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By James Whittington, Sunday 13th March 2011
Doctor Karen Oughton is a multi talented woman. A film journalist, lecturer, broadcaster, researcher and PR advisor she is also a lifelong horror fan. Here she talks about her passion for horror and how talking the terrifying with seasoned scream fans and friends new to the fray, has changed her career.
HC: Can you recall the first horror movie you saw?
KO: I think it was The Watcher In The Woods. There are some terrifically spooky scenes and a giant church bell falls on another girl called Karen. I was terrified - and haven't gone near a bell since!
HC: Why do you think horror movies captured your attention so much?
KO: Because I'm interested in extremes of emotion, from excitement to fear and the process of catharsis. I can't think of another genre that can provoke such extreme and varied visceral reactions. A good horror film blows everything else in the world - all other thought - away. I like to understand how different types of horror film do that and go to that terrible/wonderful headspace where all that exists is pure gut emotion. You access that by understanding it and learning to go with the feeling. It's like learning how to savour a taste on your tongue. Of course, it helps that despite my taste in horror I still get scared by the films - I even screamed in a screening before presenting a Q+A session for a film I'd seen multiple times as I presented an audio-commentary for it.
HC: You incorporated Halloween and Dracula into your PhD, why these movies in particular?
KO: I was interested in the idea of the monster - what it is, who makes it and how we react to it when we inevitably realise it either is us or somehow reflects us. Halloween shows us a supposedly human monster and how extreme emotion or thought can make it/us powerful or cause it to do things - particularly if that aspect of us can hide inside a mask. Dracula, on the other hand, is about how we enjoy the permission that being a monster gives us to be bad!
HC: How did you start writing professionally about horror movies?
KO: Well, I've always loved horror (my dad was a Video Nasties purveyor back in the day) and after getting a little too 'into' a Q&A session at a film festival I was asked to contribute a full-length audio commentary and a few marketing materials to Robert Angelo Masciantonio's film, Neighbor (released by Lionsgate). After that I wrote to a few places with my portfolio and as people seemed to like what I do, it went from there - I'd been buried in my studies until then. I've since written for Fangoria, Little White Lies, Scream: The Horror Magazine, Gorezone and the FrightFest e-Magazine, amongst others. I really love doing it.
HC: You’re a person of many talents, not only a journalist but also appeared on radio, present film festival Q+A sessions and moderate the FrightFest forum. What is it about horror that drives you to do so many things?
KO: Horror sometimes gets a bad rap. I use different media as I want to share my enthusiasm about what horror can do with different audiences. I want to get rid of the idea that horror films can only be enjoyed in certain ways, as though the films are just silly, just sick or just plain bad, which I think is largely rubbish. You can have shocks, sexyness, sillyness, excitement and sometimes profound sadness in the same film (such as The New York Ripper)! A well-written article can persuade people to trust the writer enough to watch a film they talk about or think of it in a new way, while a fun and funky presentation (I trained as an actress) or radio interview might appeal to people who wouldn't nornally watch horror films. Horror does something very primal to us and knowing how it works helps to enjoy it more.
HC: Your day job is as a teacher of film studies, do you incorporate horror movies often into this subject?
KO: Oh yeah! *beams manically* I've used The Shining, Child's Play, A Clockwork Orange and The Blair Witch Project to teach technical things like camera angles and have just finished a lecture on censorship. The latter came courtesy of A Serbian Film, I Spit on Your Grave and Nucleaus Films' Video Nasties, Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape documentary. I'm not trying to convert my students to my wicked ways (honest!), but it is impotant that everyone understands what power censorship has in our lives. I don't care what they or anyone else thinks about it as long as they have a reason for it. But I won't lie - I am always over the moon when a student does their assessment on scary movies!
HC: When you tell people about your love of horror how do they react?
KO: They're stunned. I am just over 5 feet tall, petite and a rather baby-faced ball of energy. People often don't believe I'm a horror nut until I go into detail on what I like as I simply don't fit the 'horror fan' stereotype - particularly considering that I like the more extreme fare. The sexier and more sadistic, the better!
HC: Why do you think this genre appeals to more women more than ever before?
KO: I think it's partly about the dreaded women's lib! We get chance to think of ourselves in these powerful roles or think about things that are not associated with what society says girls should think. It's a release and a chance to experiment. Other than that, there are some fantastic films and it's becoming more socially acceptable to 'admit' liking them (thank you, Oscars committee, for Black Swan).
HC: In your opinion is it getting easier form women to be taken seriously in the horror industry?
KO: Honestly? No! Not really in a meaningful way. There is a perception that it's a boy's club and I think that's partly why I got my first commisions - sheer novelty value, with any understanding of the genre an added bonus. There is a lot of sexism out there and it's not lads' mag 'funny' when it stops new talent coming through. The only way women can be taken more seriously is to prove ourselves, as is only right. But it's not just down to us - if the guys are true horror fans, rather than 'just' business men, they'll see that the genre has more chance of evolving with more diverse people working in it. We have always had wonderful scream queens, but we need to make sure we're helping develop the genre behind the cameras as well as in front of them. Horror isn't meant to play safe, after all.
HC: Do you think that horror movies now give a fair representation of females as few have the clichéd “female victim” character unless of course they’re being ironic a la Scream movies and the like?
KO: Tricky one as so much depends on the actress. One decently scripted remake died in terrible pain recently because (barring one good scene) the actor forgot to act when she opened her mouth. It's a tall order to tell a block of wood to act like a real girl.
HC: What’s your favourite horror movie and why?
KO: I genuinely can't decide. A Serbian Film and Fulci's The New York Ripper for their mixture of sadism, eroticism and sadness, the rather obscure Beautiful Girl Hunter for being utterly cruel and calculated (I love the scene with the public speaker) and The Haunting for its wonderful atmosphere.
HC: What other projects have you got lined up?
KO: Well, I have a number of article commissions due in. Aside from that, I'm working on a book, a possible film project and my teaching.
HC: Doctor Karen Oughton, thank you very much.
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