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Haitian Horrors: John Cussans discusses his upcoming Miskatonic Institute talk (exclusive trailer)

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies London have yet another fascinating talk planned for next week, on Thursday, 18th May, hosted by John Cussans. The author of Undead Uprising: Haiti, Horror and the Zombie-Complex, Cussans’ talk Chimerical Optics: Haiti, Colonialism and Voodoo Terror explores themes often neglected in contemporary horror criticism. Here is what the press release has to say about the talk:

Since the first descriptions of bizarre ceremonies witnessed by the French colonial historian Moreau de Saint-Méry, Haitian Vodou has been characterized by most European and American commentators as a deplorable and dangerous African atavism that, if allowed to flourish, could eventually corrupt and destroy the economic and social order of the New World. Such omens were spectacularly affirmed by the Haitian Revolution of 1791, which, according to legend, was triggered by a Vodou ceremony in which a blood-sacrifice was offered to the “demon gods”, and the slaves, in a state of trance-like possession, butchered their white masters in a “racial holocaust”. Since then Haiti has held a special place in colonial imaginings of all that is macabre, sinister and maniacally savage, a land of irredeemable barbarism and “Voodoo Terror”. This class will trace a history of such representations, discussing how they continue to shape xenophobic and neo-colonial imaginings of Haiti as a country mired in superstition and incapable of enlightened self-governance, and the importance of the zombie figure for these “chimerical optics”.

Check out the exclusive trailer for the event and then read on to find out what he had to say when we caught up with him recently to ask about his talk.

Diabolique: Can you just tell us a bit about your background?

John Cussans: I was born in York, in the north of England, allegedly the most haunted city in the country and an unsung epicentre for all things Goth. In the 1970’s I watched a lot of Hammer horror films and the deeply disturbing TV show Thriller, which left a lasting impression on me. I went on to study graphic design and illustration, getting into writers like Ballard and Burroughs, doing a final project on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and listening to a lot of post-punk, industrial noise and psycho garage music.

I didn’t think much about all the horror films I’d watched as a teenager until I came across the writings of Georges Bataille in the late 80s. That encounter was a major turning point for me, and I ended up writing a doctoral thesis on Bataille and the Video Nasty controversy that dug deeply into Bataille’s theories of revolutionary sacred excess, and the history of the so-called copy-cat effect associated with the nasties.

At that time I started doing more art-related work, including a show at the Cabinet gallery called Buried Alive, which included a series of imaginary post-mortem portraits of people who’d had a significant influence on me. After the PhD I went to Mexico to make an experimental film about the Narco-Satanicos, ultimately realised as a mini-mockumentary called Mumbo Jumbo, a limited edition of one unmarked VHS copy, distributed via the local cemetery.

Diabolique: What has inspired your talk? 

John Cussans: The Bataille-Nasty research ultimately led me to 18th century Saint-Domingue, where, according to various legends, Vodou sorcery and blood sacrifice was combined with hypnosis, and the colony erupted into a 13 year revolutionary war, culminating in the foundation of the Republic of Haiti. I was really intrigued to unpack the truth behind these legends, and the zombie figure, whose roots can be traced back to Haitian folklore, seemed like the best way to do it. My first essay on the topic, which gave its name to my blog at the time, was Tracking the Zombie Diaspora. Around 2000 I met Leah Gordon, an artists and photographer who had been working in Haiti, and had brought all the members of a Vodou temple to perform in London. Ultimately she would start the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, where I was invited, in 2009, to talk about these issues to a Haitian and international audience. All this led to the writing of Undead Uprising: Haiti, Horror and the Zombie Complex, from which most of what I will be speaking about is drawn.

Diabolique: What can people expect to take away from it?

John Cussans: I’ll be taking a broadly historical approach to representations of Haiti, Vodou and zombies in cinema and popular literature, tracing the zombie’s path through its various phases of development – African Ancestral, Haitian Folkloric, Classic Cinematic, Apocalyptic and Post-Millennial – referring throughout to classic examples from zombie and voodoo cinema. I’ll be using the “chimerical optics” of popular horror and exotic travel literature, to tell a story about the reality of Vodou in Haiti, the roots of ‘Voodoo Terror’ in the fears of, and reactions to, the Haitian Revolution, and the consequences of these for life in Haiti.

Diabolique: Tell us a little bit about the key films you have picked and why?

John Cussans: I’ll be sampling from a number of films, notably Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, my first encounter with Voodoo Terror, White Zombie, the film that introduced the zombie to western audiences, I Walked with a Zombie, a classic work from the early era of zombie films, and Chloe, Love is Calling You, which contains the first representation of a cross-dressing Baron Samedi, who will make his most famous re-appearance in the film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die. I’ll also be showing clips from the film version of Graham Greene’s Duvalier-damning The Comedians, Alan Whicker’s documentary on Papa Doc The Black Sheep, and Wes Craven’s horror adaptation of Wade Davis’ ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Diabolique: Finally, what are some of the underlying themes you will be exploring?

John Cussans: The main themes I’ll be exploring are: the role of zombie and voodoo cinema in perpetuating colonial racist stereotypes about Haitians, Black Nationalism, and the presence of African religions in the New World; historical overlaps between Mesmerism, Vodou and the zombie figure; the development of zombie cinema as a mode of Black Ops against Third World nations in the cold war; and the zombie apocalypse trope as a de-sublimated metaphor for racial holocaust.

The talk will take place on Thursday 18th May, 2017, at 7-10pm at The Horse Hospital, London. Tickets are available here.  

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She’s the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang’s M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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