The Rumpus Interview with Sam Miller, co-editor of Horror After 9-11.
The Rumpus: The title of your book caught my eye. What inspired you to collect together these essays about horror films as they’ve changed and evolved since 9-11?
Sam Miller: I love horror movies. I always have. I came of age in the late 1990s and there were hardly any horror films at that time. Suddenly, after 9-ll, there was a spike in horror films, a real boom in the horror genre, which was awesome. But I began to wonder why there was this big resurgence. Of course, I suspected why. And then I started noticing how they were subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, different than the films I’d been seeing up until then. I had been corresponding with the divine Aviva Briefel about politics and horror films (she had written an essay about Candyman that I adored, and I reached out to her while I was working on an essay about the haunted house film as an allegory of gentrification), and our conversations ultimately became Horror After 9/11. This book is our baby.
Rumpus: To me, the events of 9-11 seem more like a disaster film. What is the difference between a horror film and a disaster film?
Miller: A disaster film is about the possible. A horror film is about something completely irrational and impossible. But they’re both about fear. Though I think the horror genre reaches deeper into our psyches. It’s even more shocking than disaster. Take Cloverfield with its numerous references to 9-11. It’s about a monster that rises out of the Hudson River to smash Manhattan skyscrapers. There is zero explanation for it. And so we can project all our fears onto this monster as a metaphor. And the monster lets us off the hook—it has no history, it is not a result of US foreign policy, it’s not about culture or geopolitics. It doesn’t ask us to understand these complex issues, or acknowledge any guilt or responsibility. We don’t want to deal with complexity, and the monster allows us to continue to not do so. So we deal with the fear, we explore the fear, but we don’t look at how it came to us, or why.
Rumpus: So horror films are really about our collective anxieties, which obviously were stoked or exposed after 9-11?
Miller: Exactly. Horror films have always been about our cultural anxieties. Godzilla was so successful because it tapped into Japanese terror after the experience of Hiroshima—the powerlessness at the hands of an enormous unstoppable force that destroys whole cities. King Kong resonated because it let us see our anxieties about race and the legacy of slavery in a new light—we know we did wrong in stealing this creature from his homeland, where he was king, and shipping him in chains to America, and we know there will be consequences. The savagery and barbarism that we project onto Kong is our own; Kong himself is actually the only really human character in that film. Then there’s Dracula, which came about at a time when there were anxieties about Jewish and Eastern European immigration in the 30s. The endless alien invasions and giant mutant animals of the 1950s were about our fears in the age of The Bomb and The Cold War. Snakes on a Plane is almost the same film as United 93, as one of the essays in our book argues. But in its absurdity, it feels purer—like it goes right to the source of our primal fear.
Rumpus: That’s interesting. So, are terrorists the reptiles of the 21st century then—mindless dumb agents of horror?
Miller: If we accept the monster at face value, and don’t examine why things happen, then yes. Like I said about Cloverfield, the monster has no context other than raw animal fear. We don’t have to examine why the monster does what he does. It makes us into innocent victims. We didn’t do anything to deserve this. How could we? We’re good people. We worked hard for what we have. Right? So let’s not talk about U.S. Foreign Policy and the dark horrific things we’ve done as a nation, to secure and ensure economic prosperity. Monsters aren’t people, so we don’t have to worry about understanding or empathizing with them. They’re essentially giant insects. The very idea of a “terrorist” is fascinating because it’s an oversimplification, a way to turn a complex political struggle into a very simple thing: this person is bad. They’re doing bad things. We don’t need to wonder why they’re doing these things, what violence they’re responding to with violence, because they’re not human. They’re terrorists. It’s simple. In season three of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the producers did an amazingly brave thing. Our heroes are living under a brutal military occupation by the evil robot Cylons. Even peaceful and non-violent resistance is met with extreme violence. And two of the main characters, both of them people we like a lot, have a very intense conversation about suicide bombers. Is it morally acceptable to employ suicide bombings as a strategy for resistance? If our oppressor has no interest in peacefully yielding to our demands, do we have the right—or the obligation—to fight for our own freedom, even if it means murdering our own people or becoming the violence we abhor? They don’t come to an easy answer. We’re not used to having that conversation in America. We’re not used to putting ourselves in a position where we might be able to understand our enemies.
Rumpus: Yeah, and no one is empathizing with zombies and giant reptiles—in which case, are horror films really just part of the problem?
