XAR: As a teenager, I was very interested in Stephen King. In fact, it is probably fair to say that I went through a phase where I read his work and not much else. My favourite novels and stories tended to be the ones that involved extreme corporeal experiences (‘Survivor Type’, 1982) or living body parts (‘The Moving Finger’, 1990). These felt ‘real’ to me in ways that his more overly fantastic did not – they were raw, intense, and visceral. At the time, I thought this corporeal material was a departure from the more classical horror writing (Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft) that otherwise fascinated me. It was explicit. It was trying to do something to my body.
Strangely enough for someone who researches the gothic, I have always found it difficult to engage with supernatural fiction that is not nihilistic or macabre in essence. My attention would inevitably revolve around the gory bits. This was, as I remember it, not a fascination with the infliction of pain upon others. Often, as in The Green Mile (1999), I did not want the characters to be harmed at all. Rather, I would say I always felt drawn to descriptions of open bodies – a species of anatomical curiosity, if you like – and the transformations that human flesh is capable of undergoing. Naturally, a fascination with Clive Barker, particularly his Books of Blood (1984-1985) and The Hellbound Heart (1986), followed shortly after. As a literature student, I encountered the works of Bret Easton Ellis, Poppy Z. Brite, Dennis Cooper, and, above all others, Chuck Palahniuk. Their fiction cemented my interests in corporeal fictions in ways that I never expected and helped me develop them beyond the horror genre.
DM: How did this then become the focus of your doctoral research?
XAR: I am still fascinated by visceral works, whether filmic or literary, and the power of what is deemed too graphic and therefore offensive. Looking at this type of material reveals, for me, the taboos that still surround our bodies and the social practices that govern and construct them: what can or cannot be shown, what is deemed ‘gratuitous’, what causes strong physical reactions, and so on and so forth. But, most importantly, I feel drawn to the fact that certain material can have the ability to affect us strongly despite the fact that we know it is fictional. People like to criticise shock because they see it as something cheap, easy, or purely sensationalistic. For me, studying transgression helps us understand its historical specificities. It is actually very difficult for artists to paint truly disturbing mosaics of imagination, particularly now that we appear to have seen it all already.
What kick-started my doctoral thesis was an encounter with two different texts that affected me deeply. One of them was Palahniuk’s ‘Guts’ (2005), which I still think is one of his most powerful works. I was already familiar with his novels up to this point, but the controversy surrounding the spate of faintings – allegedly over sixty – during public readings of ‘Guts’ caught my attention. Around the same time, I had also gone to see Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005). The film was so overwhelming, both visually and in terms of its message, that I had nightmares for days – and I am not easily disturbed! Like the grand guignol, a theatrical subgenre that I went on to study in depth, these texts seemed to have the capacity to work on the bodies of viewers through the affective and realistic destruction of others. Having taken Adriana Craciun’s fantastic ‘Gothic Bodies, Foreign Bodies’ MA course at Birkbeck College, I had wanted to explore notions of corporeality in contemporary gothic texts in relation to my early interest in visceral literature. I was instantly taken with the prospect of trying to ascertain the workings of texts such as Hostel or ‘Guts’. I wanted to see whether they could be seen to belong to what I still consider an artistic continuum predicated on shock, taboo, darkness and excess.
DM: What are the key differences between the body horror of the 1980s associated with the splatterpunk movement (most notably in the work of Clive Barker) and what you have termed 'post-millennial torture-horror'?XAR: I will try to reply succinctly here, but I dedicate some space to the distinctions between these subgenres in my forthcoming Body Gothic (University of Wales Press) and interested readers are advised to check this out for a more thorough and informed answer.
My concern with exploring the differences and similarities between several visceral subgenres came from a general dissatisfaction with the appellatives that torture porn was receiving. To call Saw and Hostel ‘body horror’, as some critics and journalists have done, is problematic. There is very little in common between David Cronenberg’s work (say Videodrome , perhaps the closest thematically) and the films I have mentioned, beyond a fascination with evisceration or destruction of the body as we know it. In body horror (The Evil Dead , The Thing , The Fly ), the focus is contagion, mutation and helpless transformation, as Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan’s recent anthology has pointed out. Torture-horror (and I should clarify the term is actually Jeremy Morris’s) is more interested in the cloying horror of being reduced to a body, of being meat, of being carnally punished.
The differences are also related to context, nomenclature, marketing and artistic purpose. 1980s body horror and torture porn, as well as the new avant-pulp or splatterpunk, all show specific concerns with the body that I think are distinctive and speak to modern and contemporary notions of corporeality in the West. They resonate with a number of general cultural and social shifts pertaining to the late twentieth and the early twenty-first century: a gradual process of secularisation is perhaps the most obvious of them, but there is also the turn to biopolitics, or a pronounced interest in anatomy and, perhaps as a result of all of these, the desacralisation of death. One of the main differences between the various visceral subgenres I name is their approach: body horror, despite its dependence on solipsism and disease, often paints transgression in liberating or positive terms. The body is supernaturally transformed beyond its usual dimensions in order to explore its limits, possibilities and even life after death (as in Re-Animator  or Hellraiser ). In post-millennial torture-horror, the body becomes a prison, and the violence visited upon it has a clearly nihilistic (read also bleak or pessimistic) end. In Body Gothic, I read this new focus as one tell-tale sign, among others, that our engagement with the material reality of corporeality has become even more pronounced than it was before. Put simply, we have always been fascinated with our bodies; the focus in genre film seems to have turned to the horrors of embodiment. Of course, all of this may need redefining in view of the even more recent interest in paranormal nightmares, although I should say I still find these new ghosts troublingly physical.
