Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Zombies

Not Just Black and White

American Horror Story - Shaun Ross

In his review of “Burn, Witch, Burn” The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff articulated a thought that I had been working toward in previous posts:  this season of American Horror Story, more than any other, seems to lack a core narrative. If we were not feeling particularly kind we might contextualize this increasing lack of focus in a broader history of shows helmed by Ryan Murphy that have gone off the rails (i.e., the success that allows for latter seasons also permits Murphy’s staff more latitude in riffing on themes in ways that are not as controlled) but I continue to think that a larger influence in this season’s flailing stems from the way in which place is incorporated (or not). For me, the constraints provided by the physical structures themselves (a house and an asylum) necessarily helped to focus the action as viewers on some level wondered “What is the mystery of this place?” This season, neither Madame LaLaurie’s house nor New Orleans as a whole offer any similar sense of intrigue and although we might be momentarily curious with Spalding’s deranged attic, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies also holds relatively little intrigue.

Without the centrality of place in the series we are left with a season that contains many ideas (or fragments of ideas) but whose transmission is hampered by characters that one does not necessarily care about. VanDerWerff notes the way in which this season is written around the talents of Jessica Lange (and it is no secret that Murphy favors her) and this emphasis on a single person fundamentally comes into conflict with what made the show interesting in previous seasons. More than any other season, it seems like the current theme of persecution could benefit from a story that walked the line between personal responsibility for bigotry and the way in which individual characters did not matter so much as the roles that they fulfilled in the grander picture. In short, recognizing that although individuals have agency and are capable of action they are still subject to movement from forces that are greater than them—both magical and social—would have been both an interesting theme and the backbone for a narrative arc.

And although I find myself increasingly disinterested in the show, there are a couple of things to note with regard to this particular episode, both of which revolve around the rather conspicuous inclusion of zombies.

The first point—and ultimately less meaningful one—is that there seems to be a bit of confusion here about the role and function of the zombie in New Orleans voodoo as compared to the depiction of zombies in a post-Romero (i.e., Night of the Living Dead) context. While I do not think that American Horror Story is consciously/necessarily jumping on the zombie bandwagon (I’d like to think that the show is smarter than that), the presence of the zombies in this episode does nothing but recall the popular image of the zombie horde/apocalypse that seems to have pervaded popular culture in the past few years.

There is, for example, a stark contrast between the way in which voodoo leverages the threat of the zombie more than the actual creature itself in order to maintain social control and the way in which the relationship between the zombie and the attacked is of a more personal nature. Whether it be a plantation owner/worker or a blood tie, the ancestors of New Orleans and Haitian zombies seemed to have a more intimate relationship than the post-Romero figure, which was largely a commentary on mass culture and society. Thus, if the zombies featured in this episode had been limited to LaLaurie’s daughters, I think we could argue for a more sophisticated understanding of the monster on the part of the show.

In and of itself, this use of zombies is not particularly consequential on a thematic level but definitely hinders the narrative of the show:  in a world in which death is already rendered relatively meaningless by the presence of Misty’s power of resurgence (and we will get to Fiona and the baby in a bit), why do viewers even care that the witches are getting attacked? There is no tension at all here and the indiscriminate violence on the part of the zombies is both unusual and meaningless, as is Zoe’s wielding of the chainsaw.[1]

As example of how things might be different, we only need to look at The Returned, a French television show currently airing on The Sundance Channel. In some ways similar to the BBC show In the Flesh in that both worlds explore what it means for outsiders/dead to reintegrate themselves back into the lives of the living, The Returned offers a much more interesting treatment look into the effects of people brought back to life.[2] The crucial difference here is less of a focus on the destructive physical power of the zombie and more of an emphasis on how the zombie’s presence (i.e., that the zombie even exists in the first place) is the very thing that renders a type of emotional violence.

The second point—slightly more abstract but farther-reaching—is the way in which the zombies in “Burn, Witch, Burn” contributed to a larger theme of violence written on bodies. Here we saw the aftermath of Cordelia’s acid-burned face, Queenie’s showdown with zombie Borquita and burning Myrtle’s hand, Spalding ripping off Madison’s arm, the whole zombie mess, and, of course, more scenes of Madame LaLaurie’s horrors.

As I have already mentioned, the constant onslaught of violence on the show is not particularly meaningful or poignant—the thing that American Horror Story sometimes forgets is that the things that we come up with in our heads are infinitely more terrifying than whatever could be shown on cable and that violence is often best used to underscore a particular emotional moment. Had we skipped the Chamber of Horror scene (a wry joke that ultimately detracted from the ongoing story), seeing LaLaurie’s slave break Borquita’s leg would have been that much more arresting.

