Reflective Post: Devil’s in the Details

In three of my five blog posts, I focused on specific aspects of either the piece itself or something that the reading reminded me of. Even in my two more vague, broad-view posts, I had something specific in mind. For instance, in my post on “Rethinking Repair,” I was thinking of the YouTuber Louis Rossman, who went viral for the rants against Apple that prefaced his home computer repair videos, and in my post on grief trolls and the separation between a person and their social media profiles, I was thinking of the distance between my own personality and my Instagram persona. I tend to think and focus on the details because they offer a way for me to understand the larger concept without getting confused or bogged down by the massive amount of information I feel is connected to the big picture. Each blog post was almost as much a Sightings post as it was related to the specific readings.

I think the reason that I did stop referencing the specific events near the end of the class can be attributed to how I was synthesizing concepts from earlier but didn’t want to go ridiculously far over the word limit to cover everything I was thinking of. If I were to go back, I think I would more directly reference the themes and concepts I was considering and also work them more thoroughly into the first few blog posts, which were very detail-oriented and less concept-based. I would still reference examples, but I would discuss more of the overall relevance of the examples and what they add to the discussion as a whole.

Mother of Invention

Jackson’s discussion of repair as a form of innovation brought to mind Apple products, which are designed to be as difficult as possible, or preferably impossible, for a consumer to repair at home. There are dozens of stories from consumers who brought their products to the Apple help desk only to find that the issue was a bit of dust in the charging port or that Apple refused to repair the device at all and suggested replacement or upgrade. Apple technicians are prohibited from repairing any phones that show signs of consumer attempts at repair, including off-brand replacement phone screens. Despite the intentionally troublesome design of Apple products, dozens of repair companies spring up, and several YouTubers have gone viral for their home-repair videos. Although none of these issues would exist if Apple did not make it so difficult and expensive to fix their products, or even if they always agreed to repair the devices as part of the company services, anyone who decides to fix their own phone or tablet learns more about the technology that they use every day, and none of those troubleshooting solutions would exist either. If the secrecy and obstacles did not exist, neither would the workarounds, and both general and technical knowledge would suffer for it. In scientific research, several discoveries have been made on accident when attempting to understand a separate problem; I imagine the history of technological advancement reveals similar experiences. Necessity and creativity combine, in this case, and lead to innovation (or, to better follow the phrase, invention).

Digital Wills and Communal Works

In some ways, control of one’s image after death seems linked to the concept of a digital will.  A few weeks ago a friend brought to my attention the concept of a “Fannish Next-of-Kin,” a term dubbed by the Organization of Transformative Works in regards to their fanfiction archive. The FNOK can assume control of the deceased’s account after their death and execute whatever the deceased asked them to do, such as removing the user’s stories, orphaning them (removing the author’s name but leaving the stories up), or publishing the remainder of unfinished works. Like a person’s image, this form of digital will concerns the future of a profile, a representation of someone’s self.

Fanworks are more closely tied to the community in which they were created than a traditionally published work is–fanfiction writers and artists communicate with each other and with their audience more directly. Requested works especially belong, in a way, to the community–members of a fandom bounce ideas off of each other, prompt each other, and spin off other people’s works. Taking down someone’s fanfiction after their death erases the community effort. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t want their family to find their works, the community should be understanding of the deceased’s wishes.

When an actor or model participates in the creation of a piece, they are part of a community. We cannot claim full ownership of our image–photographers and editors have approximately equal investment in the creation of the work. But a digital will, which requires the subject to define how they see the future of their work, can be negotiated while the subject is still alive and involve the other contributors. We can’t make a blanket rule because not everyone has the same views on how they want their work treated.

