Imaginative Archives: On the Films of Jane Schoenbrun

"I Saw the TV Glow" finds the director again using fictional cultural ephemera to construct worlds that recall the power of the screen.
Grace Byron

I Saw the TV Glow (Jane Schoenbrun, 2024).

Jane Schoenbrun understands the cursed records of suburban memory. Their films—A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), and now I Saw the TV Glow (2024)—construct imagined archives from cultural ephemera, like internet lore, YouTube videos, and television shows. These pieces of world-building distort the concept of the transition timeline—a series of images that tracks the effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy—by undercutting the sincerity of the so-called transition “journey” with displays of disappointment and dysphoria. Whether searching for information about ghosts, ghouls, or gender, Schoenbrun’s characters struggle to self-actualize. In I Saw the TV Glow (2024), the cul-de-sacs are covered in chalk hieroglyphs for a séance with the people we might have been. Around every corner lies a new monster of the week: longing, loneliness, horniness.

Other artists have used imagined archives as a way to examine desire, projection, and gender. Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) focused on the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT) and a fictional Black woman actress who vanished without a trace. Shola Von Reinhold’s novel LOTE (2020) took a similar approach by imagining how its protagonist might commune with the modernist movement. Elsewhere, the work of Susan Stryker has taken both a literal approach to reanimating the archive, in the book Transgender History and in the historical documentary Screaming Queens (2005), as well as a more creative strategy, in Christine in the Cutting Room (2012), which imagines a fictional backstory for Christine Jorgensen, the transgender activist. 

For Schoenbrun, the archive is a living place and a byproduct of media consumption. Data, stories, and folklore converge and mediate the possibility of connectivity through cultural objects. Slenderman, ASMR comment threads, and old VHS tapes extend the specter of togetherness. These imagined archives allow Schoenbrun to warp, mirror, and refract viewer’s expectations, submerging us in a world of smoke and mirrors. Schoenbrun uses their characters like puppets, bending them into horrifying positions that push them closer and closer to the edge. They dance in the light of the screen, displaying the wounds of desire as they vie for attention on online forums and in dimly lit classrooms. They gleefully plumb the depths of Slenderman mythology in A Self-Induced Hallucination and of an uneasy online community in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Fan culture leaves behind a vast network of comments, theories, and identities, in addition to hushed cafeteria chatter. Some lore only survives under the cover of night, requiring VHS tapes to be smuggled like contraband when your favorite show airs after your bedtime. Who’s up? Who’s really behind the screen, and what do we want?

I Saw the TV Glow (Jane Schoenbrun, 2024).

I Saw the TV Glow is a portal film, a spectral body-snatcher flick about ’90s fandom culture, suburban ennui, and gender dysphoria. With a cool neon palette and whispery folk music, the film asks what kinds of alternative girlhood exist beyond cheerleaders and lip gloss. Teenagers Owen and Maddie both tinker with their identities in different ways. Owen is awkwardly searching for meaning outside his sheltered life; confused about his sexuality, he feels most like “nothing.” Maddie is an older, lonely goth lesbian who loves The Pink Opaque, a fictional TV show. Owen has never seen the show and because of his strict parents he must rely on forbidden tapes from Maddie, recorded from syndicated reruns and relayed out of sequence, to piece together the plot of the show. This oblique invocation of the corruption of children is particularly perceptive about an era when cultural products are seen as a gateway to gender exploration, whether it’s the scare over anime creating transness or the repression of events like Drag Story Hours, where queens read to kids. Notably, Schoenbrun’s film is rated only PG-13; high schoolers will be admitted to their slippery world of gender. 

While initially skeptical of what he sees as a kids’ show, Owen realizes there’s more beneath the surface, that cultural affinity comes with the promise of community. As he navigates the nihilism of boyhood, Owen starts to have strange dreams—almost as if he was inside The Pink Opaque with Maddie. In one such dream, he’s wearing a dress on the school football field as Maddie slowly leads the way. 

The film riffs on horror and coming-of-age aesthetics; it’s a genre mash-up in which downed power lines and TVs on fire point to the emptiness of life under capitalism. Lo-fi footage of The Pink Opaque offers Schoenbrun’s character and scenic design a chance to shine: Glow-in-the-dark tattoos, haunted sleepaway camps, and ice-cream-cone baddies in oversaturated purples and pinks. Through the Méliès-style moon monster and a distinctly Lynchian roadhouse, Schoenbrun mines the archive of film history to build their own referential landscape; they construct a world that recalls the power of the screen. Ultimately, Maddie comes to believe she and Owen are the two main characters of The Pink Opaque. Owen, meanwhile, wants to bury these hallucinatory moments and get a real job—to become “a real man.” Nostalgia is a weapon in Schoenbrun’s hands; the TV show bleeds into Owen’s real life and dangles the possibility of recapturing the past.

I Saw the TV Glow (Jane Schoenbrun, 2024).

