Talking Censorship at SMASH at The Barbican!

The wonderful SMASH flyer

Well this was something I wasn’t expecting. I was CC’d into a Twitter callout last week by Will Brooker (AKA Dr Batman, thanks mate) asking for someone to take part in a debate on censorship in graphic novels. Before I knew it, I’d agreed to join in and was on the panel.

I was panicking slightly (a lot). While I’m a university lecturer, a lot of what I do is heavily based on working with, and getting to know, a group of students over time. My style is also very performative. I jump around a lot (it keeps my brain going). This was going to be a sit-down affair. With (an unknown amount of) people I didn’t know. In a medium (graphic novels and comics) that I’m not that familiar with.

(For the record, I’ve read Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three from The Dark Tower Series, Derf Backderf’s frankly brilliant My Friend Dahmer, bits of Sandman and Dan Schaffer’s incredibly clever, naughty and sexy Kill Darlings. That’s it. Film is really my thing.)

Anyway, then it turns out we had to give a position speech. We were told to keep it to 2 minutes. AAAARGHHH! Okay, seriously, I’ve had my papers accepted for every academic conference I’ve ever applied for, but largely stopped going to them because they absolutely terrify me. I hate the formality of it. Of having to stand and be serious rather than riff my arse off.

Do what you’re afraid of.

Thankfully, I was to take the position against censorship. The speech I put together was done in a hurry and was basic Aristotolean rhetoric – ethos (wave the PhD around a bit and show you’re trustworthy; make ’em laugh), logos (highlight Bandura’s Bobo dolls experiment showing we learn from what we see, but then mention all the bad stuff in The Bible), pathos (appeal to artistic reason – graphic novels enable us to talk about violence in order to understand and develop from it to become better people).

Okay, a confession: I didn’t realise 2 minutes didn’t really mean 2 minutes and was so busy panicking I didn’t ask. Also, point of pride – I wanted to do it in two minutes. As part of my identities course, I’ve historically referred to an indie American film called Rocket Science, which is about debating. It was made by the same guy – Jeffrey Blitz – who made the Oscar-nominated Spellbound. Rocket Science features a technique called spreading, which involves talking incredibly quickly whilst retaining utter clarity. It seemed so damned impossible that of course I was going to have a crack at it. Dammit, go for the apex or go down in flames.

At my final test run (to my possibly bemused and ever-patient flatmate), I managed it in 1:47 seconds.

I now know I didn’t need to do it that fast, and the speeches are apparently being put up on the SMASH website. Until then, here was mine:

I am strongly against censorship. While studies such as Bandura’s infamous Bobo dolls (where children re-enacted violence they’d seen) suggests media depictions can lead to real violence, to censor media is to confuse correlation with causation. Want a book with lots of murder, rape and torture? Try The Bible.

You shouldn’t censor art as what you censor will always be subjective – even the Obscene Publications Act hinges on notions that art is either educational and positive or may “corrupt or deprave”. Censorship assumes we know better than others what is good for them.

What’s more, folk will often censor for themselves. My book on King’s IT includes a world-first eye-tracking experiment examining how people read King’s novel. Content warnings were given. When the children are about to fight the monster, one recalls being abused. My eye tracking data and questionnaire showed readers skipped over the words that were triggering for them. They self-censored, but even skipping over the word encouraged them to think of what they were reading and empathise with the girl.

We need uncensored media to educate us about the world so that we can live in it. If we ban ideas we don’t like, they don’t automatically vanish from existence. Face the beastie head on instead: A few years ago, Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party was gaining popularity. Griffin was finally allowed on Question Time. He giggled and got basic facts wrong. His party fell apart within days because people saw for themselves what an utter plonker he was. 

Choose not to engage personally with a topic by all means, but don’t take that decision away from others.

I believe in the inherent good of people. I believe that even “bad” people are capable of redemption. I believe by holding up a mirror to society, media can help to save us from ourselves.

I was over the moon with the event, the new folks I met and, frankly, doing an event at The Barbican.

A wonderful sketch of the SMASH panelists by Paul Shinn, who can be found at

(Coming shortly – more adventures in SFX makeup and another Evolution of Horror podcast in which I introduced a very startled host to ad hoc occultism…)

(Also, I now really want to re-run the censorship debate taking the pro-censorship position, just for the hell of it.)

Interview with Bloodyflicks!

What scenes should have been in IT: Chapter 2? I talked about this, the standouts from the IT miniseries, the differences between the IT: Chapter 2 draft scripts and more in an interview with Bloodyflicks.

