Skip to navigation – Site map
1. « Regards croisés sur la Nouvelle-Orléans : la cité décalée » / “Perspectives on New Orleans, the Misfit City”
V/ L’après-Katrina / Post-Katrina

Mythologies of American violence in Alan Ball's True Blood series

Anne-Marie PAQUET-DEYRIS

Abstracts

True Blood [2008-2014] stages a post-Katrina deliberately fantasized and violent world. Relationships between species, whose representation thus displaces the endemic confrontation between races, genders and reconstituted family members in America, are tense and dysfunctional. To capture their extreme violence, the showrunner uses the conventions of the horror genre. Vampire, werewolf movie codes and motifs are very often recycled in various episodes of the series to problematize current problems in American society such as the women’s liberation movement, the gay and lesbian rights, the civil rights movement etc. All of them provide starkly original variations on the central notions of trouble and evil.
The show addresses some the following key issues: which aesthetic, formal and ideological strategies are adopted to represent the different layers of reality? What kind of connection does the series establish between reality and fiction? Or else, which function(s) does the serial format serve when it tackles specific social, political, economic or societal aspects of reality at a specific time and place?

Top of page

Full text

1Even though True Blood belongs to the supernatural genre, it deals directly or indirectly with the contemporary state of the nation and mainly with the southern part of it as the title sequence shows. The gritty southern atmosphere it creates evokes “the earthy vibe of the American South […] with [the] decidedly dark tone” (Stasukevich 10) showrunner Alan Ball was looking for. Besides being highly entertaining and humorous, it (mostly) functions as an allegory of the current health of the American people and institutions. It clearly operates as what HBO Programming president Michael Lombardo calls “a thrill ride like nothing else on TV” (Lombardo in White accessed 19 Oct. 2013) but Ball also taps into the long tradition of reinterpreting and questioning the symbols and institutional mechanisms of American cinema. He does so of course within the specific format, codes and conventions of serial representation. Circumventing the stereotypical and unrealistic plotlines of shows like Fox Network 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland as agent Jack Bauer, Alan Ball and his team of screenwriters, directors and producers provide an original series of takes on various levels of American reality. Using realistic themes as subtext, they reimagine a binding world-building narrative seemingly unfettered by realism as well as imaginative spaces and other settings conveying a sense of spatial reality and revolving around the vampire myth as potent metaphor.

2Loosely adapted from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, the True Blood series stages telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse working at Merlotte’s Bar and Grill in Bon Temps, a small town in Louisiana. Thanks to the invention of synthetic “Tru Blood”, vampires have (literally) come out of the coffin and started mainstreaming. The Deep South and more specifically New Orleans are the perfect meccas to capture the modes of integration into human society of vampires and “supes”, the other supernatural beings. Toying with the archeology of the New Orleans literary and cinematic vampire Ball reanimates vampire cinema and television with a twist. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles completed in 2014 with Prince Lestat, Neil Jordan’s 1994 Interview with the Vampire or else Dark Shadows (Dan Curtis, 19661971), the first vampire show ever to be aired on American television, all substitute for the original genealogy dating back to the classic silent era, 1930s or Hammer vampires. Alan Ball takes immense pleasure in reworking the vampire genealogy and his horrific mythology as he has very diverse worlds and storylines collide. From the title credits and the opening sequence onward, the vampires’ ruthlessness and violence ironically set some inverted “norm” in a deliberately fantasized, post-Katrina universe. Capitalizing on controversies relating to sex, violence, race and religion (since, as the slogan goes, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”), the series’ multilayered narrative leads to endless story possibilities (Anyiwo in Cherry 157). New Orleans and its long association with the vampire metaphor for difference and primal desire lurk in the background and provide the very basis, if not the actual setting, for the type of imaginative space Harris and Ball had in mind.

3How are the conventions of the horror genre (whether from the vampire, werewolf or some other “monstrous figure” movies) recycled in the series to foreground the current problems in American Society?

