Has there ever been a movie with the universal critical and popular appeal of La La Land, nominated for every available award and pulling in millions at box offices everywhere? Part of the reason must be that it consoles these bleak times with what appears to be traditional innocence, romance, idealism, and hope. And its revival of the Hollywood musical certainly has energy and style. The dancing is particularly good, mixing the casual elegance of Fred and Ginger with bursts of the manic exuberance of West Side Story. The songs are also first-rate pastiches of show tunes, with some snappy couplets worthy of Cole Porter and only occasional clunkers, which may even be deliberate. Part of the appeal of the old lyrics was terrible rhymes (my favourite is from a Sinatra song, ‘But heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos’). Neither of the leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, can sing, though this might well be an advantage in the age of authenticity, when it is more affecting to whisper brokenly through a song than to hit and hold high notes. It would never do nowadays to have the stars’ singing dubbed as in West Side Story.

The movie is also a visual treat, adding to the studio routines of the musicals artfully framed cityscapes. And it is irreproachably innocent. The attractive young contemporary LA couple at the heart of the story have no sex beyond a couple of tentative, chaste kisses – and Ryan Gosling, supposedly a bohemian jazz musician, even wears a neat shirt, tie and jacket on dates and looks the kind of daughter’s suitor that any 1950s suburban mom would have adored (I have had a feeling for a while that ties are due to come back in fashion and Ryan may well have kickstarted the process).

La La Land is sexually innocent - but far from innocent in any other way, and it is not in the least romantic, idealistic or hopeful. Under the lovingly-created retro packaging is the hard contemporary message that only success and stardom bring fulfilment and that these are attainable only by the few willing to dump the inconvenient loves of their lives and do whatever is required by those who make reputations, the strategy followed by Emma Stone’s character and endorsed by Gosling’s. Movies are so collaborative and so controlled by financial backers that it is often difficult to ascribe their vision to any individual – but Damien Chazelle is listed as the sole writer of La La Land, as well as its director, and its core message is the same as that of Chazelle’s previous movie, Whiplash, which he also wrote and directed.

In fact Whiplash is a realistic version of the La La Land story. Its hero is a talented and wildly ambitious young jazz drummer attending a top music academy and trying to break into its jazz band.  Nothing must get in his way and there is a painful scene where he dumps his girlfriend with a brutally calm explanation of how she will impede his career. Whiplash is grittier than La La in its depiction of the obstacles to stardom – the ferocious competition from equally ambitious wannabes, the constant callous rejections from promoters, the indifference, boredom and contempt of audiences – and it is clearer on the core message that nothing matters but success and that only fanatical dedication will achieve it. Near the end of the movie the tyrannical band leader reveals that he singled out the young drummer not for his talent but his ‘drive’, and this is reinforced visually by many shots of the drummer’s bleeding hands and agonised face. There is no evidence of jazz as a sly, sophisticated music of fun.[*]

Of course in many of the classic love films the romance is brief – indeed the brevity is crucial to the romance by showing only the heady initial phase of infatuation and omitting the long slog of relationship. Examples include Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are separated by the royal duty of Audrey the princess, Brief Encounter, where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are separated by obligation to their spouses, West Side Story, where Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are separated by death, and of course Casablanca, referenced all through La La Land with posters and photos of Ingrid Bergman in the background, a discussion of one of its scenes by the lovers and virtual remakes of scenes between Bogart and Bergman, including when she unknowingly walks into his club, making him exclaim through clenched teeth, ‘of all the gin joints in all the world she has to walk into mine’, and the final scene where they are reconciled and Bogart finally unclenches his teeth to say, ‘We’ll always have Paris’.[†] The romance was wonderful and the lovers will always have Paris to sigh over but have to get on with more important things. Perhaps the appeal of La La is that it provides the traditional pleasure of exhilarating infatuation terminated before it gets burdensome but updates this by endorsing a contemporary motive for termination. In Casablanca the lovers are separated by the noble obligation of defeating Hitler but in twenty-first century La La Land by the much less noble obligation of pursuing a career.

[*] It’s significant that the young musician’s hero is revealed to be Buddy Rich, a frenetic showman drummer more notable for flashy technique than the cool laidback rhythms of Art Blakey or Max Roach.

[†] I remember reading somewhere that Bogart’s frequent jaw clenching was an attempt not to show repressed emotion but to control false teeth.



