Cult Conversations: Interview with Mark Bernard (Part II)

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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.       

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.      

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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.   

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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.          

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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.   

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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.

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.   

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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.   

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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’?

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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.

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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! 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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’).

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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. 

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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). 

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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 http://hannahberry.co.uk/.

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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.

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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 

https://thehorrorsofitall.blogspot.com/?m=1. 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…

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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 https://m.imgur.com/gallery/ZNSaq. If you like it then do check out his other work – Tomie is another great starting point.

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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 www.juliaround.com.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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 www.juliaround.com/misty. 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!

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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 www.juliaround.com.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Shellie McMundro (Part II)

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Let’s return to this notion of cultural trauma. I agree that films are “a product of the time in which they were made,” at least to some extent—refraction not reflection, however—and that tracking and charting the found footage subgenre, both diachronically and synchronically, can teach us important lessons about the shifting lens of what constructs the ‘real.’  Could you expand on the cultural trauma aspects of The Blair Witch Project in comparison to Quarantine and perhaps the social media horror, Unfriended?  As each film was produced in almost ten-year intervals, what can this tell us about the texts comparatively from a cultural trauma perspective?

I’m in no way saying that every found footage horror film somehow links to cultural trauma, but the subgenre is a really interesting and fertile ground for representations of trauma – especially in our ‘tape everything’ culture.

The element of The Blair Witch Project that I admire the most is just how oppositional it felt compared to other horror films of the late 1990s. Part of its effectiveness, I feel, is that we were so used to very glossy productions full of beautiful people getting killed off one by one, I’m thinking here of Scream, Urban Legend, and the like, where it was a given that at some point someone had to cleverly announce ‘It’s like were in a scary movie…’. The Blair Witch Project to me really felt like a visceral reaction against that kind of self-aware post-modern horror film. It is still a self-aware film, but with zero irony. Its effectiveness comes from the film very much returning to basics on the cultural anxiety front. You have, in The Blair Witch Project, a folk tale about a folk tale, in a way. There is the myth of the witch established up front, with the interviews from townspeople and Heather’s exposition, which was supported by the plethora of paratexts surrounding the film, and then the narrative uses that base cautionary tale to launch its own folk tale about the dangers of going into the woods that we have seen in Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood, going back to this primal fear of being lost in the woods. A quote from the film that stays with me is when the trio begin to realise that they are hopelessly lost, and Heather says something like ‘It’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and it’s even harder to stay lost’. Then, later in the film, the group are talking about their situation and Heather argues that everything that is happening can’t actually be possible because ’This is America. We’ve used up all our natural resources’. There is something to be said of the film presenting this anxiety about America, being American, and the position of America on the brink of the new millennium. There is this resonance with the American frontier, and this overconfidence that at the brink of the millennium we have won against nature, we have beaten back this hostile force and have emerged victorious, but the film reminds us that there are still hostile places in America, places we cannot master.  

Moving onto Quarantine, this film is a really interesting case study, not only because it’s a great film, but because it’s also a remake of a great film! Quarantine is a remake of the Spanish horror film Rec, which only came out a year before it in 2007. It sticks pretty close to the original film, apart from the ending, which a lot of audiences didn’t like. In Rec we find out that the cause of a rapid spreading infection is of religious origin, whereas in Quarantine it is a doomsday cult that have developed the virus. It is reductive to say ‘all American horror films made post 9/11 are about 9/11’, and in a few years time I think we might see that replaced with the sentiment that ‘all American horror films made post 2016 are about the Trump presidency’. However, I can’t personally get away from the fact that in Quarantine, and in Rec, you have these images of reporters with cameras, firemen, and policemen, stuck in this tall building and they can’t get out. There is a definite factor there of what Adam Lowenstein calls ‘the allegorical moment’ in relation to 9/11.

Unfriended is a great film, and I was so excited to see how they built on it for Unfriended 2: Dark Web. What Unfriended did is really herald the emergence of a sub-sub genre within found footage horror, there are a lot of different terms for it, but I use ‘social media horror’. An abundance of films came out in the wake of Unfriended like SickHouse, which used apps like Snapchat as a horror format, and they work surprisingly well. Unfriended is especially affective if you watch it on a laptop, it’s an uncanny experience, and the first time I watched it, I got so involved that I instinctively tried to move the mouse pointer back when the character moved it! In terms of cultural anxieties, Unfriended uses what Jeffrey Sconce has termed as ‘haunted media’ – which he tracks back to telegraphy – to engage with themes like identity theft, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying. There is a thread that runs through the film which relates to the lifespan of the internet, or more, how long things remain on the internet once you have put them out there on the web. We have seen recently, for example with the controversy over tweets from James Gunn, how the internet has a long memory, and can come back around to haunt you. To be honest, tracking found footage horror over the last twenty years has been fascinating, because the anxieties emerging in Unfriended weren’t even on anyone’s radar back when The Blair Witch Project was released.

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There is a tendency in scholarly circles to analyse cultural objects as if they are reflections of the socio-political and cultural era in which they were produced and that historical context can be simply read off of the text. In Selling the Splat Pack, Mark Bernard deftly critiques this idea, arguing that (so-called) ‘reflectionist’ approaches  “is a quandary that affects all film studies” (2015: 31). In Bernard’s account, the idea of horror-as-reflection is a discourse that has been used by producers to authenticate the genre and imbue it with an aura that operates to circumnavigate its broader cultural low-status. Says Bernard:

“The genre has also inherited the tendency to be read as producing allegories of the anxieties and traumas of its particular historical moment without due consideration given to the industrial and technological factors that play a role in what types of films are produced, distributed and widely seen by audiences. If course, this interpretative strategy is not unique to horror film” (2015: 31).   

How might you respond to Mark Bernard’s criticism of ‘reflectionist’ approaches here?

I’m not a fan of the term “reflectionist”, I certainly wouldn’t position myself as someone who does “reflectionist” readings, as I don’t think that any cinema “reflects” the context in which it is made but is more a product of it. This is true of anything that comes out of a cultural moment, whether it be cinema, television, music, art, or slang. With my own research, I’m attempting to use cultural trauma as a framework, but am underpinning my findings with reviews and articles on the films from their release period, and with newer films, looking at the response to them on social media – how these films were/are talked about by fans, non-fans, academics, and aca-fans. The reason I’m supporting my analysis of the films with other evidence, is because I’m always aware that textual readings only tell us what one person thinks, and might not be what everyone who watched the film thought or got from it. I would argue however that if we get stuck in purely looking at industrial and technological factors, we just end up repeating facts and figures. However, if we put both together – or at least try to assimilate the two approaches – it would be far more fruitful.

I would also say that as with all approaches to cinema, no one approach covers everything. For example, a psychoanalytic reading of a film may miss something that a formalist reading would pick up and vice versa, it’s impossible for one method to do it all. For me personally, cultural studies and trauma studies was always the way I was going to go because of my background in history, but I’m completely open to other methodologies and expect I will adapt and engage with new approaches as I continue in my research career.

I find the idea that the horror genre specifically somehow has to be authenticated or legitimised – and that a way of doing this is through cultural readings – very odd. Although I started this project because I felt like found footage horror was unfairly perceived as a “low” form of horror, I don’t personally feel that the wider horror genre has to be legitimised scholarly, as we have already achieved that to a certain extent. Although, there certainly is still a strange hierarchy of horror both in horror fandom and horror scholarship. In summary, I would argue that with all methodologies, there will be an element that is not covered, but that doesn’t necessary make them a poor method to use.

Could you expound on your comment about “a strange hierarchy of horror both in horror fandom and horror scholarship.” What is this strange hierarchy and how do you view its operations both in fannish and scholarly contexts?

The study of horror cinema is definitely a field that has hard won its legitimacy, but seems to have retained this supposed stigma of being ‘low brow’. We can see this at work periodically, each time a horror film or a group of horror films are released and critics absolutely refuse to let them sit comfortably within the classification of ‘horror’. Most recently, we have seen it with the term ‘elevated horror’/’post-horror’ that has been used to describe films such as Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and It Comes at Night. To me, the term ‘elevated horror’ is such a backhanded compliment, it is really the carving out of a little niche that could be re-termed as ‘horror I personally enjoy’, as opposed to ‘horror that I think is trashy and ‘horror fans’ might enjoy’. I find it bizarre, and – I might be wrong in this – but you don’t really see this to the same extent in other cinematic genres, you don’t have ‘elevated drama’ for example.

In terms of scholarship, the horror genre is often positioned as being in a state of crisis, most often in reference to the multitude of remakes that were released in the mid 2000s. But we only need to look at the sheer volume of cinematic and televisual horror products in the last few years to see that is absolutely untrue. I read a journalistic article on last years IT recently, that posited that the film was ‘bad news for horror fans’. I thought that was interesting – why would IT be bad news for horror fans? – It seems to come down to this idea that horror fans are troubled somehow by horror being a successful genre. I’m not a fan studies scholar, so am unable to delve into how much truth is in that statement, but I can comment on my own possible bias as a fan of horror.

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In my work, I look into the response on social media to found footage horror films, and I’m reminded often of Mark Jancovich’s comments on horror fan response to the success of Scream. He argues that no one seemed troubled by how successful the film was apart from horror scholars and fans, going to on note that the response online was ‘guarded and even out right hostile’ (2000: 475). In turn, I admit that I am guilty of this myself at times, I have always been protective to a certain extent over the horror genre and its perceived status as an oppositional genre. For example, when I first started my research, I was vitriolic in my dislike of the Paranormal Activity films, and made a conscious effort to step back and address my own position on that series of films. I delved into how much of my distain for the series came from how I perceived their actual narrative and aesthetic qualities, and alternatively questioned whether it was the fact that they were so successful and therefore to my thinking, not “proper” horror that made me dislike them. I have endeavoured to avoid making judgements of “value” in regards to the found footage subgenre in my research.

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I have found a great deal of scholarly work holds contemporary horror up to a benchmark of 1970s horror cinema. For example, Reynold Humphries noted that ‘we shall see no more films of the calibre of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’  (2002: 195). While it is undeniable that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an absolute classic of horror cinema – it’s brutal, it’s unrelenting, it’s amazingly shot, and has a fantastic score – I wouldn’t hesitate to place The Blair Witch Project in the same sentence as it, as it is also a horror genre classic, but this may seem like sacrilege to some! Matt Hills made a great point when he looked at horror scholarship and asked why some films were ‘canonically recuperated’ while others were not (2012: 111), and this is something I have attempted to address. It is something of a privilege, as a film scholar, to be in a position where you might be able to bring lesser-known films to wider attention, and there is definitely a shift in horror scholarship that seeks to redress the imbalance caused by so much focus being given to a relatively small pool of horror directors and movements. Overall, in our current age, with the internet and social media, there is far less opportunity for cultural gatekeepers to step in and tell us what we all “should” be watching – not just in horror cinema, but across all forms of popular culture – and this can only be a good thing!

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

A lot of your questions have been tough to answer, but this is the toughest! I’ve missed out some great examples of the subgenre, but I didn’t want to go for anything really obscure or hard to get hold of, instead I have chosen films that I feel hit the key moments of the evolution of found footage horror cinema.  

The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo and Sanchez, 1999)

This one was a bit of a given, and I apologise for being thoroughly predictable! This film follows the story of three student filmmakers who want to make a documentary about a local legend – The Blair Witch. They enter the Burkittsville woods in Maryland and are never seen again. The film we watch is presented as the footage they captured before their disappearance, which was recovered from the woods. There is so much fascinating work available on this film, and the main reason for this is that The Blair Witch Project is – almost 20 years after its release – still such a compelling film. Made for so little money, it is a masterclass in constructing fear around suggestion. I would highly recommend searching out the accompanying documentary, The Curse of The Blair Witch, and watching that beforehand.

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The Bay (Levinson, 2012)

The Bay really shows how diverse the found footage horror format can be. Released in 2012 – post YouTube and iPhones – the film uses a variety of different types of footage (dashboard camera, handheld cameras, FaceTime messaging, Skype and webcams to name only a few), to present a narrative about a governmental cover-up of water toxicity in a small town on the Eastern shore, which has created mutant isopods (which are far more creepy than they sound!). There is a prevalent theme in the found footage horror subgenre of characters searching for truth or evidence, of media mistrust, and of the general public being in danger of becoming collateral damage. You can definitely see these themes in The Bay, as well as in Rec/Quarantine, Diary of the Dead, and many others.

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Quarantine (Dowdle, 2008)

You may wonder why I have chosen Quarantine here and not Rec, and my reasoning for that purely comes down to personal preference, Rec could just as easily be on this list. Either film would make for a great comparison viewing with The Blair Witch Project – both films use the same basic found footage format as The Blair Witch Project, but in terms of energy and visceral impact, take that form careening off in a massively different direction. Quarantine’s main character, Angela, is a television reporter who – along with her cameraman Scott – is documenting a nightshift with the local Fire department. They are attending what seems to be an odd but ultimately low risk call, when all hell breaks loose and they find themselves trapped within a quarantined zone. The reason I have selected this film is because of how quickly it descends into high octane chaos – a common complaint about found footage horror is the amount of dead time viewers have to sit through – this film wastes no time in placing the camera in the middle of panicked action sequences. I have a lot of favourite parts in this film, and overall it shows how the often maligned shaky, unsteady framing of found footage horror works so well within a high energy film – it adds to the atmosphere of dread and frenzy so well.

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The Sacrament  (West, 2012)

Years after watching it for the first time, I still can’t get over The Sacrament. I’m a huge fan of Ti West, and what he has created here is just superb. The Sacrament is a modern reimagining of The Jonestown Massacre of 1978. By featuring the real life media brand Vice, and their specific style of immersionist journalism, West presents to us an interpretation of what happened just before and during the Jonestown event. It’s an unflinching film at times, and has a level of emotional impact that still knocks me sideways each time I watch it. It’s an interesting film within the subgenre as well because it actually looks so good – if you watch this film after something like The Last Horror Movie for example, it looks so crisp and slick – with barely any shaky handheld moments that the subgenre at this point had become known for. This doesn’t detract from the film, far from it, it makes sense as the characters in the film aren’t a bunch of amateurs with camcorders, but professional journalists caught up in a newsworthy event.

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Marble Hornets (DeLage and Wagner, 2009 – 2014)

So this might be cheating a little, but Marble Hornets is a YouTube series which initially details a young man, Jay, looking through raw footage of an abandoned student film given to him by a friend, Alex, the film’s creator. Alex has forbidden Jay from ever trying to discuss the tapes with him. As you can imagine, the footage starts to become fractured, odd, distorted, and ever more creepy as the story progresses. I started watching Marble Hornets around 2011, and was instantly enthralled by it. Along with the YouTube entries, there were also Twitter accounts that tied into the storyline, and a side channel on YouTube, totheark, that also released videos that fed into the storyline. I don’t want to go too far into the background of this series, but it grew out of the Something Awful forum post that birthed Slenderman, and is the best Slenderman media product I’ve seen by a long way. I love how the flexibility of an online horror story like Slenderman enabled the creators of Marble Hornet’s to run with an idea and make a completely chilling and complex online narrative, watching it at the time when the entries were being released just made me as an audience member feel so involved with the story. A lot of copycat narratives have followed in the wake of Marble Hornets, none as brilliant, so I would wholeheartedly recommend giving the series a watch.

