Cult Conversations: Lovecraftian Myth and Paratextual Ripples in Popular Culture by Keith McDonald

Keith McDonald

There is a scene in the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards) where in order to extract information from Empire defector Bodhi Rock (Riz Ahmed) the mysterious Rebel faction leader Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker) introduces him to a blob-like tentacled creature named Bor Gullet. Gerrera explains the creature's power as it wraps its tentacles around the terrified Rook, “Bor Gullet can feel your thoughts. No lie is safe. What have you really brought me, cargo pilot? Bor Gullet will know the truth. The unfortunate side effect is that one tends to lose one’s mind.” This of course nods both visually and thematically to H.P. Lovecraft where human engagement with strange and powerful creatures leads to the splintering of the mind in what is in essence a psychic rape in the most popular film franchise on the planet. This is not surprising in some ways, Lovecraft’s contribution to Weird Tales was his main outlet and the pulp sensibility and genre focus was part of the soup of influences on the Star Wars mythos.


Mark Jones gives a comprehensive overview of Lovecraft’s influence on popular culture in his essay, Tentacles and Teeth: The Lovecraftian Being in Popular Culture, which acts as a starting point for the following discussion. Of course, there is paratextual merchandise using the image of Bor Gullet in the form of a ‘cutsie’ t-shirt on which it wears a cap with the word “Truth” written on it. If one doesn’t already exist, there will surely be a collectible figurine to be traded on the fan convention circuit and it is paratexts (models etc.) that will be the focus of what follows here.

One can only imagine what Lovecraft would make of the recent release of the Pop Vinyl Cthulu figure, but it is easy (and perhaps lazy) to imagine a less than enthusiastic response. There are thousands of Lovecraftian collectables in circulation in comic book outlets, at fan conventions and online. These are not always drenched in irony though, the majority of the models themselves are intricate, at times unnerving, and invocative of the memorable power of Lovecraft’s creations. The most popular of these creatures is Cthulu itself, which fittingly has a myriad of incarnations (including a plush child’s toy). Alongside this, there are coffee mugs, coasters, mobile phone cases, tote bags and jewelry, much of which can be bought through websites such as where, when opening a new page to browse, you click on a tab which reads ‘Load more madness.’ This sees literary mythos turned into a growing commercial industry. No doubt some Lovecraft purists will baulk at this and see is as an anathema to the intentions of the author. However, this is Barthe’s concept of ‘the death of the author’ blended with monetized appropriation and user-generated content in physical form. The death of one author does not mean the death of the author’s creations and the ongoing curation of the writer’s incantations. This is fitting in a mythos in which a general disdain for the notions of the time in human culture and indeed humanity loom large. The fact that the internet is used as a portal to ‘load more madness’ and retain the longevity of the creations where ancients always return has its place in popular culture too. As Tara Brabazon states, “[p]opular culture is a conduit for popular memory, moving words, ideas ideologies and narratives through time.” (p, 67) Again, the fact that the lexicon of the Cthulu mythos is retained and recognised is fitting here.


Of course it must be acknowledged that these pop-cultural tokens exist in a wider pantheon of paratextual produce in fan culture, be it in relation to toys, models and commemorative materials and that these do not need to be science fictional or Horror inflected in order to create meaning for some and have cache. However, in Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-real Testament Adam Possamai makes a case that fictional religious fantasies are commonly represented in pop-cultural paratexts in for instance the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Tolkien franchises (82). He also points out that whereas many of these pop-cultural fictions work and utilize binary oppositions in relation to morality, Lovecraftian mythos stands out in that insanity and defeat is the terrible resolution (82).


In addition there is the broader canon of horror inflected paratexts circulated in this manner for an extremely long time (pop-culturally speaking) to the extent that we take them for granted (Dracula, Frankenstein etc.). In this context the wider popularization of Cthulian icons is relatively new and niche, yet persistent and growing. This is perhaps due to the curation and extension of the Mythos’ imagery by the likes of filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Ridley Scott and writers such as Alan Moore who in various ways insist upon the return of the entities.

Cthulu-inspired guitar

Cthulu-inspired guitar

Justin Mullis points out the nature of the Cthulu mythos, with its sense of irreverence to binary structures and its polymorphous incarnations may be fitting for practices of hybridization and fan and enthusiasts ironic take on the iconic. He writes:

“Because of the heterodox themes found throughout Lovecraft's work, his Cthulhu Mythos has become a natural candidate for...subversion. Drawing on notions developed by anthropologists and historians of religion who have dealt with the related social functions of ritual, play, and joking.”


Cthulu itself as a visual presence is itself many tentacled and these can be seen as both drawing upon existing mythologies (Medusa, Hydra etc.) whist inviting myriad versions of such icons. This may sound rather far fetched, but as noted by Mullis, Lovecraft himself actively encouraged others to expand the product of his own writing including writers such as Robert Bloch. In a world of mass participatory culture, it may be strangely fitting that fans get to access these idols in a range of celebratory, ironic and humorous manners in the vein of the ever evolving mythos. Humor may be seen as derisory to the intentions of the author who is so often presented (rightly or wrongly) as impressively humorless, but these humorous takes do involve intelligence and a sense of a communal shorthand as described by Millus:

“For a joke to work, it must first create a subjunctive world in which its narrative makes sense. It is also crucial that the subject matter that constitutes the joke be recognized by those to whom it is being presented. If one does not understand what a joke is about, then it will fail.”

There is of course a precedent here in terms of textual poaching which can be seen in the form of the figurines used in the Call of Cthulu role playing game which dates back to 1981, and as anyone who has ever played desktop gaming will attest to, rituals and paraphernalia are key. RPGs exist to facilitate live fan-fictions and with these come opportunities for enthusiasts to shape narratives and to customize their own paraphernalia by, for instance, painting and customizing their collection. The term collection here is key. The miniatures in this context are collections within collectives and anyone entering a Games Workshop to see players comparing their latest addition will see that this paratextual practice is a large part of the overall immersion in whatever mythos the participants are sharing. Jenkins notes that fandom was networked through many media forms before the advent of the internet and fan communities have simply spread and evolved with changing times. There is of course a nostalgic fetishism in the case of Lovecraftian paratexts, which echoes the boom in fan-culture. This does though point to the fact that collecting and sharing binds collectives but can also become a part of an individual’s sense of self. In Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture, Lincoln Geraghty writes of the ways in which material objects remind collectors of a non-digital past and their allure lies in their tactility. He writes that they are "solid signifiers of the historical significance of previous media texts." (p,2)


In this sense, collectors of memorabilia are collaborative curators of the mythos from which the items themselves arise and this may explain the proliferation in Lovecraftian creations where the ancient is ingrained and will always return. In this context, fans can become engaged with some of the original material (ironically or not) that is being shepherded along by the makers of the paratexts themselves (e,g, Pop Vinyl) and this is in many ways further bolstered by the popularization of the images and wider mythos in curatorial popular narratives as can be seen for instance in the Hellboy franchise. There is perhaps currently no more famous a curator of paratexts than Guillermo del Toro, who has an admitted obsession with genre memorabilia and is both a prolific curator and a champion of Lovecraft’s work and ethos. In 2016 there was a large travelling exhibition showcasing del Toro’s vast archive of artefacts entitled At Home with the Monsters, which of course included many Lovecraftian tokens including a life size model which glares at visitors. Speaking of his collection del Toro states:

Guillermo del Toro’s  At Home with the Monsters

Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with the Monsters

You want to have these icons around you and you want to have that relationship with those items because they define a moment when your soul or your spirit was touched. That is the deepest level of collecting. The more superficial level is hoarding: the anal-retentive need to have it all. (p,33)

It is of course important to consider importance of totems and other objects in the Lovecraft mythos. Many objects (keys, statues, jewelry etc.) are imbued with a terrible potency. Consider the following from Call of Cthulu:

“His name was John Raymond Legrasse, and he was by profession an Inspector of Police. With him he bore the subject of his visit, a grotesque, repulsive, and apparently very ancient stone statuette whose origin he was at a loss to determine. It must not be fancied that Inspector Legrasse had the least interest in archaeology. On the contrary, his wish for enlightenment was prompted by purely professional considerations. The statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was, had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting; and so singular and hideous were the rites connected with it, that the police could not but realise that they had stumbled on a dark cult totally unknown to them…” (p,54)

Considering this, it may be of no surprise that the cultish and fetishistic nature of some elements of horror fandom are drawn towards attaining and maintaining these replicas in many forms, be this with irony or intricacy (or both) in mind. No doubt some will see this practice as diluting the power of the mythos, particularly in terms of the frivolous nature of some of the products. However, I would argue that in continually resurrecting such images as simulated artefacts (even in resin and vinyl) they chime, however discordantly, with the mythos itself, in that they both preserve and pervert it.


Brabazon, T. From Revolution to Revelation: Generation X, Popular Memory and Cultural Studies. Routledge (2005)

del Toro, G. Guillermo del Toro: At Home with the Monsters. Titan Books (2016)

Geraghty, L. Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture. Routledge (2014)

Gray, J, Sandvoss, C. and Harrington, L (eds.) Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. NYU Press (2017).

Lovecraft, H.P. The Classic Horror Stories. Oxford University Press (2013)

Jones, M. ‘Tentacles and Teeth: The Lovecraftian Being in Popular Culture’ (in New Critical Essays on H.P. Lovecraft ed. David Simmons. Palgrave Macmillian (2013)

Millus, J. “Playing Games with the Great Old Ones: Ritual, Play, and Joking within the Cthulhu Mythos Fandom.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 26.3 (Fall, 2105) p, 512+

Possamai, A. Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament. Peter Lang (2005).

Keith McDonald is


Cult Conversations: Desktop Horror and Captive Cinema by Miranda Ruth Larsen

To conclude the Cult Conversations series, we have two essays this week. Today, Miranda Ruth Larsen writes about found footage sub-genre that is increasingly being labelled as ‘desktop horror.’ On Thursday, we have Keith McDonald on the enduring transmedia impact of H.P Lovecraft.

I hope readers have enjoyed the many interviews and exchanges we have been publishing for the past three months or so. It has been quite the ride, and I sincerely would like to thank all the scholars who contributed and taught me so much about horror, exploitation, the Gothic, and cult cinema in general. Thanks to each and everyone of you.

In the meantime, if you’ve enjoyed the series, and would like to contribute to a sequel later in 2019, please send an email to:

——- William Proctor


Desktop Horror and Captive Cinema

Miranda Ruth Larsen

Found footage remains one of the more derided permutations of horror cinema. A consistent point of debate, cinema studies and horror fandom alike often judge any new iteration against two benchmark entries in the subgenre: The Blair Witch Project (Myrick and Sanchez, 1999) and Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007). Both films were considered at the time of their release as simultaneously gimmicky and revolutionary. This is unsurprising given that “horror as a genre is often the first site to interrogate evolving technologies, both within the narrative and through the formal properties of the medium within which it exists” (Daniel 2017, 2).

We must remember that horror is one of the most effective sites utilizing cinema’s power of offscreen space; “the frame, in horror, invites considerations about both the harboring of monsters off-screen and the dangers lurking in the dark corners of a delimited visual field” (Sayad 2016, 48). This often works unconsciously, but the horror film’s potentiality for scares encourages viewers to regularly ponder borders and their depth: what can’t we see and will we see it? For example, the scene pictured below from a ‘conventional’ horror film, The Conjuring (Wan, 2013), is so effective because we have been led by aural cues and Carolyn’s gaze in two shot-reverse-shot sequences to think something is likely coming up the stairs from the basement offscreen. Instead, ghostly hands emerge from the darkness behind Carolyn, along with the creepy whisper “Hey, wanna play hide and clap?”


In the same vein, found footage — even at its worst — makes explicit reference to the terrifying potentiality of the frame through the very conceit of existing as found footage. Inarguably, “with the found footage horror film, the interpenetration of reality and fiction that was traditionally discussed in terms of allegory or topical references has found a new locus: the film’s form” (Sayad 2016, 43). This article will consider one of found footage’s (contended) iterations: the desktop horror film, alternatively referred to as screenlife/social media horror. Rather than view desktop horror as a gimmick (as has been said too often of the subgenre as a whole), I argue that this permutation is in step with two previous trends of found footage: shaky-cam and fixed-cam.

The oft-derided shaky-cam aesthetics of many found footage films brings the terror of the cinematic frame to the forefront, placing the camera in the hands of a character. The name harkens to, of course, terrified people running from something and making the frame unstable. The camera is usually wielded by a few people documenting something; it becomes, essentially, a surrogate for our own field of vision, the clear limitation of our cinematic senses. Many films make explicit reference to the technical capacity of cameras, batteries, and lights in the midst of the unfolding terror. We cannot forget that the cinema screen is the screen of a physical object within the diegesis; we are constantly reminded through dialogue and the actual treatment of the frame. Shaky-cam often concludes with a contrasting eerie stillness reinforcing the camera as an object with limited gaze; the infamous ending of The Blair With Project makes this clear. We don’t get to see what’s happening to Heather as she suddenly becomes silent, because the dropped camera is pointed towards Mike facing the corner — doubling of our own blindness as viewers.

Complimenting this are the aesthetics of fixed-cam found footage films. These films lean towards surveillance camera setups, CCTV footage, or more ‘professional’ mounted cameras throughout the diegesis. The main marker here is the ubiquitous timestamp within the frame, reminding us that we are engaged in a particular mode of watching. In these types of films, much of the content “is composed of static surveillance-style footage designed to prompt the spectator to search the frame for any presence of the supernatural entity” (Daniel 2017, 56). Paranormal Activity largely capitalizes on this, with the routine documentation of Katie and Micah sleeping setting the rhythm of the film. The obsessively identical setup for the camera each night, engineered by Micah, allows viewers to become familiar with the appearance of the couple’s bedroom. The mise-en-scene here is crucial, leading to simple actions like a hallway light turning on and off becoming major events. We are frequently indoctrinated with characters soliloquizing about angles, adjusting sharpness, and trying to capture particular elements of a room. One of the most impactful moments of Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost and Schulman 2011), set in 1988, is when Dennis rigs a camera to slowly pan back and forth between the kitchen and living room by mounting the device on the base of an electric fan. This harnesses a particularly familiar motion — the slow oscillation of a fan — and coaxes our gaze to search, in dread, every newly revealed bit of the frame. The pan takes about 17 seconds to complete, with the buildup occasionally leading to some chilling scenes (see below).


Whether shaky or still, these framing techniques often employ night-vision, another tool for guiding the audience’s focus. Flattening out the usual palette of colors to something tinged green or blue not only adds a sheen of documentary authenticity, but makes every object within the frame charged with potential. When an Xbox Kinect light grid system reveals something otherworldly in the room in Paranormal Activity 4 (Joost and Schulman 2012), we are reminded that a multitude of cameras exist within our own living rooms. At the same time, we are reminded that a multitude of entities may also exist there as well


Desktop horror films, then, highlight the best component of found footage; a hyper-attention to frames and borders. The cameras available to us on a daily basis, including our computers and phones, provide familiar frames of attention. Their layering within the screen mirrors our own technological engagement in daily life. Unfriended’s release in 2014 hyped up the focus on surveillance technology (usually found in steady-cam found footage) and the penchant for the screen as embodied perspective (usually found in shaky-cam found footage) by the focus on Blaire’s desktop. In an early reaction to the film for The Verge, Emily Yoshida notes that:

“The frame remains locked off to the exact area of the desktop; we never see a face bigger than one-sixteenth of the screen. ‘Cuts’ are made by whatever Blaire chooses to bring up on the screen, whether its Facebook Messenger (where Laura communicates with her directly) or a paranormal forum explaining the phenomenon of the dead coming back to possess people via social media (helpfully scrolled through at a comfortable reading pace for us by Blaire while her friends argue in the background). Otherwise, we are never explicitly forced to look at anything; like the first forays into VR filmmaking, the filmmaker (in this case Russian director Levan Gabriadze, in his US feature debut) can only suggest where the eye should go via composition.” 

The premise and execution were done so well that most reflections about the film omit that the last scene takes place outside of the desktop and with a diegetically inconsistent viewpoint. In other words, the technological feat of Unfriended eclipsed the adherence to the conceit and the actual details of the narrative. This becomes clear, four years later, with the release of Searching (Chaganty 2018).


The iTunes landing page for Searching begins with the comment: “Taking the ingenious, entirely-on-a-computer-screen technique of the Unfriended horror movies a little bit further, Searching spins a tense, tightly constructed missing-person mystery out of mouse clicks and switching windows.” Billed horror in some circles and a thriller in others, Searching’s box office success may explain the pinning of this particular iTunes review. Disregarding the quibbles about what genre Searching is, the important thing here is that Unfriended is referenced as a benchmark of cinematic technique, and that Searching is somehow expanding that technique. Unfriended unfolds in real time, giving us Blaire’s desktop. Searching, on the other hand, takes place over days and jumps between multiple computers, cell phones, spycams, and television footage. In many ways, Searching is more like older found footage films; it rings of a documentary aesthetic, a true crime tale without the post-incident talking heads. It is not, as Yoshida points out, the same as how Unfriended “actually looks like our lives, for better or worse” (Yoshida 2015). In many ways, the switching between screens in Searching offers the audience visual respite; in relying on uneventful shots (like iPhone call screens), it tells rather than shows. I would disagree, then, with the iTunes review featured so prominently on Searching’s splash page; while an effective film, Searching actually does little to expand what Unfriended accomplished in terms of the desktop.

Desktop horror films not only ask us to police the borders of the frame like conventional found footage, but to scan the dearth of information contained within the desktop view for clues and abnormalities. We infer characterization from the speed of mouse clicks, the hesitation of entering text, and the way the desktop itself is organized. In Searching, when Dave is looking at Margot’s Facebook page, a trending item on the sidebar is the name Laura Barnes — the vengeful teenager behind all the chaos in Unfriended. This suggests that Unfriended and Searching take place in the same cinematic universe. Similarly, brief attention is given to a photo where Margot sits by herself eating lunch while another group of teenagers poses for the camera. The Facebook post containing the photo tags everyone — all, except Margot, are named after characters from M. Night Shyamalan films. Critics may want to nudge Searching away from the horror label, but the intertextual linkages are there for the attentive viewer.

An earlier entry in desktop horror, The Den (Donohue 2013), was overlooked (likely for reasons of distribution). Found footage horror has always struggled with claims of innovation, and constructing the genealogy of particular techniques is a challenge. It becomes easier, in both academia and mainstream circles, to essentialize and give the credit to a particular film that is widely referenced.

The Den also delves into uncomfortably reflexive territory, as the protagonist of the film is a graduate student researching a particular online portal, the titular Den, which operates with some similarity to Chatroulette. The film utilizes other screens besides the desktop, particularly cop car cameras and phones, but the time spent viewing Elizabeth’s desktop as she navigates the Den makes up the bulk of the film. We’re offered glimpses into different corners of the internet, a wide range of content that is too similar to our own daily forays online. Like Unfriended, there’s plenty of text and imagery here to sort through — impossible to complete in one viewing. In the end, Elizabeth ends up a victim because people “are watching everything.”


Ultimately, desktop horror offers a cinematic experience that many already enjoy in found footage films. We are, for the duration of the film, captive. This fact is emphasized by the treatment of frames and borders, the awareness of the camera’s technological capabilities, and the need for a hyper-attentive, searching gaze. As Sayad contends, “the found footage horror film offers also more radical ways of decentering our gaze and expanding the frame” (Sayad 2016, 64). I would argue that carefully constructed found footage accomplishes this sensory state better than many narrative horror films, because of the collapsing boundaries between the diegesis and reality.

I’d like to end on a question, something I haven’t completely parsed out for myself. Is there an optimal screening situation for desktop horror based on form? I’m not asking in order to privilege a particular mode of spectatorship, believe it or not. Lofty accounts of theater-based cinematic consumption are exaggerated in many cases, where they “often treat this unidirectional attention as if it is affectively overwhelming: spectators are assumed to be more serious, contemplative, and immersed by virtue of the fact that their eyes are ‘glued’ to the screen” (Svensson and Hassoun 2016, 172). In many cases, home viewing is an easier option for controlling the environment; on a recent visit to the US, I found myself routinely distracted by other moviegoers talking and looking at their phones during a film.

I watched both Unfriended and Searching in theaters, and found the amplification of the desktop’s size personally captivating. The immense scale of the desktop in this screening space is undoubtedly impressive. However, for someone else, this could have been ridiculously boring. Conversely, Unfriended: The Dark Web wasn’t theatrically released in Japan, so I watched it on a laptop at home. There’s something impressive about this option as well, an unsettling friction at the boundaries. Yet for someone else, it could be different. Perhaps the optimal screening environment depends on our own personal engagement with screens themselves.

My hope is that with the success of films like Unfriended and Searching, desktop horror will become another avenue for independent filmmakers and those working with small budgets to make some truly terrifying content. Our screens aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so we might as well realize their potential as windows we may not want to look through.

Works cited

Daniel, Adam J. “Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality.” 2017. Doctoral Thesis: Western Sydney University.

Sayad, Cecilia. “Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing.” 2016. Cinema Journal. Vol 55, No. 2.

Svensson, Alexander and Dan Hassoun. “‘Scream into your phone’: Second Screen Horror and Controlled Interactivity.” 2016. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies. Vol 13, Issue 1.

Yoshida, Emily. “Unfriended is the First Film to Accurately Capture Our Digital Lives.” 2015. The Verge.

Miranda Ruth Larsen is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo in the Information, Technology, and Society in Asia program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Bunkyo Gakuin University. She previously earned a Master’s degree in Cinema & Media Studies from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. She is the author of “Fandom and Otaku” in A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies. Her found footage horror film tally currently stands at 140, with an aim to hit 150 by the end of 2018.

Twitter: @AcaOtaku

Letterboxd: Mira116

Cult Conversations: Interview with Craig Ian Mann (Part II)


Could you expound on your own question, rhetorical though it may be: “are we so precious about horror's low-brow status that we must pretend it means nothing?” Do you think that horror is still largely disparaged as low-brow? Who are the “we” that may be “so precious” about such status and what might be the reason for this preciousness?

I think there's ample evidence that horror is disparaged. You only have to look at the media articles that pop up every time a new A24 film is released. While I tend to love A24's horror output, there's always a larger sense that each film is somehow a "better" or new kind of horror movie that puts to bed decades of apparently meaningless slash-and-stalk nonsense – which is, of course, total rubbish. So as to whether there is a larger cultural perception that horror is low-brow: yes, definitely. I think there always has been and always will be to some extent. You'll always find a critic who latches onto the latest indie horror sensation as a turning point and unnecessarily tries to argue for the genre's sudden transition from apparent trash to supposed art.

On the other hand, though, I think we are seeing a wider acceptance of horror. I think part of that is the attention that the academy has been giving to the genre since the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years it has also been due to companies like Arrow, Eureka, Shout Factory, Powerhouse/Indicator and so on. By giving horror films prestige treatment, releasing them in beautifully presented packages with an embarrassment of special features, those companies have aided in establishing the genre as a subject for mainstream critics. And the wider acceptance of horror is starting to show in some pretty clear ways: look at the BFI's Stephen King on Screen season. A retrospective of King adaptations (and a selection of horror movies chosen by King) would have been unthinkable for the NFT ten years ago. So it's great to see a wider celebration of popular cinema – though I'll add that I'm extremely wary of framing these changes as a "legitimisation" of horror, as it has always been a meaningful and versatile genre.


Anyway, to expand on the specific point I was making: I really enjoy industrial studies of horror cinema, and it's obvious that there will be a tendency in those works to pitch horror films as saleable products first and foremost (just as I prioritise historical context – it's a natural outcome of taking a certain approach). However, I think it's unnecessarily oppositional to set up those commercial imperatives in direct counterpoint to any framework that attempts to derive cultural meaning from horror. Just because horror films are – sometimes, though not always – designed for mass consumption, that doesn't mean that they don't carry meaning. I think there is a sense in some industrial studies that we must protect horror from an intelligentsia that would ruin its mass market appeal, and I just don't understand that argument. In short, just as I'm wary of attempts to legitimise horror films, I'm also wary of attempts to delegitimise them: to me it seems odd to suddenly reframe horror films as high art, but it's also problematic to reduce them to economics and shut out thematic concerns. Methodological approaches can and should co-exist and intersect.

There have been many accounts in press discourse recently arguing that horror cinema is undergoing a renaissance, or resurgence, of sorts. Do you agree with claims that we are witnessing a new ‘golden age’ of horror cinema?   

Well, I am co-organiser of Fear 2000 (with Sheffield Hallam University colleagues Rose Butler and Shelley O'Brien), which is an annual conference series dedicated to horror media in the twenty-first century – so I certainly think we're in a particularly interesting period for horror films, and there's a lot to say about their continued relevance, popularity and significance.

I'm a particular fan of a group of American filmmakers that either made or are currently making their names producing independent horror movies: Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, E.L. Katz, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, Ted Geoghegan, Joe Begos, Mickey Keating, Ana Asensio. These are all writers and directors (and writer-directors) that have some connection to Larry Fessenden, a writer, director, producer and actor who deserves to be more widely studied and who has been involved – in one way or another – in some of the most astonishing horror films made since the turn of the millennium (in fact, several of them have made films produced or co-produced by Glass Eye Pix, Fessenden's production company). So I think American horror is alive and well, and I'm also an avid follower of contemporary British, Canadian and Australasian genre cinema.

And I would agree – with a couple of extreme caveats – that there is some truth to the idea that we are witnessing a "golden age" of horror, but not for the reasons often cited in the popular press. It isn't a matter of quality for me, which seems to be how this debate is most frequently framed. I think we have seen horror resurge in large part because of new opportunities that make it easier for great movies to find a platform. The increasing inclusion and appreciation of horror films on the festival circuit has come to play a huge part in this over the last few decades, as has the increasing number of dedicated regional genre film festivals – such as Sheffield's Celluloid Screams or Nottingham's Mayhem – and boutique home-video distributors. And we're also starting to see the benefit of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Shudder as an alternative distribution and exhibition network.


Horror films are finding an audience like never before through these new avenues, which in turn has enabled companies like Blumhouse and A24 to find success selling horror films through the more traditional theatrical routes. So there's a sense that horror cinema is not necessarily getting "better" as such, but that more people are able to see and engage with it. It is certainly a popular and mainstream genre at the moment in a way it hasn't been since the 1980s.

What I don't agree with, however, is the widespread idea that any current "golden age" has occurred because horror films are becoming more meaningful, which ties into our discussion around cultural approaches to horror cinema and attempts to legitimise or delegitimise the genre. Horror films have always been meaningful, and the fact that contemporary genre movies have been clearly influenced by the cultural circumstances of their production – e.g. Get Out (2017) – is nothing new. We don't need to invent new terms for certain groups of films – and I'm primarily talking about the particularly contentious "post-horror", but I'll make clear I'm also thinking of terms like "mumblegore", "deathwave" and so on – to elevate them above the pack or differentiate them from the horror of decades past.

I think the idea that a certain crop of contemporary horror films are somehow more thematically interesting or politically engaged than their predecessors and/or contemporaries is pretty problematic. Horror has always been a rich, varied and versatile genre; creating a new label to describe a select cycle that happens to have met with praise just seems be a way to justify and legitimise enjoying a type of film that might otherwise be considered too trashy for the critical mainstream. But we've been here before; as Silence of the Lambs (1991) was apparently a "psychological thriller," so Get Out is a "social thriller." These kinds of labels will come back around again (and sadly it will probably be sooner rather than later).

How would you respond to Alice Haylett Bryan’s argument about horror (quoted in The Guardian)?

“Certain subgenres of horror are undoubtedly getting more extreme, but this is the case across culture as a whole, with computer games and television programmes such as The Walking Dead. We are now living in an age where real acts of violence, and indeed death, have been screened on Facebook and YouTube. Could it not be argued that this desensitizes viewers on a more fundamental and concerning level?”

Well, I suppose there are three parts to this: whether certain facets of the horror film are becoming increasingly extreme, whether they desensitise us to violence, and whether we should find the real-life horrors available to view on the internet far more troubling. As for the first question, I think the trend for extreme imagery in mainstream horror has passed for the most part. The torture porn cycle has come and gone – with a brief revival in Jigsaw (2017), a film that was ironically criticised for not being gory enough – and the New French Extremity movement seems to have naturally played itself out. The most recent French horror film to be actively marketed as being "extreme" was Raw (2016), which became the subject of an awful lot of hype due to reports of overdramatic reactions on the festival circuit, but the film itself is actually relatively tame. I think there are still some very interesting examples of visceral, sanguinary horror cinema out there, but you have to go digging a little deeper now. Baskin (2015) and Housewife (2017), two films by Turkish filmmaker Can Evrenol, are the first examples that come to mind. But I think the trend for pushing the envelope that was at the forefront of horror in the 2000s is largely over now.


 It's probably not surprising to hear that I don't subscribe to the idea that horror desensitises us to violence. As a culturalist, my stance is that horror films can actually provide a form of catharsis and allow us to work through real-world issues. There has been a particular cycle of American horror films since 2007, for example, that has arisen from the cultural moment following the financial crisis and the Great Recession. These films – so I'm talking about movies like The House of the Devil (2009), The Innkeepers (2011), Cheap Thrills (2013), You're Next (2013), Starry Eyes (2014) and Don't Breathe (2016), for example – often concentrate on poor, disenfranchised and flawed protagonists who find themselves in horrifying situations (sometimes by choice and other times not), and don't walk away because they simply can't afford to. So actually I think horror films can be quite cathartic.


 And yes, I think real-world violence is far more concerning than fictional violence, but I think that has always been true and isn't confined to the age of the internet (though, it's undeniable that if you want to find images of real death it's far easier to do now that it has ever been before). When the likes of Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last House on the Left (1972) and Deathdream (1974) were released, the average American could watch someone being blown-up in Vietnam while eating their dinner. So I completely agree with Haylett Bryan, really – there are far more worrying things in the world than horror movies.

Well, Haylett-Bryan is also claiming that viewers have been “desensitized” by extreme horror. What are your views on whether or not horror cinema affects audiences to a degree that they are “desensitized” by on-screen violence and that this might impact everyday lives in relation to real-world violence?

I don't know if that is what Haylett Bryan is saying, exactly (her comments on desensitisation are in direct reference to real-world violence, after all). And I think we also need to think about what "desensitisation" actually means in this context. I suppose, on a fundamental level, the more you are exposed to fictionalised images of violence, the less they are likely to shock you next time you see them.

However, human beings are perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, so if we are taking "desensitisation" to mean that horror has the potential to numb us to the many horrors of the real world or even encourage us to commit acts of violence ourselves: absolutely not, and I don't think Haylett Bryan is proposing that either. I don't want to speak for her, but I would imagine that she is simply trying to point out that – now that images of real death have proliferated on the internet and can be readily found and accessed – the media should probably stop agonising over the fact that people continue to watch and enjoy horror films.

What are you working on at the moment and what are your research plans for the future?

Well, I spent Halloween at Birmingham City University presenting on werewolf cinema as part of a research seminar series organised by Xavier Mendik and Charlotte Stevens. Since then I've been chipping away at Phases of the Moon, which is due either late 2019 or early 2020. That will be preceded by a Horror Studies article taken from the book; it focuses on the American werewolf films of the 1970s and should be published in the Spring 2019 issue.

I have a few other articles and book chapters that should see publication in the near future, including a piece for the Journal of Popular Film and Television on the relationship between Jim Mickle and Nick Damici's Mulberry Street (2006) and the post-recession economic horror cycle. I've also been working on some research outside of the horror genre and have just written a chapter for an upcoming collection on cult Westerns edited by Lee Broughton. Plans are also coming together for the next Fear 2000 conference, slowly but surely.

I have a number of plans for future research, including an edited collection to follow up on Phases of the Moon and a few monograph ideas. Nothing definitive yet, but I'd like to pursue a project on science fiction or the Western. There are also a number of individual films I'd like to take as a focus for a single volume. We'll see how things develop.

What five films do you think represent the best that Werewolf cinema has to offer and why?

That is a really tough question, but I'll certainly give it a go.

The Wolf Man (1941)

I think it's really hard to underestimate the importance of The Wolf Man for the development of werewolf cinema (and for the modern conception of werewolves in general). It's not the first werewolf film – as far as we know that honour goes to a lost silent short appropriately called The Werewolf (1913) – and it was predated by a couple of extant examples: Wolf Blood (1925) and Werewolf of London. However, it popularised a lot of the tropes we now associate with the monster: transformation linked to the moon, silver as a werewolf repellent, the painful and destressing nature of metamorphosis. All of these elements have their basis in folklore (and Werewolf of London had previously linked a werewolf's transformations with moonlight), but it was Siodmak who canonised them. It was also the popularity of The Wolf Man that led to an entire cycle of werewolf films in the 1940s: The Mad Monster (1942), The Undying Monster (1942), Cry of the Werewolf (1944), She-Wolf of London (1946), as well as RKO's closely related Cat People (1942). And, of course, it spawned three sequels of its own – four if you count Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). So while the first werewolf films predate The Wolf Man by nearly thirty years, it's certainly the most significant of the early examples.


I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

While The Wolf Man popularised a lot of the generic tropes we associate with werewolves, I Was a Teenage Werewolf is one of the most thematically influential werewolf films ever made. As the title suggests, this is the film that established the "teenage werewolf" trope and first used werewolfism as a metaphor for adolescent angst and teenage rebellion. These have remained some of the most prolific and consistent themes in werewolf cinema ever since. Without I Was a Teenage Werewolf, there would be no Teen Wolf (1985) and no Ginger Snaps (2000) – and you can still see its influence today in films such as When Animals Dream (2014), Uncaged (2016) and Wildling (2018). So what started life as a low-budget exploitation movie designed to cash-in on a burgeoning teen market has proven to be a major milestone in the development of werewolf cinema. It's just a shame that the only way to see it now is either on VHS or a bootleg DVD. I'm also a big fan of the other American werewolf movie of the 1950s: The Werewolf (1956), which updates the monster for the atomic age. It played as the B-picture with Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), which is a double-bill I have replicated more times than I'd like to admit…


Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

First of all, Werewolves on Wheels has a title that no one in their right mind could refuse. But it's actually a much more serious film than you might think: it feels like a high-speed collision between Easy Rider (1969), Race with the Devil (1975) and a werewolf film – though I have no idea which other werewolf movie I would compare it to. It's definitely unique. It follows an outlaw biker gang that descends on an isolated temple in the middle of the arid United States and finds a group of Satanic monks living inside; by the time they leave the temple, half of the bikers have been placed under a curse that turns them into werewolves when the sun goes down. Aside from being a gloriously entertaining exploitation film, Werewolves on Wheels is the werewolf movie that most closely aligns with the "New Horror" movement as typified by the early works of George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Bob Clark and so on. It has that apocalyptic feel, that sense of dreadful pessimism and that countercultural spirit that characterised so many independent horror films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's an utterly fascinating movie and one worth tracking down – it's available on Region 1 DVD, but for the full experience I recommend a late-night viewing of the limited-edition VHS release put out by Manor Video a few years ago.


The Howling (1981)

This was an extremely difficult choice because I am also a huge fan of An American Werewolf in London and particularly Silver Bullet, which is the Gremlins or Fright Night (1985) of werewolf movies. But ultimately I think The Howling is probably the best werewolf film ever made. It was the first film to introduce what I call the "new werewolf": the huge, monstrous, lupine creatures that have been a mainstay of werewolf movies ever since. It also pioneered a new kind of transformation scene, abandoning the editing tricks used in previous decades and replacing them with a prolonged, visceral and grotesque sequence in which the film's werewolf antagonist goes through a graphic metamorphosis in front of his terrified victim (and it's all the more impressive for the fact that it was achieved on a pretty limited budget). Thematically, it has an interesting link with the body-horror imagery that was becoming so popular in horror cinema at the time, and – as you would expect from a film written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante – it's incredibly clever, self-aware and satirical, with a lot to say about the dark side of American culture in the early 1980s. So I'm a huge fan of The Howling, and it is certainly up there with The Wolf Man in terms of its influence. I will even admit to enjoying some of the sequels.


