Eavesdropping in Storytelling and Illustration

Herbert Clark, the psychologist, devoted some of his work to types of roles which we play when communicating. He suggested that there are a number of listener roles. First, there is the addressee…There are also side participants, i.e., those who are not addressed, but are socially/interactionally ratified to listen to what is being said. The speaker is also aware of their presence (there was no such person in our conversation).

Similarly, the speaker is aware of the presence of a bystander. They are openly present, within the earshot, so they can overhear what the participants say, but they are not part of the conversation. … This is when you are listened to by someone you are not aware of.

Eavesdroppers, linguist Dariusz Galasiński

When there’s a mystery to be solved in a story, especially in a children’s story, the character very often begins their journey after hearing a conversation they weren’t supposed to hear. The Golden Compass begins like this. Another example is The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee. For a picture book example see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.

There are many other eavesdropping scenes which open stories for children.

Why? Because children don’t start with the same information that adults have, and are protected from evil by those who love them. Also, don’t we all learn most of the things from overhearing and observation during childhood?

Since women are historically infantalised, there are many artworks which show a woman hiding in the corners, learning things she is not supposed to. Knowledge is power. These are subversive women.

1887-88 Danaë and the Brazen Tower (aka The Tower of Brass), by artist Edward Burne-Jones.
1887-88 Danaë and the Brazen Tower (aka The Tower of Brass), by artist Edward Burne-Jones.

Or perhaps she was simply gazing from inside at the outside world, because a woman’s place is traditionally in the home.

Paul Zelinsky for Rumpelstiltskin
Charles West Cope - Palpitation 1884
Charles West Cope – Palpitation 1884

The TV series Big Love about the three wives of one man offered many opportunities for eavesdropping scenes, as all three women were living in each others’ pockets. When a character is forced to eavesdrop in order to learn what’s going on, this suggests a degree of powerlessness.

In Big Love we never see Bill (the husband) eavesdropping. He doesn’t need to. However subversive the image of the eavesdropping woman, determined to find things out about the world despite the lack of information provided to her, the proliferation of such gendered scenes suggests, to the wrong audience members, that women are naturally sneaky, devious and manipulative.

The following image plays on fears of the upper classes about the people they employ to work in their homes.

In a position to know, Clarence Coles Phillips, 1921 eavesdropping
“In a position to know”, Clarence Coles Phillips, 1921.

The stairs and hallway are typically a good place in the storybook dream house from which to hear everything going on.

George Hughes Figurative Painting “Eavesdropping-On-Grownups” for the cover of Saturday Evening Post, 1955.

The image below is no doubt supposed to be cute, but there’s something incestuosly creepy about a little brother listening in on his big sister’s conversation with (by her body language) a boyfriend. That same creep factor is utilised in Six Feet Under to unambiguously creepy effect when Billy follows Brenda and Nate into Brenda’s bedroom and photographs them while they are asleep.

The-Little-Brother-1949-by-George-Hughes
“The Little Brother” 1949 by George Hughes

The following is an eavesdropping scene from a chocolate box.

“Listening at Doors” This is an illustration by Hugh Thomson for the play Quality Street by J.-M. Barrie. The-chocolate selection was named after the play.

Outside ninjas and actual spies, it’s more difficult to find examples of grown men eavesdropping in art. Men run the world. Men don’t need to be secretive about their need to know what’s going on.

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Creepiness In Art And Storytelling

Two Dancing Fools, Hendrick Hondius (I), after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1642 wild things

We know when something is creepy. But how to define it?

On The Nature of Creepiness is a study by McAndrew and Koehnke, who realised there had never been an empirical study on what humans find creepy. The results were ‘consistent with the hypothesis that being “creeped out” is an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty’.

Being ‘creeped out’ is sometimes associated with the physiological reaction of feeling ‘cold or chilly’, which makes me think of ghost lore. According to many folk beliefs, ghosts bring coldness with them. But the sensation of feeling chilly also happens when we feel socially excluded, so feeling that coldness is part of a more generalised defence mechanism.

