Issue 8: Death and the Screen. Guest Editors: Bethan Michael-Fox and Renske Visser.

Issue contents


Oscillating between death and life

Professor Helen Wheatley, University of Warwick

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Please note that this issue deals with sensitive subject matter throughout. There are discussions of death, grief, suicide, and suicidal ideation.

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Editor's Introduction

Dr Bethan Michael-Fox (@bethmichaelfox) and Dr Renske Visser (@Renske_Visser),

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Before delving in, please note that this issue deals with sensitive subject matter throughout. There are specific instances of suicide ideation discussed in Canning’s essay As Well As/Instead Of Orpheus: Making, teaching and living in grief. We hope you find the issue meaningful and engaging.

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Death for Young Adult Audiences: Complexity, Complicity and Critique in Pretty Little Liars

Bethan Michael-Fox and Renske Visser, The Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

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This article explores how death is represented, negotiated, and framed in the seven season television series Pretty Little Liars. The series is positioned as an example of a hybridised television format aimed at young audiences and as Gothic television. Avoiding positioning any popular cultural text as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of its engagement with death, this article instead utilises one popular television series to examine a range of debates about the representation of death in contemporary popular culture. Television as a medium and television aimed at young female audiences are often considered trivial. Consequently, television’s representation of death is often seen to be trivialising. However, Pretty Little Liars, and television more broadly, can function to convey several complex and ambivalent meanings about death. The analysis here focuses on the series capacity to engage with ideas about loss in the context of young people’s lives, the ways in which the series is emblematic of debates about the gendered glamorisation of death in popular culture, and the identity politics of death in the series, which can be seen to discriminate in terms of who it ‘kills off’. The article argues that Pretty Little Liars can be read as both reiterating and challenging problematic perceptions of girlhood, womanhood, glamour, and death, straddling both complicity and critique in its representations.

Please note this article has images that you can access via the PDF.

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Invisible Presences: The Elusive Twin and the Empty Screen in Personal Shopper

Katie Barnett, University of Chester

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In psychological and therapeutic literature, the death of a twin is considered to be particularly traumatic and devastating for the surviving sibling, theorised variously as a unique form of sorrow, a ‘halving’, and a loss akin to the death of the self. Although the death of a twin is a recurrent narrative trope in literature and, subsequently, on screen, relatively few films are preoccupied with the aftermath of the twin’s death and the grieving process undergone by the surviving twin. Taking an interdisciplinary perspective, uniting film analysis with psychoanalysis, death studies and sibling psychology, this article explores one such representation of twin bereavement in Olivier Assayas’s 2016 Palme d’Or-winning film Personal Shopper. Assayas’s work frequently explores the complications of death, grief, and memory, and Personal Shopper offers a rare but compelling representation of twin bereavement in its depiction of the apparent haunting of protagonist Maureen (Kristen Stewart) by the spirit of her dead twin brother, Lewis. The article contends that through its use of mirrors, screens and reflections, the film offers a complex and thoughtful representation of grief, not least in its active refusal to offer either its protagonist or the audience a sense of closure or certainty. In doing so, the film seeks to capture not only the complexities and contradictions of grief, but the particular and under-explored experience of twin bereavement and the shattering of self that ensues from this loss.

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From Chudail to Devi: Analysing Death, Evil, and Monstrous Femininity in Bulbbul

Devaleena Kundu and Benson Rajan , University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) and Queensland University of Technology

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Throughout India, particularly northern India, the chudail or the demon-woman is a dominant figure in popular mythical imagination. Depicted as a woman with scruffy long hair and backwards-turned feet, the chudail is the archetypal femme fatale. She is the ‘monstrous-feminine’, to borrow Barbara Creed’s (2007) term, the embodiment of death and evil. Opposed to popular belief, however, the construction of the chudail in Anvita Dutt’s movie Bulbbul (2020) permits the existence of ‘good’ chudails. Dutt’s movie, while adapting the chudail myth for a contemporary audience, explores the manner in which the female body becomes a site of patriarchal oppression. With close reference to the movie, this paper explores how death becomes the medium through which the oppressed woman finds a way to regain her social agency. The paper claims that the chudail’s act of inflicting death on its prey functions as a folkloric system of justice whereby evil is punished and the destitute offered divine sanctuary. The study will undertake an in-depth analysis of the death scenes in Bulbbul to show how the event of death translates into a metaphor for the consumption of evil.

