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Looking Camp Right In The Eye of Horus
It's been twelve years since House of Anubis aired on Nickelodeon, and yes, I rewatched it just to write this.
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There was that tweet that went around recently about how whatever you were fixated on at age 14 will probably stay with you (read: haunt you) for the rest of your life. I wasn’t 14 when House of Anubis came out, but just a smidge younger at the horrendous age of twelve. Needless to say, I’m remembering now why the show had such a hold on me then.
Twelve is half of twenty-four, the age I am now. That’s how maths work, isn’t it? Half a lifetime ago, all I wanted to do was watch a silly little American/Belgian/British co-production that only rivals Moon Knight in Ancient Egyptian entities not minding their business.
I often refer to this show as Baby’s First Taste of Camp, an initiation into great taste in bad taste. Not to toot my own horn (but I will anyway), but I’d like to think I have excellent taste in bad taste. It’s the foundation of this newsletter, the basis of most of my fixations, hyper or otherwise. If you’re familiar with Ari lore, you’d know my favourite film is famously Showgirls (1995).
History has not been kind to House of Anubis, but there must be a reason why it was both so well-loved and hated among teens and pre-teens in the early 2010s. It was kitsch in its treasure hunt for family-friendly ancient artifacts, softened by tooth-ache inducing teen romances that catered to a burgeoning Tumblr audience. Its stakes were high enough to keep you hooked, but not dangerous enough for a network like Nickelodeon to scrap it altogether. It featured some of Britain’s finest young talent at the time, under less-than-flattering soap opera lighting. It was everything to me.
In Notes on Camp, Sontag notes that the canon of Camp can change, and it’s mostly to do with time:
It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy. […] Thus, things are campy, not when they become old but when we become less involved in them, can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.
If I did my reading right, the ‘attempt’ Susan Sontag was referring to there was that of seriousness and sincerity, two elements that House of Anubis clearly does not lack. I’d say the same about the Karlie Kloss tweet I pinched the title of this newsletter from; we don’t know if Kloss and her team read Notes on Camp ahead of that MET Gala even though it was encouraged, but the memefication of that tweet and the longer it exists in our lexicon of online interactions, the more Camp it takes on. I don’t want to get into the Karlie Kloss tweet any further, as Sontag also said: “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.”
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For those who weren’t parked in front of Nickelodeon after school in 2011, House of Anubis follows a group of students that reside in the titular Anubis House, an estate built by long-deceased Egyptologists with secrets and mysteries hiding in every nook and cranny.
Nathalia Ramos, or Yasmin from Bratz as I initially knew her, plays Nina Martin, our protagonist. Nina is the all-American girl next door that arrives late in the term on a scholarship. She brings up that she’s American a lot, which is pretty accurate as to how British people see Americans, I think. Americans abroad talk about being American a whole lot, as I think British people do when they’re abroad as well. As for myself? It’s a guessing game for me, if anyone can guess where I’m from on the first try I should probably buy them a drink. Nina’s only frame of reference to the UK is Harry Potter, much to the dismay of her new classmates.
Aside from being a nearly infallible Chosen One, Nina comes to Anubis House as a blank slate. Sure, she shares many of Harry Potter’s archetypal elements (losing her parents at a young age, being the new kid at a big school with uniforms, magical powers, etc.), but she’s our fish out of water. She receives an enchanted locket in the shape of an eye from a seemingly confused old woman, her own equivalent to Potter’s magic wand. The locket can open secret passageways in the house and combine ancient puzzle pieces together, There’s a version of Nina that’s a goody-two-shoes happily flying under the radar if she can, but there’s also the version of Nina with a rebellious streak, willing to prove herself in the cut-throat world of British boarding schools.
In the pilot, Nina arrives in a black cab from the train station, where her chatty cabbie lays the groundwork for some necessary exposition we’ll keep hearing about throughout the pilot. This cabbie is hilarious, he points out that she’s American not from her accent, but her ridiculously massive sticker of the American flag on her suitcase. In case you didn’t hear it come out of her mouth 2000 times on the show, Nina is American.
The oversimplified lens of both Americanness through the British gaze and vice versa is really funny to watch on this show, as it constantly shifts between those two modes the more American people come on the show (there will be a total of three American protagonists by the end of the series). The school they go to despite the Uniforms, and Headmasters had lockers and proms and dodgeball competitions. It was right on the money capitalizing on the wave of Anglophilia in the States (and the rest of the world) with the way the internet glommed on to Doctor Who and BBC’s Sherlock without alienating their biggest market (America).
