Why Affect Matters: The Importance of Emotion and Somatics to the Study of the Horror Film
This short paper makes a case for the value of Affect Studies to research on horror cinema, and is based on my work on the emotional and somatic aspects of horror. Using a contemporary example of a ghost horror film, Mama (Andrés Mischietti, 2013), the paper explores the need to understand the horrific experience as an embodied one. It problematizes the logic behind ‘thought theory’ and psychoanalytic readings of horror, which understand reactions to fantastic monsters as based on ideas or archetypes, by suggesting that it fails to account for the specificity of the medium in which horror is presented and through which the experience of ‘fear’ is orchestrated.
In its place, it proposes that the source of threat (in this case, the ghost) may scare in various ways: conceptually, but also emotionally (through mise-en-scène) and somatically (via shock tactics) in ways that are completely inextricable from cinema as an audio-visual experience. Focusing on the scene where the ghost is glimpsed in a dark room, the paper examines how careful attention to camera positioning, lighting, sound and editing can help distinguish the various emotions and somatic reactions encouraged by horror. My final suggestion, then, is the need to return to a minimal type of formalism in the study of horror if we are to surpass the shortcomings of the research that has dominated the field up until recently.
“Don’t Ruin the Fantasy, Okay?”: Teenage Masculinity and Fantasies of Womanhood in Weird Science
Written and directed by John Hughes, Weird Science is a science-fiction fantasy which fuses elements of the Frankenstein story with a fairly conventional coming-of-age narrative. Two geeky teenage boys, Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell Smith), use a computer to create their perfect woman, Lisa (Kelly LeBrock). Described by the Los Angeles Times’ film critic, Sheila Benson, as “every oppressed, overheated 15-year-old boy’s dream”, Weird Science seems, at first glance, to be a run-of-the-mill teen sex comedy. In fact, the film simultaneously appeals to and questions dominant masculine fantasies. The representation of Lisa and the role that she plays in the narrative, I argue, is central to this tension.
Lisa is an exaggerated vision of female sexuality; her pin-up body is literally the product of numerous glossy magazine images of women. As I will discuss, the femininity she performs is excessive and implausible, signalling the fantastic and unreal nature of a prevalent gender ideal. In fact, although she arouses lust in the teenage boys, she also creates fear and anxiety. Crucially, rather than performing the role of permissive sexual playmate, Lisa uses her magical powers and superior intellect to teach the boys how to perform hegemonic masculinity. She indulges the boys’ fantasies and creates dream-like scenarios in order to teach them skills that will allow them to succeed in their everyday, suburban lives. She accomplishes her mission when Gary and Wyatt form relationships with real-life teenage girls and gain the respect of their peers, primarily through displays of aggression and dominance. Thus, I argue, Weird Science is able to exploit excessive heterosexual male fantasies, for the enjoyment of its target audience, while promoting a more modest fantasy of suburban courtship.
“Drag, Die, Repeat”: Performative Pleasure and Queer Horror in American Horror Story
In my recent book, Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins (2016), I outline that post-2000 queer horror film and television renders the longstanding monstrous metaphor of queerness more explicit. These ‘out’ (but not necessarily proud) texts are largely created by queer-identified directors and producers; and contain narratives and characters that are unambiguous in their presentation of sexual difference. As a result, the symbolic value of monstrousness as a metaphor for the threat that homosexuality poses to heteronormativity, ceases to be coded and, instead, becomes open.
Stacey Abbott and Lorna Jowett remark in TV Horror: Investigating the Darker Side of the Small Screen (2014), that in recent years there has also been a noticeable boom in TV horror as part of a New Golden Age of television content. The TV horror explosion arguably demonstrates a merging of horror with other genres, an embrace of genre fusions that suggests a ‘loosening up’ of generic tropes and conventions marking a shift away from fixed genre forms. Such a thematic shift can also be seen in recent TV Horror’s depictions of non-essentialist representations of gendered and queered identities.
