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.
Flailing, lingering, drifting; in a word: restless. Horror is filled with those who cannot sleep. Ghosts, perhaps our first association, are ultimately the least helpful for they have one thing that all other undead envy: a purpose. Conversely, modern day vampires struggle to reconcile their “true natures,” cyborgs wrestle with post-humanism, and despite zombies’ evident drive, they are still miles away from truly possessing purpose. In their own ways, members of the undead horde toil without rest. Although we continue to tell tales, huddled in the dark, perhaps the decline in ghost stories means that we are no longer haunted by our pasts, instead unsure about our futures.
Narcissistic, apathetic, bored; in a word: restless. Modern youth have increasingly been painted in negative terms, each indicative of declines in the current generation. Yet, instead of castigating youth, how might we use the undead as a lens to sympathize with teenagers’ search for meaning? Both groups exist in worlds that have begun to move away from institutional and overt aspects of religion—how does each endeavor to fill the void? In a post-modern world, where all paths are equal (and hence, equally unhelpful), how do the undead and youth both fight to inscribe meaning through lived religion?
For anyone who has thoughtfully considered the role of art in society, Coonoor Kripalani’s position is not necessarily novel: film, like many forms of art, holds the capacity to comment on its cultural context and to proffer new insights (often accomplishing both feats simultaneously. Focusing specifically on Bollywood film, Kripalani recounts a history of the genre, listing off various stars who served to influence fashion or vernacular (2006). Although Kripalani mentions offer a quick retrospective of Bollywood cinema, the larger cultural issue resides in films’ reflections of an upwardly mobile and aspirational culture. From stories enmeshed in the caste system to romances that defied arranged marriages, the stories told through these films spoke to viewers because they offered a glimpse of the world as it might be. Although not explored in the course of the paper, we might also consider how cult films like Jai Santoshi Maa also become popular because they speak (perhaps indirectly) to a previously unarticulated desire or sentiment.
Shifting to focus on the power of the image, Kripalani then mentions Indian brides being idealized through wedding video and segues to the normalizing influence of product placement in Bollywood films. Lampooned by films such as The Truman Show, the phenomenon noted by Kripalani is not unique to Bollywood: in a fashion similar to American advertising, Kripalani notes cinematic experiences that are achieved through the use of consumer goods.
I would also argue that American youth can be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption, with the most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—being that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value: the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay. For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.
Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment. In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.
 Although I have not done extensive work in this area, my anecdotal exposure to cult films in America suggests that these productions often attract fringe or minority individuals who feel, in some way, disenfranchised. The sense of community that develops in this shared media experiences helps such people to feel like they belong (i.e., there are literally “other people like me”). This is not to suggest that the popularity of cult films can be solely defined in terms of this process, but I would suggest that this theme again reflects an underlying aspiration: the desire to become, to be, or to belong.
 A book coauthored by Annenberg professor Michael Cody spoke to a similar affective tie in a McDonald’s advertisement, essentially arguing that family happiness could be had through consumption of a food item. Although Cody’s argument was more about nostalgia and family values, we can see how a product is depicted as the conduit for, or conveyer of, emotional responses or attachments and thus crucial to the process.