Part 1 – Freaks & Alien
To begin with a general point about Freaks and Aliens: one commonality that presents itself immediately is the fact that they are both about the unfamiliar. Freaks is about a group of people who are sufficiently different (or different-looking) to ‘normal’ people that they have been outcast into the circus, always on show, traveling at the margins of human habitation (emblematic, as Foucault says of the figure of the madman, of an inside-outside structure: always both on display and hidden away, or always both left out (of ‘normal’ life) and kept in (given spaces where they are ‘acceptable’)). Alien, even more radically, is about a life-form from some distant galaxy, previously unknown to humankind. The treatment of difference in these two films is quite different, but with regard to the medium and the technology itself, I think there are some similarities, which I will come to in a moment.
To make a segway into the technology used to engineer fear, one thing that’s significant to consider is how the camera in both Freaks and Aliens considers (and mediates) the line of sight of its audience. Alien, famously, is a film that relies on the horror of not seeing things – or specifically, not seeing the object of horror, which is the alien itself. Outwardly, it might seem as though Freaks operates on the opposite principle: that of showing, up close, the unfamiliar figures the audience is not used to seeing. However, I think this intuition would be misplaced: it is not the circus performers who are the objects of horror in the film, and hardly any of the scares the film produces is achieved through showing them up close. Instead, it would be useful to examine a section that does, in an obviously deliberate way, aim to create nervous anticipation: the opening scene, where the ringmaster’s proclamations about the horrifying nature of his ‘exhibit’ is complemented very conspicuously by the lack of its visual presence. So in both Freaks and in Alien, it seems that a sense of fright is generated by keeping the supposed object of horror out of sight.
The role technology plays in this is obvious: it is the use of the camera that gives the filmmaker authority over what an audience can and cannot see. This is interesting, because as a visual medium, film is thought to be premised on what is seen (or shown), but it seems that at least in these two films, a lot of the affective power is contained in the filmic subtext – in what remains unshown. If we are to think of terror as the anticipation of fright, it seems clear that the unshown is space within which terror resides; whether horror resides in the space of the shown is less clear.
One thing that seems important in this set of considerations is to think about what the framing of these objects of fright in film does. One clear way that a lot of horror works is film is by showing an unfamiliar object of horror: a ghost, or a monster, who jumps out at the audience. One might be inclined to think that in a certain way, the unfamiliar is being brought closer – that is, the distance between the unfamiliar (which one does not normally see) and the familiar (which one sees) is being closed by showing the unfamiliar, and that it is this tension which results in fright. But then how to account for the fright caused by the non-seeing in Freaks and Alien? This must be a different kind of spatiality. One suggestion with regard to Freaks is that the real object of horror is not the ‘deformed’ circus performers, but the ‘normal’ ones who are trying to kill them. Perhaps more convincingly, one could also postulate that the horror comes when the ‘freaks’, who have been thoroughly ‘humanized’ by the end of the film, set out on a mission to kill and maim their enemies – a sense in which something that has become familiar is defamiliarized. I am sympathetic to this second interpretation, partly because it is also cohesive for a reading of Alien: where biology – which is supposed to be ‘familiar’, intimate, and what which constitutes the audience members themselves – is turned into a site of danger, and is violated and mechanized beyond recognition.
Part 2 – Classwork
Much of the work we did in class during our first session had to do with the nuances of measuring fright. There were suggested methods that were broadly expected, like measuring the rate of one’s heartbeat or galvanic skin response, and some that I had not thought about; my favourite was the tracking of eye-motion to see how often someone’s eyes went off the screen (in frightful anticipation. This may not be the most reliable indicator in many cases, but I think it would be a great indicator for myself!).
After some introductory discussion, we set about making a galvanic skin response (GSR) reader using Arduino and Processing. The general idea was to use the body to complete a 5V circuit to the Arduino and track the electrical signal, thereby recording the skin’s conductivity (and hence, GSR). So the hardware aspect of the project was very straightforward: an Arduino and two sensors connected to a breadboard. Using Arduino, we simply read and compiled the data being detected by the sensors, and sent to over to Processing to be read (Serial myPort) and to enable the information to be collected in a text file.
Part 3 – Field Trip
The Augmented Reality Horror Manga exhibition presented a pretty interesting fusion of different technological media into the horror genre. Horror in manga or comic book form is, of course, a certain usage of technological medium, which relies typically on plot and imagery (and the different ways stationary imagery can be manipulated – the sizes of slides, the intrusion of (typically onomatopoeic) text, sometimes colour) to make its effect. The augmentation of comic book reality, using AR glasses (that included smartphones in this case), produced an effect that was more interesting than scary. It’s clear enough to see how moving imagery could add to the affective arsenal of comics – it might be far easier to produce jump-scares, for example. But I think it’s interesting to think about three things:
- What caused the exhibits to be ‘interesting rather than scary’ (or was that only me)? I think perhaps a key point is that the exhibits here are presented in isolation, rather than in the context of a story (which is also what makes comics scary: many comic frames in isolation might also lack the full affective quality they would otherwise have). What we saw, really, was a stripped down example of the potential of this medium.
- A well-developed comic intended for horror might often rely on elements that are tailored to stationary rather than moving imagery – such as a ‘horrifying’ detail in a noisy image, or other such images that allow one to dwell over the image. Can a moving image reproduce this kind of effect? Or would it naturally rely on different strategies to make an effect on its audience? There are plenty of scary moving gif images that rely on jump-scares; it would be interesting to look at ones that do not.
- If the affective strategies and effects created by moving images are radically different from those of stationary images (and more geared towards thinking about movement), then why would one use these images rather than simple video? What would be the qualitative difference that would make this AR project worth doing, rather than a video adaption of manga horror?