Training Ground

One of the most captivating appeals of the horror fiction genre, is the way in which it blurs the line between real and unreal. We are invited to engage in the crossing over of this line; sometimes head-on, sometimes realising it far after the fact. A crossing over that seems to blur that nebulous boundary between the one and the other, leaving us distrustful to any indication of being on either side of it. In this way the genre offers a self-contained time-limited experience, that mirrors what many of us may experience as an underlying condition of our socio-political reality. The slow existential unravelling of the floor we call reality; the deadening effect of losing distinction between what is your lived experience and what is a story narrated by a set of algorithms and echo chambers; the hypernormalising coexistence of mutually exclusive accounts of reality; the unremitting recurrence of things and ideas long-since thought dead and buried. In this way horror fiction forms a training ground of sorts, where one can experience the creeping terror of inhabiting the unknown, the acceptance of the appalling or the endurance of unfathomable pain, all in the safe confines of the movie theatre or the pages of a book. (Scrivner & Christens, 2021) This experience is most often endured through a protagonist that serves as vehicle. Vehicle as in body that endures, fights back, flees, succumbs. But also vehicle as in mind that grasps, accepts and transforms. The slow, or sudden, loss of clear distinction between what is real and what is not, always somehow drives the protagonist of horror fiction off the edge – spiralling down into fright, paranoia and despair, or ecstatically (and often violently) elevated into newfound liberty, autonomy and power. The shock, the terror, composes exactly that topsy-turvy experience of losing ones footing on that floor.

Looking Awry
But it is exactly from ‘off that edge’ or ‘that foothold lost’, where a clear and distinct view back upon the very surface you fell from, is made possible. A looking from awry back at our departure point that, following Zizek, would reveal 'its clear and distinct form, in opposition to the ‘straightforward’ frontal view which sees only an indistinct confusion.' (1991) The look from awry (or ‘lighting from the side’ recounting Foucaults version, through Nyrnes, of same predicament) exists in two conflicting states, as 'two substances' (Zizek, 1991). By looking at a thing from awry, with the look puzzled by our desires and anxieties, instead of straight on from a matter-of-fact perspective, one may actually distort the perspective of the thing as it really is; it’s true meaning. However the relation could very well be the opposite. That 'if we look at a thing straight on, i.e., from a matter-of-fact, disinterested, "objective" perspective, we see nothing but a formless spot. The object only assumes clear and distinctive features if we look at it "from aside", i.e., with an "interested" look, with a look supported, permeated, and "distorted", by a desire' (Zizek, 1991). The horror fiction genre often delivers on this awry look, and is therefore inherently revealing. It exposes, through an awry condition of looking, the other in a thing perceived. Not only as a horrible shadow or disheartening truth, but as a flourishing of hidden qualities and possible worlds. It invites us inside the blurred boundaries of veneer-reality and lets us see from the perspective of our subjective desires, our fantasies and the richness of our imagination.

Willingness to Look / Horror as Tool
In ‘Horror and Architecture’ Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing writes: 'Horror suggests a desire to understand and value deviance; to be suspicious of fundamentals and appearances; to let the norm be weirded by the exception. […] What it is depends on what one would do with it. Properly speaking. Horror has no manifesto. […] It is only a kind of tolerance, a willingness to look.' (2013) In this sense horror functions as a tool. A tool that shape-shifts in one’s hand to fit the impending task – be it the dismantling of the mansion, the hammering in of the coffin nail or the tearing of the fabric of reality.

Personally, I have always used horror fiction as a mirror tool. A mirror forming a critical reflection space, to the political reality unfolding around me and the structures that support it. Perhaps simply a consequence of my general idea world having (somewhat prematurely) been completely informed by the genre, but also as a strategic choice, since the genre embodies both the idea of militant momentary action and the durational contemplative settlement inside the strange changing landscape of the other. Horror has the ability to create social commentary that is not afraid of challenging authoritative narratives, or of falling out of academic categories, while simultaneously allowing for a strange bodily awareness of the dreadfulness of sociopolitical existence in everyday life. Often at times a rather dark space, but most often one that coexist unapologetically with the desirable, the preposterously funny, the vitalising and the radically stupid. Uplifting powers of equal importance to the horrible realms they unexpectedly surfaced from. It is this nervous space, between the crushing and the uplifting, the macabre and the magnificent, that allow for potentially transformative experiences. And in this sense horror can be utilised as a generator of such spaces.

