Dead Set Against The Walking Dead

Zombie cinema and television have become a staple of American media since their inception in the 1930s.  Popularized by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, the genre has largely become a commentary about human nature itself, with the zombies acting as a sort of catalyst to instigate the human conflict.  Dead Set, a British mini-series, seems to follow this same structure throughout the first two episodes of the show.

The most celebrated and mainstream example of zombie television is The Walking Dead.  With its initial release in 2010, the show came 2 years after Dead Set.  Having once been an avid fan of TWD for the shows first few seasons, I now have not kept up with the show for ~5 years.  Part of the appeal early on, for me, was the constant struggle between human/zombie enemies.  The outbreak, much like in Dead Set, caused instantaneous widespread panic, as people fought for their survival.  The action and uncertainty of fighting an unknown enemy, much like what was seen at the beginning of both series, is the most satisfying aspect of the genre.  Balancing that against battling other humans for power, wealth, and resources requires every character on the show to remain honest and aware at all times, even when there are no ‘undead’ are around to attack.  Each week was a new struggle with both the human and zombie enemies, as things were still relatively new.

Around Season 5 of TWD, however, the zombies took a second-hand (they stopped being a major threat to the action of the show) to humans as the primary enemy.  While realistic, human enemies are not why audiences tune into watch the show.  As soon as TWD became so overt in its critique of humanity, it lost its appeal for me and many others that watched the show.  I may have jumped ship earlier than others because of several of my favorite characters being killed, but Miles Surry, in an article from this past season, discusses TWD‘s decision to stray further from being a show about zombies.  TWD is finally shifting the show’s themes, after the show stagnated between finding new settlements and fighting their corrupt leaders with the occasional zombie massacre for the past few years since I stopped watching. Now the show intends to examine the reconstruction of a zombie outbreak, as opposed to the fallout.  Perhaps a fault of making the series so long, and thus needing to extend the plotlines, ratings and viewership have both been trending down over the years.  With most of the criticism stemming from the writers introducing too many stale, unwanted, or unconvincing characters, it would seem that the show got too caught up in expanding the story and only spun the tires.  The legacy of the show remains to be seen, with the success of this ‘rebirth’ likely being the determining factor.

Zombies clearly seem to be a critique of mindless Western consumerism and the “pack mentality”, which are commonly cited as issues ‘plaguing’ these societies.  The half-dead, half-living appeal paired with the apparent lack of brain function and free-thought thus make zombies a perfect rendering of a tool scary yet recognizable enough to analyze certain aspects of our own human behavior.  Dead Set fits the mold of balancing conflict, with the reality show being an obvious criticism of mindless consumerism.  The fact that its a 5-episode mini-series leaves far less room to ‘go wrong’ since the show is not required to build massive plotlines.  While TWD might be a better drama-series, Dead Set seems to do a better job of nailing the zombie-genre down effectively.

**I also greatly appreciated how seamlessly Dead Set fit against A Head Full of Ghosts, with both including external anxieties, such as demons and zombies, contrasted against a reality television set.

Reality TV Must Die!

While watching the first couple episodes of “Dead Set” I was thinking about Jeffrey Cohen’s article, “Monster Culture” and the role that the zombies play on this show. First, I thought about what makes zombies inherently scary and, based on Cohen’s theses, I believe they fit into at least three categories. Zombies are a cultural body, they’re the harbinger of category crisis and they dwell at the gates of difference. They’re a cultural body because they represent people’s fear of invasion and disease. Maybe it’s a fear of foreign invasion or a fear of non-white people since the fighters and survivors in most of these films are usually all American or predominantly white. Examples of movies like this include “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead.”

Zombies are harbingers of category crisis because they’re walking contradictions. Being the “living dead” defies the categories we know of and creates fear. This is what also causes them to dwell at the gates of difference because they’re dead cannibals, with deformed faces and little intelligence. They’re the opposite of a normal human being and just looking at them is terrifying enough and the fact that they’re sole purpose is to eat and kill humans doesn’t help.

What’s interesting about the zombies on “Dead Set” is that while their sole purpose is to eat and kill people, they’re focused on killing the people on the reality tv show “Big Brother.” The creators of this show purposely placed zombies on this set to disrupt this popular reality show in the most extreme way. This could mean a couple of things. One, the creators are trying to make a point about what reality tv is doing to humanity. Maybe they believe that reality tv or tv in general is turning us into zombies; single-minded and slow. Two, the creators are critiquing reality tv and believe that it needs to be destroyed and they’re using zombies as the tool to do that.

