Mapping Urban Horror

Of all popular film genres, horror perhaps makes the most consistent and flexible use of space. This use maps out landscapes of power, repression, and displacement. In this Polished Panel, the participants propose to use horror as a map of gentrification and its spectre of racialized violence.

This panel explores how horror cinema “takes place” in urban environments. Horror not only records these urban settings, but often reimagines them in order to produce a haunted and/or counter-history of the development of cities. Our panel’s focus on urbanity serves as a critical response to many of the horror-themed panels from the 2015 SCMS conference in Montreal, where either the urban settings of the films were not fully theorized (“Impenetrable: Surface reading of Under the Skin”) or the panel focused exclusively on the natural world (“Horror and the Aesthetics of Landscape”). But how does abjection course through our most populated and constructed spaces—through urban transportation networks, sewage systems, tourist industries, and market economies? How does horror map the contradictions inherent in urbanization, and expose the tangled relationship between cities and their inhabitants?

If only we had a map. Current scholarship on urbanity has had to confront the slippery indexicality of cinema, and since Jameson, mapping has been considered either an impossible task or a delusional form of mastery. But horror’s continued investment in urban spaces requires us to rethink the potential for films to map cities. The second aim of this panel, then, is to consider how, if at all, mapping might provide other, not strictly topographic, models for understanding the ways we have internalized urban spaces.

To grasp horror’s investment in mapping urban precarity and renewal, this panel focuses on different cinematic representations of urban gentrification and its haunting specter of racialized violence. Andrew Scahill uses The Exorcist (1973) to map the removal of African Americans from Georgetown in the 1940s as a form of political exorcism. Zachary Price explores Detroit’s post-industrial production crisis through Only Lovers Left Alive’s (2013) notion of musical vampirism. Lorrie Palmer looks at Candyman’s (1992) use of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects to map urban precarity onto the psyche. Together, these presentations explore how horror cinema takes place in urban settings but also makes space for genealogies of urban dislocation.


Lorrie Palmer – Chicago’s Bloody Baths: Candyman and the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects

In his 1987 Chicago Reader article, “They Came In Through the Bathroom Mirror: A Murder in the Projects,” Steven Bogira describes the death of 52-year-old resident, Ruthie Mae McCoy, whose killers took advantage of an architectural design flaw to access her apartment. There was no wall behind each unit’s bathroom mirror so, when Ruthie frantically called the police and told the dispatcher that “they throwed the cabinet down,” she was living a moment upon which the urban horror film is built: the violent transgression of the boundary between self and other as life and death played out through the dissolution of the boundary between interior and exterior spaces. This real-world design flaw in Chicago public housing found its way into Bernard Rose’s fictional horror film, Candyman (1992), set in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects. In the film, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a white female graduate student researching the urban legend at that site of the violent, hook-handed ghost of a murdered 19th century ex-slave. A talented artist, Daniel Robitaille, was commissioned by a wealthy white landowner to paint a portrait of his daughter who, upon discovering that they had become lovers, ordered him brutally murdered. In the present day, the Candyman’s art morphs into the graffiti that Helen excavates inside the abandoned interiors of the buildings even as the site’s most miserable spaces—notably, public and private toilets and bathrooms (including the removable mirrored cabinet between units)—become the virtual and violated “body” of the projects, its eyes, mouth, and face.

This paper will examine the specific geographies of Candyman’s urban horror aesthetic in which the intersecting networks of art and architecture are mapped onscreen not just in those spaces of traditional discourses around public housing (hallways, elevators, cinder-block apartments) but in the interior spaces of vulnerability, exposure, bodily abjection, waste, sewage, and distorted reflection. The transgression in the film of the most private of interior spaces literally bleeds over from the African-American housing projects into Chicago’s Gold Coast—where Helen lives—painting red the domestic spaces of the Candyman’s subsequent victims once Helen summons him by saying his name into her bathroom mirror, imagining only a successful thesis rather than a blood bath. The urban horror genre draws boundaries across the body, the psyche, and space itself. By crashing through these boundaries at the site of public housing—more specifically, at the literal crossing point between real and fictional bathroom mirrors—Candyman does not simply delineates its self/other spaces with the freeways that bisect the topography of the city. It simultaneously draws and crosses these boundaries with the underground networks of effluvia that animate the “body” of the slasher, the white grad student, their combined victims, and the public housing projects of Cabrini-Green itself.

Zachary Price – Echolocation and Soundscapes in Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) plays like a city symphony of Detroit, in which Adam, a vampire, travels through the city’s streets at night, taking in the sites to the accompaniment of a soundtrack produced and performed by director Jim Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. The soundtrack, with songs such as “Streets of Detroit,” anchors the movie in a specific geography, but also questions what it means for sound to emanate from a place, especially since sound in the movie often breaks free from its original source. Adam’s musical vampirism provides a way to examine this after-life of sound, to trace what happens after sound has been consumed by an audience and returns as an echo.

