For many scholars in Fan Studies and Cult/ Horror Studies, Stacey Abbott needs no introduction. Her work on various currents of pop culture and genre—including Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sister show Angel, as well as the vampire and the zombie in general terms—are required reading on many University degree programmes. Stacey is a robust scholar, and I’m proud to say that many of her publications sit within arm’s reach on my groaning shelves at home. In the following interview, Stacey and I discuss her own fandom, her academic pursuits and the state of horror in the 21st Century, among other things. I hope you enjoy this installment of Cult Conversations.
How would you describe your research interests for readers not familiar with your work?
Increasingly these days I describe myself as a horror studies scholar as so much of my work comes back to horror and the Gothic. But more broadly, one could describe me as a genre specialist as I am very interested in science fiction alongside horror. I have written on romantic comedies as well and hope to write about musicals one day. One of the key focuses of my interest in genre is how and why genres develop and change from an industrial, technological and cultural perspective. I am very interested in media specificity, for instance, how does the horror genre work on television and how is that different from film. But also how do genres come to embody or represent changing socio-political climates and cultures. Through these interests I have come to specialise in texts that feature monsters such as vampires and zombies. My PhD was on vampire films and this interest in vampires then led me to the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which led me to writing about cult and genre television, another major interest of mine. I started out as a film scholar but increasingly my work moves back and forth between film and television.
Do you recall when the horror bug first bit you? Did you identify as a fan of the genre prior to becoming a scholar? Or was it your academic pursuits that you led to vampires, slayers and zombies?
I grew up with an obsessive passion for the cinema but did not prefer one genre over another. I would move comfortably from screwball comedy to musicals to horror (and still do). But I did always have a taste for horror. In fact, I was recently listening to Alice Cooper’s song ‘Steven’, which is on his Welcome to My Nightmare album, and I have clear memories of listening to the song as a child (my older brother was an Alice Cooper fan) and finding this song really scary and absolutely enthralling. I have always been fascinated by the fact that something can be enticing and scary at the same time. I remember watching The Exorcist and Halloween on TV as a child and they made a big impact on me. Watching horror films on television was a key starting point for my interest in TV horror. I also remember my older brother telling me about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when it came out. He found it terrifying and I was fascinated by the idea of this film and that it would scare my brother in that way. I couldn’t see it until years later and I was really nervous about seeing it because of that memory. I worked in a video store as a teenager so would regularly take out videos of slasher movies and watch them with my friends. So, I did identify as a fan but I wasn’t involved in broader horror fan culture until years later.
My passion for horror did grow as I became more academically involved in the study of film. The more I studied the genre, the richer I found it and the more I enjoyed the films. So as an undergraduate film student, I wrote about Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Angel Heart and I gave a presentation on Robin Wood’s ‘The American Nightmare’ and the more I studied film the more I came to feel that there was something cinematic about horror. I loved the aesthetics of the genre and the way in which aesthetics could generate emotion. So, my passion for the topic has been fuelled by academic study and my academic study has fuelled my passion for the genre. Similarly, I started writing about vampires as a Masters student at the University of East Anglia and I would never have guessed that I would still be writing about them but the more I studied the folklore, literature and the cinematic and televisual heritage, the more I realised that there was so much to say about the genre and of course more and more films keep coming out, so there is always more to say.
What is it in particular that continues to fascinate you about the genre? What are your primary fan-objects and can these differentiated from the objects you study?
My fascination with the horror genre is two-fold I suppose. I am fascinated by the aesthetics of horror, whether this be the special make-up effects and intense gore of 1980s body horror or the gothic aesthetics of the genre in the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, I have recently written on the use of sound in early werewolf films and how the transition to sound cinema facilitated a new aesthetic conception of horror. So I am interested in the industrial factors that contribute to the changes within our understanding of the horror genre. But I am also fascinated by the cultural implications of horror. How do these films generate fear; do they tap into cultural fears or particular cultural moments? What can the genre tell us about ourselves? What we fear - or perhaps what fears the genre taps into – can be quite telling. And it isn’t always about fear. The vampire genre, for instance, often oscillates between attraction and repulsion. So it also confronts or provokes us with desires as well as fears.
