Fan(g) Scholarship: Q+A with the minds behind Academic Conference “TV FANGDOM”
The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies‘ Kristopher Woofter offers up a Pop Quiz in 10 questions for Dr. Lorna Jowett, Dr. Stacey Abbott and Dr. Mike Starr on their upcoming Academic Conference, “TV Fangdom: A Conference on Television Vampires”.
The recent spate of vampire series on television since the 1997 premiere of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (including a new upcoming DRACULA series from NBC) is proof-positive of the continued adaptability of one of folklore’s most enduring monsters. On June 7th and 8th, a group of scholars from 7 different countries will descend upon Northampton University in central UK to wrestle with the charismatic—and increasingly sympathetic—televisual vampire, from DARK SHADOWS to THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and beyond. “TV Fangdom: A Conference on Television Vampires” will feature 11 panels with topics ranging from vampire TV for children, to the fabulous UK series ULTRAVIOLET, to sexuality in shows like BUFFY and TRUE BLOOD.
At just under 40 presenters and guest speakers, “TV Fangdom” is among a crop of smaller, more intimate conferences where participants channel the passion and devotion of their own fandom into the serious academic treatment of a specific pop-culture phenomenon. This may be one of the only places on Earth where political anthropology meets your favorite televisual vamp.
Fangoria got hold of conference organizers, Dr. Lorna Jowett and Dr. Michael Starr of Northampton University, and Dr. Stacey Abbott of Roehampton University, and decided to hand them a pop-quiz on their bloody endeavors.
FANGORIA: What prompted you to create a conference on the subject of TV Vampires? How did the conference come about?
LORNA JOWETT: Well, it’s partly about the current popularity of the vampire and tapping into that. But if I remember correctly, Stacey and I came up with this idea while getting our bags out of the lockers at the BFI (British Film Institute) Reading Room in London a year or two ago. We were finishing our book on TV Horror [TV HORROR: INVESTIGATING THE DARK SIDE OF THE SMALL SCREEN (I.B. Tauris, 2013)] and asking ourselves where to go next.
STACEY ABBOTT: We had had such a good time working on the book that we were keen to keep going. Also, we’d both been to a number of conferences on the subject and while TV shows like BUFFY and TRUE BLOOD were discussed at these conferences, they seemed to be treated as unique with little consideration for the vast contribution that television had brought to the genre. Many people even seemed downright dismissive of the vampire on TV – too pretty, sympathetic, defanged. This didn’t seem to jive with our love of such a wide variety of shows like ULTRAVIOLET, BEING HUMAN, DARK SHADOWS and ANGEL, shows that we found really provocative, challenging, and frightening.
FANG: It took until the late 1970s for horror cinema to be deemed “worthy” of academic study, and there are still those who consider it a mere popular commodity, often catering to undiscerning viewers. Do you think the same attitude holds for horror TV? What is it that has created so much recent academic interest around horror TV?
JOWETT: I think TV generally is still undervalued as an art form, or a subject worthy of serious study, so horror TV is, or has been, even more undervalued. I think some of the recent interest in horror TV is partly related to the rise in popularity of fantasy genres in general, and partly about the quality of some of the TV shows. They’re not just great horror TV, they’re great TV.
ABBOTT: Also, many used to assume that you couldn’t do horror on TV – too many restrictions, distractions, commercial interruptions. But television has changed so much in the last ten years, at least, that TV horror series are far more up front about their generic leanings and it is catching people’s attention. If you compare The X-FILES with SUPERNATURAL, The X-FILES was treated as science-fiction despite clear connections with horror, but SUPERNATURAL has been really up front about its horror pedigree. The same goes for DEXTER, THE WALKING DEAD and TRUE BLOOD.
FANG: Do you see conferences like yours as in any way filling a gap, or correcting any misconceptions, for fans and/or scholars of horror TV?
JOWETT: People used to say, and perhaps some still believe, that you can’t have real horror on TV, focusing on the perceived limitations of television as a medium. But one of the things that fascinates me about vampires on TV, is how the TV format offers opportunities for different development, of the vampire character or of vampire mythology. Vampire stories can be fairly epic in scale, moving across time and different countries or even worlds, and a 2-hour film can’t always do that justice. A 5-year television series has more time to develop depth and experiment with different aspects.
ABBOTT: I would hope that this conference, and hopefully others like it, will correct misconceptions. In particular, I think we are contributing to a rethinking of the TV vampire as defanged because they are sympathetic or reluctant. Angel, Mitchell/Aidan (BEING HUMAN/BEING HUMAN USA), Stefan (VAMPIRE DIARIES) and Bill (TRUE BLOOD) are very likable, maybe even lovable, but when they fall off the wagon, they are all the more terrifying. And supposed ‘bad’ vampires like Eric (TRUE BLOOD) and Damon (VAMPIRE DIARIES) are all the more moving when they reveal their vulnerable human sides.
FANG: Your conference is called “TV Fangdom,” a clever gesture to the fans that arguably have given the television vampire its longevity. In what ways does this conference treat the topic of vampire TV fandom specifically?
JOWETT: We have papers on many aspects of audience and fandom, from Bulgarian housewives to kids’ television, from Fangtasia London to vampire handicrafts.