What We Don’t Know: Life Before Death

In comic books, “women in refrigerators” are the brutally murdered or injured love interests of male superheroes, characters used as devices that provide the men with motivation to defeat their nemeses (Simone). One of the most famous characters who has fallen to the commonplace trope is Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s first girlfriend and potentially his one true love. Gwen was thrown off a bridge in The Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1. Issue #121, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” and died not from the fall but when Spider-Man’s web jerked her upwards too quickly, snapping her neck. Her death sparked a massive change in comic stories, as the heroes were no longer guaranteed to win. Gwen is famous only for her death, not her life or character, and in my project I explore the pieces missing from her character, the things that would make her more real, and how her death erased what few pieces of her were not directly linked to her relationship with Spider-Man.

I staged an old phone to appear as if it belongs to Gwen Stacy right around the time of her death, including bookmarks in her web browser, photographs, social media apps, and health information. The pink-and-blue color scheme is meant to match Spider-Man’s iconic suit. Gwen was a science student at the same university as Peter, a choice the writers made so that the two would run into each other easily and not because Gwen had any ambitions (Gianola and Coleman 253). From her very first thought bubble to her very last, Gwen spoke and thought only of her relationship with Peter, occasionally interspersed with doting comments on her father, a police captain with the NYPD. A few months before Gwen’s death, her father, George Stacy, died in a fight with one of Spider-Man’s nemeses, and she was still in mourning when she died in the comics. At the original time of writing, Gwen blamed Spider-Man for her father’s death, a point of contention in her relationship with Peter Parker, who she did not know was Spider-Man.

Gwen’s Photos app conveys her story most clearly. In the beginning of the album, Gwen is pictured with Peter, obviously very in love. Then in December she abruptly begins taking pictures of places in London such as Westminster Abbey and the Darwin exhibit at the National Museum. She takes pictures in London for a month, including some photos from a lab there, and then returns to New York in January. She gets lunch with Peter, hangs out with MJ, and on Valentine’s Day we see her ready for a date with Peter. After that, they have pictures as a couple again. In March, she goes to her father’s grave and takes pictures of the flowers there, has dinner with her family the next Sunday, and does more lab work with Oscorp. All of this is to reflect what we know about Gwen Stacy’s life after her father died: she decided to break up with Peter and went to study in London for a few months before returning to New York, reuniting with Peter, and abruptly dying.

Throughout the whole album, Gwen is seen drinking and partying, two things not consistent with the modern depictions and memories of Gwen. Gianola and Coleman discuss how Gwen Stacy was transformed into a saint after her death, innocent and delighted by the beauty of nature, intelligent enough to work in a chemistry lab (258). The collective memory of Gwen is not so much who her character was as who the fans wanted her to be. In her first appearances in the sixties, Gwen was flighty, interested mainly in hooking up with whoever she found attractive, and partied frequently. She was vain and frequently jealous when Peter paid attention to other women. Gwen’s sainthood came with her death, much like how society tends to idealize real people after their deaths even if that person did terrible things.

The photos in the album, which have edited metadata so they have the same date and time they would if Gwen had actually taken them, are meant to contrast and augment the cultivated Instagram feed. Gwen’s public persona, and the one people are able to reference, is sweet, smart, and loving. She posts flowers at her father’s grave and colorful lab work; her “uglier” tendencies are hidden. Arnold Blumberg suggests that because the boys who read the Spider-Man comics were meant to identify with and sees themselves as Peter Parker, they were also encouraged to see Gwen Stacy as their girlfriend. These readers do not want to see Gwen as she was but as they remember her, a perfect innocent who could not be saved, a representation of first love lost.

The differences in how Gwen presents herself in her Photos app versus her public page highlight the second focus of my project: public and private data, and how those forms of data affect how we are remembered. Gwen’s party photos are kept where those who would grieve with her cannot see them, locked behind a passcode. Her Instagram profile, on the other hand, is open and visible to everyone. The cultivated persona Gwen presents through Instagram is another form of the “packaging” Sontag describes, arranging and preserving photos for the future (5). The Instagram album emphasizes the images Gwen was willing to show others, the ones that proved that “the program was carried out, that fun was had” (Sontag 9). Her Photos app similarly provides evidence of the places she’s been and things she’s done, but only for her and the select people to whom she shows her physical phone. After Gwen dies, her private data–phone calls, iMessages, iTunes, saved articles, and especially unpublished photos–are lost. Her social media profile would exacerbate the nostalgia that erased what few parts of Gwen’s identity that were not one-hundred percent connected to Peter or her father.

