Mapping Global Horror: Australia, Japan and Beyond brought world-leading scholars and filmmakers to Wurundjeri country for a two-day conference to navigate how the titular genre moves through time, space and cultures. Wurundjeri and Yorta Yorta Professor Andrew Peters opened the conference with an Acknowledgement of Country1, which noted that the idea of the living dead (featured heavily at the conference) connects very deeply and very clearly with thousands of years of Indigenous thought. It’s within Indigenous culture to honour the dead, to understand that their spirits return and their connection to the living stays strong. While (particularly Western) horror conventions reflect the tendency to fear the dead, generally speaking, Indigenous cultures aren’t particularly disturbed by the spirit world. The conference reflected the maturation of horror film studies. It posited that perhaps the genre emerges from a place of empathy, as opposed to terror. Filmmakers and academics seemed to share an understanding that the horrors of human history are largely catalysed by asymmetrical power dynamics. Compelling horror cinema, or scholarship, will seek to reconcile with this.

The academic roundtable, transcribed here, concluded panel discussions. It was co-chaired by the University of Pittsburgh’s Adam Lowenstein and Swinburne University of Technology’s Angela Ndalianis. Lowenstein played a central role in the acquisition of the George A. Romero Collection for Pittsburgh’s Horror Studies Archive and Ndalianis is co-Director of the Centre for Transformative Media Technologies. They were joined by the University of Southern California’s Akira Mizuta Lippit, Vice Dean of Faculty in the School of Cinematic Arts. Kyoto University’s Kinoshita Chika, recipient of the Ministry of Education’s 67th Art Encouragement Award. Professor Bliss Cua Lim from the University of Toronto, who is a member of Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies Editorial Collective. Roehampton University’s Stacey Abbott, who co-convenes the British Association of Film, TV and Screen Studies’ Science Fiction and Fantasy Special Interest Group. Finally, Kris Woofter from Dawson College is the Co-Editor of Monstrum and Associate Editor of Slayage:The Journal of Whedon Studies. Lowenstein, Abbott, Woofter and Roger Luckhurst are currently co-editing The Routledge Companion to Horror, which aims to be an authoritative transglobal and transmedial guide to horror studies.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Lowenstein: There’s an expression in Hebrew, dayenu, which means “It would have been enough.” It’s from Jewish exodus stories, like it would have been enough if one of these miracles had happened. But instead, they all have. This conference feels like that to me, that it would have been enough if that first panel had been the end of the conference. But no, we got another one. And another one. Thank you all so much for making that possible. Dayenu. 

We’re here to talk together, and with you all, about what has happened over the past two days. What are the connections that you felt were made here, that you might not have expected to happen? Or moments that felt particularly valuable or unexpected, or surprising with meaning or potential? Or an epiphany, maybe just some of your favourite moments that stick out and for what reasons.

Akira Mizuta Lippit: I’ve been thinking a lot about what horror might be. We’ve had comments about horror as a genre, or different genres within horror in the previous panel. In curating, we’ve learnt that there is a polemic about whether something is or isn’t horror. I think one of the tropes of horror, one of the things that you see frequently happening, is the realisation that suddenly everybody is involved in something and connected à la Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). I have to say, I’m in this moment where I realise that there are whole publishing worlds and festivals and scholars and books and magazines and filmmakers devoted to horror. Suddenly, I feel like Rosemary. 

Lowenstein: He won’t feel a thing. 

Lippit: You keep having me drink this thing.

Bliss Cua Lim: It’s better than being Rosemary’s husband.