Late Phases (2014)

I think it's important to highlight a recent werewolf film, as there's an unfortunate tendency to write-off everything after the early 2000s – or even after 1981. Late Phases definitely had its supporters though; Bloody Disgusting called it a "masterpiece of the werewolf genre", and I would have no problem agreeing with that. It stars Nick Damici – who is one of my favourite actors – as a blind Vietnam veteran. At the insistence of his son, he moves into a retirement community on the edge of a forest that has become the feeding ground for a werewolf. It has an unorthodox structure, with all of the werewolf scenes in the first and third acts; the middle section follows Damici's character as he tries to discover the monster's identity. So it's essentially the meeting of Rolling Thunder (1977) and Silver Bullet, and it is every bit as good as that sounds. And as a blending of those two movies would suggest, it has some really interesting themes around militarism, religion and social conservatism. I don't want to say too much more because it's a film best seen cold, but I will say that I really like its unique werewolf designs – the creature effects are by Robert Kutzman, so there's some pedigree there. I've also noted above that I'm a big fan of Larry Fessenden, who produces (and appears in a great cameo role as a tombstone salesman).


Craig Ian Mann is an Associate Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where he was awarded his doctorate in 2016. His first monograph, Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. He is broadly interested in the cultural significance of popular genre cinema, including horror, science fiction, action and the Western. His work has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Horror Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television as well as several edited collections. He is co-organiser of the Fear 2000 conference series on horror media in the twenty-first century.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Craig Ian Mann (Part I)

Welcome to the final interview in the ‘Cult Conversations’ series. Last, but certainly not least, the following interview comes courtesy of Craig Ian Mann, whose PhD and forthcoming book centers on the figure of the werewolf in horror cinema. I have had a sneak peak at Craig’s thesis, and found myself reading the full document voraciously. Craig has a great deal to offer the academic landscape, and I’m certain his book will become widely read and, in time, seminal. In the following exchange, Craig and I discuss the origins of his research interests, and get into a debate about so-called ‘reflectionist’ readings of cinematic texts. In the meantime, look out for Craig’s Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).


Your PhD and forthcoming monograph examines the figure of the werewolf in horror cinema. What sparked your interest in the topic? Did it begin with your own fandom? Or was it primarily an academic interest?

It definitely began with my own fandom. I have always been fascinated by monsters, but developed a particular soft spot for werewolves when I was young. The first werewolf film I ever saw was Wolf (1994), which I watched on VHS at a friend's house circa 1998 or 1999 – I can't remember exactly but something like that, anyway. I saw the first werewolf episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) at around the same time ("Phases", which I pay tribute to a little bit with the title of my forthcoming monograph, even if I ultimately couldn't find room for much discussion of  werewolves on television). It was probably Wolf, "Phases" and R.L. Stine's The Werewolf of Fever Swamp (1993) that sparked my initial interest in werewolf narratives.


For better or worse I have an unshakable completist mentality (particularly in relation to cinema), so once I'd picked up that initial interest it was just a matter of consuming as much werewolf media as I could find. I think the next few werewolf movies I saw were probably The Howling (1981) and Silver Bullet (1985). I watched An American Werewolf in London (1981) for the first time on television a few years later and throughout my teens I either rented or bought everything from The Wolf Man (1941) to Dog Soldiers (2002) via Project: Metalbeast (or Metal Beast, 1995). I eventually caught up with the few classics I'd missed – most notably Werewolf of London (1935) – while I was an undergraduate. I'm still very much a fan now; WolfCop (2014), Howl (2015) and especially Late Phases (2014) are some favourites from recent years.


I first wrote about werewolf films while studying contemporary American horror at Sheffield Hallam University. The module leaned heavily towards cultural understandings of horror cinema as a site for working out real-world anxieties. I found it puzzling that so many monsters – vampires, zombies, Frankenstein's monster – had been the focus of entire books detailing their cultural histories, but there was very little work that approached werewolf media in this way. So I chose to write my undergraduate dissertation on the subject. I took a break and put werewolf films to one side for my master's degree, but came back to it for my doctoral studies and I'm now in the process of adapting the thesis into my first monograph. So it started with my fandom and developed into an academic pursuit.


How long have you been a fan of horror cinema? When did your journey begin and what kind of films precipitated your interest in genre films? 

All my life, really – my taste has always leaned towards popular cinema. I vividly remember watching Westerns and science fiction at my grandparents' house when I was really young, so it was likely those early viewing experiences watching films like Winchester '73 (1950) and Forbidden Planet (1956) that shaped my interest in genre movies.


The first horror film I can remember seeing – when I was five or six years old – is Gremlins (1984). My pervading memory of the first time I saw it is Jerry Goldsmith's music. I watched it over and over again after that. It's probably the film I have seen the most times and remains one of my favourites – I still own the off-air VHS tape I first saw it on. In fact, I still watch it every Christmas Eve and have done without fail since I was a teenager (the film, not the VHS tape – I'm not actually sure if it would still play and I don't want to find out).


Putting werewolf movies to one side, other than Gremlins I can think of a few formative experiences in terms of shaping my interest in horror cinema. The first was not long after my parents first let me have a portable TV in my room. I'm not sure exactly when that was but I was definitely younger than eleven. I stayed up one Friday night and watched Candyman (1992). It scared me absolutely witless but somehow I stayed the distance. The sequel was playing on the same channel the next weekend and I tried to watch it, but ended up switching it off after five minutes.


After that, I have a very clear memory of renting Child's Play 2 (1990), and particularly the final scene in the toy factory. But I think the film that really got me hooked on horror was The Blair Witch Project (1999), which my sister bought not long after its video release. We watched it late one night when my parents were out, and it really got under my skin. I tend to return to it once a year or so and even as an adult it still unnerves me a little bit.


Can you talk more about the way in which the werewolf film expresses “cultural understandings of horror cinema as a site for working out real-world anxieties”? Do you see horror cinema as a ‘reflectionist’ vehicle for cultural and ideological phenomena? And if so, how would you respond to studies, such as Mark Bernard’s Selling the Splat Pack (2014), and Kevin Heffernan’s Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold (2004), both of which argue that a reflectionist, aesthetic perspective fails to account for the economies of horror cinema—especially the way in which the reflectionist argument masks commercial impulses that aim to construct horror cinema as legitimately political, and therefore not the ‘bad’ object the genre is often framed in historical terms?

I wouldn't call myself a reflectionist, no, in that I don't believe horror cinema (or any kind of cinema) "reflects" the real world as such. And, of course, in recent years that particular term has been generally used by detractors rather than practitioners of cultural approaches. I don't think of films as reflections of a certain time and place, because that would suggest that they are somehow separate or removed from the society that produced them. I subscribe to the idea of cinema as a product of a particular cultural moment, i.e. that it is inextricable from the ideological debates, social norms and cultural shifts particular to the context in which it was produced and released. For me, all movies are political. Whether a film's politics are explicitly intended or not is another matter, and not one that is enormously important to me; the context in which a film is received is more interesting, and a wider culture may not share a filmmaker's values. That said, I think investigating authorial intent alongside textual analysis and a thorough account of the historical context surrounding a film can produce interesting results.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that any film has a single fixed meaning; a movie can mean different things to different people in different places and times. It may arise from a certain cultural moment, but by definition that means that not all viewers will receive it in that context – and while I think viewing any film is enriched by an understanding of its place in history, not all viewers will be armed with that knowledge, either. So it's important to make clear that my work explores the cultural significance of genre cinema specifically at the time of its creation and consumption. And even in a film's immediate context I'm interested in the possibility of a multiplicity of readings according to the experiences, values and orientations of different viewers. It isn't always possible to explore all the angles (for reasons of brevity as much as anything), but there are many films I study in the book – I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), to name an example – that are particularly thematically ambiguous, so I think about how those films can be approached from both sides of the political spectrum. And where there is evidence for it, authorial intent can add another interesting layer.


So, to tie all of those points together I'll take The Wolf Man as a representative example,  for no other reason than because I've been thinking about it recently after discussing it on Twitter. The Wolf Man was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jewish writer and German ex-patriate who fled Nazi Germany to escape persecution, first to Britain and then to the United States in 1937. He found a career as a screenwriter and had his first big hit with The Wolf Man, the story of a British-American, Larry Talbot, who is bitten by a werewolf travelling with a group of gypsies during a trip to his ancestral home in Wales.

From Siodmak's side, this was very much a film informed by his experiences in Germany, and particularly the ways in which the country changed under Nazism. He was quite open about how his traumatic experiences seeped into his screenplays, and once said that there were "terrors in my life that might have found an outlet in writing horror stories." He was particularly interested in how the werewolf represented the transformation of a peaceful man into a murderer (just as Germany transformed from a republic into a fascist state). In fact, Siodmak had left Britain for America to remove himself even further from Hitler; his wife had convinced him to move to Hollywood because she had been terrified of an invasion. So the fact that Talbot is cursed by European forces that have metaphorically "invaded" Britain is also interesting.


This is not a reading that was likely to resonate in the United States at the time of the film's release, though. While there were certainly many German ex-patriots in the country at this time, the average American was unlikely to be able to empathise with a man who fled his home nation in fear for his life. But that's not to say that The Wolf Man wasn't received in the context of war. In fact, the film was released only five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and four days after the US declared war on the Empire of Japan, so it was very much tied to that cultural context. Before this point, the domestic experience of World War II had largely been the on-going debate between interventionists and non-interventionists. So in this sense, an American who is suddenly attacked by a foreign aggressor (in the form of the European gypsies who arrive in Britain and bring the werewolf's curse with them) is extremely relevant in that place and time.

David J. Skal argues that The Wolf Man and its three sequels – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) – parallel the American war effort, and there's certainly a case to be made that the sequels extend the original film's themes. After he is attacked on home soil, Talbot spends the next three films travelling to Visaria, Universal's fictional European country, and doing battle with all manner of irredeemably evil European monsters: Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, hunchbacks and various mad scientists with conspicuously Germanic names. So Talbot becomes analogous to an American soldier, forced to embrace violence and do awful things for the greater good – there's a real sense of personal sacrifice as a theme throughout all four of these films.


So The Wolf Man clearly meant one thing to Siodmak, something else when it was released to theatres shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and something else again when viewed alongside its own sequels, but in all cases it is important to consider its wartime context. It's interesting that even the famous poem can be interpreted either from the perspective of creator or consumer:

Even a man who is pure in heart
            And says his prayers by night
            May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
            And the autumn moon is bright.

The wording of the final line changed slightly in the sequels, but the poem remained basically the same. It's clear that the central message here is that even essentially "good" people can turn to violence in extraordinary circumstances, and that applies both to the German people embracing Nazism and the servicemen sent to fight the Axis forces once America had been drawn into war. That's just one example of how we can see the werewolf film as a site for exploring real-world anxieties.

So I hope that that answers your initial question. To say a little bit about the idea that cultural readings (rather than "reflectionist" readings) fail to account for the economics of horror cinema, I can certainly see that argument. Culturalists are generally more interested in thematic meaning and sociohistorical context than the circumstances of a film's production, and I don't necessarily see anything problematic in that – just as I don't see anything problematic in the fact that industrial approaches tend to put the film itself to one side. To find a form of holistic analysis that can account for everything is an impossible ideal. Single methodologies can't possibly offer a complete and definitive account of any movie, and mixed methodologies are likely to have shortcomings in attempting to cover all the angles. I'm also not an academic who quickly suggests that any particular framework should be considered entirely invalid or without merit. Though there are, of course, perspectives I prefer to take in my own work – and I certainly have my own scepticisms, too – there is always scope for scholars to take different approaches to the same material.

As for the idea that thinking about horror films in terms of culture, society and politics overlooks the fact that genre cinema is made to turn a profit, I find it interesting that this argument is most often levelled at culturalists who study horror. It seems odd to me that cultural readings of, say, science fiction cinema or the Western (two other popular genres that have also been historically driven by commercial imperatives) are widely accepted alongside industrial accounts – i.e. we generally buy that science fiction's visions of the future and the Western's reworkings of the past both tell us something about the present, despite the fact that they are both popular genres – but attempts to discuss the politics of horror films in this way are now more frequently challenged or disregarded. This has always seemed like a strange reverse-snobbery to me; are we so precious about horror's low-brow status that we must pretend it means nothing? Similarly, the idea that a film can be actively sold as subversive or oppositional does nothing to change the fact that the film itself can still be seen to be subversive or oppositional. I see no reason why studies of production, distribution and exhibition can't exist alongside analytical or text-based scholarship, and in fact the two can often complement and enrich each other. In short, it is possible for a film to be both a commercial product and a cultural artefact.

If I may be challenging, it seems that, on the one hand, you argue you “subscribe to the idea of cinema as a product of a particular cultural moment, i.e. that it is inextricable from the ideological debates, social norms and cultural shifts particular to the context in which it was produced and released,” but also competing interpretations may be available—and thus assuredly “extricable”. It seems that the former is a reflectionist stance—although I appreciate that detractors have adopted the term ‘reflectionist’ as a pejorative so I accept that “cultural reading” is more sufficient and less charged. If a film—let’s remain with The Wolf Man for a moment—is inextricable from its war-time context and that Siodmak’s authorial intention as you recount is a reflectionist perspective, as well as the notion that a democracy of interpretation exists that may operate outside of cultural, social and ideological contexts, I want to ask if you mean that films are inextricable from historically contingent contexts from a scholarly perspective? For if audiences can and do interpret films in a wide variety of ways, then it seems that they are indeed “extricable” at the point of reception.  How would you respond to this?

For me, understanding the cultural context surrounding a film is of vital importance, hence my comment that film and history are "inextricable" in my eyes. But that's my view – of course films can be and often are extricated from that context and, as I've said, it would be plainly ridiculous to suggest otherwise. Films are read in many different ways by many different people. However, it is the work of a culturalist to make those initial historical circumstances clear and to interrogate how popular culture relates to them, i.e. to reintroduce context where it might otherwise be absent. So I am absolutely a believer in democracy of interpretation, but I also think any reading of a film is enormously enriched by an understanding of its place in history.

That doesn't mean, however, that films are to be taken as "mirrors," nor should they be considered to have any single, fixed meaning even in their immediate context. This is why I reject "reflectionism" as a term. When we discuss a film as a product of a cultural moment, we don't have to assign a definitive meaning to it. We can consider, per my comments on The Wolf Man, how a creator's values or interpretations may align with or differ from the larger culture that receives a film. Similarly, we can consider how different societal groups might read their own values into the same movie.

So I mentioned I Was a Teenage Werewolf briefly above. This is a film that has been the subject of a reasonable amount of academic attention in comparison to many other werewolf films. Most scholars agree that it is a product of a particular moment in American history – one that witnessed the rise of youth culture and a widespread moral panic surrounding juvenile delinquency. After all, it is about an adolescent who transforms into an animal. Even if we want to ignore its thematic content, it was sold by American International Pictures as a movie aimed squarely at the emerging teenage market (the trailer begins by addressing "teenage guys 'n' dolls").

Beyond an acknowledgement of that initial context, though, readings have varied wildly. In Seeing Is Believing (1983), Peter Biskind argues that it is an exceptionally conservative film that delivers a grave warning to teenagers: society will not tolerate delinquents. On the other hand, Mark Jancovich's reading in Rational Fears (1996) recentralises teenagers at the film's target audience, and suggests it is more accurately read as a film that expresses adolescent frustrations with an overbearingly conservative society. These readings are ideologically opposed, but they both relate directly to the film's historical context. And they are both equally valid; the film's narrative and aesthetics provide ample evidence to support either interpretation. So yes, context is enormously important to me and it is always a priority in my work – but I am interested in exploring multiple perspectives. I also recognise that alternative approaches will extricate films from their cultural moment entirely and go a different way. That's all part of academic debate.

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Craig Ian Mann is an Associate Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where he was awarded his doctorate in 2016. His first monograph, Phases of the Moon: A Cultural History of the Werewolf Film, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. He is broadly interested in the cultural significance of popular genre cinema, including horror, science fiction, action and the Western. His work has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Horror Studies and Science Fiction Film and Television as well as several edited collections. He is co-organiser of the Fear 2000 conference series on horror media in the twenty-first century.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Robin Means Coleman (Pt.II)


You also state that the horror genre has at times been “marred by its ‘B-Movie,’ low budget and/ or exploitation reputation.” Are you arguing that it is this reputation that has marred the genre by way of critical disparagement; or that B-Movie, low budget, exploitation cinema is disreputable or lacking in quality?

I want to emphasize the word “reputation” in your question and, earlier, I talked about horror’s B-movie “stereotype.” My point is that I do not want people to think that horror is fixed in some low quality purgatory. Certainly, there are horror films that are dreadful, or are a mixed bag in terms of quality of script and production. More, once the direct-to-video age hit, the format afforded an influx of movies that would never be ready for big screen primetime. I get that. However, the genre does seem to be excommunicated in ways that other genres are completely taken down. Honestly, we live in a world where Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison (1995), Will Ferrell’s Bewitched (2005), and just about anything with Marlon Wayans in it is not tanking the entire comedy genre.

Look, what I believe is that we are retroactively repudiating an entire genre when we did not always believe horror was wholesale objectionable. Are we really prepared to write off Universal Pictures’ horror films—The Mummy (1932), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933)… of course not. So perhaps, just perhaps, a snobbery around horror is more recent. Maybe it was the 1970s splatter and 1980s torture films that we are thinking of when we reject horror. This is a snobbery that is marked by who is making the movie and what kind of stories are being told. That is why knowing a more complete history of the genre is so important.


In your book on Horror Noire you state, “there are a great many horror films that contribute to the conversation of Blackness,” while at the same time, Steven Torriano Berry explains in his foreword that, like Hollywood fare in general terms, Black characters were often the first to die—if they were included at all. Can you explain the way in which the horror genre has historically contributed to “the conversation of Blackness”?

In the book, my particular interest is in horror films that focus on Blackness—Black horror films like Def by Temptation or The Blood of Jesus. And, I talk about horror films that have Black people in it, but whose focus is not especially on Black lives and histories, films like Angel Heart or The Serpent and the Rainbow. I write that these two approaches offer up “an extraordinary opportunity for an examination into how race, racial identities, and race relationships are constructed and depicted.” More, I assert, “certainly horror has always been attentive to social problems in rather provocative ways.” (p. 8). On the whole, I argue that horror is the ideal genre for digging into narratives of American social politics, identity formation, understandings of race, and ideology-making. The book is Du Boisian in that it is informed by his interest in the “strange meaning of being Black” in America.


One way to think about the “strange meaning of being Black” is to understand that Black characters do not always die first in horror movies, and why they don’t. In ‘Blacks in horror films’ (not to be confused with ‘Black horror films’), Black people often serve a particular purpose. They are brought in to reinforce stereotypes of menace, monstrosity, uninhibited violence, and abject deviance. So, if, say, a White anti/hero shows up and vanquishes the Big Black Boogeyman, then what does that say about Blackness and Whiteness? Now, when a real monster hits the scene—an alien, a mutated animal, a zombie—how do we feel about the odds of Whiteness and its superiority? That—setting up Blackness as fearsome, but then destroyed—is truly the strange meaning of being Black in horror films.


The phenomenal critical and commercial success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) seems to represent a significant shift in the politics of Hollywood cinema, a film that operates as “a searing, satirical critique of systemic racism,” as Ricardo Lopez of Variety put it. At the same time, however, “systemic racism” clearly remains an enormous issue in the United States—and elsewhere, of course—with the Black Lives Matter movement being an example of Civil Rights activism in the 21st Century. What do you think about the way in which films, such as Get Out, are critically celebrated and championed by entertainment critics (and audiences), while systemic racism seems to be growing in the real, non-fictional world. What do you think about the relationship between Get Out and the way that the radical right has swiftly grown into a political powerhouse? Do you think that the success of Get Out works ideologically to persuade audiences that systemic racism in the 21st century is not as serious as press discourses would have us believe? Or do you think the film promotes a more progressive, positive message?   

Get Out is far from the first horror film to address civil rights, race, and racism. To say that is to turn a blind eye to the 1970s-- an entire decade of Black movie-making that spoke directly to White supremacy, exploitation, classism, and discrimination. To say that is to erase the art of Bill Gunn, Melvin Van Peebles, Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, D’Urville Martin, Gordan Parks…



But, I understand how people today could think that only Get Out could have something to say about the issues that Black Lives Matters works to intervene on, or that systemic racism seems to be “growing.” These issues are 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century issues, and Black popular culture has always had something to say about them. When Jordan Peele says that his primary inspiration for Get Out—a film about liberal racism-- is Rosemary’s Baby, I suspect Gordan Parks, Jr. is rolling over in his grave. Parks’ stories of Black genocide weren’t really any more fantastic than that which Get Out is premised on. More, if you know anything about film, you know that these stories about racism have been taken up for years in an attempt to talk back at an ever persistent systemic racism. Get Out stands on the shoulders of Sugar Hill, Three the Hard Way, and JD’s Revenge, whether it wants to admit it or not. But failing to acknowledge this history leaves people to think that Get Out is the most powerful anti-racism voice when, in fact, Black filmmakers have been shouting for more than a century (think: Oscar Micheaux). It is only now that the mainstream is really paying attention our voices.


Don’t get me wrong. Get Out is a brilliant film, and one of my favorites. But, I wonder what the trade-off is to, in some measure, erase Blackness for audiences to attend to Blackness. Take Peele’s movie Us (2019). Peele has been insistent that the movie is not about race. What?! There is no film ever made that is not about race. Rosemary’s Baby is about White people. The Exorcist is about White people. Silence of the Lambs is about White people. Christine is about a White kid and his evil car. Poltergeist is about a White family in their haunted White suburban enclave. Us is about a Black family. It sees Blackness, as revealed by the use of Luniz’s I Got 5 on It as the soundtrack to a lesson on keeping a beat and catching rhythm.


So, Us, like Get Out is likely going to work progressively. Our road there will be a bit more direct with a Peele offering a clearer message about the ideological work his films do.

 Writing for the BBC, Nicolas Barber asks if “horror is the most disrespected genre.” Do you agree that this is the case? 

I hate to be contrary but, honestly, I am growing weary of this line of inquiry around horror.  It comes up so often. Every single popular article starts with this narrative of horror-as-stigma. Every interview I participate in—except when interviewed for horror magazines, interestingly enough--starts here. Questions about ‘how did you become a horror fan?’ really seem to be asking, ‘just how did you get into this screwy genre? What the heck went wrong in your childhood?’ Good grief.

Maybe at this point, horror is a disrespected genre because we have not figured out how to write about it with more regard and in less pedantic ‘define the genre and account for its low budget and exploitation’ ways. Horror does not need mainstream approval, and in some ways benefits without it. Mainstream horror gives us dreck like The Mummy (2017) starring Tom Cruise. Outside of so-called “elevated” horror you get smart, interesting scares like It Follows (2014).

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Get Out has been viewed as one of the films that are spearheading a “new Golden Age of Horror,” and that the genre is undergoing a “renaissance,” or “resurgence.” What do you think about these claims? Are we currently experiencing a ‘New Golden Age of Horror’? Is contemporary horror cinema underpinned by a radical shift in recent years?

So, are we in the middle of a horror renaissance? Has Get Out (2017), A Quiet Place (2018), and The Babadook (2014) marked a new golden age? This point from the BBC article what merits our attention, as it is right:

But, Anne Billson, a novelist and critic, summed up those fans’ feelings in a tweet: “Whenever a horror movie makes a splash... there is invariably an article calling it ‘smart’ or ‘elevated’ or ‘art house’ horror. They hate horror SO MUCH they have to frame its hits as something else.”

So sure, these horror films give us a reprieve from the Saw, Hostel, Human Centipede torture porn and grossness of the horror world. They are less gory, smarter, and more palatable. They also have better budgets, celebrity power, and distribution behind them. They succeed because care has been taken to invest in their success. Their mainstream popularity sets them apart. If that is the definition of “renaissance” then yes, we are in one. But, I watched over 3000 horror films to write Horror Noire, films that became cult classics, films that spawned sequel after sequel, and films that captured the pulse of social movements. While, I argue in the book, that the horror films’ foci shifted from decade to decade, they were always here.

They will always be here.

And finally, what are your five favourite horror films, and why?

This is one of my favorite questions!

Get Out (2017)

This is a horror film that is not as fantastical as one might imagine. When Chris meets Rose’s family for the first time, especially her father, Dean, the film perfectly captures the toxicity of White-savior liberalism. What I love most about the film is how it lays bare suburban horrors while revealing the love, beauty, and strong community of the urban.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

So, this is not  a Black horror film, but I could watch this movie-turned-cult classic all day, every day. It is about a squad of British soldiers who find themselves in trapped in the highlands of Scotland battling werewolves. This movie is about 100 minutes, and it accomplishes so much with back story, character development, tension, and humor. The cast is amazing: Sean Pertwee (Gotham, 2014-), Kevin McKidd (Trainspotting, 1996), and Darren Morfitt (Doctor Who, 2010). It first premiered on the Sci Fi channel, and I was not impressed. I did not know then that they had edited the life out of the film, stomping it into the ground until it was a dry, unimaginative mess. Later, I saw the original cut on DVD, and I was stunned. Neil Marshall had written and directed a masterpiece, a real imaginative take on the werewolf genre. The movie won a few film awards, and fans have been anxiously waiting for years for a promised follow-up movie (that might never materialize).


Def by Temptation (1990)

If you are studying Black horror, this is a must-see film. Its writer, director, and producer is Black—James Bond III. The all-star cast is Black—Samuel L. Jackson, Kadeem Hardison, Bill Nunn, and Bond. There are  cameos by jazz saxophonist Najee and singer/actress Melba Moore. Even Ernest Dickerson the famed (Dexter, Day of the Dead, The Wire, Malcolm X) cinematographer and director is doing his cinematography magic. And, the story is squarely centered on Black life (north versus south) and Black religious (sin and salvation). What I think is really cool is that one of the heros in the film is Bible-toting “Grandma.” These days teen stars are cast in films, and I love that an elderly Black woman is a scene stealer.


Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I came for the glimpses of Pittsburgh and the zombies. I saw a brilliant, gorgeous, commanding, heroic Black man in Ben. Ben completely shattered representations of docility that had been previously assigned to Black men. This movie also shook me. I think Night marked the beginning of the end of my childhood— Ben is such a perfectly complex and human representation who is also an innocent. To have a Black man win, and then have that snatched away through a lynching. My God! It tears at my soul even today.


Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934)

I like this film so much that I have written about it. The film focuses on a Black character, Mandy, who gives this racist, White family hell for lynching her husband, Sam. It’s a 1934 film, and we are supposed to read Mandy as irredeemably evil. Mandy, even cross-dresses as Baron Samedi a loa of Haitian Vodou. And still she lives! She’s a totally unexpected Final Girl.


Professor Robin R. Means Coleman is Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and a Professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University. A nationally prominent and award-winning professor of communication and African American studies, Prof. Coleman’s scholarship focuses on media studies and the cultural politics of Blackness. She is the author of Horror Noire:  Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011, Routledge) and African-American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor (2000, Routledge).  Prof. Coleman is co-author of Intercultural Communication for Everyday Life (2014, Wiley-Blackwell), the editor of Say It Loud! African American Audiences, Media, and Identity (2002, Routledge), and co-editor of Fight the Power!  The Spike Lee Reader (2008, Peter Lang). She is also the author of a number of other academic and popular publications. Her research and commentary has been featured in a variety of international and national media outlets. Prof. Coleman’s current research focuses on the NAACP’s participation in media activism.





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Cult Conversations: Interview with Robin Means Coleman (Pt.I)

With the release and enormous success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017, the politics of race has become a hot topic—and rightly so! It is with this in mind that Professor Robin Means Coleman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present came highly recommended—by David Church, no less. I cannot urge interested scholars to seek out this monograph enough, be in in the field of horror studies, critical race theory, sociology, or film and media studies more generally. Professor Coleman has had quite the eclectic career, writing on Black comedy, Spike Lee, and African American audiences, among other subjects, for the best part of two decades at this point. In the following interview, Professor Coleman and I delve into her own aca-fandom and the politics of the horror genre. But firstly, make sure you head off to your digital shopping mall to pick up Horror Noire! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Also, Robin has a new documentary film, also called Horror Noire, coming to Shudder worldwide on February 7th 2019. During the first week of February, there will be a Hollywood premiere event with the following guests: "Discussion following with Ashlee Blackwell (co-writer/producer), Xavier Burgin (director), Tananarive Due (executive producer), Tony Todd (actor, CANDYMAN), William Crain (director, BLACULA), Ken Foree (actor, DAWN OF THE DEAD), Keith David (actor, THE THING). Moderated by Lisa Bolekaja."

Check out the trailer here.

—-William Proctor

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Would you identify as a fan of the horror genre in general terms?

In 1998, I published my first book, African American Views and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor, which did not just focus on situation comedies, but on Black situation comedies. In 2011, I published my fourth book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, which did not just focus on horror films, but on Black horror films. Fandom certainly brings me to the genres that I study. However, I give these genres precious attention because I believe they are important—a move of scholarly activism—to recuperate these purported ‘bad’ objects that set its sights on Blackness, and do so in an entertaining way. I want to remind scholars that the Black sitcom Roc (1991-1994) is just as socio-politically insightful as All in the Family (1971-1979). I want to remind scholars that the Black horror film Def by Temptation (1990) is just as gleefully spooky, wrapped up in a ‘how are we living our lives’ message, as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In my work, I give prominence to Blackness because naming a thing need not be bad, and invisibility of history, culture, and experience gets us nowhere. It also helps a great deal that I am more than a fan; I am someone who truly respects (and can ably engage in critique of) genres like Black horror.


Did your journey into horror begin as a fan or as an academic?

Fandom came first. The academic focus followed.

I happily lay my interest in horror and science fiction at the feet of Bill ‘Chilly Billy” Cardille. William Robert Cardille (1928-2016) was born, raised, and worked as a TV and radio broadcaster in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I, too, was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and I grew up on a healthy diet of Bill Cardille’s programming—I remember him as our weather announcer and for three decades he was a host on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon. He started at WIIC-TV (Channel 11) in Pittsburgh in 1957, more than ten year before I was born. In 1964, he began hosting his most popular program Chiller Theater, and was dubbed “Chilly Billy.” Late on Saturday nights, around 11:30pm, Chilly Billy would come on and show a double or even a triple feature—something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), followed by Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) or Bride of Frankenstein (1935), A Study in Terror (1965), and The Raven (1935). I would ask my mother to fry up a batch of chicken livers and bake a chocolate cake—hey, this is what I liked as kid!—and we would lay across her bed, eat cake and livers, and watch Chiller Theater until I could no longer keep my eyes open.


Today, reflecting back, I have come to understand two things about that experience. First, I really liked Chilly Billy’s style of hosting Chiller Theater. He was himself. He did not dress up in some vampire costume and make-up to host the show. He wore a suit and tie, just as he did when delivering the news or weather. He was himself, affable and informed. That brought a respectability to the genre that I know now deeply influenced me. Second, it informed my taste in the kind of horror that I like to watch and study. Chiller Theater goes off the air on New Year’s Eve in 1983 just as slasher and torture porn horror is really taking hold. The 1980s was the era of “video nasties,” as they were called in the UK. I could not imagine the homey Bill Cardille bringing these particular kinds of movies to audiences on broadcast television. Black horror movies, for the most part, are not wall-to-wall splatter. They are story-driven and sociopolitically-driven, like a Get Out (2017). They typically are not propelled by gore. I love studying those kinds of narratives; I guess that is the Chilly Billy in me.

I often tell people that writing about Black horror began as a sort of birth right. As I said, I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was also home to George Night of the Living Dead Romero. That is pretty cool—Bill Cardille and George Romero! Romero filmed the seminal, now cult classic zombie horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) around the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, and even featured local Pittsburgh personalities in the film. So, here is the connection: George Romero casts Bill Cardille to do a cameo as himself, a reporter, in Night of the Living Dead. Cardille shows up on set in his WIIC-TV station wagon. More, since Romero shot Night in real communities, using real locals, they came out to see Cardille; they recognize him. In the movie, Cardille does a real interview about a fiction. He very seriously interviews a Sheriff McClelland, played by an actor, about the rising zombies, “Chief, if I were surrounded by eight or ten of these things, would I stand a chance?”


Later in my life, when I would go shopping in the Pittsburgh-area shopping mall, Monroeville Mall (or ‘the Mall’ as we called it back in the day), I was keenly aware that I was quite literally walking in the footsteps of George Romero. The Mall was the mundane-turned-terrifying claustrophobic centrepiece of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979).


In Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890s to the Present, you argue: “the boundary-pushing genre of the horror film has always been a site for provocative explorations of race in American popular culture.” Historically, the horror genre has often been critically excoriated for reactionary politics, while in recent years there has seemed to be a shift. Given the broad reach of your book in historical terms, what have you found out about these “provocative explorations”? How might you describe Horror Noire for readers unfamiliar with your work? 

Actually, I did not know that the horror genre has been excoriated for reactionary politics! In fact, I am not entirely sure what this means. Is the claim that horror throws us into some kind of horrid cycle where some good thing happens, but the genre reacts in a way that is so contrary that it impedes true progress of that good thing? And, this view is reserved for the horror genre? That’s a no for me dawg.

My view of the genre is absolutely the opposite: as one of the most innovative, unrestricted genres it is able to be brave and take the most perilous risks in exploring social, cultural, political, and identity topics. It challenges the status quo, exposes the limits of normativity, and makes us question our blind investment in concepts that we accept as common sense.

Let me be clear about horror being an “unrestricted genre.” Horror is not bound by some respectability expectations. Horror movies are not released during Oscar season in the hope they will garner the approval and acclaim of critics. They are not Oscar bait films like those period dramas put out by the Weinstein Company like The Kings Speech (2010), The Butler (2013), or The Imitation Game (2014). My point, horror is free. It is liberated from the confines of being an “epic.” Though, sometimes horror sheds its B-movie stereotype to capture the imagination of the industry—think The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or The Exorcist (1973).

The horror genre is daring pedagogy. It is like a syllabus of our social world. You want a complex study in racism and location (urban vs suburban), watch Get Out (2017). You want to interrogate police brutality, the carceral state, and a person’s breaking point, watch Soul Vengeance (1975). You want morality tales, check out The Blood of Jesus (1941). Dawn of the Dead (1978) provides critiques of conspicuous consumption. Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) rejects the stereotypical portrayals of voo doo.

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This does not mean that horror always gets things right. The tightly scripted morality tale Def by Temptation (1990) has so much going for it, but it is deeply problematic in its treatment of  queer identities. JD’s Revenge (1976) also presents a high quality script, but propagates domestic violence.


I do not see provocative explorations as a recent phenomenon; rather, I see this in horror’s very DNA. One simply has to see it. For example, when, in 1896, George Méliès conjures up demons, skeletons, ghosts, and witches before they are vanquished in the shadow of a crucifix in his short film “Le Manoir du Diable” (“The Haunted Castle”), Méliès is not simply entertaining us, he is challenging us to come to terms with the intersections of our imagination and Judeo-Christian belief systems.

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Professor Robin R. Means Coleman is Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and a Professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University. A nationally prominent and award-winning professor of communication and African American studies, Prof. Coleman’s scholarship focuses on media studies and the cultural politics of Blackness. She is the author of Horror Noire:  Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011, Routledge) and African-American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor (2000, Routledge).  Prof. Coleman is co-author of Intercultural Communication for Everyday Life (2014, Wiley-Blackwell), the editor of Say It Loud! African American Audiences, Media, and Identity (2002, Routledge), and co-editor of Fight the Power!  The Spike Lee Reader (2008, Peter Lang). She is also the author of a number of other academic and popular publications. Her research and commentary has been featured in a variety of international and national media outlets. Prof. Coleman’s current research focuses on the NAACP’s participation in media activism.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Steve Jones (Part II)

Can you expand on your point that “we also don’t really need political reality represented via horror right now”? Don’t you think that cinema could, and should, critique the current political landscape?

