[RM contributor/Office Manager Ron McKenzie talks horror with the ladies of the Faculty of Horror podcast.]
Individually, Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West have each racked up an impressive hit list. Alexandra is the brains behind the horror blog Scare Tactic, as well as a contributing writer for Rue Morgue and Famous Monsters. Andrea, a frequent contributor to RM and the Rue Morgue Podcast, is also co-curator of the Black Museum lecture series here in Toronto as well as recently-appointed manager of Toronto Roller Derby’s The Gore-Gore Rollergirls.
These ladies have joined together to add even more to an already full plate. December 2012 saw the launch of their podcast, The Faculty of Horror, an academic and often humourous look at the genre we hold so dear. So instead of bogging things down with a lot of preamble, it’s best to let the ladies do the talking… and you better listen up, because they have a lot to say.
So, what brought you two together to create The Faculty of Horror?
Alex: I had been a friend and colleague of Andrea’s for a while and I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to do a podcast that dealt with specific issues and films, and specific themes that kept popping up in those films. Besides being a friend of Andrea’s, I was a fan of hers from her appearances on the Rue Morgue Podcast. I wanted to hear more from her and more regularly. So I asked her, “What about doing a podcast together?” and I kind of expected her to come back with, “Oh, I’m really busy with The Black Museum and The Gore-Gore Rollergirls, I don’t really have time,” but she was totally on-board. We just kind of took it from there.
Andrea: It was definitely all Alex’s idea. I had been on the Rue Morgue Podcast. It’s a unique medium, not quite the same as a filmed interview where you have to worry about how you look and it doesn’t require the same intellectual commitment as reading something. You can just sit back and listen to it, and decide how engaged you want to be with it. We started out on a budget of absolute zero. We were willing to invest in a microphone, but we didn’t have to. We managed to get hold of a Rock Band USB microphone, which is what we’ve been using. We’ve made tremendous use of YouTube for tutorials on how to do a podcast on how to put it up. The response has been great, totally rewarding and well worth the effort, so we’re going to keep it up.
What would you say is the specific focus of your podcast?
Andrea: I think the focus is not to just discuss the movie. We want to go in-depth and we want to go to the broader themes in an academic way that’s very accessible. I don’t think you need to be an academic to see where we’re coming from. My favourite thing about horror is the way that it can inspire critical thought on really big issues that you might not be comfortable talking about, like gender issues, race issues or sexual politics. Everyone wants to talk about Halloween and Laurie, so if we can expand that to a bigger argument, that’s where we’d like to go.
Alex: One of the things that Andrea and I bonded over was we had both written about horror films in our post-graduate careers and all the topics that come up in horror films. Horror films are quite universal, and very profound, even silly slasher films that are seemingly made from nothing; they tend to speak to something because horror has to do with life and death and fear, and it’s one of the most primal instincts we have as human beings. It tends to speak to some part of our reality and our social history. I think that’s always worth a good discussion.
On the podcast, as well as in your individual works, there’s a very strong emphasis on the academic and sociological aspects of the genre. What is it about horror, more so than other genres, that makes it so ripe for such critical analysis?
Alex: Well, I think when you look at the majority of films, whether it’s romantic comedy or the quest for self, there’s something very personal about it and you can kind of individually connect to these films. But horror, again, goes to those extremes of life and death and that’s something we can all relate to as human beings, like “I don’t want to die” – when that becomes your main objective, when you’re presented with a story that presents that concept, characters tend to make really interesting decisions. Not always the best decisions, but it’s certainly an interesting way to look at where we are in our own personal history.
Andrea: I think horror has tremendous scope for social commentary and allegory, and I think because horror has this low-brow veneer, people really let their guards down to take it in on a subconscious level. They’re more amenable to watching a horror movie that delves into these issues than some pretentious, high-brow drama.
Alex: Should we say there was a heavy sigh after that question? I think we’re at a crossroads, and I think we saw this in the early ’90s, but the two things we have going on right now are remakes and found-footage horror. I happen to be very interested in found-footage horror. It was what I did my dissertation on, so I think it’s a very interesting medium because sometimes it really succeeds and sometimes it really fails. I like looking at that discrepancy. Now, I have a big problem with remakes, particularly the climate of remakes today because they really delve into the back story of the killer. It takes the onus and focus off the victim, who should be the interesting characters, and puts that energy into the killer. It creates a sick and sycophantic look at the world, so I think the outlook is pretty bleak now. I think we are seeing some glimmers, though, some dissection into our horror history. If you look at something like Cabin In the Woods, which was probably my favourite film of last year, it’s a really thoughtful look at where we are and what these movies have to say about us. The best thing about Cabin is that it didn’t come to a clear conclusion. I’ve talked to other people about it, and they all had very different opinions about it. That’s what I like and those are generally what I feel are the best movies.
Andrea: If you look sociologically at the genre, if you look at the past and the sociology of horror, you can definitely see peaks that make references to the social anxieties of the times. Without going too far back, in the ’90s, it was all about vampires – sexy vampires – and that’s when AIDS was a really big concern. It was sexually transmitted and it was something that affected your blood. So you know, vampires were all the shit. Now with mass technology and consumerism, zombies are seeing a resurgence. They’ve gotten faster, just like consumerism has gotten faster.
