Shakespeare adaptations I would stage that would still be better than some productions I’ve seen

Romeo and Juliet but with gangster zombies and all of the music from West Side Story

The Cyberpunk Merchant of Venice (Shylock is a lender of Bit Coins)

Pericles, Prince of Tyre but with Muppets

Sci-fi Julius Caesar. Juugron Caesar has big plans for the Shaafl’zar Galaxy, but a band of rebels led by B’rutus see Caesar as a threat…

I Henry IV but everyone is dressed as a dog

A re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew where Kate and Bianca kill all the men at the end

Othello where everyone is black except Othello

King John but in Nazi Germany

A production of Lear (Second Folio version) where one actor plays Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia

A 2-night crossover event between the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labours’ Lost

A groundbreaking examination of the ways that consumerism is rewiring our brains and the media is turning us into pacified, unthinking, and uncritical children in The Comedy of Errors

A one-man-show of The Tempest, by David Bowie

Antony and Cleopatra but in Nazi Germany

A re-focused version of Twelfth Night that takes a grim, hard-hitting look at Sir Toby’s alcoholism

Goth Richard III

A big-budget Titus Andronicus musical featuring the greatest hits of superstar American rock band Journey

 

Metafiction

I sat down to write my story.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I could have written about doomed lovers, or an underdog triumphing over adversity, or an epic battle between good and evil. I could have explored the human condition, what it means to love and be loved, or the negative effects of capitalism on the proletariat. But that’s all been done before.

I wanted to write something different, something that hadn’t been done a hundred times before. But what is there left? After millennia of making up and telling stories, is there anything original left? Is there anything new to say?

I closed my laptop and groaned. Maybe this would be easier with a pen and paper; it would be more symbolically potent that way, at any rate. I doodled for a few minutes, but that was getting me nowhere so I went back to the laptop.

“Have you seen him?” said a voice from behind me.

“Um, who?” I turned around, to be greeted by a tall man with excellent mutton-chop sideburns.

The man grunted in a way that suggested I was eating into his very valuable time. “The prisoner 24601. The man called Jean Valjean.

“Oh. Uh, no. No I haven’t. There’s a prison just down the street, you could-“

I was rudely interrupted by another man walking in from another room. Upon seeing my other guest, he mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “merde.

A fire lit in Javert’s eyes but before he could speak, I jumped in. “Gentlemen, while I have you here, I need some advice. I’m supposed to be writing a story, a metafictional story, but I don’t know what to write about…” I trailed off and hoped that the ellipsis implied the question.

Looking me straight in the eyes, Javert said “all stories end when justice is served. Write about a wrong that is righted.”

“Compassion for fellow man is more important; if we show compassion we are being just,” sermonized Valjean, although probably more to his cohort than to me.

Javert snorted, “Compassion is what the meek call weakness. It is far nobler –“

“Okay! Okay! Thank you, that’s enough,” I sighed. This was no more helpful than the doodles I’d been drawing. Maybe less helpful.

“You could write about me. I’m always popular.”

Death leaned her scythe against the wall and stepped between the pair of men. “Although isn’t every story about me, in a way?” She smiled sweetly at Javert, who seemed unnerved.

“Death is the noblest act of all, if it is done in sacrifice!” proclaimed Sydney Carton, who was now lying on my couch.

I mused for a moment. “But what do I know about death? Even as a teenager I never gave it much thought, except in horror stories. Obviously I’ve never actually died, or even come close, and I find the whole subject kind of depressing to be honest.”

Death smiled again, this time at me. I could see why that had made Javert so uncomfortable. “No one knows anything about me, honey, that’s why they talk about me so much. I’m life’s greatest mystery.” She stretched out her arms as if to say ta-da!

I swallowed. This conversation was not going in the direction I had hoped. “Well, I’ve never liked mysteries very much, and I’m not philosophy student.” I snickered awkwardly, but was cut short by a trumpet flourish. A balding man stepped down from his lion-drawn cart and held up his hand, as if to silence the room. No one was talking anyway, so he just stood there for a minute, establishing a more sombre atmosphere, I suppose.

