Bonded by Blood: The Strange Sodality of the Horror Fan

Feature originally printed by Little White Lies magazine.

Horror has always occupied the shadowiest margins of cinema. Encompassing the unpleasant, the depraved, the repressed, the subversive and the unacceptable, it has become the default genre to elicit debates on censorship, and is regarded with the greatest suspicion by the State, media and general public alike, while often blamed for the very social anxieties and political ills that it so fearlessly projects and reflects. Though often about families, horrors are not family films. They are inherently more likely to be certified 18 (or R or X)  than U, and are more subject (at least in Britain) to cuts or outright BBFC rejection than anything outside of hardcore pornography – all for fear of their special potential to ‘deprave and corrupt persons’ (in the words of the Obscene Publications Act 1964). If you believe the shrill claims of tabloids and others, then horror can be actually dangerous to its hapless viewers, and to the world at large.

This creates a paradox. For while its very taboo-busting status forms part of horror’s appeal, delivering the sort of outsider cool that naturally attaches itself to any expression of irreverence or rebellion, the genre also leaves a perceived taint on its admirers (as morally dubious creeps or worse), who have often found themselves judged as unfit for society and relegated, at least historically, to such remote places of worship as the flea-pit, the drive-in, the grindhouse or the witching-hour screening (Night of the Living Dead was one of the first ‘midnight movies’) – when, that is, they are not being restricted to the lonely seclusion of ‘straight-to-video’, eighth generation bootlegs, dodgy downloads or VPN streaming. On the edges is often not just where the horror genre places its fans, but also precisely where those fans want to be. To choose horror has been, generally speaking, to adopt a countercultural stance, to defy accepted norms of ‘entertainment’, and to turn your back on the mainstream. Horror fans are often all too happy to embrace the otherness with which society tars them.

In fact, the last decade or so has seen horror moving ever closer to the mainstream, as studios have got wise to the sort of profits the genre can yield on relatively little investment. Not every horror film, of course, proffers the exponential returns of one-offs like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, but in our digital age a decent-looking (and more importantly, decent-sounding) chiller can be produced for a modest budget, while a generation of filmmakers that came of age with the horror flicks of the Seventies and Eighties has been reimagining them for a new – or similarly nostalgic – audience. Horror is not just preoccupied with resurrections, revenance and unnatural returns, but also keeps coming back itself to a sort of undead life with seemingly endless remakes, reboots and sequels – more so, indeed, than any other genre.

This recent resurgence of horror, however, has not made the genre entirely respectable. On the contrary, anyone who states in ‘polite company’ that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of her all-time favourite films, or who champions Tom Six‘s recent experiments with human centipedes, or who hints at an interest in ‘torture porn’, is likely to be met with a degree of supercilious disapproval, even – or especially – from those who have never seen the films in question. It is the kind of response to which supporters of niche genres have become inured, but with one significant difference: fans of, say, SF or comics adaptations or ‘tweeny’ films (Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc.) may have to face similar scorn, but it is only their supposed geekiness or juvenility which is being derided, whereas fans of horror frequently have not just their tastes but their entire moral fibre constantly called into question by others. Which other fanbase is repeatedly branded ‘sick’ for their fandom?

No wonder, then, that there are (literally hundreds) more film festivals dedicated to horror than to any other single genre. It is not just that the Fright, Shriek, Scream and Shocker Fests of this world provide an opportunity to see on the big screen titles that might otherwise be released only direct to the home market, if at all; they also provide a safe haven where like-minded adults can meet, watch and talk freely about the genre that they fetishise – without fear of being judged. To outsiders, the horror festival crowd might seem like cinema’s equivalent to a paedophile ring – a potential risk, thankfully at least contained. Yet to their insiders, such festivals are a bulwark against the simplistic, knee-jerk condemnations of those on the outside looking in (without ever really looking).

Nothing quite brings folk together like a shared interest – not to mention a communal gasp or jump – and anyone who frequents horror festivals can attest to the amicability of their atmosphere. After all, when you spend hours or even days flinching, screaming and laughing together at the same images of diabolism, decadence and destruction, you know you are among friends – and while the post-film, often post-feminist discussions that ensue in these supposed dens of misogyny can certainly be heated, they emerge from a common connoisseurship and passion for horror rather than from the antagonism that so many non-fans seem automatically to direct at the genre and its adepts. Horror festivalgoers are either already well-practised at reading all the on-screen entrails (the allusions, irresolutions and ambiguities) which engender the genre’s uncanny mix of the familiar and the unexpected, or else at least willing to try. After their first taste, newbies usually come back – vampirically – for more.

Crucially, the invited filmmakers and cast members who mingle with the festival’s ticketholders also tend to form a seamless continuum with them, having themselves largely been drawn to making horror by their own love for it. For horror is ever a genre by fans as much as for them – all keen to travel cinema’s shadowy by-roads, together rather than alone in the dark.

© Anton Bitel