Interview: Kier-La Janisse on Offering an Education in Chills and Thrills at the Miskatonic Institute for Horror Studies

It’s probably safe to assume that Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman never thought there would be a class about them when making sexploitation films during the 1960s, with the former notably working backwards from such intriguing titles as “The Sex Perils of Paulette” and “Gentlemen Prefer Nature Girls” to figure out a story. Or if they did, they would never admit to it as artists that were going against the tide in an already subversive field as the rare women to be behind the camera. However, that has left it to others in the decades that followed to find the considerable value in their films, something that the Miskatonic Institute for Horror Studies has made its mission.

“Doris and Roberta have publicly claimed to NOT be feminists, but I think their oeuvres speak otherwise,” says Lisa Petrucci, who has done as much as anyone to burnish the filmmakers’ legacy by keeping their films in circulation through the Seattle-based distributor Something Weird and will be heading to Los Angeles this week to teach a course for Miskatonic on the two larger-than-life New York filmmakers on August 8th. “We’ll watch clips and trailers from some of their Greatest Hits and talk about their sleazy and often unsettling subject matter, distinctly unique camerawork and vision, and overall significance to exploitation film history. I like to keep things informal, so this will be more of a group discussion than a standard lecture.”

Regardless of the format, there’s never been anything standard about the classes offered by the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, the ingenious international event series founded by Kier-la Janisse that has mined great wealth from the darkest corners of cinema, treating genres of generally ill repute with the respect bestowed to any subject of academic study without sacrificing the fun that lures people to them in the first place. Janisse, who elevated the critical discourse around horror films with her autobiographical “The House of Psychotic Women,” now a staple of any self-respecting cinephile’s bookshelf, has extended those conversations by initiating series in Los Angeles, New York and London where experts can get into the nitty gritty of how such narratives can get under your skin and how their meaning can blossom or change across different generations.

“Every academic has niche topics they write about in their papers, but they often don’t get the opportunity to actually teach those things in their classes because they’re too specific whereas we really prize that,” says Janisse. “We get a lot of teachers who maybe in their daily life, they get to teach a horror class, but they’re kind of limited to more mainstream aspects of horror, whereas with us, they can get into the deep dive stuff because the people coming to our classes tend to already know all the Horror 101 stuff.”

There’s no better example of this attention to fascinating minutiae than a lecture Janisse will be conducting herself in Los Angeles on September 12th on “Vegetal Horrors,” tied into a piece she wrote recently for Nicolas Winding Refn’s website about the plant craze of the 1970s when there was a growing belief that the greenery in your home had thoughts, feelings and memory, leading to all sorts of narrative possibilities such as ferns having the ability to witness murders — and commit them. (L.A. horror buffs and horticulturists alike will want to take note of Miskatonic’s partnerships with Atlas Obscura and the UCLA Film & Television Archive with a listening party set for Mort Garson’s era-defining album “Mother Earth’s Plantasia” at — where else? — UCLA Botanical Garden on August 10th and a screening of the 1979 thriller “The Kirlian Witness” at the Velaslavay Panorama theatre on August 25th.)

It is just one of many exciting classes that Miskatonic has plans to put on for the fall, a robust slate that will give a long overdue spotlight to outré auteurs such as Karen Arthur in New York (October 19th), Gary Sherman in London (November 18th) and Penny Slinger in Los Angeles (December 12th), and offer cultural crash courses “Morbido Crypt’s Guide to Mexican Fantasy and Horror Cinema” (Los Angeles, Nov. 21st) and “The Dead Eyes of London: Horror and Crime in the German ‘Krimi’ Film” (New York, December 19th). The full lineup for the three cities can be found here and shortly before the busy season starts for Janisse, she generously took the time to speak about the evolution of the Miskatonic Institute, which takes its name from the world of H.P. Lovecraft, and providing such a sublime opportunity for both scholars and students alike to explore the arcane.

How did this initiative come about?

It started out in 2010. I was doing a writers-in-residence at [Aqua Books] a bookstore in Winnipeg and they actually asked me to do a workshop for teenagers during spring break that was somehow related to my work, so I ended up doing this five-day workshop about horror journalism and criticism. I jokingly called it the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, just thinking it was a one-off, but then it did well and I ended up doing a couple other one-offs with other horror writers where I would get them to teach a class. I moved to Montreal later that year and was opening up a small microcinema with a colleague of mine, and because we had now access to a venue on a permanent basis, we decided to have Miskatonic classes there regularly, so that’s when it became a formal organization. Then I moved away from Montreal and ended up starting one in the UK because I was visiting there a lot. I had a friend named Virginie Sélavy, an academic who lived there and partnered with me on it and then it just kept growing. I had friends in New York who were asking for one there and I ended up getting a couple co-directors there — Joe Yanick and Jacqueline Castel — and I’ve just moved to L.A., so now there’s three branches. They all have classes in horror film history, theory, production – in the sense of [being] master classes with industry veterans. We don’t really have the gear for teaching filmmaking, but we do have more practical-based classes with anecdotal information.

Do people come to you with ideas for classes or do you approach experts in the field? Is it a mix?

It’s a mix, but for the most part, we’re following academics – their writing, conferences and papers that they give and sometimes we’ll want a specific instructor and we’ll ask them to pitch us the idea for a class they’d like to do. Other times, we’ll have an idea for a class and we’ll start looking for who is the expert in this topic, so it varies between us curating by topic and us curating by instructor. Occasionally, we’ll get proposals from people we don’t know at all and sometimes those people turn out to be excellent. Howard David Ingham, one of the people from Miskatonic London, pitched us a class on folk horror out of the blue and he turned out to be such a resource in so many ways. I’ve now worked with him multiple times on different things, so it’s just a lot of reaching out into the community and trying to pay attention to who’s out there, who’s working on what and how we can help each other.

