Just in time for the height of spooky season, last Friday marked the launch of the book “Labors of Fear: The Modern Horror Film Goes to Work,” the first study of horror’s critique of labor, edited by Edward Little Professor of English and Cinema Studies Aviva Briefel and Associate Professor of English and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester Jason Middleton.
In their book, Briefel and Middleton delve into the different types of labor represented in horror films, specifically analyzing the movies’ killers through the lens of labor, noting that they are often motivated by economic reasons.
“The killers are trying to just survive all sorts of economic forces. We talked about issues like this and realized just how much economic precarity and the horror of living in capitalism really runs through the genre,” Middleton said.
Briefel said the book’s release felt surreal because she and Middleton started working on it during the pandemic. She initially got the idea to research labor in horror films from one of her students coming to talk to her during office hours.
“I love collaborating with [Middleton]. We’ve collaborated on other projects in the past, and then the pandemic began,” Briefel said. “Before all hell broke loose, I was teaching a class, and a student came to my office, and he was like, ‘have you seen this film called ‘The Lighthouse?’ I was really fascinated by how the whole narrative [of ‘The Lighthouse’] is about work. I was like, ‘what other horror films and the horror derived from that are really looking to work?’”
One type of labor that Briefel and Middleton mentioned was intellectual labor, as shown through Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic “The Shining.” Jack Torrance, the main character, has a working-class job as a caretaker and lives in an empty hotel with his family, though he has aspirations of being a writer.
“The unsuccessful quality of his writing points to another theme that people are always trying to survive and always trying to accomplish things with their work that always fail,” Middleton said. “It’s this threat of failure that, of course, underlies again. It’s employment under capitalism. The threat of losing your job, losing your livelihood, is always there. I realize how much of that particular fear is threaded through modern horror films.”
At the event, Briefel and Middleton showed a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in which the main character, Norman Bates, cleans a murder scene. The two authors were intrigued by Bates’ labor as a means of survival.
“Work just becomes visible like ordinary labor in this scene, whereas in earlier classic horror films, work is pretty much not a part of the films at all,” Middleton said. “One thing that’s really interesting about [Bates] as a character is that he’s precarious. This business that he’s running is going to fail, and he knows that, and the viewer knows that. There’s this way in which you realize that he’s just trying to work to survive.”
While their book focuses on labor, Briefel and Middleton also discussed the horror that comes alongside the opposite of labor: leisure. They specifically looked at Jordan Peele’s film “Us” as a representation of the intersection of race and labor.
“I argue [“Us”] is all about the horrors of leisure and specifically the horrors that befall Black women in the context of capitalism or forced leisure,” Briefel said. “Even though it is about a Black middle class family, the father of which really wants to celebrate their bourgeoisie and their social elevation, we have no idea what anyone in the film does for a living. Work is not mentioned other than the rewards of work. I think about the trauma of leisure in the film and the forced leisure that, in the film, Black women are meant to undergo.”
Briefel initially became interested in horror films during her time in college, where she attended a horror film screening, sparking an interest that led her to pursue research on horror movies and eventually focus on horror in an academic context in graduate school.
“After watching the horror movies, even though I had a roommate, I made a friend of mine sleep on the floor in our room in addition to having the security of my roommate. But then I became addicted, and I was really interested in why these films scare people so much. Why do people want to see frightening things?” Briefel said. “I began to think about horror as a way of thinking about society, about culture, about gender, about race and the rest of history.”
Professor of Asian Studies and English Belinda Kong attended the launch in support of her colleague in the English department.
“My biggest takeaway from this talk was the idea that fear and grief could be interrelated and that it gets delivered through the whole of them in a certain way,” Kong said.