Lippit: One thing I wanted to comment on is this idea that horror might be a feeling. It has to do with the way we’ve talked about horror as a genre, in the most conventional way we use that term. Let’s say in the field of film studies, genres are things that have a set of elements or criteria. If there is a man on a horse and there’s tumbleweed, it’s a western. There’s certain things that tell us, or cue us, what horror is. I think one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen and heard in the papers is that we don’t always know when we’re in this space. Yesterday’s screening of Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020) was a perfect example of that, that you never quite know where to locate the horror. We’ve heard that there are conventions and there are some genres within it. Adam talked about a feeling. It made me start thinking about whether or not one has to be in a horror film to have the experience of horror, in the same way that you don’t have to be watching a comedy to start laughing. We’ve mentioned David Lynch, Lynch is funny, except for when he tries to make a comedy. You laugh at a lot of the stuff he does in The Cowboy and the Frenchman (David Lynch, 1988), but it’s not that funny. It occurred to me that sometimes things are scary, just because it’s filmed. Recently, Guillermo del Toro said at an awards ceremony that animation is not a genre. It’s cinema.2. It made me wonder whether horror is something that perhaps isn’t always there. Yesterday, I mentioned Fred Rogers and I don’t find Fred Rogers scary. But, I find Tom Hanks scary. I get creeped out whenever I see him on the screen. He scares me. There are moments in which I think I’m scared just because I’m watching him on the screen. There are moments where you’re watching something, it’s sort of like the effect of looking at a photograph. Suddenly, you start thinking about how this person isn’t alive anymore. 

Tom Hanks stars as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

We talked a lot about Vincent Price when we began this and I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) came up at yesterday’s presentation. That’s part of a trilogy. The first was The Last Man on Earth (Sidney Salkow, Ubaldo B. Ragona, 1964) starring Vincent Price, the second was The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971) featuring Charlton Heston, then there’s I Am Legend with Will Smith. They’re all based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954). The Omega Man was shot in my neighbourhood in downtown Los Angeles. I think it’s the scariest, but it’s the scariest because it’s Charlton Heston. It’s not just that there’s a pandemic that wipes out most of the earth and there’s only one survivor, it’s that the last person is Charlton Heston. You have to imagine a world with only Charlton Heston. I feel like that horror, that feeling of horror, has to be set apart from just the conventions and the kind of gatekeeping (as one of the programmers said earlier) about what constitutes or what is legitimately horror. I wanted to put out the possibility that horror exists outside of the genre and the very careful alignment of conventions that we recognise as horror. 

Lowenstein: The trio you mentioned is really a quartet, because Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) is Romero’s I Am Legend and that was his inspiration in many ways. Some may say that these are science fiction films. It’s interesting to consider them all around this idea of what, where and when is horror?

Angela Ndalianis: Horror is about viscerality. It does things to your body that other genres just don’t do. That might be a segment within a context that isn’t horror, but it’s also about the genre. There are other genres that do it. With musicals, it’s about the audio, the sound and the set and so on. Porn has a visceral response, which is a different thing. Linda Williams talks about this in that famous article.3 With horror, you can’t pin it down. But, in a sense you can, because of what it does to your body.

Lowenstein: Absolutely.

Kinoshita Chika: I have a totally different approach, in terms of what made the largest impression on me. When Asakura Kayoko was on stage, she was asked what kind of perspectives she would be able to offer as a female filmmaker. She answered, acknowledging that the question came from a place of kindness. Nevertheless, it actually shows how structurally sexist the whole society and industry is, to put her in that position where she has to explain as a female filmmaker what’s something special that she has to offer. Believe me, I was literally in tears. That in this English-speaking foreign country, at a mostly white affair, to have a female Japanese filmmaker being totally confident. Doing wonderful work. She was totally confident and replied in Japanese that this is a structural problem. That whole idea is sexist. That was just wonderful. It’s rather strange, she’s younger than me but we basically have a very similar background. We could have met in Japan, but somehow this project brought us together here. 

I also think that when I’m asked to map global horror …I studied in the states and wrote some stuff about Japanese horror in English, but I kind of switched to writing in Japanese. I realised, both in filmmaking and many other kinds of scholarship, Japan is so ungroupable. It’s very local. It’s probably because it has a large domestic market. So many things, like standards and taste, everything is so local and helplessly un-global. I’m putting this frustration or whatever on the table. I’m sure I can map, or you can map, Japan on the global map. But, it’s interesting to see how un-global Japan is.

