The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Webworks: The Magnus Archives and the Powerful Failure of Diverse Horror

The Magnus Archives made a name for itself as inclusive horror. But when even a schlocky tale of giant spiders takes on resonances with transgender oppression and sexual exploitation, can the show's listeners evade the webs of trauma?

content warning: spoilers for The Magnus Archives, spiders as metaphor, spiders as monster, coercive dynamics (interpersonal, professional, sexual), transmisogyny, uncomfortable bargains with power, content warnings. 


What's most horrific or terrifying or likely to trigger a traumatic response isn't straightforward. It's not obvious. Sometimes our deepest horrors can be the most mundane. Sometimes the most fantastical can be the ones too close to home. Anything can be, for a given individual, a tripwire, an unforeseen strand of spiderweb.

This poses a problem for anyone trying to write horror targeted toward a broader audience than the kinda stereotypical edgelord white dude. That's where hit horror podcast The Magnus Archives comes in. The Magnus Archives constructs its episodes around the titular Archives of the eponymous Institute, founded by aristocrat and scholar Jonah Magnus to collect accounts of the supernatural. A century after its founding, newly appointed head archivist Jonathan Sims goes through a disastrously disorganized backlog of unfiled, undigitized reports, reading them out loud into a tape recorder, and following up with sardonic and skeptical commentary. While it starts episodic, the story gradually gains an overarching serial narrative. Things, you can probably surmise from the fact that I'm writing about the series, do not go well for the recurring cast.

TMA notably attracted a pretty wide audience of nontraditional horror fans. Some of this is surely due to a commitment by primary writer Johnny Sims to ground early stories in the horror in fantasy and phobia, and not in real world oppression-based traumas like racism, abuse, and sexual assault. While there is still plenty of distressing content, this has on the whole made the series more accessible to an audience sometimes alienated from the horror genre's potentially extreme content. That set the stage for the other big draw of the series: a recurring diverse cast of shippable queer characters. If there's one thing fandoms love, after all, it's a diverse cast of shippable queer characters! 

This has led to some expectations mismatches though. The problem with a horror series featuring that kind of cast is that eventually those diverse queer shippable characters... suffer. Typical fandom discourse is remarkably ill suited for that reality, reflexively distrusting the suffering of oppressed characters. That reflex is based on a real pattern: the suffering of marginalized people in typical media, with horror as no exception, comes in the form of them being singled out for special punishment. Usually this is punishment for transgression, like the transgression of being queer. And that fear is much more mundane, much closer to reality, and much more traumatic than any old monster.

For a majority diverse cast in a horror series, though, being occasionally picked off or experiencing nightmarish torments is just, like, the job description. Moreover, the narrative and thematic trajectory means individual vignettes get closer to more explicitly traumatic real world issues, and the characters we've come to care for get put more directly through the wringer due to these forces. Not through any malice on the part of the creators, the show ends up creating a nightmare web of negative resonances, the very audience appealed to with the diverse cast caught by the nature of horror itself.

Of course, that web was inescapable from the start.

Does that seem strange? Shouldn't it be possible to stick to pulp subject matter, to avoid triggers or the grim resonances with real life experiences of oppression? Perhaps a case study is in order! And what better way to observe the web than by sitting down together to watch a schlock film about giant spiders!

Mag 110, a story called "Creature Feature", feels like one of the more pulpy episodes, at least in conceit. A director (a fairly obvious parody of dudes like Tarantino) starts work on a film about people being eaten by a giant spider. 

...And then it turns out the giant spider is real and is eating the cast! Aaaa! 

That's just the pitch though. The story, told through the perspective of the director of photography Alexia Crawley (ha ha), is more properly about manipulation. That's a running theme in the series in fact: spiders as a symbol of manipulation. Crawley's story is one of being trapped in a toxic situation with no way out. The story opens with a lengthy backstory of her time working as DP for director Dexter Banks. Banks is a film buff and his great talent is pilfering old obscure movies for ideas, which Alexia actualizes. Alexia portrays herself as having been the power behind the throne, but she was also dependent on Banks, despite her derision towards him. She couldn't really work anywhere else in the industry, after all. 

