What is Feminist Horror?

On February 2, 2017, I gave a brief lecture and held a discussion with 25 students, faculty, and staff at Indiana State University on the question of What is Feminist Horror in honor of Women in Horror Month. As many of you know, horror films are one of my passions and one of the chapters of my dissertation is on this topic of feminist horror films.

I covered a brief definition of the horror genre as well as the idea of women in horror films before diving into discussing feminist film generally and feminist films specifically.

Unfortunately, I had a bit of a challenge with technology for podcasting that day, but I recovered my notes in the below video for anyone interested. I do apologize for the poor image quality.

Talking Vampires…

Last week, I had an excellent experience of getting to talk vampires on “Journey into the Paranormal with Ron Mills” via WCJV Digital Radio.

I talk with Ron about the history and folklore of the vampire from Lilith to Eastern European Vampire “outbreaks” of the 15th century to Vlad the Impaler and Erzébet Báthory. We also discussed Blade and other vampire hunters.

If you’d like to give me a listen, check it out here.

Historical Research and a Creepy Edge

I’ve been looking forward to The Witch, since the moment it premiered at Sundance in 2015.  That’s when the buzz began in horror movie circles for this film.  As the date of the wide-theatrical release grew closer, the anticipation only increased.  This feeling grew at an exponential rate this week because the internet seemed to begin losing its mind about this movie, for instance Stephen King’s tweet that it “scared the hell out of [him]” and was “visceral.” I was all the more eager to see it–to the point where I worked a full-day, taught an hour-and-a-half class, and then went to see it. (Do I get horror fan dedication points for this?) [This post shall remain as spoiler-free as possible, but as always, readers beware.]

Set in 1603 American colonies, the film follows a family’s self-imposed exile to the untamed wilds outside of their settlement due to a disagreement between the family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson),  and the plantation’s religious elders/church doctrine.  As the family tries to establish themselves alone, they are beset with misfortune, even though their devotion to their faith is clear and present throughout the film.

First, the cast of this film was absolutely fantastic.  Ineson’s portrayal of William exuded a morass of failure, doubt, and pride that mirrored the tone of the film.  Kate Dickie’s Katherine was flawless in her devoutness, especially as she and the film descend a bit into madness. Anna Taylor-Joy as Thomasin walked the line throughout the film of innocence and temptation, showing the audience just how dangerous that line is particularly in an esoteric life devoid of joy and playfulness.  Harvey Scrimshaw was phenomenal as Caleb, the oldest of son and younger brother to Thomasin, and his interaction with Anna Taylor-Joy showed depth and compassion.  He also had one of the most difficult scenes to act in the film, in my opinion, and did so with a compelling screen presence.  Also the two little ones, playing twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), were great and played annoying younger siblings quite well.

What was most impressive was the utterly mind-blowing attention to detail and historical research so prominently displayed in the film.  It was clearly heavily embedded in a desire to present a narrative that was based in historical documents and through that research demonstrate how frightening our history truly is even on its surface.  As an audience member, I tend to eschew simple distillations of the image of witch as shortcut for evil or Satan worshipper.  This stereotype and trope typically raises my ire and turns me off.  Here, though, writer and director Robert Eggers establishes not the normal witch = evil reductive plot.  Instead, this film demonstrates the fear that the idea of witchcraft evoked in the cultural imagination of the historical period in which it is set, showing the idea of the witch as a product of religious zeal and isolation.  Whether real phenomenon or product of cultural imagination (or economic opportunists), the [Satanic] witch was both feared and reviled as harbingers of destruction.

Eggers’s screenplay is subtle in its creepiness. My one issue was that I just didn’t find it scary…not at all.  Eggers creates tension and plot climaxes throughout the film, and Mark Korven’s music built that tension in spectacular and creepy ways, particularly with his discordant sounds. Even Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography continually underscores the ominous feel of this film.  It just did not frighten me at all, so sadly I must disagree with Stephen King on that one. The film is immensely watchable though, and I do recommend it.  Check out the trailer on YouTube and check out the film in theatres.