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Shellie McMundro is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton, where she is examining found footage horror cinema and its connection to cultural trauma. She has presented her work, on found footage horror and additionally on new media horror, period drama, and horror gaming, at a variety of conferences. Shellie has a forthcoming article in the European Journal of American Culture, which ties together research on American Horror Story, The True Crime fandom and school shooters. Her research interests are extreme horror, new media, trauma theory, online fandoms, and transmedial texts.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Shelley McMurdo (Part I)

This week’s interview is with Shellie McMurdo, a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton. Shellie is researching the found footage sub-genre through the lens of cultural trauma for her PhD thesis. In the following interview, Shellie and I discuss found footage horror cinema, and the promotional/ paratextual ballyhoo that surround these films as a way to enhance them as “real.” I strongly believe that Shellie is an upcoming ‘scholar-to-watch,’ and hugely enjoyed reading her many insights into found footage cinema—and more! I have certainly learned a great deal during our various exchanges; Shellie’s energy and passion for the subject is inspirational. She has also agreed to contribute a chapter on the Blair Witch film series for Horror Franchise Cinema, an anthology which I am co-editing with Dr. Mark McKenna for Routledge. The interview is published in two-parts.

— William Proctor

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What is about the found footage horror genre that drew you to the topic? And how are you approaching it in terms of cultural trauma?

When I was studying Cult Film and Television at Brunel University, I started contemplating the idea of going on to do a PhD. I had a few false starts, where I went through a series of different topics as ideas for my PhD research. I thought at one point I was going to research torture horror, was very into rape revenge narratives for a while, and then I set my mind on examining the Slenderman phenomenon, which was back then in its infancy. In the end, I decided to study what I love, which is found footage horror.

I vividly remember watching The Blair Witch Project when I was around 15 years old, and being convinced it was real. I was unshakable in my certainty that I had just seen the last moments of three documentarians, and that their footage had somehow been found in the Burkittsville Woods and made into a film. You have to remember this was a good while before social media, and really, the internet back then was not the same internet we have now. I went on the Internet Movie Database, looked up the film, and saw that the cast members were listed as “missing – presumed dead” – My belief was solidified, they had been murdered and I had seen the footage of it! At school, the film was a hot topic of conversation, it wasn’t just me: we all believed it was real!

 Of course, that belief was relatively short lived, but that film, and my belief in its veracity, really stayed with me, as it was so unlike anything else I had seen at that point. I had been heavily invested in horror films since my older brother had forced me to watch The Evil Dead when I was seven, but there was something about The Blair Witch Project that made it scarier to me than the other horror films I had watched. I think it was the narrative’s alignment to the real world, the idea that it was all real.

 So, The Blair Witch Project definitely played a part in bringing me to this topic, and it sparked a passion for the found footage horror format. In the period between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – which it could be argued is the film that really brought found footage horror to a wider audience – in 2007, I would diligently seek out found footage horror films to watch, films like The Last Horror Movie, August Underground, and the superb Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I think it’s fair to say though, that in that period between 1999 and 2007, found footage horror was still relatively uncommon in the cinema. It was only after the success of Paranormal Activity that found footage horror production boomed, and it started to seem like every other film was in that style.

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It was at that point that I started to feel quite protective of the found footage horror format. While it was true that there was a lot of absolute dross coming out in the wake of Paranormal Activity – the found footage “look” being cheap and easy to reproduce – there were some absolutely stunning films coming out too, like The Bay and The Sacrament among a whole host of others. These films would often get buried under the sheer volume of found footage horror being released, or dismissed as “just another found footage horror”.

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There is definitely a desire that has driven my research in that I almost wanted to be a champion of found footage horror, and of new horror more widely. There are so many articles in journalism and within scholarly accounts which compare new horror to older “classic” horror and find new horror wanting, and that’s always bothered me. I see the horror genre’s canonisation process as a never ending cycle, so perhaps in twenty years time, we will look back at found footage horror, or say, torture porn, and see them as classic subgenres. But perhaps not!

Primarily, what has kept me engaged with looking at found footage horror is a mix of my own experience with the format throughout my formative years, and how the subgenre continues to fascinate me by constantly reinventing itself. You have the shaky handheld camera of The Blair Witch Project evolving into Go Pro found footage horror with the “A Ride in the Park” segment in V/H/S/2, social media horror in Unfriended, and the Snapchat based SickHouse. It is a format that not only is able to evolve but needs to constantly evolve because it presents itself as part of our reality, so it needs to stay up to date with the audience in their current cultural moment. That adaptability is definitely one of the strengths of the subgenre. Another aspect that has contributed to its staying power is just how broad the variety of stories are that the format can lend itself to, which is great for me, as it has essentially allowed me to have so many different strands in my research!

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I’m approaching found footage horror from a cultural trauma perspective for a few reasons. My background, having studied History as my major at undergraduate level, gave me a keen awareness of the historical context different films were emerging from, and that has been a constant element in my work so far. I started looking at early German cinema for my BA in relation to the Weimar Republic, then in my MA I was relating the Hillbilly horror of American cinema in the 1970s to the Hoody Horrors emerging from Britain in the late 2000s. In a way, the research that I’m currently doing, is an amalgam of all the cultural trauma research I’ve done in my academic career up until this point.

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A trauma studies perspective fits found footage horror particularly well, because to an even greater extent than other horror subgenres, found footage horror is so hyper aware of its audience, its formal aesthetics, and its context. Occasionally this means that found footage films tend to date themselves very quickly, because they are always involved in this reflexive awareness of the technology that is around at the time of their production. But on the flipside, because of this constant dialogue with its cultural context that found footage horror has, it works so well as a commentary on what cultural anxieties were present at the time.

One of the things that I admire most about the horror genre more widely is how it evolves and adapts, and it has always been an early adopter of new media forms, much more so than other genres. The cultural trauma position made sense to me because of how much the films that I’m looking at are a product of the time in which they were made. The intention of my current research is to examine found footage horror in reference to cultural events that have changed Western society. So, for example, the expansion of the internet and emergence of social media, 9/11, and reality television – each one of these things have given us a new or different version of the “real”, or what we perceive the “real” to be or look like. As each of these events have happened, there have been accompanying new cultural fears that have come with them. For example with social media, there was panic over cyberbullying and easier identity theft, with 9/11 you have this long lasting, low level of constant threat and fear of attack, and with reality television you start to get into what is real, what is mediated, and almost a performative version of reality.

The chapter that I am currently writing is looking at the relationship between documentary and found footage horror. If we take Cannibal Holocaust as the starting point of the genre, we can see that the documentary format is something the subgenre consistently returns to. What is interesting is that now you have documentary films – the example I’m using being Cropsey – that are real documentaries, about real events, but which are using the visual lexicon of found footage horror to tell their stories. The first time I watched that documentary, I had to look it up on the internet to check to see whether it was real or a found footage film, and that’s really interesting, especially in the era of “fake news” and mistrust of the media.

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Moving on to the research I’m carrying out at the moment, the films that are the basis of my current chapter are The Sacrament and The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which are very different from each other while both functioning as fake found footage horror documentaries. With The Sacrament, the narrative is a reimagining of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, but set in the modern day. It works to both address the trauma of Jonestown, an event that has only been memorialised publically in the last few years (despite being the largest loss of American life in history until the events of 9/11 in 2001), while resonating with current anxieties around religious extremism. And then The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which I spoke about in my most recent conference paper at the CATH post graduate conference at De Montfort University in June. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a bit of a standout film in relation to the other films I’m looking at, in that its troubled release schedule has given it a unique quality the others don’t have. Basically, the film was originally scheduled for release in 2007/2008, and for some unknown reason it was pulled from the release schedule by MGM. Then, a few years later in 2014, it was released on a video on demand service, before it was quickly pulled from there after only a week. It wasn’t until late 2017, when Scream Factory gave it a DVD/BluRay release, that the film was available to a wider audience. So in the decade between the film’s original intended release date and its actual release, all kinds of myths and legends built up around it, with it being said that the footage in the film was real, and that it was somehow “too brutal” for even hardened horror audiences. Clips from the film would occasionally surface on compilation videos on Youtube, often under titles like “The scariest REAL footage”, and it remained a topic of conversation on horror forums and social media. This ephemerality of the film has just added to its mystique and the myths around it.

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The recounting of your lived experience with The Blair Witch Project is fascinating and I believe that this kind of response is what the filmmakers had in mind in promotional terms. There is usually a lot of ‘ballyhoo’ attached to at least some films in the found footage genre. We might describe this as a method of signalling authenticity through paratexts—of reality rather than the codes and conventions of realism. I am reminded of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust— often cited as the first found footage film as you point out—and the way in which the discourse surrounding the film during the so-called Video Nasties moral campaign in the early 1980s became part and parcel of marketing the film as ‘illicit,’ ‘lurid,’ and ‘dangerous’ (the 2011 Shameless blu-ray proudly announces that the film remains ‘the most controversial film ever made, with Eli Roth emphatically declaring that ‘it is one of the most brutal, relentless, violent, realistic films ever made.’) Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges with the belief that he had made a legitimate ‘snuff’ film. Complicating matters further, the actors had signed a contract not to appear in other media for a year in order to construct Cannibal Holocaust as a legitimate documentary, and Deodato even had to produce the actors to show that they were indeed alive, before the court case was dropped. In your research, have you come across other examples of such ballyhoo and promotional gimmickry in relation to found footage films? You have mentioned The Blair Witch Project.

You are absolutely right, paratexts play such a huge part in a large amount of found footage horror films, whether this is an attempt to try to build some hype for a film, to encourage viewers to engage pre- and post- viewing, or a genuine attempt at trying to pass the film off as being real.

Cloverfield for example, had two websites, which were set up long before the film was released, in addition to Myspace profiles for the main characters. One of the websites www.1.18.08.com gave the user clues as to what the Cloverfield monster’s origins were, whereas the second website www.whencloverfieldhit.com encouraged users to upload their own videos addressing where they were when the attack in the film happened. To me, the second website is the most interesting because of the level of interaction and ‘call to play’ - to borrow Craig Hight’s term – it is encouraging. But the Cloverfield websites definitely fall into the category of trying to get viewers involved, rather than encouraging them to believe the film is real, which - given the content of the film - would be a bit of a stretch!

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Another good example is The Upper Footage, which drummed up interest by using Youtube to release several clips long before the film’s release. The most notorious of these was uploaded in 2010, entitled NYC Socialite Overdose, which showed people at a party with pixelated faces supposedly snorting cocaine.  Youtube subsequently removed the video – I think it may have been re-uploaded since - but confusion arose from several media outlets as to the veracity of the footage, and gossip websites began to speculate over the identity of celebrities that may have been involved.  Eventually the director, Justin Cole, released a statement in 2013 on Dreadcentral.com where he denied the footage was real. Most interestingly, Cole made a caveat in that interview that he was admitting the fictitious status of the footage with ‘much hesitation’, which to me implies that he genuinely wanted to pass it off as being real but perhaps was moved to debunk the footage because of the gossip sites and possible backlash. We won’t ever know for sure if he would have made a sustained attempt at passing the film off as real but perhaps The Upper Footage comes close to replicating the confusion both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project caused, although causing less serious issues than Cannibal Holocaust did for Deodato!

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What makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes so intriguing to me, is the confusion that has grown around the film’s truth status. What is even more intriguing is how this confusion is really kind of an accident due to the film not being released for a decade. A great deal of the online articles on the film also have this fixation on the idea that the film was banned, which it never was. There’s a recurrent argument in these articles that the reason behind the “banning” of the film is that it featured either real footage or footage so realistic and brutal that it was just ‘too much’ for cinema goers. This is key to The Poughkeepie Tapes appeal, that it is somehow a limit experience for the viewer, and these kind of statements are definitely replicated in online responses to the film on social media, some of which urge potential viewers not to watch the film because it is so upsetting/brutal/life changing, and then you get the extreme end of that where audience members are perpetuating the idea that the footage in the film is real. I must note though that it is unclear if they truly believe that or are playing into the idea of that possibility. The hype around The Poughkeepsie Tapes is reminiscent of how Cannibal Holocaust is positioned as this ‘illicit’ or potentially dangerous film.

It is however a remarkably brutal film and definitely stands out for that reason within found footage horror more generally. The eponymous tapes in the film also have that look that we have become familiar with through beheading videos, or through gore websites such as Rotten.com, a kind of “snuff authenticity”, and the film being released when it was, after the emergence of online real death videos - such as 3 Guys, 1 Hammer and 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick – allows us to draw that parallel, although we have to remember that those two particular videos weren’t around during the film’s production. 

Shellie McMundro is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton, where she is examining found footage horror cinema and its connection to cultural trauma. She has presented her work, on found footage horror and additionally on new media horror, period drama, and horror gaming, at a variety of conferences. Shellie has a forthcoming article in the European Journal of American Culture, which ties together research on American Horror Story, The True Crime fandom and school shooters. Her research interests are extreme horror, new media, trauma theory, online fandoms, and transmedial texts.

The Politics of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

For those of you who are interested in our work on the civic imagination, I am happy to give you a case in point. The Library of Congress, a month or so back, did a screening of the original trilogy of Star Wars films and to accompany it, they hosted a public discussion of the ways these films represented politics. I was one of the speakers, and I used my time to stress the political activities which have taken place around Star Wars itself — ranging from its use by political candidates and social movements to the struggles over representation in the films and the issue of toxic fandom. It was a lively exchange with a bunch of smart panelists and well worth watching whether you are a Star Wars fan or not. Who can totally escape the influence of Star Wars on our culture? Well, apparently, the head of the Kluge Center, but few others…

Cult Conversations: Interview with David Church (Part Two)

What are you currently focusing on for your next project?

I’m currently working on a mini-monograph about the Mortal Kombat video game series from 1992-97, with particular focus on how the games spawned both a moral panic about video game violence and a transmedia franchise. Part of the project looks at the influence of martial-arts cinema upon fighting games, and how the games singled out by moral reformers all had especially cinematic qualities due to the digitization of photographed actors. Another piece explores how the controversy was rooted in parental fears about collapsing the disreputable space of coin-op arcades into the domestic sphere (shades of my previous work on grind houses) during the rise of 16-bit home consoles. Another connection back to horror and exploitation cinema is Mortal Kombat’s focus on gory fatalities as a generic innovation that became much-imitated by a cycle of poor-quality clone games, and debates between fans over whether the game’s blood/fatalities were a mere gimmick or a constitutive part of gameplay. So part of the project is also a reception study of the different games and how the constraints of their home ports became a referendum on not only fighting games as a genre, but also on the technological platforms where they were played.

And then there’s a long-simmering project on a recent batch of queer films that I see as nostalgically filtering past periods of queer history through a “post-ironic” approach to genre conventions, as a reaction to our homonormative present. I’ve already published chunks of the project that discuss It Follows (Cinema Journal, Spring 2018) and Interior. Leather Bar (Jump Cut, 2016), so that may or may not turn into a fully-fledged book, depending on whether the unpublished chunks cohere together or get parted out into freestanding articles.

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You mentioned earlier a ‘rather limited umbrella of texts that tends to be explored under the rubric of ‘fandom.’ Can you expand on that point? What are your thoughts about fan studies in 2018?

 Although my two books are very much interventions in the field of fan studies in their own way (and I also teach courses on fan cultures), I personally feel rather alienated from most of the objects that currently dominate that field. Since my own predilections tend to veer toward either end of the cultural-taste spectrum and I find most of today’s mass/ mainstream /middlebrow media difficult to get very excited about, which has meant that the mainstreaming of “nerd/geek culture” as synonymous with all of Fandom can be frustrating. Maybe it’s because I’m also a historian, but there are so many fascinating fandoms—including those devoted to old/retro media and past historical texts—that fall outside the purview of whatever is being shilled at Comic-Con this year, and thus prove an ill fit among the field’s presentist biases.

