Libraries as Safe Places in Horror Cinema – Case Study Two: Ginger Snaps: Unleashed (2004)
As mentioned in the previous post, characters in horror cinema and literature often assume the role of information gatherer/knowledge seeker. They may find they need to conduct research in order to uncover truth. Sometimes equipping oneself with reliable information in order to obtain truth can mean the difference between life and death. Characters may visit libraries to fulfil their information needs - sometimes with the guidance and support of library staff. More than just storehouses for books, the main purpose of a library is to provide users free access to information and resources for learning (and for recreation, but that’s another blogpost). By facilitating this access, public libraries - once described as ‘street corner universities’ (Chowdhury, 2008, p147) - actively advocate life-long learning and a commitment to enabling people of all ages and walks of life to acquire new skills and knowledge they may, for various reasons, be otherwise unable to obtain. Not everyone has, for example, access to the internet in their home (some may not even own a computer). It isn’t possible to conduct in-depth research in a bookshop. In a time when vital services (health services, employment services, social services etc.) are facing severe cuts to funding and support, libraries are becoming even more important in helping to enable vulnerable people access vital information. According to Dawn Finch, author, librarian and Vice President of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library & Information Professionals), ‘There is really only one place in the community where people can receive that sort of informal help to get over a tricky patch in their lives, or to help them navigate an increasingly stressful world – and that’s the library’ (Finch, 2019). Libraries are one of the last remaining indoor public spaces where people are free to browse, read, learn, rest, get warm, interact with other human beings and there’s no expectation to part with any money.
By providing users a welcoming and peaceful space to spend time - browsing, reading, learning or simply reflecting or sheltering - libraries also act as a safe place, providing a lifeline, especially for the socially isolated and vulnerable within our communities. Obviously libraries have a history of the provision of objects, and the preservation and safekeeping of the information and knowledge contained within these physical objects, but as librarian and educator Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan stated in 1932 in his Five Laws of Library Science: ‘Books are for use’, ‘Every reader their book’, and ‘Every book its reader’ (LibrarianshipStudies, 2020). The contents of libraries are therefore to be used, not just stored away for preservation, and access to the contents and services libraries provide should therefore never be exclusory. Librarian, author and former President of American Library Association Josephine Adams Rathbone – who drafted the first suggested ALA code of ethics in 1930 – also claimed, ‘Libraries are for people, not things’ (Wexelbaum, 2016, p7). Indeed, Wexelbaum (2016, pp9-10) suggests Rathbone’s sentiment in her suggested code of ethics planted a seed for the ground rules of libraries as safe spaces decades later, noting: ‘During a time of segregation, Jim Crow laws, criminalization of LGBTIQ people, rising anti-Semitism, and sterilization of those deemed “unfit”, Rathbone’s statement was radical for its time […] Without librarians and staff modeling appropriate behavior amongst themselves, Rathbone believed, there would be no way to maintain a positive, judgment free atmosphere in the library for patrons.’
A good example of a vulnerable, marginalised individual (in horror cinema) being able to access much-needed (potentially life-saving) knowledge through their local library is briefly, but crucially, featured in Ginger Snaps: Unleashed (2004), the dark and gritty follow up to Ginger Snaps (2000). Ginger Snaps ended with Brigitte (Emily Perkins) killing her werewolf sister Ginger (Katherine Isabelle), but not before she was attacked and also infected with lycanthropy. Brigitte believed she had discovered a cure and when we last saw her she held potential salvation in her hand: a syringe of Monkshood (Wolfsbane, which needed to be injected to keep her from transforming into a werewolf). We come to understand in the sequel that, unfortunately, Monkshood is not a cure; it simply prolongs the unavoidable process of lycanthropic transformation. Brigitte now finds herself desperately trying to keep her emerging inner beast suppressed as her supplies of monkshood are dwindling. Parallels with addiction, self-harm, stalking and abuse are rife throughout the film; Brigitte cuts herself to see how quickly her wounds heal and bases her self-medication, which she injects periodically, on this information. To the casual observer, she more than likely resembles an addict, or someone with apparent mental health issues. She is completely alone, living a nomadic life, drifting from place to place and being relentlessly stalked by another werewolf. Existing on the periphery of society, her only access to crucial knowledge and information – and, seemingly, interaction with other people - is at her library, which is free to use and open to everyone.