1. The matrix: New Orleans and “Supes”

4In True Blood, classic vampire film figures are very seldom summoned. Alan Ball does not posit an origin myth based on the Byronic stories of the Giaour or Lord Ruthven or even on Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation with Bela Lugosi and his signature cape as a revered model. Most of his televisual vampires were not “turned” when finding an ancient graveyard in Asia Minor or challenging God and death in Transylvania. Their lineage is mainly southern, very much rooted in the fabric of the local community. The small city of Bon Temps where the good times do not always roll is only five hours away from New Orleans. It is the convergence point of vampires who were born and “made in” the South or settled down in Louisiana and Mississippi after having lived and come from all over the world. It provides them with a ground where they learn how to play human. Bill Compton, one of the central heroic figures and Sookie’s lover, was born in Bon Temps and fought in the Civil War before being turned. Coming into contact with other beings either in his mansion or outside, at Sam Merlotte’s Bar for instance, he once again takes part in the social fabric of which he used to be a prominent member before the Civil War. In Bon Temps, the White supremacists’ fear of miscegenation with the vampires functions as a potent metaphor for racial mixing. The few “fang bangers” who give themselves up willfully to vampires or practice interracial sex become contaminated in the eyes of “normal” humans. Some of them even go as far as tracking them down to eliminate them. The markings on their throats temporarily exhibit the 19th century link between monstrosity and racial otherness. They, in turn, bear the stigmata of contamination and physical difference, thus sharing in the traditional signifiers of radical otherness. As Charlaine Harris has Bill say in Living Dead in Dallas, “We are not human. We can pretend to be, when we’re trying to live with people…in your society. We can sometimes remember what it was like to be among you, one of you. But we are not the same race. We are no longer of the same clay (Harris 232).

5Such an essential difference and yet similitude is the paradox at the core of the show. Human rules and rituals seem to have no permanent binding force for vampires even though their spokesperson Nan Flanagan speaks of the necessity of peaceful integration into human society. Throughout the show they are represented as always prone to lapse suddenly into their original blood-thirsty and sex-crazed selves. Ball delightfully plays with this versatility while tapping into the recent American history of the demands of diversity for equality and justice in a democratic society. Even before the seminal title credits come on screen, the opening sequence of the first episode inscribes the central motif of fighting for one’s rights and more specifically for the Vampire Rights Amendment to pass. At the beginning of the store scene, Ball uses the frame-within-the-frame technique to highlight real talk show host Bill Maher of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher on television interviewing Nan Flanagan from the American Vampire League defending the rights of vampires. As Nan emphasizes, “We’re citizens, we pay taxes, we deserve basic civil rights just like everyone else.” In the first episode of season one, she invokes the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was adopted on July 9, 1868 after having been fiercely contested by the Southern States. It addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws to all people at a federal level. The exchange immediately foregrounds the types of discrimination against people belonging to various groups in America today. It also problematizes the connection the show establishes between reality and fiction. In some ironically self-reflexive, “meta-serial”/filmic comment, Alan Ball addresses the potential of the small screen to be a better conveyor of “social truth.” These shots of a frame within the frame also imply a comparison between the filmic and serial formats, highlighting the latter as a more pliable formula to tackle specific social, political, economic or societal aspects of reality at specific times and places.

6In True Blood’s supernatural story-world, the inscription of these “groups” on screen is maximized, providing a more deconstructive form of allegory. It involves many different “kinds” where vampires, weres (-wolves, -panthers etc.), shapeshifters and various other creatures of traditional lore and ancient myths and legends live alongside human beings. One of the recurring questions some charactersand hence the viewersask about others is “what are they?”, which directly translates into “what kind of (supernatural) species do they belong to?” as well as “what are their essences?” especially when these beings are the product of miscegenation (like Emma, Luna’s daughter who is part shifter and part werewolf). The showrunner can thus consistently cover the controversies surrounding representations of race and ethnicity in the media. Nan’s convincing lobbying on television for her kind in episode 1, season 1 underlines the depth of the vampires’ survival instinct. It also poses the question of whether or not the American Vampire League (AVL), even though effectively lobbying for a guarantee that “equal protection under the law will not be denied to any individual on the basis of being a vampire” (Foy in Dunn and Housel 52), will truly be bound by subscribing to a social contract enforcing “limits on their actions in exchange for rights and protections provided by the state” (Foy in Dunn and Housel 52). And indeed, what does the notion of limitation mean for beings intrinsically dangerous because they are at the top of the food chain and they tread upon the complex intersection between desire and mortality/morality and threaten and transcend the taken-for-granted assumptions about the world such as the limits of death? When the frat boy asks, “You get vamps in here? I didn’t even know we had some in Louisiana”, the fake Goth vampire clerk answers, “You didn’t know that New Orleans is a mecca for the vampires?” At which the college boy snickers, “Seriously? I mean New Orleans, even after Katrina? Didn’t they all drown?”, thus fully contemporizing the political relevance of the series. If the vampires are thought to be “unnatural-born killers” by the vast majority of humans, they are also paradoxically equated here with the underprivileged, the underdogs fighting for recognition and equal rights. The parallel with African Americans is made transparent a number of times in the opening sequence and in other episodes throughout the show. In episode 2, season 1 for instance, Reverend Newlin, Sr. from the Fellowship of the Sun Church starts shouting angrily at Nan Flanagan on TBBN (TB AND Birth of a Nation at once?), “We should never have given them the vote and legitimized their unholy existence. The American people need to know these are creatures of Satan, demons, literally. They have no soul” [19:4522:38], thus reviving the southern white supremacists’ most extreme views of black people. The final ironic touch comes when the seemingly innocuous-looking red whom the frat boy disdainfully calls by the redneck name “Billy Bob” proves to be a “true” vampire and scares the college boy away with the delightfully literalized threat of “I’ll fuck you and then I’ll eat you!”

