[Author’s Note: This exploration of the horror fandom for CNN was published in 2011, but it remains a point of pride. Although the fandom, and culture surrounding it, has shifted in the mainstream, this was a coup of a piece for the very sober, not-too-voicey CNN of the time.]
They are outsider fans in an outlaw genre. Even as comic book, science fiction and fantasy nerds are embraced by popular culture for their quirk and charm, the horror fan culture exists on the fringe, left out in the cold and dark – perhaps with a chainsaw-wielding maniac on the loose.
And that may be how horror nerds prefer it.
To be a horror nerd is to celebrate a low-rent, often underground kind of entertainment, even when it doesn’t involve Jason Voorhees, Samara or Pazuzu. It also means being the bad kid playing in the mud when others are allowed in the mainstream sandbox.
Basically, there is no “The Big Bang Theory” chronicling the lovable foibles of a dedicated nerd who can list his top five cannibal movies, and is steeped in a fandom of dismembered bodies and buckets of blood.
But if other groups have become eccentric darlings of the mainstream, horror nerds prefer their passion to be punk. Even with an implied desire for more widespread respect of the genre, there is concern about the mainstream attention that accompanies it.
“It should feel like two steps away from pornography,” said Joe Hill, the horror novelist of “Heart Shaped Box” and the comic “Locke & Key.” (He's also Stephen King's son.Yeah, THAT Joe Hill.)
“Let’s keep it grubby and dirty and shameful,” said Hill, who added he likes his horror to feel like a taboo “private pleasure,” and that part of its appeal is delighting in content that can unsettle.
Reigning scream queen and genre heroine Danielle Harris (“Hatchet II,” “Halloween,” “Stake Land”) believes horror stands alone in a “little world of its own” for that reason.
“It’s not quite in the mix,” said the actress. “That’s what makes it special.” Harris added part of the appeal of horror as a fan and creator is its ability to force a reaction out of audiences.
As a sociology professor who teaches about the horror genre at the University of Colorado – Boulder, Marshall Smith concurs.
“[Horror] is a genre that is meant to evoke a bodily response – shivers, goosebumps, etc.,” he said. “It celebrates what is supposed to be reviled.” As a result, Smith said, nerds “derive some sense of identity from reveling in that which others find objectionable.”
Brad “Mr. Disgusting” Miska has built a career out of being an insider amongst the outsiders. The co-founder of BloodyDisgusting.com, launched in 2001, Miska’s site attracts approximately 1.5 million unique visitors to his horror entertainment site each month – and up to 2.5 million during October and January, the two most popular months for genre movies. Miska’s site serves casual horror fans but also the nerds who like to take ownership of, and share, new genre entries.
He said the culture of those nerds is to be “the discoverers of new, independent horror films – the lower budgets ones friends don’t know about.”
Miska said another important aspect to the horror culture is the tight-knit community where celebrities such as genre actor Kane Hodder or makeup effects master Tom Savini are accessible.
At horror cons such as Spooky Empire in Orlando, Florida, Miska said fans “can just walk up and talk to these guys and it makes them feel special.”
Petey Mongelli, the founder and promoter Spooky Empire, (which wrapped its ninth year Oct. 9) noted the appeal of the genre to a nerd like himself probably isn’t unlike other fan cultures – and that includes the tendency to obsessively collect and categorize details.
“They know every single scene in every movie and every movie each actor has done,” he said. “They have the original posters or the first copy of the VHS or Beta autographed by everybody, and need every single zombie from ‘Dawn of the Dead’ on their poster – even if they were in the movie for five seconds.”
Hard-gore fans versus loose screws
Mongelli also described the “real hardcore fan” as those who have actor or character likenesses tattooed on them, then “go get that autographed and get that tattooed.”
Speaking of those hardcore fans, Harris said a horror nerd is someone who loves the genre and has fun with it, and even wants to be a creator of it, but acknowledges there is an element within fan culture that has a “teeny, tiny, little screw loose” and gets excited to see someone murdered onscreen.
