Archive for March 22, 2013

Following Cult Thoughts

Some minor deity has blessed me, for I have published a novel about insidiously contagious cult behavior at the same time that two high-quality network TV shows on the same theme have hit the airwaves. If you like these shows, you’ll like my book, Burning the Middle Ground, which means you and everyone you know should buy it and review it and BECOME ONE OF US. I mean, really, these things just snap right off, and then you’re part of the family.

The TV leader, The Following, seems most likely to survive: superstar Kevin Bacon is doing some of the best acting of his career, James Purefoy is even sexier than he was as Marc Antony in Rome, and Kevin Williamson has spawned his best concept since Scream. The Fox network has also put so much marketing muscle behind it that they really can’t afford to pull one of their famous cancel-it-just-to-piss-off-the-fans moves, so we’ll at least get another season, methinks.


Bacon (left) and Purefoy (right): beauty of murder in primetime.

The premise of The Following is that a Gothic literature-obsessed novelist/professor (you know we’re evil, right?) enjoys killing people and has, since being imprisoned, gathered a following of like-minded individuals and planned a new “novel” to be written as a real-life spree of killings across the country. So in typical postmodern Williamson fashion, it plays with media/reality boundaries, and it not only speaks to the type of writing I do, but it also features a killer who is, more or less, the type of person I am (except I don’t kill people, and I’m not nearly that good looking–coincidence?).

I really like The Following, but its inevitable survival is almost a shame, really, because it decreases the chances for Cult, the other cult-themed show that started around the same time. It doesn’t have the star-power, and the writing is admittedly much more muddled, but it’s a lot more daring. Cult, instead of playing media/reality games with good old fashion print obsessions, plays with television. You see, there’s this show-within-the-show called Cult, segments of which play during Cult, often without clear demarcations to let us know we’ve switched from one show to the other. In the show within the show, there’s a cult devoted to a charismatic leader, and in the show itself, there’s a cult devoted to the show, or maybe to the show’s creator, who is a shadowy, charismatic leader… the story and structure are wonderfully labyrinthine and full of possibilities. Given time to catch its stride, work out the kinks in its writing, and let its actors grow into characters as likable as the instant successes achieved by the veterans on The FollowingCult could not only become the better of the two shows, but it could be a milestone for television as art akin to Twin Peaks (granted, Twin Peaks was there from episode one, and Cult ain’t there yet).


Overlapping images reflect overlapping narratives in a show doomed to cancellation on the grounds of having too much potential.

Of course, what I REALLY want to know isn’t whether and how long these shows are going to survive, but what they’re going to do with their cult themes and what appetites they’re going to whet in the reading and viewing populations, for I have clear stakes. I take as the most obvious example the now waning–or at least waning until Brad Pitt appears in World War Z–zombie crazeMany of us who have been following zombie narratives for years look at the critical fervor over The Walking Dead and smile indulgently. I mean, it’s nice that people have finally realized that hey, these stories featuring people’s guts getting ripped out are really about loss of humanity under extreme circumstances, and dehumanization under the military industrial complex, and mindlessness under consumer capitalism, and exchanging decency for safety, and thoughtless slaughter in wars like Vietnam and Iraq, and yes, how lovely that someone finally came along and took such an awful, stupid genre like zombie stories and made an award-winning show like The Walking Dead that academics can have conferences about. Nevermind that zombie stories have been doing this stuff since the Romero turn of the 60s. Earlier, actually, if you count Matheson’s vampires in I am Legend  as zombies… earlier still if you think about I Walked with a ZombieWhite Zombie, heck, even freakin’ Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre or some of the ghoulies of eighteenth-century Gothic….

Rant about pretentious people needing trends to wake up to the smartness of horror over. My point is, it took a cult of zombies to get zombies the attention they have long deserved. Are we finally about to have a cult of cults to get cults the attention they have long deserved?

So far, The Following seems to be about how lonely, sexually confused people are susceptible to charismatic leadership that offers total acceptance in exchange for blind obedience and violent behavior. This is a good thing for a cult story to be about.

So far, Cult seems to about how mass communication cultivates paranoia and uncertainty about the truth and reliability of both people and information. This is also a good thing for a cult story to be about.

So far, my series, which begins with Burning the Middle Ground, seems to be about how people use institutional forms of power to create conflicts that ultimately redistribute power into the hands of a very few people who have very insidious plans. My world is also very supernatural, so in addition to the political stuff, I devote a lot of storytelling to my characters finding out what these forms of power are and how they work. I’m biased, of course, but I think supernatural political machinations are a good thing for a cult story to be about.

There’s more than enough room in the world for The FollowingCult, and the little fictional empire I plan to build when I’m not busy being an evil professor. Here’s hoping for a cult of cults!

Angry Birds versus White People

Since Stoker, about which I am appropriately stoked, has not yet come to Louisville, the horror movie this weekend was The Last Exorcism II.


Ashley Bell struggles with monstrous talents in The Last Exorcism II.

It’s a pretty by-the-numbers white-girl-under-demonic-threat sort of thing, but delightfully cheesy developments toward the end, especially with awkward use of digitally-generated fires, yield a distinct type of pleasure. The film’s greatest pleasure, however, is the masterful performance by Ashley Bell. While I’m pleased when real acting talent gets involved in my genre, horror’s tendency to reduce the living to the soon-dead does not usually allow an actor to develop reasonable emotional depth. The depth of most horror is in the body, not the soul, and we gain access to that depth through cutting implements, not talented expression. The Last Exorcism II doesn’t really need good acting talent, but it has it in Bell; I hope the film will do well enough to get Bell gigs in situations where her gifts will be more fully realized.

dark-skies-new-posterWhite house, white family–singled out by the terrifying bird threat from non-white skies.