As I’ve implied through the last few paragraphs, Gwen’s Instagram page, or public data, acts as a memorial to her through which others (fictional loved ones or real-world fans) can mourn her. Instagram accounts, once memorialized, do not appear any different from a regular account. As time goes on, they remain a snapshot of that time before the person’s death. When I first created the Instagram account, I followed some accounts made by fans of other characters such as Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker, and Harry Osborn for added realism. A few of the accounts followed back, and several other people have also decided to follow this fake account. In doing so, they unwittingly created a network of the sort Graham et al. describe, a secondary set of mourners beyond Gwen’s family. I also used the account to post a tribute to Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father and the second man around whom her life revolves. The post is tagged with a cemetery in New York and corresponds with a visit scheduled in Gwen’s calendar, establishing a connection between mourning in the physical world and the digital world. Gwen’s memorial page, however, is purely digital and can be “visited” in whatever moment the viewer chooses. It also does not have the same weight that a grave does; there is no gray stone or cross to indicate that Gwen is dead and rests beneath the viewer’s feet. The post is meant to highlight the difference between physical gravesites and Website memorials.

This project is meant to be something of a critique of how female characters in comics have very little to them, but it was more difficult than I expected to create a true personality for Gwen and represent it through her phone. Because there is so little information about Gwen’s life beyond Peter, anything I came up with was pure speculation. The things my project lacks–conversations with other people, evidence of mourning beyond surface-level examples, evidence of Gwen’s ambitions and plans for the future–are the same things that the comics lack. In the end, I felt that sticking purely to what was expressed in canon provided a stronger basis for the project. Even with what little information I had, I was able to construct a trip to London, friendships with other women, and an interest in science-based art.

Representation of women in media has changed quite a bit recently, illustrated by the recent release of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman; some things, however, have not changed. The Gwen Stacy of The Amazing Spider-Man series still revolves around Peter, still has no defined ambitions, and, most importantly, still dies to further Peter’s character development. What is the purpose of her death, when the shock value from the sixties has worn off and superhero stories are already dark and steeped in desperation? Her ignored backstory aligns nicely with the idea of forgotten data, the things we lose when a loved one dies. Companies like Apple cannot unlock someone else’s phone without a court order, rendering a dead person’s phone a useless brick of encrypted information. What pieces of our lives will be lost when we are gone, and will our families even know to look for what is missing?

 

References

Blumberg, Arnold. (2003). The Night Gwen Stacy Died: The End of Innocence and the Birth of the Bronze Age. Reconstruction. 3.

Gianola, Gabriel, and Janine Coleman. “THE GWENAISSANCE: GWEN STACY AND THE PROGRESSION OF WOMEN IN COMICS.” Gender and the Superhero Narrative, edited by MICHAEL GOODRUM et al., University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2018, pp. 251–284. JSTOR.

Graham, Connor, et al. “Gravesites and Websites: A Comparison of Memorialisation.” Visual Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 37–53. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1472586X.2015.996395.

Simone, Gail. “Women in Refrigerators.” LBY3, Beau Yarbrough, March 1999.

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” On Photography, Penguin Books, 1997, pp. 3-24.

Hypermediation in OneShot

The puzzle-based video game OneShot uses novel gameplay mechanisms to engage the player. Many of these mechanisms involve the computer system itself; one of the very first things the game does is address the player by name, information it gathers not through the game itself but from the computer’s account name. For instance, the game never asked for my name but addressed me as Maddy, the name on my laptop account instead of my gaming username. The game accesses the player’s file manager to create encrypted documents that the user must decode and changes the desktop picture to leave a clue for another puzzle, among other things.