A central quality of horror fiction as tool, is how it evolves together with the evolution of the sociopolitical setting it is utilised within. It reshapes to complement, in all its glorious deformations, the contemporary reality spun around it. Comaroff and Ong again: 'Horror is one byproduct of the modern, and thus share many of the characteristics of its advanced forms, evolving with them. But at the same time, it remains a dark mirror, an unsettling or ungrateful fellow traveler–like all reflections, it remains opposed, while sharing many important formal characteristics' (2013) It is important to remember that the horror genre is often very reactionary, but that is not necessarily constitutive entirely of horror. It does take its share in the reaffirmation of xenophobic stereotypes, chauvinistic gender roles and the glorification of violence (often against women), as well as it does eagerly pump energy into the flow of consumer capitalism - the industry bleeding out sequels, prequels, reboots and requels. But horror is still a genre that has within it the potential to show something new. Horror can show us the outside. An outside we may find horrific and often traumatic even, but also from where the shock of the new can come. Comaroff and Ong continue: '[Horror] reveal[s] blind spots, cataracts–things that we are not properly supposed to find. Openings dwell at the limit of the thinkable, at the edge of the epistemic spotlight, even though they are right in front of our faces. In this, horror offers a lens; no more no less.' (2013)

Liminal Spaces
With this lens, one is allowed access to worlds unfolding in the peripheries, in the corner of the eye/frame, a focally shifted perception of liminal spaces hidden in plain sight. That awry look again. In this same way the ‘lighting from the side’ as described by Aslaug Nyrnes, in relation to the rhetorics of artistic research, forms a similar lens, in the way artistic research illuminates liminal spaces hidden in plain sight; within an artistic practice or revealed within an area of interest through that artistic practice. The liminal spaces revealed through engaging with the horror genre, offer exactly that space of potential transformation that art must somehow always pursue. A threshold between one and an other. A threshold to be occupied; between object and subject, the inner and outer, the invited and the intruder, believer and sceptic. Horror is by its very nature surreal, in a certain sense of that word: it deals with a subtly altered version of the ‘real’ world, from where the laws that govern this reality can be bend and things made strange; made beyond-real. By this it always somehow reveals something about that ‘real’ world from which it’s drawn. Horror draws on fear and desire, which are most often unconscious. By dragging them into the conscious world, and altering the world to accommodate them, it produces a space – a world – that we both do and do not want to inhabit; or that we have no choice in inhabiting, since it’s structured around our psychic inner world anyway.

The Cataract-Thing
In the awry look, a world behind the blind-spot opens up, but the blot itself, that creates the blind-spot, may also be revealed to have hidden features. Like the 15th Century painting ‘The Ambassadors’ which Zizek refers to in ‘Looking Awry’; a blot not only screens us from a full view of the image, but also reveals itself to be more than what can be distinguished from straight on. The strange stretched spot in the lower half of the painting seems oddly misplaced, messing completely with the simple balance of the portrait of the two bearded men leaning casually on their escritoire, stacked with scientific devises designed to tame the uncultivated beast of nature. When viewed from awry, cheek to the wall next to the canvass, the large blotch tilting the composition, is revealed to be an anamorphic skull. Simple mortality as that spot which scientific pursuit towards godlikeness fail to see. The horror genre has a unique ability to concurrently focus on and gaze beyond the cataract-thing. Instead of discarding this malicious spot on the eye, on ones eye-/I-sight, it is highlighted as a symptom to behold in order to expose a greater malady behind it. An active gaze beyond the blot, followed by the horrific realisation of what caused it to come into being. This spot – when finally acknowledged - often forms a prism revealing underlying and repressed socio-political circumstances and motives.

