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It Came From the Academy: An Ethnography of Horror Fandom

Wednesday, July 11, 2018 | Hallowed Horrors

BY JESS PEACOCK

It should not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that fandom has a toxicity problem. From Star Wars actresses Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley being harassed off of Instagram, to self-professed horror gatekeepers seeking to sabotage “prestige horror” efforts such as The Witch and Hereditary, genre appreciation has always been plagued with issues of misogyny, racism, elitism, and general online vileness. However, I am in agreement with director Rian Johnson who suggested in a recent tweet, “On social media a few unhealthy people can cast a big shadow on the wall.” It is my belief that genre fans as a whole, and horror fans in particular, are an intelligent, compassionate, and socially aware audience. This is not to suggest that there are not problems, nor that those problems should be ignored. Hate and marginalization must be called out and addressed in any forum, but we must also highlight the fandom community who embody everything we love about genre fare: imagination, creativity, passion, and acceptance.

As a PhD candidate, I have focused my research on excavating the liberative and postcolonial nature of the horror genre. As I wrote in my first installment of Hallowed Horrors here at Rue Morgue, “It is my contention that the horror genre and the monsters to be found within are stories of survival as well as metaphors for resistance against oppression and fear, thusly serving as an extension of liberationist thought.” While none other than Stephen King proclaimed in a 1979 interview, “I think…bravery in the face of horror is one of the things that people respond to in my work,” how do we actually determine the veracity of such a statement? It is one thing to posit, it is quite another to prove. So, I recently conducted a limited digital ethnography of horror fandom to find out what impact – if any – the genre has had on those who claim it as their own.

Put simply, an ethnography is a methodology of studying a culture. What is not as simple is attempting to explain what, precisely, culture is. A generally accepted description of culture is the language, social habits, religion, arts, and even food of a specific group of people. However, as tidy as this explanation is, it only serves as the starting point of what amounts to an intersectional demolition derby of political, sociological, gendered, racial, religious, and multicultural factors, influences, and histories. That said, the goal of this ethnography is a humble one: to initiate a conversation around the role of the horror genre as a meaning-making machine for its fandom. If, as I would suggest, the genre is imbued with an aura of resistance to cultural normativity, a normativity guarded and upheld by dominant religious and cultural narratives, can it then be viewed as a new tradition, a new mythology, a new canon of significance borne out of a type of religious or philosophical necessity? Renowned comic book writer Grant Morrison addresses the need for acknowledging and understanding popular culture as a new mythology or religion in his book Supergods:

“We have a tendency to reenact the stories we tell ourselves. We learn as much from our fictional role models as we do from the real people who share our lives. If we perpetually reinforce the notion that human beings are somehow unnatural aberrations adrift in the ever-encroaching Void, that story will take root in impressionable minds…and some benighted final generation not far down the line will pay the price. If, on the other hand, we emphasize our glory, intelligence, grace, generosity, discrimination, honesty, capacity for love, creativity, and native genius, those qualities will be made manifest in our behavior and in our works…We can write new lives and new futures, and, more important, live them. Stories can break hearts or foment revolutions.”

 

 

 

“the horror genre is imbued with an aura of resistance to cultural normativity”

As a species, we have always sought to construct meaningful narratives and mythologies, and as such we have sought to invent stories that provide order and value to what often appears to be a universe of chaos or, at the very least, to help us find a commonality of human experience. David Leeming writes in Myth: A Biography of Belief, “Myths are created by the collective imagination as metaphorical projections of the way things are in life. Myths emerge from our experience of reality, from our instinctive need to clothe that experience in mimetic story and concepts.” In other words, we live within the stories we share, and those narratives can exercise influence in our world. Imagination is the womb of religion and myth; it is the human faculty that enables us to create texts, symbols, and rituals that exist in a repetitive ontological loop of being found meaningful because they convey meaning and are therefore found to be meaningful.

Unfortunately, the importance and validity of the mythological narrative has too often been exclusively claimed by institutional religion, and as such a separation between the religious and the secular (or the sacred and the profane) exists within the wider culture, traditionally imbuing religion with a sense of timelessness while popular culture is seen as ephemeral. As a result, the meaning-making potential of new mythologies and narratives are suppressed.

In other words, while the dominant Christian narratives that have traditionally been prominent within American culture chose to emphasize and promote the more benevolent aspects of its canon, explaining away or outright disregarding the more insidious qualities of genocide, misogyny, and racism within scripture as well as within the history of the United States, the contemporary horror genre quietly emerged as a subversive alternative canon of narratives conveying its own power, meaning, and religious experience. All of this is to say that not only does the horror genre emerge as a source of meaning-making within popular culture, but due to its subversive nature it can often serve as a critique of social norms and traditions.

