This blog will primarily be concerned with questions of nationality, colonialism, and horror in Irish literature and cinema.
Defining national cultural production as such is a tricky task, since the notion of a singular monolithic national cultural or identity is untenable at best, and the means by which we may consider a film, novel, story, etc. to “belong” to a national culture (author’s nationality, film’s primary funding, narrative or thematic focus) are equally flawed. For this reason, I’m selecting texts that are, in some cases, authored by or based on stories by Irish citizens, but that are primarily concerned with the historical and cultural contexts of colonialism and decolonial struggle in Ireland. To this end, the first set of texts that I’m covering are not necessarily easily identifiable as Irish at first glance, but they do all explore themes of colonial invasion in some way. The first four center on figures of invasion, in this case vampires. The last two are focused on figures of defense, ghosts and faeries, that aim to protect the local land and people from colonization. These two types of monsters will recur throughout this blog series, especially since the monsters seen most often in Irish horror are vampires, ghosts, zombies, and faeries.
Both Carmilla and The Moth Diaries signal a problematic and complex dynamic wherein the problems of colonialism are displaced onto the queer female subject. In analyzing these texts, we must contend with the question of why Carmilla and Ernessa must be female, and further why they must be romantically and sexually involved with women. I’m not arguing against non-heterosexual relationships in literature and film, but rather, I think that the relationships depicted here have less to do with genuine affection, representation, or even presenting alternatives to heteronormativity (along the lines of New Queer Cinema, where queer protagonists often defy humanist binaries of “good” characterization). Instead, Carmilla and Ernessa both operate, within the Irish decolonial context, allegorically, so that queer female sexuality becomes a stand-in for colonial perversity. In this, both texts can be read in this context as stories about invasion and infiltration that strongly oppose colonialism, but they are only able to do so by aligning nonheterosexual female relationships with colonial power, and than destroying those relationships.
Working in a somewhat opposite direction to Carmilla and The Moth Diaries, Dracula and Byzantium both utilize the same notion of the vampire as colonial invader, but combat this by establishing strict notions of “good” femininity, whereas the former texts establish “bad” femininity. Dracula and Byzantium each approach the definition of positive femininity in similar ways, prioritizing the archive and documentation as a woman’s ideal position. Dracula is, perhaps, a bit more straightforward in this regard, with the male characters in the novel continuously praising Mina for her consistent documentation, transcription, and cataloguing of her life and the lives of those around her. It is her continued insistence on recording events that, in my reading of the novel, qualifies her for survival as opposed to Lucy who only just begins to keep a diary after Mina suggests it, and does so sporadically and without any care to chronical anyone’s life but her own. Byzantium has a somewhat different approach to this emphasis on women and archiving, and where Dracula is more explicit about positive femininity, Byzantium is more explicit about the binary between positive and negative. Eleanor is the film’s resident recorder, as Mina is in Dracula, so that her penance for killing and eating people is in relieving them of the burden of their memories and secrets and then storing those secrets in her own mind, so that she herself becomes the archive. Clara, by contrast, is the negative example, feeding based on her relativist judgement of a man’s character without any impulse towards remorse, penance, or exchange. In Dracula, the vampire is killed and the species presumably eradicated, without any mention of redeemability. The colonial vampire in Byzantium, however, is redeemed, so long as she continues to record the lives of those she kills, and/or protects that catalogue (both Eleanor and Clara survive the film, but Clara is only deemed worthy of survival because she saves Eleanor in the process of saving herself).
Finally, “The Canterville Ghost” and The Hallow both present what could be classified as defense narratives within the decolonial horror context. The former is the story of a ghost attempting to force an American family out of the house that he haunts, told largely from his perspective. The latter follows the young Hitchens family that has moved to a remote part of Ireland so that Adam, the family patriarch, can mark which trees in the local, centuries-old forest, should be removed due to disease. The disease, it is revealed later in the film, is actually part of how the local Fair Folk (or púca, to use the Irish Gaelic word) build nests, or is otherwise a sign of their presence. “The Canterville Ghost” presents us with a slightly bleaker narrative than The Hallow if we take a decolonial reading of both, where the Ghost is terrorized by the new family continuously until he eventually begs the young daughter, Virginia, to release him from his haunting. An important note regarding the story’s political underpinnings is its satirical approach to capitalism and branding. One of the family’s first interactions with the haunting is a large blood stain in the front parlor when they arrive, which they promptly remove with “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent.” The stain repeatedly appears and is removed in the same manner throughout the story until the ghost grows tired of reapplying the stain and, simultaneously, runs out of means to do so (he later admits to Virginia to have stolen her coveted paint collection to re-apply the stain). The Hallow operates similarly to “The Canterville Ghost,” focusing on the concept of interlopers invading a space and attempting to strip it of its cultural, historical, and in the case of the film, ecological complexities. The Hallow, however, has a somewhat more mixed resolution. Adam Hitchens is first infected by the Faeries and then, after helping his wife Clare determine with child to save, her actual son or the Faerie changeling, is killed by a Faery. Clare and her son then leave, presumably to return to England, Adam’s work abandoned. The last few shots of the film, however, show that, despite the Faeries’ success in ousting Adam and his family, the forest is still cut down. Further, the logs being loaded onto trucks are clearly infected, so that the end of the film may constitute a reversal of previous decolonial narratives, where the infection or epidemic is colonialism rather than resistance.
Image Credit: IFC Films © 2013
Author: Geneveive Newman