THE CREEPIEST OCCUPATIONS

Four occupations were considered far creepier than others:

  • Clowns see this post for why, exactly, we probably find clowns creepy (it’s the smile and the mask)
  • Taxidermists because of their proximity to death, and their apparent fascination with it
  • Sex shop owners their apparent fascination and proximity to sex
  • Funeral directors because of their proximity to death, making them the embodiment of The Grim Reaper (Where there is death, there are funeral directors, after all.)

Many storytellers have been utilising the creepiness of these jobs in their narrative, sometimes subverting audience expectations by humanising people with creepy jobs, other times using them straight outta the box.

Pictured above
  • The clown from Stephen King’s IT (one of many creepy clowns across storytelling).
  • Angela from Six Feet Under, who has every creepiness factor except being male
  • Arthur from Six Feet Under, whose ambiguous sexual orientation becomes fodder for speculation in one episode in particular, resulting in Arthur being falsely accused of sending feces to the Fishers.
  • Barry from Dinner For Schmucks:

Barry who seems to lack an internal filter, and who spends his off hours building lovingly detailed dioramas featuring taxidermied rodents inadvertently turns the tables on the assembled guests.

Both Roach and Carell joined Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies for a discussion about the film, loosely adapted from the 1998 French comedy Le Diner de Cons. In that film, the idiot character creates elaborate designs out of matchsticks; Roach says he made a conscious decision to change Carell’s obsession to express who he is a bit more.

“There’s a little hint of something sad underneath, and the [stuffed] mice become a way for him to express this optimistic view of life,” he says. “And that’s what made it seem like a kind of creepy-funny thing at first, and then these layers unfold.”

Dinner for Schmucks, NPR

CREEPINESS IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Storytellers and illustrators of children’s books can make deliberate use of the creepiness factor to create a frisson of suspense or joyful terror in young readers.

Below is the artwork of an illustrator whose work I grew up with. The Grahame Johnstone sisters were very good at creating creepy villains.

Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone - Sleeping Beauty
Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone – Sleeping Beauty

They did this by making use of features which have since been listed in the creepiness study above. Which of the following can you see?

  • standing too close
  • greasy hair
  • peculiar smile
  • bulging eyes
  • long fingers
  • unkempt hair
  • very pale skin
  • bags under their eyes
  • dressed oddly
  • licked their lips frequently
  • dirty clothes
  • laughed at unpredictable times
  • made it near impossible for someone to leave without being rude
  • relentlessly steers conversation toward one topic

The greenness of her skin affords an extra level of creepiness which is available in fantasy but not seen in real life. We can deduce that if green-skinned people existed in real life, we could add that to the list of creepy.

The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998

CREEPINESS CHANGES OVER TIME

When you spend a lot of time looking at illustrations from the first and second Golden Ages of children’s literature, you realise that our idea of ‘creepiness’ must have changed.

As one example, let’s take a look at Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, written by Charlotte Zolotow pictures by Maurice Sendak, published in 1962. This is an especially interesting example as it won a Caldecott Honor Medal. This book was fully accepted by audiences at the time.

Now take a look at contemporary consumer reviews of this picture book on Goodreads. The first thing you notice is how many people find the large rabbit creepy.

He’s either imaginary, or been exposed to a radioactive carrot. Either way, I see this kid spending her adolescence in therapy.

CONSUMER REVIEW

Some readers find the rabbit less creepy once they code him as imaginary.

I wanted to like this story but it always felt a little squicky to me. Then I read the intelligent comments of my friend …. And, among other praises and analyses, she pointed out that Mr. Rabbit may be an imaginary friend.

Well that makes so much sense to me now that I actually do feel comfortable loving the story now!