“The great battles of history are forever a dignified subject for writing,” Caesar announced grandly. “I’ve written volumes about my experiences in Gaul which are still read today. The truth will endure longer than any fantasy you can concoct. For –“

“HEY!” I shouted. Valjean had been eying my fresh Bavarian multigrain bread, but gave me a look of feigned innocence when I jumped out of my chair. Now that Valjean knew I was watching him, I turned back to my laptop, where a striped cat was stretched across my keyboard.

The Cat grinned, “but what is real, really? Is your real really more real than mine? Or theirs? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

I didn’t really have a response to that one. I was still mulling it over as the Cat disappeared when I felt a cold hand on my shoulder. “He was correct, you know,” said a thickly-accented voice. I turned to face glinting fangs and black hair in a widow’s peak.  “Human lives are nothing more than compilations of imperfect memories, coloured by bias and emotion. History is written by the winners, as they say.”

Gesturing to Caesar, who was already in a snit at having been interrupted, I agreed with the Count. “Scholars’re constantly arguing over history anyway, finding new angles and arguments for who won or lost, who was lying, what they didn’t tell us…”

Dracula chuckled. “You do the same in your own mortal life. You edit your own experiences through a lens of emotion. You hold onto the things you wish and discard the rest. My story was committed to paper, and is more real to the masses than you are. In the minds of the masses, I truly shall live forever!”

I raised an eyebrow. “Until another author comes along and rewrites your story. The Dracula of the public unconscious is as-played-by Bela Lugosi, not Stoker’s version. And don’t even get me started on him.” I pointed at Frankenstein’s creature, who had shoved Carton off my couch, where he was now languishing dramatically.

“Woe is me,” he wailed, “my story has been re-written more times than I care to count! A man tempted by the bounds of human imagination, by the bounds of science and nature, is eternally tantalizing. In more than two hundred years, this fable has never become irrelevant or untrue. You constantly test the limits of human ingenuity, and feel obsession, madness, longing, and loneliness along with us.” Through this whole speech, he gesticulated wildly with increasing fervor. “For our tale speaks to the very core of human nature, something I profess to know little about, for I am a wretched, loathsome monster. My hideousness is kept vital forever by thrill-seekers unable to look away, and every time I curse myself and my creator anew –“

“YES, okay, thank you.” I had to stop him there. If I hadn’t, I’d have been forced to add another ten pages to this story.

Elizabeth Bennett stepped with care over muck left by Caesar’s horses. “Whatever you write, it should include a woman who knows her own mind. There are few enough of those nowadays,” she said coolly.

“Oh they can be found, if one knows where to look,” declared Dorian Gray with a rakish grin. He slid a questing hand toward the small of Elizabeth’s back. She slapped him.

“A mystery is the most satisfying of all tales, mademoiselle,” smiled Hercule Poirot. “It provides stimulation for the little grey cells, n’est-ce pas?”

“And It must have plenty of food and plenty of songs,” added Bilbo Baggins, before joining Valjean around my pantry.

“That’s enough!” I all but screamed. The room had long-since descended into a noisy mess, my control unravelling along with it. I took a deep breath and tried to calm the cacophony of voices surrounding me.

I managed to quiet the voices down to one. “I think I may be able to help,” said the Bard. “Take a collection of stories the public knows well, and write them in a way that will transcend time and place. If your story speaks to the human condition, as said the Creature, it will be lauded by the masses.”

“That’s easy for you to say! I’m not trying to write the next Hamlet here! And what help are you anyway? Some people don’t even think you wrote your plays! You’re not helping me at all!” I leapt up, my frustration reaching its peak. I looked around the faces in the room and shouted “NONE OF WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS HELPING!”

“Then make us say something different,” said Shakespeare gently.

Yet again, I had nothing to say. I closed my eyes, but I could feel the crowd slowly fade away. Shakespeare did have a point; my culture-obsessed mind is a permanent jumble of everything I’ve ever read or seen or heard.  Rather than try to ignore or sort through this mess of influences, maybe I’d be better off working with them. Maybe acknowledging my literary predecessors would be the best approach. I took another calming breath and turned again to face my desk.

I sat down to write my story.

This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 488, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 31, 2012.