I was being facetious, implying that our current political reality is horrific enough without the need to exaggerate it via horror’s lens. Filmmakers can certainly critique the current political landscape (and here I'm talking about capital-P Politics). That said, there has to be a purpose. Typically, horror filmmakers don’t make films as forms of activism, but instead opt for critique, satire, and consciousness-raising from a broadly leftist political perspective. Those forms are much more pertinent at moments when there is a lack of such discourse. Horror can articulate and illuminate a minority viewpoint, for instance, or make strange that which has become commonplace. Making an anti-Brexit movie in the current climate seems ineffective insofar as that view is the leftist status quo. To illustrate – and my thanks to Victoria McCollum for pointing this out on Twitter – Nick Pinkerton’s review for The First Purge in (Sight and Sound) puts it this way: "The First Purge has things to say about contemporary America, but who doesn't? And who cares, if it only has another pathetic yowl to add to the din?".

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What ‘hidden gems’ have you discovered on DTV or streaming services? And what indie horror films would you recommend to readers?

I was really impressed with Malady (2015), Circle (2015), and Coherence (2013), all of which are underpinned by smart ideas and make great use of limited locations. Eat (2014) and Excision (2012) have been criminally overlooked. Shudder released Dearest Sister (2016), which I'd been dying to see (I contributed to its Indiegogo campaign). This isn’t horror, but I buy anything that Third Window Films release. They have a fantastic eye for quirky drama.


One difficulty I have here is that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend some films. I found both Landmine Goes Click (2015) and Be My Cat: A Film for Anne (2015) effective, but I suspect that many readers would find them unappealing or even objectionable because they are (intentionally) uncomfortable to sit through. The same goes for Unearthed Films’ releases. They are highly reliable in their niche and I regularly buy from them, but I wouldn’t generally recommend a film like Flowers (2015) per se.


You mention the term ‘micro-budget,’ a concept that has been gaining traction in recent years, much of which is attributed to the phenomenal success of Blumhouse Production. Is there a difference between low-budget and micro-budget, do you think? Or is micro-budget a signifier of a different economic model? Press discourse seems to emphasize that Blumhouse are doing something ‘new,’ with producers, such as Platinum Dune’s Brad Fuller, making claims about Blum’s ‘five-million dollar model’ as relatively recent. With horror generally being ‘cheap’ to make, as you suggested earlier, what marks out micro-budget horror from other low-budget examples from the genre. After all, eighties ‘slasher’ franchises, such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th, were all low-budget films in comparison to the blockbuster tradition.

As you suggest, these distinctions are not well established and the lines are blurry. To give ballpark figures (and I'm pulling these out of the air), I'd consider anything between say $3-$10m low budget, anything under about $3m to be ultra-low budget, and anything $500k and below to be microbudget. Those are just rough brackets, but it gives you a sense of the kinds of films I'm referring to. The term ‘micro-budget’ has gained traction as so many more features can be made for so little thanks to affordable digital cameras and pretty decent low-cost editing software. Many of micro-budget horror features are funded by crowdfunding campaigns, typically made on budgets of $10k-$25k. Some are even lower than that: Amateur Porn Star Killer was reputedly made for $45 according to its director. Films like that tend to be passion projects (otherwise they wouldn’t get made), and I find that dedication infectious.


It is interesting that you equate micro-budget with $500K and below. The current popularity of Blumhouse films, and discourses surrounding Jason Blum’s economic model, unequivocally put the micro-budget finances in the £5million range. As you said, these commercial distinctions are blurry. Perhaps micro-budget is in a higher range than low budget, more akin to mid-budget? Or do you see the term as more of a discursive marketing instrument than a legitimate descriptor? How do you think scholars might address these economic concepts in more cohesive ways? 

 The issue may stem from a broader reluctance to engage with very cheaply made films. The press certainly might consider $5m a miniscule budget, but press critics almost exclusively focus on theatrical releases. A film made for $25k might screen at specialist festivals, but it is unlikely to make it into the multiplex. Academia fosters similar biases towards larger-scale releases. It is challenging writing about films with such small budgets because, without the broader marketing that larger budgets allow, such films remain relatively obscure. Demonstrating the significance of such films to peer reviewers is hard when they haven’t previously heard of a film or think that discussion of such films would not appeal to a broader readership. Consequently, it is difficult to publish on such films, and so they remain undocumented in the academy, and so the discourse regarding budgets remains unchallenged, and so it goes.

It seems vitally important to me to distinguish between a film made for less than $500k and a film made for $5m. Lumping them together as “microbudget” does disservice to how different the production, marketing and distribution processes are. One term I haven’t yet mentioned is “no budget” film. I dislike the term because I’m pedantic (i.e. no budget = $0), so I try to avoid it. I'm sure some would use the term “no budget” to refer to the very minimal budgets I'm taking about.

It would be really useful to have a set of economic standards that filmmakers, academics and critics could refer to so as to clarify the differences. Such stipulations might exist, but I haven’t yet encountered a universally accepted set of economic brackets (I’ve just seen the kinds of “plucked from the air” generalisations I offer here).

 What do you think of the state of cult and horror studies in the current moment? Is it led mostly by white men, or is there a general mixture of racial and gender diversity? Which scholars do you think readers should seek out?

The area is certainly growing. Doctoral students and early career researchers are helping to develop the field in interesting directions. That said, I spend most of my time reading outside of cult and horror studies by proxy of my gravitation towards ideas as the starting point. As a reasonably young subject area, horror studies still does not have a long history of theoretical approaches to draw on. Much of horror studies is also oriented around specific texts/examples. That seems to be the standard way we work in this area. However, that tendency either limits the author’s ability to make broader points about the ideas, or means the broader applicability is somewhat “hidden”. In comparison, philosophy articles put the ideas up-front, so my attention is drawn towards work in that discipline. I'm reluctant to recommend specific scholars because I'm likely to be nepotistic. My general recommendation is to stray way outside the field. Pick up a book on theoretical fluid mechanics or something and bring those ideas back to the table. I'd much rather read something leftfield than another Deleuzian or Freudian analysis.

So much is being published that I'd find it difficult to make any meaningful estimates about diversity. My feeling is that the field is fairly even in terms of gender, although my view may be skewed by the subject matter I engage with. Purely anecdotally (e.g. by thinking about conference attendance), I'd say that the field isn’t very diverse in racial terms. On that, a shout out to who are promoting horror-related scholarship by and about Black women. The site has some fantastic resources and is well worth checking out.

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How would you respond to Alice Haylett Bryan’s argument about horror (quoted in The Guardian)?

“Certain subgenres of horror are undoubtedly getting more extreme, but this is the case across culture as a whole, with computer games and television programmes such as The Walking Dead. We are now living in an age where real acts of violence, and indeed death, have been screened on Facebook and YouTube. Could it not be argued that this desensitizes viewers on a more fundamental and concerning level?”

I concur that if we have a particular goal such as collectively aiming to make the world a safer place, then there are better things to direct our attention towards than subsets of horror fiction. There are plenty of real-world harms and injustices that one could prioritise instead.

I disagree with the generalisation that some subgenres of horror are becoming ‘more extreme’. I have written at length about the ways ‘extreme’ is employed so I won’t rehash the argument at length here. To give you an overview of my position (and this is not meant as a direct criticism of Bryan’s statement): ‘extreme’ is typically used as if its meanings are absolute and self-evident. In practice, it is a contingent term, by which I mean that it refers to context-dependent judgements (rather than absolute standards). The adjective ‘extreme’ is commonly employed as if it describes the object  being referred to (in this instance, horror films), while offering little (if any) descriptive content. The quotation above carries various sets of values that need unpacking before I could comment with any specificity on Bryan’s position, but the quotation certainly seems to make an implicit correlation between differing kinds of extremities in visual media and “worsening” (possibly cultural decline, certainly some harm to viewers in the form of desensitization). I would guess that Bryan’s comments may have been led by a specific question about desensitisation – it certainly looks that way from the article – so I suspect that these value-based correlations might be coming from the interviewer. My broader concern is that this kind of obscured value-positing is common in the discourse of “extremity”, particularly in the press.

This is an inelegant overview, but I have written about it in Porn Studies journal should any readers want a more detailed (and articulate) rendition of my position.      

 As you touched on earlier, horror cinema has often been disparaged and delegitimized in film culture. Have there been any shifts towards appreciation and legitimation in recent years? Or is horror cinema still viewed mainly in pejorative terms, in either the academy or in entertainment discourses?

Generally speaking, I’d say that horror is still broadly disparaged. There have been many positive shifts, including a notable increase in scholarship on horror (which has been growing since the late 1980s), and the formation of Horror Studies journal (which signifies that the discipline has generated sufficient critical mass to warrant a dedicated print publication). Nevertheless, horror is still seems to be an easy target for journalists. Get Out’s success at the Academy Awards feels like it was in spite of its alignment with horror (as was the case for Misery or The Silence of the Lambs in the early 90s). By proxy of its status as popular culture, horror doesn’t have the gravitas of drama or art film. That kind of distinction holds firm.

What are you working on for your next project and for the future?

I have several chapters in the pipeline, but my main ongoing project is a monograph on contemporary revenge films, which I’ve been working on for about four years now. My main stumbling block is that revenge has been conceptualised in so many ways that the scholarship (mainly from philosophy, anthropology and psychology) is a mess. To make matters worse, so many films have ‘revenge’ in the title, the tagline, or in the dialogue, and yet there is no hint of revenge (as motive or act) in the film itself. Consequently, I’ve seen well over 800 films for the project, and only around 250 of those are relevant. Frankly, if I'd have known what I was getting myself into, I'd have never started. I need to buckle down on it (and stop myself getting distracted) so that I can finish drafting. I have a pile of ideas for projects beyond that, but at this rate I’ll be retired or dead before I get to any of them.  


And finally, what five films would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that horror/ cult cinema can offer and why?

I need to narrow this down, so I'm going purely for horror here (no-one wants to hear me extolling the virtues of Cool as Ice or Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights …again).

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

I'll admit that it is flawed, but I love this movie so dearly. It was my gateway into “real” horror when I was a about 9 or 10, and I was instantly hooked. I have seen it at least once a year since then, and it offers something new to me every time I watch it. The film has such a strong core. The narrative is well-paced, punctuating a reasonably slow unravelling of the mystery with startling moments of horror. Some of the effects look a little hokey now, but others – especially those involving the revolving room – are remarkable. The story’s core good-evil dynamic is powerful. Freddy is a well-developed villain even though he is barely present. Nancy is one of my favourite characters in film; smart and courageous, but vulnerable enough to be relatable (i.e. she isn’t superhuman). The premise – the interplay of dreaming/internal/metaphysical and waking/external/physical – is philosophically interesting. The film’s moral dilemmas concerning the parent’s vigilantism and Freddy’s attack on the Elm Street children is richer than is typically acknowledged. Elm Street is my go-to example to illustrate how smart popular gory horror can be.


The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2009)

I had to feature some “torture porn” somewhere on this list, and this film gets nowhere near as much love as it deserves. The Loved Ones is a tight compound or intricately balanced elements that feel like they could explode at any moment. Tonally, it is a strange mixture of romance, teen angst, perversity, dark humour, and hideous violence. I have no idea how Byrne manages to make the film feel like a cohesive whole, but it works. Aesthetically, the gruesome bloodshed is met with beautiful cinematography. The film’s pink/blue colour scheme is luscious, and that complementarity echoes the film’s marriage of differing thematic tones. The Loved Ones’ secret weapon, however, is Robin McLeavy, who plays the film’s antagonist. Her performance is incredible. She walks a tightrope between sweet and rabidly psychotic, but she somehow never fully tips into or abandons either mode. Consequently, it is never wholly clear what Lola is capable of and what she will do next. A great example of contemporary visceral horror.


Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (Tom McLoughlin, 1986)

It may not be serious or thematically rich, but Jason Lives is the definition of entertainment. From the ludicrous opening sequence right though to Alice Cooper’s end credit theme, the film is a riot. Horror and comedy are difficult to balance. It is easy to do when going for over-the-top gross splatter a la Peter Jackson’s Braindead (which is also excellent), but Jason Lives manages to be genuinely funny while also being as scary as any other Friday the 13th film. It is also a great sequel; it builds on the established story, but Mcloughlin also recognises exactly what the series needs after Part IV’s promise of a “Final Chapter” and the stalled attempt to relaunch the series with Part V. The fact that the 80s fashion and music are now so dated only makes it more enjoyable, so it has aged well. More than anything, Jason Lives illustrates that horror can be fun. If I encounter anyone who doesn’t understand that aspect of the genre, I point them here.


August Underground’s Mordum: The Maggot Cut (Fred Vogel, Cristie Whiles, Michael Todd Schneider, Jerami Cruise, and Killjoy, 2003)

Given the themes arising out oi the interview, I feel obliged to represent “extreme” microbudget horror here. August Underground’s Mordum is a well-known example, but it is also indicative of this kind of horror. The content is gratuitously offensive. Much of the run-time is occupied by the antagonists screaming at each other, so it is arduous to sit though even when the antagonists are not killing or abusing their victims. I prefer Michael Todd Schneider’s version of the film as it has more in the way of plot than Vogel’s edit. The love triangle between the antagonists and the group’s decline are fleshed out in greater depth in the Maggot cut compared with the Toetag edit. The plot anchors the film, although it still feels raw and the action seems out of control. That frenzied feeling is facilitated by Whiles’ performance, which is indescribable. Mordum is equal parts found footage horror and unpretentious performance art. At times, it is redolent of Kurt Kren’s Viennese Actionist films. At others, it is closer to atrocity footage. It feels like the gates of hell have opened and someone was there to capture it on film.


Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)

Horror doesn’t have to be loud and bloody, and it doesn’t have to feature ghosts and monsters in order to be terrifying. This is one of the most common misconceptions I encounter when talking to claim not to like horror movies. There are many horror films that deal in existential dread – Zulawski’s Possession and Bergman’s Persona are prominent examples – but few are as quiet at Safe. Haynes portrait of a character’s decline into self-delusion is wonderfully subtle. The film crawls along, so the atmosphere is muted. This restrained approach allows Julianne Moore to deliver a nuanced turn as Carol, the film’s hypochondriac protagonist. Carol crumbles under the invisible pressures of what we’d now term white middle-class privilege. Nothing happens to Carol, and that oppressive nothingness leads her to self-destruct. The film’s underlying logic is that her comfortable state leads her to feel like she does not matter, even to herself. Carol’s decline is symptomatic of her attempt to find meaning, and Moore ensures that the character remains relatable. Simultaneously, Carol’s hypochondria and a backdrop of pollution/impending environmental disaster provide sceptical distance from her. The film’s tone remains neutral, so the viewer has space to remain critical of Carol’s affluence. Safe illustrates how intelligent and understated horror can be.


Steve Jones is Head of Media in the department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University, England, as well as Adjunct Research Professor in Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research principally focuses on sex, violence, ethics and selfhood within horror and pornography. He is the author of Torture Porn: Popular Horror after Saw (2013) and the co-editor of Zombies and Sexuality. His work has been published in Feminist Media Studies, Sexuality & Culture, Sexualities,  and Film-Philosophy. He is also on the editorial board of Porn Studies. For more information, please visit


Cult Conversations: Interview with Steve Jones (Part I)

This week’s cult conversation is with Steve Jones, author of the excellent Torture Porn: Popular Horror After Saw, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Steve’s scholarship is rigorous and bold, and to cap it all off, he is also a wonderful human being. In the following interview, we get into the torture porn fiasco, the state of contemporary indie horror, queries about the constitution of fandom, and other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed debating with Steve, and I hope you all enjoy this installment of Cult Conversations.

—William Proctor

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Your debut monograph examines the so-called ‘torture porn’ cycle of the noughties. How would you describe the torture porn phenomenon to someone who would like to learn more? Is it a coherent genre, for example? Or more akin to what Jason Mittell describes as discursive or a “cultural category”?

‘Torture porn’ is a label coined and propagated by journalists, which is used to describe a body of mainstream (theatrically released) films, mainly horror films. The journalists who championed the term considered ‘torture porn’ films to contain “extreme” depictions of violence. The films referred to – including Saw, Hostel and The Human Centipede – typically focus on protagonists being held captive against their wills.


The label ‘torture porn’ carries various connotations. ‘Torture’ refers to the physical trials the characters undergo. Sometimes the characters are expressly tortured (as in Hostel). On other occasions, the characters suffer as they attempt to escape from the antagonists. The term ‘torture’ also implies that the films are arduous to watch. Press critics referred to feeling like they were being “tortured” because they were “forced” to endure these films as part of their jobs. The term ‘porn’ also carries multiple connotations. In one respect, it stems from a contemporaneous discursive trend of referring to any “gratuitous” depiction as ‘porn’; e.g. social media posts depicting close-ups of delicious meals are described as ‘food porn’. The implication here is that ‘torture porn’ films focus on violence or gore in such detail or in such a prolonged way as to be gratuitous or unnecessary. A second connotation is that these films are ‘porn’ because they focus on sexual violence (which, broadly speaking, is false). A third connotation is that the antagonists “get off” on torturing the protagonists. A fourth is that the audience for these films find the torture sexually gratifying, and/or that the filmmakers encourage audiences to take sexual pleasure in watching others suffer (again, the films provide scant evidence to support this stance). Thus, ‘porn’ suggests that these mainstream horror movies are morally bankrupt, perverse and corrupting. In sum, ‘torture porn’ was used to disparage these films.


‘Torture porn’ isn’t a subgenre per se. The diverse films referred to as ‘torture porn’ were artificially brought together under that banner by critics. In trying to make sense of the trend, I identified that the films dubbed ‘torture porn’ shared the common traits of a) belonging to the horror or violent thriller genres, and b) depicting protagonists trying to escape from confined locations, but they have little else in common.

It is my hope that the term will eventually be co-opted by fans. Roughly the same connotations surrounded the terms ‘slasher’ and ‘video nasty’, and both have subsequently been accepted by fans. At present, the label still seems to carry negative overtones, which is a shame given that many of these films are worthy of serious consideration. Although the production bubble burst around 2012, numerous horror/thriller films are still being made that would have been swept up in the press furore if they had been released a decade ago.


 Can you talk more about these ‘negative overtones’ in press discourse in relation to Torture Porn? What “common traits belonging to the horror or violent thriller genres” do you see as significant in genealogical terms? Can you give any examples of films that historically share these “common traits”?

This is necessarily sweeping – I spend three chapters setting this up in the book – but broadly speaking, the negative discourse suggests the following (and I dispute each of these characterisations):

  •  Torture porn is unique because the films comprised of graphic, gory, realistic, sadistic violence

  • Torture porn films offer little in the way of narrative and characterisation, because they are concerned only with violence, bloodshed and suffering

  • Torture porn filmmakers seek to out-do each other, creating ever-gorier depictions in order to shock

  • Since torture porn films offer nothing but violence and shock, torture porn’s pleasures are one-dimensional

  • By encouraging viewers to take sadistic sexual pleasure in watching others suffer, torture porn erodes moral values

  • Thus, torture porn is at best culturally worthless, and at worst genuinely endangers the populace. Thus, torture porn’s creators are greedy and irresponsible

  • And anyone who willingly consumes these films is mentally deficient, perverse, and/or culturally undiscerning.

Re: the second question, and “the films dubbed ‘torture porn’ shared the common traits of a) belonging to the horror or violent thriller genres, and b) depicting protagonists trying to escape from confined locations” - what I meant is this:

When I wrote the book, 45 films had been called ‘torture porn’ in three or more separate articles in major English language news publications. I looked at those films to work out what the narratives had in common (so that I could pin down what critics saw as the defining features of ‘torture porn’). There are very few traits that all 45 have in common. One is that all 45 films are either horror films or violent thrillers. The second is that in all 45 films, protagonists are depicted trying to escape from confined locations.

What sparked your interest in the phenomenon? Did it emanate from your own fandom? Or was it developed through academic interest first and foremost?

 My interest was initially sparked by seeing films such as Saw and the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both of which I enjoyed. I wrote several pieces on films that were described as ‘torture porn’, and the opportunity arose to write the book when Palgrave expressed an interest in the theme. It was only then that I started to reflect on the press discourse and that these films were being called ‘torture porn’. Prior to that, I had ignored the label as just another attempt by the press to disparage horror, based on taste judgements and press critics’ insufficient knowledge of the genre. My interest in the press discourse came about as part of contextualising the book, and trying to understand what the critics using the term were objecting to.


I consume horror in my leisure time, and I have done since I was a kid. That relationship with horror precedes my academic interest in the genre (which only began with my PhD). For me, the two modes of engaging with horror – as academic and as consumer – are different. They are intertwined inasmuch as I find the genre intellectually rewarding; it routinely challenges my pre-conceptions, and I return to the genre because I enjoy that challenge. Many of my academic articles originated from that kind of initial stimulation. However, my enjoyment is not itself academically significant, so it doesn’t play much of a role in my academic work. I begin my academic writing with the assumption that the reader either does not know or does not care about the films I am referring to. I also frequently write about films that I did not enjoy and would not endorse to other consumers. Even though I follow the genre personally and professionally, I don’t really consider myself a fan. I don’t identify with the kind of enthused devotion to the genre that fanaticism suggests. I have certainly defended the genre as an academic, but I don’t think of my work as celebrating horror.

I agree wholeheartedly that your work does not celebrate the horror genre. Like the best academic work, be it in horror, cult or fan studies, one can certainly study something that they love without championing or celebrating the genre. But if I may challenge you on the idea that fandom equals “fanaticism”—a highly problematic description—and that this means you do not identify as a ‘fan’ per se. In your previous statement, you emphasize a strong binary between academic and consumer. I don’t mean to suggest that being a consumer of horror and cult media means that your academic identity and research is therefore contaminated in some way—although I would say that the binary between academic/consumer is often much more fluid and dialectical than this kind of semiotic splitting.

 Regarding ‘fanaticism’, I'm going by the etymology of ‘fan’ (an abbreviation of ‘fanatic’), so I didn’t consider it a controversial connection. I'm not trying to imply that fanaticism is negative, just that it implies a degree of enthused celebration that I don’t identify in my personal engagements with horror. Perhaps ‘consumer’ isn’t strong enough to describe my bias towards horror over other genres, but I can’t think of another term that captures the extent to which habit drives my engagement with the genre. I look out for new horror films being added to Netflix or new Blu-ray horror releases, and those practices are at least partially the product of routine. Obviously there is nothing unique about that, I'm just trying to pin down the distinction between my engagement with horror compared with the level of celebration and enthusiasm exhibited by people who attend horror conventions, queue to get autographs, have multiple tattoos of their favourite films and so forth. It seems like those individuals are getting something more out of the genre than I do, or are exhibiting their enjoyment of the genre in a way that I don’t. To me, those individuals are fans, and to call myself a fan would be to do a disservice to the cultural practices that those individuals engage in.

Hopefully that distinction will help to explain my other comments about academic and personal engagement. I'm not trying to posit a complete split between my personal engagement with horror and my academic engagement. As I say, there are ways in which they are intertwined. What I'm trying to capture is that (to me, at least), fandom connotes celebration. There are films I love, but I don’t write academic work based on that enjoyment. Again, just as an attempt to pin down what I mean, I have heard some other academics making this kind of statement – ‘I just saw [film x], I loved it, I need to write something about it’ – with the implication that they enjoyed the film as a consumer and want to express their enjoyment of the film via academic writing, even though they don’t yet have a formulated idea on which to base their argument. To be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with that approach. I'm not suggesting that this amounts to intellectualising one’s enjoyment (although I'm sure that does happen). I'd guess that if the individual does write something based on this starting point, they dig into the film to capture and articulate whatever they enjoyed about it. I surge to approach films in that way because it doesn’t cross my mind to write unless I have a grip on the idea/argument. I often think ‘I just saw [film x], and it got me thinking about [idea y]: I might write about [idea y]’. It doesn’t matter whether I enjoyed [film x], what matters is that I have [idea y]. If I only have ‘I just saw [film x], I loved it’, then the trail just ends there.

I hope that clarifies the distinction I'm making when I say that my enjoyment as a consumer doesn’t play much of a role in my academic work.

 Your statement about torture porn still carrying “negative overtones” seems like a defence of the films grouped arbitrarily beneath that banner. It is, as you remarked, “a shame given that many of these films are worthy of serious consideration.” In essence, is this not a kind of defensive measure against entertainment journalists’ penchant for ‘disparaging’ the genre?

 As I say, I have defended horror – and torture porn in particular – against disparagement. Those defences are about acknowledging the value or cultural significance of a film or set of films in face of negation of that value or significance. That project is distinct from celebration, and the defence does not necessitate enjoyment.

How would you describe your attachment to, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street? Do you collect cult objects, whether blu-ray/ DVD, posters and other memorabilia? Rather than being a fan of the horror genre in general terms, would you identify as a fan, or perhaps some other appellation, of a limited range of texts/ franchises/ objects? Or are you arguing that you have no affective attachment to the texts and objects you study in your academic pursuits?

A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favourite film inasmuch as I’ve seen it many more times than any other film, and my enjoyment of it has lasted nearly 30 years. I have various objects associated with the film – an autographed picture of Robert Englund, a replica glove, Freddy figures, and so forth – but these were all bought for me by people who know that I like the film. I don’t recall buying anything like that for myself. I own multiple copies of the film, not because I collect them, but because access to the film and formats have changed; e.g. I bought a DVD to replace my VHS, then bought a Blu-ray to replace my DVD. I have bought versions of the films to access various extra features (commentaries, documentaries, behind the scenes FX footage), as well as various books and documentaries about the film series. The latter is the strongest expression of my fandom. I don’t own anywhere near as much paraphernalia for any other film or series. It still seems like such low-level engagement that I'm reluctant to call myself a fan: I feel like a “Fred Head” (as the really devoted fans are called) would scoff at the idea that my engagement is sufficient to be considered “real” fandom. I have referred to myself as an ‘Elm Street nerd’ occasionally, so maybe that is a better appellation.


My personal attachment to A Nightmare on Elm Street meant that I had ample documentary material to draw on when writing about the series, but my engagement with the supplementary materials was different when looking at it for research compared with pleasure or personal interest. I have been considering writing something on Elm Street for a while, mainly because it seemed wasteful that I was not using the knowledge I’d accumulated about the series. Without the idea, however, I was stuck.

I'm certainly not suggesting that I have no attachment to the films I write about as an academic. Rather I'm suggesting that my personal enjoyment of a film and my professional engagement with the same film are distinct in ways that I find to be significant. My academic engagement with films neither augments nor diminishes my enjoyment of them. My personal enjoyment does not help me to write academically about films.

 You have also written about one of the most transgressive films of the new millennium, and perhaps one that makes popular ‘torture porn’ films, such as Saw and Hostel, seem vanilla in comparison—that is, Fred Vogel’s August Underground (2001). I admit that I have not yet seen the film or its sequels as I was put off by descriptions from scholars and friends, many of whom cautioned me about viewing the film (and I have pretty strong stomach for horror!). What are your thoughts about August Underground? Does it fit into the discursive category of ‘torture porn’? Is there a moral dimension that should be considered in scholarly terms?  What do you think the objectives of the filmmakers might be? And do you think the film has a right to exist?

 In terms of plot, August Underground is comparable to torture porn insofar as depicts individuals being held captive and being tortured. However, August Underground’s focus is almost exclusively on the antagonists. In contrast to torture porn, the audience does not get to know much about the captives, and the film does not follow their attempts to escape. I personally find August Underground interesting, but it is intentionally “aggressive” towards the audience. It isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t strike me as being designed to entertain. If you are cautious based on the description, then avoid it; it is almost certainly exactly what you are imagining, except it also contains long-periods where nothing happens. Although it is seldom mentioned (because the violence is so attention-grabbing), much of the running time is spent on the killers driving around, engaging in mundane leisure pursuits. By design, August Underground is as tedious as it is harassing, and that adds to the realism. The monotonous sections are important to the film’s structure, leaving space to process the horror. Vogel’s intention, as I understand it from interviews, was to create the most realistic looking snuff-style film he could. The image is intentionally degraded to look like a n-th generation VHS copy of home camcorder footage, with no hint as to its origins. If one were to watch it on an unlabelled VHS with no prior knowledge about the footage or where it has come from, one would be forgiven for believing the murders to be genuine. Elsewhere I’ve argued that the combination of fictionality and realism encourages viewers to reflect on the ethical implications of what it might be like to encounter genuine snuff (not that such a thing exists) or atrocity footage more generally.


I don’t believe that any film has a right to exist, so August Underground has as much claim to that right any other movie. As far as the moral dimensions are concerned, August Underground is a work of fiction made by consenting adults. The production itself does not raise unique moral concerns (i.e. the same concerns apply to fiction filmmaking in general). The content intentionally flouts taboos, but again the same moral concerns apply much more broadly. I don’t hold a particular moral objection to taboo-flouting in art, although I appreciate that some people will find August Underground offensive or tasteless. I do not see any evidence that the film is, for instance, a form of hate speech directed towards a particular individual or set of people. In that regard, I do not consider the film’s subject matter to be morally problematic, even though the fictional characters in the film commit immoral acts (all of which are contrived).

There are legal considerations relating to distributing (and purchasing) the film internationally even though it is fictional, and these carry attendant ethical considerations. If the film were circulated on unmarked VHS tapes – and this is rumoured to be one of August Underground’s early marketing techniques – then the film’s realism and taboo-flouting content may raise other problems. The film is so realistic that if stripped of context, a viewer might reasonably consider the crimes represented to be genuine. One could imagine a situation in which police time was wasted investigating the footage, for example, and I would have a moral problem with that diversion of resources. Moreover, it could seriously disturb an unwitting viewer, although I suspect that such viewers would turn it off almost immediately. Filmmakers are responsible for creating a set of images, and viewers are primarily responsible for deciding which images they consume. That relationship is problematised if the film were circulated without adequate contextualisation (on an unmarked VHS, for example). In that case, the person distributing the tape (whether that is the filmmaker or another party) would act irresponsibly in leaving the footage in public places. I'm stretching the point, but it is nevertheless a consideration given that the film certainly circulated in bootleg forms among horror collectors (I first encountered it in 2003 via a bootleg DVD rip with only the title written on it).

In press discourse, there are currently many claims being made about the resurgence of horror in cinema and that we are experiencing a new ‘golden age’ for the genre. Do you think this is true?

Pretty much any financial and critical success within the genre is cause for celebration given that horror is so frequently denigrated. I see little evidence that we are in some kind of ‘golden age’, however, at least in the press’s understanding of the genre. Horror is a financially successful genre on the whole (usually because the films are relatively cheap to make). Its visibility in the theatrical context tends to come in peaks and troughs, so I don’t find the current peak especially remarkable. The critical success of films such as Get Out, It Comes at Night, A Quiet Place and so forth again is nothing new per se, and nor are critics’ attempts to suggest that these are “elevated” or “post-” horror films. The same modes of thinking surrounded movies such as The Shining, for instance. The discourse about a ‘golden age’ is driven by press critics who ignore so much of the work being produced within the genre, particularly lower-budget horror. Some of that work is making a much more significant contribution to the genre than these critically lauded theatrical releases are. Much of the ‘golden age’ work is not especially interesting or inventive. For example, although it is well-made, It Comes at Night re-treads ground that should be extremely familiar to most followers of horror. I can only presume that the critics who lauded it as original and fresh haven’t seen many zombie movies and so could not perceive how derivative it is. That said, if It Comes at Night’s critical success helps other horror filmmakers to secure funding, then that is great. If funders and distributors are emboldened to take risks on lower-budget or new filmmakers because of critical and financial successes within the genre, then I'm all for talk of a ‘golden age’.

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Has the ‘torture porn’ cycle ended? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema? And what are your thoughts about current cycles, trends and so forth? 

As a period of heightened production, the torture porn bubble burst around 2012. However, numerous films continue to be released each year that fit the remit, including Hounds of Love (2016), Escape Room (2017), and most prominently Jigsaw (2017). The press still use the term quite regularly. Various films (such as mother!) have been referred to as torture porn in reviews, and uses of the term in major English-language world publications has not dipped below 100 uses per year since 2006. I won’t say too much more as I have a short chapter about the current state and future of torture porn coming out in an edited collection soon. Suffice it to say that there are plenty such films still being produced, even if they aren’t attracting the same level of negative press (because they are mainly DTV releases). I'm sure there will be a torture porn resurgence at some point.


We are in an odd moment horror-wise. Many of the recent major cycles – remakes, found-footage, zombies, supernatural movies like Insidious – are rolling along but are somewhat played-out. Overt socio-political horror such as the Purge series and Get Out seem to be enjoying some success given the fractious climate, but we also don’t really need political reality represented via horror right now. Twitter is full of people proclaiming that we are living in the end-times, so I don’t know that we’ll see a massive boom in socially-conscious horror. It is just as likely that we’ll see the rise of silly, fun escapist horror, or a continuation of the nostalgia of “classic” screenings (including quite recent “classics”). 


Indie horror is looking great at the moment, and that area doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention as it should. Digital technology is helping filmmakers to create remarkably good-looking films for next to nothing. 15 years ago, microbudget features essentially looked like amateur home videos. Now, even Steven Soderbergh is shooting horror on an iPhone 7. The formal differences between low and moderately budgeted horror are becoming harder to spot in horror-drama (films that are not FX-heavy), and I hope that results in more viewers giving lower budget films a chance. Streaming platforms like Shudder and Amazon Prime are also helping to put an array of films in front of consumers. Browsing through cover images and plot blurbs on Prime video is the closest experience I’ve had to the glory-days of video rental stores, and the stakes for a “bad rental” are so low now. That might mean people turn off very quickly – I’ve found myself abandoning films on Netflix that I would have made myself sit through had I rented the same film on DVD – but it may also mean that hidden gems are discovered by larger audiences.


Steve Jones is Head of Media in the department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University, England, as well as Adjunct Research Professor in Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research principally focuses on sex, violence, ethics and selfhood within horror and pornography. He is the author of Torture Porn: Popular Horror after Saw (2013) and the co-editor of Zombies and Sexuality. His work has been published in Feminist Media Studies, Sexuality & Culture, Sexualities,  and Film-Philosophy. He is also on the editorial board of Porn Studies. For more information, please visit


Cult Conversations: Interview with Stacey Abbott (Part II)


Given its historical vintage, what is it about the figure of the vampire that continues to fascinate audiences?  How has the vampire been updated, revised and resurrected in different historical contexts?

Well, that is a huge question. I teach an entire module on this and only scratch the surface but here goes.  I think that there are a lot of reasons why the vampire fascinates audiences. To begin with they embody taboo subjects about death, ageing, and mortality.  Death remains the great unknown and a subject that we don’t talk about but, for the most part, we are all afraid of it. But the vampire confronts us with death and offers or represents an alternative.  Vampires don’t age. This is both uncanny – something that doesn’t age is fundamentally weird – and attractive.  Vampires are both dead and live forever. There is something terrifying and attractive about that, which in itself is part of the allure – they attract and repulse.  So there is something contradictory and liminal about the vampire. They are like us but not, familiar and unfamiliar, attractive and repellent.

Vampires are also outsiders who embody transgressive identity and otherness.  They usually come from somewhere else and embody the dangers and allures of strangers but they are also inherently liminal in terms of identity, gender, sexuality. Historically, they embodied an otherness to be feared – in Dracula the vampire is the foreign other infiltrating and infecting England – and this still occurs in films such as 30 Days of Night which is also about border crossing. But increasingly vampires tap into our own identification with the ‘other’ or our sense of being an outsider. This is why they have become increasingly sympathetic. Because many people are more likely to identify with their strangeness then with the Van Helsing’s of the world.  So where female sexuality was punished in Dracula, it is celebrated in The Vampire Lovers and Daughters of Darkness. I think that the sense of otherness that they embody is why they have been, in recent years, so popular with teenagers. Adolescence is defined by feeling different, alien in your own body or in your social circles and the vampire is a very convenient metaphor for that sense of strangeness. In the case of Twilight the vampire offers an escape from Bella’s feelings of being awkward, clumsy, plain and also isolated. To become a vampire for her means becoming special, strong, beautiful but also to be accepted as part of a family and community – one of the cool kids. I am not saying that this is a good thing or not but I can see the attraction of this text for adolescent girls which I think is stronger than, or at least as strong as, the romance narrative.  The Lost Boys offered a similar narrative with Michael on the cusp of adulthood and masculine responsibility and being presented with an alternative that embodied a more fluid conception of gender and sexuality (the film is more preoccupied by Michael’s relationship with David than with this female love interest Star). Becoming a vampire also, for Michael, means staying young and beautiful forever. The film offers a conservative conclusion where Michael rejects these temptations and accepts his place as the head of the house and as part of a heteronormative relationship, but the pleasure of the film is in the possibility of rejecting this conception of normality.


