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.
When did your journey into horror and cult media begin? Are your academic pursuits a labour of (fan) love, first and foremost? And, if so, how do you negotiate between these different identities?
My journey into horror began when my family purchased a VCR. I was about 10 years old. It seemed like a lot of kids at my school already had a VCR, so when we got one, I was absolutely thrilled. Like most kids, I loved to watch TV, but once we got a VCR, I left TV behind. I stopped watching most television shows and instead watched tons of movies. As I began to frequent the video store, I believe I gravitated toward horror movies because those were the movies I always heard older kids talking about. I grew up in the mountains and went to a small country Baptist church. There were no kids my age at church, so they put me in the teenage class for Sunday school. When the teacher sat me in the corner and gave me Bible-themed colouring books to play with while they had class, I would overhear the teenagers whispering about Friday the 13th and stuff like that. That stuff sounded really cool, so I headed straight for that section of the video store when I had the opportunity. I suppose Sam Arkoff and all the other guys at AIP were right: a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch. That type of thinking certainly influenced my choices.
My parents were very conservative, but luckily for me, they were very lenient when it came to movies and let me watch pretty much whatever I wanted. As long as I was upstairs in my room and they didn’t have to see it, they were fine.
I was aided and abetted in my quest for horror films by the family who owned the closest video store, which was located Baileyton, TN, a small town about a 20 minute drive from our house. Baileyton was basically just a cluster of gas stations, bars, and truck stops off of Interstate 81, which was the only main highway running through northeast Tennessee back then. The store, “Baileyton Video,” was in a building that had once been a gas station. It still had old, decrepit fuel pumps standing in the middle of the parking lot.
(If I may, here’s a few eerie side notes about Baileyton. An elderly man who owned a small grocery store just down the road from Baileyton video was shot and killed in his store. They never caught the killer. Also, about a couple of miles or so away, a group of Satanists shot and killed a man, his wife, and their six-year-old daughter. They had a two-year-old son who was also shot, but he survived. This crime came to be known as “The Lillelid Murders” and got national attention. Also, woman who disappeared was last seen in the area, and the story was featured on the television show Unsolved Mysteries.)
The husband and wife who ran Baileyton Video really liked me for some reason or another. I started frequenting their store when I was around age 12 or so, and they let me rent pretty much any movie I wanted, even though I was way underage. I remember reading about Re-Animator somewhere or another (probably Fangoria, which I had just discovered), and I really wanted to see it. When I finally found it on the video shelf, it had a big red “X-rated” sticker on the box (there were no “unrated” stickers, so unrated videotapes just got slapped with the “X” sticker). I took it to the counter anyway. The woman took a look at the box and asked me, “Is this movie just really scary? It doesn’t have any other bad stuff in it, does it?” Of course, “bad stuff” was a euphemism for sex. I didn’t really know exactly what the movie was about, but I just blurted out: “No! It’s just supposed to be really, really scary!” That was apparently good enough for her because she let me rent it. I was lucky that, obviously, neither she nor her husband had seen it! I remember that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also had an “X-rated” sticker on it. When I brought that to the counter, she seemed uncertain, but her husband look over, saw the box, and said, “Oh, he can watch that. It’s not that bad.”
In all my time as a customer, there was only one movie they did not let me rent: Wild at Heart. I wonder why they drew the line there? I’m not sure. I saw the movie later on and didn’t like it, so I suppose it was no great loss.
Looking back on my life, it’s now fairly apparent to me why horror cinema really clicked with me once I discovered it. Horror movies were more than just what the cool older kids were watching. These movies gave me a way to deal with all the fear and anxiety I suffered from when growing up. In many ways, I was a terrified child, scared of a lot of stuff. I already mentioned that I attended a Southern Baptist church way up in the Tennessee mountains, and this stripe of Christianity instilled fear into me at a young age. I didn’t go to a serpent-handling, speaking-in-tongues-type of church, but it wasn’t too far off from that type of stuff. There was plenty of screaming and shouting and furious preaching. My very first memory is being at church. This culture instilled a healthy amount of fear into me at a young age: fear of being led astray by Satan’s wiles, fear of god’s vengeance, fear of hellfire, and fear of a rapture that could apparently happen at any moment. I was told that the rapture was something we should look forward to, but whenever I saw visual depictions of the event in drawings or paintings – with the sky cracking open, graves exploding, and cars crashing as spirits flew out the sunroofs – it looked absolutely terrifying.
