Often eschewed as lowbrow or downright problematic, the horror genre is prone to reductive criticism, which tends to focus on what might seem to be predictable content of ghosts, gore and final girls.
By engaging more fully, but no less critically, with the aesthetic and thematic nature of horror films through their podcast The Faculty of Horror, hosts Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West offer insightful readings of films that are habitually passed over as superficial. Their resulting observations on the current social, political and cultural climate may provoke more disturbing realizations about the horror genre – and collective experiences of trauma and panic – than first anticipated.
The horror genre encompasses a vast spectrum of filmmaking approaches. One of the commonalities of films grouped under the mutable “horror” category is that they usually impart affectations or sensations of fear, anxiety, repulsion or devastation.
On their podcast, Subissati and West bring critical dialogue to the extensive range of films that fall under the category of horror. With monthly episodes focused on one film or a commonality between films, Subissati and West delve into what makes these movies the disputably entertaining features that they are, as well as articulating how the films exemplify or tap into societal anxieties.
Subissati and West’s inclination to caringly and accessibly dissect the horror genre comes from a curiosity regarding horror fandom and a resistance to the Western theatre canon, respectively, as well as an awareness of the academic and artistic gatekeeping that can occur around the genre.
Beginning to weave horror content into her work while pursuing her master’s in theatre, West has found the podcast format allows for greater accessibility to the critical concepts navigated in academic settings.
“We approach these episodes with openness. Openness with each other to have dialogue and openness to ensure that what we’re talking about makes sense,” West says. “We’re not throwing around too much jargon without breaking it down and demystifying it. We want to have a conversation that’s based in the real world. How do these theories affect us? Why do they matter? Where do they come from?”
For Subissati, who came to develop horror-based inquiries through sociological study, the podcast format is an emergent medium through which to share academic processes.
“Film analysis is highly stratified, and its tiers are tied to institutions ... The fact that the podcast is a fairly new format for disseminating ideas, and one that’s not necessarily associated with any level of discourse, means that a podcast can transcend those boundaries,” Subissati says.
Likewise, the ease of podcast creation allows for ideas to be shared in hyper speed compared to the lag of academic journals, and there is no need for seeking institutional funds prior to sharing concepts through the airwaves. These methods of sharing “open up the floodgates in terms of what’s possible and who can be heard in this arena,” Subissati says.
While the method in which Subissati and West share their studies is powerfully transient – another beautiful subversion within the strict citation standards found within the realm of academia – they anchor their immense research through notes and reading lists accompanying each episode.
Offered in case the listener would like to embark on their own research, the open-access model to theoretical knowledge is “less about legitimizing our perspective ... and more about opening lines of inquiry that might not be apparent outside of academia,” Subissatti says. By ensuring that all content is credited and all resources are provided, Subissatti and West invite critical dialogue to continue beyond the confines of a single podcast episode.
Another benefit of sharing content related to each film discussed on The Faculty of Horror is being able to trace dialogues surrounding the films while understanding their contextual nuances. As West discusses, film, like any other art, is “a part of the time and place it comes out of.”
As a genre, horror tends to destabilize and antagonize the confines of heteronormative, North American-based film production and, in effect, reflects on the cultural pillars that uphold existence within patriarchal, colonial, white-supremacist capitalism.
This reflection can often be aggressive, uncomfortable and deeply depressing. The horror genre “challenges us to make sense of the world around us, because the world around us is filled with misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, brutality, wars, genocide and bloodshed,” West says. Although deeply problematic horror films exist, “it’s important to deconstruct those films,” as it is through their deconstruction that a greater understanding of their societal critique can be found.
“Like in many horror films, the key to beating the monster is first understanding it,” West says.
As discussed by Subissatti, the difficult subject matter of horror films is not at odds with personal politics or ethics. Rather, by entering imaginative spaces that may contain overt problematics or subtexts of astute cultural critique, one might be invited to lean into the complexities of their own discomfort.
“I appreciate having my views challenged, and I’ll embrace any opportunity to re-assess them with new information,” Subissatti says.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, real horrors are creeping into daily life in strange and unfamiliar ways. Many people are confronted with mass death and tragedy in distanced, quantitative methods, such as graphs, tweets and headlines. It often feels difficult to confront the full scope of the tragedies the world is currently experiencing.
“I think horror brings death closer to many of us,” West says. “We live in a death-denying society. We can watch the news all we want, and seeing the numbers on a COVID death count tick up still feels distant to some. In horror, we see the end of life. It’s not sugar-coated. It’s not Bambi’s mom dying off-screen. We are confronted with it.”
By unfolding the messy layers which present the horror genre as an easily consumable format, Subissati and West invite openness and reflection throughout the uncomfortable spaces which buffer perceptions of reality and fiction.
The Uniter Speaker Series presents: A Conversation with The Faculty of Horror will stream live on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at facebook.com/theuniter. The event is free and open to all.
Jillian Groening is a dance artist and writer who is excited about scoring practices, sensory documentation and everyday choreographies. She holds an MA in theatre and performance studies from York University, and, on most days, her favourite horror film is Eyes Without a Face.
Published in Volume 75, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 24, 2021)