Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Masculinity, Visibility, and the Vampire Literary Tradition in What We Do in the Shadows

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Masculinity, Visibility, and the Vampire Literary Tradition in What We Do in the Shadows

Article excerpt

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014), A HORROR COMEDY ABOUT A GROUP of vampires sharing a house in Wellington, New Zealand, is a peculiar example of the vampire movie, deriding the contemporary fascination with monsters, especially vampires. It generates more laughter than fear, but what strikingly differentiates it from the numerous vampire comedies of the past is its genre, the mockumentary, (1) which compels an audience to continually interpret what is shown in relation to contemporary culture. Mocking vampires, in this film, goes well beyond the realm of ridiculing a popular form of entertainment as it demonstrates a creative use of the mockumentary genre to evoke images of past vampires and contrast them to the glyph of the monster in the cultural moment of the now. The film therefore offers exciting opportunities to explore the transformation of the vampire as "an embodiment of a certain cultural moment" (Cohen, "Monster" 4). With its visual and verbal intertextual references, Shadows behaves as most vampire films do: it positions itself in the history of cinematic vampires in relation to emblematic works (Weinstock) and speaks about culture by focusing on the vampire body as the representation of the culturally other. As I will argue in this paper, the otherness that Shadows explores as a cultural phenomenon of our time concerns weakness: a loss of power that used to be associated with the monstrous other, as well as the loss of power associated with the hegemonic position of white males in society.

In order to register this process of loss, the mockumentary genre is more than helpful. Beyond showing the vampires as caricatured images of their fictional ancestors, the genre reminds the audience of the vampires' textual past: it presents personal reminiscences accompanied with representative images from our real cultural heritage relating to vampire lore, as well as fabricated visual evidence of an alternate history featuring vampires. Thus it creates a new, fake historical/mythical framework in which the main interpreter Viago and his housemates appear. Both kinds of references to the characters' past contribute to revealing the loss of power that the vampire has suffered. The monster that used to embody deep fears and utmost desires (which are also to be feared) has, as the film reveals, become gradually disempowered.

The image of the weakened vampire provokes laughter in most cases; even when tragedy hits the characters, the context and the mode of presentation guarantees the retention of the comic atmosphere. Yet, beneath this comic surface lies real anxiety found in contemporary life. As "the monster's body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary)" (Cohen, "Monster" 4), it does so in the mockumentary as well. One might argue that all that happens due to shifting the monster narrative into the comic sphere is that the fear and desire attached to the vampire have lessened, and as a consequence, we are able to laugh at something that used to embody horror or lust; but, in fact, laughter is a mask similar to the one that the vampires aim at maintaining so that they may hide in society and stay unnoticed. The laughter of this mockumentary obscures the underlying narrative that addresses both the roots and the frightening consequences of the monsters' disempowerment.

The incessant references to the vampires of the past place the characters in a broad context that Gina Wisker describes as the "conventional and historical Gothic [that] tends to foreground anxieties about ... male fears of female sexuality" (9) and more narrowly in the context of the classic vampire lore, which concerns itself with power relations such as the fear of colonization that may bring about decadence. The revenant characters' vulnerabilities strongly relate to such themes--themes that have come to the foreground again due to the significant transformation of society, starting in the 1960s, that has more recently generated a renewed discussion of the ambiguous position of white men in post-liberational culture. …

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