NCA Preconference Call

NCA Preconference Call

Our (Monstrous) Legacies, Our (Cultural) Relevancies: Exploring the Significance of Monstrosity, Horror, and Otherness for Communication Studies

Organizers: Bernadette Marie Calafell, University of Denver and Kendall Phillips, Syracuse University

Lead Scholars
Bernadette Marie Calafell, University of Denver
Benny LeMaster, California State University, Long Beach
Marina Levina, University of Memphis
Casey Ryan Kelly, University of Nebraska
Kendall Phillips, Syracuse University
Claire Sisco King, Vanderbilt University

Recent years have seen the steady growth of scholarship in Communication Studies centered on unpacking the cultural relevance and persuasive strategies of horror films and television shows (Phillips, 2005, 2012; Sisco King, 2007; 2010; Levina & Diem-my, 2013; LeMaster, 2011; Means Coleman, 2011; Greene & Meyer, 2014, Lacy, 2015; Cady & Oates, 2016; Kelly, 2016, 2017; Abdi & Calafell, 2017). Simultaneously, another body of scholarship that focuses on monstrosity as a key term has also emerged as a frame for understanding social anxieties around Otherness (Moreman & Calafell, 2008; Juarez, 2014; Al-Ghabra, 2015; Calafell, 2012, 2015; Levina & Diem-my Bui, 2013; Holman Jones & Harris, 2016). This scholarship has contributed to and extended the interdisciplinary study of monsters by scholars, such as Cohen (1996), Gelder (2000), Creed (2002); Williams (2002), Clover (2002), Carroll (2002), Tudor (2002), Wood (2002), Ramirez-Berg (2012), Poole (2011), and Benshoff (1997; 2017).

Taking a historical perspective, Poole (2011) argues that monsters emerge in relationship to key historical events or moments. For example, giant creatures of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Godzilla or Mothra correlated with rising cultural anxieties surrounding the atomic bomb. Furthermore, Phillips (2005) unpacks the rhetorical significance of horror films in the twentieth century to consider how they reflect controversies of the historical moment. He argues Dracula reflected concerns and struggles over sexual norms, immigrants, religion, science, and economic conditions. In a later project, Phillips (2012) critically examines, through an auteur perspective, the work of directors Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and George Romero to unpack central themes around race, consumption, security, and class in films of each director as they relate to different cultural moments.
Other scholars, like Clover (2002), Creed (2002), Sisco King (2007), Calafell (2015), Kelly (2016), and Al-Ghabra (2015), further intercede in this dialogue to unpack the role of gender in horror films and television shows. Traditionally, women have been the victims of violence in horror. Williams (2002) pushes scholars to the consider the relationship of the female spectator to horror. Briefel (2005) argues that male monsters are connected to masochism, while female monsters are linked to menstruation, which causes audience members to feel “an uncomfortable close relationship to the female monster” (p. 16). Clover (2002) developed the term final girl to describe the female who survives the horror film and defeats the monster. She exhibits masculine traits and is often asexual. These characteristics allow her to survive, while more stereotypically feminine or sexual women are killed by the monster, often in violent and gory fashions. More recently, Calafell (2015) charts the move toward a critique of post-feminism in the films American Mary and The Lords of Salem against rising turns to nostalgia for the gender and racial norms of the 1950s and 1960s.

Just as horror has centered a masculine persona, it has also privileged narratives that support whiteness both ideologically, and in terms of racialized bodies. This has occurred through consistently white hero figures, killing off characters of color early on, and showcasing monsters that reflect themes of Otherness. Against these traditions, Means Coleman (2011) offers a history of horror through the lens of Blackness, charting representations of Black characters and monsters in horror films. Similarly, Lacy (2015) considers the Frankenstein’s monster narrative through Blackness. Benshoff (1997) and Sisco King (2010) examine the relationship between sexuality and monstrosity in horror films, while Holman Jones and Harris (2016) explore the queer potential of the monstrous. Offering a perspective of the monstrous feminine that moves away from Creed (2002) and the dominant tradition of psychoanalysis, Abdi and Calafell (2017) critically examine the Iranian Spaghetti Western, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, made by Iranian American director Ana Lily Amirpour to demonstrate how the film employs the frames of monstrous feminists and queer utopias to imagine possibilities for transnational feminist agency.

Monster theory, which is closely related to horror, utilizes monstrosity as a frame to theorize Otherness. Cohen (1996) offers seven theories of monster culture, including that the monster’s body is a “cultural space,” the monster brings category crisis, the monster dwells within difference, and the fear of the monster is connected to desire. This work has been influential in recent work, including Calafell (2015), which uses the trope to examine both horror texts, as well as performances of monstrosity in everyday life through studies of women of color in the academy, Kanye West, and the Aurora shooter James Holmes. This work demonstrates how monstrosity can be a space of agency and resistance for historically marginalized communities, and can be used as a trope to name destructive and violent forms of whiteness. For example, Dubrofsky (2016) draws upon Calafell’s (2015) work to consider the role of the monstrosity of whiteness in performances and rhetoric by then presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Given the contributions of scholarship on horror and monstrosity historically, its importance at this cultural moment, as well as the shift in popular culture toward monsters (i.e. Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, Kanye West’s uses of monstrosity, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Get Out, Black Mirror), it is a ripe time for us as Communication scholars to consider our legacy and our relevance in relationship to horror and monstrosity. As Communication scholars, we should ask: What unique contributions or theoretical frames can we offer to the study of horror and monstrosity? How do we constitute text in our study of horror and monstrosity? What unique methodologies might we employ to critically examine monstrosity (i.e. performative writing, autoethnograpy, archival research, intersectional critique)?

This day long preconference is organized around the following questions:

• What unique contributions or theoretical frames can we, as Communication scholars, offer to the study of horror and monstrosity?

• How do we constitute text in our study of horror and monstrosity? What unique methodologies might we employ to critically examine monstrosity (i.e. performative writing, autoethnograpy, archival research, intersectional critique)?

• What are the meanings around Otherness that emerged in representations of monstrosity in this contemporary political and cultural moment?

• How can we re-examine and re-visit historical moments through the lens of monstrosity to consider new ways of understanding? What new readings might be explored in the history of horror films?

• What are important future developments or directions that are emerging in the study of horror and monstrosity?

We would solicit short proposals (2-3 pages) from scholars interested in participating that speak to one of the questions listed above by August 15th, 2017. These proposals should be sent to Bernadette Calafell at Bernadette.Calafell@du.edu. We will organize the preconference thematically around these questions, allowing for scholars to present their work and receive feedback from other participants and the seminar leaders. Potential participants should indicate which question or theme they are interested in exploring. Rather than inviting lead scholars to present their scholarship while participants who sign up for the preconference serve as observers and questioners, as is often the tradition, we democratically would like to create an opportunity for both scholars new to the field, as well as those already immersed, to workshop their ideas. Ideally, participants would send a short paper (approximately 8-10 pages) to the seminar leaders before the convention. We encourage involvement from graduate students as well as scholars who would like to participate, but not present research.

It is our hope that this preconference will go beyond the conference through syllabus sharing, as well as the potential for collaboration through publication, such as an edited volume or special issue in a journal.