“The guy who can recite every ‘Halloween’ line and is so into it or has seen the movies 500 times – like the Adam Greens and the Rob Zombies of the world” are the nerds, she said. “Then you’ve got the guy who comes to a convention dressed as Michael Myers and stands in the corner with the mask on and breathes heavy and stares at me for an hour; there’s a difference.”
The “screw loose” element Harris refers to is the negative stereotype of the creeper fan that Miska says doesn’t really apply to most horror nerds.
“’Hostel’ set this precedent that horror fans wanted dark gore and torture,” he said. “But people don't want to watch that (expletive); people want to have fun when they watch movies – Even with a horror movie.”
Torture porn aside, Mongelli said fans still exist on the fringe even though horror is easily accessible on Netflix and dedicated TV networks such as Chiller.
It is an interesting point. Horror is readily available to audiences, but audiences don’t readily take to it. It has never really been uncommon for the general populace to respond to individual horror films when they become part of the pop-culture zeitgeist.
The masses have gleefully paid for their screams with commercial hits such as 1931’s “Dracula,” “The Exorcist,” “Halloween” and “Jaws.” Action figures of Freddy Krueger can be found on the shelves of a big box toy store, and most people have an awareness of who the character is, but the nerdy pursuit of the genre lacks the mainstream momentum seen behind fantasy, for instance. Even if the average “Entertainment Weekly” reader is aware of the plot of “The Human Centipede,” that knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into viewership.
Although he said it depends on the subgenre of horror, Smith said he doesn’t see that changing. If part of the appeal of the genre is the “deviant or repulsive,” not too many fans from the mainstream will convert to horror nerd-dom no matter how easily you can purchase “Cannibal Holocaust” on Amazon.com.
“Casual fans are more interested in just an occasional scare particularly when a film is somehow registering on the cultural level as a phenomenon,” said Smith. He acknowledges the successes of anomalies such as the $193-million box office take of “Paranormal Activity,” but added, “I think of summer blockbusters; horror films will only ever make so much money in comparison to the action, comedy, etc.”
Commodity of horror
Besides, “Paranormal Activity” isn’t really for horror nerds anyhow.
Harris speaks to a consensus amongst horror fans that mainstream culture doesn’t “get” them, but that entertainment media is nonetheless trying to capitalize on the genre – often times through gimmicks, remakes, found footage flicks and 3-D – without always adding to the art or craft.
“It used to be that horror movies were always thought of as ‘B’ movies or Grade-Z movies, and now sometimes they’re tentpole releases,” Hill said before adding, “In some ways things were more exciting when they were more risky, when there was an outlaw vibe.”
“We’re being played to a wider audience than we used to; that’s positive, I think,” Hill said. But he added he has “mixed feelings” about mainstream acceptance.
But there might be another alternative for horror nerds that allow them to hold onto their outsider status while also embracing the mainstream, or at least other nerd cultures.
Horror events such as Mongelli’s have recently become part of an overall convention culture where everyone mingles together. He calls them “convention fans” and started noticing their appearance two or three years ago. Instead of fans dressed up as horror genre favorite Victor Crowley, or even as a generic monster, there were non-horror characters from “Star Wars,” “World of Warcraft” and so on.
“I was surprised they weren’t there earlier,” said Mongelli. “You see zombies at the comic book conventions, so why wouldn’t we have Iron Man or Spider-Man?”
Mongelli said this is a good development. He and Miska agreed that horror enthusiasts will stay loyal to their specific circle, but that the convergence of fans blends together like-minded people – nerdy about different things – into a more diverse social gathering.
What Harris called “a place where nerds can play,” regardless of the common obsession, and what Hill referred to as “genre play” and the “sandbox of the imagination,” conventions have become a site of a giant nerd herd merge where – to borrow from Adina Howard – everyone is a “freak like me.”
And in the end, those horror freaks can maintain their status as outsider fans in an outlaw genre – or at least as insider nerds with fringe benefits.