For me there is a very fine line between fan-object and object of study. For instance, I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and part of my fandom is integrated with my desire to analyse and break down what is going on in these texts. What are they doing that I find so interesting? But that does not mean being uncritical. In fact, I find that fans can often by hyper-critical. While as a scholar I need to negotiate my fandom with my scholarship, I don’t think that this is entirely unique. I think that academics are often fans of the objects of their study. That is why we study them. Dickens scholars are usually fans of Dickens. Horror scholars are fans of horror.
To go back to your question, my primary fan-objects with respect to horror are Night of the Living Dead (and all of Romero’s zombie films), Martin, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I am a particular fan of horror that came out of the 1960s and 1970s. But I also love 1980s films such as Fright Night and The Lost Boys. Too many to choose from. And there are some amazing films that have come out in recent years, such as Stakeland, The Babadook, American Mary and so many others.
You have recently completed work on a chapter about The Purge and the way in which it intersects with contemporary US politics. Can you summarize your argument?
In the 1970s Robin Wood made the argument that the American Horror Genre had potential to be the most progressive of popular genres because it could tap into and express the desire for social change that he saw as fundamental to the post-Vietnam/Watergate era. The genre’s nihilism was expressing the rage of a generation. This argument has become quite prevalent in defining horror of the 1970s. My aim in writing about the Purge films was to examine the relevance of Wood’s argument in the contemporary political landscape, in particular how we read these films that in many ways seem to be consciously rehearsing this argument, questioning what happens in horror when the subtext becomes text. Are the filmmakers trying to use the genre for political purposes or are they simply taping into recognisable themes to make them seem more relevant and commercial? So as part of this argument, I reflect on how the franchise negotiates its commercial imperative with political commentary on class and race in the United States. The franchise seems increasingly, and self-consciously, relevant within the contemporary US socio-political landscape. I suppose, another thread to the argument, is to challenge recent conceptions of post-horror, which suggests that films with socio-political readings are somehow new or make them more than horror. I argue that this is what a lot of horror does as part of its natural matrix.
Following on from that question, are the politics of contemporary horror cinema being underpinned by a marked shift? And what do you think of the notion of cinema as a “reflection” of a broader cultural, social and political climate?
I think that there has often been a relationship between horror and politics and during periods of particular political strife, cinema taps into this tension. We see this in the 1930s and the depression, 1950s and the cold war, etc. So I would not see the contemporary horror landscape as unique. In fact, for every Purge film or Get Out, there is a Paranormal Activity – a film that is not overtly presenting itself as political. But within a complex political landscape, I think horror is a very fruitful genre for filmmakers to explore social or political issues. Get Out – like Night of the Living Dead before it -- is an excellent example of this. Horror often allows filmmakers to take familiar scenarios to their extreme to expose the true horrors that underpin the everyday – like the racial tension between Ben and Mr. Cooper that is exposed due to the stresses of a zombie apocalypse in Night of the Living Dead or the middle-class racism that underpins the plot of Get Out. Of course, the horrors that underpin the everyday don’t have to be political. A film like Hereditary uses horror to explore the impact of grief and the pain of loss. We don’t talk about death very often and horror is an outlet to perhaps talk about it or tap into and express feelings of loss. The Babadook similarly explores grief and the difficulties of being a single parent, often expressing the inexpressible. So horror can express many things from the personal to the political.
But we shouldn’t read horror cinema as purely a reflection of a single political reading and/or ideology. There are conflicting readings of the alien invasion films of the 1950s that read them as examining the horrors of Communism while others read them as exposing the horror of social conformity. These readings may differ from film to film and/or they may often co-exist in some films. Sometimes filmmakers intend for their films to offer a social or political commentary as with Get Out but often they are a product of multiple influences which can open the door to multiple readings.
This brings us to the second part of your question. I think we need to be cautious about thinking of cinema – any type of cinema – as a reflection of the real world. Cinema is not a mirror but rather a product of a wide range of influences, voices, contexts. These can often be contradictory. So, I tend to think of cinema as a construct rather than a reflection. This does not mean that we can’t read them in relation to broader cultural, social and political climate or events. I think that cinema – like the filmmakers who make films and audiences who watch them – is a product of its time and its cultural, industrial contexts. And horror is a very rich text to unpack in this manner. The Purge films seem to consciously critique a culture of racism and violence in the US, as well as an economy that seems to benefit from this culture of fear. At the same time, they aestheticize and in many ways celebrate gun culture. While they seem to critique the NRA, it is always the men with guns who save the day. As a series of films, they raise many interesting ideas that are exciting to unpack. I am fascinated by the contradictions.