  • 1 Rice’s complete Vampire Chronicles series started in 1976 with Interview With the Vampire and came (...)

7But beyond the witty and funny exchanges between humans and vampires, New Orleans is also foregrounded as a literary and celluloid vampire mecca, the southern matrix of all the vampire “nests” in the United States. Anne Rice and Neil Jordan’s variations on The Vampire Chronicles1 are called upon and immediately come to mind, just as the legendary figure of French alchemist vampire Jacques St Germain who supposedly migrated from Europe to New Orleans at the end of the 19th century at the ripe age of 232.

1. The vampire of New Orleans, Count Jacques de St Germain: an alchemist’s elusive search for immortality

1. The vampire of New Orleans, Count Jacques de St Germain: an alchemist’s elusive search for immortality

https://authorlyngibson.wordpress.com/​2013/​09/​27/​a-closer-look-at-jacques-de-st-germain/​

8Ball’s treatment of the city of New Orleans as a haunting setting and full-fledged serial character always lurking in the background also summons up the numerous movies about the city’s famed Voodoo lore brought over by slaves from West Africa. In his 2005 film The Skeleton Key, Iain Softley stages for instance former slaves Mama Cecile and Papa Justify taking over other people’s lives and bodies and being reincarnated in younger people as they have successfully mastered the rules of time.

2. Iain Softley’s 2005 The Skeleton Key poster: the search for longevity and voodoo possession

2. Iain Softley’s 2005 The Skeleton Key poster: the search for longevity and voodoo possession

9The city’s rich history of occult practices has always depended on a tradition of secrecy and provides the perfect decor to stage vampire and other supernatural stories. Its tradition of secrecy was also cultivated by other types of southern secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Knights of the White Camellia. True Blood’s combination of historical clips, eery special effects and photos in Digital Kitchen’s title credits powerfully evoke other seminal images from either the Civil Rights era archival footage or from celebrated films on southern unrest during the 1950s and 1960s. The opening scene of Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning for instance stages three Civil Rights activists shot in their car by the local police. Alan Ball fully exploits the lingering shock factor of these fictional images when inscribing on screen an abandoned car in the woods, which instantly evokes that of the murdered Civil Rights activists2. From the very beginning onward then, the central notions of violence and boundaries are dramatized both in the short opening sequence of the first episode and by the fast-paced editing of the title credits. The contiguity of the color picture of the abandoned car with the black and white archival photo of a young boy in Ku Klux Klan attire already foregrounds a compelling visual grammar, which foreshadows the dark confrontational forces at work in the series’ South.

3. Murdered Civil Rights activist’s car?

3. Murdered Civil Rights activist’s car?

4. Young boy in Ku Klux Klan attire

4. Young boy in Ku Klux Klan attire

10By interweaving old and contemporary events, Alan Ball already tackles the issues of racial and sexual bigotry, southern intolerance, misogyny or class contempt. The subtext of homophobia is also ironically foregrounded by the pun on a church sign typical throughout the South. It is reminiscent of the slogan pastor Fred Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, is known for, “God hates fa(n)gs”.

5. Southern intolerance: pun on pastor Fred Phelps’s slogan, “God hates fags”, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS

5. Southern intolerance: pun on pastor Fred Phelps’s slogan, “God hates fags”, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS
  • 3 On 29 Aug. 2005, Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city of New Orleans and killed 1577 people in Louisi (...)

11Bon Temps takes center stage as a “conceptual arena for the refraction of national political strife centering on difference [and] imagined within the political and cultural geographic locale of the Deep South where one can assume these tensions are at their height” (Rothermel in Cherry 90). In this sense it refracts New Orleans as a city burdened by the legacy of slavery and its ongoing problems of race, gender and class discrimination, as it was severely hit by the devastation of hurricane Katrina in 20053 and is a traditional hub for occult practices. But if the metropolis looms large as some sort of iconic birthplace of vampires and supernatural entities, Bon Temps also articulates the central southern Gothic themes of death, monstrosity, violence and the grotesque, which all find here a literal incarnation. From a normative, southern redneck “hick town” which used to have few offerings besides being a community whose members knew and cared for each other, it is about to be turned into a place of increasing dysfunction and chaos with the arrival of its first vampire in the town’s only bar. As a metonymic example of pluralistic society, Merlotte’s Bar itself is a “misfit” place where center and margins meet and America’s endemic confrontation between races is displaced onto a frontal collision between species, genders and dysfunctional families (including werewolf packs). These become the new markers of difference and “emerge as the refracting masks of the organic distinctions that lie at the base of antipathy toward the Other” (Rothermel in Cherry 90). Both town and bar are progressively constructed as dangerous places for humans, vampires, shifters and other supes when vampire Bill leaves his mansion to “mainstream” and crosses into human territory.

