All horror, all the time at this film school

Film Noir Cinema, a Brooklyn microcinema where classes of the Miskatonic Institute meet, in New York.
Film Noir Cinema, a Brooklyn microcinema where classes of the Miskatonic Institute meet, in New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies does not face a dead-end future.

Fright - as seen in the box-office movie hits such as It and Get Out - is the reason it is alive.

Formed eight years ago in Canada, but now existing in branches in New York and London, with one set to open in autumn in Los Angeles, Miskatonic is the brainchild of Kier-La Janisse, a film writer and programmer.

She started it after she grew tired of people dismissing horror "because they thought it was for complete morons".

This spring, each class in New York is about 2½  hours long and cost US$12 (S$16) in advance, US$15 at the door or US$50 for a semester pass.

There are no homework assignments or tests and students who attend every class for both semesters are considered graduates.

Janisse, author of House Of Psychotic Women, about female neuroses in horror films, runs the Brooklyn Miskatonic branch with writer Joe Yanick.

In addition to exploring film, classes this semester will also cover novelists John Gilmore and Shirley Jackson, and preservation of genre cinema.

The Miskatonic course calendar would look at home in any film studies curriculum. Its next class, taking place today, is called Black Horror: The Revolutionary Act Of Subverting The White Gaze.

Its scholarly approach follows decades of horror studies that have produced influential texts such as Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, And Chain Saws: Gender In The Modern Horror Film. The field has its own journal and there are stand-alone courses and webinars on the subject.

However, the Miskatonic is unique in its all-horror focus. Among the teachers is Mr Sukhdev Sandhu, who said the school - housed in a microcinema in Brooklyn - was an example of "underground scholarship".

"People are creating spaces in their living rooms affordably and cheaply to create a different model of education and Miskatonic is part of that," said the associate professor of English at New York University.

But Miskatonic is also tapping the golden age of horror in the wider culture, propelled in part by Oscar-nominated films Get Out and The Shape Of Water.

Professor Adam Lowenstein, a professor of English and film and media studies at the University of Pittsburgh, cited Miskatonic as one of many passionate players in "a watershed moment for the study of the horror film".

This fresh embrace dovetails enthusiastically with the new vogue for horror, which has not resonated with such urgency since 1968, the year of Night Of The Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby, he said.

"To understand the change, it would be like if Night Of The Living Dead got an Academy Award nomination like Get Out did," added Prof Lowenstein, author of Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema And The Modern Horror Film. "That's mind-boggling and thrilling," he said.

What is different now is a new generation of horror film-makers who are hitting the raw nerves exposed by current social movements.

A feminist critique of horror has long been a staple of horror studies, thanks to the genre's fixation on male villains and female victims.

But with Jordan Peele's Get Out, an indictment of liberal racism, it is race that is most prominently capturing scholarly attention.

Writer Dianca London Potts, who is teaching Miskatonic's Black Horror class, said Peele's film was a sobering conversation starter.

"The movie creeped me out in a way I haven't experienced since the original The Hills Have Eyes," she added, mentioning Wes Craven's 1977 exploitation shocker about a family terrorised by psychopaths.

"There's something so terrifying about what we do as a people. Now, because of Get Out, people are willing to sit with being uncomfortable."

And that, Janisse said, is good news for Miskatonic and its quest for a "balanced education" of history, production and, perhaps most importantly, community-building.

"A lot of us come from a place where horror was maligned," she said.

"But in the classroom, people are enthusiastic about horror."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline 'All horror, all the time at this film school'. Print Edition | Subscribe