A Lesson in Satire

You may have heard by now about Matt Forney’s “humour” piece entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away With It.” Trigger warning: this piece ‘jokingly’ condones rape and describes it in vivid terms. EDIT: A mere 2 hours after I wrote this piece, the original article is down, but I think you can get an idea of its content based on the title alone. He did however post this hilariously insincere apology, which is almost as good. In response to backlash this caused, Forney has informed we “pansies” who were offended that his piece is satire.

But is it?

I am increasingly seeing satire being held up as a shield for comedians to hide behind when offensive aspects their work are challenged. They claim that readers are taking their works too seriously, as they are meant to be light-hearted. Many writers seem to believe that satire is an excuse to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or crude, but that isn’t quite right. Let’s look at some technical definitions of satire:

A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon.  – The Oxford English Dictionary

That’s good, but a little general. Let’s get a bit more specific:

A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions.  Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. – The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms

I especially like the second definition, which notes that satire often isn’t funny at all, but is intended to bring about a new way of thinking in its readers, if not actual social change. Satire originated in ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the most famous pieces of Western satire (and one of my favourites) is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he explains that the solution to 18th century Ireland’s struggles with the British would be solved if the poor Irish sold their babies to be eaten by the rich. As he says, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Swift goes on to describe the various ways babies can be prepared and served, and what can be done with various parts of the body. It’s kind of funny; a reader might laugh from shock or at his creativity concerning some of the baby-dishes (the only aspect of satire that some modern comedians seem to understand). However, it is clear from the beginning that his piece is intended to be a condemnation of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the working classes. Swift’s horrible comments have a clear purpose: to bring about a new way of looking at the rampant poverty in Ireland, hopefully leading to real social change.

Stephen Colbert is an excellent modern satirist. He can push the envelope himself, but it is always clear that he is meaning to display how dangerous the ideals his character holds can be, and is not advocating them. The Daily Show often does similar things with its correspondent sequences. The reporters will take on a stance of agreeing with the people they interview, but with the eventual intention of revealing their views as being ridiculous and even harmful.

Although it doesn’t have to be, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate, as did many from Horace to Alexander Pope to The Simpsons before them, that satire can be very funny. Humour can be an accessible and entertaining way to deflate a subject, whether individuals, institutions, or society in general. But this is the most important point – the aim of satire is always to reveal hypocrisy, vice, and other wrongdoing or wrong thinking. Tackling taboo subjects is not foreign to satire, as Swift’s piece demonstrates, but simply saying something offensive is not, in itself, satire. One must have the intention of changing the way that the reader sees the subject at hand, or forcing them to recognize the ridiculousness of the target subject.

Technical definitions aside, I’m not even sure I understand the joke of pieces like Forney’s. He is just saying horrible things for the sake of controversy, hoping to shock readers into laughing. That isn’t comedy – that’s laziness. Anyone can imagine horrible things to do to dead babies, but it takes a creative mind to turn that into biting social commentary. Satire is meant to change the target’s (and often the audience’s) way of thinking, and humour should make the reader laugh because of some kind of unexpected or appreciated connection or punch line. You don’t necessarily need humour to make satire, nor do you absolutely need to make controversial comments along the way. It is possible to use humour and take a satirically-straight tactic on controversial issues if you successfully open a door to conversation about the issue and if you make clear that you don’t condone the views you are pretending to hold, but that is difficult and is rarely accomplished well.

A good general tip: if you can’t identify a target or way of thinking that you’re trying to change or bring down, your piece isn’t satire. If your focus is on a group or person who is already hurt by society the way it is – such as, say, rape victims – rather than the person or group who is doing the attacking, you’re doing satire wrong. If you’re not trying to change anything and are trying to offend people for a cheap laugh, you’re probably just an asshole.

The Importance of Storytelling

As a pop culture junkie, I tend to get very invested in the books I read, the TV shows I follow, and the movies I watch. When I find a story that I really like, I spend more of my time than I probably should thinking about it, talking about it, and analyzing it. With that much thought tends to come an emotional attachment, so when I finish particularly long series, I tend to spend the rest of the day in a… let’s call it Reader’s Melancholy. I’m sad to have to leave characters once I’ve been through so much with them. Sure, I can re-read or re-watch, but I’m sure everyone can agree that nothing is the same the second time through.