2. Violent mythologies and the construction of otherness

12The various alternate forms and natures of the protagonists start being disclosed as early as the first episode of season 1 and the inscription of violence is constantly mitigated by various viewpoints which inscribe in the frame a multiplicity of constructions of otherness in True Blood’s Southern Gothic setting.

13These constructions refract the different facets of violence in the show: ironically, the first instances of intense violence come from human white “backwoods trash” Mack and Denise Rattray who start harvesting V blood (vampire blood) from Bill to sell on the black market, and from René Lenier, a human who systematically eliminates “vampire-bangers,” women who cross the “species line” by having relationships with vampires. Such a simple inversion of the answer to the question “where is the threat coming from?” is another way Ball found of capturing the most controversial aspects of this post-racial, multicultural society. By even pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable on HBO in terms of violence, sex and foul language, he challenges social and cultural taboos in a much more radical way. Because he can tap into the virtually unlimited resources of the supernatural genre and more specifically of “telefantasy”, he can use its narrative and aesthetic excesses to showcase a whole spectrum of constructions of otherness. Overhead shots construct the vampiric body as literally objectified and enslaved. Bill is represented lying exposed to all kinds of abuse as he is being drained of his blood by the human Rattrays. What seems to be even more important than the ironical inversion of the predator and prey’s positions, is the brief visual reenactment of race relations in the South. Bill is literally turned into the life force humans feed on in the same way as American society at large exploits disenfranchised and underprivileged population groups ─ and more particularly African Americans ─ while maintaining them at the bottom of the social ladder.( Vampire blood’s traditional association with contamination is also reencoded as it is now harvested for its healing powers so that as cultural theorist Stuart Hall underlined in his 1997 lecture Race, the Floating Signifier, race and identity are ongoing rather than finished products of history and culture.

14

6. Bill the vampire being drained by the Rattrays [S1E1]

6. Bill the vampire being drained by the Rattrays [S1E1]

15Sookie strikes back by exerting an extreme form of violence of her own and rescues the vampire by throwing a chain around Mack’s neck and threatening his wife Denise with a knife. The irony seems to be that violence depicted as threatening to social order is matched by equally violent actions pictured as supporting social order. Such ambivalence of violence directly questions a preconceived morality and the clichés about the actors and fears of social disruption. Sookie’s literally extra-natural strength when striking back at the Mack and Denise traces a stylized trajectory of violence on which the entire show and all postmodern media consistently capitalize. Its representational practices of physical, psychological or economic and political violence are to be appreciated within the legacy, almost against the backdrop of American culture and ideology: Alan Ball deliberately exaggerates the primacy and valorization of bloodletting in a culture Richard Slotkin has described as “a nation of gunfighters.” Even though Slotkin mainly refers to violence in the quintessential American genre of the western and more specifically to the duel, traces of such an archetypal confrontation resurface in the show in the fighting scenes. The serial format and its principle of repetition heighten the power of these real and phantasmagorical processions of seminal images constantly hovering between sensuality and brutality, rapture and morbidity. The way in which the creatures’ objectified and enslaved bodies are represented is a primary source of fascination. As the following photograms from the final episode of season 1 demonstrate, the extreme close-up and close shot are meant to enhance the viewer’s pleasure and redistribute the notion of “otherness” onto serial killer René as well as Sookie locked in a fight to the death.

16Very early on in the series, the heroine’s character is thus redefined as “something more than human,” something literally extra or supra-human, which interrogates both her nature and her humanity. Sensing her part-fairy nature in episode 1, season1, “what are you?” is the very first question vampire Bill asks her. This doubting process is often inscribed as an often humorous challenging of a protagonist’s essence in the series. It also very skillfully sidesteps the use of a form of apocalyptic rhetoric that would otherwise reinstate a religious, mystical view of violence and social disintegration as prevalent in films from the 1990s such as Natural Born Killers (Stone 1994) or Sev7n (Fincher 1996). If the show does recycle this “theology of violence that is in fact the dominant patriarchal theology of the West” and the South to quote Christopher Sharrett in Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media (Sharrett 15), it is mostly to deconstruct it either by humor and/or by closely analyzing its complex roots. True Blood stages characters desperately aware of the impossibility of maintaining the American dream. In his essay “The Grayness of Darkness” Martin Rubin refers to some films which “straddle[e] borderlines and slip […] from one side to another” (Rubin in Sharrett 60), but his analysis could actually apply to the show’s modes of representation of deep social frustration as well:

[T]hey indicate the spots where such contradictions become unspeakable, producing unspeakable acts and signaling the unspeakability of certain concepts that represent gaps in American ideology: the concept of conflict in a ‘consensus’ society, of exclusion in a ‘pluralistic society’, of class in a ‘classless’ society, of failure in a ‘land of opportunity’” (Rubin in Sharrett, 60).

