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Bitextual Pleasures: Camp, Parody, and the Fantastic Film

Literature/Film Quarterly, 2001, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2001), pp. 10-22

Bitextual Pleasures: Camp, Parody, and the Fantastic Film
Karen Pike (Conestoga College, Ontario) , Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Elina Löwensohn in Nadja (Michael Almereyda, 1994)

Definitions of the fantastic have always been wide-ranging. Even if one accepts the convention of distinguishing it from fantasy, which makes a more complete departure from normative reality, the term “fantastic” still elicits a variety of responses as to its nature. Requirements for this narrative mode have included a supernatural intrusion into normative reality (Vax, Caillois), an elicited state of uncertainty or hesitation in the face of an impossibility (Todorov), and the evocation of a liminal or paraxial position alongside the real which is neither real nor unreal (Jackson, Bessière). It has even been suggested that the mode’s resistance to definition is a demonstration of its subversive power: it represents the subversion of all categories, a problematization of the objective apprehension of experience (Jackson 176). Indeed, regardless of specific definitions, most theorists would agree that this questioning of our apprehension of our world—of such notions as objectivity and reality—is at the center of the fantastic’s power to fascinate. Such a general definition is certainly useful as a way of differentiating nineteenth-century fantastic literature from the realism of the modern novel. However, as a way of discerning fantastic qualities in postmodern narrative, its shortcomings are readily apparent.

Like the fantastic, postmodern narrative is concerned with problems of objectivity. It, too, problematizes the notion of reality. It, too, is resistant to definition—possibly for the same subversive reasons. While the fantastic introduces the impossible as a means of destabilizing our notions of normative reality, postmodern narrative can be typified as a discourse which destabilizes by foregrounding the limitations of coded discourse. The relationship between sign and referent is undermined as words and images are reworked in new and sometimes contradictory contexts. Whether one criticizes this technique as pastiche (Jameson), mourns the loss of truth in the non-distinction of the simulacrum (Baudrillard), or recognizes the transformative potential of parody (Hutcheon), it is undeniable that postmodern discourse is very much about a reflexive recontextualizing of words and images. This attention to context has provided a means of rethinking issues such as the notion of a coherent and essential subject, the relationship between dominant and marginal discourses, and the representation of the repressed or absent in our culture.

Because the fantastic is also concerned with the marginal, the repressed, and the fragmented subject, this recontextualizing aspect of postmodern discourse would seem to work to the advantage of the fantastic mode. However, this is often not the case. While it might be an oversimplification to say that the fantastic problematizes the objective apprehension of reality while the postmodern problematizes the objective representation of reality, this distinction does indicate an essential difference. The fantastic downplays its discursive nature in order to diminish the distinction between the book or film and real life. This is why, depending on one’s sleep requirements, a good ghost story either should or definitely should not be read alone at night. Reflexive postmodern narrative, on the other hand, is about representation. It plays up its discursive nature. It foregrounds the issues of power and politics inherent in discourse. The implications for the fantastic effect can be dire. After all, does one really expect an ironically recontextualized vampire with a feminist political agenda to still leave bite marks? Unfortunately, the answer is often “no,” but it is not always “no.”

Conventional wisdom has always deemed parody to be fatal to the traditional fantastic text. This is because the fantastic relies on an emotional, or at least visceral, involvement while parody has an intellectually distancing effect. Yet, parody is precisely what is entailed in this postmodern process of recontextualization (Hutcheon 15). So, how is it that parody and the fantastic do often exist side by side in the same postmodern text? One answer is that they both thrive on contradiction. Fantastic uncertainty derives from the textual indications that something both is and is not true. For example, there is every reason to believe that James’s governess in The Turn of the Screw is hysterical. There is also every reason to believe that she is haunted by ghosts. Parody, meanwhile, can be simultaneously complicit and transgressive in relation to dominant discourse (Hutcheon 74). It can be both conservative and revolutionary (97). Since both modes keep the reader or viewer bouncing back and forth between contradictory interpretations anyway, it is not too difficult to see how this effect could be extended to a continuous alternation between fantastic and parodic modes of reception. Such an alternation could serve both modes since both thrive on the synthesis of contradictory reactions. What is required is the introduction of another element to destabilize the destabilizers, so to speak—something which would not allow either the fantastic or parodic element to take over completely? Enter Camp.

While Camp is not the only means of successfully wedding parody to the fantastic, its effectiveness has made it a popular ingredient in many fantastic films. The numerous ways in which it overlaps with both parody and the fantastic allow it to blend in naturally. While some theorists see Camp as a subspecies of parody (Meyer 10-11; Kleinhans 199; Morrill 110), others see it as a mode of discourse which, like the fantastic, allows the marginal and absent to emerge in dominant discourse (Ross 139; Case 9). One general definition of Camp which allows for both approaches and provides a good starting point for this discussion of Camp is David Bergman’s summary of the areas of agreement among Camp theorists. Camp favors “exaggeration, artifice, and extremity.” It “exists in tension with popular culture” but “outside the cultural mainstream” and is “affiliated with homosexual culture” (4-5). In order to maintain the elements of exaggeration, extremity, and homosexual affiliation in the notion of Camp, I have decided to treat Camp as a separate category from parody, rather than a subspecies, though the overlap between the two categories is considerable. To understand how Camp interacts with both parody and the fantastic, it is useful to look at four different areas where the theoretical debates surrounding these three modes overlap significantly. First is the question of where Camp/the fantastic effect/parodic meaning inheres. Is it in the authorial intent, the object/text, or the interpreter? Second is the issue of ideology. Is Camp/the fantastic/parody subversive, reifying, or apolitical? Third is the problem of representation. How does Camp/the fantastic/parody relate to the dominant discourse and to the world we live in? How is the marginal or absent represented? Finally, what effect does Camp/the fantastic/parody have on the notion of the subject? Obviously, this division is arbitrary since these issues are inextricable from one another. Hopefully what will become apparent is that the inter-relatedness and fine distinctions are precisely what allow the viewer of campy fantastic films to move about easily between modes of reception.


