Mary Pickford Links

Posted by Sarah

Here is a link to Mary Pickford films on

Stella Maris

Some of the shorts include DW Griffith’s An Aracdian Maid (1910), The Narrow Road (1912) and A Beast at Bay (1912). These are all about 15 minutes long.

I’d especially recommend some of the longer films such as Stella Maris (1918) and Pollyanna (1919).

Summary of Discussion on Coquette

Posted by Sarah

The discussion prompted by Coquette focused on several areas: the definition of melodrama, especially in relation to content vs form; the film’s old-fashioned feel; comparison of Norma’s punishment to other female characters at the time and earlier; Mary Pickford’s star entrance; Pickford’s star image – from the Girl with the Curls to the Woman Without Them; Hollywood’s focus on youth; modern actresses and image changes; Pickford’s performance.coquette poster

We began by relating the film to our previous experience of, and assumptions about, melodrama. The basic story has many melodramatic elements.  The central character is a young woman named Norma (played by Mary Pickford) whose reputation is at stake.  A misunderstanding leads to Norma’s lover Michael (played by Johnny Mack Brown) being shot by her father and a death-bed scene. This results in a murder trial where Norma attempts to save her father’s life by perjuring herself. She tries to convince the court that Michael raped her, therefore providing her father with a reason for his action.

Coquette generalHowever the storytelling is not very melodramatic. The film did not follow the theme of concealment and revelation we have noted in other melodramas. A key example of this is the fact that Norma told her brother, and the audience, of her intention to lie on the witness stand. This meant we were not left in suspense as to how she might react. In addition, while Norma and Michael’s separation is presumably meant to be very distressing to both of them, the film does not convey this strongly.  We also thought that Norma’s long-standing, and older, admirer Stanley (Matt Moore) might have played a larger part in the film, providing the third point of a melodramatic triangle. This was not the case.

The difference between the film’s content and its form (primarily its plotting–both overall and within scenes) is therefore important. Since the story has melodramatic elements but the plotting does not highlight this, might we consider the film to be intended as melodrama, but simply not very effective? Or does the lack of suspense in terms of concealment and revelation preclude us from considering it to be melodrama at all? Of course this assessment of ‘quality’ rests on our judgment today, and views at the time might well have been different.

Coquette was based on relatively recent (1927) play of the same name by George Abbot and Ann Preston Bridgers. The film’s contemporaneous (to its release) setting is foregrounded by long-held close-ups of invitations to dances in 1928. However, we thought the film seemed old-fashioned for its time. The ‘feel’ was compared to that of Pleasantville (1998) in which the two main characters from the 1990s find themselves inhabiting a chirpy 1950s America.

The film’s old-fashioned nature was especially seen in the treatment of the mainCoquette distress character. Norma’s ‘sins’ are small. She has spent the night, unchaperoned, with the man she loves in a cabin. Nothing happened between them. Yet she is severely punished: her lover is shot dead; she feels compelled to paint a very negative view of his character in order to help her father be acquitted of a murder charge; she witnesses her father’s suicide at his trial.

clara bowThe New Woman was already well established in Hollywood films by this time. Colleen Moore played the definitive flapper in Flaming Youth six years earlier, and Clara Bow appeared to have It in 1927. Compared to these, and others, and especially given the fact that Norma’s sins are fairly insignificant – she is a coquette, or a flirt after all, not a ‘bad’ woman or a prostitute – the film seems out of its time.

We connected this strongly to Mary Pickford’s star image. The film was presenting a ‘new’ Mary one who way ‘bobbed, audible and coquettish’ according to Photoplay in May 1929. We spoke at some length about Pickford’s star entrance. Norma is referred to, butCoquette dress not seen, for some time. Immediately before we see her she is being joshed by her brother Jimmy about spending too long in front of the mirror. We only hear her voice to begin with. This is frustrating on two counts – the quality of Pickford’s voice is less assured than those of the other actors (though there may also be some microphone issues) and our sight of her is delayed. When she does appear though, she is very striking. As well as the new hairstyle, Pickford is wearing a beautiful modern dress. While this is modest in some ways the flimsy material focuses attention on her legs.

 The way youth was used to ‘sell’ stars and films was seen in the Photoplay piece and has been the subject of academic work. (See Heather Addison. “” Must the Players Little MaryKeep Young?”: Early Hollywood’s Cult of Youth.” Cinema Journal 45.4 (2006): 3-25.) It was thought that this new image was not thoroughly modern as perhaps Pickford could not risk alienating her established fan base. Much of her previous appeal had been predicated upon recognition of her as ‘Little Mary’ or the ‘Girl with the Curls’.  This relies on a very different presentation of youth.  It is also at odds with the fact Pickford’s capability as a businesswoman (a co-founder of United Artists) and her private life – her happy marriage to Douglas Fairbanks – were continually dealt with in the press.