Unlike most games, the protagonist is not the same as the human player. Instead, the cat-like character Niko, controlled by the player, is a prophet who can talk to the god of a dying world, and the player is the god. The job of the player-god is to save Niko from the world they are trapped in, which is disintegrating around them. In the very beginning of the game, Niko sits down at a computer within the game and begins to receive messages through that computer from a second god, one that speaks to the player-god instead of Niko. The computer-god speaks through dialog boxes within the second screen but eventually begins to speak through the player’s computer instead.

The hypermediation in the game reminds the player that they are not making decisions for their own character’s life; the player-god has one shot to save someone else. This creates a sense of responsibility for Niko, who is just a lost child, and adds an emotional level to the otherwise intellectual game. It also enhances the questions about artificial intelligence and mortality within the game. Most of the characters are robots, but Niko was transported from another world and is therefore meant to be a fleshy being. The player must decide whether to save a coded, artificial world or a character who is one screen closer and from a world more similar to our own.

Private vs Public Personas, Trolls and Otherwise

Obviously I can’t say if this is true for everyone, but the cultivation of social media profiles involves the selection of specific images, phrases, and the aspects of one’s personality that they want to present to the world. The goal isn’t to present your whole self but a public self. Troll profiles are in an odd space between public and private in that the identities behind those profiles are anonymous even though the profiles themselves are highly public. The profiles may voice extreme versions of the troll’s ideals, or they may just say the most controversial possible thing. Phillips describes how trolls distance themselves from their profiles, referencing things the author wrote on their troll profile as if a separate, real person ran that profile. I wonder if the cultivation of social media profiles, especially when the viewer doesn’t know the person behind the profile, provide an extra sort of justification for trolls. The troll knows that one-sided profiles exist because the troll himself exists, and if the troll views social media as fake showboating, why should the troll believe in a genuine emotional response being expressed on that page? Everything posted by a certain profile contributes to a persona. Trolling evokes an emotional response that breaks that persona a bit using the trolled person’s anger.

Possession and Existential Dread in “Oxenfree” and “Get Out”

Although the first thought someone has when they hear “possession” might be “demonic,” contemporary horror has expanded the definition of possession to include ghosts and other people. Two stories, the video game Oxenfree and the film Get Out, both explore what it means to be possessed by other people. Oxenfree is about a group of teenagers who unwittingly open a portal to another dimension using a radio and must face a group of ghosts that want to possess them and get a second chance at life. Get Out follows a young Black artist as he meets his white girlfriend’s family. Chris’s life plans are thrown into chaos when he discovers that his girlfriend and her family replace the minds of Black people with brains of rich white people. In both stories, the use of technology creates a record of the present and a connection to past victims that forces the audience to consider our own existence and impact on the world. Possession and the use of technology to break free from that possession represent our existential fears of repeating past mistakes and being erased from history.

In Oxenfree, the possessors take the more traditional form of ghosts. The ghosts are the spirits that were aboard the submarine USS Kanaloa when it disappeared into an interdimensional pocket in time. Their sudden disappearance, inability to escape, and direct contact with time itself has both made them angry and caused a mental regression so they function and process information like children instead of the adults they were on the submarine. Their child-like tendencies emphasize their selfishness. These beings feel that they deserve to live again because everyone forgot them, and it doesn’t matter to them that possessing the main character, Alex, and her friends will prevent the teenagers from living full lives. In fact, if the teenagers are possessed, it is implied that they will be erased and overwritten even more thoroughly than the ghosts, though their bodies will still exist. The ghosts’ faulty logic can be exploited if the player collects researcher Maggie Adler’s notes from around the island, which prove that the people of the USS Kanaloa were not forgotten. In one of the final scenes, Alex can speak directly to a single spirit instead of the amalgamation of every soul; in doing so, she lets the spirits know that they are remembered and do not need to return. I argue that this is a comment on how the past affects the present. Ignorance of the past forces Alex and her friends into a time loop of their own, whereas acknowledging the pain and suffering of a previous generation convinces the ghosts to move on, release Alex and her friends, and, on a second playthrough, can end the loop entirely [See video below from 35:05 to 37:20].

