Andrew J. Owens explores the queer occult in his new book, Desire After Dark
Writer Andrew J. Owens’ new book, Desire After Dark: Contemporary Queer Cultures and Occultly Marvelous Media, the author “confirms how the queer has been integral to the evolution of the horror genre and its persistent popularity as both a subcultural and mainstream media form.” Looking at everything from the films of French director Jean Rollin to the gay horror soap opera Dante’s Cove, Owens’ book is an eye-opening and clever examination. Not only does the author look at less-frequently covered entertainment, Owens tackles things from unusual angles, with a lens of both a fan and an academic.
Needless to say, I quite enjoyed it, so I was happy to hop on the phone with the lecturer at the University of Iowa ahead of the start of the spring semester to discuss Desire After Dark.
Desire After Dark was originally your dissertation. When did you write it and when did you officially receive your Ph.D.?
I graduated with my Ph.D. from Northwestern in 2015 in screen cultures which is Northwestern’s term for media studies, film, television, history, that kind of thing.
I have read quite a few books over the years that have been dissertations turned into books for a wider audience, but what’s the process of taking that dissertation and then turning it into what is now Desire After Dark?
The process is interesting in that a dissertation is–as I came to learn–is very much not a hoop to jump through but it’s the last step on the path to a degree. I found in the dissertation process a lot more engaging with other people’s work, insofar as demonstrating to your committee that you know what you’re talking about and where the bodies are buried in terms of this field of scholarly literature.
I would say the biggest change from that into the book is, in the book you need to be developing your own argument–that this is your book, right?–and so I think the biggest change is that whatever that original intervention is in the project really needs to come forward really clearly in the book process.
Even as early as the proposal stage, I met with several presses about the book and all of them had the same thing to say right off the bat, which is “We don’t publish dissertations.” They need to know “How is this different, what is your argument about this thing, and why would people want to read it?”
The book is very interesting in that it is focused on essentially the last 60 years of media, specifically TV and film. Was limiting yourself to more recent pop culture just a way of not getting lost in the Gothic, given that it has almost three centuries of work from which to draw?
Originally, the project was actually intended to be a study of the Gothic in a lot of ways and its translation into film and television. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that every everything I was talking about was already Gothic so it’s kind of like, “What’s the point?” There had to be some other “there” there and so, given the fact that the Gothic comes from traditions–painting and from literature, obviously–some of the traditions that I think people are most familiar with the Gothic are really conventions that film and TV invented and that are not necessarily, at least for my money, at the fore when it comes to things Gothic literature.
I think that the Gothic in film and television really tries to amp up–obviously because it’s an audio-visual medium–the visuality of the horror. Whereas, in literature, I actually don’t think every Gothic novel is a horror story. So many of them are not supernatural. Many of them are just kind of dealing with dark houses and fucked-up families, which is cool and everything but was not necessarily my interest in this project but, certainly what the project is and the work that I do has a huge debt to the legacy.
I do find it rather intriguing, given that you are focusing on contemporary queer culture, that I had a professor once say that if you have to if you have to reduce Gothic down to a one-sentence thing it is “secrets kept hidden being revealed,” as it seems to tie very nicely into what you’re discussing.
Absolutely, because the Gothic is all about that big reveal, right? The literal skeleton in the closet.
The way the book is organized is that you’re looking at the ’60s to the ’70s, the ’70s to the ’80s, the ’80s to the ’90s, the ’90s to the oughts, and then up to more modern-day. How did you decide what your subjects were going to be for each section, given that so much changes from decade-to-decade–or was that something that made it easier for you, in that you could look at these things that were really turning points for occult media?
I tried to be strategic in that the particular case studies that I picked for the book were things that not many people had written about before or that, if they had been written about before, they were not written about in the particular way that I wanted to get out. One of the reasons, for instance, in my chapter on the ’90s I intentionally did not want to talk about Buffy because other people who are very smart and very articulate have done that 376 different ways in popular press interviews, popular press books, academic books, and in journals.
I don’t want to say Buffy’s been done to death but I wanted to give folks something new to grasp their teeth onto–not only because it would be boring for them and for me to do that but by doing that, it allows people to get a fuller picture of the fact that queer horror TV in the ’90s is not just reducible to Buffy, right? There was a lot of other things going on.