Gaylyn Studlar has written that Pickford appealed to the, in some ways already vanished, Victorian notion of childhood and its excessive sentimentality. (See Gaylyn  Studlar, “Oh,” Doll Divine”: Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze.” Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001): 196-227.) As Studlar pondered the audience for Pickford’s silent films we were also curious as to the intended and actual audience for Coquette. The appeal to the modern seen in Photoplay’s focus on consumption was severely compromised by the film itself. Although Pickford was indeed ‘bobbed, audible and coquettish’ she did not seem young: Norma/Pickford was not seen engaging in the frantic dancing of the other youths in the film. The moralistic tone of the play – there is no happy ending which is unusual for other melodramas of this, and an earlier, period – seemed unlikely to sit well with those who had seen It and Flaming Youth.

lillian gishWe broadened out the discussion to some others of Pickford’s contemporaries. While Moore and Bow symbolised the new, Lillian Gish, like Pickford, was of the past. However Lillian Gish’s appeal, while also based on innocence, was not dependant on her occupying a child’s role. The playing of child roles seemed very particular to Pickford.  Gish was far more often a child-woman. As early as 1920 she was playing single mother in Way Down East.

Some modern actresses who have noticeably had a ‘statement’ haircut in order to break free from their earlier star images were also mentioned: Harry Potter’s Emma Watson and Miley ‘Hannah Montana’ Cyrus.  We also cited several actresses who, like the 37 year-old Pickford in Coquette, have played, or continue to play, younger than their actual age. These included Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter and Natalie Portman.

Coquette Pickford and BeaversThe change in Pickford’s hairstyle was clearly significant, yet the nod to the modern was not extended to the film’s treatment of her character’s morality and behaviour or indeed Pickford’s acting style. At times Norma seemed very young. She climbed onto the lap of the maid (Louise Beavers) to be comforted. Pickford’s acting was occasionally heavy handed. The moment Norma feels an excessive pain in her chest which she takes to correspond to Michael being shot was particularly memorable since Pickford clutches her chest with such violence. Norma was also, unsurprisingly, hysterical on learning of her lover’s death.

Instances of the overtly dramatic sat uncomfortably with some of the film’s, few, lighter moments. One of these seems to in itself be mocking, or at the very least drawing attention to, melodramatic performance.  Michael reacts to one situation with a moody and long-held stare. Norma/Pickford waits a little while, and then looks to the audience. The gaze then turns back to Michael with Norma/Pickford seeming to wonder at how Michael has managed to keep the pose for so long. Pickford’s performance within a performance is referenced throughout by one of her repeated gestures. After saying the word ‘adorable’ (whether to her admirer Stanley or her lover Michael) she places Coquette lip pointher finger to her lip in a coquettish way, prompting others to kiss her.  It is noticeable that when Norma/Pickford utters the word ‘adorable’ for the last time in the film, it is not accompanied by the gesture. The events Norma has been through have perhaps finally broken her meaning that any coquettish behaviour would be out of place.

Many thanks to Tamar for suggesting a film which provoked so much discussion.

Do, as ever, log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.

Mike Kuchar Melodramas at the Tate Modern on 30th of November

Posted by Sarah

Keeley has very kindly emailed to let us know that the Tate Modern is screening a season of underground American filmmaker Mike Kuchar’s films. The third of these events, which takes place on the 30th of November, focuses on Melodramas and Teleplays. These include The Craven Sluck (1967), The Stranger in Apartment 9F (1998) and Madam Dante’s Inferno (1990). After this event the filmmaker will be giving a presentation.


The all-important link:

Many thanks to Keeley for the email!

Mary Pickford on Psychobitches

Posted by Sarah

Ahead of the screening of Coquette on Wednesday, I thought it might be interesting to consider the presentation of Mary Pickford on Psychobitches. In the Sky Arts comedy series Rebecca Front stars as a therapist helping famous, and infamous, women from history. Julia Davis as Pickford can be seen on youtbe:

Davis as Pickford

The clips comment effectively on Pickford’s star image, genre expectation and silent films. All in 2 and a half minutes!



Apologies, for the delay, but this also seems a good opportunity to congratulate Tamar for guessing the right answer to the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Psychobitches Challenge. In the clip Mark Gatiss’ Crawford calls Frances Barber’s Davis by the single-syllabled ‘Bet’ rather than the double-syllabled ‘Bette’. Apparently, despite their feud, she would never have dreamed of doing this. Even to wind up Davis!

Well done too to Rosa for supllying another valid answer.

Many thanks to Lies and Ann-Marie for organising this and supplying the great prizes.