In academic and press discourse, it seems that horror remains discursively constructed as oppositional, disparaged and maligned. Do you agree that this is the case?
I would tend to agree. Of course, there have been changes to attitudes about horror. It is more accepted as a subject of study, although you might still find some critics or members of the press questioning the study of vampires at university. Vampires and zombies are, however, taught in universities across the UK and the North America, on top of countless modules on horror. The London Film Festival regularly programmes horror films, although under the banner ‘Cult’ and from August 2013- January 2014 the British Film Institute devoted a four month season to the Gothic, which included some of the best of past and contemporary horror and Gothic cinema. Some would argue that it would have been harder to plan such a season had it been called Horror and even under the banner of Gothic, there was resistance. But overall, it was a great success and a sign of progress in terms of the genre’s recognition.
Having said that, I think that the genre is still often maligned or perceived as disreputable. The most common way that this manifests at the moment is through the way in which terms such as ‘post-horror’, ‘smart horror’, or ‘elevated horror’ are being used in the press as a way of distancing some films from other examples of horror. These terms suggest that recent films, such as Get Out, A Quiet Place, and Hereditary, are different or separate from horror because they are intelligent, skilful, or thought provoking. What these terms don’t recognise is that horror has always been these things or had the potential to be these things. Bride of Frankenstein, Cat People, Night of the Living Dead, and The Brood are all intelligent, skilful, and thought-provoking films. Of course, some films function more viscerally than intellectually, and these terms seem to suggest that they are a lesser form of horror and I would argue against this. The beauty of the horror genre is that it can function in multiple registers and is constantly shifting and changing. If it didn’t the genre wouldn’t work. So, a film that is deliberately trying to provoke the audience through graphic depictions of gore is potentially as interesting and significant as a film that appeals to our intellect. And many films do both. Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, and Jen and Sophia Soska (to name a few) are masters of visceral and intellectual filmmaking. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.
To describe horror as ‘oppositional’ is not necessarily a negative, rather it is kind of the point. Horror is meant to make us uncomfortable and the best horror can take us to dark places and challenge us in an intellectual and/or visceral way. Every once and a while a film – or television series- comes out that pushes the boundaries of acceptability – Psycho, Eyes without a Face, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Serbian Movie or The Human Centipede 2 – and these films can fall fowl of censors and critics. But to me that often means they are doing what horror should do – provoke, make us think and make us uncomfortable. In television this happens too. The Walking Dead generated a lot of controversy for the premier episode of season seven ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’. It was criticised for going too far; pushing the boundaries of acceptability for television; traumatizing its audience. It was repeatedly compared to ‘torture porn’ -- a phrase which is used to connote exploitative graphic horror and is itself highly problematic and inaccurate in its comparison to this episode. But to me that is when a horror text gets interesting. For a series set during a zombie apocalypse, where people get eaten by zombies every week, characters regularly meet gruesome ends, and which showcases the decay of the zombie body in graphic detail, I am fascinated by what about this series premiere was perceived as going too far. Many critics fell back on familiar arguments about how horror desensitizes audience to violence but if the reaction to this episode showed anything, it proved that audiences were not desensitized. They responded viscerally and emotionally – whether they were angry or traumatized or grief stricken. The ability to generate that emotion and reaction is truly amazing and one of the many reasons I love horror.
In what ways is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a “cult” text? What marks the series out as “cult,” especially considering it was so impactful in mainstream terms? Do you view Buffy as characterised by the horror label?
Cult is, of course, a slippery term and there are many ways of thinking about a text as cult. One way of thinking about cult is to see it as standing in opposition to the mainstream but this then raises questions about what we mean by mainstream. Buffy may have been impactful by influencing other series in terms of representation of women and the development of long-running narrative arcs, as well as contributing to a culture change in terms of the presence of horror on television. And it has entered into broader cultural consciousness with, for instance, Entertainment Weekly celebrating the show’s 20th anniversary last year. It has a high recognition factor. But even at its peak it was still generating small audiences as compared to mainstream franchises such as CSI or reality television. It was broadcast on smaller networks – first the WB and then UPN – who were interested in targeting particular audiences rather than the largest audience share. It is about a teenage girl -– named Buffy – who fights and kills vampires. This is a show that is not aimed at everyone but is aimed at particular niche audiences. While I would argue that everyone should watch Buffy because it is brilliant and, at its best, an example of outstanding acting, writing and directing (not to mention music, editing, action choreography etc), it just isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Some people aren’t going to get past the ‘kill vampires’ bit or the name ‘Buffy’ or the, at times, low budget special effects and make-up. There is something in the constitution of the series, and even the title, that is setting up the show as cult or at the very least a show aimed at an audience who ‘gets it’.