The catalyst for the events of the first season is Nina’s arrival, which happens to coincide with the disappearance of another student, Joy (Klariza Clayton, of Skins fame). This all-American girl next door becomes the unwitting heart of a conspiracy. I think Ramos’ acting gets slagged off a lot in most conversations surrounding this show, and to be fair, I don’t really have much of a point of comparison for her performance outside of Bratz, another cult classic among zillenial viewers. Perhaps, this is where the campness comes into play. Her melodrama is in line with the soapy aesthetic of the show. Over time, I’ve grown to appreciate how Ramos kept the story going, even if the heavier emotional moments don’t land quite as well. And for this sort of show, it didn’t need to land well in the first place.
One of Nina’s quirks throughout her tenure on the show is that she’s a terrible liar. Moments of levity try to grow from that soil but awkward excuses bloom instead. It works for the scenes, Nina is meant to be a little out of place, a little weird. Whenever they’re talking about something to do with their quest and a non-Sibuna housemate intrudes, Nina always comes up with something utterly insane to say. But their housemates think nothing of it because this American girl is pretty odd. Once more, Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, denotes:
All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice.
At this level of minutia, Nina coming up with a lie about how super into pirates she is to cover up a conversation about a very real treasure map is pretty camp. But in the grander scheme of the whole show, it’s soapy, ever-grandiose oldness of Anubis House and all its lore and the audience’s suspension of disbelief (or lack there of) is dripping in that artifice. And they lean into it! Don’t even think about the logistics of Anubis House’s layout! Architecture be damned, we are getting a secret passageway! Or a tunnel full of weird game tasks!
Nina tries really hard to befriend everyone at Anubis House and is met with resistance, especially from resident goth Patricia Williamson (Jade Ramsey), her new roommate and Joy’s best friend. Patricia says “where’s Joy?” so much in Season 1, it becomes her catchphrase. The only person really nice to Nina is her love interest, Fabian Rutter (Brad Kavanagh), who she describes as “geek chic” in her library.
Fabian is to blame for the way my brain had been wired for the last decade or so. He’s this sweet, nerdy white boy with dark hair that’s easily flustered and would literally die for the girl he fancies. The liberal media will pay for that! He’s the only one that runs after Nina when she cries at supper. He’s the guy in the chair that kids today would describe as “written by women”, which means he’s just nice and caters to their ideal fantasy. Fabian helps Nina investigate the mysteries of Anubis House and recruits Amber (Ana Mulvoy Ten), Alfie (Alex Sawyer), and eventually Patricia into Sibuna (Anubis backwards), their secret little Scooby gang who take it upon themselves to save the world from impending doom.
The cast is rounded out by all the necessary archetypes for this sort of ensemble to run: Amber is the ditzy rich blonde with a heart of gold, Alfie is the class clown; Joy the well-liked best friend with a snarky streak, Mick (Bobby Lockwood) the jock, Jerome (Eugene Simon) the scheming troublemaker, and Mara (Tasie Lawrence) the smartest girl in school. Season 2 marks the arrival of Eddie Miller (Burkeley Duffield), an American student that turns out to be The Osirian, Nina’s protector, and the son of Headmaster Eric Sweet (Paul Antony-Barber). Nina, Amber and Mick depart in Season 3, welcoming new (and American) student KT Rush (Alexandra Shipp) who is actually a descendant of the people who built Anubis House, the Frobisher-Smythes. Shipp later in her career goes on to play Storm in the new X-Men movies, her first appearance as Ororo Munroe happening in Cairo.
The adults make-up the rest of the supporting cast and web of villains, a core principle in children’s telly: the grown-ups are the bad guys and make everything worse. These kids would rather trust ghosts, ancient spirits, and a dollhouse before they trust a grown-up.
Victor Rodenmaar (Francis Magee), the house caretaker, leads a secret society (read: cult) of individuals in pursuit of eternal life which features members of the school’s staff and surrounding public servants (Joy’s father, a government official, is also in this society.) Victor is a prolific chemist and taxidermist in his spare time, and cherishes a stuffed raven he calls Corbiere. He talks to it too. Camp!
Secret Society Traitor Rufus Zeno (Roger Barclay) serves as the series’ primary antagonist, at least for the first two seasons. He’s this creep who approaches teens in the woods pretending to be a private investigator, poses as a fake antiques collector, and the only person that can stand wearing a leather jacket in the UK year round. Barclay is a face I’ve seen more recently on Andor as one of the Imperial captains, it took me a good ten minutes to clock where I knew him from.