It’s not only the length of the story that brings this on though; stakes are equally, if not more important. You need to go through serious ups and downs with the characters, have gained and lost with them. So it’s not by virtue of being long that. Even finishing Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities I felt something similar. Maybe it’s just being at the close of the characters’ journey. Finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic series prompted my writing this post, because I was genuinely sad to leave those characters and that world, even if I wasn’t completely enthralled for every single moment of the series. I’ve read and loved other longer series, but this one was, well, ‘epic,’ in all senses of the term. There were incredible stakes for both the characters and the rest of the world. Another series to which it is often compared, Fables, is also amazing, but I sort of created my own ending for that one. The main story wrapped up after 100+ issues, and the characters had lost very little, all things considered. I love the series, but I don’t know if I want to read more of it, since it seems like it should be over, and that not much was lost, despite a huge war. Many super hero comics and fantasy/sci fi shows have similar problems; death loses some potency when characters can come back to life. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example,featured some permanent deaths, but they were the exceptions to the general rule. I like to pretend that the comics don’t exist (and, to some degree, neither does season 5 of Angel) to make the ending of Buffy seem more permanent and powerful. Finishing that series the first time, I cried in the final scene simply because it was done. There was no more, and my overwhelming thought was “what now?” It was hard to leave Buffy and her friends behind, but I also felt like I had to. Their story in Sunnydale was done, and even if they are still having adventures in comics, I feel like I’m not a part of them anymore. I was a silent but heavily empathetic spectator of seven years of their lives, and somehow, it feels to me like my journey with them is complete. The story they were telling, the story I was a part of, is done. I stopped watching Being Human after series 3 for similar reasons.

Think about the ending of The Lord of the Rings. Would anyone really be interested in a sequel about Frodo’s and Bilbo’s adventures over the sea? Or Sam’s quiet family life, for that matter? We were with them when they saved Middle Earth, but that tale is done, and so is our part in it. We know that they’ll go on to live their lives (and via appendices can get quite a bit of information about those lives), but to keep reading would seem… wrong. Like selling out, almost. I can imagine that Harry Potter fans would feel the same way. A good ending closes the story, but lets you know that the world will keep turning whether you’re there or not (unless you’re reading Cat’s Cradle or similarly apocalyptic fiction).

So what is the point of this? Do I just get too invested in fiction? Am I just a crazy fangirl for crying everywhere for the simple reason that Les Misérables or King’s Dark Tower series ended? Well, I think that this Reader’s Melancholy (or Watcher’s Melancholy, as the case may be) is a testament to the importance of storytelling. We like to feel connected to other people, even if those people are fictional. You can get inside the mind of a fictional character in a way you never can with another person. You can see these characters at the best and at their most vulnerable. And we connect with real people through mutual love of stories; when meeting someone for the first time, once you get past the requisite questions about work and family, movies and TV, sometimes books ultimately come into the conversation. We bond with our friends and family over the shared experience of watching fiction together. Once you’ve seen Darth Vader announce that he is Luke’s father, waited for Hamlet to just make up his damn mind, or watched Jack sink into the ocean and wondered why Rose couldn’t just shift over a little bit, you now share that experience with Luke, or Hamlet, or Rose, and with every other person who has shared that experience too. Not to mention stories that transcend time and culture, or at least borrow from earlier stories. The legends we have today about King Arthur were being changed and molded and re-appropriated all over Europe for hundreds of years before they got to the versions we know today and we’re still changing them! There’s something king of magical about the thought that the stories and characters in shows we’re watching today – like BBC’s Merlin or historical dramas like The Borgias, Spartacus, and HBO’s Rome – were exciting audiences hundreds or thousands of years ago. Sometimes, even more than that, where ancient stories and mythologies are involved; who isn’t somewhat intrigued by the stories from the Odyssey or the Aeneid ­even if we aren’t reading them in verse? Stories become ingrained in our cultural minds; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world (and probably beyond) who has never heard “to be or not to be,” or who wouldn’t understand that something is unnatural if it features the “Franken” prefix. Characters from literature and myth live longer and burn brighter than do most historical figures.

