Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Mythology

Flights of Fancy

There’s undoubtedly more to all of this that I’m missing, but I’m particularly interested in the developing themes of image, authenticity, and reputation this season—the show seems to have introduced a number of binaries, with the real/ugly truth hiding beneath a glossy exterior. There are echoes of this idea in the appearance of politics on the show, the faerie kingdom not being all it’s cracked up to be, and the banality of domestic life—I think about how vampires have, since the 1970s, struggled with their “true selves,” but now we see characters on the show struggling to articulate/see the true self. And then we get into issues of authentic self—do we cling to Greek notions of authenticity or embrace Goffman, who suggested that we can alter our presentation depending on our audience? Given that this is an election year, I’m curious to see how the show explores the manufacture and selling of reputation/image (and if it’s critical of this process).

I’m definitely curious to see how this season of True Blood progresses—at present, two vampires are launching competing PR campaigns to win back support after a rather violent/graphic incident with a vampire played out on national TV and this has obvious resonance with the current state of affairs. But I’m in love with the concept of the faerie as the perfect supernatural creature to bring this idea to the forefront (my primary research focus is in Gothic horror with tangents in mythology, folklore, fantasy, and science fiction) as they are creatures whose entire existence is defined by their manipulation of image. Above and beyond your garden variety “trickster,” faeries are liminal beings who play with light and cause us to question if what we are seeing is real. The fae are sort of the original spin doctors, never lying but always twisting their words in ways that humans had not anticipated. The leap from this to a cynical view of politicians seems natural.

Moreover, in contrast to vampires and werewolves (including the historical antecedent of Jekyll/Hyde), who also embody a sense of duality, faeries do not seem to struggle with their natures–they are what they are–but they sow confusion for others. In a sense, this sort of makes me wonder if faeries can be considered authentic:  if your nature is to deceive and you own up to that, aren’t you being true to yourself? Is it really their fault that we don’t fully understand just how dangerous/powerful they are?

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.

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

Wings melting, he closed his eyes as he plunged toward the sea; the image of the sun still burned in his memory. He had dared.

Struggling, he was condemned to bear the weight of the heavens; challenging the gods always had its price. He had dared.

Within minutes of its opening, “Unvanquished” presents us with two figures from Greek mythology (three, if you count the Daniel/Phaeton/son of Phoebus connection) who dared to transgress and, as a result, suffered weighty consequences. The gods of antiquity, it seemed, were not kind to those who opposed the natural order of things. On one level both of these stories speak to a notion of control—the manifestation of patriarchal hegemony in the form of story—but we can also think about how these two characters form a bridge between heaven and earth through their bodies.

Religion (and, I would argue, strains of philosophy in general) has continually attempted to explore the role and purpose of the physical body (Coakley 1997, Dennett 1978, McGuire 2003), in effect attempting to define the relationship of the body to heaven and earth. Centuries of discussion have resulted in a plethora of outcomes and no definitive answer; the body continues to serve as a site of contestation in a struggle that is portrayed beautifully in “Unvanquished.”

In particular, our class seemed to gravitate toward Barnabas as he convened with his cell in a blood ritual (you can find mentions hereherehere, and here). Blood has previously played a very particular role in the series, suggests Anthea Butler, both as a figurative term and a literal commodity (2010). I would argue that Butler’s arguments, although originally applied to another episode, hold true for “Unvanquished” as well; while not as overtly blood-filled as “Pyramid Scheme,” punishment of the body raises interesting notions regarding the role of the physical and material in the context of religion.

For example, what view must one take of the body in order to become a suicide bomber? Is the body nothing more than the instrument of God? Is the body something to be sacrificed in the ongoing struggle as one religion attempts to battle another?

But we also understand that religion isn’t necessarily about prayers, God, and churches (although it certainly can be):  we are, at one point, exposed to lingering shots of Tauron tattoos in a sequence that evokes notions of the male gaze as traditionally applied to female bodies. We understand that the tattoos of the Taurons are inextricably linked with religious ritual (see “There Is Another Sky”) but also with achievements and rites of a more secular sort. In their own way, we can see these tattoos as evidence of what Stig Hjarvard terms “banal religion” (2008), a phrase that helps us to understand the forms of religion that exist outside of traditional interpretations. However, unlike Barnabas, who considers the body as an entity without meaning (and arguably detestable), Taurons have been shown to regard their bodies as an integral part of their religion; the body is literally the site upon which religion is enacted and recorded.

This episode also exposed us to the machinations of Clarice, who championed the rather complex notion of apotheosis:  while Clarice talked about grand notions of heaven, true believers were still embodied as virtual avatars. Clarice, then, offers a trade of sorts:  a material body for an incorruptible one. Rather than advocate for a religion mired in conventional notions of heaven and earth, Clarice chooses a path that has one foot placed firmly in both realms; Clarice believes in elevation, transformation, and transcendence of the body.

Finally we also see a contrast between the manufactured bodies of the U-87s and the, in some ways, very fallible bodies of humans. The episode opens with a sequence of shots that allow us to glimpse the U-87 manufacture process—these, as we are told, are the next generation of bodies that will not need sleep or food. In contrast, we see human bodies in disrepair a la Daniel Graystone but are also reminded, as one student noted, that even mechanical bodies are subject to burial. What do we make of the fact that this particular body once held the spark of life? Is this body merely a golem that has lost its breath?

And, ultimately, what is “unvanquished”? Our bodies? Our spirits? The term as we understand it could certainly be applied to a number of entities in this episode:  Daniel, Clarice, the religion of the OTG, Amanda, Zoe, and the concept of faith all seem worthy of this descriptor. In their own way, each of these people or ideas had dared to challenge the status quo and has been met with resistance and hostility; down, but not out, we see the struggle for survival continue.

As we continue to delve into the rest of Season 1.5, the issue of bodies will be an interesting one to keep in mind. What will transpire, for example, when the “dead walkers” become more well known? Reports of them are sure to flood through Caprica and what will Clarice do when she realizes that her dream of apotheosis has been achieved? Will people choose to live on as code—as a digital representation—rather than consign themselves to the strain of mortal life? What is the function of religion in the lives of the inhabitants of Caprica? What of Zoe’s thoughts on generations and fractals? If she understands how to make trees more “treelike,” might she not also be able to make heaven more “heavenlike”? The possibilities with code are seemingly endless, limited only by our ability to manipulate it. Will this cause us to become disenchanted with the world? Classmates have debated about the relationship between technology and enchantment (here and here) along with the general ability of Caprica to re-enchant the world. Who is winning in the ideological war between reason and faith? Or are we merely misunderstanding the issue entirely? Our class also looks at the presence of ritual in the show, from the overt (the aforementioned Barnabas), to the rituals of sport and the mediatized ritual of channel surfing.

Culling together our knowledge through class discussions and blogs, we hope to increase our understanding of religion in Caprica. Although we have an entire demi-season in front of us, there is also much to be gleaned from the show’s previous offerings. My hope is that classmates will build upon their arguments and the positions of others, synthesizing the discussion (and their burgeoning knowledge of the show) into posts that allow us, as a class, to reflect on salient themes.