From the beginning of the film, Brigitte is depicted as an information gatherer, a knowledge seeker. She’s at her local public library researching folklore, viruses and remedies in an effort to deal with her unspeakably grim situation. Were it not for her library, and the services it provides, she may not otherwise be able to obtain answers. Through the provision of this access, public libraries demonstrate a commitment to the promotion of life-long learning, enabling people of all ages and walks of life to acquire new skills, knowledge and opportunity. By providing users with a welcoming and peaceful space to spend time, libraries and their staff can also be a lifeline, especially for the socially isolated and vulnerable, minority groups, those on low incomes, those from underprivileged areas, and for the homeless and jobless, the marginalised and the persecuted. As Wexelbaum (2016, pp5-6) claims, ‘For the unemployed, a library provides free computers with Internet access to search for employment and apply for jobs. For homeless patrons, a library provides shelter from the elements. For the bullied, it provides sanctuary. For recovering addicts, it provides resources and activities in a substance-free environment. For parents, it provides a space that they perceive as monitored and safe for their children.’ Academic librarian Ian J Clark reiterates the role of library as safe place, and stresses the importance of maintaining and protecting it as such ‘For those […] living in violent households or suffering from bullying or abuse, the library does offer a safe space. It gives them respite from the threats and dangers that otherwise exist around them. It provides a localised safe space that is valuable and that needs to be protected. For the vulnerable, libraries still provide them with a vital space to just let them be’ (Infoism, 2016).
Public library users are most likely to be children and young adults, female identified people and anyone who may need a quiet space to rest, study, or look for employment (Wexelbaum, 2016, p29). In urban areas, public libraries also serve ‘large populations of homeless people of all ages, the disabled, the unemployed, veterans, and undocumented immigrants or refugees. Each of these populations faces unique challenges with their environments […] They are our most vulnerable populations, people who may be likely victims of crime or suspected of “inappropriate behavior”’ (Wexelbaum, 2016, p29). Finch (2019) also notes the importance of the informal pastoral care librarians provide for their more vulnerable users, stating ‘As mental health services continue to be cut, librarians are becoming an informal lifeline for people with serious problems.’ In Ginger Snaps: Unleashed, Brigitte is utterly alone in the world and doing everything she can to survive. The weight of her guilt over her sister’s grisly demise, and her fear of what is happening to her, must take a toll on her mental health. With no-one to turn to for help, she finds herself in an immensely precarious and dangerous position. For her, access to information in a safe place like a library is a lifeline. A lifeline that many others in our society also rely on. As Finch (2019) suggests ‘As community services such as drop-in centres and social support facilities are axed, the people who relied on them have been cut off. This means that vulnerable people with complex mental health and/or addiction issues are set adrift and in many areas the only thing that remains open to them is the library.’
Brigitte is seen conducting information searches by herself, and has not, as far as we know, asked the librarian (Brendan Fletcher) for help. While he does bring her a collection of titles he thinks will be of interest to her, having seen other titles she has previously borrowed, Brigitte remains aloof and untrusting because she wishes to conceal her condition. This highlights the fact that for some people, not just werewolves, libraries are perhaps not as safe as they could be. As Clark notes: ‘We know that for many, public spaces are increasingly becoming unsafe, and libraries are certainly not exempt from this. The Prevent strategy, for example, certainly undermines any argument that libraries provide such a safe space. Library staff are being turned into snitches, with responsibility placed upon them to observe and report activity that may be deemed to be of interest to law enforcement. When students are reported to the police for reading a textbook on terrorism in their college library, the library is clearly not a safe space. When minorities are in fear because of the very policy that encouraged an individual to report someone for reading a book they deemed suspicious, then clearly the library is no longer a safe space for them’ (Infoism, 2016).