Lowenstein: Thank you. Stacey?

Stacey Abbott: When asked this initial question about things that have stood out to me, my initial response was going to be this idea of horror as a feeling. I was struck by this idea of a unity of this feeling. But, listening to all these wonderful papers and discussions of very different types of cinema, I was also thinking a lot about the transmutability of horror as it travels. The ways in which the genre shifts and changes as it travels and responds to various influences. Listening to the filmmakers today about their networks and their travelling to festivals and the ways in which they’re engaging with different films they see and the different people they’re meeting. Then that’s feeding into their films. There’s something wonderfully transmutable about it, as it’s travelling. Then thinking about the streaming panel, I’ve also been thinking about this idea of the transmutability of the form of horror. Horror has always been in multiple forums and has a long history of television horror, but I think streaming is opening up a fluidity of format. That rather than saying TV here, film there and never the two shall meet. Now, we’re seeing spaces where two of our filmmakers today talked about writing television series and moving into that. What does that do? How do they rethink horror? Do they now think of it in a different structure? Or bringing together completely distinct, separate short films and making it an anthology. There’s something wonderfully fluid about how horror is being redefined through streaming, online media and web series. For me, it’s been thinking about that. That in a way, horror for me is now becoming this rather formless Cronenbergian kind of object that’s constantly fluctuating in form. I think that is going to open up exciting opportunities, both for us as scholars and for us as programmers and filmmakers. For me, that’s a major discovery from the past two days.

Ndalianis: If I could just add to that, I was talking to Alexandra Heller-Nicholas yesterday. We were saying how one of the great things about these two days has been bringing together filmmakers and festival producers, who bring in the production aspect. We were saying how important this is for academics. A lot of academics don’t pay attention to processes of production and what’s happening with filmmakers, the gender biases that exist. It gives you such a rich understanding of the subject matter that you’re dealing with. It’s so important. 

Abbott: Absolutely. Absolutely agree. I’m doing something on television and women, one of the things we’re thinking a lot about is the politics of gender in that industry. How it impacts who can create, how people work together. The above and below the line rolls, the hierarchies of responsibility and how that’s gendered. I think all of that is really important to our understanding of what we end up seeing, what we as audiences suddenly get confronted with. It can then contribute to changing and fighting for those changing dynamics. Finding new voices and giving voice to people.

Lowenstein: Thank you Stacey. Kris?

Kris Woofter: One of the questions that’s come up in a lot of the comments is how do we talk about horror, as a field? This Routledge book we’re working on is meant to establish, in some ways, the study of horror as a field of its own. To give it a textbook or a mapping. The charge is to make it as global as possible, but how do we do that? How do you think globally when everybody’s regions are almost exclusive in their own way. You’re your own centre. But I think that this conference is so important in the way that it’s been structured. There have been so many different kinds of voices, curators and distributors. People who support filmmakers, people who are filmmakers. To be in conversation with those voices, is the way that we understand ourselves as scholars in actively creating a field. For example, in the Routledge book we’ve asked the question, do we talk about national cinemas? Or do we try to get away from the idea of national cinemas? How do you do that? Do you create new centres? Do you instead create something like nodes? In some ways, this is a node and that may be a better way of putting it. Rather than saying decentering or re-centering, it’s more like stopping using the word centring. 

The most recent issue of Monstrum was guest edited by Sonia Lupher from the University of Pittsburgh and Alanna Thain from McGill University. They were interested in short form horror, the whole issue was devoted to that. They put curators and filmmakers and festival organisers into conversation with each other in one section of the issue. Some of the best scholarship produced was in that section, where it was like you’re a curator talking about a film that you think is interesting. We’ve been talking about spaces for women, queers and other kinds of marginalised figures in film and the creation of film. The short form is the one that travels the most, in a weird way. You could argue that you don’t go to your multiplex and see short films, but that’s where the festivals do the work. I feel like what I’m saying is 100 different things that maybe don’t relate. Acknowledging that it’s not just scholars producing stuff, this conference has been a really great example of that. It’s not just a bunch of scholars, it’s a whole community of people who have come together around a genre. Or a feeling. Or a sensibility. This is where we’re looking at the best sense of horror as a field. I’m still thinking about that, but I’ll stop. 

