The dangerous edge of things...
I began work on Women of Horror the day after Easter Sunday of this year. For the past six years, my ongoing Stations of the Cross for Social Change has consumed my creative practice. This year’s Stations of the Cross: Climate Change explored the biodiversity crisis and mass extinction. It was super depressing. I needed cheering up and nothing makes me happier than a really good scary story so I started a new project: an experiment in the influence of the horror genre in my life and art. I decided to seek out scary stories about terrifying women and to create portraits of them. I followed my interests wherever they took me. I skipped joyfully back and forth between the historical, the folkloric, the mythological, and the paranormal. I re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe while gorging on Mira Grant and Lauren Beukes and watching all three seasons of the visually stunning Hannibal.
Throughout the spring and well into the summer, I crafted the portraits that became Women of Horror. As soon as I took a breath and took a step back, I realized that even though this series started out as an effort to move away from religious art, the resulting artwork raised lots of theological questions. So, I reached out to one of the most gifted theologians I know, Dr. Robert Saler of Christian Theological Seminary and asked if he wouldn’t mind helping me make some sense out of this project. I sent him a rambling email – and followed up with a rambling phone call – and asked if he wouldn’t mind sending me some of the questions he thought Women of Horror raised. He obliged with great humor and I’m thrilled to share our conversation below. You should check out his excellent book!
Q: In horrifying times, is there something about the horror genre that gets us closer to reality?
Absolutely! There are deep connections between the social anxieties of a particular time and the folklore people created out of those anxieties. In the late nineteenth century, when tuberculosis seemed to be literally sucking the life out of its victims, folklore about vampires ran rampant.
Even my favorite horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s are connected to a historical trauma that has never been fully reckoned with – the over 10,000 children born during that time period with severe birth defects the result of thalidomide. While theologians struggled to make sense of the crisis, movies like Rosemary’s Baby exploited it to great effect. Now, don’t get me wrong those movies – like much of horror cinema – are essentially reactionary in nature and so I wouldn’t say that they’re doing much in the way of interpretive work. But, they do provide – for some folks, like myself -- a type of catharsis, which brings us quite neatly to the next question…
Q: Given that so much horror has Christian roots, and so many portrayals of the Christian story (and God) are horrific, is there a way that supposedly "anti-Christian" horror can be its own kind of liberation theology?
For me, what I find most liberating about the horror genre is the catharsis that can be experienced through confronting the extreme. The past few months, as I’ve been creating these portraits, I’ve learned to lean into this feeling of emotional release that seems unique to horror. When I’m working on a series I tend to immerse myself in the process to the point that “reality” seems pretty distant. My world becomes the books I’m reading, the movies and t.v. shows I’m watching – all the ways I take in images as I’m creating my own vision for the narratives that I’m creating. So, naturally, when I chose to take on the horror genre some friends and family were a little concerned about the effect that all this might have on my mental health. But, I gotta say: I found not just deep enjoyment in my horror immersion, I often felt a sense of liberation that I haven’t found when working on my more Christian-oriented work.
As an example, one of the movies that has remained with me in a deeply liberating way is It Follows. The premise is pretty simple. A woman is stalked by a terrifying presence after a sexual encounter. She tries to escape; it follows. In some ways, it’s a boilerplate horror movie filled with moralizing: Don’t have sex, kids! But, the feeling that I had through the whole movie, it was the exact same feeling that I have every time I’m in a parking garage alone at night trying to find my car, or when I’ve been catcalled on the street. That feeling of knowing that there are eyes on you. The entire movie was a two hour exercise in a feeling that is both hugely terrifying and a terrifyingly common and intimate feeling in the lives of all women. Now, the liberating experience of the movie, for me, was in the frank acknowledgment of what is rarely acknowledged. There’s no shortage of actual horror in people’s lives. What is, too often, in short supply is the freedom to name it.
Q: What is the role of redemption in the horror stories to which you are drawn?
This is a great question and one that I’ve really pondered over. In his introduction to the beautiful new Penguin Horror series Guillermo del Toro writes:
To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defines our boundaries and illuminates our souls. In that, it is no different, or less controversial, than humor, and no less intimate than sex. Our rejection or acceptance of a particular type of horror fiction can be rarefied or kinky as any other phobia or fetish.
It’s a great insight, I think, into how the genre reveals something about our innermost selves. So, I’ve been thinking: what are the types of horror stories that I love the most? And there are some definite recurrent themes. More than anything, I love a good haunting. I’m a Southerner, after all. I grew up less than a mile away from an abandoned Confederate Army hospital. Overwhelmingly, the redemptive themes in horror stories that I’m drawn to most often have to do with reconciling historical trauma.