The vampire has evolved and been updated in many ways. As the world became more secular, the significance of religion to the genre waned. Films such as Near Dark and Blade  throw out the old rules that seem somewhat out of date. They integrate with other genres such as the western and science fiction to refresh the conventions and make them more frightening again.  The vampires in Near Dark are frightening because they are purely driven by the desire for chaos, they go anywhere and do anything. They are brutal and nothing can stop them except the rising sun.  Other films from Martin to The Hamiltons to Transfiguration, present the vampire as a type of serial killer and presents vampirism as an illness or social influence, tapping into changing perceptions and conceptions of mental health. Is Martin a vampire or the victim of abuse having been told that he was cursed from an early age? One of the major trends has been the way in which the vampire has been increasingly presented as a form of disease or plague. Rather than being an individual creature invading the modern world, vampires in Ultraviolet, Stakeland, I Am Legend, and The Strain represent a plague that spreads across the world.  The vampire has become more apocalyptic.  This is in part a backlash, I think, against the rise in popularity of the romantic vampire in the form of Twilight but also the success of the zombie in literature, film and TV.  We live in apocalyptic times and our vampires are becoming a bit more apocalyptic.  

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Finally, I think the vampire often challenges our sense of ‘normality’ by offering an alternative. Sometimes that alternative is positive and sometimes it isn’t but the genre constantly gets us to question what it means to be normal and what is more monstrous – the monster or normality itself.

Given that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is over twenty years old, why do you think the character remains culturally relevant? What do you think about the news that Buffy will continue in another form (and with a new slayer)? 

As mentioned above, I teach a course on vampire film and television and every year I am delighted to see that a number of students have seen Buffy and define themselves as fans. Often, they have come to the show because it was recommended by a parent or older sibling but it still has currency. Yes, clothes and hair styles have changed and the computers are wonderfully dated. I mean an entire narrative strand revolves around a floppy disc falling down behind a teacher’s desk. Do modern audiences even know what a floppy is? And if Ms Calendar could have backed up Angel’s cure to the Cloud, then the story of season two who have ended very differently.  So twenty years on, it is dated in places. But I believe that the horror of adolescence and growing up is timeless and by couching these horrors through the metaphor of the monster-of-the week allows the series to transcend the trappings of time period. Issues such as bullying, social anxiety, loneliness, internet predators, sexual violence and domestic abuse are timeless and the monster narratives explore these in detail.

As a feminist text, the focus on not just a kick-ass heroine but a woman trying to negotiate her path in the world and standing up to patriarchy – whether in the form of the Watcher’s Council, the high school principal, the Mayor, a dominating father or the Initiative (which is yes led by a woman but is a government run, patriarchal institution) – still holds sway.  Buffy gives a speech about power in the episode ‘Checkpoint’ (5.12) as she confronts the leaders of the Watcher’s Council who have attempted to diminish her self-confidence in order to assert control over her. She tells them how everyone has been ‘lining up to tell me just how unimportant I am. And I’ve finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don’t. This bothers them’. This speech stands as a testament to how patriarchy and any form of dominant social order often attempts to maintain its position by belittling and undermining those they are attempting to control. The best way to assert control is to convince others that they need authoritative rule. The way in which she pauses the narrative to stand up to this authority and diminish their power by revealing their machinations – as well as throwing a sword at one of them (well who hasn’t wanted to do that) –  is as timely today as ever.  Buffy is about power: female power, the power of family, friendship, the sharing of power and the dismantling of power.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect and it is a product of its time. When it was on the air between 1997-2003, there were very few LGBTQ characters on network television and having Willow come out was incredibly progressive for the time. But now it is far more commonplace on television and the hesitancy in showing Willow and Tara kiss or display their sexuality in an overt way, particularly in season four and five, seems old fashioned now. Similarly, the character Xander Harris has received a great deal of criticism in recent years, particularly in the #metoo era, because his treatment of Buffy is often seen as problematic. Most notably, the series has received a great deal of criticism for its depiction, or lack thereof, of people of colour. They are either absent, demons or stereotypical.  The spin-off Angel tried to compensate for this by being set in a more multi-cultural Los Angeles and featuring the African American character Gunn as a regular. But there remain issues and there has been a great deal of discussion of this theme with respect to both shows.


This was why I was not surprised when I heard the news about a new Buffy series that would be more multi-cultural and socially inclusive. Originally couched in the media as a reboot, I was initially quite sceptical.  Why reboot Buffy as it is a loved series that is skilfully written and directed and that still holds up as quality television? Yes, there are issues but they are part of its place within a period of television history.  Also, rather than reboot an old show with a multicultural cast, it seems more useful to create something new with a multicultural cast. But as more came out about the project and the new showrunner, Monica Owusu-Breen, it became clear that this isn’t going to be a reboot but rather than an extension of the narrative world and potentially something quite new. A new Slayer with new stories and I am all in favour of that.  I think that there is a lot of scope in the story line and potential to update the Slayer narrative to suit the current televisual landscape. This seems ideal to me as you will introduce Buffy to new audiences while appealing to established fans of the original series.  I look forward to seeing what Owusu-Breen has in mind.


What are you working on at present and what have you planned for future research?

I have a few projects in various stages of development. I am currently co-editing, with Simon Brown, a special issue of Slayage, reflecting on the legacy of Angel which will be published to mark its 20th anniversary in 2019. The more I watch and rewatch Angel, the more Angel’s struggle to negotiate the moral grey areas of adulthood feels relevant. Also, the way in which the show challenged and undermined traditional notions of masculinity still feels fresh and pertinent within the contemporary televisual landscape. The decision to replace Sunnydale’s Hellmouth under the high school with the multi-dimensional corporate lawfirm Wolfram & Hart as the site of all evil seems to speak volumes to the horrors of the 21st century. This show isn’t about one named and clearly identifiable Big Bad but a patriarchal culture of evil that is fuelled by big business.  Its mantra that you have to keep fighting even when the odds seemed stacked against you feel like an important lesson in the contemporary climate.   

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Lorna Jowett and I are co-editing a book for the University of Wales Press on Global TV Horror. We wanted to follow up our TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013) with something that reflected on the growing popularity and availability of horror on television and its increasing global presence. So this is an exciting project, working with people writing about TV Horror from around the world, including the UK, US, France, Brazil, Spain, Japan, New Zealand and Canada.

As for my own writing, I am very excited to be writing the BFI Film Classic on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).  This was Bigelow’s first solo-directed film and I would argue it remains one of her most visually and narratively striking films. It did not do very well when it came out but it found a cult audience on video in the late 1980s. Narratively it follows a young man, Caleb, who is turned into a vampire and must decide if he is prepared to give up family, responsibility and his humanity in favour of the outlaw life of a vampire. The vampires – particularly as played by Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein -- are far more engaging and attractive despite their undeniable blood lust and violence. Significantly they seem to both embody the dark side of the nuclear family while also representing an alternative to traditional family values. This film raises some really interesting questions about blood, duty, family and chosen families. It has been criticized as featuring a conservative ending, much like The Lost Boys, but I am inclined to read the film as more ambiguous in its politics and that is something I’ll be discussing in the book. Visually it merges the vampire and horror genre with the western and road movie and features stunning Noir-ish night time cinematography and Bigelow’s recognisable kinetic style. It is a delight to begin to unpack the film’s complexities, both narratively and visually, in this book.

In terms of future projects, I am in the process of developing two long term projects. The first is a co-authored book with Simon Brown, looking at the horror genre through adaptation. This isn’t going to be a book that simply compares ‘original text’ with adaptation. As I said above, I am very interested in media specificity and so this book will consider how the horror genre adapts to different forms and media. So we will be looking at adaptations of horror from novel to film, film to stage, comic book to television, and so on. It is a great time for horror and we have enjoyed doing some of the preliminary work on this by going to see the stage adaptations of Let the Right One In, Carrie, and The Exorcist and thinking through the different ways in which horror is adapted to suit different media and performance styles.

The other project is a monograph on horror and animation, bringing together two of my great loves. I have been teaching the History of Animation for years but this will be my first foray into animation in terms of my research. There are two strands to this project. I am interested in the presence of horror in media for children from Scooby Doo to Nightmare Before Christmas to ParaNorman. How and why are the tropes mobilized for this particular audience and to what end? Is horror rendered safe through animation? But I am also interested in the ultimately uncanny nature of animation – making the inanimate animate – which comes to the fore in stop-motion animation. So my work in this book will not be exclusively focused on children’s animation or even narrative film but it will look at works that galvanize the surrealism and uncanniness of stop motion – so lots of Svankmajer. As I said, both projects are in early stages and I am still developing my ideas.


And finally, what five films or television series would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that the horror genre can offer and why?

If I have to limit my choices to five then I will not include any of the texts I have already discussed in detail here, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Near Dark. It seems better to open up the discussion to significant texts that I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about in any detail.  

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer Ger 1932)

This film embodies the Gothic potential that is an inherent part of cinema. Taking place in a landscape that seems to exist on the border between reality and dreams, life and death, it tells a familiar vampire story – woman is fed on by vampire until vampire is destroyed and she is released -- but told in a distinctly cinematic fashion. It is filled with disembodied shadows, superimpositions and double-exposures, alongside a ghostlike roving camera, a disjunctive use of sound, and a mise-en-scène filled with momento mori, including skulls, skeletons, and Grim Reapers.  Watching this film is like being invited to cross the veil into the land of dreams and nightmares where you are never certain what is real and what is not. It is a haunting landscape of the undead.


Les yeux sans visages [Eyes without a Face] (George Franju, Fr 1959)

This is a haunting film of a completely different kind that feels up-to-date with a vengeance. Set in contemporary Paris, it tells the story of an internationally leading plastic surgeon whose daughter has been severely disfigured in an accident and so he attempts to repair her through a face transplant. The only problem is whose face is he transplanting? The doctor’s nurse stalks the streets of Paris, looking for isolated young women to lure back to the surgeon while the daughter Christiane wanders her family home, wearing an exquisite and yet disturbing porcelain mask that makes her appear as a ghost haunting the family home.  Like contemporaneous horror films, Psycho and Peeping Tom, this film reimagines horror as emerging from family and home – no longer a source of comfort and security but the birthplace of the monstrous. Additionally, the surgery scenes are filmed with medical precision and lend the film a gruesome form of body horror that continues to unsettle even the most committed horror fans.


Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, USA, 1968)

A landmark independent horror film that contributed to the transition of horror away from the period Gothic tales to contemporary horror. A siege narrative about a group of strangers trapped in a house as the dead return from the grave with a hunger for human flesh, this film (along with its sequel Dawn of the Dead) established the template for the contemporary zombie film. Filled with decomposing zombies, graphic depictions of cannibalism, and explosive confrontations between the living, the film offers a nihilistic view of humanity that became typical of the period. Featuring an African-American lead, the film taps into the culture of racial tension that surrounded the Civil Rights movement and still fills relevant today. Significantly, Romero shot the film with gritty, realistic aesthetic that rendered the horror all the more unsettling and contemporary.  Using the rise of the undead as a threat to the status quo, the film questions who are the more monstrous the zombies or the living.


American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, Can, 2012)

Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska offer us a distinct and disturbing twist on the rape/revenge formula presented with Cronenberg-esque fascination with body horror. The film tells the story of a medical student who pays for her education by performing underground, illegal extreme body modification surgeries. After she is drugged and raped by a group of her medical professors and tutors, she drops out of school and decides to use her body modification skills in an unusual and cathartic form of revenge. This is a film that challenges notions of beauty and the monstrous, normality and the disturbed. It offers a distinctive female perspective on violence and rape while also confronting the audience with provocative images of the body that unsettle traditional conceptions of cinematic beauty and voyeurism. It is a fascinating film that does not disappoint.   


Hannibal (Bryan Fuller, US, 2013-15)

The past ten years has been an incredible period for the horror genre on television with so many amazing series, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable on television. Hannibal  stands as an exciting example of the potential for network television to be as provocative and experimental as cinema. Based on characters from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, the series infuses the police forensic procedural with the aesthetic tastes of serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Each episode contains a crime scene that is laid out like a work of art, blurring the lines between the macabre, the gruesome and the beautiful. This is a series that challenges us to sympathise with Hannibal while also confronting us with  the horrors of his actions. Focusing on the relationship between Hannibal and FBI profiler Will Graham, the series becomes increasingly experimental in its style, blurring the lines between nightmare and reality as Graham comes increasingly under Hannibal’s influence.  This is an aesthetically rich series with lush visual style and an experimental musical score like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It is a must watch for the horror film.


Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires: Life after Death in the Modern World (2007), Angel: TV Milestone (2009), Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century(2016), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013). She has also written extensively about cult television and is the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010), Reading Angel: The TV Spin-Off with a Soul (2005) and TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map to Supernatural (2011). She is currently co-editing, with Lorna Jowett, a book on Global TV Horror and is writing the BFI Classic on Near Dark.


Cult Conversations: Interview with Stacey Abbott (Part I)

For many scholars in Fan Studies and Cult/ Horror Studies, Stacey Abbott needs no introduction. Her work on various currents of pop culture and genre—including Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sister show Angel, as well as the vampire and the zombie in general terms—are required reading on many University degree programmes. Stacey is a robust scholar, and I’m proud to say that many of her publications sit within arm’s reach on my groaning shelves at home. In the following interview, Stacey and I discuss her own fandom, her academic pursuits and the state of horror in the 21st Century, among other things. I hope you enjoy this installment of Cult Conversations.


How would you describe your research interests for readers not familiar with your work?  

Increasingly these days I describe myself as a horror studies scholar as so much of my work comes back to horror and the Gothic. But more broadly, one could describe me as a genre specialist as I am very interested in science fiction alongside horror. I have written on romantic comedies as well and hope to write about musicals one day.  One of the key focuses of my interest in genre is how and why genres develop and change from an industrial, technological and cultural perspective. I am very interested in media specificity, for instance, how does the horror genre work on television and how is that different from film. But also how do genres come to embody or represent changing socio-political climates and cultures.  Through these interests I have come to specialise in texts that feature monsters such as vampires and zombies. My PhD was on vampire films and this interest in vampires then led me to the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which led me to writing about cult and genre television, another major interest of mine. I started out as a film scholar but increasingly my work moves back and forth between film and television.


Do you recall when the horror bug first bit you? Did you identify as a fan of the genre prior to becoming a scholar? Or was it your academic pursuits that you led to vampires, slayers and zombies?  

I grew up with an obsessive passion for the cinema but did not prefer one genre over another. I would move comfortably from screwball comedy to musicals to horror (and still do). But I did always have a taste for horror. In fact, I was recently listening to Alice Cooper’s song ‘Steven’, which is on his Welcome to My Nightmare album, and I have clear memories of listening to the song as a child (my older brother was an Alice Cooper fan) and finding this song really scary and absolutely enthralling. I have always been fascinated by the fact that something can be enticing and scary at the same time. I remember watching The Exorcist and Halloween on TV as a child and they made a big impact on me. Watching horror films on television was a key starting point for my interest in TV horror. I also remember my older brother telling me about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when it came out. He found it terrifying and I was fascinated by the idea of this film and that it would scare my brother in that way. I couldn’t see it until years later and I was really nervous about seeing it because of that memory. I worked in a video store as a teenager so would regularly take out videos of slasher movies and watch them with my friends.  So, I did identify as a fan but I wasn’t involved in broader horror fan culture until years later.


My passion for horror did grow as I became more academically involved in the study of film. The more I studied the genre, the richer I found it and the more I enjoyed the films. So as an undergraduate film student, I wrote about Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Angel Heart and I gave a presentation on Robin Wood’s ‘The American Nightmare’ and the more I studied film the more I came to feel that there was something cinematic about horror. I loved the aesthetics of the genre and the way in which aesthetics could generate emotion. So, my passion for the topic has been fuelled by academic study and my academic study has fuelled my passion for the genre.  Similarly, I started writing about vampires as a Masters student at the University of East Anglia and I would never have guessed that I would still be writing about them but the more I studied the folklore, literature and the cinematic and televisual heritage, the more I realised that there was so much to say about the genre and of course more and more films keep coming out, so there is always more to say.


What is it in particular that continues to fascinate you about the genre? What are your primary fan-objects and can these differentiated from the objects you study?

My fascination with the horror genre is two-fold I suppose. I am fascinated by the aesthetics of horror, whether this be the special make-up effects and intense gore of 1980s body horror or the gothic aesthetics of the genre in the 1920s and 1930s.  For instance, I have recently written on the use of sound in early werewolf films and how the transition to sound cinema facilitated a new aesthetic conception of horror.  So I am interested in the industrial factors that contribute to the changes within our understanding of the horror genre. But I am also fascinated by the cultural implications of horror. How do these films generate fear; do they tap into cultural fears or particular cultural moments? What can the genre tell us about ourselves?  What we fear - or perhaps what fears the genre taps into – can be quite telling. And it isn’t always about fear. The vampire genre, for instance, often oscillates between attraction and repulsion. So it also confronts or provokes us with desires as well as fears.


For me there is a very fine line between fan-object and object of study. For instance, I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and part of my fandom is integrated with my desire to analyse and break down what is going on in these texts. What are they doing that I find so interesting? But that does not mean being uncritical. In fact, I find that fans can often by hyper-critical. While as a scholar I need to negotiate my fandom with my scholarship, I don’t think that this is entirely unique. I think that academics are often fans of the objects of their study. That is why we study them.  Dickens scholars are usually fans of Dickens.  Horror scholars are fans of horror.  

To go back to your question, my primary fan-objects with respect to horror are Night of the Living Dead (and all of Romero’s zombie films), Martin, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I am a particular fan of horror that came out of the 1960s and 1970s.  But I also love 1980s films such as Fright Night and The Lost Boys. Too many to choose from. And there are some amazing films that have come out in recent years, such as Stakeland, The Babadook, American Mary and so many others.


You have recently completed work on a chapter about The Purge and the way in which it intersects with contemporary US politics. Can you summarize your argument?  

In the 1970s Robin Wood made the argument that the American Horror Genre had potential to be the most progressive of popular genres because it could tap into and express the desire for social change that he saw as fundamental to the post-Vietnam/Watergate era. The genre’s nihilism was expressing the rage of a generation.  This argument has become quite prevalent in defining horror of the 1970s. My aim in writing about the Purge films was to examine the relevance of Wood’s argument in the contemporary political landscape, in particular how we read these films that in many ways seem to be consciously rehearsing this argument, questioning what happens in horror when the subtext becomes text.  Are the filmmakers trying to use the genre for political purposes or are they simply taping into recognisable themes to make them seem more relevant and commercial? So as part of this argument, I reflect on how the franchise negotiates its commercial imperative with political commentary on class and race in the United States. The franchise seems increasingly, and self-consciously, relevant within the contemporary US socio-political landscape. I suppose, another thread to the argument, is to challenge recent conceptions of post-horror, which suggests that films with socio-political readings are somehow new or make them more than horror. I argue that this is what a lot of horror does as part of its natural matrix.   


Following on from that question, are the politics of contemporary horror cinema being underpinned by a marked shift? And what do you think of the notion of cinema as a “reflection” of a broader cultural, social and political climate?   

I think that there has often been a relationship between horror and politics and during periods of particular political strife, cinema taps into this tension.  We see this in the 1930s and the depression, 1950s and the cold war, etc. So I would not see the contemporary horror landscape as unique. In fact, for every Purge film or Get Out, there is a Paranormal Activity – a film that is not overtly presenting itself as political. But within a complex political landscape, I think horror is a very fruitful genre for filmmakers to explore social or political issues. Get Out – like Night of the Living Dead before it -- is an excellent example of this.  Horror often allows filmmakers to take familiar scenarios to their extreme to expose the true horrors that underpin the everyday – like the racial tension between Ben and Mr. Cooper that is exposed due to the stresses of a zombie apocalypse in Night of the Living Dead or the middle-class racism that underpins the plot of Get Out. Of  course, the horrors that underpin the everyday don’t have to be political. A film like Hereditary uses horror to explore the impact of grief and the pain of loss. We don’t talk about death very often and horror is an outlet to perhaps talk about it or tap into and express feelings of loss. The Babadook similarly explores grief and the difficulties of being a single parent, often expressing the inexpressible. So horror can express many things from the personal to the political.


But we shouldn’t read horror cinema as purely a reflection of a single political reading and/or ideology. There are conflicting readings of the alien invasion films of the 1950s that read them as examining the horrors of Communism while others read them as exposing the horror of social conformity. These readings may differ from film to film and/or they may often co-exist in some films.  Sometimes filmmakers intend for their films to offer a social or political commentary as with Get Out but often they are a product of multiple influences which can open the door to multiple readings.  

This brings us to the second part of your question. I think we need to be cautious about thinking of cinema – any type of cinema – as a reflection of the real world. Cinema is not a mirror but rather a product of a wide range of influences, voices, contexts. These can often be contradictory.  So, I tend to think of cinema as a construct rather than a reflection.  This does not mean that we can’t read them in relation to broader cultural, social and political climate or events. I think that cinema – like the filmmakers who make films and audiences who watch them – is a product of its time and its cultural, industrial contexts.  And horror is a very rich text to unpack in this manner. The Purge films seem to consciously critique a culture of racism and violence in the US, as well as an economy that seems to benefit from this culture of fear. At the same time, they aestheticize and in many ways celebrate gun culture. While they seem to critique the NRA, it is always the men with guns who save the day.  As a series of films, they raise many interesting ideas that are exciting to unpack. I am fascinated by the contradictions.


In academic and press discourse, it seems that horror remains discursively constructed as oppositional, disparaged and maligned. Do you agree that this is the case?

I would tend to agree. Of course, there have been changes to attitudes about horror. It is more accepted as a subject of study, although you might still find some critics or members of the press questioning the study of vampires at university. Vampires and zombies are, however, taught in universities across the UK and the North America, on top of countless modules on horror. The London Film Festival regularly programmes horror films, although under the banner ‘Cult’ and from August 2013- January 2014 the British Film Institute devoted a four month season to the Gothic, which included some of the best of past and contemporary horror and Gothic cinema. Some would argue that it would have been harder to plan such a season had it been called Horror and even under the banner of Gothic, there was resistance. But overall, it was a great success and a sign of progress in terms of the genre’s recognition.

Having said that, I think that the genre is still often maligned or perceived as disreputable. The most common way that this manifests at the moment is through the way in which terms such as ‘post-horror’, ‘smart horror’, or ‘elevated horror’ are being used in the press as a way of distancing some films from other examples of horror. These terms suggest that recent films, such as Get Out, A Quiet Place, and Hereditary, are different or separate from horror because they are intelligent, skilful, or thought provoking. What these terms don’t recognise is that horror has always been these things or had the potential to be these things. Bride of Frankenstein, Cat People, Night of the Living Dead, and The Brood are all intelligent, skilful, and thought-provoking films. Of course, some films function more viscerally than intellectually, and these terms seem to suggest that they are a lesser form of horror and I would argue against this. The beauty of the horror genre is that it can function in multiple registers and is constantly shifting and changing. If it didn’t the genre wouldn’t work. So, a film that is deliberately trying to provoke the audience through graphic depictions of gore is potentially as interesting and significant as a film that appeals to our intellect. And many films do both. Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, and Jen and Sophia Soska (to name a few) are masters of visceral and intellectual filmmaking.  They are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.


To describe horror as ‘oppositional’ is not necessarily a negative, rather it is kind of the point. Horror is meant to make us uncomfortable and the best horror can take us to dark places and challenge us in an intellectual and/or visceral way. Every once and a while a film – or television series- comes out that pushes the boundaries of acceptability – Psycho, Eyes without a Face, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Serbian Movie or The Human Centipede 2 – and these films  can fall fowl of censors and critics. But to me that often means they are doing what horror should do – provoke, make us think and make us uncomfortable.  In television this happens too. The Walking Dead generated a lot of controversy for the premier episode of season seven ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’. It was criticised for going too far; pushing the boundaries of acceptability for television; traumatizing its audience. It was repeatedly compared to ‘torture porn’  -- a phrase which is used to connote exploitative graphic horror  and is itself highly problematic and inaccurate in its comparison to this episode.  But to me that is when a horror text gets interesting. For a series set during a zombie apocalypse, where people get eaten by zombies every week, characters regularly meet gruesome ends, and which showcases the decay of the zombie body in graphic detail, I am fascinated by what about this series premiere was perceived as going too far. Many critics fell back on familiar arguments about how horror desensitizes audience to violence but if the reaction to this episode showed anything, it proved that audiences were not desensitized. They responded viscerally and emotionally – whether they were angry or traumatized or grief stricken. The ability to generate that emotion and reaction is truly amazing and one of the many reasons I love horror.


In what ways is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a “cult” text? What marks the series out as “cult,” especially considering it was so impactful in mainstream terms?  Do you view Buffy as characterised by the horror label?

Cult is, of course, a slippery term and there are many ways of thinking about a text as cult. One way of thinking about cult is to see it as standing in opposition to the mainstream but this then raises questions about what we mean by mainstream. Buffy may have been impactful by influencing other series in terms of representation of women and the development of long-running narrative arcs, as well as contributing to a culture change in terms of the presence of horror on television. And it has entered into broader cultural consciousness with, for instance, Entertainment Weekly celebrating the show’s 20th anniversary last year. It has a high recognition factor. But even at its peak it was still generating small audiences as compared to mainstream franchises such as CSI or reality television. It was broadcast on smaller networks – first the WB and then UPN – who were interested in targeting particular audiences rather than the largest audience share. It is about a teenage girl -– named Buffy – who fights and kills vampires. This is a show that is not aimed at everyone but is aimed at particular niche audiences.  While I would argue that everyone should watch Buffy because it is brilliant and, at its best, an example of outstanding acting, writing and directing (not to mention music, editing, action choreography etc), it just isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Some people aren’t going to get past the ‘kill vampires’ bit or the name ‘Buffy’ or the, at times, low budget special effects and make-up.  There is something in the constitution of the series, and even the title, that is setting up the show as cult or at the very least a show aimed at an audience who ‘gets it’. 

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Also, it came on the air during the early days of internet fandom and was key to showing the potential that the internet had to offer fan culture in terms of online forums, sharing/production of fanfiction. I think that the series, clearly coming out at the right time, encouraged an engaged fandom who wanted to discuss, analyse, and create. It was emotionally engaging and it was appointment-TV. Remember this was a series broadcast weekly for 23 weeks of the year and then you had to wait until September for the next season. This left a lot of space and time for fans to want to fill with discussion and fan creation; fill in those narrative blanks (like what Buffy and her friends did over the summer).  

Finally, it was created by Joss Whedon and a brilliant team of writers and directors who wanted this show to be more than a popular series but one which generated passion and loyalty on the part of its fans.  Most of them self-identify as ‘fans’ of some form of cult television and wanted their audience to feel that type of loyalty and love for this series that they had felt for other shows like Star Trek or The Night Stalker. So they embraced the cultness of the text, engaging with fans in online forums; encouraging and supporting fan creations; and engaging with fans at conventions.

As to the second part of your question, I absolutely see the show as characterised by horror. Now today we look it and it, of course, seems tame and incredibly restricted in terms of what it could show or not show. But this is where context is important. When it came on the air, there was very little in the way of horror on television, particularly American network television.  Of course, it hadn’t always been this way. Horror was prevalent in the 1970s for instance, and the 1980s saw a number of horror anthology series being produced. But in 1997, there was The X-Files, which while incredibly indebted to horror, sold itself as science-fiction.  HBO’s Tales from the Crypt ended in 1996. There just wasn’t that much in the way of horror on the air. There were censorship restrictions on what you could show and a hesitancy for networks to pursue horror as it was seen as a more niche genre.  So, to be horror, it was common for series to mask their horror-leanings within a genre matrix.  The X-Files is science-fiction/horror and Buffy is teen comedy/drama and horror and Angel is Film noir and horror. These are just a few combinations.


But Buffy’s focus on exploring the monster as metaphor for adolescence is completely based upon horror conventions and tropes. It is replete with vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves, slashers, giant praying mantises, Frankenstein monsters, demons, evil politicians, mad scientists, and the list goes on. It uses these monsters to explore the evil that surrounds us and exists within us. Aesthetically, it often draws its visuals from German Expressionism and Gothic cinema and operates in dialogue with established horror traditions or classics of the genre – such as Dracula and Halloween. The show walks a fine line between its various genre leanings in order to manage the horror so that the material remains suitable to the show’s target teenage audience and to the network’s need to conform to FCC regulations. So the dark visual style is balanced by a bright and colourful visual style but the series never lets you forget that the darkness is still out there or that the most violent horrors might emerge in the bright light of day such as when the very human Warren shoots Buffy and Tara.

For me Buffy, and subsequently Angel, represents a key transitional moment when it became clear you could do horror on network TV and there was an audience for it. It is notable that after they were both off the air, Supernatural starts on the WB which is a series that is hugely indebted to both shows and overtly sold itself as horror. While it also offers hybrid generic matrix, integrating horror with melodrama and comedy in much the same way as Buffy, it could sell itself as horror in a way that Buffy had to downplay.  Post-2005, we start seeing the floodgates opening to horror on TV and now we live in a very different televisual landscape where some of the most exciting things in horror are happening on television – see Hannibal, Penny Dreadful, American Horror Story, In the Flesh, The Terror – I could go on for ever.


Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires: Life after Death in the Modern World (2007), Angel: TV Milestone (2009), Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century(2016), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013). She has also written extensively about cult television and is the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010), Reading Angel: The TV Spin-Off with a Soul (2005) and TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map to Supernatural (2011). She is currently co-editing, with Lorna Jowett, a book on Global TV Horror and is writing the BFI Classic on Near Dark.  

Cult Conversations: Interview with Ekky Imanjaya (Part II)

What films stand out as exemplars of the sub-genres you mention, such as Kumpeni and Perjuangan? Can you explain more about these sub-genres in the Indonesian context? Do they draw upon Western traditions (such as the Italian Cannibal boom of the 1970s, for instance? Are there any sub-genres you think are exclusively generated by Indonesian filmmaking?

Actually, I already wrote about the subgenres in my papers in 2009 and 2014. Here, I will elaborate again.

I find Karl Heider’s theories useful to do genre mapping of popular genres, considering that only few scholars wrote seriously and deeply about popular films, let alone exploitation and B-grade movies. Heider suggests various genres and types into which most Indonesian films can fit comfortably (Heider 1991, 39-40). Heider argues that popular genre films are the best examples to do a cultural analysis on since films directed by auteurs or for the purpose of artistic expressions were intentionally detached from their cultural origins. 

I argue, based on Heider’s theory, that there are two basic types of classic Indonesian exploitation films. The first one are films that have stories rooted in Indonesian tradition, history, folklores, or storytelling. Commonly, these kinds of films are full of strangeness, exoticism, and otherness, according to the perspectives of Western fans. The Legend genre, Kumpeni genre, and Horror genre belong to the first basic type of the films, all of which contain elements of mysticism and/or traditional folklores.

Suzzana in  White Crocodile Queen  (1988)

Suzzana in White Crocodile Queen (1988)

The Legend Genre includes dramatizations of traditional legends or folktales. The main protagonists usually have supernatural powers. This genre includes costume dramas, historical legends, or legendary history.  For Example: Snake Queen and White Crocodile Queen.

Suzzanna as snake queen

Suzzanna as snake queen

The Kumpeni genre are films which tell stories of the conflict between the Dutch and the Indonesians (17th-19th centuries). The term Kumpeni is the local term of compagnie which comes from Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), or  the Dutch East India Company (1602-1799). The prototypical plot pits the eponymous hero with supernatural and mystical powers  (Jaka Gledek, Jaka Sembung, Pak Sakerah) against the Dutch forces. Jaka Sembung or ‘The Warrior’ series is the best example of this sub-genre.


Horror in the “Crazy Indonesia” context”  deals with supernatural powers and supernatural monsters, and have a direct connection with traditional folklores. For example: Queen of Black Magic, Mystics in Bali, and Satan’s Slave.


The second type are the ones that have many similarities with international exploitation films. I argue that there are three genres formulated by  Heider with these kinds of characteristics:

Firstly, the Japanese Period Genre. Set in Japanese colonial era (1942-1945), usually about Indonesian women who are kidnapped  and harassed by the Japanese army, and later, became a prisoner or saved by a Japanese officer. This genre is very close to ‘womensploitation’ and Women in Prison films.  War Victims is a good example of this genre.

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Secondly, Perjuangan (struggle) period films, which are about the battles to defend a nation’s independence (Heider 1991, 42-43); these look similar to mainstream American action B-grade films.  Both genres are rooted in historical stories of wars in Indonesia. Examples of these films include Daredevil Commandos, Blazing Battle, and Hell Raiders.


And lastly, cannibalism or, as Heider’s puts it, ‘expedition films’.  Some scholars and critics call these “Jungle films” (Tombs and Starke 2008, Sen: 1999, Tombs 1997). The plot consists of a group of “civilized” people discovering unknown places and encountering its native inhabitants (Heider 1991, 45), as in Primitif and Jungle Virgin Force. In an interview with Mondo Macabro filmmakers, Gope Samtani the producer clearly mentioned the 1970s Italian Cannibalism as the inspiration to make Primitif.

JUNGLE virgin force  (1983)

JUNGLE virgin force (1983)

There are also films that simply imitated WIP formula, such as Escape from Hell Hole, and Virgins from Hell.


Of course,  there are some hybrid films with the characteristics of more than one genre, and can be categorized and fit in some sub-genres of Western exploitation categories. For example, I argue that characteristics of the Mockbuster or Remakesploitation (in Iain Smith’s term) are embedded in Lady Terminator, which is a blend of Legend and Horror, and has “adopted” parts from Terminator mixed with the traditional folklore of The Queen of South Sea; whereas Intruder is a Rambo rip-off. 

indo rambo.jpg

As with much of Western exploitation, then, the Indonesian tradition seems to borrow and plunder already existing and successful properties from North America, Lady Terminator and Intruder’s Rambu being two of your examples. Would this be a fair assessment?  Are there other examples of Indonesian exploitation cinema “remaking” or “adapting” elements of US mainstream filmmaking?

I must go back to the early 1980s when  the government founded Prokjatap Prosar (Kelompok Kerja Tetap Promosi dan Pemasaran Film Indonesia di Luar Negeri/ The Permanent Working Committee for the Promotion and Marketing of Indonesia Films Abroad) and brought  Rapi Films’ Gope Samtani  and Parkit Films’ Raam Punjabi to international film markets in prestigious film festivals such as Cannes, Berlinale, and Milan’s MIFED (Mercato Internationale Del Film Del TV & Del Documentario)  (1982-1983).  The producers learned how to deal with global  film markets, to understand the global demands and tastes, and how to sell their own films to potential buyers. And starting in 1985, after Prokjatap Prosar got dismissed in 1983, they  went independently to international film markets, including Milan, Cannes, Berlinale, and Los Angeles.  

And, after learning the nature of transnational film markets,  they intentionally started to make films that could fit in global market’s taste and demand, and one of the strategies is by doing joint-production as well as using Caucasian actors.  Although in 1984 Rapi Film collaborated with Rapid Film GMBH (Munich,   Germany) to make No Time to Die (Danger - Keine Zeit zum Sterben / Menentang Maut), the joint-production trend started  in 1987 as  Rapi Films and Troma Entertainment co-produced  Peluru dan Wanita, globally known as Jakarta (Triangle Invasion) directed by Charles Kauffman). The co-production projects between two film companies produced three more films, including the infamous wrestling and redubbing film Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters.

