to enter the manor, witness a mass suicide of cult members, meet the leader of the cult who subsequently dies in the siege, and find a secret entrance to a basement in which the protagonist goes insane, upon which he is admitted to the Asylum shown in the opening sequence. This is all very confusing in the beginning and it is by design, the player is supposed to be confused, experiencing some of the madness of the situation first hand. Six years later, Jack Walters investigates a missing person report in a small port town called Innsmouth. This is where the main story actually begins. The town of Innsmouth is unwelcoming and moody to say the least. NPCs visually all reside in the lowest depths of the uncanny valley, their voices are contorted and odd, and they generally give off the vibe that you should not be here, and that you should leave soon. The atmosphere of the game is incredible in further conveying this feeling. A dark moody setting, decrepit buildings, cold weather, odd conversations between NPCs, the occasional terrifying hallucination due to your character being a recovering asylum patient, and the scripted sequences where you see yourself through the eyes of a stalking creature wandering on the roofs and through the dark alleys of Innsmouth all play into the incredibly powerful atmosphere. The game starts out with no combat, as an investigative puzzle-solving detective game, and turns into an all-out shooter by the end. The game supports both sneaking and combat as playable methods. There is also no HUD, which helps the immersion of the game. And even more notably than the HUD, is the insanity meter, which fluctuates dependent on how many terrifying or grotesque things your character encounters in the game. A full insanity meter causes the protagonist to commit suicide.

Both games are very successful in maintaining a sense of alienation and isolation. Whether it’s by making a player feel unwelcome, or just generally through gameplay aspects mentioned above. Where the comparison between the two becomes important is the varying degrees to which the player is made to feel isolated based on a few crucial differences in approach. In Outlast you enter an Asylum where from the get-go, you not only feel unsafe and unwelcome, but you know that your first encounter with anything breathing will be very unpleasant. In Call of Cthulhu once you reach Innsmouth, the population of the town is displays its xenophobia, but you are generally safe to wander around, speak to people, and although made to feel unwelcome, you can at least speak to people and so you don’t feel as alone. This feeling is dramatically contrasted with the moment the whole town turns against you and becomes very hostile towards your presence. It feels like you walk into a den of lions who are at first disinterested in you, causing tension with every next step to increase, because they are very much aware of your presence, and you know that it’s only a matter of time before you become the prey. This method of contrasting is incredibly powerful in making the hostile parts of the game seem even more, because you are provided a point of reference when you could at least coexist with those around you. Outlast on the other hand doesn’t provide this contrast, as mentioned earlier, opting to barrage you with tension and hostility from the moment you enter the Asylum.

This brings me to the next point. Call of Cthulhu then becomes a stealth game where you are trying to escape the town to save your life. Along the way, you meet characters who seem to be normal, which serve as brief moments to catch one’s breath. Again, Outlast opts for breathers in the forms of entering a ventilation shaft where you know you can’t be caught, but other than logistical and physical barriers, there is no comfort in the presence of “normal” people. Somewhere in Call of Cthulhu you manage to escape the town, and all seems well, until you find yourself in an FBI vehicle headed back for a factory in the town. The horror is real when you finally breathe a sigh of relief that you escaped, only to realize you are going back into the hell which you worked so hard to get out of. This time around you are well equipped, and you have allies. The cruel aspect of this is that just as quickly as they appear, they are one by one picked off. More interesting than this “trope” of losing team members, is how quickly you grow attached to normal people in such bizarre scenarios.[5] It happens once more in the game when you are fighting alongside even better equipped marines, who also all meet their untimely deaths. The game gives you comfort only to take it away and remind you how cold and lonely the game world really is. In contrast to Outlast which maintains the same circumstance, and never attaches you to the idea that there is any person you can trust in the asylum. Going back to the sense of attachment, Call of Cthulhu, by design or not, is able to introduce characters you truly care about, without ever providing backstory, or any important character details. The catch is that in the circumstance, our hardwired ancestral need for teamwork kicks in, there is another normal, conscious individual who is witnessing and experiencing the horrors of this world with you. Madness is such a large theme in Lovecraft’s work, it’s a sigh of relief when you’re not the only one experiencing the insanity and terror of the world.

One must ask themselves, upon playing the two games, which method of approaching the horror of isolation is more powerful. The two options seem to be either isolating a player entirely from the start, with no hopes of return, or offering glimmers of hope only to quickly jolt you back into your terrifying hellish reality. Both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. Namely, the first option creates a very stressful experience for the player. You are constantly on your toes. It feels like you are holding your breath the entire time you’re playing. However, humans are adaptable by nature, as such, it is entirely possible to grow desensitized to the tension and understand that there is no hope, and that this reality is there to stay. On the other hand, the second option gives a chance to players to take a breath, offering them artificial moments of lowered tension. It’s like walking through a terrifying unwelcoming dark hallway, into a well-lit welcoming room, knowing that you can’t stay there forever, and that the next door leads to another dark hallway. The reluctance to move forward and back into the dark can sometimes become crippling. Having said that, the moments where you can catch your breath can sometimes actually be very helpful in maintain ones composure and actually completing the narrative. There is no one right way. As mentioned, each method has its drawbacks and strengths, and it really depends on the person experiencing the situation. Regardless, it stands that horror is best experienced when made to feel isolated, not by chance, but by nature.

[1] Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. “Culture and the Evolution of Human Cooperation.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364.1533 (2009): 3281–3288. PMC. Web. 2 Mar. 2017.

[2] Ye Luo, Louise C. Hawkley, Linda J. Waite, John T. Cacioppo, Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 74, Issue 6, March 2012, Pages 907-914, ISSN 0277-9536, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.11.028.

[3] V. Vachiratamporn, R. Legaspi, K. Moriyama and M. Numao, “Towards the Design of Affective Survival Horror Games: An Investigation on Player Affect,” 2013 Humaine Association Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction, Geneva, 2013, pp. 576-581.URL: ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6681492&isnumber=6681389

[4] Based on Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft

[5] Interestingly, this is kind of exactly what Kocurek talks about in his paper, except it’s extended the other way as well. In the game you are fighting monsters, and it is clear they are otherworldly, alien, and not to be cared about. On the other hand, the game does an incredible job of attaching the player to allies in the game, to characters we should care about, who we do not want to see die, and whose deaths are meaningful. This is very important as many games are not able to create this sense of attachment, and usually suffer from not evoking the player’s empathy. It is a very strong, albeit small, aspect of Call of Cthulhu which is worth being inspired by.