Parnag Fegg
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, film director Ben Wheatley made a small low budget horror movie in the woods, titled ‘In the Earth’ (2021). Produced in a small closed production bubble, in a closed-off forest setting, the film excellently framed the hollowed out loneliness of the pandemic life-world.  but really the very idea of being a creature of nature that no longer communicates in the same language as its world of origin. In the film, a small group of scientists are trying to communicate with a fungal network that forms a voice of the forest. This research is done not only through the use of noise music and light patterns, but also an almost pagan engagement with the analogue technical processes of photography. This small horror film is thus not only about human’s growing inability to communicate in the same language as its world of origin, but also about representation and the unrepresentable. In this way ‘In the Earth’ really unfolds the problem of seeing (and hearing). What are we suppose to have access to and what is not for us to see? The folk-horror narrative is set around the forest witch Parnag Fegg – the one that guides the lost humans out of the forest. Suggested as the forest of representation that humans have raised around themselves. Ironically the scientific quest to understand the language of Parnag Fegg is circumscribed by representational tools. A fixation on the blind spot, adding evermore tools of representation to come to an understanding of it. Interestingly, when Parnag Fegg (the monster in the woods) is finally revealed, the entire narrative of ‘In the Earth’ is literally soaked up into the fabric of the film, lost to a psychedelic flashing of contrary colour schemes, inverted frames, multiple superimpositions, keying, mirroring (physically through revolving mirrors and as digital effects), refracted camera angles and warped closeups. It is as if the language of nature, and with it the language of the very film, escapes the realm of representation, becoming far more of an aesthetic and bodily experience. A language is forming; one of refraction, inversion, polarisation, pulse, erraticism, mirroring, stimuli, voids and gaps, that speaks in chorus with the experiencing body as it blinks, stirs, twitch, tremor, perspires and inaudibly sings along. It enters pure cinema. 'It creates a reality and in itself constitutes an experience', (2005) as Maya Deren wrote of the film as art form.

Politically Allegorical Horror
A new wave of popular horror cinema has emerged framing a time of socio-political turmoil and bleak outlooks on the future. Works of genre fiction that state clearly their allegorical intention to make social comments. Political crises are addressed here including state violence, the alienating effects of social media, the climate crisis, gender issues, immigration politics and the economic uncertainty echoing the financial crisis of 2007 and the failure to respond to this. In the US a recurrent theme is the experience of a national political divide, epitomised by the election of Donald Trump. Some of these horror films are outspoken about their political message where others are perhaps more indirectly, yet still conveniently, open to such critical reading. Common to many of these new takes on the genre, is the fact that they are still pretty fringe in the broad entertainment spectre and quite often pretty low budget. This makes them less in the hands of investors and profit-return-sheets and therefore also more unrestricted as political voice. But as the popularity of the genre grows, perhaps spurred by its ability to push forth political commentary in a somewhat radicalising way, so does the market’s interest. Due to how subversive political language, as symbolic gesture, is becoming a marketable trope, this genre that was once hard to bank on, mainly because of its family-unfriendly visual material and its often subversive social commentary, is now being assimilated by the market.

There is a certain self-contradicting situation at work in the politically allegorical horror film. On the one hand the horror genre is really apt for radical social commentary, mainly because of how it’s often already involved with a certain radicalisation inside its narrative structure. On the other hand the very proclamation of political intent somehow washes out the potential of political ideas to bleed through, to jump at the audience, to form a radicalising experience. Evan Calder Williams writes in ‘Combined and Uneven Apocalypse’: 'As with other films and cultural objects that upfront their political/social critique, that very critique often become an obstacle to better critical thinking: Well, we know very well that it’s against racism, sexism, crass consumerism, corruption … Simply because a film seems to point out problems of social inequality does not mean that it is a radical film, or even one that is therefore "smarter" and more aware than those films hell-bent on entertainment, social critique be damned.' (2010) What the upfront social critique offers is merely a surface reading of the texture of the film – the text that we have already been told is the message. And this message, radical as it may be, becomes a curtain that screens us from reading further into the actual sets of meanings captured in the film; about the world and time it is placed in. What should really be of concern 'is the symptomatic content: the effects and sets of meanings whose sources cannot be found in the film "trying to say something" about social issues.' (2010) Any potential for a radical social commentary seems to dwindle in the pursuit to be of social commentary. Following Williams (speaking in Marxian terms here) what can potentially be captured in a film is not just 'how the structuring effects of the "base" (the organisation of productive capacity and the modes of labour there employed to produce value) are registered by the "superstructure" (the social relations that both support and are produced by modes of production, the realms of culture and "politics", the whole ideological project of a period and its tangle of contradictory impulses and rules). It is not the issue of cultural output reflecting or expressing the economic order […] Rather the capture is of the messy passages between base and superstructure. From the perspectival dizziness of the tracking back and forth (between the forms imposed on a world and the uncomfortable, uncertain fit of that world into those forms), the sharper edge starts to develop.' (2010) Williams goes on to describe how this sharpness is not a result of criticism, but rather sharpened 'in our clumsy grasps at understanding objects and in how those objects themselves are constituted by attempts to understand pressures and determinations of their historical moment.' (2010) There is a certain subjectless willingness to knowing that is being mediated, fragmented and shoved under ground by these pressures and determinations, leaving it only to emerge in brief instances where we can tell that something doesn’t feel quite right.

