Sunday, March 31, 2019

Deconstructing a Scene: Through Black Spruce

Leaving Moosonee Behind
A new film based on Joseph Boyden’s novel Through Black Spruce is now in limited release across Canada. It follows the Bird family from Moosonee as they struggle with the disappearance of one daughter, an uncle's guilt and a drug feud. Near the start of the film, Annie (Tanaya Beatty) ventures south to Toronto. While it is supposed to be a vacation, Annie soon finds herself immersed in Toronto's Indigenous and drug cultures as she follows in her missing sister's footsteps. How does Annie leave Moosonee? By train of course.

Pretty much the entire railway sequence is shown in the trailer, but having seen the whole movie, it is clear that the train is there for a reason. As Annie's uncle Will (Brandon Oakes) watches the train leave, the camera looks out at the forest as the southbound Polar Bear Express leaves Moosonee behind. The only break in the trees is the right-of-way. This marks the train as the connection between the Indigenous and settler worlds. It is the transitional space. It also adds great realism to the production. Large portions of the movie are very clearly filmed in Moosonee and Toronto with wonderful touches and references that will only make sense to people who have lived in or researched these places. Apart from the railway, aircraft and vehicles also play central roles. In particular, Will's float plan also serves as a transitional space from the conflicts of life in Moosonee to the traditional peace of life on the land.

On the whole, I found the movie somewhat inconsistent and I think it carries a great burden on its shoulders. At times, it feels like the writers are trying to fit every possible contemporary Indigenous issue into the script. Yet this is also powerful because it shows how much of an overwhelming mess we find ourselves in. While brutal, the film is also a story of resilience as Annie nearly succumbs to the city, but ultimately finds herself again.

With powerful acting and a thoughtful portrayal of traditional Omushkego hunting and Cree dialogue (I don't speak Cree, so I can only assume that it's accurate), Through Black Spruce is definitely worth a look. I know it's not a railway movie, but the train is important nevertheless.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

An Indigenous Railway History of Canada?

One of CN's newest locomotives, complete with Indigenous logo.
Everyone knows about the building of the transcontinental railway in Canada. It helped to get British Columbia into Confederation and to keep the Americans out. It was a foundational event in Canadian history. We are told that, thousands of dead Chinese labourers and government corruption notwithstanding, it was a key event in uniting Canada. The more erudite might even know how vital the railway was in suppressing the Red River Rebellion* and thus fuelling the M├ętis struggle for recognition that continues today. But what happens to Canada’s railways when we try to bring railway history into conversation with Indigenous history?

The short answer is that we don’t know. In fact, historians know surprisingly little about Canada’s railway history. Every survey of Canadian history talks about the Canadian Pacific, but beyond that it’s normally taken for granted. Like most Canadians today, railways for historians are something in the background that don’t really matter anymore. To my knowledge, A.A. den Otter’s The Philosophy of Railways was the last monograph devoted to Canadian railways to be published, and that was in 1997. As a result, we are woefully ill-equipped to begin thinking about an Indigenous history of railways in Canada. As a result, these musings are a very hesitant first step.

For those of you with long memories, the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack came to your attention from the pages of Maclean’s magazine in February 1967 or perhaps from the naming of the Wenjack Treatre at Trent University in 1973. For those of you who are younger or have shorter memories, Chanie’s story comes to you through the late Gord Downie’s Secret Path project.

Chanie didn’t want to be at residential school in Kenora - he wanted to be at home with his family at Ogoki Post (Marten Falls, Treaty 9). Along with two other boys, he ran away and tried to use CN’s transcontinental main line as a path home. After a brief stop in Reddit (a place you’ve only heard of if you know railways) he set off on his own heading east along the track. He had a CN passenger map and was told to seek help from railway section crews along the way. Marten Falls lies well to the north of any railway line, so the tracks would never have led Chanie home, even if he had somehow managed to complete the 400 mile journey. In fact, he only managed to walk 12 miles from Reddit. It was late October and snow was already falling. After about 36 hours, Chanie died. The next morning, a locomotive engineer spotted Chanie’s body, as Ian Adams put it in Maclean’s, “just four-and-a-half feet from the trains that carry the white world by in warm and well-fed comfort." To most, the railway is what unites Canada. For Chanie, it was a futile path home. Anyone who has seen the animated version of Secret Path will know that the railway looms large in the story.

