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Restless Figures: Animated Horror Stories as Hypertext

By Bonnie Cross

Introduction

Comics can provide unique insights into how others perceive and interact with the world that prose alone cannot. However, this insight is complicated by the ongoing debate regarding what even is considered a comic. Scholars still struggle to create an adequate definition for comics, and the debate about what is considered a comic becomes even more complicated with the inclusion of digital comics. Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics that comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (21). In Reinventing Comics his argument expands to also include digital comics (205). As McCloud discusses potential concerns regarding the process of “making comics come alive” through simple additions of sound or animation, he ultimately argues that the very concept of making art come alive is in story building, so definitions of comics may need to grow as technology provides new means of producing comics (209-210). 

Despite the popularity of McCloud’s work, many scholars have commented on the limitations of his definitions. Kai Mikkonen in The Narratology of Comic Art points out a concern regarding the phrase sequential as the term becomes more complicated if there are several images within a single panel (12). With the inclusion of animation through digital comics, a sequence may play out within a single panel. In their introduction to The Art of Comics, Aaron Meskin and Roy Cook argue that McCloud’s definition “is productive of more counter-examples than confirmatory instances,” so while it is still valuable to use McCloud’s definition, they claim that comic scholars must accept that the definition of comics “has expanded to the point of being a veritable synecdoche for graphic design” (25).  With the affordances provided by a digital medium, digital comics can experiment with a variety of new elements such as animation, panel construction, and hyperlinks.  

In response to the possibilities of digital media, Jen Aggleton in “Defining Digital Comics” created a working definition of digital comics to start the digital archival process based on visual, functional, and sociocultural features. Aggleton emphasized the importance of flexibility of this definition to ensure that a wide variety of comics were included in the collection. For example, if a print comic was also available as a digital comic, but the digital comic version offered “new expression” of the printed version, it should be considered a digital comic (Aggleton 397).  While McCloud in Understanding Comics would not classify a single panel image as a comic, Aggleton argues that through the process of digitization, the definition of comics must be kept broad because as digital comic authors may use single panels or multiple panels for their comics (Aggleton 398). Her final definition of digital comics are works published in a digital format that includes at least one single panel image or a series of connected panels that are organized enough to have a reading pathway (Aggleton 404). She does not count works that are just moving images or audio and instead argues that comics must have at least some of the following factors: “visible frames, iconic symbols such as word balloons, [or] handwritten style lettering which may use its visual form to communicate additional meaning” (Aggleton 404). Aggleton also argues that how the work’s self-identified medium is also important for classification, such as if the work self-identifies as a comic or picture book (405).  

Using Aggleton’s definition, this paper focuses on Behind You by Brain Coldrick and the digital comic “The Ghost in Masung Tunnel” as examples of digital comics that focus on the reader’s active engagement with the material. As the reader seeks closure to the perceived threat of these horror comics, the lack of closure forces the reader to participate in the narrative structure through gap filling and scrolling. By viewing these digital comics through the lens of hypertext, this combination of media and reader interaction create a level of play since the reader must fill in the gaps between the images and text. Hypertext’s fragmentary nature forces the reader of these comics to create their own sense of an ending as the very structure prevents satisfaction through its continuous cycle or through its abrupt and unclear ending. Hypertext is especially amenable towards horror narrative as it can utilize its fragmented nature to engage reader interaction with the text. While some printed versions of digital comics exist, such as the printed version of Behind You, the elements that are limited to online modality will be lost and the experience of reading them will be changed. 

While attention to materiality will vary with traditional prose, Aaron Kashtan in Between Pen and Pixel argues that “in comics, attention to materiality is the default position. Comics call the reader’s attention to their visual and physical structure almost automatically” (14). While a reader will almost always be aware of the materiality of physically holding a book, digital comics do require some interaction as well such as clicking or holding the cursor to progress, so there is some physicality in reading these works (Kashtan 42). However, the process of reading digitally may be different from reading a printed text. Katalin Orbán connects the practice of hyperreading (generally defined as skimming the text rather than reading each word) of digital text to reading digital comics. She points out that the reader must view the narrative and page layout of the comic, but “the components’ narrative, temporal, spatial, verbal, and visual connections almost never coincide in a single mandatory path and rather compete as alternatives” (170).  She argues that the multitasking nature of reading comics is fairly akin to how many read digital text, for better or for worse, and that graphic works like comics should do very well in a digital modality as the reader is accustomed to looking over different aspects of the page at once (Orbán 170). There are affordances provided in digital readings of comics that allow authors to experiment with animation, appearance of texts or images, and the amount of user control in the presentation of media that are not possible in printed text (Kashtan 92).