Growing up in the mountains, you encounter a whole lot of mountain lore, superstitions, and scary tales, what they used to call “booger” stories. A “booger” was an Appalachian bogeyman. My grandmother was a big believer in the supernatural and would often tell me about all the haunted houses and hollers. She warned me to never go to these places. Later on when we were grown up, my cousin Leisa told me our grandmother didn’t really believe all that stuff, but I’m not so certain. Either way, she was very convincing!
Also adding to my anxiety were the strange things you’d see as a kid growing up in the mountains. Something that made an indelible impact on me happened when I was about four or five. I walking around and playing in the woods that my grandmother owned in the mountains behind my parents’ house. I was walking up a bank and started smelling an indescribable odour. I got to the top of the bank. On the other side, there was a fairly steep incline into a ditch. At the bottom in the ditch, about fifteen or so yards away, was a huge pile of grey, white, and brown matter with waves of flies swarming all around it. It was the decomposing corpse of a cow. I ran to get my dad and my brother. It seemed that a cow from an adjoining lot had broken a fence, wondered over onto my grandmother’s property, and something horrible happened. Not sure what. My brother kept saying, “She probably fell and broke her leg,” and that phrase haunted me. The idea that something so terrible could happen so randomly was too much for my young mind to handle.
So, long story short, I believe I gravitated toward horror because horror films helped me wrap my tiny, terrified, anxious mind around all of these horrors – images of the end of the world, booger men, and dead carcasses – and have fun with them. Like a lot of things in life, horror movies were scary, but they were also really fun. I loved conventions and watching for certain recurring iconography, tropes, and story types. I was excited when the films broke from convention in new ways, but even the most by-the-numbers horror was fun for me. I’ve read some recent studies that say watching horror films is therapeutic for people who suffer from anxiety. That’s probably similar to the soothing sensation I get from horror. A lot of things changed through my prepubescent and teenage years, but the one constant was my love of horror cinema.
When I went to college, I majored in English, which was pretty much the only option for me since English was by far and away my strongest subject in school. I was thrilled to find out that the English department offered classes about movies. Not only that, but it turned out that you could do a film studies concentration. I fell in love!
I suppose this brings us to the question about whether or not my academic pursuits are a labour of love. I believe so, but there was not a straight line leading directly from my love of film to my eventual academic pursuits. Somewhere along the line during my academic studies, I veered in a different direction and became convinced, for some reason or another, that I wanted to be a James Joyce scholar. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I began an MA program in literature. However, a couple of years studying Modern Literature and writing an MA thesis on Joyce quickly disabused me of any notion that I would ever become a Joyce scholar. I got burned out. One of my professors pulled me aside and said, “Look, you’re a smart guy, but this obviously isn’t for you. You’re heart just isn’t in this anymore. Figure out what you really care about and study that.”
He was correct: that path was not for me. As I got deeper and deeper into studying literature, I felt more and more cut off from life and the world in general. I felt unplugged from everything, like I was smothering. I’m not sure if that makes sense or not, but that’s the only way I can explain it. Oftentimes, I was trying to study literature that even people who love literature would never choose to read if they weren’t forced to! Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit, but when I dove into Joyce, I felt myself sinking in a sea of textual obscurity. So, I quit school for a couple of years and thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to teach, and I loved teaching writing. But beyond that was uncertain.
My graduate studies in Modern Literature seemed to unplug me from everything and disengage me with the world. But whenever I watched films and read about films, especially horror, I felt really plugged into life. I felt like I could really engage with the world and its complexities when I talked and read about horror cinema. I found myself returning to the type of academic inquiry I undertook in my undergraduate classes in film studies, which led me back to horror cinema, my first love.
