From the Mind of Mikel

A University of Worcester Film Studies Blog

Archive for the category “Horror Movies”

Nine Lives of “The Black Cat”

It has been awhile since I last posted on this blog. Not that I’ve been research inactive or anything like that. It’s just the work I’ve been doing has been for publication rather than the blog-verse. So I thought I’d upload a couple of the essays I’ve written in the past few years that were published in the booklets included in Blu-ray packages. Of course, I’ll always give credit to where these essays first appeared.

Black CatsThis essay was produced for Arrow’s special package, Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci; this special edition appears to no longer be available via the Arrow webpage, but at the time of writing it is available via Amazon here.  Where ever possible, I will link to the producing company’s webpage, but reference to any other films will link to Amazon. Here’s the essay…

Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Il gatto nero, 1981) has been unfairly maligned, even by Fulci MV5BODMxNzQxMjMtMjdlMS00NDQwLWE0N2YtMzFmYmEyMzA1NWMyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_fans, as “a minor work” (whatever that means). The film emerges in a period of tremendous success for Il Maestro: Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980), The House by the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto cimitero, 1981), and The Beyond (L’aldilà … E tu vivrai nel terrore!, 1981) all appear in the same period as The Black Cat. Actually The Black Cat was the first of Fulci’s films to receive Italian release in 1981 [the order of Italian release in 1981 goes Cat, The Beyond, and then House]. What may have hindered The Black Cat’s reception by fans is that, even in this period of the director’s most loved films, Fulci holds back on the excessive gore, in favour of suspense and comedy. With a little gore.

But here, in this essay, I want to explore how Fulci’s The Black Cat is situated among other film (and one television) adaptations of Poe’s original story; from mainstream Hollywood to the American underground, from the Cartesian logic of the giallo to superstitions about the supernatural, and finally to American cable television.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_cropEdgar Allan Poe first published his short story, “The Black Cat” in The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1843. In the story, recounted in the first person, the narrator tells the tale of his torture and murder of his wife’s beloved cat. And, over the next few paragraphs, I want to explore how this particular story has inspired filmmakers, and in the variety of ways that inspiration has been shown cinematographically.

There are several key motifs – story points – in “The Black Cat,” which filmmakers have drawn upon, modified or ignored outright over the years.  These include, the cat (obviously), who is sometimes named (and sometimes not); Poe names him Pluto (after the Roman god of the Underworld), evoking a hellish association for the kitty. The unnamed alcoholic narrator of the story mutilates Pluto by carving out one of his eyes with a penknife, and then hangs the cat by his neck. A fire usually breaks out which destroys the protagonist’s home, and in the charred remains, a scorch-mark remains which looks like the lynched cat. The cat comes back the very next day with a white mark on his neck; Poe likens it to an image of the gallows. Pluto continues to terrorize the now-delirious narrator until he can take it no longer and in attempting to murder the cat accidentally buries an axe in his wife’s head. In order to cover up his crime, he inters his wife’s corpse behind a newly fashioned wall in his cellar and congratulates himself on the perfect crime. When the police come to investigate, they are drawn down to the cellar by the sound of a cat’s meows; and behind the still-fresh wall, the wife’s body is discovered along with the cat which was accidentally trapped inside. The narrator is then usually dragged out by the police raving like the mad-thing he has become.

When The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) was released, Universal Pictures was on a bit Black_cat_poster.jpegof a winning streak after Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1933). In their search to expand their monster movie cache, producers turned to American-born Poe as a potential source for horror movie entertainment. The first of these was also the first on-screen teaming up of Dracula star Bela Lugosi with Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. The opening credits of The Black Cat (1934) note that the film is “suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (emphasis added), and with the exception of the film’s title, Ulmer’s film avails itself to none of the story motifs from the Poe original. The vaguest connection to justify the use of the title is that Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) suffers from ailurophobia, the fear of cats, and his nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), keeps a black one. Universal pictures revived the title again in 1941 with even less of a connection to Poe (although Lugosi appears in a small role, thereby connecting the film to the 1934 Black Cat instead). What these two Universal Pictures productions demonstrates is an awareness of “Edgar Allan Poe” as a reference to dark, ghoulish and frightening (and American) tales, even if it was unlikely that audiences knew enough about Poe’s original story to balk at the liberties the film takes. “Poe” exists as an idea, an association with horror literature, well beyond the actual writer’s fame.

Strangely enough, the year Ulmer’s The Black Cat was released, so was Dwain Esper’s way-over-the-top Maniac (1934), which according to the Internet Movie Database 51Eoxfq8cqL._RI_SX200_( cost about $5000 to produce. Maniac uses much more of the Poe story than some of the films which cite “The Black Cat” as its source.  In Maniac, washed up impersonator Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) works for the insane Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) on his experiments for bringing the dead back to life. Maxwell kills Meirschultz and takes over the doctor’s experiments, passing himself off as his now-dead employer. Back in the day, most homes had a cat to catch mice (hence any Tom & Jerry cartoon), and Meirschultz has a black cat named Satan. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the now-insane Maxwell (still posing as Meirschultz) pops out one of Satan’s eyes and eats the eyeball, in what is the first on-screen depiction of that particular motif from Poe’s original story. And true to form, Maxwell walls Meirschultz up in the cellar, accidently traps the cat, and the cat’s meows alert the police to the location of the body, as one would expect. Maniac is surprisingly faithful to the Poe original. Elsewhere in the film, one of Meirschultz’s patients, Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller – but not that Phyllis Diller, the American comic), compares her husband’s mania with the orangutan in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). It is an incidental moment in the film, but it name-drops Poe explicitly, and demonstrates that Esper and his screenwriter-wife Hildegarde Stadie have actually read Poe, unlike anyone at Universal Pictures.

Continuing his Poe-inspired series of films, Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) 61LK7WTOlIL._SX342_features a screenplay from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson. Tales of Terror adapts three(ish) Poe tales – “Morella” (1835), “The Black Cat” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) – and it is the middle section which concerns us here. Matheson fuses “Black Cat” with another Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). In the Tales of Terror version, Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) is the drunk and abusive husband of the lovely Annabel (Joyce Jameson); and she has a cat which Montresor loathes.  While out on the tear one evening, Herringbone comes across a wine-tasting event and there meets Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price).  Herringbone brings Luchresi home with him and introduces his new friend to Annabel. Luchresi and Annabel begin an affair behind Herringbone’s back.  By the time the drunkard figures out why Luchresi is so happy to send Herringbone out for his drunken escapades, fully paid for by Luchresi, it is too late to save his marriage. Herringbone kills Annabel, and walls Luchresi up with her body in the cellar. Again, cat is accidentally trapped and leads police to discovery of the bodies. While Matheson’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” certainly holds more fidelity to Poe’s original, although with much sanitized along the way, he draws comparisons between this story and “Amontillado”. In “Amontillado”, the narrator of the story is Montresor, while Fortunato and Luchresi are two different characters – rival wine experts. Matheson also blends Fortunato’s character into Montresor by making the narrator a drunken fool, “a motley” as Poe calls him. And like the unnamed wife in “The Black Cat”, Fortunato is also walled up in the wine cellar. Matheson also borrows from Poe a name for the wife, Annabel, taken from Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee”.  Herringbone, as a name, is Matheson’s own invention.

The exceptionally low-budget The Black Cat (Harold Hoffman, 1966), like Esper’s Maniac, black_cat_1966_poster_01is surprisingly faithful to the Poe story, unlike the grander Tales of Terror or Ulmer’s Black Cat.  Firstly, Pluto, the name of the titular cat, not only keeps fidelity to the original, but the cat is listed in the opening credits.  Celebrating their first anniversary, writer Lou (Robert Frost) is given Pluto as a present from his doting wife, Diana (Robyn Baker). In Poe’s original, the unnamed narrator claims to be a devoted animal lover (thereby creating juxtaposition with the alcoholic monster he becomes):  “I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets” (Poe “The Black Cat”).  Lou also is a devoted animal lover with his own menagerie, and Pluto fits right in. Hoffman keeps Poe’s transformative juxtaposition, from animal lover to animal torturer, including the nasty motif of cutting out one of Pluto’s eyes.  Returning home drunk one night, Lou hangs Pluto with a frayed electrical cord which sets the house on fire.  It turns out that Lou’s deceased father, who never had the family home insured, may have returned as Pluto the cat in order to drive Lou crazy. Lou is admitted to an asylum for several months where he is given electroshock therapy that clears away his delusions and returns him to mental health. When he is released from the hospital, Diane is there to pick him up and they drive off to their new beginning as the music crescendos lulling the audience into a false sense of closure. Once he is back home, Lou begins drinking again and returns to his paranoid and violent ways. An identical cat, complete with missing eye, begins hanging around his house, tormenting the man. True to form, Lou murders Diane accidentally with an axe and walls up the body in the cellar, with the cat. Hoffman has one last surprise for us; while the meowing cat draws the attention of the police who then discover the body, Lou escapes and drives away. As he is zooming away from the police, he sees one-eyed Pluto on the road and swerves to avoid it, only to fatally crash his car, losing his own right eye in the process. It’s a lovely ironic touch. While “The Black Cat” has always been a gruesome story, it appears that only the lowest budgeted shlock filmmakers – like Esper or Hoffman – are able to do justice to Poe’s story. By sanitizing the story, as Universal and American International Pictures (who produced Corman’s Poe films), that vitality is lost.

Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, Sergio Martino, 1972) is “loosely based on the short story” by Edgar e7457f98-bba0-4fa5-bc08-39c398c3ee0dAllan Poe (in Italian, “liberamente tratto dal racconto “Il gatto nero” di E. A. Poe” – “liberally” adapted).  Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a drunk brutish writer with “mama issues” living on his family’s estate. He frequently holds bacchanals with the local young hippies at his home, which enables his philandering, while also humiliating his long-suffering wife, Irini (Anita Strindberg). Mostly the Vice is a standard giallo, or Italian murder mystery film; several young women are found carved up by a sex maniac and suspicion falls on Olivieri as the prime suspect. Enter Olivieri’s niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech), who has grown in to a gorgeous woman since he last saw her, and who functions as a distraction for both Olivieri and Irini. Irini and Floriana are plotting to get their hands on Aunt Esther’s jewels; Irini plotting with her lover, Walter (Ivan Rassimov), to murder the young women and try and pin the crimes on Olivieri by hiding the bodies in the cellar of the villa.

In this version, the cat, here called Satan (echoing more the associations Poe intended with calling his cat Pluto than any suggestion of a connection with Esper’s Maniac), was Olivieri’s mother’s cat, and he dotes on it. Irini hates the cat and tries, repeatedly to get rid of it (the cat also has certain psychological interpretations as a replacement for Olivieri’s mother, whom Irini is trying to replace).  Continuing the parallel, Olivieri plays with Irini much like a cat plays with a mouse or bird before he kills it. Irini therefore takes her anger out on the cat as a surrogate, instead of lashing out at Olivier or his dead mother.  In one particularly brutal sequence, the neighbour, Mrs. Molinar (Nerina Montagnani) catches Irini trying to stab Satan with a pair of scissors.

By the end of the film, Irini murders Olivieri in a delirium mistaking drafts of his latest novel as an actual plot to kill her. She stashes his body, along with the other victims behind a make-shift wall she quickly plasters over. And poor Satan also gets trapped. The police are alerted by Mrs. Molinar on animal cruelty charges and when they come to investigate they discover where the bodies are stashed by Satan meowing.  Vice, while a “liberal” adaptation, manages to play with the narrative destabilizing the genre expectations of both the Poe story and the giallo by reversing the gender of victim and killer.

 Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Gatto nero, 1981) is not considered one of the maestro’s best d54f829b-fd68-477c-951f-3ca5df1090ecfilms, but it is still a solid film worthy of note. Again, the opening credits note that this is “freely adapted”, and bears little in common with Poe’s story. In an unnamed English village, a black cat seems to be stalking the villagers, murdering them with its powers of mesmerism. Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who seemingly “owns” the cat (one can never truly own a cat), is investigating the possibility of audio recording voices from beyond the grave. An American photographer, Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer), visiting the village becomes interested in Magee’s studies, while also seconded over to the local police as a crime photographer investigating a series of strange murders. From Poe’s story, Fulci includes the cat (here unnamed), the attempt by Miles to hang the cat, the fire which burns down one house and nearly destroys another, and the film’s dénouement with Jill standing in for the wife to be bricked up behind the wall and the tell-tale cat’s meows alerting the authorities. Beyond these few motifs, Fulci’s The Black Cat is much closer to a classic giallo with the cat as the chief suspect; even his paws are black, echoing the classic black gloved giallo killer. Fulci includes audacious “cat-cam” shots, subjective camera angles from the perspective of the cat itself, suggesting the killer point of view shots in so many gialli.

The connection between Professor Miles and the cat is made explicit in the film; somehow they are connected. They both share the powers of mesmerism, the ability to control other people’s minds. Fulci’s frequent editor, Vincenzo Tomassi, intercuts between close-ups of Miles’ eyes with an almost identical shot of the cat’s eyes; this editing pattern established (for us) the connection between the two. Miles describes them as “bound by hate;” certainly the cat seems to resent the link as he attacks Miles every chance he gets. The central question of the film is who is controlling the cat? Is it witchcraft, suggesting the belief that cats are witches’ familiars? Is the cat controlled by the spirits of the dead who resent Professor Miles disruption of their eternal rest? (Sgt Wilson (Al Cliver) suggests to Jill at the beginning of the film that the dead don’t like people interfering with them.) Is the cat just an embodiment of evil? Miles notes that “cats take orders from no one,” as if thereby explaining the kitty’s malevolence.  As in any good giallo, the mystery must not only reveal the solution, but also demonstrate that we’d been staring at it from the beginning, unable to realize its importance. In The Black Cat, we’ve been led to believe Professor Miles is a victim of the cat, but it is Miles’ powers of mesmerism that is controlling the cat. The cat’s vicious attacks on Miles occur when the link is broken and the cat can express its resentment at being controlled by Miles. The answer to the mystery had been staring us in the face from the beginning.