Comparative Horror analysis – Matt St. Lawrence

Citations

Grant, Barry. “Digital anxiety and the new verité horror and sf film.” Science Fiction Film & Television 6.2 (2013): 153-75. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

Diddi, Arvind, and Robert Larose. “Getting Hooked on News: Uses and Gratifications and the Formation of News Habits Among College Students in an Internet Environment.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 50.2 (2006): 193-210. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
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“You Think You Know the Story”: Postmodern Genre Awareness in Scream and Cabin in the Woods

Fueled by the compulsion to both look and not look, conflating fear and repulsion with curiosity and attraction, horror thrives as a narrative paradox. Often tightly circumscribed by its own generic structures, much of contemporary horror has clearly defined conventions that rely on formulaic constructions and tropes. The formula is in fact so inviolable that it has been made narratively explicit in films such as Wes Craven’s highly influential Scream (1996), a self-reflexive and intertextual postmodern masterpiece that grossed upwards of $100 million in the US alone.

IMDB.com, accessed March 1, 2017

Craven, along with a brilliantly written script by Kevin Williamson, breathed new life into the slasher film. They took all of the archetypical constructs of the slasher sub-genre and directly exposed them to the audiences while still staying within the confines of the genre. This was not new, parodies had done this in the past, but Scream managed to both keep a straight face and produce fear. Scream and other postmodern horror films that followed in its wake reinvigorated the flagging genre in the mid-1990s, due in large part to their extreme self-reflexivity, along with numerous intertextual references to earlier horror landmarks. The postmodern conceit is simple: Scream is a slasher movie in which the characters are well versed in the rules and conventions of slasher movies, to the self-referential point of characters talking at length about earlier slasher pics. It is a film in which the intertextuality, in effect, constitutes the text; and its media literacy and genre-bending are markers of the arrival of the postmodern era in horror film. Isabel Pinedo argues, “the postmodern horror film transgresses the rules of the classically oriented horror film, but it also retains features of the latter, which form the backdrop against which violations of the rules are intelligible as such” (“Recreational Terror”, 19). In its postmodern iteration, the horror film acknowledges its generic lineage before it subverts the formula thereof.

In Scream‘s opening scene, we watch as Casey (played by Drew Barrymore) has what originally seems to be a flirtatious phone conversation with a friendly stranger turn into a deadly game of horror trivia. The mysterious stranger asks Casey a series of questions about horror movies, such as who the killer in Friday the 13th was, with rather unfortunate punishments for Sydney and her boyfriend.

While this was a surprise for audiences in that many expected Barrymore to be one of the central characters, perhaps even the stereotypical “Final Girl“, this scene also set the stage for the rest of the film. The teens of the 90’s had grown up on slasher and horror flicks, knew the rules, the tropes, the characters. As such, horror movies had to evolve, had to change to suit the new experienced and cynical mood of the times. The characters in Scream know horror films and are constantly citing genre titles. The irony is that they are living in one.

Influenced by the widespread success of Scream, other postmodern horror films soon followed, films that both emphasized sameness by reveling in the established generic tropes while also crafting disjunctive, ironic narratives that acknowledged and played with those very same generic conventions. Films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (2000), Final Destination (2000), the wildly successful The Blair Witch Project (1999), and reboots of both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises all exhibit this postmodern tendency toward self-awareness, intertextuality, and hybridity. These films reflect the conception of postmodern anxiety as acute self-consciousness about the formal, constructed nature of the work. Just as postmodernism can be viewed as a crisis of systems of regulation, the postmodern horror film reflects anxieties about the horror genre. The commonplaces of generic tropes and conventions are concomitantly a source of both restrictive apprehension and creativity. The postmodern horror audience enjoys the reiteration of The Rules while simultaneously celebrating the subversion of them. Here occurs what Andrew Syder contextualizes as a postmodern “rhetorical deconstruction,” the move from strict sets of rules governing rhetorical creatures such as vampires, werewolves, and other classic horror monsters to a postmodern demystification of the “rhetorical nature of representations of the unknown” by tacit acknowledgement of the fictionality of the monster as narrative device (Syder 84-85). Essentially, the postmodern reframes traditional horror narrative, rupturing the unity exhibited in classic horror films and instead invites participation in the signification of the narrative rather than a distanced remove from it.

Following this new tradition of self-aware horror films, 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, also tidily fits these definitions of the postmodern as multilayered, ironically detached, and simultaneously traditional and subversive. We begin with a couple of middle-management types going to work talking nonchalantly about their weekend plans. A sequence normal enough to the realm of drama or comedy, but unsettling in the slasher genre. We then turn to our group of college friends and our worries are laid to rest. They are going on a weekend trip. We know this story. At this point we understand there will be some inane banter that will hopefully allow us to care about the characters long enough to fear for them and in turn mourn their demise. We know they will fit in one of five stereotypes: “the fool,” “the jock,” “the scholar,” “the virgin,” and “the whore.” We know a moral compass will emerge from the group and during our final sequence we will switch our perspective respectfully from the killer/monster to the heroine “virgin” of the group. We also know the prophet of doom will attempt to save them, but through misguided fear and machismo our characters will remain stubborn to their plan. There will be sex, drug use, and incomprehensible reactions to dire situations.

IMDB.com, accessed March 1, 2017

The Cabin in the Woods is a perfect example of postmodern parody.  Crucial to the idea of parody is a sense of historicity, a refiguring of the past rather than a denial or departure from it. Cabin not only exhibits this sense of historicity through its thick intertextuality but also by its appropriation and subversion of genre conventions and horror tropes. Cabin relies on these tropes as a way to establish a cultural continuity and as an appeal to a horror audience familiar with the trappings of the genre. Tropes themselves are a cultural signifier, and the rather shameless and flagrant use of tropes in The Cabin in the Woods is used as a stylistic method to investigate and deliberately call into question the fictional device of the trope.

Like ScreamCabin in the Woods is tauntingly circular. The final 20 minutes of Scream, which borrow heavily, and with complete openness, from Halloween, have become iconic in their own right. One character is commenting on and narrating Halloween, which is playing on TV, warning Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around, while a masked killer is directly behind him. Someone even says, “I’ll be right back” after being warned to never, ever say, those exact words

The irony is gleefully obvious, which makes it all the more likeable. It doesn’t reek of pretentiousness. The curious contrast between Wes Craven’s satiric slasher and Cabin‘s bloody Rubik’s Cube is the acidic quality with which Whedon and Goddard etch their characters and plot twists. The movie is at times barely coherent, but it doesn’t matter because it moves at a furious pace and, unlike Craven’s film, has some anger behind its eyes. Whereas Craven wanted to dissect his own movie and took great pleasure in cutting clichés into bits, Whedon and Goddard are out for blood, taking swipes at Eli Roth and his torture porn cronies in particular.

