Adam Simon (@adamsimonx) has been working in Hollywood for almost three decades. He’s been everything from a director (Roger Corman’s Carnosaur) to a writer (The Haunting in Connecticut) to a showrunner (Salem on WGN), to an actor, cameoing as himself in Robert Altman’s The Player.
When we interviewed him for the finale to Horror Month at Lewton Bus, though, it was in his capacity as a documentarian: In 2000, he directed and produced The American Nightmare, which interviewed breakout horror directors of the ’60s and ’70s like George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and David Cronenberg. We talked to him about how horror has come back around in the decades since these creators came on the scene, how horror is the only popular tragedy we have left, and how realism is all in the eye of the beholder…
Your documentary is called The American Nightmare. Did we ever wake up?
It’s interesting… in the movie, I asked Tom Gunning (Professor at the University of Chicago) what happens when you don’t wake up from a nightmare, and he talked about how a lot of horror films begin that way. If I was making it today, I wouldn’t call it The American Nightmare, I’d call it The American Tragedy, and I’d examine the difference between a nightmare and a tragedy: a nightmare is essentially psychological, its causes are rooted in our psyche, or experience. I try to argue, in the film, for a concept of a collective nightmare; that the films were a way, consciously and unconsciously, for the culture as a whole to process the traumas it was living through.
But in a funny way, that disarms our ability to think about those traumas in more literal, political terms. That’s why I think, now, in terms of “tragedy” rather than “nightmare”: If you go back and look at Greek or Jacobean tragedies, we’d call those horror stories: cannibalism, mass murder, madness, monsters… It’s as if every other genre avoided the things tragedies did, and horror picked it up.
In tragedies, it’s not happening because there’s a bad guy doing a bad thing. Tragedy is brought about by competing desires for good that violently clash. In the ’60s and the ’70s, when the films I focus on were made, no one thought they were the bad guy. These days, in the Trump universe, it’s hard not to think, “These horrible people, they’re doing horrible things!” And yet, a lot of those people are looking at us and thinking “These horrible people! They’re destroying our country!”
That notion of real-world evil – How would you describe it in those dramaturgical terms? Is it safe to generalize?
(Laughs) It’s not safe to generalize, but it’s always necessary. It’s very dangerous when we apply metaphysical labels to psychological concepts. Evil is a metaphysical concept, but… a tsunami, that devours and destroys all these people, is it evil? We’d tend to naturally say it’s not.
Evil is a metaphysical quality. I’m not going to say there’s no such thing as evil. I tend to think there is, but ascribing it to other human beings is dangerous, because it takes us out of the realm of politics, which is all about compromise, and into this realm of metaphysical warfare. If it’s truly a fight with evil, how can there be any compromise? And of course, they view you the same way… Hello, there’s tragedy in the making!
I’m not saying this because I’m in the middle. It’s pretty clear to me what’s right and what’s wrong, but I think if we ascribe evil to one another in this way, it’s dangerous. I don’t think all movies are the kind of social horror movies I discuss in the documentary, they just come along at certain times, and reacting to social trauma isn’t the only thing horror can do. Often, I think it’s dealing with more metaphysical things: I’m a big Lovecraft fan, and you can see the social element come through in his work in ways that are difficult to read today, but the core of the horror is something much more ontological, metaphysical. It’s the idea that the universe may not be such a benign place…
Lovecraft was writing around the turn of the century. He was around to see the effects of the first World War…
And I think that changed him. I think we would have had a very different Lovecraft if he had lived just a few more years. He died just as World War II was getting going, and you can see in his voluminous letters how the effects of the Great Depression were beginning to turn him into something of a Roosevelt Democrat. I think, like a lot of reactionary conservatives of that era—TS Eliot comes to mind—seeing things like Hitler and Auschwitz, they changed. I think Lovecraft would have recoiled on seeing real evil, as it were.
The horror Lovecraft wrote about is a universal kind of horror, and that’s different. It puts a black sun over everything, the notion of being in a fundamentally flawed universe.
The distinction you make between psychological and social horrors—do you think they’re extricable at all? Can you have one without the other?
Most of the great works of horror are like symphonies: They have multiple strands running in them, but you can separate them out. I remember, as a kid, being utterly shocked and horrified by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat”: There’s no rhyme or reason to the terrible things the story’s main character does…horrible things ultimately happen to him, but it’s all kind of mindless, just dwelling on the horror of physical torment. That kind of horror carries on ’til today, we sometimes call it “torture porn.” But with Poe, you also get “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which is a ghost story, or “Masque of the Red Death”, so all of these strands are tied together since the birth of the genre.
