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  • Paradise Lost: Documenting a Southern Tragedy
  • King Adkins (bio)

On 5 May 1993, three eight-year-old boys—Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch—were murdered in the woods outside of West Memphis, Arkansas. The murders themselves were enough to unsettle the small, southern community; but passions climbed even higher when, within the month, police arrested three local teenagers for the crime. Those passions reached a fever pitch after prosecutors developed a theory that the murders had been committed as part of a satanic ritual.

One always hesitates to begin deconstructing such an event, for fear that the very real fact that three innocent children lost their lives might be overshadowed by what can seem in comparison to be trivial questions of theory. In this case, however, the "reality" of events seems already to have been irretrievably lost. If the murders were real, what followed appears much less so, and in this instance some measure of dissection may almost be necessary if we are truly to understand what took place. Viewed analytically, it becomes clear that nothing in the case is as it seems. The arrests, the ensuing trials, the debate over the guilt or innocence of the "West Memphis Three" (as the three teenagers have come to be known)—a debate that has only grown more intense in the ten years since they were convicted—all has come to operate as a kind of "simulation" of reality. Events, reactions to those events, all occurred and continue to occur at the level of appearances only, with little or no real substance beneath those appearances. Everyone involved behaves as they are expected to behave, their actions, even their emotions dictated by the constant presence of the camera. My goal is to explore how this simulacrum developed, particularly how the media helped to substitute the artificial for the real. To a certain extent, substitutions such as these are predicted in the work of a number of postmodern thinkers, especially that of Jean Baudrillard. I focus, however, on two important documentaries about the West Memphis events, Paradise Lost (1996) and a follow-up filmed five years later, Revelations (2001). Together, these films probe media effects, but they also participate in them. Indeed, they blur the lines between the "real" and the filmic in ways that not even Baudrillard could have anticipated.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argues that we have arrived at the age of the "hyperreal," where what was previously real has been replaced by "models of a real without origin or reality" (1). The world around us is now nothing more than an elaborate "simulation." At root, Baudrillard's work draws on a common idea of the postmodern. Fredric Jameson, for example, explains that we live in a world where "the contents [of our images] are just more images" (ix). There is no depth, no foundation, no bedrock referent left; all that remain are the signs themselves. Baudrillard details how we reached this state, suggesting that images build one upon another, eventually masking the fact that the real that was once represented by the sign has ceased to exist. He defines four "successive [End Page 14] phases of the image": the image first reflects reality, then masks and denatures that reality, then hides the fact that the reality no longer exists, and finally becomes its own reality. He points, for example, to the caves at Lascaux, France, which the public is no longer allowed to view. Instead, an exact replica of the caves sits beside them, a replica so precise as to be realer than real. Thus the replica has replaced the real caves in all essential ways. We respond to it emotionally with awe and wonder, as if it were the real thing. As a result, the original is now no more "real" than its copy: "the duplication suffices to render both artificial" (9).1

It is not only the objects around us that have been replaced: our behaviors, too, have been modified. We spend the bulk of our time sitting behind desks, so we substitute jogging for what once would have been the natural exercise of our day-to-day lives. Yet this "sign" of exercise—jogging—no...


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