Screening of Butterfly Kiss on Friday 29th at Queen Mary Uni, London

Posted by Sarah,

Recently Lavinia mentioned the final screening of a Michael Winterbottom season she has co-organised. Butterfly Kiss (1995) will be shown at the Hitchcock Cinema, Arts One, Queen Mary, London on Friday the 29th of November at 6pm.

butterfly kissIt will be introduced by Dr Michelle Aaron (Birmingham) who has published on the film.

Please see the flyer for more information and many thanks to Lavinia for drawing the group’s attention to this.


Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 27th of November, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the sixth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 27th of November in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Tamar’s choice: Coquette (1929, Sam Taylor, 76mins).

Please see below for a fabulous introduction to this Hollywood Melodrama, and its star Mary Pickford. ‘Whoopee! Here Comes Mary’ is from the May 1929 issue of the fan magazine Photoplay and was accessed via the fantastic Lantern resource on the Media History Project website:

photoplay May 1929 p46

The article’s treatment of performance, audience expectation (both star and genre) and the way in which these sometimes collide, as well as the focus on fashion and consumption, will prove very fruitful points for discussion.

Do join us, if you can, for silent screen star Pickford’s first sound film.

Summary of Discussion on Twin Peaks and the X Files

Posted by Sarah

After running the session on Twin Peaks and The X Files, Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion.

 Twin 1

In this week’s session the discussion focused mainly on the relationship between Twin Peaks and The X-Files as popular television shows and the use of horror and melodrama as predominant features throughout both. Continuing the discussion points raised by the previous session’s screening of American Horror Story, it was commented upon again this week how the serial format of television allows greater opportunity to develop this connection between horror and melodrama, particularly in respect to the viewers’ relationship with the characters of the shows. Twin Peaks is a good example of this as it is a series which features a big ensemble cast and many sub-plots interweaving with the main narrative: the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer’s death.

The clip from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me demonstrates this well as the sequence moves from the portrayal of Laura as a popular albeit troubled high school girl to much darker events which show Laura as the victim of evil forces (human and possibly supernatural) in her own home. The shots focusing on the house’s staircase, Laura’s bedroom door and the strange events which take place during Laura’s dream (her doubling in the picture) are particularly striking and correlate to common Gothic tropes. Twin Peaks’s combination of melodrama, thriller and horror makes it a good example of Gothic Television as outlined in Ledwon’s article, which we found useful. Ledwon’s article does raise the question: what would be a contemporary example of Gothic Television? In this session we did also talk about recent rumours that Twin Peaks may be brought back or re-booted and we agreed that this would probably would not work or be as successful: the series seems very much of ‘its time’.

Twin 2We also discussed performance and melodrama in Twin Peaks and how the acting is, at times, quite ‘hammy’. A good example of this is the sequence where Doctor Hayward comes home to discover Ben Horne in his family home, the latter having revealed that he is the biological father to Hayward’s daughter Donna. Donna is distraught at the news and Hayward is enraged at the upset Horne has brought upon his family and so hits him, causing Horne to fall onto the fireplace and receive a severe – and possibly fatal – injury to the head. The scene ends with Donna and her mother crying, Horne unconscious on the floor and Hayward falls to his knees and cries out, shaking his fists in the air.

The scene is representative of the kind of melodrama used in Twin Peaks which usually takes place in the private space of the family home and involves the revelation of devastating secrets. Another example of this is the scene where Nadine Hurley regains her memory (after believing for a long period that she was a high school teenager following her suicide attempt) and finds that her husband Ed is in a relationship again with an old lover, Norma. This scene, like the one in the Hayward home, is left unresolved. We discussed how this is can leave viewers frustrated by the lack of a definitive conclusion – a comment which can be extended to the show’s finale in general – but also in relation to the fact that often the good characters in Twin Peaks also suffer. Doctor Hayward, in particular, is a ‘nice guy’ but is not exempted from the consequences of the show’s many family melodramas.


x files 5We spoke at great length about The X-Files episode we watched called Home. The use of music stood out in this episode, particularly during the Peacock brothers’ attack on the sheriff and his wife. The juxtaposition of such upbeat music with the gruesome and disturbing imagery reminded us of Lynch’s work, particularly Blue Velvet. Home also compares quite well to Twin Peaks as both shows portray the American Dream through the representation of small-town America with a particular emphasis on the family. The crimes which are committed in secret in both these towns are exposed by the intruding FBI agents, although the local law enforcers support the government agency’s work. The sheriff in Home is given particular emphasis as he explicitly states how he loves the town as it is – with habitants leading apparently simple and honest lives – and he does not want the grizzly crime discovered at the episode’s opening or the presence of Mulder and Scully to change that. In this way the episode sets up a number of conventional binaries: small town versus the city; the crimeless rural versus the corrupt city; the traditional nuclear family versus the domination of isolating careers for agents in the FBI. With the character of the sheriff, the episode begins by following this conventional path, emphasising the richness of possibilities such an American Dream can have.

