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Studio Night: Reflections on the Genre of Horror

Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988)

Tonight was a fruitful one in the studio, both for color experimentation and reflection. As I worked on exploring chromatic gradients to chromatic grays in acrylic and pastel, I began re-listening to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an audiobook. It has long been one of my favorites and did not disappoint in once again whisking me away, first to the Arctic circle, and into the dark, tortured ruminations of Dr. Frankenstein.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818)

The novel’s poetic turn of phrase and Romantic era notions — contemplation of the grandeur of nature coupled with the dark terror of destruction — transported me to an odd state, equal parts tingling and tranquil, that only the genre of horror can. Frankenstein’s reflections on moments of respite in nature convey a profound sense of pure wonder, but his cautionary tale takes twists and turns that elicit goosebumps. Thus, the selection of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, which adorns the cover of my hard copy of the book, is a fitting choice, not only for its connection to these themes but for the positioning of the figure which allows one to insert oneself into the painting as we are invited to insert ourselves into the experience of Dr. Frankenstein — if we dare.

The distance of fiction, and the titular character’s own urgings, separate us as readers (or listeners, as the case may be) from the horrors that result from Frankenstein’s folly, but the unease that we feel upon hearing them is strangely tempting to experience. The genre of horror allows us to indulge in reflection upon our worst fears without the immediate consequences of experience — to in some sense defy death by becoming spectators of it — yet there is something inescapable always brewing under the surface of horror: the certainty, however incomprehensible, that death will one day catch up to us.

Still from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

Yesterday in critique, one of my classmates, the immensely talented and insightful Lily Morris, prompted me to consider my relationship with horror and how it pertains to my approach to the subject of death. I considered the media I have consumed of late: true crime podcasts, spooky movies in the lead-up to Halloween, writings and videos by mortician and activist Caitlyn Doughty — and how my interest in this genre has blossomed in recent years. I have always been a fan of Hitchcock and psychological thrillers, but previously indulged in them only rarely, requiring long breaks of upbeat entertainment in between as a palette cleanser to soothe that lingering paranoia that takes over after watching a scary movie (Like many, I kept my eyes open and ears perked in the shower for weeks after first watching Psycho). However, I have found that the more I engage with personal experiences and shared stories surrounding death, the more drawn I am to media that investigates it head-on.

Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice (1988)

As true crime podcast fans, Lily and I reflected on the unsettling desensitization that occurs with binge-listening to these horrific stories. What does this desensitization mean? Is it possible to journey too far to the other extreme; to become so engaged with death that it becomes almost an addiction and overtakes life? Certainly…but it is possible to overcome this addiction. I am reminded of characters like Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, whose character arc takes her from depression and despair to reveling in the simple joys of life while still being surrounded by death. The ghosts in Lydia’s new home remain her role models throughout the film, but she evolves from wanting to merely join them in death to embracing the odd and spectacular experience that life in the midst of death affords. We are all Lydia to some degree, floating and dancing as creatures possessed, aware of our own mortality but giddy in the knowledge that we are alive here and now, and that we are united in common experience with every person who came before us. These are the sensations I hope to evoke as I approach the subject of death with a zest for life.

To conclude:

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