This paper will track the different musical echoes in Only Lovers, from composer to consumer, in order to sketch a map of Detroit different from the well-documented deterioration of its automobile industry. In 2013, Detroit became the largest city in the US to file for bankruptcy, and a national rhetoric that painted Detroit as a parasite on the country convinced legislators and investors that the city was doomed to ruin, further justifying the lack of resources sent to support it. In Only Lovers, however, mapping Detroit sonically reveals the overcrowded music clubs hidden in the basements of vacant apartment buildings and exposes the vibrant barter systems outside of Detroit’s recognized cash economies. Detroit’s overconsumption, here in terms of its musical consumption, is exactly what gives the city the potential for continued survival.

If Walter Benjamin’s walk through the arcades of Paris was telling for how modern industrialism and its material productions have changed the way we see the world, Only Lovers’ vampiric flânerie shows how Detroit’s post-industrialism and its vacant material infrastructure have changed the way we hear and synchronize with the world. In urban wastelands such as Detroit, normal modes of production have stopped and inhabitants are sometimes literally left without water—but the vampire, often an overdetermined figure of pure consumption, provides a strategy for urban renewal that embraces universal parasitism. Only Lovers maps abjection onto the ruined city of Detroit and the figure of the vampire who stalks it, but it argues through these echoes of former cities and former lives that abjection may provide a necessary model for living in post-industrial times.

Andrew Scahill – Our Lady of Gentrification: The Exorcist, Washington, D.C., and Black Displacement

With its release in 1973, The Exorcist (1973) was accompanied by reports of psychological and physical maladies from its audience: nightmares, blackouts, panic attacks, seizures, vomiting, urination, and even miscarriages were all attributed to the visceral experience of the film. It also touched off a fundamentalist fervor in Catholic and Pentecostal circles, as renewed requests for exorcisms and clerical intervention demonstrated that the film served as more than entertainment for a segment of its audience—it was rather more like an encounter with Satan himself.
Indeed, The Exorcist was as much an experience with horror as it was a narrative of horror. What, then, was so horrific and impactful about this film? The text has been addressed from a number of critical angles, though to date few have addressed the racial dimensions of the film within a very turbulent decade, and none has considered this a film specifically about Washington, D.C. As I argue, The Exorcist is intrinsically about the white, upper class Catholic neighborhood of Georgetown, which was an exclusively African-American neighborhood until the 1940s. By 1973, barely a trace of the once-vibrant black community was left. For this panel on “Mapping Urban Horror,” I argue that The Exorcist, deeply beholden to notions of purity and pollution, offers up gentrification as a type of exorcism, with the white body politic hanging in the balance.

This piece is part textual analysis, part cultural history. It reads two narratives of expulsion side-by-side: the first, the exorcism of a foreign demon from a young white girl’s body; the second, the systematic removal of African-Americans from Georgetown to create an all-white enclave. Indeed, rebellion haunts both narratives: The Exorcist is released amid a 1970s expansion of the federal government in which entire black neighborhoods in D.C. were displaced, leading to a renter’s revolt in 1978. Using theories of purity, pollution, and abjection from the likes of Mary Douglas and Barbara Creed, cultural studies examinations of urban space and gentrification, and historical accounts of black Washington, D.C., this presentation will provide new critical insight into a rich and deeply influential text.
Respondent and Panelist Biographies

Respondent Caetlin Benson-Allott is Director and Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (University of California Press, 2013) and Remote Control (Bloomsbury Press, January 2015). She is an ex-officio member of the SCMS Board of Directors and Secretary of the Modern Language Association’s Screen Arts and Culture Forum.

Lorrie Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Towson University. Her teaching and research includes film genres, popular culture, and film history as well as topics in race, gender, and sexuality in film and television. She has published and conferenced on sci-fi/fantasy television (Sarah Connor Chronicles, Angel, Supernatural) and on the intersections of genre, gender, race, technology, and urban space. Her work appears in Cinema Journal, Velvet Light Trap, Jump Cut, Film & History, Senses of Cinema, Pop Matters, Camera Obscura, and in several anthologies.

Zachary Price is a graduate student in the English department at Cornell University. His research focuses on the intersection of contemporary horror films and queer theory. His work in Horror Studies examines body manipulation in Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In.

Andrew Scahill is an Assistant Professor in the English department at Salisbury University and co-editor of the journal Literature/Film Quarterly. He was previously a Lecturer at Georgetown University. His second book, The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema: Youth Rebellion and Queer Spectatorship, examines the figure of the child-as-monster in horror cinema as a metaphor for queer youth. His next book, Washington, D.C.: The Movie, will examine the cinematic representation of the District.


Panel and Panelist Bibliographies

mapping urban horror bibliographies

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