Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for July, 2011

Taking Over Me

 

We are, in some ways, still reeling from changes wrought by Romanticism. Children paying for the sins of their fathers, pushed so far until they snap back. Killing the previous generation in order to come into our own, we are fated to take the place of elders. And so it begins again. Taken one way, we are free–we’ve escaped the chains–but, from another view, we are more enmeshed than ever as we become part of the system.

Or maybe we, like Arlene, attempt to expunge the evil from our midst (which only ever results in our house burning down). Fire burns in our eyes while fire burns our soul. We go to extremes, ready to be taken over or completely unwilling to acknowledge the impulse. Mab is polarizing, as always. The thing we hide–the thing we deny and the thing we run away from–is the one thing that will make us whole. Looking at Lettie Mae is like looking into our futures–she was there long before we ever even knew that there was a split.

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Of Mice and Men

“Lost” is perhaps the best one-word characterization of ABC’s Lost (2005-2010); in varying ways, individuals on the program frequently find themselves physically displaced but also, possibly more significantly, spiritually or psychically fractured. Accordingly, although the healing properties first observed on the island manifest in the form of bodily restoration, the real power of the island lies in its ability to heal wounded souls. Although the effects of the island can be traced along a number of individual characters’ trajectories, John Locke evidences a number of incredibly intuitive arcs, if not the most immediately relatable.[1]

One of the episodes that delves into John’s past, “Deus Ex Machina,” presents Locke’s life prior to his arrival on the island and thusly invites the viewer to puzzle the relationship between the two depictions, particularly as the character explores the role of the potential powers inherent in choice and destiny.  Lost, however, is not a program that lends itself to overly simplistic representations or one-dimensional readings and, as a result, evidences additional meanings when examined through the lens of banal religion (Hjarvard 2008). The opening scene, for example, depicts the game Mousetrap and features Locke explaining the rules of the game to a curious child, including the phrase, “If you set it up just right.” While this bit of dialogue could easily be written off as innocuous, we can think about the relationship of Mousetrap to a larger religious context:  this particular game requires that players follow a precise sequence of predetermined rules and Locke’s statement is indicative of his belief that control and rigid structure are prerequisites for success. Supporting this idea, our reintroduction to Locke’s characters in the “previouslies” comes in the form of him shouting, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” Locke, before the island, is a character who lashes out because he does not yet understand the bigger picture.[2]

Compare this incident of machine building with Locke’s attempts to construct a trebuchet that will break into a mysterious hatch. In some ways, although Locke has now professed a belief in the will of the island, his actions demonstrate a failure to understand that fate cannot be forced; had Locke actually internalized this message, he would most likely not have even attempted a trebuchet in the first place. Although Locke later fully embodies the Man of Faith, we see that he is still growing at this point in the series. Fittingly, the trebuchet not only collapses but also physically injures Locke—the island is taking back the mobility it had bestowed. However, rather than view this as a punitive gesture, we can understand that the island is instead arguably attempting to teach Locke a larger lesson that only beings to manifest at the end of the episode as he struggles to carry Boone back to camp despite his weakened legs:  our limitations can be overcome but we must be willing to exert effort.


[1] Along with Jack, Locke’s actions support the ongoing series conflict between Science and Faith. In “Deus Ex Machina” Jack demonstrates the dominance of Science through his diagnosis of Sawyer’s hyperopic vision (i.e., Science is one path to the truth) and the equation of phantom smells with a brain tumor, which builds upon Emily’s (Locke’s mother) schizophrenic condition and the notion that hallucinations and irrationality are negative qualities. Contrast this subplot with the validation of Locke’s dream and we begin to see the virtually invisible ways that the episode weaves together competing ideologies.

[2] Whether in the form of a mind-control ray, manipulation, enchantment, mesmerism, being a slave to fate, Haitian zombies, possession, or being bound to a wheelchair, we continuously encounter the same themes; the manifestations vary with each telling but they all partially speak to a latent fear of losing our free will and our personal sense of agency. This is, I feel, such an issue for us because we have developed in a society that ascribes to Individualism—there is, in fact, an “us” to lose.


Streetwise Hercules (I Need a Hero)

 

For the better part of the 20th century, American ideology found itself forever altered as the superhero archetypes embodied by the Golden Age of Comics filtered throughout society. These indelible hand-drawn figures were, for a generation, undoubtedly novel but also simultaneously a manifestation of mythic themes that had arisen time and again in human history. Much like in any folklore, however, the retelling as a juxtaposition of the new and the old—here I refer to both the act and the product—informs savvy observers about the nuances present in the culture of the storytellers. For a scholar, the questions posed by the audience are just as important as the answers. Thus, when NBC’s Heroes appeared on television screens in 2006, academics paid attention as audiences immediately began to contemplate the age-old role and representation of heroes albeit in a modern setting:  What does it mean that heroes don’t have costumes? Are heroes appearing around the world? Does this mean that I could be a hero?

