On a run with my friend Maura a few days ago, we passed the abandoned cabin collapsed into the mossy thrush that lines Davidson’s cross country trails.
I commented in passing that the sloping log edifice disintegrating into damp soil was a perfect representation of Mark Fisher’s definition of “the eerie”: a family had been once present here, we could see their turned over sink and ice-box. Ostensibly they were now absent, for reasons we were sure were fraught and nefarious.
“I want to take a photo of this but I feel like some spirit would possess my phone or something,” I commented jokingly.
“I found like a 1950’s saddle shoe here once,” Maura said, and then added “empty of course.”
Which provoked a strange thought, “ghosts like are never from like a decade after the 40s though.”
In the media, rarely do you see a ghost that isn’t a small victorian child in white-ish night gown with long stringy hair and empty eyes.
Enter Bethan Bell’s “Taken from life,” in which dead victorian folks are propped up with what I can only imagine are coat hangers and photographed. I was struck by the fact that the images were the crystallization of what my brain thought of when it thought of “ghost.” A ghost had to be someone distant from me in sense of dress and in decade. The more antiquated the more likely to come back haunting.
“Yeah like you wouldn’t see a ghost from the 1970’s. What would they do shake their bell bottoms at you and boo?” I said.
“But you also wouldn’t see like the ghost of a caveman or something” Maura decides.
So evidently one’s perception of “ghosthood” is highly temporal. It has a scopic element that refracts our categorization of who can who can’t be a ghost.
Why particularly are Victorian people so much more likely to be ghosts? Were they sadder, more melancholic, more ashen faced, more hysterical, more generally creepy?
Well, honestly, probably, but also we might find the answer in Jeffrey Cohen’s theses on monsters. Just as monsters are a “cultural body” so too seemingly is our perception of the ghost inflected with cultural anxiety (Cohen 4).
I’m no historian on the late industrial period, nor am I exactly sure why the people of this time are the recycled fodder of many a haunting T.V. show, novel, or film.
Maybe some of this may connect to the insurgence of gothicism that began in the mid to late 18th century, maybe some of this was related to the increase in population, which meant a proportional increase in death, maybe victorian people were really just that more creepy than the rest of us. I can’t particularly point to one reason. But it’s worth interrogating why I can’t fathom someone from the 80s rocking shoulder pads and a bad haircut haunting me.
In the above clip, what you just heard is a whispering sound that cultural analysts, scientists, and media talking heads find difficult to categorize. I have just reduplicated to the best of my ability sounds that are meant to generate a physiological response. Though the above was an example of a human voice whispering, other sounds such the sounds of paper shredding, the tapping of metallic objects, the brushing of skin against skin, the tracing of fingertips on soft wood, are currently being listened too across the globe as part of an emerging cultural media trend. First we must define what these strange sounds are called and why they are intrinsically important to an analysis of Postmodern Horror before we embark on an analysis of the specific subcultures related to this trend. (Poerio 120).
This is ASMR, the title now given to these diegetic “tingly” noises, which has for the last ten years or so, grown into a community of online users, and which has pervaded the mainstream with its, well, “weirdness” (Poerio 119-128). ASMR as a community has staked a claim that it potentially alleviates “insomnia,” “anxiety,” “depression,” and the list of scientifically unproven benefits goes on (Poerio 119-128). Given that ASMR seemingly aims to sooth its viewers from their individual waking stresses and nightmares, how is that a horror sub-genre of ASMR videos exists and is, dare I say, pretty popular?
In order to identify the various subcultures within this subculture outgrowth of YouTube, we have to define ASMR as best as is possible with a terminology that may yet exist to do so. ASMR at its most brief of descriptions is an internet phenomenon in which content creators speak and look directly into a camera while addressing their anonymous viewer with soft repetitive, sounds, ranging from tapping to lip smacking to brushing a microphone (Poerio 119-128). Some of these videos are “simulated” experiences as Dr. Gilula Poerio notes in one of the only current scientific studies of the internet phenomenon (Poerio 120). Users who engage in these roleplay-style videos can choose any narrative situation they please, ranging from makeup tutorials to hair appointments to freudian psychoanalytic style scenarios. However, there is a subsection of ASMR in which relaxation and self-servicing sounds are generated by simulations that one could hardly characterize as “relaxing.”