I think certain aspects come to the forefront at certain times. In the late ’90s, we had an explosion of ghost movies, with The Sixth Sense and The Ring over in Japan. Success breeds success, of course, the popular ones spawned imitators, but there was something keying into what we felt about ghosts coming back. But then that stopped, and in the mid to late 2000s we got the return of the zombie, and so on. I think it’s true that most horror contains a mix: a note of psychological, a note of supernatural horror, a note of domestic horror…
Your documentary isn’t only about the underpinnings of horror, it’s about the practices of filmmaking. We’ve touched on the social changes, but how is filmmaking a different beast, if you will, from the way it was 40 or 50 years ago?
A lot of the things we take for granted today, in filmmaking, were unheard of then. We’re living in an age when everyone is carrying around a film studio in their pocket, and we’re only just beginning to see the aesthetic effects of that. Night of the Living Dead used the aesthetic of TV news, the handheld black-and-white we associated with journalism, to make this very unreal story feel real.
Horror needs to have that element of realism to register, otherwise we think of it as fantasy. Think of Lord of the Rings, either the books or the movies. There are horrific things that go on, monsters and giant spiders and Black Riders, but we’d never think of it as horror because it takes place in this entirely separate world, and horror requires a world that’s recognizable as our own, so we recognize the intrusion from the other. And so you always have the question, “How are you making this feel real?” And the younger generation is still coming to grips with what will be real for them.
The Ring is an early example of that, and so is Kyoshi Kurosawa’s film Pulse. The horror seems to be erupting from the screens, from this digital realm.
Well, The Ring was a cassette tape – there are kids in high school who have never even seen a VCR today!
I remember the first time I saw The Ring I was living in London. I was staying with a friend who travelled all over—the movie hadn’t caught on in the West yet—and he gave me this unlabelled VHS tape and told me to watch it, without telling me anything else. It was the first time in years I had felt genuinely frightened while watching a movie, and some animal part of my brain is going “He’s done it to me! He’s done The Ring on me!”
That wasn’t unintentional, I’m sure!
Knowing him, it probably wasn’t, but you look at the movie—you look at Gore Verbinski’s remake, which is already doing DVDs—and you have some beautiful imagery there, with our view shaking and shuddering and breaking apart in a very glitchy way. When I was young, horror always came out of the shadows, or out of the fog, but now the intrusion of the supernatural is done by this digital glitching.
Digital special effects haven’t really intruded into horror, because for whatever reason they’re inherently not scary – it has something to do with the nature of the brain, evolution guiding us to be able to tell whether that’s a tiger in the woods or just a shadow. The most polished CGI can’t scare us as much as a badly made puppet, because we can tell it’s there.
And not only does this lend itself well to horror, it lends itself well to low budget filmmaking.
No doubt. Of all the genres, it’s horror and pornography that are always the earliest adopters. (Laughs) It’s not only because they tend to be cheap, but they tend to embrace unusual technologies. So you could do what George (Romero) did and film with 16mm cameras from a TV station, or you could do what modern films do and make everything look like it’s been shot on a phone. That’s where you get the return of the short – Horror YouTube clips, Horror Vines – that’s been reignited entirely because of new media, that’s happened entirely because of modern viewing habits.
Your documentary discusses horror classics – Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween – what are some more obscure movies for scholars of horror?
There were a lot of movies I could have covered in the documentary that I didn’t. I actually filmed a whole segment with David Cronenberg on The Brood that didn’t make it into the film. De Palma’s film Sisters affected me a lot when it came out. These days I’ve been interested in English folk horror, films like The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. But the films I covered in American Nightmare weren’t what I was watching at the time – I was young, I didn’t have access to them. Instead, we got stuff like the Italian films of Mario Bava and his protege Dario Argento, who’s back in the news thanks to the remake of Suspiria.
Horror has a lot to do with the rules, and as a kid I was one of those people who was obsessed with the rules. “Here’s what you do if you see a vampire, here’s what you do if there’s a werewolf. Even with ghosts, maybe they’re trying to tell us who killed them, you have a plan for how to solve the problem. But when I first saw things like Pulse or The Ring, those rules got taken away; I got the sense that these things were wild, uncontained. I think the modern horror revolution, on the scale of the one I talked about in American Nightmare, is that sense of inherent strangeness that Japanese horror brought. You can see it in recent stuff like It Follows or Hereditary, it wouldn’t have happened without J-Horror and K-Horror discarding all the rules.