Online Memorialization in the Physical World

Grave sites and websites: a comparison of memorialisation and Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning both explore some of the details surrounding the interactions between the living and the dead on social media platforms like Facebook. This is obviously a relatively new way to mourn the loss of someone, but it has already become a popular new way for people to memorialize loved ones and connect with others who may be going through a difficult time.

Upon reading these articles, I decided to go check my own social media profiles to see if I could find examples of this type of memorialization in my own life. Unfortunately, there are two such profiles on Instagram (a Facebook-owned platform) that I follow. Its been years since these profiles had to be transitioned to their current status, but I found that it was still a pretty interesting experience. The profiles, as highlighted in Grave sites and websites, bring back mostly positive memories of the deceased, even though their images do not appear in my feed and the profile itself remains dormant– its essentially a snapshot of their life.

I often times find readings like these to be interesting because of the heavy topics involved. Rarely, however, do I get the chance to experience something like this first-hand. These articles provided me with a greater sense of awareness while I was scrolling through my friends’ old pictures and comments. This isn’t the first time I’ve looked back through these profiles, but this time I was more conscious of the source of my feelings rather than just accepting them for what they were. These profiles are important to me and to the hundreds of people who still follow them because they really do do a great job of preserving something that was created entirely by someone, so I felt more strongly about how crucial these accounts could be for the families and close friends who still have access to them along with their physical belongings that may have become symbolized in a more “traditional” memorial.

Instagram Memorials

The reading by Jed Brubaker, Gillian Hayes, and Paul Dourish, “Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning,” explored the ways that the living interacts with the dead on Facebook. Since Facebook also owns Instagram, I decided to look at the way that Instagram memorializes accounts.

Interestingly, they are very explicit about their policies. On the page entitled “What happens when a deceased person’s account is memorialized?” they what the features of a memorialized account. These accounts don’t look any different from regular accounts, and all of the posts the deceased person shared will still be visible. In order to memorialize an account, living users have to contact Instagram with proof of death, such as “a link to an obituary or news article.” Instagram also won’t release the login credentials of a deceased person, but they will allow someone who proves that they’re an immediate family member of the deceased to have an account removed from the site.

I think that the distinctions between a memorialized account and a regular one are very intesting. Memorialized accounts won’t appear in the “explore” page, and no changes can be made to it (including comments and followers). In this way, Instagram seems to be trying to preserve the deceased’s virtual image that they curated before their passing.

Despite all of the procedures required to memorialize an account, things still seem to go wrong occasionally. The help page “My Instagram profile has been memorialized.” helps users who have been incorrectly (or morbidly, prematurely) memorialized by Instagram. Personally, I can hardly imagine how uncanny it would be to log in to Instagram and found out that you have been deemed dead.

Frankenstein and Facebook

Because of its involvement with death, resurrection has inevitably become tied to many horror story plots. One of the most famous cases of resurrection comes from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which would become the inspiration for many later horror works. The “Black Mirror” episode Be Right Back follows the same story as Shelly’s, with Martha as Dr. Frankenstein, social media posts as the graveyard body parts, and new Ash as the Monster. As with any good adaptation, the themes and details within the story have changed to more effectively explore contemporary fears or curiosities; in this case, Be Right Back not only explores the possibility of resurrection, but also looks at the disconnect between someone’s social media presence and their personality.

One of the defining features of this episode was its simplicity. With the exception of the cliff picnic scene, the sets are all bland and forgettable. The characters live very average lives. In fact, the characters themselves aren’t anything to remember. Even the insane technology used to resurrect someone is just brushed aside and never explained in depth. Unlike other “Black Mirror” episodes, there is no physical conflict or grotesque action (like bestiality in S1E1, genocide in S3E3, or sadistic Star-Trek-inspired prisons in S4E1). Instead, this episode relies more heavily on the emotions surrounding the situations the characters are in– something that can’t be shown with images, but can have just as big of an impact.