The Chanie Wenjack story is the most well-known case of a child running away from residential school, but it is not an isolated incident. We will probably never know the number of children who ran away - either temporarily or permanently. Chanie wasn't even the only one to use the railway. The Maclean's article about his death explained that Indigenous children ran away all the time, "Sometimes they lose a leg or an arm trying to climb aboard freight trains."

Northwestern Ontario's Indigenous connection to the railway is still a very live issue today. Ryan McMahon's Thunder Bay podcast is a harrowing listen as he tries to figure out just how messed up the city on Lake Superior really is. If you're Indigenous in Thunder Bay, life is difficult. If you live on the Fort William reserve, across the Kaministiquia River from the city, the railway makes your life a daily ordeal. The problem is the James Street bridge, a rather unique stucture with two decks: one carrying a CN spur line, the other carrying the road. In 2013, vandals set the bridge on fire. CN quickly repaired the damage to the rail deck, but six years on, the road deck remains closed.

The bridge was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific at the start of the twentieth century. When the bridge was built, the railway agreed that it would be accessible to rail, pedestrians and vehicles in perpetuity. When the Grand Trunk Pacific became part of Canadian National in 1918, CN became responsible for the bridge and the original agreement. While CN was quick to repair the rail portion of the bridge, it claims that the damage to the road deck goes beyond its maintenance commitment. So far, two levels of courts have disagreed with CN. CN appealed to the Supreme Court, but no decision has been made. While this legal fight drags on, residents on the reserve must drive an extra 10km to reach the next bridge into Thunder Bay. As McMahon notes in his podcast, this also means that ambulances are taking longer. In CN's defence, it has hired an engineering firm to prepare a plan to repair the bridge by 2020. Of course, CN's continued legal appeal suggests that it still hopes to get out of the repair bill.

This particular legal wrangle pits the city of Thunder Bay against one of Canada's most established companies. As is so often the case, Indigenous people are stuck in the middle. It is also happening at the same time that CN is boosting its Indigenous relations. By "Working alongside Aboriginal communities across the CN network, [CN] hope[s] to strengthen [its] ties, cultivate economic opportunities and set an example among [its] industry peers." This includes a new Indigenous logo on the railway's newest locomotives. While their commitment to Indigenous communities is to be praised, the protracted legal dispute in Thunder Bay seems to contradict this initiative.

What does an Indigenous history of Canadian railways look like? I'm not sure. My own work on the Ontario Northland Railway in Treaty 9 territory is only in its infancy and I am excited about where my research might lead me. I know one thing for sure, I will never think the same way about Canada's railway history again.

* Or fight for political, ethic and cultural recognition, depending on your perspective.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Exhilaration and Fear of Changing PhD Topics


This is Post One (and my feet). If you visit the Ontario Legislature in Queen’s Park and walk around to the east side of the building, you will find Post One and a commemorative plaque explaining its significance. Unveiled as part of centennial celebrations in 1967, it is the symbolic first survey post in Ontario and a very fitting place to begin this reflection on the decision to change PhD research topics. A symbolic first post would be special enough, but it is actually related to my historical interests as well.

Choosing to embark on doctoral study is a decision that should not be taken lightly. After all, it begins with the hurdle of actually being accepted into a program, but then comes years of hard work, little money and introspective malaise. Nevertheless, this was a decision I began making in 2016 and ultimately found myself beginning my PhD study in the history department at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2017. I had received my MA from U of T two years earlier, but my interests had changed and so had my proposed project. On paper and in spirit I was embarking on a study of American plastic toys from the 1960s. Everything was going well as I readjusted to academic life: I had an excellent supervisor, excellent seminars to attend and friendly colleagues to work with. As the year progressed, all seemed well, even if I couldn’t really pin down exactly what my project would be or what I would actually study (I mean, how do you study toys from 60 years ago? Material culture analysis, advertising, participant observation?). I completed my first year and buried myself in books to learn the canon of American history along with petroculture (after all, plastic toys come from oil). After two months of reading, things began to get very real and I realized that this was not going to work. Something had to give.