While all of these musings are important to consider, one of the most fundamental questions series creator Tim Kring asks is, “How do we react to, respond to, negotiate with, and acknowledge power in society?” As American audiences, we have come to understand the concept of power in terms of its abuse—we are a country built on the protection and conservation of freedom and have grown to abhor the curbing of our perceived personal liberties. Moreover, in a post-9/11 environment we have again come to believe in the myth of American Exceptionalism, the idea that our nation embodies good in the world and we, as citizens, are tasked with defending that ideal. Or perhaps we feel powerless as we live with the knowledge that a bomb (nuclear but also possibly biochemical) could wipe us out in an instant; our notions of invulnerability have been shattered and we are desperately seeking to regain a sense of safety and security. Ultimately, this is one of the true strengths of Heroes:  the genius of the show rests in its ability to have potentially threatening themes hide in plain sight. For although we may shy away from discussions of power in political arenas, we feel free to discuss the same ideas when they are conceptualized as special abilities in the realm of superheroes. Underneath the veneer of science fiction, we find all too familiar issues as discussions of Heroes’ genetic mutations (both in the show and amongst audiences) parallel conversations that invoke Social Darwinism and the imagination of ourselves as potential heroes positions us to contemplate the role of choice and agency in our lives.

So while some might argue that the show appears to ascribe to a secular philosophy, with its focus on the individual and a palpable scientific undercurrent, I would suggest that it also demonstrates that a deep-seeded sense of wonder continues to exist within us as we begin to discover and wield our own powers. Although we may not be able to read thoughts like Matt, have regenerative bodies like Claire, or copy others’ gifts like Peter, we realize that, in their place, we have developed the ability to speak our minds, access rejuvenating spirits, and, perhaps most importantly, exhibit the qualities of compassion and empathy. Slowly, we come to understand that being human is not a limiting quality as we once thought; instead, it is precisely because we are human that we can accomplish extraordinary things.[1] “Yatta!” indeed.


[1] In his essay, “Chiariidaa o Sukue, Sekai o Sukue!” Rudy Busto makes reference to the ordinary as extraordinary (2009), a thought supported by the work of Darko Suvin who describes the ability of science fiction to encode the ordinary (1979). While I do not disagree with this point of view, I tend to occasionally conceptualize the relationship in slightly different manner:  instead of seeing the ordinary as something that gives birth to the extraordinary, the ordinary is the extraordinary.


Dying is Easy, Living is Hard

HBO’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) presents viewers with a rather paradoxical situation:  although ostensibly a show saturated with death (the main characters work for a family-run funeral home), the series’ core is a frank exploration of human existence in the wake of the deceased. Quite literally, the show is about life after death.

It follows quite naturally, then, that the third season episode “Twilight” concerns itself less with the moral arguments surrounding capital punishment and instead chooses to focus on the effects that the act has on those who survive. Taking this argument a bit further, we can see that while, on one level, the opening teaser of “Twilight” could be viewed in terms of lethal injection and punishment, it also more broadly sets up a theme that resonates throughout the rest of the episode:  in what ways do we choose to let things die (symbolically or otherwise)? In effect, “Twilight” asks us to consider that capital punishment isn’t necessarily something that is solely defined by midnight stays and candlelight vigils; we make choices in our everyday lives that sentence others to a kind of death, whether it consists of the termination of a relationship, accepting the reality that a missing loved one might be permanently gone, or having an abortion.[1] Importantly, while displaying all of this, the show does not pass judgment on individuals, but instead examines the inner turmoil incurred as part of the decision making process and suggests that although the choices made by the characters might indeed be the right ones for them, they do not come without emotional consequences.

Six Feet Under thusly takes a rather unexpected third position in the debate over capital punishment:  instead of proclaiming the deed right or wrong, the show asks viewers to consider if they are prepared for the emotional fallout that comes from literal or figurative execution. This episode, like many others in the series, asks us to contemplate the role and power that death has in our lives[2]—and I would argue that determining this answer for oneself greatly impacts one’s view on the morality of capital punishment. Ultimately, as we struggle with the notions of how and why life is sacred, we are also challenged by the show to consider the ways that we routinely (and virtually without notice!) determine that a life, or lives, are not worthy.


[1] The title of the episode also evokes a sense of the liminal state with twilight literally representing a sort of transition period but also manifests as a sedative taken by Claire during her abortion procedure and is described by the nurse as invoking a state in which “You’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.” There is, perhaps, no better line in the episode that describes the relationship of the dead to the living.

[2] As noted in Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters, our constant preoccupation with death manifests in myriad ways, from Gothic Horror (my particular area of interest) to popular music to philosophy. The significance of the condition is also demonstrated by the various rituals that we have constructed to deal with death and dying—from the often-present funeral and wake (which are, to me, mainly an effort by the living to create a sacred space that confers a sense of community during a time of crisis) to the rite of the last meal and the rather morbid recording of prisoners’ last words in the state of Texas (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm). The existence of these rituals indicates that we continue to struggle with the uncertainty and finality of death and also place particular emphasis on actions undertaken prior to crossing over.


