Cooking with Pinterest

Kelly has convinced me that Pinterest is an MMO. No, really, think about it. It is online, accessed by millions worldwide (10 million users in 2011), based in fantasy, and even gives you quests in the form of recipes and projects. It has fully replaced my pre-sleep gaming hour and this baffled me until I, with the help of Kelly, looked at why it feels so game-y.

Very little on Pinterest simulates everyday life but rather an idealised world full of gorgeously styled homes (decorated by you), pristine antique furniture (reupholstered by you), adorable animals (raised and groomed by you), and calorie-free cakes made from fanciful ingredients (baked by you). Or at least that’s what my slice of Pinterest looks like.

More than just presenting catalog-quality homes and gardens and families for the pleasure of the Pinner, Pinterest suggests that you too can have it all. Most images are accompanied by a brief description of how it was achieved or where to buy. Even artwork is accompanied by a DeviantArt, Etsy or blog link which offers opportunities to purchase or re-create. Even if these opportunities are not followed, Pins invite the Pinner to imagine a fantasy world where they own a sea-side home, have the time to make gluten-free, honey-glazed lemon bars, or design avant-garde fashions.

There is an assumption on the part of the Pinner, and academic research which hints at this by Gilbert et al (2013), that a Pin does not a project make. To Pin something is to mark it for later. “Oh, I might get around to making this. Maybe on a rainy Sunday when there’s nothing on TV…” I’m not sure firm stats exist concerning how many Pins translate to actual projects, but I’d imagine it is less than 10%.

In an ever-growing quest to indulge my epicuriousness, I decided to try to take some of these ephemeral recipes and make them a reality. As you can see from the picture above, it went well. Rather than going for the mundane, I decided to tackle the wonderful and weird world of paleo, raw, and gluten-free baking. This is of particular interest because these recipes target those trying to lose weight in addition to those who have a restrictive diet due to medical issues. The key, fantastic message encrusted within each is that you too can have it all! Dieters, don’t worry, there’s a way to make cookie dough healthy! Yes, you read it right. If you just put the effort in, you can eat the most sinful things all the time without guilt or weight gain! Don’t even get me started on what a load of rubbish this is. It isn’t healthy. Even if you use bananas, coconut oil and palm sugar, cookie dough is a sometimes-treat, not a twice-daily snack.

Anyway, before I get to my recipes and pictures, the most immediate issue I need to raise is the near-impossibility of gathering ingredients in terms of availability and cost. Honestly, the Pins might as well have suggested I substitute fairy dust for sugar and snow from the eaves of Santa’s workshop for flour. The ‘healthy’ replacements typically recommended include the aforementioned coconut oil and palm sugar in addition to almond flour, unflavoured whey protein powder, medjool dates, tapioca flour, and almond milk. Most of these aren’t impossible to find- larger groceries stores will have most ingredients- but depending on where you live, you might need a trip to the health food shop. Also, these are EXPENSIVE. 500g of coconut flour is £3.99 compared to 1.5kg of wheat flour for only £0.80. These recipes are simply not sustainable for the average person, further emphasising the ‘sometimes-treat’ reality of cooking with this section of Pinterest.

The rest of this blog post contains the results of a weekend trying out the fantastic. Pictures included. I’ve rated each recipe according to ease and taste.

Overnight Oats

20160408_204004

This recipe is the epitome of Pinterest. A load of health food mixed and served in a mason jar. I’ll just leave it at that. Recipe here.

20160408_204146

Ease: It is literally pouring raw ingredients into a mason jar and then shaking it. Fairly fool-proof. I used raspberries instead of bananas because I’m a free-thinker.

20160409_083837

Taste: It tastes like mushy oatmeal in yoghurt. I honestly don’t know why I expected any different.

Paleo Carrot Cake

20160408_215303

I love carrot cake and I’m quite good at making it… normally. Instead of making the frosting, I opted for fatfree yoghurt the first time (pictures) and low-fat soft cheese the second time because it was easier and just as tasty. Probs means it is no longer paleo, but I don’t really understand paleo anyway. All you want is some tang to cut through the sweet. Oh, look at me talking like I’m Amanda Freitag on Chopped. Recipe here.