Another cult member I should point out, at least in the first season, is Jason Winkler (Jack Donnelly), the school’s new history and drama teacher. Winkler is the youngest on staff and caused a stir amongst the students for being their old tutor’s hot new replacement. Donnelly has a very Nickelodeon face, like the British version of Logan from Big Time Rush. His character is initially introduced as an ally, becoming a confidant for Patricia and a deeply unserious crush for Amber.
They never cross that student-teacher line, thank God; this is TeenNick not Pretty Little Liars. But there is a point on the show where Mara makes it look like Mick is a little too cozy with Coach Robinson because she was jealous of them. That was a whole thing.
It’s shot the way you’d expect any British soap to be shot; harsh, even lighting on single-cam videotape. Lime Pictures, most known for making Hollyoaks, was the British arm behind HoA as they shot in Liverpool. The production value increased every season. Season 2 can afford nicer lenses and bigger set pieces, including a labyrinthian set of tunnels complete with absurd trials and challenges that run under the house where our protagonists seek the Mask of Anubis.
Season 3 catches up with the teen drama looks of 2013–less soap, more cable; interesting depths of field, and warmer colour grading. They also got upgrades in the special effects department, giving the baddies glowing red eyes like they were on Teen Wolf and utilising an even bigger house with even weirder secret rooms. In Touchstone of Ra, the one-hour special after the Season 3 finale, they settle for an inbetween of the last two seasons. There’s a bit more in the budget for locations—they get to do some scenes in a museum, actual sports (flying dodgeballs abound), a silly mascot costume, AND they get a graduation!
The show aired in two eleven-minute segments, much like a cartoon, but aired five days a week as any soap or telenovela would, averaging over 60 segments per season. I love the stark contrast in stakes between their A story and string of B-stories; to think that whilst Nina and her friends are fighting for their lives, some of them are still pulling pranks and putting on school plays. That’s pretty reflective of real life, come to think of it.
House of Anubis, in true soap opera fashion, is also famous for its cliffhangers. The actors have discussed their ‘cliffhanger face’ on set when they shoot scenes that bookend their storylines, essential to the melodrama flowing through the show’s veins. A great bit they do on the show is when the characters are in an insanely obvious and terrible hiding spot to eavesdrop necessary exposition they need and then deliver THEE cliffhanger face of the century.
What the show does really well using those archetypes to hit the sweet spot of well-loved tropes among their target demographic. Nina and Fabian deliver the Best Friends to Lovers trope for those of us with a sweet tooth, whilst Joy’s wide-eyed one-sided crush on Fabian is somewhere we’d all been before in high school at least once. Patricia and Eddie are on the other end of the spectrum with Enemies to Lovers/Idiots to Lovers. Jerome sits in the Damaged Bad Boy archetype for Mara to swoop in to try and fix. Him and Mara wear most of the trope hats on their heads; they go from disliking each other, to fake dating, to becoming real friends and then real dating.
As I’ve revisited the show, I think I’ve turned the tide on Joy. I actually really enjoy her character. Obviously, Klariza Clayton is an exceptionally talented actress, and she’s able to make Joy feel the most real and lived-in. Joy feels like a girl I would have a chat with in the aisle at Big Iceland over a pack of Quorn Nuggets, or someone that would drunkenly compliment you in a bathroom on a night out. She feels like a person, not just an archetype.
I also remember being quite fond of Jerome, who we discover is the son of an imprisoned thief and not exactly as clean-cut as the rest of the wankers at the school. Eugene Simon, who we’d know better now as Lancel Lannister on Game of Thrones, was also able to bring a lot into this portrayal of a teen archetype that would often be flippant on other shows.
He’s tasked as the lone wolf for most of the show, especially when Alfie is committed to his Sibuna duties. Simon gets to tackle meatier emotional arcs like when it’s revealed that Jerome’s father is in prison for larceny.
Like any tween turned twenty-something culture writer, I am a sucker for romance on television. House of Anubis does pairing mad libs almost as wild as the folks on 90210 did. Most of the students that lived in that house have all dated each other, which in a gritty reboot I would personally love to see for the drama. House of Anubis was admittedly my gateway drug into fanfiction, I remember reading fics during the show’s season hiatuses. I just needed that hit!
Upon rewatching the show, I realised that Mara was the dark horse in most of the house’s relationship drama. And she ate that. She slayed! Where Joy was clearly posited (at least in an attempt) to be Nina’s foil in her relationship with Fabian, Mara really goes through the motions in an almost-Adrianna Tate-Duncan fashion all in the name of love.