Fake Ash represents two things: the idealized form of the dead and the shallowness of our online personalities. He is a picture perfect copy of his human counterpart, but is lacking in just about every human capacity possible. The major aspects of Ash’s personality, like his wittiness and kindness, are there, but the more ignorable or less desirable features that would never be presented on social media are missing. Martha can’t handle having only the enjoyable aspects of Ash because she already knew and appreciated the traits that made Ash less perfect. His idealized form made him very one-dimensional, so the relationship between the two also became one-dimensional and unenjoyable. Martha quickly realizes the shallowness of his online persona as fake Ash seems to always be reminding her of his inauthenticity. Fake Ash is essentially a form of human hypermediacy. All of this seems to be reminding the viewer that, for many people, online profiles are NOT them, only the idealized and shallowest versions of themselves.

This episode does a good job at doing what “Black Mirror” does best: it forces you to think about your own choices in the real world. Maybe you don’t have the desire to resurrect a loved one, but you probably do have a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter account. As Martha steps up into her attic-prison and the screen cuts to black, I like to think the directors wanted the audience to be left staring into that black mirror while considering their own digital presence. Ash is representative of how dangerous and harmful the idealized versions of people can be, so I definitely found myself filled with existential dread (most episodes do this, though) while looking through my own Twitter and Instagram feeds.

Foreshadowing, Technological Similarity, and Tackling the Taboo

This was my first time watching “Be Right Back”, and I find it one of the most chillingly plausible uses of current technology in Black Mirror. I also took note of a few things that jumped out at me.

One thing I noticed a lot of that I normally don’t pick up on is the use of foreshadowing. When Martha is driving she says she will “crash this van”. Watching with subtitles, I noticed that the song playing in the van when this happens is a Bee Gees song, “How Deep is Your Love”. This is an interesting question to raise for the episode, how deep is your love? Is it so deeply intertwined with your reality that as a loved one passes you are constantly reminded of them? Would it hurt less to get to talk to them one last time?

I also noticed how they made so obvious the fact that Ash’s brother had died at a young age. And father. And how his mother handled those losses by putting those memories in the attic. Which is paralleled in the end by Martha banishing AshBot to the attic. An action which I think is meant to provoke a deeper narrative. That’s one of those “hard to chew” moments that gets the viewer thinking about something taboo, “how do we handle mourning?”.

There’s also a point where Martha walks with AshBot on the phone through the countryside. She ends up sitting near the suicide cliff and it was quite clear that this would become a point of climax for the character later on. Especially when the bot points out that people usually jump alone. Whether it would be Martha or a form of Ash I made quick note of the fact that one of them surely would jump.

From the getgo I also noticed how disconnected Ash was. Martha asks him bizarre questions, like if he wants his soup from a shoe, and he isn’t present. He just responds with a simple “yes” having not heard the question. Kind of robotic. His answering machine is also “I’m too busy or lazy to answer so leave a message”. I think this was particularly moving to me when the AshBot replies to Martha on the cliff that he only wishes to serve. The bot’s actions are clearly not those of Ash, but what the bot could learn from him. All meant as a tool for Martha.

And in classic Black Mirror fashion the technology doesn’t seem so far fetched. It reminded me a lot of what I think can be called Natural Language Processing, and Twitter Bots. The idea being that you can train a computer based on a dictionary of people’s work – like Shakespeare – and recreate sentences that are similar to what might have appeared in the original. The product and original aren’t quite the same – in fact normally they are quite strange.

There’s a pretty funny example of this in @KeatonPatti on Twitter “forcing a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of _”. Olive Garden, Porn, Trump’s State of the Union. The product is what is probably a human-altered script made by a bot using NLP, but they’re fun to read. While these are pretty silly examples, I know Dr. Sample you’ve also got a few bots that operate in a similar way in your Moby Dick bot https://twitter.com/MobyDickatSea and your favorite things bot that operate on their own. It’s interesting to think of them as eventually being used to learn from our digital literature (facebook, twitter, etc) and perhaps recreate our sentiments postmortem.

If the Dead Reincarnated as Online Personas

Throughout the entirety of Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back” episode, I was immediately transported into the horrid situation of a loved one leaving my presence.  As much as I would want this loved one back, it would never be the same, even if it was through artificial intelligence or the replication of their social media platforms.  While a woman and her husband are happily married with a kid on the way, the husband spends too much time on social media during a drive, having technology literally being the reason he is killed.  However, as the woman is talking with more and more people, friends introduce her to this new concept where the dead can be replicated through taking text messages, emails, social media platforms, etc. to try and mimic the emotions and communication methods this loved one exhibited.  The funny part is, technology was the reason the husband died, but was simultaneously the only reason he lived again.