In her seminal essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag introduced the problem of where Camp resides by defining Camp as a sensibility—“a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things”—and then adding that it is also “a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons” (277). Thus, according to Sontag, Camp inheres in the text and in the interpretation but not in the production of the text: “One doesn’t need to know the artist’s private intentions. The work tells all” (282). Andrew Ross associates Sontag’s position with a privileging of the interpreter. Her preference for naïve Camp, that which exists “in the eye of the beholder” (277), is particularly biased, according to Ross, because with naïve Camp, “it is the critic and not the producer who takes full credit for discerning the camp value of an object or text” (145). Mark Booth points out another problem with Sontag’s erasure of the producer of Camp. It ignores the implications of an audience: “Because camp is predicated on an audience, it is a matter of self-presentation more than of sensibility” (17). Moe Meyer observes that

Sontag’s emphasis on the Camp object and the Camp sensibility is a natural result of her downplaying of the homosexual aspect of Camp. By removing the producer from the Camp equation, she deprives the queer producer of Camp of any agency.

The first move in uncovering and revealing the queer is the removal of the objectivist bias from interpretations of Camp…. This objectivist bias that reduces people to thinglike status is used to label Camp as extreme aestheticization and therefore apolitical. The arguments that defuse Camp.... are based, then, on a denial of agency. (12-13)

This ideological argument will be explored further at a later point. It is sufficient here to note that, among queer theorists, there is a strong objection to any model of Camp which denies the agency of the producer of Camp. Not surprisingly, many theorists who would encourage a consideration of the whole enonciation of Camp have modelled their theories of Camp on Linda Hutcheon’s theory of parody (Meyer 1011; Kleinhans 199; Morrill 110), a theory which accounts equally for the reception and production, as well as the existence, of parody” (Hutcheon 23).

In arguing for a re-evaluation of the role of the authorial position in texts, Hutcheon suggests that parody has played an important role in encouraging such a re-examination (86). I would suggest that the fantastic mode also encourages, even requires, a consideration of this authorial position. Even at the height of the structuralist focus on the text, Todorov, in his explicitly “structuralist approach,” could not avoid the issues of reception and production. Of his three requirements, only one is purely textual—that the impossible intrude on normative reality. The second requirement—that this intrusion should trigger hesitation in the protagonist and the reader—is concerned with reception. The third—that the reader not interpret the text allegorically or poetically—is a matter of reception and production. The reader cannot infer another intent on the part of the author other than the intent to tell an uncanny, unsettling, fantastic tale. Thus, Camp, parody, and the fantastic all foreground this relationship between the interpreter and producer of the text. The question one asks of these texts is never, “What do I understand from this?” but “How am I supposed to understand this?” As Hutcheon notes, Barthes’s notion of intertextual play is not sufficient for understanding parody because the target of parody is a specific text, not other discourse in general (23). Just as a parody targets a specific text, the fantastic works against a background of specific fantastic texts. Vampires, for example, do not exist in reality. For this reason, vampire stories are always referring not to life but to other vampire stories, and it is against these previous texts that vampire stories are understood. Camp also refers specifically to prior texts. Andrew Ross argues that Camp is the reinvestment of value in discarded cultural artifacts: “The camp effect, then, is created when the products of a much earlier mode of production, which has lost its power to dominate cultural meanings, become available in the present for redefinition according to contemporary codes of taste” (139). Moe Meyer sees this redefinition as a way for the marginalized to enter dominant discourse by attaching meaning to “existing structures of signification” (10). Camp sets up new meanings by synthesizing an original text or cultural artifact and its recontextualized version. In other words, it works parodically. Camp is more complex than simple parody, however. The following textual comparison will demonstrate that Camp extends beyond parody’s intellectual synthesis of texts. What is significant to note at this point, however, is that parody, Camp, and the fantastic are all reworkings of previous texts. They all function bitextually (or multitextually), and this fact is one of the guiding principles in their interpretation.

