The Horror and the Gothic’s utility as a Cultural Resource

John Edgar Browning

John Edgar Browning

Monsters like the ever-popular vampire and zombie, figures who have served for centuries as maleficent beings in both folklore and popular fiction, have transformed in the twentieth-first-century into heroes and harbingers of social change.

According to Victoria Nelson (2012) in ‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’, this revolutionary new trend has, since September 11th, 2001, “rehabilitat(ed) supernaturalism as an esthetic mode — brighter, more Romantic, and more culturally heterodox within the framework of postcolonial global popular culture” (pp 11–12).

For Victoria Nelson, supernaturalism has wrenched itself from evil’s exclusive domain and become normalized in daily life, producing in the process a brave, new world of monstrous Samaritans, a world in which vampires and zombies, for example, can become hero-gods and -goddesses, and where what was once repulsive can now be beautiful.

Yet, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Browning, 2015), vampires and zombies did not simply transform overnight as some recent scholarship has insinuated. Indeed, there appeared along the way various signs, tremors, and slow evolutionary markers.

While September 11th, 2011, almost certainly gave rise to the postmillennial turn of which Victoria Nelson and others have treated in an increasingly growing (and increasingly indispensable) body of scholarship, that fateful day was also, if merely, the “catastrophic and catalyzing event” (i.e., “like a new Pearl Harbor,” to use Donald Henry Rumsfeld and Paul Dundes Wolfowitz’s statement to ‘Project for the New American Century’ [2000]) that accelerated a much greater evolutionary process that had been going on for decades. What inevitably predicted this turn was, in short, popular culture — the everyday.

It is not uncommon for horror scholarship to invoke studies of every day and non-violent in North American society, even when the benefit of doing so is difficult to recognise.

On the contrary, these areas help precisely in illuminating critical, if otherwise unlikely connections between conceptually disparate categories. Indeed, because the normalcy of the everyday configures, in part, what we deem other, or out there, we can learn much when these boundaries are in flux.

The popular television series ‘Dog Whisperer’ with César Felipe Millán Favela (2004–2016) offers a prescient view of the current instability of these boundaries. The beginning of every episode records the host avowing how and why the show was founded, “I rehabilitate dogs; I train people,” a reference to where César Felipe Millán Favela feels the blame for canine misbehaviour must be laid.

“When we humanize dogs,” César Felipe Millán Favela explained to Moran (2014) in ‘The Philippine Star’, “we create an imbalance in their natural state […]. I hope that through understanding the world that dogs live in, people will transform their dogs — and maybe a bit of themselves at the same time.” Much can be said about César Felipe Millán Favela’s dog show vis-à-vis the general state of horror over the last two decades.

Filmmakers today are rehabilitating monstrous figures like vampires and zombies. César Felipe Millán Favela’s sentiment, if we swap out “dog” for “monster,” is therefore apt: “When we humanize [monsters],” which is to say figuratively cloth them in the prevailing sins or otherwise deviant markers du jour, “we create an imbalance in [our] natural state […]. I hope that through understanding the world that [monsters] live in, people will transform their [monsters] — and maybe a bit of themselves at the same time.”

The revolutionary direction of this new, “postmillennial” Gothic is, again to return to Victoria Nelson (2012), “rehabilitating supernaturalism as an esthetic mode” (xi). In turn, what we see emerging from the twenty-first-century’s horror and Gothic subgenres is Victoria Nelson’s (2012) aptly phrased “dark sublime’s antithesis”: beauty uniting the “Gothick and Romantic traditions as this hybrid sensibility continues to morph to meet the changing consciousness of our culture” (17). Still, monsters generally, and vampires and zombies particularly, continue to have to fight for their place at the (dinner) table.

On the one hand, figures like the zombie and vampire are written off by cultural theory elitists as nothing more than a cheap fad, a product of mass culture. On the other hand, however, they serve effectively as barometers in the hands of popular culturists at measuring, even predicting collective sentiments and cultural trends and anxieties. Yet frequently ignored is the fact that figures like the zombie and vampire also serve as excellent case studies for a much broader issue: the argument for Popular Culture Studies itself as a pertinent, illuminating division of cultural theory and a producer of knowledge.