That being said, the violence happened and the only way to salvage it is to think about why we were made to watch it. LaLaurie presents an interesting case as we have now seen her be both incredibly horrible to her daughters and also distraught over their death; violence to LaLaurie, then, is not necessarily about hate but rather about the exercising of power over others. We have violence visited upon black bodies and white bodies, on bodies of family, on bodies of allies and of innocents, and one’s own body. And, yet, despite bodies getting attacked left and right we never see black on black violence. Feeling cynical, I suggest that this is likely a symptom of how writers on the show conceptualize race[3] but I secretly hope that is some sort of larger commentary on how black women have often understood the truth about coalition building long before white women ever did.

As a final note, I am curious about the difference between Misty’s power of resurgence and Fiona’s power to covey life. As the Supreme, it seems evident that Fiona is able to duplicate Misty’s power and bringing the dead child back to life in the hospital that can’t pay its electric bill is a giant shrug (although solid stuff from Lange). What interests me here is the difference between that resurrection and Fiona’s action to literally breathe life back into Queenie in the previous episode. Evocative of the Judeo-Christian belief that conceptualizes life in terms of God’s breath and read against the inclusion of FrankenKyle, one cannot help but think about the implications of the Jewish golem on this season’s proceedings.

Although Charles T. Rubin’s essay, “The Golem and the Limits of Artifice” goes beyond the scope of what is necessary to read American Horror Story through this lens, the piece generally outlines some arguments worth considering with regard to nature, technology, and life.

[Byron] Sherwin begins his book with an overview of the golem story, and he has two very specific points he wants to make as he tells it. First, the nature of the golem, viewed across time, is very far from fixed in its character and meaning. Sherwin makes significant use of this flexibility, using the term “golem” to describe science, technology, and the modern state — after all, they are each “creations of the human mind.” Second, and more importantly, he points to the distinctly Jewish significance of golem creation. Following up a grammatical oddity in the Genesis story (in Genesis 2:3), Sherwin suggests that the world was “created to be made” — that is, God created the world with the expectation that human beings would carry on His own creative activity with the raw materials He created out of nothing. Moreover, Sherwin suggests that we see ourselves as co-creators of the world along with God, tasked with working “toward completing the process of creation begun by God.” Indeed, we are created in God’s image precisely to the extent that we possess and employ “moral and creative volition.” Sherwin alludes repeatedly to a passage from the Talmud (to which we will return) about human beings having the potential for being “God’s partners in the work of creation.” Sherwin finds further support for this outlook in, among other places, some of the writings of the real-life Rabbi Loew, and in a parable of uncertain origin about a king who leaves servants piles of flour, flax, and grapes, rewarding the one who turns them into useful goods and punishing the one who simply guards them in the form given to him.

Sherwin’s is by no means an unorthodox reading of Jewish tradition on this point about human creativity; one can find similar-sounding sentiments in, for example, the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Sherwin is at pains to suggest that there is nothing sacred about unaltered nature per se, nothing problematic about imitating divine creativity so long as it does not involve thinking that that creativity is unnecessary. Hence, in our scientific and technological accomplishments and strivings we are not “playing God” in any pejorative sense. Recalling another passage in Genesis, he notes that “beneficial human interventions in nature fulfill the divine mandate to human beings to subdue nature and to establish their dominion over it.”

Rubin’s essay is worth reading in so far as that it propels one to view the actions of Fiona and Madame LaLaurie in a new light with respect to the way in which they seek to create a world in their images. Given Murphy’s rather shallow of treatment of religion in previous offerings, work like Rubin’s is thought-provoking in that it gestures toward an integration of morality with the themes of biopolitics that we see on screen.


[1] In a truly horrid special effects sequence wherein Zoe splits a zombie down the middle I could not help but groan and think about how someone in the writers’ room had gotten a hold of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws. The sad thing is that there is actually a very interesting way in which the material in Clover’s book could have been used here as a counterpoint to the women/magic/power theme.

[2] I am also still unsure of how to interpret the visual stereotypes that are present in American Horror Story’s zombies:  both last week’s and this week’s episodes zombie hordes featured a Confederate soldier, a flapper, and a Native person (based on costume) and while one might be tempted to contemplate the ways in which this selection of people speaks to a specific history that has come back to haunt white people, I remain unconvinced that it is little more than something played for amusement by the writers. The notion that most of the organic materials would likely have decomposed into a state that was, by 2013, somewhat less recognizable makes it seem as though the costume choices were made intentionally prominent and I am again left wondering, “To what end?”

