All Hallows Eve: a couple tales

High school, sophomore year, perhaps.  In the basement of a friend’s house, eight or ten boys and girls gather to watch The Shining, probably egged on by me, as I was thoroughly in my horror movie phase at that point.  We sink deeply into Kubrick’s maze, engrossed by the buzzing Big Wheel on the carpet of the hotel and by the terrible twins in the bloody hallway.  About ninety minutes in, the door to the room we’re in opens and a man in a Halloween mask charges in, screaming at the top of his lungs and menacing us with an axe.  We scream.

Boo at the Zoo, 2010
Boo at the Zoo, 2010; Avery added pink sunglasses, a purple fedora, and a purple boa to the final version of this costume.

In my never-ending effort to expand our Halloween offerings in our front yard, I’ve purchased three different smoke machines over the last four years.  One never worked, and one only worked one year, then did not work the next year.  So this year I sought the advice of the eminently knowledgeable clerk at the local Halloween superstore.  I bought the cleaning solution they sell in addition to the fog juice, and will run it in the machine dutifully as soon as we’re done using it this year.  If I don’t get several years (at least three) out of this machine, I will forgo them until I have a better option.

A list of costumes, as discovered in looking through old photos.  Gaps indicate gap between childhood and adult costumes:

Brendan Jenny Avery Finn
The Tin Man
The Fourth Amigo
The Noid
bizarre Hobo of some kind
The Purple Pie Man
Zombie priest
Priest (recycled)
Raggedy Ann
Cat with a bow tie
Strawberry Shortcake
Vampire Nun
An Egyptologist
Sparkle Fairy
This year: Shaggy Velma Daphne Fred

I often joke that having grown up in Minnesota and spent five years living in Gainesville, the weather in Chicago never gets to a place that it seems extreme to me.  And for the most part, this is true.  Only the hottest days in early August feel much like Florida did, and only the coldest days in mid-January feel Minnesotan.  But one of the biggest changes I notice is that we don’t get snow, much, until December.  In Minnesota, growing up, it was about 30-40% likely that it would snow at least once before Halloween, at least to my memory.  In Chicago, we have decent odds of not needed our jackets when we go out with the kids to trick-or-treat.

Mystery Inc
Mystery Inc, Halloween 2011

Halloween activities this year:

  • Boo at the Zoo, a costume celebration event that happens every weekend all month.  Did it on the 23rd.
  • Pumpkin carving, did it Saturday
  • Halloween Party, was Sunday night at our church (Avery only)
  • School Halloween parties, both kids this morning
  • Trick or Treating and candy handout at our house (of course) this evening

Exorcist pumpkin

In which I make two media appearances in one day

Me on the Radio
Me on the Radio

This morning, I appeared on The Current, a radio show on the CBC.  They have a summary of the show and a link to the audio on their website here.

I also appeared in a story on Discovery Online called “Why Zombies Never Die” by Emily Sohn.  Here are the bits that came from my interview:

To explain the undying boom in all things zombie, experts point to the versatility of zombies as a metaphor. Compared to vampires or werewolves, zombies can symbolize everything people are afraid of and anything that seems to be tearing society apart. Over the decades, the undead have addressed race relations, class wars, diseases, mindless consumerism and more.

“Part of what I really like about zombies is that they don’t always represent the same thing,” said Brendan Riley, a media scholar at Columbia College Chicago. “They’re a really flexible storytelling tool for describing all sorts of different cultural and societal problems.”

Not long after the United States began to occupy Haiti, a 1929 novel called The Magic Island introduced the concept of zombies to Americans, and Hollywood immediately jumped on the image. The first zombie film, called White Zombie, came out in 1932.

At first, American zombie films echoed Haitian themes. The movies took place in tropical settings. And there was always an evil character that, much like a voodoo sorcerer, controlled the zombies as they did terrible things.

Those earliest zombies, Riley said, were clearly a metaphor for the fear that a minority of whites had of an uprising by poor blacks, who made up the vast majority of Haiti. By the 1960s, though, zombies started to address other concerns. With race riots, the Vietnam War and protests going on, zombies could represent fears that the world was being irrevocably ripped apart.

Read the rest of the story.

Matt Mogk, founder of the Zombie Research Society (on whose advisory board I serve), is featured in the story and was in the same Chicago Public Radio studio as me for the other story.  That guy’s everywhere!