Also, it came on the air during the early days of internet fandom and was key to showing the potential that the internet had to offer fan culture in terms of online forums, sharing/production of fanfiction. I think that the series, clearly coming out at the right time, encouraged an engaged fandom who wanted to discuss, analyse, and create. It was emotionally engaging and it was appointment-TV. Remember this was a series broadcast weekly for 23 weeks of the year and then you had to wait until September for the next season. This left a lot of space and time for fans to want to fill with discussion and fan creation; fill in those narrative blanks (like what Buffy and her friends did over the summer).
Finally, it was created by Joss Whedon and a brilliant team of writers and directors who wanted this show to be more than a popular series but one which generated passion and loyalty on the part of its fans. Most of them self-identify as ‘fans’ of some form of cult television and wanted their audience to feel that type of loyalty and love for this series that they had felt for other shows like Star Trek or The Night Stalker. So they embraced the cultness of the text, engaging with fans in online forums; encouraging and supporting fan creations; and engaging with fans at conventions.
As to the second part of your question, I absolutely see the show as characterised by horror. Now today we look it and it, of course, seems tame and incredibly restricted in terms of what it could show or not show. But this is where context is important. When it came on the air, there was very little in the way of horror on television, particularly American network television. Of course, it hadn’t always been this way. Horror was prevalent in the 1970s for instance, and the 1980s saw a number of horror anthology series being produced. But in 1997, there was The X-Files, which while incredibly indebted to horror, sold itself as science-fiction. HBO’s Tales from the Crypt ended in 1996. There just wasn’t that much in the way of horror on the air. There were censorship restrictions on what you could show and a hesitancy for networks to pursue horror as it was seen as a more niche genre. So, to be horror, it was common for series to mask their horror-leanings within a genre matrix. The X-Files is science-fiction/horror and Buffy is teen comedy/drama and horror and Angel is Film noir and horror. These are just a few combinations.
But Buffy’s focus on exploring the monster as metaphor for adolescence is completely based upon horror conventions and tropes. It is replete with vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves, slashers, giant praying mantises, Frankenstein monsters, demons, evil politicians, mad scientists, and the list goes on. It uses these monsters to explore the evil that surrounds us and exists within us. Aesthetically, it often draws its visuals from German Expressionism and Gothic cinema and operates in dialogue with established horror traditions or classics of the genre – such as Dracula and Halloween. The show walks a fine line between its various genre leanings in order to manage the horror so that the material remains suitable to the show’s target teenage audience and to the network’s need to conform to FCC regulations. So the dark visual style is balanced by a bright and colourful visual style but the series never lets you forget that the darkness is still out there or that the most violent horrors might emerge in the bright light of day such as when the very human Warren shoots Buffy and Tara.
For me Buffy, and subsequently Angel, represents a key transitional moment when it became clear you could do horror on network TV and there was an audience for it. It is notable that after they were both off the air, Supernatural starts on the WB which is a series that is hugely indebted to both shows and overtly sold itself as horror. While it also offers hybrid generic matrix, integrating horror with melodrama and comedy in much the same way as Buffy, it could sell itself as horror in a way that Buffy had to downplay. Post-2005, we start seeing the floodgates opening to horror on TV and now we live in a very different televisual landscape where some of the most exciting things in horror are happening on television – see Hannibal, Penny Dreadful, American Horror Story, In the Flesh, The Terror – I could go on for ever.
Stacey Abbott is a Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is the author of Celluloid Vampires: Life after Death in the Modern World (2007), Angel: TV Milestone (2009), Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century(2016), and co-author, with Lorna Jowett, of TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (2013). She has also written extensively about cult television and is the editor of The Cult TV Book (2010), Reading Angel: The TV Spin-Off with a Soul (2005) and TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map to Supernatural (2011). She is currently co-editing, with Lorna Jowett, a book on Global TV Horror and is writing the BFI Classic on Near Dark.