By analyzing this situation, it was interesting to observe how social media can be our institution of survival as well as death. Even if social media were able to revive one’s online self into the physical self, who’s to say this person is the same or different while they were living?  As much time as people spend on social media, I personally argue that the social media presence in all of us will never live up to who were are as a person, our emotional styles, and our communication styles.  However, since watching this episode, I have thought much more in depth about if I were to die today, how people would really remember me, and could my social media accurately replicate who I was/what type of a person I was.  Even furthering this thinking, how I would personally remember my close friends, and if their social medias accurately replicated their online persona in real life.  The image of weeks 1-6 on the Death in the Digital Age blog accurately pictures anyone briefly idolizing technology, whether or not they’re missing it or loving it.

How would I want my persona built after I die?

Like most episodes of Black Mirror, what I found the eeriest was the sheer possibility of the technology in “Be Right Back.” The whole time, I couldn’t help but think that it would be nice to be able to pretend to talk to a loved one after they are gone, especially if the death was sudden. The sudden death of a young person leaves so much up in the air and it can be hard for the people in their lives to define their relationship with the deceased enough to mourn properly. Martha and Ash weren’t married (I’m assuming) but they were obviously very involved. Feeling suddenly isolated in the world, Martha’s desperation to talk to Ash seemed justified (especially after she found out she was pregnant – a nice touch on the part of the producers to further rationalize her desire). The result was that as I watched it, I really emphasized with Martha and didn’t think that the idea was that absurd until I saw just how horribly it could go wrong (which is probably the ultimate goal in the production of every episode).

However, the episodes seemed to date itself with the technology it scrapes to build a profile of Ash. If someone wanted to learn how someone thought, talked, and felt, Facebook and emails would not be the way to go. I’m formal over email and only use it to communicate with adults when I need information. Like many of my peers, I rarely post Facebook updates. Nowadays, if someone wanted to really get to know me, they could do so pretty well by scraping my texts. My generation constantly text/instant message each other, often about similar topics and with similar tones as we converse in person. The whole point of social media now seems to be projecting a person that is better than who you really are: more thoughtful, articulate, funnier. Intimate digital communication mediums are where true personalities can come across and that’s what I would like my persona to be built after when I die.

Digital Zombie

Ash embodies remediation, a term that appeared in Ewan Kirkland’s article “Resident Evil’s Typewriter: Survival Horror and Its Remediations,” and was defined as “digital media’s deployment of old media formations in constructing new media” (115). In the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” the real Ash at the beginning of the episode is the ‘old media’ and the new robot Ash is the ‘new media’. Basically, he is a digital zombie. But the problem presented in the episode is the difference between digitized memories and memories that social media never experienced, such as Ash’s memory behind his childhood photo which was sad and connected to his brother’s and father’s deaths. But when zombie Ash sees it, he calls it funny. Social media cannot fully replicate Ash because it works on the assumption that people put their whole lives on social media, which is impossible. Even with the addition of Martha’s personal messages and videos, the artificial intelligence cannot account for Ash’s life before social media which founded who he is and moments not captured between Ash and Martha, represented by zombie Ash’s inability to react when Martha places his hand on her chest. As Kirkland writes, “the lack of ‘the real’ in digital media represents a central problematic for horror video games whose affect depends on evoking a tangible experience of imperilment, embodiment, and spatial depth” (116). Zombie Ash struggles with the same problem. Part of “the lack of ‘the real’” is the navigation between 2D and 3D, which Kirkland gives the example of video games making the connection between the player and the avatar body by using “erratic uncontrollable avatar movements combined with joypad vibration” (117). The joypad vibration is the physical connection between the player and the avatar body and attempts to cross the border from 2D to 3D, but still lacks the real. Ash’s avatar body is physically present in 3D and has the visual details of the human body like pores and lines, but his skin is smooth. When Martha asks him how he is so smooth, Ash replies, “It’s texture mapping. The really tiny details are visual, 2D.” He then tells her to touch his fingertips, and she feels no fingerprint. It is the little details like that and breathing, sleeping, and eating – the lack of the real – that remind Martha he is not Ash.