I’ll be honest: I had kittens as the first question was about how I came to IT and it was, well, weird. I’d been given the book by a tent mate at a summer camp who terrified me because she was so cool. I read the novel initially against a background of young love that didn’t quite happen (partly because of the threat I could sense from the potential beau’s stories) and running through woods pretending to be other people. I ended up keeping all that in rather than just saying I liked horror because it acknowledges that real life is strange at the best of times – part of what makes King’s childhood books so real is that when you take the monsters away, you’re often left with the surrealism of everyday life. The key is learning to create your own story out of that.

Anyway, adieu!

*Adendum on the Danny I talked about in the interview. He was a lovely chap and we skulked off repeatedly. Wrote to each other for a few years afterwards – I still have a photo of him somewhere. I hope he’s well.


Investigations of what creeps us out

Pennywise Joker - my how and why

I absolutely love costumes. I love the way they can change how I feel, especially if done lo-fi so people question whether they’re seeing anything unusual at all, but more importantly, I’m fascinated by the way clothes change people’s reactions to each other. So, this year, I wanted to try a few experiments. Given I was down to go to a few Halloween parties and folks know that I’ve written a book about Stephen King’s IT, I thought I should do something with the image of Pennywise, but that seemed a little too easy and not really me. After all, Pennywise doesn’t scare me and frankly, never has. What terrified me, and does to this day, is the way The Losers essentially terrorise themselves. They sometimes (and that is very much a sometimes in the book) deal with abuse, but what often hounds them most is their own neurosis. It marks them and there are several sections in the book where they all individually think that they are the most hated Loser and why. It scars them. And it occurred to me Pennywise’s makeup is not a million miles from the L signs the child actors used to promote the film.

L for Loser – Wyatt Olaff and Jaeden Leiberher (Stan and Bill) in the film adaptations

For reasons explained below, I decided on a Pennywise / Joker mashup and the reactions have been incredible. It’s not that the image looks professional – that was never the point – but that it caused a reaction. I was so high on adrenaline that I went around the streets at night playing with the image. Here’s what I got up to.

Detailed costume overview done high on adrenaline at about 3am (hence I’m being quiet!)
The body is alterable – putting this very obviously fake knife anywhere near the real-looking wound (that I told folks was fake) made people feel queasy. What if the knife and makeup was real? Halloween is so often treated as fun but it’s also a way to deal with our demons, especially in a world that places an imperative on being ‘put-together’.
L for Loser. The makeup as branding (this was at the end of the night, hence the Collodion is coming off a bit)
Realising the effect the image was having as folks avoided me going around King’s Cross. One group eventually told me the image was “upsetting”, while another group considered it then told me they “respect” the process of it.
End of the night. The white and red makeup is Snazaroo, the blues are from Superdrug. The Collodion (scar makeup) is from Charles Fox and was completed with basic-arsed red and black eye pen and a lot of swearing as I was running late.

Folks would recognise the Joker costume and makeup, but were intrigued by how it was done. They’d initially warm to the Joker as something popular and that they obviously recognised, understood and felt comfortable with, but then realised it was all a little….off. The white paint was purposefully badly done and I took a while to get the Ledger Joker’s scar makeup as deep as I could within the time (using Collodion). The wings move into sexual and (obviously) religious imagery and tend to be seen more on sexy Halloween angels. They had also actually been burned and scented with smoke, so genuinely smelled of fire (huge thanks to my flatmate for his logic on this). It gave things a frisson as the uncertainty made people just that little bit scared again…

I’ll be honest, I felt a bit weird doing these as I sometimes attend this church and the folks are lovely (and have helped me though a lot), but I figured this was okay as I was trying to work out how I felt about the reaction I got that evening. You can’t move on until you deal with your own demons.
On a whole S/m locked-out of Eden trip….
You find the oddest things down dark alleys, if you just dare to look.

Stephen King’s acknowledgements in IT contain the following lines:

“Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists”

What saves the kids is that they imagine themselves to safety. They think of other ways to be.

And you know what? I realised I wasn’t quite done with it yet…

FrightFest Round up (Very belated!)

On the From Page to Scream FrightFest panel for Den of Geek!

I had the double bonus at this year’s FrightFest of covering for Starburst again and participating on Den of Geek’s From Page to Scream panel.