It wasn’t so much an abrupt shift as a lot of thoughts coming to a head at once. Could I see a project? No. Could I see an audience for it? No. Could I see a source base for it? No. Did I want to spend months at a time in the U.S.? No. Perhaps more than anything else, did it have meaning? No.

It is easy when surrounded by academics to assume that everyone has a whole arsenal of degrees on their resume, but that simply isn’t the case. Even in Canada, a country with an exceptionally high rate of post-secondary education, only 24% of working-age adults have completed a university degree. Less than 8% have a graduate degree. It really is a very small group. Statistics like this show the privilege of graduate study – the chance to study a topic you love on somebody else’s dime. When you put it like that, it becomes real very quickly and the quest for meaning becomes acute. It is a gift to study, and I wanted to make it count.

American toys just didn’t do it for me. But what did? Anyone who has looked at my previous writing would see that I have a lifelong fascination with railways, but that I have struggled to reconcile it with academic work. My MA looked at model trains, but I couldn’t see the project getting bigger (thus my shift to toys). However, railways had been slowly creeping into my work through an unlikely avenue: treaties.

As part of my coursework, I took Prof. Heidi Bohaker’s Canada By Treaty, which examined the history of treaty-making between Indigenous groups and the Canadian government. I took it because I thought that it was important for a Canadian to know about the Indigenous issues that continue to be important today. Quickly, I realized that Treaty 9, signed in 1905-06 with additions in 1929-30, covered much of the land I had studied for my book on Ontario Northland. Even more interesting, the railway’s development coincided perfectly with the treaty. Coincidence? I think not. This turned into a paper, which became a conference paper, which became an article draft. Stuck facing an American future I didn’t want, the choice was clear: I was working on railways and Treaty 9 when I should have been looking at toys. On paper, I was studying toys. In spirit, I was studying treaties and railways. Most importantly, this meant something. The implications of Treaty 9 continue to affect thousands of lives every day. Transportation in Northern Ontario is a pressing issue. Perhaps most urgent, the Ring of Fire mining development in the region echoes the situation that led to the signing of Treaty 9 over a century ago.

The process of deciding to change topics took many weeks, but the final decision took only a matter of hours. The hardest part was breaking the news to my supervisor who, as a good supervisor should, was compassionate, understanding and excited that I had found a motivation to sustain my study. Within an hour, (sort-of) ceremonial handover complete, I was studying Canadian and Indigenous history. Yes, it was a nerve-wracking experience, but the relief more than made up for the trepidation.

How will this story end? I don’t know, but I am academically driven in a way that I haven’t been for quite some time. Remember Post One? It’s a symbol of government dominion over the land. So is the railway and I intend to explore what that means. If this story has a moral, it’s that doctoral study is an incredible privilege. For me, this privilege comes with the obligation to produce meaningful work in the hopes of making Canada a better place. I don’t know if my work will do this, but I have to try.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Thinking About the Pope Lick Monster

On the whole, my television tastes are decidedly more low-brow than you might expect from a graduate student. Then again, by the end of a day of thinking, maybe junky TV is just what the doctor ordered. My biggest weakness is paranormal documentaries – bigfoot, UFOs, hauntings – I just love them. They are dramatic, often over-the-top and just plain fun. I’m pretty sure that many of these documentaries are simply fake. Their stories are simply too bizarre and improbable, but I just can’t stop watching them.

Recently, I was watching Monsters and Mysteries in America, a 3-season series that appeared on Destination America and is now all over the internet (especially on DailyMotion). Each episode is made up of three different stories of real-life encounters with monsters and unexplained phenomena in the United States. People retell their stories, while actors re-enact the events. Plenty of glowing red eyes, smoke machines and shadows make this very addictive viewing.