71vBuBgteRL._SL1139_I’ve always had a soft-spot for Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici, 1990), the portmanteau film that he and George Romero created based on two of Poe’s tales. Argento made a “Black Cat” as bonkers and over the top as he is; not the least of which are the numerous references made to other Poe stories.  Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a crime photographer who we first meet photographing the body of a naked woman cut apart by a pendulum-like device. Annabel (Madeleine Potter), Usher’s common-law girlfriend, finds and adopts a stray black cat. From the beginning, Usher and the cat do not get along, and their animosity towards each other is quite mutual. This version of the story is relatively conservative and (you’ll pardon the pun) by the book: Usher gets jealous of the cat, his drinking becomes out of control, he strangles the cat, he sees the image of a gallows in the white fur on the otherwise black cat’s neck and finally murders Annabel with a meat cleaver (instead of an axe) and hides the body behind a bookcase along with the cat. Argento adds (perhaps unnecessarily) that the cat was pregnant and the kittens have been feasting on Annabel’s dead body.

But when we take a closer look at Argento’s “The Black Cat” it becomes increasingly derivative. Any literary adaptation is going feature commonalities from one adaptation to another due to the shared source material; that’s logical enough. The remit of Two Evil Eyes is to adapt (and appropriately modernize) two Poe stories, and so we would expect to see strong narrative similarities. But it is the close resemblance of stylistic and textural aspects of the adaptations which concerns me, not their narrative correspondences.  Most of the “cool stuff” in Argento’s version has been plagiarized from other filmmakers, specifically Fulci’s The Black Cat. Both Usher and Jill Travers are crime photographers (and therefore give them logical – or at least plausible – access to the gory set pieces), and the use of cat-perspective subjective shots (“cat-cam”) is right out of Fulci’s film.  Giving the girlfriend the name Annabel is likely lifted from Tales of Terror, for in Poe’s story, you’ll recall, she, like the protagonist narrator, are unnamed. The case could also be made that, by refusing to give the cat a name in either Corman’s or Fulci’s film, Argento and co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini, don’t know what to call the beast and therefore construct a strange bit of business whereby Annabel says the cat whispers its name to her so Usher (and us) are left in ignorance. This suggests that, despite his publicly expressed adoration of Edgar Allan Poe, Dario Argento hasn’t actually read the stories themselves, and instead swotted up by watching Tales of Terror and Fulci’s Black Cat.

51UYtNVxUNLPerhaps the most inventive adaptation of “The Black Cat” was by Stuart Gordon for the Masters of Horror television series (ep 2.11, 2007). In this version, Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs) is struggling with making money from his writings while his young wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), slowly dies from tuberculosis. The episode suggests that “The Black Cat” is based on Poe’s own experiences with his wife’s cat, Pluto. We see the key motifs of the story included: Poe’s alcoholism, the cutting out of Pluto’s eye, the strangulation and lynching of the (black) cat, the burning down of the house, the accidental murder of Virginia with an axe, interment behind a wall, and the cat’s cries bringing the authorities. Even having these events happen to Poe reflects the first person narration of the story; the story’s “I” is Poe himself.

Beyond the narrative conceit of having Poe himself be the episode’s protagonist, Gordon’s “The Black Cat” is remarkably faithful to the historical accounts of Poe himself.  He was married to his younger cousin Virginia who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842, the year before “The Black Cat” was written. She died a few years later, and Poe was dead by the end of the decade.  He was an alcoholic who raged and fought against the popularity of his “tales of mystery and imagination” and really wanted to be paid for his poetry. Publisher George Graham, who did what he could for Poe’s self-destructive tendencies, also appears in the episode; as does Poe’s chief rival Rufus Griswold. The historically accurate grounding of the episode creates a “perfect storm” of chaos in Poe’s life which then matched the delirium of “The Black Cat’s” first person narrator; this enables us to slip into the story itself. It is a very clever episode.

So, what have we learned from this whistle stop tour of the various film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Black Cat”? Poe’s works were sufficiently known (if unread) that “Poe” became shorthand for the macabre and horrific. Due to the horror and violence in the original story, exploitation cinema, which could “get away with” more graphicness in their films, was better situated for faithful adaptations than (more) mainstream companies like Universal or AIP. The Italian filmmakers, not beholden to the same censorship regulations as American cinema, were able to take some of Poe’s ideas and play with them; exploring connections between different cultural understandings of the “cat” as symbol.  Finally, I think, what all of these adaptations suggest is that the original source material (any original source material) is but a template for filmmakers; and these adaptations of “The Black Cat” demonstrate the different ways that template can be imagined.

Returning once again to Lucio Fulci’s version, The Black Cat stands as not the worst adaptation of Poe. Actually, Fulci keeps to the spirit of the short story more so than either Universal Pictures or AIP do. And, as a “minor work”, the film featured sufficient innovation that Argento felt it was worth cribbing from for his own version.  To give Fulci his due, his Black Cat may be “minor”, but its effectiveness sneaks up on you, like Carl Sandberg’s Fog, “on little cat feet”.




On The Walking Dead: THAT Episode (probably spoilers)

Recently (actually yesterday and today), I’ve been in a Facebook argument with a friend (I hope he’s still a friend – maybe not so much now…) about the first episode of Season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead. He pissed me off by using the phrase “torture porn” and I went for the jugular. Overnight, he countered and this morning I wrote him a (very!) long reply. And I thought I’d share it with you (cause I thought parts of it had merit). Feel free to comment below.

To back up his points, my friend sent me two articles which backed up his position. I shall link to them now:


Sam Adams, “In its season premiere, The Walking Dead‘s brutal violence finally went to far” in Slate.

Melissa Leon, “The Walking Dead just isn’t fun anymore”in The Daily Beast

Here is what I wrote to him:

Let me say outright: I am not defending the show. I feel that episode moved into an area of discomfort for me that I wasn’t happy with. I have contemplated not watching it anymore, but, as a show I’ve enjoyed for six years so far, I’m not prepared to write it off based on one episode. But, and I think this is quite interesting in itself, the sequence which disgusted me wasn’t either of those sequences everybody is running around like Chicken Little decrying as “torture porn”.
“Torture porn” is NOT what many people think it is. Just because Melissa Leon says it is, does not make it so. Just because a blog like The Daily Beast says this is “torture porn” does not make it so either. It’s a journalistic shorthand (a sloppy shorthand at that) used indiscriminately to cover a wide range of cinematic and televisual offenses. I am not defending any so-called “torture porn” films. Nor am I defending this episode of TWD; I was deeply (and, to serve the ball back to you, spiritually) disturbed by certain cards the episode played.
You make a few assumptions here which need disabusing.
1. That if a source you trust, or a writer you trust, says something, it must, therefore, be truth writ large. I’d never suggest you don’t critically read an issue of Screen. Or Sight & Sound. Or even the great scholars, some of whom we both deeply respect. I was at a conference last year with Richard Dyer and he disagreed with me on a particular point; I in-turn disagreed with him on his interpretation of my point (perhaps, I just didn’t make it clear enough at the time). But no harm. No foul. This is what we do. We read critically. You do like your pantheon of unassailable authorities. Accepting something as true because it was in The Daily Beast does not prove your point, it merely points out what you’ve been reading. And that’s no disrespect to The Daily Beast. It does not claim to be the word of God. Nor should it be treated as such.
2. The articles you sent reveal deeply problematic assumptions about fan-culture. The assumption is that the authors (both authors in this case), as cultural gatekeepers, can read this episode better than the drooling hordes of cretins who watch this show baying for more blood. I find it odd that this particular canard is still circulating (but then again, “torture porn” is also such a canard). While I don’t doubt there are some people who may “get off” on these images, they are in such a minority as to be unworthy of consideration. I also know that you put me in their ranks, which is rather unkind, and speaks of an essentialist elitism that has always perplexed me coming from you. But that’s by the by. Read Matt Hills‘ work on Fan Cultures, and the distinction between Fan-Academics and Academic-Fans. The horror fans I’ve hung out with, and studied as a good quasi-anthropologist, do not get off on superficial images of carnage. In fact, most of them have a better and more well-rounded film education than either you or I. They can speak appreciatively of Chaplin or Welles as they can of Cronenberg or Romero. Their (mine as well) interests in the genre have to do with a wide assortment of concerns ranging from the social-political to the religious-spiritual. They are not going to “get off” on a guy getting his head based in with a barbed-wire baseball bat. Descend from the pulpit and talk to the parishioners. Don’t assume they’re too stupid or unsophisticated to understand what you’re saying.
3. I agree, there are lots of fans leaving the show, and as I said above, I may be one too (but we’ll see). This is not due to the gore-factor – the show has always been gruesome. It has to do with killing off one of the most likable characters and is a violation of the relationship one has with a television show. Since (almost) the beginning, there has been a warning from certain fans that if the show kills off Darryl, they walk. I’ve never really understood the affection for Darryl, but it’s there and I don’t judge. The gore factor may be what’s more easily expressed, but we, as cultural scholars of many ilks, cannot be grasping for any superficial straw to hang our emotions on. Like I said above, this is a canard, and we need to stop using them to justify our own-and-personal reactions to the series.
3. Aesthetically, yes, Nicotero overstepped his joyful glee at making more and more outlandish practical effects. It is what Stephen King calls the gross-out, or the “wanna-see-my-chewed-up-food” factor. And even King, who also readily admits to using this factor himself, admits that it’s not big and its not clever. It is juvenile, immature, and (under the right circumstance) fun. By “fun” I do not mean it is fun to imagine bludgeoning to death actor Steven Yuen, or to imagine such violence on a much loved character, or even on imagined empathy by the televisual audience. The fun is pushing the envelope. Of seeing how far you can go before someone (the responsible adult) reels you back in. And in a show like TWD, which is so successful, no one reeled Nicotero in. Maybe they should have. Maybe not. This is not up to me to decide or judge, beyond switching off if it offends.
4. What I found interesting in the episode, and for whatever reason neither Leon nor Adams really explore (perhaps it is too soon and too frightening to touch on), is that Tegan represents the new brutality sweeping the States. I’ve always been perplexed by the ideology of TWD (although I’ve not done close textual analysis on the series – and I know I should – so I recognize that my reading of the show is – at present – superficial). There seems to be a Republican variety solipsism to the show; that we can only trust our nearest and dearest, and assume everyone else out there is our enemy. Maybe it isn’t even GOP, but outright Libertarian in its politics. Like I said, much more textual analysis needs to be done on the show for any kind of distinct perspective to be ascertained. But that TWD may resist such such interpretation is also the point – exploitation cinema, like horror movies (and zombie movies in particular) play with a politics of ambivalence. They resist both liberal and conservative conclusions as totalities. NotLD is a great example: there are just as many arguments for the film’s progressiveness as to its conservatism. Although knowing, or reading about, George Romero’s politics kind of nips that in the bud. The point still stands: exploitation cinema plays with ideological ambivalence. And I’ve seen (again probably superficially) TWD doing the same thing. But “that episode” struck me as different: here we see a violent, psychotic demigod and his pack of drooling thugs destroying any chance of a meaningful dialogue between different factions. Rick may often have to shoot his way out of precarious situations, and you can’t reason with zombies, but under Tegan there is no room for discussion. His is a fascist way of life. A brutal dictatorship. (Although, at the end of the episode, when Rick and remaining company are released to collect goods for Tegan for his return in a few weeks, reminded me more of A Bug’s Life or Seven Samurai). Tegan’s brutality (and perhaps Nicotero’s excess in bringing that brutality out in the episode) is fully in keeping with the brutality I’m seeing in the American elections and on the streets of your cities.
What horror cinema can do at its best, is not to terrify or confound the emotions, but to turn its distorting mirror back on society and show you what you refuse to see for yourself: you may want to be Rick (and Darryl), but you’re quickly becoming Tegan.

Film Festivals as Spaces of Meaning: Researching Festival Audiences as Producers of Meaning

This is a paper I wrote a number of years ago. It appeared in Worcester Papers in English and Cultural Studies 6 (2008): 43-60.  I’m putting up here on the blog because I’m collating some readings for a module which looks at Film Festivals and I thought this would be a more accessible format for my students. I originally wrote this piece almost 10 years ago, so much more has been written on film festivals since; but the paradigms outlined haven’t developed, nor has the ethnographic study of film festivals. And maybe this piece, published on a blog, might generate a bit of discussion (which I always encourage).

MJK, 06-09-13


The “film festival” is a global phenomenon. According to Julian Stringer, there are over five hundred film festivals around the world in any given year (Stringer: 137). Some of these festivals are mammoth, star-studded gala events that are widely covered by the international press, like the Cannes film festival, while others like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn or The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, barely register on the global market. To experience either of these extremities, by attending or watching the media coverage of such events, is to experience two very different kinds of events; different in terms of status, wealth, visibility, but more importantly differently organized for very different purposes. This is not to suggest that Dead by Dawn should be more like Cannes, or Cannes like Dead by Dawn; I am not arguing for any single form of ideal festival form, but need to recognize, at the outset of this survey, that the term “film festival” is a generic term given to a variety of media events, and whose similarities are superficial. In order to understand what film festivals are, we need to go beyond the designated kind of event (film festival) and attempt to understand what the event itself actually is. I will propose, towards the conclusion of this paper, standard media, film and audience researches into film festivals do not begin to understand the film festival as an event in its own right.

