Over the past decade or so, the Spanish horror film has undergone a striking renaissance. During the final years of the Franco regime, in the 1960s and 1970s, horror cinema flourished in Spain, producing such genre icons as Jess Franco, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, Amando de Ossorio, and Paul Naschy; following the country’s transition to democracy, however, it entered a period of decline that lasted through the 1980s and much of the 1990s. In the twenty-first century, it is resurgent.
Recent years have witnessed the debut of a new generation of horror filmmakers in Spain led by Alejandro Amenábar, Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, and Juan Antonio Bayona. Supported by Spanish movie studios rededicated to the genre – most notably Filmax International, which in 1999 launched a horror production unit dubbed the Fantastic Factory (Willis 2008) – these directors have turned out a string of successful horror films: The Others (Los otros, 2001), Darkness (2002), [Rec] (2007), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, 2007) among them.
Critics around the world have hailed the craftsmanship and authenticity of their work, which tends to eschew postmodern irony in favor of an old-fashioned sincerity (Willis 2004). It has also met with remarkable commercial success on the international stage. After capturing the top spot at the box office in Spain the year of its release, The Others went on to earn over $200 million worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing Spanish movie of all time. And in its wake, a steady stream of Spanish horror films have racked up healthy returns in theaters globally, including Darkness (over $34 million), [Rec] (over $32 million), The Orphanage (over $78 million).
Not surprisingly, the critical and commercial success of these films has attracted the attention of Hollywood: [Rec] was remade by Sony as Quarantine in 2008 and a forthcoming remake of The Orphanage has been announced by New Line Cinema. It has also guaranteed their worldwide distribution via nontheatrical channels – DVD and Blu-ray, cable and satellite television, video-on-demand and online streaming – ensuring that they have found a substantial audience beyond the multiplex. As a result, Spanish horror cinema is currently enjoying its highest profile in almost four decades. While it may be too early to claim that it has entered a new golden age rivaling its classic era in the 1960s and 1970s, it certainly ranks among the most vibrant and influential national expressions of the genre today – not just in Europe, but in the world.
The recent resurgence of the Spanish horror film has not been met with universal approbation, however. While acknowledging its impressive critical and commercial success, some scholars have suggested that the horror cinema now emerging from Spain is ideologically problematic – especially where its treatment of gender is concerned. For example, Ann Davies has critiqued one prominent contemporary Spanish horror movie, The Orphanage, arguing that while it privileges female subjectivity by placing a woman protagonist at the center of its story, it also works to other the feminine by invoking “the central motif of mother as monster” (2011: 81).
In the film, the main character, Laura (Belén Rueda), purchases the orphanage where she was raised as a girl and moves in with her husband and adopted son, intending to transform the place into a home for terminally ill and severely disabled children. Soon after arriving, however, she discovers that the house is haunted by some of its former occupants, including a mysterious woman and a small, masked boy; then, suddenly, her son goes missing. Believing that he has been abducted by the spirits lingering in the old orphanage, she combs the grounds, seeking to confront the supernatural powers that hold him captive. As her quest to find the boy becomes more and more obsessive, she drives away everyone close to her – including her husband – until she is finally alone, becoming, as Davies notes, the heroic Final Girl familiar from countless slasher films. In the end, though, she discovers that the ghosts haunting her home are tragic, not sinister, figures and that she is the monster to blame for her son’s disappearance: shortly after they moved in, she accidentally locked him in a hidden room in the basement, where trapped, his cries for help unheard, he eventually starved to death. With this revelation, Laura is transformed from the Final Girl into the Monstrous Mother, another familiar genre trope, this one decidedly misogynistic. As Davies writes, The Orphanage ultimately:
“offers a conservative reading that subverts the active subjectivity of the Final Girl since that impulse to survival and confrontation is now turned inwards. Laura in the end confronts her own self and the horror of what he herself has done: in addition she also confronts, not a monster that is diametrically opposed to her (as in the original conception of the Final Girl, where the monster was usually male), but a concept of monstrous motherhood [. . .]” (2011: 91)
The film’s privileging of female subjectivity is not, then, as progressive as it might seem at first; indeed, it simply means that “instead of men investigating the mystery of women, women now investigate themselves” (ibid.). Meanwhile, the absence of male subjectivity “suggests that it is left untouched and unaffected. It is absent precisely because it does not need to be questioned” (ibid.). Seen in this light, The Orphanage looks disturbingly retrograde in its treatment of gender, and its critical and commercial success in Spain and abroad becomes a cause for concern rather than grounds for celebration.