Around this time, I also got into cultural studies and starting thinking not only about film, but also its place in the material world. What are the real world circumstances in which we consume film? How do these various reception contexts affect the ways we experience film? These types of questions excited me and got me thinking about how I experienced horror films via home video when I was growing up, which undoubtedly had something to do with my academic interest in home video. When I returned to graduate school, it was in a cultural studies program with an emphasis in film and media studies.
So, ultimately, I would say my academic pursuits are a labour of love because I’m trying to analyse and understand this genre that I have loved all my life. It gave me a lens through which to view the world as I was growing up. My interest in cultural studies led me to start asking questions about the practices – business, cultural, political, and otherwise – that surround this film genre that had been so important to me all my life.
Is it a fan labour of love? That’s a tricky question. When I found myself studying and writing about something that I really loved as a fan, I believe I tried to divide “the fan” and “the academic” sides of my personality. My mentor and dissertation advisor, the wonderful Cynthia Baron, always encouraged me to try and keep the two separate. She would always say, “Don’t write about a film like you’re the director’s publicist!” I’ll always remember that. She’d say, “These people already have an army of people being paid to sell their movies! Don’t use your scholarship just to convince someone to watch this or that particular film!” So, I attempted to keep a critical eye. Maybe too critical at times.
To try and keep the “fan” and “academic” sides of my personality separate, I believe I found myself writing about horror films I was not that fond of. This way, I felt I could write about something that I love but also keep a bit of “objective” distance from it. I’ve often written about films that I think are interesting, but don’t absolutely love. For instance, I’ve written about the Hostel films and the Saw franchise, but I don’t really love those films. I’ve written about Italian cannibal films, and while I love Italian horror (go Team Fulci!), films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox are definitely not among my favourites. Upon reflection, I believe this is how I’ve tried to negotiate between being an academic and a fan. Of late, however, I’ve found myself writing about movies that I really love, so we’ll see how that turns out!
In your excellent monograph, Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film (2015), you push back against the notion of horror cinema as ‘reflectionist,’ notably around the subject of 9/11 and national trauma. What precipitated this riposte?
Initially, it was the DVD that interested me. I was looking around and seeing people writing and talking about, for instance, Hostel and saying things like, ‘Hostel is about 9/11’ or ‘Hostel is a critique of capitalism.’ Then, you could put on the Hostel DVD, flip over to the commentary track, and hear Eli Roth saying things like ‘this film is about 9/11’ or ‘this film is a critique of capitalism.’ Some folks were saying ‘Hostel: Part II is a feminist horror film,’ and again, you could grab the DVD, put on the commentary, and hear Eli Roth talking about how the film is a feminist horror film. Where’s the analysis? That’s just repeating what the filmmaker said. It made me nervous.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time filmmakers attempted to create a particular reception context for their films or frame their films in a particular way, but the DVD seemed to commodify these practices and graft these paratexts onto the primary text to a degree they hadn’t been in the past. It seemed to me that traditional, text-based film studies methodologies (like psychoanalysis) had been co-opted by the film industry by way of DVD extra features that essentially ‘explained’ the movie for the audience, so in a way, DVD commentaries and extra features seemed to make a lot of ‘reflectionist’ readings of these films moot.
Some folks wanted to make the argument that the return of gritty, violent American horror films in the mid-2000s – after the prevalence of postmodern slashers and Asian horror in the late 1990s and early 2000s – was a ‘reflection’ of post-9/11 anxiety and the violence of the Iraq war. Again, though, I came back to the DVD. I couldn’t help but think of what sort of role DVD may have played in this turn, especially since DVDs changed the ratings game in the US and made it acceptable to widely circulate ‘Unrated’ movies with more violent and bloody content. After years of stigma surrounding the ‘X’ and ‘NC-17’ ratings, I was surprised by how quickly things changed with the ‘Unrated’ DVD.
Ultimately, instead of relying on reductive and ahistorical reflectionist models, I was interested in looking at how conscious business decisions in the film industry – in specific, the rollout of DVD – influenced horror film content in the mid-to-late-2000s. I believe the Splat Pack offered a good case study for this. I tried to look at the Hostel films and the Saw films, among others, as consumer products and think through what experiences these films on DVD are attempting to sell to home-viewing audiences. I thought it was exciting to think about, say, how the Saw films on DVD create a home version of the early 20th century’s cinema of attractions.