20160408_215312

Ease: This was no more difficult to make than a ‘normal’ carrot cake. Except for the coconut oil. Coconut oil is a solid below 24 degrees C. And I don’t mean solid like how butter is a solid when you keep it in a fridge. I mean solid as in candle wax. You have to chip it out of the glass jar it comes in with a spoon or soak the jar in warm water to soften it. It is messy and time consuming. The little flakes of solid oil get everywhere, including your hands. Guess what that means? Butter-er-coconut-oil-fingers! Coconut oil belongs in Lush products, not food.

20160408_215504

Taste: The texture was nice, which according to my gluten-free friends is a real issue with baking. It wasn’t grainy or sandy but bouncy, light and spongy. The problem was, as you can see from my face, the taste. I doubled the recommended cinnamon, added nutmeg and allspice and still found it bland. Perplexing as the coconut flour and oil smells so good when it is baking and the batter tasted awesome. Yeah, that’s right, I live on the edge, I eat raw batter. #yolo. Anyway, defo-recommended for trad-flourless friends.

Coconut Protein Balls

This was the recipe I wanted to succeed the most, so naturally it didn’t. I’ve been hunting for a low-cost protein bar alternative which is low-carb, low-sugar. After a workout, I need something to stabilise my sugar levels because I’m prone to hypoglycemic spells and passing out. Most commercial bars are far too sugary which gives me a spike and then a dangerous crash. The bars which don’t mess with my sugars cost around £3 each. You see the problem. These seemed like a fab compromise.

20160408_214733
The protein mix chillin’ with juice, soft cheese and butter in my fridge.

Ease: Oh, I messed this one up. Oh boy, I messed this one up. Something went wrong early on which meant I couldn’t form balls. The mixture was too dry and kept crumbling apart. This is probably because instead of using coconut cream (which I didn’t have), I tried to make my own. It works with butter and milk, so why wouldn’t making cream work with coconut milk and coconut oil? I don’t know, but it didn’t. So, I decided that instead of balls, I’d flatten the crumbly mixture out into a cake pan and fridge it to make bars. As you can see below, I used a round cake pan so I actually ended up making triangles. I added chocolate chips because at this point it was going to be a dessert instead of something I’d put in my bag and take to the gym.

20160409_093144

Taste: It tastes like if you were drowning and the only rescue was mouth-to-mouth from an ancient Egyptian mummy who had recently eaten a Bounty Bar. Dry and uncomfortable. I binned it.

Frozen Banana Protein Shake

I’ve seen lots of posts about banana-based fro-yo and decided to give it a go. This two-ingredient recipe seemed like a good choice, but instead of making ice-cream bites, I modified it to make a creamy milkshake.

Ease: I followed the recipe up until blending. I used fewer chocolate chips, added coconut milk and 1 scoop of soy protein powder. I know I talked about whey protein powder above, but it was whey too expensive for me so I went with soy. In retrospect to prevent clumping, I would have added the protein powder gradually as the other ingredients blended.

20160409_142426

Taste: Nom. This is by far the tastiest recipe. It doesn’t taste like a milkshake, but it does taste like a frozen chocolate banana. 10/10 would blend again.

Coconut Flour Pancakes

20160410_070134

For me, pancakes are a twice-a-year food. I’m not keen on sweet things for breakfast, and if I am, I’ll opt to pour some maple syrup on some burnt strips of fatty belly-bacon rashers. Part of this has to do with how rubbish the spike in sugar makes me feel and part of it is down to preference. This low-carb, no-added sugar, grain-free recipe seemed like it might be a go-to for family breakfasts when my siblings want something sweet.

20160410_070237

Ease: Everything started great. Baking soda make the coconut flour bubble just like its wheat equivalent. Then I went to flip it. The image which started the post says it all really. Second one went better. Less batter is more for these.

20160410_071132

Taste: Not grainy, which is a plus. Tastes like bananas. And pancakes. /shrug.

Take-Aways

Writing this blog post required a back-and-forth between my website and Pinterest. My low-quality photos appeared side-by-side with the glossy ones at the top of the recipes. The images serve as a stark contrast between the fantasy world of Pinterest and the real-world of at-home baking for the average working adult. At the very least, it highlights the fact I don’t have a professional-grade camera or lighting rig. Nor do I have pretty glass ramekins, fancy cooking gadgets, or the time or money to invest in them. Whilst I can see myself repeating one or two of the recipes in future, I have to say that I am more than happy to let Pinterest remain a fantasy world of perfection I visit every night before bed. Just like I used to visit Azeroth.

Until next time, happy baking!

