“Everywhere I seem to go on this island seems to me I find degeneracy. There is brawling in bars. There is indecency in public places. And there is the corruption of the young. And now I see it all stems from here—it stems from the FILTH taught here in this very school room!”
So spits the furious and deeply uptight Sergeant Neil Howie, played by Edward Woodward, in the iconic 1973 British folksploitation film, The Wicker Man. By wagging his finger like Perversion for Profit’s George Putnam at a teacher who dared enlighten her students on the phallic history of the maypole, Sergeant Neil draws a line in the sand: you’re either with him—a sweaty, perpetually offended representation of proper straight British society—or you’re one of them—the naked go-go-dancing, public fucking, penis hedge-trimming, hedonistic townspeople of Summerisle, an island given over to paganism, Celtic folklore, and a healthy dose of sex magick. And sure, equating yourself with the townsfolk, led by Christopher Lee’s delightfully libertine Lord Summerisle, also means embracing homicidal human sacrifices to the sun god and goddess of the fields—in other words, with horror.
For those of us who lean towards the weirder, darker, more subversive sides of life, I don’t think I’m overextending myself here by asserting we’d rather go with the latter, singing “Sumer is icumen in” while sporting animal masks rather than hollering Psalm 23 and burning to death in a ginormous humanoid sculpture. I mean, bring on the bacchanalia!
It’s exactly this embrace of horror by society’s outcasts that is the subject of a phenomenal current exhibition The Horror Show!: A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain at London’s Somerset House. Curated by artists and filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard with Somerset House’s Senior Curator Claire Catterall, The Horror Show! boasts a dizzying whirlwind of mediums and disciplines. There’s spine-tingling visual art, ranging from Jake & Dinos Chapman’s bone-chilling black-haired conjoined triplets, Return of the Repressed3, who are waiting behind glass to spoil your sleep, to Jeremy Millar’s washed-up bloated corpse, Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows), to Jenkin van Zyl’s Six Scintillating Sinners (In Vitro), not exactly delectable-looking cakes transformed into a werewolf, rat, and other monster masks that wouldn’t look out of place in a Spirit Halloween store. There’s coveted horror flick memorabilia, including the nail-pierced holy trainers from my favorite zealot Saint Maud. While we’re on the subject of sacred relics, punk and post-punk mementos like Poly Styrene’s helmet and a Siouxsie-emblazoned leather jacket by Sue Webster also appear. Beyond triggering klepto urges, immersive rooms of installations celebrate such monumental morbid moments as nights in storied 1980s clubs like The Batcave, Blitz, and Kinky Gerlinky and the influence of the BBC’s 1992 docu-drama Ghostwatch, which was never aired again after scarring viewers irreparably with the pedo ghost Mr. Pipes hiding in a humble suburban family’s basement, known as the Glory Hole (really).
If the previous paragraph made your head spin like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, it’s not just my exhausting writing style. The Horror Show! packs as much material into Somerset House’s Embankment Galleries as the curators possibly could. Even the relatively smaller cabinets are stuffed to the brim with finds to linger on, such as The Fall’s Mark E. Smith’s letter to the Arthur Machen Society, writer and underground cartographer Iain Sinclair’s hoard from his strolls of East London, Stewart Home’s deliciously perverse necrocard, on which you can generously declare “I want to help others experiment sexually after my death,” director Nicolas Roeg’s own copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, and theorist Mark Fisher’s Hauntology mixtape, featuring Tuxedomoon, Cabaret Voltaire, and Laurie Anderson. And what would a show based on horror be without a few gory disembodied heads, used as props for various BBC Halloween specials?!
It’s not as if it’s a surprise that The Horror Show! is overstuffed. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are certainly no strangers to maximalism with their prior work collaborating on the installation of Nick Cave’s chaotic book-strewn office in Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition. As I discovered visiting Nick’s show in Montreal, The Horror Show! rewards slow if not repeated viewing (Like Stranger Than Kindness, I went to The Horror Show! twice).