[3] I am curious about the inclusion of albino blacks like Shaun Ross figure into the show. My distrust of the show leads me to believe that they were included because of their “strangeness” and something just seems off. In contrast to Jamie Brewer (Nan), who has Down Syndrome but always is a person, the albino black men in this season are essentially handymen. Worse, they are symbolic of the way in which the Salem witch culture only accepts blackness that is literally made white (i.e., whitewashed).

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The Philosophy of Horror

Chris Tokuhama

Thomas Fahy, Ed. The Philosophy of Horror. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.259 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-8131-2573-2. $39.95.

            The Philosophy of Horror, a collection of essays edited by Thomas Fahy, belongs to a series of volumes called The Philosophy of Popular Culture. The classification is important here as books in the series are targeted toward a general audience and endeavor to introduce traditional philosophical concepts through examples in popular culture. In addition to an introduction by the editor, The Philosophy of Horror contains fourteen chapters that are largely (with two exceptions) grounded in particular media artifacts that span television, film, and print. Mostly based in traditional conceptualizations of the horror genre, the volume also notably includes media that might be classified as “thrillers” (e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume), a move that acts to expand the definition of horror beyond a genre in order to encompass an emotional state or a type of relationship between audience and artifact.

            Indeed, editor Thomas Fahy creates this framework through his introduction wherein a story about skydiving allows him to describe the emotive experience of interacting with a piece of horror fiction. Referencing the book’s namesake, Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Fahy notes that, at its core, horror presents a paradox:  twin forces of attraction and repulsion, fear and relief, or suffering and justice appear as consistent themes throughout the works that are described with the label of horror. As any scholar of horror will well note, although the setting may appear fantastical, the central issues in any piece of horror are grounded in the human experience. To this end, Fahy notes that the following key philosophical concepts are evidenced throughout the book:  morality, identity, cultural history, and aesthetics.

            Taking the broadest view of horror, the book’s first two chapters—Philip J. Nickel’s “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life:  On Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds” and Philip Tallon’s “Through a Mirror, Darkly:  Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection”—each attempt to discern and elucidate the function of horror. Ultimately, both essays reflect upon horror’s ability to explore the fundamental human sense of vulnerability and fragility; in one respect, this sense of insecurity certainly relates to the perennial issue of mortality that pervades most horror but also to the larger philosophical question of morality for horror also forces the question of who gets to live and why. Importantly, however, both authors move past the susceptibility of the human body in order to discuss a wider range of vulnerabilities:  in the tradition of the postmodern, absolutes are questioned and assumptions are questioned in ways that ultimately lead individuals to become introspective as they examine their own preconceptions regarding how the world works and which moral positions are justified.

            In addition, however, the kind of questioning suggested by the book’s first two essays naturally sets the stage for an examination of identity; the process whereby one deconstructs one’s value system almost necessarily involves a period of reflection on who one is to begin with. Dealing with the theme of identity most directly, Amy Kind’s “The Vampire with a Soul:  Angel and the Quest for Identity” thinks through the implications and responsibilities of having a soul. The key contribution Kind puts forth is to divorce the possession of a soul from notions of personhood, instead pondering the way in which a soul makes one an individual. For us as humans, this distinction makes little sense but the realm of the fantastic offers a great space for us to consider how alternate beings (in this case demons, but we might also include androids) do not necessarily become “human,” but can in fact become individuated.

            Moreover, just as Kind’s essay speaks to a need to reevaluate the world and our preconceptions of it, Jessica O’Hara’s “Making Their Presence Known:  TV’s Ghost-Hunter Phenomenon in a ‘Post-’World” uses the trope of paranormal investigation television to think through ways in which the world around us is perceived and how those insights are examined. O’Hara’s work also bridges the gap between identity and cultural history for it, on one level, necessarily juxtaposes the present with the past; one way in which to read the popularity of shows about ghosts is to consider that they may speak to the cultural renegotiation between private and public space in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although one might make an argument that these ghost shows more prominently feature domestic spaces and therefore privilege the private sphere, a stronger position might suggest that, at their core, ghost stories also speak to the most grievous defilement of privacy and security:  the home invasion.