This paper is designed as a critical survey of the existing literature on film festivals; not only to take stock of the work so far produced on this cultural phenomenon, but also to attempt to identify where that research has been found wanting. Finally I propose, if not a new methodology for studying film festivals, one which has not been utilized sufficiently, the ethnographic approach.


The Festival Report

The single most prevalent form of discourse around film festivals is the festival report; a journalistic “review” of a specific film festival, noting the significant films screened and hypothesizing what new trends in world cinema are thus observable. Robert Sklar, in a report on Cannes in 1999, succinctly summarizes not only what he sees as the critic’s job at a film festival, but furthermore lays down the critical template most festival reports follow:

… the critic’s most important task is to identify good films and do whatever can be done to help as many people as possible to see them. … My experience of Cannes after attending the festival for the past four years is that, year in and year out, there are always half a dozen or more films that merit the kind of critical support that can make a difference in their finding an audience (Sklar 1999: 27).

At a film festival, in a concentrated form, one can consume a significant amount of contemporary cinema in a relatively short space of time. This can lead to, what film critic David Sterritt refers to as “Festival Overload Syndrome” (FOS), where, deprived of any time to reflect and think about the films one has seen, festival films tend to blend into one another, and at best one can no longer tell what occurred in what film, while at worst one can no longer even stay awake (B9). Sterritt makes explicit the essentialness of risking FOS for the professional critic; as the role requires an extensive knowledge of the current developments within world cinema in order to comment on specific films (B9). But, and there is only anecdotal evidence to support this at the present, many festival audiences also overload on films at festival-time in order to experience films which in all likelihood, due to the corporate nature of cinema exhibition, they will never get the opportunity to see again. (Sterritt also notes this: B9). Therefore, like the professional critic, many film festival audience members attempt to recast themselves as experts within World Cinema by glutting themselves on films that in all likelihood, this will be the singular opportunity to view. This desire for the obscure, leads to a kind of “festival elitism”, wherein the popular is actively eschewed by some audiences, and the festival itself helps create this culture of vernacular film criticism.


Cinematic Tourism

The critical literature on film festivals is not extensive; even writings by established scholars who make reference to the film festival context, interrogate less the festival event, and tend to focus, like Bill Nichols, on the context as a means into a national cinema (1994a & 1994b). For Nichols, the Toronto International Film Festival acts as a conduit into an unfamiliar national cinema, in this case post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. Where Nichols does address the context of the festival itself is in recognizing the frame in which he first encounters this national cinema. Nichols articles attempts, “like the anthropological fieldworker” (1994a: 17), to witness a small and representative corpus of (truly) foreign films (i.e. films from a culture the critic knows little about) by a variety of contemporary filmmakers as access into the culture of Iran itself. He uses these films as nativistic expressions of cultural authority and authenticity, through “submergence” into the voice of the colonized Other (1994b: 73). Nichols refers to this as cinematically “going native” (1994a: 17), extending his anthropological metaphor further. The film festival, for Nichols, constructs its audience as “cinematic tourists” wherein one is taken on (again, assumedly, nativisitic and authentic) travels through cultures our Western-biased cinemas do not tend to recognize. As Nichols notes, “Like the tourist, we hope to go behind appearances, to grasp the meaning or things as those who present them would, to step outside our (inescapable) status as outsiders and diagnosticians to attain a more intimate, more authentic form of experience” (1994a: 19).

Despite the immediate objections to such idealized and certainly naive assumptions Nichols makes about bringing these “authentic” insights into the colonized Other’s culture, certain aspects implicit within Nichols work needs enumerating, since they reflect various a priori assumptions made about film festivals. Firstly, within Nichols’ articles, beyond the filmic text itself, he is dependent upon the Toronto International Film Festival’s Programme Book to establish the context for seeing these films. Each year, among the various other categories and programmes the festival offers, the “Contemporary World Cinema” series, the largest single category within the festival, offering a miscellany of world cinema made, usually, within the last twelve to eighteen months – from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North and South America. But there are also frequently spotlight series, separate from the “Contemporary World Cinema” programme, highlighting the past decade or so in a single nation’s cinema production, and the choice of which country to spotlight privileges those for whom their “national cinema” may not be known on the International (that is, Western) Cinema stages.  This is the context – within one of these “spotlight” series – that Nichols first encountered Iranian cinema.

As an indirect challenge to Nichols, Julian Stringer notes, this explicitly Colonialist game that some film scholars engage in: “As so many of the non-Western films that Western audiences are likely to be familiar with emerged as festival entries, scholars tend to approach them through the nostalgic invocation of those moments when non-Western industries were ‘discovered’ – that is, discovered by Westerners – at major international competitions” (Stringer: 134-135). Stinger takes this position even further, suggesting that these international cinemas do not get included within a World Cinema canon until they are (Colonially) discovered by the West, again usually through these film festivals (Stringer: 135).


In talking about a much smaller, more vernacular film festival, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, A. G. Basoli, notes explicitly the difference between those Iranian films shown at the Human Rights Watch festival and those screened in big International film festivals like that in Toronto. The recent Human Rights Watch festival which Basoli is reporting on (like the festival reports noted previously) noted the screening of two political satires from Iran. Basoli notes that these films “marked a stark departure from the elegiac, official fare from the Iranian Board-of-Censors-approved filmmakers like Kiarostami, Majidi, or Makhmalbaf” (Basoli: 35), filmmakers which Nichols earlier had declared as “authentically” Iranian. Nichols agenda in his pieces on “discovering” Iranian cinema through the Toronto festival is to highlight that beyond perceived differences in culture and ideology, a pan-humanism emerges when filmmakers from different ideological camps can share in each other’s cinema:

the political will be refracted not only by our own repertoire of theories, methods, assumptions, and values, but also by our limited knowledge of corresponding concepts in other cultures to which we attend. (To want to know of foreign cinemas, for example, of their indebtedness to state control often betrays our own ideology of the free market and artistic license. We ask more to gain reassurance that this is a cinema like the one we imagine our own to be than to explore the intricacies of the relationship between culture, ideology, and the state) (Nichols, 1994a: 19).

By focusing on how, for example, Iranian cinema is different from Hollywood cinema, we not only see alternative ways of cinematic storytelling, but also those basic human traits Westerners and Iranians share. In addition, for Nichols, exposure to World Cinemas also calls into question our own taken-for-granted assumptions about artistic freedom. This, despite those films Nichols is basing this on, are exactly those films which Basoli characterize as culpable within the political climate of Iran. But whether or not we agree with either Nichols or Basoli, in either case, the nativistic insights into a culture we are presented with, like that of Iranian culture, are chosen and mediated by the Western agencies of International film festivals. Basoli continues noting one film in particular, Seven Days in Tehran, which was screened during the Human Rights Watch festival, when it was screened during the International Film Festival in Tehran, was presented as a French film, not an Iranian one, to avoid state censorship (Basoli: 35).  Less significant for this project is the extent of artistic repression in Iran; rather more significantly for our purposes is, as Basoli notes, there is an international film festival in Tehran. Reports on this festival are hard to come by, but at least we now know there is such a film festival.  So, at this first level of investigation, scholarship on film festivals use these events as useful starting grounds to begin insights into foreign and unfamiliar national cinema discussions. Regardless of whether the films being looked at are state-sanctioned or counter-hegemonic, both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival are used as a kind of cinematic tourism wherein we are presented with the nativistic and assumedly “authentic” voices and images of the colonialized Other.

Perhaps it is worth noting parenthetically, that in informally talking to people attending the Toronto International Film Festival one also sees these cinematic tourists – although they may not refer to themselves as such. This kind of tourism enables people to have the illusion of these authentic cultural experiences while not leaving the comfort of Toronto, or incurring the costs of travelling. That being said, and again anecdotally, these Toronto cinematic tourists do tend to travel widely, and seemingly use a combination of the virtual and the first-hand experiences of other cultures to understand the world they live within, although one tends to inform the other; basing their acceptance of a filmic representation on their own experiences travelling in that region, while also travelling to areas they have seen on screen. However, these observations are currently merely anecdotal, and much more research needs to be done to develop this idea more.


Industrial Conferences

The film festival is also a site for marginalized filmmakers to come together. Both the work of Diawara and Gamson, although addressing very different concerns, see the festival as a space for filmmakers to display their work to each other. Diawara in particular, responding to the dynamic so advocated by Nichols previously, challenges Western film festivals proclivity towards cultural tourism in the display, if not fetishization, of cinema from the African continent. The focus of Diawara’s study is the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) as a place where the interests of African filmmakers are directly addressed. Although recognizing the increased interest in the West, predominantly through events such as international film festivals, for African cinema, Diawara relates African filmmakers’ concerns that increasingly African cinema is courting these festivals excessively, making Western friendly cinema, at the expense of addressing their own cultural concerns.

Since the best African films are screened at these European and American festivals … filmmakers no longer look to FESPACO for the premiere of their films. These European and American film festivals also contribute to the ‘ghettoization’ of African films, because they only use them for the purposes of multiculturalism as required by their own citizens (Diawara: 386).

At the heart of Diawara’s concern is again the issue of cultural authenticity, regardless how it is presented. Western film festivals, the author concludes, and these festivals’ audiences, are less interested in the development of an authentic pan-African film industry, than having sufficient “ethnic” cinema to display in the spirit of a Western sense of “multi-culturalism”. Like Nichols’ naïve insights into Iranian cinema, Diawara is highly critical of how Western film festivals tend toward a fetishizing of the exotic text, rather than interesting themselves with the problems in countering Hollywood hegemony within African cinemas. This comes to the fore as Diawara discusses the concerns African filmmakers have about bringing their films to the West:

They do not want their films or themselves to be used for causes they do not understand or support. They are used to that, in France, Italy, and Canada, where people create well-paid jobs for themselves in the name of African film festivals. They have also seen their films disappear, or promises made to them withdrawn after the screening of their films. In other words, these festivals have served more to ghettoize their films than to open markets for them (Diawara: 396).

Unlike Nichols, Diawara sees the festival space as the site for filmmakers to interact with each other, meet filmmakers who work within similar circumstances (African cinema) and to engage in industrial related workshops. As Diawara notes,

[FESPACO] is only the film festival devoted to Pan-African cinema, a festival that takes seriously the task of nurturing, publicizing and celebrating African films. Ouagadougou is the place to meet filmmakers from other countries, compare notes on films, and exchange information on funding sources. FESPACO is also a homecoming and a family reunion for filmmakers, a chance to meet old friends in the same bars or restaurants and talk about the good old days. Finally, filmmakers come to Ouagadougou to discuss strategies for the decolonization of African screens, and the creation of an ever-elusive African film-industry” (Diawara: 386-387).

In addition to a celebration of African cinema, Diawara puts the emphasis on FESPACO as more of an industrial conference; the films themselves, their display, the generation of an African audience for African cinema (which is supposedly a strength Diawara sees in FESPACO over the display of African cinema in Western festivals) becomes secondary to the forum of mutual support for the impoverished African cinema.

However, within Diawara’s report on FESPACO, he notes the festival market which springs up alongside the film festival, but is not directly related to the event itself. This description is worth quoting at length:

La Rue Marchande is a discovery for many festival goers. Shaped in much the same way as the New York Book Fair, La Rue Marchande consists of several blocks closed off to traffic for one week, allowing vendors to set up their shops and pedestrians to fill the streets from sunup to sundown. La Rue Marchande is principally two streets intersecting each other, each approximately five blocks long, and crowded with more than five hundred vending stands, thousands of shoppers, and performance artists. There are millet beer vendors, tourist art merchants, vendors of original textiles from Burkina Faso …, condom stands, T-shirt stands, fruit stands, fashions from neighbouring countries and from France, musical instruments, lottery ticket booths, advertisement agencies, and booths for radio stations and political parties … La Rue Marchande is a metaphor for the market that has so far eluded African cinema and many industrial prospects on the continent. For one week, La Rue Marchande bustles with buyers and all varieties of merchandise. At the end of the week, the buyers disappear and the market with them. Similarly, African cinema realizes its dream of African audiences during the week of FESPACO. During that time, the crowd gathers in front of movie theatres, the international press talks about the films, and the streets are animated with discussions of individual films. At the end of the festival, the tourists go back home, Western and Kung Fu films resume their monopoly of the movie houses, and African cinema waits for two more years to be celebrated again (Diawara: 389-390).

Despite Diawara seeing this market place as a metaphor for the African film industry (a lovely metaphor, to be sure), he misses the significance of the Rue Marchande market in seeing FESPACO as a proper festive event, discussed below.


Festivals and Tourism

Janet Harbord’s chapter in her Film Cultures is one of two serious attempts at understanding the film festival as an event in its own right, rather than as a discursive context for other issues (i.e. new trends in World Cinema or the post-Colonial fight for recognition in Third Cinema). Recognizing the film festival as a multidimensional film exhibition context, Harbord identifies four central discourses: 1) like Diawara above, as a conference for independent filmmakers (Harbord: 60); 2) as a marketplace for film producers, distributors, and exhibitors (Harbord: 60); 3) like Sklar and others, as a preview for noteworthy upcoming films and the early identification of potential new trends in world cinema (Harbord: 60); and finally 4) as a cite of civic discourse on the public presentation of the city hosting the festival itself, providing “an intertext between the filmic event and the location” (Harbord: 60). It is this final discourse that Harbord focuses on with her eye, historically, on the development within Europe of a post-War cultural capital. In this respect, Harbord’s chapter has much in common with Marla Stone’s work on the Venice Biennale in the Fascist period. Both authors explore how by studying a specific film festival, a self-portrait emerges of how the official culture of the hosting society chooses to see itself (Stone: 294). As Harbord notes: “There is no doubt that film continues to be a significant cultural product for the nation in terms of representation, a production economy, tourism and as a symbolic asset” (Harbord: 72), and the film festival is the locus of that representation. Granted that Stone’s work is historical, reconstructing the image of cultural perception in the late Italian Fascist period, while Harbord’s is much more contemporary, but not much seems to have changed. Stone notes, referring to the organization of the Biennale: “Internationally staffed juries awarded prizes in the tense and staged ceremonies; the Festival’s premieres and closings were carefully orchestrated, and the whole of the event was tied to the glamour and fantasy of Hollywood” (Stone: 295). While Stone describes the festival as evidence of a Fascist aesthetic, her description sounds not unlike contemporary descriptions of Cannes or the Toronto festival.

