Sunday, February 21, 2016

Interview with Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati of The Faculty of Horror


This year, February brings us the 7th Annual Women in Horror Month, an initiative that “encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries.”  To celebrate, Remedial Horror will be dedicating the entire month to our sisters in the macabre.


I'm pretty excited for my second interview this month, as I got to pick not one, but two brains about the horror genre.  Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati are horror journalists, authors, and all-around smart people.  Together, they host The Faculty of Horror, a podcast devoted to "tackling all things horror with a slash of analysis and research."  They analyze horror using historical context and sociological perspective to explain how and why horror affects us.

Alex and Andrea were kind enough to answer some questions about how they got into horror, what they find scary, and the role of women in the horror community.  I should note that they are both Canadian, and it was very hard for me to refrain from editing all uses of the word about to "aboot."  I encourage you to hear it that way as you start reading.

What attracts you to horror? 

Alex: Horror often feels like a reaction or deviation from the mainstream. It subverts so many trends and expectations that I feel like it’s worth my time to continually seek out and explore. Its darkness, nihilism, occasional humor and extremity feel far more in line with my life experiences than, say, a film about a guy who has to find himself again because his girlfriend dumped him.

Andrea: I just find the mainstream Hollywood stuff so patronizing. Horror doesn’t make me feel like I need breast implants or a happy homemaker life, you know?  So much of mass media is warped by advertising and illusion to make you feel insignificant or insecure; horror is a refreshing break from all that. It glorifies compassion and critical thinking and resourcefulness, and I respond a lot better to those messages.

Do you remember when you first fell for horror?  Was there a particular movie that did it?

Alex:  Coming of age in the 90s was hugely important; the alternative was the mainstream, being weird was good. That meant a lot of my childhood was spent watching early Tim Burton movies and it seemed like for every Clueless, there was The Craft. The first horror film I truly fell in love with was Scream which I saw when I was 11. I’d never seen a protagonist like Sidney Prescott who was scared but strong at the same time, who didn’t wind up with the guy in the end and had to save herself. It’s still a rarity today. Sidney opened up a whole world of amazing Final Girls who I sought out and spent most of my teenage years watching.

Andrea: I always get flak for citing this film as the one that turned me because it’s not technically a horror film, but it was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I was about ten, and up till then I avoided anything scary for fear of nightmares. That movie blew my mind – not just because of the scary imagery but the mindfuckery of the time-travel element and Sarah Connor’s twisted psyche. From there, I read a lot of horror fiction until I was able to convince the local video store guy that I could handle horror movies.

What movies or elements of horror scare you the most?  Have any of those things changed over time?

Alex: The supernatural scares me more than things like home invasion. Films that let my mind make the monster for me rather than putting them on display are almost guaranteed to make me double-check the locks on my door and look under my bed. For years I had horrible nightmares due to Pet Sematary.  Zelda (the sister in the back room) haunted me for years. I’ve returned to the film as an adult but have to leave the room whenever Zelda makes an appearance.

Andrea: I’m pretty pragmatic when it comes to horror… when it comes to everything, actually. I like stories about psychos and creeps and normal people in terrible circumstances. I’ve always been interested in the evil that human beings are capable of; I guess that’s why I got into sociology!

What’s the dumbest horror movie that you still love anyway?

Alex: Oddly enough based on my last answer, Pet Sematary 2. It’s insanely fun and trippy but grounded by some great performances and direction. It may also explain my undying crush on Anthony Edwards.

Andrea: I guess I’d have to say Wild Zero. It’s totally off-the-wall and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but just I love it.

Can you talk a little bit about the genesis for Faculty of Horror?

Alex: I had been getting into podcasts in a big way, seeking out as many as I could but I was having a hard time finding a podcast with female hosts. Around this time, before I even met Andrea, I heard her on a podcast talking about the intersection between feminism and horror and it was like a million church bells going off in my head at once, I was hearing the same thoughts I’d had private or in smaller conversation. It was incredibly affirming. Shortly after that, Andrea and I met in the flesh and immediately hit it off. As we grew closer the idea of a podcast kept percolating and I asked Andrea if she’d want to do a podcast together (which felt like asking someone who I’d dated for 6 months to marry me) and from there we developed the ideas and foundations of what would become Faculty of Horror.

Andrea: We certainly didn’t think we’d still be doing it 3 years later, but it’s been so rewarding to see it grow and hear such heartfelt feedback from our listeners that we’ve worked it into our lives. As this point, the Faculty of Horror has become more than a podcast to us – it’s become an ideology and a brand, and we’re eager to see where it takes us next.

You readily admit that there is a feminist angle to much of the analysis you do on the show. Was this a conscious decision when you started Faculty of Horror, or did it just happen naturally?