A number of ASMR videos are now devoted to serial killer roleplays. Imagine Ted Bundy calmly whispering into your ear pre-murder. Some of these are done in the vein of parody such as content creator “IamCYR,” in others such as those kidnapping and quasi-American Psycho-esque videos produced by ASMRtist “Ephemeral Rift” and “Crinkleluvin ASMR” appear to be an earnest attempt to satisfy viewer requests. The discomforting content of these videos (including the licking of knives, the tapping of other various torture objects, rope sounds, and the gentle, but threatening whispers of a murderous captor) seemingly do not detract from the “ASMR-ness” of the videos. As multiple users argue these serial killer roleplays are, unnervingly, “relaxing,” even pleasing (Poerio 119).
These serial killer roleplays self-reflexively distort the genre of ASMR videos, which mainly deal with obviously relaxing or soothing environments such as Reiki healing, hair brushing, nail painting, etc (Poerio 119). As with Ephemeral Rift’s video “The Insomnia Killer” (the first linked video) in which audiences are drawn into a state of captivity that plays on their desire to rid themselves of their insomnia is an exact example of the postmodern, nearly parodic, tone that some of these videos employ. However, despite the potential irony of these videos, they still generate for users like me an actual physiological response to the sounds generated.
(Though this paper won’t analyze the clearly parodic serial killer ASMR videos, Ephemeral Rift’s is worth giving a listen).
CrinkleLuvinASMR, a female ASMRtist, has similarly produced a series of these “kidnap” style ASMR videos in which the suggestion of violence jars against the relaxing, physiological comfort we as viewers are induced to feel through the sonicity of the ASMR experience.
As we are confronted by CrinkleLuvin’s gaze, resting just above a medical mask, and told that we are the subject of her psychopathic medical machinations, we are disoriented. We feel calm, we want to keep watching, but wait is that a blood spatter behind her? The comments such as by Rapunzel ASMR laud the video, exclaiming
In the video we see the suggestion of blood on the walls, an “abject” promise of what’s to come after the ASMR part of the video ends, and we are no longer in a state of lull or false security (Pinedo 21). Crinkle Luvin’s murderous character at times yells off camera to her daughter to quiet down. Viewers are fed the illusion that we aren’t alone with our computer, someone else is around. The believability of this is compacted by the sensation of fatigue, of inesacapability that the gentle tapping of medical tools and the rustle of plastic have generated within us. The viewer-captor is told that they’re going to “need a paralytic” and the tingling sensation we requisitely feel in our scalp seems to turn this suggestion into a reality. The manipulation of senses has betrayed us as viewers, our agency is called into question as consumers. CrinkleLuvinASMR tells us we are being made “into dolls.” And for a moment, as our body’s become entranced by the soothing sounds, we almost believe her. Seemingly, what we are experiencing is both “inside” the video and “outside” of the video itself.
Therefore though violence is only suggested by these serial killer ASMR videos, we anticipate said violence to come and feel the affects of the personal, if psychopathic, attention we are receiving. Therefore the experience is metaleptic in that our sense of discomfort and disorientation only occur after the video ends. The experience exists outside the text in the sense that we carry this sensation long after the video concludes. Though no violence or shock scares occur, what is horrific about these ASMR videos this is our lack of control over our own physiological reactions. What we have just experienced is what Isabel Pinedo claims is one of the major facets of postmodern horror. Pinedo claims that “horror is an excercise in recreational terror, a simulation of danger not unlike a roller coaster ride… the conviction that there is nothing to fear turns stress into a pleasurable experience” (Pinedo 25).
Pinedo offers us a theoretical framework by which we can understand just how are viewers ostensibly led to feel secure, even soothed, in the pretend, virtual arms of a serial killer, so much so that there’s a demand for content creators to serialize (pun intended) said videos as CrinkleLuvinASMR has. However the answer potentially also rests in the way that ASMR videos construct “subjectivity” through sound (Bennett 134).
Let’s look briefly at a user-generated anecdotal analysis of ASMR that narrates in real time this subjectivity. In “ Relief from a Certain Kind of Personhood in ASMR Role-Play Videos,” Emma Bennett relates her experience of viewing popular “ASMRtist” Olivia Kissper as one in which technology approaches a distinct kind of intimacy, one which situates Bennett “between object-hood and personhood” (Bennett 134).
“It is not only her performance, it is mine, too. I have to go along with it, even just a tiny bit, for it to work. I have to receive these recorded, mediated attentions as if they were really directed at me, personally, in the here and now. And it works: when Olivia says, I’ll just gently touch the area of your jaw, my jaw responds, it feels noticed. It’s sort of like it blushes, flinches ticklishly at the mention of its name” (Bennett 131).
