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Friday, August 18, 2017

INDUSTRY: Not a Geek? You Should Still Advertise at Cons.

Despite working almost exclusively in geek-related industries these days, I still network and hang out with people in a variety of areas. One thing I always try to do is give them a heads-up on when a convention I'm working with is offering ad space on their website or in a program book. And... understandably... there's not a lot of kickback from this. I mean, I get it. I'm asking real estate agents and massage therapists and graphic designers to spend money to put their ad in front of a bunch of geeks, and I can see how that would seem kind of iffy from the outside.

Truth is, though... geeks are human. (I occasionally have to look myself in the mirror and remind myself of that, but we are.) We love visiting comic book stores and buying dice and games and DVDs, but we also need normal human stuff, too. We live in houses and apartments. Most have day jobs that, unlike mine, are in the "mundane" world. We need all the things that people in other hobbies need.

And if a non-geek service can effectively reach out to a geek audience in a time of need... you've got customers for life.

So here's the low-down. Who you're reaching, how you're reaching them, and why it matters.

Why Is Convention Advertising Helpful?

You Will Be Seen Because You Have to Be.

When you choose to advertise with a con, most often you're putting a partial- or full-page advertisement in their program book. (There are other ways to advertise with different results, which I'll touch on later.) Those program books are Absolutely Everywhere. Not only are they everywhere, they're a necessity for navigating the event.

Your typical program book will include (bare minimum) guest bios, detailed descriptions of all events, a map of the convention space, and schedules for areas like vendor rooms. Some also include schedules (though those are often completed so close to the event that they're included as a second flyer) and a pair of blank autograph pages. In other words, that book is every attendee's map to the convention.

When an attendee, vendor, or guest checks in, they're handed a program along with their badge. So everyone gets one. Just automatically. And if they lose it or forget it somewhere? They can go back to the info desk and they're handed another. It's rare to find a room on Sunday morning that doesn't have three or four program books just there because someone left theirs in their room and it was easier to swing by the info desk for another than to go back to the room.

And because they're necessary, they're read often. They're referred to multiple times throughout the weekend. Which means a well-placed ad has to be seen multiple times just for a person to exist at the event.

Now work in boredom reading. Attendees standing in lines. Vendors during slow hours. Groups in the room skimming the event descriptions and planning their evening. And by the end of the weekend, your ad is as much a part of the landscape as anything else.

No One's Expecting You

Can I tell you one of the most effective ads I ever saw? It was one in the very first (Re)Generation Who program book, and it was for a life insurance agency. Full page. No graphics, nothing fancy. Just big text that said: Time Lords have 13 lives. You only have one.

It stuck out to me so much, because not only was it a life necessity in the midst of local comic shops, it showed that they either knew their audience or they cared enough to find someone to help them resonate with the audience. And in this day and age, even though geek is becoming mainstream, finding something mainstream that cares enough to reach us on our level is heartwarming. I'm not in need of life insurance at the moment cuz I have some, but if I didn't, I would have called them right up.

Your Ad Could Become a Permanent Home Fixture

Remember when I mentioned blank autograph pages? Autographs and photos cost money. Maybe people will spring for a photo with a guest or a nice glossy on the autograph table, but not everyone has that cash. So those blank pages often get filled over the course of the weekend. And then that program book stays in their house forever as a souvenir. Which means your ad is there whenever they want to show that book to someone.

Con Demographics: Which Con Is Right for Me?

Comic Cons

In 2017, conventions are a big industry in themselves -- and that means there are a lot of different types for a lot of different people. If you're not tapped into the geek world, you're likely most familiar with Comic Cons, especially the ones in San Diego and New York, because they make the papers. "Comic Con" is not in itself a business/organization name (though things are now going to court), but it is an indicator of the type of event you're looking at. Your home state will likely have its own "Comic Con," but unless they get surprisingly big, the San Diego branch isn't involved in any way.

Unless you're a big big company, going to a big big con -- the ones where they have the entire cast of the latest Marvel movie and the BBC is going to make 16 announcements -- is probably not cost-effective. But if your area has its own "Comic Con," then you're looking at a three-day influx of largely families. These events tend to be about meeting actors and shopping, so oftentimes these are group outings. Outside the hardcore geek crowd, you're going to get parents and kids making the trip.

Anime Cons

The anime con demographic has changed hugely in the last couple of decades. Where once these events were a place to watch anime and attend panels, they are now largely about shopping and cosplaying. This is not to say no one watches anime and attends panels, but the rise of streaming services means that video rooms are not as hotly attended unless there is an exclusive release promised.