User interaction is also seen in the ending of these digital comics because the structure of these works prevents narrative closure, leaving the reader with a sense of anxiety as they determine their own endings. Isabel Pinedo states in Recreational Horror that “the classical horror film constructs a secure universe characterized by narrative closure” where the monster is destroyed and everything returns to normal (Pinedo 29). However, she focuses her research on the postmodern genre of horror movies and points out that some films within this genre fight a sense of closure by ending with a successful monster or leaving the final fate of the characters unclear (Pinedo 31). Pinedo states that viewers are given no relief from their anxieties through these open endings where “danger and disruption” are left unresolved (Pinedo 32). Horror comics are also based on anxieties. Terrence Wandtike claims “twentieth -and twenty-first-century comics horror represents the widespread anxieties of common people in ways that are excessive, sometimes gratuitous, and often resistant to the authorities of the powers-that-be” (251). Applying Pindeo’s argument to Brian Coldrick’s single panel GIF comics Behind You and the scrolling comic “The Ghost in Masung Tunnel,” reveals that the threat for both comics remains due to the open endings. Through the repetitive nature of the GIF, the audience is constantly reminded that the monster’s attacks will never abate. Though “Ghost” ends, the interruption of the narrator and the lack of resolution in the comic’s final panels also leave the ending up for interpretation. It is only the audience filling in the gaps that any ending can be imagined, but there will never be any validation of these conclusions, which suggests that the danger only continues to produce anxiety. 

Behind You and “Ghost”

Coldrick is an illustrator based out of London whose Behind You: One Shot Horror Stories (2017) focuses on single comic panel images with no more than three lines either below the image or on the opposing page. In the print version of Behind You, the series of images and phrases have a fixed order, but no clear structure of connection exists between them. Coldrick focuses on eerie creatures interacting with everyday life with only a few fragments of text to provide some context.1

What makes Coldrick’s work unique is his addition of animation in his comics. Coldrick’s blog version of Behind You showcases the affordance of animation with digital comics. The printed version shows the monsters in full view, sneaking up or attacking his characters, but in the online version, these creatures slither towards their prey, candles flicker, and ghosts materialize in and out of sight. The visuals and text combine to create a unique experience with the additional component of movement, which still images cannot provide. Coldrick’s GIFs provide a few seconds of story alongside limited lines or fragments, so it falls to the reader to take on the role of authorship. Each of Coldrick’s works has some element of open-endedness as the reader must combine the GIF’s action with the text to determine the story. 

In an experimental study, psychologists Cynthia King and Nora Hourani found that most horror fans prefer to have more traditional closed endings rather than a teaser or open-ended conclusion. While horror fans seek some release from the anxiety of the monsters presented on screen, the anxiety remains; as Jeffrey Cohen states in Monster Theory: “No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift” (5). Horror is always associated with collected anxieties, and while resolutions may provide brief moments of calm and the illusion of control, the threats representing anxieties appear again and again in various other works. With these digital comics, the only resolution comes from the mind of the audience making the reading of these works an active process.

Unlike jump scares, which are intended to be sudden but obvious, horror comics such as Coldrick’s work can use animated panels or illustrations that are often subtle. Coldrick’s animated comics turn traditional horror structure on its head as the reader is provided with the upcoming jump scare, or the jump scare itself, without any context. Bryan Bishop describes the jump scare as a multi-step process beginning with the presentation of an apparent danger, a calm moment when the danger is explained away, followed by the sudden scare once the audience has relaxed. Starting with Tourneur’s Cat People in 1942, this technique is widely recognized and is often so cliché that audiences are able to predict them (Bishop). While the famous jump scare uses sudden sounds and images to frighten audiences, this is not the only technique that authors and artists use to reach out to their fright-loving audiences. In Coldrick’s comics, the nature of the GIF forces the reader to wait to see the entire loop and they have no other context besides the fragmented text below the GIF. As Joe Hill states in the introduction to Behind You, “the comics are alive” due to the use of animation. The GIFs provide elements of play that will be lost in a printed form. As Hill points out, “you can absorb all the horror of a Brian Coldrick illustration in a single glance, but you can live with any of his pictures for much longer, building out the implied story in your mind” (Behind You).  Christopher Rowe argues in his comparison of comics to films that while the frame of the comic itself is static, movement and action are implied within the comic panels themselves (356). The animation of Coldrick’s single panels are slightly closer to film as they can provide a sense of time and movement compared to static single panel comics (Rowe 357). The act of animating these images creates the space for the reader to interact with comics in ways that printed versions do not. 