Besides, it must be boring to live in the real world all the time. Or, as Shirley Jackson states, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Daydreaming, making up our own stories and engaging with others’, keep us sane. Stories let us bond with other people, but also let us escape inside ourselves from the stresses and monotony of every day life. You can learn about yourself and about other people, feel less alone, even pretend to be someone else through stories. And there are so many different kinds of stories out there in different mediums, there’s something for everyone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that I need to get out more and spend less time reading or watching movies. I’m not denying that I probably do spend too much time immersed in the fictional, but I can’t really say I regret it. I’ve read stories that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and I can connect them to stories and real life today. Through them, I feel connected not only to the characters about which I’m reading, but to the other people reading the stories – living or dead. I like to escape from everyday tedium, even if just to read about someone else’s. My life is enriched by all of the stories I’ve heard or read or seen, and through them, I’ve learned much about myself and about humanity in general. Stories help us interpret ourselves, each other, and the world around us, and I think that life would be less interesting and less rich without them.

Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
– Neil Gaiman,
The Sandman: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reading Paris by Reading Les Miserables

For one of my classes, while I was in Paris (for class, no big deal), I had to do a walk based on anything I wanted, and “read” the city, then write an essay about my walk. I’m not really sure what I concluded, but here’s my essay. This the kind of stuff I’ve been doing, preventing me from writing a proper blog post about Paris. Sorry.

Paris, like any old city, has a long memory; one that is conserved in its streets, its culture, its historical buildings, and in the minds of Parisians and tourists alike. For those of us outside, Paris is a fairytale land, a city where one might be inspired to write a poem or create a painting, debate philosophy in a cafe, or fall in love with a stranger.  The romanticization of Paris is largely maintained by media and art, and few if any cities are constructed to the same degree or with such variety of forms as is Paris. Most of my conceptions of Paris are informed by literature, especially the works of Victor Hugo. In Notre Dame, I could not help but imagine Quasimodo scurrying over the roof or along the corridors. However, walking through Paris at large, I could not escape visions of Hugo’s most famous work, Les Misérables. Seeing significant spots from the novel, especially those seen by Javert on the final night of his life, I pondered over the ghosts of Paris’ past, the real and the fictional, and how they are (or sometimes are not) still present in the modern city.

Before leaving, I found a list of Hugo’s most significant surviving locations in Paris. The city has changed much since the time of the novel’s writing, and had changed between then and its setting. Hugo would have been writing about pre-Haussmann Paris while living amidst the new modern buildings, so even he was writing about ghosts of a city that had dramatically moved on. Using the list of settings and a map of Paris in 1832, I created a walking route for myself, using as much as possible streets that existed in pre-Haussmann Paris.

I began at the site of the students’ barricade near Rue St-Denis, which today seems an unlikely spot for an attempted revolution. The actual location is a simple, unmarked alleyway made up of garbage bins and back entrances to surrounding stores. Coming out of the alley, I was accosted by sounds and sights and smells I associate with most cities – stores, crowds, and neon lights, especially garish as it was just after sunset. The stores on rue St-Denis were not those of the Champs-Elysees, but mainly dealt in sex and items that likely fell off the back of a truck. I was somewhat unsure how to react to such an unexpected collection, as they seemed such a far cry from the city I was expecting. I knew that the city would have changed, but I was not expecting it to be so kitschy. My confusion was exacerbated by the sight of the St Denis church, ignored amidst the glaring, glowing, modern chaos around it. The church clearly predated Hugo’s time and was a piece of valuable history that was being completely ignored. The juxtaposition of the old and new is present everywhere in Paris, more so than in many other cities I’ve visited, except perhaps London. Uncomfortably, I saw police officers hurrying past me as I stood pensively in front of the Church, so I headed toward the home of Marius Pontmercy’s grandfather. The street itself is unspectacular now, but the streets I used to get there were magnificent. Walking down Rue des Gravilliers was one of the highlights of my time in Paris; the street is still tight and winding, barely wide enough to admit traffic, so people strolled unabashedly down the middle of the road. It is not a popular tourist area, and I felt like an obvious outsider. The Parisians moved leisurely but purposefully, paying no mind to the history surrounding them, while I paused in front of nearly every building, marvelling at the late Victorian architecture. Small second-hand shops and take-away restaurants made up most of the stores on the street level, but beautiful old architecture was still obvious in the apartments above, with ornately carved iron fences in front of most of the windows. Converted gas lamps hung over the street, lighting it in pools of yellow.