To demonstrate how these bitextual syntheses can work toward very different ends, one need only look at three examples of the vampire film. Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm is a fun, over-the-top film, very loosely based on Bram Stoker’s story of the same name. The threat is not actually a vampire but the priestess of a giant snake god. The victims are vampirized by bites to the neck which transform them into the snake’s minions, so Russell is able to use standard vampire fare to motivate the plot. The film refers to Dracula more than to Stoker’s lesser-known tale. The film’s rare fantastic moments tend to be overshadowed by the Camp elements. Lady Marsh, the bisexual villainess (there is no question of de-gendering that word—she is, in fact, a villainess-s-s-s), wanders around her palatial home in fabulous lingerie quoting Oscar Wilde. The result is a film about horror films which targets their methods of triggering audience reaction by using an overly stylized villainess, dramatic discordant music at moments which turn out to be mundane, and minor characters, like the butler, who behave in a sinister manner but turn out to be insignificant or completely benign. In short, the film revels in the exaggeration and extremity Bergman describes as the Camp style.

A second film is Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction. Unlike Russell’s film, this is a serious attempt at eliciting the unsettling effect of the fantastic mode. Ferrara’s characters are standard vampires—night creatures who feed on blood and shun the sun. There is no significant alteration of the vampire lore popularized by Bram Stoker. This film plays it straight. It is a fine film for many reasons, especially if one is a Lili Taylor or Christopher Walken fan. As an example of the fantastic, however, it is not very successful because it plays it too straight. The soundtrack does not draw attention to itself. The acting rarely signals its own status as performance as in Lair of the White Worm. This kind of downplaying of the discursive nature of the film should work for the fantastic mode, but it does not in this case because the subject matter is too standard. It cannot be interpreted as parody because it is repetition without any “critical distance” (Hutcheon 6). What is more, Ferrara cannot resist making moralizing statements about evil. His equation of Nazis and vampires takes him too close to the pitfall of allegory. The parallels with drug addiction push him over the edge. Significantly, the most unsettling scenes are those in which Christopher Walken plays an ancient vampire. His performance is marked as performance. He presents himself as a stylized being of his own creation. He understands the relationship between his self-presentation and the influence of discourse. Attempting to teach the new vampire Kathleen about hunger, he asks her the ultimate vampire question—“Have you read Naked Lunch?” His performance is campy... but chilling.

The third and most successful of the three films, in terms of eliciting fantastic hesitation, is Michael Almereyda’s Nadja. It is overtly parodic, referring to several different texts. The main character is based on the title character of a surrealist work by André Bréton. She has the same dramatic manner and style of dress. She spouts nonsensical but highly dramatic avowals such as “My pain is the pain of fleeting joy.” While Bréton’s Nadja is taken seriously, Almereyda’s Nadja is met with bafflement: “I’m not sure I know what that means….” Almereyda’s Nadja also has the Camp props which make her redefinition of the turn-of-the century femme fatale quite amusing. Her monologues are performed under sparkle balls and accompanied by dance music. At one point, her minion Renfield accompanies her on a harp. She is not any more benign for being campy, however. Like Christopher Walken’s vampire, this monster’s stylized self-presentation can be chilling. Almereyda, like Ferrara, plays with Stoker’s version of vampire lore, but Almereyda never plays it straight. He refers often to Dracula, even using character names from the novel, but the references are playful rather than evocative of the original horror. At one point, as Van Helsing and his crew arrive at Nadja’s castle in Rumania, the characters themselves are confused by their decision to carry a large boat through the Rumanian countryside. They cannot explain it, but the viewer can: the trip was made by boat in the novel. Apart from the references to Dracula and Nadja, Almereyda also refers explicitly to the kinds of connections viewers usually try to ignore. He points out the irony of Peter Fonda’s being cast as Van Helsing, defender of the cultural status quo. In Nadja, the star of Easy Rider is never seen without his rickety, old bicycle and reflective safety gear. His performance is marked as performance and is as flamboyant and extreme as Elina Lowensohn’s Nadja. The parody and Camp which infuse this film do not detract from its fantastic effect, however. The parody allows the viewer to activate his or her knowledge of vampire films in order to understand the plot. The Camp, however, says, “This is a vampire with a difference, and you don’t know what that difference will be.” The viewer remains uncertain.

Each of these films synthesizes its own version of the vampire story with elements of Dracula. One specific element that all three appropriate is the mirror scene. Stoker initiated the tradition that vampires cannot be seen in mirrors. Each film reacts to that tradition in a way which typifies its particular blend of parody, Camp, and the fantastic. Lair of the White Worm, which is predominantly Camp, explicitly ignores the tradition. After learning that he has been bitten and his antidote was ineffective, Angus stands in front of the mirror examining his face. His reflection appears as always. This is a film about the conventions of horror films, so the scene is included. It is not really about vampires, so he does not disappear. The Addiction, an attempt at the fantastic which does not reflexively examine the implications of its parodic borrowings, uses the mirror scene without any change to the tradition. After her first “fix,” Kathleen covers every mirror in the house to hide the fact that her image has disappeared. The effect on the viewer is minimal because it is too obvious. In Nadja, the balance between the fantastic and parody is maintained by the campy treatment of this parodied element and by its inversion. After Lucy’s first encounter with Nadja, Nadja simply inverts the tradition by appearing behind Lucy in the bathroom mirror even though she is not there. The Camp treatment of the mirror motif occurs when Van Helsing is certain that Nadja should have shown up in a mirror in a photograph. He dramatically restages the scene by placing himself where Nadja was in the photo. The camera films him from the point where the photo was taken. It is obvious that he is confused by the physics of mirrors—the angle is wrong and he does not appear either. He also sidles up to vampires to see if they will show up in his reflective sunglasses, another campily redefined prop from Easy Rider. There is never any evidence that the mirror lore is relevant at all. The effect of this subversion of the mirror motif is precisely the kind of contradiction which fuels the fantastic effect. These are vampires, but they are not exactly vampires.