The obsession with zombies shows no signs of abating, despite the flood of zombie novels, zombie films, zombie games and a hugely successful  zombie TV series, The Walking Dead, now about to begin its seventh season. In popular culture the zombies are not only refusing to die but showing good business sense in moves to diversify. Zombie horror has successfully combined with comedy in the film Shaun of the Dead and with costume drama in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the film of this died in cinemas but of course rejects death and wanders undead in the cyberspace of streaming services like Netflix). And now that zombie films are an international industry, each country adds its own twist to the conventions (in the Irish version, Dead Meat, zombies infected with a form of mad cow disease infest the forty shades of green). But the consensus among zombists is that Asian zombie films have been the most innovative (by introducing intelligent zombies, remorseful zombies and zombies with antlers) and produced the most successful fusions, combining with the gangster, baseball, cop and porn film genres (in Big Tit Zombies and Attack of the Zombie Schoolgirls)

Another development is that many are no longer content to watch zombie stories but want to act them out, either as members of a zombie horde or the band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse in one of the numerous versions of the Zombie Experience, staged in derelict factories, abandoned shopping malls or decommissioned nuclear bunkers (‘You have been chosen as one of the select few deemed worthy to undergo intense zombie survival experience training from our undead response unit. Not only will you get to handle at least 3 different types of weaponry, you will also be taught life-saving techniques in how to immobilise and destroy the zombie horde. Expect big frights, gore and the end of civilization’.)

Why is the contemporary world fascinated by a 17th century myth from a Caribbean island? This myth originated with African slaves brought to Haiti to work in the sugar plantations, where conditions were so harsh that half died within a few years. The consoling belief was that death brought a return to the homeland in Africa. However, many others committed suicide and these were not permitted to return but became the undead, condemned to haunt the plantations forever (the term ‘zombie’ is thought to be a corruption of nzambi, a West African word for spirits of the dead).

By the twentieth century the myth had died away in Haiti but was introduced to the West by two George A. Romero films, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). These developed a cult following, which led to other cult zombie films, but it was not until the present century that the phenomenon went international and mainstream with the major Hollywood film, Zombieland, and then the TV series. In the process the zombies killed off the vampires who were sure they would enjoy eternal life in fiction and film as well as myth. This battle for undead supremacy could be the basis for a fusion film where the last vampires are holed up in a castle besieged by a ravening zombie horde, a scenario that would surely appeal to the populist hatred of evil, decadent, scheming elites.

My theory is that the timing of the zombie rise and vampire fall is significant. Vampires flourished in the age of individualism at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty first, but have been gradually supplanted by zombies as individualism is losing its appeal and groups of every kind are once again becoming popular.

Vampires were a secret minority of outsiders – nocturnal, attractive, intelligent, sophisticated, stylish, amoral, jaded, and of course eternally young, in other words every twentieth-century rebellious teenager’s dream. Vampires were cool, unemotional, detached, and above all individualistic. Impossible to imagine a vampire social, never mind a horde. And no vampire would ever be caught dead staggering about in public with a bloody mouth and stained clothes.

The vampires were the real heroes of the movies, the individuals to identify with. Whereas zombie apocalypse films encourage identification with the plucky band of survivors, the disparate group brought together by chance and obliged to cooperate to survive. The vampire theme is the rejection of a society and the zombie theme is the creation of a society, the issues of leadership, consensus making and relationships in a random group.

Another crucial difference is that vampires were content to remain a minority. They were never a global threat to civilisation, and indeed knew that they needed civilisation, unlike the dumbass zombies bent on destroying everything. Zombies are the new horror because they represent the new fear that the dumbass human race will destroy itself through mindless greed. They also represent the fear of overcrowding and of being overrun by a multitude of desperate immigrants or an enraged underclass or third world determined to seize the privileges of the few. For the zombies operate only in a horde – as impossible to imagine an individual zombie as a horde of vampires. Finally, zombies represent the other new fear of a global pandemic. In recent zombie films the zombies are not reanimated corpses but the victims of a new, incurable infection, and films like 28 Days Later have cleverly combined the fear of anger and contagion by making the source of infection a rage virus.

The threat level has also been raised by making the zombies not only angrier but faster. The horde has realised that it is not likely to enjoy a square meal by lurching towards its prey like a stag party after a heavy night, a significant change to the conventions that has displeased many traditionalists, including George A. Romero  (‘I don’t buy running zombies’) and Simon Pegg, writer and star of Shaun of the Dead, who devoted an entire Guardian article, The Dead and the Quick, to an eloquent expression of outrage: ‘I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist, but this genuinely irks me. You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can't fly; zombies do not run. It's a misconception, a bastardisation that diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I'll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It's hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all. More significantly, the fast zombie is bereft of poetic subtlety.’

Pegg also objects to rage as another innovation destroying the zombie appeal - but the crazed runners of 28 Days Later seemed to me as effective as any. What is more likely to kill the undead at last is not their anger or speed but the sight of them collecting for charity. The attraction of dressing up as a zombie is that it brings membership of a horde, and so, as well as dressing up for Halloween, corporate events and cosplay conventions, the latest way to enjoy a horde is to stage zombie walks, zombie fun runs and zombie invasions of city centres to collect for worthy causes. It always takes something special to finish the undead. With vampires it was a stake, with werewolves a silver bullet, and with zombies it may be a collecting tin.



