Nadia is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara, majoring in English and specializing in Literature and the Mind. In addition to completing coursework with a focus in this field, Nadia completed a senior thesis that draws on feminist and psychoanalytic theory, entitled “La Petite Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality,” under the direction of Julie Carlson. She has presented her research to faculty and fellow students through the Arnhold Program.
Tell us more about your senior thesis project.
I’ve always been an avid consumer of supernatural media (Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) but especially things that had to do with vampires, because they were the stories that interested me. Halfway through college I discovered Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film (1992) which became one of my favorite movies for both its use of costumes and its revamp of the original Dracula plot. So when I joined the Arnhold Program, I knew I wanted to write on vampirism, especially female vampirism. My favorite work I studied was probably “The Lady of the House of Love” simply because I love Angela Carter so much and the symbolism was so rich. I really had something to sink my teeth into with that short story.
What drew you to Literature and the Mind?
My interest in Literature and the Mind stemmed from an interest in psychoanalytics and a desire to understand how people’s minds worked. The first true Lit and Mind class I took was Professor Young’s Reading Jane Austen’s Mind, but I always count my first class as Professor Carlson’s 103B course. She later became my thesis advisor and an invaluable resource during my writing. She gave me my first taste of Victorianism, which is the period covered in my thesis.
Lit and Mind encompasses so many different facets of literary study, because, in my understanding, it focuses on the feedback loop between people and their surroundings, whether it’s other people, animals, nature, smells, sounds, inanimate objects. Lit and Mind is the microcosm of the human experience as an entity that reacts and moves with its environment.
Where do you believe this field is headed, or should be headed? What are you interested in learning more about?
I’m not entirely sure where the field is at this point, but intersectionality is important in any kind of study. Examining the female mind, the transgender mind, the queer mind, the minority mind, these are all things that we should be looking at and seeking understanding of in this era.
What’s in store for you after graduation?
In November, I will be presenting at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in Honolulu, on a section of my thesis titled “The Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith” in a seminar called “Other Vampires.” I’m very excited to see how the other presenters and the audience will shape my understanding of my own work and the study of vampirism. There’s a kind of bloodlust in academia, a need to know and understand and consume. I sense that this thesis has not sated my own academic bloodlust and expect to be returning to this project in graduate school, with the addition of other female monsters.
Excerpts from the introduction to Nadia’s senior thesis, “La Petite Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality”:
While the origins of the vampire in literature can be found in early Biblical texts on Lilith, the outpouring of literature on the vampire during the 19th century reflects a renewed interest in the vampire’s link with sex, power, and death. Especially prominent in these texts are female vampires, often portrayed using major female archetypes: the female predator; the mother of evil; and the fallen woman. But why do these tropes persist even now, into the 21st century? Where did these depictions come from? And what is it about the female vampire that strikes fear into the hearts especially of men, a fear that seems tied to confrontation with abjection? The link between this fear and the female vampire seems to be female sexuality, and fear of its overt expression. Female vampires are portrayed as lustful, defiling creatures, in a far more sexualized manner than their male counterparts. This portrayal uncovers fear of that shadowy world just outside the boundaries of society where the female body is powerful, women have agency, and they continually violate the boundaries that are crucial to civilized existence.
My study seeks to explore the variety and persistence of Lilith’s traits through focus on vampire texts produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses on literary, filmic, and televisual texts, namely, Charles Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satatia” and “The Vampire” (1857); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872); Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” (1979); Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and the HBO series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). All of these works explore the crossing of the boundaries of life and death and of good and evil, and some deal specifically with the boundaries of the body, of virginity, and even of marriage vows. Penny Dreadful gives a name to this shadowy place of blurred boundaries, what Vanessa Ives calls the demimonde, “a half world between what we know and what we fear…a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt” (“Night Work”). This place between what is known and what is feared, also called a borderland and a no-man’s-land, is where monsters walk and female agency takes command. In what follows I trace how this expression of female power is portrayed, managed, enjoyed, and punished so that social life can continue to proceed.