Even with viewers’ attention pulled every which way, the exhibition manages to perceptibly present a cohesive and thrilling narrative. Through these seemingly disparate artworks, cultural curios, and archival materials, the exhibition shows the ongoing influence of horror through fifty years of British culture. Here, horror is largely a survival tactic, a means of transgression against a repressive, rigid society. Yet, the curators also don’t shy away from the real terrors, particularly the spooky slasher policies coming from 10 Downing Street. It’s no mistake that there is an entire display dedicated to The Iron Lady (a title that could inspire its own horror franchise) Margaret Thatcher, including Spitting Image’s Margaret Thatcher puppet, zine Class War’s “sickening lifelike cut-out Thatcher Horror mask,” and a series of Polaroids by Ralph Steadman distorting and melting ole Maggie’s face as if she’s Laura Dern in Inland Empire. Instead of a woman in trouble, the country is!
The curators are able to get their point across with such clarity due to their deft division of the show into three themes or, as they call them, acts: Monster, Ghost, and Witch, all of which break down somewhat chronologically. Monster arrives first with a snarling punk roar coming from the youth of the lower classes who emerged out of the flames of the dashed dreams of the 1960s with otherworldly angular slashes of makeup across their faces like Bromley Contingent icon, Jordan, whose pencil-drawn portrait by Luciana Martinez de la Rosa hangs in the exhibition’s entrance alongside Bowie as a Diamond Dog. This act is perhaps best exemplified by Sex Pistols’ resident artist Jamie Reid’s 1972 gouache Monster on a Nice Roof featuring a red-eyed owl-like creature with teeth that grips a humble red-roofed countryside house in its yellowed claws. As Reid scrawls on the cover of a nearby issue of Suburban Press, “Lo! A Monster is Born!”
Sadly, the freewheeling collectivity of post-punk, Goth, and new wave freaks, showcased by a slideshow of photographs of DJs, promoters, musicians, and clubgoers such as the inimitable Princess Julia by Derek Ridgers and a corresponding playlist by Mark Moore and Marting Green, which is straight out of Filthy Dreams’ wheelhouse with inclusions such as Gina X Performance’s “No GDM,” Dead or Alive’s “Misty Circles,” and Divine’s “Native Love, wasn’t to last. Ghost ushers in an abrupt tonal shift as the 1990s become defined by a dissonant and dissociated fear of invisible enemies, whether the specter of HIV/AIDS or the newfound connectivity and alienation of the Internet and other digital technology. Ghost is probably the most diverse of the themes, ranging from the AKAI S950 sampler used to create Nicola Collier’s vocals on the House tune “Voodoo Ray” to the continued felt presence of Joy Division’s late Ian Curtis, his name etched twice on Graham Dolphin’s Door (Joy Division Version).
The exhibition concludes with Witch, revealing how artists and other creators, particularly women, people of color, and queers, have looked to witchcraft, mysticism, and other folk practices to address the environmental calamity and hate-driven death drive of contemporary culture. Think tarot cards, strange ceramics like Zoe Williams’s green-fleshed fire-wrapped hand The Golden Palm, copious shamanistic costumes and masks, and posters for W.I.T.C.H., or “We Invoke The Culture of Heretics.” Of course, the aforementioned The Wicker Man looms large in this act. Its impact is most obviously seen in Cathy Ward’s Home Rites, woven corn dollies set under domed glass that are almost exactly like the ones found in the homes on Summerisle.
More so than extensive wall labels, the trilogy of soundscapes that pervade each act expertly distinguish each theme. Monster begins with the necromancing chant of “UNDEAD UNDEAD UNDEAD” from Bauhaus’ Goth anthem “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” best performed in the opening of The Hunger as vampires David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve hunt for their victims in a club. Equally cinematic is Ghost’s echoes of the glitches, whispers, footsteps, and screams of Barry Adamson’s viscerally eerie “On The Wrong Side of Relaxation” from his 1989 Moss Side Story, which asks the question: What if Dean Hurley and David Lynch’s The Air is On Fire exhibition soundscape featured Diamanda Galás? Finally, Witch is dominated by the minimalist clicks and high-pitched stringed whines of Mica Levi’s “Lipstick to Void” from Jonathan Glazer’s sexual dread-a-palooza Under the Skin.