These events, especially during the summer, attract primarily teenagers and college students. This may not seem like your demo, but many of them have chaperones along. And those chaperones often end up reading the program to pass the time while their daughter is off at the Attack on Titan photo shoot or whatever she's up to. Even if the con's main demo isn't yours, you still have a chance to reach their chaperone.

Local Small Cons

Single-franchise events, such as (Re)Generation Who, are becoming more popular as the convention landscape changes. It's difficult in this day and age to run a broad sci-fi event because of the price of guests, the fact that many are spending their "fun money" on big events, and the patchwork nature of attracting a solid demographic. However, some multi-franchise cons have sort of grandfathered their way through, and other newer events with a single focus are succeeding, too.

This is another event where you're likely to get families in. But with these smaller events, you're likely to get very local families. You can expect people to max out at about a 2-3 hour drive for smaller events unless they're super devoted, but if a 2-3k attendee event is in Baltimore, you're primarily going to get Baltimore people. So if you're a local business, you're getting locals.

Not only that, you're getting locals who are actively interested in supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs. In the age of massive comic cons and "garbage bags full of twenties," coming to smaller fan-run events is often a very deliberate choice on the part of the attendee -- to support the growth of local fandom. And those people are very much in the mindset you need to receive your message.

The Unexpected Audience

I've talked primarily about the attendees and their reaction to your ads -- which is, admittedly, your primary reach. But in the process, you also have other audiences you're hitting up on the side. Many of whom (depending on your industry) can be more valuable than the congoers themselves.

Artists and Vendors

Remember what I said about vendors and boredom reading? The shopping areas are packed with small business owners who might be in need of your help. The Vendor area tends to be retailers (a few big businesses who have convention "away teams," but also a good number of locals), with Artist Alley being independent creators. If you are a supplier of anything a small business owner might be in need of -- and unable to find at a price fair to someone who works a day job and maintains an Etsy store as their side hustle -- they'll see you during their boredom reading for sure.

The Staff

Yeah, we actually do read the program books, and not just the people who spend weeks putting it together and making it pretty. We need the reference as much as anyone else. Not only that, we need the recommendations -- because we, like the attendees, go back to the "real world" afterwards, and very few of us are professional con staff. Also, many of us have regular contact with the guests and are asked for recommendations. Seeing your ad can help us make them.

Plus, a major non-secret of the convention scene, most cons in any one geographic area share largely the same staff. We're kind of like British comedians with panel shows: we all go and do each others gigs. So a good ad spotted by a staffer at one con may lead to word of mouth at many others in the area.

The Guests Themselves

Got a service that you can do from a distance, like design or branding? Your ad is in the hands of someone whose personality is their business. As a staffer, I overhear when guests are looking for things, from reliable pet rescues to really really good Earl Grey. We give them recommendations, but you might well catch their eye too.

Other Options


Got some extra cash and want to be extremely visible? See if the con will let you sponsor lanyards. You get to put your logo on something that everyone will be wearing all weekend, and you're giving the event one less thing to worry about.

Website Sponsorship

Many cons also offer web advertising. Not all cons have year-round activity on their site, granted. But if you see a good active one, check and see whether they will accept banner ads. Many conventions have devoted attendees who will go simply for the con itself regardless of guests, and these are people you can reach even when the con isn't on.

A big thing to remember is that even if sci-fi or genre work isn't "your scene," the fans still have normal needs. After the con is over, we go home and we're teachers, retailer workers, designers, parents, writers, what have you. Conventions are an escape from the real world, but we don't mind seeing some real-world solutions lurking in our program books.

Keep an ear to the ground for local events and check their program book prices -- you'll also be helping them put on a great weekend! And if advertising with a local event interests you but you aren't sure how to go about it, you can contact me via my social media for consultations. Best of luck!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

VIDEO GAMES: "Until Dawn" and the Butterfly Effect

Friends and long-time readers of my work know that the love of my video game life is the mastery of decision-making and consequences in gaming. It's a difficult thing to master, as choices tend to imply a "right" or "wrong" ending, which then requires the game to have an inherent morality to it. Undertale dodged this by making the "right" and "wrong" sides very straightforwardly "don't kill anyone" and "kill everyone," while Papers, Please employed the moral code of a fictional cold war company.