The likes of the Prevent Strategy obviously presents problems surrounding a library user’s right to privacy. According to the American Library Association (2008) ‘Privacy is essential to free inquiry in the library because it enables library users to select, access, and consider information and ideas without fear of embarrassment, judgment, punishment, or ostracism. A lack of privacy in what one reads and views in the library can have a significant chilling effect upon library users’ willingness to exercise their First Amendment right to read, thereby impairing free access to ideas. True liberty of choice in the library requires both a varied selection of materials and the assurance that one's choices are not monitored.’ Clark (2016) strongly suggests that in order for libraries to be truly safe places, users must be able ‘to read books without fear of the police coming to [their] door questioning [them]. It means the freedom to seek out information, to inform oneself on controversial issues without fearing that you will face damaging accusations in a court of law. It means that you are in a safe, secure environment where you can exercise your intellectual freedom without fear of state sanction.’
Rathbone discussed these very issues back in the 30s. She strongly believed the role of the librarian was crucial to ensure the library was a safe space for its users, including protecting users’ right to privacy: ‘The librarian, representing the government body, should see that the library serves impartially all individuals, groups, and elements that make up its constituency. In the case of the public library as a non-partisan institution the books purchased should represent all phases of opinion and interest rather than the personal tastes of the librarian or board members. In an official capacity, the librarian and members of the staff should not express personal opinions or controversial questions, as political, religious, or economic issues, especially those of a local nature’ (Wexelbaum, 2016, p8).
We need to work hard to ensure libraries continue to offer safety and sanctuary for their users. We need to fight to keep them open and staffed by professional, qualified library staff - whose safety and well-being is as assured as library users safety and well-being. We need to insist that the opportunities they afford people to learn, grow and develop can always be availed of. Especially those in our society who are vulnerable and marginalised and already have so few opportunities to access knowledge and education, those so powerfully represented by film characters such as Brigitte. She’s a vulnerable young person undergoing life-altering changes. Sure, Ginger Snaps: Unleashed is a horror film and the changes are lycanthropy, but these are strongly paralleled with more ordinary, everyday issues (addiction, mental health, bereavement, loneliness). This serves to further highlight the need to ensure people – and indeed communities - have access to a library, and the role libraries play in providing impartial access to reliable knowledge and eventual personal empowerment. In terms of the other, more informal kinds of vital support users can find at the library, Finch (2019) notes ‘If we lose library workers, we are at risk of completely abandoning those people in our communities who just need someone to talk to, someone non-judgmental who can offer a helping hand, or maybe just a patient ear. Formalising what was once informal social care is expensive, and so is the failure to support mental health, and that will cost us all a great deal more than investing in library workers ever would.’ Finch concludes that far from being the mere custodians of knowledge and information, the role of the librarian is multifarious, social and indeed pastoral: ‘Every day, library workers are quietly changing and saving lives. As well as providing informal mental health and wellbeing support, they are raising national literacy levels, supporting families and reaching out into their communities to make them stronger and more cohesive’ (Finch, 2019).
American Library Association (2008) Privacy [online] Available at: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/privacy [Accessed 15th September, 2020] Document ID: 1b8e7062-6f53-8e54-c9ce-87dff34d8008 [Accessed 16th September 2020]
Chowdhury, G. G. Librarianship: an introduction, 2008, Facet, London
Clark, I.J. (2016) Are libraries safe spaces? Infoism [online] Available at: https://infoism.co.uk/2016/09/safe-spaces/ [Accessed 16th September 2020]
Finch, D. (2019) Closing libraries means abandoning society’s most isolated and vulnerable. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/02/closing-libraries-vulnerable-mental-health [Accessed 16th September 2020]
Librarianship Studies (2020) Five Laws of Library Science [online] Available at: https://www.librarianshipstudies.com/2017/09/five-laws-of-library-science.html [Accessed 16th September 2020]
Wexelbaum, R. (2016) The Library as Safe Space [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303839143_The_Library_as_Safe_Space [Accessed 8 Sep 2020] DOI: 10.1108/S0732-067120160000036002 27/08/2020
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