Here Bennett narrates the way in which ASMR breaches category distinctions between the virtual and the real. Bennet’s interactions with Olivia’s content creates an experience in which real feeling is felt through a technological conduit . The uncanny ability to make a virtual interaction feel physiologically real through sonic response is perhaps one of the reasons the trend has gained popularity. In his analysis of horror video-game Resident Evil, Ewan Kirkland defines this attempt at a seamless reality as ““immediacy” which “aim[s] for … the impression of an encounter with the real” (Kirkland 117). Content generators often attempt to be as vague as possible in order to seem realistically addressing the unique millions who tune in. Though the level to which we are directly addressed creates a kind of immediacy, we are also aware of the microphone and camera which are the conduits that allow us to experience the sounds emanating from our computer as Bennett notes (Bennett 131). Therefore ASMR engages additionally in a kind of “hypermediacy.” (Sample). ASMR’s ability to generate a physiological sense of tingling, using props that aid in crafting an alternate world through these roleplay environments makes serial killer style roleplays all the more terrifying as a medium of “relaxation.” since they actually sonically feel real.
However, this use of the sonic to engender fear without presenting visually anything that is actually “scary” has been done in horror films such as The Blair Witch Project. In his book Terror Tracks Phillip Hayward describes the way The Blair Witch Project creates terror through a manipulation of sound.
“The anticipation and suspense is enhanced by the fact that those images designed to scare us are not overly horrific: piles of rocks and stick figures in trees. Rather these are used cumulatively to establish a spooky context. The dim lighting, black-and-white footage and scenes featuring intermittent and lengthy moments of black screen or almost total darkness all rely on sound and sonic reaction to create an effect (Hayward).”
Therefore a constituent part of postmodern horror seems to be a concern with form over content. As with The Blair Witch Project, ASMR’s horror content never shows real “horror” and yet it is unnerving and disorienting in its manipulation of genre and medium.
Such is the case with Shintaro Kago’s nine page one shot manga Abstraction. In Abstraction readers are first presented with six seemingly normal frames of a young couple at the beach. We know there are six predominantly because unlike normal manga the frames are numbered. This is the first indication of the piece’s metatextual nature and therefore of hyper-mediation as the numbered pages call our attention to the form of the manga genre.
In the top left hand corner of the second page we the subtle bend of the first frame, implying the page is being turned by a hand, a clear prod of self-awareness that points outside of the text to our reading experience. However by the second page the entire form is shifted to a four dimensional block.
As the frames turn, the couple’s bodies too become transformed, sometimes melding together, and at other times turn into pieces of machinery such as cars.
By page seven the frame of the manga zooms out to reveal several more empty text boxes gesturing to concurrent narratives. On page eight the young couple has been completely fragmented from both the confines of the graphic frame and from their bodies.
As the comic climaxes to a surreal peak, the couple’s seemingly engaged in a sexual act, divide into horrifying malformations of their former selves. Sex is accompanied with unexplained and absurd gore. Pinedo would attribute this as a tenet of postmodern horror, claiming that “the fusion and fission figures of postmodern horror assume overtly sexual proportions” (Pinedo 21).
The most postmodern elements of this particular work are its metaleptic manipulation of manga’s actual graphic form. We are made to question the closed nature of each text box as they are literally distorted and its characters become disembodied from a “bounded” frame (Pinedo 26). This distortion becomes inflicted upon the character’s own bodies, and the mediums fragmentation translates onto the horrific gore that the character’s begin to experience without another causation. In Abstraction, the medium is the murderer.
This manipulation of form creates a kind of visual vertigo that toys with it’s audience as much as it does the character’s embodiment. The reader’s eye, trained to read comics left from right find themselves struggling to pinpoint the beginning and end of the page. This disorientation becomes exemplified too in the “self-reflexive” nature of the text, which plays on the common subject of romance manga, known as Shoujo, to make more absurd the sudden violent sexual scenes that follow the seemingly mundane romance that Abstraction begins with (Pinedo 28).
Kago’s piece however is part of a larger genre of Japanese horror manga. In an analysis of one of the most salient horror manga artists, Osamu Tezuka, Suzanne Phillips describes a similar genre-style of Japanese horror manga,
“the action now unfolded in an alternate reality, typically in dreams, nightmares, or fantasies that blurred the distinction between what is real and what is not. Without warning, the plots might suddenly veer into the realm of the fantastic and the absurd, sometimes without providing any clear resolution at the end” (Phillips 82).