Also troubling, according to Davies, is the fact that its regressive gender politics are not unique in contemporary Spanish horror cinema. She sees them on display in other recent horror movies from Spain, including the most popular and acclaimed Spanish horror film of the twenty-first century to date, The Others. Set in the years following World War II, The Others centers on an iron-willed war widow, Grace (Nicole Kidman), struggling to raise her two children in an isolated, fog-bound house on the British isle of Jersey; her mettle is tested by the sudden arrival of unseen, possibly supernatural, “intruders” who seem intent on wresting her home from her. The truth, as Grace finally learns, is that she and her children are ghosts haunting the house’s new owners; moreover, she discovers that she killed her children and herself in a fit of madness brought on by the death of her husband in the war.
Here, once again, we have a scenario in which a Monstrous Mother is “confined to the house and grounds, exploring the rooms until she comes to realize that the explanation for events lies with her own murderous self” (Davis 2011: 91). Thus two of the most well-known movies produced by the Spanish horror renaissance center around women who essentially “police themselves” (ibid.: 83), ensuring their conformity to traditional gender roles: “as subjects of their films they have in effect internalized their own objectification” (ibid.). While Davies concedes that this in itself “might not be sufficient to claim a distinct trend in Spanish horror” (ibid.: 82), it represents, for her, unsettling evidence that recent horror movies from Spain have given new life to the old “perception of the mother figure [. . .] as dangerously castrating” (ibid.: 79), forcing her to the conclusion that contemporary Spanish horror cinema “might be in the forward-thinking vanguard in terms of genre – but not necessarily of gender” (ibid.: 92).
Davies’s analysis of the reactionary gender politics of The Orphanage and The Others strikes me as being sound; I take issue, however, with the implication that these two films – prominent though they may be – are in any way representative of recent Spanish horror cinema in their treatment of gender. In fact, I would argue that they are outliers. In the main, contemporary Spanish horror movies have demonstrated a marked tendency to challenge normative constructions of gender, not only by offering us female characters that cut against the grain of patriarchal discourse, but also by inviting our performative identification with them. Women protagonists are, as Davies observes, unusually prevalent in these films. Rather than investigating and policing themselves the way the heroines of The Orphanage and The Others do, though, they typically face off against male monsters aligned with the dominant patriarchal order – Monstrous Fathers, who, possessive, domineering, and sadistic, embody the threat of regressive Spanish masculinity.
The fact that the female protagonist confronts – and, frequently, triumphs over – a male villain suggests that contemporary Spanish horror cinema characteristically attends to the problem of the monstrous-masculine, not the monstrous-feminine, at the level of representation. But it is not only at the level of representation that recent Spanish horror movies subvert the genre’s masculinist norms. They also operate in this way at the level of spectatorship. Aligning our gaze with that of their heroines, they ensure that we do not simply sympathize with these women but identify with them as well, disrupting the male look historically associated with the horror. In both of these ways, twenty-first-century Spanish horror, contra Davies, demonstrates itself to be in the forward-thinking vanguard in terms of both genre and gender.
Guillem Morales’s Julia’s Eyes offers a case in point. The film’s central character, Julia (Belén Rueda), is an astronomer who suffers from a degenerative eye condition that is slowly destroying her vision. When her twin sister, Sara (also Rueda), who suffers from the same condition, dies in an apparent suicide, Julia investigates and discovers that Sara was actually murdered by an obsessive male stalker drawn to her blindness; now that Sara is dead, the killer has turned his attention to Julia, taking advantage of her failing sight in order to insinuate himself into her life. Both narratively and formally, Morales’s film counters the reactionary gender politics of The Orphanage and The Others.