The central text for analysis in this paper is anthology Gothic horror series American Horror Story (henceforth AHS) which appropriates and pays nostalgic homage to a number of horror texts drawn both from TV and cinema. Across its (currently) seven seasons, the show has garnered a cult following in the LGBTQ+ community and attracted a wealth of interest in queer academic circles. I want to suggest that the appeal of AHS as the Queer Horror TV show par excellence, lies specifically in its anti-essentialist queer appropriation of both gender and genre. Via the show’s focus on the concept of identity-as-costume, the queer fans of AHS experience a jouissance-filled immersion in genre, gender, identity and temporal forms that are all effectively shown to be constructed, culturally imposed and therefore, able to be assumed and rejected at will. AHS’s capacity to appropriate cultural forms, and its tendency towards repetition and mimicry, operates to oppose essentialism. By highlighting the constructed-ness of genre, of gender and of identity per se but it also functions to deconstruct that same meaning.
“It is happening … again”: Uncanny Repetition, Donald Trump and Twin Peaks: The Return
The belated return of Twin Peaks (1990-2017) during President Trump’s first year in office initially seemed to offer audiences an opportunity to bask in early 90s nostalgia: an era synonymous with irony, postmodern playfulness and the neoconservative triumphalism of Fukayama’s ‘end of history’. Instead, viewers were confronted with a profoundly unsettling 18-hour series that is deeply ‘Trumpian’ on many levels: narratively obstinate, emotionally capricious, aurally discordant, tonally uneven and often violently perverse. As such, there was always something dubiously amnesiac about 21st century sentimentality for Twin Peaks, an iconic show from the Reagan-Bush era whose idiosyncratic storylines were organised around the brutal murder of a young woman with a history of incestuous sexual abuse. Further complicating matters, while Twin Peaks re-emerged within an aggressively polarised culture which seems altogether more troubling than that of the 1990s, this soft-focus view of the earlier decade runs counter to a growing critical consensus that ‘the age of Trump’ is less a cultural and political aberration than it is the logical conclusion of decades of neoliberal policy.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, then, it may well be that David Lynch – with his career-long dedication to illogic, the absurd and the grotesque – is the ideal figure to engage with the surreal non-sense of Trumpism. Always in critical dialogue with its earlier incarnation, this paper suggests that the revisionist dread of Twin Peaks: The Return is thus best understood as an acutely redolent ‘return of the repressed’. Indeed, The Return’s expressionist abstractions and supernatural mythologies deliberately resist any comfortingly nostalgic escape from the socio-political realities of the American present and – just as significantly – their relation to the traumas of the American past. With characters often caught in stasis repeating uncanny loops of behaviour, and with the brutal realities of post-2008 economic precarity repeatedly intruding onto the previously insular town of Twin Peaks, the series builds inexorably towards the final episode’s fatalistic evocation of the mise en abyme at the heart of contemporary American culture: an often harrowing meditation on the fractious relationship between a mis-remembered past, a nightmarish present and, ultimately, the impossibility of futurity.
Artificial Intelligence, Real Fear: Gothic Video Games and the Horror of Intelligent Machines
Heavily indebted to gothic literature and horror cinema, ‘survival horror’ videogames also articulate fears peculiar to the digital era. Drawing on the work of Fred Botting and Lydia H. Liu, this presentation argues that by entangling players in relationships with uncannily lively computer-controlled characters, games like Silent Hill 2, Forbidden Siren 2 and Alien: Isolation invite us to indulge our anxious fascination with intelligent machines. Where ‘intelligent personal assistants’ like Siri and Alexa attempt to ‘humanize’ digital devices, these games borrow monstrous metaphors from the Gothic canon in order to highlight our susceptibility to technological manipulation.
The Impossible – Early Film and the Representation of the Unreal
The vision scene has a particular place within the representation of the “impossible” and the “unreal”. It is a particular visual trope that has had a long presence within the histories of Western visual art, photography, theatre, and film. It was employed to visually and narratively represent either a character’s thoughts and feelings or her/his encounters with the divine and the supernatural. The depicted vision could be of many things—memories, dreams, nightmares, anxieties, and desires. Usually the visionary and her/his vision were composed within the same picture plane (or scene), with the vision presented either as an integrated element of the main image/scene or as a separate yet contiguous second image/scene (a picture-within-a-picture). The presence of the vision scene, therefore, created a symbiotic relationship between itself and the main image. The two images (or scenes) were conjoined, co-present, and co-dependent, and as such, they together represented a hybrid image that existed because of this relationship and this combination of elements. Here might be, simultaneously, the dreamer and the dreamed, the conscious and the unconscious, and the natural and the supernatural. This paper considers the multiple uses and manifestations of the vision scene in the nineteenth century and its emergence into film practice in the early twentieth century.
