Fan Culture


Whilst doing my PhD research, I’ve stumbled across notions of fandom. There are varying definitions, and much debate over what actually constitutes fandom itself – a difficulty being that the “distinction between the ‘general audience’ and ‘fandom’ have become increasingly blurred as cult series become franchises.”*

For series like True Blood, this is definitely the case. The world of Sookie and her assorted supernatural crew expands far beyond the weekly episodes we get around this time of year. HBO’s website is constantly pumping out merchandise (which I’m reminded of, frequently, with emails) and there are a number of realistic websites related to the elements of the show itself (such as the Fellowship of the Sun site, or the American Vampire League).

The viewer can continue to interact with the fantasy world long after the credits have rolled. The very nature of watching has changed – we now have a multitude of ways to consume these texts, and weirdly, it seems to have unified the viewers. There are no limitations on watching – you can download, stream, or watch live – and this ensures no one misses out.

But enough of that – my main thought, or question, rather, is why the vampire in particular attracts such an ardent fan-base? It’s not just True Blood, but an ever-increasing number of other texts that we devour, unseemingly ever sated. Milly Williamson asked this question in The Lure of the Vampire, as did Auerbach in Our Vampires, Ourselves. But arguably, they were written for another generation. Why now, why this resurgence? Why does this generation obsess over fangs and blood? What’s so special? I theorised on that to an extent in a recent guest post on another site. But then, there are fans, and there are viewers. The overwhelming evidence that we’re obsessed with the vampire isn’t difficult to find. The human 2.0 vibe will obviously go some way to explaining it – much in the way that superheroes garner a huge following because they inspire us to dream, reach higher. The vampire, however, in its current incarnation, appears to inspire us to practice the art of self-control. And in our current economic and social climate, I can’t really say that’s such a bad thing…

*Gwenllian-Jones, Quality Popular Television, p163


My Monsters


(This is written by Sean – his usual abode on the interwebs can be found here.)

If you’ve read a lot of Lovecraft, you’ll notice recurring themes and motifs, especially in his monsters. The preeminent Cthulhu with his octopoid head, the vast Dagon crawling from the ocean, the Elder Things that much resemble certain flavours of sea urchin: much of Lovecraft’s mythos is inextricably linked with the sea and its life. I doubt that Howard Phillips and Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Sphere would find much positive to say about calamari, and not just because of their shared fear of the seabound denizens from which they’re formed.

The sensation of horror and disgust that pervades Lovecraft’s writing is clearly borne from his fear of sea creatures, and it is through tapping into this that Lovecraft creates such emotion in his works.

While I am by no means comparing myself to the man, it does well to look to the masters for good practice.

I am not afraid of sea creatures. Sometimes I can be unsettled by the movement of the crustacea, but it doesn’t stop me from cracking them open and feasting on their flesh.

My own fear is of a more insectoid nature. From a young age, I have been both fascinated and horrified by insects at all stages of their life cycles. Some disconcert me more than others – I cannot stand maggots while I can handle worms, I cannot stand moths while I can calmly shoo wasps on their way.* There are a number of very clear images from my childhood that I hope I will never shake, despite that their recall even now brings a shiver to my spine: a two-inch elephant hawkmoth landed in our kitchen and stared at us with glow(er)ing eyes; the discovery of the half of a cockchafer grub that had not been eaten by our cat; the momentary glimpse of a foot-long dragonfly** hovering behind a friend’s head. That being said, I used to keep the earwigs that I found in our sandpit as pets, and I once looked after an adult may-bug so that I could bring it in for a school science lesson.

Images of insects continually surface in my weird fiction***, from descriptions of bark splitting like an insect shedding its skin to roach-infested eyeless animate waxworks. Yet they don’t always provide the explicit monsters. More regularly, it is someone human, once, corrupt by some fell purpose. My favourite of these is Gustav May, a magician and hypnotist who is the high priest of an insect cult for whom no other ‘human’ members have yet surfaced in my stories.