The Wachowskis, the two trans sisters who made The Matrix series, have explained that the popular films were subconsciously inspired by their own experiences with gender. Two different pills exist in the Matrix. The Blue Pill allows you to stay in the reverie of a simulation, to ignore reality. The Red Pill allows you to see life as it really is. These proverbial pills have become an all-purpose cultural metaphor—for transness, for the far right’s take on so-called wokeness, and for so much else. Owen decides not to take the Red Pill, to stay in the soothing reverie of the suburbs, afraid of what entering The Pink Opaque will do to his identity. Instead of taking the Red Pill and waking up to the possibility of another gender, Owen grows into manhood and a numbing job at an entertainment facility hosting kids’ birthday parties. 

This trans thread is understated, but it’s there in plain sight if the viewer is tapped into the visual lingo. I Saw the TV Glow is a trans film through adjacency, though it never utters the word. The body horror genre has always been haunted by transness, from the problematic reveal of Sleepaway Camp (1983) to the more modern Titane (2021). The films of David Cronenberg point to the possibility of (sometimes literally) fucking with gender through body mods and hacking. By the end of Schoenbrun’s film, the screen has become Cronenbergian: Owen’s stomach is a shiny portal feeding him as he sleepwalks through life. 

Schoenbrun is from Upstate New York, that desolate sprawl of abandoned buildings, empty parking lots, and spindly trees. “When you grow up in a place like that,” Schoenbrun has said, “you’re looking for culture.” You’re looking for a way out, a way to refresh the timeline and discover something beyond the micro-curated archive of self. Fandom can offer an alternative to the suffocating, closed-minded world of the suburbs. Past the cookie-cutter houses, one can find devilish subcultures online. Whatever your poison, there’s a website for that.  

I Saw the TV Glow (Jane Schoenbrun, 2024).

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair follows a series of vlogs chronicling the evolution of a creepypasta challenge. Sometimes we film ourselves because we want a witness. We want them to reveal to us something about ourselves that we have failed to uncover. Perhaps Owen wants someone to tell him he’s trans and rescue him from his narrow life. For other Schoenbrun characters, it’s murkier; the soft, palpable hope they carry beats somewhere deep in their hearts. They search the archives—YouTube, creepypastas, obscure forums—for a sense of purpose. They want to believe something’s out there, unsure what the true object of their longing is. 

In Schoenbrun’s Slenderman documentary, A Self-Induced Hallucination, this archive is fairly straightforward—misfits and outliers latch onto the King of Outsiders with increasing violence—but the film complicates true-crime fandom with its analysis of an online community formed through a squeamish mania. As twisted as the central murder is to obsess over, a hope for belonging pervades these true-crime sleuths’ attempt to collectively unearth a conspiracy. The found YouTube footage Schoenbrun gathers in the film recalls online transition vlog confessionals, which foster a sense of community in a very different way. 

We're All Going to the World's Fair explores a teenage girl's dissatisfaction with her daily life as she latches onto a viral occult ritual as a way out of her gendered experience. As Casey starts exploring the viral curse, she begins messaging other users on forums before eventually video-chatting with an older man. Online forums are often a place to play with identity; through the mediation of words one can experiment with gender. Without a face, one can assume the identity of a seductress, wizard, or teenage girl. There's a danger there, too, which Schoenbrun exploits and outlines in World’s Fair through the main character Casey's online friendship with an older man. Here as well, Schoenbrun eschews an easy gendered reading by using characters that have "fucked" genders, those who never explicitly define their spiky contours or flesh out their embodiment. In World’s Fair, laptop Photobooth videos and cam footage become an archive of self; an (un)becoming of adolescence; a queasy, false transition timeline. As Casey begins to rebel and rip apart teddy bears, her demeanor shifts. She becomes a goblin stalking the night as her identity falls apart in front of us—her rage recalls the archetypal troubled teen boy: dissatisfied, disconnected, disaffected. Her self-documentation begins to spiral out of control as she contemplates violent ends. 

We're All Going to the World's Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021).

In I Saw the TV Glow, there is The Pink Opaque, a Buffy-like show with a quasi-Sapphic love story at its core, though its two main characters almost never meet or touch. Maddie and Owen similarly converge and part as the film tracks their differing views on self-realization. Schoenbrun’s characters reject fulfillment in favor of parallel lives, strange otherworlds where they walk like dysphoria zombies waiting for something—or someone—to change their course. They can only find joy through metafictional or disembodied contexts, through their ability to play characters. Role-play offers the chance to try on other costumes and see what fits. This plasticity has long been a part of queer fan culture. Play manifests in a variety of ways, from online speculation about characters’ sexuality, to gender-bending fan fiction, to endless parsing of shows like X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer for potential queer allegories. 