The online web comic, “Ghost in Masung Tunnel,” uses the process of scrolling to engage the reader through its digital format. Some of these panels are purposely spaced further apart to draw out a moment, which increases a sense of anxiety as the reader is forced to slowly move down the page. The spacing of the panels and the purposeful shifts in the position of the text force the reader to speed up while scrolling and search for the next line of text, a more active engagement than following along on the page. This is also different from watching a video recording of scrolling through the comic as the viewer has limited ability to control the pacing. While the viewer may pause the video or slow or speed it up, the tactile interaction of the comic is lost. Both Ezra Daniels and Aggleton argue that temporal control is critical to determining if a work should be called a comic. Temporal control should always belong to the reader. Daniels also argues that digital comics should be designed for their intended platform. “Ghost” takes advantage of the screen to play with panels, spacing, and user interaction, elements that would not be possible on the printed page.  

By viewing these digital comics through the lens of hypertext, this combination of media and reader interaction creates a type of play as the reader must fill in the gaps between the images and text. The author can control the pacing of the panels and hint at action that takes place between panels. However, using single panels with GIFs in Behind You creates a larger space that the reader must fill as there are no panels to provide resolution beyond the fragments below the GIFs. Unlike printed comics, the gutter in digital comics like “Ghost” is not limited to available print space, and the reader must actively participate to read the comic. Hypertext’s fragmentary nature forces the reader of these comics to create their own sense of an ending as the very structure prevents satisfaction through its continuous cycle or through its abrupt and unclear ending. Hypertext is especially amenable to horror narrative as it can use its fragmented nature to engage reader interaction with the text. 

Hypertext Overview and Hypertext as a Lens

George Landow defines hypertext in Hypertext 3.0 as non-sequential writing that connects information, images, or other media together through links (Landow 2-3). The variety of pathways and reader-driven pace are critical; as Anne Mangen and Adriaan van der Weel state, that “early proponents of hypertext theory …claimed that hypertext turned the reader into an author, liberating and empowering the reader to construct the text, as well as his/her own identity…” (167). Horror is incredibly voyeuristic; the viewers of the Behind You comics have a private window in the events and watch the monsters attack their victims over and over, and in “Ghost,” the reader follows the protagonist through her attack and survive, hovering above or beside her. Wandtke states, “through the experiences of fear and disgust achieved through contact with the monstrous … the individual [will] lose a sense of distance between the self and the tale” due to the fact that they will have “…closer contact with both the individual and cultural unconscious” (xxxiii).  Through the reading of these comics, the separation of self and story are blurred through the interaction with the monsters. 

Reading these digital comics through the lens of hypertext emphasizes story-building through the reader’s interaction with the text. Landow argues that hypertexts are noted for their multiple pathways that the reader must navigate which both determine the storyline and weaken the boundaries between reader and writer (3-4). He argues that hypertext exists on a spectrum that can be measured through the different pathway options for the reader, through a variety of media forms, and through degrees of variation (Landow 217). By de-centralizing the authors, the reader of hypertext can make choices for themselves and come to different conclusions based on reader interaction. While the author can set what content can be seen, the reader chooses what content they value, what content is worthy to explore, and what pathway they wish to follow, all of which is outside of the author’s control (Landow 103-105). Many hypertexts have a home page or “start here” link that begins this pathway; however, Landow argues that not every hypertext has to have a fixed start and end point, so another way to define a starting point is the moment when the reader first makes a decision rather than the first click (Landow 111-112). 