Other film companies followed the co-production mode.  Some such films included  Bidadari Berambut Emas (Lady Dragon 2, Ackyl Anwari, 1992),  Harga Sebuah Kejujuran (globally known as Java Burn/Diamond Run, Deddy Arman & Robert Chapell, 1988), and Jaringan Terlarang (Forceful Impact, Ackyl Anwari 1988), and  Dangerous Seductress (Bercinta dengan Maut, Tjut Djalil, 1992).  In these films, they tried to duplicate  the look and the feel of Western exploitation films.

Not only imitating the style of American exploitation films, they also include foreign actors, both professional (Billy Draco, Mike Abbott, Chyntia Rothrock, among others) and amateur ones (Barbara Constable and Ilona Agathe Bastian were tourists, Peter O’Brian was an English teacher), and directors (such as Guy Norris) in these films. Actually, a  year before Jakarta, there was a movie titled Dendam Membara (Final Score, Arizal 1986) starring Chris Mitchum.

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So, we can see Indonesian films with Rothrock starring in them in  Angel of Fury/Triple Cross (1990) and Tiada Titik Balik (Lady Dragon, 1992).  

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Beside that, as  mentioned earlier, I argue that there are Americanized exploitation subgenres in “Crazy Indonesia” films, similar with the formula and characteristics of   womensploitation, mockbusters,  cannibalism, and women-in-prison films. I claim that, based on the formula and characteristics,  Japanese period films are  Indonesian version of women-in-prison films, and  War Victims is one of the films.  WIP films in Indonesian contexts include Virgins from Hell and Hell Hole.

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Lastly, I must mention the success story of Primitif, Barry Prima’s first movie. In an interview filmed by Pete Tombs and Andrew Starke (titled Fantasy Films from Indonesia), the producer openly admitted that they made Primitif in order to make local “Jungle Film”, just like the trend of Italian’s Cannibalism.  This is the first film being sold in international film market--sold in the 1979 Cannes Film Festival through an Italian distributor, SBO. Interestingly, the distributor seemed to hide the fact that Primitif was an Indonesian film.   Primitif was also screened in a West German TV station in  1979 and 1980.  

Indonesia Primitif (1978).jpg

And finally, which five films would you choose that represent the ‘best’ that Indonesian exploitation cinema offers and why?

Lady Terminator (Tjut Jalil, 1988).

I think the film is one of the most popular and most discussed films online related to Indonesian movies. It is on the list of 100 Cult Cinema (Mathijs & Mendik, 2011) which includes films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and El Topo (1970).   The film is a perfect example how the filmmakers tried to blend Hollywood’s action film (namely Terminator) and legend genre with famous local folklore and mysticism. In its promotional material, it says :” “Even the jaded patrons of 42nd street were shocked to see how the lustful Lady T dispatched her victims...!".       

In Indonesian context, the film caused “moral panic” and was banned after 11 days of public screenings in 1989  because the film was considered as being  “too nasty”.  The film got post-production overseas and without  passing any official censorship, and returned to Indonesia illegally  in home video format.


Mystics in Bali  (Tjut Djalil, 1981)

In his book, Mondomacabro: Weird and Wonderful Cinema around the World, Pete Tombs named the chapter of Indonesian films by “Mystics in Bali”. Later, Mondo Macabro DVD  labels the film as “The Holy Grail of Asian  Cult Cinema”.


The film is infamous among global online fans for its exoticism and weirdness of “Far East mysticism”, such as “the flying head eating unborn child” and “the lady who turned into a pig”.  the promotional material says: “This is the film that introduced a new kind of monster to the world’s cinema screens. A sensation on its initial release in Asia, Mystics in Bali was deemed too bizarre and shocking to be screened in the West.” One of my colleagues, Jan Budweg, informed me that he found a document in Germany stating that the film was banned in the country for being “too weird”.

The film tells a story about how to become a Leak, “the most powerful black magic in the world”. And, interestingly, when most of local horror films are strongly related to Islamic teachings and Muslim clerics became  the “savior”, Leak is a Baliness ghost with the rich culture of Bali’s Hinduism.

Jaka Sembung (The Warrior) (Sisworo Gautama Putra, 1981)

Let me start with my own experience in 2008. After I finished presenting my final paper at Universiteit van Amsterdam, some of the young students approached me and expressed their gratitude for watching the action of Rawarontek or  Pancasona charm. “Thank you for introducing me with this Asian  superhero. Here, there is no such thing like it, especially when the separated body and head can unite after being chopped off.”.

Jaka Sembung is my favorite local hero. I consider him as local Superhero since he has supernatural* powers  and fight against colonialism and protect his people. 

And one of the “magic” of the film, as well as other films, is the Special Effect, thanks to El Badrun.


Special Silencers (Arizal, 1979)

Also one of the most discussed “Crazy Indonesia” films in the internet. In AVManiacs, November 2011, the fans consider the film as “.. one of the craziest, goriest, wildest, over-the-top Indo-fantasy-flicks ever” and “…gore, violence, trees growing out of peoples bodies in very gory detail, bad kung-fu, bad romance, Corny dialogue, weirdness, weird magic, fire, torture by smelly shoes, rats, snakes, more gore, Barry Prima, Eva Arnaz…”.  Moreover, the film is “…even crazier than the Turkish stuff I've seen.”.  No need further explanation, I guess.


Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters (Jopi Burnama, 1982)

This is the first Indonesian films being circulated globally in DVD format as well as the first (and the only?) film being redubbed intentionally (in VHS release: 1997).

DVD release: Oct 14, 2003) for marketing purpose by an international distributor.  Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Team  decided to rework the original film by rewriting and rerecording the dialog and music score in order to make it into a “Troma film”.  They call this reworking process “Tromatized”.  As a  result, influenced by Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily (1966), the film has totally different story and flavour.

In his 1998 book (co-written with James Gunn), Lloyd wrote “We change a kickboxing Rambo type of hero into an Elvis impersonator. We change the lady in the film from a serious Indonesia heroine into a Jewish-mama-type of person…”.  They also add new sound tracks including, as Kaufman puts it in his book, “…numerous instances of farting, bad sportsmanship, and a chronically masturbating little boy who was singularly obsessed with his ejaculate and the size of his mother’s breasts”.  

In 2001, Joko Anwar wrote a phenomenon of the discussion of Indonesian B-grade movies in some midnight movies forums,  in the Jakarta Post. And  he mentions the film: “Troma pushes it to the lowest point of stupidity by redubbing it with very dumb dialog that plays for pure laughs”.


Satan’s Slave (Sisworo Gautama Putra, 1980)

Considered as one of the scariest film by 1980s generation in Indonesia, this film is the first local Zombie film enriched with local tradition and context. The film has no  specific  motive that commonly exists in domestic horror films, such as “ oppressed female character, mostly being raped,  became a ghost and seek revenge”. The powerful female  shaman just picked  random people who “are far from religious path” to become satan’s slave. So, it could be anyone, it could be us.

The film is the reason Joko Anwar remade Pengabdi Setan (2016) and brought it to the next level and made this B-grade film into an artistic world class horror films and became the first position in 2016 box  office films and gaining more than 4 million spectators—the first Indonesian horror film in that position.


Ekky Imanjaya is a faculty member of Film Program, Bina Nusantara University (Jakarta). He just finished his PhD study in Film Studies at University of East Anglia. The title of his thesis is “The cultural traffic of Classic Indonesian Exploitation Cinema”. His scholarly papers were published in some journals, including Cinemaya, Asian Cinema, Plaridel, Jump Cut, and  Cinematheque Quarterly. His popular articles were published in some media, including Rolling Stone Indonesia, Catalogue of Taipei International Film Festival, and Südostasien.  In 2015, Ekky guest edited a special issue titled "The Bad, The Worse, and The Worst: The Significance of Indonesian Cult, Exploitation, and B Movies" in Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society


Cult Conversations: Interview with Ekky Imanjaya (Part I)

Happy New Year aca-fans and all the best for 2019! Our first installment of the Cult Conversations series of the new year features Ekky Imanjaya, who recently completed—and successfully defended—his PhD thesis on Indonesian exploitation cinema at University of East Anglia (supervised by Mark Jancovich and Rayna Denison). This is a topic that I literally had zero knowledge about, and learned a great deal from Ikky during our conversation, which encouraged me to go off on one of my online hunts for these films (the hunt is part of the fun, right?). I mean, who wouldn’t immediately want to watch films with titles such as White Crocodile Queen, Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters or Lady Terminator? I am sure that cult scholars and fans—and scholar-fans— will find some hidden gems in the following interview and the geographical and historical context of Indonesian exploitation/cult cinema is fascinating, to say the least. I very much look forward to following Ekky’s research in the future.

Lady Terminator! “She mates…then she terminates!

— William Proctor


When did your personal journey into Indonesian exploitation cinema begin? Would you say you were a fan first? Or was it your academic pursuits that led the way?

Well, like many of my friends, when I was a kid back in the 1980s I loved watching local exploitation films. Of course, at that time, we were not familiar with the term as we only wanted to watch the action/martial art scenes and legend-fantastic stories. Kids like me watched the movies based on our favourite movie stars (and genres such as mystics or martial arts), instead of directors. So, we loved watching Barry Prima’s films, or Suzzanna’s films (known as ‘the horror queen of Indonesian Cinema’). They are most probably the most favorite of the 1980s cult icons—despite that Indonesian people never label the films or the stars as “cult” and I could not find any scholars or critics using the term “cult cinema” in analysing Indonesian films, until the films got recirculated in the early 2000s. Such films, borrowing terms from Barry Grant and Mathijs and Sexton respectively, back in the 1980s and 1990s were considered as  “Mass Cult” and “Cult Blockbusters”.

Barry Prima: Indonesian Actor and Martial Artist

Barry Prima: Indonesian Actor and Martial Artist

Although I watched these kinds of classic Indonesian trashy films and became a fan when I was a kid, my scholarly interest in these kind of films began in 2007 while I was doing my master study at Universiteit van Amsterdam. Before 2007, when I was a film journalist, those films were (and still are) overlooked and shunned by most film critics, film journalists, and film scholars, except when discussing controversial topics or particular fields of study such as gender studies or analysis of social classes. After 1998, when New Order’s President Suharto stepped down, people were excited to witness and enjoy the works of the New Generation of filmmakers with their innovation and creativity in less state-controlled situations. However, nobody focused on these trashy films.

Suzzanna Martha Frederika van Osch (1942—2008)—’the queen of Indonesian horror cinema.’

Suzzanna Martha Frederika van Osch (1942—2008)—’the queen of Indonesian horror cinema.’

However, in 2007 I found a DVD titled “Mystics in Bali” distributed by Mondomacabro DVD in Boudisque, Amsterdam.  Later that week, I found out that there are many of Indonesian exploitation from the New Order era (particularly 1979 To 1995) that were globally recirculated in the 2000s by transnational distributors and celebrated by global fans. The global fans even have the term “Crazy Indonesia”, and seen as a thread in the AVManiacs forum on September 14, 2007.  


Initial questions occurred to me:  why are Indonesian films of the 1980s and 1990s being internationally circulated and celebrated abroad 35 years after their original release? Why is there interest in exploitation films and not the official  “Indonesian Films” as a representation of official and legitimate culture? Why were there many trashy films produced and circulated nationally and transnationally in the New Order period, the years commonly known for strict censorship and state-control within film industry?

In domestic mass media, it was prominent director and screenwriter Joko Anwar, then film reviewer for The Jakarta Post, who wrote an article titled ‘Badri films a big hit overseas,’ published on 9 December 2001.  Joko states that the films (he specifically mentioned Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters (FFFF), Lady Terminator,  and The Warrior/Jaka Sembung series) are “…still being talked about and looked for on videos by many bad-movie lovers worldwide and are widely discussed in some midnight movies forums”. He even recommended some exploitation and cult film websites for more details and for online shopping. Joko admitted that those B-movies from, and outside of, Indonesia are one of the reasons why he makes films. He repeatedly praised the films by comparing classical films with recent ones. In 2005, Anwar uploaded the DVD covers of the transnational version of the movies on his ‘Multiply’ blog, which caused many Indonesian fans to want to know more about the exported film and purchase them where possible. Joko Anwar’s activism is significant in engaging many post-New Order local fans with the “Crazy Indonesia” phenomenon, and also can be considered as the bridge for local film enthusiasts to recognize and, later, celebrate the films.


Inspired by Joko Anwar’s Multiply account and my own discovery, I started to undertake research on the topic, and presented a topic as my final assignment for a module titled “Fictional Events and Actual Emotions”, convened by Dr. Tarja Laine in 2008. After presenting the idea at the B for Bad Movies conference in Monash University (Melbourne) in 2009, I finally published the paper called ‘The Other Side of Indonesia: New Order’s Indonesian Exploitation Cinema as Cult Films’ in Colloquy.   And, finally, I was invited to be the guest editor of Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society Special Issue, Vol 11, Issue No. 2, 2014.  The topic of my special issue is “The Bad, The Worse, and The Worst: The Significance of Indonesian Cult, Exploitation, and B Movies".

In 2009, I emailed Professor Mark Jancovich proposing this idea and asking him to become my supervisor for my PhD study. In less than 5 minutes, he said yes. But it took me 4 years to study at UEA (I started in January 2013), since it was difficult to get the funding, particularly with this “unusual” topic.


Your PhD thesis, The Cultural Traffic of Classic Indonesian Exploitation Cinema, is certainly a valuable area of study and one that has not been studied in great depth in Western academia. How would you explain your thesis to someone who is not familiar with cult cinema in the Indonesian context? How does Indonesian exploitation cinema differ from the grindhouse tradition in the US-context in terms  of content and theatrical exhibition?

My PhD study focused on two key terms: the Politics of Taste and Global Flow related to the film traffic of the films being analysed, namely, transnational Indonesian films from 1979-1995 recirculated globally in early 2000s and 2010s. My PhD thesis critically argues against mainstream point-of-views, which commonly devalue Indonesian trashy films. Firstly, I challenged the “official history” of Indonesian cinema through the framework of cultural traffic, by including and highlighting the significance of exploitation and B-films, and how the films need to be part of any serious discussion about Indonesian cinema. Secondly, I argue that, from the viewpoint of the global flows of the films, classic Indonesian exploitation films are both the effect and the cause of a conflict of interests of various politics of taste applied by several agencies: the State, cultural elites, local film producers, local film distributors and exhibitors, local audiences, transnational distributors, and global fans. 

Regarding, the different between Indonesian cult movies and other cult movies, actually, there are two perspectives: the perspective of Western/global fans and transnational distributors, and local audience and producers/distributors.   

From the global perspectives, they consider what I called “classic Indonesian exploitation films” as cult movies. The films were originally produced, distributed, exhibited in Indonesia, as well as exported (or sold in international film markets), produced by Indonesian filmmakers (and joint-production with filmmakers from other countries), particularly between 1979 and 1995. The films were reworked and recirculated by transnational distributors, legally and illegally, in the early 2000s and labelled as “cult movies”. The most popular distributors include Mondo Macabro (I wrote a paper about them, and will be published soon in Plaridel journal), Troma Entertainment, and VideoAsia’s Tale of Voodoo.  

Global fans have the term: “Crazy Indonesia“--a term popularized by Jack J when he started a thread with the same title in the AVManiacs forum, 2007. In the first posting of the thread at AVManiacs (14/09/2007), Jack  states that he borrowed the title for this thread from another member, Gaenter Muller, who used it for his website, ‘Weird Asia'. Unfortunately, I can’t find a way to trace the website.

The fans wrote reviews or discussed the films in the thread, as well as in their own blogs, such as Cinema Strikes Back, Mondo Digital, 10K Bullets,  Ninja Dixon, Critical Condition, Damn That Ojeda!, and  Backyard-Asia. Regarding Indonesian films, they focus only on “Crazy Indonesia” films and, at the same time, reject other kinds of Indonesian films.

Borrowing from Karl Heider, I argue that they love particular sub-genres of Indonesian films, namely “Indonesian genres” (Kumpeni, legend, supernatural-horror/mystics) and Americanized exploitation subgenres (Japanese Period genre which is similar with womensploitation, Perjuangan/Struggle period genre or action/war movies, mockbusters, cannibalism or Jungle/Expedition films, and Women-in-Prison). Hence, they are only interested in some specific genres and styles from a specific era of production.   


The local perspectives are different. When I undertook my PhD research, I could not find either scholarly or popular articles using the term “exploitation” or “cult” related to Indonesian movies, until those 1980s and 1990s movies were redistributed globally in early 2000s.  Some critics did mention similar terms, such as  “trashy movie”, “slapdash movies”, and “poor quality movies” by Salim Said, Heider’s description of “The art of movie advertising” which is quite similar with the tradition of exploitation films in the Western tradition. Rosihan Anwar once also used the term “sexploitation” in 1978. This is not surprising considering that the movies are considered unimportant and against the official definition of “Film Indonesia”, which should represent the “faces” of Indonesia, true culture, and with cultural and educational purposes (or, “Film Kultural Edukatif”).

Hence, in some cases, I had difficulties applying the Western-centric concept and definition of “cult movies” onto the context of Indonesian cinema, particularly those produced in New Order era.  I am currently developing an idea for an academic paper regarding “Cult Movies, Indonesian Style”. If we agree that the essence of “cult movies” is concerning lively celebration and the rituals of their militant followers, most local audiences in the past and in the 2010s have different styles. There were no fan rituals, cosplay, comic-con, fanzines and so forth, until a few years ago. The traditions associated with Western cult cinema, such as Midnight Screenings, Midnight Movies, Drive-in cinemas and Double Bills are not common in Indonesia, but they have “Layar Tancap” (traveling cinema shows) tradition in rural and suburb area (my paper on this matter will be published soon in Cine-Excess Journal). And most of the films were produced by major film companies and were released theatrically and on home video format (traveling salesmen usually came door-to-door in the neighborhood offering the Betamax video format) for mainstream audiences, and became popular films with some of them even gaining blockbuster status.  

Regarding film references, most of local audiences are not familiar with, for instance, Rocky Horror Picture Show or El-Topo, but they love the Dangdut musicals starring Rhoma Irama, or comedies starring Warkop DKI, or Benyamin Sueb, or propaganda films such as Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treason of G30S/PKI, an official version of the 1965 event)—which were not circulated in global VHS circuits in the 1980s and are not in the cult DVD circulation of the 2000s.


The terms ‘trashy’, ‘slapdash’ and ‘poor quality movies’ to describe Indonesian exploitation cinema seems to be aligned with discourses in the Western context. How do you feel about these films being labelled in such way as to mark them out as ‘bad’ films? Do fans ‘love to hate’ these films? Or are they described as ‘so bad that they are good’? Given that fans, as you say, reject certain films and include others, is Indonesian exploitation cinema a form of what Jeffrey Sconce terms ‘paracinema’? There certainly appears to be similarities with the cultural distinctions and binaries constructed around exploitation and cult in the Western content. Even the term ‘trashy’ constructs cultural distinctions between exploitation and mainstream, as in the Western context.

This questions can be answered from two perspectives: the Indonesian perspective in New Order era, and the more recent global fans. Let me begin with the first one.

As I mentioned before, there is no term for “cult movies” or “exploitation movies” (as discussed in Western countries). The terms ‘trashy’, ‘slapdash’ and ‘poor quality movies’ came from a few important figures of the cultural elite back in 1980s and 1990s. At that time, domestic exploitation films were mushroomed and became mainstream and some of them became box office films. Although New Order government applied sharp censorship and strict regulations towards the film industry, they still had interests in this kind of films. Naturally, they have terms such as “National Cinema” that can represents “the true Indonesian culture” or in attempt to “seek Indonesian faces on screen”, and should be Film Kultural Edukatif (films with cultural and educational purposes), known as the “qualitative approach”, but still they had the “quantity/audience approach”.  For example, the Minister of Information Mashuri Saleh issued the Ministerial Decree no. 47/1976, which states that film exporters are obligated to produce five films (later, reduced to three) for the right to import films (Said 1991, 88). This quickie quota policy was in response to the decline of film production in 1977 (from 77 in the year before to 41, as written by Said in 1991).  As a result, the quantity of films increased significantly.  For example, the 1978 Indonesian Film Festival received the largest number of entries in the New Order era.  On the other hand, many of these films are criticized for not been good quality. Salim Said underlines that the films are “not just slapdash films but films with an overemphasis on elements such as sex and violence”, and this phenomenon led to “the rise of trashy movies” (Said 1991, 89-90). That was where the terms came from.

The main idea of quantitative/audience policy was to “let the quantity of films grow first, therefore the quality will automatically follow” (as written by senior film critic JB Kristanto in 2004). Interestingly, in Indonesian context, the exploitation films were the mainstream films, whist most of Film Kultural Edukatif had difficulties in getting audiences.

The other perspective is the perspective of global fans and transnational distributors. They like the strangeness, the weirdness, the otherness of the films. As I mentioned above, they have their own term, “Crazy Indonesia”, which is in line with some of Karl Heider’s definition of Indonesia’s sub-genres, such as Kumpeni (local heroes fights Dutch colonial army with supernatural powers), Legend (folklores/fantasy with supernatural and magic powers), Japanese Period (W-I-P), and Jungle/Expedition (Indonesian style of cannibalism) genres. The difference between the “Crazy Indonesia” films and the exploitation films from Western countries relies on the exoticism of these subgenres. In an interview with myself,  Pete Tombs, the co-founder of Mondo Macabro, shares the same argument:

“Again, to us in the West, the mythology they explored (South Sea Queen, Sundel Bolong etc.) was new and very “exotic”.  There was also something interesting in seeing western exploitation staples, such as the women in prison movie or the monster movie, being filtered through Indonesian eyes. Finally, I suppose for us there was a feeling that things like supernatural horror and black magic were maybe taken a bit more seriously by audiences in Indonesia than they were in the West, for cultural/historical reasons, so the films weren’t so self-conscious or “camp” as UK or US productions” (Imanjaya 2009d, 148)


Can you explain more about the political climate in which these films emerged and re-emerged? Terms such as “New Order” may need explaining for readers unfamiliar with exploitation in the Indonesian context.

The New Order regime era was established in 1966 and ended in 1998. The years 1965-1966 were a big transition point for Indonesia. In the previous decade,  there were ideological battles and political polarizations among many parties. The Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI), one of the biggest political power in Old Era, was destroyed and Suharto became the President. New Order accused PKI to take over President Sukarno (the previous president) in September 30, 1965, thus the Army under Suharto “destroyed” and banned PKI’ and the members (or people who were accused as members of PKI) were imprisoned or killed.  On the other hand, if you watched Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, you can find  the “other perspective” of the event.

Learning from the final years of the “Old Order”, an era that was marked by economic and political instability, Suharto’s “New Order” framed all aspects of potential Communist infiltration of cultural output as subversive and put the film and media industries under military control, and thus established a level of oppression and censorship. However, at the same time, Suharto tried to build the nation, including the film industry. On one hand, they tried to dominate every aspect of life under the guise of security, development, and stability . For example, in the film industry, the government applied strict censorship and controlled all aspects of film production from screenwriting to distribution and exhibition. On the other hand,  The New Order had several policies designated to rehabilitate the development of the film industry and support the import of foreign films. Ministerial decrees were enacted to improve film development with a focus upon a “quantity approach” or “audience approach”. This kind of decrees paved the way of exploitation films to bloom.


Ekky Imanjaya is a faculty member of Film Program, Bina Nusantara University (Jakarta). He just finished his PhD study in Film Studies at University of East Anglia. The title of his thesis is “The Cultural Traffic of Classic Indonesian Exploitation Cinema”. His scholarly papers are published in some journals, including Cinemaya, Asian Cinema, Plaridel, Jump Cut, and  Cinematheque Quarterly. His popular articles were published in some media, including Rolling Stone Indonesia, Catalogue of Taipei International Film Festival, and Südostasien.  In 2015, Ekky guest edited a special issue titled "The Bad, The Worse, and The Worst: The Significance of Indonesian Cult, Exploitation, and B Movies" in Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society


Cult Conversations: Interview with Mark Bernard (Part II)


In Selling the Splat Pack, you discuss the way in which the DVD produces a “super text.” Can you explain what you mean by “super text” in this context?

For me, the idea of “super text” was my adaptation of Catherine Grant’s notion of the primary text – that is, the feature film – and secondary texts – the extra features – on a DVD blending to the point where they all make up what she calls “the story of the film.” So, in the case of Splat Pack auteurs like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, their films on DVD blur into the secondary materials to the point where the story of the film is just as significant – or more important – than the story told by the film. For example, I’d say that the story of the Hostel films is ultimately a story about Eli Roth attempting to craft and sell an image of himself as a provocative horror auteur. Taken on its own, the film The Devil’s Rejects may be a film about the revenge of the underclass and/or a return to the “urbanoia” film, but as it appears on DVD with all the extras grafted onto it, the story of The Devil’s Rejects is one about the slippage of identity and a type of cross-class spectatorship. The “super text” of Saw is that of a dark, demented theme park, which is fitting considering that Saw is the only horror franchise – to my knowledge at least – that has been adapted into a roller coaster.       


One of the fascinating arguments in Selling the Splat Pack is the idea that directors such as Eli Roth and Rob Zombie “utilize the DVD platform to frame their films in a wide variety of ways” (142). What did you discover regarding such paratextual frames and what purpose do you think they serve?

They serve different purposes for different directors, I believe, and Eli Roth and Rob Zombie are two good examples. I believe Roth used the paratextual frames afforded by DVD to do a couple of things. One, I believe he attempted to immediately canonize himself as a significant horror director. He was certainly not shy when it came to promoting himself. This is likely the reason that some folks found him a bit  grating. As for myself, I didn’t write about him to praise or damn him. I just found it fascinating that DVD, as an industrial practice and a consumer product, gave this budding auteur a way to promote himself as a premier genre director. At one point I cited Timothy Corrigan’s claim that Quentin Tarantino was an auteur for the VHS age. I saw Roth as the DVD corollary. And it just so happened that Tarantino was Roth’s mentor.

Secondly, Roth used DVD as a way to position himself as a political filmmaker. Roth seemed enamoured with the image of a “serious” and “political” horror filmmaker like George Romero. Joe Tompkins, in his great chapter for Merchants of Menace, wrote about this as well, this sort of valorisation of figures like Romero that makes them into not just cult figures but almost folk heroes and how horror filmmakers attempt to evoke these figures to distinguish themselves. I believe Roth saw DVD as a way to build a reputation for himself as a serious filmmaker in this mould. Roth was obviously aware of various discourses – some of these “reflectionist” interpretations coming from academia – that read Romero’s films (and the films by other directors like Wes Craven and Larry Cohen) as actually being about the Vietnam war and the counterculture moment. Roth attempted to channel the Iraq war and the debates about torture through his films. Sometimes his allusions came across a little ham-handedly in his films; sometimes, I don’t believe they came through at all. However, DVD gave Roth multiple opportunities to tell any viewer willing to listen that this subtext was indeed there and to use this subversive veneer as a way to sell his films.


I believe Roth just legitimately loves horror cinema, and the DVD extras allowed him a lot of opportunities to talk about horror. As he says on one of the commentary tracks on the Hostel DVD, “I’ve got a lot to say. It’s hard to shut me up, especially when I’m talking about horror movies.” Using Catherine Grant’s perspective, I’d say the “story of the film” when it comes to the Hostel films on DVD is the story of Roth positioning himself as a significant auteur, a political filmmaker, and a horror fan.  

The paratextual materials play a similar role when it comes to Rob Zombie’s films. However, there’s a key difference between Roth and Zombie: while Roth sells himself as a political filmmaker, Zombie doesn’t seem to care very much about politics or being seen as political. I believe the “behind-the-scenes” features on Zombie’s DVD foreground his seriousness as a filmmaker and his meticulous nature. It could have been easy for some to write off Zombie as a vapid director of the “MTV” stripe Zombie since he was coming off a career as a heavy metal musician.   But the paratexts showcase the seriousness and artistry that Zombie puts into his films in immense detail. I mean, the “making-of” documentaries on both The Devil’s Rejects DVD and the Halloween remake DVD are both longer than the films themselves. I argue that these paratexts also show Zombie’s fascination – which seems sincere – with acting. He seems enamoured with actors. He is married to one after all, so I guess that makes sense! The process of acting also seems to fascinate him, which is interesting considering the play of identity that I see as integral to his films and their appeal. I believe this is one of many points where the division between primary text (the film) and secondary texts (the extras) begins to blur, making the “story of” Zombie’s films one about the slippage of identity. 


It is fascinating that directors seem to be aiming to legitimate horror as an art form through a kind of producorial paratextual politicisation. Do you think this is because horror remains critically disparaged in academic and press circles, and as a consequence, filmmakers, such as the ones you analyse in Selling the Splat Pack, aim to discursively politicize horror cinema as a method of redressing said disparagement? 

First, I must say: “producorial paratextual politicisation” is an amazing term! This process is most definitely at work, especially when it comes to Eli Roth.

I’m not certain I would agree that horror is totally disparaged in academic circles. Actually, I believe horror has perhaps fared much better in academic circles than in the popular press. Studies of horror cinema have been around since the institutionalisation of film studies as an academic discipline. It’s possible one could argue that much scholarship on horror cinema resulted because the genre just happened to pair well with psychoanalytic approaches that dominated film studies throughout the 1970s and 80s. This could have been a factor, but nearly every horror film scholar I’ve read is an admirer of the genre. Horror has its own academic journal, something that other genres cannot boast. I believe horror has done pretty well in academia.  

But it is certainly true that horror has not done so well in popular circles and has remained disreputable among most critics.

What I believe directors like Roth were trying to do is take discourse from academic studies of horror – studies that noticed the genre’s subversive potential – and use it to, as you put it, redress critical disparagement of horror. On one level, I believe that’s great. As an admirer of horror cinema, I’m happy to see filmmakers  defend horror cinema and proudly claim that their films are horror rather than do this tap dance that filmmakers often do in interviews and publicity where they’re hesitant to identify their films as horror. For instance, I loved the film Hereditary, but it is frustrating to read or watch interviews with Ari Aster, the writer/director, and see him waffling back and forth about how his film is a horror film, but at the same time, equivocating that it’s more of a “family drama” or “domestic melodrama” than horror. It’s tiresome.


At the same time, however, it can be a bit grating when filmmakers openly declare their film is horror, but use topicality – often bastardized from academic “reflectionist” approaches that are flimsy to begin with – to justify their film’s status as horror. In other words, saying things like “this is horror film, but it’s actually about the Iraq war” or something of that sort and using that to sell the film is almost as bad as the tap dance approach because there’s still the inference that horror cannot stand on its own. It always has to be “about” something to be worthwhile. That’s irksome for me. It’s also frustrating when this type of discourse is commodified, as I argue in Selling the Splat Pack.

In a recent BBC News article, Anne Bilson argued that: “Whenever a horror movie makes a splash... there is invariably an article calling it ‘smart’ or ‘elevated’ or ‘art house’ horror. They hate horror SO MUCH they have to frame its hits as something else.” How would you respond to this statement?

I believe Bilson is absolutely right. All this talk about “post-horror” is predicated on the idea that horror in and of itself is not “good” enough to warrant any consideration or analysis, which I, of course, do not believe.   

This idea bugs me for a couple of reasons. First, in terms of my own personal approach to film analysis, I don’t believe it’s my job to say if one film is “better” or “worse” than another. Like, is A Quiet Place “better” than Paranormal Activity 4? Is Get Out “better” than Happy Death Day? I honestly don’t care that much. I don’t look at horror films in terms of “better” or “worse.” For me, horror films exist on a spectrum. They aim to deliver different experiences to different types of audiences. That sounds like an obvious observation and maybe it is, but for me, it’s important.


But, just for the sake of argument, if folks want to talk about recent critically-acclaimed horror films being “better” than past genre outings, it seems to me that is worth looking into the industrial/historical context from which these films are emerging. If we are indeed seeing the release of “better” or “higher quality” horror, what changes in the film/media business may have been a catalyst for this shift? That’s a much more interesting question for me that I haven’t seen discussed as much. I was very intrigued to see, in the Nicholas Barber article for BBC, that “elevated horror” apparently was a term being tossed around by Hollywood executives as far back as 2012. I’d like for someone to look into that a bit more and examine the commercial imperatives behind these “post-horror” films. 

In the US, movie attendance is bottoming out. Since the market is shrinking and making movies is such a precarious enterprise, we’re seeing a couple of things happen. On the more expensive end, majors are relying more and more on franchises and recognizable brand names. Beyond that, a lot of the smart money is withdrawing from the theatrical market and focusing instead on producing original content for television and streaming services. This seems to have left space in the theatrical market for different, more diverse films with low-to-moderate budgets. Horror remains a reliable genre, so maybe it makes sense that financers and distributors might look for projects that combine a reliable genre with fresh takes from adventurous filmmakers, including women and people of color. I believe that’s how you end up with films like The Babadook, The Witch, Get Out, and Hereditary.


Mind you, these are all just armchair observations. I haven’t researched any of this, and this is just supposition. But it seems to me that the industrial side of all this is worth a closer look.

What are your plans for the future in scholarly terms?

At the moment, I’m desperately trying to finish up a monograph about John Carpenter’s Halloween for Routledge’s Cinema and Youth Cultures series. It’s a short book, but it’s been a tough one. Writing about the film is a bit intimating for me because it’s such a classic and so much great stuff – both academic and popular – has been written about it. But I believe there’s still some new ground there to be covered, and I hope I cover it in a useful way.

After that, I’m not certain. I have a couple of dream projects I’d love to do if I ever have the time and resources, but I’m buried under student papers for the foreseeable future!   

And finally, what five films would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that horror/ cult cinema can offer and why?

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

For me, this is the textbook example of a cult film. Every stage of this film’s life – from pre-production to its remediation in a multitude of reception contexts – is fascinating. Looking to outdo the success of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM, sought to make the ultimate horror picture, and Tod Browning, former sideshow carnie and director of some of the most macabre mutilation melodramas of the 1920s, gave him this film, which scandalized audiences by featuring actual sideshow “freaks.” One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is that, up until the last ten minutes or so, it’s not really a horror film at all. It’s made up mostly of “slice-of-life” vignettes about working in a traveling circus sideshow. Characters fall in love, break up, have children, and get into arguments with their co-workers about common, everyday things. It just so happens that most of these characters are played by people of extreme bodily difference. The scene in the middle of the film when Hans tells Frieda that he plans to marry Cleopatra is so syrupy and melodramatic, but when the typical viewer takes a step back and reminds themselves they are watching this soap opera scene play out between two little people, the viewing experience is often one of ambivalence, which is both discomforting and engaging in a way few other films are. When the film takes a dark turn in its final act and these “Othered” characters that have been so humanized throughout the film begin to act in monstrous ways, it’s even more unsettling. The horror film theatrics of the climactic scene – the dark night, pouring rain, flashing lighting, booming thunder, and the sight of the “freaks” crawling through the mud toward their victim – are indelible. The film is barely over an hour long, but the emotional journey on which the film takes the reader seems much longer. There’s simply not another film like Freaks.      


Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

They say that sequels can never surpass the original, but this film proves that old cliché to be dead wrong. The first Frankenstein film was a smash success for Universal Pictures in 1931. By all accounts, James Whale, the director of the film, did not want to direct a sequel and agreed to do so only if he could bring his own distinct flavour to the proceedings. The result is a film that demonstrates how the dialectic between Hollywood convention and the idiosyncrasies of a distinctive filmmaker can produce a cultural artefact that’s defiantly heterogeneous. It feels like three different films sewn and stitched together, like Frankenstein’s monster. There’s the tale of the creature, who is the prototype of the sympathetic monster; then there’s Henry Frankenstein, the creature’s creator, who epitomizes the tortured soul who cannot help but give into his sinister, unnatural impulse to make monsters; and then there’s the flamboyantly camp mad scientist Septimus Pretorius, a devilish figure who tempts Henry away from the straight and narrow down a deviant path. Everything great about the Hollywood horror film is here, from gothic iconography of castles and forests, to shadowy cinematography, to psycho-sexual subtext. Also great is Franz Waxman’s score, with leitmotifs that signal the presence of the film’s three monsters: Pretorius, the creature, and the creature’s bride.        