The Big Brother characters aren’t placed in the best light. They’re vain, insecure and obsessed with performing for the camera. The behind the scenes look at the show reveals how fake reality tv is. There’s heavy editing which manufactures drama for the audience and the contestants are being over the top so they can stand out and be popular. I believe the creators turn Cohen’s first thesis on its head. Usually humanity is the “hero” that kills the monster but I believe that on “Dead Set” reality tv is the real monster, the cultural body that needs to be destroyed, and the zombies are actually the “heroes” of the show who will kill the monster. To be honest I’m not mad at that idea. If reality tv died tomorrow, I wouldn’t really care, I think I’d actually be happy.

The unreliability of Merry: confusion or simply lack of basic knowledge surrounding her sister’s mental disorder?

In Paul Tremblay’s, A Head Full of Ghosts, the narrator Merry takes us on a journey, describing the day-to-day interactions with her older sister Marjorie. We begin the novel by first viewing Merry, 15 years after “everything happened”, about to tell her story to a novelist (8). Right from the first few pages, the thing that stood out to me the most was Merry’s confusion and her unreliability as a narrator. Merry even outright states that all of the nightmares, fabrications, media, etc, “hopelessly jumbles up what I knew and what I know now” (13).

8 years old at the start of her narration, it is obvious that something is going on with Marjorie and that Merry does not know anything. Throughout the first 60 pages, we can see Merry’s development as she slowly begins to notice Marjorie’s strange behaviors. From the eerie twist on the molasses explosion in Boston to Marjorie’s note about holding Merry’s nose in her sleep to finally to the manic episode in Chapter 9, Merry realizes that something is wrong with Marjorie, however, she has no idea what. Her confusion is reasonable – what 8 year old would recognize the signs of a severe mental disorder in her older sister that she reveres so much? Her parents certainly do not disclose any information. When Merry asks her mother what happened at Marjorie’s doctor appointment, her mother responded that nothing did and thus gave her “license to imagine all manner of doctor’s office horrors” (45).

The notion that mental disorders are taboo is incredibly apparent in this section of the novel, and quite frankly, mirrors society’s thoughts as well. Today, many people have mental disorders, and yet, most people are not open to discussing them in order to learn more information and erase the stigma. Instead, like Marjorie’s situation, everything is kept very secretive and as a result, Merry is kept in the dark. So, I have to wonder: does Merry’s confusion come from the fact that she was 8 years old at the time of Marjorie’s mental degradation or the fact that the rest of her family would not disclose any information and thus Merry was left to rationalize the situation by turning to other sources.

A Head Full of Unreliable Memories

After reading the first sixty pages of “A Head Full of Ghosts,” I immediately thought of our conversation about postmodern horror. Specifically, I thought about the fourth element that defines postmodern horror, namely, that there is no narrative closure and ambiguity. From the opening chapter, it is clear that the protagonist Merry will be recalling a story from her past, a story from fifteen years ago. This gap between her current memories and her eight-year-old memories make me suspect that she will be an unreliable narrator.

My suspicions began to grow when in the second chapter there is a blog post about the reality TV show, “The Possession,” which is based on the exorcism that took place in her home. The blog makes it clear that the show was popular and interesting enough that someone would want to write about it. Where there is one blog there are usually a hundred more. This means that there are multiple perspectives on what happened during that time that probably influenced Merry’s memories and thoughts on that time making her account even more unreliable. She even confesses that she consumes a lot of media and they, plus her nightmares, mix with her memories of that time jumbling them (13).

Finally, when Merry starts to recall her childhood and we are introduced to Marjorie, the cause of all their trouble, it is clear to me that Merry looks up to her sister a lot. She puts up with her stories, teasing and mood swings. My worry is that Merry’s affection for her sister will cause her to leave certain details out of her story because she wants to remember Marjorie how she wants and not how she actually was. Merry’s unreliability as a narrator leads me to believe that we may never know the full truth of what happened during that time and we will be left with an ambiguous ending to a complex story. Nevertheless, Merry is the best person to ask since she was physically there when it all went down; so unreliable or not, we have to trust her.

Moral Ambiguity in Current Horror

Our discussion in class on Wednesday regarding the postmodern horror film really got me thinking about current aspects of horror that have changed since the classical era of film.  One particular feature that I wanted to bring up at the end of class was directly related to the idea of ambiguity.  In particular, my focus turned towards the increasing “moral ambiguity” within the postmodern horror genre.  What was once a clear dichotomy between a distinct good and evil has since become something much more complex and uncertain.