Tropes act as a shorthand, an appeal to cultural memory, easily recognizable and familiar. Most horror films make repeated use of tropes as a tool of storytelling, but the tropic references in The Cabin in the Woods are practically legion. TVTropes.org, a wiki site dedicated to cataloguing tropes not only in television but also in film, videogames, and other media, maintains an extensive collection of user-inventoried tropic content. Based on the content there, Whedon and Goddard include, to name only a portion: The Abandoned Area, The Adjectival Man, The Creepy Basement, Death by Sex, an Ominous Music Box Tune, a Surprisingly Sudden Death, a Torture Cellar, the list goes on and on. These are all immediately recognizable conventions that border on horror film clichés, but the manner in which Goddard and Whedon utilize these tropes, however, is a complete subversion of the tropes themselves.  As the film plays out, we learn the rural, abandoned cabin that belongs to a cousin of Curt (Chris Hemsworth) is in fact solely for the purpose of hosting these five sacrifices, and further, that Curt does not actually have a cousin who owns a cabin—the trope was employed as a believable fiction by the mysterious and shadowy organization who manipulates the environment. The Adjectival Man, a mysterious and peculiar figure in horror film who acts as a warning to the main characters (think the creepy hillbilly at the gas station, or the old woman in the small town) is seldom given an actual name, but is in this instance is explicitly named The Harbinger (Tim De Zarn) by the mechanics of the postmodern, self-reflexive sacrificial experience. More than that, he’s ridiculed by other characters for his over-the-top, almost biblical manner of speaking.

In postmodern fiction, narrative conventions like plotting, use of metaphor, and omniscient narrator are parodied so as to expose their role in the fabrication of meaning; so as to present the text as a fiction-making apparatus.  Here, the movie is literally laughing at the absurdness of The Adjectival Man, using the trope even as it ironically comments on it. The generic device of the grotesque figure warning the protagonists away from their path is here parodied as a way to foreground the fictional construct of The Harbinger within Cabin’s narrative. All of the facets of traditional horror are there—the clichéd characters, the obviously menacing location, and the warnings that something bad is about to happen—and yet, Whedon throws these iconic concepts on their heads by acknowledging how completely ridiculous they are.

Likewise, the Creepy Basement is deliberately and absurdly creepy, in service to the sacrifice, complete with mechanical cellar door that flies open at a narratively opportune moment. The deliberateness of the creepy factor as well as the plethora of items that horror filmgoers will recognize as Summoning Artifacts both appeals to horror historicity while, in terms of the framing narrative, emphasizes the free will of the characters to make the choices that lead to them being sacrifices. Also a classic hazard of horror films, the danger of standing in front of a window exists in Cabin as well; the film toys with viewer expectation by having Marty (Fran Krantz) linger in front of the dark window, silent for a beat before Judah Buckner (Matt Drake) smashes through and pulls Marty out the bedroom window. Anyone versed in horror parlance knows that something is going to burst through the window, and the trope plays out, but the traditional outcome of that trope is subverted when we discover Marty was the victor in the skirmish, dismembering Judah with a trowel. Despite cognitive tampering, the Dumb Blonde in the film, Jules (Anna Hutchison), retains enough sense to be aware that it is a culturally-acknowledged bad idea to have sex in the woods (thereby echoing the audience’s knowledge of the generic motif), but the combination of a temperature-controlled environment, moonlight produced on cue, and aerosol pheromone mists lull her into the act, manipulating her into the perfect sacrificial Whore in order to fulfill the narrative requirements.

www.impawards.com/2012/posters/cabin_in_the_woods.jpg, accessed March 1, 2017

In fact, it is established early in the film that Jules has just dyed her hair blonde, and Dana (Kristen Connolly) indicates that Jules is pre-med, but the Chemistry Department’s Lin (Amy Acker) explains that they’ve slowed cognition through the hair dye, literally shoehorning Jules into the Dumb Blonde trope. Likewise, Dana is introduced as having just ended an affair with her professor, but ostensibly through more chemical interference, she assumes the role of the virginal girl, even confusing herself when she indicates such to Holden (Jesse Williams) while they are kissing. This both situates her as the sacrificial Virgin and positions her as the textbook Final Girl,  the last girl standing in a slasher film,  usually virginal, demure, and with a unisex name. Later, confronting the Director (Sigourney Weaver), Dana scoffs at being typecast as the Virgin, to which the director admits, “We work with what we have,” acknowledging that the pressing of each character into these stereotypes is frustrated at best. The Virgin, the Whore, the Fool, The Athlete, and the Scholar are all stereotypes, but the essential, specific nature of them is not “real” and for the means of the ritual, the characters in Cabin are shoehorned into the roles. This acts as a way of highlighting and criticizing the stereotypical characters so prevalent in the horror genre; as each character is forced into the stereotype in order to fit the demands of the sacrifice, Cabin calls into question the widespread use of these stock characters in other films in which there is no cognitive tampering to reduce characters to one-dimensional caricatures.

cdn.movieweb.com/img.site/PHEnTxI4MmGZIK_1_l.jpg, accessed March 1, 2017

The use of other tropes reemphasizes the “fiction-making apparatus” so crucial to The Cabin in the Woods and its postmodern inversion of traditional horror films. When Dana drops the knife she used to stab Matthew Buckner with, we see Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) in the control room operating a joystick that sends an electrical shock to the knife, causing her to drop it, at last providing the audience with an explanation for this disturbing tendency in horror films for the protagonist to mindlessly discard her weapon—or, rather, making a self-reflexive comment upon the inane trope. The generic tendency of characters to discard their weapons is repeated, yet is reinterpreted by the offering of an explanation for the behavior. This tiny moment in Cabin illustrates exactly this postmodern tendency—the paradoxical reiteration and subsequent subversion of horror tropes.

Similarly, the Ominous Music Box Tune that emanates from the jewelry box Holden plays with in the basement isn’t merely an object that justifies some diegetic, dissonant music in a minor key for atmospheric benefit—we later discover through musical refrain that the object would have summoned the unnerving Ballerina Dentata monster. In fact, it is not a singular Summoning Artifact in the basement, but rather an entire collection of them linked to different monsters and different means of death. These items mesmerize the five students, as arcane items in horror films do, and when it is revealed that this was a garden of forking paths with which to decide their fate, the audience’s previous experience of horror films informs the imaginative possibilities of what nightmare each object would have summoned. The objects are a literal catalogue of nightmares, and the trope of the inescapable allure of the Summoning Object is here placed in the basement because the film acknowledges that very inescapability of the allure of arcane items to characters in horror films. Further asserting itself as self-referentially postmodern, even the advertising campaign leading up to the film’s release acknowledged and subverted classic horror tropes, featuring movie posters that included phrases such as, ”You think you know the story” and “If something is chasing you… split up.”

www.entertainmentfuse.com/images/cabin.png, accessed March 1, 2017

This genre-specific pieces of advice are indeed employed in the film; while the cabin is being attacked by the Buckner family of zombies, Curt suggests they all stay together—until a controller flips a switch and releases some aerosolized drug that makes Curt pause, sway, and then decide the group should instead split up. It is the immediate familiarity with these classic horror tropes and the explicit acknowledgement of them within the story that pushes this ironic treatment into the realm of postmodern parody.

