INTERVIEW: Miskatonic Institute

Before the veritable home of horror studies sets up base in London this week, we talk to co-founder and tutor Virginie Sélavy and fellow faculty members Mark Pilkington and Stephen Thrower about the genre

The recent surge in popularity for the horror genre is nothing new. Horror has fallen in and out of critical and audience favour since its first stirrings in the gothic novels of the 1800s. What’s different now is that the wider understanding of the genre – fostered by greater perspective, growing respectability and, of course, the internet – has led to a veritable undead horde of eager critics and fans all keen to dissect and chew over every aspect of their favourite shockers. Horror Studies is a genuine force now, with regular journals being published and courses taught at universities throughout the world.

Started by film writer Kier-La Janisse in Winnipeg, Canada in 2010, the Miskatonic Institute Of Horror Studies is, as its website says: "a non-profit, community-based curriculum through which established horror writers, directors, scholars and programmers/curators celebrate horror history and culture while helping enthusiastic fans of the genre to gain a critical perspective". Teaming up with Virginie Sélavy, the founder and editor of Electric Sheep magazine, Janisse has launched Miskatonic London, a series of talks and lectures being given at The Horse Hospital throughout the next six months. The topics covered range from cannibalism to school safety films; landscape to sadomasochism and the lecturers are a who’s who of horror writers and experts.

I met up with Virginie and two fellow tutors, Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor press and musician and writer Stephen Thrower, to discuss the institute and the past and present of this most beautifully disreputable of genres.

How did you each choose what subjects you were going to be talking about?

Stephen Thrower: Well it was an easy choice for me because I’ve just finished working on a book about Jess Franco and I’m not sick of him yet! If you spend five years writing a book then often you can feel so drained by the subject that you don’t want to get anywhere near it but I’m still there. I’ve even got book two on the way.

Mark Pilkington: I’m going to upgrade an existing presentation on ‘Everything We Learned In The 1970s We Learned From Watching Cannibal Films’. It’s a kind of cultural archaeology of the 1970s gleaned entirely from cannibal film trailers, which actually works surprisingly well. Everything that happened in the 70s is represented in the spread of gut-munching cannibal flicks. And I’m going to show Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River just because nobody’s really seen it. It was a premature eruption; a straight rip off of [Elliot Silverstein’s] A Man Called Horse which had been a big hit a couple of years before. But it was five years before anyone else realised they could make money from cannibal films, so it’s kind of been forgotten.

Virginie Sélavy: I’m working on a book on sadomasochism and my class concerns one aspect of it, which is 1960s and 1970s sadomasochistic erotica, which happened as a result of less censorship and also because of women becoming more assertive. Because of that you have a dramatisation of the battle of the sexes that was happening in society in those films. I’m interested in exploitation films that have been seen as misogynistic, but also have something that is more interesting because they reflect anxieties about what is going on – maybe that misogyny is more interesting than more politically correct films of the time? I’ll be showing clips from films like [Mario Bava’s] The Whip And The Body and [Vicente Aranda’s] Blood Splattered Bride, but also [Luis Bunuel’s] Belle De Jour which wouldn’t fall in the same category but is interested in the same type of thing, which is repressed female desires as seen by male directors.

It’s all vintage stuff that you’re looking at – does that reflect a lack of interest in more contemporary horror fare?

ST: I can think of plenty of contemporary artists that are doing interesting work, it’s not just that I’m drawn to the 70s or the 60s. But I think Franco’s key works were spread quite neatly over the 70s and 80s, with some very strong things in the 60s. The 90s was a fallow period where he only made a couple of films. I’m not so fond of the films made in that period, partly because he’d become the function of his own fandom – where the people that were keen on the earlier films were now financing them. They were very low budget – shot on video – and that self-consciousness about what the fans want starts to twist the works themselves.

Very similar to the way the horror genre as a whole is sustained by its fandom today. Do you think that’s a healthy thing?

MP: I think if you constantly give people what they want and what they expect then there’s not going to be a whole lot of interesting work coming out. The same applies to music. I think you need people to be coming from outside into any given field in order to revive and surprise and shock. You can shock modern horror audiences by injecting some thought or some ideas into a film rather than just showing endless chases through the woods on handheld cameras…

ST: I think what you need when you’re dealing with any genre is the element of surprise. Of course that’s a really rare thing to find after a while. Horror is so based on rules and structures that it becomes quite difficult after 50 years of development to find a new angle on a generic system.

VS: I think the problem is that because all these people are now making horror films for the horror fans they are just following a formula which they think is working – Insidious, etc – whereas if you take a film like [Jennifer Kent’s] The Babadook, that’s someone who had a good idea for a story. She likes horror and she was interested in working in the genre but she didn’t set out to make a horror film – she set out to make that story. I think that’s when you can make a really good horror that still surprises you. It’s creepy and it works because it has so much emotional power.