            This theme of unease with the domestic space is also echoed in John Lutz’s “From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History,” which looks at subjugation in The Shining on three levels:  domestic, colonialism, and commodification. Much more than a clichéd “things are not what they seem” The Shining ruminates on abuse(s) in various settings and the way in which these themes are circulated throughout our identity as Americans. Unlike the narratives of the ghost hunters, cultural black marks like slavery, internment, and colonization evidence a need for resolution that allows us to appropriately repent and then move forward as we wash our hands of responsibility regarding the violation.

            And violation, it would seem, is also a core component of Jeremy Morris’ “The Justification of Torture-Horror:  Retribution and Sadism in Saw, Hostel¸ and The Devil’s Rejects” and Fahy’s “Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of American Violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” The films of the torture-horror genre—specifically, here, those that have been released in the mid-2000’s and have been wryly labeled “torture porn” for their graphic and voyeuristic elements—obviously and overtly speak to a type of violation of the body that clearly aligns with a desecration of the self and, resultantly, one’s identity. Returning to the ever-present paradox in horror, Morris looks at the unstable definitions of torturer and tortured and questions how we, to a degree, participate in both roles. Moreover, we once again witness the familiar themes of powerlessness and agency that appear in O’Hara’s essay on ghost hunting while also transforming these issues into something more visceral and personal. Films like Saw and Hostel not only cause us to contemplate the unpleasantness of having torture visited upon ourselves but also ways in which we are complicit in torture or, as an extreme, might participate in the torture of others in order to preserve our own safety. Along with Fahy’s essay on Capote’s In Cold Blood, Morris asks us to think past “senseless” violence in order to consider the unsettling realization that we are all harboring secret monsters and capable of untold brutality if pressured.

            In a way, Fahy’s essay works to transition between Morris and Lorena Russell’s “Ideological Formations of the Nuclear Family in The Hills Have Eyes” as it continues to ruminate on the capacity for violence even as it gestures beyond violation of the person toward a transgression of interpersonal structures. In the case of Fahy and Capote, we are witness to the aftermath that permeates a small town in the wake of a vicious murder while Russell chooses to examine the way in which The Hills Have Eyes comments on the breakdown of the nuclear family. Centering her arguments in the ideology of the family, Russell presents a series of arguments about the family that continue to resonate today; in particular, one of the strongest points that Russell makes is to consider how the original film and its remake speak to the growing divide between urban and rural sensibilities (here it should be noted that the horror films of the 1970s often spoke to this disjuncture, although such critique was not usually tied so closely to family structures). Like with most films in the genre, the real horror is realizing that the term “monster” is relative and that we are all monsters in a given light; moreover, the danger presented by those who are like us is often the more hazardous as it represents the threat that we never see coming.

            Shifting away from identity and toward cultural history, we also have John Lutz’ “Zombies of the World, Unite:  Class Struggle and Alienation in Land of the Dead,” and Paul A. Cantor’s “The Fall of the House of Ulmer:  Europe vs. America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat.” Although well argued, Lutz’ essay adds the least to the its respective field of study as it retreads upon the position that zombies can be read as critiques on class and race in America. Cantor’s essay, on the other hand, provides an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the essays in the book as it uses The Black Cat to think through foreign perceptions of America in the post-World War I period.

            This element of critical commentary focuses on the aesthetic in the final essays of the book—Susann Cokal’s “’Hot with Rapture and Cold with Fear’:  Grotesque, Sublime, and Postmodern Tranformation in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume,” Robert F. Gross’ “Shock Value:  A Deleuzean Encounter with James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms,” Ann C. Hall’s “Making Monsters:  The Philosophy of Reproduction in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the Universal Films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein,” and David MacGregor Johnston’s “Kitch and Camp and Things That Go Bump in the Night; or Sontag and Adorno at the (Horror) Movies”—and resembles more traditional forms of film analysis. Of the four, Johnston and Gross’ essays are the most enlightening, although the latter may well represent the most challenging piece to read in the entire book.

            With its range in topics and perspectives, The Philosophy of Horror is a good choice for those who are fans of horror or who are looking to situate themselves within the field of study. The essays in this volume may very well spark a reader’s interest and introduce new arguments but will also undoubtedly leave them reaching for a more substantive volume on their subject of inquiry.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies how the definition of “the body” is being contested in American culture. Particularly interested in the confluence of horror, religion, gender, and youth, Chris is currently working on projects that explore the ways in which children are configured in the shadow of apocalypse, catastrophe, and trauma.


Our Hearts Are Restless Until They Find Rest in Thee

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?