Lowenstein: Thank you, Kris. Go ahead, Bliss.

Lim: Jessica Balanzategui and Allison Craven’s paper on The Folk Horror Feeling: Monstrous Modalities and the Critical Occult gave us so much. Horror as a mode, horror as a feeling. Horror as a poetic stance. “Horror is not a textural category, but a crossroads of text, industry and audience whose specificity can be located in production context.” I think that’s a remarkable framework. What I’d like to do is use that framework and then pull out a thread of conversation that I’ve found really powerful across these last two days. It’s a conversation about horror, gender and labour. 

I’ll start with what Jessica and Allison were saying about the crossroads of text, industry and audience whose specificity can be located in the production context. I think that textual approach is beautifully exemplified by Chika’s comment about how Japan is helplessly un-global. I’m working with queer manga and anime, whose fandom is so global, but I really hear you when you say it. We’re going to have a long conversation about this helpless un-globality of Japan. In any event, another brilliant thing that Chika said yesterday was the strange logic of J-horror where men identify with the foetus as the victim, then blame women for oppressing them. So good. That’s an example of a beautifully intertwined textural analysis. 

Kinoshita presenting The Fetus and the Horror of Motherhood

Then, for the industrial and production related framework, I turned to the filmmaker roundtable. Caitlin Koller said with remarkable candour that economic fear underpins so much of her horror filmmaking. Charles had asked a question in the last roundtable, he asked the grim question of funding. I’m thinking about the kind of precarity that is overlooked by work in the media industries. Where the media industries as a risk industry is often from this top down corporate business perspective. Where the risk that you’re talking about is the risk to a studio, a big studio, that something could flop. But this is not where they’re coming from, where they’re talking about the vulnerability of filmmakers or other struggling media workers.

Similarly with Chika, that was just a remarkable moment where Kayoko said the saddest thing is to be asked the question of being a female filmmaker. Even if that all too common question comes from a place of kindness, that question is simply symptomatic of a patriarchal society in which originality and innovation is scarce. So astonishing, so powerful and it came through very clearly in translation. Kayoko and Caitlin talked about the experience of working in majority male crews. Caitlin talked about crews that were majority male and white. 

Then Natalie, you talked about female voices being crucial to broadening horror. That horror creators do that by shaping the parameters of what is, or who is, to be the feared other in horror.  That this is an inherently political dimension of creative agency. In Relic, she’s less interested in the fear of the crone or the fear of the hag and kind of refuses to demonise elderly women by instead thinking about the fear of ageing, mortality and the loss of memory. As Adam said, the grandmother in Relic is the ostensible monster. So much of the work of women in horror is turning that on its head, the idea of what the ostensible monster might be and giving us an entirely different view of monstrosity. Isabel said that horror and the fairy tale might be a framework for decoding experiences in ways that foster empathy. Not hostility. If we go back to the question that Akira is raising about horror as affect, the idea that Isabel spoke to regarding transforming into a monster as a form of self-discovery. The encounter with the monster is an encounter with oneself. I ran into Briony Kidd before walking in here and asked her to confirm my sense that the name of her festival, Stranger With My Face, is an echo of that idea. That when you encounter the monster you’re not encountering otherness. You’re encountering yourself. 

To wrap up, I think all of this is a kind of overturning of the tiresome truisms of horror scholarship. Robin Wood said that the monster is a figure that disturbs equilibrium and that the monster must be destroyed in order to restore that equilibrium. Noel Carol, a huge one for purist definitions of horror, said that the monster is the source of horrors’ affect. The question of horror as a feeling, that horror must always be fear and loathing. He quotes Stephen King, who says horror is as conservative as a three-piece suit. I teach this material all the time and yet everything in here has just blasted that away. These two days of panels in which horror has been redefined as an empathetic encounter with a monster, who might also be the self.