At the level of representation, Julia’s Eyes underscores the precariousness of the position that women occupy in Spanish society, even today, by illustrating the ease with which Julia’s stalker terrorizes and isolates his female victims; at the same time, it insists on the need for women to recognize and resist such regressive masculine behavior, emphasizing the climactic moment at which Julia, having regained her sight and become the bearer rather than the object of the gaze, turns it on the man who has been tormenting her throughout the film. Key here, once again, is the figure of the female protagonist. As in The Orphanage and The Others, a woman is at the center of the narrative. Aside from the opening sequence detailing Sara’s murder, Julia anchors every scene in the film. The plot is propelled by her investigation into the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death. And, like in The Orphanage and The Others, Julia’s obsessive search for the truth gradually isolates her until she alone is left to confront the antagonist, in the manner of the Final Girl. The crucial difference is that rather than discovering in the end that she herself is the source of the horror she has been investigating, as the heroines of The Orphanage and The Others do, she finds that a male monster is responsible for ordeal she and her sister have endured.
The villain, a young man named Ángel (Pablo Derqui), is drawn to the two sisters because of their shared beauty and degenerative eye condition. Ordinary and inconspicuous – to the point of being “invisible” to most people – he craves the attention of the blind, who sense his presence even though they cannot see him. Fantasizing about a romantic relationship with a sightless woman who both affirms his existence and is completely dependent upon him, he first pursues Sara and then, after she rejects him and he murders her, Julia. It is, primarily, the desire for power and control that drives him. Stalking the women, he surreptitiously snaps their photos and sneaks into their homes while they sleep at night to inject their eyes with a chemical solution that ensures the complete destruction of their sight, all the while insinuating himself into their lives under the guise of a caring and concerned friend.
The climax of the film involves a showdown between this male monster and the female protagonist. Having undergone a surgical procedure to restore her vision, which worsens considerably as a result of the stress caused by her investigation into her sister’s death, Julia recuperates in her sister’s home with strict orders not to remove the bandages that protect her eyes. She is assigned a hospital attendant to look after her needs, but he is killed by Ángel, who takes his place and secretly works to ensure that her operation is not a success. Julia regains her sight, though, and realizes that Ángel is the person she has been chasing. Furious, he insists that she choose between a life of blindness with him or the fate suffered by her sister. She manages to escape his grasp, however, and – like the blind heroine played by Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967) – turns the tables on her captor, cutting the power in the house and using the familiar darkness to her advantage. He attempts to locate her using the flash on his camera, neatly reversing the dynamic of the penultimate scene in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), but she incapacitates him and exposes him to the authorities as the malefactor whose reality they have dismissed throughout the movie. Thus in the end, Julia’s Eyes gives us not a female protagonist who, having confronted her own monstrous femininity, recognizes the need to police herself, but rather a heroine who, in confronting a male monster, reveals the threat of regressive masculinity in twenty-first-century Spain and demonstrates the role that women must play in policing it.
Indeed, it is important to emphasize the symbolic scope of the film. It presents Julia’s harrowing ordeal as a consequence of the gender norms that govern contemporary Spanish society – not as the result of a lone madman’s aberrant misogyny. Ángel represents an extreme manifestation of the patriarchal drive to control and dominate women, but his machismo is shared by other male characters in the film, including Julia’s husband Isaac (Lluís Homar), who exhibits a similar desire to regulate her behavior. While Isaac genuinely cares for his wife and sympathizes with her grief over her sister, he refuses to believe that Sara’s death was anything other than a simple suicide, initially dismissing Julia’s insistence to the contrary as female hysteria and then demanding that she give up her search for a murderer. The difference between his treatment of Julia and Ángel’s is one of degree rather than kind – Ángel’s efforts to discipline Julia mirror, in a grotesque fashion, his own. This helps to explain Isaac’s inability to see Ángel: his blindness is a product of his place in the patriarchal order, which implicitly sanctions Ángel’s stalking, rendering it “natural” and therefore “invisible.”
The same could be said of most of the men in the film, from Inspector Dimas (Francesc Orella), the patronizing male detective who tries to convince Julia that she is imagining the threat to her safety after Sara’s death, to Blasco (Boris Ruiz), the lecherous male neighbor who attempts to molest Julia when she takes refuge in his home after being frightened out of her own by an unseen intruder. They insist on Julia’s submission to their masculine authority, while completely missing Ángel’s insistence on the same. Their male pattern blindness, if you will, has potentially deadly consequences not just for Julia, but for them as well – as we see, for example, when Isaac is ambushed and killed by Ángel, who once again stages the murder as a suicide.
