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Nightmare fuel

What we՚re watching and thinking about heading into Halloween and the election

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A couple of weeks ago, Reader contributors Kaylen Ralph and Catey Sullivan wrote about streaming productions with resonance for this double whammy nightmare season of Halloween and Possibly The Last Free Elections in the United States. (Oh, and there՚s still a deadly pandemic raging.) They joined Reader theater and dance editor Kerry Reid in an e-mail discussion of what stories like this mean in these very anxious days. Below is an edited version of that dialogue.

Kerry Reid: You both did those great complementary articles on on-air dystopia and horror. We՚re obviously heading into both Halloween and an election season that has people more on edge than I can remember in my lifetime (and with good reason!).

I՚m wondering about how that affects your personal viewing habits right now. Have you noticed an uptick in your preferences for horror and dystopia since the 2016 election, and what kinds of things have you been watching? 

I don՚t watch a ton of horror, but I just finished bingeing Mr. Robot, which I didn՚t see during its original run. The glancing references to Donald Trump running for president and the notion that there is a technocratic one-percent-of-the-one-percent international cabal bent on bending everything and everyone to its desires certainly hit home! And the show՚s focus on social isolation feels pretty apt after months of this pandemic. I felt the same way about Strawdog Theatre՚s Run the Beast Down, which also features a lone man whose world is disintegrating, but who may not be the most reliable narrator.

Kaylen Ralph: Ever since seeing The Grudge in theaters with my seventh-grade boyfriend, I have had an aversion to horror movies and TV shows. I absolutely lost my cool in that theater in 2004, and I’ve yet to recover from the abject terror and subsequent embarrassment I felt that fateful Friday night. Fifteen years later, as a single woman living alone, I still tend to stay far away from the horror genre as it’s typically represented in pop culture. 

I think that in the current climate, there has been a shift in what’s actually scary. Whereas I’m still spooked by things that go bump in the night (or crawl rapidly up the wall), I’m equally terrified by an unchecked, violent police force presence, climate change, increasing rates of houselessness, a tanking economy, and—lest I forget—our quickly eroding democracy. 

Catey, that’s why I really liked your feature, and I’m excited about the productions you highlighted. They all seem to successfully transcend the horror genre as I know it, in a way that feels more appropriate for the times. 

Catey Sullivan: I have been bingeing on horror, although I didn’t realize it until this second. I just thought we were having a particularly fine bumper crop of my favorite genre (Train to Busan, Parasite, Antebellum, Evil Eye, Lovecraft Country), but I’m also actively seeking out less substantive but still entertaining shows like Monsterland and The Haunting of Bly Manor. And the original Halloween, which is in a class unto itself as one of the first (perhaps The First) Final Girl stories. And, naturally, the 2018 Halloween where Jamie Lee Curtis finally gets that goddamn motherfucking motherfucker which is something I relate to very hard this month. I dunno. It’s almost like I’m looking for role models or something. And assurance, because in most mainstream vehicles, there are heroes and they usually win in the end. That is the narrative I am embracing this Halloween.

I have also noticed, to my own great horror, that I have developed a soft spot for romantic comedies. The musical Romantics Anonymous, which recently livestreamed with Chicago Shakespeare, is usually something I’d take a pretty jaded view of, but darn it if I wasn’t hoping those crazy kids worked it out. And when they did, I wept for them and then wondered what was becoming of myself. Et toi Kaylen? (I have no idea why I broke into French.) P.S. I would like to add that this article on Lovecraft Country from The Root is incredible. 

Ralph: Catey, I’m so glad you brought up romantic comedies! As excited as I am to check out some of the productions you highlighted in your feature, I still think my current mindset is far from suited to any sort of bingeing of the horror genre. I have been devouring rom coms, and I even joined a rom com viewing/screenwriting group at the suggestion of a friend. What’s funny, now that I think about it, is how even that group has dipped into the horror genre subset of rom coms, or at least we’ve explored the intersection there. We recently watched Death Becomes Her from 1992 together, and our group leader, Jackie, made the excellent point about how the perpetual beauty of women in rom com roles, and the actresses who portray them, has led to perhaps horrific standards of beauty? I guess there’s an element of horror inherent in that dynamic, as well. It’s inescapable! 

Sullivan: This line from your piece, Kaylen, really jumped off the page for me: “The scale of revolution doesn’t feel strictly historical anymore.” 

That’s a crucial point, and I think it’s part of the reason horror resonates for me so much right now. It’s not out there in some far-away haunted mansion or monster-infested swamp or long-ago in New Jersey. The swamp is here and now. I thought Theatre in the Dark’s A War of the Worlds really hammered that point—far too heavily and obviously at times, but that’s another discussion. The 180-degree turn that the main characters՚ lives took when the aliens landed was pretty clearly not just about aliens. 

There was one part in that production where some matronly woman (or at least, matronly as imagined by the company, which, hello stereotype, but again, that’s another discussion) says something like the whole thing is exaggerated, nothing’s wrong, everyone should calm down and listen to the leaders telling them this wasn’t a big deal. That character was pretty clearly meant to be emblematic of the white women who voted for 45, and the anti-science attitude that is literally killing people today. The production wasn’t subtle, but the point was as clear as a freshly polished butcher knife. 

Reid: I think one of the scariest things for me in dystopic narratives is the Cassandra trope—the person trying to warn everybody what՚s about to happen who is dismissed as a kook or a malcontent. With the Supreme Court now shifting completely to the right with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett, I can’t help but think about all the people who warned in 2016 that this could very likely happen. And I also can՚t help but think how many people who are already marginalized were sending up warning flares because they knew that the rights of the already-oppressed were going to be the first to go. One of the elements of Mr. Robot that I appreciated was that it depicted that even righteous revolutions can have a shit-ton of unintended consequences for the people.

But I’m also thinking about the notion of community coming together to fight the monsters. One of my favorites in the horror-comedy vein is Wes Craven՚s The People Under the Stairs from 1991. I never watched any of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. But Craven՚s take on the Reagan era (the villainous nameless couple in People are clearly modeled after Ronnie and Nancy, the latter played by longtime Chicago actor Wendy Robie) still resonates as an allegory about white power, white resentment, the demonization of poor people of color. But it’s also a portrait of what happens when communities unite and fight back. It was the first time I remember seeing the horror genre used as a tool for critiquing racial and class injustice, which of course is something Jordan Peele has been doing so magnificently.

I guess we՚ll have to wait and see what filmmakers and theatermakers choose to do with this very weird time in history as source material.  v

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