HTwin 3owever the presence of the Peacock family in the narrative very quickly subverts this and, as with the Laura Palmer investigation in Twin Peaks, The X-Files also exposes this dream to be just an illusion and that evil lurks within this small town too. Home presents this subversion in two main ways. First, in contrast to Twin Peaks, Home does not deny that loving families exist: the controversy of the episode is that this loving ‘family’ commits the ultimate taboo – incest. The Peacock family have been reproducing via this practice for several generations and this has led to numerous mental and physical degenerations, which is visibly marked on the brothers’ faces. Their appearance in the show opens the episode and – even before we learn the reasons for their physical deformities – the brothers are portrayed as monsters. The music, the use of heavy shadow and the storm which accompanies their introduction quickly establishes the Peacock brothers as the enemy to be investigated, particularly as the show opens with a disturbing birthing scene which concludes with the siblings burying the offspring in the garden.

We discussed how, in this way, Home addresses two fears: the taboo of inbreeding and the Hollywood’s obsession with the aesthetics of bodies, especially the idea of being ‘body perfect’. The Peacock family not only tackles both these issues head-on, but they subvert expectations by finding this family life ‘normal’. Indeed, the melodramatic moments of family drama in the episode occur because the Peacocks are attempting to protect their way of life from intruders. Contrary to the expectations evoked by the show’s provocative opening, the Peacocks are the ‘small town’ community which are being invaded by the judgement and investigation of others. This interpretation of events on behalf of the Peacock family is reinforced by the fact it is FBI agents – Mulder and Scully – who instigate this intrusion and who, literally, invade the family’s home. The sharp contrast between the x files 4obvious love and loyalty expressed by the Peacocks against their out-of-town counterparts is emphasised in this episode as Mulder and Scully are shown at times to be dysfunctional themselves, and it is stressed how Scully cannot empathise with Mrs Peacock as she has never been a mother.

The second way the show subverts expectations – and the components of the so-called American Dream – is with the way it portrays who is at fault in the episode. Certainly the Peacock family is represented as monstrous; a disturbing corruption of what a family should look like. But an important part of the horror in the show stems from the way the other townspeople have chosen to ignore the repulsive family and their lifestyle in order to maintain the town’s respectability. The sheriff encompasses this attitude: he is eager to find out who murdered the baby found at the beginning but wants to do so in order to return life to the way it was. His unwillingness to investigate the Peacocks – even when it is clear that they must be an important part of the investigation – makes him just as culpable in the crime. We discussed how the horror therefore comes from within: from attempting to keep life the same in the town and ignoring perversions in favour of an illusion of stability and normality. It was commented how this is a very Lynchian trope and peculiarly American.

Extending this last point further, Home also explores similar themes found in horror films which engage with an imagined geography of America, where the small and rural town is threatening in its own way. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, Home taps into the fear that living in isolation is not only possible but can be the catalyst for the horrific events which takes place in such narratives. The believability that such family like the Peacocks could exist in America is a particularly potent element of this fear. As such the science-fiction label given to The X-Files does not seem entirely suitable. This episode, like many others in the series, does not create horror and melodrama from supernatural or paranormal activities. In this respect we found the Bellon article useful in critiquing the classification of The X-Files as a science fiction, although the use of ‘ontological detective story’ was not found to be entirely satisfactory as an alternative genre either. We agreed that melodrama, thriller and horror are important genres informing the show’s narrative, performance and visual style. This link is strengthened by comparing Home to previous screenings and we found similar themes of holding onto the past, wanting to keep life the same and living in isolation in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

x files 6Finally Home also presents the viewer with complex representations of gender. When watching the first half of the episode, we think Home is presenting us with traditional ideas of gender: we, like Mulder and Scully, believe at first that the Peacock brothers have kidnapped a woman to reproduce with. Scully comments that the basic instinct to reproduce may be motivating the brothers and Mulder later calls the Peacock’s reaction to their scrutiny as demonstrating raw, animalistic behaviour. The woman-as-mother motif is raised continuously throughout the episode, beginning with the labour scene and the suspicion the brothers have kidnapped a woman, and then again when Scully talks about her own desires for a family. This notion of women is embodied by the
mystery woman in the Peacock house who is revealed to be the brothers’ mother. Mrs Peacock states that Scully (and by extension other women) cannot understand the love she has for her family despite their murderous act because she is not a mother. Mrs Peacock is a form of the monstrous feminine, as postulated by Barbara Creed: she is the source of all life and this is her sole purpose for living. Without any limbs and restrained on a board beneath the bed, Mrs Peacock is a ‘baby machine’, reducing her femininity to the core components necessary for reproduction.