DM: How does your theory of the affective power of torture-horror depart from more traditional psychoanalytic models of Gothic criticism?
XAR: Again, there is no short, simple or easy answer to this question. I have tried to address this in ‘Beyond Psychoanalysis: Post-millennial Horror Film and AffectTheory’ (Horror Studies 3.2, 2012) and am developing my ideas through a reworked version of my doctoral thesis, Horror and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership (Routledge). Although I should clarify that my ideas are thoroughly theoretical in nature, I have been arguing for a parallactic approach to Horror Studies that has been influenced by the work of Julian Hanich, Steven Shaviro, Vivian Sobchack, Brian Massumi, Deleuze and Guattari, Laura Marks, Jennifer M. Barker, and a host of affect theorists that include the fascinating work of Marco Abel. The core of this approach does not attempt to negate representation, but to sidestep it with an eye to understanding what is left out through judgemental viewing or reading practices.
Phenomenology has been trying to do this by drawing attention to the ‘I’ that sees, reads and, in the case of the academic, critiques, contends or challenges. I have been preoccupied by torture-horror (or torture porn), but only to the extent that it makes explicit the affective dimensions of horror. In a sense, I find it useful to explore the side of horror that affects viewers directly, bypassing cognition and reflection. The shift is towards a theory or mode that privileges somatic response (via corporeal identification, for example) in order to gain an insight into what it means to feel that type of shiver that gory horror produces. This is an area that also interests me because, as I have pointed out, it is generally deemed to be of little interest due to its connections with low orders of the body. I do not mean to suggest that symbolism is not useful, but torture-horror does indicate that there are other affective means by which horror works on viewers.
DM: Do you think that the preoccupation with torture in recent horror films is in some sense a response to the debates surrounding its efficacy and ethics in relation to the post-9/11 War on Terror?
XAR: I have found recent work on this area, namely Aviva Briefel and Sam J. Miller’s Horror after 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror (2012) – and within it, Matt Hills and Catherine Zimmer’s chapters – or Adam Lowenstein’s article on the topic, all very useful. Since my work is very theoretical in nature, I welcome approaches that prioritise the socio-historical or industrial contexts of filmic or literary productions. However, and as persuaded as I often am by new historicism, I do think it has its potential downfalls. Kevin J. Wetmore’s book Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema (2013), lucid in places, runs the risk of seeing terrorist metaphors everywhere. It is undeniable that 9/11 has had an obvious effect on contemporary horror. For instance, I think the continued success of found footage has been influenced by the all-too-recognisable aesthetic of the disaster in real time of the fall of the Twin Towers. Some films, such as Cloverfield (2008), have gone as far as to negotiate 9/11 more or less directly. I would hesitate to argue, however, that this means contemporary horror needs to be understood as part and parcel of these debates. There is an affective side to horror that is independent of content, even if necessarily context-specific (i.e. bound by the historical specificities of viewers, what is considered taboo, and so on and so forth). So, whilst we can read Abu-Ghraib into Hostel and even trace aesthetic influences, it is not essential that we do this in order to understand or feel the horror intrinsic to that film.
DM: What research projects are you currently working on?
XAR: I have mentioned the monographs Body Gothic and Horror and Affect, which will keep me busy for some time. They are both helping me round up my investment in corporeality, visceral subgenres and contemporary popular culture. I am also editing a collection with Linnie Blake, Digital Nightmares: Wired Ghosts, CCTV Horror and the Found Footage Phenomenon, that includes papers by renowned scholars in the field and which will examine new directions and developments in contemporary horror film. I am developing some chapters for edited collections that have grown from my previous work (on affect and the Gothic, the Saw series, snuff mockumentaries) and working on a talk on surgical horror for this year’s BFI’s Gothic season.
From an organisational point of view, I am heavily involved in a city-wide festival called Gothic Manchester, supported by the 2013-2014 Humanities in Public programme and the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at MMU, and am organising a series of public lectures on Contemporary Gothic that include papers from leading academics in Gothic Studies such as Fred Botting, Catherine Spooner, Isabella Van Elferen, Stacey Abbott and Linnie Blake. These are both initiatives that are growing out of the new Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, which, all things being well, should be very active over its first year of existence.
Beyond the gothic, I would be very interested in pursuing my interest in transgression in literary fiction, perhaps through a return to Chuck Palahniuk. Whatever specific shape this project ends up taking, it will definitely involve the disturbing and the dark.
Academia.edu Profile: http://mmu.academia.edu/XavierAldanaReyes
Departmental Website: http://www2.hlss.mmu.ac.uk/english/academic-staff/?profileID=467
Guest blogs and reviews at The Gothic Imagination: http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/author/x-aldanalancaster-ac-uk/