Beyond this wanting to be of social commentary, the horror film always already has a certain criticality seeping through its racing celluloid frames. The horror film has a radicalising potential in the way it categorically stays outside the mainstream, meant in a very specific way: the way it swerves away from pure enjoyment, challenging entertainment as a product of smooth consumption – here is an entertainment product, that literally wants you to turn away from it, hide your face, cover your eyes and stop your gaze from consuming it.

Horror in the Fabric
Chilling memories of the final sequence of George A. Romero’s 1968 horror masterpiece ‘Night of the Living Dead’ wash ashore.

Help is here, finally. Ben, the only one that made it through the night.  Breathing that is. Some of the others still walk. Staggering walk. Dragging feet. The men arriving have riffles and names like Rick, Tony, Steve. They are putting down the undead. One by one, clearing the area around the boarded up house. The undead cover their heads with their hands in unnecessary agony. As they are gunned down. They’re not supposed to die that theatrically, already being dead and all. Like heroes die, like martyrs. ‘You wanna get out in that field and build me a bonfire.’ At least one of them is an officer of the law it seems. The rest vigilantes. Neighbourhood watch. Ben, makes his way out of the basement. ‘You! Drag that one outta here an throw it on tha fire.’ Ben still has his riffle. Not leaving it aside for obvious reasons. He peaks out through the crooked hammered up boards. Ben hesitates. Maybe he does not believe that his night of torment and horror is finally over. Maybe he still does not trust the law. His own security with the white man. ‘Alright, hit him in the head, right between the eyes.’ Ben drops to the floor. ‘Good shot. Okay, let’s go get him, that’s another one for the fire.’ And now a montage of images.  It still rips me apart. Stills grabbed from the film reel. The men enter. Their faces cold in the grain of the celluloid blow-ups. They carry meat hooks. Credits superimposed on the black and white stills. Ben’s lifeless body. They drag it outside (by hook) and throws it into the fire.

The surface reading of a cultural product may highlight a social commentary imbedded within it, but it may also fail to see beyond the blot, the cataract-thing of the obviously political. Williams: 'To say that the ending of Night of the Living Dead, with the 'accidental' murder of an African-American man by the white redneck zombie hunting mob, is largely about race relation is just to say that you’ve watched the movie all the way through.' (2010) Again, we know very well. This blot, of political upfrontness, obstructs a more critical read into the very (radical) experience the material may have to offer. Beyond the blot there is something different at play in 'Night of the Living Dead.' The veneer of race and class politics is thick, but it is somehow not upfront in the same way as in more contemporary explicitly political horror movies, like 'Get Out' (2017). The main character, Ben, happens to be black, the rich happens to be eaten, the patriarch happens to be killed (and snacked on) by its offspring, the zombies happen to have a proletarian-like mob structure, the rescuers happen to be rednecks. All of this with intention, no doubt, this is Romero. It is of course about the persecution of people of color, the mob-mentality of the people, the hostility between humans even when allied against a greater threat, the lust for an apocalyptic event in which we can all freely act on our deepest secret desires. But somehow these surface readings get distracted, layered and confused. Perhaps it is the way in which it invents a new genre – and this in a 'tangled mess of aesthetic and formal influences' (Williams, 2010) that gives the film a feeling of watching something completely new, yet still deeply submerged in the genre traditions that it audaciously toys with.