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‘At Its Heart, a Haunted Town’: Patriarchal Violence, Female Resistance, and Post-Trauma in Riverdale

Raechel Dumas, San Diego State University

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This article explores thanatological themes in the CW drama Riverdale with attention to how the series employs death and its signifiers to construct a metaphor for patriarchal violence and its traumatic imprints. Focusing on three central female characters, it considers how Riverdale explores patriarchal violence and the trauma it produces both at the level of narrative and through experimentation with Gothic trappings, generic conventions, aesthetic sensibilities, non-diegetic effects, and allusions to other narratives of patriarchal violence. This analysis underscores how Riverdale discloses and navigates one of trauma’s central paradoxes: the impossibility and the imperative of its representation. It considers also how the female body in Riverdale acts as a vehicle of resistance: a site where patriarchal violence is inscribed but might also be mobilized toward alternative forms of identity negotiation and interconnection, and toward arousing in the audience a desire to participate in the radical work of participatory witnessing.

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Ugly Death: Rotting with the More-than-human in The Last of Us Part II (2020)

Dr Merlin Seller, The University of Edinburgh

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This article explores ugly affects connecting human and nonhuman in a videogame which troubles player success and anthropocentrism: The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog 2020). Re-contextualising anxiously mixed reception of this videogame’s murderous depths, I follow Haraway’s imperative to ‘stay with the trouble’ (2016:2), tracing ontological involvement between humans, fungal zombies and background assets that question both parasitism and human significance. In the first half, I focus on radical negativity surrounding Ellie’s character before following troubling affects into the second half in order to bridge the interpersonal and interspecies in the aesthetics of the backdrop which shadows the player. Connecting Nonhuman Studies approaches (Tsing 2015; Haraway, 2016; Keetley 2016; Sheldrake 2020) to a basis in Affect Theory (Ngai 2005; Berlant 2011), I utilise textual analysis to unpack player-character struggles with meaningful death in the context of ‘hypermarginal life’: rooted fungi, lichen and plants which live and die beyond even the horizon of our sympathies for the animal world.

Please note this article has images that you can access via the PDF.

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Saving Arthur Morgan: Red Dead Redemption 2 as a site of bereavement and grief-work

Ruben Vandenplas, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

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The relationship between death and digital games is strangely paradoxical. While death is considered to be a ubiquitous and pervasive feature of videogames, it rarely carries the same finality that exists in the offline world. However, this has also allowed digital games to become an interesting site for the discussion and exploration of death and mortality. The genre of Roguelikes, for instance, distinguishes itself by incorporating the permanence of death (i.e. perma-death) as an integral gameplay feature. In other cases, games such as A Mortician’s Tale and That Dragon Cancer center on death as a central theme in the game’s narrative. This article seeks to contribute to current knowledge by exploring player experiences of death in games through the case of Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games, and the death of the game’s protagonist Arthur Morgan. Concretely, this article explores how the game’s epilogue emulates grief-work and bereavement by intermittently engaging players in both loss- and restoration-oriented activities. Aside from providing a discussion of how the game’s epilogue emulates grief-work, the article draws upon Alexander Galloway’s model of gamic action to discuss the various ways in which digital games strive to enforce death, and the strategies that players employ to resist it. However, concluding the article, I note how despite a range of creative strategies to resist death, players are caught up in a paratextual web of playthroughs, highlighting how there is no escaping the death of Red Dead Redemption 2’s protagonist, Arthur Morgan.

Please note this article has images of diagrams that you can access via the PDF.

Read | Download as PDF Pages 141 – 164

Netflix Dramedy After Life and the Uncanny Nature of Grief

Gareth Schott, University of Waikato, New Zealand

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The concept of das unheimlich (Jentsch 1902), or the uncanny, is applied to the phenomenology of grief and the manner loss transforms a person’s familiar life-world into an uncertain and unfamiliar space. Discussion of the collision of the foreign (emptiness and absence) with the familiar (conjugal material objects and spaces) as a dimension of grief has been infrequent and unsystematic. This article argues that this understanding of the uncanny is commendably conveyed by the Netflix grief-comedy or dramedy After Life, written by, and starring Ricky Gervais. The UK series focuses on the anguished existence of a widower as he endures the perpetuation of his life without his wife. Characterisation of bereavement, as the experience of having someone “suddenly ripped from one’s life-world” (Dubose 1997: 368), is obscured in After Life by the continued presence (and digital afterlife) of his wife via ‘home videos’ and the video diaries she secretly recorded whilst dying. The dead’s continued presence throughout After Life reflects wider trends for the dying turning to digital services such as Safe Beyond to leave ‘date messages’ (birthdays, or anniversaries) or ‘event messages’ (weddings, graduations) that will continue to insert the physically departed into the lives of loved ones at key intervals of life. This paper explores the manner in which After Life serves to reflect on both the transformed experience of spaces in mourning and how screens contribute to the uncanny nature of grief.