ST: It’s a question of where the idea comes from. Do you start off thinking, ‘I want to make a horror film?’ Or do you start off thinking, ‘I want to make a story about the terror that can lurk at the heart of family relations?’ That’s fine, because you’ve started off from a conceptual place rather than an off-the-peg genre basis.

MP: And if you do insist on making films for your fan base you end up with pieces of shit like Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, which was an attempt to resuscitate the cannibal film and is just an insult to an already pretty ragged cinematic genre. It manages to be even more insulting than any of the cannibal films that preceded it by almost belligerently refusing to step above the base level without even being good at being base.

He eats horror genres like Pacman doesn’t he? I think it’s a killer clown movie next, because that’s the only genre he hasn’t done…

MP: But there are great film-makers who’ve milked genres in that way, go back to AIP or Roger Corman or Pete Walker – they’re people that can do great stuff purely for exploitative reasons.

ST: Yeah, and not every genre film has to be a great artistic statement. The rules of genre can generate lots of very similar films but they can provide pleasure nonetheless. They may be simpler pleasures but they’re still there. It’s just a question of how good you are at working at that particular level.

There is a growing level of respectability surrounding the discourse around horror – I think it’s fair to say that the Miskatonic Institute is part of that. Is this academic approach going to start having an effect on the films themselves?

ST: I don’t think it’s any accident that Dario Argento started making worse films when he started getting really good press. There’s a self-consciousness that comes from thinking, ‘Oh, I’m the subject of academic debate’. Maybe I’m being unfair, I don’t know for certain that he read all that stuff. But there’s a synchronicity there.

He strikes me as the type that would probably read his own press…

ST: Horror is a disreputable genre, even though there are clusters of academic interest around it that weren’t there 20 or 25 years ago. I don’t think you’ll ever get the dirt off the shoes entirely. It’ll always be tramping mud into the vestibule.

VS: What you said about Franco is a kind of similar thing. Any kind of self-consciousness just kills your art.

ST: In the 70s Franco was working at an incredible clip, making seven to ten films a year. A lot of those movies only got reviewed in sex film magazines, like Sex Stars System, this great French magazine. Anywhere else there was nothing. He was working off the critical radar and working so fast that even if people had been writing about him they wouldn’t have had time to process what they were seeing. He was living film and that means that those movies are without that slightly sterile self-consciousness that creeps in when you’re doing one movie every four years and hanging on to wait and see what people think about it. It was like automatic writing almost.

Something I’ve been noticing recently is what I call the homoeopathic approach to horror. True Detective, Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy – they’re not horror, but they go out of their way to look and feel like a horror. Is that simply another sign of the genre’s respectability?

ST: I think it’s just an outgrowth of the postmodern situation, where the genre definitions break down, and genres start to collide and mix. People become more and more desperate to find something new and interesting because the avant garde has taken us to the very edges of creative structure. You can’t go much further out than some of the experimental and avant-garde films. The edges have been mapped, so now people are trying to find things to do in the body of cinema and the only option now is to take clashing flavours and clashing textures and bring them together.

MP: I think also it’s about the broader familiarity that people have with horror tropes. People watching something like True Detective have probably grown up with horror, so they’re reference points and cues that can instantly generate a certain emotional pull. The Duke Of Burgundy wants to generate tension throughout even though there’s no release for the tension – no explosions – you can generate those feelings by making something look and feel like horror.

VS: This is where it gets interesting and away from the Insidious type of horror. Peter Strickland does something amazing in The Duke Of Burgundy. He does take all that texture – and he’s really someone that works with texture – and he makes this story which isn’t horror – that could even be a kind of home counties, lonely women drama – and turns it into something that is incredibly sensual and incredibly disturbing because of all the undercurrents. That kind of cross pollination I think is where it gets really interesting. Where you can renew things and you can do something inventive with things that have already been used elsewhere. You’ve already seen lots of what you see in The Duke Of Burgundy, but you haven’t seen them done that way before. That’s exciting.

MP: Historically you often see people introducing horror elements. [Ingmar Bergman’s] Hour Of The Wolf feels like a horror film and has really strong horror trappings and sequences, but I wouldn’t say it’s quite a horror film.

ST: Horror has traditionally been a disreputable genre, but as soon as it reaches a certain level of sophistication everybody wants to co-opt it for something other than horror. Things like [David Lynch’s] Blue Velvet, or Fire Walk With Me, are as close to horror as any other genre and yet people would be desperate to try and not call them horror films. I don’t think Lynch would care but that’s not the point. There’s a tendency to think that once things reach a level of sophistication and complexity then it can’t be horror anymore, it has to be art or some other kind of category. But a lot of really interesting movies are definitely horror movies. A film like [Roman Polanski’s] Repulsion is a horror film. The fact that it’s made by an internationally renowned director who has a strong artistic credibility doesn’t reduce that. And it doesn’t reduce him to have made that film either.

The Miskatonic Institute opens its large, creaking doors at The Horse Hospital on January 8. For full details, head to the website here

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today