Because of my own bias toward the fantastic, these observations take the fantastic as a starting point which can be downplayed or intensified by Camp and parody. Other perspectives are equally valid. Both Nadja and The Addiction are filmed in black-and-white, a technique which foregrounds their discursive nature but also reduces the clarity of certain scenes. In Nadja, the fantastic or supernatural scenes are digitally blurred to create visual ambiguity. The film also contains numerous jump cuts in which the camera angle is changed more than thirty degrees. These shots prevent the viewer from maintaining the sense of a position within the scene (Morrill 127). Perspective is lost. This technique is used minimally in Lair of the White Worm as well. All of these techniques could be seen as creating fantastic elements which counteract the Camp tone. The important thing is that every mode is continually undercut to keep the viewer bouncing back and forth between modes of reception. Nadja uses this technique most successfully because none of the parodic, Camp, or fantastic elements are given priority. It is a Camp version of Dracula, but it is also a fantastic version of Nadja. It parodies a realist text, Easy Rider, along with a surrealist text and a fantastic text. It plays up the double-voicing inherent in each of the three modes while blending them into a veritable chorus.

It is arguable that Camp is what allows these voices to harmonize while remaining distinct. The kinds of double-voicing inherent in parody and the fantastic are quite specific. Parody’s double-voicing has to do with its bitextuality. The original artifact of dominant discourse is contained within the parody but is also transformed by it. “Parody is both textual doubling ... and differentiation” (Hutcheon 101-2). This allows it to be both “conservative and revolutionary” (26), authorized and transgressive. The fantastic’s double-voicing is based on the co-presence of possible and impossible explanations for uncanny events: “What emerges as the basic trope of fantasy is the oxymoron, a figure of speech which holds together contradictions and sustains them in an impossible unity” (Jackson 21). Camp’s double-voicing is more general. Babuscio sees Camp as “any highly incongruous contrast between an individual or thing and its content or association” (20). The example he gives as the most common incongruity is that of masculine and feminine, which is one binary pair that both Camp and the fantastic like to break down. Of course, Camp resides in the synthesis of these incongruities, not simply in their contrast. That is, the juxtaposition creates a tension in which the Camp inheres (Newton 47). Camp does more than hold together incongruous textual elements, however. It also holds together the mixed reactions to these elements. That is, it uses parody without reducing itself to a form of parody. It extends beyond the primarily intellectual function of parody. Camp allows for an intellectual appraisal of a parodic reference without precluding an emotional identification with the fantastic aspect:

the camp attitude ... embraces both identification and parody—attitudes normally viewed as mutually exclusive—at the same time and as part of the same sensibility. As Richard Dyer has written, the gay sensibility “holds together qualities that are elsewhere felt as antithetical: theatricality and authenticity ... intensity and irony, a fierce assertion of extreme feeling with a deprecating sense of its absurdity.” (Feuer 447-48)

Thus, Camp can allow for an emotional reaction to the uncanny despite the intellectual reaction triggered by the foregrounding of a film’s discursive nature by parody. In this way, Camp mimics the fantastic’s “undoing [of] categorical structures” by erasing the distinction between visceral and rational reactions to a text (Jackson 176). As Jackson notes, this undoing of categories is a key to the fantastic’s subversive potential (176). In fact, this undoing of categories is precisely what double-voicing is about—to be neither and both. This subversion of categories, of empirical distinctions, of differentiation, is at the heart of the remaining issues: the authorized and temporary suspension of dominant values, the representation of the absent, and the nature of the campy, postmodern, fantastic subject.