Julian Stringer takes this idea even further: not only are film festivals post-War (European) re-inventions of the geographical/urban/modern self, but through a complex “festival circuit”, these festivals, and therefore these cities/spaces/selves, become ranked in importance (Stringer: 138). “Inequality is thus built into the very structure of the international film festival circuit” (Stringer: 138). The assumption here is that previously, film cultures were predicated upon the importance of the national film industries (American, French, Italian, German, etc), but that within those national contexts, local interests, based, as Harbord argues, on the relative strengths of the local tourist boards (Harbord: 68), shifted this nexus to a list of specific urban centres (New York, Toronto, Cannes, Edinburgh).  Stringer continues:

My argument is that it is cities which now act as the nodal points on this circuit, not national film industries. In short, I am asking that we pay as much attention to the spatial logics of the historical and contemporary festival circuit as we do to the films it exhibits. The circuit exists as an allegorization of space and its power relationships; it operates through the transfer of value between and within distinct geographic localities (Stringer: 138).

This battle for recognition, Stringer recognizes, is a fusion between the festival itself and the host city’s own self-image (often heavily mediated through the agency of the local tourist board and civil leadership infrastructures) (Stringer: 140).

But Stringer, like Harbord, are dealing with the large festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin – and despite the applicability of their discourses to smaller city-based festivals (Edinburgh, London)  and their relative places within the festival circuit’s pecking order, this is not the whole picture. Stringer refers to a specific class of film festivals as “universal festivals”, large(ish) film festivals which exhibit a cross-section of contemporary world cinema to appeal to the widest possible audience, with the added attraction of the promise of celebrity attendance (Stringer: 141). The differences between the Toronto, Edinburgh, Cannes and Venice film festivals is really one of scale, based on where it appears in the circuit’s ranking of similar festivals. Our interest, however, lies less in these “universal festivals”, than in the smaller, community based film-festivals (we refer to these as “vernacular film festivals”, as they tend to emerge out of the hosting community itself), which Stringer more or less dismisses as handling a “specialized audience” (Stringer:141).


An Ethnographic Approach

Beyond Stringer’s “universal festivals” are those vernacular events which reflect the cultural interest in specific genres (i.e. horror film festivals, like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn), ethnic groups (like the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, cf. Koven, 1999), political groups (like the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, cf. Basoli), and sexual identity groups (like the Lesbian and Gay film festivals, cf. Gamson) to name but a few examples. The discourses on the “universal festivals” remain unsatisfactory in applicability to these more vernacular festivals. And yet, the scholarship on these other festivals often falls into the same intellectual paradigms as set-up by the discourse on the “universal festivals”. For example, Basoli’s article, like Skar on Cannes or Nichols on Toronto, explores those films the critic has identified as particularly significant within the context of the festival. Gamson, like Stone and Harbord (more so than Stringer), while situating the context within a larger discourse of collective identity (Gamson: 526), the article itself is more historical, chronicling the development of these festivals with the lesbian and gay communities of New York. Van Extergem, on the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF), despite noting the participatory culture of the BIFFF as symptomatic of the kind of audience who attend fantasy films, situates the festival as a forum for the emerging respectability of the genre films themselves, rather than a study of the festival itself (Van Extergem: 216-217).

For me, the main failing of most studies on the film festival, “universal” or vernacular, has to do with a lack of engagement with the film festival “as festival”. In Koven’s work on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (1999), he attempted to identify how film festivals, like more traditional festival celebrations (based on the anthropological definitions), were liminal experiences, and rooted within a sacred experience (of sorts) for the community to celebrate itself.

Van Extergem offers, however, a similar insight into the study of the film festival indirectly (much as Diawara did above). Van Extergem notes:

In large measure, every film is conditioned by ritual since it takes place as a communal act, partitioned from everyday life. A film festival, as compared to a regular movie screening, is even more detached from the everyday experience: it takes place but once a year, it presents films ‘for the first time’ and has extras such as the presence of guests (‘stars’) and the creating of a more communal, more festive and, in many ways, more significant context by way of animation, presentation and the simulation of a certain ‘ambience’ (Van Extergem: 224).

Although Van Extergem does not expand on this observation, there are several factors which need highlighting: 1) cinema going is communal, and regardless of any aesthetic appreciation of the filmic text, to watch a film with other people creates an ‘event’ and that event needs to be understood within the community is occurs within; 2) unlike normal cinema going, film festivals as annual events are not only more detached as special events, but they are “calendricised” – they become part of that community’s calendar and the event is anticipated each year, meaning we need to consider the festival within the cultural context of a community’s calendar of celebration; and 3) the inclusion of celebrity guests operates on two different cultural registers: on the one hand, as Van Extergem notes, it marks the event as “more special”, more outside of the everyday, since these guests’ presence partially erases the distinction between their on-screen illusion and the material reality of their being there, but also, particularly within the context of the vernacular festivals, underlines the shared commonality with the celebrity guest – that both the audience member and guest are Jews, or Lesbian, or horror fans, etc. and their presence at the festival enforces that commonality. Perhaps even with some of the “universal festivals”, the shared commonality for the local residents who attend these events, has a similar function, of having big-name celebrities in one’s home town.

What does Van Extergem mean when he refers to this sense of BIFFF feeling more “communal, more festive” and therefore “more significant”? How do we understand the communal and the festive? In the longer version of the paper Koven published on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which was a chapter from his doctoral thesis, he outlined how that particular festival could be seen as a “proper festival”, based on the folkloristic and anthropological definitions of such. Alessandro Falassi’s definition of “festival” is useful to understand film festivals, in particular, and the relationship between cinema and community in general.  Falassi defined “festival” as “a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, participate [sic.] directly or indirectly and to various degrees, all members of a whole community, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and sharing a worldview” (Falassi: 2).

Can film festivals be seen in this folkloristic/anthropological way? Some anthropologists shy away from viewing festivals that celebrate popular culture, seeing instead a commercialization factor as replacing the expression of community itself (Stoeltje: 261-262; Abrahams: 171, and this is a point raised Stringer and Harbord too). Beverly Stoeltje noted “those events that do have festival in their titles are generally contemporary modern constructions, employing festival characteristics but serving the commercial, ideological, or political purposes of self-interested authorities or entrepreneurs” (Stoeltje, 1992: 261-262). At one level Stoeltje is correct, particularly with the larger festivals (Toronto, Cannes, BIFFF), but the more vernacular festivals tend to be more rooted within the lived experiences of the communities which host them. On the other hand, Stoeltje is perhaps too quick to dismiss the larger festivals, since, depending on how one approaches the bigger “universal festivals”, these too can be seen as rooted within an alternative perception of the community (FESPACO, for example, or the relationship between the host cities of Berlin, Toronto, Cannes or Edinburgh and how the local residents view the presence of the festival).

According to Stoeltje, a festival is made up of six types of acts: an opening ceremony, rituals, dramas and contests, feasts, dance and music, and finally a concluding event (Stoeltje, 1992: 264-265).  Although this morphology is considered descriptive, rather than prescriptive, a certain ordering of these acts and their respective inclusion is by design and self-conscious.  But what Stoeltje does raise is that ethnographic investigation into any kind of festival is essential in understanding its relation to the community who produce it, regardless of how that community is delineated. To ethnographically study a film festival, as I suggest to do with Dead by Dawn, is, to begin with, an attempt to identify some application of Stoeltje’s festival morphology: specifically what constitutes the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies? What delineates the opening of the festival and what marks its conclusion? As special events, of any kind, something must demarcate these poles, so how is that demarcation made special?  And then how does that demarcation reflect the cultural beliefs of the group?

Ritual, while rarely evident in the explicit religious conotation of the term, also needs noting. Van Extergem already noted what he referred to as the ritual aspect of going to a film festival film. Beyond that, however, Falassi, while like Stoeltje, categorically not referring to film festivals, expanded on the different kinds of ritual activities indicative of festival behaviours. For example, part of the opening ceremonies, for Falassi, are “rite of purification” where they cleanse the festival  space “… by means of fire, water, or air, or centered around the solemn expulsion of some sort of scapegoat carrying the ‘evil’ and ‘negative’ out of the community” (Falassi: 4).  Although, I am unaware of any such scapegoating rituals at any of the film festivals I have attended, certain kinds of cleaning and organization is required in immediate preparation for the event. At larger festivals, where opening night gala presentations require special guests requiring special treatment, red carpets are sometimes laid “ceremoniously”. Or the posters in the lobby will be changed to those more relevant to the event. Despite the seeming banality of these “rites of purification” they do underline that the event is somehow different to the everyday operation of the space wherein which the event will be occurring and the metamorphosis of the space is a highly symbolic gesture underlining the “sacred” nature of the festival. Part of the ethnographic project, of course, is not only to make the strange familiar, but also to make the familiar strange; and we need to problematize the assumptions we make about the special activities involved in ritualized preparations. These spaces of course are regularly purified through a ritualistic application of water, called “cleaning” (one hopes). What is the act of cleaning, but a ritual of purification?

230957_4596143340_9414_nFalassi also refers to various rites of competition (Falassi: 5), and any film festival which has films in competition falls into this activity. The sacredness of the awards given, while clearly of material value (in terms of increased box office, status, distribution deals) also evoke their sacred worth by their names – the “palme d’or”, “the golden bear”, etc. Even with the more vernacular festivals, like Dead by Dawn, which still grant “best films” awards, but instead of an elite jury who are separate from the main festival participants, the awards are granted by the public attending/celebrating themselves. Surely who is included in granting these “golden awards” is significant in reflecting who can lay claim to being part of these communities? And what about those festivals who do not have any competition amongst their films? What kinds of competitions exist amongst the festival participants?

The inclusion of the celebrity guests and the variety of consumable wears on display can be seen as functioning akin to Falassi’s rites of “conspicuous display,” which the author noted as “permit[ing] the most symbolic elements of the community to be seen, touched, adored, or worshiped; their communicative function [being] “phatic”; of contact” (Falassi: 4). The nature of the festival determines the phatic degree of the display of those “sacred elements” for that community: while the festival participant might be able to see (from a distance) or perhaps photograph a celebrity in attendance at the “universal festivals” like Cannes or Toronto, at the vernacular festivals like Dead by Dawn, the guests circulate among the audience themselves, thereby enhancing the sense of communitas. But these sacred relics of the community can also manifest itself, as Diawara seemingly unaware points out regarding the La Rue Marchande marketplace. Rather than seeing these market stalls as prima facie evidence of the commercialization of the event, we need to look more ethnographically at the function and actual use of these market spaces for the community itself. Falassi further notes that such “rites of conspicuous consumption” in addition to “conspicuous display” is equally a marker of festival behaviour (Falassi: 5).224092_4596148340_307_n

Finally, and probably most significantly, there must also be some kind of “rite of reversal”, which according to most scholars is the litmus test for a “real” festival.  Falassi notes that this rite “through symbolic inversion, drastically represents the mutability of people, culture, and of life itself” (Falassi: 4, emphasis added). As Bakhtin noted,

… all the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities.  We find here a characteristic logic, peculiar logic of the “inside out”, of the “turnabout”, of a continual shift from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (Bakhtin: 11).

Likewise did Falassi note this, and in turn, began to point towards meaning in this reversal: “if we consider that the primary and most general function of the festival is to renounce and then to announce culture, to renew periodically the lifestream of a community by creating new energy, and to give sanction to its institutions, the symbolic means to achieve it is to represent the primordial chaos before creation, or the historical disorder before the establishment of the culture, society, or regime where the festival happens to take place” (Falassi: 3). Van Extergem already noted, in some respect, how different film festival going is to everyday media consumption, but surely this is not sufficient to be considered a rite of reversal. Again, at this stage in the research, anecdotal evidence must suffice: in an informal survey of the 2004 Dead by Dawn participants, one of the most frequently cited reasons for their attending was to be able to gorge themselves on horror cinema for a few days before returning to their normal everyday lives.  Instead of seeing one, or maybe two movies a week, they will attend dozens – feature length and shorts, from all over the world, and if we consider the “all-nighter”, which begins at midnight on the Saturday (after a full day and evening of screenings), and runs through until 11:00 or so Sunday morning, a pattern emerges of “specialized” film attendance – a reversal of the normal patterns of cinema attendance. Again, this is a casual and superficial observation requiring much more detailed and in-depth ethnographic investigation, but even cursorily film festivals “reverse” the norms of everyday cinema going.

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Conclusions: Proposing Future Study

A larger project, of which this is but a first step within, is to ethnographically explore the film festival. My question is put succinctly: how can film festivals be considered as “festivals”, at least as the anthropological literature understands them? Although one could conduct an ethnographic study of one of the major “universal festivals”, such as Cannes, Toronto, the BIFFF or even Edinburgh’s International Film Festival, it the smaller, vernacular festivals that hold the most interest, for it is at these events where the community itself is on display as a public recognition of its very existence. And it is in this spirit that further research needs to be done.


Film Festival Bibliography

Abrahams, Roger D (1987).   “An American Vocabulary of Celebrations”.  Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 173-183.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M (1968/1984). Rabelais and His World.  Helene Iswolsky trans.  Blooming­ton: IndianaUniversity Press.