Ashley

Using an ‘ARG’ to Teach Puzzles

Its 8:20 in the morning and I am sprinting down a small footpath behind the library. I didn’t leave campus until 9 last night and in less than 12 hours I am back again. I’m exhausted. I check my watch, my heart pounding in my chest. Good, I think, no one should be around yet. I bolt up the stairs of the lecture centre and slap a piece of A4 on the door. Somewhere nearby a hoover starts. No! The cleaners. What if they tidy away my clue? No time to think of that now, I gotta get back and hang up the posters which will serve as the trailhead. “The lecture has been cancelled. The lecturer is sick”. The message repeats across a sheet of A3 and the bolded letters form the first clue: check Blackboard. I stick blue tack in the corners and my heart is in my throat. What if they don’t realise it is a puzzle? What if they all leave?

As I slink to my office I re-evaluate my teaching choices for the term. Was running an ARG really the best way to teach students about puzzles and cryptography?


 

If you for some reason happened to check my blog on the morning of the 5th February, you may have noticed a post entitled ‘the riddle’. This was the final clue in the alternate reality game I ran to teach students what alternate reality games are. Now I fully admit that the narrative of the game was very weak. There was no government takeover, no conspiracy theory, no scientist-gone-missing, just a cancelled (?) lecture. If it would make you feel better to call it a scavenger hunt, then by all means do so. I’m not fussed.

The learning outcomes for this class were relatively straight forward: Learn about cryptography and puzzle making in a 3 hours. Really, that’s all I wanted to achieve. But rather than give the students some readings and a lecture, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn by doing. Solve some puzzles, run around campus on a Friday morning, and have a debriefing lecture with some puzzle-creation activities. So that they could see how I made the ‘ARG’, I made a (condensed) design document and an annotated timeline of events which I distributed in class. I’ve attached jpg scans of each below if you’re curious.

scan0002scan0003

Creating and running an ARG, as small and flimsy as it was, was actually incredibly effective at teaching students the key aspects- and pitfalls- of designing an ARG. Not only did students successfully work together to solve the puzzles, but they did so very quickly. Much quicker than expected. This was a useful teaching moment as it allowed me to point out the difficulties in determining difficulty level for diverse groups of players. In a large ARG, like NIN’s Year Zero, puppetmasters can default to difficult in the knowledge that the global appeal of the band will result in large enough numbers of players to crack even the most obscure puzzles. For a 40-student, first year undergraduate class? That’s a relatively niche population who may or may not have had experience working with cryptographic puzzles before.

There was even a possibility that the students might’ve read the ‘lecture is cancelled’ sign on the door and gone home! I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have been tempted to do similar when I was doing my undergraduate degree. The session is at 9am on a Friday morning… I was prepared for that eventuality. If the students had gone home, then that could’ve been a teachable moment as well. Actually, that would’ve been a compliment to my design skills as the tone of ARGs is meant to be: This is not a game. Combined with the serious aesthetic form of ARGs, there is also meant to be a high barrier to entry. Trailheads are meant to be barely perceptible as anything out of the ordinary. The best trailheads blend in with everyday life and everyday objects. Now I don’t mean to downplay how incredibly clever my students are, which they are, but I think that I made the game-ness of the first clue too obvious in retrospect.

After the students solved the final riddle and found the lecture, I held a de-briefing wherein I explained the ‘game’. I then also defined and explained what ARGs are, This is Not a Game was very useful here, and gave examples of some of the most famous- e.g. I Love Bees. After, I ran a workshop in which I handed out examples of cryptograms and asked students work out the logic of a particular method of encrypting and then, by means of reverse engineering, make their own. The National Puzzler’s League website and Puzzlecraft book were incredibly useful resources and a big thank you goes out to colleagues who pointed me to them.

As a workshop activity, this was met with mixed results. Some cryptograms are incredibly difficult and an hour to solve one, let alone figure out the logic to creating one, is simply not enough time. I think moving forwards, I will limit the types of cryptograms I challenge the students with. Anaquotes, riddles, printer’s devilry, and knight’s tour cryptograms seemed to be the most accessible in the given time frame. As an activity in general, I think it worked really well. Meta-skills like working together to solve a puzzle, using research skills to find auxiliary online sources, self-teaching and peer-teaching were true strengths of the workshop. It ended with students presenting the puzzles they had created to the class and the class (including me!) trying to solve them.