This confinement to the woman-as-mother is emphasised by the episode’s opening, which introduces viewers immediately to the disturbing labour scene. The repeated shot of Mrs Peacock’s eyes – both in this opening and repeated again when Mulder and Scully visit the empty house and then finally when they find the mother under the bed – is very effective as it still gives a human and expressive face to an otherwise biological ‘machine’. Opening the show with Mrs Peacock giving birth also compares to the opening of American Horror Story and Vivian’s gynaecologist appointment. The emphasis of women’s bodies as a ‘house’ in American Horror Story is extended in The X-Files where ‘home’ takes on several meanings: it is the episode’s title; it refers to the creepy Peacock house; and it also references the family Mrs Peacock attempts to maintain, with her body as the means for creating new life. The episode’s ending, where Mrs Peacock escapes with one of her sons, suggests that the Peacocks shall continue in their quest for creating this home.

Mrs Peacock’s agency in this concluding sequence is where the representation of woman-as-mother is complicated. Mrs Peacock is not made into an archaic mother endlessly producing new offspring against her will: she willingly and enthusiastically accepts this role and she is revealed to be the matriarch of the family, the brothers following her commands. Once again the episode inverts expectations. Mrs Peacock does not see herself as monstrous, nor does she need or want to be saved. This revelation taps into and stresses the fears explored earlier and is an important part of the show’s horrifying impact.

As a concluding point, we also noted how the manner in which television shows are watched has changed considerably since the 1990s. Twin Peaks and The X-Files would have both been consumed on a weekly basis. Today, whilst this broadcasting practice still exists, many viewers also watch the shows in box-sets or streamed from online services, with the option to watch many or all the episodes at once. The difference this may make to the narratives of such shows – and particularly how melodrama is used to keep the viewer’s interest – is still an area to be explored.

Many thanks to Frances for choosing such interesting TV episodes and for the great summary!

Do, as ever, log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 13th of November, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7 pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 13th of November in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Frances’ selection: episodes of Twin Peaks and The X Files.

Frances’ introduction:

Twin Peaks and The X-Files

x files 1

The aim of this week’s session is to continue the discussion inspired by Kat’s screening last week of American Horror Story. As highlighted last week, Kat and I are interested in exploring further the relationship between horror and melodrama, and how this has a particular relevance to television, where such productions are based on the serial format. This week I shall be showing episodes from Twin Peaks and The X-Files as further examples of popular TV shows combining horror and melodrama traditions. Both shows were created and first aired during the 1990s and, as such, represent the forerunners to American Horror Story and the commercialisation of horror as a successful, primetime television component we discussed last week. This week’s session shall therefore look at examples from both series and their spin-offs, including:

–          A clip from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (a 1992 film based on the TV series directed by David Lynch; this film was made as a prequel to the TV show).

–          Twin Peaks episode 29, season 2 (first aired in the USA on 10th June 1991; this episode is the final one of the series).

–          The X-Files episode 2, season 4 Home (first aired in the USA on 11th October 1996).

TP 1Twin Peaks was first aired in the USA on 8th April 1990 and ended on 10th June 1991, after running for two seasons. The series begins with the discovery of a girl’s body wrapped in plastic and washed up on a riverbank in a quiet American town called Twin Peaks. The girl is revealed to a local named Laura Palmer, a high school student and the school’s prom queen. The news of Laura’s murder shakes the town, particularly as Laura was seen as the perfect, all-American teenage girl with a loving and respectable family. This event sets up the key question which drives the rest of the narrative: who killed Laura Palmer? Soon after the discovery of Laura’s body, another teenager named Ronnette Pulaski is found badly hurt and wandering confused just outside of town. The girl slips into a coma and FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called to investigate Laura’s death and any connection this may have to Ronnette. On inspecting Laura’s corpse, Cooper finds a letter concealed underneath one of her fingernails which bears a striking resemblance to a murder case of another girl murdered a year earlier. Believing the cases to be connected, Cooper remains in Twin Peaks to investigate Laura’s death and expose the killer he thinks may be local or, at least, not very far away.

