For the most part I like to keep things around the clubhouse light and fun. However, there's also something to be said for taking a more intellectual viewpoint at times in order to awaken the jiggly grey matter that's lodged between our ears and in that regard you'd be hardpressed to find a better pen pal than today's guest: John W. Morehead.Thanks for joining us at Strange Kid HQ, Chris. Hey, John, thanks for joining us here at the clubhouse!
From his own online home at TheoFantastique, John examines the culture of horror from the perspective of a childhood in search of the fantastic. With an assortment of original articles and interviews, TheoFanstique has become a hub for those seeking for a place to start their own spiritual journey into this entertainingly weird world of ours. In addition to his own site, John also contributes his insights to CineFantastique Online in addition to being a fellow member of both the League of Tana Tea Drinkers and the Fantastic Culture Preservation Society.
It's my pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to be here and answer a few questions.
Can you recall the memory of your first childhood encounter with the fantastical elements of sci-fi and horror?
My first memories in encountering the fantastic are fleeting. They come from watching episodes of the original Star Trek with my dad, seeing little bits of early horror television like Thriller, and whatever else I could sneak in when I could get up past my bed time and go into the living room or my parents room while they were watching these things. My first significant memory comes on a day when my dad gave my brother and I an opportunity to either watch the usual Wonderful World of Disney or a "scary movie." Of course, my brother and I chose the latter, and it was The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
A scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon
I was never the same after that, although I wouldn't recognize until years later into my adulthood how significant this film and the ones that would follow would become. This film opened up the world of 1950s science fiction/horror films for me, and then whenever I could take advantage of these films finding a broadcast audience on television I was glued to our small color television. Later I would discover the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion animation magic, the horror films of Hammer Films, and then the Universal Studios classics. But I credit the Gill Man with giving me a childhood sense of fear and amazement that continues to this day.
How did that event shift your perspective regarding horror and science fiction?
As I've hinted at in the last bit of my response to the previous question, it opened up a multiplicity of feelings in me. As a young child I was frightened by these things. We all know when we're young that there are monsters under the bed and in the closet, it's just that we can't convince our parents of this reality. But for me it wasn't just fear that the Gill Man created in me, it was also a sense of wonder and possibility. Perhaps there really were monsters, creatures, and worlds of possibility on other planets or beneath the depths of the ocean. From that early moment I knew this was a realm that had to be explored, even if it took place at times with one eye open.
Your blog, TheoFantastique, deals with the more academic side of monsters, men and mythology. Do you have a formal degree in any of the aforementioned subjects or are your observations the product of your own fascination?
At TheoFantastique I try to strike a balance of bringing both an average fans enjoyment and appreciation for the fantastic, as well as a deeper probing of these things from more academic perspectives. When I approach the subject matter from a scholar's perspective I apply my background in intercultural and religious studies. I surprised myself a few years ago when thinking through the meanings of religions and cultures and saw how some of the tools of analysis in these disciplines are also applicable to the fantastic in pop culture. I would go on to discover that scholars examine the fantastic from a variety of academic perspectives, so why not apply my own academic background and specialty to this subject matter? The result, I hope, is not a dry academic tome, but rather, a way in which to consider some of the deeper significance of these things beyond their entertainment value.
I am interested in moving forward in my academic studies, however, and if I can ever find an affordable PhD program that would allow me to receive a doctorate specifically related to the fantastic then I'd jump on that quickly. I would love to teach in an academic institution that would allow me to interact with these aspects of pop culture. Until then I'll have to be content with sharing my thoughts at TheoFantastique.
Rudolph Otto's Idea of the Holy
You've claimed that your view on these subjects are also relevant to your views on spirituality, can you explain?
A number of people have observed similarities between our experience with the fantastic, particularly the horrific, and encounters with the divine or the transcendent. Perhaps the most famous instance of making this connection comes in the writing of theologian Rudolf Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy. In the book he describes experiences with what he calls the "numinous," and it is considered a "mystery which is fearful, awe-inspiring...and fascinating." Of course these religious or spiritual experiences which combine feelings of awe and fear are similar to what many find in horror and other genres of the fantastic. So it's not difficult to make the connection between these seemingly diverse and contradictory elements.
Beyond Otto, I recently came across a dissertation by an Australian scholar, Em McAvan, who argues that horror, science fiction, and fantasy function for many in the late modern West as the "fantastic postmodern sacred." For a variety of reasons that we can't go into here, the sacred is no longer found simply in traditional religions, but is also found throughout popular culture and its "texts," whether literature, or in film and television. So given these connections I frequently probe the relationship between the fantastic and the sacred at my blog.
In your mind, is there a distinction between religion and spirituality? If so, what separates them?
On a popular level among individuals, and in the scholarly literature that addresses this question, there is a distinction to be made. Religion is usually associated with traditional religious institutions and is held to be rigid and dogmatic. By contrast, spirituality is held to be more individualistic and a variety of sources can be consulted through which an individual can literally construct their own unique forms of spirituality. Readers may or may not agree with this distinction, but it is held by a great many people. There has also been a new development. In the past folks used to talk about their preferences for being spiritual but not religious, and you certainly find people still talking this way, but now we are starting to see people also refer to their search as a desire for the sacred, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the more traditionally religious or spiritual.
A scene from I am Legend
Where did the title "TheoFantastique" come from and what does it mean?
I did a lot of thinking in trying to come up with the name of my blog, as well as the perspective I wanted it to bring. "Theo” comes from the Greek word theos for god, and fantastique is a French term that refers to the fantastic in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I have long appreciated the work of Cinefantastique magazine, which survives today as Cinefantatique Online (to which I am happy to say I am a contributing writer). So the idea of the cinema of the fantastic was a factor. Put together, the title “TheoFantastique” makes reference to the possibility that the fantastic in pop culture may not only be entertaining, but also provide us with windows into transcendence or the numinous as we discussed a moment ago.