Perhaps most notably, however, is that whereas a film like Scream may contain, as Syder argues, an intertextuality that “in effect constitutes the text,” The Cabin in the Woods escapes such a reductive charge by using its own postmodern establishment of itself as self-referentially intertextual as a means to craft a framing narrative that uses its intertextuality in a creatively constructive way. The narrative creates a space in the interior story—that of the five protagonists on a nightmare vacation to a cabin—that participates in tropic generic convention, while the framing narration—that of Sitterson and Hadley and the ambiguous entity for which they become architects of the sacrifice—acts as a means of ironizing and criticizing overreliance on these conventions while simultaneously inscribing a larger cultural meaning onto these conventions as a means of appeasing the Old Ones. Implicit in such a narrative turn is an argument that, though overly familiar, horror tropes approach a mythic importance.

In a film like Scream, knowing the rules of the genre may possibly help a character survive the film; in Cabin, Whedon and Goddard have crafted a world in which those rules serve more than merely filmic generic tradition, and there is a very good reason why the characters should perhaps not survive. “The postmodern paradigm blurs the boundaries between good and evil, normal and abnormal, and the outcome of the struggle is ambiguous at best,” writes Pinedo, and in Cabin this coded ambivalence is prevalent—which outcome would be good (Pinedo 22)? Is the Director’s agenda evil, or good by definition of the wider common interest? Do we root for Dana and Marty, knowing it means our own (simulated) demise?

Postmodern parody is both deconstructively critical and constructively creative, and this is the force we see at work in these two films.  By appropriating horror tropes and including a thick intertext, they have used the narrow formula as both a site of creative storytelling and a means of foregrounding the implications of these horror stereotypes. Where Scream is gleeful in its celebration of the ironclad rules of horror and the chaos that follows from those rules, Cabin is implicitly critical of the generic tendency to use rote characterizations in place of more complex, individualized characters of agency. By simultaneously inscribing and subverting generic conventions, these movies concurrently reemphasize the tropes while they subvert them, a simultaneity of conflicting juxtapositions that is so perfectly postmodern.

I’ll end with this, one of my favorite moments from Cabin, and one that perfectly sums up how postmodern films approach horror. In one of the films early comedic moments, the token stoner (“The Fool”) pulls out a telescopic bong that, when collapsed, looks like a coffee thermos. Later, he uses the thermos-bong as a weapon against a zombie. Maybe it’s a reference to the permeation of the Devil’s Lettuce and all things horror; after Halloween was labeled a morality play, its characters seemingly punished for acting immorally, smoking became a death sentence for horror characters. Instead, Whedon’s pothead uses his bong as a weapon against the enemy. Maybe it’s a sign of changes to come, a challenging of stale tropes and norms, a reawakening of a genre and a bored audience.

www.dreadcentral.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/bong.jpg, accessed March 1, 2017

Or maybe it’s just a bong.

Works Cited

The Cabin in the Woods. Dir. Joss Whedon. Perf. Kristen Connolly and Chris Hemsworth. Lionsgate, 2012.

Pinedo, Isabel Christina. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.”  Journal of Film and Video Vol.48 (Spring/Summer 1996): 17-31. JSTOR.

Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Neve Cambell and Courtney Cox. Dimension Films, 1997.

Syder, Andrew. “Knowing the Rules: Postmodernism and the Horror Film.” Axes to Grind: Re-Imagining the Horrific in Visual Media and Culture. Ed. Harmony Wu. Spec. issue of Spectator 22:2 (Fall 2002): 78-88.

Black Mirror and My Favorite Murder; Entertainment as Exposure Therapy: Comparative Horror Analysis

The BBC science-fiction series Black Mirror and the comedy podcast “My Favorite Murder” are very different in form, but both use their medium to confront the cultural anxiety surrounding their subjects. The final episode of Black Mirror’s first season, “The Entire History of You,” takes a proleptic look at how technology could affect human relationships and exacerbate negative human emotions like jealousy, while a particularly gruesome episode of “My Favorite Murder” uses the “I Survived” account of Mary Vincent to take a retrospective look at an actual account of human sadism. However, both Black Mirror and “My Favorite Murder” use their entertainment value and effectively utilize their mediums to fight against and quell the cultural anxiety surrounding their subjects.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Feral Audio

The subject of “My Favorite Murder” is, you guessed it, murder. Hosted by Karen Kilgariff, a comedy writer, and Georgia Hardstark, a host of multiple Cooking Channel shows and webseries, the podcast consists of the two true-crime obsessed women narrating an account of their favorite murder of the week to the other. Each episode may center around a theme – child-murderers or ‘90s murders or unsolved murders – but many episodes contain retellings of “I Survived” stories. Episode 18, or “Investigateighteen Discovery” is one such episode, telling the story of Mary Vincent, a 15 year-old hitchhiker who was raped, had her arms hacked off (literally), and was thrown off a cliff by Lawrence Singleton (You can find her episode of “I Survived” here).

Courtesy of nerdist

The horrific details surrounding Mary Vincent’s mutilation and her miraculous survival story are encapsulating, and the monster figure of Lawrence Singleton is obvious. What’s less obvious is that “My Favorite Murder” is categorized as a comedy. Comedy and the macabre have a long history, and “My Favorite Murder” does not make jokes about the murders they explore, but the comedy stems from the hosts’ own self-awareness surrounding their unprofessionalism and strange-obsession with true-crime. The cover art plays on genre stereotypes, featuring wording in the style of a ransom-letter. The podcast features no non-diagetic sound, no interviews, no soundtrack, and for the most part remains uncensored. Instead, the show simply consists of the two women sharing conversation while sprawled on couches, gabbing about their days or botox injections or clarifying points from the last episode. In the 1hr and 7min of episode 18, they take over twenty minutes to get settled before going into the murders they’ve chosen to talk about for the week. Karen says early in the episode, “We’re trying to make sure our mics – we’re trying to make sure the sound quality is legit.” But in other episodes, they say call attention to their illegitimacy, saying things like, “We are not professionals” or “If this was a professional podcast…” They swear a lot, referring to murderers as motherfuckers or assholes, but remain serious and react appropriately with gasps or “oh my god”s when finding out the gory details of their counterpart’s story.

