Through the Looking-Screen

Posted by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodriguez on February 28, 2014 in Blog, Gabriel A. Eljaiek-Rodriguez, Guest Blog tagged with

My perception of screens (movie, television, phone, etc.) has changed considerably since the beginning of the new millennium. After watching the Japanese film Ringu (1999) by Hideo Nakata, the TV screen ceased to be merely the reflective surface of a familiar machine; it became a portal through which communication between the world of the living and the dead was possible. Although I had been an avid consumer of horror films since I was a little kid, movies such as the excellent Poltergeist (1982) by Tobe Hooper or Videodrome (1983) by David Cronenberg —films in which the screen also becomes a multidimensional portal—failed to provoke the same visceral reaction. Something in the Japanese film made ​​my perception change, and inspired me to look with new eyes at the once-familiar electronic devices surrounding me, displaying their large screens as shiny thresholds for unknown entities to travel across and through.

A similar feeling was roused in me upon rereading the cinematic short stories of Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga (1878 – 1937), in which the movie screen (Quiroga wrote in an age when the existence of television still belonged to the domain of science fiction and fantasy) functions as a portal that ghosts and other supernatural beings can cross freely, returning from the realm of the dead or other parallel worlds. Tales like “El Espectro” (“The Specter”, 1924), “El puritano” (“The Puritan”, 1935) and “El vampiro” (“The Vampire”, 1935) predate – in an uncanny form – the aesthetic and thematic approaches to the phenomenon adopted by Japanese horror cinema and its auteurs.

Horacio Quiroga

Horacio Quiroga

Ghosts are used in these two very different contexts and cases, then, as ways to represent and discuss anxieties about the advances of science and the uses of technology, at the same time that they express a cautious fascination with this seemingly unstoppable progress. In the case of the Japanese films mentioned, this concern with the ability of ghosts to move and adapt to technological changes is not only related to what happens in the films – the ghosts are able to travel and expand the range of their curses using cell phones, VHS cassettes, TV, cinema and computer screens – but is also limited to what happens outside the film, that is, the viral expansion of ghosts stories and filmic narratives as ways to talk about social and political issues.

The idea of the cinema screen as a portal that allows the entry and exit of ghostly entities and communication between the living and the dead has been reshaped and adapted by several films since the second half of the XX century, from different perspectives and genres: Poltergeist is one of the best known of the horror genre, staging the tragedy of a family haunted by ghosts that come and go through the TV, as well as Shocker (1989) by Wes Craven, featuring a supernatural serial killer that can travel through TV screens. Outside of the genre, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) by Woody Allen uses a similar idea to shape a romantic comedy, in which an actor emerges from the cinema screen to carry out a romance with an ordinary woman. However, it is within the medium of the Japanese horror film that the subject finds its best transformation and where the similarity with Quiroga’s stories becomes more evident and ominous.

There are two particular images, one literary and one cinematic, that can perhaps best illustrate these connections:

 

Ringu

Sadako emerging from the TV in Ringu

 

“I saw him moving forward, growing, coming to the edge of the screen, looking at me the whole time. I saw him detach himself coming towards us in the light, coming through the air above the heads of the people sitting in the balcony, raising himself up, coming towards us with a bandaged head. I saw him extend his fingertips…” (My translation).

 

Both in the Japanese film and in the Uruguayan short story, the movies – videotape in the first and celluloid and its projection in the second – are the vehicles that transport vengeful ghosts; while the screen is the threshold that allows their mobilization, their entry from one world to another. The screen becomes an area of transition for specters that emerge from death, from the tomb, and appear as surface themselves in the flat medium of the screen. They no longer appear as site-specific ghosts, haunting a particular place; instead they move freely through the surface of cinema and TV screens, camera lenses, and in the case of other Japanese and Asian movies, the screens of computers and cellphones.

The ability to move further through technology is one of the major innovations of these narratives within the cinematic horror genre. The ghosts are no longer confined to the restricted and fatigued space of the haunted house or the cemetery, but can extend the range and power of a curse or persecution using the omnipresent electronic devices. As Mitsuyo Wada Marciano states in her article “J-horror: New Media’s Impact on Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema”, technology is used “as a medium for the horrific” (20) and in this “medium of transportation” lies part of the novelty and attraction of many J-Horror works (to say nothing of the similar K-Horror genre and other uniquely Asian iterations).

This ominous side of cinema and film technology – the one that allows the mobilization of ghosts – is shared by other media and information systems such as TV, cell phones, and computers (all of them equipped with screens), as Asian filmmakers constantly remind us. It is the case of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japanese director whom in his film Pulse (Kairo 2001) shows an Internet haunted by ghosts, where they are not only allowed to travel and pass through computer screens but are also given the ability to transform Internet users into ghosts.

Quiroga’s interest in the terrifying capacity of technology and its advances (specifically film) is evident in stories in which the featured protagonists are recurring characters of the Gothic genre. Ghosts and vampires put in multiple appearances in Quiroga’s stories, mobilizing and merging with new terrors generated by the American arrival of technological elements such as the cinematographer and the development of film as entertainment. The writer makes clear that the cinema, with its immaterial projection and translucent support, is haunted by ghosts, for whom the mixture of still images, motion and light appears as an ideal space within which to live, move and maintain their immortality.

Complementing and carrying the idea of cinema as a mechanism to capture vital moments of the actors even further (a theme explored in “The Specter”), Quiroga asserts that technology can entrap the spirit of the actors, tying them to the world of the living even after their deaths. This is the premise of the short story “The Puritan”, enunciated by the ghost of a dead actor whom, along with other dead performers, meet at night in the halls of a film studio. Cinema and ghosts are two elements that go hand in hand in Quiroga’s short stories, highlighting both the spectral condition of film and ghosts’ predilection for cinema. The ghostly protagonists of “The Specter” are “all eyes” for the screen, only interested in what happens on it, abandoning the traditional activities of ghosts (like scaring the living) in order to watch movies. Although they do not live in the theater, they haunt it, relating to this space in a particular way, as if part of the curse that keeps them on earth implores that they must spend each night watching films.

Both Uruguayan and Japanese ghosts share this predilection for technology, in a way that both talks about and speaks to particular fears and concerns that their societies and respective writers and filmmakers have with technology’s advances and inevitable progress. In both cases, an important part of what comprises the horror in these stories comes from the technology that creates devices that are able to capture vital moments of the living and mobilize spirits of the dead, while at the same time describing social and cultural problems using one of the most representative characters of the Gothic and Horror genres- the ghost. And with no signs of a technological slowdown, it is likely that these beings will keep spreading – echoing the spread of technology – from one corner of the world to the other. In other words, it might not be a bad idea to keep your smartphones—and their screens— facing down.

 

References:

Pulse. Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Per. Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki. Toho Company, 2001.

Quiroga, Horacio. “El espectro”. Cuentos escogidos. Uruguay: Alfaguara, 2008.

—. “El puritano”. Cuentos escogidos. Uruguay: Alfaguara, 2008.

—. “El vampiro”. Cuentos escogidos. Uruguay: Alfaguara, 2008.

Ringu. Dir. Hideo Nakata. Per. Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Yûko Takeuchi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Ōtaka. Toho Company, 1998.

Wada-Marciano, Mitsuyo. “J-horror: New Media´s Impact on Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema”. Horror to the Extreme, Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

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