Two years ago you interviewed Jeffrey J. Cohen, editor of the book Monster Theory: Reading Culture. During the interview you discussed monsters as "symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior." With horror having become more mainstream in recent years (specifically remakes of 80s horror films) what do you believe our horror-based "zeitgeist" has become and what does it say about our current society?
Of course, we have to avoid any simplistic or generalized kind of understanding of these things. We have to realize that we are talking about complex phenomena that function at a variety of levels for different people, both those that produce them as well as the consumers who enjoy them. That being sad, it is interesting to me that apocalyptic seems to be a common element that repeats itself time and time again in contemporary horror. This is evident in a variety of forms and monstrous expressions, from the creatures that Will Smith sought to cure in I Am Legend to any number of zombie films to the interesting thriller/horror film The Road which tells the story of a father trying to guide his son in a post-apocalyptic world in a fight for life while still trying to maintain some set of ethics vs. the desire to do anything to survive. We have a keen sense of our own mortality and the fragility of the social order we have constructed.
A scene from The Road
It wouldn't take much to destroy what we take for granted on a day-to-day basis, whether nuclear war, contagion, environmental degradation, or economic collapse. It is only natural that we would express our apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fears through film as we wonder how and if we'd survive in such settings. So for me the zeitgeist is one of fear over survival in a viable social order. And with so many threats to this confronting us on a daily basis, these films serve as a mirror for our collective and individual anxieties.
With the rise in popularity of gratuitous violence and nudity in mainstream films like Saw, Machete, A Serbian Film, and Piranha 3D what impact do you see these images having on younger audiences? Could any comparison be drawn to the impact that Universal's Monsters had on 30's era youth?
I must state at the outset that I am not a fan of much of contemporary horror. I recognize that part of my preference for horror of the past is nostalgia, but in my view there is more spectacle than substance in much, but not all, of what we see on the screen today. Social commentators have always debated and feared that violence in horror films would corrupt audiences, but I don't know that there's much evidence to that effect. Then again, we've never seen this type of violence and sexuality in horror before, although early films like The Black Cat certainly pushed the envelope for audience decades ago with its elements of torture, incest and necrophilia, although these were narrative elements that weren't depicted visually on screen.
Parents should always take care as to what their children and young people are watching on television and the movie theater. Perhaps the most startling thing about this is that in some sense horror can be understood as a reflection and barometer of the culture that creates them. With the violence and nudity in contemporary horror, particularly in the slasher film and the so-called "torture porn" films, we should pause for reflection on what this says about us as a society and as individuals. What can we learn about ourselves as we gaze through the looking glass of our monsters?
What are the top 3 or 5 best books that you've read so far on the subject of horror/science fiction and it's effect on popular culture?
I'm a fan of [David] Skal's book, and much of his work in general as well. That was one of the first books on horror and culture that I read. There are so many books now that explore these topics. I would encourage readers to pick up a volume they like and then check out the bibliographical references for leads on additional works. There are a variety of perspectives and facets to consider in books on the topic, and lately there has been something of an explosion on books on horror films, even more than science fiction which dominated in the past. An interesting development in that fantasy and science fiction is providing a better quality of films and box office punch than horror.
It really is impossible to list "the best of the best," so I'll just mention a few that dovetail with my research interests. I have enjoyed Mark Jancovich's book Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s (Manchester University Press, 1996), two volumes by Douglas Cowan, the first titled Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (Baylor University Press, 2008), and the second is Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television (Baylor University Press, 2010). I must also mention the work of W. Scott Poole, who wrote the book Satan in America who is wrapping up a forthcoming book on horror and American culture through Baylor. Finally, while horror and science fiction often receive academic analysis, fantasy films many times miss this kind of coverage, and Joshua Bellin's book Framing Monsters: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005) is significant. Incidentally, you can find interviews with all the authors I mentioned on my blog with the exception of Jancovich, but I do interact with his volume.
The seeker of the fantastic himself, John W. Morehead
Do you plan, or have you ever considered, collecting your own observations and writings into a printed publication?
I'd like to. I don't know if my brief posted reflections on the blog would be enough for a book, but I certainly think there's enough there for many ideas that I could expand upon. I just need to take the time to think through what kind of unique contribution I could make to the field through a book and put together a proposal for a publisher. Hopefully the strength of the proposal, and the recommendations of those published in the field whom I have interviewed and who might give endorsements would be enough to get something published.
So what's the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
This is perhaps the toughest question of the lot. I know I should have a good answer with an interview on the Strange Kids blog, but I don't remember doing much that I would consider strange. My brother and I were something of an oddity in the neighborhood in that we'd go in the house early after playing so we could catch the afternoon science fiction programs, and rather than partying with friends on Friday nights we'd rather catch our local Creature Feature hosts and stay up all hours watching horror of various quality. But to us that was normal, even if it was nerdy in the 1970s. At least until Star Wars came along and moved the nerd into the mainstream.
BONUS ROUND: How do you celebrate Halloween?
I celebrate Halloween as early as possible, usually beginning my search for items and decorations for my home haunt in late August or early September. I add to my LeMax Spooky Town collection from Micheals, and then hit Target, Walgreens, Spirit Halloween and any place else to find good decorations and items for my house and neighborhood. I decorate the exterior of the house, find a good costume (this year it's a werewolf), pass out candy to the kids and settle in for a good evening of horror movies on television. Can't wait.