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It’s a Question of Degrees: Morality, Justice, and Revenge in Telefantasy

Sharon Coleclough, Staffordshire University

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The moral quandary of killing ‘monsters’ is not new and the horror genre has made a point of walking a line between perceptions of good and evil. As the taste for violence and gore increased these discussions lessened and the ‘monster’ became fodder for the visceral brutality and righteous salvation of humanity. Using selected supernatural and fantasy texts this article explores the morality of killing everything that is not human. Additionally, though death marks a beginning for many of the protagonists in the shows cited, the article examines the impact of a final death for show characters. In a world where death is not necessarily the end for some, how is it navigated when it does eventually come for others? This article explores the development of the sympathetic other in telefantasy texts Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (1997-2003), Supernatural (2005-2020), iZombie (2015-2019), Z Nation (2014-2018), In the Flesh (ITF) (2013-2014), and Lucifer (2016-present).

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The Sin-Eater: Ritual and Representation in a Hypermodern World

Helen Frisby, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

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This article sheds light on the sin-eater – a shadowy character occasionally glimpsed by, yet tantalisingly elusive to historians of popular funeral customs. Any historical survey of this subject begs as many questions as it yields answers, but here I adopt an alternative approach. Slipping between historical fact and present-day fiction, I contend that the sin-eater and his (or occasionally her) ritual has latterly come alive again through the media of film, television and literature as a means of expressing and exploring some of the existential contradictions and anxieties engendered by present times. In thus collapsing boundaries between the historical personage and their present-day fictional representations, the sin-eater is revealed as much more than mere antiquarian curiosity; instead, they become a timeless Everyperson.

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Ghosts in the Living Room: The Televisual Gothic on Britain’s Screens

Brontë Schiltz, Independent Researcher

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Since the invention of the magic lantern, a ‘small Optical Maceehn that shews by a gloomy Light upon a white Wall, Spectres and Monsters so hideous, that he who knows not the Secret, believes it to be perform’d by a Magick Art’, ghosts and the screen have shared a long and intimate history (Owens 2019: 132). This article builds on Helen Wheatley’s work on Gothic Television, which she defines as ‘a domestic form of a domestic genre which is dleeply concerned with the domestic, writing stories of unspeakable family secrets and homely trauma large across the television screen’, to propose a Televisual Gothic, comprising texts in which broadcasting is central to both narrative and form (Wheatley 2014: 1).
In Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), a team of engineers attempt to harness hauntings to develop ‘a completely new recording medium’ to disastrous ends. Twenty years later, Kneale’s pioneering drama inspired Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (1992), which purported to be ‘a live investigation of the supernatural’ that culminated in the entrapment and probable death of beloved children’s presenter Sarah Greene, the possession of television bulwark Michael Parkinson, and the transformation of the BBC studio into a ‘massive séance’ that threatened the entire nation. In the twenty-first century, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss, three quarters of the erstwhile League of Gentlemen, took up the baton. Two episodes of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s horror-comedy anthology series Inside No 9, ‘Séance Time’ (2015) and ‘Dead Line’ (2018), delve once more into the horror that lurks behind television cameras. Aired just two months after the latter, Mark Gatiss’s ‘The Dead Room’ (2018), an original offering for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas seasonal strand, explores a haunted radio studio, but nonetheless engages with televisuality.
Ultimately, this article seeks to provide an overview of Britain’s Gothic preoccupations with the spirit box in our living rooms and its interventions in discourses of authority, nationality and morality. As increasing mistrust in the BBC and a proliferation of suicides associated with ITV reality programming make British television an increasingly horrific space, there is no better time to tune in and reckon with our spectres.

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Justice Online: TikTok, Platform Properties and the Fight for Familial Conviction

Nina Barrett, Independent Researcher

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This article explores video sharing application TikTok and its use in the quest for judicature concerning missing person Alissa Turney as conducted by sister Sarah Turney. The article explores the platform’s impact upon the structure, delivery, and content of non-fictional crime-centred social network media, as creators reframe appeals for action into short-form entertainment. This shift towards self-produced social media-based content is seen as both freeing and limiting in how it allows messages to be structured and narrativized, as Turney must work within the conventions, trends, and affordances of the medium to allow her content to garner maximum viewer retention and engagement. Turney utilises an unconventional approach towards death and grieving to adapt justice efforts towards an individualised and communal endeavour, implementing online calls to action aimed at viewers, inviting and rewarding them for promoting and engaging with her content. While much of death studies focuses on the grieving process made possible through the affordances offered by social media, this article will show how Turney uses new media to create videos and interact with viewers in order to bring attention to and affect real change for Alissa’s case.