The debates surrounding the subversive potential of these modes all tend toward the same basic problem—the one suggested by Bakhtin’s definition of carnival as the temporary suspension of dominant cultural codes (34): does an authorized transgression have real revolutionary value? All three of these modes contain the dominant cultural values they would subvert and are therefore dependent on dominant discourse for their power to create meaning. How seriously, then, can one take their subversive potential? Camp in particular has had to struggle to reclaim its transgressive properties. Sontag’s casting of Camp as an apolitical sensibility has had a significant effect on its value as a political tool (277). Chuck Kleinhans sees Sontag’s essay as a neutralizing ploy. By broadening the concept of Camp beyond its queer origins, Sontag paved the way for it to be co-opted and neutralized by un-queer society (187). As noted previously, Andrew Ross has identified the denial of queer agency as the main result of Sontag’s apolitical version of Camp (145). Karl Keller has criticized her essay for having “no sense of Camp as politically-artful-defense-and-assertion ... as extravagant-play-for-serious-ends” (115). Ironically, Andrew Ross has argued that this casting of Camp as apolitical may have arisen from its connection with parody: “it was precisely because of this commitment to the mimicry of existing cultural forms, and its refusal to advocate wholesale breaks with these same forms, that camp was seen as pre-political and out of step with the dominant ethos of the liberation movements” (161). The irony is that this “mimicry of existing forms” is what makes parody the mode of choice in postmodern discourse and provides it with politically transgressive potential. Not surprisingly, the increase in parodic discourse in the late twentieth century has been paralleled by a re-evaluation of Camp as a political strategy: “Camp has become recognized as an example par excellence of a postmodern denaturalization of gender categories” (Morrill I I0). Having regained a subversive reputation at least on a par with that of postmodern parody, Camp also has to answer the question of how complicit transgressions can affect change. Or, as Bergman puts it, “How does one deal with oppression without duplicating the very terms of the oppressor?” (10). One approach to this problem sees Camp’s value in its ability to alienate the audience from received standards and ideas through shock (Long 89-90; Babuscio 21). This echoes the Russian Formalist idea of alienation through the laying bare of discursive devices. Another approach sees Camp’s value in its recycling of political and cultural artifacts (Kleinhans 199; Ross 151). This prevents dominant discourse from burying what it would prefer to remain hidden. It also provides the queer subject with access to the dominant discourse through its own artefacts. Moe Meyer sees Camp’s subversive potential in its expression of queerness as “an oppositional stance [to] ... the depth model of identity which underwrites the epistemology deployed by the bourgeoisie in their ascendancy to and maintenance of dominant power” (3). As will be argued below, this undermining of the notion of identity has a powerful destabilizing effect. This is also a subversive technique used by the fantastic mode. A final answer to the question of how Camp is revolutionary is one which it has in common with parody and the fantastic and one which has already been suggested in terms of its double-voicing. It “brings to bear queer logics upon the un-queer hegemony by destabilizing binary relations of ‘difference’” (Morrill 123). In short, it breaks down the binary either/or distinctions which create categories, particularly in terms of gender. Ultimately, however, because these kinds of transgression all occur within dominant discourse, they can only ever create “a momentary suspension” (Morrill 119).

The fantastic mode faces the same problem of effecting change from within dominant discourse. As Rosemary Jackson notes, most fantastic literature ultimately neutralizes its own transgressive impulses (9). In fact, most fantastic texts reconfirm the “dominant order by presenting only a vicarious fulfilment of desire” (72). Thus, thematic elements of the fantastic, more often than not, reinforce bourgeois values. Dracula is typical in this regard: the vampire is slain, and Mina returns to her husband’s bed and bears him a son. The most potent means by which the fantastic mode can challenge these values is to “threaten ... the syntax or structure by which order is constructed” (Jackson 72). Again, it is the either/or distinction which is at stake here. While Camp breaks down gender distinctions, the fantastic breaks down the barriers between real and unreal, possible and impossible. Again, however, this suspension of categories can only be temporary: “The center of the fantastic text tries to break with repression, yet is inevitably constrained by its surrounding frame” (Jackson 122). That is, it is framed in the terms of dominant discourse. The complicity, or interiority, of all of these subversions does not necessarily negate their effectiveness, however. According to Foucault, “resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (336). Yet, contrary to Borg philosophy, resistance is seldom futile. Perhaps the most useful observation regarding the necessarily transitory nature of this kind of subversion is that of David Bergman: “cultural codes do alter, and it is impossible to say whether they have changed only through their own internal evolution or through a dialectical operation that involves opposing values” (106).

What is interesting about the similarities in the subversive techniques of parody, Camp, and the fantastic is how each mode works to either bolster or negate the subversiveness of all three modes. The Addiction is an excellent example of a fantastic text which reconfirms cultural values. Kathleen allows a priest to expose her to the sun. The film ends with a reborn Kathleen visiting the grave of her dead vampire self in broad daylight. Good wins out over evil. There is no Camp element to undercut this conservative conclusion. Walken’s cameo is unfortunately long over. The parodic nature of the text is not treated critically, so Stoker’s style of conservative ending is inevitable. The fantastic element provides only vicarious pleasure in the temporary subversion of cultural norms. It typifies what Stallybrass and White refer to as licensed release: it acts as a safety valve and thereby promotes the continuity of dominant values (Bergman 106).

Lair of the White Worm is somewhat more subversive. The Camp elements break down the binary distinction between masculine and feminine. As Paula Graham observes, “camp is unmistakably sex—and unmistakably deviant sex,” and Lady Marsh’s sexuality is deviant indeed (167). When Lord D’Hampton asks her if she has children, she replies, “Only when there are no men around.” It soon becomes apparent that this is only half the story. The cave paintings in the lair portray the snake’s priestess as a hermaphrodite, like the white worm itself. One might speculate that the size of the phallic accessory she uses for the rite of the virgin sacrifice makes it the counterpart of the ultra-feminine persona she adopts at other times. What it definitely does suggest is that her deviant sexuality is aimed at a straight adolescent male audience. Lord D’Hampton’s reaction (or, rather, his pencil’s reaction) to watching Lady Marsh wrestling with Eve in his dream makes it even clearer who her intended audience is. The fantastic element actually serves the film’s campy subversiveness by spreading deviance around in a way that suggests another audience. Although the heroes, D’Hampton and Angus, are busily pursuing Mary and Eve throughout the story (one can guess how successfully from their names), after Angus is bitten, his attention turns elsewhere. The closing scene consists of Angus and D’Hampton driving through the country to go meet the “girls.” D’Hampton is unaware that Angus has just learned that he has been vampirized because his antidote did not work. He innocently asks if Angus wants to stop for a bite. At that moment, in a move which recalls a stereotypical heterosexual seduction scene, D’Hampton’s hand accidentally brushes Angus’s kilt back from his knee, exposing, not alluring bare skin, but a telling pair of bite marks. Angus’s mischievous expression could be interpreted as hunger or lust as he replies, “Sure, why not?” The most significant aspect of the vampirization is that it transforms the character’s sexuality. The fantastic element, as a plot device, serves the Camp subversion of gender distinctions. The Camp, however, does not help to break down the real/unreal distinction usually subverted by the fantastic. Nadja’s subversion is more complex.