History has a strong presence in Oxenfree due not only to the presence of the ghosts but also the analog technology presented in the game. Alex’s radio is the only form of available, visible, and functional technology, and it operates as the primary mechanism of the game. The radio opens the portal in the beginning of the story, freeing the ghosts, but is also the mechanism through which the player can access information about the island and the disappearance of the USS Kanaloa. Dotted around the island are plaques that indicate installments of the radio tour, which offer kind, gentle, and whitewashed versions of the island’s history. The radio tour is in direct contrast with the “anomalies,” which are strange signals created and corrupted by the presence of the tortured souls of the Kanaloa. The anomalies often reference real and horrifying events, such as the atrocities committed during the American-Indian war of the mid-1800s and the bombing of the USS Arizona. Radio in Oxenfree is an excellent example of Ewan Kirkland’s theory of how analog technology corrupts the digital in horror films and video games (Kirkland 122). The static-y sounds of the radio eclipse the ambient music in the game, and occasionally the anomalies interject recordings of big band music from the 1940s, the same time period in which the fictional Kanaloa sank. Visual static further contributes to the corruption of the player’s screen during time loops and any ghostly interference. The computer itself and therefore the player becomes haunted, just like Alex and her friends. [The video below illustrates visual, sound, and time distortions in Oxenfree.]

Paired with the radio are several cameras, which create a visual record of the ghosts throughout the game and can change depending on the player’s actions. Part of the game aesthetic is the 80s nostalgia-type group of artsy teenagers who stumble onto something horrible, and the polaroid photos taken throughout the game to create a record of the teens’ time on the island are significant contributors to the aesthetic. One of the characters, Nona, specifically states just before Alex goes to confront the ghosts that she wants to take a picture to prove that the group existed, in case someone comes looking for them. The teens have proof of their existence in a way that the ghosts did not, and the visual record offers the audience hope that the teenagers will be able to free themselves from the dangers of the island. [Below: the last photo taken before the final confrontation.]

Get Out also uses photos as a mechanism with which to free characters, but the need for freedom and the way the camera frees its users differs from Oxenfree. In Get Out, Chris first uses his phone camera to take a picture of the odd Logan King, and the flash sends Logan into a fit. Chris’s friend sees the photo and identifies the man not as Logan King but as Andre Hayworth, who had disappeared months earlier. For Chris, identifying Andre is the last straw, pushing him to flee Rose’s house. As he packs, Chris finds pictures of Rose and her previous boyfriends, about a dozen other Black men, one of whom is Walter, another possessed Black man living at the Armitage house. Rose previously stated that she had never had a Black boyfriend before and thus denies the existence of these photos; when Chris finds them, he finally has evidence of something strange going on in the Armitage home. The pictures are printed, offering physical proof that these people had real lives before their possession, and they convince Chris that he must leave or become just a body like Andre. [Below are the pictures Chris finds, framed on the wall behind Rose.]

Although the possessors in Get Out are arguably more human than the supernatural ghosts of Oxenfree, they share a similar selfishness and desire to live a different, better life. The rich white people seek to possess Black bodies for several canonical reasons, including physical ability and being labeled “cool” [See video below from 2:40 to 3:20].

In Get Out, it is the possessors who are ignorant of the recent history of prejudice and its effects on the lives of Black people in the modern day. They believe that Black people have better lives, or at least that these white possessors would be better at living and appreciating the lives of Black people. In taking possession of a Black body, the possessor erases the original person’s cultural identity as well as their personality.