The film’s female characters, meanwhile, are almost to a woman instinctively alert to the danger that Ángel poses and united against it. This is of course true of Julia, whose eyes are ironically opened to oppressiveness of the male power structure when she begins to lose her vision; her quest to bring Ángel to justice is motivated by the bonds of sisterhood. It is also true of a group of blind women, former friends of Sara’s, who early in the movie warn Julia that a man is following her, and of Blasco’s young daughter Lía (Andrea Hermosa), who attempts to rescue Julia when she becomes trapped in Ángel’s apartment late in the film. What emerges in Julia’s Eyes, then, is a portrait of a deeply misogynistic society, one that women must work together to change. Breaking away from the masculinist norms of the genre, Morales transforms what could have been a routine thriller into a surprisingly incisive commentary on the need for feminist consciousness-raising in contemporary Spanish culture.
He is not content simply to subvert the genre’s gender norms at the level of representation, however; he does so at the level of spectatorship as well. Using a variety of cinematic devices, he prompts us to identify performatively with Julia and her struggle against the dangerously patriarchal world she inhabits. We empathize strongly with her vulnerability both as blind person and as a woman; we also share her triumph when she is finally able to see and fight back against the “invisible” man who seeks to control of her life. The film in effect not only privileges the female gaze, but also feminizes the viewer’s gaze, involving us in a Deleuzean process of “becoming-woman.” In a recent book on European horror cinema (Olney 2013), I dub this type of viewer role-playing “spectatorship-as-performance,” borrowing from Rhona J. Berenstein’s work on spectatorship-as-drag in classical Hollywood horror movies. Berenstein argues that these films sometimes open “a space for an attraction to figures that revel in sex and gender fragmentation” (1994: 261), offering audiences “something more than the conventional sex-role and gender options available to men and women” (ibid.) in Western culture. Viewers who embrace such alternative subject-positions, she suggests, engage in “roles similar to those appropriated by actors in the performance of drag” (ibid.: 232) – a mode of spectatorship that allows them to “identify with and desire against everyday modes of behavior and to play with the masks that Western culture asks us to treat as core identities” (ibid.: 262).
Morales encourages our performative identification with Julia in several different ways. Perhaps most obviously, he uses point-of-view shots that literally put us in her shoes. Throughout the film, the action regularly unfolds from her perspective; we see what she sees as she pursues her investigation into Sara’s death. This also means that we are unable to see what she cannot see. At certain moments when Julia’s sight is failing, the screen darkens as though we are looking at the world through a veil and potentially vital details of the mise-en-scène are lost to us as they are to her. For example, when Julia chases her mysterious stalker through an underground tunnel early in the film, she (and we) cannot get a good look at him because he keeps to the shadows, which her eyes are unable to penetrate. He is able to effect an escape by dazzling her (and us) with his camera flash. And when she follows him back to the surface, he becomes lost to her (and us) in the crowds and the rain after she suffers an attack of total blindness. Later in the movie, we share her point of view when she confronts her sister’s killer. After realizing that Julia has regained her sight following the operation and discovered his identity, Ángel delivers a diatribe into the camera, speaking directly to us “as” Julia. And when he attempts to strangle her at the end of the film, we again see his face, distorted with rage, from her point of view. Finally, after the police arrive and Julia uses Inspector Dimas’s flashlight to reveal her tormenter to them, we are shown Ángel from her perspective, helplessly exposed, pinned in the beam of light.
