Horror and humour have always been a part of civilisation, as Wheeler Winston Dixon states in relation to horror it “[…] may be traced back to the beginnings of narrative itself, or at least as far back as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 BC) […]” It is perhaps because these are two states of consciousness, both emotional and behavioural, that make it so hard to underpin a definitive theory or explanation of exactly what they are and how they work on the human psyche.
Jonathan Crane states “When audience members engage with a horror film they are not enjoying visions that respond to everyday fears; they are responding to atavistic terrors nearly as old as the reptilian brain.” What drives impulses that make us feel scared or make us roar into fits of laughter are not easy to explain. This is the main reason why I am drawn to ideas associated with horror and humour — they are two completely subjective binary points of enquiry, the perfect vehicle for me to see how far I can push limits of the visual, the auditory and the physical. As such, David Paul Cronenberg’s explanation of horror resonates with me “The horror genre is very kind if you are and want to be outrageous. It forgives a lot of faults and it encourages madness of a certain kind. I am not too worried about staying within it because it encourages exactly those things that I most value about art.”
I have always had a love for the horror genre in films, mainly the B grade schlock horror from the 1980s and 1990s that I grew up with when I was a child. My favourites were the really ridiculous, hilarious, over the top, absurd and nonsensical horror films like ‘Evil Dead’, ‘Childs Play’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ to name a few. I have always wanted to pay homage to the horror film for how it has shaped my understanding of film and visual composition and of course how it impacted on my disposition to dark humour. But I never had the confidence to fully embrace the themes of horror and humour in my art practice. I always felt these two loves consistently met opposition, that they were too unresolved and lowbrow for the type of art I was making and so my confidence to locate them in my career shrunk. Do not get me wrong, these themes have always existed within my work but they have never been the driving force. Having two years to research, articulate and formulate my arguments for the valid embrace and inclusion of horror in my practice has allowed these themes to manifest and given me the confidence to see them finally fully incorporated with assurance. It has made me reflect about why it is, as a viewer, that I marvel in the celebration of destruction within the horror genre in film and art.
My interactions with the horror genre started at an early age, in fact as early as I can remember. There are two distinct memories that started this obsession. In 1988 when I was four years old I went on a family holiday to Germany, England and the United States of America, primarily to visit relatives. While we were in England we visited Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors.
I entered into this environment, hiding behind my mother. It was an environment that used all the senses: groans and cockney accents that mocked the tortured wax bodies; mist and terrifyingly real visual displays of bloody bludgeoned bodies and the heavy waxy smells that radiated from the mannequins. This sensory overload coupled with the fear of not knowing what lay around the corner of the faux cobblestone path that led further into what seemed like the pits of hell had a terrifying lasting impression on me: of course, the cobblestone path led to the light at the end of the tunnel — the souvenir shop.
We then arrived in the United States of America where we visited Universal Studios and encountered the Psycho House and the Jaws’ ride. I remember clambering into a string of buggies as we drove through familiar film sets. The buggies came to a halt and before I knew it the land around us began to flood, a solo fin cracked the surface of the water and the Jaws’ music echoed through the buggies. I remember being absolutely thrilled with terror as our buggy began to shake and the fin approached. There were shrieks of laughter as the mechanical shark attacked the exterior of the vehicles. Surprisingly, the most scared I felt throughout the whole trip was when we went to Disneyland. Firstly there were people in giant cartoon suits prowling the concourses, most of the villains from my favourite television shows. They relentlessly approached our family for photographic interactions. Scared and overwhelmed by these giant mute cartoon characters with gleeful paralysed expressions I sort refuge under my mothers t-shirt. I then went on one of the rides in which mechanical dolls chanted the same song at you over and over again “it’s a small world after all” while we the audience were stuck on a boat with no escape.
From these moments on I was hooked on horror and it did not stop there. I consumed copious amounts of horror films with my two older sisters and “the boys” three family friends that we grew up with. We would spend hours watching every horror film we could get our hands on. This was usually done after our parents had gone out for the evening and the six of us kids would be left to our own devices. I was the youngest at the time, being only six and in this sense, the horror genre always had a mischievous feel for me as there is no way my parents would have allowed me to watch any of these films. After watching was finished we would then spend hours building cubbies and making up games, using the protagonists from the horror movies to base our modified games of tiggy on. I remember being terrified and excited watching and reenacting these films, building hiding spots within the house and letting my imagination grow wild with thrills and fears. On reflection, these hiding spaces and cubby houses we created have reformed, materialised and resurfaced within my art practice. The spaces I create now within my installations have become the dark spaces, both immersive and experiential, chasms of contemplation that are both familiar and unknown.
For these reasons viewing horror films always had a sense of excitement, fun and a comical feel. They allowed me to view death and destruction from a farcical point of view. I cut off my associations from the reality and seriousness of what was being presented. Death and obliteration became absurd and humorous. The idea of the schlock, the build-up of anxiety, the grotesque becoming familiar, the excitement of the unknown, the crescendo of destruction and chaos has become a line of enquiry both visually and conceptually.
The horror genre is vast; there are sub-genres within sub-genres. Things like schlock horror, torture porn, monster films etc all operate on different rules and narrative structures. Some are aimed at humour, others aim to nauseate and disgust. Because of this fact, there are unlimited possibilities of the way to research and approach the genre.