The issue with an inherent morality, as I've mentioned before, is that grey areas exist, and any game will by default exhibit a morality influenced by its programmers. Another solution, then, would be to remove the concept of morality from the game entirely and make the decisions about something else -- in other words, what the player themselves likes or dislikes.

I'm only halfway through Until Dawn, but I have no intention of watching a playthrough because this game has finally mastered what I've been seeing nearly done in games for ages. That is, it creates a genuinely personalized gaming experience not by challenging your morals, but by asking you to help it build itself as it goes.

Judging You

Peter Stormare appears as The Analyst, who meets with you between scenes to check in on how you're feeling. Or, more accurately, he takes notes on which characters you like and dislike and what you're afraid of. His first test for you is a photo of a farmhouse, with a hook-handed scarecrow in the front. Does it unsettle you? Why? If the scarecrow weren't there, would you feel better? What if he told you the farmhouse was haunted?

The check-ins get more and more detailed. Here's a book of scary things. Which is scarier, A or B? How about now? Okay, here are the characters so far. Which one do you prefer? Well that's funny because what you've been doing sure doesn't indicate that.

Oh. Right. He calls you out if your answers don't match your behavior.

Now, as I said, I've only played halfway through and I don't know endgame. I have my suspicions but I don't know for sure. But what I find interesting is the difference between my playthrough so far and that of my friend Rob. He and I see eye to eye on about 90% of things, with a few personal twitches here and there based on life experience. For the most part, he said while he watched me play, we made the same decisions. But there were one or two small ("small") instances where we varied from each other, and entire scenes were different.

That is some serious style. Also, none of these is an actual judgment call. Things don't happen because you made a good or bad decision. Things happen because, well, if you sneak a look at your friend's phone they're going to get back at you later. Or if you tell your friend you saw his girlfriend cheating, his attitude will be more frigid when you're all gathered in an empty house. Kind of like real life.

Your Worst Fears

Rob said the game would play best if I was completely honest. That meant not only reacting to the situations as I would personally, but also being real when it came to admitting my fears.

He wasn't wrong.

The questions seem sort of silly at first. Clowns or zombies? (Clowns, I said, because "clowns are real.") Spiders or roaches? Needles or dogs? You're encouraged to answer with as little thought as possible, and just go for your knee-jerk reaction.

The results come in pretty quickly, and what you get is a horror game tailored to you. Just judging from how widely the scenes differed based on one or two different answers, I can't even begin to imagine the enormous web of scenes and dialogues that vary just a little and the sheer amount of memory and programming that goes into choosing the horrors you're going to see lining the Analyst's office next time you visit him.

All things considered, it's one of the best ways I've seen to tackle decision-making in games. The programmers were smart enough to remove morality entirely by making it a horror game: one where very few will make it out alive, anyway. You jump from character to character, so you're not encouraged to "be" any one person, and their personalities and relationships change based on your actions. The only "right" or "wrong" decisions are arbitrary and in the moment and involve whether you'll get caught, not whether you're a decent human being.

From Here?

Now technically there are "Good Ends" and "Bad Ends" from what I've heard. So there's an ending where all playable characters can survive, there's one where they all die, etc. If you rate morality by how many live, then I guess there's that.

But this is a "teenagers in the woods" horror story. So its genre, by definition, encourages you to remove that aspect because you can expect some death and gore. It's what kind of story you get -- not if you get the "right" story.

I want to finish this game. I'm actively preventing myself from watching playthroughs or reading spoilers because I want to see how my game ends. My game, where I snuck a look at my friend's phone and chose not to shoot a squirrel just to show off and have been playing safe rather than quick. My game where needles are scarier than roaches. I kind of want to see what Until Dawn has in store for me specifically.

And seriously? That's something I want to see more of in decision-driven gaming. Less judging, less trying to find the "right" ending, more of a personalized adventure.


Monday, August 14, 2017

AHS INFERNO: Part 2 ~ Asylum

I'd say I'm steaming through American Horror Story faster than I thought I would, but the truth is I'm going pretty much exactly as fast as I thought I would. 6-10 articles per day standard as my day job, plus social media for two conventions, plus writing multiple short stories and novels, means a couple things. One, I'm constantly busy. Two, I'm constantly trying to find ways to slack off.

Asylum rolled out of Murder House very easily; while the two are not directly connected, the mood and tone are very similar. Coming into Coven is a bit more of a whiplash feeling. And while I'm enjoying it, it's taking me a little more time to recalibrate and appreciate it as part of the anthology. Asylum needed no adjustment time.