2011-10-30 Tweets

  • My Halloween playlist just cycled into "Stonehenge." Spinal Tap FTW. #goestoeleven #
  • Want to read essays about THE WALKING DEAD from zombie luminaries galore? While you're at it, you can read my essay. #
  • Yearly health screening today == 12 hour fast, water only. Hulk miss coffee. #onehourtogo #
  • Watching [REC]2 while I eat lunch. It's excellent so far. #zombie #
  • New titanic book! I wants it! #
  • Dropping a school work sheets in the recycling bin, Avery says to me, "Daddy, I deleted one of my papers." #kidssaythedarndestthings #
  • A lick from Beastie Boys' LICENSE TO ILL wafted from a panel truck roaring by on Congress Ave. It will haunt me until I identify it. #earwig #
  • A: What are Wheat Thins? B: A kind of cracker. A: What kind of cracker? B: Uhhh, Wheat Thins. A: Oh. Sounds tasty! #
  • Overheard at the playground: Your butt is on fire, 'lizbeth! What do you care more about, money, or burnt butts?! #kidssaythedarndestthings #

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Truth at 24 frames per … HOLY COW WHAT IS THAT?!?!



I guess I should start by saying I really enjoy [REC], the Spanish first-person camera movie that inspired Hollywood’s remake, Quarantine.  The original film tells the story of a Spanish television crew doing a human-interest show in which they follow hard-working people around on their daily jobs.  Think of it as Dirty Jobs, but with a cute blonde lady hosting instead of Mike Rove.  So the film crew follows a fire department emergency response squad as they investigate a medical incident — someone having some sort of seizure.  And before you know it, they’ve been locked inside the building with a bunch of fast zombies who are killing and eating everyone in sight.  The whole film is shot in first-person, through the cameraman’s viewpoint, and works really well.

[REC]² starts right where the last film left off, showing the last moments of [REC] before switching to a camera belonging to a SWAT team being sent in to figure out what’s going on in the building.  I’m not going to say too much about what happens, because that’s part of the pleasure of the film, of course.  I do have a few comments about how it develops:

  • As we all remember from Scream 2, the secret to a sequel is to build on the last film, not to repeat it.  The filmmakers have done so skillfully here.  First, they’ve given us a lot more narrative meat — we learn much more about what is going on, right away in the film.  Next, they upped the ante in terms of cameras: each of the SWAT members has a camera (like the soldiers in Aliens), and there are two other cameras that make their way into the story.  Last, they up the ante in terms of scary elements, but in just the right amounts.  Rather than crushing us with tons of new zombies, they add just enough to tantalize and surprise us.  It works really well.
  • The first-person camera view holds up for another film (honestly, I was afraid it wouldn’t).  The writers come up with a couple great gimicks to force the characters to use the camera.  My favorite is a development that some things only appear in the dark, and so the uber-creepy night vision becomes the only way the characters can see.  The writers also come up with a pretty solid explanation for the motivation of the second group.  It’s convincing, for me.
  • As was revealed toward the end of the first film, a supernatural element comes into play as well.  This adds some depth to the movie that provides both motivation for the characters and a more solid enemy for the story to work against.  Extra creepy.
  • The fact that the film starts immediately after the first ends provides the filmmakers with lots of opportunities to tie the two films together very closely.  You could certainly watch this film without having seen the last one, but the payoff for having seen both (especially if you remember the first pretty well) is very high.  If nothing else, the people who died in the first film are still hanging around, zombified, in the second.
  • The quarantine aspect also keeps the story claustrophobic.  By introducing more characters into the hermetically sealed building, the story forces conflict and raises tensions in ways that a wider outbreak would not have done.
Beware little girls in bathrobes
Beware little girls in bathrobes

An excellent film.  Definitely a worthy addition to the zombie pantheon, and a cut above most of the dreck you might watch on Netflix streaming.  Watch it.

Me, and Zombies, on the Radio

"The zombie and the brave radio journalist" by Paul Galipeau, cc-license
"The zombie and the brave radio journalist" by Paul Galipeau, cc-licensed

News: I will be participating in the Canadian Broadcast Channel (CBC)’s nationally syndicated programme, The Current, on Monday morning to talk about, what else, zombies.

You can listen live from their website, or I will post a link to a recording after the fact.

An Open Letter to Congress about PROTECT-IP and SOPA

Free Bieber
Free Bieber

A new bill in Congress makes posting a video containing any copyrighted work a felony– with up to 5 years in prison.

But wait… didn’t Justin Bieber get famous by posting YouTube videos of himself singing copyrighted R&B songs? Yep.If this bill passes, he could get 5 years in jail.

The accelerating ridiculousness of the copyright lobby and its kowtowing members of congress rises to new heights with the introduction of the recent copyright legislation wending its way through congress right now.  The long and short of it is that the big media lobby has proposed an heinous, ugly law that makes everyday use, something as simple as posting a video of you singing a song you’ve heard on the radio, a felony.  Seriously.