Darkness Waits: Contemporary Creature Horror Films

In my latest binge-watching of horror films, I watched From the Dark (2014) and Dark Was the Night (2014),  Both films are takes on the creature feature, vampire and wendigo (maybe Bigfoot) respectively.  Neither film gives the viewer a name for the creatures, and the filmmakers don’t spend dialogue on explicating the monsters’ desires, strengths, and weaknesses. In both of these films, the writers decentralize the monsters themselves and highlight the human relationships that drive the protagonists.  They are inevitability tales of survival without devolving to demonstrations that humanity is in fact the most monstrous of all monsters, which has become the central plot points of most monster film/television in the contemporary era (such as in The Walking Dead and Stake Land). 

From the Dark is an Irish production set in the countryside turf bogs and is directed by Conor McMahon. What the film lacks in exegesis, it makes up for in tension.  The moments from sunset to sunrise seem endless for our cast–Mark and Sarah.  Sarah played by Niamah Algar is a wonderfully strong female character taking on the beast that is hunting them.   I was impressed with Algar’s ability to essentially carry about 75% of the film on her own, as most of the action follows her.  The darkness itself seems to be a character in this film, and the audience mainly sees the creature in silhouette and shadows, which lends to the creepy factor.  McMahon also gives several cinematic nods to the horror pictures of old, such as Nosferatu.  From the Dark is available on Netflix and Shudder as well as for purchase.

While I appreciated From the Dark‘s creepy ambiance, I absolutely loved Dark Was the Night, directed by Jack Heller and written by Tyler Hisel. This was a seriously good film.  The writing is subtle but builds a great story with solid dialogue.  The acting was outstanding.  Kevin Durand plays Sheriff Paul Shields (He is also seen in FX’s The Strain as my favorite character Fet.) Durand is fantastic as this guilt-stricken man, who is just trying to hold it all together for himself, his family, and in the long run his whole town.  Lukas Haas plays the deputy Donny Saunders and fulfills the strong conscientious second in command well.  Nick Damici (of one of my favorite films Stake Land) also shows up with some really great lines, especially in his interactions with Haas’s deputy.  This film is partly an ecological cautionary tale.  This creature tale takes an interesting premise, gives the audience excellent performances, and then takes a major mind-blowing twist. Dark Was the Night shows people pulling together to save their community and demonstrates that heroes can rise without destroying others in their attempts to save those that they love.  It was also a disturbingly creepy film.  I highly recommend it.

I was pleased to see these two films taking a bit of a different approach to creature horror than the recent trend in horror films/television.

A change . . .

[Just a note: This post will have nothing to do with books or movies or my various intellectual pursuits, but I needed post something as today marked a fairly big milestone in my life.]

Today was my last day working for the Department of Residential Housing here at Ohio University.  It’s not time for me to leave OU altogether. I have taken another role on campus and will be finishing my dissertation over the upcoming year.

In 1997, I came to Ohio University as a first year student.  Frankly, I didn’t want to be here.  I had dreams of a big city school with all sorts of prestige–I won’t name the school but some of you know the story.  My first week on campus left me a confused mess because I thought college would be this intellectual paradise in which students sat around talking about poetry and philosophy.  I had seen Dead Poet’s Society one too many times and thought that college surely must be more like that boarding school than my high school had been.  Much to my chagrin that was not the case and while I made some wonderful friends on campus during my freshman year, it was becoming a Resident Assistant in my sophomore year that helped me find a home at OU but also changed the course of my life.  Becoming an RA was one of the best decision of my undergraduate life here (the other best decision was studying abroad in Ireland). It was through my role as an RA that I made some of my lifelong friends.

Christy Amy and Amanda 2005

(L to R) Amy Lott Rupert, me, Christy Frank Bursby in 2004

I made the decision to stick around for graduate school. Because what do you really do with a B.A. in English and Political Science and a certificate in women’s studies?  It was during graduate school, while being an assistant hall director, that I realized that my true calling was working with college students and that made all of the difference.  That was 2001, and in so many ways, I’ve never looked back, even though my dad still thinks I should go to law school–I think in my mid-thirties and nearing completion on a PhD that ship has sailed.