Courtesy of Pinterest

But Kilgariff and Hardstark’s “unprofessionalism” has garnered the podcast a large following. Kilgariff and Hardstark are upfront about their odd fascination with the macabre genre of murder, but their “unprofessionalism” has allowed them to openly discuss their own mental health issues. While reclining on couches talking about murder, they also discuss their therapy, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse. As Andrea Marks writes in The Atlantic, the podcast has largely come to double as a mental-health support group. Marks says,

My Favorite Murder exposes listeners to two taboo subjects: murder, of course, and mental health. At the same time, it empowers listeners by offering practical advice for survival and self-care and by using comedy to deflate the scariness of these topics.

So while the podcast blurs the lines between comedy and horror, professional podcast and support group, taboo subjects are able to come to the forefront of discussion. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s conversational tone and openness – what they consider as unscripted and unprofessional in the podcast world – has led to much of the podcast’s success, helping it reach the number one spot in comedy podcasts and number 10 overall on iTunes. The podcast has a Facebook fanpage with over 100,000 followers, with people posting links to more murders to read about and also sharing mental health or murder-avoidance tips.

A sampling of posts to the MFM Podcast FB Page

In email to Marks, Hardstark writes, “it’s a lot like exposure therapy, where you have to confront your fear to prove that it can’t actually hurt you.” A fellow fan describes listening to the podcast as a way to “exorcise that anxiety” about possibly being murdered. In research on exposure therapy, Stewart Elyse puts forth that “Anxiety is actively reduced by increasing the patient’s perceived level of self-efficacy. Higher self-efficacy should yield a decrease in threat perception, which consequently reduces anxiety” (304). Thus, by combining comedy and horror while subverting our expectations of a podcast, “My Favorite Murder” acts as a window to horrific moments in the past, exposing them and bringing them into the light as to ease our present day fears, making us realize the distance between our dark imaginations and actualities.

On the surface, the last episode of Black Mirror’s first season is very different than Kilgariff and Hardstark’s podcast. The show is meticulously crafted, and is by no means unprofessional, but by using its medium as its subject matter – screens and technology – Black Mirror brings a self-awareness to itself in a similar manner as “My Favorite Murder” in order to accomplish the same goal of easing the anxiety surrounding the shows topic. While “My Favorite Murder” talks about horrific scenes from the past in modern rhetoric in order to relieve listeners’ fear of murder, Black Mirror conjures up a “what-if” scenario using science-fiction to explore the hot-button topic of how technology is affecting our interpersonal relationships. In Season 1 Episode 4, “The Entire History of You,” everyone has access to a device that records everything they see, hear, and do. Black Mirror implies the “Willow Grain’s” ubiquity by showing airport security measures and making an oddity of a woman without one, but the world imagined within “The Entire History of You” remains remarkably contemporary. The “Willow Grain” technology clearly supersedes technology we have today, but the homes the characters live in and the food they eat and the clothes they wear and the cars they drive look no different than our own, despite the very different world this technology has created:

The taxi Liam hails at the beginning of the episode
His very average, non-tech living room
The car he drives

The implications surrounding the willow grain are disturbing, but the lack of futuristic elements outside of the willow grain put the audience at ease by highlighting that this world is a “what-if” scenario, not a prediction (although you can watch me argue here that snapchat has put us on a similar trajectory as the willow grain). The willow grain encapsulates what Freud calls the “uncanny,” or something that is at once both foreign and frightening and familiar.  Freud argues that “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality” (15). This is more or less the premise of every Black Mirror episode, but memory, the focus of “The Entire History of You,” highlights another juxtaposition Freud touches on, something we have an intimate, emotional connection with  but little scientific understanding of (13). This allows “The Entire History of You” to capitalize on our anxiety surrounding memory by twisting it just enough to be terrifying yet simultaneously believable. 

Liam’s rejection of the willow grain at the end of the episode – either out of spite of his wife or as a realization that the technology has ruined his life – remind us that we do not bear the weight a lifetime’s worth of memories, but only the computer on our laps. The “uncanniness” of the willow grain simultaneously causes and eases our anxiety by showing a scary “what-if” situation, while highlighting the “if.” Like Liam is left facing himself in the mirror, grain-less, Black Mirror leaves us staring at ourselves through our screens at the end up the episode.

In “Recreational Terror,” Isabel Pinedo argues that “The postmodern horror genre constructs an unstable, open-ended universe in which categories collapse, violence constitutes everyday life, and the irrational prevails.” In “My Favorite Murder,” Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark simultaneously subvert the conventions of a podcast (professional sound editing, expert opinions, a story line or narrative arch) and the seriousness of murder, and the “monster” of a murderer comes to stand in as an embodiment of the anxiety and fear that their listeners have everyday. Black Mirror uses screens in order to depict what can go wrong when we rely on them too much. “My Favorite Murder” and Black Mirror both serve first and foremost to entertain us, but they also serve to capture their audience anxieties, then show them in their extremities in order to caution and also protect us against them. “My Favorite Murder” captures the general stranger-danger and fear of death we all have, and while the gruesome stories they share are real, they allow potential victims to live out their fear without the stakes being high. The nature of the podcast allows us to kick back our heels and recline along with them, and we feel more like we’re on a conference call than listening to a podcast. Black Mirror uses a fictionalized account of how technology could implode our interpersonal relationships and communication, capturing the growing anxiety over how far our relationship with technology should go, and by using technology to deliver this message, it makes us all the more wary.

Courtesy of Pinterest

Pinedo concludes by saying horror “is a welcome release from the fiction that life is ordered and safe. Horror affords us the opportunity to express our fear of living in a minefield or, perhaps more accurately, the opportunity, to dance through it” (29). Ultimately, both “My Favorite Murder” and Black Mirror afford their audience the opportunity to flirt with our worst nightmares while remaining safely behind our screens or earphones.

[UPDATED: April 17th, 2:23pm]

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The “Uncanny”.” Trans. Alix Strachey. Sammlung (1919): 1-21. Academic Search Complete [EBSCO]. Web.

Hardstark, Georgia; Kilgariff, Karen. Audio blog post. “Investigateighteen Discovery.” Feral Audio, May 27, 2016.

Black Mirror – The Entire History of You. Dir. Brian Welsh. Perf. Toby Kebbell. Black Mirror. BBC, 18 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

Marks, Andrea. “How a True-Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group.” The Atlantic, Feb. 21, 2017. Web.

Pinedo, Isabel. “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video, vol 48 no 1/2, 1996, pp. 17-31.

Stewart, Elyse, et al. “Exposure Therapy Practices and Mechanism Endorsement: A Survey of Specialty Clinicians.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 47, no. 4, Aug. 2016, pp. 303-311. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/pro0000094.