CONSUMER REVIEW

Others had no trouble realising the rabbit is imaginary:

I do really like the aspect of the rabbit being bigger than the girl, making it clear that he is an imaginary helper.

CONSUMER REVIEW

The following reader made a great job of cataloguing exactly why she finds the large rabbit creepy:

 I found Mr. Rabbit verging on creepy. Walking on two legs, wearing no clothes, suggesting to the little girl that she buy her mother red underwear, leaning on the little girl presumptuously – violating her personal space – There’s another picture where Mr. Rabbit sits atop a fence and looks at the reader with an expression that seems to say, “Get me out of this picture book.” And in another, he lounges inappropriately on the forest floor, stretched out almost like a courtesan in a nineteenth century painting, his paw touching the little girl’s skirt. It doesn’t help that the contours of his body are those of a middle-aged man growing a beer belly.

CONSUMER REVIEW
  • Ambiguity: Is this a man or is it a rabbit?
  • (For some readers: Is this a real rabbit or is it imaginary?)
  • Standing too close
  • Touching
  • An age difference
  • He is male (therefore statistically more likely to be a sexual predator)

But what did 1960s audiences think of this book? Looking at other examples of 20th century children’s stories, elongated limbs of animal characters (ie. children with human heads) were common. I haven’t seen these proportions on animal characters in contemporary children’s books:

There was far less awareness of predatory adult behaviour in the 1960s. We know this. Changes in attitudes, sadly, track directly with men leaving primary teaching positions. By the end of the 1980s, the book buying public had started to think quite differently about stories in which grown men hang out with ‘little girls’. (The word ‘little girl’ is used to refer to the child character in Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present.)

Or perhaps something else is at play. Perhaps readers in the 1960s were less likely to ascribe any gender at all to a fantasy rabbit? If Mr Rabbit is in fact agender, that would remove one of the known creepiness factors. As a corollary, commentators will quite often say that Winnie-the-Pooh is agender.

I don’t entirely buy this. Children, for sure, absorb gender markers such as the word ‘Mr’ when decoding a text or a situation. This has been studied in educational settings, and even applies to so-called ‘universal he’. (Girls don’t think ‘he’ includes girls.)

INTERROGATING OUR OWN CREEPINESS RESPONSE

When we consider the creepiness of ‘standing too close’ I’m reminded of how British people mostly have a much smaller personal distance than Australians and New Zealanders. Yet this is a cultural difference, and we should code it as such.

When I think of people who ‘relentlessly steer conversation toward one topic’ I think of certain neurodiverse individuals, their disabilities around pragmatics and the joy they derive from deep and special interests. When it comes to hobbies, hobbies which involve collecting things are seen as creepy. (And more creepy still when the item collected is related to death or sex in some way. Collecting dolls is also widely considered creepy.) Neurodiverse people with special interests often collect items related to that special interest.

Watching something as a hobby is also considered creepy, including bird watching.

Should we really consider such hobbies creepy? Bird watching harms no one.

Roy Cropper was initially introduced as a potential creep. But he soon becomes a rounded character, known as a hard worker, and the audience learns to empathise. A modern audience would probably code Roy as autistic.

In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker encourages us all to trust our instincts when assessing potentially dangerous people. He’s not wrong about that, and I’ve recommended his book to many people.

“intuition is always right in at least two important ways;
It is always in response to something.
it always has your best interest at heart”
 

Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

“Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn’t so.”

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

At the same time, our assessment of ‘creepy’ has been shaped by our exposure to narrative (cultural and in fiction), and also by our own prejudices and lack of awareness of different cultures and neurodiversity.

Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining why young people are more likely to be creeped out than older people, who have seen a broader range of individuals, and are therefore more likely to sense the main factor behind creepiness: ‘ambiguity’.

CREEPINESS AND ASYMMETRY

When artwork is nowhere near symmetrical and we don’t expect symmetry, that’s not creepy. Perfect symmetry is also not creepy. But once the artwork approaches symmetry then messes with it a little, now the viewer is plunged into an uncanny valley of symmetry: We espect symmetry, but don’t get it.