Stuart Hanscomb explores the idea that existentialism and questioning of self drives the horror within horror films (Hanscomb 1). He argues that the feelings of fear and disgust are inspired by depictions of the abject. In psychological horror, however, the abject augments fear and disgust rather than causing them outright; most of that fear and disgust is inspired by the ideological values of the evil characters. In both Get Out and Oxenfree, the abject takes the backseat, appearing late in the story if at all. The possessors in both stories feel entitled to the bodies of others and are willing to go to extremes to live again, even though they do not deserve a second life at all, especially when compared to the rights of the possessed to finish their own lives. The audience’s fear comes not from jump scares but from the idea that forgetting the past and making mistakes in the present will erase us from the future. The connections to Alex and Chris and their proximity to nonexistence throw the player/viewer into existential anxiety (Hanscomb 12).

Possession in horror films is in a unique position to offer a deeper view into our perceptions of ourselves and our existence. Technology allows us to delay our disappearance but does not prevent it; after death, we can exist only in the memories of those who come after us. No matter how many photos we take, our lives will still eventually end, those photos will decay, and we will be forgotten. The possessor has a second chance at life, but at the cost of another’s first chance; to have one’s identity stripped away during that one chance at making a mark inspires a more psychological fear, one that allows a deeper look at how we view the past, its legacy, and our own potential.

 

Works Cited

Get Out. Dir. Jordan Peele. Perf. Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams et al. Blumhouse Productions, 2017. Web.

HANSCOMB, STUART. “Existentialism and Art-Horror.” Sartre Studies International, vol. 16, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23512850.

Kirkland, Ewan. “Resident Evil’s Typewriter: Survival Horror and Its Remediations.” Games and Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 115–126, doi:10.1177/1555412008325483.

Oxenfree. Apple iOS version, Night School Studio, 2016.

 

Audience Perspective in Until Dawn

Horror often relies on what the camera and therefore the audience does not immediately see to increase suspense and set up scenes like jump scares. Video game creators accomplish this not just through near-constant darkness but also through the limited perspective of the “camera.” In games like “Until Dawn,” in which action scenes are interspersed with dialogue options and relationship-building, the player does not control the angle of the camera. This allows the camera to focus on a character’s facial expressions or point out a detail in the scene, moving the story forward while keeping the player more engaged than a cutscene would. For instance, when Ashley, Josh, and Chris use the spirit board to communicate with what they believe is the spirit of Josh’s sister, we get several close-ups of Ashley’s face as we choose her dialogue and then of Josh and Chris as they react to whatever she says. In this case, the visible tension between the characters is what builds suspense, as the player knows that every choice they make will affect the story.

This character-focused perspective also hides information. When we discover that Josh was playing a prank on his friends, the audience has to wonder how he set up aspects of the prank, like the spirit board. Upon review, we can’t quite see how the pointer flies off the table or what Josh’s hands were doing. The obfuscation of reality heightens tension in the scene and leaves us as confused and scared as Ashley and Chris.

Childhood in Stasis

The night of the exorcism, Merry acts as if nothing is wrong, clinging to Marjorie’s back and asking her to carry Merry away like a backpack. Although young Merry does change throughout the filming of the show, she forces herself to act as if everything is fine and at least somewhat the same. Sometimes, this is for the cameras, as Merry notes when she goes into the basement to look for a snack because she would “feel pressure to perform” for her father and the TV producers if she went into the kitchen (118). She also launches herself around the room while the family watches TV the night before the exorcism, as energetic as she had been before Marjorie became ill and looking to receive a “sign of approval” from Ken and Barry (194). When the TV crew comes into Marjorie’s room to set up for the exorcism, Merry yells for them to stay out, hoping she can remain with Marjorie and their mother, safely sequestered away from the men and their prayers downstairs.

In her blog post, Claire discusses the idea of the liminal in the novel and how the exorcism should serve as a sort of rite of passage but leaves Marjorie hanging in the air forever. Merry is similarly in a sort of stasis, trapped by her desire to keep the family unchanged, or at least to avoid this particular night/rite. *Spoilers ahead* When the rest of the family dies, they end up at the table, eating pasta exactly like they did in the beginning of the book, before Marjorie really showed signs of mental illness. Merry is found under the table, hiding like she did so many times. These parallels lock Merry’s childhood into a sort of loop, one that we never see break, just as we never really see Marjorie fall.