Although anyone working on fandom (myself included) is deeply indebted to his work, I don’t share Henry Jenkins’s “critical-utopian” faith in fans or scholar-fans working in conjunction with the media industries to make the world a better place—nor do I think community and mutual support outweigh competition and conflict as more constitutive forces within fan cultures. If anything, recent events like GamerGate, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and the rise of the “alt-right” prove that fans can be as toxic and corrosive influences upon society as anyone else—if not more so—and the field of fan studies is only belatedly coming to terms with that reality now that those voices are far more amplified (via social media) than they previously were.

More to the point, so much current scholarship on fandom tends to focus in a quasi-celebratory way on the micropolitical minutiae of how fans engage with the latest TV shows, Tumblr blogs, or social-media hashtags that more important macropolitical perspectives often get lost in the flow. For instance, too much work in fan studies becomes an implicit form of corporate boosterism by enthusing about whatever new show, new networking platform, new technology, etc. allows fans to do something vaguely interesting or politically progressive, and seldom returns to the bigger question of “so what?” By working in conjunction with media producers or hair-splitting to find micropolitical “silver linings” in whatever is currently trending, I fear that fan studies scholars are helping to further transform universities into neoliberal R&D wings for corporate interests. Perhaps this is a bit of leftist nostalgia on my own part, but fan studies needs a strong dose of old-fashioned Marxist scepticism if it wants to evolve beyond an inadvertent corporate cheerleader in our current moment.

 How do you think that ‘fan studies scholars are helping to further transform universities into neoliberal R&D wings for corporate interests”? Can you expand on this point further? I’m sure that fan studies scholars believe the opposite. How are fan scholars imbricated in corporate cheerleading from your perspective?

As a Foucauldian, I completely understand that the micropolitical is still political—but I also become concerned when much (but certainly not all) current research in fan studies takes such a micro-specific focus on the intricacies of individual case studies that it seems to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to the increased penetration of capitalist interests into what were once more de-centered subcultures. (Of course, I’m well aware that someone could just as easily say the same of my own work, so it’s not a very high horse that I’m sitting on!) Which is not to say that I subscribe to the old Birmingham School theories that subcultures are inherently “resistant” or “anti-consumerist,” but comparatively speaking, I think rediscovering the value of “resistance” is all the more apt at a time when major media conglomerates now pander to big-spending fan cultures and interpellate everyone as potential fans.

When I say “corporate cheerleading,” I mean a generalized (but not universal) tendency within much of fan studies to enthuse about the latest trending show, the newest wrinkle in social media, or the crumbs of progressive representation and aesthetic self-reflexivity increasingly sown into texts as fan service—all of which, even beneath the auspices of micropolitical critique, spiritually feeds back into lining media conglomerates’ pockets. Whether writing from their own fan investments or out of an understandable desire for one’s academic writing to have wider cultural relevance, it isn’t so much a conscious desire to collude with corporate interests—but it also comes at a time when many universities would love nothing more than their humanities departments to become think tanks for scholarship that can be monetized for the benefit of major companies. To put it another way, the question Jenkins poses in Convergence Culture about whether we should see working more closely with media industries as “buying in” or “selling out” seems a bit quaint for those of us precariously employed scholars among the “great unwashed” of the new academic caste system, struggling to pay rent and keep the internet on. I still feel myself part of the field of fan studies—even if the types of media objects I focus on tend toward the “cultish” margins—but at a time when the products of fan devotion, both inside and outside the university, are more monetized (directly or indirectly) than ever, it would be refreshing for more scholars to deprive as much oxygen as possible to the Disneys, Facebooks, Twitters, and other promulgators of fandom’s move into the mainstream.

You mention Henry Jenkins’ work and what you describe as his “critical-utopian faith in fans or scholar-fans.” Can you expand on this? What do you think of Jenkins’ more recent work into ‘the civic imagination’ and his project’s empirical findings that clearly demonstrate that some fans are ‘doing politics’ through the lens of popular culture (and not necessarily from social media platforms, either)? Admittedly, much of that political participation is targeted through a “rather limited umbrella of texts explored under the rubric of fandom,” which is to say that it does tend to be (so-called) ‘geek texts’ that provide the lens that fans tap into regarding the micro-politics of participation. But perhaps that side of things is more to do with the fact that it often is the ‘geek’ contingency that are ‘doing politics’ through this limited umbrella, in empirical terms. I am, for example, unaware of political activists tapping into vintage porn or grindhouse cinema as a site of the civic imagination (but I stand to be corrected on this). I am neither defending nor criticising Jenkins—not least because of where this interview is published. But on a personal level, I strongly believe that Jenkins’ has often championed the exploration of texts that cannot be located within “the limited umbrella of texts” of which you draw attention to. For example, Jenkins has also written on porn, such as in Pamela Church Gibson’s edited collection More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power (2010), and on this very blog, as well as being on the editorial board of the Porn Studies journal. He has written about exploitation cinema—for example, on Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island—on Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle; on WWF wrestling; on Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Bitch Planet and other comic artists and writers not considered part of the ‘big two’ machinery of DC and Marvel—and so on and so forth. Could you expand also on what texts you see as being part of the “limited umbrella of texts explored under the limited rubric of fandom”? What is missing; and what directions do you believe fan studies as a discipline should be exploring to avoid limitations of this sort?

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’ve already jabbered on too long! I fully agree that Jenkins’s own scholarly object choices are more wide-ranging than the ones dominating the field of Fan Studies proper that his work largely spawned—although some of his work on more eclectic topics tends to be less focused on fandom per se. I suppose this could be a logical case of following the most visible manifestations of civic engagement via pop culture—hence why fandoms that generate fewer participatory or transformative works may fall to the margins (though I would argue that some fan-made retrosploitation media are deliberately political in theme, much as some folks in the vintage porn world are trying to “de-shame” historical forms of porn by bringing them out of the private sphere to change the public conversation around male sexual privilege, the stigmatization of sex work, and so on).

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the concept, Jenkins’s “critical-utopian” ethos suggests that fans as dedicated media consumers-cum-participatory producers actively enter the feedback loop of cultural production via social media and other de-hierarchized platforms. By leveraging a combination of discursive buzz and spending power, fans can pressure the major media industries into both improving “official” products and also creating more equitable space for fans to make their own “unofficial” types of participatory culture. When I teach the idea of media convergence to first-year students, I often show HCD Media Group’s 2009 video of Jenkins explaining some of the underlying concepts (collective intelligence, transmedia storytelling, etc.)—but I tend to cringe when he discusses the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as the biggest success of transmedia storytelling as applied to the political sphere. In hindsight, it’s not so much the cruel optimism that rings hollow, but rather the knowledge that our current President’s rise to power was fuelled by these same transmedia storytelling practices. Fans are indeed “doing politics” through the lens of pop culture, but which politics is another question altogether. We can readily admit that toxic forms of fandom don’t comprise the majority of fans (even if they may be among the loudest voices), but when our reality-TV president still garners such high approval ratings among his own fans by using his Twitter megaphone to promote social division and push us toward nuclear war, a “critical-dystopian” perspective on fandom might make more sense. Much as I repeatedly caution my Cinema Studies students that the “newest” in movies does not always equal the “best,” “smartest,” or most “enlightened” stuff out there, a wider historical perspective could be useful for the field of fan studies to push back against its breathless fetishization of “the new” and instead cast a wider net toward other types of fandoms—but those are my own biases showing!

As a closing aside, since you mention his foreword to the Church Gibson anthology, I think Jenkins’s views on porn pedagogy are quite valuable—although the piece perhaps shows its age in his caution that scholars hold off on teaching porn until after earning tenure. I myself was casually cautioned that a book on pornography would be best left as a post-tenure project—but, in today’s job market, when even tenure-track jobs have become a luxury of the privileged few, I think it behoves junior scholars not to shy away from difficult topics, even if it means taking bigger risks to confront the chilling effects created by a larger social reticence to reinvest in the humanities for their own sake. As an example, during a very depressing two years between earning my Ph.D. and gaining full-time academic employment, I lived in a notoriously expensive city where adjunct work was nearly impossible to find. I worked for minimum wage in a mouse-infested factory by day, scanning used books for online sale at the same time I was finishing up my second book by night. I also taught community-education courses a few nights a week through the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)—including a very popular class on the History of Porn, which subsequently evolved into the Seattle Erotic Cinema Society (SECS). Because SIFF was more adventurous in that regard than many universities would be, I also had a far wider variety of students than found in most university classrooms—including older women, adult industry workers, new media professionals, members of the local kink community, and even fellow academics. With their second annual SECS Fest erotic film festival upcoming shortly, I’m often reminded that there are a far wider range of fans out there, beyond the ones whose visibility becomes reinforced in the university fan-studies classroom. But, like I said earlier, we all try to find our own silver linings!

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

 If only five choices are allowed, then I’m not going to go for dark-horse favorites or deliberately obscure choices here. Nor are these necessarily the most influential or historically significant ones. In fact, one of the pleasures of studying exploitation cinema comes from less of a focus on individual “great” texts than looking at multi-film cycles and generic cross-pollinations that follow novelty value into strange tangents. But these ones all seem to crystallize some major trends from one of the big decades for exploitation films.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (Shunya Itō, 1972)

This Japanese production is miles ahead of any other women-in-prison movie, in my personal opinion, with plenty of pure genre thrills and a compelling mix of realism and deliberately theatrical staging. Meiko Kaji, who would also star in the Lady Snowblood films, features here as a young woman who has been sentenced to hard time for attacking her corrupt ex-boyfriend, a police officer who left her to be raped by the yakuza. Fending off rival prison gangs as she plots her escape to take revenge, there is action, violence, and nudity galore—but the film’s energetic visual style marks its superiority to other women-in-prison films, bringing it closer to the flashiness of the era’s best chambara films.

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 Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

Not one of the most important Blaxploitation movies, but one that leans into that cycle’s most outrageous excesses while also creating a singularly strong female star in Pam Grier, who had previously worked with director Jack Hill in several of his women-in-prison films for New World Pictures. Grier combines the ass-kicking charm of Russ Meyer’s women with a more politicized vigilante subplot about ridding the Black community of drug dealers, pimps, and the corrupt local politicians in their pockets. In Coffy, she also avoids the sexual victimization her character faces in the quasi-sequel Foxy Brown. And I’d like to think the rather abrupt ending signals something about the macropolitical futility of the vigilante’s quest, even if refigured here as a quasi-feminist icon instead of the macho vigilantes of the 1970s.

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 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Soaking in Southern-fried atmosphere, this is among the greatest (and most darkly humorous) American horror movies, and was a big hit on the drive-in circuit throughout the 1970s. Made on a shoestring by a low-budget crew of then-amateurs, the film has since become seen as a treatise on such diverse topics as class conflict, industrial mechanization, animal rights, patriarchy run amok, the death of the counterculture, and so on. Despite all these possible readings, I keep going back for the little details of weirdness that make it feel like such a “lived-in” film, from the macabre set design of farmhouse, to unexplained cutaways of local color, to the assaultive editing of the dinner-table scene, and the eerie use of musique concrete throughout. (Gratuitous name-drop: Nicolas Winding Refn was very impressed when I told him that I used to go to sleep to this film most nights during high school!)

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 Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

The main generic predecessor of found-footage horror movies, this notorious Italian production represents another nation that made many exploitation films for the export market. Coming near the end of a cycle of cannibal-themed jungle-horror films that drew upon the 1960s Italian mondo tradition (verite-style depictions of “savage” indigenous rites, actual animal mutilations, etc.), Cannibal Holocaust is easily the most fascinating (if hard to watch) entries because of its ideological contortions. A film deeply divided against itself, it criticizes Western racism toward indigenous cultures, the mass media’s sensationalism of violence, and so on—yet makes blatant use of these same audiovisual discourses in the process! The film’s blurring of political stances becomes mirrored in its blurring of very life-like special effects with unsimulated animal deaths, creating an extremely strong affective brew where it becomes more difficult to know where ballyhoo ends and reality begins.

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 Café Flesh (Stephen Sayadian, 1982)

Since you asked about vintage pornography, I’ll jump over sexploitation and instead include this deservedly “cult” title from the end of the so-called “Golden Age of Porn.” This remarkably self-reflexive story about a post-nuclear world where 99% of the irradiated population are physically unable to have sex with each other, and are now merely relegated to pathetic spectators of the unaffected 1% who can still perform in a sexual cabaret show, could hardly have more contempt for the typical “raincoat crowd.” Even more timely, the film’s central conceit was one of the first to deliberately engage with the then-burgeoning AIDS crisis. I want to say this is the only post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, hardcore adult film out there, but there were actually several others a few years earlier! This one, though, has more of a punk/new wave sensibility (as did this creative team’s previous film Nightdreams) combined with a surrealist/avant-garde aesthetic during its sexual numbers—plus an ending that actually manages to have an emotional payoff as well.

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David Church is a Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, where he coordinates the Cinema Studies program. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is the author of several books: Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). He is also the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently writing a mini-monograph on the Mortal Kombat video game series.

Cult Conversations: An Interview with David Church (Part One)

Interview with David Church (Part One)

In the following interview, published in two-parts, David Church and I discuss exploitation/ grindhouse cinema, the state of fan studies and more besides. David first came to my attention with the publication of Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video and Exploitation Film, a truly insightful and valuable study that Richard Nowell, author of Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Cycle, “ranks among the most important contributions to a recent upsurge in historical studies of lowbrow Anglophone cinemas” and “destined to become a seminal work in the field.” It was an honour exchanging ideas and issues with David, and I hope readers enjoy this lively, and perhaps contentious, interview as the first part of the ‘Cult Conversations’ series.

In your first book, Grindhouse Nostalgia, you examine the Grindhouse phenomenon that was a key feature of fringe cinema in the 1960s through to the 1980s. How would you explain the characteristics of grindhouse cinema for someone who has little knowledge about the historical context?

“Grindhouse cinema” has really become a synonym for exploitation cinema—that is, low-budget, luridly advertised genre films capitalizing on some sort of timely or controversial subject matter—that linked these films in the popular imagination to what were called “grindhouse theaters.” Grind houses were another name for movie theaters, typically located in downscale inner-city areas with low(er) rents and high foot traffic, which had fallen onto economic hard times and switched to a lower-than-average admission price for continuous shows of double- or triple-feature programs. Although there is a common misconception that the name comes from the “bump-and-grind” style of burlesque dancing, it actually comes from “grind policy,” a trade term referring to the repeating of such programs of films or other popular entertainments (sometimes for up to 22-24 hours per day) for a flat fee that would typically ratchet up over the course of the day, thus stressing quantity of viewers over quality of clientele. Actual grind houses often showed a wide variety of films, including many subsequent-run Hollywood films that were either just about to drop out of circulation or were sold off to independent distributors for revival on the states’ rights market. Meanwhile, the downscale but demographically diverse environs of these theaters gradually created reciprocal associations of disrepute between these cut-rate exhibition spaces, their transient patrons, and the movies that played there. By the 1960s, “grindhouse film” had become a way of describing a low-budget film that seemed destined only for play at such theaters, much as the term “drive-in movie” served a similar purpose—despite the fact that drive-ins also played far more sub-run Hollywood films that is often assumed today.