As a printed text offers a firm start and end point, hypertext opens these barriers and allows for more flexibility and more open-ended introductions and conclusions (Landow 113). Hypertext provides a unique structure for horror comics, as horror strives for resolution. Behind You has no set organization in its digital form. The reader can begin on Coldrick’s blog and select whatever thumbnail they would like, but there are no connections to create a plot between comics nor a clear organizational structure. The comics themselves only provide the GIF and fragments below, leaving the reader to connect them. While “Ghost” has a clear beginning and ending, the lack of resolution and interruption of the main narrative with the inclusion of the ghost story forces the reader to make the connections themselves. The fragmentary nature of hypertext creates these gaps that the reader must fill themselves to create a sense of completion, though the anxieties these comics raised are never truly assuaged due to the lack of provided endings.

The benefits of reading these digital comics through the lens of hypertext is the ability to create emphasis on these new digital features. Jay Bolter argues that reading digital comics through the lens of hypertext enables an “emphasis on process and on the reader’s awareness of the medium” and “to acknowledge the reality of the genre or medium itself” (Bolter 44). Reading and creating comics through a digital platform allows for a variety of new formats and additional features like animation and spacing that is not possible in print formatting. Landow argues in favor of using hypertext, “as a lens, or new agent of perception, to reveal something previous unnoticed or unnoticeable” (219). Digital comics use their online formats to engage the reader in a type of play to fill in the gaps within their comics and to interact with the digital medium. Coldrick’s animated comics and the scrolling interaction of “Ghost in Masung Tunnel” are examples of how digital comics can engage in types of play.

Animation and Play in Hypertext

While hypertext includes a variety of media, the debate regarding animated text focuses on how much control the audience has over the content. Landow argues that, “in contrast to hypertext, they [animated text] demand the reader assume a generally passive role as a member of an audience, rather than someone who has some say in what is to be read,” and therefore animated texts can appear “essentially anti-hypertext” (92).  He argues that animated text/video/images are closer to print sources due to this lack of control. Landow claims, “animated text…entirely controls the reader’s access to information at the speed and at the time the author wishes” (93). Espen Aarseth makes a similar argument in Cybertext by claiming Iser’s gap theory does not apply to hypertext as these are “openings,” not gaps, because they filter information rather than leave it open, and only correct answers will open up pathways to move forward in the hypertext (Aarseth 111). There is also the concern about the length of animation as Jakob Dittmar argues that including animations within comics will make the work be considered a version of film rather than a type of comic. Dittmar makes a valid point as the reader has no control over the GIFs; however, as these animations have such a short duration and loop, these GIFs would not be considered films and the reader still has to combine the fragments of text back to these images to understand the comics, keeping the reading of these digital comics very active. 

These authors’ arguments do not account for the gap between the animation and provided text that can be found in these digital comics. While it is true that the author can determine the animation’s content and speed, for Coldrick’s comics there is a clear gap between connecting the fragmented text to the main story. Aarseth argues that intrigue will help prompt the reader to continue forward in a hypertext with the assumption that there is a provided pathway, but in this case, there are no provided end points to determine right or wrong answers (113). McCloud states in Understanding Comics that readers of comics require closure and are collaborating with the comic to close gaps in order to attain closure (63-64). Charles Hatfield in Alternative Comics supports McCloud’s claim by stating that, “the author’s task is to evoke an image sequence by creating a visual series (a breakdown), whereas the reader’s task is to translate the given series into a narrative sequence by achieving closure” (41).  Hatfield states, “At times achieving closure can be quite difficult, as when images seem radically disjointed and verbal cues are scant” (43). He gives the example of some of Art Spiegelman’s work from Raw and makes the argument that “the sought-for ‘unit’” of the piece, finally, rests on the reader’s recognition of the author’s formal playfulness rather than on any coherence narrative” (Hatfield 43). In a game of connect the dots, the reader of Coldrick’s comics must decide how these two pieces of content interact and what story that interaction creates.

