Infected, transformed and destroyed bodies appear regularly in the horror genre. Our fears are often fueled by the uncanny otherness of the monster – a familiar figure transformed or possessed and made unrecognizable. The HIV+ body becomes reduced to its potential to transmit risk. Ultimately, infection films play with notions of communication and community – can a way of life, or society be protected or quarantined against an external invader? The advent of AIDS coalesced cultural fears around otherness, sexual danger and the tensions between nature and science.
In the early 80s, the advent of AIDS was heralded as an unstoppable menace to a (largely imaginary) well-behaved and blameless ‘general population’. Those living with HIV/AIDS were marked as other, by their sexuality, their origins or their decisions. As such, those infected could be blamed for the threat they posed and simultaneously charged with the responsibility for protecting the health and safety of those who are uninfected. Regardless of the context of their exposure, HIV+ people were (and continue to be) stigmatized as perverse and defiling bodies. Moral judgment on conditions of transmission and the conflation of desire and danger feed into fears and anxieties about intimacy. Assumed to derive a monstrous pleasure from spreading infection, HIV+ people are targeted, punished and criminalized.
In the early years of the pandemic, bodies fatally transformed by infection and marked by Kaposi’s Sarcoma, easily allowed representations of AIDS to borrow from classic horror texts. Bringing up old eugenicist notions of protecting bodies and borders from seductive ruin, vampires were quickly reread through the lens of HIV. Blood Born traces the spectre of infected bodies, and their cultural resonance with AIDS – in sexual, racial and border-defying terms. How was HIV/AIDS represented in mass media? How did popular culture express (or reflect) the anxieties of those who feared their private lives would be marked publicly on their bodies, or who imagined that their potential infection would identify them as deviant? Understanding how horror tropes serve to complicate and recast public health concerns, we will compare news, PSAs and other representations of AIDS with works as diverse as The Fly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Pontypool and more recent films such as It Follows.
Karen Herland fell in with a bad crowd with a taste for horror at a young age. Currently, her research focuses on the social and cultural construction and marginalization of bodies considered threatening or challenging to traditional norms. She is a Co-Director of Montreal’s Monstrum Society and sits on the Monstrum Journal’s editorial board. She has taught at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies since 2012. Amongst her recent publications are “ ‘Always Hearing Voices, Never Hearing Mine’: Sound and Fury in The Snake Pit” in Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema (2014) and “Horror and the Last Frontier: Monstrous Borders and Bodies” in Firefly and Westworld.” Joss Whedon vs. the Horror Tradition: The Production of Genre in Buffy and Beyond.(2019), A lecturer in popular/visual culture and sexuality studies at Concordia University, she has been involved in teaching their interdisciplinary course on HIV/AIDS for more than a decade and has served as the Director of the university’s HIV/AIDS Community Lecture Series.
The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – NYC – Blood Born: The Horror of AIDS will take place on February 26th, 2019 from 7pm – 9pm at the Film Noir Cinmea (122 Meserole, Greenpoint, Brooklyn). Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, or $50 for a full semester pass. Tickets, and additional information, can be found at www.miskatonicinstitute.com/events/blood-born-the-horror-of-aids-nyc/.
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