Last Exorcism II connects in surprising ways to the horror film of last weekend, Dark Skies. In each film, persecuted protagonists are inside either a church (Exorcism) or a suburban family home (Dark Skieswhen some birds, either through brain damage or insidious supernatural control, kamikaze the building. In each film, it is the first, clearest sign: we are fucked, ladies and gentlemen.


Hitchcock’s birds get in line to terrorize privileged white people.

 No image of birds gone amok can evade evocations of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). But while Hitchcock’s haunting imagery–one of the best apocalypses in the history of film–shows the birds turning on humanity tout court, the angry birds in these films target only certain embodiments of cultural privilege and assumption, namely, white suburban families.

This targeting is clearer in Dark Skies: it’s fundamentally about upper-middle-class people threatened by an inexplicable Other that wants to knock them out of their proper place in the natural order.The film takes a quite boring turn when it resorts to aliens a-la Whitley Streiber’s Communion,but it is nevertheless relentless in its political representation of normative bourgeois family life. A successful architect father-of-two feels the pain of the crashed economy and has to look for a job, which he finds with relative ease–at least it’s an acknowledgment of joblessness, but architect-level privilege hardly represents the struggles of most people in the post-2008 financial miasma. This well-to-do family still thinks it is downtrodden, though; they feel victimized by cultural circumstances, and they are more victimized as their son shows too much interest in video games and pornography and not enough interest in the values of developing the family unit. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the son’s deviant (heterosexual) interests become, somewhat inexplicably, a central feature of the film’s climax. Within this depiction of an alien threat coming from dark, godless skies, a larger threat associated with challenges to family values beams through clearly. Narrative logic flies out the window, but a right-wing logic that uses, for political purposes, images of the white heterosexual nuclear family under threat… that logic is remarkably coherent. Dark Skies is a nightmare about the normative white, heterosexual family unit being destroyed by outside forces that are just too different to fight or even understand. It is the same nightmare that repeatedly turns right-leaning straight white Americans against Muslims, gays, African Americans, and other minority groups who might look funny in the cul-de-sac.

Readings of Last Exorcism II in relation to similar white bourgeois values and prejudices are necessarily weaker because Ashley Bell’s character, Nell, comes from poor country folk, and the halfway house she ends up joining in New Orleans, shown still resenting FEMA’s (or perhaps Katrina’s) destructive visit, is hardly a site of privilege. Yet Bell plays her character as reserved and demure, a stark contrast to her fellow lower-class orphans–she’s a good little virgin, ready for the proper marriage market. Her white female body is, in a quite standard way, the site on which social contests, here figured as demon versus man, play out and lead to social elevation. And again I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s worth pointing out that while Dark Skies focuses on the nightmare of suburban white folks losing their claim to power, The Last Exorcism II focuses on the nightmare of the contested figure, the white girl blooming into a sexuality exceeding social norms, crossing over into non-normative ranks. Both films, then, center their horrors on the loss of white privilege and white control of the suburbs, the churches, and bourgeois white folks’ ability to reproduce their own social standing. White flight into the suburbs hasn’t worked. White gentrification of poor urban areas hasn’t worked. The demons of otherness follow our white heroes everywhere, and horror of horrors, the white have to keep moving to maintain the illusion of supremacy.

So, then, what of the birds? Why do the imperiled whities in both films have to confront a bunch of birds dive-bombing places that should be their refuges? As with Hitchcock’s birds, these birds can be manifestations of psychosexual repression, the revenge of nature on the unnatural ways of humanity, eruptions of the unconscious that assert the primacy of irrationality and thereby destroy all assumptions of the Age of Reason. All these things, yes, but more–angry birds, so popular in our techno-culture right now, are Others, figures of the threat now faced by traditionally hegemonic functions of whiteness and heteronormativity, but they’re Others not as obviously equatable to a specific demographic group. In that sense, angry birds are politically correct bad-guy stand-ins for the scary things nice white people don’t talk about anymore.


Birds are angry. And they’re coming for us.

Black people are not the problem here. Gay people are not the problem. The usual scapegoats, if they appear, appear to do more good than harm. Instead, we have nature itself, birdiness, attacking our white supremes. Nature itself rejects white power and heteronormativity. I’m not saying that in these films the rejection of the oppressors appears to be a good thing. On the contrary, the oppressors’ rejection seems quite scary. These films are the nightmares of what’s happening now, of an economy that dares to touch even our highly talented upper middle-class architects, of growing racial and ethnic populations that turn city after city into pluralities gradually learning to challenge white majority rule with darker-skinned horizons. The birds are politically correct in being no particular Other, but they become all otherness. Privileged white people recognize that the humans who oppose them might have good reason to contest the country’s unfair distribution of resources. They don’t want to do anything about it, of course, so they just have nightmares of the masses–of birds threatening their homes and churches. No one in particular is after them. White people face a generalized badness, Angry Birds, as they face their hegemony’s decline. And these by-the-numbers horror films allow us to see just how horrific social progress can be to those who have the most to lose.