The illustration below by David Hockney is the perfect example of creepy asymmetry.

David Hockney (British, b.1937) Park of Sources, Vichy, 1970

CREEPINESS AND CAMERA ANGLE

In static imagery, a low angle shot can add to the creepiness, as demonstrated by the following cover illustration, aided by its off-kilter perspective.

DISCUSS

Does the following creep you out and if not, why the hell not? What happened to you?

Also: What makes it creepy? Be specific.

Walter Early illustration for a 1945 Borden Dairy Company advertisement
Walter Early illustration for a 1945 Borden Dairy Company advertisement by Keith Ward (1906-2000)

Ward created a long series of ads featuring Elsie the Cow and her family. Elsie was seen in advertising campaigns for over 30 years, but she was never able to make the transition to television. (I wonder why.)

She was created in 1936, when the dairy industry saw highly-publicised price wars between farmers and dairy processors that caused larger dairies to be portrayed unfavorably. (Walter Early drew the first Elsie the Cow cartoon, which makes his name aptronymic.) The company first started advertising in medical journals, which featured a variety of cartoon cows with several different names, including Mrs. Blossom, Bessie, Clara and Elsie. A typical ad showed a cow and calf talking in a milk barn.

Except for the rare promotional appearance, she was retired in the late 1960s. However, Borden’s kept her image on their products. Over the following years she went through a few changes, arguably becoming creepier and creepier. This cow could already talk, but she was subsequently given the ability to stand upright. Eventually she became a creepy admixture of cow and housewife.

Header illustration: “Two Dancing Fools” by Hendrick Hondius (I), after Pieter Bruegel (I), 1642. The image reminds me of illustrations of the Wild Things by Maurice Sendak. Sure, they’re fools and they’re only dancing, but they are also very creepy.

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Women and Shoplifting in Fiction

1960s Christmas shopping

Watch enough TV and you’ll likely draw the conclusion that women, especially housewives with significant personal problems commonly relieve psychological pain by shoplifting. It’s rare to find men shoplifting for the buzz. Also in fiction, teenage girls shoplift as a hazing ritual, and to own prized items (mostly body adornment items) they couldn’t otherwise afford.

How does this compare to real life stats on shoplifters? Shoplifting is not gendered in the way of fictional tropes. There’s a strong link between shoplifting, anxiety and addiction. When it comes to kleptomania, two thirds are women. For a similar buzz, men are more likely to turn to gambling than shoplifting. Both gambling and shoplifting are impulse control disorders.

The Pact is an interesting example of a story in which a female character has a shoplifting disorder while a male character has a gambling disorder. In this case, the shoplifting is akin to a hoarding problem.

The Pact poster

Nor is shoplifting a crime of young people. However, most adults who shoplift probably started in their teens.

gilmore girls humour
from Gilmore girls

Shopping itself is a heavily gendered activity. Men spend just as much money as women do in shops, but because the job of shopping (groceries, clothing etc.) is the job of the person running the household, it is mostly women we associate with shopping. Men are doing less shopping work, but when they do shop, they buy big, expensive items (computers, cars etc.)

Real life examples of shopping and shoplifting aside, I’ll take a closer look at how women shoplifting is used in popular storytelling to advance the plot, or to convey something to the audience about character. In all three examples below, the women and girls are shoplifting body adornment items. Shoplifting scenes in which characters steal necessary items in order to survive are a different thing entirely. That kind of shoplifting exists at a different spot on the morality spectrum.

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) genuine reductions
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). Would this cartoon work if the characters were masculo-coded?

CASE STUDY ONE: MARIE IN BREAKING BAD

In the clip below, we learn that Hank’s wife Marie is a shoplifter. She impulse steals a pair of sparkly purple shoes. (Marie is strongly associated with the colour purple throughout the show.)