“Nuke Possum Springs”: Night in the Woods, Digital Storytelling and the Ludo-Gothic
Since the earliest days of the medium, games designers have drawn on traditions of the Gothic in titles featuring labyrinthine spaces, ghostly adversaries, uncanny artefacts and bedevilled protagonists. This paper explores Gothic themes in the BAFTA award-winning game Night in the Woods, a self-proclaimed example of ‘rust belt Gothic’. The game’s mystery draws on tropes of Gothic fiction, entailing a severed limb, a missing childhood friend, the ghost of a dead miner, a hidden tooth, a sinister cloaked figure and a series of portentous nightmares. Moreover this fragmented narrative, unfolding through numerous conversations and interactions, reflects Gothic storytelling which often consists of multiple documents, accounts and confessions, full of uncertainty and ambiguity. The residents of Possum Springs in which the game is set tell stories, mythologies, poetry and vignettes which narrate the past of this declining town together with their own increasingly bleak prospects. The suggestion is that capitalism is failing this ‘rust belt’ community, and as the signs of modernity decay around them, this small society is either returning to a form of folk culture or a self-destructive nihilism, expressed in the graffiti call to ‘Nuke Possum Springs’.
Dystopian ‘Mobs’? Politics and Form in Black Mirror and Blade Runner 2049
This paper will trace the return of old tropes of ‘the masses’ in Black Mirror as a key text in the contemporary resurgence of dystopian fiction. It will ask if Blade Runner 2049 resists those same tropes or prepares the way for their legitimation. The paper will finish by wondering why such tropes might reappear now when their narratives (‘massification’, ‘mass society’, even ‘ mass culture’) had long seemed consigned to the past.
Folk Horror in British Television Drama: The Pattern Under the Plough
As Hunt (2002), Harmes (2103), Fuller (2016) and others have demonstrated, a corpus of ‘folk horror’ emerged in late 1960s-early 1970s British cinema, combining rural settings, superstition and paganism. This paper argues that many of the concerns and tropes of this wave transferred from cinema into television drama throughout the 1970s. The paper examines key examples of this televisual folk horror cycle, and sets them in their historical context to show the ways in which they work through anxieties about technological and social change in 1970s British culture. Of particular interest is the use of landscape as representing an atavistic space in which the past intrudes into the present, raising issues around the permeability of both spatial and temporal boundaries. The paper concludes that in this strand it is frequently the landscape itself that is the primary protagonist in the drama.
Science Fiction, Biopolitics and the Simulacrum: Channel 4’s Humans
Critical approaches to speculative fictions of ‘the double’ tend to follow two main theoretical trajectories. On the one hand, creatures like clones, androids, holograms, cyborgs, vampires, or zombies are discussed with reference to psychoanalytic theory, particularly Sigmund Freud’s concept of ‘the uncanny’, in order to read the double as the space of fantasy and the return of the repressed. Often, this approach leads to an interpretation of the double as a representation of otherness (in terms of gender, sexuality, race, class, etc.) and proceed to discuss the ways in which the text challenges boundaries between Self and Other. On the other, ideas from postmodern philosophy such as Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum are mobilised, mostly in SF texts, in order to explore the ways in which these creatures articulate anxieties about the acceleration of technological progress and its philosophical implications for established ideas of reality and human nature. The paper will urge for further attention to the use of theories of biopolitics and biopower for these fictions by concentrating on Channel 4’s Humans (2015-present). Often associated with the work of Michel Foucault, but also Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Nikolas Rose and Roberto Esposito, this theory explores the ways in which life and health have been historically monitored and manipulated by institutions of the State for the disciplining of bodies and the management of populations. The paper will argue that, whereas the main focus in these fictions is on ‘mechanical life’, these creatures are used as means to explore, interrogate and criticise the workings of biopolitical mechanisms and institutions. Humans is exemplary in this respect, in its focus on questions of embodiment and corporeality of the android; the preoccupation with its ageing and obsolescence; its exploration of practices of care and reproduction, within the family and the State; and its recent portrayal of ‘synths’ as forms of ‘expendable life’ to be restricted in ‘states of exception’. Biopolitical theory will therefore be discussed as a way to complement and recontextualise the previous theories within a wider political, social and institutional context.
Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: The Temporal Nightmares and Haunted Landscapes of British Television
“A place retaining a trace of historical and cultural happening… can then allow for the slippages in time, the event and its topographical traces being the gateway that allows the past to exist within the present, often fantastically and sometimes horrifically.”
Adam Scovell is quoted here discussing the TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s unsettling teenage drama The Owl Service (1969-70, Peter Plummer), but he could be describing any number of British television series and serials that feature landscapes stained by their folkloric heritage in which the past is not dead and forgotten but an atavistic and baleful force lurking just out of sight, eager to influence the present. The manner of this temporal invasion takes many forms: the unearthing or discovery of long hidden but powerful relics, described by Mark Fisher as ‘xenolithic artefacts’, such as in The Owl Service, Quatermass and the Pit (Rudolph Cartier, 1958-59), and A Warning to the Curious (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972); the latent power vested in landscapes shaped by ancient cultures, as in Children of the Stones (Peter Graham Scott, 1977) and Stigma (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977); and occasionally the past itself breaking through as an aggressive, antagonistic force, as in The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, 1972) and Sapphire and Steel (David Foster, 1979). In all these instances the landscapes of the serials are inseparable from their folkloric past, hauntologically charged and corroding linear, progressive time through cyclicality, repetition, stasis and timelessness. With a focus on the 1970s, this paper will survey a range of British television series and serials to examine the psychogeographical relationship between the landscapes and the pasts they are haunted by, and typify the forms of temporal distortion that manifest themselves.
Diane A. Rodgers
Why Wyrd? Why Folklore? Why Now?
‘Folk horror’ is gaining academic attention, and is beginning to be applied as a generic term to media including film (The Wicker Man, 1973, Kill List, 2011) , television (like The Stone Tape, 1972), and ‘hauntological’ music and online blogs (such as Ghost Box Records and Scarfolk). My research here proposes the implementation of ‘wyrd’ as a useful umbrella term to encompass a variety of related media sharing folkloric elements beyond the edges of folk-horror, and explains why this is an appropriate application of the term. My own PhD, in part, examines why British 1970s television is so often cited by current folk-horror film and television makers as a central influence upon their lives and work and here I will draw out some points of interest from first-hand interviews I have recently conducted with Piers Haggard, Robert Wynne-Simmons, Lawrence Gordon Clark, Patrick Dromgoole, Jeremy Dyson, Ben Wheatley and Jim Jupp (amongst others) to indicate the importance of examining the representation and continuing influence of folklore on-screen. Finally, due to a general public resurgence of interest in ‘folk horror’ gaining new audiences, and the keen growing interest of the academic community, my director of studies Dr. David Clarke and I hope to launch a Centre for Contemporary Legend at Sheffield Hallam University. I will look at some of the considerations in developing such a centre, and what elements we might include in future events to truly engage various public audiences beyond merely disseminating information. This paper will conclude by considering how impact and engagement might be measured, and how a strong research culture in folklore at Sheffield Hallam University can be built with the university as a leading proponent of this.
“The Past Threatens to Break in”: Sapphire and Steel, Uncanny Spaces and ‘New Right’ Ideology
Sapphire and Steel (ATV/ITV) ran for 34 episodes between 1979 and 1982. Written by P.J. Hammond and originally designed as a children’s series, Sapphire and Steel’s plot was concerned with the investigation of ‘irregularities’ in time which threatened to disrupt the lives of those living in the present. As Mark Fisher has written, Sapphire and Steel is a science fiction fantasy that eschews ‘the traditional trappings of the genre [it has] no spaceships, no ray-guns’. Made on a tight budget (a significant proportion of which was spent on the lead actors, Joanna Lumley and David McCallum) Sapphire and Steel was largely studio-bound; the claustrophobic interiority of the spaces in the series (an old house, a disused railway station) recall the ghost stories of Henry James and Dickens. Indeed, I will suggest that Sapphire and Steel can be positioned as a series of supernatural ghost stories which, to borrow Christoph Grunenberg’s definition, provide a ‘domesticated version of absolute terror’ and as such, are heavily predicated on notions (and spaces) of the uncanny. Throughout Sapphire and Steel, ‘the past’ is regarded as a malevolent force, when fissures appear (usually by dint of contact with an old object) they are terrifying and sometimes fatal. To this end, I argue that Sapphire and Steel is preoccupied with a vision of a bright new future; one which delineates ‘the past’ as a liminal and dangerous haunted space. More broadly, I posit that Sapphire and Steel speaks to the then-prevailing ‘New Right’ ideology as espoused by the newly-emergent Thatcher administration; one that actively sought to negate and reject the past with a ‘systematic and decisive rejection of the post-war consensus’ and an embracing of a dynamically individualistic neo-liberalism.