“Hustled, Scammed, Bamboozled” by Merry

Before Wednesday, I was unequipped to explain why I felt like Paul Tremblay had pulled one over on me in the conclusion of A Head Full of Ghosts. Isabel Pinedo’s Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film offered a false sense of security. Knowledge that postmodern horror discomfits the reader/viewer/consumer by violating natural boundaries, withholding narrative closure and, more recently, unbinding the experience from the screen or page did not prepare me to discover the “truth” of what became of the Barrett family. All of the aforementioned traits of postmodern horror exist in A Head Full of Ghosts due to Paul Tremblay’s use of the Rashomon effect to cause readers to mistrust all information they are given.

In Robert Anderson’s article, The Rashomon Effect and Communication, he describes the phenomenon based upon Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film which uses character perspective and flashbacks to cause viewers to question the possibility of the existence of an objective truth. Anderson argues the power of the Rashomon Effect is greater than difference in perspective but that it “occurs particularly where such differences arise in combination with the absence of evidence to elevate or disqualify any version of the truth, plus the social pressure for closure on the question ” (Canadian Journal of Communication).

The story of the Barrett family’s demise continues beyond completion reading A Head Full of Ghosts because of this phenomenon. According to Anderson, the absence of truth in any of the different perspectives and social pressure for closure make for a strong case of the Rashomon effect. Tremblay’s twist revelation in the last few pages that Merry is the sole survivor of a homicidal poisoning she was convinced to carry out by her own sister is horrifying. The facts of the case alone are disgusting, but the fact that Merry has been the reader’s only insight into the events fifteen years prior to her interviews. Merry is everywhere. There are multiple versions of Merry’s truth–young Merry’s perspective, “Karen Brissette” analyzing The Possession and her adult rationalization of the events but the only concrete truth of what happened in the Barrett home was captured by raw footage of the camera crew, which ended a month before Merry killed her family. How can the reader trust that anything she has told prior to that revelation was entirely true? Anderson argues that the reader is pressured into believing the least disturbing version of the narrative to find closure, despite Tremblay’s best efforts.

Image source.

Monsters Embody Human Difference

The synthesis in Monster Culture (Seven Theses) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is very tightly packed. For a moment I just want to unwrap some of what he made me think about. Throughout his argument my mind was brought to the idea of “the Other”. The outsider, or complete opposite, from the human self. I started to think about the idea of calling another human a monster, but even more so the idea of monsters embodying human difference. Particularly in the last four theses of his argument.

Cohen uses examples of beasts and creatures: godzilla, nosferatu, alien. While monsters can be literally different in form, they also all personify a difference from one’s self, which is a lot of what Cohen is getting at. Just as someone can be scared of monsters, it seems fair to say that humans are scared of difference; scared of change.

Cohen’s argument of portrayal, monsters linger in difference, demonstrates humans’ more artistic rendering of the fear of the Other. “In medieval France the chansons de geste celebrated the crusades by transforming Muslims into demonic caricatures whose menacing lack of humanity was readable from their bestial attributes; by culturally glossing ‘Saracens’ as ‘monstra;’ propagandists rendered rhetorically admissible the annexation of the East by the West.” (8) His example of caricaturization makes me think of political cartoons. Especially in his brief discussion of “political or ideological difference” as being “much a catalyst to monstrous representation on a micro level as cultural alterity in the macrocosm.” (8) A dehumanizing representation of humans, especially those whose arguments and decisions are not in line with your own.

In his thesis regarding monsters policing the borders of possible Cohen explains “the monsters are here, as elsewhere, expedient representations of other cultures, generalized and demonized to enforce a strict notion of group sameness. The fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity that produce stories like the Genesis episode are strong, and they reappear incessantly.” (16) As a religious text, the Bible is something many philosophers seem to turn to in analyzing social patterns. Some of the earliest examples of embodied fear or difference with consequence. It’s through this example that I started to think about how we use the word monster in the modern world and how human a monster can be.