The forgotten or ignored history of Paris was ever present on my walk. Parts of Paris are proud of the heritage, like the Louvre and Notre Dame, and they work hard to conserve it for the tourists. The booths of books and paintings along the Seine in some areas are clearly there for visitors, and even the image of Paris as a city of fashion is in some ways exaggerated for tourists. Paris, like any city, is less interesting to those who live there, and I wondered how they saw their own city. I was able to feel the way Hugo felt toward aspects of the city in his novels, but his city and modern Paris are a far cry from one another. Hints of it are still present, as in the rustic hanging lamps, but in some areas, like the area surrounding the church of St-Denis, it seems to have mostly disappeared.

As I mused on this, I realized that my walk was taking longer than I had anticipated, so I gained some speed on the way to Jean Valjean’s final home. I continued down the older streets and passed a few poorly maintained historical sites, which I could only identify by tiny, dirty plaques denoting them as such. Hugo was very particular about how he represented his city, using existing locations and describing them in detail. However, Valjean’s house at 7 Rue L’ Homme Armé does not exist, and never did, according to the map of Paris in 1832. I had included in my map the street’s probable existing equivalent, but meant to just look briefly and move on. However, when I glanced down Rue Pecquay from rue Rambuteau, I saw Valjean’s house as it was in my imagination. It was unspectacular, a town house in a row of many without any distinguishing characteristics. Yet looking at the second-storey window of this house, I knew that it was the one. In typical Parisian fashion, an intimate couple occupied the street-level doorway of the house next door (which now holds an art gallery), so I waited until they left to inch closer. I could vividly imagine Javert walking dejectedly down the narrow street, which was still largely untainted by trappings of modernity. When the couple returned inside, I walked up to the house and realized that I was standing, appropriately, in front of number seven. The number plaque was too small to read from the other end of the street where I had started, and I wondered briefly if I was in touch with some kind of deeply-buried Parisian memory. I have no way of verifying whether or not this was the home that Hugo was thinking of when he wrote the novel, but for me, it was getting in touch with an entirely fictional world. Paris does then hold onto memories, but people need to unearth and interpret them. To anyone else, this was an ordinary townhouse, but to me it was both my imagination come to life, and a portal into the past.

I moved quickly through the more tourist-cluttered areas to get to the spot, near Pont Notre Dame, where Javert plummeted into the Seine. In my hurry, I got lost, and I never made it to the exact spot, but I did get to look out onto the Seine at night, and try to image what it would have looked like in the 1830’s. The light of the city reflecting in the Seine looked peaceful, like an impressionist painting, and I could imagine why it would seem appealing to someone experiencing extreme mental turmoil. With that thought, my tour was concluded.

Perhaps tourists can unearth Paris’ memories because they seek them out more than Parisians do. Our own ideas and preconceptions about a city do influence our reading of it, and a person living in a city is less likely to think what it means to them beyond home. The definition or conception of a city is made up of a plethora of factors, all of them experiential, so cannot be defined by the experiences of one person. Hugo’s Paris is still there, and it may be well-hidden by cheap stores and fashion districts, but those things comprise simply one aspect of Paris. Like a person, or indeed, a work of literature, many facets make up “Paris;” it is an experience more than it is a geographical location. So, perhaps a painting of Paris through a novel, especially one as varied and complex as Les Misérables, is not inaccurate. It is incomplete, certainly, but no one description can ever be said to represent the whole of the phantasmagoria that is Paris.

 

Vampires

A Defence of Horror

Horror is an often dismissed genre of storytelling. Most scholars see all horror as schlocky and below the respectable dramatic genre. While I admit, there are some bad horror films out there, there are lots of bad dramas too. Have you seen Seven Pounds?