That said, conducting a digital ethnography exploring the role of the horror as a locus of cultural meaning-making and community building is challenging for several reasons. The first of which is the economic, gender, and racial structures at play within the entertainment industry. Traditionally, not only has horror films and literature been influenced and controlled by white patriarchal structures (although this is gradually changing), the genre as a whole, despite narratives that potentially counter an imperial order, is a profit driven enterprise that, ultimately, bows to capitalism and empire. How much can the horror genre or the figure of the monster serve as a culturally constructed reflection on ideas of marginalization and otherness when that culture has been, by and large, white, patriarchal, and heteronormative?

Take, for example, films such as the 2017 releases The Shape of Water from director Guillermo del Toro, a Latino, and Get Out from director Jordan Peele, an African-American. Both movies challenged cultural narratives of the other, but also two films that were quickly absorbed into the power dynamics of Hollywood with dozens of award nominations, millions of dollars in profits (Get Out grossed nearly $200 million) and each receiving a nomination for Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards (The Shape of Water ultimately won that distinction). How much can a cultural artifact counter the structures of empire when it is, in fact, a product of those very structures put in place by that empire? One can’t help but wonder if civil rights activist Audre Lorde was right when she declared, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Are any systems that reside under the blanket of empire able to escape their cultural captivity of classism, racism, sexism, and socioeconomic issues in order to operate as engines of meaning-making on any substantive level?

In the book Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus, feminist scholar Judith McKinlay expresses a desire for a reader (or, perhaps, a viewer) to have an understanding of both the subversive and political power a text may contain. And while she is writing of religious texts, her analysis is apt for a discussion involving the horror genre and the assorted media it encompasses. For McKinlay, the challenge seems to reside in gleaning empowering narratives from texts that can often comprise an ideology of oppression. She addresses this through a discussion of the deconstructive power of the biblical tale of Ruth and Naomi and how a strain of liberation can often remain alive as long as the metaphor exists (see my article on The Shape of Water for more on the importance of Ruth as a symbol of liberation). She writes:

“I am aware that many marginalized women’s voices tell this story, and tell it differently. There are those who tell this as a story of successful resistance, as the story of an outsider woman who infiltrate for gain under cover of darkness. Some tell it as a model story of women who survive against the odds. But it is also the story of a woman heard through submissive speech…through male validated relationship…through marriage, through male property rights, through the birth of a male heir. Such voices resist the invitation to enter the narrative world for warm embraces with role-modelling biblical ancestors.”

Keeping the admonition of Lorde in mind, McKinlay illustrates the conceptual flexibility of narratives, and the refusal to abandon “texts” that might serve as subversive explorations of humanity in the face of horrific and repressive circumstances. Through this lens, the horror genre and horror fandom emerge as a form of creative defiance and imaginative meaning-making that opens up space for a postcolonial or anti-imperial critique countering cultural norms and expectations.

Horror in general does not play well with other genres and has historically existed at the fringes of entertainment and society, appealing primarily to a disenfranchised and thus easily marginalized audience. As such, horror is, to some extent, imbued with an aura of resistance to cultural normativity, and introduces a hermeneutical alternative to the existing power dynamics within the wider society, and embodies marginalized bodies that have been othered, demonized, and treated as cultural monsters to be feared and destroyed (i.e. the black, female, queer, and immigrant body). The horror genre presents to us narrative models which embody struggle and resistance against overwhelming forces of oppression, stories that resonate with meaning and value, reflecting the belief of Neil Gaiman that “the fantastique offers a roadmap – a guide to the territory of the imagination, for it is the function of imaginative literature to show us the world we know, but from a different direction…these stories have power.”

The power Gaiman speaks of was inarguably reflected in responses to the various questions that made up the digital ethnography. The first question – “How long have you been a fan of the horror genre?” – was a simple yet important one, as it established how long the participant lived within this particular culture. For someone like Dede C., it is the cultural influence she has known the longest and is most comfortable with. “I am a lifelong fan, thirty-six years,” she wrote. “I was raised in a sci-fi/horror house. I went to World Science Fiction conventions as a toddler and met Jim Henson and Forrest Ackerman before I could walk. The horror genre has never not been in my life.”