The process of gap-filling creates a playful, game-like structure to these horror comics. Astrid Ensslin states digital media is constantly changing and evolving, so there are multiple ways of reading the variety of modalities (6). Interactive components create a sense of play that pulls from elements of video games, but there are clear differences. Astrid Ensslin notes in Literary Gaming that “the ‘games’” authors play with readers and texts do not equate to gameplay in a narrow, ludological sense” (28). She notes that the difference is in “…the playful readerly activities afforded and demanded by ludic print literature can be characterized in terms of cognitive ludicity, which happens primarily in readers’ (and writers’) minds as they interact with a text…” compared to a more structured series of rules involved in more traditional games (Ensslin 28).  

However, as Marie-Laure Ryan argues, “Digital texts should not be expected to be enhanced versions of the novel, of drama, or of the cinema” (180). Holding digital narratives to the same criteria for success or failure as printed narratives or video games is not useful (Ryan 180). Instead, “Their achievements reside in other areas: freely explorable narrative archives; dynamic interplay between worlds and images; active participation in fantasy worlds” (Ryan 180). In the case of digital comics, this active participation would be through the gap between image and text and through scrolling and active searching for content. By viewing these comics through the lens of hypertext, these digital elements become playful. 

It is important to note that these comics are not what Daniel Goodbrey would consider hypercomics or comics that allow the reader to make choices that dictate the narrative as the play elements in Coldrick’s comics and “Ghost” are significantly limited compared to hypercomics (4). However, because the reader must engage in the narrative to both complete the entire GIF cycle or scroll through the comic and both styles of comics are, albeit minorly, building their narrative worlds, there are some overlaps between games and these comics. Through the lens of hypertext, these gaming elements turn the traditional jump scare from a startling moment to a puzzle solving game where the reader must combine the text and the moving image into some kind of coherent story in Coldrick’s comics and utilize the smooth and lengthy transitions between panels to create a sense of dread for the reader as they scroll faster and faster to get to the next panel in “Ghost.” These comics complicate traditional definitions of comics through digital tools and provide new forms of experimentation for comic authors.

Brian Coldrick’s One-Shot Horror          

A drawn image of an old woman holding groceries with text underneath which reads "she noticed the streetlights popping off one by one as she walked under them, as if they were waiting for her".
Figure 1

In the first comic for analysis is called “Streetlights” (Figure 1), and on the surface, this looks like a single panel comic. While Coldrick does not title his comics, those featured here are referred to by the name on their save file. The lack of title adds to the fragmented nature of these comics as there is no discernible order or connection between comics. The two lines of fragmented text are floating below the circular comic, appearing almost like tunnel vision with no clear boundaries and a gap between the text and the image. The animation of “Streetlights” is a hunting scene. The old woman waiting with her groceries is quickly identified as the focus of the story with the single beam of light over her. However, a creature with a black body, long spindly limbs, and white mask over its face pulls itself from the lamppost and the light begins to flicker and the pace speeds up. When the lights go out again, she freezes, then the lights flicker on and we see the creature poised above her, ready to strike. Then in the flickering lights, we see it reach for her. Finally, the scene is empty and dark as both the woman and the creature have disappeared. The woman’s slight movement back and forth makes her seem anxious, and Coldrick’s choice of depicting his character as an older character contributes to her vulnerability, alone in the street. This creature is simple in its design, but it is the creature’s long limbs and threatening pose, crouched above her, that makes its predatory nature clear. The fact that it pulls itself out of the shadows of the lamppost is also a disturbing element that emphasizes its supernatural features. While this is a single panel comic, the flickering of the light breaks up this short GIF into “scenes” as the gutter in a comic would, preserving some more traditional elements of comics in a traditional form.

The “text” below the panel also draws the reader’s attention to the lights; the caption states “she noticed the streetlights popping off one by one as she walked under them, as if they were waiting for her.” As the text is not directly connected to the image, its importance and the order of attention will also vary by reader. This scene is a complete story, but with an open ending since the reader can only assume the fate of both of these characters as the monster and the woman disappear at the same time, only for the hunting scene to restart yet again. Without context to what is actually happening here, the reader must determine the ending to their sense of satisfaction creating a gap at the end of the comic for the reader to fill.