The Camp redefinition of gender definitely plays a part in Nadja. The parodic recycling of other texts is even more unsettling, however, because it juxtaposes these contradictory texts and inverts them at the same time. Easy Rider, which was transgressive in its aim, is contradicted here by Fonda’s Van Helsing. He is now defending society against transgressors. Dracula, which reconfirmed bourgeois values, takes a deviant turn when the vampire survives to marry her own brother. The novel Nadja, which ends with the protagonist’s musings on how much of Nadja’s persona he has absorbed through their relationship—“Est-ce vous, Nadja? ... Est-ce moi-même?” (Brèton 138)—is made literal by the vampire Nadja’s transfusion into Cassandra. The film ends with her asking, “Are you there Nadja? Is it me?” This literalization makes the fantastic integral rather than subordinate to the subversive nature of the parody. However, to really explain how the Camp, parody and fantastic elements are inter-related, it is necessary to examine how they are all aimed at breaking down the notion of identity. This aspect of Nadja’s subversiveness will be taken up again at a later point. First, it is necessary to look at the issues of representation and subject formation and how they are linked through performance.


As “an eminently postmodern form” (Morrill 110), Camp takes part in the debate over the valuation of postmodernism’s recycling of other art forms. Baudrillard’s lament for lost truth is probably one of the most famous of the negative appraisals of this strategy: “Simulation is master, and nostalgia, the phantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remains.” This announcement arrives fast on the heels of the apparently unironic complaint that “[t]he reality of simulation is unendurable” (372). Camp theorists, on the other hand, see this recycling as a positive thing. It is possible that one’s perceived position in modern discourse has some influence on how one values postmodernism’s reworking of that discourse. In terms of queer representation, postmodernism’s regard for the recycled, reworked, and recontextualized is useful indeed. Building on Andrew Ross’s suggestion that Camp is a reinvestment of value in the discarded artifacts of dominant discourse (151), Moe Meyer has argued that Camp is the marginalized queer’s only access to representation in dominant discourse. His analysis of this access relies on a distinction between Camp as queer parody and the Pop appropriation of Camp. Camp is queer praxis while Pop is a dominant reading of queer praxis interpreted through the object residue that remains after the queer agent has been rendered invisible [through appropriation]. Consequently, the bourgeois subject of Pop camp must assume a queer position in order to account for these dispossessed objects and becomes, in fact, queer himself. Pop camp becomes the unwitting vehicle of a subversive operation that introduces queer signifying codes into dominant discourse (13).

He compares this drive to appropriate to Alice’s failure to wonder who wrote the little tags she finds in Wonderland which say “Eat me.” Whatever is offered is unquestioningly received, and this is the queer’s point of control over his or her representation in discourse.

While Meyer’s argument is convincing, it is not exhaustive. Appropriation is not Camp’s only way of acting upon dominant representation. Camp also works to break down the opposition of differences by which language operates. Morrill sees Camp as “the aftermath of the discursive experience of the shattering of representation that occurs when the queer subject encounters his or her contradiction to the dominant order” (112). The necessary contradictory strategy, or Camp “aftermath,” is the signaling of one’s absence in the dominant ontology through a Camp presence. This is accomplished through the re-examination of the dominant binary distinctions which erase the queer subject and reconfirm the straight subject’s experience as natural. These include, of course, masculine and feminine, but other binaries such as self and other or tragic and comic also apply. Perhaps one of the most important is the distinction between artifice and nature (Ross 161). As Babuscio observes, “[w]hen the stress on style is ‘outrageous’ or ‘too much,’ it results in incongruities: the emphasis shifts from what a thing or person is to what it looks like; from what is being done to how it is being done” (24).

This Camp strategy parallels an important fantastic strategy. The inability of the reader to discern between what something is and what it appears to be is often what creates the fantastic effect of uncertainty and hesitation. This problematization of apprehension is one way in which the fantastic gets around the problem of representing something which is absent from our discourse. Like Camp, the fantastic makes explicit the limitations of discourse in establishing meaning “by offering a problematic representation of an empirically real world” (Jackson 37). The digital blurring in Nadja is an example of this strategy. The uncanny effect derives from the synthesis of what is and what is not seen. Jackson’s description of fantastic elements as those “which are known only through their absence within a dominant ‘realistic’ order” is echoed very closely by Sue-Ellen Case’s description of queer desire: it is only perceptible through the recognition of its proscription (25). Case herself connects the dilemma of representation for the queer with the fantastic: “In short, the vampire-like queer casts no reflection because the mirror of dominant representation cannot reflect the presence of same-sex eroticism” (9). For both, the strategy most often adopted to deal with this absence is the problematization of dominant discourse itself by the breaking down of the differences by which language operates. The differences which they target overlap in the areas of masculine/feminine and being/appearance. Another strategy they have in common is the dismantling of the notion of a coherent self. These are related strategies in that representation and difference both play an important role in the construction of notions of self.

