The Zombies Are Still In There

December 3, 2012—When it comes to creepy kids, mythical creatures, and zombie attacks, Georgetown has no better expert than Assistant English Professor Caetlin Benson-Allott. In her upcoming book about American horror movies, Benson-Allott shows that the genre and video technology have evolved together.

A core faculty member in the Film and Media Studies Program, which she helped launch after coming to Georgetown three years ago, Benson-Allott is a longtime fan of scary cinema. She first became interested in horror films as a teenager, when she discovered Leprechaun (1993) and watched it to unwind from cramming for the SAT.

“I think that was when I realized, ‘Wow, horror movies express all kinds of social anxieties for us,’” Benson-Allott recalled. “It was later on that I came to think that horror movies express not just metaphors for the viewer but also metaphors about the state of the industry. That is what my book is about.”

Benson-Allott was inspired to write Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing when she first saw The Ring in 2002.

“I was screaming in the theater like everybody else, and I went home and thought, ‘What a strange thing—to be afraid of a video tape,’” Benson-Allott said. “And then maybe a month or two later, I rented Dawn of the Dead on VHS and I watched it at home alone, scared myself to pieces, rewound the tape, took it out and thought, ‘Oh my god, the zombies are still in there. I need to get this tape out of my house or they’re going to kill me.’

“That was when I started realizing that we have really weird relationships to our cassettes and our disks and our hard drives,” she said.

According to Benson-Allott, The Ring represents a philosophical shift on the part of big American movie studios. At the time of its release, studios had just begun to endorse DVD technology over VHS and were hoping that the film—about a child who kills people after they watch a cursed cassette tape—would scare consumers into giving up cassettes.

This transition from VHS to DVD figured heavily into Benson-Allott’s research for her book. After watching hundreds of horror movies, she concluded that whenever there is change in video technology, there is also change in how directors depict horror and in how audiences respond.

She believes the phenomenon is best observed in the works of director George Romero, who tends to build suspense according to what mediums are popular.

“In Night of the Living Dead, which came out in 1968 and everyone would’ve seen at a movie theater or drive-in, the zombies attack in these really deep-focus long shots, where you see them coming from the other end of the field, and you have to wait and wait as this body gets closer and closer,” said Benson-Allott. “In 1985, he makes Day of the Dead for a VHS crowd. In that movie the zombies are out of focus, so you have this very blurry background when all of a sudden the focus shifts and a zombie pops up.

“[But] cathode ray televisions and VHS cassettes don’t have the kind of resolution to do those really long shots that he did in Night of the Living Dead,” she continued. “So, he changed his art for the platform that people were going to see it on.”

With Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens all but finished, Benson-Allott is already working on her next project, Closer Than They Appear: Automotive Effects in American Film. This book will combine two of her passions: the history of special effects and stunt work, currently her “favorite thing to research,” and 1970s American cinema, which is her favorite subject to teach.

“I’m interested in the car movie cycles of the 1970s and the 21st century, and the way those different crashes and chases and collisions produced different visual and political metaphors,” Benson-Allott said. “The ’70s was this weird economic period when studios were willing to try just about anything to find new viewers, so you got this kind of creative flourishing that I don’t know if we’ve seen since.”

—Brittany Coombs