In the book, I explore the history of both drive-in and grindhouse theaters in relation to their more recent adoption by cult/exploitation movie fans as privileged sites of cultural memory. In particular, I look at how the increased availability of exploitation films during the DVD era and beyond—including in newly restored and remediated forms—has engendered a greater subcultural nostalgia for grindhouse and drive-in theaters as a means of compensating for the fact that the films themselves are no longer difficult to acquire. Moreover, I look at how the idea of the “grindhouse” has become as sort of transmedia concept associated with the surface aesthetic of badly worn celluloid and the abbreviated thrills delivered by trailers, and how this revaluation of physical degradation relates to the symbolic value of the grindhouse theater as an imagined site for not only justifying fans’ more earnest revaluation of culturally denigrated movies but also justifying the mid-2000s production cycle of what I call “retrosploitation” films and media aping the look and feel of antiquated exploitation cinema. If there is a big takeaway for scholars of fandom, it would be an increased attention to the diverse uses of nostalgia and other forms of cultural memory in motivating fan practices, and how the materiality of “old media” opens onto a wider variety of fandoms than are typically figured into fan studies’ predominant emphasis on new media and the rather limited umbrella of texts that tends to be explored under the rubric of “Fandom.”

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What facilitated your interest in the topic? Was it based in your own fandom initially? Or was it sparked by academic interest first and foremost?

 I always loved watching horror and exploitation movies while growing up, and some of my earliest experiences with them were in remediated forms—such as old VHS tapes and Joe Bob Briggs’s MonsterVision TV show. By the time I was moving from undergraduate to graduate studies, VHS tape trading was quickly becoming a thing of the past, with DVD and online access to such films becoming far more common. I was also very much inspired by the work of Jeffrey Sconce and Joan Hawkins on taste cultures and the potential areas of overlap between very high and very low culture—although I have been rather interested in how some fans approach exploitation films with far more sincerity than a merely ironic or “paracinematic” approach, especially now that easy ironic readings have become such a mainstreamed reading mode (“old” = “bad” = “funny”) among younger folks with little interest to acquire enough historical perspective to appreciate such films on their own terms. So the ways that a sense of historicity—whether in accurate documentation or in the distorted form of nostalgia—becomes encoded into the remediated editions of such films is a topic that my most recent books have engaged.

With Grindhouse Nostalgia in particular, I was most intrigued by how a bygone exhibition context like the “grind house” became such a trendy concept for a few years, brought back into wider cultural circulation by the eponymous 2007 Tarantino/Rodriguez anthology film. I saw it at a packed opening-weekend screening in San Francisco, where the audience was very appreciative and it was a lot of fun—though I constantly wondered what kinds of overlapping reading strategies might be in practice there. A few weeks later, I was at a six-screen drive-in theatre in San Jose, where double features of the latest multiplex films were playing—and while I was watching some disappointingly Hollywood-style remake of a 1970s horror film, I kept being distracted by watching Grindhouse playing on an adjacent screen reflected in my rear-view mirror. There’s probably a good metaphor in there somewhere—but suffice it to say, simultaneously watching a very contemporary Hollywood horror film that doesn’t look like it belongs in a drive-in vs. a film deliberately made to look like a decayed old drive-in movie in this same setting got me thinking about how cultural memories of specific exhibition spaces can so vividly color our experience of different genre films and how we might value them based on our own ability to imaginatively project ourselves into past screening contexts that we never personally lived through. Most of my deepest experiences with fandom actually come from various music subcultures, especially around bands and subgenres three or four decades old, so it’s probably no surprise that the negotiation of pastness and generational tension is something that animates much of my work in this area.

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Your concept of ‘retrosploitation’ sounds interesting, especially given the wave of films that seem to ‘borrow’ from so-called low cultural forms, such as grind house and exploitation. You mention Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse as perhaps sparking a contemporary cycle or revival of sorts. What other films or media objects do you see as part of this cycle? And why do you believe this is occurring in an era of digital effects and more widely, and cheaply, available production tools? Does it seem odd to you that films that have been viewed historically as ‘cheap and nasty,’ or in other pejorative terms, to become part of mainstream media?

There were some examples of these retrosploitation films, trailers, posters, music videos, TV shows, and other forms of media released before Grindhouse, but that film’s high profile and wide theatrical release definitely accelerated a brief cycle that peaked around 2009-2012 and has since largely abated (though not vanished altogether). Grindhouse itself came at a time when shooting and releasing films on celluloid was about to be supplanted by digital video (DV) technologies in cinematography and exhibition. Rodriguez and Tarantino have admitted that their film was a nostalgic reaction in that regard, as well as the fact that so many exploitation films were being re-released in restored form on DVD and lacked the auratic quality of a decayed film print. One other aspect worth noting, though, is how 1960s-70s exploitation films became so ripe for reinterpretation because they were often made on very low budgets by independent filmmakers, much as the mid-2000s coincided with a new generation of filmmaking with even lower barriers to entry, in the form of YouTube and prosumer-grade DV. Retrosploitation films seemed ideal for recapturing a similar spirit of scrappy, rough-edged DIY production through more contemporary means—but in more of a tongue-in-cheek tone.

Of course, some creators did more with this than others. It became quite easy to see which ones were simply the Tarantino fanboys jumping on the bandwagon, using a digitally created veneer of aged celluloid as an excuse for lazy shock value or a cover for subpar creative skills. The connotations of 1970s grindhouse films as “cheap” and “schlocky” can be revived here to condescendingly internalize a self-parodic acknowledgment that these retro-styled films and other media are just a bit of mindless fun or not worthy of being treated with the respect of other media. Indeed, many examples of retrosploitation media work far better as paratexts (e.g., trailers, posters, etc.) than as feature-length films in their own right—which could also be said of many period-era exploitation films as well. But some of the most interesting examples of retrosploitation media actually do more with the concept by putting different temporalities into dialogue via pastiche. Whereas some creators simply used the nostalgic aesthetic as an excuse for contemporary viewers to wallow in “nasty,” politically unreconstructed attitudes, more thoughtful creators set up a productive friction between political past and present by asking us to imagine ourselves as viewers occupying two historical periods at once—and therefore able to assess what has or has not socially changed between the 1960s-70s and today. It’s this ability for different nostalgias to overlap and conflict with one another within the same text (and not merely be used to privilege a more conservative past) that makes nostalgia, as an affectively charged mode of historically informed imagination, such an important thread stretching across most of my recent books and articles.

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Can you add a little to the above about what media objects you have noticed coming in the retrosploitation cycle? I’m sure readers would love to hear more! Also, if the cycle has fizzed out, how would you explain Blood Drive? And what about films such as Machete etc. coming as they do out of the Grindhouse project of Rodriguez and Tarantino? Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013)? Hasn’t the exploitation aesthetic become part and parcel of mainstream culture? Or do you see new directors and creators that were inspired by exploitation cinema carrying the torch for a gentrification of grindhouse at least?

Some of these later entries in the cycle were either held up in distribution limbo (e.g., The Green Inferno [released in 2015]) or didn’t last very long (the one-season TV series Blood Drive [2017]), which demonstrates how the gimmick of a retro-styled aesthetic had largely played itself out by then and had to evolve into something else. A film like The Green Inferno, for instance, seems like little more than Roth’s cynical attempt to “troll the libs” by depicting some college-age do-gooder types getting eaten by the same ‘Scary Brown People’ they go to save from Amazonian deforestation (compare this to a film like Get Out [2017], which calls out white liberalism far more insightfully). But the film’s xenophobic politics, consistent as they are with many of Roth’s other films, were honestly less offensive to me than the film’s sheer laziness in its attempts to outrage. I can more easily forgive a film with ideologically reprehensible content if it’s at least doing something interesting or innovative on another level, but The Green Inferno didn’t even have the courage to try to “out-gore” its Italian referents, so to me it just fell flat as an over-hyped and empty provocation.

On the political flip side, Rodriguez’s Machete films (2010, 2013) were fun in their blaxploitation-style glorification of Mexican-American culture, but I also felt they became too cartoonish and lost a lot of their edge when stretched out to feature length (a good example of how I prefer the original Machete trailer to the fully realized film). Among the more interesting later examples in the cycle, the comic book Bitch Planet (2014-17) is a smart reworking of the 1970s-80s women-in-prison exploitation cycle into a feminist sci-fi parable (somewhat akin to Stephanie Rothman’s 1973 film Terminal Island)—although a far more mainstream show like Orange is the New Black (2013- ) certainly has some influence from the same type of exploitation films. I’d also point to low-budget films like Spring Breakers (2012) or The Purge franchise (2013- ) as great examples of the exploitation tradition—including their capacity to incorporate politically subversive messages about into sensationalistic genre material with mainstream crossover appeal—carrying on beyond where the retrosploitation gimmick ran out of gas as an idea that gentrified and genrified the idea of the “grind house” into a retro aesthetic choice that vastly oversimplifies how fascinating those historical exhibition sites actually were.

 

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Q: Do you see your most recent book, Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema, as continuing the work you began in Grindhouse Nostalgia? What did you discover about vintage pornography through your research? And why do you think this kind of retroactive history is valuable for the academy?

 Porn fandom is a good example of a major media industry whose fans behave very much like other media fans in many regards, but whose objects of fandom fall quite far outside the purview of “Fandom” as reinforced by the field of fan studies. (Compare, for instance, San Diego Comic-Con and the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas as the premier annual promotional venues for their respective products, fostering very similar dynamics between fan-attendees and producers/personnel.) At the same time, though, many of the exploitation and “grindhouse” movie fans explored in my previous book will readily admit (softcore) sexploitation films to their retrospectively constructed canon but arbitrarily cordon off hardcore adult films as outside the bounds of their fandom, despite the fact that hardcore pornography made up the bulk of grindhouse programming by the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whereas Grindhouse Nostalgia focuses in large part on the class and gender inequalities that fans reinforce through their selective remembrance of drive-ins, grind houses, and the films that supposedly played at them, Disposable Passions looks at how other fans have taken the reins in sincerely reappraising adult films that have otherwise been neglected by most formal archives and film preservationists. Here we have an entire genre whose history runs parallel to the history of cinema itself, and whose historical diversity indexes an important variety of changing attitudes about sexuality—but which has been very poorly preserved on both aesthetic and political grounds. What this book does is track the history of pornographic cinema through the various archive-dependent figures (including fans, historians, archivists, preservationists, and entrepreneurs) whose desires animate which material traces are left behind and on what terms they are revalued.

Overall, the book focuses on how the history of pornographic cinema has been funnelled into the catch-all category of “vintage” porn, which treats historicity itself as a source of eroticism. The project came partly out of questions of what it means to eroticize a sense of pastness (much as the pastness of celluloid decay was crucial to the retrospective construction of “grindhouse-ness”) and how even academic scholarship is not immune to the erotics of the archive as ephemeral texts come into and out of visibility like a sort of archival “striptease.” Much of my research was conducted at the Kinsey Institute, where I also discovered a 35mm print of a long-lost sexploitation film (The Orgy at Lil’s Place [1963]) that has since been preserved and released on Blu-ray, so much of the book asks how historiography and affect intersect with each other over which films and filmmakers get written into history or forgotten to time. Whereas Grindhouse Nostalgia explores how home video formats reframe bygone exhibition contexts, Disposable Passions explores how the ethical issues raised by the sometimes-problematic sexual attitudes within adult films affects the ethics of film preservation performed by different generations of home video distributors. The fact that there is such a broad swath of film history yet to be written—and the labor of multiple generations of sex workers yet to be fully valued—is all the more reason to pick up the baton from adult film fans and begin filling in these gaps.

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In your essay on horror films between 1991-2006 for Offscreen, you touch upon “the minor development in horror during the 1990s,” that is, the so-called ‘race horror films,’ such as Candyman, The People Under the Stairs, Tales from the Hood and Bones, “which each took racial inequality as their basis, often using African-American characters as protagonists, and some directly targeted (however exploitatively, recalling the blaxploitation horror films of the 1970s) to African-American youth audiences through links to rap culture.”  Do you think that the recent Oscar and box office success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out can be linked retroactively to that minor development? What are your thoughts regarding race, cult media and the horror genre in the contemporary moment? And what of scholars working in cogent fields? Is it predominantly white men? Or is there a broader spread of gender and ethnicities studying cult media and horror cinema in the academy?

In retrospect, I think some of those 1990s “race horror” films were unduly written off by a lot of critics and scholars because the films seemed too closely aligned with the supposed excesses of the hip-hop subculture, whereas other films like Candyman seemed more accessible because they still had white protagonists and didn’t rely so much subcultural tastes for their appeal. Although an all-around better film, I also suspect Get Out will stand the test of time because it seems more resonant with the renewed activism of the Black Lives Matter era. Of course, one thing that makes Get Out so interesting is the question of who the film is really made for—and whether the bourgeois white critics, scholars, and viewers who so effusively praise the film’s satire are also implicated in Peele’s critique of white liberal complicity with systemic racism. Since the film is so clearly framed to present its Black male director/protagonist’s perspective on the horrors of being Black in America, it seems to at least have that much in common with the “hood” films, but is more attuned to the spatial politics of how race operates beyond non-white enclaves. When you compare the upcoming Peele-produced Lovecraft Country HBO series with the recent uproar among Lovecraft apologists over the bust given out at the World Fantasy Awards, it’s a good moment for reassessing what’s so horrific about the deeper roots of racism.

Women and queer-identified people continue to make up a sizable demographic of horror and adult film scholars, but I think white scholars still tend to predominate the ranks—though that might be more broadly reflective of academia in general. When it comes to the more nebulous realm of cult film scholarship, Anglo-American scholars are perhaps more likely to exoticize as “cult” certain films that scholars from other ethnic backgrounds might be better able to contextualize as part of their own national-cultural tradition—but I also don’t want to make too broad of an overgeneralization here.

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What are your thoughts on exploitation cinema as ‘trash,’ or, to use Jeffrey Sconce’s label, ‘paracinema’ as a way to describe ‘lurid’ and ‘distasteful’ films that lie outside the mainstream? It seems as if the current panoply of lavish blu-ray releases of cult objects—with all their extra features activating the cult fan as connoisseur, as various scholars have argued (Chuck Tryon, Mark Bernard, Janet Staiger)—work paratextually to imbue cult cinema with an auratic prestige of authenticity, and so forth. Does this discursively function as a gentrification of trash/ exploitation/ cult as a mode of championing paracinema—thus picking it from the gutters and transforming texts into an art/ pop dialectic? Cult fans seem to buy into the notion of ‘trash’ as a signifier of sub-cultural capital, but I wonder what your thoughts are about the label ‘trash’ per se. I recently equated Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) with Alfred Hitchcock work, to rumbles of mirth amongst academics.

 I don’t care for the label “trash,” because even when used to ironically celebrate low-budget exploitation films, it still has that a priori value judgment built in. Too many scholars have neglected Sconce’s all-important caveat that “paracinema” names less a body of films than a specific reading strategy that’s all about the ironic inversion of taste categories to elevate “bad” films that are readable as inadvertently avant-garde. And although it didn’t originate there, the paracinematic reading strategy flourished during the pre-internet, pre-DVD/Blu-ray era of VHS bootlegs whose lo-fi, fifth-generation qualities merely heightened the supposed “trashiness” of such cultural detritus. To go back to a generic example mentioned earlier, that’s certainly been true of 1970s-era adult films, which were very seldom re-transferred to formats beyond VHS and often existed in poorly transferred and re-edited forms—at least until a recently emerged generation of video labels like Vinegar Syndrome has come on the scene to respectfully restore such films in as pristine condition as possible and provide well-researched paratexts to place these films within their proper historical context. Adult films are especially interesting in that regard because, although it’s readily possible to laugh at the awkward set-ups and dated mise-en-scene of a very “Seventies” porno, the fact that said film’s continuing ability to arouse can cut through the mirth and still strike the present-day viewer on a visceral level, very much as originally intended, requires a far more circumspect, less historically chauvinistic approach.