17Alan Ball also brings back to the surface the submerged tensions of the characters by reformatting the serial killer narrative arc and its codified grammar and aesthetic as in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 The Silence of the Lambs for instance. The violent and disturbing aesthetic of gore/slasher movies such as the teen pic series, Wes Craven’s Scream or George Romero’s Dead pentalogy, is also recycled to emphasize the rage of economically marginalized groups which have historically been primary targets of vigilante organizations in the South. René for instance is both part of the white trash socially deprived category constrained to a sort of stereotypical status and anonymity and contributes to perpetuating the same type of extremely violent collective imagery which is literally engrained in every viewer’s mind. The images linked to René’s murders are immediately readable, and we can relate to them instantly because they are irremediably and deeply rooted in our own individual and in the collective unconscious. The disquieting message being that given the right circumstances, everyone is capable of the same type of violence. So that the killing scene functions as some sort of bitter commentary on the way in which we the spectators have eventually accepted and unquestioningly adopted these modes of representation for the past 30 years, ever since the 1980s and even as early as Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead and 1978 Dawn of the Dead. Sookie actually appropriates the modus operandi of the killer himself and decapitates him with a shovel killing a human the “vampire-way”, while blood spurts all around [S1E1, 31:03-33:57]. Sharing in the serial murderer’s killing technique, she is somehow disturbingly turned into a killer as well.

7. Sookie decapitating René the “vampire way” [S1E12]

7. Sookie decapitating René the “vampire way” [S1E12]
  • 4 A phrase coined by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

18Some of the spectator’s pleasure is partly derived here from the reversal of the serial murderer mythology. The “fantasized” killer does not respond to the conventional portraits of most serial killers as constructed by the members of the established order against what they think of as troublemakers, outsiders, misfits or racial “others.” René is very much homegrown and actually so close to the community under siege that he is an integral part of it, and has somehow been created by it. René is “one of the boys”, a worker dating Arlene, one of Sookie’s waitress friends at Merlotte’s Bar and Grill. Even Sookie seems to become quite adept at killing. To a certain extent, these forms of violence are no longer depoliticized representations that do not question class, politics and other social divisions according to the “consensus” model prevalent in the 1950s as a vector of America’s unified self-image in the cold war global arena and which resurfaced during the G. W. Bush presidency (20012009). This may be one of the central functions the serial format and Ball’s show in particular serve. As Martin Rubin aptly underlines in “The Grayness of Darkness,” they pick up with a vengeance where the conservative Bush era ended in January 2009. They replicate the intense eruption of a new form of political violence specifically directed against main power structures and public institutions such as the Federal Government or the military-industrial complex4, which first took place in the 1950s, and spelt the disappearance of visions of “American history as an idealistic progression wherein class, politics, and other social divisions [were] subsumed into a greater commonality” (Rubin in Sharett 55). In fact in True Blood’s highly hierarchized societies of the vampires or the werewolves, class and its corollaries, money and power, resurface with full force. But if René shares some of the distinctive traits of the “generic” American modern multiple murderer often seen by sociologists and film critics alike as “a crazy mirror that both reflects the dominant violence of American culture and distorts certain aspects of it” (Rubin in Sharett 56), he is also staged as a very different kind of “monster.”

3. Modes of American psychosis

19When using the serial killer mode or, more generally, sensational depictions of violence such as the feeding rampage of the vampire leaders go on in season 5 and as in James Manos Jr.’s Dexter (20062013, with Michael C. Hall) for instance, the showrunner doesn’t seem to have the same political agenda as, for example, the film directors of the 1990s in movies like Dominic Senna’s Kalifornia (1993) or David Fincher’s Sev7n (1995). Both movies tone down the critique of conservative ideology implicit in earlier serial murder films. To a certain extent in the same way as Heritage movies for instance, these films’ values are rather those of a patriarchal, law-and-order status quo to be upheld. Hence they mainly point at individual deviancy and isolated monstrous beings rather than mass ideological culpability, which would entail some necessarily challenging form of self and collective questioning. Ball uses his murderers to dynamite the very American ideologies contributing to the perpetuation of (serial) murder. He is also careful to inscribe on screen the different faces of vampires, using Eric’s character as a representative of a wide spectrum of behaviors. In episode 9 of season 2, Ball and his screenwriters draw on the romantic vampire figure in a distant homage to Coppola’s Dracula and have Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) shed tears of blood when his maker Godric decides to take his own life [S2E9, 45:4551:10].