We rounded out the session with a discussion about how what they learned can be applied to other types of games. Since ARGs are niche- super awesome, but niche- it was important for me to highlight the larger applicability of puzzles to other genres. Platformers and RPGs were brought up as being the most amenable to puzzle mechanics, but I’m sure if there had been more time we could’ve discussed a dozen more.

Overall, I would certainly love to run this class again with a few minor changes. It was exciting and fun to shake up the normal lecture structure, and most importantly, I think the students got a lot out of the lesson. It was great seeing the group work and collective thinking going on during the workshop. Questions or comments? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!

How Not to Be Reviewer #2

For those of you unfamiliar with the academic meme, Reviewer #2 is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the peer review system. No, wait, all that is wrong with the peer in peer review.

16198_10155276140165640_8482032632772318289_n
The memes in this post are used without proper citation as I couldn’t reliably find a creator. Bad me. If these are yours and you’d like proper credit, let me know.

At the time of writing, the Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped Facebook page has nearly 7,000 members which goes to show reviewer 2’s assholery is recognised by at least 7,000 people. Given the relatively niche nature of academic publishing, 7k is a lot. Now, to be clear, the reviewer 2 I refer to is not the same as Tenure She Wrote’s reviewer #2. As Tenure She Wrote writes (heh, Wrote writes looks odd):

Now that I have graduate students of my own, I’ve been thinking about how to train them to be reviewers, without creating either mice* or attack dogs**. If Reviewer #1 is that ineffectual, unconfident reviewer, and Reviewer #3 is too angry and aggressive, I’d like to be just right***: Reviewer #2.

1958056_10101934298113039_1590347503_n

For Tenure She Wrote, Reviewer #2 is the happy medium between the too hot and the too cold porridge bowls of academia. Reviewer 2 seeks to be helpful, firm, and not aggressive. As she goes on, Tenure says that we don’t actually train graduate students, postgrads, or early careers on how to review, so can we really be surprised that so many bad reviewers exist? Tenure has a great point, one which I will come back to later, but for now, let us focus on Reviewer 2.

Who is Reviewer #2? Literally, Reviewer 2 is the anonymised moniker given to the second peer to review a research paper. In common parlance, Reviewer 2 can be summarised as possessing the following qualities:

  • Grumpy
  • Aggressive
  • Vague
  • Unhelpful
  • Overbearingly committed to a pet discipline
  • Overly focused on a particular methodology
  • Inflexible
  • Unwilling to give the benefit of the doubt
  • Unwilling to view the authors of a submitted paper as peers.

If you need examples, go on over to Shit My Reviewers Say. Just a quick scroll through is enough to make non-academics shake their heads in sympathy.

11219225_10153619513398446_2657606012680909527_n

So, to get back to Tenure She Wrote’s point that reviewers are not taught how to be reviewers, and most publishers include only the vaguest suggestions on how to review a work, I’m going to use the rest of this post to share my advice on how to be a good peer, and a good reviewer.

Step 1: Make sure you are the right person for the article.

Most reviews I have been asked to do, I have been asked. I have yet to be forced to review an article. Guilt tripped, maybe, but not forced. If I don’t feel confident in my knowledge of a particular methodology, or that I don’t have expertise with a particular field of literature, I’ll politely decline to review.

11933464_10101442910652409_6586167467815830386_n

Now obviously you don’t have to be an expert in every aspect of a paper in order to review it, but you should have some knowledge of its themes and methods. If you have never used the method but studied it at a Masters level, you’re probably competent enough to review the article. Likewise, if you remember reading a few of the authors in the bibliography, you can probably appropriately assess how the article fits in with the current body of literature and whether or not it has contributed anything original to the field. Obviously this is a rough guide and you need to be your own judge of your abilities.

Step 2: Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to review.

Since, as we established above, you probably aren’t being forced to review a paper, don’t say yes to every paper that comes your way. Likewise, don’t say yes if you know you’re going to be snowed under with marking, or if you have study boards, or if you’re examining a PhD, or if you have a grant bid due in, or if you are doing any number of tasks academics do during the year which cause us to be immensely grumpy… If you are stressed and pressured, that will absolutely come through in your review and what’s worse, it will effect the quality of the review.

Reviewing the work of your peers should be pleasurable. Don’t laugh. I am serious. It should be a chance to see what others in your field are doing, a chance to read cutting edge research, and a chance to share your expertise (what good is knowledge if you don’t use it?) When I review, I do it in stages. In the first phase, I read through the paper and take small notes on the side. I do this in the bath, in a park, or at a restaurant with a glass of something. It is a nice, peaceful excuse to enjoy some time alone and remember why I became an academic. The second round of review, I re-read my comments and formulate them into what I think will be most useful for the author(s). The third phase, I type up my responses and include links where applicable. It is time consuming, but not as bad as you think.