I’ll admit, just those three songs are like catnip to me, as if the soundscapes were planned to satisfy me and me alone. I mean, Peter Murphy! Barry Adamson! Fantasies of Scarlett Johansson luring men into her abyss pool where they turn into paper skin! And this illustrates a larger point: Of course, I fell all over myself about the exhibition as it features just about everything I like! Hell. There were several instances I dreamed of acting out, genuflecting and kissing the hem of Leigh Bowery’s long dramatic emerald green and ruby red cape on display. It’s not as if I didn’t anticipate my own fanaticism. I took a pilgrimage to London specifically for this show! Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are clearly like minds and kindred spirits, particularly in their close work with my beloved Nick Cave, including the film 20,000 Days on Earth and the more recent audiobook for Faith, Hope and Carnage. I even spotted Iain and Jane from afar heading towards the Museum of London Docklands surely going to visit the historically morbid Executions exhibition that I had just left. I now regret not storming after them and blurting out something embarrassingly fawning about The Horror Show! Sorry!
Yet, despite my slobbering admiration for The Horror Show! and desire to sit in it all day just to watch Dick Jewell’s Nelson Sullivan-esque video of glorious and glamorous self-fashioned beasts stomping down the stairs of Kinky Gerlinky over and over again, I won’t go so far as to say the exhibition is without any flaws. My main hang-up is the impact of HIV/AIDS could have factored much more prominently. I mean, why do you think there were so many ghostly themes in the late 1980s and 1990s? Couldn’t be that a whole community was dying! In fact, it could be argued that the scariest horror film of that era was the AIDS Monolith public service announcement. Kicking off with an explosion and an alarming industrial soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place on Adamson’s Moss Side Story, John Hurt in voiceover foretells the spread of the virus: “If you ignore it, it could be the death of you!” With fatalistic flyers reading, “AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance,” bells toll and lilies are tossed unceremoniously on a grave. In just under a minute, the Monolith PSA frighteningly linked sex and death in the minds of a generation. A shame that this PSA was not screened in the show itself!
This is not to say AIDS is ignored completely. The ravages of the virus are featured most prominently through the screening of Derek Jarman’s Blue, which I’ve come to consider his greatest work after watching it, enamored and alone, in The Horror Show!. With a large couch placed a bit too close to the screen in Somerset House, it was as if I was being sucked into Jarman’s great Yves Klein blue beyond—like Gide’s blue skies—as his voiceover muses about color, illness, and death. “Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits,” Jarman says.
Though I have a tendency to harp on the representation of HIV/AIDS, I don’t consider the limited engagement with the AIDS pandemic completely detrimental to the exhibition. With a show this expansive and ambitious, there are bound to be gaps. The scale of the show makes viewers’ individual takeaways a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story anyway. So many niche details and narrative threads to be yanked on I assume each person leaves with their own lingering thoughts. For instance, speaking of Jarman, I was struck by how his presence or, as with Blue, physical absence pervades all three acts of the show. Besides his own film, it’s impossible to see Jordan without reminiscing about her memorable role as Amyl Nitrate in Jarman’s 1978 dystopian punk fairytale Jubilee. And a copy of Austin Osman Spare’s The Book of Pleasure sits in a vitrine within Witch, a gift from Jarman to Coil’s John Balance that was, then, regifted to his fellow bandmate Ossian Brown.
