Mikita Brottman has loved horror since an early age. She was reading it as a child in England, reading it as a student at Oxford University, and has been reading it during her career as a professor and psychoanalyst. Since the ’90s, she has published a series of both fiction and nonfiction books on taboo subjects—everything from cannibalism to serial killers to her experience doing a literature program at a Maximum Security prison. In their own ways, each book brings together her love of horror, the misunderstood, psychology and academia. Her academic works that deal with horror are both full of detail and accessible, something not always found together, especially when the academic world has tended to turn its nose up to the aesthetic of fictional horror. Brottman spoke about her books, the appeal of horror and what she thinks can make horror its scariest.
(Interview conducted by Danica Davidson)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: Tell us about your early interest in horror fiction.
MIKITA BROTTMAN: I just know that it was the first thing I was interested in reading at a very early age. I loved watching old horror films on television, like vampire and werewolf films and old Universal movies. I really liked gothic horror, old English novels like The Monk, The Castle of Ortranto. It was just always my favorite kind of fiction—anything that had rats or bodies under the floorboards or murders. People might think I have some kind of repressed anger, but I think it’s very common in many children. Horror stories are extremely popular among young adults and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with it. It might be a cathartic relief.
Often they’re more interesting. They’re more appealing, they’re more exciting. Often I find they’re better written as well.
Not too many people write academically on horror subjects. What has your experience been doing this?
I think more and more people are doing so now because I often will get emails from younger scholars asking me about my works or looking for more information. I think there are more college programs in popular culture. There are different factions—there are sort of conservative scholars who are interested in horror and violence and social effects. But looking at horror as a aesthetic form—I think that at the time I was first writing, there were certainly a lot of people who didn’t take it seriously, or who thought that horror couldn’t be taken seriously and that they were dismissive of pop culture. But I think it’s one of the most interesting things going on in society, so it was just an issue of making a case.
What were your first books?
My book Offensive Films came out first, and then I did the cannibal book (Meat Is Murder: An Illustrated Guide To Cannibal Culture). Because I’d always been interested in horror films, I started writing a series of essays on them. Some of them I’d sent to academic journals and some were published and some weren’t. I was just interested in writing on films that were not normally taken seriously. Then an editor at Creation Books read some of the essays and got in touch with me and said that he wanted someone to write a book on cannibal films and thought I would be suitable. So I was thrilled by that. It wasn’t just about cannibals films; it was about cannibalism in culture, cannibal serial killers, every kind of manifestation of cannibalism in film, fiction, anthropology, psychology. That got me interested in writing about taboo subjects.
Your book Thirteen Girls is about the victims of serial killers. Why did you decide to write about serial killers from this angle? Is it because it’s not usually discussed?
That’s really it. It’s a series of short stories that are fictionalized. I felt like everyone knows the names of the really infamous serial killers, like Son of Sam and Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s very rare anyone will remember the names of their victims. So I wanted to write about serial killing, but not from the point-of-view from the serial killer, so I did not name the serial killer in any of the stories. One (story) is from the point-of-view of the mother of one of the girls and another is a friend, and another is an attorney and another is a therapist. So it’s people involved in the cases who were impacted by them, sometimes to a terrifying extent and sometimes not at all. I looked at famous cases, but came at them from new angles.
From your research, what are the psychological effects of horror books? Why are people drawn to them?
I think it really depends on the individual. For me, when I look at a work of art or fiction, I always think to myself, “Does this leave me feeling depleted or does this leave me feeling energized and uplifted?” And horror always makes me feel energized or uplifted. It’s not to say that art that leaves you depleted is bad, because there’s a place for that, too. There’s a place for seeing violence expressed in a way that you can’t express it in daily life. But I’m not drawn to really gory films and especially not action movies with fast editing and car chases. I like slow, creepy movies.
You also have an interest in true crime. Why do you think it’s so popular? Do you think there’s enough of a distance that people view them more like stories than reality?