10923586_10153057833805879_7239981313222715644_n

Step 3: Review as you would want to be reviewed.

I approach papers as I would approach marking an external PhD. I, largely speaking, give the authors the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t cite author X? Well, maybe they aren’t aware or maybe they didn’t feel X fit in with what they are trying to achieve. Rather than write something along the lines of, “The authors clearly aren’t aware of the existing work of X and are thus re-inventing the wheel” I write, “Citing X in paragraph 2, page 4 would probably support this aspect of your argument” or “I’d like to see engagement with theorist X”.

1441441_10201765029381692_1186408317_n

I can’t think of a single example when taking a heavy handed, aggressive, or admonishing tone would be appropriate in a peer-review. It makes authors feel bad and it makes you look like an asshole. No one wins because, like lobsters in a bucket, tearing someone down doesn’t put your career any higher.

Don’t get me wrong. We have all had a frustratingly bad paper which suffered so many problems its impossible to start listing them. Now having said that, if you feel genuinely frustrated by how bad a paper is, take your officemates out for coffee and have a rant. Don’t put your malice in the review because best case scenario the authors will feel frustratingly misunderstood and offended, worst case scenario, they will feel horribly depressed, rejected, and might even give up. Either way, it really won’t be a constructive outcome.

Step 4: Be specific, be helpful.

A recent conversation with a colleague called to my attention the difference between high and low comments. High comments focus on things like theme, appropriate use of literature, methodological goodness-of-fit. Low comments concern things like grammar, spelling, maybe even structure. Most reviewer comments should focus on high comments with the understanding formatting and spelling will likely be handled by a copy editor.

Even still, high comments should be specific. If you take issue with the analysis, don’t write “analysis problematic”. Say why, say what it is missing, suggest alternatives. Likewise, don’t say “doesn’t engage with body of literature”, say which it doesn’t engage with.

If you suggest authors include a piece of work, make the effort to include a full citation. For example, if you were going to recommend they include my new book, Brown 2015 wouldn’t be specific enough to be useful. Even if the authors managed to work out you were suggesting my work, I have 4 publications in 2015. Which did you mean? When possible, give a link.

So in conclusion, be sure you are the right person to do the review, that you are in the right frame of mind, and approach the review with the goal of being helpful. If we all did this, the peer review process sure would be a lot nicer. To paraphrase a quote from the great Bob Ross, “I’d like to wish you happy peer-reviewing, and God bless my friend.”

Until next time, review in peace,

Ashley

Halloween is a Sexy Holiday

All I really want to say in this post is in the title, but I suppose that is too short and I suppose most of you will have clicked on this link as you settle into your desk with a steaming [witches’] brew by your side, so the least I can do is give you a little more to read during this spooooky Halloween week, eh? Also, given my previous two posts about the (un)erotic nature of vampires and the very erotic nature of werewolves, I feel a weird compulsion to round out the month. So… just humour me.

pumpkinlady
Candy-beggers can be truly terrifying. Photo sourced by evilbloggerlady and posted on BuzzFeed, where there is a whole list of terrifying old costumes.

I don’t think saying Halloween is a sexy holiday is necessarily a difficult argument to make because, unless you are pagan or participate in the Christian appropriation of pagan holidays, it is pretty obviously about dressing up and hooking up. Well, if you are a grown up, that is. I suppose if you have children and live in a country which participates in Trick-or-Treating, you’re probably somewhat forced into a rather unsexy ritual of candy-begging which has its own type of associated fun.

meangirls
“In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” Mean Girls, 2004

For those of us childless-adults, the holiday, whether we like it or not, becomes much more of a fertility ritual. Depending on social group or outing or gender, spooky costumes can be rare, replaced by much more revealing fare. In fact, the amount of skin on display prompted American journalist Dan Savage to compare Halloween to a straight pride festival.