How can popular culture be seriously used as a way to look at North American history and culture? Further still, can it go so far even as to interact with and reciprocally influence it? If so, what is the basis for this level of intertextuality? If not, is it in danger of becoming simply a system of superficial explanations — a sort of reflectionism of cultural moments? Popular Culture Studies has and continues to wrestle with this dilemma.

Perhaps a better question is how do Zombie and Vampire Studies, as a case in point, help us to engage some of the broader issues within Popular Culture Studies about its productivity, applicability, and focus?

The battle for Popular Culture Studies’ legitimacy as a real academic discipline has long been won, its credentials set in place. This is not in question. Rather, it is Popular Culture Studies’ utility along with other, more established and intellectually recognized disciplines that is the matter at hand.

What I refer to simply as the “epistemological productivity” of other, similar disciplines generally encounters far less scrutiny from scholars, and this arguably has much (if not everything) to do with the nature of Popular Culture Studies’ critical focus.

Popular Culture Studies is the scholarly inquiry of those customs, events, artefacts, myths, language, etc. which are shared by the masses. If someone attends a sporting event, watches television, watches or reads an advertisement, reads a mass-market book, retweets something online, or uses common gestures or idiomatic expressions to communicate with another person, then he or she is participating in popular culture.

Popular Culture Studies examines these cultural features as well as their history over time, examining whether particular phenomena are at work. Thus, scholars of popular culture take quite seriously what others might offhand deem trivial, or generic.

Indeed, it is the very genericness of popular culture which prompts these scholars to believe it is more than just the selling and consuming of products: that popular culture is, in fact, capable of reflecting the values, opinions, feelings, and the patterns of thought generally understood and circulated by significant portions of the cultures or nations in which these values, opinions, feelings, and patterns occur.

Key to contemporary Popular Culture Studies is, I would argue, its use of critical lenses that can re-evaluate almost anything, a process that probably has its roots in the discipline’s originary need to explain why something so popular and pervasive in society can actually hold real meaning.

Rossatto et al. (2006) anthology ‘Reinventing Critical Pedagogy: Widening the Circle of Anti-Oppression Education’ (2006) comments upon this importance. The process of questions leading to responses, leading to open dialogs, leading to further inquiry, generates in cultural circles what may be called “dialectic flows,” which, according to Lea (2006), “guide the process of decoding the codification” (211).

Why is this important with popular cultural artefacts? Because many of such artefacts control and oppress as much as they provide pleasure. Kellner (2011) explains, succinctly, that: “Radio, television, film, and the other products of media culture provide materials out of which we forge our very identities; our sense of selfhood; our notion of what it means to be male or female; our sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality; and of “us” and “them.”

Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil […]. Media spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence, and who is not. They dramatize and legitimate the power of the forces that be and show the powerless that they must stay in their places or be oppressed.”

Kellner is apt to point out that the inherently evaluatory lens through which we study media and popular culture is cross-disciplinary, designed in its use to accommodate Class Studies, Gender Studies, and Sexuality Studies, as well as meet the needs of feminists and queer theorists. Thus, Popular Culture Studies equips not only its own students but students in other, related disciplines who appropriate its theoretical tool belt, with the critical know-how to analyze, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, a range of cultural productions and practices that they confront on a day to day basis.

These students begin the process of making connections between everyday popular events and products, becoming informed consumers in and engaged participants of a global community in which cultural industries centrally shape politics and economics.

Things are not always so pessimistic though, and Popular Culture Studies does not always have to be a shield; sometimes, it finds that everyday people are fighting back against oppression and hierarchical power structures.

Contemporary studies of popular culture, free of the previously held and widely accepted view that all popular cultural products, needs, and ideas are dictated by consumer capitalism and intended upon controlling and subordinating the masses, now concede that popular culture can and does respond to public needs, that consumers do indeed show the capacity for resisting cultural indoctrination and can even, at times, directly influence it.

No truer is this than in particularly terrifying, or titillating, mass forms like the zombie and vampire.

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