In Haunt

October marks Halloween month, with all-the-more attention turned to exploring all things horror, Gothic, weird and wonderful in culture and creativity. Embracing such an approach is Manchester-based academic Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, whose busy schedule over the coming months provides many opportunities for others to learn about topics including the cinematic and literary histories of horror, different varieties within the genre… and there’s even a new book on the horizon! From our fascination with vampires, to the freakiness of found footage horror, Xavier encounters a wide array of Gothic content within his work, exploring horror in innovative and engaging ways. This is a genre that is after all capable of drawing strong reactions and inviting plenty of intrigue; points definitely worth exploring in themselves.

Halloween

Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes is Reader in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a founder member of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. He is also the author of Gothic Cinema – the first chronological, transhistorical and transnational study of its kind, published as part of the Routledge Film Guidebook series (read our earlier interview with him about the book here). During his academic career he has also authored and edited a number of books, including Spanish Gothic (2017), Horror: A Literary History (editor, 2016), Horror Film and Affect (2016), Digital Horror (co-editor, 2015) and Body Gothic (2014). Xavier has additionally worked with the British Library as an Editor for many of their Tales of the Weird anthologies. Here at Haunt Manchester, we decided to speak more to Xavier about some of his upcoming plans and how you can get involved…

Hello Xavier. It certainly sounds like a busy spooky season! You are part of a public lecture at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies on the 8 October, discussing 'Spanish Horror: Industry, Political Critique and the Gothic Imaginary'. Can you tell us a little more about this and perhaps advise us where to start if we are not acquainted with much Spanish Horror?

"The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies is an international educational community made up of directors, critics and horror enthusiasts, with classes taking place regularly in London, Los Angeles and New York. Filmmakers and journalists I really admire, like Mark Gatiss and Kim Newman, have participated in the past, so it’s a real privilege to be able to give a talk for them. For the first time ever, their classes have gone fully digital, so my paper is via Zoom. That’s another potential world of new horrors awaiting…

"When Miskatonic got in touch, they were keen on getting someone on board who could present Spanish horror to an audience with a working knowledge of the topic. For this reason, my lecture is introductory, but centres on the two pillars that, to my view, have articulated the look and themes of Spanish horror: the industry context of the late 1960s and early 1970s (still under Francoism), and unresolved political tensions (say, between Catalonia and centralist Spain) that are deeply connected to the Spanish Civil War. I am hoping that the talk will prove an interesting introduction for those who may have an interest in this national manifestation of the genre but would like a little bit more background to films like Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) or Guillermo del Toro’s co-productions The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Incidentally, these films might be a good place to start for anyone who has never watched Spanish horror films before."

Another piece of exciting news is that the book you edited for the British Library in 2016, Horror: A Literary History, is being reprinted in a trade paperback edition. Why do you think there is such an appetite for exploring the literary history of Horror? And what can learning about the literary history teach us about our own relationship with the genre?

"I have been very pleasantly surprised by the reception of this book. When I edited it, my aim was to bring together academics who were experts in specific literary periods to write about significant movements and authors that helped shape horror. It was also, naturally, a love letter to a genre that has meant so much to us. Although there have been many attempts at mapping out Gothic literature and fantastic and supernatural fiction, I felt that there was no up-to-date history of horror understood as its own distinct genre. All collections have their gaps, and this is by no means a definitive or exhaustive history (I would have needed 5 volumes), but I feel we were able to provide something for everyone. This might be one of the reasons the book has been well received by both academics and fans. I think there has always been an interest in the history of literary horror, but it’s been perhaps relegated to magazines, fanzines and website. The modern appreciation of what this genre tells us about fear, repressed desires and dominant ideologies have legitimised its study. The history of horror literature is really the history of minoritarian literature more generally, and is certainly comparable to the evolution of science fiction. Many of the films that have come to form the horror canon derive from horror novels too – not just Dracula (1897) and Frankenstein (1818), but more modern classics like I Am Legend (1954), Psycho (1959), Let the Right One In (2008) and Annihilation (2014). I guess you could say that shifting the attention back to the stories and novels is a way of acknowledging horror’s formative past."

Horror A Literary History

And that’s not all! You are also working with Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn on an upcoming anthology of vampire fiction for the British Library… Visions of the Vampire: Two Centuries of Immortal Tales. Can you tell us more about this – and why do you think we have been so fascinated by vampires throughout the centuries?