Savage’s article (linked above) is convincing and well worth the read, but not immune from critique. The crux of his argument relies on our acceptance of the fact there should be a straight pride-  a very contentious idea indeed. However, I tip my hat to Savage in that he doesn’t attempt some well-intentioned-but-offensive, apologist, ‘we will only truly be equal when…’ statement, but rather appeals to the reader’s sense of pure hedonism. He writes:

You move through life thinking about sex, constantly but keenly aware that social convention requires you to act as if sex were the last thing on your mind. Exhausting, isn’t it? It makes you long for moments when you can let it all hang out, when you can violate the social taboos you honor most of the rest of time, when you can be the piece of meat you are and treat other people like the pieces of meat they are.

Whilst I won’t go as far as to start calling the 31st of October Heteroween, nor will I ever argue for a straight pride in any context because I believe straight people have many opportunities in daily life to seek out and express affection, I do think there is a nugget to be gleaned from Savage’s argument. Halloween functions like Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fasching, and any number of other holidays wherein people are encouraged to act mischievous, overindulge in food and drink, and flaunt their ‘pieces of meat’. It is an opportunity for socially-sanctioned dark play and it can feel as liberating as dancing half naked on a float at Pride… That is, if you find dancing half naked on a float at Pride to be liberating. 😉

255px-Slick_Chicks_Halloween_1947
Four contestants in the Halloween Slick Chick beauty contest in Anaheim, California, 1947. Halloween has been sexy (for women) for quite a while.

Actually, I take issue with the term ‘liberating’. Liberating implies some kind of long term, freeing effect which I don’t necessarily think can be gained from booty-shakin’ on top of papier mâché. Doesn’t mean it isn’t fun or pleasurable though. But aside from pointing out the hedonistic aspects of the holiday, the Dan Savage article also does a good job of pointing out its historical significance for the LGBT community. He writes:

Back in the bad old days—pre-Stonewall, pre-pride-parades, pre-presidential-gay-history- month-proclamations—Halloween was the gay holiday. It was the one night of the year when you could leave the house in leather or feathers without attracting the attentions of the police.

800px-Goth-p1020641
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

To this argument I want to add that Halloween is also the goth holiday. It is often called ‘goth Christmas’ because it is the one day a year where those who prefer black, leather, corsets, make up, and other chosen trappings of the subculture can also leave the house without attracting unwanted attention. So the idea that Halloween is both the gay holiday and the goth holiday makes sense. Both are subcultures which wear their sexuality on their sleeve- or rather incorporate sexual symbols into their dress for special occasions. Particularly for goths, the leather, zips, chains, and corsets evocative of bondage and fetish gear evoke both the sexy and spooky. And both are threatening to how sexuality should be expressed in daily life- which is usually not at all.

Hope you all have a wonderfully sexy Halloween. Until next time,

Ashley

The Erotic Nature of Werewolves (and Also Witches)

As a companion piece to my last post about the unerotic nature of vampires, and because I’ll take any excuse to write about spooky things in October, I decided to write about werewolves… but then I got distracted and wrote about witches also. Deal with it. On the topic of werewolves, however, I have to say that once again I think the World of Darkness got it right. Of all the creepy-crawlies and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, werewolves should be the most sexually active and perhaps by extension the sexiest.

330px-Bronsplåt_pressbleck_öland_vendeltid
Vendel era bronze plate found on Öland, Sweden. Public domain.

Although the mythos surrounding werewolves tends to vary by region, most European accounts centre on man-turned-beast narratives. The Norse Úlfhéðnar, pictured left, is (from my feeble understanding) a variation on the berserker. The central idea being that a warrior wears the pelt of an animal, in this case a wolf, and then channels that animal’s spirit into their body during the heat of battle. The ferocity of the wolf’s teeth and claws was meant to come out through the berserker’s shield and axe and they were meant to feel no pain until battle had ended. If the purpose of the pelt was to turn warrior into beast on the battlefield, who’s to say it wouldn’t turn them into animals in other, more domestic locations?

220px-Dogtownentry

Speaking of domestic locations, I recently learned of a more recent werewolf legend in Dogtown, Massachusetts. Now, when I say ‘learned’, what I actually mean is ‘saw-on-a-dodgy-Animal-Planet-reality-show’. The show features interviews with pet owners who think their house is haunted and that their pets can see the spirits doing the haunting. It is called The Haunted and no, I am not kidding.

My poor taste in television aside, this town has reportedly had werewolves lurking in its moors since the mid 1800s. After the War of 1812, the widows of soldiers and sailors who never returned bought dogs for protection and company. Due to a series of unfortunate events, farmers and assorted businesses moved away from the area. When the widows eventually died, the dogs were left to roam feral, giving way to sightings of werewolves in the nearby forests and assorted superstition.

dogsoldiers
Dogs… Soldiers… Dog Soldiers!