While writing, I was inspired by all the excellent scholarship in horror film industry studies. There’s been some really fabulous work done in the area in the last 15 years or so, and I wanted to foreground the films’ specific commercial context with the book.
Following on from that last point, which academic work in horror film industry studies would you recommend for students and scholars interested in the field based on your own readings?
It’s always tricky to make these lists because you’re always afraid you’ll leave someone out! But, speaking for me personally, Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold by Kevin Heffernan, Uncanny Bodies by Robert Spadoni, and Blood Money by Richard Nowell are the “holy trilogy” (or maybe UNholy trilogy is a better fit) of horror film industry books. Those three really inspired me. Richard Nowell’s edited collection Merchants of Menace is great too because there’s a mix of cool chapters by established scholars and newer voices like Johnny Walker, whose Contemporary British Horror Cinema is also excellent.
Do you think there has been a shift in the status of DVD in recent years? Scholars such as Caetlin Benson-Allott and Tino Balio have shown that box office revenues are no longer the prime economic driver for contemporary cinema, having been overtaken by DVD sales by a significant margin. Is this changing with the impact of streaming do you think?
I do think there has been a shift in the status of DVD in recent years, but I believe the DVD is still very much with us. It seems like physical media is on the way out in favour of streaming, digital downloads, and so forth, but over here in the US, there are several signs that there’s a market still out there for physical media. It might seem that businesses like Redbox helped bring about the death of the video store, but if anything, Redbox is proof that there are still people out there who want to go out and rent a movie on a physical disc – whether it be DVD or Blu-ray – instead of renting one on iTunes or watching something on a streaming service. In some areas in the US, businesses like Redbox continue to thrive because there are rural areas where the Internet signal is too weak for streaming video or there is no Internet altogether. But in most areas where the Internet works just fine, there’s still people who like the experience of leaving the house, driving somewhere, and browsing through movies until they find one to watch. Redbox still gives viewers that experience, just now it’s outside of a grocery market or retail store and not in a brick-and-mortar video store.
But even with streaming video and digital download, I believe some of the vestiges of the DVD are still there. The physical aspect of media may be gone, but the idea of bonus features and other extras engendered by DVD are often still there. For instance, Amazon Prime’s streaming service has an interface that resembles a DVD where, when watching a movie or TV show, you can click links on the screen that take you to behind the scenes details, IMDb profiles of cast and crew (which makes sense since Amazon owns IMDb), trivia, and other stuff like that. So, the “extra features” are still encrusted onto the primary text of the film or TV show.
A similar thing I’ve noticed is how the idea of “extras” or “bonus features” is still employed by Apple and Hulu, especially when it comes to TV shows. When you purchase a season pass for some shows from iTunes, the show often comes with “behind-the-scenes” featurettes that are thrown on there to sweeten the pot by adding more content. Hulu has similar featurettes for their original programs. These featurettes are mostly just cast and crew members reiterating what happened on the episode you just watched, but they are very much in the style of the “behind the scenes” featurettes popularized by DVD, which popularized them from the electronic press kit. I think it was McLuhan who said that a new medium always contains an old one? The physical DVD may go away, but its presence is still felt.
Also, it’s worth nothing that Shudder, the horror film streaming service owned by American cable network AMC, purchased exclusive streaming rights to 31, Rob Zombie’s film from 2016 and gave the viewer the choice of watching the film with or without commentary. Shudder also posted two behind-the-scenes “making of” featurettes for the film. So, for Splat Pack auteur Rob Zombie, the trappings of the DVD live on in the streaming era.
It’s also worth mentioning that physical media is still alive, just not on the scale it was during the DVD rollout in the late 90s/early 2000s, especially among collectors. Criterion continues rolling out releases, as do genre specialists like Scream Factory (my favourite) and some others, that are loaded with extra features, commentaries, and tons of other great stuff.
Mark Bernard is Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, USA. He is the author of Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film (Edinburgh UP, 2014) and co-author of Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation (Wayne State UP, 2014). He is currently writing a monograph about John Carpenter’s Halloween for Routledge’s Cinema and Youth Cultures series.