This description of Tezuka’s work almost perfectly maps on to Kago’s Abstraction and perfectly describes the way Pinedo characterizes postmodern horror as that which “asserts that not everything can or should be dealt with in rational terms” (Pinedo 22) The “absurdity” of Abstraction however relies specifically on the audiences anticipation of a quotidian romance. Kago bases the surrealism constructed in Abstraction through the “ironic” disavowal of this genre (Pinedo 28).
Like with the serial killer roleplays of ASMR, the content of Abstraction does not use visual horror tropes or even methods as the main means which to convey terror. Nothing that objectively terrifying occurs. We see a relationship deteriorating in Abstraction; though the gratuitous anal bleeding scene, the disjointed non-linear narrative (if this can be called a narrative at all) make it hard to discern what’s actually going on in the manga. The locus of horror in these mediums is instead their manipulation of senses which divert attention away from the fact that, as Pinedo says, by the end of their narratives “the outcome is uncertain” (Pinedo 25). In Abstraction, readers experience visual vertigo that is underscored by the text’s “self awareness” of its medium’s genre (Pinedo 25). In horror roleplay ASMR, the content generators awareness of the genre codes appeals to the disorienting sensation the video produces. And while no particularly violent or gory action is purveyed in these roleplays, viewers are instead discomforted by their comfort– a relaxation generated by their involuntary physiological response to sound. In essence, we are held captive not by the virtual captor of the roleplay, but by the computer echoing the quasi-addictive sounds users are drawn back to repeatedly.
Both of these examples highlight that the predominant mechanism of postmodern horror is no longer content, or even plot, but the manipulation of media. As Pinedo concludes for us ” the horror film is an exercise in mastery” and to a degree these slights of comic frame and of soft voice are indeed performing both a “mastery” of the medium and a “mastery” of the the audience (Pinedo 26). This results in disorientation of sensory experience, as our eyes and ears strain to adjust to the surreal phenomenons set before us, and thus puts the consumer’s conception of reality into a state of vertigo.
Bennett, Emma. “Relief from a Certain Kind of Personhood in ASMR Role-Play Videos.” Felicity Callard, et al., editors. The Restless Compendium : Interdisciplinary Investigations of Rest and Its Opposites. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Worldcat.org. Accessed 19 Feb. 2019.
ASMR, CrinkleLuvin. “ASMR Horror Story: Medical Kidnapping Role Play.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCc3ATU66Qo&t=442s.
Kirkland E. “Resident Evil’s Typewriter: Survival Horror and Its Remediations.” Games and Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, 2009, pp. 115–126., doi:10.1177/1555412008325483.
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. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20688091.
Phillips, Susanne. “ Characters, Themes, and Narrative Patterns in the Manga of Osamu Tezuka.” Mark W. MacWilliams. Japanese Visual Culture : Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Routledge, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/davidson/detail.action?docID=1900027.Created from davidson on 2019-02-18 18:12:01
Poerio, Gilula. “Could Insomnia Be Relieved with a YouTube Video? The Relaxation and Calm of ASMR.” Felicity Callard, et al., editors. The Restless Compendium : Interdisciplinary Investigations of Rest and Its Opposites. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Worldcat.org. Accessed 19 Feb. 2019.
I want to focus on the particularities and aestheticization of violence in video games because as many video game conventions showcase, the industry cultivates an aesthetic of violence with the intent of commercialization. Just as with T.V shows there’s a level to which video games are created to be merchandised, to exit the virtual reality into the material reality. And in this aestheticization, there is something perhaps violent involved. It almost reminds me of the end of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which maybe one could use as a theoretical foreground through which to understand the aesthetic of violence in video games as a form of purveying or making consumable. This is essentially at the core of violence as Carly Kocureck arguement in Who Harkens To The Monster’s Scream? (But to get into nitty gritty theory will have to wait for a longer paper.)
In response to Kocurek, I might push further and say that part of the violent outgrowth in video games becomes more so an aesthetic violence. How many Fortnite swords to children wield now across the globe? How many faux daggers were sold following the peak popularity of Assassin’s Creed? This aesthetic specifically is one which is done under the illusion that the gamer inhabits a free will inside the video game (Just as the consumer to an extent can decide what to buy while in the push pull tide of manipulative capitalism).