Bangré, Sambolgo (1996). “African Cinema in the Tempest of Minor Festivals” in Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham eds. African Experiences of Cinema. London: BFI. 157-161.

Basoli, A. G. (2002). “Redefining Human Rights: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival” Cineaste 27.4: 34-35.

Chin, Daryl and Larry Qualls (2001). “Open Circuits, Closed Markets: Festival and Expositions of Film and Video”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1: 33-47.

Christensen, Mads Egmont (2000). “Dogma and Marketing” p.o.v.: A Danish journal of Film Studies 10: Issue_10/section_4/ artc1A.html. Last accessed 04 January 2005.

Diawara, Manthia (1994). “On Tracking World Cinema: African Cinema at Film Festivals” Public Culture 6: 385-396.

Dwoskin, Stephen (1997). “Whose Festival?” in Ann Pointon with Chris Davies eds. Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. London: BFI. 222-223.

Falassi, Alessandro (1987). “Festival: Definition and Morphology.” Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1-10.

Gamson, Joshua (1997). “The Organizational Shaping of Collective Identity: The Case of Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals in New York” in Martin Duberman ed. A Queer World: The Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: New YorkUniversity Press. 526 – 543.

Harbord, Janet (2002). Film Cultures: Production, Distribution and Consumption. London: Sage.

Koven, Mikel J. (1999). ‘”You Don’t Have to be Filmish”: The Toronto Jewish Film Festival’. Ethnologies 21.1: 115-132.

Kwon, Jae-Woong (2003). “[Interview with] Kwang Woo Noh, Coordinator of Korean Film Festival”. Asian Cinema Spring/Summer: 207 – 210.

Mendik, Xavier (2004). “The Fantastik Film Festival: An Overview and Interview with Magnus Paulsson” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 232 – 235.

Nichols, Bill (1994a). “Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit”. Film Quarterly 47.3: 16-30

Nichols, Bill (1994b). “Global Image Consumption in the Age of Late Capitalism”. East-West Film Journal 8.1: 68-85.

O’Regan, Tom (2002). “Australian Cinema as a National Cinema” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 89-136.

Riskala, Tuomas (2004). “The Espoo Ciné International Film Festival” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 228 – 231.

Scheighofer, Martin (2001). “Austrian Film between Festival Success and Market Constraints” in Willy Riemer ed. After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 55-61.

Schwartzman, Karen (1995). “National Cinema in Translation: The Politics of Film Exhibition Culture” Wide Angle 16.3: 66-99.

Sklar, Robert (1996). “Beyond Hoopla: The Cannes Film Festival and Cultural Significance”. Cineaste 22.3: 18-20.

Sklar, Robert (1999). “Snobs and Snubs at Cannes” Cineaste 24.4: 25-27.

Staiger, Janet (2002). “A Neo-Marxist Approach: World Film Trade and Global Culture Flows” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 230-248.

Sterritt, David (2000). “How ‘Festival Overload Syndrome’ Affects Critics”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 August: B9.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. (1992).   “Festival”.  Richard Bauman ed.  Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-Centered Handbook.  New York: OxfordUniversity Press. 261-271.

Stone, Marla (2002). “The Last Film Festival: The Venice Biennale Goes to War” in Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo eds. Re-Viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922-1943. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 293-314.

Stringer, Julian (2001). “Global Cities and the International Film Festival Economy” in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. London: Blackwell. 134-144.

Van Extergem, Dirk (2004). “The Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 216 – 227.


Found-Footage Films & the Visual Rhetoric of the Legend Film

This was a paper I delivered at the annual International Society of Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) conference held in Lexington, KY in May 2013.

In “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth”, Elliott Oring (2008) proposes legend scholars need to address various rhetorical devices legend storytellers and audiences avail themselves to in performance. In many respects, Oring’s article is perhaps too essentialist and proscriptive to be useful to legend scholars themselves. What I am doing in this paper is to use Oring to develop a framework for a discussion of the legend-films, to look at the rhetorical devices film-storytellers use to convince us of the veracity of their narrative. The film text itself, rather than seeing it as a definitive artistic product, needs to be considered as a variant text; with sequels, remakes, and derivative films displaying both conservative trends within the filmmaking tradition it is self-consciously situated and dynamic variation in creating a ‘new spin’ on this tradition.

paranormal-activity-4-01The films I am discussing here are known as “found-footage” films; a term which is used to describe both artistic installations which use archival film & video footage as a montage and to a contemporary horror movie tradition which purports to be video footage of actual quasi-legendary occurrences. This latter tradition of mockumentary film making is currently very popular with four films in the Paranormal 0Activity series (2007-2012), two Grave Encounters films (2011-2012), and a whole slew of variations on this model. Nor is this tradition limited to American filmmakers: the Spanish [REC] series (2007-2012) and the British Zombie Diaries series (2006-2011) also follow this tradition. Of course, this kind of horror movie goes at least as far back as The Blair Witch Project (1999) if not further back to Cannibal Holocaust (1980).  Legendary topics explored in these films fall into two main camps: documents of the zombie apocalypse and of paranormal hauntings. Although some other variations include aliens (The Fourth Kind [2009] & Cloverfield [2008]), monsters (Evidence [2011]) and demonic possession (The Devil Inside [2012] & The Last Exorcism [2010]).  In discussing these films, my interest lies in how the film constructs its own claims to veracity; in other words, I’m looking at the films’ visual rhetoric, on how it presents its legend materials to convince us of its truth.

In Oring’s article, he divides his schemata into three parts: what he calls “Ethos” (131-138), “Logos” (138-157) and “Pathos” (157-158) [and significantly, not D’Artagnan], but which can be simplified (and made less pretentious) as the Teller, the Tale and the Affect. Each of these parts I shall be discussing in turn. While some of Oring’s discussion is less relevant to films than oral or written variants, I am adapting these ideas as relevant.

Rhetoric of the Legend-Film

The Fourth KindOring begins his schemata by discussing the legend teller, what Oring characterizes as “Ethos”, the “authority of the source”.  For this application to popular films, the question is modified slightly to ask where is the film coming from? The mockumentary style of most of these films opts for an immediacy of experience, of raw footage caught at the point of encounter, rather than having the narrative retold after the fact or second hand. We are dealing with a form of legend-telling that is presentation of the event/experience rather than a representation of that narrative. In The Fourth Kind, recreated docudrama footage starring Milla Jovovich and Will Patton is self-consciously intercut with purported ‘documentary’ evidence, to tell this story of alien abductions.

Historical docudramas, despite their recreation of historical events, often go out of their way to demonstrate the veracity of their production by evoking the historians or other experts who advised them. Sometimes this authority goes so far as to be witnesses to the events portrayed within the film. The case of The Fourth Kind is extreme: having the actors play their roles self-consciously intercut with faux-archival footage is uncommon. Mostly the authority of these films is ascertained by being the footage of the encounter itself. It (whatever ‘it’ is) happens in front of us, as it happened to the person holding the camcorder. We experience the legend narrative almost first hand; the distance to the event is minimalized as much as it can be (Oring, 2008, pp. 133-135). The distance of the narrator to the event is key in ascertaining the veracity of the encounter. In the Paranormal Activity films, for example, the film is a construction of primary video footage of a series of hauntings. When the camera is knocked over by ‘the ghost’, we receive, as experience, that physical assault; because the camera keeps rolling (and the inclusion of that footage in the final film), we have been knocked over too. The distance between tale teller and tale is minimized as much as possible; the technological equipment (the video camera) is the only mediation between us and the encounter.

Grave EncountersIn Grave  Encounters, the film opens with Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), a reality TV producer who has the rights to the “Grave Encounters” video footage. Not only does Hartfield’s mediation of the narrative, as someone who is an expert in reality TV, authorize the showing of the footage, he fully admits that the viewers need to make up their own minds as to the veracity of the story. We are positioned as complicit with Hartfield in this narrative we are about to witness. Consider how many of these films presuppose the actual videographers deaths: Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity [all of them], Grave Encounters and even Troll Hunter all work within the rhetorical strategy that the footage was captured at great personal risk to the camera-operator.  Risks which resulted in the deaths of whomever was holding the camera.


The bulk of Oring’s schemata justifiably pertain to the narrative itself; what rhetorical tools do the storyteller use to convince us that their narrative is true. Following suit, I want to look at some of the rhetorical tools filmmakers use to tell their stories. While Oring’s “Logos” is about the belief and commentary of the legend’s core, he also suggests (appropriately, I think) that these narratives are discursive; that they function to facilitate larger discussions about their accuracy than to offer essentialist acceptance or disbelief.

Grave EncountersTo begin with, these films are presented in a linear fashion; that is, the narrative progresses, prosaically, from event A to B and onwards. These films mostly avoid flashbacks, although the later Paranormal Activity films do include a few sequences out of order to connect the current film within the series. More significantly are the films’ lengthy introductions; these movies take a while to get going and are often filled with banal young people being horrid. However, as Oring noted, the extraneous details often included in legend narratives work towards grounding the story in our own worlds. These sequences within the film are therefore rhetorical strategies to link the film narrative within the lived experiences of the intended audience. These films are almost all R-rated, yet are focused on “younger” adults (late teens/early twenties). In Grave Encounters 2, the film opens with Alex’s experiences as a film student at university; presumably, this is the intended audience of the film – university-aged kids. Grave Encounters, focusing on the pilot episode of a fictional ghost-hunting show, is rooted within the cheesy posturing of actual ghost-hunting shows which, presumably, the filmmakers anticipate their audience will be familiar with.  In both of these examples, the “slow build” to anything paranormal happening are to give the narrative details that Oring identified in legend-telling rhetoric.

Troll HunterThe tone of the film is often crucial to the rhetoric of the truth claims. These films are almost always presented earnestly. The encounters chosen tend to be serious, rather than flippant – ghosts, aliens, zombies, etc. Micah, for example in Paranormal Activity, is largely incredulous to the haunting and exacerbates the events by openly challenging the presence for proof (including bringing in a Ouija board). In Paranormal Activity 3, Randy and Katie play “Bloody Mary” together and hope to meet Toby, the presence haunting this family across way too many sequels. Micah’s incredulity costs him his life, and Randy is so frightened by the encounter he quits his job and never visits again, much like the babysitter earlier in the film. Even in the almost parodic Troll Hunter, wherein fairy-tale trolls are discovered to live in the Norwegian north, the laughter in the film is of surprise and excitement, not mocking or dismissive of the discovery.  The cheesy ghost-hunting show “Grave Encounters” effectively turns the tables on these frauds by encountering actual ghosts in an abandoned insane asylum.  And the experience ends in all their deaths.

Paranormal ActivityOring identifies narrative framing particular to legends; he distinguishes between “words-as-words” and “words-as-worlds” (Oring, 2008, p. 140). When the narrative is explicitly told as a narrative, that is, its story-telling-ness is foregrounded, the account has less veracity than if the narrative attempts to present the world itself. Regardless of the accuracy of the account or the authority of the source material, a film’s veracity is diminished when its artifice is considered. In a docudrama, wherein actors are playing roles and sets are built (and in particular when special effects are used) there is a level of artificiality involved. When the film is presented as unmediated footage, the veracity increases. The Amityville Horror may be based on a true story (even if ultimately that story was discounted), but the 1979 film starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, is a representation (rather than presentation) of the narrative. To demonstrate the opposite, despite Paranormal Activity being completely fictional, it’s apparent presentation of actual occurrences – including the absence of opening or closing credits – was sufficiently persuasive for my barber to assure me the first Paranormal Activity film was a ‘true story’.

Apartment 143Oring suggests that the apparent lack of artistry in legend telling, supports the narrative’s truthfulness; the story’s own logic and prosaic events resists aesthetic embellishments (Oring, 2008, p. 154). Certainly in the found-footage films, the cinematography is meant to convey prosaic truthfulness, not pretty pictures. These are ugly films because the aesthetics of composition are designed to only convey visual information. “Realism”, as an aesthetic concern, is received as inauthentic; the visual element in these films is imperfect to therefore increase believability. Probably half the shots in the entire film Apartment 143 are from overhead surveillance camera angles designed to show as much of the room as possible.

/ In The Devil Within, the opening few minutes of the film does several of these moves one after the other.

First of all, the Vatican denies the legitimacy of exorcism and the evidence presented in the film. Dates are given which specifies when the events documented took place. 911 audio, with on-screen transcription, is presented which seems to be authentic. The evidence of the 911 call is supported by what is reputed to be authentic police documentation of the murder scene, presented in unemotional distanced evidentiary manner.  Archival news footage of the events corroborates the police account. And finally, interview footage with Isabella Rossi, Maria’s daughter, further corroborating what happened, but offering an alternative interpretation on the events and including home video footage. Six different types of evidence are presented, each of which supports the previous one in some way. Even commentary from consulting neurologist Dr. Jeff Victoroff, apparently playing himself, suggesting that Maria’s case is one of mental illness not demonic possession works to uphold this discursive aspect to the legend-film. The Devil InsideThe Devil Within went so far to not only corroborate its own (fictional) narrative, but also, as part of that strategy, also to potentially debunk it. The first-person videography of the film counters any attempt at debunking by presenting raw footage of exorcisms; so we are either to believe the scientists who have only passingly diagnosed Maria Rossi as mentally ill or our own eyes. At the end of the film, viewers are encouraged to go to the film’s webpage ( for more information on how the investigation is progressing, combining fake pages about the film with actual links to discussions and documentation about possession and exorcism. Alas, at the time of writing, this webpage seems to have been taken down, probably by the Vatican in a conspiracy of silence against the truth.