 

The Z’d and Wendigoes: How Different Media Invoke the Same Terrors of the Everyday

The cinematic survival-horror game Until Dawn and the zombie-apocalypse short story Zombicorns may both fall under the “horror” umbrella but the jump scares in the video game provide a much greater shock to the system than the philosophic, rambling musings of the narrator in the short story. As late postmodern horror, both exploit the subtle terror themes hidden in our daily lives. In her article “Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film”, Pinedo writes that “horror exposes the terror implicit in everyday life: the pain of loss, the enigma of death, the unpredictability of events, the inadequacy of intentions” (26). In drastically different methods, both Zombicorns and Until Dawn amplify these commonplace terrors: the pain of the loss of a sister or close friend, the enigma of death and whether the undead are no longer human, the unpredictability of characters and effects of decisions, and the insufficiency of intentions when no action or unintended consequences follow. By analyzing how Zombicorns and Until Dawn incorporate these implicit everyday terrors, we discover these media ultimately continue the discourse on what makes a monster and how our actions impact our fate.

While the title Zombicorns may lead the reader to anticipate that the short story about zombie unicorns, author John Green quickly dismisses that idea with a disclaimer[1]: “This book is not about unicorns.” The “corn” part comes from how the zombies are created, which is from mutated corn.  The narrator Mia explains that “the z’d” (the zombies) aren’t technically zombies; a person’s transformation is a result of contracting a virus called AMRV from the consumption of a variety of corn called Devotion131Y (D131Y). When a person becomes infected, they gradually become obsessed with D131Y to the point of devotional worship.

As Mia refers to them, the “z’ed up” are like zombies in that z’s will eat your brains but they will also “eat anything else, except for Devotion131Y… once you get infected, you don’t want to eat it, because you’re too busy loving it” (Green 13). The z’s spend their time planting and caring for the corn. Mia acknowledges various theories about the motivations of the z’ed up but she believes that the z’ed are an extension of the corn: they attack anyone who threatens the corn (drives over it, walks through a cornfield, etc.). The z’ed stay alive by briefly taking breaks in their agricultural activities to eat; consuming anything from piñatas[2] to humans but never the corn. Forcing humans to eat the contaminated corn is also a worthwhile activity for the z’ed, further ensuring the survival of the corn by creating more corn caretakers. Because of all of the planting, the z’ed are hunched over and grimy and have yellow-ringed pupils as a side effect of the virus.

In Mia’s “re/accounting of human life post-virus” – the context of the short story – she is only remaining member of her immediate family who hasn’t been z’ed up. The only beings in her life are her dog Mr. President, her z’ed-up little sister Holly who she cares for from a distance, and her compatriot Caroline who no longer views z’s as humans (Green 72). Caroline and Mia’s contrasting attitudes towards z’s and the apocalypse help fuel the tension in the story and demonstrate the implicit terrors in everyday life.

The “enigma of death” is the most divisive terror between the friends. Caroline explains, “it’s very easy to look at them and know they don’t have souls, that the virus stole their souls, and that you aren’t killing them, because their themness has already been killed. You’re killing the virus, which is a frakking privilege as far as I’m concerned” (Green 37). This impersonal attitude toward murdering fathers and sisters, especially children, is difficult for Mia to accept. She counters Caroline: “‘Maybe they don’t have souls,’ I said, thinking of Holly’s empty eyes ringed in yellow. ‘But they used to be people’” (Green 48). Pinedo’s remaining three aspects of “terror in the everyday” (the pain of loss, the unpredictability of events, the inadequacy of intentions) compile in the climax of the short story when the z’ed Holly shuffles to get Mia’s daily food ration (via sombrero piñata) and Caroline shoots her:

I could still see my little sister. It was the best part of every day.

And then the gunfire rained down on Holly as she knelt there eating, her body spasming as the bullets filled her up, animating her ever so briefly until the gunfire stopped and she did too, her body hideously still, cuddling the sombrero, bleeding out onto the candy I’d brought her.

(Green 70)

The immense anguish of the loss of her sister and the unpredictable betrayal by Caroline, leave Mia reeling. Her shock is furthered by insufficiency of Caroline’s intentions; Caroline defends her actions by saying, “‘She wasn’t a person anymore, Mia. This game needs teams. I can’t go north alone, and there’s no one else to go with, but we need to go… I did it for you, you know. I did it because you couldn’t, and I hope you’d do the same for me’” (Green 70). With this, Mia reacts: “I raised the pistol from my hip and shot Caroline once in the face. The chair fell backwards with her in it and I stepped forward. She started to say something or at least her mouth was moving, and I shot her twice more in the head to make it quick” (Green 70). In this instant the real monster is no longer the z’s but could be Caroline, whose hardened personality was a result of the z’ed “stealing” her normal life, or for Mia, for impulsively shooting Caroline. Caroline emotionally hurt Mia and so Mia implicitly decides not to join Caroline on their northern journey and shoots her, emotionally and physically hurting her. Mia is agonized about the death of her sister and so shooting Caroline provides brief justice but her “regret was immediate and permanent and useless” (Green 70). Both of the teenagers’ unpredictable actions caused permanent hurt and changed their fate changed by the other.

Although Pinedo’s “terror elements of the everyday” were shown emotional and philosophical lens in Zombicorns, the same elements manifest themselves in a much scarier and intense way in Until Dawn. The plot of the game is reminiscent of a ‘90s teen horror flick: a group of friends is reunited for a holiday at a remote ski lodge with a murderous psychopath lurking around. Adding to the tension is that this spot is where two of the teens, twins Beth and Hannah, died from falling off a cliff in a snowstorm after a prank turned sour. We eventually learn that Beth died fairly quickly from her injuries and the cold and so  Hannah resorted to cannibalism, eating her sister to remain alive.  This tragedy looms over the heads of the remaining eight friends and drives some of their motivations, such as their older brother Josh.

A wendigo from Until Dawn. Wendigoes can’t detect movement so during a “Don’t Move” event, the player has to hold the controller completely still.

In the game the player is rotated through playing as each of the eight characters. Periodically, the player is given the power to make significant choices for the character that impact the outcome of the game. Called “Butterfly Effects”, these decisions range from as trivial as taking a “safe” route versus a “fast” route to life-or-death decisions like jumping from a platform to safety versus saving a friend who is dangling off the platform (Seppala). The game explains this philosophy at the start: “A tiny butterfly flapping its wings today may lead to a devastating hurricane weeks from now” (TetraNinja). The decisions the player makes throughout the game impact situations later in the game, as well as the deaths of the other characters. Supermassive Games, the developer of Until Dawn, proclaims that with all of the choices and scenarios, there are “hundreds of endings”. While there aren’t literally hundreds, the numerous endings make replaying the game a puzzle, trying to figure out which decisions result in a character’s deaths (spoiler: there is a way for all 8 characters survive – and likewise an ending in which all characters die (Thielenhaus). Of course there are numerous variations between these extremes).