MICHAEL STARR: In addition to the popular contemporary TV Vampire, we also have delegates delving deep into older TV shows, such as DARK SHADOWS, as well as those that have rarely been considered as vampire fictions, like the FRIDAY THE 13th series. Also, as Lorna states, there is a distinctly international flavor to proceedings, with Spanish, Bulgarian and Canadian TV vampires all represented.
FANG: What aspects of the “TV Fangdom” conference might be most intriguing for the casual fan of vampire TV? Can “mere mortals” attend?
JOWETT: Anyone can attend – if they pay the registration fee. The final session, a Q&A with Simon J. Ashford, writer on CBBC’s popular series YOUNG DRACULA, will also be open to the public.
ABBOTT: We hope that the topic will attract a wide audience with a shared interest in television, horror and vampires, whether you are a student, academic or an engaged fan. I think fans will be interested in the diversity of television programming that will be covered in the conference. If you are a fan of TRUE BLOOD or BEING HUMAN, you might want to come along and hear about a wide range of shows that you may not have seen before such as ULTRAVIOLET, the adaptation of DRACULA for Mystery and Imagination [1966-1970, UK], or Spanish TV vampires.
FANG: What would you say is most unique about the “TV Fangdom” conference? What features are you most proud of?
ABBOTT: I am really pleased that we’ve got Lisa Kerrigan from the British Film Institute coming to talk about rare vampire TV, things she’s ‘unearthed’ from the archives – sorry can’t resist the pun. Her presentation will offer a chance to see something unusual and will provide some historical breadth to the discussions.
JOWETT: Yes, we’re really glad to have Lisa and other keynote and featured speakers. In fact, having a mix of scholars, students, a professional TV writer, and a television archivist all talking about the same subject will be both unique and fascinating.
FANG: How do you negotiate your role as a fan of genre television and a scholar of genre television? Would you consider yourself a “fan-scholar” or a “scholar-fan”? Is there a difference?
ABBOTT: There has been a lot of discussion within academia about the issue of being both a scholar and a fan, particularly with regard to television, and while I think it is important, I don’t think it is as big an “issue” as some would argue. In fact I would say that most academic study in the arts begins with a form of fandom. Whether it is the works of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Monet, or Alfred Hitchcock, you have to have a passion about the subject to research, study and teach it. The key to negotiating our fandom and scholarship is to not allow enthusiasm to prejudice critical analysis. But I don’t hold with the argument that fans are uncritical and subjective, in fact many fans can be intensely critical and analytical about the objects of their fandom.
STARR: As Stacey says, in the field of television academia, fan-identity is intrinsic; in my experience it’s often the passionate discussions one has with other fans (academic or otherwise) that provide the ideas that subsequently evolve into scholarly writings (which hopefully then go on to function vice-versa!)
FANG: Where should vampire fans start if they want to expose themselves to scholarship on the television vampire?
JOWETT: Stacey Abbott’s ANGEL , part of the Wayne State University Press “TV Milestones” series, is a great place to start because it looks at various aspects of TV studies, as well as at a successful vampire TV show.
ABBOTT: Thanks for the plug Lorna. I would also recommend looking at the Whedon Studies Association journal “Slayage”, which has some fantastic scholarship on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL alongside other aspects of [Joss] Whedon’s work. One of our keynote speakers, Brigid Cherry, has recently edited a fantastic book on TRUE BLOOD, part of I.B. Tauris’ “Investigating Cult TV” series, which features articles by numerous scholars looking at the series from a wide range of perspectives. Definitely worth reading.
FANG: Are there any TV vampire shows or made-for-TV films that you or others have “unearthed” in your own research that vampire fans might want to check out?
ABBOTT: Well I’ve been looking at the different adaptations of DRACULA for television and so I would definitely recommend the version done for Mystery and Imagination in 1968, as well as the BBC’s 1977 COUNT DRACULA. But on the lighter side, I’ve also enjoyed revisiting classic appearances of the count in popular television from my childhood like SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? and THE HARDY BOYS AND NANCY DREW MEET DRACULA. Very silly and lots of fun.
FANG: Final Question: The television vampire—eternal or vulnerable? Choose one, and explain your answer.
JOWETT: Definitely “eternal.” People have been telling stories about vampires for a long time because as a myth or symbol they speak to the human condition, and the vampire has proved adaptable to many eras. TV is now a major medium for popular storytelling. So, long as there’s TV, there’ll be TV vampires.
ABBOTT: I would say “eternal” – the serial storytelling techniques of television suit the longevity of the vampire. They have such long, morally complicated lives that play well on television. Just when you think you know them, the TV vampire does something unpredictable to remind us that they are ever changing and immortal. The vampire is going through a surge of popularity at the moment, in TV, film and literature, and that may die down a bit, but I don’t think that the TV vampire will ever really go away.
STARR: The ever-changing nature of the televisual landscape is ideally suited to the ambiguity and malleability of vampire ontology, and it’s fascinating to watch these evolutions occurring.
“TV Fangdom: A Conference on Television Vampires” takes place from 7-8 June at the University of Northampton’s Avenue campus. To reserve a place, visit: http://tvfangdom.wordpress.com/registration/.
BONUS: If you were a punk in Edmonton in the 80s, you are probably in this video: