Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve found that blogging less has made me much more productive as a book writer. I’ve churned out 25,000 words of my new book on midcentury panics in the past five or six weeks, and I am remarkably pleased with the results. However, I can’t let weeks pass without offering at least a few words about the new series Lovecraft Country, currently airing on HBO. The series, based on a 2016 novel I have never read (having a kid really cuts down on reading time), transforms traditional horror tropes by filtering them through the experience of midcentury Black Americans, directly critiquing the racism inherent in classic horror stories, especially H. P. Lovecraft’s.
Rod Serling has always been a bit of a ghost hovering over my life. I grew up in Central New York, where Serling once lived, amidst the places whose names littered The Twilight Zone. When I was a young teenager, I watched the entire run of the The Twilight Zone in order and then the Night Gallery after that. Although I was born years after Serling died, my parents knew some of his friends, and I heard many stories about his life, particularly times spent boating with him on the Finger Lakes. I went to the college where Serling taught in his final years and took classes in the classroom where he once held court. For many years after I graduated, my picture hung in the hall of the Roy H. Park School of Communications next to Serling’s Emmy awards. Discovering that Serling had helped to shepherd the ancient astronaut theory from the fringes of science to mainstream media success shaped my research and formed one of the lynchpins for my first book.
The Order was never a good show. It also didn’t try to be one. When the Netflix occult thriller debuted in early 2019, it looked and felt like a throwback to the kind of knockoffs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that littered the airwaves in the early 2000s. I reviewed the first season of the show, and I kind of liked it despite some problematic narrative choices. Now that the second season has debuted this week on Netflix, I am a little annoyed that I wasted so much time and trouble looking for something redeeming in a pointless garbage fire that seems to see Sharknado as an aspirational high to strive toward. The new season also has a troublingly conservative bent that seems out of step with the subject matter and the times. The Order has gone from entertaining b-movie storytelling to actively awful trash.
When I wrote my 2008 study of the horror genre, Knowing Fear, I remarked that horror is essentially conservative since it revolves around disruptions to the status quo and efforts, successful or not, to restore that status quo. At a macro level, the inherent conservatism of horror also tends to limit the originality of its stories, with new innovations being few and far between. Two new international Netflix horror series released last week illustrate these two points but do so in ways that vary greatly in their success as they work to add something new to two very familiar stories.
In its quest to be all things to all people, Netflix releases a lot of content that wouldn’t make the cut at most networks. This filler tends to get dumped on off days, or in the shadow of higher-profile series. October Faction, nominally a supernatural monster-hunting drama, premiered just one day before the release of the next batch of episodes of the similarly themed Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Netflix made it quite clear that October Faction was a dud. The show, filmed more than a year ago, dropped on a weekday with virtually no promotion, and for good reason. It’s bad, at least based on the first half of the season, which was as far as I got before I couldn’t take the inanity any longer.
The new version of Dracula airing on the BBC and Netflix this week comes to us from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, whose previous collaborations on Doctor Who and Sherlock share more than a little DNA with the thematically muddled but intermittently interesting three-part vampire drama. Like Sherlock, their Dracula aims to reinvent Bram Stoker’s novel, but the result is more of a pastiche of a century of Dracula adaptations spiced with a superficial gloss on toxic masculinity and feminism and wrapped in a veneer of pseudo-camp and linguistic anachronism that cut hard against the vestigial Gothic horror the miniseries retains from the source material. British critics loved the series, but I wonder if it doesn’t play more to a British sensibility than to an American one. I have a hard time buying any Dracula who quips like a Batman villain as a timeless supernatural menace.
When I first got Netflix, the service’s algorithms had me pegged as a fan of horror, science fiction, and other genre staples, and its recommendations were targeted accordingly. Then one day the magic computer systems that measure our every action calculated that I was gay, and so overnight Netflix started recommending all manner of programming about drag queens and some Golden Girls-adjacent category they called “strong female friendships”—subjects of no interest to me. Stubbornly, Netflix refused to let the stereotype go despite my manifest uninterest, even sprinkling in shows about decorating and fashion. What, really, do they program their algorithms to believe? After a couple of weeks of this, the computers tried a new tack and suddenly all of the thumbnails for shows featured shirtless young men smiling and flexing, even when the content had nothing to do with the imagery. Eventually, Netflix’s algorithms calmed down and settled back into highlighting genre fare, but it was instructive to see the way the service’s marketing changes according to how they stereotype their users.
My computer was supposed to be fixed and on its way back to me by now, but it still hasn’t left the repair center, so I remain limited in my ability to work. With the extra time, I’ve seen a few movies for the first time in ages. Having a toddler tends to make it hard to find long blocks of time to devote to movies. I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie theater. But I was struck by the contrast between two superficially quite similar films, Truth or Dare, a paint-by-numbers 2018 horror movie streaming on HBO this week, and Head Count, an independent horror thriller that just began streaming on Netflix after a very brief theatrical run this spring.
Yesterday was a busy day for me and a slow day for fringe history, so I do not have much to say today. Instead of trying to come up with something just for the sake of writing, I will present you with a short film that is being released today. I received a screener for it prior to its release with a request to review the film. The short, called Occupant, stars Dan O'Brien of Grey's Anatomy and is being released by Gunpowder & Sky. I cannot imagine how one reviews a 4-minute short, but here goes: It's a minor effort that delivers an eerie feeling but is ultimately far too short to have anything real to say. The plot is unfortunately far too similar to the Jordan Peele film Us from only a few weeks ago, and the comparisons make this look like a deleted scene from the movie, and not necessarily in a good way.
The YouTube video link will become active at 10 AM ET and can be viewed directly on YouTube here.
In the streaming era, TV shows come and go so quickly that there is barely time to binge-watch one before the next drops. Frankly, I don’t know where people find the time to watch 10 or 13 hours of TV in a period of just 24 to 48 hours. Because I don’t have that kind of time, it took me more than a couple of days to make my way through Netflix’s new supernatural comedy-drama, The Order, which touches on many of the themes and leitmotifs that I discuss here on this blog: Gothic horror, Hermetic secret societies, ritual magic, Nephilim, ancient books of wisdom, and the connections between all of these and questions of institutionalized power and privilege. These themes make what would otherwise be a pleasant but forgettable college-set teen drama into something a little more interesting.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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