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The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964)

Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations starting Vincent Price are essential viewing for any horror fan. I love all of Corman’s Poe movies, but this one is my favourite, just barely edging out The Pit and the Pendulum. Part of what makes Masque so great are the elements it shares with Corman’s other roaring Poe adaptations: the ripe screenplay that channels Poe via Freud, Gothic landscapes painted in bright Technicolor strokes, hallucinogenic inner mindscapes, and Price’s delightfully camp performance. What Masque brings to the party that makes it so extra are delirious scenes of freakery, Satanic worship, Dionysian bacchanals, and even more hallucinogenic imagery. Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography captures the bizarre visuals perfectly. In all, Masque is a feverish combination of drive-in and avant-garde, the essential psychedelic horror film. Dialogue and audio snippets from the film have been sampled in songs by doom metal bands such as Electric Wizard, Theatre of Tragedy, and Bell Witch, which adds to the film’s cult pedigree.   



The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

There’s a smorgasbord (please forgive the food reference) of reasons why this film is so effective. I never fail to be mesmerized by its uncanny oscillation between extreme poles. The grainy, 16 mm cinematography gives the film a documentary quality, which goes a long way toward selling the film’s claims of being based on actual events. However, other filmic elements give it an experimental, avant-garde quality, with these techniques most clearly on display during the climatic, Mad-Hatter-tea-party-from-hell dinner scene during which the viewer is barraged with rapid, disorienting editing, dissonant sound design, and extreme close-ups. Among the brutally bizarre elements of the film are moments of perverse beauty, epitomized by the shot of the young lovers running through country fields with a rotting, decrepit house looming behind them. The film’s abrupt transitions between horror and black humour are also particularly effective. One specific example of these transitions that immediately comes to mind is when Sally pulls a knife on the Cook, who disarms her with a swat of a broom. When I watch this film with an audience, the smack with the broom never fails to get a laugh – how dangerous can a broom really be? – but the laughs quickly die off as the Cook overpowers Sally, leaps onto her, and begins beating her with the broomstick, the cracks of the stick hitting her body expertly emphasized with Foley. After the Cook drags Sally back to the cannibal family’s home, the perverse humour re-emerges, as the Cook yells and swats at Leatherface and the Hitchhiker like a demented Jackie Gleason. The film’s atmosphere is relentless, oppressive, and unforgettable. And we haven’t even gotten into the film’s themes, the most compelling probably being its look into capitalism’s horrific exploitation of human life and labour. If you watch only one horror film in your life, make it this one.          


City of the Living Dead aka The Gates of Hell (Lucio Fulci, 1980)

Lucio Fulci boasts a filmography loaded with titles emblematic of the excesses of grindhouse-era Italian exploitation. Highly regarded among Fulci’s horror films are a loose trilogy of films depicting the various horror unleashed when portals to hell are ripped open. These three films are: City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981). Many consider The Beyond to be the best of these three films – some say that it’s Fulci’s masterpiece – but I’ve always preferred City, the first entry in the trilogy. With their eerie visuals, dizzying cinematography (Fulci’s unabashedly embraced the zoom lens), lack of logic, and disorienting sound design, Fulci’s horror films most closely resemble nightmares than any other horror films I’ve seen. This film stands out for me because it’s particularly ghoulish in its blatant blasphemy. A portal to hell is opened when a priest commits suicide, unleashing a swarm of zombies. One victim is murdered by an inverted baptism, as maggot-filled dirt is ground into her face. Another victim has a vision that causes a grotesque stigmata: her eyes bleed, and she vomits out her intestines. David Cook called Fulci’s horror films “delirious, dreamlike descents into hell,” and I don’t know if horror gets much more savagely sacrilegious than this.   


Mark Bernard is Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, USA. He is the author of Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film (Edinburgh UP, 2014) and co-author of Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation (Wayne State UP, 2014). He is currently writing a monograph about John Carpenter’s Halloween for Routledge’s Cinema and Youth Cultures series.








Cult Conversations: Interview with Mark Bernard (Part I)

I first came across Mark Bernard’s work through reading Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2014), which is one of the finest academic monographs in recent years. Mark is also one of the contributors to the edited book, Horror Franchise Cinema (which I am co-editing with Mark McKenna for Routledge), his focus being ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ film series. In the following interview, Mark Bernard and I discuss, among other topics, horror fandom, so-called “reflectionist” readings of horror films, and the DVD phenomenon. I would certainly urge interested readers to check out Selling the Splat Pack—a rigorous and robust analysis of the way in which the DVD revolution has sparked key shifts in industry and business practices centered on and around the horror film.

—William Proctor

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When did your journey into horror and cult media begin? Are your academic pursuits a labour of (fan) love, first and foremost? And, if so, how do you negotiate between these different identities?

My journey into horror began when my family purchased a VCR. I was about 10 years old. It seemed like a lot of kids at my school already had a VCR, so when we got one, I was absolutely thrilled. Like most kids, I loved to watch TV, but once we got a VCR, I left TV behind. I stopped watching most television shows and instead watched tons of movies. As I began to frequent the video store, I believe I gravitated toward horror movies because those were the movies I always heard older kids talking about. I grew up in the mountains and went to a small country Baptist church. There were no kids my age at church, so they put me in the teenage class for Sunday school. When the teacher sat me in the corner and gave me Bible-themed colouring books to play with while they had class, I would overhear the teenagers whispering about Friday the 13th and stuff like that. That stuff sounded really cool, so I headed straight for that section of the video store when I had the opportunity. I suppose Sam Arkoff and all the other guys at AIP were right: a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch. That type of thinking certainly influenced my choices.


My parents were very conservative, but luckily for me, they were very lenient when it came to movies and let me watch pretty much whatever I wanted. As long as I was upstairs in my room and they didn’t have to see it, they were fine.

I was aided and abetted in my quest for horror films by the family who owned the closest video store, which was located Baileyton, TN, a small town about a 20 minute drive from our house. Baileyton was basically just a cluster of gas stations, bars, and truck stops off of Interstate 81, which was the only main highway running through northeast Tennessee back then. The store, “Baileyton Video,” was in a building that had once been a gas station. It still had old, decrepit fuel pumps standing in the middle of the parking lot.   

(If I may, here’s a few eerie side notes about Baileyton. An elderly man who owned a small grocery store just down the road from Baileyton video was shot and killed in his store. They never caught the killer. Also, about a couple of miles or so away, a group of Satanists shot and killed a man, his wife, and their six-year-old daughter. They had a two-year-old son who was also shot, but he survived. This crime came to be known as “The Lillelid Murders” and got national attention. Also, woman who disappeared was last seen in the area, and the story was featured on the television show Unsolved Mysteries.)


The husband and wife who ran Baileyton Video really liked me for some reason or another. I started frequenting their store when I was around age 12 or so, and they let me rent pretty much any movie I wanted, even though I was way underage. I remember reading about Re-Animator somewhere or another (probably Fangoria, which I had just discovered), and I really wanted to see it. When I finally found it on the video shelf, it had a big red “X-rated” sticker on the box (there were no “unrated” stickers, so unrated videotapes just got slapped with the “X” sticker). I took it to the counter anyway. The woman took a look at the box and asked me, “Is this movie just really scary? It doesn’t have any other bad stuff in it, does it?” Of course, “bad stuff” was a euphemism for sex. I didn’t really know exactly what the movie was about, but I just blurted out: “No! It’s just supposed to be really, really scary!”  That was apparently good enough for her because she let me rent it. I was lucky that, obviously, neither she nor her husband had seen it! I remember that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also had an “X-rated” sticker on it. When I brought that to the counter, she seemed uncertain, but her husband look over, saw the box, and said, “Oh, he can watch that. It’s not that bad.”


In all my time as a customer, there was only one movie they did not let me rent: Wild at Heart. I wonder why they drew the line there? I’m not sure. I saw the movie later on and didn’t like it, so I suppose it was no great loss.


Looking back on my life, it’s now fairly apparent to me why horror cinema really clicked with me once I discovered it. Horror movies were more than just what the cool older kids were watching. These movies gave me a way to deal with all the fear and anxiety I suffered from when growing up. In many ways, I was a terrified child, scared of a lot of stuff. I already mentioned that I attended a Southern Baptist church way up in the Tennessee mountains, and this stripe of Christianity instilled fear into me at a young age. I didn’t go to a serpent-handling, speaking-in-tongues-type of church, but it wasn’t too far off from that type of stuff. There was plenty of screaming and shouting and furious preaching. My very first memory is being at church. This culture instilled a healthy amount of fear into me at a young age: fear of being led astray by Satan’s wiles, fear of god’s vengeance, fear of hellfire, and fear of a rapture that could apparently happen at any moment. I was told that the rapture was something we should look forward to, but whenever I saw visual depictions of the event in drawings or paintings – with the sky cracking open, graves exploding, and cars crashing as spirits flew out the sunroofs – it looked absolutely terrifying.

Growing up in the mountains, you encounter a whole lot of mountain lore, superstitions, and scary tales, what they used to call “booger” stories. A “booger” was an Appalachian bogeyman. My grandmother was a big believer in the supernatural and would often tell me about all the haunted houses and hollers. She warned me to never go to these places. Later on when we were grown up, my cousin Leisa told me our grandmother didn’t really believe all that stuff, but I’m not so certain. Either way, she was very convincing!

Also adding to my anxiety were the strange things you’d see as a kid growing up in the mountains. Something that made an indelible impact on me happened when I was about four or five. I walking around and playing in the woods that my grandmother owned in the mountains behind my parents’ house. I was walking up a bank and started smelling an indescribable odour. I got to the top of the bank. On the other side, there was a fairly steep incline into a ditch. At the bottom in the ditch, about fifteen or so yards away, was a huge pile of grey, white, and brown matter with waves of flies swarming all around it. It was the decomposing corpse of a cow. I ran to get my dad and my brother. It seemed that a cow from an adjoining lot had broken a fence, wondered over onto my grandmother’s property, and something horrible happened. Not sure what. My brother kept saying, “She probably fell and broke her leg,” and that phrase haunted me. The idea that something so terrible could happen so randomly was too much for my young mind to handle.

So, long story short, I believe I gravitated toward horror because horror films helped me wrap my tiny, terrified, anxious mind around all of these horrors – images of the end of the world, booger men, and dead carcasses – and have fun with them. Like a lot of things in life, horror movies were scary, but they were also really fun. I loved conventions and watching for certain recurring iconography, tropes, and story types. I was excited when the films broke from convention in new ways, but even the most by-the-numbers horror was fun for me. I’ve read some recent studies that say watching horror films is therapeutic for people who suffer from anxiety. That’s probably similar to the soothing sensation I get from horror. A lot of things changed through my prepubescent and teenage years, but the one constant was my love of horror cinema.

When I went to college, I majored in English, which was pretty much the only option for me since English was by far and away my strongest subject in school. I was thrilled to find out that the English department offered classes about movies. Not only that, but it turned out that you could do a film studies concentration. I fell in love!

I suppose this brings us to the question about whether or not my academic pursuits are a labour of love. I believe so, but there was not a straight line leading directly from my love of film to my eventual academic pursuits. Somewhere along the line during my academic studies, I veered in a different direction and became convinced, for some reason or another, that I wanted to be a James Joyce scholar. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I began an MA program in literature. However, a couple of years studying Modern Literature and writing an MA thesis on Joyce quickly disabused me of any notion that I would ever become a Joyce scholar. I got burned out. One of my professors pulled me aside and said, “Look, you’re a smart guy, but this obviously isn’t for you. You’re heart just isn’t in this anymore. Figure out what you really care about and study that.”

He was correct: that path was not for me. As I got deeper and deeper into studying literature, I felt more and more cut off from life and the world in general. I felt unplugged from everything, like I was smothering. I’m not sure if that makes sense or not, but that’s the only way I can explain it. Oftentimes, I was trying to study literature that even people who love literature would never choose to read if they weren’t forced to! Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit, but when I dove into Joyce, I felt myself sinking in a sea of textual obscurity. So, I quit school for a couple of years and thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to teach, and I loved teaching writing. But beyond that was uncertain.

My graduate studies in Modern Literature seemed to unplug me from everything and disengage me with the world. But whenever I watched films and read about films, especially horror, I felt really plugged into life. I felt like I could really engage with the world and its complexities when I talked and read about horror cinema. I found myself returning to the type of academic inquiry I undertook in my undergraduate classes in film studies, which led me back to horror cinema, my first love.

Around this time, I also got into cultural studies and starting thinking not only about film, but also its place in the material world. What are the real world circumstances in which we consume film? How do these various reception contexts affect the ways we experience film?  These types of questions excited me and got me thinking about how I experienced horror films via home video when I was growing up, which undoubtedly had something to do with my academic interest in home video. When I returned to graduate school, it was in a cultural studies program with an emphasis in film and media studies.   

So, ultimately, I would say my academic pursuits are a labour of love because I’m trying to analyse and understand this genre that I have loved all my life. It gave me a lens through which to view the world as I was growing up. My interest in cultural studies led me to start asking questions about the practices – business, cultural, political, and otherwise – that surround this film genre that had been so important to me all my life.   

Is it a fan labour of love? That’s a tricky question. When I found myself studying and writing about something that I really loved as a fan, I believe I tried to divide “the fan” and “the academic” sides of my personality. My mentor and dissertation advisor, the wonderful Cynthia Baron, always encouraged me to try and keep the two separate. She would always say, “Don’t write about a film like you’re the director’s publicist!” I’ll always remember that. She’d say, “These people already have an army of people being paid to sell their movies! Don’t use your scholarship just to convince someone to watch this or that particular film!” So, I attempted to keep a critical eye. Maybe too critical at times.  

To try and keep the “fan” and “academic” sides of my personality separate, I believe I found myself writing about horror films I was not that fond of. This way, I felt I could write about something that I love but also keep a bit of “objective” distance from it. I’ve often written about films that I think are interesting, but don’t absolutely love. For instance, I’ve written about the Hostel films and the Saw franchise, but I don’t really love those films. I’ve written about Italian cannibal films, and while I love Italian horror (go Team Fulci!), films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox are definitely not among my favourites. Upon reflection, I believe this is how I’ve tried to negotiate between being an academic and a fan. Of late, however, I’ve found myself writing about movies that I really love, so we’ll see how that turns out!


In your excellent monograph, Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film (2015), you push back against the notion of horror cinema as ‘reflectionist,’ notably around the subject of 9/11 and national trauma. What precipitated this riposte?

Initially, it was the DVD that interested me. I was looking around and seeing people writing and talking about, for instance, Hostel and saying things like, ‘Hostel is about 9/11’ or ‘Hostel is a critique of capitalism.’ Then, you could put on the Hostel DVD, flip over to the commentary track, and hear Eli Roth saying things like ‘this film is about 9/11’ or ‘this film is a critique of capitalism.’ Some folks were saying ‘Hostel: Part II is a feminist horror film,’ and again, you could grab the DVD, put on the commentary, and hear Eli Roth talking about how the film is a feminist horror film. Where’s the analysis? That’s just repeating what the filmmaker said. It made me nervous.


Of course, this wasn’t the first time filmmakers attempted to create a particular reception context for their films or frame their films in a particular way, but the DVD seemed to commodify these practices and graft these paratexts onto the primary text to a degree they hadn’t been in the past. It seemed to me that traditional, text-based film studies methodologies (like psychoanalysis) had been co-opted by the film industry by way of DVD extra features that essentially ‘explained’ the movie for the audience, so in a way, DVD commentaries and extra features seemed to make a lot of ‘reflectionist’ readings of these films moot.

Some folks wanted to make the argument that the return of gritty, violent American horror films in the mid-2000s – after the prevalence of postmodern slashers and Asian horror in the late 1990s and early 2000s – was a ‘reflection’ of post-9/11 anxiety and the violence of the Iraq war. Again, though, I came back to the DVD. I couldn’t help but think of what sort of role DVD may have played in this turn, especially since DVDs changed the ratings game in the US and made it acceptable to widely circulate ‘Unrated’ movies with more violent and bloody content. After years of stigma surrounding the ‘X’ and ‘NC-17’ ratings, I was surprised by how quickly things changed with the ‘Unrated’ DVD.

Ultimately, instead of relying on reductive and ahistorical reflectionist models, I was interested in looking at how conscious business decisions in the film industry – in specific, the rollout of DVD – influenced horror film content in the mid-to-late-2000s. I believe the Splat Pack offered a good case study for this. I tried to look at the Hostel films and the Saw films, among others, as consumer products and think through what experiences these films on DVD are attempting to sell to home-viewing audiences. I thought it was exciting to think about, say, how the Saw films on DVD create a home version of the early 20th century’s cinema of attractions.


While writing, I was inspired by all the excellent scholarship in horror film industry studies. There’s been some really fabulous work done in the area in the last 15 years or so, and I wanted to foreground the films’ specific commercial context with the book.

Following on from that last point, which academic work in horror film industry studies would you recommend for students and scholars interested in the field based on your own readings?

It’s always tricky to make these lists because you’re always afraid you’ll leave someone out! But, speaking for me personally, Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold by Kevin Heffernan, Uncanny Bodies by Robert Spadoni, and Blood Money by Richard Nowell are the “holy trilogy” (or maybe UNholy trilogy is a better fit) of horror film industry books. Those three really inspired me. Richard Nowell’s edited collection Merchants of Menace is great too because there’s a mix of cool chapters by established scholars and newer voices like Johnny Walker, whose Contemporary British Horror Cinema is also excellent.


Do you think there has been a shift in the status of DVD in recent years? Scholars such as Caetlin Benson-Allott and Tino Balio have shown that box office revenues are no longer the prime economic driver for contemporary cinema, having been overtaken by DVD sales by a significant margin. Is this changing with the impact of streaming do you think?

I do think there has been a shift in the status of DVD in recent years, but I believe the DVD is still very much with us. It seems like physical media is on the way out in favour of streaming, digital downloads, and so forth, but over here in the US, there are several signs that there’s a market still out there for physical media. It might seem that businesses like Redbox helped bring about the death of the video store, but if anything, Redbox is proof that there are still people out there who want to go out and rent a movie on a physical disc – whether it be DVD or Blu-ray – instead of renting one on iTunes or watching something on a streaming service. In some areas in the US, businesses like Redbox continue to thrive because there are rural areas where the Internet signal is too weak for streaming video or there is no Internet altogether. But in most areas where the Internet works just fine, there’s still people who like the experience of leaving the house, driving somewhere, and browsing through movies until they find one to watch. Redbox still gives viewers that experience, just now it’s outside of a grocery market or retail store and not in a brick-and-mortar video store.    

But even with streaming video and digital download, I believe some of the vestiges of the DVD are still there. The physical aspect of media may be gone, but the idea of bonus features and other extras engendered by DVD are often still there. For instance, Amazon Prime’s streaming service has an interface that resembles a DVD where, when watching a movie or TV show, you can click links on the screen that take you to behind the scenes details, IMDb profiles of cast and crew (which makes sense since Amazon owns IMDb), trivia, and other stuff like that. So, the “extra features” are still encrusted onto the primary text of the film or TV show.

A similar thing I’ve noticed is how the idea of “extras” or “bonus features” is still employed by Apple and Hulu, especially when it comes to TV shows. When you purchase a season pass for some shows from iTunes, the show often comes with “behind-the-scenes” featurettes that are thrown on there to sweeten the pot by adding more content. Hulu has similar featurettes for their original programs. These featurettes are mostly just cast and crew members reiterating what happened on the episode you just watched, but they are very much in the style of the “behind the scenes” featurettes popularized by DVD, which popularized them from the electronic press kit. I think it was McLuhan who said that a new medium always contains an old one? The physical DVD may go away, but its presence is still felt.

Also, it’s worth nothing that Shudder, the horror film streaming service owned by American cable network AMC, purchased exclusive streaming rights to 31, Rob Zombie’s film from 2016 and gave the viewer the choice of watching the film with or without commentary. Shudder also posted two behind-the-scenes “making of” featurettes for the film. So, for Splat Pack auteur Rob Zombie, the trappings of the DVD live on in the streaming era.   


It’s also worth mentioning that physical media is still alive, just not on the scale it was during the DVD rollout in the late 90s/early 2000s, especially among collectors. Criterion continues rolling out releases, as do genre specialists like Scream Factory (my favourite) and some others, that are loaded with extra features, commentaries, and tons of other great stuff.   


Mark Bernard is Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, USA. He is the author of Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film (Edinburgh UP, 2014) and co-author of Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation (Wayne State UP, 2014). He is currently writing a monograph about John Carpenter’s Halloween for Routledge’s Cinema and Youth Cultures series.  

Cult Conversations: Interview with Caetlin Benson-Allott (Part II)

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There are a lot of claims in press discourse about a new Golden Age of horror cinema. What are your thoughts about this? Do you think there is truth to these claims? Or is this journalistic hyperbole?

The past few years have seen an amazing spate of new releases that engage conventions of the horror genre while also challenging some of its conventional shock techniques choices and more obvious clichés. Two of my favorites have been Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night (2017), David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), and Patrick Brice’s Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017). What makes these films exceptional to me is their investment in character, something I think we’re seeing a lot more of in horror at the moment. Not that there aren’t precedents for character-driven, psychologically credible horror movies in the past—Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy comes to mind, not to mention Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008)—but horror does always not require well-rounded or realistic characters to work well. (I love Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chain Saw Massacre [Tobe Hooper, 1974] but their strengths are not in their characters.)

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The one thing that troubles me about the journalism on this Golden Age, however, is how focused it has been on English-language horror film. Many of the films being celebrated now borrow extensively from international horror traditions, many of which have a closer relationship to melodrama than Anglophone horror movies. So when people tell me they loved It Follows, I point them to Julia Docournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016). We’re in a fantastic multinational Golden Age of horror.


There have also been claims made about the surfacing of new generic characteristics in horror, one of which is centred on this notion of the ‘post-horror film.’ Is this legitimately “a new breed of horror,” do you think?

 No, I don’t think so. We’re seeing American horror filmmakers deviate from their national tradition, with its jump scares, high body counts, and spectacular special effects. But if one thinks internationally and historically, there are many precedents for “post-horror.” Schults cites some excellent ones in the Guardian article you link to. I also think it’s important to note the influence of Japanese and Korean horror on Western genre directors of late. While Japanese horror certainly has not shied away from onscreen violence and gore, it also boasts a much more nuanced understanding of horror as an affect than the US tradition.

Going back to Psycho and even the Universal horror classics, American horror has been more invested in frightening, shocking, and even disgusting its audience than in horrifying them. The philosopher Robert C. Solomon defines horror as a profound “recognition that things are not as they ought to be.” As I have written elsewhere, “Truly horrible things don’t frighten; they don’t make people yelp or clutch the arms of their chairs in surprise. They don’t elicit nervous giggling or merry catcalls. Rather they paralyze and dumbfound as people struggle to understand how something so unthinkable, so beyond any expectations, could come to pass.” Moves like It Comes at Night or The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) may not be trying to frighten their viewers at all but rather to horrify them, to destabilize their precious beliefs about how families operate. But what horrifies one person will not necessarily horrify another. It’s a lot easier to prey on viewers’ reflexes with a jump scare than prompt them to question deeply cherished beliefs.


The rise of Blumhouse and the so-called ‘micro-budget’ horror film is often viewed in entertainment news as a major economic shift. Beginning with Paranormal Activity in 2007—a film that holds the box office record for the largest return-on-investment in film history—a ‘cycle’ which includes multiple examples of what you have described as “faux footage horror films” (Unfriended, The Bay, etc.) seems to have emerged. Conceptually, do you see the ‘microbudget’ commercial model as different than exploitation or low-budget economic models historically? Is there a difference between ‘micro-budget’—which for Blumhouse means up to $5 million, and at times, even higher—and “low-budget,” or “b-movie”? Considering that horror cinema has often been at the lower end of the economic scale, what do you think has precipitated these shifts in budget (if indeed there are noticeable shifts)?

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) provide interesting context for considering this question. Released in 1974 by Bryanston Pictures—the same company that released Deep Throat two years earlier—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was absolutely received as an exploitation film. Its opening crawl also (falsely) identified it as the true story of “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.” Limited funds pushed director Tobe Hooper towards many of the creative decisions that make the film so horrifying and so powerful. And now it’s part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


The Blair Witch Project isn’t in MOMA (yet), but it too used budgetary constraints as a structuring device and advanced “faux footage” as a horror filmmaking technique. It too claims to be a “true story” in in its opening title card. But it was released twenty-five years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and was received as an example of “indie” genre filmmaking rather than exploitation filmmaking. It premiered at Sundance, after all, before Artisan gave it a slow roll-out to build the word-of-mouth enthusiasm that made it a sleeper hit.

So, no, I don’t think micro-budget filmmaking is new to the horror, although the way in which horror directors have approached low-budget independent production is certainly different than the means employed by Hollywood’s Poverty Row studios in the 1930s and 1940s and for the various sub-genres of exploitation cinema popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether we’re thinking about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), or direct-to-video horror like Blood Cult (Christopher Lewis, 1985), we can see how the distributive possibilities of an era governed filmmakers’ approaches to limited budgets. Blumhouse and the faux footage horror movies are two responses to making scary movies with limited means that found traction in their era. But I do wonder whether we should consider Blumhouse movies “microbudget.” Night of the Living Dead was made for $114,000 in 1968—which would be less than $850,000 in 2018. The Blair Witch Project was made for $60,000 in 1997, which would only be $95,000 today. Granted, these figures don’t include marketing or print costs, but they still afford their filmmakers very different opportunities than those available to folks working for Blumhouse.


In Killer Tapes, you argue that Paranormal Activity—and by extension other ‘faux footage films’—“teach the spectator not to go searching for underground videos, because what she finds could be deadly” (168). Could you expound on this point? Is this a theoretical argument? Or do you believe that such films have value for studios as a way to caution viewers not to illegally download material—not because it is against the law, but because they may end up haunted or demonically possessed?

In the chapter you cite, “Paranormal Spectatorship,” I note that the “faux footage” horror film cycle emerged contemporaneously with the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing of feature motion pictures. In 2004, MPAA president Dan Glickman argued that to win the war on piracy, “we have to find new product.” I found this quote really mysterious and compelling. What “product” was Glickman referring to? The movies themselves? Could one read a cycle of horror films as expressing filmmakers’ and studios’ anxieties about piracy and a new, albeit illicit, distribution platform for motion pictures? In every faux footage horror movie up until 2013, when Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens was published, all of the characters die; their footage reaches the spectator posthumously. The position we watch from then is that of a ghoul, someone who consumes the dead. These movies are titillating precisely because they seem illicit, because they give us the feeling tha we should not be watching them. Historicizing that affect and its appeal, I found it related to contemporaneous anxieties about online piracy in the US film industry. That’s not to say that I think Oren Peli (the director of Paranormal Activity) or Matt Reeves (the director of Cloverfield) sat down and thought, “I’d like to make a film that will discourage viewers from pirating movies online.” I’m not interested in guessing at their intentions. But I do think that faux footage horror found purchase as a film cycle because of cultural and industry anxieties about illicit spectatorship at that point in time.

So, yes, mine is a theoretical argument, but it’s also a historically specific argument. I would not make the same argument about “screenlife” or “screencast” movies like Unfriended or Searching. Those films tell very different cautionary tales about online sociality, privacy, and mortality in the age of social media.

Expounding on that point, what kinds of cautionary tales do you think these ‘social media horror’ films are producing? These kinds of films seem to be gathering pace—alongside Unfriended and Searching, there has also been Friend Request, The Den (2013), Scare Campaign (2016), Like Me (2017), and, more recently, a sequel to Unfriended (subtitled Dark Web). What do you think of these kinds of films and what do they purport to caution against?

I think that screencast horror films tend to express an anxiety about the effects of online sociality and information cultures on human subjectivity. Shane Denson has done some amazing work on Unfriended and what he calls “the horror of discorrelation,” focusing on the phenomenological differences between computational processing time and our human experience of time. I would add that the question of what constitutes a friend and where one constitutes “real” identity, through interpersonal interactions or online, are also major preoccupations of these films.


One of the things I found very interesting about Unfriended was the way in which its plot mimicked a classic American slasher movie—a number of unlikeable characters are introduced early on and then killed off one at a time as the killer’s intentions become clearer. In that context, it becomes quite important that Laura, the monster, also possesses many characteristics of the classic Final Girl (as theorized by Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chainsaws).


What are you currently working on and what plans do you have for future projects?

Right now, I am working on a book manuscript that argues that our materially and socially grounded interactions with film and television inform the political impact of those texts as much as the texts themselves. Like all my work, the new book focuses on uniting texts and paratexts towards deeper understandings of media culture. In this case, however, I am turning from spectatorship to reception, and particularly to the material realities of media reception, in order to argue that we read media with and through objects. These objects range from media platforms like VHS and DVD to inebriants like alcohol and marijuana as well as objects that are brought into into scenes of reception by viewers and distributors, such as guns and branded merchandise.

Focusing on the gun, for instance, I argue that the history of violent assaults at movie theaters—cinema violence—reveals much about the racist, neoliberal fantasy undergirding popular conception of cinema and cinemagoers in the US. This history has not been collected before, however, and so I chronicle the long list of shootings, stabbings, riots, and other violent incidents at movie theaters from the anti-racist protests at D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) through the non-fatal shooting at 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi in 2016. Since the 1970s, anti-Black racism and white privilege have shaped media representations of cinema violence. Cinema violence is always tragic, but not all cinema violence is treated as tragic, due to racialized fantasies undergirding past and present notions about who does and does not belong in movie theaters. (Early extracts from this chapter were published as a column in FLOW, beginning with “‘Warriors, Come Out to Play’: Considering The Role Of Films In Moral Panics About Cinema Violence.”

Horror is not an explicit part of this new book project, but I continue to write about horror in articles and in my column for Film Quarterly.

What five films would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that horror or cult cinema can offer and why?

I’m choosing five films to reflect the different strengths of the horror genre and of horror as a filmic affect. The distinction between horror as genre and affect directs my current interest in scary movies and their criticism. Many critics have written about horror as a genre uniquely tied to the affect it aims to generate, but I would contend that very few so-called horror movies actually want to horrify the viewers. If we defined horror as a profound destabilization of one’s perception of the world, then most horror movies do not try to do that. They try to scare, startle, shock disgust, and even mortify. They might make one feel fear, dread, or anxiety, but do they really want to undermine a viewer’s beliefs in universe or in human nature? I would submit not. I don’t see Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) or The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) attempting to “rattle my cage” on such a deep level—which is not to say that some people may not be truly horrified by those movies. What horrifies one person may barely phase another.

Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

This is just simply my favorite movie. If you enjoy it too, then I strongly recommend Ben Hervey’s excellent book on its production, reception, and distribution. The Image Ten collective was an incredibly canny group of filmmakers who exploited the strengths of their industrial conditions and their projects exhibition platform (namely drive-in theaters) to craft a film that reflected and developed social anxieties of the era. That the zombie would prove such a capacious metaphor for alienation and disenfranchisement could not have been predicted, but Romero and company modelled the horrifying capacities of monster-as-social-metaphor for a generation of filmmakers.


Ich seh, Ich she (Goodnight, Mommy, Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala, 2014)

Franz and Fiala’s film horrified me more than any other I’ve seen. I don’t want to say too much about it, as I knew next to nothing about it when I took a friend to a matinée screening one Saturday morning. But its riveting engagement with psychic and physical abjection was almost more than I could take.

(Proctor heads off immediately to purchase film).


Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

As I’ve mentioned, not all horror movies aim to horrify or aim to scare viewers in the same way. This one does, but it does so by violating the rules of the horror genre. Get Out cites the conventions of US horror but does not always perform them, which has led some genre fans to complain that it is not really a horror movie. To say that is to a great disservice to the film and to the genre. Get Out is horrifying, especially if you encounter it, as Jordan Peele has suggested, as a documentary about contemporary US racism. There are precious few explicitly anti-racist horror movies yet the horrors of racism remain one of the dominant structures of feeling in the US today.


La Casa Muda (The Silent House, Gustavo Hernández, 2010)

Ignore the American remake. Hernández’s La Casa Muda was not shot in a single take, and yet, like Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), it is carefully edited to appear to be a single-take film. What’s interesting about this conceit in this movie, though, is that the plot focuses on a trauma survivor recovering memories of abuse. By presenting the process of recollection in real time, the film offers its viewer a unique experience of trauma, of the temporality of horror.


The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones, 1982)

Not all ‘80s slasher movies were created equal. Feminist novelist, activist, and screenwriter Rita Mae Brown developed The Slumber Party Massacre as a pro-woman parody of slasher movies. Director Amy Holden Jones stays true to this vision while also providing enough of titillating gore to satisfy her distributor, New World Pictures. The result is in some sense a compromise picture, but it’s also an historically important example of women’s work in the horror genre, all the more so because so many critics interpreted it at the time as a “straight” slasher movie. And it’s really funny (at least to me).


Caetlin Benson-Allott is Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Georgetown University and the Editor of JCMS (formerly Cinema Journal). She is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (2013) and Remote Control (2015). Her work on US film cultures, exhibition history and material culture, spectatorship theory, and gender and sexuality studies has appeared in Cinema Journal, The Atlantic, South Atlantic Quarterly, Journal of Visual Culture, Jump Cut, Film Quarterly, Film Criticism, Feminist Media Histories, In Media Res, FLOW, and multiple anthologies. She is a regular columnist and Contributing Editor at Film Quarterly.


Cult Conversations: Interview with Caetlin Benson-Allott (Part I)

In the following discussion, Caetlin Benson-Allott and I discuss her book Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (2013) and get into the thorny issue of spectatorship, a theoretical model that has often been criticized for constructing “figures of the audience,” as Martin Barker put it, as opposed to the examination of legitimate audiences. We also discuss reception practices, as well as the growing shift from physical to digital media, considering the state of the landscape at this current historical moment. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with and learning from Caetlin about her research (and more), and I hope readers enjoy our cult conversation too.

—William Proctor


Would you consider yourself a fan of cult media and/or horror cinema? Or is your interest in the subjects you study purely an academic pursuit?

I am certainly a fan of horror film and have been since junior high. There’s a popular family legend about how I terrorized my younger sister with a Halloween screening of Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) when I was about thirteen and she was maybe eight. Night of the Living Dead later became a cornerstone text for my first book, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, and it remains my favorite movie to this day—so much so that I rarely teach it. So yes, I am a big fan.


When did your journey begin? What were the first cults objects you recall encountering in personal terms?

My journey began at a drugstore in my hometown of Lincoln, Massachusetts. This little stop had one rack of VHS cassettes for rent for a dollar each, which is about how much money I usually had on hand from my allowance. I must have been no more than nine or ten when I started renting from them. There was a proper video store one town over, but I couldn’t walk or bike there on my own, so that little drugstore was my first encounter with the autonomy of video rental and the pleasures of B movies. When I was in high school, Lincoln finally got its own video store, and I started working my way through its genre shelves, in part because genre rentals were cheaper there than new releases. As I recall, there was no rhyme or reason to what that store stocked; it seemed to follow the whims of its owners to an amazing degree. For these reasons, I consider videotapes my cult objects par excellence. They were my way into loving and living film history, horror most of all.

Apart from Night of the Living Dead, then, what did your adventures in video expose you to as a child?  What are your memories of favourite films during the period?

I can’t remember when I first saw Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), but it must have been at an appallingly young age, given my deep idolization of Ellen Ripley and terror of the chestbuster sequence. Together with the Ceti eel sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982), the Alien chestbuster solidified my association of videotape with horror and bodily abjection. Today I would argue that the breaching of bodily boundaries that I found so thrilling and terrifying in those films helped me make sense of and enjoy the penetration of illicit (because violent) rental cassettes into the domestic sphere, not to mention the VCR itself. Of course I wasn’t thinking like that at the time, but I did love bringing the cassettes home to find out what’s inside the box, whether the movie would be as good as the packaging.

(I also loved Heathers [Michael Lehmann, 1988] and got in trouble for renting it for a friend’s birthday party. Evidently her mother considered that much murder, profanity, and abjection inappropriate for school girls!)