As I’ve mentioned in Grindhouse Nostalgia, many scholars without much investment in taking exploitation films seriously have over-used Sconce’s “paracinema” appellation as a convenient shorthand that allows them to reductively label an object and then move on—not unlike the dismissive attitude of many undergraduate students who see unintentional “humor” in classical Hollywood films because they seem dated, but who then don’t move past those apparent deficiencies to take the films on their own terms. After all, not all low-budget genre films are uniformly and objectively “bad” in their execution, so an ironic reading strategy is simply one possible mode of reception—but a bit of an analytical dead-end for scholars who want to do more than enjoy some campy derision. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard complaints from friends who attended rare repertory screenings of films by Bava and the like, only to have the experience spoiled by the hipster contingent cackling throughout in ironic default mode. That said, “paracinema” itself is not going anywhere, as evinced by Tommy Wiseau’s cult reputation, video blogs like Everything is Terrible, or the recent revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000—but in an era when even the most obscure films can be easily accessed on DVD or Blu-ray editions, ironic laughter/celebration seems like an increasingly empty gesture. Still, if we could place a ten-year moratorium on Hitchcock scholarship and instead devote that time to earnestly investigating underappreciated films like Italian gialli, I certainly wouldn’t complain!

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The term ‘exploitation’ seems to be quite tricky to explain. On the one hand, it seems to signify low-budget B-movie products, often with lurid or ‘distasteful’ subject matter; and, on the other, the term has been described as the way in which exploitation cinema ‘exploits’ successful cycles of mainstream fare. For example, Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) inaugurated a cycle of so-called ‘sharksploitation’ or ‘aquatic horror’ titles, such as Orca (1978) Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). Then again, more recent titles seem to demonstrate that it’s less an exploitation cycle than perhaps a genre, with the Sharknado franchise (2010—); 47 Metres Down (2017); Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (2010), and The Meg (2018). The term also seems to connote ‘trash,’ and carries the weight of value judgement within its label, as you mentioned above. Scholars often conflate B-movie, low-budget, micro-budget, cult, grindhouse and exploitation as interchangeable concepts, which certainly problematizes their usefulness as analytic categories. How might you describe what ‘exploitation’ means to students, scholars etc. who are approaching the topic for the first time?

Following Eric Schaefer, I tend to think of “exploitation” as more as of a mode than a discrete genre, since that can include production concerns (low budgets; independent producers; lack of stars), exhibition/distribution patterns (grind houses; drive-ins; independent distributors; four-walling), textual qualities (lurid, timely, or sensationalistic subject matter; cyclical imitation of other films), and so on. Perhaps more importantly, the term itself comes from the mainstream Hollywood studio practice of creating stunts, gimmicks, and tie-ins with local businesses to help “exploit” the latest major-studio film that was coming to your town in the era before day-and-date wide releases. The majors often had advertising people working in in-house exploitation departments, and trade publications like Film Daily would publish exploitation tips for theater owners wanting to make fun enticements tied to a specific film. But “exploitation film” became more of a dismissive label in the trade press for a non-studio film that, because lacking decent production values, big stars, or subject matter with a built-in audience, seemed to rely on exploitation hooks alone (gimmickry, etc.) for its entire existence. So “exploitation” gradually shifted from a term used within the mainstream Hollywood industry to a marker of deviance—but I think it’s still useful to see exploitation films as films marketed in very lurid ways, which helps explain how the quasi-generic label “exploitation” might seem more apt (and empirically grounded in period usage) according to historical period and viewing context. For instance, it helps account for the mutability of how the same film—such as an imported art film—could be luridly marketed as a sexploitation film when it played in grind houses or as a serious work when it played at more austere art houses—and, seen from another angle, how many art theaters switched to showing sex films when they fell on hard times, but still used “art” as a self-defensive cover to skirt various censorship restrictions.

So, to return to your question, high-concept Hollywood films from Jaws onward have increasingly used exploitation-style publicity tactics, but if there are recognizable stars (even B-list genre stars like Jason Statham) and enough passable special effects, the web of influences between exploitation cinema to Hollywood cinema can be a two-way street—as is especially visible in the realm of low/micro-budget horror. It’s no surprise that Roger Corman, who is still producing movies like Sharktopus and the like, saw the writing on the wall when Jaws was released, remarking that it was basically a big-budget, more prestigious version of the monster-from-the-deep films that he’d been making since the early 1950s. And indeed, with the subsequent rise of blockbuster marketing and release strategies that accelerated with Jaws and are everywhere today, the major studios began colonizing theaters that had previously relied on exploitation films, thus pushing the independents into other markets, like direct-to-video and today’s streaming platforms. Maybe it’s just easier for movies like The Meg or kaiju movies like Pacific Rim to basically do upscaled versions of exploitation films when the cachet of a major-studio release allows audiences to not feel that these pleasures are not too guilty when they become mainstreamed enough for collective comfort!

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There is a ubiquitous discourse in mainstream media regarding horror cinema and the way in which the genre is undergoing a ‘renaissance’ of some kind at the moment, with the second decade of the new millennium being described as a ‘golden age of horror cinema’. How true do you think this is? Or is this an example of mainstream entertainment journalists over-amplifying such claims?

Between social relevance (Get Out) and huge box-office returns (It), horror is having one of its many generic moments in the sun, but I don’t buy the “renaissance” or “golden age” claims—even if there are some interesting generic threads of late. If it weren’t a genre with a lingering air of disrepute (and a film type that a lot of people simply dislike altogether), then such a consistently popular genre wouldn’t still be treated like an underdog that keeps periodically surprising industry watchers who don’t otherwise pay it much attention. It was too much of a “popcorn” movie for my tastes—the Marvel/Disney equivalent of a horror film—but I’d personally rather re-watch the first season of Stranger Things (which I loved).

What I find far more intriguing are what I’m calling the “new prestige horror” films—a new wave of independent art-horror films crossing over from film festivals to multiplexes, earning critical acclaim but proving very divisive among audiences. Films like It Follows, The Witch, It Comes at Night, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Hereditary, and mother! tend to have a cold, minimalistic aesthetic, including a stately narrative pace, slow and distant camera movements, lengthy shot durations, and tend to displace a clearly identifiable monster in favour of protagonists dealing with grief, guilt, trauma, and other negative emotions. These films all tend to generate strong feelings of apprehension and dread, refusing to alleviate those affects with either jump scares or reassuring narrative closure—and therefore seem much closer to art cinema’s forms and affects than the populist associations that most widely released horror films tend to have. Judging by viewer comments, a lot of people feel duped by the marketing of these films, which they alternately dismiss as boring, confusing, depressing, pretentious—neither conventionally “scary” nor “fun.” In other words, viewers with lower amounts of (sub)cultural capital are put off by these films, but the fact that the horror genre has more crossover appeal than, say, a dour chamber drama (despite the fact that these films bear more than a similarity there) means that these films are landing in front of multiplex viewers who might not otherwise expect something closer to an art film. So that clash of aesthetic styles, affective shifts, and audience expectations is really fascinating to me—over and above the fact that are lot of these new prestige horror films are also really damn good! But one generic subcurrent doesn’t make a “golden age.”

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David Church is a Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, where he coordinates the Cinema Studies program. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is the author of several books: Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). He is also the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently writing a mini-monograph on the Mortal Kombat video game series.  

 

Cult Conversations: A Series on Horror, Exploitation and the Gothic

An Introduction and a Provocation

By William Proctor

Over the past year or so, horror cinema has been discursively underpinned by what entertainment critics have described as a “new golden age,” a “renaissance” that is demonstrative of an unequivocal cultural, industrial and attitudinal shift. As SyFy’s Tres Dean claims,

The past five years or so have seen the release of such a wide array of genre-defining horror films that it may be time to go ahead and call a spade a spade: We’re experiencing a genuine horror renaissance.

Likewise, Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato argues that

The mainstream horror movie is, sadly, the last place anyone who’s ever seen a mainstream horror movie would credibly look for critical acclaim—not that horrorhounds wouldn’t love to see an impeccably crafted four-quadrant slasher sweep the Oscars.

According to Michael Rothman for Consequences of Sound, “horror isn’t just having a resurgence, it’s taking over.”

Writing for the BBC, Nicolas Barker claims that, in historic terms, horror has traditionally been the black sheep of the Hollywood genre system,

 a slightly embarrassing, bargain-basement alterative to mainstream drama […] You can understand why [horror films] might not appeal to a producer with an Oscar- or BAFTA-shaped space in their trophy cabinet.

Some critics argue that this so-called “new Golden Age” is best exemplified by the rise of Blumhouse productions, with Jason Blum’s ‘cheap and nasty’ economic model outperforming blockbuster franchises and films, at least as far as return-on-investment (ROI) goes. The Oscar nod for Jordan Peele’s Get Out is, of course, most often heralded as ‘proof’ that horror is transitioning out of the cult ghetto and into mainstream prominence. “For the first time ever,” exclaims Scott Meslow for GQ, “the most critically lauded movie released [in 2017] is a horror movie.” Blumhouse has “cornered the market on inventive horror,” argues Tracy Palmer.

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Writing for The Guardian in September 2017, Anna Smith asked:

So how did these once fringe-films move into the heart of the mainstream?

 Smith’s question, perhaps a rhetorical flourish more than anything substantive, suggests that the terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘horror’ are not easy bedfellows, setting up a binary between popularity and fringe (or the incredibly amorphous term, ‘cult’). The second decade of the new millennium is, as many critics have pointed out, a high generic watermark represented by ‘quality horror,’ ‘smart horror,’ ‘high concept horror,’ ‘elevated horror,’ ‘horror-adjacent,’ and ‘post-horror,’ terms that, in Nicolas Barker’s account, operate as “back-handed compliments,” bolstering the notion that the genre is much maligned.

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But has it not always been the case that horror cinema has been historically less a coherent category than, as with all genres, a system of currents, cycles and trends that have pumped valuable oxygen and blood into “the heart of the mainstream” for almost a century? For if Hollywood “has always relied on horror movies,” then the suggestion that the genre has recently been elevated from the margins and thrust into the spotlight is little more than discursive ballyhoo, I would argue. Indeed, the suggestion that contemporaneous horror media is somehow indicative of a widespread ‘renaissance’ would mean that there has been a fallow period from which the genre has risen into prominence once more.

 But has horror ever really gone away? Is the genre truly a niche or cult object? And would it be at all accurate to claim that horror cinema has historically been categorically despised and maligned?

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In cinematic terms, the genre has inarguably been a key organ in “the heart of the mainstream” since the turn of the twentieth century. Prior to the coming of sound, entrepreneur and pioneer, Thomas Edison, produced the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1910, drawing on the gothic tradition at a time when the horror genre was in utero. Lon Chaney, “the man with a thousand faces,” was perhaps the first star of (proto) horror cinema, most famously playing lead roles in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1923), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the former of which was Universal’s “super jewel,” the most successful mainstream picture for the studio at that point. With the inception of sound in the early 1930s, Universal’s Carl Lemmle Jnr continued to green-light adaptations of gothic literature, leading into what has been termed the first Golden Age of horror films usually illustrated by the seminal ‘Universal Monster’ cycle. In 1931, Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein shattered box offices across North America, resulting in horror sequels and series swiftly becoming a major cash nexus of the Hollywood motion picture industry.

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During the period, it was not only Universal that tapped into audiences’ appetite for blood-curdling cinema, but other studios produced a welter of horror pictures as well. Alison Peirse aims to redress this gap in After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film, emphasizing “the diversity of horror film production during the 1930s”:

Many of the films that appeared over the next few years [after Dracula] diverged quite significantly from the mechanics of Universal’s gothic vampire story. The Gaumont-British film The Clairvoyant (1933) is grounded in spiritualism and British popular culture; Murders in the Zoo (1933) is a story of lip-sewing sadism and murder set amongst real-life big cats and snakes; while The Black Cat (1935) is an occult shrine to modernist architecture and design.

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Paramount also boarded the horror bandwagon in 1931, producing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, featuring Fredric March as the eponymous split personality, a performance deemed so incredible that March walked away with the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar at the fourth annual awards, as well as Most Favourite Actor at the Venice Film Festival.

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And while classic horror films might well seem excessively camp or outmoded to audiences today—my own undergraduates tend to laugh at Whale’s Frankenstein, for instance—the emergence of horror pictures during the transition from silent cinema to “talkies” attracted the ire of censors and moral campaigners. As recounted by Peirse, an administrator of the Production Code asked of Hays: “is this the beginning of a cycle that ought to be retarded or killed?” It was thus not the attack on The Exorcist in the 1970s, or the so-called “video nasties” in the 1980s that first put horror cinema in the dock.

Between 1931 and 1936, horror cinema remained at the epicentre of Universal studios’ output, so much so that the decision to cease producing horror pictures in order to address criticisms of the conservative moral brigade, as well as implementation of the production code and the introduction of the H-Rating in the United Kingdom— H standing for horror—ended up leaving Universal on the cusp of bankruptcy. It was only by returning to horror in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein that Universal’s fortunes shifted once again, meaning unequivocally that horror saved the ailing studio. Decades before the rise of the contemporary blockbuster in the 1970s, then, Universal’s horror pictures stood out as examples of what we would now describe as “tent-pole” productions.

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By drawing upon gothic literature, adaptations and remakes were key in the genre’s formation, but Universal pushed the envelope further by producing films that remained branded with recognizable staples of the gothic tradition, while radically manoeuvring outside of the parameters of the source material, most notably with the Frankenstein films. Considered by many critics as the frontispiece of classic horror cinema, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein was the first horror sequel in film history, setting out numerous codes and conventions that continue to characterise the genre contemporaneously, especially the central motif that the monster will rise again (and again, and again).

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The second wave of horror pictures followed hot on the heels of Son of Frankenstein, although Universal moved from lofty A-picture budgets to B-movie economics. This second cycle, said to have lasted from 1939—1946, included the House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula “monster mash” films, a protean precursor to the “shared universe” model currently employed by Marvel Studios; and as the Universal monsters moved further into parody, the Abbott and Costello films. Other studios developed and deployed horror pictures during this second cycle, including Val Newton’s RKO, Colombia and the Poverty Row studios. Indeed, “all the major studios contributed to this cycle,” and “commentators believed they were witnessing an unprecedented boom in horror film production,” as Mark Jancovich put it.  

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The Universal Monster canon would recycle once more in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the inception of television and the rise of “Monster Culture.” As ‘monster kid,’ Henry Jenkins has written in a special issue of The Journal of Fandom Studies, “the Universal monster movies had been part of the large package of ‘Shock Theater’ Screen Gems sold to television stations in the 1950s and still in active use on second-tier local stations in the 1960s.” The publication of Forest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine signifed an emergent fan culture that sat around the TV set, dressing up as their favorite monsters and consuming merchandised elements, such as the Aurora model kits. In 1964, Universal produced TV comedy series The Munsters to capitalize on this new audience of baby boomers as horror become part of the domestic furniture.

