To wrap up my series on TV horror, I’m talking about surveillance in both abstract and concrete terms.

Regression, Return, and Why We Can’t Let Go of Our Damn Franchises

If horror TV is all about exposing what we’re afraid of when the show was originally made, then what does current horror TV tell us about our fears right now? The genre as it currently stands breaks out into three fairly self-contained segments: fear from our past, fear in our present, and fear of our future. The first generally comprises the current spate of adaptations from the horror film canon to TV, and covers updates on much-loved series from the TV horror history. Shows like Bates Motel, From Dusk Til Dawn, and Ash Vs. The Evil Dead all bring big screen horror to the small screen, and at the same time updates to shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks reinvigorate beloved genre classics. The parallel trends of sequels and remakes have specific historical implications for the anxieties that the horror genre represents. Sequels work similarly to how Sigmund Freud says repetition compulsion works: people who’ve experienced trauma relive and reenact that trauma compulsively, attempting to work through it or change it in their favor without ever quite being able to. Sequels are a way for us to replay the same stories, the same fears, because we aren’t ready to move past them and confront other sources of dread in our world.[1] Remakes, on the other hand, are a return to these fears. This means that culture has moved on, or at least dressed up the same problems in different clothes, but a specific fear reaches a collective fever pitch so that the most effective form of release is a familiar expression of that familiar fear. We don’t just need to work through our angst, we need to work through it in a way that is recognizable and comfortable.

Independent horror online in 2017 works on the same principles but in a slightly different way. There are, of course, content creators on YouTube that have relatively large budgets and follow the same narrative and aesthetic trends as mainstream media (BlackBox TV, The Grimoire Chapters, and the Carmilla series on KindaTV). And then there are Troy Wagner’s projects, which have proven to be fairly popular (Marble Hornets spawned feature films, multiple partner and response channels, and a video game). His work, especially his work in the horror genre, invariably uses videocassette tapes as the source of evil. Rather than returning to old storylines, characters, and settings, Wagner returns to old technology, only with a 2010 spin. The tapes and older AV tech in Wagner’s fictional universe can be tracked. Viewing habits are monitored. The idea that any post-digital technology is subject to undetectable surveillance is an extrapolation of how the surveillance state works in relation to race and indigeneity that we see in The Exorcist. This may seem like a stretch, but stick with me. By keeping communities of color and other marginal communities rooted in the past, it keeps them visible, fixed in a known and knowable space where the state (governing, hierarchical apparatuses across political, economic, and cultural spheres) can see them. Omniscience and the ability to define a community’s position in time make it easier to exert control over that community. Then there’s ARPANET. ARPANET was one of the first iterations of what we now think of as the internet. It was developed by the US military during the Cold War to help facilitate intra-military communication in case of nuclear war. If any technology developed since ARPANET can spy on people then everyone is equally fixed, equally at risk. Wagner makes the risks of being surveilled universal, simplifying how surveillance state actually functions. Surveillance may be omnipresent and disregard race, class, gender, etc. on the surface, but marginal communities are at significantly increased risk of harm as a result of surveillance.

Demons Out of Time

What we consider history doesn’t always exist in a time separate from our own current reality. In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Anne McClintock spends a great deal of time discussing what she calls “panoptical time and anachronistic space.” This second phrase is helpful in understanding horror media’s preoccupation with the so-called primitive civilizations, especially as caricatures of these civilizations are useful in spiritual and occult horror. According to McClintock,

Since indigenous peoples are not supposed to be spatially there—for the lands are “empty”—they are symbolically displaced onto what I call anachronistic space, a trope that gathered […] full administrative authority as a technology of surveillance in the late Victorian era. According to this trope, colonized people—like women and the working class in the metropolis—do not inhabit history proper but exist in a permanently anterior time within the geographic space of the modern empire as anachronistic humans, atavistic, irrational, bereft of human agency—the living embodiment of the archaic “primitive.” (30)