The panel was a riot and I was mainly talking about my research on the translations of Stephen King’s IT from the original book to the miniseries, audiobooks, films and beyond. We’re now seeing Pennywise being translated from Tim Curry’s ‘creepy uncle’ figure to a collectable market clown fitting for Funkopops etc, so I’m using my thoughts since then to work on some wearable Pennywise cosplay for Halloween season. Really grateful to Rosie Fletcher from Den of Geek for inviting me to participate.

Of course, I was also there to cover film reviews for Starburst. My favourite (as I suspected) was Daniel Isn’t Real. Combine a great production values with a story about the line between faith and mental health and you’re pretty much going to have me hooked. Honourable mention goes to Critters Attack for being beautifully daft fun!

Links as follows:

The World of IT (book by Alyse Wax on Andy Muschietti’s film adaptations of Stephen King’s novel)

Come To Daddy (Elijah Wood thought Frodo Baggins had problems…)

Creepy serial killer thriller, Cut Off

Family-acted ghost drama, The Deeper You Dig

Porno, not what you think, but a beautifully judged examination of tensions about sex. And demons.

Lynchian High School Musical, Knives and Skin.

Righto, off to do another interview about my book on IT!

My 1st Guardian byline!

Well, it’s happened! I’m really grateful that my first article for a national newspaper is about IT: Chapter Two. I’ve argued why it was right for the film to show the homophobic attack and murder of Adrian Mellon at the start, and why the update to Richie’s character is appropriate. This isn’t just because of the story, but because of the way censorship law works in the UK and the US and the reasoning behind it. It’s what I teach about at university and I’m determined folks should know. Pretending violence doesn’t happen does not stop it happening. I am living proof of that. Read it here.

The Evolution of Pennywise! Podcast Interview

This is one for hardcore Stephen King fans! I was delighted to be invited on to The Evolution of Horror podcast by the marvelous host, Mike Muncer, to do a deep dive on the story of Stephen King’s IT. There’s actually two different episodes on this.

This one is a no-spoiler review of IT: Chapter Two together with a subsequent spoiler deep-dive (where we see how it ties to King’s book) and then an interview with the director and producer, Andy and Barbara Muschietti.

This second one is a complete deep-dive on IT. We go over King’s original book, the miniseries, the audiobooks, IT: The Losers’ Club (the first of the recent films) and we previewed IT: Chapter Two. From my perspective, it is basically a sneak peak at some of the research from my book and I was so excited to be able to share it I accidentally screamed in Mike’s ear at one point. I’d be actively researching/playing with ideas for my book for 15 years, had written it through a very intensive two years (including running a world-first experiment that proved just how effective IT is) and pretty much popped. This one is Patreon-only, so if you want to listen, you’ll need to support the pod. It’s worth it – there’s not many podcasts that boast regular contributors who have edited Total Film, Den of Geek and have run The British Film Institute!

Screenjabber Podcast, meet Pennywise!

A fast-fire review of IT: Chapter Two!

The Losers chewing the fat, too!

IT: Chapter Two is opening tonight, people!
In some places, anyway 😉

I joined Screenjabber’s Stuart O’Connor and journalists Mark Searby and Tom Beasley to give a quick’d’dirty rundown on what to watch out for in the film. Panic ye not – there’s no plot spoilers, but a couple of notes that may h’improve your viewing pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, Stuart.

Step reiight UP!

IT: Chapter Two Review

My Starburst Magazine Review

Pennywise, you teaser!

My anticipation for this film has been difficult to quantify. Simply put, the story has got me through some of the hardest times in my life. It’s the thing I’ve always gone back to. Because the story is so personal to me, I’m really aware of how my subjective, personal opinions impact on my impression of how effective various portrayals not only of the story, but of the characters, are. IT is an obviously tricky one to do because the core characters float (geddit?) between archetype and people I’m still half convinced I’m going to wind up chatting to at the bus queue one of these days (far more on that in my book 😉 ). And that’s without adapters having to navigate the story’s supernatural aspects or THAT conclusion…

Anyway, here’s a link to my review of the film for Starburst magazine. It’s partially my initial thoughts, partly constrained by the publication word count (that one hurt ;-). More coming soon, enjoy!

Interview: Pennywise for American Express!

With enormous thanks to journalist James Luxford* , here’s a link to an interview on Stephen King adaptations I did with American Express. Carrie, Misery, IT: Chapter Two, you name it! We had a lot of fun doing this – enjoy!

*What James doesn’t know about films really isn’t worth knowing. His conversation is so peppered with quotes as to provide the seasoning to feed the 5,000!