Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Gothic Horror

It’s Time to Talk Replacements

American Horror Story Minotaur

 

In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books Anne Helen Petersen mused on the presence of abjection in American Horror Story, noting how the secondary understanding of the term—that of transgression and destabilization—appears in the series through references to duality and unheimlich. In some ways, horror is the genre that is best summed up by the phrase “…but not”: most obviously in that things are rarely as simple as they initially appear to be but, more subtly, also that they are both more and less than they seem to be. Gothic horror writers delved deep into this concept, exploring how young female ghosts were present (…but not) or how vampires were alive (…but not) and to this day horror remains the domain for things that are there…but not (or at least not in the way that we often fear that they are). What complicates things, however, is that horror often demands that we take a turn from either/or thinking (i.e., that spirits are either there or they aren’t) toward a realization that horror is often about both/and thinking (i.e., that presence is both there and not there and these two ideas aren’t contradictions). Horror, in short, is a genre capable of nuance and subtlety at the same time that it is about outright terror.

In her essay, Petersen noted how American Horror Story (in addition to, I would argue, Ryan Murphy’ other series) can contain both elements of feminism and misogyny. This revelation should not come as a shock for any viewers of Murphy’s past work as many of his series (including American Horror Story) often espouse a sensibility in which characters seemingly have a pass because they are also somehow disadvantaged. And ultimately, I think that this emphasis on persecution is what constitutes a consistent failing in Murphy’s series:  from bullying, to LGBT issues, to women and race, it seems like many of the story arcs in Murphy’s shows are preoccupied with exploring what it means to be marginalized from a very specific vantage point that itself remains unexamined. Credit should of course be given for a show like Glee that tries to think about the problem of bullying in youth or addresses the horrible ways that LGBT youth can be driven to suicide. And yet, despite this good intent, the treatment of the issues on the shows continues to be one that is reactionary (in that I do not think that the show is actively thinking about the tribulations of being a youth and only addressed the bullying/LGBT issues because they happened to trigger Murphy) and not particularly thoughtful in the way that they present solutions to problems.

But getting back to the notion of feminism and misogyny being intertwined (and muddled), we have the opening of tonight’s episode, “The Replacements,” where Fiona’s predecessor as Supreme (Anna Lee) references “bra burning” as a inaccurate, if ultimately widespread, shorthand for feminism and then calls Fiona a “vicious gash.” (Is it worth noting that Fiona did not attend the bra burning party?) Are we to believe that the derogatory attack is supposed to be more palatable or enjoyable because it is coming from a woman? It seems like any man who dared call a woman a gash (and let’s not even get started on the way in which that, like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, reduces a woman down to a body part) would immediately be labeled as misogynistic, so shouldn’t we expect the same animosity toward a woman? The problem with American Horror Story is that even if we were to take a second to think about what this use of language actually implied for Anna Lee, Fiona, and a cast of witches who Murphy is determined to cast as oppressed, the show does a poor job of linking together other feminist moments/issues into a cohesive position about women, power, and patriarchy.

Going back to last week’s episode, I surmised to a friend that Madison’s refusal to admit to the rape had very little to do with her fear of the police and much more to do with the way in which she was unable or unwilling to cop to the violation of her body. From the beginning, I had a feeling that Madison embodied this postfeminist mindset wherein power flows from the body (not as literally as Queenie but through the standard concept of looks/beauty) as is hinted at in her behavior during the frat party in the first episode. It is without much surprise, then, that we see Madison in a skin-tight dress espousing the view that her body will win the affections of her new neighbor (Luke). Given that the other enticement for Luke is Nan’s homemade cake, there is fertile ground to launch into a discussion about women’s power in the magical and “real world” senses that goes untouched. In and of itself this is not a major issue but if Murphy’s express goal is to craft a season around persecuted minorities, and we are choosing the motif of witches as our central horror figure, and we are drawing a unsubtle connection between youth/beauty and power (again, both magical and postfeminist), it seems like feminism as a redress to the power imbalance must be a thing that is always on the table. And yet it is not.

