Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Fear

Fears vs. Dreams

She cuts herselfusing the blade to write “FUCK UP” large across her left forearm.

Looking back, it would have seemed quite obvious: although I’ve now grown into someone studying for a graduate degree in Communication, I have always been enthralled by the power of narrative. As a child, mythology was my go-to, with stories of ancient cultures giving me—a kid with a short cultural history in America—a sense of place. I’ve since grown into someone who has embraced storytelling as a means of information transmission, learning to see identity as a complicated real-time narrative infused with performance. I think about the world in terms of stories being written, by ourselves as well as by others.

And perhaps this is why I tend to take issue with It Gets Better. Although a valuable message, the project has always sort of rubbed me the wrong way as it seems to suggest that others will write the story of your life for you. Things will get better, it says, somewhere and someday (that’s not here). Things will get better, but you will not. My gut is always to flip that and say that things will get better because you will make them better. You get to write the story of your life and, in so doing, learn the hard lesson that the story is never about you. Well, not just you, anyway. Your story intersects with millions of others and while you are the center of your story, you are a bit character in many others. You learn humility, but also that your presence makes a difference. Given my affinity for storytelling, it makes sense, then, that projects like PostSecret and To Write Love on Her Arms hit home for me.

I am particularly in love with TWLOHA’s newest project that asks people to define their greatest fear and hope. In so many ways, this is exactly what I hope to accomplish by studying horror—although the two aren’t always directly connected, I do believe that they stem from the core of our beings. Articulating both of those concepts is the first step on a journey that can lead to nothing but goodness. Articulating both of those is how you become a fighter, an activist, and a healer.

The video puts forth a series of statements:

This world needs you.
Your family needs you.
Your friends need you.
Your children—maybe someday, maybe now—need you.

But, to that, I would add: You need you.

Fight.

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A Light in the Dark

The sound is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Equal parts siren call, banshee cry, and woeful lament, the anguished scream of the female horror victim is a primal utterance that instantly evokes unsolicited dread from somewhere deep within.

This noise, often accompanied by a stabbing pantomime reminiscent of Psycho, is the typical response that greets me whenever I mention my research interests in horror. Many of my peers, in speaking about their brushes with the genre, mention how media has instilled a perpetual sense of fear in them:  to this day, friends will trace a hatred of clowns back to It or apprehension about blind dates to Audition. Those around me see horror as the representation of a force that serves to limit action, crafting a clear binary that contrasts the safe and acceptable with the foreign and dangerous.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth to what my friends believe; to live in a post-9/11 world is to be familiar with fear. As an American, I have been engaged in a “War on Terror” for my entire adult life, warned that illicit drugs fuel cartels, told to fear invasion, and have heard that everything under (and including) the sun will give me cancer. Fear has become a modern lingua franca, facilitating discussion that ranges across economic recession, immigration, religion, and moral politics. Perhaps worse, I internalized fear as I struggled to get the best grades and test scores in an unforgiving educational system, desperate to find meaning in my college acceptances and hoping for validation in achievement—growing up, there were so many ways to fail and only one way to succeed. Whole parts of my identity have been defined by my fears instead of my hopes and although I rebel, I realize that fear continues to have a haunting effect on my life:  I continue to quell the fears that I will not live up to expectations, that I will become frail, and that I will one day forget what I am worth.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

As a genre, horror touches on our collective desire to explore fear along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies as transgressions of the norm or discover exhilaration in horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of violating cultural standards without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath oft-cited morality pleas (“Good girls don’t!”) we negotiate themes of power, gender, and sanctity of life in a rich field ripe for exploration. As one example, torture/survival films, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, potentially facilitate an exploration of humanity at its extremes:  both assailant and victim are at limits—albeit very different ones—of the human condition and provide us with a vicarious experience of dominance and helplessness.

Despite my interest in the various mediated manifestations of horror, television holds a special place in my heart as a representation of shared cultural space that serially engages with its audience. Not being an active churchgoer, I find that television is my religion—I set aside time every week and pay rapt attention, in turn receiving moral messages that reflect and challenge my vision of the world. Building off of this connection, I have begun working with Diane Winston in order to understand how lived religion in television programming can convey community, values, rituals, and meaning making in a function analogous to that of institutional religion. Admittedly not a theologian by training, I hope to extract themes from religion (e.g., the enactment of religion through bodies and the alignment of religious belief with practice) that will provide additional perspectives on my central interests of horror, myth, and narrative. I have begun to realize that religion, like horror, prompts individuals to contemplate the mystic and the infinite; although they employ different approaches—religion concerns itself with the path toward while horror obsesses over the inescapable nature of the great abyss—both frameworks ask, “What lies in the void?” Auditing “Religion, Media and Hollywood” has cultivated a solid foundation in the shifting concepts of sacred/secular and re-enchantment, which in turn have provided additional theoretical support for an understanding of how narrative structures are propagated, transmitted, and interpreted by individuals and groups. Prompted by Dr. Winston, I have learned that “good” television has the ability to assume varied meanings for its audiences, providing multiple narratives (and thus entry points), and lends itself to a reworking by viewers whose productions then become a part of a larger cultural context. Through television, I have learned that “my story” is really “our story.” Or, more accurately, “my stories” overlap with “our stories.”