TP 2Cooper’s investigation into Laura’s demise is the core plot point which drives the narrative although the FBI agent’s investigations soon expose the corruption and crime which permeates the seemingly sleepy town. The series also follows the lives of all its inhabitants and thus the show features an extensive supporting cast and interweaving sub-plots. Throughout the course of the show, the picturesque Twin Peaks is found to be harbouring drug dealers, pimps, adultery, domestic violence, child abuse, incest, mental illness, blackmailers, corporate corruption, human trafficking, prostitution and, of course, murder. Laura is revealed to be at the heart of these crimes as Cooper discovers two sides to Laura’s life: on the one side, the happy high school girl who was the prom queen and dates a local boy Bobby; on the other side, Cooper discovers Laura’s darker life, where she is also seeing another teenage boy James, is addicted to cocaine and prostitutes herself to pay for her habit, and has been the victim of sexual abuse since childhood. The revelation of Laura’s suffering exposes the perpetrators of these criminals as Twin Peaks locals, as well as illuminating the family dramas of other residents, not directly responsible for Laura’s death. As such the series plays out like a soap opera, where the personal melodramas of the town’s inhabitants becomes public knowledge and the repercussions of this are great: Twin Peaks cannot return to its (however illusory) status as a normal, quiet American town.

TP 3Twin Peaks is therefore infused with melodramatic sub-plots and performance, and you will see examples of this in today’s screening. The series is indebted to the features of melodrama we have looked at in previous sessions: the detective story; use of delay and reticence; the threat of the domestic space; heightened emotion and exaggerated performance; and suffering women (there are many suffering women in this series which include but go beyond Laura). However Twin Peaks’s genre is difficult to pin-down precisely, particularly as the series features other surreal moments in true Lynchian fashion: Cooper has many dream sequences where he visits a mysterious red room which is not of this world. Cooper is convinced that this dream holds the clues to solving Laura’s murder and it reveals that the mystery hinges on deciphering who or what is BOB. As a result of this strange mixture – the show’s portrayal of intense family drama juxtaposed with dream sequences and suggestions of the supernatural or mystic which lack narrative or logical explanation – Lenora Ledwon suggests that Twin Peaks is a prime examples of the ‘Television Gothic’. Like the Gothic discussed previously in our sessions, this genre also places an emphasis upon the home, the family, the uncanny and the monstrous (either real or supernatural) but is particularly subversive because of the show’s domesticity as a television programme (Ledwon, 1993, 5). She writes:

This new Television Gothic utilizes familiar Gothic themes and devices such as incest, the grotesque, repetition, interpolated narration, haunted settings, mirrors, doubles, and supernatural occurrences. But these elements undergo a sea change once they are immersed in the “currents” of television. What could have been a soothing repetition of formula instead becomes a disturbing process of transgression and uncertainty. (2)

The extracts from Twin Peaks chosen for you to watch today demonstrate this potent combination of family melodrama, Gothic tropes and horror sequences. Twin Peaks questions the stability and conception of American Dream and in particular the idea of small-town America and the nuclear family. In the clip from Fire Walk With Me this is particularly potent: the seedier sides of Laura’s life become increasingly apparent to the viewer and Laura becomes both a Gothic heroine in her own home – a victim of the evil forces surrounding her – but also an active (and enthusiastic) participant in the town’s sleazy underbelly. The show makes extensive use of horror iconography in these examples and helps to complicate the question: who killed Laura Palmer? On one level this is answered (the killer is revealed mid-way through season two) but the surreal and dreamlike sequences used in the show’s finale show that the answer is not so easy or complete. The series questions whether the evil in the town is inherent in the people who live in Twin Peaks or whether another force is responsible. The show’s final episode also extends this question of instability to another form of authority: the US government. Cooper’s status as an agent of the FBI is an important facet to the murder investigation and, along with other law enforcers like the town’s sheriff, they represent the (only) force of good. Yet the viability of sustaining such control and enforcing the law in Twin Peaks also comes under threat. The series thus ends on an ambiguous note: what is to become of institutions like law enforcement and the family? Does the ending offer any hope? These are questions to keep in mind for the screening.

x files 2The last episode I am showing is from The X-Files, a series which ran from 10th September 1993 to 19th May 2002, spanning nine seasons. Both The X-Files and Twin Peaks therefore began in the same decade, although the latter was cancelled much earlier. At first glance the two series seem very different: whereas Twin Peaks appears to adopt a soap opera format with an emphasis on the domestic and the family, The X-Files is commonly classified as a science-fiction series and follows the actions of two FBI agents – Mulder and Scully – who investigate a series of cases which feature paranormal occurrences. Mulder is keen prove the existence of aliens although his partner Scully – a scientist who is assigned to evaluate Mulder’s activities – is a hardened sceptic. Over the course of the show, the two agents become very close and learn from each other’s perspectives, as well as investigating cases which reveal criminal activity, paranormal activity and the corruption of the government. For Joe Bellon, the show’s combination of all these elements means that it should not be classified as just ‘science fiction’. (Bellon, 1999). In fact, the show’s strange mixture of not completely conforming to a pro-science perspective but also not being entirely irrational in its representations either, make for a difficult classification. It is for these reasons Bellon argues that The X-Files functions in the ‘ontological detective mode’, where ‘[t]he question to be answered is not “who done it?” but rather “what is it?”’ (7). This shift in emphasis thus widens The X-Files’s concerns beyond the question of the existence of aliens (although very important) and includes the exposure of corruption and evil which wears a very human face, such as the FBI. These larger issues are comparable to the issues raised by the Twin Peaks finale as well.