Has the format evolved over time?

It’s evolved in the sense that we get better at identifying what we want and what works best. As we were first figuring it out, it was much more loose in terms of what the instructors were expected to do. The first year of Miskatonic classes were all over the place in terms of structure and the style of pedagogy. We would have some instructors that just weren’t using any clips at all and it was all discussion-based and then we just realized that wasn’t our strength. Our strength was really that we know a lot of people who are horror experts, so we wanted to offer the kind of classes that were tapping into expertise because there’s a reason why that person is on stage talking and you’re in the audience taking in this vast amount of knowledge that they have. I know that’s not a style of pedagogy that’s as common in universities, but I really wanted our school to place an emphasis on expertise because I know so many people that are experts at things who are undervalued in society, and I wanted to point out how important that is and give them a venue to be able to share everything that they’ve learned over time.

And you’ve recently established an advisory board.

Yeah, I really wanted to have an advisory board because I wanted there to be accountability and consistency. Every branch of Miskatonic is a bit different because it’s based on the needs and interests of the local community, and it was basically just me [before], basing [decisions] on gut instinct, like how strongly I felt about a person’s proposal, and then there was in each city, I would have co-directors in each city, handling all the operations and co-curating with me. But having the advisory board has helped the local co-directors focus more on their local communities and the board has been really helpful with establishing a code of conduct like instructor qualifications because unlike a university, we don’t require people to have a Ph. D. We understand people have all different ways of acquiring knowledge and expertise, including me. I don’t have a Masters or anything like that, but even though we like the presentations to sound casual, we still require academic rigor in the actual research, so we want to see what their sources are, just so we know that they’re really going to be teaching a university level course.

This may be asking you to pick a favorite child, but are there any events you’ve been particularly proud of?

Yeah, we did one at Miskatonic New York in April of this year called “The Shadow Over Lovecraft” because obviously our school is named after the school from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, but Lovecraft was a notorious racist. There’s been a lot of authors that work in the Lovecraftian mythos, but write revisionist stories that don’t espouse a lot of his early views, so it’s been a bigger part of the conversation in recent years, about what do we do with an author like Lovecraft who is so influential and whose work has been so important to the genre, but who seems like in many ways a pretty terrible person, and we wanted to contribute to that.

We had this amazing class with a panel that [included] Matt Ruff, who wrote the book “Lovecraft Country,” which is being developed into a TV show by Jordan Peele right now, and Victor LaValle, who wrote “The Ballad of Black Tom,” and they [wrote] Lovecraftian stories with African-American protagonists and the [books] both weirdly came out in the same week, so it’s like these two authors were working on addressing these exact same issues in their own way, unbeknownst to each other. And [then we had] Ruthanna Emrys, another author who does revisionist Lovecraft [stories], Peter Cannon, a longtime Lovecraft scholar and moderator Rodney Perkins, so all of them were there and the energy in the room was incredible. There was a lot of history about Lovecraft, but there were so many personal stories that they shared [about] their trajectory as writers and Lovecraft’s place in their career and in their imaginations and how their relationship with his work had inspired them and had infuriated them, resulting in these amazing books they had written, so that was a class I was really proud to do.

We [also] have one teacher — Amanda Reyes, who’s done a class at all three of our schools, and she’s actually based in Austin, but she’s a made-for-TV movie expert, and she’s an amazing teacher because she’s obviously so in love with this topic and yet she’s so full of information — she has so much enthusiasm that she’s really, really accessible as an instructor. She’s like the perfect teacher for us where you come away with all of this new knowledge, but you don’t feel like you were just taught something. And there’s so many [others] to pick from. We had a class at Miskatonic London that was all about Nigel Kneale, the British television writer and they had found a lost teleplay of his, so they had all of these well-known actors — Mark Gattiss and Jonathan Rigby — doing a live reading of this television play. Tthen there was a big panel with all these British horror critics a talking about Nigel Kneale’s work and his impact on horror, so that was a really important one too.

It seems the same could be said for this “Grand Dames of the Grindhouse” event that’s coming to Los Angeles. How did this come about?

I was talking to Lisa Petrucci last fall, and I just said to her, “What would you think about coming to L.A. to do a class on Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman?” I knew that she had been doing all this work on Doris Wishman because [the American Genre Film Archive, in partnership with Something Weird] were restoring all these Wishman films, but a lot of Roberta Findlay’s films have been reissued recently and there’s a lot of curiosity about her as a director. Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman both had a really similar career path and both are directors that a lot of horror community feminists will look at and champion, but it’s kind of ironic because neither of those directors are especially fond of feminism or that term being applied to them, and it’s interesting because it was a different time and the term feminism had different connotations then, so it’s understandable that certain people would back away from being branded a feminist at a time when people had a very strict idea of what a feminist was.

Now, we understand there’s all these different ways that women engage in feminism and define it for themselves whereas back then people looked at it as much more militant, and Roberta Findlay and Doris Wishman didn’t necessarily want to be aligned with that because they knew they were making films for a largely male audience at the time. So I really wanted to have a class where there was not only a history of their work, looking at all the different genres that they worked in, but also addressing that issue of how to be a pioneering woman director and hate feminism? [laughs] And I think it’s important to look at that through today’s lens, [asking] how do we reconcile certain things about their careers while still celebrating them as these really important directors who made some really amazing films? There’s just nobody better suited to teach that class than Lisa Petrucci, who’s just been so entrenched in the work of those directors for decades that it’s a real honor to have her coming here to speak about them.

For more information about the Miskatonic Institute and its upcoming events in Los Angeles, New York and London, click here or follow them on Twitter.

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