That’s one of the ways in which I parceled out the book. The other way I tried to organize it was that I tried to come up with a thing about that decade or that particular period of time that seemed really to be at issue when it came to issues not only of sexuality, but also issues of changes in media industries and also changes in horror. I tried to pinpoint to the best that I could to say, “Okay: the ’80s, in a lot of ways, was really defined by AIDS.” That had a lot to do with queer people, it had a lot to do with the film and television industries, and it had a lot to do with horror, so that seemed to be one point. Same thing in the ’90s with the revival of what folks called “new age, and we also get sort of the revival of Wicca.
I tried to bring those things out to tell people and to make my case why I think these balls that I’m juggling in the air in this book–queerness, the film and television industries, and horror–how these things coalesce at particular moments.
When you were working on this, were you tempted to add anything that had come to the forefront since you finished it as your dissertation? I’m thinking very specifically of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which is very notably queer in certain aspects of its presentation of characters.
Absolutely, I would have. That’s the thing about writing: as much as I’m a media historian, doing histories of the present is really hard, especially with TV because TV is never-ending. TV is super hard to write about in some ways because you often end up having to arbitrarily say, “This is my cutoff,” and then, inevitably, something comes along that totally contradicts your argument later on in the series. That’s why it’s good to write about shows are over.
I mean, when I finished this project in 2015 there was stuff I could have written an entire chapter about: Penny Dreadful. I adore Penny Dreadful. That show was so fucking good and when I saw that show, it hit every button that I was trying to hit in this book. I mean, I do throw it into the epilogue, but I would have given my left arm to be able to talk to John Logan because he has said in interviews–similar to the way in which Paul Colichman and his partner who own [cable network] here! have said in interviews about the show Dante’s Cove that I talk about saying, “Yes, there is a very real connection between queer folks and horror: we’re not just making that up.”
Many folks I know on horror Twitter are definitely folks who are queer or non-binary and that’s part of the appeal for them: that they can see themselves in the myriad portrayals in horror, as outward appearance is not necessarily what you are inwardly and vice versa. I’m so fascinated by this book because I’m a sucker for any sort of academic analysis of horror in particular, but any time it’s examined from a perspective that’s not standard horror fandom, I really do appreciate it. What was your background with horror and genre cinema in general? I know you don’t write a dissertation just because it’s something you think you can do. It’s obviously something for which you have a passion.
I came to media studies actually relatively late–or I should say, as a central endeavor. When I was in college I went to a really small liberal arts college and there was a film studies curriculum but it wasn’t a department. I kind of had to piecemeal I took every class that I could but I was an English major so that sort of gave me a lot of the skills that I think translate really well into doing media studies–of questions of analysis and reading and things that.
When I went to get my master’s degree–which is also in English–I had my eye set on being a Victorianist because I had always been into horror: “I’m going to write about Dracula. I’m going to write about Carmilla. I’m going to write about all this stuff.” Again, it turns out that that had been done 376 different ways by people who are much smarter than me, so I again just didn’t know that there was anything new there.
I was still in touch with my mentor in undergrad who was a film studies professor and she basically pushed me in the direction of going for a PhD in media studies as there’s a lot of obviously new ground in newer media–as compared to say, the novel–that you can cover. That’s sort of how I got to that and then, when I went to Northwestern, my advisor is very well known in the circles of exploitation and trash cinema and paracinema and sort of bad object stuff so I immediately formed a relationship with him and that’s how when I knew I wanted to write about about something related to gender and sexuality, in particular.
I kind of had my heart set initially on writing a dissertation about porn. My first published article in the journal Feminist Media Studies is about Playgirl Magazine–which there is very little academic writing on–which was which is a lot of fun to do because Northwestern oddly had in the special collection archive had the first five years of the original publication, for god knows what.
I knew I wanted to write on that but I got this advice from more people I met as I began to go to conferences and I began to meet and network with people that–especially as a graduate student and then going on the job market– was just porn is really risky to write about. I took that advice to heart and I still do write about porn in this book but it’s in a way that I got to incorporate more of my interests into this project.
Andrew J. Owens’ Desire After Dark: Contemporary Queer Cultures and Occultly Marvelous Media is out now from Indiana University Press.