During the first season, one of the episodes depicted the Pope Lick Monster. This axe-wielding half-man, half-goat haunts the Norfolk Southern trestle bridge in Fisherville, Kentucky. Legend has is that this creature entices teenagers to climb up on the bridge, where they are sure to meet their death when faced with an oncoming train and nowhere to run. According to the show, the first stories of the monster appeared in the 1940s and 1950s and since then a number of teens have indeed died on the bridge, most recently in 2016. The origin of the monster is, unsurprisingly, shrouded in secrecy. Some say it escaped from a circus train crossing the trestle. Others say it is the result of bestiality. Some even say it’s Satan himself. It’s a local tradition for teenagers to climb the bridge in the hopes of encountering this creature.

If the show is to be believed, the brother of their featured witness was out with friends one night in 1988 and suddenly had the urge to climb up on the trestle and walk across it. Sure enough, when he was about half-way across, he encountered an oncoming train and was killed. Grieving the loss of her brother, the witness went to the bridge herself a few days later and became convinced that her brother had been enticed by the Pope Lick Monster. While filming for the show, she breaks down on camera as a train rumbles by overhead, apparently signifying the creature's return.

Let’s step away from the entertainment value for a moment and think about this story and how it was presented. The United States was founded by Protestants and its early folklore is full of satanic encounters. Associating this beast with satanic imagery is carrying on a long tradition of American narratives. The appearance of the creature in the 1940s and 1950s isn’t a coincidence. After all, this was when the modern teenager we know and love became a distinct part of American culture. Post-war suburban affluence increased the amount of leisure time and disposable income available to white middle-class Americans. For their teenage children, the relentless consumer culture and proliferation of automobiles encouraged greater autonomy. Media culture at the time was also important. That late 1950s saw a wave of interest in monsters as Universal’s classic monster movies were dusted off and shown at drive-ins and on syndicated late-night television. Throw in a good dose of Cold War paranoia and you have the perfect conditions for stories of a monster terrorizing the next generation of Americans.

But let’s say that the stories were older. Where might they have come from then? The Pope Lick Monster shares all the common characteristics of any parent’s cautionary story. How better to keep young children away from danger than to invent some sort of monstrous entity to scare them away? Who among us hasn’t been told Little Red Riding Hood or Sleeping Beauty in the hopes that we will grow up to be cautious and wary of strangers? Of course, for teenagers, such stories only heighten the appeal of dangerous locations. Throw in hormones and an appetite to impress their peers and you’re basically inviting them to get into trouble.

What are we to make of the idea that her brother suddenly had the urge to cross the bridge? Enter the teenage brain, one of the hottest topics in behavioural science. What scientists have come to realize is that, while society defines most teenagers as being fully-fledged adults somewhere between the ages of 18-21, they really aren’t and still make poor decisions. The current thinking is that the decision-making centres in the human brain do not reach what we would consider to be sober, mature, adult capabilities until around the age of 25. When a teenager is asked to explain a stupid decision and claims “I guess I wasn’t thinking,” they are probably telling the truth. The decision processes that keep us adults alive are still under construction. So, why did her brother go up on that bridge? It might have been because he was entranced by a goat-thing, but it’s more likely that the mixture of thrill-seeking teenager with an immature decision-making ability pushed him to try something dangerous and his luck ran out.

And what of her conviction that a monster is responsible for the loss of her brother? If we take the story presented in the documentary as her sincere belief, and these shows do not seem all that credible, then it strikes me as a case of our primal desire to understand what we cannot comprehend. When something happens that we cannot explain, we search for explanations that bring us some form of closure or comfort. For many, this is where religion comes in. Unable to process the loss of a loved one, attributing it to a local legend would help a distraught relative to answer that really difficult question: why?

Is there a Pope Lick Monster? Probably not. But it’s that “probably” that makes these shows so entertaining and keep viewers hooked.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Understanding Horror with Margee Kerr and Mathias Clasen

Margee Kerr, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015). Details here.