A drawn image of a girl sitting on a bed in a bedroom. The text underneath reads: "she was so far away now/ she allowed herself to think they might not find her here."
Figure 2

The next of Coldrick’s comics is “Motel” (Figure 2), chosen for its duration and sense of dread. The scene starts with flickering light and not much else, giving the viewer time to read the text below easily: “she was so far away now/ she allowed herself to think they might not find her here.” This is one of the longest of Coldrick’s comics and also the closest to Bishop’s set up for the jump scare. At first, the main character seems like a runaway teen, until the first hint of something darker going on when huge fingertips start peaking over the edge of the room. However, soon a giant girl’s face is framed by the doorway behind the immobile young woman. The giant girl’s smile here is particularly disturbing, like a child discovering her favorite toy that had been lost. The coloring of the giant child’s face with the large open mouth is a clear contrast from the main character being bathed in light. The pacing picks up after the child’s face is revealed and a giant hand reaches for the girl on the bed. There is only a glimpse of the hand reaching for her, then the light blinks out over the empty bed and the room goes dark. 

The reader must use detail from the comic file and illustration to fill in the narrative gaps. While the word motel does not appear in the narrative, the file itself is called “motel.” The reader may also be able to infer the location as the room the character is sitting in has a single bed, a closet with no door, and mounted television in the corner. The girl sitting by herself with a lit cigarette staring outside is the initial focus as the flickering light pulls the reader’s attention to her as well. However, the darkened room is lit up with the giant girl’s face as she first peaks in and then later grabs the girl.  As with “Streetlights,” the jarring nature between scenes harkens back to panels of a comic, with the flickering light representing a pause and shift to a new panel. The jump scare ends with the empty and dark room, but to gain a sense of closure to this story, the reader must provide some answers for themselves as there is no provided indication of about the relationship between these two characters or why the girl is so large.

An illustrated image of a parking lots filled with parked cars and a dark figure standing in the corner of the image. The text underneath reads: "the garage was full and empty. As he opened his car door he thought he heard a scream."
Figure 3

The final example of Coldrick’s animated comics is called “Carpark” (Figure 3) and it is the closest of the selected illustrations to the traditional jump scare itself. The text reads, “the garage was full and empty. As he opened his car door he thought he heard a scream.” As the man is about to enter his car, he pauses. After he turns his head, ghostly figures appear apparently shrieking and banging on the previous empty-looking cars around him. As there is no sound to these illustrations, the viewer must imagine the noise for themselves. One key difference from the jump scare is it’s normally a short and jolting experience. The jump scare is normally a short and jolting experiences, but this scene is silent and on a loop. The viewer has the opportunity to review each of the faces, including the ones in the far back that may have been missed on the first viewing. There are no hints to the nature of the screams of these figures here besides the text suggesting that the protagonist heard a scream. A shadowy figure stands unmoving in the background adding to the foreboding feeling of this illustration. However, the detail of the protagonist compared to the vague shape of the haunted figures and shadowy figure in the distance enhances the sense of dread.  It is also a play with words as “the garage was full and empty” is very true in this scene in two ways: there are no other people present, but the all the parking spots are full and it appears that he is alone, until the ghosts come into view.

These digital comics provide a unique way for the reader to interact with horror comics. For Coldrick’s work, the reader is not combining images to arrive at an idea, but instead combining short animations and fragmented text to create an entire story. The personalization of reading these comics is unique and would expand the definition of comics to include hypertextual elements that allow the reader to engage in play with the comic in ways that are more limited in print comics. Only the reader can explain why the monsters attack and what happens to their victims, and thus the reader takes a much more active role in both predator and prey compared to print comics. This active role means that each reader will be able to create their own worlds based on just a few fragments and a single GIF, allowing for endless creativity. While the level of play here is limited to the reader’s imagination, scrolling-based comics such as “Ghost in Masung Tunnel” have a more physical element to engage the reader.

Ghost in Masung Tunnel

In “Ghost in Masung Tunnel” there is more interactivity to storytelling in the sense that the reader can alter the pace of the story through scrolling speed. In a series of single or combined panels, the story focuses on an incident where a young woman takes the bus home, falls asleep, and awakens inside a tunnel to see a child with a meat cleaver attacking her fellow bus riders. She is stabbed in the leg and loses consciousness. No one believes her story, so she looks for the other survivor to corroborate her account. She has a vision of a child rising from the grave to attack people in their village and realizes it was the same child that attacked her. The protagonist peeks inside the other survivor’s room, only to swiftly turn away and return down the hallway. The story ends with her looking back over her shoulder in fear towards the room behind her as the child with the cleaver appears hunched over the bed of the survivor.