Emily Jessica Turner
Trapped within the Victorian Gothic: How Video Games Reimagine The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a short story following the descent of a woman into madness, is at its very heart a gothic tale. The unnamed narrator, supposedly suffering from hysteria, is forced to endure the ‘rest cure’ and has been locked away in her bedroom by her husband. Through this narrative, the tale evokes gothicism in relation to the themes of the medical, domesticity, sexuality, and gender. In recent years, Gilman’s story has been adapted by several video games; modern interpretations which, this paper will argue, allow players to directly experience the Victorian gothic and thus critically engage with its major themes. Staple gothic motifs – madness, paranoia, sex, entrapment – are evoked within titles such as Charlotte and The Yellow Wallpaper through gameplay and content. In these games, for example, the first-person player is situated as the captive woman, who must engage with the original text’s literary, social, and material heritage in order to progress. The gothic elements of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, reimagined through the immersive atmosphere of the video game format, necessitate the players’ critical engagement and active interpretation of material. Just as the unnamed narrator tears down her wallpaper to free the ghostly women she sees trapped behind the pattern, video game interpretations of The Yellow Wallpaper’s gothic themes encourage players to engage with context, assert their individual interpretations, and critique injustice.
Vampires in the Vanguard: When Pere Portabella met Jesús Franco
This presentation explores the uncertain cultural location of Pere Portabella’s Cuadeduc, Vampir (1970) and its implications for how we might grasp relations between horror, ‘exploitation’ and ‘high’ culture. Portabella’s film may be described as an avant-garde ‘making of’ film, shot on set while the Spanish sex and horror specialist Jesús Franco directed El Conde Dracula (a film billed as the first ever ‘faithful’ Dracula adaptation). Portabella’s film offers a ‘behind the scenes’ account of Franco’s. Though barely a documentary, Cuadecuc contains shots of Franco’s star Soledad Miranda having make-up applied and relaxing between takes, and Christopher Lee reading out from a copy of Dracula. Eschewing any pretence of documentary ‘objectivity’ Cuadecuc proves eerier than anything that El Conde can muster, while the high contrast black and white, virtually dialogue-free film plays as a radical re-imagining both of Franco’s film and the horror genre. Thus Portabella’s film presents a challenging combination of uncanny atmospherics, deconstructive strategies and the ‘making of’ documentary, and is usually celebrated as a critical appropriation of popular/trash culture by an auteur of the radical Barcelona School. Yet Portabella’s position may be less stable than these differences perhaps imply. Cuadecuc is Portabella’s most well-known work because of its link to a cult exploitation filmmaker with whom Portabella effectively collaborated; the Barcelona School to which Portabella was connected maintained a complex relationship to popular genre cinema and specifically to the Spanish horror boom of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Meanwhile, the notion of Portabella as a deconstructive appropriator of a second-rate genre product ignores the extent to which the ‘genre’ side of that divide may itself contain self-critical, deconstructive strategies.
Disembodying Scarlett Johansson: Gender, Genre and Performance
In recent years, Scarlett Johansson has starred in a succession of SF films, including Her, Under the Skin, Lucy and Ghost in the Shell. In each case she plays a character who is, to varying degrees and effects, disembodied. Some recent scholarship has suggested that these films challenge patriarchal and heteronormative systems; some also insist that they ultimately recuperate and reinforce them. But is there more space for alternative, feminist and/or queer readings of Johansson’s SF oeuvre? This paper focuses on Her, a film in which the invisibility of Johansson’s body forms a curious structuring absence. What does it mean when the ‘sexiest woman alive’ is heard but not seen? When, as protagonist Theodore Twombly observes: “You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer”? Intervening in discourse on performance, SF and gender, I discuss how the film’s evocation and denial of Johansson’s star image takes up and subverts heteronormative media tropes, and broader polarisations of self and other on which they depend, by frustrating our grasp of the titular ‘her’: the gendered subject that exists everywhere and nowhere.