Mathias Clasen, Why Horror Seduces (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Details here.

Up until last year, the number of horror films that I had seen could have been counted on one hand. As part of my early research into toys for my doctoral work, I have become drawn to toys depicting horror motifs and wondering what the big deal is, and whether these toys were something children should really be playing with. With this in mind, I decided that I should probably figure out more about horror.

As with anything I want to figure out, I tend to approach it academically. Several years ago, just as I was finishing up my MA and trying to decide what to do, I came across a Psychology Today article profiling Margee Kerr's sociological work on fear and how she was now a consultant for haunts in Pennsylvania. I was immediately impressed by her decision to bring real-world relevance to academic work. Intrigued, I put her 2015 book on my reading list. I came across Mathias Clasen's work by accident while browsing through the publishers' stalls at the 2018 SCMS conference in Toronto. I had decided to attend some of the horror panels to try and figure out what the big deal was and I came across his book, entitled Why Horror Seduces. Well, that sounded like it would answer my question, so I bought it. (I was really good, it was the only book I bought).

Kerr is a sociologist by training and chose to write for a popular audience, allowing her a platform  outside of the academic sphere. Scream is a confessional work of sorts which tries to link common fears, her experiences with them, and the latest scientific theories surrounding them together in a very readable and accessible book. Through eight chapters, Kerr documents her own experiences with a variety of common fears: heights, the sensations of a roller coaster or other thrill ride, the dark, the occult (especially hauntings and ghosts), death, and violence. Her final chapter shows how her work has been put to good use through the scientifically-driven development of the Basement, a new attraction in the popular ScareHouse haunt outside Pittsburgh. As a consultant on the project, Kerr combined the latest scientific research with audience surveys to create a more immersive experience than the usual haunt offers. As Kerr explained, the team at ScareHouse "decided to try an experiment inspired by the interactive or 'immersive' theatrical productions that put the customer in the performance, where actors can touch you." (Kerr, 197) What Kerr is getting at here is why humans like scary things: evolution. Fear responses are ingrained in evolutionary and cultural conditioning. Things that can harm us, or worse kill us, provoke extremely powerful emotions. Thrill rides, haunted houses, and horror media are designed to provoke these emotions, but at the same time we remember that we are safe: the roller coaster has safety barriers even as we drop to our simulated death; the haunted house is full of actors who may frighten us, but will not actually harm us; the scary movie is just make-believe on a screen and we can leave or turn it off. These survival emotions are followed by the dopamine hit - we feel good and want more. Kerr and ScareHouse go further by pushing that reassurance out of the conscious mind. It involves a great deal of paperwork, pre-experience interviews and vetting of potential customers, but the Basement at ScareHouse is designed with the feeling of safety in conventional horror attractions pushed to the limits. Here, the scary actors don't seem like actors, they reach out, touch you, control you (sort of like breaking the fourth wall). The idea is to provoke actual fear, a more authentic feeling because, while you are in fact perfectly safe, your brain might not think so.

Kerr recounts her own experiences with fear and relates them to science, creating a very accessible way to understand what it going on. (Notes at the back of the book are provided for those who want to take their knowledge to the next level). Kerr's choices for experiences are interesting. She uses the Edge Walk at the CN Tower to explain the primal fear of heights and the limbic system taking over from executive processing. Through more globetrotting, she uses the Daiba Strange School in Japan to explain how culture also plays a part in determining our expectations from experiences. As she explains, "Japanese culture is traditionally more future oriented and values the investment of time and energy into telling a story," so a haunt based around a plot becomes more rewarding. (Kerr, 130) Further, a more collectively-minded culture would appreciate a scenario where visitors are invited into the narrative. While I would not recommend wandering the backstreets of Bogota to test your reflexes (which she does as well), it does make for a good read. Adding the human element to academic writing makes it much more accessible, and Scream does this admirably.