Despite its status as “low” art, horror is perpetually one of the most popular genres. In America, popularity of horror films has tended to spike in time of financial recession – just look at the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, and the slashers in the ‘80s. We’ve seen it recently too, with the success of films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. While it seems like people would want happy, escapist films in times of uncertainty, evidently audiences would rather see their fears reflected in film. If the lovers can escape from the Frankenstein monster, then we can make it through financial hardship. For the same reason, horror films represent the times in which they are made better than any other genre. The eerie moods of ‘30s monster movies reflected the uncertainty many were experiencing, and their monsters were easier to identify and defeat than the stock market. In the ‘50s, horror films often overlapped with science fiction, reflecting the Cold War and fears concerning nuclear warfare. Horror’s popularity is maintained because the stories so strongly reflect their times.

Another reason for horror’s enduring popularity is its appeal to our baser emotions – the ones we don’t like to talk about. Dramas manipulate our emotions just as much, but they tend to play to our more “appropriate” feelings, like sympathy or hope. There is nothing wrong with this of course, I love a feel good as much as the next gal, but I would argue that feeling fear in empathy with fictional characters is just as important, healthy, and fun as feeling happiness. At the heart of most horror films is a basic human fear, such as fear of the unknown (are ghosts/zombies/etc real? Where is the killer hiding now?), isolation (in space/the middle of nowhere no one can hear you scream, you’re being chased and you can’t call anyone for help), or repression (now that I’m a vampire/werewolf/Mr Hyde I can’t control my carnal desires, this murderer seems obsessed with people having sex). Many horror films also manipulate more specific fears, like ghosts or sharks, and the best create them, like showers or chainsaw-wielding madmen in hockey masks.

So why would we want our fears manipulated? Don’t we try daily to mask or overcome our fears? Well, that’s like asking why we watch sad movies: it’s cathartic. For those of you who don’t remember high school English class, catharsis in this case is essentially a purging of feelings, which leaves you feeling lighter. After having a good cry over a favourite character’s death, we may feel some lingering sadness, but we can come back to the real world and feel somewhat lighter emotionally. Horror works on the same principle, only with fear. Being frightened gets your adrenaline rushing, your heart pumping, and puts the hairs on the back of your neck on end. This is called “horripilation,” and it is just as cathartic as that cry. A good “poppy-outty scare,” as my housemates call it (or startle scares, as we called them when I worked at a horror themed amusement park attraction, which I will get to later) will cause a burst of adrenaline, which is often very effective. I however prefer an “atmosphere” scare, which builds tension through events or mood. My favourite example, and one that never ceases to terrify me, is in The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but you may want to skip ahead if you’ve never seen the movie. The infamous night-vision goggle scene makes me poo my pants in fear every time I see it. This is a good example of fear of the unknown: the dark is the ultimate symbol of the unknown, and you can see the pure terror on Clarice’s face while she tries to navigate the pitch black and unfamiliar basement. The audience is unsure at this point who is about to die, but you know it has to be one of them – and the tension elicits an intensely visceral response from me.

This visceral reaction is one of the reasons that so many horror films involve sexual repression or perversion. Fear and lust are probably the most carnal and physical responses a person can experience – being overcome with happiness isn’t quite the same as being overcome with terror. This is also why horror is one of the most heavily censored genres – it loves social taboos. Now, I am not criticizing this in all cases, only in films which seem to believe that shock is the same thing as horror. Stephen King, a favourite author of mine, said in Danse Macabre that he aims to terrorize readers, and that terror is the “finest emotion.” That all-encompassing, overwhelming fear is the goal of horror writer, and he has succeeded a few times, most notably in Pet Sematary – for me anyway. If he can’t do that, he’ll try to horrify us, which is closer to shock, but we’re still afraid for the character, or at the atrocity that something like that could happen. There is an element of a trainwreck here, where we can’t look away, because we’re getting a glimpse of chaos, which is exciting amidst our otherwise ordered lives. Finally, if neither horror nor terror can be achieved, King will “go for the gross-out,” for which he “is not proud.” I’m a big fan of older horror films, because they don’t show you everything, and try to scare you by building a mood and the graphic stuff often happens offscreen. These days, too many films think we’ll be scared because a character is sawing his own feet off or something. Gore, when used properly, can be very effective (see An American Werewolf in London for some marvellously handled gore), but on its own is not scary. Come on, I can see people’s insides on CSI or a medical drama; if you want to scare me, you’ll have to be more creative than that.