My own work on media legends examines ghost stories as the folklore of production. Not just horror as giving voice to what above the line creatives, producers, writers might think about horror. But also, my interest in media legends is in so-called below the line craft or technical workers. Our media legends allow film folk to express their sense of the media industry as deeply uncanny, creepy or perilous. The horrific is therefore not just an odd, on-screen experience, but an idiom for reflecting on industrial constraints which is exactly what we heard in the last two roundtables. Horror as what John Caldwell would call a register of self-theorising on the part of film workers and media workers. Not just in fiction, but part of the lived texture of meaning for media workers. I’ll end with that. Thanks so much.

Lowenstein: I find myself thinking about the mapping and the global and the horror desires of this conference. It’s a lot and when you put them all together, it’s even more. It matters that we stage this here in Australia, in Melbourne. That we have Japan and Australia as nodes into this thicket of concerns that we’re calling “global horror” and that within that context things took shape that I don’t think would have taken shape in another sort of place and another sort of context. Some of my favourite moments were on the filmmaker panel. This is not to disagree with you Chika, but these moments that actually said the exact opposite of Japan being helplessly un-global. To see Natalie’s (Erika James) face smiling along as Kayoko was talking, because she doesn’t need the Japanese translation, because she’s Japanese-Australia herself. Then Isabel (Peppard) talking about growing up in Japan and how these experiences (within the context of this conference and this grouping of concerns) are not incidental or anecdotal. That they mattered and they’re actually a way of changing the lens of, “Where does horror come from?” Is it the canon, or the American and British films? Then we sort of expand outwards and think about these other traditions in other countries and other regions. We don’t have to do it like that. At its best, I felt like this conference was suggesting all sorts of ways, how we gain, by not doing that. Those moments really stood out for me. To be up here with people representing institutions from Australia, Japan, Canada, the UK, the US, but then thinking about all the different sorts of concerns that these scholars bring beyond the country that they happen to be working in. It makes me very excited about not just what horror studies is and can be, but the difference it can make to broader questions in film and media studies, in filmmaking, in society and in culture. It really excites me and makes me confident that there are differences being made here. What about you all? Any thoughts from the audience?

Audience member 1: We’ve been talking about the space of horror in its transnationality and global-ness. I wanted to throw something else into the mix, which is horror as a historical category. The reason I ask is, I remember a famous essay by Janet Stone or maybe Linda Williams. I can’t remember, but it was about how film noir is an historic category because before French critics called it film noir they were marketed as blood melodramas by the studios who made them because they’re violent dramas about moral sin and things like that. I wanted to get your sense of this, is horror an historical category? Is it something contemporary? Or is it something that’s always been with us, or perhaps both? 

Ndalianis: We cannot be outside history, but what happens is horror changes to adapt to its times. I think it’s always there. We go through periods, like we talked about the 2010s being the boom period and the ‘70s. You could ask, was there something socio-cultural happening then? Or, is it that the market is saturated and audiences want something different? I can never find an answer to that one, but I really do think horror is rooted in history and culture. 

Abbott: If I can jump in as well, because I was thinking about that and I think I agree. It’s rooted in history. I think when we look at horror in both contemporary and historical ways, there’s people who are consciously making films and actively working within the genre. But, there are also these films which may or may not have been conceived as horror but with time, we look back and say that is absolutely horror. I’ve used this phrase and I’ve heard quite a few people here using this phrase: the horror adjacent. For me, that is a really helpful concept because it’s part of that transition to something which may not have been produced as horror, but when you look back now or how we respond to it, we do see it in that way. Sometimes this takes time, or audience interaction. Not to devalue the voices of filmmakers, they are really important, but there’s also how audiences respond. They may respond very differently, but sometimes that takes time or it evolves. That’s a really important factor, that it’s rooted in history and it’s an evolving history.