If I could predict where things are going, I feel like horror movies are going to be a lot less “otherworldly.” As of now, we’re learning how to lie in the bed we’ve made, so to speak, both culturally and in the aspect that North America has pretty much ruined the world. We’re looking at the aftermath of what we’ve done and so we’re seeing a lot of “torture porn,” a lot of people who have maladapted to the world. They’re kind of crazy, but they’re trying to make sense of the world they’re living in. That’s kind of a trend I’m seeing right now. The state of horror is also really exciting because with the state of technology as it is, people are able to connect on more fundamental levels than ever before. I think Nightbreed and The Cabal Cut is a great example of the tremendous potential the internet has [for] fans of the genre and fans coming together. And even people like Astron-6. The indie movie is super-hot right now. You can make a really good horror movie with a small budget. It’s exciting for the genre right now, because you don’t have to depend on Hollywood and all the shitty remakes. There’s a lot more out there. I also feel like right now, even being new here to Toronto, there’s a horror community here. People are talking about it, there’s a large scope of ideas, so horror is flourishing, I would say.
For anyone who’s followed your work, it’s no surprise that your analysis features a very strong feminist perspective. Considering it’s Women in Horror Month, what do you think this perspective brings to the genre? More importantly, how do you feel about outside perceptions of this viewpoint?
Andrea: What’s most interesting about Women in Horror Month is the tremendous resistance to it and I think that’s always going to be the best part of it. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? People have been saying things like “well, we should be celebrating it every month.” Well sure, we should but we don’t. It’s the same reason there’s a Black History Month. I think people get their backs up when it comes to women’s presence in the industry because the genre has a history of latent sexism. I think when people hear “feminism” and “horror” in the same sentence, they get defensive and they get worried that the genre’s going to be dismantled or “girl-washed,” rendered palatable to a wider audience. What we want to do with the podcast is just offer a different perspective, a different way of looking at things that doesn’t threaten anybody. Ideas never hurt.
Alex: I want to get “Ideas Never Hurt” as my tramp-stamp! I absolutely agree with Andrea and that’s something that we’ve talked about personally. There’s a phrase that keeps come up in horror, which I like, which is Take Back the Knife. And I love it because one of the reasons I started watching horror movies was because I didn’t see a lot of heroines. Disney Princesses were not heroines to me. In horror films, they were bloody and battered, but they stood there at the end of the film, having triumphed. They didn’t get married – they fought back, which I liked a lot better. There is a resistance to women taking more control in how they are perceived or writing about themselves or directing themselves and that seems very odd to a lot of people. I think the more that women do this, the more people are going to see “hey, it’s just another great movie.” Pet Semetary was not a feminist movie, but it was directed by a woman and that movie scares the crap out of me! There are so many interesting facets to horror that I have a hard time understanding why anyone would resist a new voice in the genre.
You’re now two episodes into the podcast, with a third one ready to roll out in March. What are your-long term plans for The Faculty?
Alex: One of the reasons we decided to do one podcast a month is that we wanted to ensure the quality of it. It takes time, out of the rest of our lives, to watch the film, to find the talking points, do the research. We were both in agreement that it was better to do one solid podcast a month that we could be proud of, instead of pushing something out for the sake of it. We have a little list going of all the things we can talk about and if there’s something thematic coming up like a holiday, we’ll tackle that. But it’s come up a couple of times, where there’s something that I really wanted Andrea to see, and a good way to get her to see it is to convince her that it’s a good idea for the podcast. So we did that with Black Christmas on our first episode and it’s been a fun way to see something for the first time or go back and re-examine something together. We’ll take it as it comes, but we’re really thrilled with the reception that we’ve got.
Andrea: What I really love about the podcast is there’s a lot of opportunity to be so conversational about it. I write reviews from time to time, which is really a basic argumentation as to whether it’s good or not with references to plot, or I write these really dense academic chapters that reference Marx or Foucault and are heavily, heavily researched. Purely selfishly for me, the podcast is just a way to delve into these movies in a very conversational way. I’m able to bounce ideas off Alex and she helps me think of things in a different way and develop my way of thinking. It’s making me a better reviewer, a better critical thinker and I appreciate the opportunity to think on my feet and have it be entertaining at the same time.
Any parting shots or words of wisdom before we wrap this up?
Andrea: I’m going to say this: when we made the podcast, we were hoping for a lot of comments. I think maybe in the beginning, I think we were very…careful. Our reviews of Black Christmas and Halloween were pretty black and white. This happens, then this happens, now compare and contrast. We’re getting a bit more opinionated and we’re really hoping to inspire discussion. We’re discussing and we want to discuss with you. We want to bring up things that you bring up, on Facebook or e-mail. We’ve gotten a lot of compliments and people are saying they’re enjoying it, but we really want people to engage in it. We would really like to encourage you if you’ve got something to say, if you agree or especially if you disagree, let us know because The Faculty of Horror is all about getting the discussion going.
Alex: We actually had someone say that we ruined Halloween for them, that they didn’t realize how shitty the dialogue was until we played clips of it on our first podcast. He had to reassess his whole vision of Halloween, which I thought was pretty cool. Andrea and I are both women, but that’s not the main reason we decided to do the podcast. Feminism and gender roles come up a lot for us, and a lot of people mistake this for man-hating and it’s not. We love men, we want equality for everyone.
Andrea: And we want a Rondo, so vote for us.
The Faculty of Horror can be found on iTunes, as well as streaming on the Modern Superior Podcast Netwrok. To keep up with Ladies West and Subissati, check out their blogs at www.scare-tactic.blogspot.ca and www.ladyhellbat.com.