The generic terror of the psychopath and the emotional connection to wendigoes captures all the aspects of Pinedo’s everyday terrors but in a gorier and “jumpier” way than Zombicorns. The pain of losing Hannah and Beth haunts the group, especially their brother Josh, who eventually goes insane. The wendigoes and lurking killer create many jump scares, emphasizing the unpredictability of the characters as both beings have human-like intellect and plan traps for the teens. Unique to Until Dawn is how the Butterfly Effect plays with the insufficiency of intentions and the seemingly random effects of decisions. In order to obtain a specific outcome, several play-throughs of the game are required in order to properly align the effects. Instinct will help initially guide the player but a moral compass also helps. In “Death Games and Survival Horror Video Games: On the Limits of Pure Torture Show Entertainments”, Patrunjel acknowledges the centrality of morality within horror: “in horror fiction the moral law and the concept of nature itself as rational order are deeply chained one to another representing the same reality the hero stands for” (42). Just as decisions for the good of the group are rewarded, acts that upset nature like cannibalism (turning into a wendigo) or shooting a wolf (instead of befriending it) have negative effects for the character.

Finally, Until Dawn also emphasizes the undead versus dead enigma like Zombicorns. The hideous depiction of the wendigo and the cannibalism emphasize them as the Other but the Hannah-turned wendigo shows there is still human aspects to them. When given the chance, she doesn’t kill Mike, who she had a crush on while alive. In one of the sequences, if Josh recognizes her via her tattoo and calls out to her, she leaves him alone. As Mia recognizes in Zombicorns, the undead were once human too and their human memories remain with them in Until Dawn.  Although both pieces affect the audience in drastically different ways, the themes of terror in the everyday recur and have a haunting impact.

 

[1] John Green also disclaims the quality of the story in the preface: “Dearest Reader, This is a bad zombie apocalypse novella. It was written in a hurry. It is riddled with inconsistencies. And it never quite arrives at whatever point it sought to make.”

[2] Yes, pinatas. Mia visits her z’ed up little sister Holly each morning and delivers her a piñata stuffed with actual food like protein bars and mini-boxes of cereal.

Works Cited

Green, John. Zombicorns. (n.p), 2011.

Patrunjel, Flaviu. “Death Games and Survival Horror Video Games: On the Limits of Pure Torture Show Entertainments.” Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, vol. 4, no. 7, Oct. 2012, pp. 38-45.

Pinedo, Isabel. “RECREATIONAL TERROR: POSTMODERN ELEMENTS OF THE CONTEMPORARY HORROR FILM.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 48, no. 1/2, 1996, pp. 17–31., www.jstor.org/stable/20688091.

Seppala, Timothy J. “The Real Horror of ‘Until Dawn’ Is That Sony Sent It to Die.” Engadget. Engadget, 14 July 2016. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

TetraNinja. “Until Dawn Walkthrough Part 1 – First 2 Hours! (PS4 Let’s Play Gameplay Commentary).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Aug. 2015 Web. 28 Feb 2017.

Thielenhaus, Kevin. “Save (Or Kill) Everyone in “Until Dawn” With These Choices.” The Escapist. Defy Media, LLC, 25 Aug. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

 

 

First-Person Vérité Horror: The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Outlast (2013)

File:Blair Witch Project.jpg
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Box Office Artwork via Wikipedia
Outlast (2013) Promotional Art via Wikipedia

A forest, an asylum. A film crew, a reporter. A witch (maybe), mental patients (and worse).

On the surface, The Blair Witch Project (1999 horror film) and Outlast (2013 horror game) seem to share little more than the same overarching genre. Looking at simply a narrative level, the common ground does not improve greatly. The Blair Witch Project comes from independent directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, presented as found-footage shot by film student Heather and her crew members (Joshua and Mike) for a documentary about the titular Blair Witch. Meanwhile, Outlast, by independent studio Red Barrel Inc., follows investigative reporter Miles Upshur as he documents his attempts to verify a tip about inhumane practices at the private Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Perhaps one of the few aspects they do share is a certain critical subgenre fatigue that clashes with their mostly positive reviews. Found-footage seems to be collapsing under collective weight of all the Paranormal Activity movies and Blair Witch remakes, while first-person games have to suffer the baggage of every iterative first-person action-shooter.

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) Box Office Art via Rotten Tomatoes

Where these two works explicitly do intersect is in their similar use of technology, specifically that of the camera. The Blair Witch Project and Outlast both rely on footage from diegetic cameras operated by the main character(s) and shot mostly in real-time, making both of them works of first-person “vérité horror” as coined Barry Keith Grant in his essay“Digital Anxiety and the New Vérité Horror and SF Film” (Grant 153). This common visual and narrative framing found its popular start with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and has since then been adapted and tweaked by interactive media to a crystallized form represented by Outlast in 2013. Together these two works form a dialogue that offers a chronological record of its evolution and informs the vérité horror mode as a whole.

Though it certainly was not the first instance of vérité horror in film (many would argue that the title goes to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust in 1980), The Blair Witch Project was certainly the film that popularized both the subgenre and its subcategory, found-footage. As such, The Blair Witch Project exemplifies much of the characteristics identified by Grant as vérité horror. The entirety of the film is shot on the two diegetic cameras that the documentary film crew carries with them into the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland. Additionally, whether conscious or not, the actors channeled cinema vérité’s respect for “real-time” in their depiction of real-life duration of events. And, even more effectively, these amateur filmmakers (both the directors and the actors) convincingly represented “real-space,” prompting viewers to “anxiously search the periphery of the screen for…something that simply [was] not there” in the words of Scott Dixon McDowell (qtd. in Grant, 165). In keeping with its style of shooting that would come to be known as “shaky cam,” The Blair Witch Project presents flawed, impartial, or even obscured glimpses of the film’s horrors purposefully in a skillful ploy to up the suspense of the film as audiences wait for a big reveal that never comes. Instead, audiences find themselves stuck, eating up the amateur aesthetic of “real” fear while simultaneously wishing it would break its own rules.

Shaky Cam via Giphy

The real-life directors of the film took vérité horror a step further, having their actors film their trip, improvise their lines, and actually camp alone in the woods for long stretches of time–“method filmmaking” in the words of Myrick (qtd. in Heller-Nicholas, 97). This “method filmmaking” functions much like cinema vérité, dissolving the boundaries between “the artificial” and “the real” so that the audience has trouble telling the two apart. The Blair Witch Project certainly succeeded in walking that line, as a large part of its popularity surrounded whether or not it was “real.” Accompanied by a strong (mostly Internet) marketing campaign, seemingly encouraged the controversy of its veracity. No matter the audience opinion, these calculated advertising pushes kept the film at the forefront of conversation for a sizable amount of time.