Scholar Laura Horak has written about the relationship between online archives and gender in her 2014 essay, “Trans on YouTube,” in Trans Studies Quarterly. Online trans culture has undoubtedly shifted in the past ten years, but the impulse to create and share transition timelines and before-and-after comparisons remains a constant. Horak argues many earlier trans YouTubers worked on “hormone time,” a kind of messianic waiting on a post-transition tipping point out of dysmorphia. Throughout their oeuvre, Schoenbrun subverts traditional trans timeline expectations by producing an eerie scream instead of a triumphant moment of transformation. Film scholars Caden Mark Gardner and Willow Catelyn Maclay discuss Schoenbrun’s work in their forthcoming book, Corpses, Fools, and Monsters, a history of trans film that concludes by considering the future of auteur cinema. Gardner and Maclay call Schoenbrun’s films “dysphoria as a living ghost story.” They point to the focus in World’s Fair on blood oaths, guns, fungus, and plastic, all as a sort of “coded transness, free of the burden of medical queries dominating narrative…images.” Instead of using the internet to access “positive” trans images or hormone replacement therapy, Schoenbrun’s characters seek out the frighteningly long arms of internet lore. Casey cannot face her own body. Instead, she covers it in glow-in-the-dark paint, going on long walks and fearing the violence that dwells inside her. 

Gardner and Maclay cite the work of Sadie Benning “as a forerunner to online self-documenting, which has been one of the biggest characteristics of queer and trans expression from millennials and Gen Z through YouTube and TikTok.” Benning’s diaristic short films, many of which were made on toy cameras and feature puppets, serve as an avant-garde exploration of queer childhood, exploring identity through consumerism, sexuality, and toys (even their camera is one, a Fisher-Price Pixelvision). The diary film is often a revelatory medium for queer and trans filmmakers, allowing them to reckon with Horak’s “hormone time.” Benning’s work often draws on pop culture as a starting point for more subterranean feelings. From the riot grrrl movement to hokey television shows, in Flat Is Beautiful (1998) Benning reflects on the screen as a lexicon of desire, an abecedarium of lesbian yearning and mundane daily reflections on family. Benning’s films stage collisions between these competing impulses, rubbing up against one another during black-and-white close-ups of faces. If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990) recalls Casey’s gender trouble and monologues in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Such first-person videos seem to offer us access to someone’s daily rhythms, whether or not the performed authenticity is honest. Does everyone in A Self-Induced Hallucination believe in Slenderman or are they clout-chasing? Is Casey only pretending to be a disillusioned teenager or is she really slipping into some form of possession? The internet allows for play in more ways than one. Sometimes we just want to scroll through someone’s Get Ready With Me videos in order to feel less alone, less like a freak—even if the authenticity performed is merely a costume for clicks. 

We're All Going to the World's Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021).

Film critic Sam Bodrojan has reflected that Schoenbrun’s films are about a “less cool, less social…kind of internet you find alone at 13…when you operate under the assumption that nobody will ever discover you because nobody has ever tried.” Young people who put themselves online are vulnerable to predators who prey on outcasts. World’s Fair was inspired by “a man on a Wes Craven forum telling [Schoenbrun] that he was secretly a vampire.” Trawling the endless pit of YouTube can feel isolating as well as comforting; it can remind us of our own inability to form a friend group. We seek out friendship on new frontiers only for those nascent bonds to fall apart. When we put all our hope into just one friend, their existence in our life becomes a burden as well as a lifeline. After all, it was the death of Tara in Buffy’s sixth season that led to her girlfriend Willow’s downfall. Isolation can gear up violence just as much as it can gear up compassion. (Schoenbrun cast Amber Benson, the actress who plays Tara, to play a small role in I Saw the TV Glow. The blurring of media and reality extends even into the film’s production.) 

The archive is never fully contained in four walls or on a screen: it lives through us. Every time we tell a ghost story, we pass on the curse. Archives are only ever as threatening as the future they foretell. Unspooling the past reminds of our previous mistakes; only through careful study can we break free. Characters like Casey and Owen offer us a window into a nightmarish future devoid of joyful embodiment. Loss and grief have soaked into the horror genre, as filmmakers attempt to account for our increasingly dystopian culture. Schoenbrun’s films rise to the mythological as a way to confront conservative ideology. One way to deal with the brutal crackdown on trans rights is to turn toward the surreal and mythical, the boogeymen in our closets that leave us crying in the early morning twilight. Schoenbrun’s archival phantoms follow a similar path, from creepypastas that illuminate modern disconnection to the alienation of watching ASMR videos alone. 

Schoenbrun’s work has been knocked for its slow pacing—atypical for larger-scale horror films–but perhaps that’s the point. These meandering films often show one or two characters on screen at a time, either in a cramped bedroom or a vast, empty suburb. Loneliness, after all, is horrifying. The archive is a place where ephemeral presences touch, where we can connect with ghostly ancestors and faraway friends whose physical manifestation eludes us. After we pause the video, close the laptop, or stop getting notifications, we are alone with our thoughts again—at least until we pick up a new screen, bright with ache. When our favorite VHS tape ends, we are left in the dark with the dull static of everyday life. 

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