She first catches Mick’s eye as a study buddy whilst he’s with Amber, all the while Jerome develops a burgeoning crush on her. Her relationship with Jerome grows complicated in Season 2 when Mick leaves for Australia (Bobby Lockwood’s soft exit from the show as he films CBBC’s Wolfblood). Whilst they end up together through the first half Season 3, her and Jerome meet their fair share of bumps in the road, especially when she discovers Jerome is cheating on her with Willow (Louisa Connolly-Burnham). Mara notably steers Joy into fake dating Jerome to get revenge on him. Of course, they end up falling for each other for real. Mara eventually ends up with Fabian in the series finale, being the two I was really rooting for Mara and Jerome, but Joy and Jerome turned out to be a pretty stellar pairing as well (the actors that play them are probably the strongest performers in the cast.)
There’s a point on the show where Mara gives herself a goth makeover, bringing out a Bad Girl alter ego a la Betty Cooper’s murder wig on Riverdale. This version of Mara causes all sorts of trouble for Mick, but mostly for herself. This is when she doctors those photos of Coach Robinson and Mick, and keeps this a secret until she un-goths and Mick confesses his feelings for her after the school play.
The school play was a highlight of Season One for me. Nina essentially writes the history of Victor’s Secret Society and performs it in front of the whole school, with Fabian playing Victor and Patricia as Anubis. It was a piece of metafiction where some of the best acting on the show occured. Tasie Lawrence was pulling out two layers better than—playing Mara playing someone else rather excellently, whilst the other actors played teenagers that could think of a billion other things better to do than stand on stage in silly costumes in front of the entire student body.
I’ve been thinking a lot about who those kids would have become after leaving Anubis House. Some of their parents are horrendously rich, and schools like that are known for breeding future MPs and Etonites. They all have different skills; Joy and her proclivity for multimedia, Amber and fashion, Fabian and Mara with their academics. They could go on to become whatever they want in whatever field they want because their privilege gives them a leg up.
It’s what I hope they address the most in the inevitable gritty reboot (that I may or may not be writing on spec just for fun) are class dynamics in private school politics. They touch on it a little bit with Nina being a scholarship student, or when Mick’s father seems to have a lot of say in what happens in the school because of how much the school would lose when he threatened to pull his son out. There’s an especially nasty spat between Mara and Jerome in Season 3 after their break-up (I know, horrid!); Mara learns that she’s related to a Lord and stands to inherit a lot of money and takes a jab at Jerome for being related to a thief.
I think it would be interesting to see them tackle their own relationships to privilege and power (or not at all in the cases of people like Amber or Mick) in the material world whilst so much life-or-death mystical nonsense is at stake. I feel like I’ve been gunning after Mara a lot in this piece, but that’s probably because she’s one of my favourite characters. She’s more complex than she lets on, someone perfect on the outside that’s equally turbulent on the inside.
Another thought I had whilst I was mulling over all these thoughts was how interesting it is that in popular fiction, Ancient Egyptian mythology and its mysticism are often wielded by Westerners, namely the Brits and Americans. Obviously, it’s both a matter of the predominant target market and a product of imperialism. The events of House of Anubis are proof that British people need to return the shit they stole or they’d be in danger forever! In Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles, siblings Carter and Sadie Kane discover that they’re conduits for the gods Horus and Isis, also descendents of Egyptologists. In Moon Knight, the gods choose whoever they want to be hosts—with Khonshu reluctantly selecting Marc Spector.
Moon Knight and House of Anubis (at least in its third season) both sought to raise the goddess Ammit into their world, known to be the “devourer of the dead”. Perhaps it says something about our fixation with death permeating across cultures and demographics, or something about death being the highest storytelling ‘stake’, even though you can tell stories about people after they die or set in the afterlife (but we can’t tell stories when we’re dead, that we know of).
I also just found out there’s a Percy Jackson-Kane Chronicles crossover that I will track down and read for the 12-year-old version of myself that definitely would’ve loved that.
I always enjoy a little trip down memory lane, most of my body of work online reflects and even celebrates that. House of Anubis was so formative for me because it represented this limbo I would’ve been experiencing—no longer a child, but not yet a teen. Tween. Something in between. The show exists in a sort of limbo as well, not quite children’s telly, not quite teen programming. But the one thing it knew for sure that it wasn’t trying to be anything else. I’ve yet to seek out the original Dutch-Belgian show, but I’m sure that’ll be a hoot and a half as well.
There’s a lot more that I still want to say about this show, and I’m sure I will in the future, but I’ll bring it back to Susan Sontag:
It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off”, of things-being-what-they’re not.
That’s all for now!
All my love,