...Not after being outed as transgender. Aaaa!

Effectively blacklisted by the studio system after being outed, Alexia provided Banks with visual magic; Banks provided Alexia with job security. She put up with his tantrums and insecurity and unreasonable demands, because, simply, she had to.

Now, that bit of backstory is a relatively offhand part of the plot, backstory conveyed in a few lines and by implication. But there's a great parallelism between the subtext of her own narrative and the stories of the characters in Banks's film. Banks, see, wants to recreate a Japanese film he remembers from his childhood, supposedly called "Spiders are Eating". The film features a number of vignettes in which characters are introduced and explored and ultimately followed to their deaths as they march willingly into the spider's mandibles. Why do they do this? Alexia doesn't explain, but the parallelism is suggestive. In the framing narrative, after all, we see characters, Alexia among them, feed themselves into the mandibles of a clearly toxic and unhinged work environment. For the need of a job, or for the prestige of working with THE Dexter Banks, people on set willingly put up with the bullshit Dexter pulls and the increasingly rotten vibes. 

Long story short, 100 extras get eaten by a giant supernatural spider. 

Here, though, we get into the realm of inescapable implication. Yes, absolutely, it's true that there is no direct transphobia or sexual violence in the episode. And yet... 

How easy is it to read this in parallel with #metoo and the exposure of systemic abuse and exploitation in Hollywood? Furthermore for trans people, particularly trans women doing creative work, it is horribly reminiscent of actual limitations and abusive environments we may get trapped in due to the hostility of cis run industries and fandoms.

Remember, too, that Alexia's story is set inside a framing narrative. It's her words, but it's Jon the Archivist's voice, a taped recording of her written statement, and Jon and his companions at the Institute have their own problems to struggle with. In that wider framing story, in that very episode, a character is psychically assaulted by a superior whose power renders him untouchable. That juxtaposition between short story and serial framing narrative highlights the all too grounded subtext of this pulp story about a giant spider eating people. The underlying theme seems to be that there are many circumstances in which we might be feeding ourselves metaphorically to a spider... marching of apparently our own accord into its waiting mandibles.

And yet this is ultimately metaphor, right? It's subtextual. Inferential. In the strictest ploddingly literal sense, the real world horrors that I reference here... never appear in the story.

That's the thing about this kind of web, though. Danger lies precisely in the negative space between the obvious lines. We fill in those spaces as readers with our own threads: reading requires us to fill absenses in the text to make it resonate. Unfortunately, when the text's lines and our own threads of history and experience and interpretation meet, it can form a disturbing trap. Moreover, it means that story elements innocuous to some might be far more negatively impactful on others.

Triggers, it turns out, are not as straightforward as fandom likes to believe. A lot of my worst nightmares don't involve horrible monsters or hell even my more overtly traumatic experiences but mundane experiences turned into inescapable grinding processes where I can never succeed and where I'll be reviled if I fail. Or, to take a more directly relevant example, I got kinda messed up by a few Magnus episodes dealing with Apartment Horror, living spaces that you have limited control over becoming twisted and rotted out and diseased. Turns out that's kind of a trigger for me, and a real nasty one in fact! 

Hence that whole Pink Floyd's The Wall project, actually. Hey I said it was rough content for me, not that I was AVOIDING that rough content!

And ideally warnings SHOULD give us the tools and control to explore even content that might be disturbing to us. But... listing warnings can be a bit of a nightmarish task of its own. If you try to map out all the possible threads in a narrative, let alone the negative spaces where threads MIGHT be for different readers, you end up with a map of the web that is itself simply the territory, or exceeds it. A recent episode included a "child abuse" content warning but not the specific warning that I probably needed: "having to remain silent about an abuser's violence for fear of retaliation from the other people around you." That's not so much a content warning, though, as it is just... the contents.