(Check out this interesting Amazon purchase for example):
One of the oppressive aspects of graphic video games is the illusion of choice that they create as they inscribe this aesthetic violence. This often begins when users generate an avatar, and as in the several iterations of Halo along with multiple other first-shooter games, players initially decide on their armor, and even the type and color of their weaponry. We are given the choice of color, but we have no choice as to whether or not we can choose to have a weapon. The act of choosing one’s avatar feels like an intensified trip to the mall for new clothes, however, with these clothes violence is sublimated, made quotidian, routine.
As games like this precede the ease at which multiple rounds are fired becomes a repetitive, almost addicting visualization of success. By ascending to the next level or in some cases receiving better weapons for attaining certain checkpoints, etc, we begin to create a false sense of self-determinism within an environment that actually has been pre-set before us. We are choosing to shoot the gun in our hands, but we can never rid ourselves of the gun itself. We can replace the AK 47 for the shotgun, but it’s glued to our virtual palms.
Thus we are never given the choice between non-violence and violence, we are only given the choice of this costume of violence or that.
Benjamin, Andrew E. Walter Benjamin and Art. Continuum, 2005. WorldCat.org. Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
During a summer in Maine, my friend who interned at the Farnsworth, which houses one of the largest private collections of New England painter American Wyeth’s works, drove me the back way to see a touchstone of American Pastoralism – the Wyeth house.
The Wyeth House is most notable for its faded appearance in Wyeth’s Christina’s World. The subject of the painting is a woman stricken with polio. As she strains to the insurmountable distance between her and home, we are terrified for her, for her helplessness (Small “The Controversial Story Behind Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World”).
Upon visiting the locale, a tourist might be struck by how small the hill actually is, how seemingly comforting, sunny even, the rolling hills of the Wyeth property are. Gone seemingly is the melancholia, the borderline American Gothicism, that the artistic rendering of the place provokes.
Wyeth’s brush embeds Christina in a different narrative setting. Perspective triumphs. We are in a listless wind with Christina. The house above her looms hauntingly.
Christina’s body is made a subject of this mood. We are made, however problematically, to feel the anguish of her disability. She is a subject of Wyeth’s gaze. We see of her what he desires we see. There is set dressing involved.
In The Monstrous Feminine, Barbara Creed relates Julia Kristeva’s notion of the female abjectivity to Regan of the Exorcist. Creed writes that the “abject represents that which “disturbs identity, system, order’” (Creed 37). This, Creed then relates to the “infantile.” Christina’s shape seems one of the yet developed “crawling” of a child (Small “The Controversial Story”). I insert Creed’s notion of the abject because what is rendered in Wyeth’s painting is a subject of the female abject. Christina is isolated by her abjected, disabled body just as Marjorie’s declining mental illness isolate and render her abject.
This is all to say that perhaps this rumination on the interiority on a female’s illness is why the painting finds its way into Merry’s adult apartment. As the class has spoken about many of the intertext in A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay chooses his cultural references with care and narrative purport (Tremblay 108).
Just as we are wound into Christina’s mental state, so too are we involved in Marjorie’s emerging “schizophrenia” (if that indeed is what afflicts her). The reality or unreality of the T.V show subjects her, her feigned complicity in this (she initially tells Merry that she schemed this for the financial benefit of the family) is shown when she “flips off” the camera wielding Merry (Tremblay 137).
Merry describes Marjorie as the “ghost of the house” in that she “haun[ts] her own bedroom” (Tremblay 138). In the way Christina’s broken frame seems to haunt the home she strains to reach so too does Marjorie become an abstracted presence, a subject of surveillance even in her own abode. I want to ruminate on this idea of being made a “ghost” of one’s own private space. Seemingly, Marjorie’s identity, which was the former owner of her space, is altered, her abject body is made a phantom of her former self. However, this is seemingly a product of the way her identity is constructed through the process of filming. Her reality is made less real by the existence of the other family who acts as stand in personae for her real self in The Possession. Their presence dictates a residual absence, their simulation of Marjorie’s life replaces her private lived experience with a public, excepted, “real,” truth. Therefore, through the processing of subjectivity, Marjorie indeed becomes possessed, but not by a demon necessarily, but of public perception. Simply put, our narrative idea of Marjorie comes to force her into an inescapable personae that even she seems confused by. The audience who watches her comes to be the demon who ultimately possesses Marjorie.
Just as we impose a face to the faceless image of Christina in the painting, so too do we impose a subject position upon Marjorie that assumes an interiority that lessens perhaps her actual identity. Our notions of subject materialize, they shape, they contort, they manipulate, they reduce and deny. They possess.