However, I'm only on my second step down, and already my theories from my first blog post are being stretched. A bit, but not entirely. As you'll recall, I posited that the theory of AHS being an Inferno parallel meant that each season went in order through the Circles of Hell -- and if they most definitely did not, then we would have to rethink our viewing order once all nine seasons were complete.

While many people (understandably) pair Asylum with Wrath, I believe that we can still continue our downward journey in order... though I feel there are other elements to look at, too.

Asylum as the Second Circle of Hell.

In Dante's Inferno, the Second Circle is Lust. Now, so far, it's fair to say that all seasons of AHS get some serious sex on, so the mere presence of sexual content is not enough to label it as the primary trait of the season. Else we'd be banging around -- pun intended -- in the Second Circle for nine seasons.

That said, there are a couple of ways that Asylum does fit the mold here. The first that jumps to mind is that the lust in question is non-sexual: a lust for power as seen with Monsignor Howard and Sister Jude, a lust for notoriety that inevitably reveals itself in Lana. This is taking the meaning to a metaphorical level... but as with Murder House, the literal and metaphorical can coexist.

However, there is an argument for the underpinning of this season to be Lust in the common sense: the fact that there is a clerical element. What we see in many cases -- especially with Dr. Arden and his dealings with Sister Mary Eunice -- is the image of the extremely pious simultaneously shielding and abetting lustful actions. The rejection of the "Ravish Me Red" lipstick, Monsignor Howard's purity being taken from him aggressively, and Dr. Arden's bizarre fetish for pure women are all hard-line rejections of anything at all sexual. In other words, the extreme opposite of lust. A fear of it, like an alcoholic going cold turkey. In other words, an environment that suggests lust via its extreme rejection. Thus, when it appears even as a tube of lipstick or a piece of clothing, it is powerful and terrifying to the characters.

Another thing to bear in mind is the storm: a single-episode event, but one that's constantly harkened back to. In Dante's Inferno, residents of the Second Circle of Hell are punished by being blown back and forth constantly by strong winds. Symbolically, this is meant to suggest how their lust has trapped and occupied them so much that they are whisked from Point A to Point B without a chance to lead their lives properly. The centerpiece of the storm in the series, the point at which the asylum's infrastructure began to collapse from within, is what finally led me to believe that this is probably the way to go.

Is Evan Peters Still Our Virgil?

In Asylum, Evan Peters takes the role of Kit, an innocent saddled with the accusation of being the mass murderer known as Bloody Face after his wife Alma was allegedly found mutilated in the same way as other victims. Evan, like others, eventually makes his way out -- while having occasional run-ins with aliens, which kicked this whole thing off.

Kit does eventually make his way out and tell his story... but as tempting as it is to cast the same character as Virgil from season 1 to season 2, the journalist Lana Winters -- the Last Woman Standing -- is our obvious winner here.

She ventures in, then ventures out. She survives. She literally tells the story. And while she guides an audience rather than guiding an individual, her role is much more defined. Kit, while important, ends up another member of the body count... albeit later than many.

Sarah Paulson appeared in Murder House as Billie Dean Howard, a "Lee Press-On Nails psychic" who assisted Constance and others in dealing with the house in question. But retrofitting the Virgil role to Billie Dean, an ultimately low-importance character, would be more for show than anything else. For now, we may have to acknowledge that our Virgil changes every season. Or that there's something we're missing.

The Continuation of Jessica Lange

As with Murder House, we see Jessica Lange's character -- Judy, now Sister Jude -- suffering a heavily metaphorical version of the literal pains of those around her. She has left behind a life managed by sex appeal, trading it for hard religion, and even the sight of certain items can drive her into a downward spiral. The Demon in Sister Mary Eunice places her temptations within reach, but her responses are far more internalized.

Which begs the question -- are the characters connected by actor? Could Constance and Jude -- both women seeking a remedy for their past by laying themselves a lifelong trap -- be the same soul suffering on two levels? Tate and Kit could be much similar: a young man led by his love for a woman.

Delving too deep into this could lead to a variety of dead ends, but it seems it might be worth eyeing actors whose characters' motivations and actions are similar across seasons.

Circles and Spheres

Most interesting, though, is the fact that the Second Sphere of Heaven also fits Asylum. In the previous entry, I mentioned that the First Sphere of Heaven was a decent fit for Murder House and that I might want to continue glancing at that.