20Besides using the conventions of melodrama and the sensational to target the largest viewership possible, the creator also fully exploited the older vampire’s human bordering-on-the-godlike sacrificial dimension, and director Scott Winant’s use of close-up shots stimulates the spectator’s desire for connectedness by having Sookie cry in the background while watching Godric’s body being consumed. In the New Orleans sequence in episode 7, season 5, Eric’s duality is also fully captured on screen as he is shown walking down the streets with Bill ravenously hungry and high on Lilith’s “sacred” blood. The reference to Adam’s cursed first wife believed to have been in existence before the creation of Eve in Hebrew folklore and to the evil female spirit alleged to haunt deserted places and attack children in ancient Semitic legends adds to the general dimension of violence and chaos of the entire sequence.

8. Eric and Bill on a murderous rampage in New Orleans’ French Quarter [S5E7]

8. Eric and Bill on a murderous rampage in New Orleans’ French Quarter [S5E7]

21Order is only partly restored thanks to Eric’s dead maker’s plea for restraint, “this is wrong!”

22In this sequence of unbridled violence in a New Orleans club, Ball focuses on the vampire guardians’ complete departure from reality. The graphic dimension of the scene where – literally – all taboos are broken sheds light on the complex social and psychological phenomena leading a group or an individual to psychosis in its generic psychiatric sense of abnormal condition of the mind often involving a loss of contact with reality. The escalation from hallucinating to feeding on a few humans and finally on everyone in some lust for total power is so dizzying that it touches on the grotesque. Laughter is the viewer’s only option. Somehow, the group’s “breach of social contract” mirrors and amplifies the individual’s, whether he be vampire, werewolf or human: psychopath vampire Franklin’s story and his abduction and torture of Sookie’s friend Tara foreshadows this communal process of disconnection and total dysfunction in episode 5, season 3. The New Orleans sequence captures a decisive moment in the show, foregrounding the way in which this type of massacre reaches a sort of “generic status” in American society, thus echoing the disturbing message of films like Michael Moore’s 2002 Bowling for Columbine for example on the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 in Littleton, Colorado. The use of gore underscores the trivialization of violence as squirting blood, bodies and body parts fill the screen. It also highlights the way in which the conventions of popular movies and popular culture have turned viewers, into accomplices who revel in their loathsomeness, thus chronicling the death of affects and hence the generalization of psychosis to all strata in a post-industrial society. What Alan Ball does in a supernatural context, David Simon did from 2002 to 2008 in his cult hyperrealistic series The Wire. Whatever the context and genre, we are made to find these acts of mindless violence unexceptional, an integral part of an existing social and economic system which seems to have become the only viable one. In his 1987 essay The Evil Demon of Images quoted by Keith Grant in Mythologies of Violence (Sharrett and Grant 32), Jean Baudrillard suggests that in this postmodern age, not only has the distinction between the real and the representation collapsed, but any form of experience is now tainted by the simulacrum of images. The fact that the scene should take place in the iconic urban scape of the French Quarter calls upon an ancient tradition of reversal of order and momentary chaos. Ball’s giant parties with elaborate rituals such as masquerading during Carnival for instance and of all kinds of disturbances and outbreaks of violence during parades provides the perfect inscription of a specifically American form of psychosis.

9. Representing the ultimate death of affects: a vampire guardian feeding off a child [S5E7]

9. Representing the ultimate death of affects: a vampire guardian feeding off a child [S5E7]

23Season 5 eventually stages New Orleans as the (relatively safe) seat of “powers” of the Vampire Authority while Bon Temps, the “ethnically mixed” place, has progressively turned into “a dangerous place” for vampires. The sense of monumentality conveyed by the great halls and stately columns of the Authority somehow mirrors the showrunner’s critique of a communal Eden which had to be redeemed by what Richard Slotkin calls Regeneration Through Violence, which is also the first opus of his widely-acclaimed trilogy on the attitudes, traditions and myths that shaped American culture. It literally exposes the mechanisms leading to ethnic cleansing as such an Eden was traditionally associated with the national myth of Manifest Destiny (Grant in Sharrett 24). As Bill explains to his “progeny”-daughter Jessica, they have been chosen to lead the vampire species into the coming age, thus ironically and endlessly reenacting the cycle of violence of which they themselves have been victims. Ball rather conventionally ends season 5 with a cliff hanger, once again using the serial format to the fullest to hook the spectator. The latter’s virtually physical hunger for season 6, which came out on DVD in June 2014, is to some extent another form of departure from reality.

10. Bill telling his progeny Jessica about the advent of New Age of violence [S5E10]

10. Bill telling his progeny Jessica about the advent of New Age of violence [S5E10]
  • 5 See Taïna Tuhkunen for further comments on the myth of the Lost Cause in Demain sera un autre jour: (...)