Alex: For lack of a better explanation, I would say it seeped in naturally. We both identify as feminists so our viewpoints and analysis reflected that. Our early listeners pointed it out with excitement or distain and after a year or so we came to fully embrace it. I think there was hesitation on our end to state that we are unequivocally a feminist podcast because of a perception that it would limit us somehow. But the more we talked about it and the more feedback we got from our listeners we realized that we’d being doing ourselves a disservice as feminists by not embracing the title.

Andrea: It’s sad that feminism is such a disruptive term in horror circles that we felt some pressure to tone it down at first to avoid alienating our audience. It wasn’t long before we realized that our audience actually embraced feminism too, and appreciated hearing us talk about horror from that perspective, so now we fly that flag high!

You provide a lot of opportunity for interaction with your listeners via your comments section and your Reddit page.  Have you had an instance of an interaction that drastically changed your view on an aspect of a movie?

Alex: Interactions with our listeners has drastically changed the way I look at movies overall. All my analysis comes from personal responses to the films we talk about. I research, write and talk about what I’m interested in (as most of us do) and we get such impassioned, thoughtful and personal responses to almost every film we’ve talked about on the podcast that my opinions on all of these films continue to evolve.

Andrea: For sure, all the time! What sticks with me most are the comments from people who share their experiences as a horror fan listening to our show – I remember hearing from a guy who drives a truck coast-to-coast for a living who listens to our podcast because he says it’s the next best thing to watching the movies. Or the guy who said his wife didn’t understand his love for horror movies until they started listening to the podcast together and found some common ground for discussion. Those are my favorite interactions.

What’s your take on the current state of the horror genre as it pertains to women?  Have things gotten better?  Worse?  Stayed the same?

Alex: I think overall our culture is moving towards (or trying to) a further climate of diversity and inclusion. I’ve seen a lot more talk about feminism, diversity and intersectionality in articles and social media. Unfortunately, I think a lot of institutions still fall very much into the old boys-club scenario.  The upside is the internet and platforms like podcasting have begun to make the discussions much more public and inclusive because we can create our own content. Look at Women in Horror Month - Hannah Neurotica didn’t ask permission to do it, she just did it. We still have a long way to go, but I have seen a change in the last few years toward breaking away from the status quo and making some noise about the things that should change.

Andrea: Things have taken baby steps toward the better, I’d say. As Alex said, the digital DIY age has helped women take matters into their own hands, but the business aspect still needs reform. Social media has been a double-edged blade because it gives everyone a platform, allowing for trolling and bullying to evolve into something frankly terrifying. That said, there’s ample room for anyone who’s driven enough to carve out space for their voices and I love seeing that happen.

Are there any elements to horror movies that are inherently empowering for women?  Are there any that are inherently problematic?

Alex: That’s a very personal question because one person’s misogynist film could be empowering for someone else. For myself, I find David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) to be incredibly feminist simply because the main female character is rendered as a fascinating anti-hero. I also think of films like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby and the entire Scream series to be feminist because they offer complicated portrayals of women and allow those characters to have a voice in how they are perceived by other characters in the film. As for problematic films, the first one that comes to mind is Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction which fully embraces and glorifies the virgin/whore dichotomy which serves only to reify the patriarchal system rather than, at the very least, complicate it.

Andrea: Empowerment is very subjective. Many films try to construct feminist characters by making them especially tough, or muscular or crude, which I find highly problematic as it fetishizes the idea of a woman having to be “like a guy” to be the hero, and that just perpetuates the stereotype. The Descent and The Haunting of Julia are examples of movies that contain great feminine characterization, in my opinion.

Who are some women in the genre that you think more people should know about?

Alex: I worship at the altar of scholars and writers like Stacie Ponder and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. I have tremendous respect for women who get shit done like Heidi Honeycutt, April Snellings, Monica Kuebler, Rebekah McKendry, Alison Lang, Kier-La Janisse, Liisa Ladouceur, Ashlee Blackwell and Zena Dixon at Real Queen of Horror. I think the work of Diablo Cody doesn’t get nearly enough recognition or credit and directors like Claire Denis, Marina de Van, Stewart Thorndike, Karyn Kusama and Ana Lily Amirpour have made some of the most exciting contemporary genre films period. And I won’t rest until Andrea Subissati is Prime Minister of Canada.

Andrea: I think Alex covered it here. Also, I’d be a tyrant of a politician; Alex just wants me in power so I could make her the Minister of Burgers or something.

Keep up with The Faculty of Horror on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit

Alex can also be found on Twitter.  Plus, she's got a new book coming out!  It's called Films of the New French Extremity:  Visceral Horror and National Identity.  It's coming out later this year and is available for pre-order at McFarland Press.

You can follow Andrea on Twitter, Facebook, and her website Lady Hellbat.  She is also a published author, and her book, When There's No More Room In Hell: The Sociology Of The Living Dead, can be found at Amazon.

Photo by Ashlea Wessel

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