Woofter: The work that has been done around film noir in its moment, there was a sort of retro-assignment of that term to those films. They were crime, but they were also horror. We talk about how the ‘40s didn’t produce good horror because of the sequelisation of the Universal Monsters. Or the monster rally films where you have Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman all in one film. And I mean, why not? If you can do it, do it. But, if you’re looking at figures like Val Lewton who gets held up as the only great horror film producer of the ‘40s, he was also making film noir. If you look at a film like The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943), it’s kind of an everything movie. It’s also got a great, pre-Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) creepy shower scene. It’s what we decide to assign to these things. And yet, there is something that runs through them. I’ve heard these terms like “post-horror” and “elevated horror.” I cringed when I saw the title of David Church’s book, Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation (Edinburgh University Press, 2020) but it’s actually pretty great and not an attempt to kill the genre and say it’s transformed into something else, but it does transform. We heard earlier today about filmmakers drawing from fairy tales, the horror is always there and it sort of erupts into these different formations. But, it’s kind of eternal if you have a sensibility to feel fear.

Lim: I don’t have a dog in this fight, if horror is historical or trans-historical. What I can distil is what I hear in Jessica’s notion of horror as a mode. You used the word trans historical and you were drawing from criticism on the gothic. What I hear in that is Fredric Jameson’s very early piece, Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre which then becomes a chapter of The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Cornell University Press, 1982). He’s saying that a mode, rather than a genre, is a big thing like irony or allegory. It’s like a trans historical formal temptation that to Angela’s point is renewed with every historical context. So in a particular historical context, that idea, horror would be a magical narrative or whatever. Irony, would then be taken up as a register, or as an idiom, by a particular historical moment. 

Kinoshita: The extent to which it becomes historical, it depends on the local context as well. In the Japanese context, horror was definitely something foreign and modern. Very new. That started in the mid-’70s. It was introduced and actively new, in order to differentiate a new and emerging horror filmmaking from the traditional ghost stories or kaidan. In that sense, that idea of horror can be transplanted in many different kinds of local context. Then it becomes a sort of micro-history within that context. On the other hand though, I agree. There is this sensibility of horror. As a critical concept, horror can be found trans-historically in many different contexts. I’m not sure if the term horror was used by the Edison Manufacturing Company, but Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) is a horror from todays’ point of view. In that sense, it can be both para-historical and historical-local too.

Electrocuting an Elephant

Audience member 2: I wanted to go back to this idea of horror as a feeling, bring it back to the idea of mapping global horror and ask each of the panellists what kind of feeling are we talking about there? There’s a whole spectrum of feeling, in playing with horror. Akira’s presentation yesterday where he was talking about nothingness figuring horror within a particular Japanese context. What kind of feeling? There’s the viscerality that Angela mentioned, there’s the uncanny. Different horror filmmakers have a different rhythm or tempo to how they play with the feeling and affect of horror, so I was wondering about your thoughts on that.

Lippit: I remember the title of this book, which says film is horrifying. Or, film is terrifying. Where I would linger around this question of, what affect? It would not be fear, dread or even anxiety that exists historically long before the arrival of cinema. I would want to think about, at what moment does horror unleash a kind of horror that’s there in the medium. This would bring us back to some of the themes that Bliss has addressed, where we are talking about a certain inherency of this feeling that exists within the medium. I’m tempted to say a kind of medium specificity, in a somewhat heavy-handed neo-formalist way. There is something so scary about being in the cinema. 