I had one thought that sums up his section on fearing the monster being an embodiment of desire. In putting another down one is attempting to raise oneself. Humans pick on others out of jealousy and envy.

In defining monsters as mystical, I agree with Cohen’s final argument – that more fantastical monsters exist through knowledge and in the mind. But I find his concluding statements about monsters one last reference to the idea of monsters as an embodiment of the fear of difference. “Monsters are our children… These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place.” (20)

Was Margerie a Monster?

Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts left me wondering how we were supposed to read Margerie’s character. Was she an innocent teenager gripped by a dangerous mental illness, or a monster living among us? In this blog post, I will evaluate her against Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses). All seven points and their summarizing quotations come from this essay.

Thesis I: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body – “An embodiment of a certain cultural moment” (4).
Female sexuality is a cultural moment that Margerie is aware of and capitalizes on. She makes people uncomfortable by appearing in a sports bra and her possession often takes on sexual forms, such as in the masturbation scene (86). Margerie is also tech-savvy and uses the internet to further her creepy knowledge-base and our media-saturated society to try and expose her father.

Thesis II:  The Monster Always Escapes – “No monster tastes of death but once” (5).
This one seems to discount Margerie as a monster. She does die, seemingly for good. However, in our technological society, dying is a complicated act. Margerie has stopped living and aging, but she lives on through mediated representations of herself (although, was the Margerie that was captured on cameras and will eventually be captured in the book is arguably not the “true” her but just a part she was playing). She also lives on in Merry’s memory, which at times seems almost obsessive. 

Thesis III: The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis – “a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions” (6).
Like other stories of possession, a Head Full of Ghosts relies on the of categories to create fear. The possessed is a female child, seemingly the most innocent example of humanity, yet they act in horrible ways that disgust us. Margerie also blurs the boundaries between sane and insane, well-meaning and malicious. She is a daughter, sister, student, devil, sadist, and family annihilator all-in-one – i.e. a monster.

Thesis IV: The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference – “monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual” (7).
As Cohen says, “the woman who oversteps the boundaries of her gender roles risks becoming” a monster (9). Margerie is seen as too smart for “a girl like her” and is seen as aberrant because of this (179). Her mom, the fellow female, points out that a young girl is definitely capable of possessing her knowledge about seemingly obscure topics. The priests, however, are attempting to other Margerie in order to turn her into a monster that they can exorcize.

Thesis V: The Monster Polices the Border of the Possible – “the monster prevents mobility…delimiting the social spaces through which private bodies may move” (12).
I had a hard time mapping this thesis onto Margerie until I focused on the line that stated that all monsters are living a “double narrative” – the one about how they came to be and another about the cultural utility they serve. Margerie certainly has a double narrative, at least by her own account. She claims that she wanted to pretend to be possessed in order to expose her dad’s real sickness, but the ending of the book suggests that she was actually sick, therefore her cultural utility was showing just how delusional and manipulating individuals can be.

Thesis VI: The Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire – “the linking of monstrosity with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing” (17).
Merry looks up to her sister and seems to have a complicated relationship towards her possession. She continues to love her sister for the majority of the book. When Margerie’s room became off limits, Merry snuck in while everyone was asleep, obviously unable to resist what was forbidden.
In a different vein, Margerie pokes at a weak spot of the priest’s: an interest in kiddie porn. After an episode that we assume portrayed a reenactment of Margerie’s violent masturbation and Margerie’s discomfort when the priest touches her chest, she seems to be aware of and resisting her own possible taboo appeal.

Thesis VII: The Monster Stands at the Threshold…of Becoming – “monsters are our children…they ask us to reevaluate…they ask us why we have created them” (20).
Perhaps Margerie was created to show us how technology ruins our lives, or how mental illness is a serious issue that can debilitate a person. She isn’t given the help she needed and everything went awry in the end, teaching us that money is not the answer, that reality TV isn’t reality, and that mental illnesses can’t be cured with exorcisms.

By Cohen’s definition, Margerie is indeed a monster, but I think that it’s important to remember that she was turned into one by society and that underneath of it all she was just a sick young girl.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory, 1996, pp. 3–25., doi:10.5749/j.ctttsq4d.4.

Tremblay, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts. William Morrow & Company, 2017.