What I remember most about renting movies from in the ‘80s and ‘90s is just being absolutely indiscriminate in my choices. I knew nothing about film history or quality or genre. I loved Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989), I loved The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), I loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Roger Zemeckis, 1988). I think the other important thing to remember about our “adventures in video” back then was the promo art and the profound impact it could have one one’s sense of film culture. I vividly remember a window advertisement for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989) from 1990, but it was well over a decade before I saw the film. My initial understanding of who Peter Greenaway was and where he fit in international art cinema came from the poster, in other words, not the film itself. I also learned enough about The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) from its poster and VHS box to argue (successfully) with my middle-school art teacher that it could never win as Oscar for Best Picture. (Unfortunately, I was right, and, as my teacher put it, the Academy will always be Unforgiven [Clint Eastwood, 1992]). Video stores impressed upon me the importance of paratexts and material culture for understanding film culture and the vagaries of taste and value within it.


If you were to summarise your book, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing, for readers that may be unfamiliar with your work, how would you do so? Is this publication primarily for horror/ cult fans? Or do you think that other film scholars may find it useful in general terms?

Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens argues that video technologies have been the dominant platform of film spectatorship since the 1980s and that horror films provide a rich set of case studies for understanding how filmmakers understood and adapted to video culture.

This may seem strange, but I never considered Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens to be about horror while I was writing it (as a dissertation at Cornell University). Its working title was ImperioVideo, and I really thought it was about spectatorship theory and its failure to acknowledge home video. It was only at my defence that my committee pointed out to me that (1) what I was writing was a history as much as a theory of video spectatorship and (2) it was very much a history of horror filmmaking as related to video cultures. I knew that I knew horror better than any other genre, and I knew horror was crucial to the history of home video and its impact on film form and narration; I just didn’t realize I was writing a book on horror spectatorship until my beloved advisors pointed it out to me. (There was one chapter in the dissertation that wasn’t on horror but on video-era censorship and Y tu mamá tambien [Alfonso Cuarón, 2001]; it’s now a standalone article at Jump Cut.)


Today I would say that Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens has two really distinct audiences: horror scholars and spectatorship theorists. It’s so much fun to find out what’s meaningful in the book to different people. Some people are just there for the technology, others for the genre study. A few of us geek out on both. Obviously, I don’t think you can do one without the other. I also think there’s a lot to be said about horror in this era that couldn’t fit into Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens. Direct-to-Video (DTV) horror is a fascinating subgenre with its own conventions and social critiques. It deserves its own history, though, so I’m glad I didn’t try to condense it for a single chapter in Killer Tapes.

For Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, you endorse spectatorship theory as a theoretical frame. How would you respond to criticisms of spectatorship theory as bound to imputation and the construction of what Martin Barker describes as “figures of the audience,” as opposed to empirical evidence, such as ethnography or audience research? Given the decades of audience studies that convincingly demonstrate that spectatorship theory treats audiences as a homogenous mass, what place does the tradition have in the twenty-first century academy? As Stephen Prince wrote more than twenty years ago, ‘the problem with film studies is that theories of spectatorship fly well beyond the data and in ways that pay little or no attention to the evidence we do have about how people watch and interpret film and television.’

First of all, I make a strong distinction between spectatorship and reception, spectators and viewers. You’re right that Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens is a spectatorship study; it’s interested in the ways that specific movies and their platforms create a subject position and interpellate viewers to occupy that position. Spectatorship studies typically have very little to say about how specific individuals or groups of individuals respond to such interpellation. That’s reception, and it’s best addressed through ethnography or historical audience research. With reference to Stuart Hall’s canonical essay, “Encoding, Decoding,” you might say that my research is more on the “encoding” side of the equation—which only part the story, but an essential part. Writing Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, I wanted to know how motion pictures reflected the ascendance of various video platforms, how they encouraged their spectator to think about the issues those technologies brought up. How different groups responded to that encouragement would be the subject of another book.

With regards to the Prince argument you mention, I absolutely agree that some spectatorship theory has been ahistorical and universalizing in very problematic ways. This is especially true of 1970s apparatus theory that makes no distinction between various historical and regional iterations of “the cinema.” However, critics of apparatus theory tend to assume that because some of it was ahistorical, all approaches to studying any motion picture apparatus must be ahistorical. I don’t see why that has to be the case at all! We have a lot of data—not just on viewers but on theatre spaces, screen technologies and sound systems, and other material realities of film spectatorship—that should also be analysed. People do not watch and interpret film and television in a vacuum; the spaces within which they watch and interpret are never ideologically neutral. I am interested in the way that exhibition technologies impart and influence messages about how we should interact with them and what we should value (or abhor) about specific media content.

In the introduction to Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, you argue: “after the cinema outlived its major video threat, it became economically ancillary to DVD distribution and now serves as an advertising medium as much as an exhibition platform.” While it is undoubtedly accurate that DVD has outpaced cinema in economic terms, what do you think about the impact of streaming services and the way in which this has impacted the sales of home video? Eighteen months ago in The Guardian, for example, an article claimed that ‘Film and TV streaming and downloads overtake DVD sales for the first time’.

Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens is definitely a history; its last chapter is on peer-to-peer file sharing—and almost no one uses p2p technologies for their movie piracy anymore. That’s ok, because what the book sets out to do is explore in an understudied moment in film distribution and exhibition between the cinema and streaming.

The improvement of streaming services and the continued spread of high-speed internet access have definitely impacted DVD sales, and all physical media sales are on the decline. But there are a lot of important questions we can ask about how different contemporaneous media platforms frame their content different. I recently finished a book chapter on the original 1978-1979 Battlestar Galactica television series (ABC), which has the distinction of being distributed on every major video platform since 1985. Right now, you can buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray, download it on iTunes, or stream it on any number of services. But each platform’s paratexts make a different argument about the series’ value and its place in television history—including none at all. Media platforms are not redundant; they all frame their content in a different way. Understanding those distinctions is crucial for understanding our current media ecology.


Following on from the last question, why do you think Hollywood producers remain fixated on box office receipts as a signifier of triumph or failure? For if home video remains economically dominant in relation to the box office—and I’m not saying that it isn’t—does it not make more sense for producers to turn their focus onto home video to determine whether a film is economically healthy or not? I am thinking in particular about the way in which films—Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is an excellent example—are deemed to be failures despite clawing back over $100 million after production costs are factored in—and before home video sales are even accounted for.  

The first thing that comes to mind is that video revenues trickle in slowly, whereas the box office figures we see in the news are usually opening-weekend reports. Opening-weekend reports are always timely, even if they’re not always that relevant to the long-term financial success or failure of a given film. They’re also free publicity. When I read about what a great weekend The Meg (Jon Turteltaub, 2018) had, I was reading about The Meg again, being re-exposed to the idea that it’s a fun, hip summer movie. If someone tells me now about how much money Blade Runner 2049 made in its first eighteen months on video, well, it doesn’t have the same effect. It does not feel like news.

the meg.jpg

Of course, all this begs the question of why newspapers are willing to report boring stories about weekend box office. I think we can assume there’s some corporate politics involved. But that question deserves to be answered by a media industries specialist.

Johnny Walker has argued that “about 70 percent of the 500 or so feature-length horror films produced by British companies in the twenty-first century bypassed theatrical distribution” and went ‘straight-to-DVD.’ What are your thoughts about the DTV phenomenon as it relates to horror released in the US? And do you think that DTV remains the ‘Other’ of feature film distribution insofar as the cinema remains marked by authenticity, while a DTV release is more ‘a regrettable triumph of convenience,’ as Barbara Klinger has noted?

I think people are increasingly aware that DTV and film distribution have permeable borders. Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) was initially distributed to theaters in the US but went directly to Netflix elsewhere. Back in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg’s Duel saw theatrical distribution in Europe while playing only on television (and 8mm) in the US. Duel was more on an exception, a telefilm that “rose” to theatrical exhibition, but such anomalies also received less attention at the time.

I think we are on the cusp of seeing a major change in what cinema-going means culturally, which will likely change how viewers negotiate the distinction between a DTV and a cinematic release. As ticket prices soar and theater owners offer more expensive, gourmet concessions, including beer, wine, and liquor, the ethos of cinema-going is changing, at least in the US. Almost all of the movie theaters in Washington, DC., where I live, offer plush recliners, assigned seating, and a bar in the lobby. They present going to the movies as a luxury experience, not a regular pastime. They often feature movies produced by Neflix, Amazon, and Hulu—movies that announce their future streaming platforms in their credit sequences. So if I go to the theater now to see a movie, it’s because I can’t see the film in question on video or can’t wait to see it on video. Rather I am going for the anomaly of the theatrical experience, which does not speak to the quality (or even the budget necessarily) of the film. How long that a theatrical release will continue to affect reception distinctions between films I would not want to guess—but I don’t think it will be long.


Caetlin Benson-Allott is Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Georgetown University and the Editor of JCMS (formerly Cinema Journal). She is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (2013) and Remote Control (2015). Her work on US film cultures, exhibition history and material culture, spectatorship theory, and gender and sexuality studies has appeared in Cinema Journal, The Atlantic, South Atlantic Quarterly, Journal of Visual Culture, Jump Cut, Film Quarterly, Film Criticism, Feminist Media Histories, In Media Res, FLOW, and multiple anthologies. She is a regular columnist and Contributing Editor at Film Quarterly.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Xavier Aldana Reyes (Part II)


In entertainment journalism, there has been an influx of commentaries about contemporary horror cinema existing in a “new Golden Age” (see here, here and here). Similarly, contemporary horror fiction has been viewed as underpinned by golden age rhetoric, as pronounced by Paul Tremblay in a recent article in The Los Angeles Times. What do you think of these claims regarding cinema and literature? Is it journalistic hyperbole or do you think there is something legitimately “golden” occurring here?

Horror never really goes away, and it has always been one of the ‘safest’ of genres. This is why directors from countries that had only rarely turned to it, like Spain or Italy, began to produce them en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. The returns were potentially handsome and the films themselves, shot economically, relatively risk-free. Having said this, we also know that the success of one particular film or set of films normally brings about cycles: Psycho, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity – these were all trend setters that generated a slew of imitators – and a stronger investment in the genre. So in that sense horror has always been ‘golden’. I suspect what is at stake here is the scope and mainstream attention horror is receiving, something it has attracted less often. It is, for example, shocking that the last horror film to win an Oscar was The Silence of the Lambs (I don’t see The Shape of Water as a horror film, as I explained above). But here we have very successful films (It) and Netflix series (Stranger Things) that have also resisted critical lambasting. Maybe that is enough to speak of a ‘golden age’?


There is a conference taking place this year on Stranger Things as cult text, and that seems interesting to me. Is something really ‘cult’ when it attracts 15 million viewers? And does that mean horror, fantasy and science fiction must always, by their very nature, remain cult? I don’t think that horror is necessarily going through a golden period insofar as there have always been brilliant horror texts, even in the 1990s, when horror suffered a slump after the boom of the 1980s. What changes is the amount of people attracted to it, and the critical mass and media attention it commands. What we are seeing is a consumer pool increasingly made up of nostalgic 30-year-olds who were raised by the likes of King. This explains, in part, the success of Stranger Things, the remake of It or of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, all of which show, to my mind, the mark of this key contemporary American writer.


When David Edelstein first referred to Hostel as ‘torture porn’, no-one could really anticipate that the term would stick or that a whole subgenre would develop that characterised a big part of the horror cinema made in the noughties. I am sure someone will end up writing a book called something like ‘The 2010s and the Golden Age of Horror’, and I don’t have a problem with that. All publicity is good publicity, and if the success of certain programmes, novels and films is going to encourage other talented artists to work in the genre, I’m all for it. Bring on the new golden age of horror! 


You have also written on affect and the film/viewer body interface. Can you broadly summarise the key points of your research in this area and what you have learned about audiences and horror?

Certainly! I have always been fascinated by the human capacity to be horrified by something that we know is not real. A lot has been written and theorised about this, especially about the relationship between horrific bodies and those of cinema viewers. In Horror Film and Affect, my book from 2016, I took issue with the privileging of the psychoanalytic approach to representation in Horror Studies that, in my view, is partly responsible for the conflation of learnt or cultural fear and the emotional and somatic aspects that are exclusive to the audio-visual horror experience. It is fairly easy to assume that sympathy is responsible for the ways in which we are negatively affected by, for example, scenes of extreme and graphic violence. One of the things I show in that book is that somatic empathy – the capacity to engage with onscreen bodies and recognised their vulnerability – as well as the ability to anticipate and imagine pain are equally important. This corporeal aspect of cinema is less written about because it does not intersect with identity politics and is thus perceived to be of less interest to a field interested in proving its social value. For me, affect and the body are not only fascinating, but inextricable from the experience of engaging with audio-visual horror. As I have argued, the experience of horror is ultimately not defined by the temporal, spatial or thematic coordinates of the genre, but by the generation of a strong sense of vulnerability and the foregrounding of a harmful source of threat.

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I have always been interested in the ways bodies are represented in the Gothic mode, too, from monstrous corporealities and the exaggerations of the grotesque to the less anthropocentric echoes of the abhuman. This is the area I explored with Body Gothic, from 2014, which was concerned with recuperating the body for contemporary Gothic Studies, especially following a turn to the spectral and the uncanny towards the beginning of the 2010s. Further work by the likes of Marie Mulvey-Roberts has followed, and I think it is an incredibly productive area for the Gothic. It is also one that is undergoing tremendous change at a time when the bodies that had previously been abjected and monstered (gender, racial and sexual minorities, as well as the disabled body) are being reconsidered.

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To follow up on your response, could you explain how you developed this theory of “somatic empathy” and so forth? Is this approach primarily theoretical or did the work involve audience research at all? (I am thinking of the way in which Martin Barker has argued that research into audiences without involving actual audiences leads to speculation and imputation, a kind of “constructing figures of the audience”.)

Absolutely. It’s a very real concern, and one I wouldn’t want to trivialise. After all, one of the big bugbears of psychoanalysis, for me, is precisely its universal models of psychosexual, unconscious and repressed experience (archaic mothers, Oedipal complexes and so forth). My work has very much developed from the research of phenomenologists, cognitivists, neuroscientists and, very recently, evolutionary studies (Vivian Sobchack, Torben Grodal, Murray Smith, Noël Carroll, Julian Hanich and Mathias Clasen, among many others). The brilliant Carl Plantinga refers to the viewer who reacts to the ways a film intends as a ‘cooperative’ one, and this one is the only viewer we can analyse through theory alone. I do not so much ‘construct figures of the audience’, then, as I apply scientific studies on cognition and perception to the type of formalism that has sadly been left out of a lot Film Studies because it has been seen as easy and programmatic (i.e. the close reading of film as edited moving images with sound). I think part of the issue is that film is often theorised by scholars who work with literature and critical theory and philosophy, so the focus may end up remaining narrative and thematic, rather than cinematic. I never say ‘this is how all viewers ever react to a scene’, but rather ‘this is how a given scene intends to operate on the viewer, and it does so by relying on these “universal” perceptual and instinctive biological primers and cognitive processes’. Fear can be both learnt and ingrained. The former is primarily socio-cultural (fear of black cats, say) but the latter is somatic and connected to evolution and instinct. For me, this is about understanding how we engage with fictional horror through our bodies and brains, and about how we use senses and thinking processes borrowed from real life.

But of course, this is not to say that the whole turn to affect and the body would not benefit from research on viewing subjects, and I hope to be able to go there in the future. To be honest, one of the reasons I haven’t yet been able to do this is skills (I am not a trained scientist or a sociologist) and money (lack of resources to carry out experiments, for example). I also think that reception studies, especially fandom and non-cooperative viewers, are very interesting and deserving of attention. Matt Hills has done some brilliant work on fan audiences, and Julian Hanich recently wrote a really interesting book on how collective viewing filters cinema experiences. There is clearly a lot more work yet to be carried out in this field, and it is incredibly exciting, especially because we are finally getting away from theories of horror that, to me, never felt experientially true. I was never scared of the shark in Jaws because it represents a massive vagina dentata, but because it posed a ‘real’ threat of being eaten alive!

And finally, what five novels or short stories would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that horror fiction has to offer and why?

Ooft! A tall order. I think I would rather concentrate on some of my personal favourites, which is a way of answering this question without suggesting that there is a top five that everyone must read. As with all literature, canons are full of biases, and what I consider to be fascinating and ground-breaking may well feel old hat to someone else. Many of these I have not reread in years, and I don’t know if they would pass the test of time. Given that all these writers are still the subject of academic work in the field, I am tempted to think so. In any case, here goes:

Clive Barker, Books of Blood (1984–5)

What can I say about this impressive collection of short stories that has not already been said a hundred times? A real gamechanger that did not shy away from graphic violence (it was partly responsible for the not always as exciting horror subgenre called ‘splatterpunk’) and which displays the scope and brilliance of Barker’s imagination. It is also a rare instance of a first collection of horror short stories gaining critical acclaim and commercial success in publishing. If the stories are not as stylistically polished as some of his other works – say, other much-loved works like The Hellbound Heart (1986) or Cabal (1988) – they make up for it in sheer wildness and complexity. From the most political of them – ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ – to the most blood-chilling – ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, ‘Pig Blood Blues’, ‘Dread’ – and the wackiest – ‘Jaqueline Ess’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘In the Flesh’ – the tales in Books of Blood are endlessly inventive and show a horror writer at the height of their creative powers. It is such a shame that Barker has only ever sparingly returned to the short story

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Billy Martin (formerly Poppy Z. Brite), Lost Souls (1992)

There is something about this novel about vampiric misfits and perambulating musicians that just spoke to me when I first read it in my teens. It has stayed with me to this day. The lush, baroque prose and attractive downbeat subcultural jadedness of the main characters – Molochai, Twig and Zillah, the main vampires, but also Nothing, the teenager who does not belong in their community – are unparalleled in Gothic fiction. Very few people are able to portray gay characters with the psychological richness that Brite can. Lost Souls is a great example of how horror fiction often encompasses other narrative and genre modes, from the coming of age narrative to the road trip. My teenage self also loved the setting. Wherever you are born, there are always places you romanticise and fantasise about. One of them, for me, continues to be the New Orleans of this novel, with its promise of chartreuse, culinary delights and nihilistic vampires. I love everything Brite wrote. The day he retired was a sad one for me.

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Stephen King, It (1986)

I went through a period in my teens, probably from the ages of 13 to 16, where I read little else but King. There are only a few of his novels I haven’t read, mostly the most recent stuff. There are many I love: Carrie (1974), The Shining (1977), Misery (1987), the short story collections Night Shift (1978) and Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993), the novellas in Four Past Midnight (1990), and so many others. And yet, the one I could never get was It. What a terrifying novel to read as a teenager! The size of it was scary enough, but Pennywise the clown never quite left my nightmares. Apart from its brilliant exploration of adulthood and friendship, this novel is one of the most interesting piece of fiction about fear. An impressive book in many respects.


Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1953)

I came late to this one, I must confess, first encountering while studying for my MA, but I have since had the pleasure of teaching it on at least two occasions. And what a wonderfully rich novel it is. Eleanor must be one of the most believable and complex characters in horror literature, and I love how Jackson only ever gives you just about information to draw you in and keep you in tenterhooks. A novel about oppressive family relationships, about growing up, about missed opportunities, about sexuality, about psychic powers and, of course, about hauntings. The house becomes the main character, and this is what makes it so special. Together with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), The Haunting of Hill House must be the most well-realised horror story about a haunted building and about the psychological effects of this type of situation on the human mind. Unforgettable and a rightful classic.


H. P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft (2014)

I realise I am cheating here, but I simply could not choose between his many stories. Some of my favourites include ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, ‘The Dunwich Horror’, ‘The Festival’, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ and, oh, so many others! I won’t devote too much time to Lovecraft here, as I have already spoken at length about his artistic qualities, but his fiction is among the most powerful I have ever read. Together with Poe, he is, in my opinion, the best horror short story and novella writer ever. And, like Poe, he got the unity of effect of this type of tale down to a tee. Stories like ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘The Hound’ genuinely terrified me when I read them for the first time as a teenager. He is someone to savour, though. I can never read a lot of him in one go or in a rush.


Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a founder member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. He is the author of Spanish Gothic (2017), Horror Film and Affect (2016), Body Gothic (2014) and the forthcoming Gothic Cinema. He is also the editor of Horror: A Literary History (2016) and chief editor of the Horror Studies book series at the University of Wales Press (2018–).

Cult Conversations: Interview with Xavier Aldana Reyes (Part I)

I often joke that I was taught to read not by teacher or parent, but by the many novelists that were active during the horror fiction boom of the 1970s and 80s: Gary Brandner, Graham Masterton, Ramsey Campbell, Claire McNally, Guy N. Smith—and of course, James Herbert and Stephen King. I fell hard for Herbert first of all, mainly because my dad usually returned home from work with a battered paperback in hands, a gruesome image of some kind displayed on the cover, images that publishers certainly wouldn’t get away with these days. This was the era of the so-called ‘video nasties’ controversy led by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government along with moral campaigner du jour Mary Whitehouse. But no one seemed to be concerned that many teens in the 1980s were delving deeply into the dark recesses of literary horror. Indeed, video was the main political target, eventually leading to the formation of the Video Recordings Act in 1984. But horror fiction was largely left alone by the government, despite those grotesque paperback covers that have all but disappeared from the shelves, or been ‘tastefully’ gentrified for the polite high street book store. Even books that are continually reprinted today—Herbert and King being dominant—no longer include these transgressive, marvellously lurid covers (see the different covers for Herbert’s The Fog below). That said, Grady Hendrix’s excellent compendium, Paperbacks from Hell, is a must-buy for fans of horror fiction, and at least offers a historical record for posterity’s sake. (I have tried to seek some of these out on the internet, but, alas, like many fan objects, they fetch a hefty price.)


I guess I wouldn’t be permitted to read these novels if I was a child today, not that that would have stopped us. I wasn’t allowed to listen to N.W.A’s ‘Fuck the Police’ or the 2Live Crew’s ‘As Nasty as They Wanna be’ either; but the more that cultural objects are deemed forbidden by our moral guardians, be it parent, teacher or government, the more we want to explore, discover and transgress authoritative boundaries. James Herbert gave us pornography when it wasn’t readily available (although we always found that too, snuggled deep in socks and underwear). I knew there was something forbidden about reading these books—I wasn’t able to get an adult library card until the age of 16, but my mam and dad didn’t seem to worry that I borrowed (read: stole) theirs. At least I was reading! And read I did, gulping voraciously on these tales of the macabre and the dead. (I would say it never did me any harm, but I expect anyone who knows me might have some long-lost memory to barter or bribe me with.) In any case, as far I’m aware, I have never murdered someone. No-one died in the reading of these tales, macabre and grotesque though they were (although we simply preferred to describe them as ‘cool’).


Sadly, many of these authors have gone the way of the dinosaur. However, since 1985, I have bought and read both Herbert and King’s novels religiously, a tradition that continues to this day (although Herbert passed away in 2013, a crushing blow). Ramsey Campbell is still active, and carries on experimenting, growing, adapting. But the halcyon days of the horror fiction boom has passed.

Or has it? There may not be legions of paperbacks in bookstores, but horror fiction is alive and well. Over the past few years, I have found myself playing catch up and have thoroughly been enjoying the ride. This year alone I have been moved, stunned and in awe of great storytelling by contemporary horror novelists. With his novel, Halycon, Rio Youers convinced me that he is the heir apparent to Stephen King. (That’s a high bar, admittedly, but I stand by it, especially after reading Westlake Souls and Forgotten Girl. You haven’t read Rio Youers? Well, what are you waiting for?).  

Chad Ludzke’s tale of love and dying, Stirring the Sheets, left me emotionally and existentially shattered. Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s HEX forced me to stay up well past the witching hour (just one more page, just one more page). I was blown away by Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling, Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, C.J Tudor’s The Chalk Man, Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls, John Boden’s Jedi Summer and the Magnetic Kid, James Newman’s The Wicked

I could talk about this for ages, so I shall park this conversation for now (I can feel a research project brewing), and thus, by this circuitous route, we come to this week’s guest, Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes.

Xavier first entered my sphere with his edited anthology, Horror: A Literary History (2016), a remarkable collection of essays that covers a lot of ground. Xavier’s own chapter on ‘Post-Millennial Horror’ served as a guide to all the great horror fiction being written in the 21st Century and I hugely recommend it. In the following interview, Xavier and I get into the legacy of H.P Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood as well as the Gothic imagination. I throughly enjoyed speaking with Xavier and learned a lot from our conversation (even though I ended up stocking up my online shopping basket with more ghastly tales and adventures in the macabre). I hope you enjoy the next instalment in the Cult Conversations series.

—William Proctor


How would you describe your research interests for readers unfamiliar with your work and subject area?

I mostly research Gothic and Horror film and literature, with the odd excursion into television. I am absolutely fascinated by the emotions we associate with fear, and with the idea that something fictional, in whatever medium, can move us viscerally in the ways horror does. I am also intrigued with what horror allows writers, filmmakers, scriptwriters, etc. to explore that realist genres do not. I am not merely talking about national trauma, but about the so-called ‘dark’ side of culture: taboos, ideas of ‘sin’, sexuality, social ‘others’ and so on.

I have always been fascinated by horror literature, both ‘classical’ (Poe, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft) and more modern (Stephen King, Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker). In fact, I think the first book I ever bought for myself was a Goosebumps novel – I still remember my dad cautioning me about that I would not be able to sleep that night! – and I quickly graduated to King. But I actually started out as a modern and contemporary literature student. It was only while doing my MA in this subject at Birkbeck that I came across the Gothic as an artistic mode. This capacious umbrella term seemed to conglomerate all of the artists and texts I admired. It was during an optional unit called something like ‘Gothic Bodies, Foreign Bodies’, given by Adriana Craciun (who was a visiting scholar at the time). You could say I never got over its brilliance!


Then I began a PhD under the tutelage of the wonderful Catherine Spooner, at Lancaster, and that took me, rather unexpectedly, in the direction of film. I started to explore the connections between fiction as an affective medium and cinema (and drama, as it happens!) and my PhD project changed quite substantially almost overnight. I have long been interested in horror film, but that came later in life. My tolerance for horror films was initially very low, and I even had nightmares where I tried to look away from a screen showing a horror film but my eyelids became see-through! It has rained a lot since then. I am lucky enough that I work at a place where I can develop my interests in Gothic and Horror Studies irrespective of media.

In short, I am interested in all things fictional considered dark and nasty, and am especially concerned with why they are considered dark and nasty and how they operate psychologically and socially.


Would you consider yourself a fan of the texts and objects that you study? Or put differently, what came first: fannish enthusiasm or academic interest?

It is a hard question to answer truthfully. I guess my deep interest in the topic makes me a ‘fan’, but unlike ‘fans’, I do not consume it in the same way (I have never, for example, attended a full horror festival). As I am sure any literature and film critic would corroborate, becoming an ‘expert’ in a subject ruins its initial naïve pleasures for you. You end up knowing too much about the conventions and become much more critical. Which is not to say that I no longer enjoy the topic (or that fans are uncritical) – quite the opposite! I would propose that I am now a lot more interested in the history and value of the Gothic and Horror, which, in turn, makes me more appreciative of its developments and of the contemporary writers who are doing something innovative. Being this immersed in a subject has also allowed me to discover writers and filmmakers who I would probably never have otherwise, so I guess it is swings and roundabouts. I would say my fan interest informed the critic I am today, but also that I am an atypical horror fan.

The lack of distance between fannish enthusiasm and academic interest is also what makes disconnecting from research harder: you begin reading a novel to unwind and a year later you find yourself working it into something you are writing. It is both a blessing and a curse. So I would say that there is a connection there – the fascination and committed devotion to a topic – but the fan can treasure the text as an artistic object, while the academic’s job is to contextualise, examine and explicate its value.


For the British Library, you recently edited The Gothic Tales of H.P Lovecraft (2018), an author that Ramsey Campbell describes as “the most influential horror of this century [the twentieth] to date,” and “one of the most important writers in the field.” Would you agree with Campbell’s assessment? It certainly appears to be the case that Lovecraft continues to be a vibrant source of intertextuality and homage in the twenty-first century both in literary quarter and across media. In comics, for example, Alan Moore’s Neonomicon and Providence both honour and expand the Lovecraftian mythos, while Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country is currently attracting much critical praise (and a HBO adaptation in the works), and Ellen Datlow’s story collection, Lovecraft’s Monsters, includes horror and fantasy alumni such as Neil Gaiman and Caitlín R Kiernan creating new material out of his legacy. What is it about Lovecraft’s writing that continues to entice and attract so many authors? Are there any adaptations, extensions or homages etc. that you think deserve attention?

Absolutely. I think that, regardless of one’s own personal opinion as concerns Lovecraft’s racism (this seems to be the topic du jour, sadly, and it is beginning to colour debates about his fiction), the legacy of his work seems to me undeniable. There is a tendency to focus on Lovecraft as the source of cosmic horror, sometimes to the detriment of other writers, like William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce and others, who were already treading similar territory in their writings, and to forget Lovecraft’s Gothic lineage (his ‘“Poe” pieces’, as he called them, which were the driving force for my anthology), but I do think his fiction is the epitome of weird writing and that his place as the most influential writer of the twentieth-century (perhaps together with King?) is more than warranted. I am in awe of the scope of his imagination and his idiosyncratic writing – personally, I love his cumulative purple prose, which is very baroque and similar to the overwritten style of many a Gothic novel.

You have named a few of the writers who have either homaged or expanded Lovecraft in recent years (and there are many more, even in non-English speaking countries like Spain – check out Emilio Bueso, although I do not think he has been translated into English yet), but his impact on horror is, I think, even larger. His secular, atheistic view of the world and of humanity’s place within it was ahead of its time, and it is one of the reasons why his fiction resonates so much with contemporary writers. So yes, I would never say we should forget the fact that he was an awful racist, but I certainly think that that side of his writing has not been what writers and readers have taken from his work. Lovecraft’s obsession with the limitations of language and human consciousness, with the frailty and vulnerability of the human mind and its need for rationalisation and order amidst a universe that thrives in chaos, was new, and has only been imaginatively matched in recent years by the equally brilliant Thomas Ligotti – certainly Lovecraft’s best philosophical descendant. The fact that his concepts and monsters have been able to travel across media, even to places where their lack of physical detail might have become a real burden, is a testament to the lasting power of Lovecraft’s fiction.


For readers who have yet to plunge into the abyss of Lovecraft’s fiction, is there any work in particular you would recommend as starting point?

Well, I would of course recommend The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, as my intention with that anthology was to collect fiction that readers of more classical Gothic, say, M. R. James, who was also published in this series, might appreciate. Beginning with what he developed from Poe (in stories like ‘The Outsider’ or ‘The Hound’) and moving on to the bigger, weirder fictions, like ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ and ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, would be how I would do it. Those are all faves of mine.

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How would you describe the work of William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and Ambrose Bierce? As you say, Lovecraft seems to have placed those writers well under his shadow. But what is it in particular that you think reading those lesser known authors—or at least less known than Lovecraft—are worth investigating, especially for readers not familiar with those works? 

As I say, there is a tendency to think of Lovecraft as someone who creates ‘cosmic horror’ in a vacuum. The reality is that, as with all genres and modes, he didn’t, at least, initially, see himself as much of an innovator. He felt ‘the anxiety of influence’, as Harold Bloom would put it, and at one point even wondered where his own tales were. It is obvious from his long essay Supernatural Horror in Literature that he was not just well read, but had a great sense of the various phases or periods of horror literature, and of where his work would eventually slot in. The chapter on ‘The Modern Masters’, where he covers Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and M. R. James, and the previous one, where he writes about John Buchan and William Hope Hodgson (Bierce is also covered in the book) are revealing, for it is precisely what he sees as innovative in these writers. For example, he praises Blackwood’s fiction for its capacity to ‘evoke as does nothing else in literature an awed and convinced sense of the immanence of strange spiritual sphere and entities’. The same comment could be levelled at Lovecraft’s weird oeuvre. So I see Lovecraft more as a pinnacle, as a melting pot of influences (the ‘Things’ of Hodgson’s fiction, the psychological and cumulative writing of Blackwood, the degeneration of Machen, the transformations of M. P. Shiel) that still managed to produce something new and powerful. It is interesting that he pins the weird tale against the bloody murder and mystery of the Gothic (his thoughts about the haunting of the past against the expansive nature of the weird are, of course, very interesting and valid), for in his fiction, he managed to often marry the two rather seamlessly.

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The term “gothic” is one of those concepts that seem to resist easy categorisation. What does the term mean to you? Is there a difference between “gothic” and “horror”? Or do you think the former is utilized to validate “art” while the latter remains to be more a pejorative? In other words, is gothic literature and cinema discursively validated as “high art,” with horror continually characterised as its lowly cousin, as debased pulp or popular culture? 

I have written about this quite a lot recently, both for an entry on ‘The Contemporary Gothic’ for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, which should be about to come out, and the introduction to my current monograph on Gothic cinema. I also briefly covered it in Horror: A Literary History (with apologies for the shameless plugs!). The popular opinion is that the Gothic, previously called a genre, is rather an artistic mode that focused on the dark and the repressed, the fearful and the abject. According to this, horror would be one expression of the Gothic. It is not too dissimilar from theorisations of the ‘fantastic’ in continental Europe, although those are more dependent on the role the supernatural plays in a given text. Personally, I see horror as a genre marked by the emotional effects it attempts to elicit in readers and viewers. This means that, unlike other genres like the Western, which may be more delimited by setting and characters, horror can take place anywhere in the past, in the present and in the future. Horror is marked by its treatment of the material, in other words. Of course, as happens to all genres, notions of purity are hard to sustain, and horror comedies can merge fear with laughter unproblematically. I understand the Gothic to be an aesthetic mode delimited by its temporal retrojection to a barbaric or dark past (the medieval period initially, but increasingly the Victorian) that may manifest at the level of the building (the haunted house) and which tends to include certain characters: the villainous aristocratic, the damsel in distress, the monster. According to this line of thinking, the Gothic would be one more expression, a hybrid one that takes elements from the chivalric romance, of what has become the horror genre. Since the horror genre does not begin out of nowhere, aspects of the Gothic have been recycled and modernised. It is possible to see in the ‘final girl’ a modern version of Radcliffe’s heroines. Nowadays, I would say that a film like Crimson Peak (2015) is a Gothic horror film, but Aliens (1986) is an action film with horror elements and The Shape of Water (2017) is a monster romance with horror and fairy tale elements. For me the key indicators of a genre are its predominant emotional primers, which is why I see horror as a genre and the Gothic as an aesthetic (sometimes thematic) mode or subgenre (of horror, when the focus is fear).


To answer the second part of your question: yes, certainly. Horror is still seen as puerile, nasty and unworthy of critical study, perhaps because it is still connected in the popular unconscious with debates around misogyny in film and the ‘video nasties’. The field has truly blossomed and it is a vibrant subfield of Film Studies, but sadly, I do not know of many grants awarded in recent years to projects explicitly seeking to explore aspects of/in horror film and fiction that are explicitly called so. Although initiatives like the Horror Studies journal run by Intellect and my own book series with UWP are trying to change this cultural landscape, the tendency is still to reach out to the Gothic’s associations with history, nationality, grandiose architecture and classical literary tradition (now that the likes of Radcliffe, Walpole and Lewis have been reinstated). The Gothic has been through its own path of legitimisation since the 1980s and, actively, since the 1990s and the formation of the International Gothic Association, but for me the Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season run by the BFI in 2013–14 and the British Library’s Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (2014–15) were real game changers that signalled the word is definitely out there in the public sphere and that it has begun meaning something to people outside academia.


The downside of the mainstreaming of the word is that it has become rather ambiguous and vague, too pliable, if you like. When the same term, ‘Gothic’ or ‘gothic’ (I still prefer the former when referring to the long literary tradition and its connection to architecture) is used indistinguishably to refer to horror fiction, dark science fiction, fantasy with some horror elements, neo-Victorian narratives and speculative fiction, getting to a core meaning of the term and thus to its operational structure becomes harder. For example, are all narratives that contain a ghost de facto Gothic? Since this indicates a reverse situation in which the Gothic is now a ‘thing’ that exists outside the ivory (castle) tower of academia, I guess I am also partly delighted. For me, the challenge is now to get to the heart of the Gothic. As it becomes, increasingly, its own set of theoretical and critical reading tools, matters are bound to get even more slippery.


It all sounds quite murky in a conceptual sense. In cinematic terms, it took Peter Hutchings and David Pirie to bring Hammer Horror out of the pop culture dungeon and into academic appreciation. But it also seems to me that early Universal monster films are imbued with gothic aesthetics, especially James Whales’ films, although not exclusively—the less talked about Son of Frankenstein borrows heavily from German Expressionism, for example. What are your thoughts about gothic cinema, if such a thing can be said to exist (although Jonathan Rigby’s series of books attest to a theoretical confluence of cinema and the gothic)? Do you see the gothic penetrating contemporary horror cinema; and, if so, what do you think are prime candidates for the descriptor? (You have already mentioned Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.)

I’m actually writing a book on the very topic (Gothic Cinema, in the Routledge Film Guidebooks series), as it happens, so I will wait until it’s out to reveal the punchline, if you don’t mind. Rigby’s books are exceptional: they are encyclopaedic in their coverage and incredibly well researched (as well as great fun to read), but no overarching thesis about what constitutes Gothic cinema really emerges from them. Or indeed of any other work in the area. Pirie’s ground-breaking book was not just the first to take Hammer seriously, but also to suggest that there might be a direct link between it and the Romantic tradition. I think there is a lot to unpack there. For me the Gothic is aesthetic and thematic, and it is pervaded by the return of the barbaric past. That often takes the shape of the chronotopic castle and the Victorian mansion. So yes, Universal’s monsters, but also early German cinema and the much-forgotten old dark house mystery. And that’s all I can say for now…


Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a founder member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. He is the author of Spanish Gothic (2017), Horror Film and Affect (2016), Body Gothic (2014) and the forthcoming Gothic Cinema. He is also the editor of Horror: A Literary History (2016) and chief editor of the Horror Studies book series at the University of Wales Press (2018–).

Cult Conversations: Interview with Julia Round (Part II)


Unfortunately, the UK comics industry has contracted enormously today since the medium’s heyday between the 1950s and 1980s when comics racks and shelves were teeming with product on a weekly basis (many of which were a large feature of my childhood as well). Although The Beano and 2000AD are still being published in 2018, what is it about the British comics industry that continues to demonstrate its value for scholarly investigation? 

I think that the British comics industry is a fascinating example of the intersections of creativity and commerce.  In the 1950s and 1960s comics dominated children’s entertainment in the UK – a 1953 study by L. Fenwick revealed that 94% of girls read comics.  By the end of the 1950s there were at least fifty different titles in the UK, with more emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, and some had weekly circulations of a million or more (School Friend in the 1950s; Jackie in the 1960s). But the market collapsed in the 1970s and today The Beano and Commando are the only ones to remain in print, alongside a selection of magazines that are predominantly based around toys and merchandise. The decline of the market in the 1970s was part of a wider loss of readership that affected British comics (particularly girls’ comics) across the board. My research reveals that this had its roots in company policies, the denigration of creators and readers, economic factors, and a loss of clear direction and identity for previously distinct titles. The publisher’s corporate structure was absolutely key to the demise: a ‘cost centre’ policy meant that each weekly issue had to turn profit, not to mention a top-heavy management structure that contrasted with the small editorial teams (generally four people for each title). Creator rights were non-existent (credits did not appear in most titles) and so the talent was quick to depart for other countries or media when other options such as children’s paperback fiction opened up.

school friend.jpg

The audience was also abused – what British readers really remember about the decline is the merger strategy, known as ‘hatch match and dispatch’. When sales started to fall on an established title it would be merged with another to artificially boost the circulation figure. This would keep it alive for a time, but there was always the possibility of it ending abruptly if sales kept falling. The merger strategy led to a loss of clear identity, and readers would quickly drift from the new combined title as their favourite stories or characters appeared less or were watered down. Having invested years of time, emotion and money, readers were understandably upset when their comic ended without warning – often with serials simply unfinished, or wrapped up abruptly and unconvincingly in a single episode. For me—following critics such as Hannah Priest (2011), Spooner (2017) and Buckley (2018)—this is just another example of how certain demographics (such as young female audiences and consumers) are marginalised and disregarded socially and critically. Acknowledging their agency and allowing their tastes to shape the canons of literature and popular media gives a quite different – and much wider – picture of what a genre such as Gothic can be.


In many ways it seems that Misty "plundered" images from pop culture—the Carrie analogue is an excellent example. In some critic accounts, what Misty did with Carrie can be described as following one of the ways in which "exploitation" cinema aims to piggy-back on genre successes, like so-called "sharksploitation" fare coming off the back of Jaws (which Action analogued too with ‘Hookjaw’).

I think the exploitation model you mention is exactly what Pat Mills had in mind for Misty. His initial proposal for the comic was based around ‘Moonchild’, his adaptation of Carrie, and as you point out it's also used in other comics like Action (which he also created). But you can see this sort of thing in many titles from different comics publishers at the time – ‘Codename: Warlord’ is a James Bond rewrite (Warlord); The Dirty Dozen becomes ‘The Rat Pack’ (Battle Picture Weekly); Rollerball becomes ‘Death Game 1999’ (Action), and so on. Pat’s other major serial for Misty is a rewrite of Audrey Rose. He told me in an interview that he wanted to ‘use my 2000AD approach on a girls’ comic: big visuals and longer, more sophisticated stories with the emphasis on the supernatural and horror. My role models were Carrie and Audrey Rose, suitably modified for a younger audience.’

Moonchild 1.jpg

But that's not the comic that Misty became, largely I think due to Wilf Prigmore and Malcolm Shaw.  Prigmore’s brief was to deliver a mystery comic and it is likely this was led by commercial issues. He’s said that DC Thomson’s Spellbound was never mentioned to him, but the IPC exec would definitely have wanted a title to compete with this. The back and forth between the two publishers had been going on for decades, across all genres. Eagle had dominated the boys’ market since its launch (1950), until DC Thomson brought out a number of new titles, of which Victor (1961) and Hornet (1963) had the most impact. When DC Thomson's Warlord (1974) came out it had longer stories and dramatic layouts, and IPC responded to its military themes and gritty action. They brought out Battle Picture Weekly in 1975 and the now-notorious Action in 1976, and DC Thomson then hit back with Bullet in 1976. For the girls, School Friend (1950) competed with Girl (1951), and the romance comics also battled it out as Marilyn (1955) and Valentine (1957) fought against DC Thomson’s Romeo (1957) and Jackie (1964). The next game changer was DC Thomson’s Bunty (1958), with a dramatic take on the now-stale school formula, until IPC responded by taking the genre to the next level with Tammy (1971) and Jinty (1974). These were comics filled to the brim with trauma and angst, and this was the wave of which Spellbound (1976) and Misty (1978) would become a part. So like many other British comics of the time Misty did piggyback off the industry’s successes. It owes a lot to its stablemate Tammy and also competitor titles such as Diana and Spellbound. 


It also draws heavily on the surrounding atmosphere of horror in 1970s Britain. The 1970s were a strange time in the UK – uncertain politically and threatening globally – with terrible fashions, recessions and ideologies coexisting alongside great advances in technology, environmental law, and equalities. Many of the Misty stories articulate specific fears of the decade (environmental, social), and it also draws strongly on the contemporary new age witch in the character of Misty herself. Horror was also a dominant presence in British children’s media at this time (for those interested, Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s Scarred for Life is a brilliant encyclopaedia of the various television shows, books, movies and other fare on offer). 


So horror for both adults and children was at its zenith in the 1970s, and Misty of course follows the cultural mood. A number of the Misty serials adapt contemporary horror books and films in different ways. For example, ‘End of the Line’ (Malcolm Shaw and John Richardson, #28-#42) recalls the movie Death Line (1972) where people are kidnapped by the cannibalistic descendants of a group of Victorian tube tunnel workers trapped underground. ‘The Sentinels’ (Malcolm Shaw and Mario Capaldi, #1-#12) shares its alternate history setting of Nazi-occupied Britain with It Happened Here, a 1964 British film. It perhaps also takes its title and scenario from The Sentinel (Konvitz, 1974; movie adaptation dir. Winner, 1977) in which protagonist Alison discovers her Brooklyn apartment building contains the gate to hell and that she has been chosen by God to be its guardian. Shaw’s writing often uses pre-existing texts as a jumping off point: combining a new genre (such as science fiction) or plot events (Ann’s hunt for her father) with the catalyst or backdrop of an existing text. By contrast, Mills’ rewritings more directly rework the key story elements into more juvenile forms: removing the sex, death, and gore.


Pat Mills has spoken at length about his ‘formula’ approach to British girls’ comics (see the blog posts on his Millsverse website, cited below) – where stories can often be categorised into various types. These include the Slave story (a victimised individual or group); the Cinderella story (a down-on-her luck heroine); the Friend story (the heroine’s desire for a friend); and the Mystery story (which can be as simple as ‘What’s inside the box?’). All of these categories resonate with Gothic themes (power, control, persecution, isolation, suspense). But my analysis of Misty showed that the categories are seldom clear cut and around a quarter of its stories do not fall into any of these categories. So instead I used an inductive approach: noting down similarities between stories as they emerged and creating an expanding list of common plot tropes. These included elements such as external magic; internal powers; wishes being granted; actions backfiring, and so forth. My findings were especially interesting as they revealed that the stories contained an emphasis on personal responsibility – echoing the dominant mood of 1970s horror movies and other British media such as public information films.

‘glory knight: Time Travel courier’ ( June and School Friend , 1971).

‘glory knight: Time Travel courier’ (June and School Friend, 1971).

Are there any other “unusual places” that you have found Gothic influences through your research in other mediums or genres?

Although it might seem an odd fit, there is a clear trend for Gothic in children’s literature that critics like David Rudd (2008) and Buckley (2014) have traced back to Victorian literature. Writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, 1911) and Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden, 1958) deal in isolated protagonists encountering strange new worlds. Dark fantasy, ghost stories and alterities abound. At the cusp of the millennium imprints such as Point Horror or Goosebumps emerge. Subsequent writers such as Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events, 1999) and Neil Gaiman (Coraline, 2002) lead into a large chunk of literature and media for adolescent girls based around the supernatural (Buffy, Twilight, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, Once Upon a Time, The Vampire Diaries, and so on).


When I analysed Misty alongside other horror media of the 1970s and also as part of this wider trend towards Gothic in children’s literature, I found it a good fit with the large number of contemporary Gothic-themed stories for children and young adults that construct a young female reader and give her agency. Many of the most popular have clear similarities, as young female protagonists experience isolation, transformation, and Otherness during a quest for individuation. I used these findings alongside in-depth analysis of Children’s Gothic and Female Gothic to construct a definition of Gothic for Girls. I argue that this is an undertheorised subgenre, despite appearing over and over again in texts for young female readers around the cusp of the millennium. It takes place in a magical realist world, focusing on a young female protagonist who is usually isolated or trapped in some way. The narrative enacts and mediates their wakening to this and their own magical potential. Temptation and transgression are the main catalysts, creating a clear moral or lesson, as traditional fairy tale sins (greed, pride, laziness) are common sources of conflict. Personal responsibility thus becomes a key factor in negotiating the story’s traps, curses and other magical dangers, and self-control or self-acceptance a means of escape. In this way, Gothic for Girls constructs and acknowledges girlhood as an uncanny experience.


That's a very condensed version of my findings and my critical definition! – and while I can’t be sure if it will stand the test of time, I hope it helps to draw attention to other aspects of Gothic and girls beyond the superficial and sexualised. By critically analysing Misty in such detail, I’ve tried to provide evidence not only of its individual worth but also of its similarities to many other British girls’ comics. Literary scholarship – including Gothic criticism – has also often treated its privileged texts as anomalies, for example citing the genius of Radcliffe or Shelley as exceptions to the norm. Rather than framing Misty as a title of exceptional brilliance, I use it as an exemplar of the unsung significance of British comics and their creators more generally. Publishers are seeking to revitalise the comics industry today and comics studies is fast becoming its own academic discipline and thus creating its own canons (both academic and fan-based). I think that the story of Misty demonstrates that we should aim for a more inclusive approach than has been the case previously in literature, art and society.

‘Queen’s weather,’  Misty  #18.

‘Queen’s weather,’ Misty #18.

And finally, which five examples would you select that represent “the best” that Gothic comics can offer? In particular, perhaps, a Gothic for Girls?

I’m not sure I want to narrow myself to Gothic for Girls here (if that’s OK), as my wider work is more concerned with those unusual places that Gothic can be found. Instead I’ll try and pick from some different genres so I can display some of the breadth of Gothic in comics. So (bearing in mind that I’ve already mentioned Misty, Spellbound, Sandman, Preacher, Hellblazer, Creepy and Eerie!) here goes… If you’re new to comics then these are all great starting points!

From Hell (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1989-1998)

It wouldn’t be a ‘best of’ list without including something from Alan Moore, and this is the obvious choice. Originally serialised in British comic Taboo, the collected edition (1999) is a work of vast scope with extensive references and appendices. Nothing like the abysmal 2001 movie, this comic is an impeccably researched retelling of the Whitechapel murders that terrorised Victorian London in 1888-91. Eddie Campbell’s art, laid out in regular grid pages, is scratchy and evocative, bringing the East End to life in all its squalor and chaos. It’s a story firmly grounded in its location and many of its settings (such as the Hawksmoor churches) can still be seen today. Alan Moore brings in cosmology, conspiracy, black magic, secret societies, time travel and more to create a work of speculative faction that will mess with your understanding of history, time, and space.


Adamtine (Hannah Berry, 2012)

Hannah Berry was recently made this year’s Comics Laureate in the UK and this is a great work from the British small press. Claustrophobic and dark, it’s about a seemingly unconnected group of people whose actions have some violent consequences. The oppressive darkness of a nighttime train journey is the catalyst and its skillfully evoked as Berry combines a sense of creeping menace with outright shock. Achieving a jump scare in a static medium like comics is no mean feat – buy a signed copy direct from the author’s website for a small extra surprise. You can also read a preview for free at


Locke and Key (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, 2008-2013)

Locke and Key is a beautifully plotted work (both spatially and narratologically) that spans many subgenres of horror and Gothic – it’s part literary ghost story, part slasher movie, part psychological thriller. It tells the story of the three Locke children, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who move to their ancestral home, Keyhouse, after their father is murdered. Here they discover that the house’s doors offer a range of powers when they are unlocked with certain special keys. I think it does some extremely interesting things with metaphor and space, as well as being a cracking read and one of the prettiest comics I’ve seen in a while. It’s one of the best from the American mainstream in recent years.


Some pre-Code American horror titles

The American horror comics that sparked the introduction of the Comics Code are classics of the genre and well worth a read. Range beyond Tales from the Crypt into EC’s other titles to find some hidden gems – Shock SuspenStories offered dark social commentary, and The Vault of Horror is just as terrifying as the crypt! Or dig into some less well-remembered titles from other publishers such as Atlas (who would become Marvel), or Harvey Comics. There are too many great stories to choose from, so can I instead recommend a visit to Steve Banes’ website But if you force me to pick, then personally I’d say that those who search for the wonderfully titled ‘The Brain Bats of Venus’ (art by Basil Wolverton, Mister Mystery #7, 1952) will probably not leave disappointed…


The Enigma of Amigara Fault (Junji Ito, 2003)

Junji Ito is the master of Japanese horror – in particular body horror that simultaneously tends towards the psychological and pathological. His most famous manga, Uzumaki, is about a town whose inhabitants become obsessed with spirals. It’s a bit of an epic, so instead I’ve picked this short story of his, which appeared in his horror manga Gyo (2003). It’s also a tale of obsession - and it’s available to read for free online at If you like it then do check out his other work – Tomie is another great starting point.


Julia Round is a Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is one of the editors of Studies in Comics journal (Intellect Books) and a co-organiser of the annual International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference (IGNCC). Her first book was Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2014), followed by the edited collection Real Lives, Celebrity Stories (Bloomsbury, 2014). In 2015 she received the Inge Award for Comics Scholarship for her research, which focuses on Gothic, comics, and children’s literature. She has recently completed two AHRC-funded studies examining how digital transformations affect young people's reading. Her new book Misty and Gothic for Girls in British Comics (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2019) examines the presence of Gothic themes and aesthetics in children’s comics, and is accompanied by a searchable database of all the stories (with summaries, previously unknown creator credits, and origins), available at her website

Cult Conversations: Interview with Julia Round (Part I)

I have had the honour and pleasure of working alongside Julia Round since I secured my first full-time post at Bournemouth University. Not only have a learned a great deal from Julia over the past four years but I have also been continually impressed by her keen insights and rigorous scholarship—her monograph Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (2014) is an exceptional work and I highly recommend it. In this interview, Julia and I discuss the Gothic, and the way in which comic books, especially in the UK, have engaged with the tenets and tropes of the phenomenon. I still have a lot to learn from Julia and consider myself a passionate student of her work, going back to when I was an undergraduate and PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland. Throughout our discussion, I was certainly surprised to learn about a relationship between the Gothic and comic books—Julia’s research uncovers the Gothic in “unusual places.” I hope readers find Julia’s insights as erudite and revealing as I have.

—William Proctor


In your monograph, Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (2014), you begin by saying that: “At first glance it might seem that contemporary comics and the Gothic tradition are completely unconnected.” In what ways, then, do you think that the comic medium has included material infused with Gothic tendencies and characteristics? Was there anything in particular that instigated such a viewpoint?

 One of the more obvious examples of Gothic themes in comics is, of course, the American horror comics of the 1940s and 1950s. They were absolutely dominant for a short period of time, circulating over 60 million copies per month. Even non-comics-readers have probably heard of EC’s Tales from the Crypt – and there were many other imitators, all releasing anthology comics full of suspense and gore, alongside the equally shocking crime comics. Like the earliest Gothic texts, these comics went against the grain of social acceptability: they were sensationalist and transgressive. The problem was that they were sold on newsstands and to children, prompting widespread moral panic and a Senate investigation that forced the American industry to commit to a Code of self-censorship in 1954. In many ways this has shaped the comics medium in Britain and America today as it led to the dominance of the superhero genre and the rise of the underground.


But for me, comics’ Gothic tendencies go far beyond horror motifs. There are historical parallels to be drawn, as comics have often been considered sensationalist, lowbrow and subversive – much like Gothic texts. Gothic themes also underpin many genres of comics – not just the obvious examples of horror comics. The superhero is a model of fragmented identity, as the alter ego and super-identity literalise the ‘Other within’ and are only held together through processes of exclusion. Superheroes’ physicality also relies on a monstrous and mutable body. Today the genre has developed away from its action-driven origins, moving towards introspection and confessional narratives. Meanwhile, underground genres such as autobiographix frequently hone in on trauma (Spiegelman’s Maus, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming) or illness (David B’s Epileptic), or explore the place of the individual within society (Sowa and Savoia’s Marzi, Satrapi’s Persepolis) and thus touch upon Gothic themes of isolation and alienation.


The cultures that surround Gothic and comics also share similarities. They both carry a weight of cultural assumptions and stereotypes, for example Goths are seen as depressed, morbid and pretentious, while comics are the domain of geeky fanboys and fangirls. We might consider Goth as an identity performance using surface appearance and fetishized commodities: incorporating both creativity (DIY skill, imagination and daring) and purchase power (access and ability to afford high-end items, materials or particular brands). Comics cosplay performs similar tensions, as it asserts individuality (homemade costumes, the accompanying pose and performance, adaptations and subversions such as re-gendering) whilst still adopting an industry-controlled image. Both Goth and comics subcultures present outwardly as a collaborative group, while remaining split internally in defence of particular titles or types of knowledge. They’re based around images and properties that are strictly licensed, but cosplay and fanfiction thrive, and both groups exist in a fetishized relationship with their own media and artefacts.

Finally, I think comics narratives exploit Gothic in their storytelling structure and formalist qualities, and this is the main subject of my first book. Fans and scholars use Gothic language to talk about comics (‘bleeds’, ‘slabbing’, Charles Hatfield’s ‘tensions’ and Scott McCloud’s concepts of ‘closure’ and ‘blood in the gutters’). Formalist comics critics like Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, Scott McCloud and Benoît Peeters often draw attention to three shared points: the space of the page, the role of the reader, and the interplay between word and image. My own work synthesises and builds on these critics and uses Gothic critical theory to revalue their ideas. I use three key Gothic concepts (haunting, the crypt, and excess) to analyse the comics page. So I argue that the page is haunted by similarities with previous panels or layouts; that it uses multiple and excessive perspectives as our viewpoint jumps about (in and out of the story, from narration to dialogue – and words may address us directly while visuals immerse us); and that it exploits the hidden and the unseen (in the gutter or ‘crypt’ between panels). I suggest that if we use this holistic approach to evaluate comics, we will find that every page employs one or more of these three tropes to enhance its message, and the way that it is used will give insight into the story.

So for me, comics can be considered Gothic in historical, thematic, cultural, structural and formalist terms, and Gothic characteristics can be found in the most unlikely of places (one of my articles analyses the uncanny perspectives and destabilised narrative used in the Care Bears comics!). As for what started it – well I guess I’m drawn to the contradictions I see in Gothic literature and culture, and to the deconstruction of how stories work. The tensions and paradoxes between surface and depth have always appealed to me.

care bears.jpg

When did your journey into comics begin? Would you consider yourself a fan first and foremost? Or was it academic study that sparked your interest in the medium?

That’s a hard question to answer – like a lot of scholars who are passionate about their subject, I’m not sure I can separate the two entirely. I read comics as a kid, but not obsessively. I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of DC and Marvel. My comics fandom really started around 1990 when I became a teenager, and predictably enough with DC’s Vertigo titles. Hellblazer, Preacher and of course Sandman were the first ones I remember reading, thanks to my brother. They grabbed my attention and challenged my expectations of what I thought could be done with narrative and storytelling. They were also irreverent, parodic, and self-aware, and I loved that.


My academic study did play a big part in honing my interest in comics though. When I began to encounter critical theory in earnest during my undergraduate degree (BA English Literature, Cardiff University), I became interested in genre theory and semiotics. In particular there were three units I studied that would shape my future research – Children’s Literature (taught by Peter Hunt), Romantic Literature, and Literature of the 1890s. The Vertigo comics told stories that I thought really pushed the boundaries of genre, and exploited the Romantic notion of the author, using structure and semiotics to create reflexive meaning. They enhanced my interest in dark Romanticism, decadent literature and formalist theory, and (after I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University, awarded 2001) I decided that comics’ treatment of genre and narratology was what I wanted to explore in my PhD (awarded by Bristol University, 2006). This ended up being a project called ‘From Comic Book to Graphic Novel: Writing, Reading, Semiotics’. My supervisor was landmark Gothic theorist David Punter, which doubtless shaped my thesis as I explored the applicability and use of different genre models in contemporary comics, such as myth, the Fantastic, and Gothic. 

My study of children’s literature (which I also now teach at Bournemouth University) and my childhood memories of comics also combined to spark my most recent project. It’s a critical analysis of children’s horror comics, in particular two British girls’ comics: Spellbound (DC Thomson, 1976-78) and Misty (IPC, 1978-80). I’m fascinated by the presence of Gothic and horror in literature for children and young adults, which other critics such as Catherine Spooner, Chloe Buckley and Joseph Crawford are doing wonderful work on. My Misty project not only brought together my scholarly interests in sensationalist, Gothic and children’s literature (and comics!) but was also a very personal quest, as it partially grew out of a hunt for a half-remembered story that had haunted me for 33 years!


Gothic doesn’t seem to be easily categorized. Can we think of “Gothic” as a distinct generic category? In your view, how might Gothic be best described?

 I think Gothic is hard to categorise because it is so wide-ranging. It takes on different forms at different times and in different media. Even if we just focus on Gothic literature, how can we find a definition that reconciles texts ranging from The Castle of Otranto (Walpole, 1764) to Twilight (Meyers, 2008)? They are miles apart in historical, philosophical, formal, generic and cultural terms. Gothic motifs have changed as the genre developed – Fred Botting identifies a turn from external to internal, and contemporary Gothic incorporates suburbia alongside the haunted castle. Its archetypes have also shifted – vampires are now sympathetic (Nina Auerbach), and zombies have moved from living slaves to cannibalistic corpses, and back again to an infected human. Critical approaches to Gothic are equally diverse, and many critics argue that Gothic is more than a genre, and may be better understood as a mode of writing or ur-form (David Punter), a poetic tradition (Anne Williams), a rhetoric (Robert Mighall), a discursive site (Robert Miles), or a habitus (Timothy Jones). Gothic is also full of contradictions – mobilising fear and attraction simultaneously and inviting us to read its texts as both shockingly transgressive (taboo acts and events) and rigidly conservative (as these acts are punished and order restored).


Gothic remains notoriously hard to define in all these models, and somewhat tautological. Critics like Baldick and Mighall have pointed out that most definitions really tell us more about what Gothic does than what it actually is. Critics such as Catherine Spooner, and Chloe Buckley also draw attention to overlooked Gothics that are celebratory or playful and which rely more on aesthetics than thematics. So Gothic becomes multiple and mutable, ranging from parody to pain, and can appear as affect, aesthetic, or practice. It’s hard to identify it without just listing common motifs, and the most successful definitions are those that are wide enough to work across different eras and media. Punter and Jerrold E. Hogle both offer definitions that involve archaic settings/spaces, supernatural or uncanny effects, haunting and secrets. Fear is of course a key element, although subjective, and so many critics focus on its textual presence rather than speculating about reader response, and try to identify the various forms that fear can take – most famously writer Ann Radcliffe separates it into terror (the unseen and speculative) and horror (the dramatic and repulsive).


For me, Gothic is a mode of creation (both literary and cultural) that draws on fear and is both disturbing and appealing. It is an affective and structural paradox: simultaneously giving us too much information (the supernatural, the unreal) and too little (the hidden, unseen, unknown). It is built on confrontations between opposing ideas, and contains an inner conflict characterised by ambivalence and uncertainty. It inverts, distorts, and obscures. It’s transgressive and seductive. Its common tropes (which are both aesthetic and affective) include temporal or spatial haunting, a reliance on hidden meaning (the crypt), and a sense of excess beyond control – and these are the three key components of my critical approach to comics. Within Gothic I recognize the distinctions that Radcliffe draws between terror (the threatening, obscured and unknown) and horror (the shocking, grotesque and obscene). Alongside these terms I also recognize horror as a cinematic and literary genre that privileges this second type of fear: a genre that shocks, disturbs, and confronts (see next question).

Is there a critical and conceptual distinction between the Gothic tradition and horror? Do you see these two functioning as a binary or do they possess a more closely knit relationship? Do you think that cultural distinctions have operated historically to canonize Gothic media as “high art,” while disparaging horror as cheap pop cultural ephemera? 

I think there is a distinction between Gothic and horror. Radcliffe’s famous divide between terror/horror has been explored by numerous later critics and creators, from Devendra Varma (1957) to Stephen King (1981). In general there is agreement that (Gothic) terror is psychological and insidious while horror is violent and confrontational (see for example Gina Wisker; Dale Townshend), although the categories sometimes cross and blur.

The relationship and hierarchy between the two has been defined in numerous ways, and scholars’ positions seem to vary according to the medium and historical perspective that they use. In general I agree with critics like Gina Wisker, who argues that horror is ‘A branch of Gothic writing’ (p8), but by contrast, Xavier Aldana Reyes defines Gothic literature as ‘the beginnings of a wider crystallization of horror fiction’ (p15).

I also think medium has also played a part in validating and distinguishing the two. So within Gothic I follow the distinctions Radcliffe draws between horror and terror, but alongside these terms I also recognize horror as a cinematic and literary genre that privileges this second type of fear. When it comes to horror I certainly think there has been a value judgement made of the type you suggest – but alongside this I would stress that only one particular type of Gothic has been canonised (the serious, weighty, literary and often historical). If we take a more inclusive view of Gothic that includes fashions, parodies, cute Gothic and so on, many these forms have been equally sidelined and denigrated as ‘low’ pop culture, just like horror (see for example Catherine Spooner’s Post Millennial Gothic and Joseph Crawford’s The Twilight of the Gothic). So within Gothic itself there is a tension and a disparagement of certain types – particularly relating to the tastes of particular audiences such as young girls.

What authors and artists do you think have successfully adopted the Gothic aesthetic in their works? Are they historically contingent or is it more widespread that we might commonly think?

I want to pick that question apart a little first as I think a Gothic aesthetic is different from a Gothic thematic. Critics such as Stephen Farber (1972) and Spooner (2017) (writing nearly 50 years apart and across different media) have defined the Gothic aesthetic as based around elements such as exaggerated shadows/chiaroscuro; distorted proportions; skewed angles; asymmetry; baroque or intricate ornamentation; and motifs of age or decay. These can be used in combination with pleasurable or playful tales – for example the work of Tim Burton – which Spooner argues draws on aesthetic over affect, and which she defines as the ‘whimsical macabre’.

These aesthetic Gothics are often denigrated and viewed as lightweight, and there is a danger that when we analyse them we resort to simply listing motifs. I think Gothic has a complicated relationship between surface and depth; where aesthetic motifs can be linked with affective themes, but can also be decoupled. Purely aesthetic Gothics are often denigrated, like the works of Burton, which have been criticised as lightweight and superficial. Fred Botting puts forward a wider argument that this sort of ‘candygothic’ is a commercialised representation of the genre, with its bite removed. But Gothic has always been populist, and if we trace a path back through the Romance, sensationalist and Decadent genres (as critics such as Crawford have done) we can see that Gothic is in fact very widespread, varied, and popular in all its different forms.

Q Your work examines what we might describe as “unusual places” that Gothic can be found. Your most recent work examines the British “girl’s horror comic” Misty, which was published in the late-1970s until its cancellation in 1980. However, Misty may be somewhat alien to readers outside the field and British geography. Can you explain what it is about Misty that you find worthy of academic enquiry?

I like the conception of my work as looking for Gothic in unusual places! And that’s a great question, because if there’s one thing I like it’s talking about Misty! It’s a girls’ mystery comic that was published in the UK by IPC/Fleetway from 1978 to 1980. It ran for 101 weekly issues and it’s fondly remembered today by a generation of readers who were, quite frankly, scarred for life! It was an anthology comic that combined serials and single stories, and it definitely didn’t pull any punches. The serials were generally tales of personal growth where a heroine is thrown into the middle of a mystery, for example by receiving a magic item, or strange powers. (I’d argue that they act as clear metaphors for adolescence, as unwanted powers or transformations must be overcome before the heroine can be happy with her new identity or place.) But the single stories were even better – horrible cautionary tales in which bad heroines were punished in a number of very imaginative ways! They might be trapped permanently in magical items such as crystal balls, snow globes, music boxes, or weather houses; aged prematurely; ousted from their bodies; or transformed into something monstrous! They can also die in a number of horrible ways. The outcomes are often poetic justice (maybe looking back to EC Comics) – for example Cathy cons an old lady out of a moodstone ring which then sucks all the colour out of her life (‘Moodstone’, #1); a gossip columnist is crushed to death by the books of names and notes she has kept on her acquaintances (‘Sticks and Stones’, #16); clothes-thief Ann is turned into a fashion dummy (‘When the Lights go Out!’, #18); cruel siblings Vivien and Steve trap a mouse in a maze until it dies of exhaustion but are in turn locked in a maze by sentient apes (‘The Pet Shop’, #24); Sally awakens a real ghost while teasing her scared cousin (‘The Last Laugh’, #29); and so on. The Misty stories did not pull their punches and, while horrifying, there is also something blackly humorous about this sort of poetic justice that chimes with Horner and Zlosnik’s research into Gothic comedy.


Misty is currently enjoying a series of reprints by Rebellion publishing. I think it has stood the test of time due to some great storytelling and fantastic artwork. It grew out of 2000AD creator Pat Mills’ idea for a girls’ horror comic inspired by the psychological horror of the day (such as Stephen King’s Carrie and Frank De Felitta’s Audrey Rose). It also owes a lot to DC Thomson’s Spellbound – a competitor title that ended shortly before Misty launched. But the comic that Misty became was much more than just horror rewrites. Its first editor Wilf Prigmore introduced the character of Misty herself, its fictional host and editor, who is beautifully drawn by Shirley Bellwood and acts as a sort of spirit guide to its readers. Its main editor Malcolm Shaw was a wonderful writer who shaped Misty around his own literary interests in science fiction and myth. The art came from a number of British and European artists who were absurdly talented – many of the Spanish artists who worked on Misty were also drawing for American horror titles such as Creepy and Eerie (Warren Publishing) at the same time, and they did not pull their punches. While most girls’ comics of the time had an average story episode length of 3 pages, Mills used his 2000AD approach on Misty and instead set the story length at 4 pages, allowing for plenty of dramatic visuals, large opening panels and splash pages. Its art editor Jack Cunningham took his cue from 2000AD’s Doug Church and marked up some of the scripts that went to artists to make each page as dramatic and exciting as possible – there are lots of large opening panels, borderless images and so on. I led a small research project that combined qualitative and quantitative analysis of layout and used the findings to reflect on current formalist comics theory – the findings were very illuminating!


I believe that pretty much everything is worthy of academic enquiry in some way, so I don’t want to make the case for Misty as an exceptional text – in many ways it is simply representative of the wider norms of the British comics industry at the time. So although it is a great example of Gothic storytelling structure and themes, I think Misty can also tell us a lot about the motivations and limitations of the British comics industry (see below), the aesthetics of comics storytelling, and (at a wider level) the intersections of genre and gender. My in-depth page analysis of Misty found that the vast majority of the pages were transgressive in some way, and I used these findings to reflect on established comics theory from scholars such as Thierry Groensteen and Neil Cohn. It led me to rethink many ideas about page layouts. The project also looks closely at how Gothic archetypes, tropes and themes are being reworked for a younger readership. As I mentioned above, the tastes of young female audiences have often been mocked and marginalised, and so there is a significant gap in scholarly material around these texts and their distribution that is only just starting to be addressed. Analysing the types of narratives that are offered to these readers tells us a lot about the cultural construction of gender and about the way in which genres like Gothic have been conceptualised and curated, excluding the tastes of particular demographics and privileging a narrow view of the genre.


So although it began as an attempt to track down a half-remembered story and explore my ideas about Gothic in comics from a new angle, my Misty project has grown far beyond that. I’ve done a ton of primary research (creator interviews, archival visits, analysis of scripts and publishers’ documents) alongside theoretical investigation of girls’ periodical publishing, fairy tale, children’s Gothic, Female Gothic, and British comics. I’ve produced a database of all the Misty stories, which includes all known writer and artist credits, story summaries, and their publication details, at It's a significant piece of work because the stories in British comics were not credited, and so I am indebted to experts such as David Roach and comics community forum discussions for much of the information I’ve gathered. I hope my database will enable further research and be a useful tool to help fans and scholars find those stories that they half remember or that are relevant to their work. I’ve also published some of the interviews I have done on the same website, and last year I published an open access article that explores the idea of Gothic for Girls by comparing Spellbound and Misty. My full critical book Gothic for Girls: Misty and British Comics is due to be published by UP Mississippi in Summer 2019. It’s easily been the most rewarding work I’ve done to date and I’m very excited about it!


Julia Round is a Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is one of the editors of Studies in Comics journal (Intellect Books) and a co-organiser of the annual International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference (IGNCC). Her first book was Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2014), followed by the edited collection Real Lives, Celebrity Stories (Bloomsbury, 2014). In 2015 she received the Inge Award for Comics Scholarship for her research, which focuses on Gothic, comics, and children’s literature. She has recently completed two AHRC-funded studies examining how digital transformations affect young people's reading. Her new book Misty and Gothic for Girls in British Comics (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2019) examines the presence of Gothic themes and aesthetics in children’s comics, and is accompanied by a searchable database of all the stories (with summaries, previously unknown creator credits, and origins), available at her website