Experiencing the Uncanny Media

Posted by on August 13, 2008 in Blog tagged with


The Uncanny Media Conference was held at Utrecht University from the 7 to the 9 of August; the theatrical backdrop for this academic and artistic experience was the beautiful city of the Netherlands as well as the striking events of the Summer Darkness underground festival. While papers were delivered in an academic building, Gothic characters, sometimes clad in Matrix-like latex, sometimes in dark-Victorian or Gothic Lolita outfits paraded through the city’s main squares and canals, on their way to goth music concerts and artistic presentations, generating a truly enchanted ambience.

The conference had promised to be interdisciplinary and international, and it certainly delivered that. The sessions were divided into diverse and engaging topics, covering gothic children in film and literature, the monster in imperialist fiction, eighteenth-century gothic drama, and vampires in goth music and Nazi discourse.

As the name for the conference suggests, the ultimate goal was to explore the issue of mediation and the uncanny, and the presenters suggested different media that the uncanny traversed; for instance, some papers focused on older means of communication and their role in generating uncanny entities: spiritualist photography, ghosts in the telegraph and telephone, as well as possessed typewriters in nineteenth-century fiction were some of the examples offered. Other works suggested the presence of the uncanny in new forms of communication, such as cell phones, the internet, and video games. Lastly, other presenters explored ghostly and unnerving effects in film, music and architecture. In one paper, film was examined as a machine with the potential to resurrect memories as well as departed ones. In a similar way, another presentation showed the resurrecting power of the nostalgic music of the viola in the film, Tous les Matins du Monde. Two other papers were concerned with the way in which architecture generates ghostly presences, as in transparent spaces or intelligent homes. Since one had to choose to attend one session or the other, I cannot mention all of the topics covered, but the full programme is still available at www.uncannymedia.nl.

Apart from the papers, the conference boasted the presence of keynote speakers. Steven Bruhm’s "Cell Phones from Hell" explored just that–how cell phones in film and real life can be demonic, and how they function differently from telephones in horror films (with cell phones the person doing the calling is no longer attached to a locality, increasing the sense of horror). Adriana Skarped offered "Nothing is True, Everything is Permissible–Gaming on the Edge of Reality," which explored issues of play and virtuality, so present in contemporary media culture. Lastly, Fred Botting presented the topic of "The Four Orders of Spectrality" and employed two filmic texts to illustrate his point: "The Sixth Sense" and "Zidane," which is concerned with haunting and doppelganger effects generated by our celebrity culture. These academic presentations were complemented by the live readings of guest authors PatrickMcGrath (writer of stories, seven novels an adaptation for film and the editor of The New Gothic, a collection of short fiction) and Greg Bechtel (writer of short stories and recipient of several literary awards). Both live readings gave everyone a sense of what is being written today in terms of the uncanny, and it also provided the artistic balance to the academic talks.

 Speaking of "artistic balance," I wanted to conclude by commenting briefly on the artistic events that were weaved into the academic programme. The movie night featured the adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel "Spider" (directed by David Cronenberg); it was featured at midnight, of course! The Salon d’Esprit event featured an unnerving music and visual presentation and was inaugurated by local poet, Ingmar Heijtze. The Gothic Fantasy market was the "commercial" and main parading site for the Summer of Darkness Festival; the constant flow of fantastically-dressed characters gave one the sense of how alive Gothic is, despite its philosophical links to Death and Darkness. Last but not least, the Medusa Gala Dinner and Party at the end of the conference, was the culmination of Gothic aesthetics. It truly was an amazing event, taking place in a medieval (thus truly Gothic) salon and courtyard, with eerie projections on the walls and vaulted ceilings. Flowing draperies, chandeliers and the ever-present Gothic characters, who seemed to float into the room created a Gothic wonderland. A performance to the rhythm of the DJs music and the presence of Medusa, the creator of the party were other highlights of the evening.

The Uncanny Media Conference was a success at all levels. It was a happy marriage of academia and aesthetics, in which the topic that had to be addressed, that of the mediation of the uncanny, was approached from various angles. Dr. Isabella Van Elferen, (Concept Manager and Conference Chair) and all of her team managed to create an environment where the uncanny thrived and promised to resurface in the near future, as it always does.

Ilse Marie Bussing, University of Edinburgh

Photographs by LeAnne Kline  



Many more photos from LeAnne can be found at


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