(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

Scholar of scares

Adam Lowenstein, AM’94, PhD’99, reconsiders the role of “the other” in horror. 

Adam Lowenstein, AM’94, PhD’99, a professor of film and media studies at the University of Pittsburgh, lives in the city where famed horror director George A. Romero launched the revolutionary Living Dead zombie franchise. Lowenstein, long influenced by Romero’s social commentary, describes how the horror genre treats notions of normality and the “monstrous other” in his most recent book, Horror Film and Otherness (Columbia University Press, 2022). His comments have been edited and condensed. 

What film most inspired you to pursue horror studies?

There were many that had a deep impact on me, but Night of the Living Dead (1968) stands out because I screened it at my bar mitzvah party when I was 13. To this day, I have friends who have never forgiven me for assuming that they would enjoy it as much as I did.

What’s your favorite Romero film?

Martin (1978) really is my favorite—it feels like a perfect balance between Romero’s two creative impulses. He’s a master of the fantastic, fictional, and supernatural; he’s also a very keen and sensitive social documentarian. Martin was filmed in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a struggling steel mill town outside Pittsburgh, and the movie is at least as much about economic struggles as it is about a vampire. Romero finds a way to meld those two things so perfectly that you feel almost magically guided to the insight that it’s not the vampire that threatens Braddock—it’s the economic collapse that’s vampirized this community. Romero is able to do this, not in a pedantic or heavy-handed way, but by loving the place and the vampire and inviting us to do the same.

What current filmmaker might you consider a spiritual descendant of Romero?

The groundbreaking work Jordan Peele has done is very much in the footsteps of Romero. The idea that race can count in a horror film is certainly something that Romero opened up in Night of the Living Dead, with Duane Jones as the rare African American lead at the time, but even more emphatically with the five sequels. Each one is a remarkable revision of the original.

You serve on the board of directors of the George A. Romero Foundation. How did the organization come to be?

I received a fellowship in 2017 from Pitt’s Humanities Center geared toward helping Pitt and Pittsburgh celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Night of the Living Dead. George Romero was excited to come back to Pittsburgh; he was living in Toronto by then. But before the commemoration, Romero passed away.

The whole city really pulled together to make this celebration about more than the film, to honor Romero and his contributions to the city and its history and its creative industries. Romero’s widow, Suze, spearheaded the idea of the foundation, dedicated to preserving his legacy and offering opportunities to students and up-and-coming filmmakers to expand horror as a socially conscious genre in the way that Romero trailblazed.

What role does horror play in social justice?

As much as we may want to imagine the cause of social justice as good or bad, progressive or reactionary, with us or against us—it doesn’t work that way in the world. Social justice gets established and grows through hard work over long periods, through all kinds of unlikely alliances and partnerships, negotiations and compromises. Horror films are an honest and realistic forum in which to imagine how social justice in the real world might work—it’s going to be flawed and messy, and it’s sometimes going to look exactly the opposite of what we’re hoping for. Horror knows about otherness, social marginalization, suffering, and trauma. These are the things we have to understand to figure out how to advance social justice as a lived reality rather than a conceptual one.

In Horror Film and Otherness, you ask, “What happens when horror comes home?” What spurred that question and led to this project? 

I had written chapters and essays for journals and anthologies but never imagined there might be a book there. But shortly after the Night of the Living Dead celebration, Pittsburgh experienced the horrific anti-Semitic killings at the Tree of Life synagogue. In the wake of it, I felt compelled to look again at that earlier work and to think about the connections between Romero and the film and Pittsburgh and the terrorist attack. And with my own Jewishness, frankly. The killings hit home in a very intimate and personal way, and I needed a way to speak more directly and emphatically to what it all meant to me.

You write about “transformative otherness.” What does that mean?

Prominent horror scholar Robin Wood asserted that you can divide the genre: progressive on one side and reactionary on the other, normality on one side and monstrosity on the other. But my experience, especially in the classroom, is that horror films don’t work this way. The moments that might feel most progressive can transform very quickly into moments that feel reactionary. Something closer to the truth is that transformation itself is the constant. The concept of transformative otherness is this idea that horror films are providing a transformational and metamorphosis-based experience.

How has indie filmmaking changed the horror landscape?

One of my past graduate students helped me see that women working in horror—while making long-overdue strides in landing feature films—really thrive in short film. There’s this whole network of female-made horror film festivals that gives women filmmakers the opportunity to learn from each other and to build communities within the male-dominated feature film industry. Some of those women go on to make feature-length horror films, but there’s a world of short films circulating that deserves wider exposure.

How does international horror influence American horror making?

There’s a growing sense that the old ways of imagining horror as Anglo-American focused is being challenged in profound ways. As important and influential as the Anglo-American tradition has been, it’s not by a long shot the only way to think about horror having deep roots, long histories, iconic figures, recognizable discourses, trends, and waves of popularity. Global horror studies is changing our sense of what counts as a central versus a marginal horror tradition, pointing toward the conclusion that it’s all central, and that these traditions speak to each other.

What’s next?

After finishing Horror Film and Otherness, I had a feeling like there was some unfinished business. With horror, nothing is ever at rest. Everything is at least undead. But there was something about Jewish otherness that kept speaking to me. The book I’m working on now, tentatively titled “The Jewish Horror Film: Taboo and Redemption,” focuses on these questions: What is a Jewish horror film? Is there a definition of Jewish horror? Or is it a sort of provocation to talk about things that haven’t received the attention they might deserve—or about histories that we thought we understood? 

Does studying horror change your enjoyment of it?

For me, it’s never worked that way. The enjoyment and the analysis are so intimately intertwined that I don’t see one as getting in the way of the other. The films that touch me on the deepest level are also the ones that scream out for my analysis—sometimes quite literally.