24Alan Ball’s political agenda on the persistence of racist and homophobic trends in the American South is only partly concealed by “a trickster-like denial that the story is anything more than a frivolous fantasy” (Koven in Cherry 71). This eerie and mostly humorous mixture of gore, comic and explicitly sexual scenes created what Brigid Cherry calls “a niche appeal” (Cherry 8) but the constantly rebooted narratives of the show draw on their multiple entries to reflexively foreground their own narrative strategies and ties with contemporary cultural contexts. The fascination with violence seems to be forever distilled into a web of complex stories and new storytelling mechanics such as parallel but also star-shaped or else radiating narrative frameworks unfolding at times according to various temporalities (the slower fairies’ timeframe for instance). As Jason Mittell underlines in his essay “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” violence always seems to trigger what he calls “intensified viewer engagement focused on both diegetic pleasures and formal awareness” (Mittell 39). It turns into a protocol necessary to acquire “the skills of narrative comprehension and media literacy [for] most viewers” (Mittell 39). Ball’s series ironically recycles and reformats the myth of “the Lost Cause” in the Deep South5. Just like Race in Stuart Hall’s writings, it becomes a shifting signifier.

Top of page

Bibliography

Books

Bacqué, Marie-Hélène, Amélie Flamand, Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris, et Julien Talpin. The Wire. L’Amérique sur écoute. Paris : La Découverte, 2014. Print.

Becker, Howard. Telling About Society. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago UP, 2007. Print.

Bernstein, Abbie. “Let the True Blood Flow”. Fangoria 276 (Sept. 2008): 2629; 82. Print.

Buxton, David. Les séries télévisées. Forme, idéologie et mode de production. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2010. Print.

Buxton, David. Les séries télévisées. Forme, idéologie et mode de production. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2010. Print.

Cherry, Brigid, ed. True Blood. Investigating Vampires and Southern Gothic. London and New York: I. B. Tauris and Co., 2012. Print.

Dunn, George and Housel, Rebecca. True Blood and Philosophy. We wanna think bad things with you. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2010. Print.

Esquenazi, Jean-Pierre. Les séries télévisées. Paris : Armand Colin, 2010. Print.

Harris, Charlaine. Living Dead in Dallas. London: Little, Brown, 2004. Print.

Jost, François. De quoi les séries américaines sont-elles le symptôme ? Paris : CNRS Editions, 2011. Print.

Leverette, Marc, Brian L. Ott and Cara Louise Buckley. It’s not TV. Watching HBO in the post-television Era. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a vengeance. Mass-produced fantasies for women. New York and London: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Parker, Robin. “Red-blooded TV with a bite.” Broadcast 10 July 2009: 25. Print.

Sharrett, Christopher and Grant, Keith. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Detroit: Wayne State U. P., 1999. Print.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 16001860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. Print.

———. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1999. Print.

Staiger, Janet. Media Reception Studies. New York and London: New York UP, 2005. Print.

Tuhkunen, Taïna. Demain sera un autre jour : Le Sud et ses héroïnes à l’écran. Pertuis : Rouge Profond, 2013. Print.

Wajcman, Gérard. L’œil absolu. Paris: Denoël, 2010. Print.

Winckler, Martin. Les Miroirs obscurs. Grandes séries américaines d’aujourd’hui. Vauvert: Au Diable Vauvert, 2005. Print.

Articles in paper format

Lageson, Sarah, Kyle Green and Sinan Erensu. “The Wire Goes to College.” Contexts (2011 10:12), American Sociological Association: 1215. Print.

May, Sarah Lucy and Jenny Eden. “Bad Times in Bon Temps.” Deathray n 21 (Oct. 2009): 4855. Print.

Stasukevich, Iain. “Short Takes. True Blood Titles Set Southern-Gothic Tone.” American Cinematographer v. 89 n 12 Dec. 2008: 1014. Print.

Internet

Andréolle, Donna. “The Root of All Evil? Legacies of the “Old South” in True Bloodˮ. GRAAT On-line Occasional Papers (Jan. 2014). http://www.graat.fr/andreolle.pdf. Web. 29 Oct.2014.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Evil Demon of Images, 1987
http://www.dgp.toronto.edu/~stam/suomi/stam/baudrillard.html. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Kraniauskas, John, “Noir into history”, Radical Philosophy (SeptOct 2010. http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/noir-into-history. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006): 2940. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Paquet-Deyris, Anne-Marie. “Alan Ball’s California and Louisiana Series, Six Feet Under and True Blood: a Troubled State of the Nation.” TV Series N° 1 (2012): 187-207. www.univ-lehavre.fr/ulh_services/IMG/pdf/12-Paquet_Deyris_OK.pdf. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Poster of The Skeleton Key
http://images.google.fr/imgres?imgurl=https://jmount43.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/the-skeleton-key-movie-poster.jpg&imgrefurl=http://jmountswritteninblood.com/2012/03/07/the-skeleton-key/the-skeleton-key-movie-poster/&h=1185&w=800&tbnid=lerCMLhgX2qx0M:&tbnh=90&tbnw=61&docid=b-bPmcW--2yfrM&usg=__sREmb8zwpD33coy2lpvhtQFLhvA=&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjGi7jzrfPLAhVDSRoKHYULDpYQ9QEIIjAA. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Unknown artist, painting of the Count of St Germain, 17th century
https://crimsoncafeblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/the-vampire-of-new-orleans-jacques-saint-germain/.
Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