Why my monsters were decidedly human on such a regular basis is something I do not fully understand. Thinking about it now, I think that I use their corruption to hint at the horrors that lie behind. Or maybe it’s to create a tangible foe. Perhaps it’s a convention I’m not aware that I ought to shake off.

What I do know is this. All it would take is for a man to turn up in a blue box, and I’ll have written a lotof Doctor Who stories.

* Did you know that wasps make their nests from paper?

** Looking back on it, it’s more likely that it was two mating flies, rather than a prehistoric sized one.

*** Alas, as yet unpublished.

Monsters & Tim Burton


Think weird, kooky, monstrous, and you think Tim Burton, the man who made oddball mainstream. But has Burton made weirdness passé?

There was the time when monsters were feared, the time of Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde et al. That time passed. Then we moved through the various interpretations of monsters. Far from being demonic and belligerent, they were warped by Hammer Horror’s rendering of them as kitsch. Then suddenly, they got cool again – vampires were rockstars, literally. Audiences went crazy for the dark side, and not in the Vader sense. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands showed up and gave us a different kind of monster. Something not monster, nor human.

Depp’s portrayal of a sensitive loner who is an outsider because of his differences was sweet. Sympathetic monsters were nothing new – Rice’s Interview showed us that vampires have feelings too. But Burton’s creation was not alluring in the typical monstrous manner. Instead, the film focused on the weirdness, the reaction to the weirdness, and the curious social dynamics that separated normal from weird. Although in some respects, Scissorhands can’t be classed as a monster, it was a huge step towards that direction. However, instead of relying on the sexual or charismatic allure of the monster to make up for his transgressions, Burton/Depp played on the classic feelings of exclusion. Every outsider, or viewer with a soft spot for creepy, softly spoken weirdos got to root for the protagonist for a change. This outsider wasn’t cool, and didn’t have any of the classic redeeming features. Instead, he was just nice.

Burton has continued his trend for weirdness in his cinematic career, and consistently courting Depp for any role that involves heavy make up. Anything with a remotely gothic spin, and Burton’s in there like a shot. Showing us all what monsters are like underneath all the angry rage, blood and murder. Or just showing us how monstrous humanity is in comparison. Because that’s what it’s really all about here. The so-called monstrosity of these characters pale in comparison to the viciousness of the humans that taunt, tease and exclude the quirky protagonists. And for a while, it worked. Monsters, and stories with a dark and/or morbid edge were mainstream.

But then Burton made Dark Shadows. I suppose it couldn’t have been long until he got to grips with a vampire, but he managed to. 
And once again, he brought Depp along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Burton. I think he’s done good things for the world of film. I’m just not so much of a fan of his take on Dark Shadows. It’s the same formula as many a Burton film. Hadley Freeman wrote something about this issue which you can find here. Arguably, it’s a refreshing take considering the cloying taste of the overemotional vampire who believes he’s destined to be with a human (Twilight, Vampire Diaries, True Blood) but it just felt like the humour was forced, and that Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the comedy vampire. But, really, honestly – the vampire as a figure can be seen as mildly ridiculous. Even so, it’s useful metaphorically. Parody seems a little heavy handed.

I thought that was bad, but Burton’s obsession with putting his own goth-lite spin on everything monstrous became hideously apparent when I saw the trailer for another of his upcoming films (whilst watching Dark Shadows) Frankenweenie:

Guess what? It’s Frankenstein, but with a kid and a dog. Oh, and it’s in black and white, so therefore it’s still creepy. Or something. Yes, it may be teaching kids about death and how to mourn the passing of a dog without trying to hitch him up to electricity and bring him back to life, and the name of the film is cutesy enough to make it memorable.

But are we oversaturated with Burton-esque monsters? He’s got a sizeable share of the market, let’s be honest. He’s also succeeded in making ‘weirdness’ mainstream (and there will be those of you who disagree with this. I’m overemphasising, but for good reason). Aren’t monsters supposed to be a little out of the ordinary? Or are we so numbed to their presence that they’ve just become another way of pointing out our own weirdness?