To better explain this idea, it is important to understand how it functions within specific films.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect example of the distinct dichotomy between good and evil.  A person is essentially split into two halves, one good, and one evil.  Dr. Jekyll fights to keep the evil Mr. Hyde at bay, who keeps coming back to wreak havoc and commit crimes.  The tension and divide between the two could not be more clear cut.  The man has a literal monster inside of him, after all.

Opposingly, an example of a postmodern horror film(s) that stuck out to me for its ‘moral ambiguity’ was the Saw franchise.  Under all the grotesque, dramatized gore, there really is a good question at hand.  It has been a few years since I have watched any of the Saw films, but a recurring theme throughout each is about how Jigsaw only deploys people that he knows have done something bad into his torture chambers.  Sure, it is heinous of Jigsaw to invoke such gruesome conditions, but the films do make you think about whether or not some of the characters had it coming.  Are they right to kill other characters to save themselves?  Do they deserve to be there? Are they are the truly evil characters or is Jigsaw?  I recall one of the films contained a lawyer of sorts who denied health insurance to a man with cancer, who ended up dying.  At the end of the movie, the same man was killed by the family of the father he denied healthcare to.  No one felt bad for his death, which recalls this same moral ambiguity.  I am in no way advocating for the Saw films, but the overt sense of ambiguity within these films fit the argument perfectly.  My theory is that this growing trend of moral ambiguity stems from our own fear that we ourselves are the ones that are the true evil monsters–an uncomfortably self-aware truth…

Within the first 60 pages of Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, it is clear the story is structured in a way that imposes a similar ambiguity.  The fact that Merry is recounting events from when she was 8, the fact that the people involved are all family members, etc… all suggest that the reader will be forced to make active judgments to fill in the gaps as the narrative progresses.  Given the current uncertainty, I’m excited to see where the story ends up going and if it will leave the reader with an ambiguous sense of what exactly happened and what was right or wrong.

Rub-a-dub-dub, what’s up sis?

Perhaps one of the first things that really jumped out at me is Majorie’s quote, “rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub” (34), an essentially mock grace that to the best of my knowledge is a derivation of a nursery rhyme that does not include the ‘thanks for the grub’ which was introduced by the Simpsons in its first season. This phrase fits with a recurring elements of debasement and violation that appear when Marjorie and Merry add their own stories on top of previously written books, when Marjorie brings an independently produced tragically motivated story to that new world, or confesses that she enters Merry’s room while she sleeps and pinches her nose, the idea that their father is poisoning their mother and Marjorie. These elements are notable not in the sense that it’s another way of saying bad stuff is happening, but rather that concepts that are typically important to or accepted by a child Merry’s age such as undisputed faith in their father’s love or that sleep is not a state of vulnerability are stressed.

Merry may not be seriously shaken by much of this due to her understanding that her sister is unwell, but once she witnesses Marjorie’s late-night episode she begins projecting some of the images of Marjorie inside the cardboard house (54) which includes her doing inhuman things like spidering around walls. Empathizing with Marjorie becomes even more difficult due the constant distancing occurring with the increase in exogenous factors impacting her relationship with Marjorie, such as the sight of her against the wall, her mother’s notebook, Marjorie interacting with Merry and her things while asleep, and the growing things. Ultimately to me the nature of their relationship responding to their interactions while the love for each other stays the same is something I would like to keep an eye on.

Blog and novel; Formality and informality

A Head full of Ghosts is a horror novel about alleged possession. Like other horror fiction and what we expect, the story begins with a formal writing style in the first-person point of view. However, when it comes to chapter 2, the style and the narrator are changed completely. Instead of the grammatical and elegant sentence we are told to write in a story at school, chapter 2 of A Head full of Ghosts is written in casual style that we use in daily conversation, imitating a blog post and making it more like dialogues than the traditional first-person point of view that we will read in the later chapters. This chapter also gives us an insight into how the outsiders (the audience) like us, think of the Barretts.

The popularity of blogging in the recent decade changes the way people write, even in fictions and literature. And chapter 2 of this Paul Tremblay’s is an example of this phenomenon. I remember when I was in primary school, I read a light novel (a style of Japanese novel primarily targeting teenagers) with emojis and casual style of writing similar to a blog post and my teacher took it away because it was not a serious fiction according to her. Nevertheless, many blog users nowadays do creative writing on forums and social networking sites and there is no restriction and consensus on writing styles. We can read slangs and sonnets and serious fictions on blogs. The boundary between “high” and “low” literature is blurred when everybody has the opportunity to write and publish, through blogs and social media. Therefore, can we expect the boundary of writing styles to be broken in literature too in the future? Will more authors write in “blogging style” and incorporate blog post in their stories, just like Paul Tremblay does in A Head full of Ghosts?