White, Peter. “HBO renews True Blood for the seventh season.” Broadcast Jul. 16, 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

DVD

Ball, Alan. Six Feet Under, HBO [2001−2005].

———. True Blood, HBO [2008−2014].

Softley, Ian. The skeleton Key, Universal, 2005.

Top of page

Notes

1 Rice’s complete Vampire Chronicles series started in 1976 with Interview With the Vampire and came to a temporary end with Prince Lestat in 2014. Blood Paradise is forthcoming. Neil Jordan adapted the first opus for the screen in 1994 with Tom Cruise as Lestat, Brad Pitt as Louis, Kirsten Dunst as Claudia and Antonio Banderas as Armand.

2 See Donna Andréolle’s article for further analysis: http://www.graat.fr/andreolle.pdf.

3 On 29 Aug. 2005, Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city of New Orleans and killed 1577 people in Louisiana alone, with a total confirmed death toll (direct and indirect deaths) of 1836.

4 A phrase coined by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

5 See Taïna Tuhkunen for further comments on the myth of the Lost Cause in Demain sera un autre jour: Le Sud et ses héroïnes à l’écran.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title 1. The vampire of New Orleans, Count Jacques de St Germain: an alchemist’s elusive search for immortality
Caption https://authorlyngibson.wordpress.com/​2013/​09/​27/​a-closer-look-at-jacques-de-st-germain/​
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 16k
Title 2. Iain Softley’s 2005 The Skeleton Key poster: the search for longevity and voodoo possession
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 152k
Title 3. Murdered Civil Rights activist’s car?
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-3.png
File image/png, 1.3M
Title 4. Young boy in Ku Klux Klan attire
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-4.png
File image/png, 857k
Title 5. Southern intolerance: pun on pastor Fred Phelps’s slogan, “God hates fags”, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 36k
Title 6. Bill the vampire being drained by the Rattrays [S1E1]
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-6.png
File image/png, 711k
Title 7. Sookie decapitating René the “vampire way” [S1E12]
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-7.png
File image/png, 1.1M
Title 8. Eric and Bill on a murderous rampage in New Orleans’ French Quarter [S5E7]
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 84k
Title 9. Representing the ultimate death of affects: a vampire guardian feeding off a child [S5E7]
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-9.png
File image/png, 644k
Title 10. Bill telling his progeny Jessica about the advent of New Age of violence [S5E10]
URL http://erea.revues.org/docannexe/image/5363/img-10.jpg
File image/jpeg, 47k
Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Anne-Marie PAQUET-DEYRIS, « Mythologies of American violence in Alan Ball's True Blood series », E-rea [Online], 14.1 | 2016, Online since 14 September 2016, connection on 27 July 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5363 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5363

Top of page

About the author

Anne-Marie PAQUET-DEYRIS

Université Paris Ouest
apaquet-deyris@u-paris10.fr
Normalienne et agrégée d’anglais, Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris est Professeur de cinéma, séries télévisées et littérature américains à l’Université Paris Ouest. Elle a coorganisé en 2012 à Nanterre un colloque international sur la série de David Simon The Wire et en février 2016 un symposium international sur Séries et dépendance. Elle a récemment publié, entre autres ouvrages et articles, The Wire. L’Amérique sur écoute, avec M.-H. Bacqué, A. Flamand et J. Talpin à La Découverte (2014), Le cinéma parle! Etudes sur le verbe et la voix dans le cinéma Anglophone avec Dominique Sipière, aux Presses de Paris Ouest (2012), ainsi que « Sense and Sensitivity in Charles Burnett’s Cinema » dans Politiques du sensible dans le monde afro-américain et diasporique dirigé par A. Frund chez L’Harmattan (2015) et « Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011): The Staging of Secrecy » dans Intimacy in Cinema: Critical Essays on English Language Films dirigé par D. Roche & I. Schmitt-Pitiot, chez McFarland (2014 ). Elle a organisé en juin 2016 un colloque international sur la série Treme de David Simon et, prépare pour décembre 2016, le 2e volet du colloque international « Séries & Dépendance » dont la 1e partie s’est déroulée à Paris Ouest en février 2016.

Top of page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Revues.org