My impulse is that the first scary film you ever saw was actually the first film you ever saw, because you were just scared to be there. If we think about the historicisation of horror film, it would probably be that moment in which cinema is exposed as the origin. There’s so many great people who’ve done this metatextual work, such as Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983) or eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999) or Ringu (The Ring, Nakata Hideo, 1998) where the medium becomes the horror. I’m thinking less about the representation of media, than the moment in which one feels that medium. I think that’s what I was trying to say when I said I get freaked out whenever I see Tom Hanks on the screen. When he’s playing Fred Rogers, there’s a creepiness about him that I don’t find in Mr Rogers. That moment of revelation of the medium. If that doesn’t answer your question, that’s the direction I want to point you in.

The Ring

Ndalianis: That makes me think about when I was about three years old. God bless my parents for buying a television when I was born, it was there with me. I’d always watched films and stuff from the beginning. One of my first memories is when it suddenly dawned on me, where the hell are these people hiding?! I looked around the back of the TV and from that day on, I was totally fascinated by the moving image. There was something special about it that really made me connect to it. 

Lim: The electrical uncanny. 

Ndalianis: Yeah. 

Lim: If we’re going to answer this question about horror as a feeling, I would say first of all that I’m not too invested in the question because it leads us to a purist definition of horror which Briony spoke against very powerfully and persuasively. It’s the definition of horror as a feeling that leads Noel Carroll to say that art horror is an affect and that affect is loathing, fear, disgust and terror. But, if there’s anything that this conference has taught me (particularly the women in this conference) it’s that that feeling can be empathy. That’s an incredibly powerful insight that I take away from Relic. It’s because of my own work on a Philippine folkloric figure, Aswang. They’re way more butch than the eurocentric vampire and usually gendered female. A viscera sucking monster that eats unborn babies and the livers of anybody young. So much of Aswang folklore is about how Aswang can be passed on and unknowingly transmitted to family members. Like, if you eat something that an Aswang has cooked and their saliva drips into your food. Or, you could just be the daughter or son of an Aswang and then you’re stuck with it. So much of the horror folklore around this figure and the film is the question of, if my family are monsters, then what does that make me? Relic asks that question very, very powerfully. What it makes me, as a descendant of a monster. I like that so much better than the idea of the monster as the other or the non-human. I much prefer to understand the human as extremely monstrous, which was Angela’s point about the Trump zombie memes. The humans are more zombie-like than the zombies.

Joshua A Bickel’s photograph, on the left, went viral as Ohio COVID-19 lockdown protesters were likened to depictions of zombies in film

If empathy becomes the pivot of our understanding of monsters, then the folk become a less horrible category. One of the things I was working on in an article about Aswang and queering Aswang, is the idea that queers are never part of the folk. When you tell the origin story of a nation, the origin story of a nation always projected backwards into antiquity, the folklore and those people are always straight. In the Philippines, queer creatives are always writing themselves back. We put contemporary queer jargon into the legendary of the nation itself and say that at the founding moment of the nation, the folk were queer. If you can do that, then what you’ve done is you’ve unsettled the very violence of the category. If you unsettle it through another emotion in horror, then it could be happiness if it’s a feeling. Right? 

Woofter: If you’re someone who is a fan or a scholar of horror, you’re always asked that question by people who don’t watch it. Who kind of wrinkle up their nose and say, why? It’s not just that you want to sit in fear and loathing, it’s exuberant too. That’s one of the things Isabel was saying earlier, that we embrace the monster, especially if we’re queer or we’re othered in any way. It’s this kind of celebration, that you can step into that role or identify with that role. Even when the monster is The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958) or something like that. Or doing horrendous things, there are still ways of identifying and stepping into (or accepting) the role of the other or the powerful other. The Shin Gojira (Shin Godzilla, Anno Hideaki, 2016) clip that Akira showed is still sticking with me because I was actually kind of weeping over it. I like the kaiju Gojira. The newer stuff where it’s like, robot jocks and three hours of battles where we destroy the city to save it is less interesting to me. But that, to me, was everything. It was terrifying. There’s things exploding. There’s nuclear imagery and then there’s this moment of empathy. This moment of absolute sadness that’s so beautiful. You just realise that there’s artistry here and there’s beauty here.

Lowenstein: The first tears of Shin Godzilla. 

