“Hen Nights in Innsmouth” – Media Narratives and Counter-Narratives of
by Alexander Hay
“Mum left Blackpool hotel after finding ‘bug’ and urine stains on mattress” the Daily Record screams. And once again the UK’s most famous seaside resort gets media attention in the worst possible sense.
There are other stories – where gangs of young thugs harass shop owners on South Shore. Of cannabis farms hiding out in abandoned hotels. Bouncers outside Ma Kelly’s dishing out a severe beating to a wannabe knifeman. A local man is killed in a bar fight, and the Tower illuminates in his memory. There are many, many other examples.
Most media appearances by Blackpool run along these lines. Violence, sleaze and grot are the three main themes. Even local news media and the Blackpool Gazette itself dwell on the dark side of the seaside town. Elsewhere, Sky News,Channel 5 and The Guardian portray the town with the same confected desolation as reports on refugee camps or favelas.
It is vanishingly rare to see Blackpool in any sort of other national coverage. Its image as the archetypical seaside town in decline has become its brand.
Coming with this is a sense of the place being ‘othered’. Coverage dwells on the unhealthy, often ravaged looks of the town’s poorest. The elderly, homeless and mentally ill are pushed centre stage. The underlying message is this, that they are NOT LIKE US.
Dougie Wallace’s notorious series of photos, covering the seedy hen and stag nights that Blackpool’s economy depends on, is a case in point. Its emphasis on the most unflattering shots, poses and tableaus seeks to inspire a feeling of unsavoury grubbiness. Wretched fleshiness is paraded before us, often just as glad to pose for the camera as we are to leer at it.
It is not hard, then, to see the narrative framing of Blackpool as one which both disgusts and alienates. Whether this is because we want it to be so, or have learned to expect it is irrelevant. The effect is the same.
From this angle, it is hard not to be reminded of another dehumanising narrative. HP Lovecraft’s “A Shadow Over Innsmouth”, published in 1936, distils his loathing of the masses, of the unfamiliar, the foreign and the alien. But it also features a sinister seaside community – Innsmouth. This rotting, insular coastal town’s hideous, degenerate locals slowly turn into fish-monsters. All the while, they kill any ‘pure’ human that dares cross them, and worship the sinister Father Dagon, himself a servant of the Great Old One, Cthulhu.
It might seem a leap to link the Lovecraft Mythos to Blackpool, better known for its trams and Comedy Carpet. Yet both narratives focus on the marginalised, stripped of humanity and made dangerous and repugnant. The “Innsmouth Look” has clear parallels to the effects of poor health and poverty, and how this destroys the body. In the end, the sea claims everything.
Lovecraft’s loathing for the other has clear parallels to how Blackpool is stigmatised by the British mainstream. They are both narratives of disgust.
This does not mean Blackpool is an innocent victim of ‘metropolitan elites’ discriminating against it. Its local government is dysfunctional. Much of its unique if tacky charm is being swept away in the name of gentrification, at best, and greed at worst. Its politics are hard right, and, in supporting the Tories and Brexit, have helped enable a cost of living crisis.
This has in turn worsened already deep levels of poverty, slum housing and poor health in the town. Despite being an urbanised and developed area, Blackpool broils with chippy parochialism. It abuses itself as much as it is abused.
This may seem harsh, provocative even. But the harsher truth is that letting Blackpool off the hook is no fairer than condemning it. Neither take into account the full picture, the nuances. For this, alternative views are needed.
The chief example of this is the Walk on the Wildside YouTube channel, filmed and hosted with laconic ease by photographer Stephen Cheatley. He is prolific, with 752 videos at the time of writing. He knows his town well, celebrating its heritage, attractions, highlights and developments. One example is magnificent footage of starling murmurations over North Pier. Behind it, a stark yet beautiful winter sunset unfolds.
But with an equally unwavering eye, he captures Blackpool’s utter degradation. He shows us its red light districts and machete amnesty bins. He covers its crime – like a recent siege where a man took himself hostage on a roof. And he does not spare us the rotting, often ruinous wrecks of former houses and businesses. It is as much a condemnation of urban blight as it is a celebration of past, present and future.
His videos are not without their faults. Some videos focus too much on the mundane. Others verge on advertorial. The channel has already begun to explore other parts of the UK. In the end, there is only so much one can say about Blackpool before repeating oneself.
For all that, Walk On The Wildside is a rare example of Blackpool media which captures a full sense of the place. Whether that will lead to a more mature, nuanced discussion of the town, however, is yet to be seen.
But to conclude, it is worth remembering how “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” ends. The narrator escapes the gloomy town and its mutated residents. But then he discovers, to his horror, that he is also developing the ‘Innsmouth Look’. He too is doomed to join the other Deep Ones, leaving his humanity behind on the beach.
Likewise, Blackpool may be a cautionary tale or a spectacle for much of the UK. But as austerity, Covid-19 and inflation take their toll, it may also be a preview of all our futures, of an ever more run-down, dog-eared society. Perhaps now is the time for a more sophisticated discussion of Blackpool. It may have contradictions, ugliness and kitsch. But still its spectacle refuses to fade.
Alexander Hay is a writer and academic who lives in the North West of England. His previous research outputs include nautical topics such as sea monsters, the marine horror of William Hope Hodgson, the Sea Draugr of the Icelandic Sagas, and Hugh Miller’s Cruise of the Betsey. He is also a writer of fiction, and has worked extensively as a music journalist.