I really like it when things go according to how I expect them to go. It gives me a sense of fulfillment and serenity knowing that I have my understanding of the world in order. You wouldn’t want to go to a film where all of a sudden you’re expected to rapidly press A on a controller that just popped out of your seat just so the character on screen can open a door? Or imagine a videogame where instead of interacting with your character you’re constantly watching cutscenes (looking at you Metal Gear…).
I may have been studying that kind of stuff for five years now, I should be able to understand that this is not how this particular medium works, right? It disrupts the experience.
Why bring this up? A while back a web comic surfaced on the internet. Officially named the Bong-Cheon Dong Ghost Comic but dubbed ‘the Creepy Korean Comic’ this thing spread like the plague and caused general bed-wetting and pants-shitting around the world. For those unfamiliar with the comic, you can read it here.
Take note: Not for the faint hearted or those people who listen to music very, very loud.
You have been warned.
Still with me? No heart attacks? Good.
What starts out as just another web comic quickly takes a turn for the worse. Who knew some sounds and an – admittedly – jaggingly moving image can cause such a jump scare. Not to mention two!
What makes this web comic so scary?
In this little blog I will try and explain this through communication scholar Roger Odin’s theory about Spaces of Communication.
Give me some room to explain
Spaces of Communications are descriptions of communication situations. This theory aims to explain the experience of communication and especially how each medium comes with expectations that the viewer/reader/player must meet in order for communication to take place properly. Odin describes these spaces as “a space within which the combination of constraints leads actants (transmitter and receiver) to share the same experience” (2012, 155). What this means is that each medium has specific characteristics (constraints) that ultimately tell what the viewer should expect. He calls these constraining characteristics determinations. When the media producer and audience both function within the same communication space, the message the producer tried to convey will most likely be received properly.
Each medium has different Institutions (Odin 1995a, 232). This means that each medium can have different sets of determinations. Think for instance of the fiction film versus the documentary film (Odin 1995b, 228). Both are film but they come with different expectations. Odin provides five characteristics to distinguish institutions by:
- Medium Specificity
- Production of Meaning
- Director Image
- Spectator Model
- Imagined Affect
Knowing what the space of communication is of comics can show what expectations we have when we read the web comic. Pinpointing what is different can explain what the hell is wrong with those expectations in the creepy Korean comic.
This criterion means the medium specific elements that are present in all the institutions of a medium. Films always have moving images, hence the term ‘movies,’ and you can also be fairly sure that most of what you see was once in front of a camera. In comics this relates to the general buildup of a comic book. It’s made of paper usually, with panels containing images and text balloons. These paper panels are also static and silent. As far as I know there are no comic books like those sound birthday cards that play some music.
The production of meaning are institution specific. They are the particular determinations that limit or constrain more general expectations. Only silent films for instance are nowadays allowed to not have sound. In comics, the kind of comic can have different amounts of text. Graphic novels for instance have more text than a superhero comic. The type of panel use can also differ, with some comic institutions having more panels overflowing for different effects. But most importantly, the art-style can differ: a manga will have different expectations of the narrative than the latest Alan Moore.
Expectations of what a director can change and how special a director is can also influence expectations. In comics there are some very famous writers with a clear expectable style, like Alan Moore. But more often than not the writer and illustrator are conflated into one person. Who knows who drew Asterix? René Goscinny or Albert Uderzo? (Answer is at the bottom). Generally though, the directors are equated to writers; someone with a plan to tell a story.
Every institution has an ideal audience. Animation films for instance often focus more on children, but not necessarily. In marketing terms this often means a target demographic, but you can also understand it as a set of expectations of what an audience will do. In comics then a reader will flip through pages, read the text and look at the panels. Whether they are gross neckbeards like the stereotype argues is something I won’t go into for the sake of my own integrity.
Each medium has its own strengths and emotions it wants to evoke. Institutions can differ in this. Fiction films might let you escape into a whole new world while documentary films want to teach you something. In comics the expected affect is the experience of a story by an imaginary linking of the panels. You know to read from left to right and top to bottom. Some kind of panel use can influence how you must interpret the scene, but overall it is the reader who creates the story and relation.
Nice and all.
So this is how we expect comics to work. Then how does the scary Korean comic betray our trust in the most horrible way?
Scrolling, Sadistic Bastards and Scares
The creepy Korean comic mostly feels like a normal web comic. Several pictures in sequence make up a story, linked together by some text. The institution described above seems to be intact. This is however exactly what puts you as a reader in a state of calm. Just cruising through some comic, nothing really wrong here.
The comic takes a hike with the imagined affect. Instead of the reader having to connect the images at their leisure, the comic does it for you. In a way, because usually you connect the images with your mind, the moving image is transposed in your head as well; as if your mind has been taken over. In other words: as if the image is really moving, as if that head is really turning and that creep is really coming at you.
Because of all this, it betrays the expectations associated with the medium. Static images should not suddenly move and there should in no account be sound. A closer look however shows the medium specificity is intact. After you’ve crapped your pants and finished the comic you can scroll up. You will then see that the movement are actually a set of different images that are shown in rapid succession because the page scrolled down faster when you reached a certain point. Now that’s just mean. What this comic then does is take the medium specificity of the comic, with all the expectations we have, and changes the institution to the web comic. The production of meaning of the web comic is different, for you have to scroll instead of read panels. This scrolling can be subjected to a lot of filthy tactics – like one to create movement. In other words: it played us, the dicks.
This realization also changes the director image. After your first out-of-body-scare there’s a growing mistrust. The writer is a sadistic bastard who is willing to betray us in order for some scares. But was this first instance the only trick he’ll pull? This changing idea of the writer lets you scroll through the comic, fearing another scare might appear. And by god, did it? Yes it did. The bastard.
So through a series of betrayals of trust, different institutions and unexpected expectations, this comic manages to scare us shitless. So take note: media transposed to another platform can yield terrifying results. Was this useful? I don’t know. Go test it. There’s a part two:
Odin, Roger. “A Semio-Pragmatic Approach to the Documentary Film”. In The film spectator: from Sign to Mind. Edited by Warren Buckland. 227-235. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995a.
— “For a Semio-Pragmatics of Film”. In The film spectator: from sign to mind. Edited by Warren Buckland. 213-226. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995b.
— “Spectator, Film and the Mobile Phone”. In Audiences: Defining and Researching Screen Entertainment Reception. Edited by Ian Christie. 155-169. Amsterdam University Press, 2012.