It would be silly if it weren’t so darned important.  Here’s my letter to my representatives:

Dear Representative Lipinski, Senator Kirk, Senator Durbin, and the rest of congress,

I am a constituent who votes and I urge you to reject the Internet Blacklist Bills (PROTECT IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House).

Copyright law already has sufficient measures in place to address criminal infringement, with provisions insuring that non-infringing uses of copyrighted material are protected as well.  These new laws would remove due process from the picture, giving copyright holders (or malicious frauds) even more power to stifle free speech by demanding immediate take-down of websites with little or no oversight.

Please keep in mind the Constitutional purpose for creating copyright: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”.  In the long history of copyrighted works, technology has required that we revise law to uphold both burdens–protecting copyright and protecting the public domain.  The last fifteen years have seen laws aiming almost exclusively aimed at the former, and often hampering the latter.

In his well-known TED talk, “Laws that Stifle Creativity,” Larry Lessig argues that by narrowing transformative use and criminalizing everyday practice, we’re making everyday practices illegal and making the very notion of any copyright protection seem quaint and outmoded.  This extremism fosters a disrespect for the law that’s very corrosive. As a new media scholar and writing instructor at Columbia College Chicago, I often discuss these issues with students and have come to see this as a divisive generational issue–young people recognize the power new technologies put in the hands of consumers and want to exercise that power.  As copyright law becomes more and more restrictive instead of adjusting to fit the technology of the day, it looks less and less like it’s serving a public good and more like it’s serving an outmoded business model.

I would be happy to talk to you about ways copyright in the digital age can help guarantee America’s success in future years, but know for now that the PROTECT-IP and SOPA bills will not do so.  I am deeply concerned by the danger these bills pose to Internet security, free speech online, and innovation.  The Internet Blacklist Legislation is dangerous and short-sighted, and I urge you to join Senator Wyden and other members of Congress in opposing it.


Brendan Riley
Associate Professor of English
Columbia College Chicago

It really is important that congress know just how many of us find this kind of legislation unnecessary, insulting, and outside the scope of serving the public (or private) good.  Please sign the petition and consider sending a note to your representatives about it.

If you’re looking to read or learn more about this issue, I recommend:


Here come the zombies

Zombies in Popular Media
Zombies in Popular Media

As is usually the case in late October, I’m getting ready for some undead action.  I’ve finished my flyer for the J-session course I teach each year, and am busy collating this year’s blurbs from last year’s students.

I’m also gearing up to watch a bunch of zombie movies and TV in the coming weeks.  Here’s what’s on my plate:

[REC]² — This sequel to the original Spanish movie that inspired Quarantine has been on my “must watch” list for a while now.  I’ve already watched it, and a review will appear post-haste (probably Saturday).  I should probably watch Quarantine too.  I’ve been putting off seeing it because I like [REC] so much.

The Walking Dead — I’ve skimmed bits and pieces of it, but not given it a thorough watching.  That will be off and on throughout the next two months.

Zombie short films — a number of zombie short films have been caught in my transom for a while, so I’ll be sure to watch those soon.

Colin — this movie got a lot of buzz last year, so it’s a must-see.

Survival of the Dead — To be honest, I’m not very intrigued by this film, as it’s gotten pretty poor reviews.  But it’s Romero, so I really should see it.

The Zombies of Tau Mora — This film is in my TiVO queue right now, and was mentioned on the TV show the Middleman as being the worst zombie movie ever.  So you know I’ve got to see it.

Oasis of the Zombies, Shock Wave, The Frozen Dead — I picked up these three Nazi zombie films this summer, and I’m planning to do a Nazi Zombie day in my class this January, so I really should see them before then.

Bowery at Midnight — another classic I’ve not seen yet.  I’d better get on that!

And then, these are in my queue as well: Beyond Re-Animator, My Boyfriend’s Back, and The Quick and the Undead.  Lots of good stuff to check out.