The Second Sphere of Heaven is home to the ambitious: those who did good during their time on Earth, but did so out of ambition rather than a sense of justice. There's a great deal of that running through Asylum, with Lana Winters being the most obvious fit. Sister Jude and Monsignor Howard also fall alongside this. The Asylum was eventually shut down, but the original motivations become less and less pronounced as the seasons go on, until finally the end of Briarcliff is more an afterthought than a task.

So what does this mean? It could mean coincidences are awesome. It could also mean that AHS  really is based on Dante... but we should be looking up rather than down. And the idea of a gruesome horror series taking its cues from Heaven over Hell is, quite frankly, a bit terrifying.

Next up is, of course, Coven. Following the Circles of Hell, we should be looking for elements of Gluttony, and perhaps the presence of Cerberus. And looking up, the Third Sphere of Heaven is the sphere of lovers, who were kindhearted but lacked temperance.

Who knows, at this point.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

BOOKS: "My American Nightmare" ~ Revisiting William Wilson

If you can't tell from a good chunk of what I write on here, I am in love with horror of a very specific type. I love psychological, dark, morbid, low on gore and high on "dear God this will stay with me until the end of my days." I worry that I can't write it nearly as passionately as I can read it, but I try nonetheless. Try long enough and you get somewhere, and I did. Specifically with My American Nightmare, an upcoming horror anthology where I'm surrounded by women who have written some wonderfully chilling takes on classic American-made horror.

The call asked for retellings of horror stories that were American in origin. That could mean books, short stories, films, even songs. Because I'm a try-hard, I delved back as far as I could, looking to see what was considered the first true piece of American horror fiction.

While I'm sure there's room for argument, my search led me to Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" -- the memoirs of a man haunted by a cruel doppelganger sharing his name. The story is semi-autobiographical, reminiscent of the outskirts of London. It's also told almost entirely internally (as is true of much of Poe's work, of course). And modernizing it was going to be a trick.

The result was "Billson"... which, appropriately enough, is semi-autobiographical for me. Rather than have the main character tell his own story, I opted for an unnamed female narrator based heavily on myself as a college freshman. I mean, in all fairness, the campus is my campus. The class schedule is my class schedule. The only difference is it exists with 2017 tech rather than 1999 tech.

The story of Billson is not the same as the story of William Wilson. There are slight differences. Poe's story was truly and full introspective from beginning to end. Billson's is, too -- but there's more to it. This was an opportunity for me to address issues that are more visible in the 21st century. Issues I personally dealt with, and issues that friends of mine are still dealing with.

Billson -- the nickname given to a young Bill Wilson by a second boy sharing his name -- trusts our narrator with a terrifying secret: this Other Bill Wilson has followed him all the way to college from many states away. In school, the mockery and imitation was irritating. But now it's gone to ridiculous levels. At first teachers confuse the two and believe Billson is skipping classes. But soon the acts turn violent, and Billson finds himself taking the blame across campus for frankly criminal acts. Our narrator, who made the mistake of walking to class with him a few times, now finds herself caught up in what she originally believed to be his wild conspiracy theories.

My American Nightmare contains over 300 pages of modern horror written by women in the genre. And it drops on Halloween so you can have a nice terrifying night in.

Preorder now from Amazon!

Monday, August 7, 2017

AHS INFERNO: Part 1 ~ Murder House

So I'm ridiculous when it comes to what makes me decide to watch something. I was aware American Horror Story was probably going to be my jam, but I kept putting it off. Even when they did a season set near me, covering a major historical weirdness I've grown up hearing about, I still kind of shrugged it off. It took one of the creators shrug-confirming an old theory about the series being based on Dante's Inferno to make me crack it open.

And yeah, the first season was as good as everyone said. If not better.

Now, one thing I've noticed as I read through the different analyses is that no one can seem to decide which circle of Hell each season corresponds to. My thinking, coming in completely blind, was that it would go in order, with the final season (nine seasons have been confirmed) being genuinely the most dread and horrifying. No analysis I've seen online quite gives me what I want, so I made up my mind:

I'm going to watch through all that's out now -- which I was going to do anyway -- and do my own running analysis.

But here's the thing. I'm coming in with theories.

Theory 1: The nine seasons will correspond to the Nine Circles of Hell in descending order, regardless of what may initially seem to be the most prevalent trait of the season.

Theory 2: The character(s) who most exemplify the assumed trait of the seasons will be the one(s) we need to keep our eyes on, and isolating those characters will help us start to see the overarching connections of the anthology.

Theory 3: There will always be a Virgil character, and there may or may not be a Dante character (most likely Dante will be the viewer).

