Miskatonic NYC Institute of Horror Studies (the brainchild of film writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse) is about to wrap up its F/W 2018 semester tonight with The Frequency of Fear: The Power and the Glory of the Motion Picture Soundtrack, a class whose instructor is the one and only Dean Hurley, audio collaborator to David Lynch and supervising sound editor and music supervisor for the third season of cult sensation Twin Peaks. (And all around legend/genius.) T
The Brooklyn-based class is sold out, but in reading the below interview w/ Miskatonic co-runners Jacqueline Castel, a filmmaker, and Joe Yanick, co-founder of Yellow Veil Pictures, I guarantee you’ll be tantalized to check out the soon-to-be-announced 2019 programming, which runs from January thru May; if you buy a membership, it’ll allow you to attend all the classes at a discounted rate, plus you’ll get a certificate upon completion. (PRETTY RAD!)
I spoke with Yanick and Castel about their involvement, and about how horror, a perfect vehicle for social commentary, is an oft undervalued genre when it comes to academic discussion. Read up on all of that now, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for details on the 2019 lineup.
BYT: So, firstly, tell me about how you got involved with the Miskatonic project?
JY: It was founded by Kier-La Janisse, but I joined in about two years ago, before the first and second year. The original space was at Morbid Anatomy, and when Morbid Anatomy decided to close, Kier-La got a new space at the same time, and the two co-directors who were with her at the time didn’t really have it in their schedules anymore. So I came on then, and then before the end of the first year, Jacqueline was sort of always at events, and I’d say “unofficially” on in many ways.
JC: Yeah, I was kind of coming to a lot of the events, knew a lot of the people involved, and then I don’t know, I was just lending a hand and things like that, and it segued into my involvement in programming with Miskatonic.
JY: It works well, because I think there’s a solid balance of different tendencies that all three of us share, and I think we all balance off each other really well. If someone’s pushing to the avant garde side, someone else might be pushing to the more mainstream side, just bringing in different audiences each time. We’re seeing a lot of different crowds at all of our events, which is nice.
BYT: How does the programming go about getting planned? Do people pitch things to you, or is it more of an invite-only situation in terms of lecturers and topics?
JC: Yeah, we have an idea of the kinds of people we want to reach out to, or if it’s in tandem with someone releasing a book, let’s say, or if there’s going to be a major retrospective…we always keep things that are relevant to the timing in mind when we reach out to people. And a lot of it we do ourselves, but we do get people submitting things, too. You can be totally surprised by what comes in that way, and in both scenarios, you’re working to make sure all of the programming in a semester block works well, and that there’s not too much overlap. It’s all meant to have a nice flow, and we never want things to steer too much in one direction or towards one particular taste. Sometimes you might get multiple proposals from somebody, and in that event, we have to try to tailor it into what we all collectively like the most. It’s always different, though. Each person is always a little different in terms of their approach to us, or how we approach them, or the overall creative process. It varies each time.
JY: I do think 20% of our programming this season was a result of pitches. Probably 80% of the stuff we do in a season is what we’ve actively sought out, and then 20% does come from outside pitching.
BYT: How did Dean [Hurley] get involved with this week’s particular event?
JC: Dean is a friend of mine, and I’d been thinking of him pretty early on; this semester has been a little different for me, because I have an actual role within the programming, as opposed to kind of just helping out at events and things like that. But I’d worked with him before on a project of mine, because I’m a filmmaker, and he did sound design on a short film of mine. So I’ve known him for many years, and I really love and respect what he does, and I reached out to ask if he’d ever think about doing something like this, and he doesn’t live in New York, but he said he’d be willing to come up. I knew it wasn’t something he “did”, like he’s not an active lecturer, but what’s nice about having the programming be so varied is that you’ve got people that are academics and are publishing work, but you’ve also got people who are really active in their field, like directors or artists that are going to be talking from a different perspective. I thought it’d be nice to incorporate people from all different fields, and I just think he’s great. He’s got a really good personality, very warm and funny, and I just thought he’d be very captivating. He’s very, incredibly smart. And that was just through a personal friendship that this worked out.