Another technique the filmmaker uses to ensure our performative identification with Julia is selective framing. Morales often photographs Belén Rueda in close-ups and medium shots, isolating her in the frame and preventing us from seeing what is going on around Julia – again highlighting (and forcing us to experience) the limited scope of her vision. For instance, when Julia is contemplating her sister’s grave after the funeral, a figure appears behind the tightly-framed Rueda and a comforting hand drops on her shoulder; assuming that it is Isaac, Julia reaches up without looking behind her and covers the hand with her own. A moment later, however, she looks across the cemetery and sees her husband speaking to the priest who performed the ceremony. Startled, she turns around, but the person behind her has already vanished. Later, after Julia undergoes the operation and is prevented from seeing at all by the bandages that cover her eyes, Morales again photographs Rueda in tight close-ups and medium shots, preventing us from seeing the faces of those with whom she interacts – especially that of the man whom she believes is her hospital caregiver. It is not until Julia recovers her sight and discovers his true identity as her stalker that Ángel’s face first enters the frame.
On the one hand, these techniques – and others, including the lighting and blocking of the actors – cleverly function to elevate the film’s suspense. As the story progresses, Julia’s vision worsens and it becomes more difficult for her (and us) to perceive the dangers around her, which puts us on the edge of our seats. On the other hand, though, they prompt us to identify strongly with the character and her struggle against the patriarchal world she inhabits. The film becomes a first-person feminine experience. Moreover, by sharing her look, by being subject to her blindness, we perhaps come to realize – as she does – that we have overlooked the precariousness of women’s position within the dominant male power structure: the acute sense of vulnerability attending her (and our) sightlessness encourages a greater understanding of, and empathy with, the female experience in Spanish society. And this, of course, allows us to share in her triumph when she regains her sight toward the end of the film and her male stalker becomes the object of her (and our) gaze.
Julia’s Eyes thus provides a “framework for addressing gender behaviors as modes of performance” (Berenstein 1994: 232-233) by giving us the opportunity to approach film spectatorship as a form of play or performance in which we are free to “try on” and “act out” different gender roles. Far from simply exposing “the precariousness of Western patriarchal institutions and values” (ibid.: 262) at the level of representation, Morales’s film launches a powerful critique of the notion of “fixed” or “authentic” gender identities that unfolds not only on the screen, but potentially in the audience as well.
It is crucial to note that Julia’s Eyes is far from the only contemporary Spanish film to engage with horror in a recognizably feminist fashion. Take the films of Jaume Balagueró, for example. In Balagueró’s The Nameless (Los sin nombre, 1999), a woman investigates the abduction of her daughter, who, it turns out, has been abducted by her husband and initiated into an evil cult. In Darkness, the teenage heroine faces off against her grandfather, who has plotted to sacrifice her and the other members of her family in order to open a portal to hell in their home. And in Balagueró’s recent film, Sleep Tight (Mientras duermes, 2011), a female tenant in an upscale condominium discovers that she has become the target of the building’s obsessive male concierge. We see the same emphasis on female protagonists battling the monstrous-masculine in Paco Plaza’s Second Name (El segundo nombre, 2002), wherein the heroine uncovers her father’s membership in a religious sect devoted to the sacrifice of first-born children, and in Nacho Cerdà’s The Abandoned (2006), which concerns a woman adopted from Russia who learns that her deceased father killed her mother and has now returned from the grave to claim her life as well. In Laura Mañá’s Killing Words (Palabras encadenadas, 2003), a psychiatrist matches wits with her ex-husband, a serial killer who has kidnapped her and imprisoned her in his basement. And we must not forget Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006), a Mexican-Spanish co-production that is, to date, the most commercially successful Spanish-language film of all time. Set in the years following the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of a young girl who defies not one but two Monstrous Fathers: her stepfather, a sadistic Fascist officer, and the crafty Faun she encounters in the movie’s titular labyrinth.
In their treatment of gender, these films could not be more different than The Orphanage and The Others. Rather than positing femininity as a problem to be solved by women, they center on the danger that regressive, patriarchal masculinity poses to women; moreover, they insist on the primary role that women – and viewers – must play in addressing this danger. Seen through Julia’s Eyes, contemporary Spanish horror cinema looks broadly progressive, not reactionary, in its gender politics.
In fact, if we survey Spanish horror as a whole using Julia’s Eyes as our lens, we can discern a vein of feminist horror stretching all the way back to the genre’s beginnings in Spain in the 1960s. Andy Willis cautions against reading classic Spanish horror cinema as uniformly or even mostly progressive, contending that it “often represented rather reactionary ideas about society and specifically the shifts and changes that were occurring within the country” (2012: 123) in the final years of the Franco dictatorship.