Image: Jennie Harbour, “Sleeping Beauty”
From Chapter 1, “Girls Just Wanna Have Blood: The Female Predator”:
The female predator is a particularly terrifying figure for patriarchal society: the woman who stalks through the night and lures in her prey with her sexual wiles. The vampire, unlike a monster such as a werewolf or a zombie, enfolds the victim in an apparent, or real, erotic embrace. The idea of a woman not only crossing the boundaries of proper sexual conduct but also penetrating the boundaries of blood and the body is terrifying, and yet it continually appears in literature. So is the idea that she feeds on rather than nourishes other persons. As Bram Dijkstra suggests in Idols of Perversity, “woman, having been consumed in the marriage market, then having become consumptive as a wife through lack of respect, exercise, and freedom, took her revenge by becoming a voracious consumer” (Stephanou 74). Her voracious consumption of blood is a revenge against the voracious consumption of her body and crosses the boundary of proper behavior. Every female predator that exists in the literary canon is a reaction against women’s objectification and commodification in the marriage market. But why is she always so sexualized? And what purpose does it serve to keep telling these stories of female predators over and over again?
[Angela Carter’s] “The Lady of the House of Love” is a retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” and twists the fairytale trope of the power of the prince’s kiss as well as the hedge of roses that surrounds the princess. As the virginal hero approaches the mansion, he is immediately struck by a “blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough, almost, to fell him” (Carter 98). The roses that surround the mansion strike him immediately as something wrong, something repulsive:
“Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorls, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications (Carter 98).”
The roses that seem repulsive, extravagant, and excessive, resemble the engorged, sexually aroused female genitals. With the addition of the “bristling thorns,” the roses become a symbol of the vagina dentata, one of man’s greatest fears. The myth of woman as castrator clearly points to male fears about the female genitals as a trap, or a black hole. Combining the already frightening female genitals with teeth creates the mouth of hell, a terrifying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway (Creed 71). The Countess’s roses are a manifestation of her sexuality, which is outrageous in its flamboyancy, but also threatening to the man who dares to have sex with her.
Steven Willemsen is a PhD Researcher and Junior Lecturer in Film and Literary Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and currently a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara. During his time at UCSB, he has shared his work on narrative complexity in cinema, including the newly published monograph, Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Complex Cinema (Edinburgh University Press), which he co-authored with Dr. Miklós Kiss. His work can also be found in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, ACTA Film and Media Studies, and other publications.
The works of David Lynch are a prime example of the complex narratives that Steven studies: set up as “puzzles” with no apparent solution that nevertheless draw viewers in, these films tempt some viewers to map out these impossible worlds, or lead other viewers simply to return to films that elude understanding.
What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?
I’m interested in the way in which our minds interact with complex stories. Particularly in film and television, it seems that complexity in storytelling and story structures is currently more popular than ever. Audiences are fascinated by all sorts of non-chronological, multi-layered, metaleptic, impossible, paradoxical and puzzling stories. The aim of my project is to explore the aesthetic experience that we get from such narratives. We usually tend to think about stories as being ‘mimetic’ conductors – things we engage with for their content, like the characters, actions, emotions, or immersive storyworlds. But a confusing story seems to block our access to these dimensions somewhat. Apparently there is something particularly engaging about narrative complexity in itself, and I hope to find the key to that in the particular cognitive and hermeneutic mental activities that such stories cue us to perform.
How did you become interested in this field?
The project grew out of a more general interest in cognitive film theory. Cognitive film studies is a vivid, still developing field where film scholars and psychologists meet and draw on ideas from cognitive sciences to understand how films ‘work’ on viewers – in terms of perception, comprehension, or emotion. There is still something quite magical to me about the way in which a series of 2D images and sounds can result in such lifelike and intense experiencs. Cinema taps into all kinds of traits of the human cognitive and perceptual systems to involve us emotionally, perceptually, intellectually, and on a bodily level, and to create a smooth sense of continuity, narrative coherence, and even of presence. I’m excited about the idea of getting a grip on how this works, because I believe it is something that is very elementary to culture: using media to create, or re-create, simulated experience, which in turn allows us to reflect on actual experience. For me, cognitive approaches to art and narrative are all about mapping those intersections: between our minds and our artworks, and the way these shape each other.