First, McClintock is working off of a core principle here: that in order to justify colonization, the people being colonized have to be made non-existent, the space has to be empty—the colonizers aren’t taking over people, aren’t displacing communities, they’re just filling in otherwise unoccupied space. This ideology is at work with other forms of oppression, as well, only to different degrees (“poor/working class/rural folks are more traditional than city folks,” “women are emotional whereas men are rational”). The problem with simply stating that indigenous people don’t exist in a space being colonized is that, put simply, they do. It takes a lot of ideological work to erase people who are standing in front of you. This conflict is avoided by thoroughly identifying indigenous people with the past. This process means that indigenous people effectively exist in the past, unable to ever be considered in the same temporal space as the colonizer. We’re going to refer to this ideological think-set as “outside-time.” Outside-time is not quite the same space that Jose Munoz talks about in terms of queer futurity. Outside-time may be liminal in name, but is not so far removed from the colonizer. It is equally engaged with the surveillance state so that people living in outside-time become truly invisible. By removing people from history proper, this technology fixes-in-place indigenous and other marginal communities, makes them easier to surveil, discipline, and control.

In the 1973 film The Exorcist, the demon that possesses Regan (Linda Blair) is released from an archeological dig in Iraq. In the Fox TV adaptation of the film, also titled The Exorcist, the demon first appears in Mexico City, where it possesses and kills a young boy. Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) tries to exorcise the demon. The demon then follows Father Marcus to Chicago, where is possesses Casey Rance (Hannah Kasulka). In both the film and the TV show, the demon originates from spaces that are stuck in time, that we aren’t allowed to imagine as modern. Yes, there are archeological sites in Iraq, and yes, there is extreme poverty in some parts of Mexico City. But that isn’t all there is in these spaces.

Two problems arise with the demon originating from Iraq/Mexico when we think about it in terms of McClintock’s description of anachronistic space. First, in US media, the vast majority of depictions of non-Western (non-white) spaces paint those places as poor, uncivilized, uneducated, and ultimately desperate. These depictions don’t help start conversations about our own complicity in global poverty, the lasting effects of colonialism and neocolonialism, or a close examination of how communities in the US that have been systematically and institutionally exploited look very similar to the communities we seen on screen. Instead, these images place the countries we see in the past: Ethiopia is now and will always be dirt huts and children covered in flies; Brazil will always be shootouts in the narrow alleyways of the favelas; Vietnam will always be rice paddies and serene temples on hills overlooking clear blue bays. There may very well be places like this in these countries, but they aren’t the entire country, and these images allow us to keep people of color firmly in the past.

The second problem, which will be all-to-familiar to anyone who’s read my other pieces about race in horror, is that the narrative is constructed around fear that people of color (specifically men of color) will infect and define white girls/women. This fear isn’t new, it predates D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915). In case you don’t know what The Birth of a Nation is yet, it was originally titled The Clansman, and is an alternative history of the Civil War and Reconstruction in which, after slavery is abolished, black men take over the government and run amok until the Klu Klux Klan, who are depicted as valiant and noble knights, ride in and save the day. The major narrative conflicts in the original The Birth of a Nation are when black men propose to white women. In the fist instance, the woman in question, Flora Cameron (Mae March), is so afraid of the man that she throws herself off a cliff. In the second, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), is kidnapped and must be rescued by The Klan, which leads to them taking control of the town again. This viewpoint, that white womanhood is always vulnerable and must be violently protected against men of color and their uncontrolled lust, was not just Griffiths’ fantasy. It was then, and is still, a major motivating factor in racial discourse, even if it looks different now than it did in 1915. Instead of a black man cornering a white woman on a precipice, in 2017 we have a demon from Iraq/Mexico tempting and taking over a young white girl’s body and soul. On a national, cultural level the US is just as afraid now of people of color as we were in Griffiths’ time, we just dress it up a little differently.