This information, admittedly coming from a 30 second clip on a show about pets who see dead people, didn’t seem to make sense to me. If dogs go feral, which seems plausible, why would they be mistaken for werewolves and not just wolves? Somewhere deep in my brain I remembered reading something about the Malleus Maleficarum. Weren’t the women accused of witchcraft in the 16-17th centuries usually accused of sleeping with beasts? And weren’t most of the women accused of witchcraft also widows? As it turns out, I remembered correct. In the article ‘Women and Witches: Patterns of Analysis‘ Clarke Garrett details how the paradoxical role of women as the least valued and most important member of a household gave way to witch trials.

J._Sprenger_and_H._Institutoris,_Malleus_maleficarum._Wellcome_L0000980
“J. Sprenger and H. Institutoris, Malleus maleficarum. Wellcome L0000980” by http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/9b/44/a3099ffc223cb9f244846af2909a.jpg

In the article, Garrett notes how the role of women has traditionally been ‘grubby’. Our domestic domain has traditionally dealt with birth (and all the weird fluids that come out of the process), death, illness and feces. In addition to the whole pregnancy thing, as primary caregivers, women have typically had the dirtiest jobs to do. And yet we are meant to be the (morally) cleanest. The reputation of a family, at least traditionally, rests on the behaviour of the women in the house. This tandems with the traditional economic dependence of women on men to leave widows, like those in historic Dogtown and Salem during the Witch Trials, in a precarious position. Widows, at least in the pre-modern United States, were required  to rely on the charity of outsiders. Before pensions, if the primary bread-winner died, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice. You begged or you starved.

Witches_going_to_their_Sabbath_(1878),_by_Luis_Ricardo_Falero
“Witches going to their Sabbath (1878), by Luis Ricardo Falero” by Luis Ricardo Falero – http://www.artrenewal.org. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

How do you refuse a poor widow charity if you are living in Puritan New England? Why, you call them a witch… or you accuse them of keeping werewolf ‘companions’ *wink wink, nudge nudge*. The Malleus Maleficarum, which you can easily find for free-or-almost-free download (but be aware of differences in translation), is full of references to women’s wicked and lustful nature. Women deny God and the Holy texts because we are, at the very core of our beings, lustful and doubtful. This leads us to consort with the devil, follow the Dark Lord’s teachings, tempt innocent men to lay with us, etc, etc. In the Witch Hammer’s light, the curious case of Dogtown seems a lot clearer, no?

Oh, and before I change topic, according to the Maleficarum’s Wiki page, men could also be witches, but it was rare. The most common form of male witch was a sorcerer-archer, which sounds more like a shitty D&D multi-class than something to burn someone at the stake over.

Hansel-and-gretel-rackham

Okay, back to my original point. If we were to have a hierarchy of the sexiest supernatural creatures, werewolves would be at the top of the list. Logically speaking, of course. Why would we need such a list? FOR SCIENCE! Clearly! Ahem, but logically speaking, the animalistic nature of werewolves would probably make them the most prone to outbursts of lust. Unless, of course, you buy into the argument presented by the Malleus Maleficarum and want to argue that women are by their nature prone to lust and devil worship. Even if we skirt around the ol’ witch hammer, folkloric representations of witches tend to focus on hermit-chic rather than the sexy side of forest-dwelling.

Stay tuned for my final Halloween post in a couple weeks’ time in which I’ll talk about why Halloween, in its modern form, is a sexy holiday.

Until next time,

Ashley

The (Un)Erotic Nature of Vampires

It is about that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are falling, and I have an insatiable urge to listen to ‘Fall Children’ off AFI’s All Hallows EP. I also have an urge to begin my annual re-play of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. It is tradition. And, given the law of the internet, because I mentioned it you probably want to go re-play it too. It’s okay. Go play. I’ll still be here when you forget you haven’t installed any of the fan-created patches and run into one of the game’s many glitches.

Burne-Jones-le-Vampire
The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

Anyway, as the title of this post suggests, we’re here to talk about how gross vampires are. I mean, take the banner image above. The silhouette of the titular character from F. W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) looks like Mr. Burns having a quiet evening at home. So how do we go from that image to the one on the left? How do we go from gross monstrosity to erotic companion? Well, this post wasn’t meant to be about how I apply my makeup in the morning, but hey oooo! Okay, I’ll stop with the jokes. This is a blog post. This is serious! (It really isn’t).