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In the United Kingdom during the same period, Hammer Film Productions, like Universal, tapped into the gothic tradition, with director Terence Fisher’s Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy offering “the loveliest-looking British films of the decade,” several critically regarded film series (although such regard has been retroactively applied in many cases). Over time, the quality of Hammer’s output dipped, moving from serious, though melodramatic films, to absurdly camp—although that did not prevent the studio from winning the Queen’s Award for Industry in 1968 for managing to entice $4.5 million from North America and into the UK economy. This was the Golden Age of British Horror.

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In the 1960s and ‘70s, literary adaptations once again became the life-blood of the genre, at least in part. Alfred Hitchcock’s translation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho led to the Director’s nomination for an Academy Award as well as Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress, for which she won the Golden Globe, and John L. Russell for Cinematography. And for many critics, Psycho set the groundwork for what would later become known as the “slasher film” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. But it was the publication of Ira Levin’s neo-Gothic thriller Rosemary’s Baby in 1967 that would spark (apparently) a new Golden Age of horror cinema. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow, the film adaptation of Levin’s neo-Gothic thriller was certainly controversial, with conservative critics and moralizers criticising the film for its “perverted use of fundamental Christian beliefs,” as recounted by David J. Skal in The Horror Show. This, however, didn’t prevent the film sweeping up a lion’s share of box office receipts in 1968, with Ruth Gordon winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Gordon also won the Golden Globe in the same category, while Mia Farrow was nominated for Best Actress.

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Following on from the success of Rosemary’s Baby, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, was a cause célèbre, a film that was both excoriated and celebrated in turn. As Mark Kermode explains, The Exorcist was

 written by a Catholic, directed by a Jew, and produced by the vast multinational Warner Bros., this was a movie that was championed by sometime political radicals such as Jerry Rubin, picketed by concerned pressure groups, paid for by millions of eager punters, praised by the Catholic News for its profound spirituality, and branded satanic by evangelist Billy Graham. Never before or since has a mainstream movie provoked such wildly diverging reactions.

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The Exorcist demonstrated that horror cinema continued to be legitimately mainstream, becoming the second most popular film in 1974—after Paul Newman and Robert Redford vehicle, The Sting—and receiving nominations for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture (the first horror movie to be nominated in that category) and Best Director, as well as eight Golden Globes, four of which it won (including the coveted Best Picture and Best Director). At the box office, The Exorcist became the highest-grossing horror film in history, and remains so to this day (more on that below).

In 1976, Brian De Palma adapted Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek and Pippie ‘dirty pillows’ Laurie. As explained in Simon Brown’s excellent Screening Stephen King, it was De Palma’s adaptation that catapulted King from horror fiction niche to household name as opposed to the novel itself. Carrie received Oscar nominations for Spacey and Laurie for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.

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Adaptations were not the only dish on the horror menu, however. Richard Donner’s The Omen, also in 1976, earned over $60 million at the box office, garnering critical plaudits and Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score, which Jerry Goldsmith won. Further, Billie Whitlaw was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at the BAFTAS and won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actress, while Harvey Stephens was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut.

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While not in the same league as The Exorcist in box office terms, Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre converted a budget of $80K into $30 million—an ROI of 37,400%—thus demonstrating that films ostensibly created for the exploitation circuit could puncture the “heart of the mainstream,” just as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead managed to take $30 million in box office receipts on a budget of $114K in 1968.   

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The 1970s also became the petri dish for blockbuster/ franchise cinema, and it was a horror film that arguably started it all: Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. Although George Lucas’ Star Wars would turn producers towards science fiction—even Bond went into space with Moonraker—Ridley Scott gave us sci-fi/ horror hybrid Alien in 1979. Yet, Jaws, Star Wars, and Rocky Balboa all engaged with serialization, more commonly known as ‘franchising.’ However, as discussed earlier, it was the Universal Monster canon that experimented with serialised filmmaking four decades earlier and should perhaps be viewed as early (or proto) franchising even though the term was not in use during the period, as Derek Johnson has emphasized. Horror cinema was not immune to the industrial turn to blockbusters and “sequelization” that started in the 1970s. George A Romero produced the first sequel in his Zombie continuity-less franchise, Dawn of the Dead, in 1979, while a year earlier, John Carpenter’s Halloween sparked what has been described as the ‘Golden Age of Slasher Movies,’ a cycle that is said to have existed between 1978 and 1984, comprising well-known films such as Friday the 13th, Prom Night and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Each of these films grew into powerhouse franchise properties, assisted by the rise of video in the 1980s, a medium that extended the life span of cinema from theatrical exhibition into the domestic realm, as well as introducing the capacity to, re-watch or record if broadcast on television. As with the Universal Monster canon, eighties’ monsters such as the stalk-and-slash triumvirate of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger, would return from the dead again and again, the ideal recipe for the franchise blueprint. Other characters emerged in the ‘80s as well that would lead to franchise development, including possessed doll Chucky from Child’s Play and Clive Barker’s demonic Pinhead from Hellraiser.

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The 1990s horror film shifted, at least partly, towards psychological horror, with Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ best-selling novel, winning the big five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. In mid-decade, Wes Craven’s final Freddy film A New Nightmare surprised critics with its smart meta-narrative, leading to Scream (1996) initiating a second Slasher cycle, but flavoured with postmodern commentary and self-conscious reflexivity. The success of Scream led to sequels Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), all of which spun box office gold—especially the first film, which made $170 million from a £15 million budget—as well as cycle films such as I Know What you Did Last Summer (1997), and Urban Legend (1998). In 1999, The Blair Witch Project popularised the found footage subgenre with a marketing campaign that has since gone down in history.

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In the new millennium, the genre mutated once more (although I would insist that the genre has never quite been static). Spearheaded by the phenomenal success of James Wan’s Saw, the so-called “torture porn” cycle was born—more of an invention of the press than a discrete genre, as emphasized by Steve Jones—and over the next few years, explicitly violent films became part and parcel of mainstream cinema. The Saw franchise produced eight films over eight years, with the law of diminishing returns temporally halting production until the ninth part, Jigsaw, surfaced in 2017. This was the era of “the Splat Pack,” with ambassadors Rob ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ Zombie and Eli ‘Hostel’ Roth flying the flag for excessive splatter, gore and, in their own accounts, political transgression (see Mark Bernard’s brilliant monograph on the topic). Often admonished by the critical establishment, these films nevertheless became key elements of mainstream horror cinema and raided the box office.

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The post-millennial landscape was also replete with remakes, reboots and re-adaptations, many of them coming from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, ‘a remake house’ in all but name at that point. Described as “the deja-vu boom,” this convincingly shows that the genre need not be subservient to a single, univocal cycle but involves cross-breeding across and within sub-generic elements, a dialogic array of different manifestations of what we might describe as “horror” at any particular historic juncture.

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In 2007, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse entered the scene, with found footage film Paranormal Activity setting box offices alight with a remarkable, record-breaking ROI. By converting a shoestring budget of 15K into box office receipts of $193 million, Paranormal Activity set the ground for what has become known as “micro-budget” horror filmmaking in the twenty-first century.

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Paranormal Activity led to a further five films in the series between 2009—2014, but the second decade of the new millennium is also marked by a shift from extreme representations of gore and violence and back to atmospheric ghost stories, including the Insidious franchise, also from Blumhouse, and James Wan’s The Conjuring films and spin offs. This is not to suggest that so-called “torture porn” has disappeared, however: Pascal Laughier’s An Incident in Ghostland is certainly an intense ordeal as is the Australian film, Hounds of Love. Cycles wax and wane, but the genre is much more than this-or-that cycle at any given moment.

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Are we experiencing a “new Golden age of horror films,” then? I certainly agree that the genre is in rude health at the moment, and that the Blumhouse economic model of “micro-budget” horror cinema is giving the majors a run for their money (so much so that I am researching Blumhouse for a monograph—tentatively titled Cheap Shots). But as this potted history shows—and it is very piecemeal, I admit—I definitely do not accept that horror cinema has been unquestionably fringe, unmistakably cult, emphatically marginal and wholly disparaged.

In 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Andy Muschetti’s re-adaptation of King’s IT were most often invoked as heralding the new Golden Age in press discourse, the former primarily because of the way in which it confronted the politics of race and was nominated for an Academy Award—certainly not the first to do either—and the latter because it shattered box office records for the highest-grossing horror film in history.  

Except, it wasn’t. The common trend of citing economic performance without attending to inflation is patently ludicrous. In adjusted dollars, The Exorcist unarguably slaughters IT in no uncertain terms, standing at number one for horror cinema, and at number nine in all-time box office charts regardless of genre. Comparatively, IT stands at number 225. Moreover, The Exorcist out grossed every Star Wars movie, barring Lucas’ first instalment (now subtitled A New Hope).

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As far as disparagement goes, it is more likely, I would argue, that it is popular cinema generally that is largely sneered at by the critical establishment, just as adaptations, sequels, remakes and franchising have been castigated as symptomatic of Hollywood’s creative inertia and decline. Many press accounts tend to deal explicitly in hyperbole of this sort, ignoring the history of cinema and the way in which adaptation and remaking practices have been with us since the very start, as pointed out by various scholars such as Constantine Verevis, Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Luzy Mazdon (to name a select few). But I wonder—and I don’t know the answer to this yet—if horror cinema has managed to attract as many critical plaudits and establishment trophies and nominations than other so-called “genre pictures”? How many science fiction films, for example, have been nominated for an Academy Award comparatively? If establishment awards are any indication of mainstream success, it is certainly true that superhero films lag far behind horror cinema in terms of the trophy cabinet.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes etc., are signifiers of quality, but I use the cases above as a way to illustrate that horror cinema has cut across cultural distinctions at different historically contingent moments. Thus, rather than view ‘the horror film’ in binary terms, as either operating on the cultish fringe or sneaking surreptiously into the mainstream, the genre is much more expansive than dualisms of this kind allow. There is no such stable or concrete generic category as ‘horror,’ but a matrix of forces and factors that may account for the way in which the term has been discursively employed historically. To be sure, there are certainly aspects of horror cinema that have attracted a fair share of controversy and condemnation: from the Universal Monster cycle, The Exorcist, the so-called “video nasties,” the rape-revenge film, “torture porn,” The Human Centipede, The Bunny Game, A Serbian Film, etc. etc. But these currents and trends do not make up the genre that we understand as horror entirely. Horror cinema is neither wholly maligned or critically celebrated, but exists in a more complex and complicated array of dialogic utterances and discourses that often cuts across cultural distinctions.

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I would also add that the proliferation of new media affordances such as streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon Prime, both of whom produce their own films and series, have dallied in horror, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix being a particularly fine example of serial horror (and the third adaptation of Jackson’s novel). But do these texts illustrate a “renaissance,” or a “new Golden Age”? Or are there simply more media platforms to populate with content? There is no way, I would argue, that the quantity—and quality—of horror series, serials and films being produced at the moment outweigh other cycles and currents in previous decades.

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Over the next few weeks or so, Confessions of an Aca-Fan pays host to a new series comprised of interviews with several academics centred on aspects of cult media, horror, exploitation, the gothic, and more besides. And while the focus is not entirely on fandom, interested readers will no doubt recognise that the majority of these scholars could certainly fit in with the definition of what Henry Jenkins would describe as ‘aca-fandom,’ even if they do not identify as such themselves in direct terms. I asked similar questions of our contributors at times, while at others hone in on individual research endeavours, with the hope of producing a discursive debate of kinds.

We hope you enjoy the series and if anyone would like to contribute an essay or propose a topic, please email at bproctor@bournemouth.ac.uk.

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William Proctor is Senior Lecture in Transmedia, Culture and Communication at Bournemouth University in the UK. He has published widely on various aspects of popular culture and is currently writing his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia (Palgrave). Along with co-editor Matthew Freeman, William has recently published the edited collection, Global Convergence Cultures: Transmedia Earth for Routledge. He can be reached at bproctor@bournemouth.ac.uk.

 

 

 

Do We Still Believe Networked Youth Can Change the World?: A Special Issue

A special issue of the bilingual (Spanish-English) journal, Working Papers on Culture, Education, and Human Development, dropped recently, sharing three essays on the theme of “Do We Still Believe Networked Youth Can Change the World?” The exchange started with the plenary session I did with activist/entrepreneur Esra’a Al Shafei at the Digital Media and Learning Conference a year or so back. An edited transcript of that memorable exchange about social change movements in the Arab world and some reflections on it open this issue. My long-time friend James Paul Gee, a major figure in the education world and someone who writes often about games and learning, responded with some fairly strong critiques of the concept of “participatory politics” as it has been shaped by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics research network and others in recent years. And I, in turn, responded clarifying and defending our core concepts and also trying to speak to the similarities and differences between Gee’s concept of “affinity spaces” and my own work on “participatory culture.'“ The two are sometimes used interchangeably but I see significant differences (although some overlap) between the two. If you want to read this lively back and forth, you can find it here.

Here is a brief sample from the exchange.

James Paul Gee:

Why talk about affinity spaces and distributed teaching and learning systems? Why isn’t talking about participation and connection enough? Think of an empty affinity space (no one is any of the spaces at the moment). Each of these is sitting there (really or virtually) with tools and resources to create certain sorts of learning, teaching, and appreciative systems. Each is like a restaurant resourced to cook certain sorts of food in a certain way, though food for the mind and action in the case of affinity spaces.

Such spaces are most often the historical product of mutual top-down and bottom-up design and organization. As people move through them they are guided/directed/taught by the tools and resources— and the practices they facilitate—available to them and, in the act, over time they transform them. But at no point are people innocent of directive frameworks and teaching as design whether done by a tool, resource, or person. It is the shared appreciative systems, skills, and identities that give fellow-travelers (some more than others) power in the sense of directed agency of a characteristic, focused, social, and socialized sort.

In the end, I argue that we need to focus on capacities, design, resources, values, beliefs, and norms and not media or even participation per se. The latter are constrained by and facilitate the former.

Henry Jenkins:

I am often asked about the similarities and differences between Gee’s notion of “affinity spaces” and my own conception of “participatory culture.” I have always seen potentially productive overlaps between the two. But, Gee’s suggestion here that we think about an “empty affinity space” suggests some important differences. Gee has sought to distinguish “affinity spaces” from the affiliation or sociality conjured up by a word like “community.” Starting from a focus on games, game designers, and game players, Gee is interested in shared resources and activities, rule sets and affordances, which are to some degree built into the designed environment. Starting from my personal focus on fandom, my participatory culture model emphasizes the social ties, cultural traditions, shared norms and values, and expressive practices that support informal learning. Fans cluster around existing cultural works produced by others, often commercial producers, but they read them in relation to their own lived experiences and draw from them resources that help them to better articulate their own perspectives. While commercial producers want consumers, they have not always welcomed fans and for that reason, their attempts to build platforms to facilitate fan interactions -- to set the terms of fan participation -- have largely failed. Fandoms emerge from other fandoms as diasporic knowledge spreads from one site of community engagement to the next. Mentorship is practical but not hierarchical: those who know teach those who need to learn without regard to age or authority.

Fandom is not a space; fans interact with each other across a wide range of different platforms and environments, drawn to them because they offer certain affordances that allow them to pursue their shared goals and interests.  Fandom’s power comes from its potential to persist despite top-down limits that shape the design and operation of various platforms. Shut it down here and it will spring up somewhere else. The ways commercial producers and platforms enable, limit, or seek to profit from fan engagements has become increasingly central to fandom studies research, but most of us recognize that the fan community (a word too valuable to reject) is not limited to a single platform and its affordances.  There is no such thing as an “empty” fandom; fandoms only exist when groups of people are brought together through their shared social interactions. The spread of fan knowledge and practices is better understood in terms of mentorship (including peer-to-peer mentorship), tradition, and emergence (grassroots experimentation and innovation) rather than design.