The best horror films are the ones that stick with you, and leave you mistrusting the darkness when you try to sleep. Some do it by making you wonder what sort of monsters could be lurking in the shadows; others, by exploring what my favourite high school teacher referred to as social taboos. Most of the most controversial horror films are so because of sexual content, although vivid torture is up there these days, and offense to religion/God was popular in days of yore. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (one of my absolute favourites) was one of the first American horror films to deal explicitly with sexual repression, and while Frederic March won an Oscar for the dual lead role, Miriam Hopkins’ role (as a woman of questionable morals) was so cut down that she didn’t have enough screen time to qualify for a Supporting Actress nod. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a great example of sexual perversion in horror cinema, but an even better (and more controversial) example is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out a month before Psycho and caused a much bigger stir. The main character is fascinated with fear, and films himself murdering women. He takes it a step further, placing a mirror on the top of his camera, so he can capture his victims’ terrified expressions as they watch themselves die. He watches the films later, clearly deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from it. The subject matter is disturbing on its own, made even worse by the voyeurism it turns on the viewer. Like following Norman Bates peeking through the hole in his office wall, watching a character watch himself commit murder puts the audience on the spot, as our act of watching is not too far removed from these “psychos.” We love to follow lurid and sensationalized murder stories on television; shows like CSI thrive on that, but don’t provide the opportunity for intelligent discussion the way that horror films do. We can analyze what scares us and how our fears reflect our values – and sometimes expose some “ordinary” behaviours which are maybe somewhat disturbing.

At this point, some of you may be backing away slowly, and making mental notes to avoid me from now on. Why, you are wondering, am I so excited by fear and perversion? Well, if everything thus far hasn’t been enough to convince you that enjoying horror is valid, I guess I can say that I also enjoy it because my love for horror developed in a time where a lot changed in my life, and I gained a lot of self-confidence. Until I was around 13 or 14, I was ridiculously over sensitive. I had different tastes than most people in my school, and as such, was teased. Nothing too harsh I’m sure, but I always felt that I needed to defend my love of musicals and dislike of soccer and other popular things. One of these popular things was watching horror movies at slumber parties. Do you remember attending these events, where there’d always be that one kid who always got terrified? Well, I was that kid. Once, my friends were watching Thirteen Ghosts (which in retrospect was a really stupid movie) and kept trying to force me to watch the really scary parts for laughs. I had to sleep with my parents for like two weeks. Anyway, a year later, I was hanging out with a different group of girls, and I requested that we not watch any too scary movies (I believe that The Ring was on the table), and we ended up watching a movie I was really into at the time, The Mothman Prophecies. Despite how easily frightened I was, I had this fascination for anything supernatural, and that one was reportedly based on true stories, so I watched it over and over through my fingers. But since I had already seen it, I ended up being the one who lightens the mood, making jokes and keeping the lights on. I ended up keeping that role for every (now forgotten) horror movie I watched with those girls. The next year, I watched The Shining at Halloween with a new group of friends, and I absolutely loved it. This time, we were all too engrossed in the movie for anyone to be joking, but no one seemed unreasonably afraid or upset either. It took me until I was 14, but I realized something – being scared can be fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes along with the fear and adrenaline, and I liked it. I read the novel of The Shining, fell in love with Stephen King, and a horror buff was born.

I now watch horror movies whenever I can; I’ve read books on them, and while I probably know more than your average cinema-goer, I don’t pretend to be a huge expert. There are still so many I haven’t seen – my list of must-sees never seems to shrink. When I was 16, I worked at a Halloween attraction at a theme park, where I basically put on a silly rubber mask and tried to scare people all night. That experience further enforced my earlier realization that fear is fun. There were consistently people trying to show their friends how unafraid they were, usually by making fun of the employees, and I always wondered why they would bother paying to come. The same goes for the horror movies – unless you’re a kid at a sleepover trying to help your friend sleep, why bother sitting through a movie refusing to let it affect you? People like being scared, that’s the biggest reason that horror is so popular – if you don’t want to be scared, avoid the genre. If you want that thrill where your heart leaps into your throat, shivers creep up your spine, and you find yourself wondering if that really was your reflection in the window, then relish it, and surrender to your fear for a while.

But maybe you should make sure that your night-light works first.