Unsurprisingly in terms of thematic obsessions, I was particularly tickled by the curators’ overtures to camp, which is—or should be—integral to horror. Even the most grotesque slasher films require a certain over-the-top too-muchness. And frankly, the more camp the better, which is why hagsploitation films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and their progeny such as Pearl are some of my most cherished. The curators clearly know this too and ignored the art world push for self-serious curation. Instead, they embrace the darkly comedic, from alien Juno Calypso vamping in a heart-shaped tub to David Shrigley’s taxidermy cat activist holding up a scrawled sign stating, “I’m Dead” to Kerry Stewart’s startling The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You, with a Damien-like child staring menacingly into the door’s window just begging to invited into John Waters’s art collection. Camp also provides an explanation for the most shocking inclusion: the sudden appearance of George Michael’s video “Freeek!” with its dial-up intro and delightfully hokey Blade Runner futurism in the multi-monitored video install based on Ghostwatch, alongside Tricky, Portishead, Prodigy, and Aphex Twin.
Though there are countless angles to take on the show, the one consistent element is the way in which fact and fiction, cinematic monsters and real ones, blur and become indiscernible. Sometimes this occurs within individual projects as seen in posters from Richard Littler’s perpetual 1970s time-warp town Scarfolk and lyrics from The Eccentronic Research Council’s 1612 Underture, an electro poem based on real executed witches, including “Ghost of Old Lizzy Southerns Returns” who spits: “Curse the genitals of James Potts—they were shriveled then, they’ll certainly be shriveled now.” On this collision course of fantasy and reality, The Guardian in their review of the exhibition went so far as to assert: “There is another Britain, this exhibition convinces you, that exists only as a web of imagination, a phantom realm that defies the reality of the everyday like a ghost channel taking over your TV.” Though Britain pales in comparison to the United States as the land of make-believe, horror as a passageway to traverse the real and the imagined, as well as an escape hatch from the more oppressive or, at the very least, mundane parts of the real, is one of the most rewarding parts of the exhibition, an idea that stuck with me long after.
Perhaps it has something to do with the final installation—a decompression area of sorts that not so much relaxes as unsettles. After wandering past Tai Shani’s The Neon Hieroglyph, which, draped in charms, looks like it came straight out of Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, viewers enter a dark red room, only to be enveloped by the sonic fright of Gazelle Twin’s aural installation, We Wax. We Shall Not Wane. Women scream, chant, and howl, while the platform in the center of the room, on which viewers can sit, rumbles with the bass. I immediately thought of the final incantation of Robert Eggers’s The Witch, which wasn’t too far off as the label revealed the sound install sampled 1591’s Healing Charm by Anges Sampson who was one of the first women to be executed under the witchcraft act.
Like Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, levitation would not have been an overreaction to The Horror Show! as I felt—and continue to feel—completely enlivened by its conception and curation. Some of this has to do with the absolutely exhausting boredom and curatorial laziness that defines most group exhibitions nowadays. Most curators, it seems to me, value safety and inoffense over pushing boundaries or *gasp* coming up with something new. Because of this, major group shows can typically be broken down into three categories: by medium, by artistic movement, or by everyone’s current favorite, identity. I don’t even have to reach too far in my memory for examples to illustrate this point. On the same trip to London, I visited the Hayward Gallery’s Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art and The Design Museum’s Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design, 1924-Today. While I enjoyed both shows and there was some overlap, including the presence of Lindsey Mendick‘s joyfully infested ceramics, these are not exactly bold, revolutionary curatorial ideas we’re working with here.
In contrast, I find myself continuously returning to the possibility of analyzing culture through the lens of horror. In fact, I keep mulling over what an American version of The Horror Show! would look like. Certainly, a sister show on this side of the Atlantic should be mounted at some point. I volunteer to help curate! But my own fixation on America aside and glee at organizing an entire section based on backwoods menaces like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I left Somerset House not only floored by a new means of interpretation, but introduced to a lengthy recommended reading, listening, and viewing list, including some more recent horror like the bloodlust pregnancy craving of Prevenge.
And really, what more could you ask for from an exhibition?!