From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, witchcraft is a linchpin of contemporary fantasy writing—with each writer applying their own twist. Referencing The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, we’ve put together a timeline of ...

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A writer’s guide to witches in pop culture [timeline]

From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, witchcraft is a linchpin of contemporary fantasy writing—with each writer applying their own twist. Referencing The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, we’ve put together a timeline of pop-culture’s most well-known depictions of witchcraft.

Featured image credit: “popcorn-cinema-ticket-film” by annca. CC0 via Pixabay.

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What’s going on in the shadows? A visual arts timeline

Although cast shadows lurk almost everywhere in the visual arts, they often slip by audiences unnoticed. That’s unfortunate, since every shadow tells a story. Whether painted, filmed, photographed, or generated in real time, shadows provide vital information that makes a representation engaging to the eye. Shadows speak about the shape, volume, location, and texture of objects, as well as about the source of light, the time of day or season, the quality of the atmosphere, and so on.

Reattaching a Shadow, Peter Pan, Disney Studios, 1953. Figure 1.1, Grasping Shadows: The Dark Side of Literature, Painting, Photography, and Film (OUP 2017) by William Chapman Sharpe.

But as the famous example of Peter Pan’s amputated shadow reveals, shadows depicted in artworks can be arbitrarily shaped, placed, and even cut off by their creators. Therefore, beyond offering physical information, shadows have much to tell us on a social and psychological level. Consciously or not, whenever we see shadows we “read” them (and their creators’ intentions) in a cultural context that lends the shadows power or denies their substance, causing them to seem prophetic or threatening or willful or wispy. In the course of a dozen images, this timeline shows how some of the key meanings of cast shadows have developed over the centuries.


Featured image: Photo of shadows by terimakasih0. Public domain via Pixabay.

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Unanswered questions in Gone with the Wind’s main title

If asked to recall a melody from Gone with the Wind, what might come to mind? For many, it’s the same four notes: a valiant leap followed by a gracious descent. This is the beginning of the Tara theme, named by composer Max Steiner for the plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, whose impassioned misunderstandings of people and place propel the story.

Less known is that Max Steiner fashioned his Tara theme from another melody that he had unveiled in They Made Me a Criminal, a modest Warner Bros. film released eleven months before David O. Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind. This melodic forerunner had its own predecessor, with Steiner spinning it from a simpler prototype used in Crime School (1938).

The earlier melodies share several features that were not extended to Tara: namely, walking bass accompaniments, blue notes, and swung rhythms. For Crime School, Steiner even instructed his assisting orchestrator to strive for something “sort of ‘American’” and “hot.” Steiner also wrote the n-word next to “blues,” acknowledging a cultural debt in blatantly racist terms. For They Made Me a Criminal, Steiner counseled his orchestrator to emulate George Gershwin, who mingled jazz and symphonic idioms in Rhapsody in Blue. With the benefit of hindsight, Steiner’s concoction for that film sounds like a blues-sprinkled Tara theme.

The first entrance of the Tara theme in Gone With the Wind‘s main titleAlthough the theme was composed by Steiner, Hugo Friedhofer arranged the main title music (shown here) and signed it “Steiner + Co.” Image courtesy of L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Why did Steiner turn to these melodies when contemplating Tara? The earlier films showed young, inner-city Irish Americans struggling against overwhelming odds to escape poverty and ascend the social ladder. The characters’ ethnicity and “whatever it takes” attitudes correspond to Scarlett’s. But Steiner’s incorporation of sounds associated with jazz and the blues—the expected musical accompaniment for depicting hard, city living in 1930s films—gives these melodies a racial inflection that remains relevant in Gone with the Wind.

To carry the sounds of jazz to the fields of Tara would have been jarringly anachronistic. But it is striking that Steiner’s adaptation wipes away all traces of a racialized and racist past: walking bass lines are replaced with plushly sustained chords in the brass, swung figures are sharpened into square, dotted rhythms, and blue notes are replaced with overzealous harp arpeggios. One annotation in the score even reads “quite some harp.” (Louise Klos, one of the harpists, was Steiner’s wife.) Whether Steiner intended it, the process of drawing on, then marginalizing, African-American culture reflects through music the troublingly majestic portrayal of plantation life that characterizes the film.