The map becomes the territory, the web becomes the world, the fanciful becomes the down to earth... Reality is insidious; it has a way of ensnaring even a somewhat distanced story. So much comes out in the telling, after all, and you can't talk about the telling without explaining it, so, the telling might become just as much a vector for the too-close-to-home horror.

This is especially true if you decide you want to tell a story ABOUT something, which seems pretty inevitable a desire for a team cognizant enough of politics to want to represent diverse experiences in the first place! TMA gradually became deeper and deeper entangled with the realities of contemporary capitalism as the story goes on. The supernatural forces and enemies in the story increasingly take on the form of work related control structures or bosses. Vast, cosmically horrific bosses to be sure but bosses nonetheless, forces about as implacable as capital. Much of the framing narrative becomes one of negotiation, finding ways to live with the compromises you must make in order to survive. As Jon comes more into his own as archivist for example, he finds he must feed on people in order to sustain himself, forcing them to confess their traumas which he then consumes. This vampiric existence is the compromise he makes in order to fight to stop the end of the world.

What interests me here though is that this is another scenario that takes on deeply uncomfortable resonances. It's difficult to throw up a notional wall around Jon's actions and treat them as fully fantasy. After all is not the demand to re-confess trauma itself traumatic for survivors? (Yes.) As metaphor this is barely subtextual and it's clear that what Jon is doing is a kind of violation, explicitly something he has the power to extract without consent. 

And it has its own resonances elsewhere in the narrative: we learn that Alexia, when the Magnus Institute was indifferent to her report, went to the press with her story. She was not treated well. It's not hard for me to think, as a trans woman, that this is partly a reflection on how difficult it is to get people to believe our experiences are real. Paired with Jon's trauma cannibalization it feels like a reminder that "believe survivors" can be a maxim of convenience, #metoo can exclude me, trauma can be believed or not depending on the particular needs of the audience.

And yes, that resonance is horrific. Thinking about it makes me kind of queasy and unsettled and little fearful. Its a kind of horror that is inextricable from experiences of oppression and abuse.

That's why I keep returning to Creature Feature though. I think what the team has done in creating a relatively accessible horror anthology is great, but I also think that this story and its place in the wider framing narrative reveal the project's limitations... and the productive ways it can fail.

It makes the project inherently something that sits on unstable foundations, because its openness as a text--the way we as readers can leap to inferences not textually explicit--means that it can step into horror scenarios all too close to home. But that also makes it effective horror, horror that retains an edge of danger, and also an edge of insight into our conditions. I like Creature Feature because it tells me something about living in the world as a trans woman. It is meaningful to me. The wider story also tells me something about the hierarchies we have built in our society and the ways in which they can lead us inexorably into the waiting mandibles of the spider. As traps of compromise go, the series reminds us, the compromise of horror sometimes hitting members of its audience in outsized ways is FAR from the worst you can find yourself making.

If I have to skip episodes sometimes--and I definitely have, recently!--because their contents are too much for me, that's a bargain I'm willing to make. If the warnings on episodes sometimes fail due to the fractal complexity of experiences, I can try to accept that failure with good grace. Experiencing horror like this is a complex ongoing negotiation of the webs of meaning and associations. That's a monster I'm willing to work with.

This Has Been

Webworks

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Shouting and howling. Pitching up and clipping out. Smothering in soundscapes of sighs. From 100 Gecs to Against Me! to Ada Rook, trans women push vocal technology to the breaking point--and in the process expose how we think of gender.

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You barricade yourself in your hotel room; it becomes a fascist rally. You write a concept album about your alienation; it becomes the Thatcherite Revolution. You live in modern luxury; it becomes a mad haunted house. This is a story about Pink Floyd's The Wall and the culmination of half a century of No Alternative.

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