Vanquishing Demons

Growing out of a childhood filled with the fantasy of Piers Anthony along with a healthy appreciation for classical mythology (and an unhealthy one for Stephen King), my head became filled with stories of wondrous alternate places. Enraptured as a young teen, it was only later that I began to understand exactly how much these fictions had allowed me to explore alternate expressions of self, causing me, on some level, to consider existential questions like what it meant to be human, how I defined justice and morality, and why I valued life.

In 2004, during a memorable viewing of Saw—which I soon realized was a spectacularly poor choice for a date movie—my head spun as I fought off a surge of terror, contemplating questions I had long avoided:  What gave my life meaning? What would I do to survive?

My stomach shrank as I felt something inside of me break. While the gore was not exceptionally appealing (the fear of suffering before dying was firmly placed in my mind after an ill-advised viewing of Misery in my younger days), the sinking feeling that I experienced came from the realization that, if this scenario were real, I would be a target of the Jigsaw killer for I didn’t appreciate my life. Long after the movie had finished, I remained terrified that I would be abducted and end up in a basement chained to a wall. “After all,” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I deserve what was coming to me? Just a little bit?

After a week of sleepless nights, I finally realized that the solution to my problem was actually rather simple:  start living my life in a way that was meaningful and fulfilling. Instead of being terrified, I chose to work through my fears and be empowered; I challenged myself to start taking risks and to do things that scared me.

A Light in the Dark

My personal history with the genre is part of the reason that I am excited to explore the opportunities present within horror, which spans across such seemingly disparate areas as the occult, Gothic, science fiction, slasher films. The seeds planted by the relatively simple pop culture themes of my childhood have now turned into my academic focuses:  aliens have become an interest in exploring the Other, witches have given me insight into alternate forms of female power, Greek myths have caused me to question the presence of gods (or God) in our lives, vampires cause me to consider an obsession with eternal life, and zombies raise notions of decay and paranoia. An interest in horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction has sparked a quest to understand the structuring role of narratives, replete with a questioning of not just how the world is but how the world could be and should be. And the world could be—and should be—better.

In contrast to conventional notions, full of frozen faces and cowering victims, I see the field of horror as an incredible space to explore some of the concepts that most challenge society. While it may be true that storytellers working in the genre aspire to scare us, they do so as a means to a larger goal:   fright is used as a provocation that forces us to consider why we are terrified in the first place. Whether we realize it or not, exposure to horror allows us to understand the mechanisms of fear and, in the process, realize that the unknown is becoming the known. Although not necessarily therapeutic, areas like horror can be enlightening and potentially empowering. When we choose to experience a work of horror, we make a concession that the content could (and probably will) frighten us—an acquiescence that gives media the freedom to explore psychically stressful issues. I focus on horror because I am fascinated by the genre’s potential for self-exploration, but I choose to study media and culture because I am more broadly fascinated by the ways that stories intersect with identity:  we continually create narratives and are, in turn, shaped by them.

More than a mere research interest, I fight to study mediated narrative and popular culture because I see them as spaces for the negotiation and development of voice for youth. From Buffy in “Hush,” to Disney’s Ariel, to Echo (both the Active and the nymph), the media we experience and love often deals with issues of voice and my hope is to use these mediated representations to begin a dialogue with young people about their voices and the power contained therein. Inspired by scholars such as Carol Clover, Nina Auerbach, Judith Halberstam, and James Twitchell, I endeavor to recast the minority voice, transforming it from one of terror to one of triumph. Realizing that I was lucky enough to have discovered my voice early in life, I am compelled to help others find theirs. From my work with the non-profit 826LA, which helps to build writing skills in youth, to my involvement with the Norman Lear Center, USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, and Asian Pacific American Student Services, I am racing to build my skills in new media literacy and cultural studies so that I can empower young people to think critically about the world around them and to reclaim their voices. Driven by my desire to advocate for youth, I see a responsibility to leverage my education as a Ph.D. student into meaningful change, helping other students understand the impact of popular media and to realize that they can be incredibly powerful if they only let themselves be.


Response to Terrorism? Stop-Loss.

In truth, I didn’t know how to describe it. Without warning, I felt as though a part of me had been taken away without my knowledge and I began to feel that our community had lost one of its own. It could have been anyone, really—on some level it didn’t matter who it was, it just mattered that it was someone.

Yesterday, Dr. George Tiller was murdered during a church service in Wichita, Kansas. By all accounts, Dr. Tiller wasn’t anyone particularly extraordinary, so his name shouldn’t sound familiar, but Dr. Tiller did happen to be a physician who performed abortions.