Subject Formation

Modern notions of a stable, coherent identity underpin so many of the biases of dominant discourse that any critique of this model of identity is inherently a critique of dominant culture. In Camp terms, this means that, as an oppositional stance, “the queer label contains a critique of a more vast and comprehensive system of class-based practices of which sex/gender identity is only a part” (Meyer 3). Jackson sees the fantastic as another such comprehensive critique of cultural practices in its opposition to realism, especially in terms of the unity of character: ‘‘The many partial, dual, multiple and dismembered selves scattered throughout literary fantasies violate the most cherished of all human unities: the unity of ‘character.’ ... ‘Character’ is itself an ideological concept produced in the name of ‘realistic’ representation” (82-83). As she also observes, realism presents itself as neutral by erasing its artifice. By questioning the naturalness of a unified character, the fantastic undermines this practice. The questioning of realism’s “faith in psychological coherence” is also a critique of the categorization of experience, and as Jackson points out, categories are “the pillars of society” (176). This undoing of categories is related, of course, to the undoing of the differences which permit a subject to function in language. By dismantling difference, the fantastic can “depict a reversal of the subject’s cultural formation” (l 77). The loss of difference affects two aspects of discourse. In Saussurian terms, language operates through a sign’s difference from other signs. In Lacanian terms, a Subject enters discourse by differentiating itself from its Other. A move toward undifferentiation in general has the potential to undo both of these discursive requirements. Jackson sees the tendency toward entropy in fantastic texts as just such a strategy: the goal of the fantastic is “the arrival at a point of absolute unity of self and other, subject and object, at a zero point of entropy” (77). Bessière sees the role of the fantastic in a similar way. It reminds dominant culture of “the vanity of notions of limit and discrimination ... making that vanity its subject” (63). Gelder sees the vampire tale as a particularly undifferentiating strategy in its effacement of cultural and national identities. Dracula, who speaks many languages and is the product “of many brave races” prefigures postmodern vampires “who have ‘removed all barriers ... national ... ideological”‘ (Stoker 28). They are feared both as Other and as the threat of the removal of Otherness (Gelder 13). The fantastic’s subversion of the notion of a coherent subject is usually accomplished through a literal transformation of a subject into something multiple or partial. Parody and Camp represent other strategies for contesting this notion.

Hutcheon suggests that the prevalence of parody in postmodern discourse might reflect “a crisis in the entire notion of the subject as a coherent and continuous source of signification.” By repeating images, parody “implicitly contests Romantic singularity” (4-5). Its success in contesting singularity might be what Baudrillard refers to when he criticizes the “non-distinction” of postmodern discourse and the resultant loss of “truth” (366). If, in fact, “truth” has been lost through this practice, what has been gained is valuable compensation indeed. Singularity has given way to a complexity which allows for “collective participation” and “active performance” on the part of the reader or viewer of parodic art (Hutcheon 99). According to Camp theory, it is just such active performance which allows the participant in postmodern discourse to engage in the process of subject formation.

Camp performance is specifically about the creation of gender identity. According to Judith Butler, “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time-and identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (270). Camp explores how that repetition of acts has been mistaken for natural. It partakes in “life-as-theater” (Babuscio 24) by representing gender identities as “roles, not biological birthrights” (Case 291). Gender identity is one of the most basic elements in one’s notion of self. Therefore, the subversive potential for this de-essentializing of gender identity is far-reaching. Viegener sees gender as “an act whose very repetitiveness is the basis for the institutions of heterosexual identity, and the recognition of this iterative act always (already) opens it to parodic decentering” (251). It is no surprise, therefore, that the extent to which the three vampire films under discussion undermine the notion of stable identity is directly related to the extent to which they engage in Camp and parody, despite the literal transformations of the self effected by their fantastic elements.

The Addiction, which falls all too often into the narrative style of a moralizing allegory, is very conservative in its final effect. Although the vampirization often occurs in a female-to-female context, the sexual connotations of this fact are downplayed by the drug addiction analogy—these are pushers, not seducers. Thus, Camp’s only foothold in the film is Christopher Walken’s self-styled, flamboyant vampire. While he suggests that identity can be created like a role, the brevity of his appearance prevents the implications of his character from taking hold. What comes through more clearly is Kathleen’s inability to follow his advice. She is what she is, and it is beyond her abilities to participate in the creation of her own vampire identity. What is more, her actions do not seem to have a permanent effect on who she is. After her vampire self is purged by the sun, she still remains. There is an essential self, much like the Catholic notion of the soul (to which Ferrara refers rather directly), which survives everything. This bolsters the conservative denouement of the fantastic element, the destruction of the threat to social norms.