This lifelong dedication to the genre was the norm for participants as reflected in various responses. Arnold B. wrote, “I suppose my entire life as a pop culture consumer I’ve been a fan of horror. As a little kid, it was Universal monsters; as a teenager, Hammer and Halloween and much more; and then as an adult, zombies took over…and I’ve grown to appreciate just about all of it.” Matthew M. explained, “I have been a fan of the horror genre for as long as I can remember, thirty-four years, and probably before that.” Carissa B. was fascinated by the horror genre “beforeI was old enough to even realize it was a genre. I found fascination in villains and creepy or spooky feeling things as a small child. five or six years old, maybe?”

For some respondents, their enchantment with the horror genre was the result of a particular media property. Wren M. wrote that she became a fan when she watched “Elvira’s Movie Macabre at the impressionable age of seven, twenty-five years ago.” For Nancy E., it was her exposure to the children’s book Bunnicula. Rachel B., who has been a fan of the horror genre for thirty years, wrote, “Some of my fondest memories of being a kid were watching Are You Afraid of the Dark, Eerie, Indiana, and The Twilight Zone.” Aldyn G. explained that she has been involved with horror fandom since she was ten, “and I watched the original Halloween from behind the couch while my sisters watched it. I’m twenty-two, now, so I have been a fan for twelve years, and plan to continue to be for the rest of my life.” And Rocco T. discovered his love of horror “since I got up the courage to watch Gore Verbinski’s The Ring in 2002. So, that would be sixteen years!”

The remainder of responses regarding the length of the fandom ranged from twenty-five to forty-six years, with the smallest duration being eleven years (Nevertheless, that respondent, Julianne P., was currently twenty-one years old, meaning her fandom now encompassed half of her life). The consistent role the horror genre played in the early development of nearly all of the participants is noteworthy, as it indicates an understanding, comfort, and long-term relationship with this particular form of media/literature. Jon S. exemplified this when he wrote, “I was about three years old and my dad was watching The Beast Within in our living room. I was hooked. From there, I begged to watch any monster movies shown on TV. I was lucky enough to catch the first Godzilla, Universal’s Frankenstein, and tons of others at an early age.” Similarly, Carissa B. explained:

“One of my fondest memories of horror entertainment was when I was very young, five to eight years old. Once a week, we would all drive to my grandparents’ house and spend the day there. Sometimes my sister and I even stayed the night. My sister and I slept in the spare bedroom, and it had a very small B&W TV with bunny ears and terrible reception…while we were supposed to be asleep [I would find] the channel that Tales From the Crypt played on. My sister and I both just ate it up! Maybe the restrictions made me want it more?”

Formative childhood stories revolving around the horror genre and family members were not the exception within this ethnographic project, they were the rule. Wren M. wrote, “My granddad watched The Twilight Zone religiously and enjoyed classic horror novels. He let me read Dracula when I was pretty young which I can see now was more aligned with his orthodoxy than I realized.” Nancy E. reminisced, “I was around seven or so when my Dad introduced me to Tod Browning. He was a big fan of films of all types. Freaks at that age especially stands out to me. [There was a] guy with no arms and legs and my Dad excitedly telling me, ‘These are real people, not actors!’” Dede C. described her horror filled childhood with the following:

“I watched a lot of Universal horror as a small child, so that must be my earliest memory of it. I remember reading a lot of Christopher Pike and Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark as soon as I could start choosing my own chapter books. Because of my family. My most horror specific childhood memories are of finding out that we were the odd family in town. I got in trouble for showing A Nightmare on Elm Street at sleepovers to my terrified grade school friends. Or discovering that fellow kids didn’t get the horror references in the Thriller video.”

Family is not only considered a basic social institution, it is often regarded as a cornerstone of the socialization process within a culture. That said, it is notable that, for the vast majority of participants, family was integral in sharing a passion for the horror genre, perhaps even a source of meaning and tradition. Miles O. and Michael F. both continued the ongoing theme within this ethnography of the horror genre serving as an important cultural glue for their family, the former stating, “I was about five or six and my older sister was a huge horror book and movie fan and we stayed up late one night to watch the originalHalloween. It’s one of my earliest — and fondest – memories.” The latter wrote, “I loved the old Frankenstein, Dracula, werewolf movies that were more camp than horror. But I remember watching horror movies as a family when I was about four to six years old.”  