Later, Marie will shoplift a princess crown for Skyler’s new baby, and also a spoon from an open home. Marie is very clearly trying out a new identity.

One problem experienced by the writers of Breaking Bad: An astonishingly small cast of characters. Take almost any other series running the same number of seasons and you’ll find the writers have many more characters whose arcs they can explore. I feel that Marie’s strange shoplifting arc was a strange and unnecessary addition, when the writers already faced a woman problem.

That said, Marie’s shoplifting subplot does mirror the ‘other self’ of Walter White. Both Walt and Marie are objectively good at being a spouse. They both feel confined by the house (or their spouse). Hank is a cranky husband who requires Marie to walk on egg-shells around him. This slightly menacing aspect of Hank is emphasised during Marie’s shoplifting scene, in which Marie calls Hank as Hank barks instructions at some men he and his partner have just arrested.

Marie’s anxiety about Walt Junior’s smoking of pot comes across as busy-body interference, and juxtaposes against Hank’s drug bust for its snigger-inducing inconsequence. “What, you want me to tell him about marijuana overdoses?” Hank says dismissively before pacifying his wife.

It is fitting that Marie shoplifts impractical but beautiful high heels, leaving behind her flat, sensible work shoes. The adornments of women are commonly positioned as frivolous (at best) and actively deceptive (at worst).

CASE STUDY TWO: RUTH IN SIX FEET UNDER

In “The Eye Inside” episode of Six Feet Under (Season Three, 2013) Ruth Fisher meets Bettina, who is helping Ruth’s hippie sister Sarah to detox from a Vicodin addiction. Suddenly free from the strictures of ladyfriend and mother, Ruth is now in a world entirely different from her usual one. She even tells Bettina she has never been brave enough to sit in a hammock before.

While the sister remains tied up in bed to scream and detox in “peace” (a moment of dark humour), Bettina accompanies Ruth shopping and tries to persuade Ruth to update her wardrobe. Ruth is initially shocked to witness Bettina yank the price off a branded scarf and tuck it discreetly into her handbag.

Bettina explains to Ruth that the wonderful advantage of turning into a middle aged (white) woman is that you are now completely invisible, including invisible to law enforcement. This follows on from the juxtaposition of Sarah explaining in pathetically unfeminist terms that she got hooked on Vicodin because of the tragedy of losing her youth and beauty. Bettina has decided to embrace the advantages of invisibility.

Initially shocked, by the end of the shopping expedition, Bettina has successfully persuaded Ruth to join her in crime. Together, Bettina and Ruth steal Ruth a red lipstick.

From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956
From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956

The lipstick is called ‘Flirtation’ and, very similar to the purple, sparkly shoes stolen by Marie in Breaking Bad, is a symbol of youthful feminine sexuality. These middle aged women are symbolically ‘stealing’ back some of their youthful vibrance. They steal because they are invisible, but they steal the very items which, we deduce, aim to make them visible again.

In Six Feet Under, the death at the beginning of each episode will link to the character growth in one or more of the Fishers (and their extended families). In “The Eye Inside”, Ruth’s shoplifting arc opens with the death of Callie Renee Morimer, who flees a group of jeering young men calling to her as she walks alone in the dark. The young men turn out to be a group of joking friends, but Callie is struck down by a speeding vehicle. In their eulogy, the young men reveal they have never considered before that a friend, so brave in other ways, could also be so scared of men in the dark. This 2003 episode preceded the #metoo movement. This would have been a revelation to much of the audience, conveying a feminist message akin to Bettina’s.

The dead girl of this episode was unpleasantly invisible in the darkness, and also completely invisible; her invisibility led directly to her death. As Bettina successfully convinces Ruth, invisibility is useful, but also a kind of death.

Meanwhile, in a thematically mirrored plot involving David and Keith, David worries about seeming too visibly gay in front of straight couples. 