Within hours of the killing, people from all across the nation were discussing the situation and what it meant for the future of abortion in the United States. What were the anti-abortionists’ views? Would there be backlash? Did we all just want to find somebody to blame?

A grandmother in a CNN article said, “What happened to Tiller was justified. He forfeited his life by taking the lives of innocent children.”

Is there some loophole whereby murder is defensible if it prevents the possible death of future beings? How much of that responsibility can you bestow upon yourself?

I freely admit that I do not intimately understand some of the arguments against abortion but I definitely don’t understand how, if life is sacred, killing is ever the solution? I understand disagreements and feeling frustrated with the current situation (Prop. 8, anyone?) but I will never quite understand vigilante justice. Maybe I just buy too much into this system that is supposed to work. I mean, isn’t part of being patriotic believing that America functions on some level? Isn’t part of the beauty of our country believing in the idea that we have the ability to change things through an accepted channel? Perhaps I just haven’t reached the point wherein I feel like I have no other options.

And, in that light, maybe this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. Although one incident can’t speak for the entirety, shouldn’t it be troubling that a segment of the population is resorting to violence to get their message across? Shouldn’t we be worried that people don’t have faith in our governmental processes to hammer these things out? As mad as I am about the whole Prop. 8 thing, for example, I refuse to believe that the solution lies outside the bounds of our established laws. After all, in many ways, doesn’t this situation represent something that Conservatives also decry? Terrorism?

This is not to say that all anti-abortionists are terrorists, of course. But I don’t know how you can argue that killing someone for something that they believe in is not a form of terrorism. Dress it up in all of the religious dogma that you want, and provide yourself with some kind of moral justification so you can sleep at night, but, at the end of the day, when you strip it down, you’ve committed an act of violence that you hoped, on some level, would deter someone else from performing or seeking an abortion. And the sad part is that you probably did your job.

Hell, I went through the same sort of fear when I agreed to take on this assignment. “Were people going to track me down and tell me that I was wrong for supporting this organization? Would I be judged? How much would my personal life be affected by my public life?” And, I suppose that there is always the thought, no longer so unfounded, “What if I were to die as a result of my involvement with Planned Parenthood?”

My teeth scraped over my lip as I thought about what this all meant. “I suppose,” I reasoned, “that if this somehow ended in my demise that at I would have at least died in the pursuit of something worthwhile.”


I Play Well with Others

“I did WHAT?!”

While going through my personal journal the other day, I came across an entry that I had made almost five years ago regarding a sex survey that I had taken. I, like many other people who have spent any amount of time in high school, was briefly obsessed with online quizzes:  What “Friend” was I? What was my personality type? How pure was I? And, of course, What kind of sex have I had?

The document listed possible situations, partners, locations, and positions and, needless to say, it turns out that I’ve had a lot of sex. I don’t mean that I have had a constant stream of partners lined up my door and around the block, but I’ve been involved in a few long-term relationships and have definitely pushed the envelope when it comes to trying something new. In case you’re wondering, sex at the beach is all well and good until you have to wash sand out of crevices for days. Yes, crevices. Learn from my mistakes, kids. So, although I seem pretty mild on the outside, I could probably floor most competitors in a game of “Where have you done it?” Come to think of it, that’s most likely why I’m writing these articles in the first place.

In front of me, glowing softly on the computer screen, lay my entire sexual history. I have done many crazy things in my life, but nothing that I regret. I’ve always believed in playing safe but I will readily admit that I haven’t always done it.

Wait. What?

Before you get all judgmental and prepare to slap a big old “hypocrite” sign to my forehead, let me just say that the choice to stop using protection was always a conscious and deliberate one.

I’ve never really held the mentality that birth control was a pain, but I have to admit that I enjoy sex without protection as it means that I’ve achieved a number of things in a relationship:  I’ve waited for at least six months after I’ve started going out with somebody, I’ve had a discussion about our sexual histories, I’ve gotten tested, and I’ve been in an exclusive relationship. I also don’t know if it really feels any better but it is certainly cheaper (hey, I’m a realist).

Of all these things, getting tested is the most important for me. Sure, I think that many of the responsibilities that come with being sexually active might be embarrassing or scary (I will readily admit that I used to hoard condoms from the free clinic so that I would not have to go and face the cashier at the drugstore, and I’ll still take free condoms where I can get them.), especially for younger adults, but I think that the alternatives are much worse.

I certainly don’t believe in using fear as a motivator to prevent unwanted behavior, but I do believe that individuals should understand the risks of their behavior choices and that they should make informed decisions. I strongly believe that part of the solution to the problem is removing the stigma from the testing process and making safe sex an ingrained habit for people.

The truth is, however, that not everybody gets a good training in sexual health education and the results are often disastrous. For example, the Center for Disease Control just released some new data that shows that approximately 20% of individuals who have HIV do not even know that they have the virus. That number shocks and saddens me as this is definitely a case where what you don’t know can hurt you…and others.