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Adapting representations of death from page to screen in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983)

Taryn Tavener-Smith, Buckinghamshire New University

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Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983; 1998) has been praised as a novella demonstrating a “gradual development of exquisite suspense” and distinguishing, in its subtlety, “the true ghost story” (Bann cited in Scullion, 2003: 296). This article examines James Watkins’ 2012 film adaptation with particular focus on representations of the complex relationship between death and screen, which will be addressed through a close reading of the novella alongside its filmic adaptation. Both Hill’s (1983) novella and Watkins’ (2012) adaptation are littered with representations of trauma, death, and the experience of dying, predominantly by women and children, who functioned on the outskirts of Victorian society and whose existence remained largely confined to the margins. As such, this article serves to establish how the film adaptation upholds the Gothic through the representations of trauma, death, and dying in relation to Hill’s (1983) novella with particular focus on the supernatural spectral haunting of Jennet Humfrye and the death that surrounds her at every turn. In terms of Watkins’ (2012) film adaptation, my discussion will focus on those previously oversimplified representations of gender to demonstrate Watkins’ critical commentary on the marginality of female trauma.

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Soms deed je het vanwege Beek: Surveillance, subversion and the presence of death in Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s HEX

Madelon Hoedt, University of Huddersfield

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The plot of the novel HEX by Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt appears deceptively simple: the small town of Beek (or Black Spring in the English translation) is cursed, its villagers haunted by the spectre of Katharina van Wyler. Set in a rural location, the inhabitants of Beek are isolated, unable to escape Katharina, who appears to them as a constant supernatural presence rather than a direct threat. To manage Katharina’s existence, an intricate surveillance network has been installed, consisting of a large number of cameras and even a dedicated app. The novel explores a clash between medieval curses and modern technologies, where themes of surveillance, monitoring and documentation are central to negotiating Katharina’s dead body. The paper will draw on the Dutch version of the novel, using it as a lens to highlight national attitudes to death and dying as demonstrated in contemporary horror fiction and its attitude to technology.

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Interview with Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Madelon Hoedt , University of Huddersfield

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Creative Work

As Well As/Instead Of Orpheus: Making, teaching and living in grief

Laura Canning,

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Please be aware there are discussions of suicide and suicidal ideation throughout this piece.

There are also images that are quite integral to the piece. These can be viewed in the PDF.

Read | Download as PDF Pages 348 – 363


Jane McBride,

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This is a graphic piece. To view the images please refer to the PDF.

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Dr Tulp and the Theatre of Zoom – an autopsy of time and presence

Wendy Bevan-Mogg and Carina Westling,

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There are images in this piece that can be accessed by viewing the PDf.

Read | Download as PDF Pages 377 – 395

Hearing the Birds Pause

Dan O’Carroll,

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Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul

Alison Bainbridge, University of Northumbria

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Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11

Cord-Christian Casper, LMU Munich

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Sound on the Edge: Dark Nation Radio, DJ cypher, and Why You Need to “Tune In, Turn it Up, and Burn it Down”

Teresa Cutler-Broyles,

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There is an image in this piece that can be accessed by viewing the PDf.

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Gothic Cinema by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Chris Louttit, Radboud University

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Death in Contemporary Popular Culture, Adriana Teodorescu and Michael Hviid Jacobsen (Editors)

Bethan Michael-Fox, The Open University

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HEAR ME… Voices from a Care Home during the Covid 19 Pandemic, Anna Mankee-Williams and Ruth Heholt

Bethan Michael-Fox, The Open University

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There are images in this piece that can be accessed by viewing the PDf.

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Man-Eating Monsters: Anthropocentrism and Popular Culture, Dina Khapaeva (Editor)

Bethan Michael-Fox, The Open University

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Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”: Political Horror, Dawn Keetley (editor)

Harriet Stilley,

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Gaming and the Virtual Sublime: Rhetoric, Awe, Fear, and Death in Contemporary Video, Games Matthew Spokes

Emily Jessica Turner,

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Death, Memorialization and Deviant Spaces, Matthew Spokes, Jack Denham and Benedikt Lehmann

Renske Visser,

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Phasmophobia, Developed by Kinetic Games

Emory P.C. Whaley, Falmouth University

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Notes on Contributors

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