Miller: Well, they’re very revealing. I mean, what do these films say about us? What do they say about how we express our fears? What do they say about our culture? Part of what Aviva Briefel and I learned while working on this book was that we explore our fears through the horror genre because they aren’t being explored in the media or anywhere in our cultural dialog. The drumbeat of war was so loud after 9-11 that journalism surrendered its job as cultural critic. Even the New York Times was pro-war. The Dixie Chicks said ‘they were ashamed to be from the same state as George Bush’—pretty innocuous stuff—and people were burning their records. There was no diversity of discourse in the mainstream media. Horror films became a space to look at our fears and work them out. At the same time as scandals were unfolding around Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay—and there were these detached, abstract conversations on the news about what counted as torture, and if and when torture was okay—we had films like Saw and Hostel that were structured around graphic representations of people being tortured. Art can make you think, and provides what isn’t being provided in your environment—a safe space to process complex emotions. If we can’t talk about our fears in a polarized and jingoistic cultural setting, we need art to give us a place to explore and examine them. That’s art’s job. Not to answer our questions, but to ask them.
Rumpus: So what about Hollywood then? Aren’t the studios risk-averse? Don’t they avoid making films that pick the scab a bit too much or threaten the status quo?
Miller: Blockbusters especially, with huge budgets, are really risk-averse, so they’re not going to engage anything too complex, and they’re not going to take a chance on an ending that doesn’t fit the audience’s expectations. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending—the hero can die—but it’s an ending that inspires great faith in the power of our institutions and the human spirit. We walk into the theater feeling angry or powerless or impoverished or sad, and we get reassured and calmed. Our collective grief/rage/fear is ripe for exploitation. In World War Two, filmmakers like John Ford consciously colluded with the government propaganda machine, making films like Why We Fight. Today, I think filmmakers are unconsciously or accidentally colluding. They don’t end films with a resounding “let’s go join the Army!” chorus… but the result is the same: people come away feeling good about the status quo. Of course that can backfire. Some of us respond to films that are violent and militaristic with more repugnance than we had going in. And filmmakers can’t seem to resist ending on an apocalyptic note these days, such as in 28 Weeks Later, which gives us a happy ending only to shatter it so comprehensively and effectively that it’s kind of astonishing. I won’t spoil it, but it’s one of the best last shots of any film in the past ten years. You need a strong stomach to get through that film, but it rewards your bravery. This is a common thing, actually—the gotcha ending. It’s as if horror films by their very nature avoid letting us off the hook, even if they encourage a kind of complacency—it’s just a movie after all. But it’s really not just a movie, is it? Good art is always going to be ambiguous, and leave itself open to interpretation. If it comes down too hard on any one political or moral perspective it wanders into the territory of propaganda. So horror films reflect our anxieties but they don’t judge them.
Rumpus: I grew up in the golden age of serial killers, and I certainly remember that anxiety. In the 80s, all the horror films seemed to be about traumatized kids who turned into psychos. Why was that so popular then?
Miller: Part of it is just the normal rise and fall of a genre. We get fresh blood—no pun intended—and it’s exciting, it’s new, we take it in a dozen different directions, and then shit gets boring and then shit gets ridiculous. But remember that the horror films of the 80s were taking place against the backdrop of the rise of conservatism, the Moral Majority, Falwell and televangelism and Reagan—not terrorism. These were profoundly conservative morality tales. Kids broke the rules and got butchered for it. They had sex or smoked dope and bam, they’re dead. To me, Jason in the Friday the 13th films was Ronald Reagan, and that whole generation of Moral Majority faithful—a hulking unstoppable punishing figure with no power of reason or discourse, hell-bent on wreaking havoc and vengeance on anyone who violated a really rudimentary moral viewpoint. There’s a lot of ways to read the slasher, but one of the most powerful for me is that the slasher is anti-sex. He is terrified by sex. He is pure violence. And that’s intimately linked to the anti-intellectual, anti-sexual revolution backlash that was happening against the 60’s, with smarmy Republicans exploiting working-class white people’s fears and riding that all the way to the presidency. The fact that so many of these moral crusaders were brought down in sex scandals—and still are—just goes to show how deranged these people are about sex, and how it turns them into monsters. Like you said, traumatized kids who turned into psychos—they’ve been so damaged by the repressive aspects of male privilege and patriarchal sexual mores that they’ve become monsters. It’s also important to note, as Aviva Briefel did in her essay about Candyman, is that the slasher film is also about class—Freddy was a janitor, Jason was the son of the cook. The kids they menace are always middle-class people with lots of leisure time and nice houses to be brutalized in. It’s an extreme right-wing nightmare of the working class as threat and avenging victim. So you can read the slasher from the right or the left. It doesn’t matter. It’s scary. Until it’s not. That form wore itself out until it became so cliché it was almost a joke—in fact, in the Scream movies it became an actual joke. We weren’t really scared of psychopaths anymore. Horror films go through these phases…in the 30s it was Dracula and Frankenstein, and then sequels that got increasingly silly and far-fetched, until finally you have Abbot and Costello Meet the Wolf Man.