There is a temptation here to blame contemporary portrayals of vampires in the media. As tempting as it is to climb aboard the “I hate Twilight” bandwagon, there’s little merit in doing so. Vampires have been sexy for quite some time, but it is usually a dangerous or forbidden type of sexy. I think the main reason people take issue with the sexiness of Twilight, aside from the creepy-stalker love story, is the lack of danger. Edward Cullen is to vampires as Judd Nelson circa The Breakfast Club is to the bad boy archetype. It just doesn’t strike the same erotic chords as the truly forbidden.

1277px-VampireBat2010
I suppose we could add a third forbidden sexuality: zoophilia?

Vampires touch on two forbidden types of sexuality- and by forbidden I mean they have made guest appearances in the DSM from time-to-time. Let’s start with the obvious: necrophilia. Because their biological functions have ceased, any sexual interaction with a vampire is by default an act of necrophilia- right? Maybe you could argue that because they can consent, it doesn’t count… but, whatever. They lack a pulse. Which, coincidentally raises other questions about how sex with a vampire might function. How does their blood pump to the areas it needs to facilitate intercourse? And surely all their orifices are like dried shoe leather? In World of Darkness games they can spend blood points, which makes sense, but in other mythos…

330px-Carmilla
“Carmilla” by D. H. Friston, 1872, from The Dark Blue has some Sapphic connotations.

Okay, I won’t pursue that line of logic any further. Instead, let’s move onto the big one: homosexuality. Harry Benshoff (2004) notes how in cinema the homoeroticism of interviewed vampires Lestat and Louis are no accident, nor is the strained relationship between the Frog Brother’s macho heterosexuality and the queer-punk aesthetic of the titular Lost Boys. In both instances, the queerness of the on-screen vampires is seen as intrinsic to their nature. They are thirsty and, as contemporary slang use of the term helpfully points out, only blood (or any other bodily fluid) will satisfy them. The behaviour of vampires… prowling the night for victims, exchanging fluids, leaving some with an incurable and fatal disease… sounds like an all-too-familiar rhetoric from the Christian right which warns of the dangers of predatory homosexuals, no?

Lilith_(John_Collier_painting)
Lilith (1892), by John Collier. The mother of vampires also provides a near-perfect image of the fear of women’s unbridled sexuality.

The allegory of vampirism and homosexuality is taken to an almost literal level by Charlaine Harris in her Sookie Stackhouse novels (which were the inspiration for the HBO programme True Blood). As Lisa A King (2012) writes, the symbolism of vampires and other supernaturals announcing their true natures and then being shunned, attacked, even murdered is unfortunately not a terribly different narrative from many LGBTQ coming out stories. Hell, its not a terribly different narrative from many women I know who dare to have sex for purposes other than reproduction. Women’s sexuality is something which should be regulated and controlled by doctors, priests, husbands, fathers, and even brothers or all hell will break loose, right? I mean, surely this is why access to birth control is still a struggle in the USA, right? Ahem, *gets off soapbox and stores it away for winter*.

4085143757_114ba3d613
The beauty of death as told by nature.

So far I have prattled on mostly about how vampires are erotic, which isn’t actually what I had set out to do. In fact, it is the opposite, but seemingly in the process of trying to work out my argument I might’ve convinced myself. Vampires can be erotic, but only if we are willing to accept that death is beautiful.

Edvard_Munch_-_Vampire_(1895)_-_Google_Art_Project
Vampyren, “The Vampire”, by Edvard Munch

I think, and I think goth culture can attest to this, that some people find something about death to be romantic. Or perhaps it is that we want to find something beautiful in death to lessen the pain of loss. In fact, one of my favourite film quotes of all time comes from a vampire and makes this point beautifully. In the 1994 film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Brad Pitt’s character Louis de Pointe du Lac opens the film with a narrative about his loss of wife and child. In a cold, reflective and monotone voice he recounts his coping strategies of over indulgence and intoxication before coming to the conclusion that, “Most of all, I longed for death. I know that now. I invited it. A release from the pain of living.”

In the vampire mythos, the loss of life brings with it a loss of life’s inhibitions. This combines with eternal youth and an eternal hunger which makes for a potent and alluring cocktail for some of us who can see the beauty in loss. Even if it might actually be necrophilia.

Until next time,

Ashley