Of course, the question needs to be asked as to why the horror genre was able to play such an important role with regard to the childhood and family dynamics of the participants. While some might be interested in horror solely for the visceral element, the answers presented up to this point within the ethnography seem to suggest something deeper. Arnold B. supported this assertion when he wrote, “I suppose, if I had to say something about [horror], it’s an exploration of hope even in a time of hopelessness. Maybe that’s what I respond to most. Perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles or certain death, survival in a ruined world, a battle between good and evil in a mythic setting… I like the format for exploring character and the human condition.”Miles O. suggested that “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” was a theme within the horror genre that provided him a model of meaning. Similarly, Andrea S. explained that she liked to see “characters fighting in the face of adversity, realizing personal strength, surviving against all odds. I can be a bit of a pessimist and tend to focus on the challenges and difficulties of life. I guess I like seeing themes of struggle and strength represented on screen because it reflects how I often feel.” And Marcela K. put it succinctly when she wrote, “It allows me to understand human nature and its demons.”

John M. continued this leitmotif while also placing the horror genre in the realm of religious experience. “I see it connecting to spirituality,” he wrote. “And if I didn’t hold my present religious convictions I could easily go the way of Guillermo del Toro with the monsters as my saints and religious figures. Religious ethics, questions of meaning and purpose (or meaninglessness and purposelessness).These themes appeal to my own personal interests and quest.”

As suggested earlier, the themes and narratives of the horror genre might serve as an engine of resistance to cultural normativity and structures of oppressive power dynamics within society, perhaps coming to embody marginalized groups that have been historically othered. Dede C. touched on this idea when she described what the horror genre means for her:

“I respond to the ways that horror exposes our collective fears. Not necessarily a single theme, but rather a way to look at these themes though the filter of fear and punishment. Because of this, I love seeing how society fears sexuality, cultural change, and abandonment of tradition, and the other. I think I respond to those because I’ve often felt like the other or an outsider a lot in life. Despite my family’s genre tradition, I’m not really goth or weird enough to fit in with the horror scene. And I’m just enough of a weirdo to not quite fit in with the “squares.” I’ve always found my own place, and never really suffered, but it does make me occasionally feel like a tourist; someone straddling these two coexisting worlds. These themes in horror help me process this and examine it from different angles.”

Rocco T. also identified the role of the outsider in the horror genre, stating, “As a gay man, the way horror films empower the outsider has always been very moving.” Similarly, Brandon G. touched on the idea of horror straddling two worlds – the past and the present – and how the genre can speak to traumatic issues:

“I’m really moved by past trauma, and the ways in which we respond to them. The ways they haunt us, and how difficult it is to move on from them. I’ve always experienced myself as someone “haunted,” someone who’s never been entirely able to integrate the past and the present. “Letting go” is hard for me, and horror is one of the few contemporary genres to take that problem seriously. In some ways, I see horror narratives as a single system of tightly wound metaphors and symbols; this system provides a grammar to talk about trauma, discomfort, otherness, and many other issues that have a hard time being voiced in other genres.”

Interestingly, one particular theme embodied in the horror genre was consistently cited by participants as important and meaningful. Jon P. wrote, “The themes of isolation equated with danger. As a super-introvert, I often find myself wanting to have my alone time, yet I’ve spent enough time away from people to know I really want people within proximity.” Comparably, Brandon L. pointed out his attraction to the pattern of “the isolated or stranded group. I think because it plays on that basic primal fear of vulnerability and fear of the unknown.” Rocco T. also identified “themes of isolation,” while Nancy E. explained, “Isolation is a good one, because I often feel isolated.”

When presented with the question of whether the horror genre had provided the participants with any type of meaning in their lives, a consistent refrain of community emerged. Dede C. wrote, “I’ve…made so many friends through the horror community and been able to travel to film festivals, just to feed my appetite for the genre.” Miles O. went a step further when he stated, “I’m outspoken about my love for the genre as a whole. As a result, I tend to like and trust fellow horror junkies a little more than other people. I’ve developed a lot of friendships through our shared love of the genre.” Andrea S. found community as well as professional fulfillment through the horror genre, explaining, “I never dreamed that my love of horror would become a career path, and it happened against all odds. If I weren’t editor of a horror magazine, I’m sure I’d still be writing and podcasting on the subject because they’ve become a means of connecting with like-minded people and challenging myself to keep learning.”

Wren M. also expressed the role of community within the horror genre when she wrote, “It’s become this bizarre sub-culture of weirdos. It’s a place for all of us.” Rachael B. concurred with, “At minimum I’ve met some great people through the fandom.” Jon P. echoed Rachael B. with his comment that “parts of the horror genre have certainly brought me closer to my friends through shared experiences.” And Chris H. confessed, “It’s provided me a great deal of inner strength. It has also pointed me in a direction of wanting to be a part of a group of people that promote and introduce people to this genre.”