These extratextual reminders of the controversy and the medium itself serve to evoke in viewers a further elevated sense of reality, striving for an effect labeled “hypermediacy” by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin–a sort of hyper-self-awareness in regards to media and technology possessed by certain works. The Blair Witch Project touts hypermediacy even within the text itself, its characters almost revelling in their acknowledgements of the camera, juggling of filming, mocking of the documentary process, and even direct address of the (intended) audience of the film.Together with its marketing, these elements work in conjunction to create a hypermediacy that further elevates the vérité horror of The Blair Witch Project.

Further adding to the hypermediacy resulting from the online marketing and authenticity debate, film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas argues that the creators of The Blair Witch Project engineered an “alternative reality game” (ARG)–an interactive narrative using transmedia storytelling that often acts as promotional material–that made viewers “actively partake” in part of the production of The Blair Witch Project’s vérité horror. This added enticement to involve the viewer comes on top of the first-person perspective that the film employs, and is further amplified by the inherent “interactivity” that Grant argues is significant to the vérité horror subgenre. He argues that when the diegetic “camera operator interacts with profilmic event” (the event happening in front of the camera), the film encourages the viewer to abandon their abstract detachment from the film and subconsciously identify with the camera and camera operator. With this its additions to vérité horror’s built-in interactivity, The Blair Witch Project sets a remarkably high standard for audience involvement.

In discussing interactivity in horror, the mind might naturally jump to horror video games. Grant spends a considerable amount of time comparing cinematic vérité horror to horror video games, especially survival horror games. Grant provides a strong definition for survival horror, which he defines as a subgenre where “the player fights monsters” with limited means of resistance, “often in enclosed, maze-like spaces while searching for hidden items that will allow movement to new areas…or provide various means for staying alive” (Grant, 163). He traces this term back to the 1996 release of the first Resident Evil, a fixed-camera zombie game that depended on its confusing spatial design, challenging puzzles, and (most importantly), its extreme scarcity of ammo and resources. In the almost two decades since then, survival horror has bled into the first-person market–the result of which has recently pushed the subgenre to an extreme. After the critical and financial success of 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, first-person survival horror games have embraced an almost complete powerlessness in contrast not only to the recent glut of action-oriented first-person games (think shooters like Call of Duty and Halo), but also to even Resident Evil’s limited combat. Outlast follows in this vein, emphasizing from the very beginning that you, the player character, cannot fight, rather you can only run and hide, and you have no weapons or tools except for a night vision-enabled camcorder with which to “record” the events of your investigation.

Outlast’s camera interface (plus incredibly big scissors!) via Giphy

With this mechanic, Outlast creates an unusual relationship with the player and the character, as you interact with the game world in an unusually passive manner for a first-person game, yet you actively spectate these interactions by recording with the diegetic camera. Despite this paradox of control, Outlast still essentially takes the immersive nature of vérité horror to another level.

Perron highlights a distinction between emotional reactions to horror mythology and conventions. Among other types of responses, he distinguishes between “fiction emotions” and “gameplay emotions,” which he defines as “emotions rooted in the fictional world” and “emotions that arise from the gamer’s actions in the game-world,” respectively. Whereas films, invoke fiction emotions, video games elicit both fiction and gameplay emotions, giving you the player an emotional reason to immerse yourself fully into the game. Outlast provides a unique combination of these emotional enticements, placing more emphasis on the fiction emotional stimuli while still supplying the gameplay emotional stimuli that its interactivity guarantees.

In addition to the added emotional investment, the game also includes diegetic, non-diegetic, and extradiegetic features to heighten the realism of your immersion. The sound plays a crucial role in the immersiveness of the game, with diegetic elements like heaving breath, dripping blood, beeping ripping body parts to draw you into Outlast’s vérité horror experience and nondiegetic sound effects to amplify the effectiveness of the horror without removing you from the experience. One of the more effective immersive details comes in the form of the extradiegetic vibrating controller feedback that adds to the emotional responses of the experience.

By far the most immersive factor in Outlast is its treatment of the diegetic camera. The experience of using this camera acts contrary to most other first-person implementations of the mechanic. Unlike many other video games, Outlast attempts to make using its diegetic technology as transparent as possible, channeling the “immediacy” of media and technology as coined by Bolter and Grusin and contrasting The Blair Witch Project’s hypermediacy. Outlast’s immediacy acts as a boon to the player, since it increases the immersiveness despite the fact that the game positively reinforces the camera’s use with both story and gameplay. Yet, for better or worse, that immediacy means that many of the actual limitations of night-vision camcorders are applied to the diegetic camera, ranging from light blindness to battery-life issues that turn the game into a terrifying battery scavenger hunt.

While in other more action-oriented games, the immersion from this first-person gameplay might be “replaced by the sense of agency” in the words of Film Studies professor Bernard Perron, Outlast instead partially invokes the passivity of the filmic experience. But unlike cinematic vérité horror, Outlast’s video game vérité horror places you in control of the camera operator, rather than only allowing you to identify with him or her. As such, it strikes a unique compromise between the distance between audience and experience, allowing the player control over the focus of events (except in scripted cutscenes), but discouraging some of the mitigating mechanisms that are effective with films (closing your eyes or covering your face, for example). Consequently, Outlast’s vérité horror experience becomes infinitely more graphic than The Blair Witch Project’s earlier cinematic version–embracing its identity as postmodern horror by displaying all the camcorder-captured mutilation, decapitation, and evisceration it can.

Though both The Blair Witch Project and Outlast exemplify first-person vérité horror, they act as bookends of a still-changing subgenre. The Blair Witch Project may have created the current popularity (and fatigue) that surrounds the found-footage and vérité horror in general. However, Outlast currently stands as distillation of the spirit of vérité horror, making the player actually step into the role of the camera operator rather merely identify with the camera in spite of the uncanny (or just plain unrealistic) nature of video game graphics. Yet as graphics and computing technology improve alongside that of virtual reality, we find vérité horror has strayed beyond both both The Blair Witch Project and Outlast to take on different, even more immersive form.

Works Cited:

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Revised ed. edition. The MIT Press, 2000. Amazon. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.

Grant, Barry Keith. “Digital Anxiety and the New Verité Horror and Sf Film.” Science Fiction Film and Television 6.2 (2013): 153–175. Print.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Found Footage Horror Films : Fear and the Appearance of Reality. Jefferson NC, US: McFarland, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 1 March 2017.

Perron, Bernard. “Sign of a Threat: The Effects of Warning Systems in Survival Horror Games.” ResearchGate . Web. 26 Feb. 2017.