Throughout the comic, there is a clear shift in the location of the text which impacts how the reader perceives the story. For some panels, the words are above the panel, so the audience is likely to read the text before looking at the image. Others present the images first and then the reader must continue down to find the text. Presenting the images first is particularly effective in increasing the tension for the scenes focusing on the discovery of the murdered passengers as the images move from the concerned protagonist to the bodies of the other passengers, forcing the reader’s gaze to move over the bodies. The author also blurs time by providing snapshots of the action without conclusion, such as a short figure covered in blood, then a panel showing a bloody cleaver raised, and then a shot of the aisle of the bus with the word “SNAP!” scrawled across the panel in white. The word “SNAP!” is repeated over several frames with the focus slowly narrowing onto the image of the small figure with the cleaver. Here is another representation of McCloud’s discussion of closure as the reader must fill in the blank to assume what is happening to the other passengers based on the provided text. 

After the long pause, there is a shift in formatting as instead of a panel, there is only the text “From then I don’t have an exact memory.” More white words such as “CLANK!” are written in the middle of the image creating a sense of urgency as she struggles to remove her seatbelt. Instead of pulling back to show the aisle, the panels focus on the bloody feet of the child and then on the woman’s face as she continues to struggle with her seatbelt. Then there is a long pause of nothing but black panels, until the word “FUMP” is written in red with what appears to be a streak of blood beside it. As this comic has no sound, these written phrases of “SNAP!”, “CLANK!”, and “FUMP” attempt to express a strong emotional reaction to the events (McCloud 135). As this comic relies heavily on images for this section of the comic, these large bold words add another level of detail to express the narrator’s fright during this scene. However, what the comic chooses not to show is also important as there are no images of the wound, just the sentence “The knife of the child went straight through my thigh, leaving me a burning pain and stripped myself of consciousness.” The reader is left to imagine the wound, but this sense of closure is further complicated by the nurse’s description of the event as a terrible accident rather than a supernatural attack, so the reader must also decide if they trust the protagonist’s version of the events.

Through the scrolling mechanism, the author is able to abruptly interrupt the plot to introduce another storyline to the plot, requiring the reader to actively make connections between the two intertwined stories. As the woman begins looking for the other survivor, there is another long pause, but this is in white rather than the previous long black panel. This pause is still slightly concerning, but the light coloring suggests that the end result will not be as violent.  Then there is a shift in the images as another narrator interrupts the story, explaining the execution of the child and their family. The drawings of the child’s history are much cruder compared to the rest of the panels. As text style and formatting are forms of expression, this shift in style suggests that the narrator has changed to someone who is much older and more primal or that these drawings were completed by the child. Perhaps both. While the meat cleaver is just a square, it does remain threatening, especially with the child’s mouth set in an open grin with the cleaver in its hand. The final image of the legend is the stones heaped on the child’s grave, and the words below explain that the tunnel had been built over the grave of the child, implying that his spirit is now free to attack again. It is unclear if this information is somehow coming from the woman or if a new speaker has taken over in this section. This second option is especially disconcerting considering that the reader has only seen the story through the young woman’s perspective up to this point.

Despite a clearly indicated ending to the comic, the remaining panels are disjointed and choppy, leaving the reader to fill in these gaps themselves. There is another long white panel before the scene returns to the protagonist looking into what the reader can assume to be the other survivor’s room. The panel quickly shifts to her shoulders turning and then her feet as she abruptly leaves the room. The next panel zooms in to show her concerned face covered in sweat as she looks at something the reader cannot see. After the final image of the child’s history, the protagonist never speaks again. The reader has no insight into her thoughts. Instead, the final panel shows what appears to be a distorted arm reaching over the patient’s bed holding a cleaver. Then the comic ends, which leaves the story with an open ending. If the reader returns to the first panel, the opening phrase states “it was several years ago,” so it appears as if the young woman did survive the experience. Is the ghost haunting her now? Was the ghost a way for her mind to cope with the tragic train crash, or did it actually happen? Or is the woman not the actual speaker? The reader has to use the provided information to create their own conclusions.