Rumpus: So what else do you see in the genre, over these past ten years since 9-11, that stands out?
Miller: There are a lot of zombie and apocalyptic films. The horror in these films is only partially about the zombie—it’s also about the breakdown of law and order, the end of hot water and electricity and coffee and capitalism, and all those other things we depend upon for our sense of well-being and identity. Take 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead or The Road—there’s always a human villain or villains in these films, people who use the chaos to exploit and harm other people. What will people do, how will they handle it? What would you do? They’re about a system that is about to collapse under its own weight. A system that is dependent on exploitation and oppression.
Rumpus: Are they also about AIDS and ebola and SARS and diseases like that? I always thought Alien was about people’s fear of crabs. Maybe I’m projecting. But there was always just that one egg left!
Miller: Yeah, the microcosm is the macrocosm!
Rumpus: How about Twilight and all these vampire films? Do they even qualify as horror?
Miller: They can be seen that way, yeah. Vampires are always equated with the danger of sexuality, trauma, disease or stigmatization. Twilight’s vampires, though, seem to be about making something scary not scary. Perhaps they are really about sex and about queers. Gay people want to get married and join the army, that’s hardly the scary hellbound degenerate of past generations. Vampires, in a sense, have been assimilated.
Rumpus: Stay tuned for comedic vampires?
Miller: Oh, they’re already here. True Blood is hilarious—as satire and as slapstick. And it’s sexy. And it’s scary.
Rumpus: Speaking of these new Log Cabin Vampires—what about queers and horror?
Miller: Queers have always had an interesting relationship to the horror film. Queerness was explicitly forbidden under the Hays Production Code, so when we appear in those movies at all it’s in a very distorted form. Harry Benshoff’s Monsters from the Closet does a great job of pointing out how queer those old monster movies are, how queer people were at work behind the camera and how their monsters riff on how straight people are terrified of us, and how for a couple generations of queer folks the only time they saw themselves on movie screens was as monsters. We’re fortunate to have an amazing essay co-written by Harry (with Travis Sutton) in our book. I still get a little tingle of excitement when Norman Bates stomps onto screen in a wig and a dress, waving a butcher knife at the end of Psycho, making our heroes utterly lose their shit. There’s the euphoria of destruction, the panache of a good villain, the idea that we want to burn the whole fucking house down. I wish we were still that scary.
Rumpus: Some of us are! So what makes a really good horror film, Sam?
Miller: Well, scaring the hell out of people! Showing us something we’ve never seen before. Giving us an awesome new monster. After that, the same rules apply as for any other work of narrative art: Good characters in interesting situations, who we care about, who deal with things the way we would expect human beings to deal with them. It’s uncharted territory.
Rumpus: Do you think the genre might morph from fiction to nonfiction since video cameras are almost everywhere, and documentaries are perhaps increasingly fulfilling the horror role?
Miller: Well, we’ve always been inundated by horrific stories and now we can see them. Perhaps we need the images in horror films to help us process all the real-life horror we hear about. But you can’t have nonfiction horror. You can’t go out and do documentaries of giant lizards and praying mantises the size of Manhattan. Until the aliens actually invade, we’ll need the movies. Jean Cocteau said “art is a lie that tells the truth.” A documentary can’t tell a story as well as fiction can. We don’t look to the news to understand the world we live in. No one trusts the media anymore. We look to good storytellers, just like we always have. Scary movies are just the latest version of Beowulf or Gilgamesh, or the tales our pre-historic ancestors told around the campfire: stories about the horrible things waiting out there to get you. Horror movies are uniquely situated to help us understand this fucked-up violent unjust monstrous, ridiculous, beautiful world we live in.