Lair of the White Worm is far more subversive in its treatment of character. Identity is portrayed as an effect rather than a source of discourse. The characters’ names dictate their roles. Eve makes an ideal sacrifice because she is an Eve and therefore has a history of interaction with serpents lying in wait in trees. D’Hampton sees himself as the hero because the legend of his ancestor’s heroism affects his perception of himself. He has a role to play. Lady Marsh’s role-playing is much more dramatic as she adopts a series of personae in order to manipulate her victims, switching rapidly between salon wit and damsel in distress as the situation requires. Her Camp treatment of gender identity problematizes its own artificiality. She seduces a boy scout, but ultimately rejects him as a sexual conquest. Her nonchalant willingness to skip the ceremony before Eve’s sacrifice indicates that her role-playing is completely artificial and disassociated from her desire, yet her mockery of the Catholic nuns expresses her disdain for those who deny their desire. Her role as seductress is both genuine and artificial. The clearest indication of discourse’s power over identity, however, is Angus’s transformation at the end of the film. The snake bite has no effect on him, apart from an initial paralysis, until he is told that his antidote was the wrong one. He succumbs not to the venom but to the power of the vampire tradition that those who are bitten are transformed. This explains his answer to D’Hampton’s suggestion that they stop for a bite—“Sure, why not?” He adapts himself to the discursive situation. As noted earlier, this transformation is less a fantastic challenge to identity than a Camp challenge. His gender preference is the most obvious change.

In Nadja, the challenges to identity are equally the result of parody, Camp, and the fantastic. The references to Easy Rider and Dracula make Peter Fonda’s character multiple. As a cycling Van Helsing, he is always a combination of the biker and the vampire hunter. In addition, he plays Dracula in the flashbacks which fill in the family’s history. His status as an actor is never downplayed. This has two effects: the viewer is reminded that he is playing a role, and the viewer always sees more than one character when watching Fonda. In contrast to Van Helsing, who is always multiple, Nadja is only partial. Her blood lust symbolizes her search for someone who will complete her. She thinks she wants Lucy and Edgar, but it is her literal union with Cassandra which brings her peace. Fonda, whose multiplicity stems from parodic references, and Nadja, whose partiality is literalized by the fantastic, are both depicted in a Camp style. Both engage in exaggerated monologues, dramatic entrances, and eccentric dress. Both have “deviant” sexual habits. Nadja is overtly indiscriminate in terms of gender preference. Van Helsing’s sexuality is more mysterious. He tells Jim that he is not his uncle but his father because he had an affair with Jim’s mother. It is never clear, however, how he was considered Jim’s uncle in the first place. Is he a brother to Jim’s father or mother? The result of these sexual ambiguities is a reconfirmation of the self-styled constructedness of their identities. This only reinforces the de-essentializing effects of their partiality and multiplicity. Ultimately, parody, the fantastic, and Camp all contribute to the destabilizing of identity in Nadja. The final image of a merged Nadja/Cassandra married to Nadja’s brother Edgar does not close off the subversive potential of any of the three modes. By echoing Bréton’s closing words; “Est-ce moi-même?,” the film subverts its singularity as an art form. By maintaining the supernatural fusion of two people, it literally subverts the notion of a stable identity, and, finally, by allowing Nadja to be joined literally and romantically with a man and a woman, it subverts the naturalness of the masculine/feminine distinction.

What these three films demonstrate is that the juxtaposition of parody and the fantastic can work, but their co-existence must create a tension that is not easily resolved. They have to work against each other by undercutting the viewer’s assumptions about how to interpret the text. Neither a parodic nor fantastic reception of the text can take over for long. The viewer must be kept moving back and forth between modes. If this can be accomplished, as in Nadja, the different narrative modes can also support each other. In effect, if each mode is subversive in a similar way, the bouncing back and forth created by the contradictions of their juxtaposition does not undercut the subversive effect. The viewer can be kept uncertain about whether the film is meant to have a visceral uncanny effect or if it is meant to create ironic intellectual distance. The Addiction fails to create this tension because the fantastic elements are too familiar to be parodied unironically. The addition of Camp, which supplies that ironic edge to Walken’s performance, is too minimal to affect the conventional use of the vampire motif. Because bloodlust is equated with drug addiction rather than sexual desire, the film falls into an allegorical mode which precludes Camp interpretations of vampirism. Lair of the White Worm is more successful because it does use Camp to undercut both the parodic and fantastic elements: both are effective at different points in the film, but neither is allowed to take over. The extent to which Camp is used, however, overpowers both the minimal parodic references to Dracula and the horror of the supernatural elements. Nadja is most successful because the Camp element destabilizes the viewer’s reception, but it also holds together contradictory visceral and intellectual reactions by reinforcing rather than overpowering the subversive element of undifferentiation inherent in fantastic entropy and parodic complexity.

In summary, the fantastic text is a synthesis of a supernatural text and a realist text. The result is a visceral reaction of horror, uneasiness, or uncertainty. Parody synthesizes an original text and its recontextualization. The hermeneutic nature of its interpretation creates a more distant intellectual reaction. The value of Camp is its ability to synthesize the fantastic text and the parodic text, suspending the viewer between the uncanny familiarity and emotional involvement of one mode and the intellectual, critical distance of the other.

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