By creating the comic in a digital format, the author of “Ghost” can take advantage of the larger space to control the reader’s pace and provide long breaks that raise the tension of the plot. The reader will increase their scrolling speed to get to the next section of panels, and the variety of spacing adds to the feeling of dread. Pederson and Cohn also argued that this shift represents more artistic options for comic authors to express how they imagined the scene. With the digital formatting of “Ghost,” the transitions between panels are smoother and the interruptions are based on the author’s intention rather than a page limitation or space. These long transitions also indicate shifts in time as the scene shifts from the attack on the bus, to the hospital, to the flashback, and finally to the conclusion.

While “Ghost in Masung Tunnel” is more traditional in its content, it also utilizes the affordances of its digital medium by connecting sections of the story as a long continuous panel that, not unlike a tunnel, shifts between white and black gutters to break up the sections of the story without any clicking. Readers must continue to scroll to keep up with the pace of the comic, but ultimately have the choice to follow the author’s prompts for speeding up, maintaining a regular or slower pace, or abandoning the story altogether at the various long pauses. The author is also able to incorporate the figure’s perspective distinctively but smoothly. Through the inconsistency of the spacing of the panels, the reading process is more engaging than page turning or normal scrolling to move forward in the story. The act of scrolling provides a more interactive way of creating tension in digital horror comics such as “Ghost.”

Conclusion

While these are just two examples of the many iterations of digital comics, the role of user interaction with these types of comics merits more attention. Through the lens of hypertext, these digital comics showcase the gaps where the reader must engage to gain an understanding of the story. As the horror genre often fights fragmentation with even jarring jump scares coming to some form of closure, these digital comics are useful to see how even small levels of user interaction can generate a play-like feature to reading these works. By utilizing the flexibility of hypertext form and affordances provided by digital media, comic authors have many new possibilities in expression that may not be as effective or even possible in print form. The goal of this essay is not to disparage print comics or argue that all digital comics need to have elements of play or user interaction to be effective or interesting, but rather to draw attention to works that are experiments with different forms of storytelling and how pulling game-like elements into the reading process can encourage more reader engagement without distracting from the narrative. Digital comics complicate the definition of what can be considered comics, and the inclusion of digital tools allows for more variation in comic styles and mediums. Works like these are important to our understanding of how horror functions and what horror even can be, which opens opportunities for new strategies to produce horror.  

Reading hypertexts can be demanding and Mangen and van der Weel argue that “…turning an act of reading into a process of selecting text nodes, generating ‘new texts’, and designing one’s own path during a reading – is probably a major part of the reason why we don’t read hypertext novels” (168). Instead, the authors argue that reading normal texts is more passive and perhaps, “what makes literary reading so enjoyable, such as involvement with the fate of characters, or emotionally succinct and pleasurable responses to unexpected twists and turns in the plot, depend fundamentally on authorial control” (Mangen and van der Weel 168). The authors argue that hypertexts have not become popular due to the very nature of its construction and how the readers are trained to read. Readers cannot be “transported” into the text because choices need to be made. Often this can become just busy work at the computer rather than an immersive experience which can be linked to the overall enjoyment of reading.

The benefit of reading digital comics like Brian Coldrick’s Behind You and “Ghost in Masung Tunnel” through the lens of hypertext is the emphasis on the reader’s experience of the comic. Not only do comics combine a variety of media, but they are deeply personal and can provide insights into how others perceive and interact with the world. Hypertext offers alternative methods in storytelling which allows more individualization in the reading process. More research is needed for these mixed media digital comics in their engagement with readers and how interactive fiction or gaming can influence storytelling in comics. While this paper focused on two specific forms of digital comics, there are many different varieties and mediums to explore given this rapidly growing field. For horror especially, new methodology will allow more variety and nuanced scares for audiences. 

Notes

[1] His work is somewhat similar to Gahan Wilson’ s Out There as it also contains many stand-alone panels that provide monsters or eyes peeking out from corners, though not all of Wilson’s work focuses on horror. John Kenn Mortensen’s Sticky Monsters is also similar in his focus on horror with monsters jeering, growling, or pointing towards humans, but these comics do not have any text. The well-known The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey featuring an alphabet book of grisly deaths, though with no monsters in sight, is also somewhat similar in style.

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