There are a few rare pleasures you get to experience when reading The Horror Sensorium by Angela Ndalianis. Many academics, having established themselves and their research platform, begin to churn out books that often start to feel like variations on a theme and, as a reader, you get a “haven’t I read this before?” feeling. Similarly, it can be the case that the trajectory of books can tend toward an evermore complex and inaccessible linguistic and grammatical style. Ndalianis wholeheartedly avoids falling into either of these traps in a book that is not just an incredibly fun read but is a must read for anyone in the field of media theory. From the first few pages Ndalianis confidently establishes a highly personal narrative style in her explication of a theory that both engages the reader and also endears her to them.
Whilst reading The Horror Sensorium one looses count of the times that its tone draws a smile or a laugh rarely to be found in an academic book. Ndalianis describes experiences as a gamer, movie/television viewer or fairground attraction goer that make her book feel more like a personal account crossed with incredibly illuminating academic analysis. In many instances the book will quickly move from a fascinating historical description to insightful contemporary parallel at the same time as it moves from the objective evaluation of a media form through to the deeply personal subjective experience and back again in a few sentences. In many cases comic personal accounts of Ndalianis’ experience of the horror sensorium compete for space: analysis of de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life is combined with description of its manifestation in the practice of consuming contemporary media culture (her childlike joy at controlling Batman who she describes as “the greatest fictional character ever invented”). There is here an infectious enthusiasm that pervades the writing: “Stealth mode? A piece of cake!…Sheer magic!..Indescribable Joy!…Words cant explain the delight I felt when I finally felt myself working that controller with a certain mastery. I was Batman and I was kick-ass!” (p. 49) Needless to say, this is a long way from the po-faced film criticism one can encounter in academic writing.
Perhaps the best thing about Ndalianis’s deadly serious project to map out the territory of the horror sensorium is the fact that it is inextricably linked to the seemingly casual and occasional comedic language and tone she deploys. Here subjective accounts of her experiences consuming, interacting, interfacing or controlling media are not just a welcome difference to traditional accounts, they are a central means by which Ndalianis articulates and understands the ways in which the horror sensorium operates. Taking the bull by the horns, Ndalianis points out early on that Film Studies has, over the last decade and more, fallen behind in its acknowledgement of, and scholarship in, the sensorium and “the network of relations it triggers in the body’s experience and interpretation of entertainment media, ranging from the perceptual and cognitive to the corporeal and sensory” (p. 4). Moving beyond the traditional focus of film studies on textual analysis (as her own critique demands) Ndalianis examines multiple media forms and the way in which we do not just immerse ourselves in narratives but, as she puts it, “extract meaning through our bodies” (p. 6). In this way her subjective address is both deliberate and inextricably linked to the book’s project: to explore the subjective nature of the horror sensorium. Here the old tool kit of the traditional film studies textual analysis is no longer enough when examining the way in which the manipulation of wiimotes and nunchucks function in relation to the body demanding, as she points out, a physicality that is new to gaming.
Ndalianis starts the first chapter on familiar territory with an analysis of New Horror Cinema and its address of the spectator through an “intense and unforgiving corporeality” (p. 5) that emphasises and targets an awareness of and attention to the senses. Here she argues convincingly for an understanding of cinema as functioning beyond traditional accounts of spectatorship that have placed an emphasis on sight at the expense of other sensorial functions. As she points out, at the core of New Horror Cinema there is an aesthetic of disgust that plays out across multiple senses and relies upon the spectator to both physically and psychically engage at such a level.
In chapter two, attention is turned to gaming, avatars and processes of interfacing with the horror sensorium in game space. On first consideration the idea that controlling a game avatar is analogous to the control of a digital zombie may seem too obvious a parallel to be considered in any real detail but, on the contrary, this is one of the most fascinating chapters of the book. Not only does this dramatically reinforce the need for a new conceptualisation of the ways in which contemporary interconnected digital media operate and are consumed, it points backward to a rich history of past media forms in which this has long been the case.
With the third chapter we move on to the theme park ride and its relationship to horror cinema. Once again we are dealing with a medium with a history that, like cinema itself, has a wealth of past avenues with which to explore its current trajectory (literally in the case of theme park rides). It is not lost on Ndalianis that cinematic precursors of phantasmagorical magic lantern shows often shared the same exhibitive and commercial space with the sensorial fairground experience more generally. Examining the way in which contemporary rides are increasingly deploying sophisticated digital image projection technologies to augment their experiences, Ndalaianis points out that of “all entertainment media, it’s only the theme park ride that can deliver such intense somatic and visceral effects on the body” (p. 70). Here the scene is set for a fascinating analysis of the way in which the fairground ride has long existed at a transmedia crossroad: one involving a rich history from World Fairs to Walt Disney.
Chapter four turns initially to a consideration of the “Paranormal Romance” novel though is perhaps most engaging in its analysis of the function of sexuality in vampire narratives. Here again is a subject that sounds well worn and tired at best. But again, Ndalianis approaches this in a truly disarming and engaging way, providing an account of a particularly brutal sex scene from True Blood (which garnered accusations of misogyny on its screening) and examining her own reactions to this scene which complicate any simplistic reduction of the function of sexuality in the horror sensorium.
Chapter six contains my favourite anecdote of the book in the form of an account of the time the author visited a live action Alien Wars attraction in London and, so engrossed in the narrative of the experience, found herself almost assaulting a rubber clad “alien”. Once again, the account here is hilarious, but it also serves the purpose of outlining the centrality with which subjective sensorial experience operates in contemporary media consumption. She may have known the unfortunate alien she was confronting was not in fact real but it did not prevent her from buying into the sensorial requirements of the experience (much to someone’s regret I am sure).
In her final chapter we turn to transmedia and the sensorium and an account of the way in which media production and marketing strategy is increasingly turning explicitly toward a fundamental awareness of the centrality of the sensorium. As with many other chapters in this book one feels that Ndalianis is exploring something here the terms of which are applicable beyond the boundaries of the horror genre. This leads us to a final point to make regarding The Horror Sensorium: Ndalianis has written a book with a title that may encourage those (like myself) not strictly working in the field of the horror genre to pass it over. This would be a real mistake. While I do not focus on horror I found this book one of the freshest approaches to an interconnected examination of multiple media forms for a long time. This book is not just a must read, it is a perfect text with which to engage a wide range students in the new media field.
Angela Ndalianis The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Mc Farland: North Carolina, 2012).