The De-Concretization of Knowledge

There’s underground, independent horror, and then there’s the content that Troy Wagner creates. Wagner wrote, directed, and produced the Marble Hornets (2010-2015) web series alongside Joseph DeLage and Tim Sutton. At the time Wagner, Delage, and Sutton produced and distributed the series under the pseudonym THAC (TroyHasACamera). During production of the series’ original sequel, Clear Lakes 44 (July – September 2016), DeLage and Sutton parted ways with Wagner and the project was canceled soon after. In October of 2016, Wagner began publishing a new project, ECKVANET. The series may be a sequel to Marble Hornet or a spinoff. Wagner may be working with past collaborators, or on his own. The series may be ongoing or may end at any time. There is little-to-no official information available, and understanding the narrative requires engagement with online forums and related websites. As of this publication, the related sites are as follows:

The Marble Hornets series is based loosely on the Slenderman mythos. Slenderman was originally introduced to the online horror community by Victor Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) on the Something Awful forums. The monster was then picked up by Creepy Pasta. Creepy Pasta began as a meme on 4chan with a small collection of short-form horror stories mostly written and published anonymously. Now, most of what we think of as “creepypasta” come from the titular website, which allows writers to post their own short horror pieces. In this way, Slenderman spread across the horror sectors of the internet with dubious uniformity. With Marble Hornets, THAC established a set storyline, pattern of behavior, and consistent aesthetics that is now recognized as “the Slenderman.” Marble Hornets is primarily an examination of external surveillance, self documentation, and unreality in the post-VHS age. This is where ECKVA comes in. The ECKVA is a supposedly defunct TV network, that still sends broadcast signals to an old, broken down house that the protagonist inherited but hasn’t been able to make livable. Broadcasts consist primarily of commercials for careers with ECKVA, a prescription drug called Preaxin that’s used to treat an unnamed condition, and hand-drawn sketches for a children’s program called “Alis Pastry.” While the network job advertisement and children’s program are interesting from a narrative standpoint, and may gain significance as the series develops, it’s the Preaxin commercial that best illustrates the political and social anxieties that ECKVA engages.

The Preaxin commercial’s opening voiceover states that: “Life needs your full attention. There’s no reason to give it any less. But sometimes things happen that are out of our control.” One of the main narrative points of horror in ECKVA so far (remember, it’s an ongoing series), has to do with the imperative to keep watching the broadcasts. The network’s tagline in the first episode is “Stay Inside. See What’s Important,” and most episodes contain threatening instructions to watch TV and pay attention. Like with most of Wagner’s projects, there are few overt statements regarding what malevolent forces exist in the world of the narrative, what motivates those forces, or how they operate. The implication, however, is that ECKVA, a large media conglomerate that manages to send out broadcasts coded with subliminal messaging, is involved with both psychological and chemical reconditioning. At its core, ECKVA is specifically horrifying because it mobilizes underground horror techniques (found footage, low production quality, cinéma vérité) to make a conspiracy theory compelling and realistic. A great deal of the series’ content exists online, in forums, discovered and disseminated through grapevines that stand on faith rather than verifiability. Digital information is ephemeral and intangible, just like the radio waves that transmit TV signals. ECKVA is concerned with the way that information is plentiful and unreliable; we know about a lot of things but we can’t be sure if we actually know about them, and that’s where the terror comes in.

[1] Yes, I am aware that the popular theory of sequels is that they’re a way for studios to milk a storyline/character for all it’s worth in the media market. This is true, in part. The only reason it works that way is because people want to see the same story again. I’m theorizing here that the “why” of that desire, for horror at least, has to do with rehashing anxiety. After all, sequels aren’t just magically successful “because they are,” there has to be a reason that the story continues to work.


References and Further Reading:

Dijck, Jose Van. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Mineola, NY: Dover Publication, 2015. Print.

McChesney, Robert Waterman. Digital Disconnect How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet against Democracy. New York: New, 2014. Print.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Author: Geneveive Newman

Image Credit: Fox © 2016