BYT: What drew you both to horror (in particular as a genre) in the first place? Do either of you have a specific memory of when you fell in love with it?
JY: I think it was kind of gradual. A few of the earliest memories I have are of always being terrified. I remember Night of the Living Dead being a horrifying experience – I think I accidentally saw it when I stayed home from school one day. But I’d kind of begrudgingly turned my back on it [horror] for a while, didn’t really want to only consume horror. I wasn’t one of those people whose main thing it was – I moved away from it for many years, and kind of came back to it later, after I’d consumed a lot of the more “film school” type films. It’s always been there in the background, but I don’t know if there was necessarily one moment in my life that I can totally pinpoint.
JC: I also will watch anything, watch all different types of films, and I don’t think my tastes are steered specifically towards just horror, but I will say that I’ve always had a deep love of it. I do have some formative memories of movies that really marked me when I was younger, like The Watcher in the Woods, which is Disney’s one sort of horror movie. I was really obsessed with that one. Kind of esoteric, almost occult horror, but it’s a children’s movie. And then Return to Oz was another one, which I think is a really scary movie. It was a staple when I was growing up as a kid – we had a VHS copy of it, so I watched it all the time. Those two movies had really big impacts on me when I was younger. So I think I was always kind of watching that stuff, but when it comes to horror, I steer in a more experimental direction, maybe? Or like, art house horror direction than a lot of straight horror, but I’ll watch anything. I’ve watched a lot of straight horror, too, but I think maybe a lot of my tastes veer towards an off-shoot of that.
JY: The other thing is that, you know, with people my age, it’s impossible not to have horror effect you, because it was so popular in the nineties. That can kind of be said of any generation, which makes horror very interesting to me, too, but it’s one of the main reasons we do this – horror is very popular, but is often overlooked in terms of approaching it from a more serious light. In academia, it tends to be (at best) an elective course taught in film school. There are touches on it in literature, but it doesn’t really get a strong, serious-minded approach in the same way that other genres do. It’s demeaned in certain ways, and we want to bring that light to people, bring experts in to be able to offer these sorts of courses. It’s an alternative learning space.
BYT: Well, and that’s why I think it’s really amazing what you’re doing, too. I took a few film courses in college (never majored in it, kind of wish I had), and I had never realized how horror is often a reflection of whatever’s happening in society, and that it has so much weight in terms of cultural and social commentary. I think the average person is able to write it off as like, you go see the slasher movie and make out with your boyfriend in the theater, but there’s so much good stuff that is overlooked there.
JC: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest thing about horror, is that it’s so overlooked. Like Joe was saying, it’s sort of brushed off in a lot of ways. I think a lot of directors are exploring incredibly controversial subject matter and topics, and examining a lot of the underlying anxieties within a culture, and that’s when you have a film that really strikes, really does well on a fast level. With horror films, they tend to coordinate with certain times in history, or when there’s maybe awful political situations, and there are all these themes that are being unpacked in a really fun way, in a popular way, that I think leads people to discredit them. But I think they’re really subversive in a lot of ways, because they’re entertaining yet are transmitting this subversive content.
BYT: Absolutely. And since this Dean Hurley talk will be the last class of the semester, have you started talking at all about what’s on the forefront for the upcoming semester in 2019?
JY: I think we’ll keep it a little coy in case we can’t talk about certain details, but our next season is completely planned, and it’s going to be awesome. For those that may have been worried about our connection with H.P. Lovecraft, we’re going to address those directly with a panel discussion. It’s going to be looking at H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the criticism against H.P. Lovecraft, because obviously our name is an homage to Lovecraft’s work. We wanted to have a larger discussion about that, so we’re excited about that. But we do offer a season pass, which is cool, it makes it a little cheaper. You get a little certificate of completion at the end of the semester.
JC: There’s one class I’m super excited about, which is going to address the AIDS epidemic and how filmmakers address that within their work. We also have another class on industrial terror, which is kind of talking about directors who would film industrial movies or commercials as a way to fund their low-budget horror films, and what they were creating in that space. There are going to be a lot of cool classes, January thru May.