Of course, most in the audience would not recognize the Tara theme as adapted from these earlier models. Also lost would have been Steiner’s decision to draw his musical emblem for Tara from melodies born of blues and jazz (or at least Steiner’s impression of them).

Did Steiner, not above writing racist slurs in the privacy of a handwritten score, make this selection to plant a provocative irony? That just as Scarlett’s family depended on enslaved African Americans, so the Tara theme admitted through disavowal its indebtedness to African American culture? At the very least, Steiner felt compelled to qualify Gone with the Wind as a “human document, dealing with white people,” an observation that is obvious yet necessary.

Max Steiner points out a passage in his score to Lou Forbes, music director for Gone With the Wind. Forbes’s tasks included monitoring Steiner’s recording sessions with the orchestra. Image courtesy of L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

But the tale does not stop there. Steiner did not write the initial presentation of the Tara theme heard in the film’s main title. He delegated the plum task to Hugo Friedfhofer, an orchestrator who had assisted Steiner on They Made Me a Criminal. With Steiner’s theme in hand, Friedhofer got to work setting what would become one of the most famous passages of music ever to come out of Hollywood. Friedhofer then passed his sketches—signed “Max Steiner & Co.”—to Reginald Bassett, who arranged Friedhofer’s arrangement for full symphony orchestra.

Tellingly, Friedhofer does not begin the main title with the Tara theme. He starts with a fragment of “Dixie” before shifting to a resplendent orchestration of Mammy’s theme. While the decision to open with “Dixie” seems intuitive for the film’s setting, its abrupt exit for Mammy’s music is less straightforward. It opens the door for speculation about music’s capacity to sustain readings that offer counterpoint to a film’s projected worldview. Friedhofer might have picked any number of Civil War-era tunes or character themes to follow “Dixie.” Did he choose Mammy’s to connect with the Tara theme’s backstory? To show that without the labor of enslaved individuals like Mammy there was no Tara? (For her role as Mammy, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, a distinction that was overdue and fraught. Writing for The Chicago Defender, Clarence Muse praised McDaniel’s performance while urging readers to support African-American filmmakers and “fight your way out” of the narrow roles Hollywood offered to African Americans. “If you don’t,” he warned, “all of our artists will become immortal gems of the old South.”)

The questions this music poses are raised quietly. And they may have only been heard—if heard at all—among the musicians who toiled in Hollywood, composing, arranging, and recording one another’s work day after day. But while Gone with the Wind marks an exceptional effort in the history of film, the shared construction of its music points to a common, collaborative dynamic in Hollywood music-making that often developed over multiple productions, like the Tara theme itself. As for music’s capacity to both celebrate and challenge the film it announces, Gone with the Wind stands apart, an appropriate distinction for a film that engenders sympathy for diverse characters while holding a flawed vision of humanity in its heart.

Featured Image: “Hollywood Sign Iconic Mountains Los Angeles” by 12019. CC0 via Pixabay.

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Horror films reinforce our fear instincts: Q&A with John Carpenter

John Carpenter’s classic suspense film Halloween from 1978 launched the slasher subgenre into the mainstream. The low-budget horror picture introduced iconic Michael Myers as an almost otherworldly force of evil, stalking and killing babysitters in otherwise peaceful Haddonfield. It featured a bare-bones plot, a simple, haunting musical score composed by Carpenter himself, some truly nerve-wracking editing and cinematography, and it spawned a deluge of sequels, prequels, rip-offs, and homages. There’d be no Scream films without Halloween, no Friday the 13th franchise, no “rules for surviving a horror film.” Cinema—suspense and horror cinema in particular—would be a lot poorer without Mr. Carpenter’s massive influence.