Halloween Extravaganza Playlist

"Scary Music Guy" by Dylan Parker; used under cc license
"Scary Music Guy" by Dylan Parker; used under cc license

Getting ready for the spookiest day of the year?  Make yourself a Halloween playlist.  Here’s mine, in alphabetical order by artist:

Song Name Artist
Vampire Antsy Pants
Dead Man, Dead Man Bob Dylan
Ghosts Chris Cornell
Playing Dead Crash Test Dummies
Aim for the Dead Creature Feature
Ghost Song Doors
My Beloved Monster Eels
Dead by Dawn Electric Frankenstein
Surprise! You’re Dead! Faith No More
Zombie Eaters Faith No More
May the Living be Dead (In Our Wake) Flogging Molly
The Boogie Monster Gnarls Barkley
Dawn of the Dead Goblin
Hip Albatross Gorillaz
Last Living Souls Gorillaz
28 Days Later In a Heartbeat
zombie theme Jacob Pilcher
Play Dead James
Dead Man Blues Jelly Roll Morton
Re: Your Brains Jonathan Coulton
Maybe the Monster Justin Roberts
The Ghosts Of Me And You Less Than Jake
Ghost Live
Grim Grinning Ghosts Los Lobos
Resident Evil Theme Marilyn Manson
Thriller (Funk House Mix) Michael Jackson
Grey Ghost Mike Doughty
Casper the Friendly Ghost Mike Doughty
Dawn of the Dead Murderdolls
Dead! My Chemical Romance
Dead Souls Nine Inch Nails
Dead Man’s Party Oingo Boingo
Cruel, Cruel Moon Paul & Storm
Ghost Pearl Jam
Born As Ghosts Rage Against The Machine
Ghostbusters Ray Parker Jr.
Living Dead Girl Rob Zombie
Zombie Jamboree Rockapella
Ghostrider Rollins Band
Ghost Town Blues Social Distortion
Stonehenge Spinal Tap
Back From The Dead Spinal Tap
Warmer Than Hell Spinal Tap
Ghost Of Stephen Foster Squirrel Nut Zippers
Dead And Bloated Stone Temple Pilots
Over My Head Better Off Dead Sum 41
Zombieland T-Bone Burnett
Fashion Zombies! The Aquabats
My Girl Wants to Be a Zombie The Briefs
Zombie The Cranberries
Dawn of the Dead closing theme The Gonk
Zombie Noise The Meteors
Graveyard Stomp The Meteors
Day of the Dead The Misfits
Return of the Living Dead The Stomps
Dead They Might Be Giants
Exquisite Dead Guy They Might Be Giants
Dead And Lovely Tom Waits
Zombie Twiztid
Same Ghost Every Night Wolf Parade
Zombie Hop Zombina and the Skeletons

Many of these songs come from one of the awesome spooky collections created by Jason Myers (who writes for Revolution SF).

Judging a book by its cover

Lost Girls by Moore and Gebbe
Lost Girls by Moore and Gebbe

by Melinda Gebbe and Alan Moore

There are a few writers whom I try to read completely: Neal Stephenson, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore.  So when I saw the hardcover collection of an Alan Moore work I was unfamiliar with, I picked it up, naturally.  Alas, I wish I’d read the back cover.

Lost Girls takes the premise that the tales about three young female protagonists–Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy–were not tales about fantastic worlds, but allegories for sexual awakening and abuse.  Then it imagines these young women as libertine adults living in an Austrian Hotel at the brink of the Great War.  A few thoughts:

  • Each of the three protagonists tells their story over the course of the comic, substituting child abuse and sexual awakening stories for the fantastic worlds we’ve heard of before.  Dorothy spends time with farmhands, Wendy with homeless sexual deviants in the park, and Alice with a colleague of her father’s who checks his pocket watch a lot.  It’s pretty grim.
  • The comic meditates on the nature of erotic fiction, pondering the morality of stories about incest and consent, as well as themes of domination, etc.  It also tries to work in some political allegory around the rise of World War 1, but this seems more for show than for real value.
  • The art in the comic is fine, but rather tedious over time.  Because so much of the story turns on various combinations of sexual partners, the art has no choice but to become repetitive.  The most imaginative panels are the splash pages imagining the original tales in their adapted forms.
  • Most importantly, the story is so minimal that it might as well not be there.  And since Moore’s skill as a storyteller is what makes him great, when he yields the floor to the central imperative of the erotic story, his work loses its purpose.

The description on the back of the book says “Lost Girls does for erotica what Watchmen did for superhero comics.”  I wish I’d read the back of the comic before I’d gotten it from the library; I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time.  While it’s not a terrible comic, I wouldn’t recommend it.