Theory 4: If Theory 1 proves to be obviously untrue, then it may be a sign that the viewing order and the storytelling order (like Chronicles of Narnia and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) are different, and we won't know why until the end.

Seem a bit much for a horror anthology show? Good. That's what I do. I'm from William & Mary.

The Inferno

Now, there are a couple things to remember about the Circles of Hell as Dante describes them. People largely remember the types of souls in each Circle, and what specifically they are devoted to. But there's another aspect: the punishment. As I've only finished the first season (and the first Circle doesn't include any sort of punishment), I've yet to see if that will figure in. But it may be something to keep an eye on.

The other thing to remember is that every place Dante went had nine circles... this includes Purgatory and Heaven. I think it might be worthwhile to cast an eye toward those for context, especially Purgatory.

And finally... if none of this was intentional on the part of the writers, it doesn't matter an awful lot. I'm probably layering much more meaning on than was ever intended. And that's okay. Unintentional meaning is still meaning, and it's also hella fun. So. Let's get to it.

Also, goes without saying that spoilers like crazy.

Lust or Limbo?

A lot of analyses I stumbled across paired Murder House with the second circle, Lust. And, well, it's hard to argue with that. The majority of the hells of this season happen because of lust and infidelity. A broken marriage kicks off the move. The previous owners also struggled with infidelity. The keeper of the house is Moira, a ghost who presents differently to men guided by their desire rather than their logic. And the rubber suit in the attic becomes the uniform for the doing of bad deeds.

But it's fair to say that all the circles present somehow. Anger and violence are constant -- ghosts kill each other for fun, and the Harmons themselves eventually join the pack (albeit for the safety of potential future tenants). Heresy is everywhere, with the belief that Tate and Vivien's son will be the Antichrist.

To keep to the descent, the Murder House has to be Limbo... and fortunately, that's what fits best. The setting of the season directly corresponds to the first circle, both in the modern sense of the word and by Dante's definition.

Two Types of Limbo

In Inferno, the concept of Limbo is virtuous but "unsaved" people: those who can't go to Heaven on a technicality, but still deserve a nice afterlife. But we use the word in common parlance for a "place between," being unable to move on, independent of morality. Both are actually at work here, it seems.

The Murder House's ever-growing collection of ghosts absolutely exemplifies the second: if you die there, you're stuck there, regardless of whether you're good or bad or not really either. Kind people doing their best are stuck there just as readily as mass murderers. So within the zeitgeist, it makes sense.

But Dante's definition still stands. The Harmons, a broken family by anyone's definition, finally find happiness in the Murder House. They gain the ability to banish their demons (quite literally, as we see Tate and Hayden watching the family's happy Christmas in a dark corner), and despite the fact that they can never pass on, they have a sort of "Heaven lite" they are able to construct for themselves.

And the Harmons, despite all their drama, were not bad people. Misguided, dysfunctional, and perhaps not quite good enough for Heaven what with adultery and stabbing and stuff. But they aren't people who don't deserve happiness.

Additionally (and dipping back into my Catholic school education), Limbo is a place for another demographic: babies who died without being baptized. There's a heavy focus on babies all through the series... Vivien's miscarriage, Nora's need for a baby. And in the end we have Jeffrey, who drew one breath before passing on, joining his family in the house for eternity.

Virgil and Dante

As Vivien and Ben chalk up the strangeness of the Murder House to insanity and hormones and elaborate pranks, Violet is immersed in its ways very quickly -- and it's Tate, even before her suicide, who begins guiding her through it. As with Virgil, Tate is a resident of the Limbo through which he's conducting his tour.

Whether this makes Violet his Dante, I'm not entirely sure. But I'm prone to say no. He doesn't show her everything, after all, and her tour is conducted largely as a new permanent resident of the Murder House. However, Tate does (unknowingly) introduce us to most of what we know about the setting.

Much of what we learn and experience with regards to the other residents is via Tate's first meetings with them: whether he helped or killed them, and what he did in their names. His lack of awareness of us, and the fact that a dead high school shooter seems like the last person you'd pick as an audience association character, doesn't change that fact. We learn mostly via him.

I am aware that, while AHS has a stable of actors, Evan Peters is the most stable of that stable, appearing in every season so far. It makes me want to cast his string of characters as our permanent Virgil... but I'll need to see a bit more before I make a jump like that.