Halloween is now hailed as a masterpiece of horror, consistently showing up on “Best Horror Films” lists, but it has also sparked controversy over alleged misogyny and sadism. In this film, some critics argued, young women are punished for having premarital sex—all but the chaste “Final Girl.” Michael Myers, they claimed, was an agent of conservative morality, and viewers indulged misogynistic, sadistic pleasures by identifying with him. But that approach is misguided. Myers is an agent of pure, anti-social evil, and the characters who are killed are the ones who fail to be vigilant. The film does not invite us to identify with Myers—it invites us to identify with his victims. The pleasure of watching Halloween is the peculiar pleasure of vicarious immersion into a world torn apart by horror.

I spoke to Mr. Carpenter as research for my book, and the rest of this blog post is a transcription of that conversation.

Mathias Clasen: How do you feel about what critics have said about Halloween? Especially the Final Girl stuff, the sexually conservative ideological structure that is supposed to be in your work?

John Carpenter: This all comes from one guy, a Canadian reviewer, Robin Wood. He was running a film festival around the time, I think it was American Nightmares. It was his idea that Halloween was revenge of the repressed. That’s what he called it. I don’t agree with that. At all.

MC: Yeah, I don’t see it either. The way I see it, the character who is not busy having sex is being aware of her surroundings, and that’s why she survives.

JC: Exactly right, that’s exactly it.

MC: So, picking up on that, do you see Halloween as an upbeat or a downbeat film?

John Carpenter (2010). Photo by Nathan Hartley Maas. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

JC: Upbeat or downbeat film, wow. You know, that’s a really tough one to say, I don’t know if I see it as either. It’s just a little scary tale to be told around a campfire like so many movies are. And that’s about all it is, it’s not that much more than that.

MC: On the one hand it seems to say “you’re not safe,” you know, “anywhere you go a creepy guy in a mask could be there waiting for you,” but on the other hand [it says] “if you’re aware, you’ll go through the night.”

JC: That’s right, you’ll live through the night, which is always an important message. Well, I think more than just a creepy guy with a mask, I think Halloween says “evil does exist”. And if you’re aware, you can survive. Let’s put it that way.

MC: So what do you think about evil? I mean social psychologists, for example, don’t believe there is such a thing.

JC: Sure there is. Of course there is. The lack of empathy. That’s simple. It really exists, there is a lack of empathy. Some human beings don’t have it at all. At all.

MC: Including Mike Myers.

JC: Well, he’s not really human.

MC: [Some critics] talked about the use of optical point of view in slasher films, and how that supposedly leads to identification, and [they focused on] the famous first shot in Halloween where we see things through the eyes of young Mike Myers. My take on it is that you’re saving the big surprise of who the culprit is.

JC: That’s exactly right, it’s a way of disguising who the killer is.

MC: So no invitation to empathize with…

JC: No, God no. The whole movie is about surviving horror, it’s not about identifying with horror. No. It’s “watch out!”

MC: What do you think about the function of horror, why do people seek out this stuff?

JC: Well, catharsis, I guess, is one of the ancient explanations. It’s a way of coping, a way for all of us to cope with the darkness. And it has become a thrill ride type of thing, so it’s all of those. It’s a ritual, a societal ritual. “Let’s go to a horror movie.” Especially if you have a girl with you, you can cuddle, which is always fun.

MC: That’s true, the so-called “snuggle theory,” that you slip the arm around the girl screaming for dear life and show her that you can master it.

JC: That’s right, that’s part of it.

MC: When was the last time you were really, truly afraid in a movie theater?

JC: Well, I don’t go to the movie theaters anymore because of cell phones and such, but we’re all afraid of the same things. So I’m afraid of the exact same thing as you are. There’s no difference. And human beings are all afraid of the same things, that’s one of the reasons that the genre is so profound, so universal, so worldwide. You know, there are different ideas of humor. People laugh at different things in different cultures. But you see this giant monster walking around and we all respond the same way: “Holy shit! Get me out of here!”