I think that in some ways true crime tells stories that aren’t really told anywhere else in the media. Most true crime is not about the handsome, fiendishly intelligent demonic killer. It’s ordinary, domestic horrors. In a way, I think it gives us insight in the deadliest horrors of human life because these happen at home. They’re very banal. I think true crime is so popular because everyone has these domestic difficulties to a certain degree, and so it’s really easy to think, “Therefore but the grace of God go I” when we read about mothers who drown their children or husbands who kill their wives or children who kill their parents. I think it’s possible to read about it without moralizing, and with a certain distance from it, as you say.
After years of reading fiction, you turned to writing fiction. What did you learn from all your reading for what makes good horror writing?
Again, I think it’s really personal. Some people are drawn to certain styles of writing. One of my favorite horror books and movies is Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a daylight horror, and there’s something to that. Horror is most scary to me when it seems to belong as part of ordinary life and not just when it seems to exist in another world or in fantasy or nightmares. Of course Ira Levin is incredible at building suspense. He’s one of my favorite writers. I like Shirley Jackson, too; I think she can be really scary in how she writes about domestic horror. Poe is a great favorite of mine, too, but I wouldn’t say that his stories are horrifying in the way that modern writing is horrifying.
In The Maximum Security Book Club, you have convicts reading horror (among other genres). How did they respond to horror compared with other genres?
After the book came out, I got banned from going to the prison, so the authorities didn’t react very well to it. I did spend a little time with them (the convicts) between the book coming out and the ban, and I asked the men to select their own books, and it turned out the books they wanted to read were more contemporary, American classics, and they tended to be macho kinds of books, Hemingway and Steinbeck and Orwell. I thought that they might find things in my favorite books that might help them and give them an appreciation for more difficult literature. In some ways it worked because the class was very popular, but in some other ways I think they would have appreciated more accessible books. When I was in college, I had a really great tutor who (even though the books she gave us were difficult) was so enthusiastic about them that it made me interested, too. I was hoping that was what I might be able to be for this men, but it was much more difficult than I anticipated.
What are some of your favorite horror books, from history till now?
There are different kinds of horror. I like Hubert Selby Jr.’s work. He writes about the horrors of addiction and depression. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is probably my favorite book, in that it’s about horror, but it’s about the horror of colonialism and isolation and savagery. Bartleby, the Scrivener is another book I read with the men, and I think that too is about what happens if you can’t communicate with someone and all communication breaks down. It’s not horror in the commercial sense, but I think in some ways they’re scarier than vampires and werewolves because they’re much more realistic. I really like the horror stories of Arthur Machen, M.R. James and those kind of traditional stories that you get in anthologies. All those older British horror writers I really like.
What else have you been doing with horror?
I teach a class on the uncanny, and I find it interesting how students who have never been exposed to this kind of material really get into it right from the start. I teach a true crime class, and young people who find books on serial killers really scary also have this feeling of not being able to put them down. I want to introduce people to books that create that feeling and I want to be able to create it in my own writing. It’s very difficult to achieve.
In the true crime class, we read four books that were published in the last eight to ten years. We read chapters at a time and discussed the style and discussed the skill of the author. In the uncanny class, we start with Freud’s essay on the uncanny and we look at different kinds of manifestations of the uncanny in everything from popular culture to music to art.
Where can people find your work?
You go to my website (mikitabrottman.com), and you can order my books on Amazon. I have another book coming out next year. I live in an old hotel and about ten years ago there was a dead body found in the hotel in one of the disused rooms. I’ve been obsessed with following this mystery, and this book is really a true crime book, but it’s also about my obsession with death and morbid curiosity. I also have a true crime podcast on iTunes called Forensic Transmissions, which contains public domain audio from police interrogations, court proceedings and 911 calls. It’s exclusively for hard-core true crime junkies.
Danica Davidson is the author of how-to-draw book Manga Art for Beginners and the Overworld Adventure series for kids, consisting of Escape from the Overworld, Attack on the Overworld, The Rise of Herobrine, Down into the Nether,The Armies of Herobrine and Battle with the Wither.