I’ve Gotta Have Faith

 

It is, it seems, increasingly difficult in today’s media landscape to sustain a television series focused on characters that overtly represent figures drawn from traditional religion. At best, we might expect to see a priest, rabbi, or monk as a tertiary character who appears every now and then to impart advice to the main cast; at worst, we can anticipate seeing these same figures relegated to roles filled by guest cast in a one-off that often attempts to make an explicit point condemning the hypocrisy of religion (or, in a reversal, makes audiences feel guilty for their readiness to judge religion). Add to this the progressively more visible outrage from religious groups about the portrayal of their faith on television and it seems easy to understand why network television, which often strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator in entertainment, tends to stay away from the issue of religion.[1]

Some of this indignation, I would argue, stems from the inability or unwillingness of religious groups to work productively with media in order to create programming that portrays fully-formed characters that embody positive aspects of institutional religion. Without liaisons that understand the constraints and demands of television’s economic realities, religion has little hope of convincing producers and network executives to move away from the salacious, defamatory, blasphemous, and lucrative content presently on the air.

And yet, underneath the turmoil, religious displays continue to quietly manifest in a nebulous middle ground labeled by viewers and characters as faith or spirituality according to S. Elizabeth Bird.[2] It seems as though extreme examples of religious expression (or lack thereof) have become targets for attack in television as audiences have become accustomed to religious structures or ideologies that depict a strident belief in a vague, yet ever-present, other power. As a result, discussions of faith have become coded and are not readily apparent until one begins to think deeply about what is being shown on screen.

My favorite example of this process, which relates to Bird’s exploration of House, comes in the form of David Fincher’s Fight Club.[3] Read simply, the movie seems to advocate for gratuitous violence and wonton destruction but, upon closer inspection, one quickly realizes that although the movie is saturated with violence, it is not about violence. Rather, we can think about Fight Club as a form of communion that allows disaffected and disconnected men to come together in ritual that satiates their desire to feel.[4] Here, in the sacred circle, men feel a profound sense of community and also remember what it means to be alive; the movie ultimately features a respectful discussion of some of religion’s central tenets carefully balanced out by the satirical appearance of a pugilistic priest despite not being about religion.


[1] This is certainly not to say those protesting have come to represent the entirety (or even majority) of their faith, but that online tools have made it easier for these groups to find each other and to consolidate power. These same online tools have also renegotiated the distance between audiences and networks, also allowing disgruntled groups to be heard and seen much more effectively.

[2] Bird, S. E. (2009). True Believers nd Atheists Need Not Apply. In D. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion (pp. 17-41). Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

[3] Here I focus on the movie for its similarity to televised media, although the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk could evidence similar comparisons and arguments.

[4] The main character is in fact so disconnected from himself that he manifests two entirely different personalities and is so unable to reconcile the two that he ultimately shoots himself in the face in order to kill off his alter ego!


Eye Rape

A scene that has always stuck with me, from my early days in Fantasy/SF, was a bit about a man who extracted information from a robot without her consent. Her response was that he had raped her and, afterward, was trying to convince her to be okay with it. There’s no direct analog (and rape itself is tricky, as is violation), but it’s sort of like this True Blood situation.

From what I can gather–and obviously this is not to diminish the significance of rape, what with Tara and Holly and all–there does seem to be this sad moment when you know the end is coming and that you can go back to being “normal,” but you can never go back to being yourself. In the best version, the new self is better in ways that you never anticipated…but it’s never the same.


Mumble a Bit of a False Sound

The thing this show does well–does better than most–is that it lays down variations on a theme and, if you’re paying attention, asks you to articulate how and why one situation differs from another. In previous seasons, it was redemption or family; this season, we’re exposed to transcendence and limitation. Freedom and bondage.

Freedom is Eric high on faerie blood, drunk and childlike. Bondage is Eric teased with something that was once his but can never be again.

Bondage is Jason tied to a bed, forced to service the women of Hotshot. Freedom is knowing the violation was never really about you in the first place. This, of course, doesn’t lessen the severity of the incident (or should ever suggest that it’s “okay”) but contrast this with the violation that Tara and Hoyt experienced:  their episodes were entirely about them. And, for that matter, Hoyt and Jason sort of breakdown Tara’s in the most beautiful way (i.e., which type of violation–physical or mental–is worse) while adding an additional perspective. Your instinct is to side with Jason, but Hoyt’s situation will blow up in ways that we haven’t even thought of yet. Variations on a theme.

Freedom is being able to walk in the sun, but bondage is knowing that a part of you will always live in Eric Northman’s basement.

Or maybe freedom is thinking, for just one second, that you made something of yourself (hell, you even learned to read!) while bondage is the realization that the world hasn’t changed with you.

Bondage is being bound to a stake or being bound to your body (who’s worse off?). Again, we see physical versus mental cast in an entirely different form. Echoes, perhaps, of the mind/body duality but, then again, so much more.