Affinity spaces and participatory cultures are not mutually exclusive; one can imagine many potential overlaps between them, but we can not assume that every affinity space constitutes a participatory culture or vice-versa.  I share Gee’s sense that we should be paying more attention to how we build stronger bridges between different participatory cultures, how we find the common ground we need to rebuild the kinds of democratic culture many of us desire. But I would have said that participatory politics movements, such as March for Our Lives, demonstrate the power of such coalitions to take collective action.


There’s a lot more where this comes from — translated into Spanish as well as English.

Rediscovering 1940s American Cinema: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part Four)

Knowing you to always care deeply about the quality of academic prose, I was struck by your close attention to stylistic issues in looking at these writers. What might contemporary film studies scholars learn from a closer rhetorical engagement with the expressive practices of these writers? You write in your introduction, “They remain far more provocative and penetrating than nearly anyone writing film criticism today.”

I do think that film scholars, like most academics, could try to write more crisply. Of course I read things I’ve written over the years and cringe: Did I really have to say things so clumsily? I struggle first to achieve clarity and then, I hope, for a certain neatness, even felicity. I think I had a fairly cogent academic style, but I think writing our blog entries over the last dozen years has made me a more conversational, and I hope, user-friendly writer. I would urge people not to try to imitate any of those critics (especially Farber) but to concentrate on developing fresh, defensible ideas about cinema and putting them forward with nuance. After all, we academics have the luxury of more space than reviewers can command, so there’s no reason we can’t go into more depth.

Developing our blogsite after retirement has given me a forum for long-form para-academic essays, and the ease of putting color stills and clips into an online platform have allowed me to follow my wayward interests (even some on politics). I don’t know that any journal would have published most of what I’ve written there, but I think the informal tone of the work did help me find publishers for our books, two of which (MINDING MOVIES and THE RHAPSODES) were revised blog entries. I think every academic researcher in the humanities should find some admirable writers of haute journalism (for me, Shaw, Hitchens, Robert Hughes, Susan Sontag, Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Hardwick) and study how they do it.



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As we read these critics, one has a sense of their passionate love for cinema as a medium. There has been a contemporary discourse which talks about the loss of cinephilia within contemporary culture. Do you agree with this assessment or is this just grumpy old people not recognizing the same faces and perspectives dominating the conversation? Do you still find things to love in contemporary cinema?

I do feel myself split. Almost every year brings several films I straightforwardly love. This year, that list includes THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, GAME NIGHT, and THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. I look forward to films from directors I admire: Spielberg, Panahi, Kore-eda, Kitano, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan, Wes Anderson, the Coens, Burton (only the weird projects like BIG EYES), Damien Chazelle, Spike Lee, Agnès Varda, David Koepp, Steven Soderbergh, Lucrezia Martel, Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, Johnnie To, Jaime Collet-Serra, etc. I also enjoy genre items like entries in the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, and I’m a sucker for anything that strays into my research zone (A SIMPLE FAVOR, SEARCHING, etc.). But the Star Wars cult leaves me scratching my head, and the superhero films I mostly don’t get, which is odd because I read Batman and Superman (and MAD) as a kid. (Though like everybody else, I loved GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.) Kristin and I go to film festivals to catch up with current work; at Venice and Vancouver this year I think I saw over fifty new titles.

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Still while, preparing entries in our FilmStruck/Criterion Channel  series, I was reminded of how uniquely rich classic cinema is. Studying Duvivier’s LYDIA (1941), which I also write about in the 40s book, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, and Mizoguchi’s STREET OF SHAME, brought home to me how tight, economical, and “dense” or “thick” a film could be. In less than two hours—in the Mizoguchi, less than ninety minutes—we have an intense, “saturated’ experience of cinema, not to mention life. Appreciating this requires concentration, though, and I do believe that people’s devotion to “multitasking” has led to a loss of one aspect of film geekery, the ability to shut off everything else and sink yourself into a circumscribed experience. For me, the early films of Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien approach this quality.

I guess I really do believe there’s a difference of some sort between silent cinema and classic studio cinema (in many countries, including Japan and India), “modern” cinema (say 1950s-1970s), and contemporary cinema. I like all of those periods, but I do sense a difference.

On the whole, though, I think “cinephilia” has become more or less a taste marker (and a branding device for film festivals). I think the idea in its recent form emerge from CAHIERS of the 1980s, when video was starting to take hold of consumers, and film fans felt the need to justify their attraction. Let’s just admit that nearly everybody loves some kinds of cinema, as they do some kinds of music or literature.



Earlier this year, I shared some thoughts with media literacy advocate Tessa Jolls about why the media literacy movement should pay more attention to the cognitive side of your work, and I’d love to get your reactions to that exchange. To what degree do you see your work as contributing to media literacy? Clearly Film Art is widely taught at the undergraduate level, but as film becomes less central to the ways media literacy is taught in high schools, say, are there more general principles for teaching media we might extract from your work? Do you think of media comprehension as a form of “literacy”? Or are there better metaphors for thinking about what we do when we make sense of a media text?

I think I’m out of my depth here, but I’ll try. 

If media literacy means making people aware of how they interact with media, then I’m wholly in the game. Everything I’ve done takes for granted that form and style shape viewers’ experience to some degree.  In terms of a cognitive perspective, you and Tessa clearly understood the interactive side of my interests. Films don’t totalistically demand a single response; but also they can’t mean any old thing we want. 

In POETICS OF CINEMA I floated a cognitive model that suggested that at as we move up three levels, from perception through comprehension to appropriation, the filmmaker’s power wanes as the viewer’s power increases. The filmmaker “structures the stimulus,” as some might say; at the level of comprehension, there’s a kind of collaboration, in which there are prompts for inference-making powers (we collaborate in making the narrative cohere); and at the level of appropriation (including interpretation, but also any use we might put a film to, including in a classroom discussion), we as viewers can build off the film in many directions completely unforeseen by its makers. (Emotional response operates at all three levels, I think.) This still seems to me a decent first approximation of how to think about the dynamic of control and freedom posed by media texts.

On the pedagogical front, I think that what we tried to lay out in FILM ART may hold good in several respects. First, all moving-image media involve the basic techniques we surveyed, from mise-en-scene to sound. Second, the idea of analyzing a media text’s form and style still seems appropriate. Just this morning I read a review of the Netflix MANIAC that suggested that the style of director Corey Fukunaga is so striking that it’s an aesthetic appeal in its own right. Writers like Jason Mittell and Jeremy Butler have shown how these ideas can invigorate analysis of televsion. 

Concepts of narrative and stylistic strategies seem totally applicable to comics too; I tried my hand at applying them in a few blog entries (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/07/30/tintinopolis/http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2009/09/02/archie-types-meet-archetypes/ http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2016/10/22/eep-omigosh-urk-smerp-and-other-archie-epithets/)  and I hope to do more. The newish book HOW TO READ NANCY does this sort of analysis at great length, and of course Scott McCloud’s books have a lot in common with FILM ART.

Third, I think FILM ART’s application of Wölfflin’s idea that “not everything is possible at all times” could nudge media scholars into considering the historical norms at play in various periods and places. Finally, in our most recent editions, we observed that most of our readers would be image-makers. This is a fairly new development in film history. Kids are growing up shooting photos and films on cellphones, editing on computer, posting them for a public. So as teachers we introduced the angle that students of cinema should try to think like a filmmaker. Our book tries to suggest that the creative response to a choice situation isn’t just what Big Filmmakers Out There are doing, but rather something that the readers would confront every time they use a camera. That’s media literacy too, I suppose: reminding readers that they too have the power to make images and tell stories. To do that effectively involves knowing what the creative options are and thinking about the alternative effects that they can generate. I think this is in harmony with what Tessa and you are up to, yes?

David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.




Rediscovering 1940s American Film culture: An Interview With David Bordwell (Part Three)

It will not be a great surprise that I was especially interested in the links you draw here between film evolution and what was happening in other media during this same period -- particularly literature and radio drama, but also theater. What accounts for these parallel developments across media?  This is not simply cinema absorbing influences from the other arts but also the other arts catching up with cinematic devices and practices. What models might you offer us for thinking about the logics shaping exchanges of practices across media? How might we apply such models to think about the relations between games, film, comics and television at the current moment?

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I don’t think there’s a single broad explanation for what I call the “media swap meet” that grew intense in the 1940s. There were close institutional/economic ties among film, radio, theatre, and publishing, so that properties and schemas could pass pretty quickly across platforms. Writers went to Hollywood and sold book rights as well; I discovered a real treasure trove in a weekly column in PUBLISHERS’ WEEKLY devoted to sales to studios, as well as studio competitions for new novels. Magazines, which we tend to overlook, weren’t just part of book publishing but also furnished many stories and writers to Hollywood. Many film people did moonlighting jobs in radio, which was in a way what TV became—a vast torrent of narrative material drawn from all manner of sources. LUX RADIO THEATRE featured stories drawn from films and was even hosted by DeMille. I thought of your trans-media storytelling idea when I learned that SORRY, WRONG NUMBER became an annual event (starring Wisconsin’s own Agnes Moorhead); people huddled around their radios to hear it again and again, which in turn posed problems when a feature film had to be made from it. (So it had to be padded out with a plotline involving a young actor named Burt Lancaster.) And of course Hollywood invested in Broadway plays so as to get the film rights. Interestingly, the influence went both ways: I point to novels obviously influenced by Hollywood, and plays (GLASS MENAGERIE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN) openly modeled on film techniques.

The give-and-take is not so different from the system now, I think. Conglomerates openly own various entertainment venues, but there’s still a lot of prowling and snapping-up of free-standing IP. I don’t know of general models, but I think that heuristically we need to trace out the local, fine-grained relations among media creators, so that we might be able to build models of “creative networks” among these media artists.

Your use the term, “middlebrow modernism,” to describe some of the experimentation taking place across popular culture during this period. The word, “middlebrow,” originally carried some degree of disdain or distaste. Does it do so for you? How might we relate this “middlebrow modernism” to the kinds of experiments in the low or popular arts in the following decade which J. Hoberman called “vulgar modernism”? Are we watching the modernist impulse work its way down the cultural hierarchy as its influence on the culture is more fully absorbed?

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I didn’t mean “middlebrow” to be taken as disdainful, and one of the luckier consequences of the reviews REINVENTING has gotten is that readers don’t seem to have taken it that way. To me, there is important and valuable art that many consider middlebrow—OUR TOWN, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, etc. Arguably, most of Hollywood’s prestige output is middlebrow. My chief claim was a neutral one: that narrative techniques from turn-of-the-century writers like James and Conrad, amped up by High Modernists like Woolf and Faulkner, were visible on the cultural horizon of ambitious American and English writers. But those writers also realized that High Modernism was difficult, so they set about making those techniques user-friendly. My prototypes are people like Thornton Wilder, Rumer Godden, Maxwell Anderson, etc. Indeed, even Welles and Hitchcock could be considered middlebrow. I trace some of the 1940s innovations to this vein of literary culture.

At the same time, mystery fiction was changing and becoming more formally complex, and those works fed into Hollywood’s increasingly dense narrative experiments. In general, both “literary fiction” that makes High Modernism more user-friendly and “popular fiction” that mixes those elements with the inheritance of older conventions (e.g., the C19 novel) seem to me primary sources for narrative strategies we find in the 40s. Actually, I’m digging into this area more right now, and trying to compare it with the present—particularly the recent cycle of female thrillers centering on women’s culture (e.g., GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and corresponding novels). 

Hoberman’s concept of “vulgar modernism” seems to me very specific to certain figures (Fuller, Chester Gould, Weegee) and depends on Brecht as a prototype of modernism. I’d locate Fuller and most comics in a more purely popular tradition of eccentric storytelling.

About video games, I know nothing. I do find it interesting that films like HARDCORE HENRY and WRECK-IT RALPH (excellent movie) derive some of their technique from videogames; but then the first-person camera is an old cinematic device, so I suppose first-person video games are indebted to that.

Your book, The Rhapsodes, works in parallel to Reinventing Hollywood to describe shifts in the critical language around film during this period. You discuss an exceptional group of critics -- Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. Were these critics lucky to have such a rich and innovative set of films to write about? Was Hollywood lucky to have such intelligent and innovative critics to help sort through the experiments which were taking place during this key period? In what ways did shifts in critical practice impact film culture more generally during this period?

THE RHAPSODES was a chip from the workbench. In starting my research on the 40s I read the critics you mention, and I wanted to use them as a way of registering the innovations I tried to track. But interestingly, I found that they didn’t have much to say about them. They weren’t especially attuned to the new conventions of the period, which suggests that general audiences may not have registered them much either. This might be a good example of a historian discovering novelty that the audience wasn’t particularly aware of—that is, that the novelty appears as such only in a historical perspective.

I’ve said at various points that for me ideal film criticism includes not only opinions but information and ideas, all of the above to be delivered in engaging prose. For me, my four critics accomplished this, and the book tries to make that case.

Apart from their remarkable writing skills, what struck me about my quartet was their willingness to take Hollywood seriously as an artistic endeavor, a popular form that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of high art. They seemed to me to be forging, in different ways, a perspective on Hollywood that showed its peculiar artistic value. That meant paying attention to detail, noticing technique, trying to see films as expressive vehicles (and not the reflection of a cultural zeitgeist). In short, and given the limits of their resources (no access to prints, let alone video), they were analyzing and interpreting films to a depth not previously seen in American film criticism.

I think they mostly had no influence on the industry, but they did establish a tradition of the film critic as a literary figure. Agee was the most prominent example, but by the 1960s, when US film culture was ready, they were prototypes of the “celebrity critic” (Kael, Sarris, John Simon). They never had the power of that later generation, but for me they formed the start of a powerful tradition that persists in strong, knowledgeable writers such as Sara Imogen Smith, Manohla Dargis, Michael Phillips, Geoffrey O’Brien, Matt Zoller Seitz,Peter Debruge, Todd McCarthy, and Phillip Lopate.) But I wanted to introduce readers to these extraordinary writers and their ideas about the films of their period.



David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast: Wu Ming 1 and Benjamen Walker on Conspiracy Theories

This week we talked about conspiracy theories with Wu Ming1, of the collective Wu Ming, whose books inspired one the main conspiracy theorists on the internet, and Benjamen Walker, whose podcast often focuses on conspiracy theories. We cover: The art of blurring fact and fiction, and non-fiction, discrediting gatekeepers, can we ever really debunk, the role of satire, the hunger for complexity, pizzagate, the “deep state,” QAnon, and of course, president Trump.

Benjamen Walker tackles just these sorts of trends on his podcast, “Theory of Everything,” many of which trace back their current toxicology to 9/11. In a recent episode he delves into: when the truthers were gone, and how truthers merged into “hoaxers.” He identifies that with Sandy Hook, these hoaxes turned it into a “darker form.” He is a bit pessimistic since: “Looking for a way forward… I haven’t found it yet.”

Wu Ming is a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors formed in 2000 from a subset of the Luther Blissett community in Bologna. Previous to coming together, four members of the group wrote the novel “Q” in 1999. On 28 October 2017, references to Q emerged from the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm,” Q transformed into a government insider, with top security clearance who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Donald Trump, the “deep state”, pedophile rings, Robert Mueller, and the Clintons.