MC: Yeah, I agree with that, that’s one of the key claims in my book—that people tend to be afraid of the same things no matter where they come from. It’s usually the dark, and heights, and spiders, and snakes, and…

JC: Yeah, you got it all, there’s a list, you know, loss of identity, disfigurement, loss of a loved one, I mean, it goes on and on.

MC: So those are some of the same evolved, hardwired buttons that horror pushes?

JC: Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s hardwired. All of this is part of our survival techniques developed over years of evolution. And it’s just our way of surviving this thing called life. We need to survive it, so we developed techniques.

MC: And you think horror films, horror literature can help us refine or calibrate those techniques?

JC: Yeah, take a dip in horror and I think it, you know, if nothing else, it reinforces what you already know. It reinforces what your instincts are.

The interview was kindly transcribed by Charlotte Biermann Bentsen.

Featured image credit: Photo of graveyard. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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Doing the right thing: ethics in the Zombie Apocalypse [video]

From popular television shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones to countless films, video games, and comics, stories of the Zombie Apocalypse have captivated modern audiences. With horror and fascination, we watch, read, and imagine the decimation of human society as we know it at the hands of the undead. As human civilization comes to an end with the Zombie Apocalypse, so does our existing code of ethics. In a world that now lacks order, our traditional conception of what is right and what is wrong is immediately thrown into question. We sat down with Greg Garrett, author of Living with the Living Dead, to discuss what ethics look like in the Zombie Apocalypse and how zombie films and literature force us to examine our modern system of values.

The man and the boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road have a running conversation about the ethics of the apocalypse. They agree that it’s wrong to consume their fellow human beings at any time, but the boy struggles with some of his father’s other guidance because in the course of their daily lives, they sometimes must make choices that seem to violate their code. When they take food or possessions they find on the road, the boy needs to be reassured that the people who own them are dead, that they are not simply stealing from others who are in need as they are. He even wants to hear that those owners would want them to take it. Yes, his father reassures him. They would. Just like we would want them to if the situation were reversed. Because we’re the good guys, and so were they. Still, the boy has a child’s unbending moral code and sense of fairness. “If you break little promises you’ll break big ones,” the boy reminds his father. “That’s what you said.” And on their journey, as they try simultaneously to find food and avoid becoming someone else’s meal, promises get broken.

When the man shoots a stranger who has threatened them, the boy is covered with his blood, a visual representation of the guilt that splashes across them both. The man is not a killer, but as he tells the boy, he will do whatever he has to keep him alive: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” This does not mean that the man has not also been affected by the killing; it simply means that he has made an ethical concession common to the Zombie Apocalypse. Just as Wichita in Zombieland says that she will do anything to keep her sister alive, many “good” characters in these zombie narratives do things they would never have done under less extreme circumstances. They compromise moral beliefs. They become more fearful, more calculating, more suspicious than they would wish, all in service of keeping themselves and those they love alive. Like the man, they have this mission, and within reason, they will do whatever it takes to survive. As Shane tells Rick in the “18 Miles Out” episode of season two of The Walking Dead, “You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live.” For many of the survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse the difficult choices arise out of that formulation: You can do the right thing, or what once was the right thing.

Or you can be dead.

The seventeenth-century British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes placed fear at the heart of his understanding of governments and of individual human behavior; for Hobbes, survival was the paramount human drive, and nothing could be worse than a world unraveled by war, the threat of violence, or, one supposes, an overrunning horde of the walking dead. In such a world, Hobbes wrote in his hugely influential work Leviathan, there can be “No Arts; No Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” For those in The Road, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and many other stories of the Zombie Apocalypse, this is an accurate accounting of the life they can expect: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Who would not be afraid in such a world? Continual fear, Hobbes concludes, is worse than all other calamities, and fear drives people to compromises and actions they might not otherwise take.


Featured image credit: “monster-spooky-horror-creepy-weird” by markusspiske. CC0 via Pixabay.

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