Over the years, I  have had oversight for a lot of students (I can’t even count as I have had between 250 and 650 residents each year for twelve years of running halls). While the residents have offered a great amount of joy and challenge, it has been my work with the RAs that has made my time so truly phenomenal.  I have had the joy of supervising amazing RAs–over 175 (I think the number is actually 202) young leaders in my time here. Over the years, I got to witness their triumphs and their hardships.  I have been able to offer them support when things were difficult.  Each staff became a family–sometimes utterly dysfunctional but always amazing. I got to see these young people step up in a role that is as challenging as it is rewarding.  Each one of them made me a better person.  They challenged me to think about the world differently.  They made me learn new things from how to communicate with each of them differently to chess to video games to science and math.  Every one of them taught me about what they were passionate about.  We laughed together, and we cried together over the years.  We struggled through incredibly difficult times dealing with some of the hardest things that can happen in college.  I’ve gotten to celebrate many of your accomplishments with you from internships, to graduations, and with some of you weddings and even births of children now. To all of my RAs: you made the difference in my life just as you did for your residents.  I got the opportunity to see such grace and strength in you all. Thank you for sharing your lives with me.  From my first staff to my last, I’m proud to say that I’ve known each and every one of you.

Making Modification and Creating Coping Mechanisms

I finished reading Heidi Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean recently. As I am apt to do by the nature of the movements of fate I believe, I somehow found and read yet another novel that touched so many things that I have rattling around in my brain. First, I’ll start by saying that I recommend this book as Cullinan has created excellent characters and the lovely world of the Roosevelt that I’m looking forward to the other books. It was a lovely read.

Emmett, Jeremey, and all the folks of the Roosevelt encounter a world that has established roadblocks and obstacles to their success. The mantra of the novel is that there’s no such thing as “normal.” This has long been the central tenant of my philosophy of life. Many people truly believes there is something called “normal,” and the attempts to prove one’s normality comes at a very high price for the individual. Normal is an individual thing really—it’s more of an individual baseline—one’s own measure of what’s “normal” for them. There truly is no normal, only what we have built as the norm in our own brain. For some the scars and differences are worn upon the exterior of our bodies, and for others, the scars, traumas, and differences are invisible to the world. While Jeremey and Emmett reject the notion of being “broken,” I have always found the idea of being “beautifully broken” and the manner in which those cracks in ourselves are simply reminders of the lives that we live. Some of us ensure that our bodies visualize our difference through body modifications and other methods that we can control even when the disorder, the difference, the trauma feels uncontrollable. Tattoos can become that visible marker of the invisible difference, such as Caden in Laura Kaye’s Hearts in Darkness who marks his body in order to distance himself from others.

In Carry the Ocean, Cullinan introduces the reader to a spectrum of visible and invisible mental health issues, differing abilities, and disorders. I kept finding within the novel moments of identification not only with the characters but also with their emotional lives and their abilities to modify the world around them to be more conducive to difference. I’ve been thinking about coping and defensive mechanisms and modifications that help us live our lives. As we see with Emmett and Jeremey, modifications for interacting with the world become incredibly important. For many people, finding positive coping mechanisms feel completely impossible. I love that Emmett creates mechanisms that help him interact with the world and that he helps Jeremey determine modifications for his depression.

Sometimes the coping mechanism becomes a dangerous defensive mechanism. Edward “Easy” Cantrell in Laura Kaye’s Hard to Hold on To creates defensive mechanisms that damage his sense of self and ultimately his well-being. Suicidal ideations are a part of Jeremey and Easy’s mental illnesses—major depressive disorder and PTSD respectively. Their disorders—their differing abilities—hide in plain sight until Easy and Jeremey are willing to acknowledge the problem. In Felice Stevens’ A Walk through the Fire, Asher Davis’s self-harming behaviors serve dual purpose, as a release valve of the emotional trauma but also as a self-enacted punishment. Asher’s self-harm is more concrete than what many of us engage in. Recklessness often becomes the easiest defensive mechanisms. It is the moment of Vishous’s swandive from the balcony of his apartment in Lover Unbound. I’ve spoken in a previous post about my love for the damaged hero in romance novels, but I’m equally drawn to characters who are different—those who understand that there is no normal. Some of those embrace their difference as Emmett and eventually Jeremey do, while others struggle with their own worth. Trying to discover coping mechanisms that actually work and are not reckless or self-destructive can be very difficult for many struggling with invisible disabilities. It is for this reason that I appreciate all of the novels mentioned in this post, especially Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean, because it shows characters that are actively seeking to better understand their interactions with the work around them.