The X-Files’s resistance to conforming to the usual conventions of science-fiction does not mean that the show has no discernible genres, however. I would argue that melodrama is an important part of the show, motivating the narrative. Mulder’s preoccupation with all things paranormal is not without cause: he is convinced his sister was abducted by aliens as a child and he is determined to expose the truth. His detective work thus provides the catalyst for the revealing a number of hidden truths along the way, in a manner similar to Cooper’s work in Twin Peaks. Yet the key difference is that Mulder is motivated by his own family trauma: in The X-Files the detective work is a very personal affair. The melodramatic potential of this sub-plot also comes to the fore with another personal relationship, this time the relationship between Mulder and Scully. As the series continues, one of dominant reoccurring stories of the show is the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ question. Although the FBI agents’ relationship is platonic for the majority of the show, the two do become romantically involved.

The X-Files also makes extensive use of horror conventions in its narrative and iconography. The decision to bring horror onto the small screen was quite deliberate: the show’s creator, Chris Carter, mused that there seemed to be a lack of prime-time shows which included horror. He wrote: ‘You look at the TV schedule … and there’s nothing scary on television.’ (quoted in Hammond and Mazdon, 2005, 63). The show’s episodes are therefore littered with monsters, creepy occurrences and unexplained events intended to haunt and disturb. The importance of the horror format is also apparent by the ‘Monster-of-the-Week’ episodes: these are episodes which stand-alone from the main narrative and its concerns (such as Mulder’s sister) but help to develop the evil and horror infecting the larger X-Files universe. It is one of these episodes I have chosen to screen for this session: an episode called Home. In this instalment of the show, The X-Files follows a very similar narrative arc to Twin Peaks: a gruesome discovery in a small, quiet town in American necessitates an investigation by the FBI and Mulder and Scully are sent in. Their investigation leads them to the Peacock family, who live in an old, isolated house and have no contact with the other town’s inhabitants: in fact the family has managed to reproduce through incestuous liaisons. Mulder and Scully attempt to infiltrate this disturbing family home and solve the mystery of the murder.

x files 3Home became quite an infamous episode for the show, as its horrific content meant that the show was broadcast with a viewer’s warning for the first time in The X-Files’s history. Many reviewers criticised the series for going ‘too far’ in the episode and the network did not re-broadcast the show for many years afterwards. Home has also been rated number one out of the ‘Scariest Science Fiction and Fantasy TV Episode’ with the warning: ‘Once seen, this episode will never leave you.’ (see: Interestingly, the horror of this episode is unrelated to all of the paranormal investigations which feature elsewhere in the series, and a supernatural explanation for the events does not occur. Rather, like Twin Peaks, Home seeks to expose the horrific living in the domestic sphere, questioning the stability and safety of the traditional family unit. Home presents us with a radical re-definition of the American family which becomes unnatural, perverse and monstrous. One noticeable difference between Home and Twin Peaks is that the first’s family appears to function without any female presence or influence at all: it seems that only three of the Peacock ‘brothers’ live in the old house. However the episode soon subverts expectations again and presents us with extreme variations of the Gothic heroine, as the true nature of the situation comes to light and the investigation is solved. As such The X-Files creates a unique and horrific version of the traditional family melodrama.

As with Twin Peaks, this X-Files episode evokes the questions: what is the cause of the ‘evil’ here? How does this reflect upon the idea of family and the domestic home? Can these observations be extended to include the representation of authority, as with the FBI?

Enjoy the shows!


Bellon, J. 1999. ‘The Strange Discourse of The X-Files: What It Is, What It Does, and What Is at Stake.’ Critical Studies in Mass Communication 16, 136-154.

Creeber, G. 2004. Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen. London: British Film Institute.

Hammond, M. and Mazdon, L. (eds.) 2005. The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kowalski, D. (ed.) 2007. The Philosophy of The X-Files. Kentucky: The University of Kentucky.

Lavery, D., Hague, A. and Cartwright, M. (eds.) 1996. Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files. London: Faber and Faber. 

Ledwon, L. 1993. ‘Twin Peaks and the Television Gothic.’ Literature Film Quarterly,21:4, 260-270.