Clasen's Why Horror Seduces is an academic book through and through, but is just as readable as Kerr's work. Broken into three parts, Clasen, a Literature and Media professor at Aarhus University, breaks down the latest evolutionary theories surrounding our attraction to horror and debunks a great deal of prior scholarship by analyzing some of the most influential American horror works of the 20th century through an evolutionary lens. He chooses a mix of literary and cinematic classics ranging from Night of the Living Dead and Jaws to the Blair Witch Project and Rosemary's Baby to offer a refreshingly simple interpretation of what makes them scary and why we are drawn to them. He concludes by attempting to predict where horror media will go next, through virtual reality and more immersive haunts. This is where the two books really connect. In fact, Clasen is a consultant for a Danish haunt very similar to the one Kerr works with.

Clasen is highly critical of media studies' fixation on Freudian interpretations. As he explains, audiences "thrill at the sight of a limb chopped off by a chainsaw-wielding maniac." A classical media studies interpretation would see this fascination as a manifestation of "the infantile fear of castration" with all sorts of buried symbolism. (Clasen, 3) But, especially as Freud's pioneering theories are increasingly replaced with more empirically robust ones, isn't basing media interpretations on debunked theory like "building a house on sand"? (Clasen, 3) Clasen doesn't pull punches here: evolutionary biology offers much neater and compelling explanations. "Horror stories are particularly efficient in targeting evolved danger-management circuits when those stories reflect or respond to salient sociocultural anxieties." (Clasen, 4) Basically, humans are not normally keen on getting hurt or dying. We see the chainsaw guy as a potential risk (there are deranged people and there are chainsaws), therefore we should probably pay attention to the scene because it might offer clues for how we might avoid or survive a similar situation (however remote the chances).

Similarly, Clasen attacks media criticism's fixation with the "liberationist paradigm" - using scholarly means for activist and political ends. (Clasen, 16) He charges that "humanists have been busy ignoring biology or actively denying it any shaping role in human lives." (Clasen, 16) As an historian, I am a humanist, but I also recognize that biology offers much more sensible (although probably not as colourful or fun) explanations for why horror is so darn seductive. I enjoyed my time at the SCMS conference, but there were moments that echoed Clasen's contention that Freudian-based interpretations are "like a Rube Goldberg contraption with a receptacle for texts at one end and an interpretative spout at the other, churning out thrillingly arcane and counterintuitive explanations." (Clasen, 18) Why not give evolutionary biology a try? It might be easier. Put simply: "Humans are fearful creatures." (Clasen, 24) Things in horror scare us and we want to learn as much as we can about them lest we might one day find ourselves in a zombie apocalypse (OK, zombies do need some deconstruction, but pathogens and unpredictable human behaviour are things we might encounter).

After several chapters outlining the latest scientific thinking on fear and why we fixate on horror, Clasen gets into his case studies, which are excellent summaries of each work followed by an explanation of why an evolutionary biology lens makes more sense than the deep (and fun!) Freudian explanations. Consider his deconstruction of John Carpenter's Halloween:
"Myers became a horror icon not because he is a symbolic embodiment of sexual guilt or a castrating, phallus-wielding agent of conservatism, but because he is a supercharged representation of an ancient danger - a murderous conspecific outside rational reach, an individual perfectly capable of, and willing to, take lives using whatever implement is at hand." (Clasen, 133) 
Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the best. While the deep layers of textual interpretation make for robust academic writing, the average audience is unlikely to see what the scholar sees. If we instead interpret Myers as a homicidal maniac, then his appeal is more broad as it taps into a universal fear. Why Horror Seduces is full of equally amusing and damning discussions. Is the Blair Witch Project "a collection of signifiers bopping around in a textual funhouse," or just a group of teenagers doing normal, innocent, teenage things when something goes horribly wrong? (137)

Taken together, these two works provide highly accessible and entertaining explanations and explorations of how recent scientific research is helping to explains something that is far more primal and conscious than some media  scholars would have us believe. As I try to figure out what the big deal is with horror toys, I am drawn to the idea that it is all about tapping into something much more primal and basic: things that scare us deserve our attention, because the things that scare us can be detrimental to our evolutionary standing. It's not complicated, or that fun, but sometimes life isn't as hard as we might think.