The Rossi FilesFinally, we come to “Pathos”, by which Oring means the rhetorical devices used to evoke certain emotions and responses from the audience. Affect is of course different from effect; the former is the intended response while the latter is the actual response; so in this case, we are looking for what the filmmaker anticipates our reaction to be by the construction of the narrative. With the inclusion of the “Rossi Files” webpage at the end of The Devil Inside, the filmmakers not only intend for the film’s audience to go to the webpage when they get home, there is also a suggestion that the audience will be scrambling for a pen and paper in the dark of the cinema. There’s also the suggestion, as it happened with me, that seeing the film on DVD, particularly a DVD watched on one’s laptop, that one will instantly go and check out that page. The inclusion of that Internet address then suggests activity post-screening, regardless of the actuality of that activity.

Of course, with all these films, the intention is to frighten us. Oring notes that legends are “more likely to be regarded as true if it conforms to the … emotional … expectations of the audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157; emphasis in original). The emotional expectation of these films is fear. Jump-scares and the build up of tension work to have this emotional affect on us. We judge the success of any of these films on whether or not it succeeds in creating those emotions; a good Paranormal Activity film is one which is scary. We can conclude from the number of films like these produced every year that they are sufficiently emotionally satisfying to warrant further production. To date, the fifth Paranormal Activity film is schedule for release in late (probably around Halloween) 2013. Last Exorcism 2A second Last Exorcism film is also scheduled for a late 2013 release. But there are other expectations suggested here too.

Oring notes that these narratives must meet the “cognitive … expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); applied here reveals the logic of the film franchise. Broadening this idea out, understanding a specific “Robin Hood” story does not require previous knowledge of all the possible “Robin Hood” stories. Each legend-film must be able to stand on its own without reference to anything else. While a bifurcated audience, between those who have followed a series and those for whom this is their first encounter, is suggested, each delivering related but different rewards, these films must simultaneously stand alone and work in the series. Unlike other film franchises, where appreciation requires a full understanding of the narrative progression across several films, these films do both. This cognitive dimension to these films poses some problems for the folklorist studying these films: namely they violate their own belief traditions. Too much veracity is sacrificed for sensationalism in the films. For example, across the Paranormal Activity films, rather than simply a ghost haunting the house, Toby is a demon who can fling people spectacularly across the room. In The Devil Inside, rather than maintaining the ambivalence towards belief, the exorcism sequences feature the possessed able to crawl, spider-like, up walls and to pull out almost every possession-movie cliché since The Exorcist. Perhaps the most absurd moment occurs in Paranormal Activity 3, where the babysitter (and assumedly the audience) is freaked out by an actual sheet-wearing ghost.

[REC]The final rhetorical aspect suggested by Oring is regarding the “moral expectations of its audience” (Oring, 2008, p. 157); and it is here that these films apparently succeed for most of its audience, but fail for me. The zombie epidemic in the [REC] films is caused, not by chemical or biological weapons, but by demonic possession. In the American remake of the [REC], Quarantine, the demonic possession element is dropped in favour of a biological agent. There appears to be shift in the moral centre of these narratives; demons in one cultural context will sell, but not in another. In the Spanish Atrocious, a found-footage haunted house movie, ghosts mix with mental illness, but in the American Paranormal Activity films, a ghost isn’t as scary as a demon. AtrociousThe moral centre of these films, like in legend telling itself, is context dependent both geographically and temporally.  These films need their moral-centres to reflect what is anticipated the moral centre of the audience is going to be. But surprisingly, if that is true, then the moral centres of these films is not warning against playing with the supernatural, because you’re damned if  you do and damned if you don’t. The demon Toby in the Paranormal Activity films follows Katie specifically, whether Micah antagonizes him or not. The demonic presence in The Devil Within moves from Maria to Isabella Rossi, in what the filmmakers call “demonic transference”. In all these cases, including the Spanish films, the “kids” pay for their parents moral debts. The moral centres of these films seems to be, taken as an aggregate, the resentment of one generation for what the previous generation left behind; and are powerless to escape from it.


The found-footage films are an extreme example of legend-films, due to their mockumentary style of presentation. Currently, they are fashionable, particularly for horror movies (although there’s no reason why a romantic comedy couldn’t also use this style). However, I’d like to conclude by suggesting that the central question we need to ask of any legend-film is regarding what rhetorical devices are the filmmakers utilizing in order to convince us of the veracity of their narrative? We may ultimately discount the story as a fabrication – that’s not the point. What matters is that these filmmakers try in the first place to convince us that their tales are true.

Diary of the Dead

Works Cited

[Rec]. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

[Rec]². 2009. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

[REC]³ Génesis. 2012. [Film] Directed by Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax.

Blair Witch Project, The. 1999. [Film] Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez. USA: Haxan Films.

Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. [Film] Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Italy: F.D. Cinematografica.

Grave Encounters 2. 2012. [Film] Directed by John Poliquin. USA: Twin Engine Films.

Grave Encounters. 2011. [Film] Directed by The Vicious Brothers. USA: Twin Engine Films.

Oring, E., 2008. Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth. Journal of American Folklore, Volume 121, pp. 127-166.

Paranormal Activity 2. 2010. [Film] Directed by Tod Williams. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity 3. 2011. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity 4. 2012. [Film] Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA : Paramount Pictures.

Zombie Diaries 2. 2011. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.

Zombie Diaries, The. 2006. [Film] Directed by Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates. UK: Bleeding Edge Films.

Golems, Dybbuks and other Movie Monsters: The Search for a Jewish Horror Film

I am currently in Krakow, Poland as the guest of the Jewish Culture Festival who have brought me in to give a series of four lectures on Cool Jewz topics. I’ll put these lectures online here for folk to read at their leisure.

night-of-the-living-jews-horror-movie-posterGolems, Dybbuks and other Movie Monsters: The Search for a Jewish Horror Film

I’ve had this idea floating about my head for pretty much for the last 20 years. So I’m very excited to finally get around to playing with the topic for the Jewish Culture Festival. This lecture is going to be more ‘informal’ than my other three; that is, I want to take you on a personal journey through my favourite genre.

I’m a horror movie fan. And I have been for longer than I can remember. As a child, I saw every monster movie I was legally allowed to see – this was before home video changed the way we consume movies – whether on TV or at the cinema, if it was a monster movie, I was there. But as a Jewish horror movie fan, I became highly conscious of just how Christian-centric the monster movie world was. The metaphysical worlds depicted excluded me from believing in them. Even when the movies were directed by Jews, or written by Jews, or Jewish producers, studio heads, etc. all monsters challenged (and therefore frightened) the Gentile world. If I were to be scared by these films, then I would have to think like a Gentile, to believe like a Gentile. So what was a poor Jewish horror fan to do?
First of all, we need to look for Jewish, or quasi-Jewish, representations in horror movies. The history of Jewish representation in horror movies more or less parallels the representation of Jews across Hollywood films – to wit, that throughout the classical Hollywood period (roughly from the birth of sound in 1927 to the emergence of ethnic characters in the 1960s & 70s, or from The Jazz Singer to Funny Girl) was one of invisibility. Jewish characters were often in hiding, ethnicity erased to a bland American melting pot homogeneity. Recognition of Jewish representation in Hollywood movies often results in what Daniel Boyarin calls “Jewissance”; a play-on-words of the French jouissance, to denote intense pleasure (to the point of orgasm, really) – “Jewgasm” if you will. Within a Jewish context, Boyarin refers to the kind of intense pride Jews experience when a film or TV show allows Jewish images, characters or ideas to be expressed. Jewish viewers discover what Nathan Abrams refers to as “Jewish moments” in a film; moments when some kind of wink or nod to the Jewish audience creates this kind of connection. Within critical theory, the idea of jouissance has been suggested by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to refer to those moments of intense pleasure that goes beyond the pleasure to the point of pain. Returning to the Jewish context of Jewissance, the pleasure of discovering a Jewish presence in a horror film is not only the pleasure of recognition, but also the painful awareness of this presence’s rarity. Although I guess that’s only painful if you’re a horror fan in the first place.

Picture1So, where do we see Jews in horror movies? I want to start with Roman Polanski’s 1967 comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. In this film, a professor of the Occult and his schlemiel assistant travel though Eastern Europe (intentionally undefined) looking for vampires to stake. They stop in a small village which appears to be under the thrall of the local aristocratic vampire Count von Krolock. The movie as a whole is a parody of the British Hammer Horror films which were then sufficiently popular as to warrant parody. In particular interest for me, however, is the character of Shagal, the Innkeeper; a stereotypical Ostjuden, with payez, lusts after the busty wench Magda, and is the first of Count von Krolock’s victims we encounter. In probably the film’s most famous sequence, Shagal’s Jewishness is made explicit.

As Patricia Erens noted, in reference to John Landis’s 1981 An American Werewolf in London but is equally applicable to Fearless Vampire Killers, that “when ethnic additives appear in classic genres, the result is comedy” (Erens 1984, 375). Simply by including Jewish specificity into a horror film (or a Western, or an action-adventure movie) means that the film is automatically comic, so incongruous is any kind of ethnic specificity in these genres. The implication, to read backwards, is that Hollywood genre production is traditionally (normally) ethnically bland. Any alternative flavour added disrupts the genre irrevocably. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but wanted to throw it out there anyway.

american_werewolf_in_london_poster_04Now I want to turn to one of my favourite films of all time: An American Werewolf in London. The question for me is: is David Kessler, the films titular hero, Jewish? The actor who portrayed him, David Naughton, isn’t. And yet, for anyone who has seen the film, there is a very strong “Jewish vibe” to his performance. We also get this scene:


Most commentators, specifically Jewish commentators like Lester Friedman & Patricia Erens, make note of this exchange as some kind of evidence of David Kessler’s Jewishness, despite the refutation of the evidence’s conclusiveness: that being circumcised is no automatic sign of Jewishness. And yet, these commentators make no mention of this next clip – a dream sequence – where the Kessler family’s Jewishness is made explicit:

Did anyone see it? On the bookshelves in the back of the shot, there is a menorah on the mantel. That’s it.

American Werewolf in Lonodn
But now, consider the demons that attack David’s family. They’re wearing SS uniforms and helmets. Despite no visible swastikas, the sequence has very strong echoes of a Nazi attack on a bourgeois Jewish family’s home – the indiscriminate and meaningless of the violence, the massacre of the entire family, the consumption of the room in fire. There is particular irony in the sequence in that on the television, in an episode of The Muppet Show, Kermit and Miss Piggy are discussing on stage violence as theatrical tradition – in the guise of Punch and Judy – just prior to our witnessing ‘movie violence’ with Rick Baker’s Oscar winning special effects. But there is another level to the irony too: namely, that the SS-like monsters who attack the Kesslers are firing Uzis, the standard weapon of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) since the mid-1950s.

American Werewolf in London 2
Patricia Erens notes “[American Werewolf] plays upon the traditional role of the Jewish Victim. And what could be more appropriate than a Jewish monster, the ultimate outcast, who must die to preserve society” (Erens 1984, 375)? While I’m not sure David Kessler ‘died for our sins’, what American Werewolf does particularly well, or at least one of the reasons I respond to this film with such Jewissance is Kessler’s monster-as-tragic-hero motif. But Erens is correct in seeing Kessler as ‘ultimate outsider’, someone who will never be accepted by mainstream (that is, Gentile) society. Kessler’s monstrosity is his status as victim: because he didn’t die in the werewolf attack, he continues the curse. He’s blamed for simply surviving. And other than on a night of the full moon, he is a charming, nice and well-liked fellow, not a dangerous and bloodthirsty monster. His victims, who return as revenants to torment him into suicide, see only his monstrousness. An American Werewolf in London is a remarkable testimony to how it feels to be secularly Jewish in a Gentile world; how we can feel blamed and punished for circumstances beyond our control. This is not to say that secular Jews existing in the Gentile world are monstrous, but sometimes the Gentile world can make us feel that way.
imagesThinking about American Werewolf in London in this way brings me to consider another, more metaphysical point: what is the cosmology we inhabit within a particular horror film? Is the universe a Christian one wherein Jews function as Eternal Other for the righteous to compare themselves to? Or does a film’s narrative construction posit a Jewish metaphysics? One recent film which is very Jewish in this metaphysical way is the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) – but doesn’t really fit into my discussion here. Instead, consider the two iterations of Lt. Kinderman, the Georgetown detective who appears in both William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III: Legion (1990). Kinderman is the same character in each, but played by different actors – Lee J. Cobb and George C. Scott, respectively. While Blatty wrote the screenplay to the 1973 film (an adaptation of his own novel), Friedkin’s Jewishness and the casting of Cobb give Kinderman a different Jewish vibe to the character. When Blatty wrote and directed the 1990 sequel to the film, as an observant Roman Catholic, the performance of the character is different. Two clips – one from each of the films – first Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist.

Firstly, the crucifix Chris finds under Regan’s pillow becomes menacing – a sign of unwanted oppression rather than spiritual redemption (reflected, in part, by the music in the clip). But it is the tone of rationalism and ratiocination which Cobb brings to the sequence that strikes me as implicitly Jewish. Kinderman is cool, logical, and scientific in his investigation into the mysterious death of Burke Dennings. And Kinderman’s calmness juxtaposes the supernatural hysteria which permeates the rest of the film.

Now consider George C. Scott in the same role: Kinderman here is given the opportunity to express his skepticism towards the Christian metaphysical world in his litany of secular evils he believes exist. But at the conclusion of that speech, he admits, almost against his will, that he also believes in (the Christian perception of) the Devil. Add to that, Blatty has Kinderman pinned against and up the opposite wall in a crucifixion position in a display of supernatural power. And at the sequence’s end, somehow the Devil is able to conjure up lightning inside the asylum cell which zaps the floor away which reveals either a portal to Hell, or the lighting fixture shop downstairs.