The poetry of debunking

When reflecting on Q, the transformation and viral spread of something clearly originating as a work of fiction, leads us to ask: are we at a point where we cannot debunk any more? We move from “don’t believe what you read, believe me” to “don’t believe what you see, believe me only.”

Conspiracy theories work precisely because they discredit the authority trying to debunk the theory, and authority writ large is exactly what the hoaxers are rejecting. So how do you get around this? Wu Ming suggests that a game-like way of debunking could ultimately compete with the interestingness of the actual theory.

Wu Ming1 also shared his thoughts on the art of weaving fiction and non-fiction.

“Ordinary debunking doesn’t work. Because even if you debunk, believers keep believing them…. Conspiracists provide people with something they need. There is always a kernel of truth, hidden inside a conspiracy theory, because otherwise it wouldn’t work… when we debunk a conspiracy theory, we should be aware of that a kernel of truth.”

Wu Ming proposes that one way to combat this trend is “showing the stitches” — meaning that white hats should open up about about the amount of work required to create works of fiction like Q (similar to showing how a magic trick is done). What we need, he argues, is a “poetry of debunking” that makes the truth more interesting than the conspiracy theory itself.

Please join us to hear this and more in what was a very interesting episode. Plus check out more links below for more content.



Rediscovering 1940s American Film Culture: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part Two)

As you know, I have always been interested in the concept of the “bounds of difference” (from Classical Hollywood Cinema) which raises the question of how much elasticity there is within a system of norms and whether there are periods or genres that stretch against those bounds. For me, my original interest was the ways Hollywood absorbs performance practices from Vaudeville during the early sound era but we could see your recent work on the 1940s as potentially representing a similar moment in American film history, where there is a high amount of experimentation and innovation (a period of “reinvention”). (It was fun to read you writing here about Hellzapoppin and Crazy  House, by the way). So, building on the quote above, what factors opened up those “new possibilities”? Do some of these experiments prove too much for the studio system? Does a new stability eventually emerge or do we see the Hollywood system as always a bit unpredictable and uncontrollable?

Yes, this was a period of innovation not unlike the late 1920s-early 1930s, as your research shows. But there the innovation centered on technology, camera technique, performance, and genre, and these are important trends throughout the 1930s. I think filmmakers worked very hard on developing sound mixing, a fluent style (emphasizing camera movement), new genres (the gangster film, the musical), and performance styles for the sound cinema. (One of my favorite critics, Otis Ferguson, was very sensitive to some of these changes.) But the 1930s also saw a shift away from the narrative fluidity that had become canonical in silent film—the use of crosscutting, the willingness to employ subjective techniques, a freedom of time thanks to flashbacks. 

To put it too grossly, 1930s narration was “behavioral” and “theatrical” to a greater degree than earlier; we have to figure out characters' minds and hearts from externals, as in a play. (Here again, performance matters a lot.) Again to be heavy handed, in the late 1930s and the 1940s, we could say, Hollywood became somewhat more “novelistic”—willing to probe inner states, to shift time scales, etc. As Sara Imogen Smith pointed out to me in a FILM COMMENT podcast, this goes along with a more interiorized performance style (Mitchum, Lancaster, Widmark, even Crawford and Davis). The narration is giving us the psychology, so the actor can be more impassive.

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But to get to your point about the boundaries: I think the boundaries are flexible. We don’t know how far we can go until someone tries. Who would have predicted the elaborate formal contraption that Sturges gives us in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS? Or the psychological intricacies of DAISY KENYON and SWELL GUY? Today, who would have thought we could have such an elaborate time machine as DUNKIRK? I do think that genre helps keep experimentation within bounds; but then again genre encourages experiment, exactly because we know the norms.

Daniel Mainwaring claimed that he wanted OUT OF THE PAST to be narrated by the deaf-mute boy at the beginning, but that was ruled out as too farfetched. Would it be today? And the peculiarities of THE CHASE, which I talk about in both the book and a series of blog posts, seem to have been taken in stride by both critics and audiences. It’s not that anything goes, but we don’t know what doesn’t until somebody tries.




I could not help but read Reinventing Hollywood in relation to the ongoing debates about the status of film noir, which is often treated as a particular genre, style or mode, operating on the fringe of American film practice. But, your book suggests that many of the narrative innovations, such as flashbacks, experiments with subjective camera, nonlinear stories, etc., associated with film noir are actually visible across a range of different genres -- melodrama or romantic comedy, say -- during this same period. So, to put it bluntly, how have people missed this? More generously, how might insights from your book force us to reconsider some of the claims that have been made about film noir?

I start from a historicist position on film noir: that is, I see it as a category invented by later critics to illuminate a range of films that have some common features. It wasn’t a term for Hollywood filmmakers of the period, and so they categorized films quite differently. In the book, I point out that what we’d call thrillers, as well as some detective stories, were lumped in with horror films. 

We can’t enter the historical agents’ minds, but we can get a sense of the norms they seem to hold. So, yes, many of the techniques I study were quite general across a range of genres. I don’t know why researchers haven’t emphasized this enough, but maybe because the power of the idea of film noir (and the glamor of it, I admit) steered people away from noting the strategies elsewhere.


Genre becomes increasingly important as we move deeper into the book and you discuss how the various “narrative schemas” you identify operate in relation to such tendencies in 1940s cinema as the pseudodocumentary procedural, the fantasy film, the psychodrama, the self-reflexive comedy  or the murder mystery. How might we think about the relations between narrative experimentation and the emergence of these genres? Do the genres motivate the formal experimentation? Do these genres emerge as filmmakers seek ways to motivate the devices you have identified?

You raise a fascinating point. Genre is crucial to both narrative norms and narrative innovations. In several cases, I tried to show how genres in other media shaped filmmaking; the most complete example is the rise of the literary and theatrical thriller. As you say, the process goes both ways: existing genres offer opportunities to try out storytelling techniques. This happens with “unreliable” narration in the thriller, for example—something that is rare in other genres. Once the family saga was established with FOUR DAUGHTERS, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, etc., the possibility of downgrading the individual protagonist was there to be exploited further in war pictures. And comedy, as you know better than anyone, offers a huge range of options for playing with structure and style.

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At the same time, I do think that the emergence of certain strategies favored the development of genres that could motivate them. Whatever the cultural appeal of Freudian subjects and themes was at the time, I don’t think the “psychoanalytical” would have appeared quite so strongly without the new armory of subjective techniques. I think the dynamic you point to is especially evident today with technology. The development of analog, then digital special effects from the 1970s onward surely stimulated the development of horror, fantasy, and SF films. They motivate the use of such techniques in a way that wouldn’t be as vivid in other genres.

You title your introduction, “How Hollywood Told It,” which invites comparison to your How Hollywood Tells It book. What parallels are you drawing, implicitly and explicitly, between contemporary Hollywood storytelling and the kinds of innovations you discuss during the 1940s?  How is your interest in new narrative and narrational forms in the 1940s linked to your interest on your blog and elsewhere regarding contemporary “puzzle films”? Does taking this larger historical perspective offer us any insights into the space for innovation in contemporary films?

At the very end of REINVENTING, I floated the idea that the much-vaunted “New Hollywood” of the 1970s emerged out of conditions similar to those that nurtured the 1940s innovations I tried to chart. The industry was regaining health after a period of deprivation, some blockbusters had put money into the system, a new generation of filmmakers emerged to take advantage of opportunities, and some ambitious filmmakers tried to make formal innovations. It’s simply a parallel, but it does suggest that there were periods of intense renewal in Hollywood that we haven’t taken sufficient measure of. 

The more proximate period, and the reason I evoked THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT, was the post-1960s era, when many narrative innovations emerged. They emerged most intensely, I think, in the 1990s-2000s, and a lot of those involved revising the schemas at work in the 40s. The network narrative, from Altman and others in the 1970s, got further elaborated, and the play with time and subjectivity we saw in, say, PETULIA in the 1960s or THE CONVERSATION in the 1970s became much more generalized during the later decades. The saying became “Form is the new content,” and films like PULP FICTION, MEMENTO, MAGNOLIA, and seemed to me ambitious reworkings of the tendencies that had emerged in the 1940s. I floated that tentatively in THE WAY, but returning to the 40s—initially under the aegis of a series of lectures I gave for the Flemish Summer Film College in Belgium in 2011—allowed me to develop my hunch in detail.

David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.







Rediscovering 1940s American Film Culture: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part One)

David Bordwell has been a hyper-productive film scholar since his early 20s and now, more than a decade into his retirement, he is still running strong. He is blogging, updating his old books, writing new ones, and jetting off to film festivals around the world. In the past few years, he has published two new books — The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017). — which give us fresh takes on American film culture in the 1940s, a period that seems all the more innovative and transformative through his characteristically close analysis.

I was lucky enough to be have Bordwell as my dissertation advisor in the late 1980s at the peak of the so-called “Wisconsin” project. He was a breathtaking presence in the classroom — we routinely stayed an hour or more after class until he felt his lecture was complete — and he was generous as a mentor — making sure each student found their own voice even if or especially if they disagreed with his premises. It is hard to imagine writing my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, without his influence and I draw on things he taught me regularly even if my work has taken me far from cinema studies in recent years.

I am proud to be able to share with you a bit of our lifelong conversation together. Here, he situates his new books on the 1940s in relation to concerns which run throughout his career. His responses are, as always, substantive and probing, showing the continued evolution of his thinking on some core issues.

If I look across your body of work, there are books dealing with exceptional filmmakers (Ozu, Eisenstein, Dreyer, not to mention recent writing about Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan) as well as books which adopt a more normative approach looking at samples of typical or average films (such as The Classical Hollywood Cinema, The Way Hollywood Tells It, and Reinventing Hollywood). What do you see as the relationship between these two approaches? How do they fit together in your conception of film studies as a field?



I should say at the start that I try to proceed from questions that intrigue me and that seem to me to remain unanswered (or not satisfactorily answered). The questions tend to come within three broad areas: (1) The history and creative resources of film forms (especially narrative); The history and creative resources of film techniques (i.e., style); and The principles governing activities of spectators who respond to films. As you know, I approach all those within a framework I’ve called a poetics of cinema—the probing of princples that filmmakers develop and that viewers learn to apprehend.

So the filmmakers you mention are those who seem to me to occupy niches in those areas. To take the recent examples you mention: Nolan seems to me to have developed a distinct “formal project” in his handling of narrative—essentially testing how crosscutting can create different temporal zones—while Anderson works both at the level of narrative and a distinct pictorial style. But because I’m interested in principles of narrative and style, I see those as shared and spread through a community of creators, so that norms are created that more or less shape what’s possible (or discouraged, or encouraged) in different contexts. The norms, I’ve stressed from the beginning, aren’t single mandated rules but rather range of more or less permitted options.

 In the books on Hollywood, I’ve tried to spell out the principles shaping form and style within that powerful community. The most recent book on the 1940s goes the farthest, I suppose, in trying to construct the “menu” from which filmmakers work. But the innovative filmmakers expand the menu by showing possibilities in the norms that others haven’t realized. Sometimes those possibilities themselves become normative, as, say, complex flashback construction became normative in the 40s. The same sort of process, I think, went on in Hong Kong cinema from the 1980s through the 2000s.

As for Ozu, Dreyer, and Eisenstein: In all those cases, I tried to show how the individual filmmaker worked both within and against emerging norms of form and style in their most proximate context. For Ozu, the context was Japanese studio cinema; for Eisenstein, the emerging Soviet avant-garde; for Dreyer, the “language” of international European cinema (though from my perspective today, I think I missed many chances to relate him to important trends—I just didn’t know enough!).





Auteur filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Capra, Wyler, Welles, or Sturges do make appearances in Reinventing Hollywood but often to show how their practices were in conversation with those of less well remembered films and filmmakers of the same period. You write, “To a greater extent than their contemporaries, they carved out new formal options. But their very originality created problems of competition. Once the new schema are out there, anyone could imagine telling a story through multiple flashbacks, embedding a film within a film, restricting our knowledge to a single character, or ringing changes on thriller premises. To stay prominent, Welles and Hitchcock had to outrun their imitators and themselves.” One of your very first widely read essays dealt with Citizen Kane. What does this more robust map of this cycle of innovation during the 1940s help us to see within this film you would not have seen before?



Because of its length, REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD allowed me to deal with changes within norms to a degree I couldn’t before. Both THE CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA and THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT build up a general picture of norms of storytelling and style. They do address some local changes—e.g., early sound shooting style, deep-focus cinematography in CHC and the emergence of “network narratives” and “worldmaking” in THE WAY. But the 1940s book let me dig more into the dynamic of how narrative strategies develop in a short time span. 

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Once I conceived Hollywood as a community built on “cooperative competition,” I was able to sense the extent to which a film like KANE did two things: It assimilated several storytelling strategies that had emerged in films and other media; and it provided a template for further revision, by Welles and by others. Again, it came down to different questions. That very early essay on KANE, and the better analysis I wrote for the editions of FILM ART: AN INTRODUCTION, were concerned with functional explanations—providing an analysis of how the film worked. The 40s book was more concerned with causal explanation, asking what narrative schemas were available to be synthesized by Welles and his collaborators, and how those in turn became available to others. 

I came to appreciate the notion that filmmakers were making films not only for audiences but for other filmmakers, as part of a give-and-take of influence and, perhaps, rivalry. Certainly I think that the great number of “Hitchcockian” thrillers that followed Hitchcock’s emigration to the states shaped a sense of competition in him: he had to outrun his imitators. He did this with some very outré projects, like LIFEBOAT, SPELLBOUND, ROPE, and UNDER CAPRICORN, but he also managed to perfect the “Hitchcock touch” in NOTORIOUS. Filmmakers, I’m convinced, can be quite aware of the pressure to innovate, especially when they become famous.


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You write: “The collective nature of the Hollywood enterprise yielded remarkable achievements, and the results were never perfectly controllable or predictable. When collective effort was blended with individual abilities and fresh opportunities, new forms -- not formulas -- could emerge, expand, and mingle. We’re confronted with two levels of artistry: tried-and-true conventions executed with more or less skill, and innovations that open up new possibilities.”  So, what are some of the “new forms” and “new possibilities” that emerge during this period?

Broadly, the 1940s sees a crystallization of several narrative options (as well as stylistic ones, which I try to deal with in other work). There’s the flashback narrative, in all its myriad forms; the multiple-protagonist film (probably seen best in the combat picture); the  “psychological” film (e.g., THE LOST WEEKEND, THE SNAKE PIT); the social-comment film; the “new realist” film (e.g., INTRUDER IN THE DUST); the film relying on subjective imagery and voice-over; and the self-consciously stylized film, which acknowledges its ties to or breaks with earlier film history (e.g., HELLZAPOPPIN, THE PERILS OF PAULINE). I also place a lot of emphasis on the emergence of the psychological thriller, either based on the man-on-the-run or the woman-in-peril; in the 1940s, the thriller became central to mainstream cinema, as it remains today. None of these options was absolutely new at the period, but in the 1940s they coalesced and developed in new variants very rapidly.

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In a sense, I tried to do for narrative strategies what genre critics have long done. A critic studying the musical or the Western or whatever casts a wide net, looking for basic conventions and less-common innovations that are taken up, or not. I tried to do the same for narrative devices. For example, in 1940-1941 every studio makes at least one prestigious picture based on flashbacks. This was an uncommon option in the 1930s. By the end of the 1940s, flashback films are a mainstay of Hollywood storytelling, and some films—eg, BACKFIRE—have flashbacks of an intricacy that no one in 1941 would have attempted. This is the sort of “expansion and mingling” that I tried to capture.



David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.