An impulse to subvert the genre’s masculinist norms, however, is apparent in Spanish horror as early on as Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orlof (Gritos en la noche, 1962), arguably the first true example of the genre produced by Spain. In it, the title character, a brilliant surgeon, becomes obsessed with restoring the beauty of his daughter after she is horribly disfigured in a fire. With the aid of his monstrous assistant, Morpho, he kidnaps young women and brings them back to his laboratory, where he attempts to transplant their faces onto hers. Dr. Orlof’s reign of terror is finally brought to an end by the police inspector’s resourceful fiancée, Wanda, who goes undercover to crack the case. Masquerading as a potential victim in order to entrap the mad scientist, Wanda “turns the tables and makes him the object of her active, inquiring, investigative gaze” (Hawkins 2000: 103). Significantly, as Joan Hawkins observes, she is not punished for “assuming the active male gaze and usurping police and patriarchal authority” (ibid.); rather, the film frames her actions as a form of gender justice. The fact that actor Diana Lorys plays both Wanda and Orlof’s disfigured daughter, who, catatonic, is kept on display in a glass coffin in his laboratory, suggests that Wanda’s victory over Orlof represents a “return of the repressed” – in this case, the reemergence of a female agency long suppressed by the dominant patriarchal order.
Wanda is the first in a long line of women in Spanish horror cinema who do battle with Monstrous Fathers, inviting our identification with their challenging gaze. Franco’s films alone offer us many more. Tajana Pavlovic notes that his staggeringly large body of work consistently features “remarkable and unusual heroines” (2004: 138) – female assassins, lesbian vampires, women in prison, naughty nuns – and “often foregrounds ambiguities of gender and sexuality [. . .] suggest[ing] the instability of power relations implied by acts of looking and perceiving” (ibid.). In doing so, it becomes a “site of female pleasure [. . .] [that] offer[s] enjoyment to the female spectator as much as to the male” (ibid.: 141). Franco’s films are by no means the only classic Spanish horror movies to function in this way, however; we find many others from the 1960s onward.
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House That Screamed (La residencia, 1969) pits the students at a private boarding school for girls against a psychotic killer who wants to assemble the “perfect woman” from their body parts. In Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (La novia ensangrentada, 1972), a loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, a young newlywed battles her thuggish husband with the assistance of a beautiful vampire interred in the family crypt. Bigas Luna’s deliriously self-reflexive Anguish (Angustia, 1987) centers on a teenage girl who, watching a slasher movie at her neighborhood theater, learns that a deranged, gun-wielding fan in the audience intends to murder the other patrons. And demonstrating that The Others is not representative of Alejandro Amenábar’s oeuvre – much less Spanish horror cinema as a whole – Thesis (Tesis, 1996) concerns a female graduate student who, in the course of researching her dissertation on audiovisual violence, uncovers evidence that her avuncular thesis advisor is the head of a snuff film ring trafficking in the murder of young women as entertainment.
From Wanda to Julia, then, Spanish horror movies have provided us with an unbroken line of female protagonists dedicated to exposing and combating the monstrous-masculine. Even when these heroines do not triumph over their male adversaries, their defeat serves to call attention to the repressiveness of patriarchal rule and the precariousness of women’s place within it. My argument here is not that Spanish horror is uniformly progressive in its treatment of gender; clearly this is not the case, as The Orphanage and The Others – and other films not analyzed by Davies – show. Rather, my claim is that these two movies are in no way illustrative of the genre’s outlook on gender in Spain. Their outsize success, for all the good it has done the nation’s horror film industry, has led to a distorted picture of Spanish horror cinema among scholars, who mistake prominence for representativeness. Looking with Julia’s Eyes helps us to see the ways in which Spanish cinema, past and present, has pushed the boundaries of horror not just in terms of genre, but in terms of gender as well.
Ian Olney is Associate Professor of English at the English and Humanities Department, York College of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2013).
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_____. (2004), “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Trends in Recent Spanish Horror Cinema,” in Antonio Lázaro-Reboll and Andrew Willis (eds.), Spanish Popular Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 237-249.