Woofter: In a movie full of business meetings, there’s this scene.

Abbott: To echo that, that question of what feeling? To me, the phrase isn’t that horror is a feeling. It’s that horror is feelings. When people ask me why I like horror, I’ve always said it’s the most cinematic of genres. It’s just designed to evoke emotion and to engage you in ways. Not that other genres can’t, but definitely in a way that is very emotional. It’s feelings. One of the things I’ve written a lot about is horror as a way of confronting and processing grief. Talking about Godzilla, to me, that was really emotional. Relic is a beautiful example of something that’s dealing with, you can talk about it as empathy but you can also talk about it as grief and watching someone you love vanish before your eyes. I think serialised horror does that really well. One of my most powerful moments of grief watching horror was watching an episode in the second season of The Walking Dead where I found myself sobbing when a character died. Not because I was particularly attached to that character, but somehow that moment of loss of these characters gathered around him, as they had to put him out of his misery. It just tapped into so much grief I was experiencing at that moment, because I’d been on this journey with them while I was undergoing my own journey. It became this moment of really being able to express that. It taps into a lot of emotions. I think it really can vary depending on the context, the type of film and the ways in which you’re engaging in that text. So I think it’s about feelings. 

Lowenstein: Another term I wanted to throw in is confrontation. I keep coming back to horror as confrontation. Not in the sense of confrontation always being something aggressive and violent, but something that forces us to rethink the position we thought we were comfortable residing in. I think the moment in Relic where Kay (Emily Mortimer) turns around and goes back into the house is a moment of confrontation. For many of us, we want her to walk out that door. We expect her to walk out that door and that’s where we’re all headed. Not only did she come back, but she locked the door behind her. I think that’s what horror does best. It knows where we’re headed and understands it and almost wants to go there itself, but then says no. I’m going this way and here’s why you should think about going this way too. When I hear things like empathy, that cinema is frightening, that horror is both historical and trans-historical, that it’s a mode, that’s all true. I’ll throw confrontation into the mix as a way of saying that horror can be all of these things.

Audience member 3: I really like what you just brought up about the idea of confrontation and Bliss, what you were saying about empathy, because one of the things I was really interested in with this conference was the idea of mapping in terms of cartography as a form of violence. Replicating a place and kind of getting visual control over it, but also that replication where empathy is also mapping someone else’s feeling. Whether we’re recreating what someone else is feeling, whether that’s impossible in the same way that you cannot map a place perfectly. Whether that process where we feel pain when Godzilla feels pain, but we’re mapping ourselves upon these characters. Is there a connection between reflecting feeling and mapping feeling?

Lim: I would say, with all due respect to the conference organisers, I don’t love cartography. I don’t love the word mapping. There’s a colonial connotation to that power.

Ndalianis: I think Adam chose the name.

-audience laughs- 

Lim: But I like the way that you just evoked empathy as this failure of mapping. This kind of empathy that understands that there’s a connection there. It might be intuitive, powerful, ungraspable. This is the confrontation that Adam was just talking about. Something that’s so unsettling. My understanding of horror as confrontation is deeply disruptive and unsettling, but not necessarily violent.

Lowenstein: Horror is not catharsis.

Lim: If it is an unsettling encounter or confrontation, then what would it be? It would be a failure of maps. Thank you for that question. 

  1. A Welcome to Country is performed by Elders of Indigenous clans and nations. Traditionally, this involves a range of different ceremonies and visitors were not allowed to conduct any business on another clan or nation’s country until they had been welcomed to it.
  2. Carolyn Giardina “‘Animation Is Ready to Be Taken to the Next Step,’ Says Guillermo del Toro as ‘Pinocchio’ Wins Animated Feature Oscar,” The Hollywood Reporter, March 12 2023
  3. Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Summer 1991): pp. 2-13

About The Author

Amanda Barbour is an award winning film critic and president of Senses of Cinema. She was previously a media advisor in the Australian federal parliament.

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