2011-10-23 Tweets

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Midwest PCA wrap up

The Midwest Popular Culture Association had its annual meeting last weekend, and as the Executive Secretary, I see the conference for its warts and all.  But it’s pretty darn great.  Some thoughts:

  • The Mystery, Crime, Thriller, and Detective area saw an okay year, with one and a half panels of good papers.  Will try to do better next year.  My own panel wasn’t bad, but I particularly liked the panel on AJ Raffles, Bleak House, and The Thin Man.  Despite sending out CFPs and so on, I don’t get a lot of papers.  I’m approaching the Copyright and Intellectual Property Area (at the national) a bit more aggressively this year, so if that turns out well perhaps I’ll do the same at the MPCA.
  • Moneywise, we came out okay.  Since my main job is to manage the conference’s money, I’m constantly worrying about whether we’ll lose money or not.  The final numbers are still being tallied, but so far things look good–going in, I thought the $10 fee reduction was going to cost us too much, but in the end we came out okay.
  • Lots of great enthusiasm for new initiatives this coming year, with new committees in Marketing, a potential Journal, and a new reporting structure for our awards committees.  We also had a fantastically successful new initiative in the Featured Speakers program, which involved two scholars giving plenary talks on Friday evening before the reception.  We had roughly 120 people at the two talks, which is about a third of all the people who registered–that’s a really solid number given that many people don’t arrive until Saturday.  Huzzah!  Let’s hope the momentum keeps rolling.  My personal goal for the next year is to apply for 501c3 status for the organization.
  • Andrew noted my stress levels getting high in the last month or so, and asked why I continue to volunteer for leadership roles in these conferences.  In part, it’s because I care about the organizations and feel I have a lot to offer them; it’s also because I think I have good habits of thought and mind that help me do this kind of work well; but last, it’s because the payoff is much higher than the stress, in terms of networking and contacts, in terms of emotional enjoyment, and of the benefit I provide for others.
  • Next year will be in Columbus, Ohio.  Should be another good one.

A Breather

"Resting" by liber(the poet) - used under cc license

The last three weeks have been chaos, so I dub this Friday “breather” day.  No post other than this.  Sorry.




Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson; narrated by Mike Chamberlain

It’s the near future, maybe fifty years from now, and robots are everywhere.  We’ve given cars the ability to drive autonomously (so they can avoid accidents), we’ve created robotic military apparatus, and robotic household help.  It’s a great time, until the robots rise up and try to kill us all.  Oops.  Wilson’s tale tells the story of the “new war” between the humans and the machines in retrospect, using brief snippets following several characters or so as they navigate the world after the machines turn against us.  A few thoughts:

  • This book is much like World War Z in shape and style, though Brooks takes a more global view of world events and returns to the same characters less frequently.  Wilson tells the story through a handful of characters who appear in several excerpts each.
  • Despite the fact that this story has been told many times (most significantly, in recent years, in the Terminator series and The Matrix), Wilson makes it fresh again.  He uncovers new ways the story would evolve, and comes up with new kinds of robots to menace us.
  • As with the Terminator, Robocalypse turns on a single dangerous machine that brings the other machines to life.  Arcos pulls the strings on all the other robots, giving them orders in a nearly-unbreakable chain of command.  Mike Chamberlain certainly provides an added value in his narration by giving Arcos a very convincing and utterly terrifying boy’s voice.
  • Minor spoiler: As the story goes along, we learn that Arcos values life very highly, and because we humans are so disrespectful to life on Earth (we’re rapidly destroying the habitats that foster life), it decides to get rid of us, viz the ‘humans are a virus’ speech from The Matrix.
  • Minor spoiler 2: Perhaps my favorite scene comes toward the end, when the soldiers discover that “Rob’s” experiments with human physiology have yielded fruit in the shape of a puppet-master robot that can seize control of dying nervous systems and reanimate them.  “Raaaar!” Robo-zombies. (Cyborgs, actually, but whatever.)

Worth a read, certainly.  Quite enjoyable.

See also: World War Z and WWZ: audio book

In which I advise how to survive a NYC zombie outbreak

New York Magazine just published a feature about how to survive a zombie outbreak.  I’m featured and provide a couple pieces of advice.

On essential supplies:

“A crowbar ($8.50 at Home Depot, 980 Third Ave.). It’s heavy, so it does a lot of the work for you in head-cracking, plus it can help you pry open doors.” —Brendan Riley, professor, Zombies in Popular Media, Columbia College Chicago

On choosing weapons:

“You need a stout weapon to break their heads. A baseball bat—metal, not wood, because wood will break. A cricket bat is terrific. A crowbar—it’s heavy, so it does a lot of the work for you in head-cracking, plus it can help you pry open doors. I would stay away from firearms—unless you’ve trained, it’s really hard to hit a moving target in the head. You can run out of ammo. And firearms encourage overconfidence in a zombie situation.” —Brendan Riley, professor, “Zombies in the Media,” Columbia College–Chicago

In the voice interview, I acknowledged that much of this comes from The Zombie Survival Guide, but that didn’t make it into the article.  I’m also a little disappointed that my discussion about the possibility that the zombies could be voodoo zombies or intelligent zombies was left on the cutting room floor.  Oh well, all press is good press, right?