Who are the monsters that inhabit the films we watch, the books we read and the landscapes we walk through? What are our fears synthesized and purified from their theatrical context? What are the intentions for the mechanism of horror in terms of encapsulating and representing cultural anxiety and concern? How prominent is that in forming the current horror landscape at any one time?
As horror fans, we explore the genre looking for a good scare. For some inexplicable reason, we run towards rather than away from what we fear. Testing our own boundaries. Horror is often an exaggerated exercise in understanding ourselves, and the very things that evoke the greatest response in us.
In the Horror ecosystem, there are many forms of media and presentations that work to provide these experiences. Yet outside of academia, there are few organizations that offer deeper analysis that get to the heart of our search. If our true fascination here is not only finding those dark corners that scare us, but finding out why they scares us, then there is a gap within the horror community that needs more prominence.
On a cold weeknight, I found myself in a cozy theater at Film Noir in Greenpoint to attend a lecture being held by the mysterious international Miskatonic Institue of Horror Studies. (Ok maybe it’s not mysterious, but it is international and named after the fictional university from H.P. Lovecraft’s literary mythos!) From the front of the stage stood a woman bathed in a spotlight surrounded by encroaching darkness. The room focused on her as she spoke,
“When we talk about AIDS, we don’t just talk about what’s transmitted. We transmit meaning, we transmit what we think is monstrous, what we think is dangerous.” Speaking about the period shortly after the start of the AIDS crisis and how that morphed our fears in Horror cinema, Karen Herland summarized her lecture “Blood Born: The Horror of AIDS” in one succinct sentence, “The monster under the bed- with HIV had become the monster in the bed.”
MIHS was originally founded by film writer Kier-La Janisse in Winnipeg, Canada in 2010. Since then the infectious passion behind the project has expanded into an International Organization operating in cities across the US and Europe in theater houses, local bookstores, and any small haunt willing to provide space and listeners. Depending on your locale you can find lectures weekly on a wide range of topics related to horror and cinema, each taking a deep dive into the lecturers governing hypothesis.
Harland does this through numerous examples from film and advertising. Most interestingly pointed out quoting a review by Frank Rich of the New York Times on Francis Ford Coppola 1992 revisit of Bram Stokers Dracula.
“Is there any doubt which foreign invasion Americans are fearing this time? The audience that turns out for Bram Stokers Dracula smells blood even more literally than Welles audience did, and Mr. Coppola gives it to them. In a movie that both frightens and arouses, playing off the unchecked fear of further AIDS invasion of the national bloodstream.”
By the end of Karen Herland’s lecture, I was left with a lot to ponder, as I was too young to experience the height of the AIDS crisis personally. In media, we had turned victims into monsters as it was easier than confronting a true terror more horrifying than any zombie or vampire ever could – a seemingly unstoppable, unknowable virus that attacks indiscriminately, without morality or target. The cultural trauma of the AIDS crisis was dealt with by keeping that terror at a distance, by sealing its existence inside the ghoulish infector. We became safe as long as we stayed away from the corners it crept in, as long as we stayed on the right side of the screen.