The Living and the Dead

A point that might be easy to miss amidst the ever-growing cast of ghosts is the one major character who doesn't die: Constance Langdon, the Virginia sweetheart who was going to become a movie star and ended up being Mee-Maw to the Antichrist.

As we watch the series, Constance seems to be pulling the strings more than anyone. She pulls triggers, steals babies, and smokes cigarettes casually over dead bodies like it's her job. She seems to be, by all accounts, the ringleader.

But I'm convinced -- completely convinced -- that this is Constance's story. And she's the character trapped in Limbo.

The ghosts have a nice, handy, literal Limbo they can't escape. It's not their fault. So they put up a Christmas tree and make the best of it. Constance could leave at any time. When the series opened she had one daughter (Adelaide, perhaps the only true innocent in the whole main cast and the one permitted to pass on). She could have upped sticks and left. She could have taken her one remaining child away to a quiet place. Unlike the Langdons and the Montgomerys and everyone else next door, she has no excuse.

But she stays. Because she wants her children. Because she wants to control Moira. Because she, overall, wants power. And it's fascinating that the Langdons -- the ones with the least power to change their situation -- end the series freer and happier than Constance.

Perhaps it's her Limbo we're meant to see: one she's placed herself in.

Movin' on Up

Finally... just to really stretch and strain my theory... I want to see if there's any point in checking out the first circles of Purgatory and Heaven as well.

In Dante's Purgatorio, Virgil begins Dante's journey at the base of a mountain. Here are those who died too stubborn to obey the laws of God, and they will remain their thirty times longer than their stubbornness.

Is there a tie? Mmmmmaybe. Not as clear and clean and pretty as the Inferno one. Ben's stubbornness was the most prominent, as exhibited by how long it took him to see the "real" Moira. But rather than being too stubborn to align with God's laws, it was a willingness to align with his wife and her needs. We see his slow change, his willingness to say "no" when necessary, but it takes him until the literal end of the show to accept that his wife is both sane and in pain.

That's a bit of an English major stretch, though. It's fun, but it's not enough to convince me that it's intentional or useful. Let's try the First Sphere of Heaven: The Moon.

This Sphere is a bit like the first circle of Hell -- we have people who aren't quite okay enough to go to Heaven. Specifically, we have those who were unfaithful through no fault of their own. And here we go: we have a match with Vivien and the "Rubber Man" (revealed to be Tate). For completion's sake we could also throw in Hayden stalking Dan from beyond the grave, I suppose. But this version of infidelity being "punished" is far closer to the meaning of the season than comparing it to the Second Circle of Hell would be.

The Theory So Far

One season in, and we can align both the First Circle of Hell and the First Sphere of Heaven with the plot elements. We also have a set of characters who experience it literally, as well as one whose metaphorical experience of it seems to be far more punishing. And we have a Virgil. Just not a very happy one.

I'll be carrying on with Asylum next, and that's a difficult one. My theory states that it should align with Lust, but most online want to pair it with Anger. Maybe my theory will break in a few days. We shall see.

Friday, August 4, 2017

LOCAL: Busch Gardens has an axe to grind for this year's Howl-O-Scream

Frequenters of my blog and others I write for know about InvadR, Busch Gardens Williamsburg's awesome new wooden coaster that's assimilated itself into New France. Sadly, my summer schedule means I haven't taken it for a spin yet, but I was there for the hard hat tour and it looks absolutely amazing.

Unsurprisingly, it looks like the Viking invasion is going to form a major part of this year's Howl-O-Scream presence for the park this year. The park-wide celebration, which goes on from late September up to Halloween, transforms Busch Gardens into a series of themed haunted houses and "Terror-Tories." Everything is kid-safe during daylight hours, but when the sun goes down, all bets are off.

Last year, the park introduced No Escape, its first foray into the escape room craze. Mr. Karver, the insane doll maker who made up part of last year's branding, will be back -- but there will be new puzzles to solve this year, so don't think you're getting out easy if you escaped last time. Replacing Jack the Ripper will be "Case of the Haunted Hotel," a new story that invites attendees to solve puzzles so they can check out before they're trapped forever.

In case you've not had a taste of No Escape, check out the interview I conducted last year with its two stars:

Previously when the sun went down, New France transformed into Wendigo Woods, a post-apocalyptic fallout shelter where you were as likely to be menaced by security guards as by monsters. This year, though, they're playing the Viking theme to the hilt with Axe Alley. This "raiding party gone horribly wrong" will kick off at 6 pm, surrounding park-goers with the ghosts of Vikings.