‘So what are you working on?’ people would ask. ‘Fun’, I would tell them, and see the curiosity fade to incomprehension or even horror. It seems that even uttering the word ‘fun’ is to become an advocate of hedonism and frivolity and forfeit any claim to seriousness – an attitude I understand because it was just this sort of dismissive scepticism that got me interested in the subject. For decades, whenever there was a mention of weddings, holidays or parties, my wife and daughter would take a look at my face, throw back their heads, roll their eyes and cry, ‘Oh God, the man who hates fun’ - and eventually this got me wondering: what is fun, do I hate it and if so, why? Is it fun or is it me?

I began to pay attention to contemporary manifestations of fun and these generated another host of questions. Why has dressing up become such an obsession? In particular, why do so many want to dress as zombies? Why are swinger clubs and BDSM so popular? Why is much of the younger generation covered in tattoos? Why have dance events, festivals and stand-up comedy clubs proliferated? Why, when spending on holidays plummeted after the crash of 2008, did spending on cruises continue to rise? Why has football become the world sport when it seemed in terminal decline a few decades ago? Why has fun become such a crucial feature of serious movements, from radical protest on the left to evangelical Christianity on the right? And why did most of these developments begin in the seventies? Why the seventies?

There were even some startling Irish connections. A headline jumped out at me: Swingers Groups in Ireland Are Growing at a Massive Rate. Then there was a prominent advertisement in an English broadsheet newspaper: PACKAGE HOLIDAYS TO HALLOWEEN IN DERRY. Apparently my cynical, apathetic hometown now hosts the largest Halloween carnival in Europe. And it turned out that the World Naked Bike Ride, an annual international event where thousands ride through cities naked, is celebrated in Cork. Naked paddies and colleens on bicycles! I doubt if my old heart could stand the shock. So Derry is dressing up, Cork is stripping off and everywhere Mother Ireland is swinging. If fun has conquered even puritanical Ireland it must indeed be well on the way to world domination.

Finally there came the meta question, the question about questions – why is there such an apparent lack of curiosity about these developments? Why does no one ask what fun is or what the experience is supposed to provide? One reason is that fun is assumed to be so simple, obvious and changeless that it requires no explanation. And there is also a near-universal reluctance to think about fun. For the practitioners, the funists, part of the attraction of fun is its escape from the burden of thought. And for those who abhor fun, the afunists, the phenomenon is too vulgar even to mention, much less analyse.

Fear of a contemptuous response made me reluctant to start writing - but a fun folder insisted on being opened, and it quickly filled up with cuttings, references and notes. Themes and sub-headings emerged. Research revealed fascinating historical connections. It became clear that here was a social phenomenon developing right under everyone’s noses but somehow invisible – the writer’s dream of virgin territory. And exploring this territory could even be intellectually respectable. I could found a new academic discipline, Fun Studies, and be the first Emeritus Professor of Fun, not to mention executive editor of the Journal of Fun Studies.

Far from being simple, obvious and changeless, fun turns out to be complex, paradoxical and constantly changing. To begin with, fun is social. It is possible to have pleasure alone but not fun. And fun tends to take predictable forms – the same activities in the same places at the same times with the same people. So fun is ritualised – a group ritual, or, rather, a set of group rituals. And these group rituals seek not just sensual pleasure but often some combination of belonging, solidarity, transcendence, experience, re-enchantment, comedy, play, authenticity and transgression. Then there is the paradox that fun, the most profane of activities, can even be a quasi-religious provider of meaning. And while fun is essentially a modern phenomenon, it has recreated many of the elements of early ritual (festivals, intoxicants, costuming, face and body painting, group dancing to rhythmic music). The post-postmodern is turning out to be the pre-premodern.

And considering all this produced a personal revelation. It came to me that my problem with fun is its social nature. I’m averse to most forms of group activity because I’m an old-fashioned twentieth-century individualist, and investigating the roots of individualism led to the wider conclusion that the exclusive pursuit of individual freedom is not as fulfilling as it promised to be, and may not be the terminus of civilisation but a temporary over-reaction against social constraints, a lurch from one extreme to the other that is now correcting itself. We may well be entering a post-individualist age. In much of the Western world there seems to be a new interest in social connection and group activity of every kind.

Does this mean that I have become a funist? It’s a bit late in the day for that. But I would definitely describe myself as a recovering afunist, less inclined to be dismissive of group activity, though still reluctant to participate, and this in itself is an extraordinary change. If anyone had told me years ago that I would be sympathetic to ravers, cosplayers, swingers and gamers, I would have laughed myself into a double hernia.

Isn’t This Fun? Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves is published by Simon and Schuster, £9.99