"The collection brings together Sorcha’s vampire expertise with my long-held passion for these monsters and interest in the short story form. As with Promethean Horrors: Classic Tales of Mad Science, the intention was to create a ‘best of’ anthology that could be of interest to the horror aficionado. We have also dug deep to offer an anthology that should appeal to the vampire enthusiast. We mostly know vampires through films and television, but there is a long history of vampire short stories people are less familiar with. Most anthologies tend to be quite specific (Victorian vampire stories) or end in the late twentieth century. We wanted to produce something that was also contemporary and up-to-date. We are delighted that the British Library has been able to negotiate the copyrights for the more modern stories. It’s a real delight to see Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Angela Carter, Robert Bloch, Suzy McKee Charnas and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and John Ajvide Lindqvist all under the same cover! Vampires explore many human obsessions: immortality, blood and its symbology, eternal youth, sexuality and dangerous passions. Increasingly, they have been used to explore identity and social inequality too. This is all a testament to their versatility and endurance in popular culture."

Do you think our experiences of the pandemic, lockdown and generally ‘being closer to home’ will affect the appreciation and development of the horror genre? For example, you are involved in Brazil's Week of the Image (Semana da Imagem), hosted by Unisinos University, with a lecture on found footage horror this November. Perhaps found footage horror, with its emphasis on human recording and intensity, may be perceived as even more disturbing?

"We have already seen the birth of the first Zoom horror film, Host (2020). It’s effectively a desktop horror in the style of Unfriended, but told entirely through the duration of a Zoom call. The film is interesting for various reasons: it is an indication not just of how fast horror moves in being able to capture and catalyse the zeitgeist, but also of how deeply the Covid-19 pandemic will affect the stories we tell in the future. Once filmmaking can resume safely, there will be a flood of horror films exploring alienation, social discrimination, captivity, the horrors of digital life, domestic abuse and so on. Interestingly, recent research suggests horror fans are coping better with the pandemic, and it would be interesting to see if there has been a correlative rise in horror consumption too. Many people did indeed rush to watch pandemic films like Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995) at the beginning of the pandemic, and when I last checked Amazon, the horror top best sellers were all pandemic dystopias: Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song (2020), Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song (1987). And as I discussed recently in a RAH! Podcast, we have long been fascinated by that close neighbour: post-apocalyptic zombie films. There is definitely something about these narratives that draws people in. Perhaps it’s simply about working out possible worst-case imaginary scenarios, from a safe distance. Perhaps they give us a false sense of control over the unprecedented and fast-changing events still unfolding worldwide. Perhaps horror’s honesty, its lack of a veneer of propriety, is particularly appreciated during these strange times."

"My interest in found footage goes back to, at least, 2016, when I co-edited Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon, with Linnie Blake. I’m interested in the system of immersion encouraged by the diegetic camera, as well as in what I’ve begun to refer to as ‘the crisis of the image’ in times governed by fake news and deepfakes. My paper in Brazil explores this idea in relation to found footage’s false claims to veracity and appeal to pure, mediated affect. I don’t know if desktop horror is any more intense or effective than previous found footage horror, but it definitely speaks to the ways we live our lives now: through our computers and a world of online misinformation we must navigate carefully."

Digital Horror

Can you tell us about any other projects you are planning or working on?

"The most exciting thing I’ve done recently is write the text for two forthcoming Blu-ray releases by Arrow Video, [Rec] (2007) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), both of which intersect with research areas of mine: found footage horror, affect, Spanish horror cinema and body horror. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing for a different audience and, as someone who admires what Arrow do for cult and horror cinema, hope to get to work with them again. I’ve also been writing short pieces on ‘Body Horror’ for the Cambridge Companion to American Horror and on Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books for a forthcoming collection on The New Urban Gothic. My main plan, though, is to get on with this year’s blended teaching model, which is exciting and challenging in equal measure."

As October is Halloween month… do you find yourself returning to any books/films in particular? What would you recommend to our readers?

"Unsurprisingly, Halloween is my favourite festivity! And this even though I don’t dress up and didn’t ‘trick or treat’ as a child (I was raised in Spain, where it is not really celebrated). For me, Halloween captures the joyous yet melancholic nature of October, and marks autumn’s arrival. ‘Look at all the beautiful colours and leaves!’, but also, ‘Brr, it’s getting cold, wet and dark again!’ Since October is usually high teaching season for me, I don’t get to re-read Halloween books and re-watch Halloween films as much as I’d like, but some classics and all-time favourites include Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree (1972); the manga comic I Luv Halloween (2005), written by Keith Giffen and illustrated by Benjamin Roman; and the films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Trick ‘r Treat (2007). For anyone who might be interested, I once wrote a list of some of my favourite Halloween stories and films for The Conversation: Trick or treat? A guide to Halloween’s hidden (and not so hidden) gems. Oh, and enjoy the witching hour! It always goes by way too quickly."

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