For the latest installment of 31 Days of Horror, Biff Bam Pop! welcomes author and academic Lindsay Hallam.
I can pinpoint exactly the one thing from my childhood where my obsession with horror began – the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I loved Michael Jackson – back then in the 80s everybody did – and the video terrified me. But I kept watching it, over and over. The one moment that really got to me was the shot of Michael as he began to change into a werewolf; he lifts his face to the camera and shouts to his girlfriend, “Go away!”, revealing fangs and yellow eyes. His full werewolf and zombie transformations didn’t frighten me as much, but this strange in-between moment, where I could still recognize the MJ I knew and loved, haunted me. After countless viewings I soon learned the moment where I needed to close my eyes, but over time I began to squint a little, the fingers on my hands that I had over my eyes began to spread apart further, the image seeping through.
I loved it so much my parents actually bought a video copy of it for me, which included a making-of documentary. Here I got to see the director, John Landis, and Rick Baker, the man behind the make-up and special effects. I saw Baker crafting the process of Jackson’s transformations, realising that those yellow eyes that scared me were contact lenses (and clearly very uncomfortable!).
My other great love was Disney movies. In this period Disney made a series of incredibly dark films that terrorized a whole generation: Return to Oz, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Black Cauldron. But even some of the older Disney classics edge into horror territory, such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” adaptation in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, and the Night on Bare Mountain segment of Fantasia.
Of course, as an adult I have come to view my childhood heroes Michael Jackson and Walt Disney in a very different light, but my love of horror has only deepened. If anything, it has become a source of strength to deal with the harsh realities of a cruel and violent world.
Horror is not just a genre that only exists to provide you with momentary jumps and scares, it is a vehicle to explore so much about ourselves. In particular, the films that have made me love horror say a lot about the female experience.
SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, 1977)
This is a film that made me fall in love with the beauty of horror. Suspiria is a sensory experience, the colour and design, in conjunction with the incredible score by Goblin, enveloping you from its first moments. Beginning as the protagonist, Suzy, arrives in a new city to study at a dance academy (and soon discovering it is run by a coven of witches), we are immediately plunged into a completely new and different world, more like the world of dreams than anything resembling our everyday reality. This is horror as nightmare, but it is a nightmare that is beautiful and full of magic.
In many ways, the film connects back to my own (and many others’) childhood experiences with horror, rooted in fairy tales and Disney (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is often cited as a key influence). Originally, Suzy and the other ballet students were going to be children, and the film retains a fascination with girlhood as a time of innocence as well as enchantment.
REPULSION (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Following on from Suspiria, the horror that comes with the loss of girlhood and the entrance into an adult world is at the heart of Repulsion. Catherine Deneuve is perfection as Carol, a young woman who is repulsed by the constant attention and objectification from men around her, unable to see their interests as anything other than a violent threat. After her sister leaves her alone to go on a holiday with her married lover, Carol’s delusions grow in isolation. Everything around Carol becomes distorted, the walls crack as her mind does, food spoils and rots around her, visions of intruders torment and assail her, and soon Carol begins to lash out at the dangers surrounding her.
I first saw this film as a teenager and it felt like it expressed completely the fears and anxieties that come with maturity. It is one of the few films that captures the irony of how entering the world of sex and desire is actually lonely, alienating and frankly terrifying. The fact that the film was directed by a sexual predator who violated a young girl adds another aspect that I have had to grapple with (as in the cases of Jackson and Disney) and I can’t say I have any answers as to how to navigate this terrain. All I do know is that I feel like this film now belongs to me, it’s become a part of my own experience and story.
CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Torneur, 1942)
Cat People shares a lot of similarities with Repulsion, with sex and horror becoming entwined in the mind of a young woman. In Cat People Irena is convinced that she is descended from a race of human/cat hybrids, and that at the moment of orgasm she will transform into a monster. After reluctantly falling in love with Oliver (who is kind of a drip, I never understood the attraction) she refuses to consummate their marriage, and so is promptly sent to a psychotherapist.
Made in the 1940s when psychoanalysis was very much in vogue, Freudian symbolism abounds throughout. Like Suspiria, this is a film of immense beauty, but here the beauty comes from the use of noirish black and white cinematography, heavy with shadows and ambiguity (which partly comes from the film’s low budget, as the filmmakers realised they didn’t have the means to create a convincing monster).
This film demonstrates that horror has always consistently placed women at its centre, with it being the only genre where women appear more than men (according to the study conducted by Google and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media).
FASCINATION (Jean Rollin, 1979)
As I began researching horror during my degree, I came across a book still remains a huge influence and inspiration: Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs. Through this book I was taken into a world where films previously deemed ‘bad’ or smutty were revealed as works of mad genius, and was introduced to directors such as Jess Franco, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jean Rollin. When I came to do my PhD, where I looked at representations of the body and transgression in cinema through the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, many of the films I explored in my thesis were ones I first learned about in this book.
An example of one such film is Jean Rollin’s Fascination, about a coven of female vampires who lure men to their chateau in order to feast on their blood. The figure of the female vampire was prominent during this period, with her lesbianism, a trait that goes back to Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, constantly emphasised for titillating but also artistic effect. Again, there is great beauty in the horror, along with a melancholy, a poetry, and uniquely personal vision.
AUDITION (Takashi Miike, 1999)
For much of its running time Audition appears to be a rather slow-moving story of a slightly strange and awkward romance between a middle-aged widower and a shy young woman. The couple meet under the pretence of an audition, conducted by the man as a means to find a new wife. The woman, Asami, is soon revealed to be completely unhinged, exacting a revenge that is graphic and extreme. Culminating in an extended sequence of torture, nothing compares to the first time viewing this film and being totally unaware of where its going to go.
Asami is the ultimate female avenger, the descendant of Carol, Irena and Rollin’s vampires, a daughter of Argento’s Three Mothers. While horror has always had to fight claims of misogyny, I see no other genre that so clearly and accurately reflects the experience of being a woman, the fear and danger, as well as the beauty and magic.
Lindsay Hallam is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of East London. She is author of the books Screening the Marquis de Sade: Pleasure, Pain and the Transgressive Body in Film and the Devil’s Advocate edition on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. She has written for several journals and edited anthologies on all aspects of horror cinema, including female vampires, desktop horror, Australian eco-horror, mad science films and witches in folk horror. You can follow her on Instagram @thehorribledoctorhallam for movie reviews and discussion, as well her other account devoted to celebrating beautiful images from horror cinema @pretty_horror_