When questioned about a favorite horror property or sub-genre, many of the answers, not surprisingly at this point, went beyond a mere inventory of movies, books, and monsters, but spoke to the metaphorical usefulness of the horror genre itself. For example, Brandon G. named The Ring and Sinister as his two favorite horror properties, and stated, “They both question what participating in this genre does to us as spectators, and explore the way that horror worms its way inside us.” Rocco T. was most fascinated by the sub-genre of body horror popularized by filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and Brian Yuzna, and asked, “What’s more frightening than your own physical form turning against you?” – a question at the heart of social concerns and fears revolving around aging, sickness, and disabilities.

For many, however, the flexibility of the zombie sub-genre provided the most potential at meaning-making within horror. Arnold B. suggested that “zombies…have an infinite capacity to reflect whatever fears we’re experiencing at any point in time.” Dede C. echoed this sentiment when she stated, “I think they are a blank canvas to reflect whatever our culture is grappling with at the time. Fear of foreigners. Fear of individuality. Fear of assimilation. It can all be played out with the same monster.” Chris H. added that the zombie sub-genre “also has underlying tones of how we as humans would treat each other at a time of crisis,” a view shared by Carissa B. who wrote, “For a long time, it was zombies. I loved the social commentary. People are always the real and scariest problem in zombie situations.”

While this digital ethnography was only a small scale and brief examination of fandom within the horror genre, it inarguably produced some enlightening and promising results. As Arnold B. stated earlier, it would seem that the genre exists as more than a visceral experience, but as “an exploration of hope even in a time of hopelessness…Perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles or certain death, survival in a ruined world, a battle between good and evil in a mythic setting.”

As I suggested in an earlier Hallowed Horrors column:

“The horror genre speaks to survival, both individual and communal, potentially serving as contemporary manuscripts of lamentations or existing as a form of survival literature meant to remind us of death, of oppression, and of the merciless forces that seek endless power and consumption in our chaotic and uncertain times. The sharing of these narratives, whether in a movie theater, at a book club, or on the television, can become an act of resistance that challenges social patterns of oppression, i.e. horror literature as praxis. In other words, horror narratives change the world by changing the reader.”

Rocco T. suggested that the horror genre is “a balm in a world gone mad. In many Horror films, evil can be kept at bay and plays by some sort of rules, and that’s always been a comforting notion.” And Dede C. writes, “I also love the hopefulness in the genre. Horror inspires me and keeps me looking to the future.”

As surprising as it might be to hear, the idea of the horror genre as praxis, as a comforting balm, as hope for the future, should not be quickly or easily dismissed. Matthew M. wrote, “Horror is the most authentically human genre. Horror as an art-form has the capacity to reflect the full spectrum of possible human expression and beyond.”And Karen Armstrong, in her book A Short History of Myth, while addressing the format of the fictional novel, reflects the thoughts of Matthew M. and sheds light on the role and potential of narratives within popular culture, including horror narratives. She writes:

“It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to ‘feel with’ others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever…If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”

In this passage, Armstrong affirms how the act of reading a novel can function as a ritual or praxis as it projects the initiate/reader/viewer/fan to a place of liminality where transformation can occur. Horror films such as Get Out, The Shape of Water, and even IT didn’t earn their box-office and critical accolades simply because they were scary or featured a cool creature, they spoke to our human and national condition, serving as roadmaps of postcolonial resistance against forces that seek to dominate and destroy. As Marcella K. so aptly affirmed, horror “allows my fear to be transformed and for me to be liberated,” reaffirming the notion that the horror genre and horror fandom possess the potential to emerge as a form of creative defiance and imaginative meaning-making to counter cultural norms and expectations.

Jess Peacock
JESS PEACOCK is the author of SUCH A DARK THING: THEOLOGY OF THE VAMPIRE NARRATIVE IN POPULAR CULTURE ("Smart and insightful" - FANGORIA) from Wipf and Stock Publishers. He has contributed to RELIGION DISPATCHES, RUE MORGUE MAGAZINE, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and is the former editor-in-chief of STREET SPEECH, a social justice publication produced by the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless in Ohio. Among his academic distinctions, Peacock is the recipient of Methodist Theological School in Ohio's Ronald L. Williams Book Prize in Theology and Ethics, as well as The Matey Janata Freedwomen Award for his research and work in women's issues and is the recipient of the Heldrich-Dvorak Fellowship from the Popular/American Culture Association. He currently writes the HALLOWED HORRORS column for RUE MORGUE online, and his similarly titled book is scheduled for release in early 2019 from Wipf and Stock. Jess is currently a PhD student living in Chicago and can regularly be heard on the LEGACY OF THE MARSTEN HOUSE podcast available on iTunes.