In American TV drama Friday Night Lights, bad girl Tyra Collette takes coach’s good girl daughter Julie out shopping. Tyra’s ‘bad influence’ is signalled to the audience when Tyra tells Julie she’ll look great in this lipstick, then stuffs it down the front of her jeans before leaving the store. Julie is horrified but powerless to stop her. The lipstick is not just a lipstick. It’s a symbol of adult sexuality.

CASE STUDY THREE: THIRTEEN

In the film Thirteen (2003),Tracy Freeland becomes first a thief, then a shoplifter. This is a classic shoplifting scene involving young teenage girls. There is a hazing aspect to it. Tracy is literally buying popular and beautiful new friends, impressing them with her daring.

As in the two examples above, Tracy, Evie Zamora and Evie’s other friends are most interested in shoplifting items which will adorn their bodies and transform them into the sexy older women they aspire to be.

Teenage girls stealing clothes and fashion items in TV shows is standard fare. I’m sure this is partly why I was followed around stores as a teenage girl myself. Back in the 90s, shop assistants regularly barged in on you while you were trying on clothes in cubicles. (The Glassons at Riccarton Mall in Christchurch was terrible for that.) At least that particular awful rite of passage seems to have come to an end.

The character of Hanna in Pretty Little Liars is presented as a cool, calm, confident trickster when she shoplifts this pair of sunglasses, accomplished partly by charming a boy with less beauty privilege at the sunglasses counter.
This scene from Stranger Things is not dissimilar. Eleven literally has supernatural powers on her side. (Hanna has beauty and white privilege.)
Buffy and Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Want, take have”, says Faith, a line very similar to one in a children’s picture book: Wolf Comes To Town. This scene overturns the cliche of girls stealing clothes and makeup, but is a Riot Girl form of feminism in which girls just take what they want, macho style.
This might as well be a contemporary update of Eve daring Adam to steal the apple.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

This theatrical poster for the Chinese release of the 2018 Japanese film Shoplifters is divine.

Shoplifters Chinese film poster by Huang Hai
Shoplifters Chinese film poster by Huang Hai
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The Snail Under The Leaf Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
Beatrix Potter 'A Snail and its Young' 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Beatrix Potter ‘A Snail and its Young’ 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

 Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 - 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs
Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish, 1856 – 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.

The best visual representation of this concept is by Australian picture book creator Shaun Tan:

Shaun Tan

But in this post I feel a little bad about dismissing snails, so I include art in which the beauty of snails comes to the fore:

I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
Polish illustrator  Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019) snail
Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019)

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.

Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.

Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)

Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.

This is a scene from a completely different story — Hell or High Water. The horror comedy cartoon series utilises a scene highly recognisable from other types of story.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.

Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of young adult books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.

The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

Get Out, a 2017 film. A young African-American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.

The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.
The film Get Out is an archetypal snail under the leaf setting. its horror is only visible to those who are not white.

Anyway, if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

INVERSIONS OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

SUBURGATORY

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

GILMORE GIRLS

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

SCHITTS CREEK

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.

Anton Seder - The plant in art and commercial - Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
Anton Seder – The plant in art and commercial – Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf

Everyone knows that magic and trouble go hand in hand…

A dangerous spell cast over an unsuspecting village.
An enchanted painting locked in a hidden room.
A desperate race against time to break the spell before it’s too late…

It should have been a fresh start for the Widdershins. Finally free from the misty gloom of Crowstone and beginning a new life. But all is not as it seems in their postcard-pretty village. Their neighbours are acting strangely, and why do they flinch at the mere mention of magic?

The Widdershins sisters have their own secret: a set of enchanted nesting dolls with the power to render their user invisible. The sisters must use their wits – and their magic – if they’re to break the dark hold over the village, and save one of their own . . . but have they met their match this time?

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

RELATED TO SNAILS

If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister). 

How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting, NYT
Lemon girl young adult novella

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