And, of course, there's FrostBite: the previously announced haunted house inside Curse of DarKastle that leads visitors through the icy grave of a fire-breathing giant. Even if you've been inside DarKastle before, this one promises to be completely different thematically.

The park flips to Howl-O-Scream on September 23. More information is available on their official site -- and I'm absolutely planning to see what else they have in store!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

MOVIES: "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the Growth of Tony Stark

NOTE: This blog post contains major spoilers for basically everything about Spider-Man: Homecoming. If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend you do -- and highly recommend you give this piece a miss until you've done so. If you've seen it already or don't care about spoilers, read on.

It takes about ten seconds to realize that Spider-Man: Homecoming is done right. From the moment the original TV series theme plays through the Marvel logo at the front of the movie, you know you're pretty much set for a good ride. And once you realize that no, this is not Yet Another Origin Story, you can be comfortable. We've already seen the MCU Peter Parker make his debut in Civil War (which the beginning of this film ties into). This is not how Peter becomes Spidey. This is his Hero Journey.

That said, this is also Tony Stark's final exam.

We've known since the trailers that Tony would be figuring into this movie at least to some degree -- which makes a lot of sense, all things considered. Tony's mentorship of Peter has shown up in other iterations of the Avengers story, and even if it hadn't it, it Just Makes Sense. What the trailer left unclear was how much Tony would be an element of this film. From the looks of it, it could have been one quick cameo. And we probably would have been fine with that, to be honest. (I know I would have been.)

What we see, though, is a whole lot of Tony. He's engaged in every part of this new stage of Peter's life, even if he's not always literally there. Even Spidey's new suit is, conceptually, a one-off of Iron Man's. It may not do all the same things, but it's just as tricked out, and even has its own Suit Lady. The movie sets up -- shows, doesn't tell -- that we are in essence seeing what could have been a teenage Tony Stark.

And, Peter being Peter, a lot of the same personality elements are still there. He's super-smart. He wants to be credited as super-smart and not held back. He's got hella hubris, and just enough smarts to get to a really nice vantage point before he stumbles and falls. Honestly the only major differences between Tony and Peter are money and how nervous they get around girls.

As the Avenger who kicked off the MCU, Tony's done a lot of growing over the past several movies. He's gone from "billionaire genius playboy philanthropist" to, you know, someone who doesn't necessarily feel the need to crow about that. He's still the same cocksure charismatic Tony Stark with strange whims and no-acting-required RDJ moments. But he's a lot surer of who he is, what he is, and what it means to be a hero at this phase. Especially after the awkward break-up that was Civil War.

The reason it's so easy to see Iron Man and Spider-Man together is because, save for some social cues, Iron Man was Spider-Man. If there were no Avengers, no superheroes, no radioactive spiders, there are good odds Peter could have ended up on a Stark internship just for his sheer intelligence. But when you combine intelligence and caring -- you have someone who cares too much and gets themselves in trouble.

The moment was clear after the battle on the ferry. Tony's words to Peter: "If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it." It's a truth, granted. But to hear those words from Tony, a hero whose legend started with the building of a suit of his own, it resonates. And even in the face of Peter Parker, Tony is one of a very special few -- two, in fact -- in the Avengers: nothing inherently makes him a hero.

He has no Super Soldier serum. No radiation. No god powers. No psychic abilities or super speed. No special S.H.I.E.L.D. training. No vague, foggy history as a spy. Literally nothing about him makes him any more advanced than you or I could become on our own. Like Ant-Man, what makes him special is his suit. And being smart.

The fear of being "nothing without the suit" is a far truer concern for Tony. His Arc Reactor is gone. His heart is fixed. He's just this guy, you know? Switching the focus of the conversation after the ferry scene... making yourself Tony instead of Peter... reveals a different dynamic entirely: a man who had to fight for his life and his identity, looking a scientific miracle in the eye and hearing him say he's nothing. A kid who didn't have Tony's lab but still made web shooters. A kid who, without the suit, will still have his powers.

Of course Tony took the suit away.

And it's no surprise that the final scene of this film mirrors the final scene of the first Iron Man, while subverting the ending. Tony accepted his new role with a public announcement; Peter already did that internally. Spider-Man will mature far faster than Iron Man (in in-movie years, that is), and that is more than likely what Tony wants.

It's a shame that rights took so long to work out that we're only now seeing Spidey added to the Avengers roster. But in the end, the timing meant two stories got to be told at extremely good times. I guess this stuff has a way of working itself out.