[RM contributor Alexandra West checks in with a shiny new Sinister Seven.]
Horror is often relegated to the cobwebbed corners of popular culture. It’s dismissed, misunderstood or deemed a guilty pleasure. But the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington has given the genre its due. With their exhibit Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film, senior curator Jacob McMurray, along with guest curators Roger Corman, John Landis and Eli Roth, has created an interactive and sensory experience that illuminates the history of horror cinema for gore-hounds and the casually curious alike.
The exhibit incorporates props such as the axe from The Shining, the Xenomorph creature suit from Alien and the Nazi werewolf mask from An American Werewolf in London (pictured) as well interactive elements including The Scream Booth, where photos of shrieking visitors become part of the exhibit, and artist Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monster installation, which invites visitors to turn their own shadows into projected monsters.
We recently talked with McMurray about the challenges of representing an entire century of horror movies in one ever-evolving exhibit.
What sparked the idea for the exhibit, and how did you get these three filmmakers involved?
I really like the personality aspect to it. That’s when I came up with the idea to get three directors and creators of horror to be guest curators. We’d worked with John [Landis] before on a project and I definitely wanted him to be involved; not only has he made horror films but he also did the “Thriller” video, which fits into the music side of what we wanted to do. Eli Roth was one of the first people that agreed. Knowing that we had John and Eli, I was trying to think of someone that would really compliment that, so Roger [Corman] was the third person we asked. I thought he had such a different perspective from the other two and of a different generation as well, so they would all really compliment each other.
How did they shape and change the exhibit after coming on board?
To start out, I had them send me ten of their favourite horror films – not what they thought were the best, but what were their favourite. John sent me ten, Roger sent me ten and Eli sent me thirty. I took those and whittled them down. I wanted films that were domestic and those that were international, over a good spread of time. I was starting to get in artifacts for the exhibit as well. So I knew I had the axe from The Shining [pictured], The Creature From the Black Lagoon’s mask, etc. That’s the curator’s job – juggling all these things so you feel like you have a balance. I wound up with [a list of] their selections which spanned from 1920 to 1998. That’s the thing with this genre – we’ve got a hundred years of film. Teenagers may go in there and be exposed to movies they had no idea existed.
So how do we put all these elements into context? We wound up creating an iPad app that shows you a representation of all the artifacts on display so when you get to the saw from Saw it will bring up a clip from the film, putting every object into its horror context so that hopefully no matter what you’ve seen, or how old you are, horror will be conveyed.
What pieces have gotten the most attention or biggest reactions so far?
I think a lot of people think instantly that it’s going to be a haunted house, and it’s hard to do museum-y things like learning while trying to create the suspense you need for a haunted house. We wanted it to be a different experience. We wanted to explore the visceral aspects of horror while still being able to reach people. We mixed moments of real horror with humour, so we have a Scream Booth in the exhibit where you can go in and it scans your hand and tells you if it thinks you’re predator or prey. You’re guided through this process and you’re supposed to play a role; you get the chance to scream in a murderous rage … and your photo exists on our Flickr page.
What’s your favourite piece in the exhibit?
One of the coolest things we’ve had on display is Bram Stoker’s original manuscript for Dracula. Paul Allen, the founder of the museum actually bought it at auction a while ago and I got to read through all 500 pages of it. What’s cool is you can see Stoker’s handwritten annotations and then it’s literally cut and paste.
How did you build an exhibit that appeals both to horror fans and someone with only a passing interest in the genre?
I’ve always been a huge reader of horror fiction and casually liked horror films, but in no way would I say I was an expert. I really tried to have in the exhibit those moments of tension and release, of horror and laughter that make up a lot of those movies. I wanted to get across that it is about entertainment and fun, but that it’s also about something deeper, about us being human. If fear is the anticipation of something terrible about to happen, horror is after it happens and that realization that your world is completely and forever changed.
How has the exhibit evolved since its opening in 2011?
We just put up a bunch of new objects. The producer of The Blair Witch Project came through the exhibit on his own – we’d included him on a list of 100 horror films to see before you die, and he emailed to thank me. I asked if he had anything he wanted to add, so now we’ve got one of the stick figures and the camera they used to film it. Plus there’s a Buffy stake on display, Ofelia’s dagger from Pan’s Labyrinth, and Shaun of the Dead’s shirt and tie. I try to switch out a third of the objects every year. It will be up in the form it’s in right now for another year and a half while I keep switching out objects. Then we’ll probably do three new directors and re-theme it with a whole new graphical style. Horror film is so huge, we’ve only scratched the surface. We could stay on this for a while.
Ultimately, what do you hope one will walk away with after seeing Can’t Look Away?
I hope people realize that horror is not just frivolous entertainment. It is entertaining, but it means something important and is intrinsic to us being human. I love that people go in with a certain expectation of what a genre or band is about and because we present these exhibits with a really wide context, you can get turned on to new things and new ways of thinking.
For more information on the EMP Musuem and Can’t Look Away, visit the museum’s website.
(All photos by EMP staff)