Bungling another attempt to comment intelligently on states of oppression and power imbalance, we see the character of Madame LaLaurie continually espouse racist remarks (but it’s okay because she’s from the 19th century and didn’t know any better!) in a way that tries to employ the Mad Men gambit without any of the latter show’s skill or sensitivity. If I were being gracious, I would say that there is some sort of meta commentary here about how Fiona cannot abide racists and yet uses the term “slave” unproblematically given its implications and associations for the world that she inhabits. (I would also note that Madison uses the term at the frat party and it seems as though we are witnessing a trend of white witches who can only recognize their own form of oppression and not how they belittle others. That these women are so distanced from the historical weight of the term “slave” as applied to a person in a position in servitude is not itself the problem, but the failure to develop, comment on, or challenge that is. For example, what then what do we make of the way in which Queenie uses the term to refer to Madame LaLaurie? Is this a form of reclamation or is she simply adopting the framework of Fiona, relishing in her power of another? Contrast this against her confession to the Minotaur that she has been called a beast herself and you begin to see how the seeds for a very productive discussion about the nature of power and its effects on people are in the show but remain untapped!) I suppose, at the end of the day, my breaking point is that I just don’t trust the show to come out on the other end with anything insightful about oppression. Hell, even the way in which Fiona’s desperation to maintain power speaks to the way that women in power draw mentees in and then work to keep them down (Diane on The Good Wife anyone) is also a line that fits well within the provenance of modern day feminism and notions of oppression. In a sad and unfortunate way, I think that the show will be beholden to its white liberal upper-middle class mentality and understand persecution in a very narrow way that is ultimately unhelpful.

My biggest issue with “The Replacements,” however, was that “large moments” of tonight’s episode just didn’t make me feel anything. Now granted, I came from a background of both Biology and horror so my tolerance level may be higher than most, but I think that American Horror Story is at its weakest when it mistakes shock for genuine development. Shock, jump scares, and the grotesque of course has its place in the genre of horror and, when used appropriately, does a great deal to dislocate the viewer from his or her surroundings and reexamine the everyday from a new perspective. For me, tonight’s episode just seemed to be trying to throw too much at the viewer for no reason other than to shock and that is just not good story telling (or horror, for that matter). Are we, for example, supposed to be shocked that Kyle is returning to an abusive home? Hardly, since that whole reveal was telegraphed from the beginning of the episode. And while it would be interesting to have that have some bearing on Kyle’s current mentality, he seems to be operating much more as an animal and thus it seems unlikely that this particular bit of history will have large implications for the character moving forward. In contrast, the long slow pan into Kyle’s mother, Alicia, with her head in a noose is much more in line with the dread that horror embodies than the sight of her putting her hand down Kyle’s pants. Now, if the sexual abuse caused us to rethink Kyle and/or his mother in a drastically different way, we might also experience the slow horror of the realization but this is lost to us thanks to the show’s desire to shock. (We might also mention the way Misty mentions that Zoe won’t come back for her after Kyle leaves and then begins dancing as a quieter, but much more effective, moment.)

And, speaking of Alicia, it is here that we again see American Horror Story’s refusal to consider oppression that exists outside of the scope of the witches. (I mean, I know the #firstworldproblems and #whitepeopleproblems memes are old, but, seriously.) There is a wonderful potential here, I think, to consider the ways in which lower class people are subject to discrimination (and Alicia is certainly made to be emblematic of white trash). And let’s not even get started on the way in which black culture and voodoo is continually othered by this show, making it seem full of “primitive” ritual (because sophisticated white witches surely don’t butcher goats).

Alternatively, were we supposed to feel something when Fiona killed Madison (who I sincerely doubt is The Supreme given the anvil that witches can have four to five powers)? With Misty in play, death looses its meaning and it never seemed to be of any doubt that Fiona would do something like that in order to main control over her life and powers. Add to this that Madison was never drawn to be a particularly sympathetic character (unless we were somehow supposed to buy that Fiona and Madison had turned a corner in their “night out” montage) so really, who cares about all of this anyway?


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.