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Summary of Discussion on American Horror Story

Posted by Sarah

After running the screening session on American Horror Story, Kat has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion:

AHS house

Throughout the session, a constant discussion point was the house, and the importance to the narrative. Many of us commented on the fact it was presented as a gothic house. Also how there was a strange sense of space. The geography of the house did not appear logical – this was mentioned in relation to when Ben’s phoney patient went to leave the house. The front door did not appear where you thought it should be. However, the audience are more aware of the space and the size of the cellar. This use of space to confuse added an unreal aspect to the house – much like The Shining. It was noted how space was beginning to become associated with individual characters and how there was a lack of action outside the space of the house – even in the garden! Some of us who had seen it revealed that the narrative does move to the garden later in the series. Also noted was the lack of possessions in the house – we could see no photos or personal ornaments. Is this important? Maybe the lack of possessions was representational of Ben and Vivienne’s relationship? Empty? The lack of lighting was discussed – how dark the house was lit, adding to the Gothic ambience. Ann-Marie shared that the house was also used in an episode of Buffy entitled “Fear, Itself”. It was observed how the opening of the first episode cut from murders at the house to Vivienne at her gynaecological appointment – making the link with house, procreation and birth. One of the group mentioned how important children and birth are to the narrative, more so as the series goes on and how Constance said how important a “good line” is.

The concept of and use of ghosts was discussed. It was remarked that there is a split (evident later in the series) between those who are malicious and those who are good. The point was made how the character of the ghosts were forged and cemented at the point when they were killed. Although this did not seem to be true for Moira who appears to have a split personality. There is a certain morality in Moira as well as a form of archaic womanhood as she says, it’s women who always cleans up the mess (which she does at the end of episode 2). There was also a discussion on ghosts and the spaces they inhabit. Do they get to go outside? Again, those of us who have watched the series mentioned the episode of Halloween (without giving away any plot spoilers!).

AHS cupcakesThe style of the series was a point for discussion. It was suggested that the storyline involving the cupcake was very Hitchcockian – how the camera focused on the cake and its movement. It was reminiscent of the glass of milk in Notorious but also of Suspicion. The amount of male nakedness was a talking point! There appears to be much more of this than female nakedness. This appeared to be connected with Ben’s sadness and how his sadness is intertwined with his sexual desires. Notably in the scene where he masturbates and cries. The format of the series allowed for more risks in content and for more creativity in the horror/melodrama. The series could not just rely on horror, so there is an emphasis on the drama and melodrama. We invest in the family and, like a crime drama, we want to know what happens next. One of the group observed how revelatory each episode was – and that revelations were not just confined to episodes, but also in terms of ad breaks. You could tell where the ad breaks would occur and how the revelations would be formatted to allow for these breaks, which appeared very Dickensian, or reminiscent of how Dickens serialised his novels for weekly publication. The importance of editing was observed. There is a massive use of jump cuts, which adds to the unsettling nature of the series.

The violence of the series was noted. The excess of Vivienne’s attack on Ben when she finds him with the other woman – she strikes and cuts him with a knife. Also the replaying of Addie’s words “You’ll regret it” over this sequence. It provides a sense of foreboding. It appears as if a comment on modern relationships and how they are somewhat horrific and the split in the family which creates the horror. The focus on the family and the home and the idea of perfection and its attainment. The series appears to be providing commentary on the “all American dream” centred on the home (coded as gothic) and the family. Addie wants to look like a perfect girl and Tait was intended to be the perfect child.

AHS ConstanceJessica Lange’s Constance was a large focus of the discussion. She was discussed in terms of her allure, her power, her sexuality and as a mother. She appeared – through costume and how she spoke – as if a throwback from the 1950s. Constance is a melodramatic constructed woman as she could be from a Sirk film or a Bette Davis or Crawford vehicle. She has no qualms in calling Addie a mongoloid or a freak and locks her in the room of mirrors, which must be a horrific experience for Addie. But she is also very protective of Addie. Constance appears to be vested with some other worldly power which is part of her allure. She too was looking for the “perfect American life” in wanting to be an actress, which is how she came to be in LA.

Many thanks to Kat for organising a screening which led to much discussion, and for summarising it so well!

Do, as ever, log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.


Update: Autumn Term Screening and Discussion Sessions Timetable

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend our screening and discussion sessions in the Autumn Term. There is now more information of the rest of the term’s screenings below:


These are due to take place in KS6 (Keynes, Seminar Room 6) from 4-7pm on:

13th of November (Week 7):  Frances’ selection of various episodes of TV horror will be screened.

27th of November (Week 9):  Tamar’s choice: Coquette (1929, Sam Taylor, 76 mins) (and potentially a Mary Pickford silent beforehand).

11th of December (Week 11):  Kat and Frances will screen The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodovar, 120 mins).

18th of December (Week 12): Christmas Holiday (1944, Robert Siodmak, 93 mins) will appropriately prepare us for the festive season.

For information on our new meeting place (including a handy map!), visit:

More information on each of the screenings will be posted in due course.