When it comes to reputation, horror… well, horror isn’t exactly the class president.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my English class was assigned an argumentative essay. I had yet to become the massive horror aficionado that I am today, but, for whatever reason, I chose to argue that horror films had just as much artistic merit and social conscience as “real movies.” It quickly turned into a passion project, and soon I was spending all my free time either in the school computer lab or on the internet at home, assembling sources from books and journals. By the time I was done, I handed in a ten-page essay worth of a sophomore college thesis, using scholarly sources to help argue that Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and another film that escapes my mind were every bit as artistic and culturally relevant as anything Fellini or Bergman might produce.
I eagerly awaited the day that I’d get my paper back. When that afternoon came, our teacher began walking around the room, returning essays. When she reached my desk, she loudly announced, for everyone in the room to hear, “I want you to know that I was very offended by your paper and I didn’t appreciate having to read it.”
I don’t recall my exact score, just that she’d made notes indicating that she’d taken off points for length and content—something about how it was “inappropriate material” for a high school classroom. It was one of the most intellectually formative experiences of my life, and though it happened almost seventeen years ago, it’s a moment that’s forever burned into my brain. Horror, I learned that day, was not something that belonged in polite society. Horror was a psychic wasteland. Venturing into the realm of horror, I learned that day, was the same thing as entering a room with a great big sign reading “CHECK YOUR BRAIN AT THE DOOR.”
Thankfully, that world view is changing, and one of the people we have to thank is Alex West.
Alex West is that cool friend you wished you had in school—witty, insightful, articulate, and always ready to stick it to “polite society,” for the past several years she’s been working to help eliminate the intellectual stigma against horror while simultaneously elevating its’ social status beyond mere genre and into the realm of legitimate cinema. As one half of the Faculty of Horror podcast (with Rue Morgue colleague Andrea Subissati), West has struck a blow for the very concept of academic horror, approaching the topic the same way other scholars would analyze German Expressionism or French New Wave. In addition to a finely tuned feminist critique of contemporary horror, West also delves into less obvious analytical territory, such as the implications of French history on modern horror culture and (my personal favorite) a critical analysis of the much beleaguered found footage subgenre. A columnist for Diabolique magazine, her work can also regularly be found at Famous Monsters of Filmland, Shock Till You Drop, The Toronto Star, and Rue Morgue (where she hosts The Final Girl Chronicles, a tongue-in-cheek yet sincere look at some of cinema’s most iconic and underrated heroines).
And the beautiful thing is, people are listening.
West has developed sufficient enough a reputation (and credibility) in the world of academia that she’s been invited to speak at colleges in Ontario, Québec and Cambridge, Massachusetts, with one of her lectures-- Quelle Horreur: The Films of New French Extremity—providing the basis for her first book, 2016’s Films of New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity. (I can only hope a found-footage-follow-up is on the way)!
Busy as she is with her multitude of projects (including a lecture series at The Black Museum), I was fortunate enough that Alex spared the time to talk to CineDump about her uniquely academic approach to horror, and her insights about a few of the genre’s recent artistic movements.
Preston Fassel: What drew you to study films of the "New French Extremity"?
Alex West: Very simply, they were movies I couldn't shake. It became fascinating to me that they were all coming out of the same, relatively small, country within about a ten-year span of each other. I was reading some books and lots of think pieces about the movement but none that connected the initial "art-house" movement composed of films like Irreversible, Trouble Every Day, and In My Skin among others with the out-and-out horror of films like High Tension, Martyrs and Frontiere[s]. I spent a lot of time looking at the links between these films and very quickly realized that the filmmakers were all concerned with the same thing, their country.
PF: Much of your work centers on how horror movies teach us about our nations and cultures. What do you feel current horror trends like found footage say about us?
AW: Found Footage is a pretty straightforward analog to our obsession with ourselves and the multitude of platforms which we are given to share our personal experiences. But great found footage films delve a little deeper and explore what it is to document ourselves and that by extension often becomes about themes of security and the need to be remembered.
There's a lot of horror right now about secrets and untold truths. We're very scared that we're missing out on something or something is happening behind our backs. Rightfully so. So there's a need to document and personalize our stories. Horror movies are of particular interest to me from an analytical viewpoint because I think fear drives humanity on personal and societal levels, and the best horror films use those fears to illustrate how and why we operate the way we do.
PF: Why do you think found footage has recently fallen out of favor with horror fans?
AW: There was a real onslaught of them because they're very inexpensive to make. Occasionally you can find gems like some of my recent favorites Unfriended (2014), Creep (2014) and Mr. Jones (2013), but most of them are destined to never be seen.
PF: Tell us more about your partnership with Andrea Subissati on the "Faculty of Horror."
AW: I admired Andrea before I met her, and then we were friends before we worked together professionally. Personality wise, we're a bit yin and yang, but ultimately (and most importantly) we have the same values, work ethic, and sense of humor, which makes it exciting every time we work together. She's an inspiration to me to reach further and push harder to get the best out of myself.
PF: What was your favorite horror book/movie of 2016?
AW: I really enjoyed the book Haunted by Leo Braudy. And there were lots of great films last year, but one of my favorites was Under the Shadow, directed by Babak Anvari. It was basically what I wanted The Babadook to be and more.