220px-The_seventh_signThe Jew-in-the-Christian-Metaphysics motif is also present in the 1988 film by Carl Schultz, The Seventh Sign, wherein a heavily pregnant Demi Moore tries to prevent the Christian Apocalypse. In this film, Moore’s character, Abby, is positive that her new and mysterious tenant David Bannon is breaking the Holy Seals outlined in the Book of Revelations bringing about the end of the world. In this first clip, Abby steals one of David’s strange parchments and looks to a Rabbi to help her translate it. 

It’s worth noting, at least parenthetically, that Rabbi Ornstein is played by Rabbi William Kramer, giving a touch of ‘authenticity’ to the film by association. Abby and Avi team up together to try and decipher the prophecies and prevent the world from ending. .

The Seventh Sign is problematic from a Jewish perspective because the metaphysical universe is clearly predicated on Christian belief, particularly in the truth revealed by the Book of Revelations. “The Jew” functions merely as an aid to assist Christianity. The literal truth of Christianity is presented on-screen within the film’s narrative; it is not an interpretation or a code of ethics. Like in The Exorcist III: Legion, the Christian mythology is literally true.

The script by Clifford and Ellen Green, writing under the pseudonyms “George Kaplan” and “W. W. Wicket” respectively, are difficult to track down. They appear to have only a few film credits to their name (according the Internet Movie Database). What they have worked on tends to be strongly religious oriented light-genre movies like The Seventh Sign (they also worked on Bless the Child and Three Wishes). In The Seventh Sign the story centres on the Jewish idea of “the Guf” – the well of souls in Jewish mysticism which will eventually be empty and thereby bring about the Apocalypse. Through Abby’s sacrifice of herself for her baby’s life, the Guf is refilled by the Messiah; Christ has returned and was actually her creepy tenant David all along. At the end of the film, Yeshiva boy Avi and David/Jesus pass one another in the hospital corridor and Avi is commended by Christ to be this story’s chronicler.


Despite the Jewish trappings, including the Guf, The Seventh Sign is a strongly Christian film which occasionally wears Jewish drag for legitimacy and authenticity. By recognizing the Jewish role within Christian mythology, films like The Seventh Sign use elements of Judaism to justify its own (and self-serving) “Judeo-Christianity”.

images (1)My initial intention with this presentation was to take a wander through Jewish folklore and look at some of the narratives and motifs which horror filmmakers have drawn on to explore Judaic monsters. As the research on this topic progressed, and as my own thinking on the subject developed, I began to see some more intriguing patterns than simply adaptations of Jewish lore. The commentary on Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, as a classic of German Expressionist cinema, is vast. Some of you might also be aware that the film we call Der Golem is but the third and final Golem film Wegener made (as it is the only film to have survived). In 1916, Wegener made, with his co-director Henrik Galeen, Der Golem; and it is only recently that a few meters of this film was discovered in someone’s attic.

The following year, he made the comedy Der Golem und die Tänzerin and the film we’ve inherited as Der Golem is his Der Golem: wie er indie Welt kam, made in 1920; and it is this film which tells the more traditional tale of Rabbi Loew and his monstrous creation.
MV5BNzA4MjAzMzQ0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTMxMDAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_Lester Friedman, in an article on Jewish horror movies, spends a fair amount of time discussing Wegener’s Der Golem as a proto-Nazi Anti-Semitic film. Friedman notes that “horror films may contain powerful social attacks that ‘serious’ films cannot hope to duplicate and deliver their message to an audience not usually inclined to watch … social dramas” (50). In understanding the central theme of a horror film as “normalcy is threatened by the monster”, Friedman sees Wegener’s Golem to be evidence of a Jewish threat to Christian normalcy which must ultimately be destroyed. Friedman’s is a solid reading, to be sure; although I don’t think I entirely agree with it. One could easily read F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as equally (if not more so) anti-Semitic. My problem with Friedman’s account is that it doesn’t allow for discussion of the issues of anti-Semitism; it is sufficient to say this depiction is racist, or that depiction is not. Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing Jewish self-stereotyping in some recent comedy films, so I’m not letting this issue entirely drop. The significance of the Golem story for Wegener, significant enough for this non-Jewish filmmaker to make three different films about the monster (with him playing the central role in each) is what interests me. What does the Golem mean?

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (in reference to The X-Files episode, ‘Kaddish’), the Golem stories ask us to mediate, to think about, the limits of our scientific knowledge. Rabbi Loew, in making the Golem, has created life; but it is life without a soul (as only G-d can bestow a soul – presumably from the Guf). So the legends of Rabbi Loew ask us to think about what separates us from ‘base clay’. What makes us human? The metaphysical repercussions of such questions are what need discussing. Significantly, James Whales’ 1930 Frankenstein owes much more to Golem legends than it does to Mary Shelly’s novel. And by extension, with Dr. Frankenstein being one of cinema’s first “mad scientist”, in many respects all those horror and science fiction films where science has gone too far harken back to this old Jewish legend.

Golem1936But the Golem variant I want to consider for a few minutes is the little-discussed French film made in 1936, Le Golem, directed by Julian Duvivier, who is probably more famous for directing Pepe le Moko the following year. Le Golem acts as a sequel to Wegener’s surviving Golem film: a generation after Rabbi Loew created his Golem to defend the Jews of Prague, his successor, Rabbi Jacob is confronted with an even greater threat to the community in guise of the highly paranoid Emperor Rudolph who has not quite recovered from encountering the Golem with Rabbi Loew. On his deathbed, the great Rabbi prophesized that only when the Jews most need defending, the Golem will awaken one last time. Unlike Wegener’s film, it is Emperor Rudolph who is surrounded by magicians and sorcerers trying to reproduce Loew’s Golem.
What makes Le Golem fascinating for me is less the Jewish horror element (which is relatively minor) than the artistic context of Duvivier and his cinema. Julien Duvivier, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carne are the key filmmakers of the French Poetic Realist movement of the 1930s. Strongly linked with the Popular Front and supporters of short-lived socialist government of Leon Blum, these films tended toward highly studio-bound and stylized films, but unlike German Expressionism which tried to visually articulate psychological states, French Poetic Realism attempted to explore real-world political and social issues through stylized filmmaking. When we put Le Golem into the context of Poetic Realism, the social discourse Duvivier is articulating come to the fore.

golem-1935-03-gFrench Poetic Realist films tend toward the allegorical, and with Le Golem it is possible to read Rabbi Jacob’s call for liberty and freedom to create a strong sense of “fraternité” among the French people of all races and religions against the aggression coming from Germany. The “Jewish nation” of the Prague Ghetto stands in for the French nation as a whole. France calling on the Golem to defend it against German oppression. In one sequence, Rabbi Jacob is tortured by Emperor Rudolph (echoes of Furher Adolph?); the young Rabbi is shirtless and bound almost in a crucifixion pose. To cast the Rabbi in a Christ-like, Duvivier suggests a bond between contemporary Jewish suffering and how all Christians, likewise suffered under the Romans (Emperor Rudolph also feeds his “Jews” to his pet lions). By creating the parallel between Jews and Christians, the film is trying to unite opposition (if not outright rebellion) against the decadent, corrupt and despotic Emperor. legolem1935At one point, Rudolph does an excellent impression of Hitler, angrily banging his fist on a table. Rachel, the Rabbi’s wife, is the one who awakens the Golem finally (this 1936 call for rebellion is nothing if not also fighting for greater gender equality), and rouses the Jewish prisoners to action with her call that “Revolt is the right of the slave!” There is a final sad coda to add to this discussion: With Rachel awakening the Golem for the last time, the creature is, of course, no longer able to defend the Jews any longer. Duvivier’s Golem seems tragically prescient in hindsight, and not entirely by accident I think.

From Golems to Dybbuks. There is a surprisingly diverse demonology within Judaism, although I’m in agreement with Gershom Scholem, that most of these “demons” were folk appropriations of various surrounding peoples and tribes. Scholem suggests that the various cultures ancient and medieval Hebrews encountered would often “Judaicized” the local beliefs, finding ways of incorporating local beliefs into forms acceptable to Judaism. Scholem also suggests that these appropriations were often “in name only” and were used metaphorically as poetic descriptions of psychological or natural forces. “Satan” for example, is not a cognitive spirit, but a personification of the forces of temptation which distract the pious from doing their good works. Later Kabbalistic traditions attempted to create a “systematized demonology” out of these inchoate beliefs; the results were less a definitive “Book of Demons” than an attempt to put the outside world and its beliefs into a Jewish world view. I’ll return to this issue in a moment.

A dybbuk, in its most basic form, is a possessing spirit; that is, should a pious individual be tempted from the righteous path, they run the risk of being possessed by an evil spirit or demon. If we’re dealing with metaphoric and poetic personifications of natural processes, then the innocent bocher who gradually loses interest in their studies in favour smoking weed and watching porn, clearly they’ve been possessed by a dybbuk.

DVD_DybbukI would guess that the most famous (or at least significant) dybbuk-oriented film is Michael Waszynski Yiddish-language film, Der Dybbuk, based on the stage production written by S. Ansky. Unlike the other dybbuk-films I’ll be discussing momentarily which have some appeal to mainstream and non-Jewish audiences, this Polish film from 1937 seems to be made for an almost exclusive Jewish audience. While there is certainly a supernatural realm in this film, the entities are less demonic than spiritual. The strange figure of the Messanger (an angel of G-d by definition) is only one of two supernatural entities in the film. The other, of course, is Chanon – the Yeshiva bocher who is denied the hand of Leah, the woman he loves, by her father. Chanon then turns towards the supernatural in order to possess her; an act which kills him. Leah, in her grief, asks for her dead lover to possess her so they will always be together.

As I have been arguing all along, monsters – whether ghosts, Golems, werewolves or vampires – are some kind of metaphor or poetic image to discuss larger social, political, psychological issues that may be difficult, if not impossible, to articulate in any way other than the symbolic. As a profoundly religious and spiritual play, Ansky’s The Dybbuk is much less a horror story, than a morality play warning Yeshiva bochers to not be seduced by magic and witchcraft, and a warning against excessive mourning the loss of a loved one and wanting to selfishly possess them. Just as Channon possesses Leah literally, she equally possesses Channon in her refusal to let him go – either to marry who her father has chosen, or after her lover has died.

images (2)Within the past few years, two mainstream Hollywood horror movies have been produced which touch, in some way, on the Dybbuk belief traditions, although they do so very differently. In writer-director David S. Goyer’s The Unborn (2009), Casey Beldon discovers a different variant on the dybbuk story. Unlike in Ansky’s play, the possessing entity is not the ghost of someone Casey knew and couldn’t let go of, but is a preternatural evil presence which incarnates in babies waiting to be born. What The Unborn nicely demonstrates is the combination of traditions which screenwriters draw upon when fashioning a “new” screenplay: the Dybbuk tradition which I’ve been discussing so far is only one of the narrative traditions Goyer is exploring. And as a screenwriter (who also co-wrote the Christopher Nolan Batman movies), Goyer can pick and choose from a variety of traditions, although hopefully his choices won’t violate any of the traditions he’s playing with. First, here is The Unborn’s definition of a dybbuk.

Before continuing on, I want to draw your attention to a couple of the traditions Goyer is playing with. Firstly, in addition to the Jewish dybbuk tradition, Goyer is equally rooted in what I call “mall-horror”; recent horror movies which are designed to give teenage audiences enough of a fright so they’ll cuddle up in the cinema seats, but nothing too extreme that mummy & daddy will write to the cinema about to complain. As a horror fan, “mall-horror” is antiseptic and bland, despite the large amount of marketing and publicity these films receive. Part of the cultural logic of “mall-horror” is that, unlike earlier horror and supernatural films, which require you to pay attention to storytelling involved in order to fully understand the narrative, “mall-horror” repeats its salient points continuously to ensure everyone in the cinema understands what is going on, no matter how many times they’ve gone to the toilet or checked their phones. Effectively, Goyer is operating in two main traditions in this film: the Jewish dybbuk narrative and the Hollywood “mall-horror” tradition. The sequence keeps certain aspects of Jewish lore – dybbuk by name, disembodied spirits (not demons), familial dedication – but integrates these with “mall horror”-movie clichés.

In trying to understand whether or not The Unborn is a Jewish horror movie or a horror movie that has appropriated its Jewish trapping as a kind of ‘drag act’, we need to consider the cosmology within the film. Is this a Jewish cosmos? I’ve demonstrated (hopefully) how films like The Exorcist, Exorcist III: Legion and The Seventh Sign use Jewish content to tell distinctly Gentile narratives. I do not have a problem with strict adherence to a particular legend core – is this an ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’ dybbuk story? I’m happy for a film narrative to play with its ideas and potentially to add to the tradition it is building upon. But the overall logic of the universe must be consistent. Eschatology in The Unborn is discussed, but never committed. While the malevolent spirit in the film is never dismissed as a demon, neither is it named. Also, while the film references the Sefer ha-Marot, a fictional mystical book, its title is authentically Hebrew, translating as “The Book of Mirrors”; if such a mystical volume existed, it probably would be called the Sefer ha-Marot. Writer-director David S. Goyer has done his research. Consider this next clip – a lengthy one, I apologise: Casey has found the Sefer ha-Marot, but it is in Hebrew and consults a Rabbi (played by Gary Oldman) to help her with an Exorcism.

An ecumenical minyan is formed including an Episcopal priest (Idris Alba); the spirit is thought to be ancient and preternatural. Slowly the “mall-horror” clichés are creeping back in; while the universe never fully reveals itself to be a Christian one, it does appear to be a chthonic one. This pre-religious entity and the ecumenical exorcism effectively remove any Jewish specificity from the narrative. While this may not be a Christian cosmology, neither is it a particularly Jewish one.