What unique contributions are narrative scholars positioned to make to the interdisciplinary field of mind studies?
In any case, narrative theorists have developed quite an understanding of one of the key tools that the human mind has to integrate information, experience and impressions in a coherent and intelligible form. The idea that narrativity is in some ways ingrained in our cognitive make-up seems quite accepted now, across a range of fields. But actual two-way dialogues between the humanities and the ‘mind-sciences’ (like cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists) can remain difficult – because of our different vocabularies, and the different stances towards empiricism. Ultimately, however, I think that both perspectives could work to illuminate and correct each other. It seems to be increasingly acknowledged how strictly naturalistic perspectives on the mind also leave explanatory gaps, in terms of the full phenomenological richness involved in experience and sense making. It is my hope that as a result, multi-perspectival takes on the topics of mind and cognition will be increasingly valued, and that the humanities’ and sciences’ approaches to the mind might be able to meet somewhere in the middle.
What does narrative do for minds (whether through film or literature)?
That is a really complex question – perhaps even the underlying mystery of all art! One of the things I hope to gain a better understanding of is the simple question why we engage with fictional stories at all, including excessively complex ones. Why should we enjoy – or require – stories that are not about the real world, or that confuse us? One of the reasons, I think, is that complex narrative artworks allow us to draw on our whole range of everyday experiences – from very basic, ‘low-level’ sensations and emotions, like the feeling of being under a threat or in love, to very sophisticated ‘higher-order’ frames of knowledge, like understanding complex socio-political situations or philosophical ideas. Making sense of a complex artwork allows us to ‘activate’ and recombine all these levels of knowledge at the same, because it has the ability to evoke and simulate all that mental and bodily experience. I think that that process, of putting our real world knowledge and experience to new, interpretive use, is inherently enjoyable and creative, and can be potentially revealing about ourselves and our relation to the world.
Selections from Steven’s Work:
Steven’s latest project is Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, co-authored with Miklos Kiss. Here you will find a description of the book’s primary questions and interventions; and for a free preview of the first chapters of the book, click here.
“Narrative complexity is a trend in contemporary cinema. Since the late 1990s there has been a palpable increase in complex storytelling in movies. But how and why do complex movies create perplexity and confusion? How do we engage with these challenges? And what makes complex stories so attractive? By blending film studies, narrative theory and cognitive sciences, Kiss and Willemsen look into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind. Analysing the effects that different complex narratives have on viewers, the book addresses how films like Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive or Primer strategically create complexity and confusion, and, by using the specific category of the ‘impossible puzzle film’, it examines movies that use baffling paradoxes, impossible loops, and unresolved ambiguities in their stories and storytelling. By looking at how these films play on our mind’s blind spots, this innovative book explains their viewing effects in terms of the mental state of cognitive dissonance that they evoke.”
- Analyses the effects of complex narratives on viewers, including the psychological experience of puzzlement and perplexity
- Explores impossible puzzle films as a specific set of highly complex popular films
- Introduces cognitive dissonance as a key feature of these films
- Brings together literary theory, cognitive narratology and film studies
The art form that affirms survival, that makes happiness our business and hope not the gift of the lucky few but a turn of mind to be practiced and pursued is COMEDY. Comedy as a genre, comedy as a practice, comedy as a way of imagining will be the object and its frame of our study.
Primary texts by Aristophanes, Larry David, Billy Wilder, Menander, Shakespeare, Nichols and May.
Theory by: Aristotle, Eco, Freud, Bergson, Frye, and Young.
Image: Still from “Some Like It Hot” (United Artists)