The ending of 'Night of the Living Dead' stays with me, not because of the heavy undertow of race relations, the fact that the white men carry meat hooks or the blunt death of our strong hero Ben. All this has such powerful inciting sentiment and such radicalising potential in 1968 when the film was first screened. But the ending stays with me more as a bodily experience. Just like the end sequence of ‘In the Earth’ it has to do with the way in which horror creeps into the very fabric of the film, and disturbs its tempor(e)ality. Ben drops bluntly to the floor. We hear a line of dialogue: 'Good shot. Okay, let’s go get him, that’s another one for the fire.' Redneck accent, check. And then all motion ends. The motorised pulling of lightsensitive film past the aperture of the lens grinds to a halt. Motionless still-frames of grainy black and white take over the screen. The action that follows – the men cleaning up the mess, burning the dead in a great bonfire, Ben included, the men mustered around the flames, faces furrowed and solemn – all relayed in the strange mobile stillness of the freeze frame. At moments these images come across as photojournalism. The types of photographs that exist of people posing in groups to rejoice in their partaking of a public lynching. The types of photographs that depict the rescue and restoration work at catastrophe sites. The types of photographs of covert operations, faces zoomed in on and blown up for identification. But they’re not really photojournalistic, they are halted recordings. They are filmed material stopped in its tracks. Hindered motion. Their temporality is eerily detained. On top of these images the credits are displayed. Is the film over? Is this part of the film or merely postlude? Just runout? A double temporality stirs in me, as my fellow audience members start to move about in their seats. One is of the strange mobility of the freeze frame. Dead time that still seems to be in motion – oh yes, the dead are walking. The horrible scenario on screen is not that of the monster eating human flesh, but rather of the coldness of logistics in the restoring-of-things-back-to-normal. The matter-of-fact way that this is portrayed – as timelapse or montage – has a non-dramatic horror to it, the violence of a system. The temporality of the medium has abruptly changed, allowing me to experience that I was indeed experiencing. The other side of this double temporality is that of the ‘ongoing’. The thing that ends but as it does refuses to do so. Rings a bell? The apocalyptic eventness of the zombie escalation (be it pandemic as in viral or simply an unidentified and untraceable radical change) trails a strange shadow of eventlessness behind it. The world does not cease to exist, rather it’s coming-to-an-end is strangely dragged out into eternity – together with those dragging feet of the undead. The film is over, but it continues nonetheless. It is the very temporality of the material that refuses to finally end. It still sits with me. It still rips me apart.

No Monster
As gradually more aspects of our society take on monstrous qualities, the engagement with horror fiction and its monsters in mainstream culture, becomes a way to deal with the daunting prospect of existing in the everyday live horror scenario. In a similar way, the realm of critical theory and contemporary art has adapted horror fiction narratives to (re)address aspects of our socio-political reality. The field of engagement with horror tropes widens and is constantly re-actualised as the horrors ‘out there’ escalate and find new repulsive forms. But much of this work seems merely to adapt the monstrous entities of horror fiction and use these as projection screens onto which myriads of already existing political, social and existential allegories can be displayed. Here the artist or thinker runs the risk of merely cultivating already existing aesthetic figures - the monsters of the genre already existing as allegories in their own right - and thus completely miss the true potential of horror fiction, namely of entering, through ‘the horror’, other, deeper, more intimate time perspectives and emotional landscapes, ridden of direct graspable figures serving as limitations of the imagination - of entering that perspectival dizziness of tracking back and forth between the forms imposed on a world and the uncomfortable, uncertain fit of that world into those forms, from where the sharper edge starts to develop. How does an artistic practice engaged with the genre of horror escape the mere browsing through workable images (monsters) to counter up more visual allegories? Instead of anticipating that climactic concrete moment where the horror manifests as physical monster to battle head-on, perhaps the gaze should be directed towards an extension of the horror scenario – of it’s condition. If the monster of the horror genre really constitutes that blot, that bars one from seeing beyond it, one must look at it from awry. In this lighting from the side, the monster is not utilised as visual marker taking the place of problems in our society, the problems themselves are rather revealed as monstrous. It has to do with an emotional experience of ‘the horror’. Not some horror-caricature, but really the strenuous, strange and uncomfortable atmosphere of horror.