6a00d83451d04569e2017c31c6b6f4970b-500wiThe Possession (2012) is purported to be a true story. In 2001, Kevin Mannis bought something described as a ‘wine cabinet’ from an estate sale that had belonged to a Holocaust survivor. When he opened it up, he discovered several strange artefacts inside. But then he began to be haunted by bad nightmares, his mother suffered a stroke, light bulbs exploded anywhere around this box, and electrical equipment failed. By opening the box, Mannis appeared to have released some kind of spirit. Famously, he sold the box to a couple of university students on Ebay, but when then similar strange events began happening to them too, they sold the box on to a medical historian, Jason Haxton, who wrote a book about the object called The Dibbuk Box (2012).

The film itself uses the idea of the ‘Dibbuk Box’ to tell a story of this haunted wine box, bought at a yard sale by a young girl. When she opens the box, she begins to become possessed by the evil spirit. As a possessing spirit, the entity is by definition a ‘dybbuk’. Despite the family at the centre of the film narrative being non-Jewish (no definite faith or ethnicity is actually defined), young Emily’s father, Clyde, contacts a young Hassidic man, Tzadok Shapir (played by Hassidic Beat-Box and Reggae superstar Matisyahu) for help in exorcising the entity out of her.

What interests me about this film is how it reverses the paradigm of some of the pseudo-Jewish horror films discussed here. Instead of Jews living in a Christian cosmos, here the (nominally) Christians have to contend with a Jewish cosmos, or at least a Jewish folk cosmos. Awareness of arcane Jewish mysticism impacts directly on a modern Gentile family.

Unlike the ecumenical exorcism in The Unborn, the exorcism in The Possession is specifically Jewish. [And watch for Matisyahu’s particularly rhythmic davening!]

vlcsnap-2013-06-21-21h18m19s79The possessing spirit may very well have responded to a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist exorcism – as Rev. Wyndham noted in The Unborn, the exorcism rituals are all pretty much the same due to these spirits predating religious codification. But Christianity isn’t given a look in this film. Which is odd by its very inclusion, particularly since neither director nor screenwriters appear to be Jewish. What protects the innocent young WASP girl is the Jew’s tallis, wrapped around her. And the twisted malevolence of the dybbuk is nicely rendered in CGI.vlcsnap-2013-06-21-21h17m57s126

The last point I want to make regarding these two films is a fascinating example of how these films seem to echo one another. The image of the dybbuk’s hand emerging from the mouth of the possessed was used to advertise The Possessed. One of the more famous images from the film is early on, Emily feels like she’s choking and explores her mouth only see two fingers creeping up her throat.


The dybbuk’s hand fully emerging from Clyde’s mouth before the spirit fully crawls out of him is central to the film denouement.

vlcsnap-2013-06-23-21h12m17s56This central image or motif is what The Possession is built around and yet does not appear to be part of the “Dibbuk Box” narrative. The motif appears to come from what is apparently a medieval woodcut of a Jewish exorcism which features this ghostly hand emerging from the mouth of the possessed.


Now, unless anyone can direct me to a source for this woodcut and can verify its authenticity, I’m pretty sure it was a creation for The Unborn, as this is where I’ve taken the screengrab from.
I hope my description above of The Possession reflects how the film is “based on a true story” in so far as the existence of this mysterious wine box which has been given the name ‘dibbuk box’ by Kevin Mannis. The film keeps the box and its purchase at a yard sale (I think the contents of the box are also reputed to be authentically reproduced), but that is the extent of the film’s veracity. Now, not wishing to cast too many aspersions on the legend of the “dybbuk box”, but Haxton’s book was published in February of the same year that the film was produced. And two days before the film was released in the US, the SyFy channel’s Paranormal Investigations series did an hour-long documentary on this story featuring interviews with Kevin Mannis, his mother, student Iosif Neitzke, and medical historian Jason Haxton along with dramatic recreations typical of this kind of documentary programme. What emerges from this documentary is a demonstration of what medical folklorist David Hufford refers to as an experience-centred approach to belief: various and similar phenomena are experienced around this wine box. Mannis, who is Jewish, refers to it as a ‘dibbuk box’, a term he apparently coined to describe the box on EBay; that is Mannis names the phenomenon through his own cultural (Jewish) lens. The name sticks to the item and those who encounter the box likewise keep the name (whether they’re Jewish or not). Enter the film producers to use this story as a basis for their horror movie, but build on the ‘dibbuk’ aspect. And like Scholem argued with regards to Kabbalistic attempts to fashion a coherent demonology within a Jewish frame of reference, so too did Mannis attempt to describe the phenomena around this haunted wine cabinet.
Hostel- Part II Wallpaper 2I want to talk about one last film; a film which is highly controversial and, I think, the most Jewish of any of the films discussed so far – Eli Roth’s Hostel Part II. While Abrams’ otherwise excellent book focuses on the central character of Beth as a strong Jewish woman fighting against these murderous sickos – she is one if his “New Jews in Film” – he is less developed about “New Jew” filmmakers, like Roth. Both Hostel and its Roth directed sequel (there is a third Hostel film, but not directed by Roth), young Americans vacationing in Europe are abducted by a secret society who sell young people to the rich for torture and murder. The opening sequence of Hostel Part II – the first images we see in the film – are of the personal effects of the victims being sorted through. Valuables in their luggage are appropriated while clothes, photographs and other identifiable materials are burned in an incinerator. From a diegetic perspective, within the storyworld, this is simply the menial staff hired by this club to cover up their victims’ disappearance. But the echoes of the concentration camps are too obvious to ignore. Europe, specifically Eastern Europe, is a killing field, the locus of atrocities hitherto unknown in humanity’s history of atrocities. And the evidence of these crimes is being burned up – literally consumed by fire. Even the setting of an old abandoned factory has visual echoes of the Nazi death camps’ architecture.Hostel 2
Hostel Part II in particular develops the wealthy libertines who try for entry into this society in the guise of brothers Stuart and Todd; Stuart is meek and mild, while Todd want to make a man out of his nebbish brother through torture and murdering another person. Stuart embodies Hannah Ardent’s ‘banality of evil’ figure. Stuart becomes intoxicated with brutality, loving the freedom of being one of life’s victimizers, rather than a being a perennial victim. What Roth has produced in this film is to give a human (and banal) face to these Nazi-like monsters, instead of, for example, Landis’ Nazi-like demons in American Werewolf.

I think there is a further, and more profound, dimension to Roth’s films: both Hostel movies play on the fear of tourist safety. We assume, when we travel, that we are safe; although this might be a particularly North American assumption. In the Hostel films the protagonists are (fatally) betrayed by those who they have trusted. People who you thought were your friends are in reality selling you to others who want your slow and agonizing death. Of course, this is not the “reality” of world travel, but it does reflect a “cultural truth”, and “emotional truth”. A persistent suspicion and paranoia. Which, given the history of Eastern Europe, is kind of a Jewish head-space to be in.

I’d like to conclude with a series of interpretive question; that is, questions which, rather than definitively answer the problem, suggest further questions and (hopefully) facilitate discussion.

What is a Jewish horror movie?

• Are there “Jewish moments”; a sense of “Jewissance”?
• What are the impacts on the film by inclusions of ethnicity?
• Despite what the film says, is the cosmology shown in the film Jewish? Is it a Jewish universe? Or is this a Christian film in Jewish drag?
• Is the film based in Jewish folklore?
• What are the traditions woven into the film’s screenplay? Are those traditions Jewish?
• What is the impact of a “Jewish reading” of a horror film? What does reading a horror film through a particular cultural (i.e. Jewish) lens open for interpretation?

Each of those questions suggests further questions. And not everyone will derive the same answers. But by beginning to discuss, in this case, horror movies, from some kind of Jewish perspective(s), a greater understanding develops not only about fantasy cinema, but also ontological questions about what it means to be identified as a Jew.

Works Cited

Abrams, Nathan. 2012. The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris

Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Hetreosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Erens, Patricia. 1984. The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Friedman, Lester. 1982. Hollywood’s Image of the Jew. New York: Ungar.

Friedman, Lester. 1984. The Edge of Knowledge: Jews as Monsters/Jews as Victims. MELUS 11.3: 49-62.

Haxton, Jason. 2012. The Dibbuk Box. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.

Hufford, David. 1989. The Terror that Comes in the Night: an Experience-Centred Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Koven, Mikel J. 2000. “Have I got a monster for you!”: Some thoughts on the Golem, The X-Files and the Jewish horror movie. Folklore 111.2: 217-230.

Scholem, Gershon. 2008. Demons, Demonology In Jewish Virtual Library [online]


On Fairytales and Horror Movies

Here’s something I was thinking about today (well, actually, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in my Folklore & Film classes, but the idea to post this as a blog hit me in the shower this morning).


There are four key fairytales which create narrative patterns for the vast majority of horror movies. I want to say all horror movies, but then I’d just be proven wrong by a horror geek with a  better memory than I have, so I’m hedging my bets.


Firstly, there are several key books which have inspired these random thoughts:

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Brottman, Mikita. (2005) Once Upon a Time in Texas. In Offensive Films, pp. 96-112. Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press.


Rankin, Walter. (2007) Grimm Pictures, Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films. London, McFarland & Company.


Short, Sue. (2006) Misfit Sisters, Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage. Palgrave


Zipes, Jack. (2011) The Enchanted Screen, The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. London, Routledge (Who knew Zipes had his own page on Wikipedia?)


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Right, so my proposition is that there are four key fairytales which form the four key paradigms in horror movies:


English: Little Red Riding Hood


1. Little Red Riding Hood: In this story, the protagonist, while on the road from A to B, encounters the monster and the monster follows the protagonist home; turning the ‘safe place’ to the ‘bad place’ (to appropriate Stephen King’s useful phrase). We can see this paradigm in Halloween – where Michael Myers follows Laurie (et. al)  back to the suburban idyll of Haddonfield.


Deutsch: Hänsel und Gretel vor dem Hexenhaus


2. Hansel & Gretel: In this story, the protagonist(s), on their travels, encounter the monster in his/her own ‘bad place’. Unlike the monster in the ‘Red Riding Hood’ narratives who follows the protagonist(s) home, the monster in the ‘Hansel & Gretel’ films is already at home when the protagonist(s) come knocking. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the archetypal film in this narrative paradigm (as Brottman noted), wherein the kids discover what they believe is a place of succor, only to discover bad stuff happens in the ‘bad place’


download3. Bluebeard: In the ‘Bluebeard’ narratives, the protagonist(s) discover what they thought was a ‘safe place’ is in fact the ‘bad place’ through the discovery of (what Angela Carter called) The Bloody Chamber – the place of carnage. While Texas Chain Saw could be seen to use this paradigm, films such as Hostel, where travelers discover, what they thought was a safe tourist destination, isn’t, might better fit this paradigm. In the ‘Bluebeard’ narratives, the revelation of the charnel house must change the perception of the ‘safe place’ – that the ‘safe place’ is the ‘bad place’. Unlike the other two types of narratives, in which the ‘safe place’ is turned into the ‘bad place’ (‘Red Riding Hood’) or in which the ‘bad place’ is come upon (‘Hansel & Gretel’).


Peaudane34. Beauty & the Beast: ‘Beauty & the Beast’ narratives are those wherein the monster reveals itself to be often more  human than the human protagonist(s); certainly the monster is revealed to be more of a lover than a killer. These are some of my favourite horror narratives: Phantom of the Opera fits in here, as does FrankensteinKing Kong and my favourite of these movies, Candyman.


There may be other films/fairytale relationships, but I think these are the key ones.


So, just off the top of my head:


original215px-Psycho_(1960)Alien – ‘Red Riding Hood’


Psycho – ‘Bluebeard’ (although the case could be made for ‘Hansel & Gretel’ too)


Dracula – ‘Red Riding Hood’


Scream – ‘Bluebeard’


My Bloody Valentine – ‘Bluebeard’


Friday the 13th – ‘Hansel & Gretel’


… and we could go on. This could be a fun pub game.




Now, this is where the important part fits into the discussion. To leave analysis at the level of identification is to only do part of the job – and the weakest part too. To leave the discussion at the level of identification of the paradigm is to fall into the same trap as the reductive studies of Christopher Brooker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (Continuum, 2005) or worse, the superficial Stuart Voytilla’s Myth and Movies (Michael Weise, 1999). Once we identify that a particular film is this fairytale or that (and despite using the word ‘myth’ – both Voytilla and his inspiration, Joseph Campbell, are actually talking about fairytales, not myths), we need to consider what this particular adaptation of the traditional story is doing. As Zipes suggests in studying the fairytale film, we need to contextualize the film in its historical moment – what were the contemporary discourses which facilitated this adaptation as it was brought to life by this particular film.


download (5)We need to consider the impact on the narrative (as a source or conduit of meaning) in terms of these paradigms. What roles do the protagonists and antagonists take on by this patterning – images of youth in the ‘Hansel & Gretel’ narratives, of innocence for ‘Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Bluebeard’, of miscegenation and various forms of illicit love in ‘Beauty & the Beast’?


So, using my random examples above, if Alien is a ‘Red Riding Hood’ story, what role does innocence play in the film? Innocence that the Wayland-Yutani Corp would prize its crew over its cargo?


If Friday the 13th is ‘Hansel & Gretel’, then what are the factors (social, cultural, ideological) which enable the ‘kids’ to invade the space of Mrs. Voorhees and then Jason himself?


download (6)What does a film like My Bloody Valentine have to say about community and local history when the relatively safe place of Valentine’s Bluff is revealed to have covered up earlier crimes, and works with the ‘Bluebeard’ narrative paradigm? (The same question could also be asked of Scream)


And, with the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ paradigms, what kinds of conditions are categorized as ‘monstrosities’ (race in King Kong and Candyman; deformity in Phantom of the Opera  and Frankenstein)?


This is probably requires further discussion …


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