Andrew S.: You're tuned in to 90.7 FM, KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Eliot Bessette of the Department of Film and Media Studies. Welcome to the show, Eliot.
Eliot Bessette: Thanks Andrew. Great to be here.
Andrew S.: Great to have you here. Eliot, you study horror movies, is that correct?
Eliot Bessette: That's right. I'm writing a dissertation on fear in horror films and haunts, is walk through haunted house attractions. I'm in my eighth year or seventh year in the program and I want to figure out what art can show us about how fear works.
Andrew S.: Interesting, so you want to understand psychologically how fear affects our minds through art. That's what you're saying?
Eliot Bessette: Yes, that's right. Kind of as a guiding principle of my project is that both the sciences and the humanities can converge in their understanding of the emotions, but we're actually missing part of the picture of how emotions work if we don't get the humanistic philosophical side. That's what I'm trying to provide.
Andrew S.: Okay. You use a lot of psychology in the science in your research or not so much or?
Eliot Bessette: Somewhat. I try to keep one foot in that world and I try to be conversant with what's going on, but for instance, we do rattle off some things we know from the sciences of emotion. We know that the amygdala fires when there's a threat that we haven't quite processed and that the hippocampus has something to do with the memory of fear and that's very interesting.
But what does that tell us or how much does that tell us about our viewing experience of psycho or the shining? Not nothing, but it's not the whole picture.
Andrew S.: You're more interested in what exactly?
Eliot Bessette: Well, I'm interested in figuring out a philosophy of fear through the analysis of horror films and haunts. And I can weave in some science with that. But I think by studying fear and by studying the emotions in this way, we can learn about the emotions and also learn about ourselves, learning how the emotions go through us and how we live them out.
Andrew S.: I see. Okay. You analyze these movies and you're kind of always asking yourself like, "What am I feeling right now?" Or are you also talking to other people? You're trying to get ideas of how other people interact with these movies or like comparing? Are you trying to find general ideas that connect people? Or is it more like your own experience?
Eliot Bessette: A bit of both, the groundwork... let me put it this way. The fundamental thing that I'm working with is my own experience, that's where I start and I think that's where everyone starts with. I assume that what I experience is somehow communicable or sharable with other people, but it's also somewhat idiosyncratic, somewhat personal.
When I experience fear, I am learning about myself very particularly. But in a broader sense, I'm also learning something about how people generally experience fear. I want to look at things like... One of the questions I'm asking you is how does fear relate to empathy? Many people assume in horror films that we empathize with the fear of frightened characters. I think that's wrong.
I think we don't experience fear empathetically. We may empathize with other emotions, but we don't empathize with characters' fear. Why? Because I'm assuming on my understanding of empathy, we need two things. One, the same emotion as someone else. And two, having acquired that emotion through some sort of imaginative, putting ourselves in their shoes.
Andrew S.: Right? That's kind of interesting, right? Because when we watch horror movies, at least thinking about Halloween or Texas chainsaw massacre, right? Things like this where you almost identify with the person who's killing these victims, at least in terms of the camera work. That makes me sound bad doesn't it?
Eliot Bessette: A lot of people have made that argument. I do think there is some way in which we can align ourselves with the killer sometimes. But I don't think we do that as often as one might suppose and if we do, I don't think it makes horror films retrograde entertainment, it's not all sadism. There's a famous argument put forward by Carol Clover, who came up with the term final girl, that we don't just identify with the monster. We may start by identifying with the monster, but then we shift to identifying with the final girl, which means that we move from a sadistic orientation to a masochistic orientation.
Andrew S.: Sounds like why would people want to watch horror?
Eliot Bessette: That's another great question and a lot of ink has been spilled on it and no one really knows. But to float out a few ideas, I've always been interested in being scared and since I was a kid, I've loved being scared, I loved roller coasters, I love goosebumps and horror novels and I watched some horror films when I was a kid. And what I'm doing now is still trying to figure out what I loved then and what I and many other people love so much now.
There's something about the fun of the physical excitation for horror films that is very hard to get anywhere else. I also think horror films in drilling home on one emotion and I really think that emotion is fear, not horror, so the genre is a bit of a misnomer.
Andrew S.: What's the difference between fear and horror?
Eliot Bessette: By horror, I understand the sort of emotion we have in response to something like a beheading video or a car crash. You say you're horrified to see this video, you are aghast, you are appalled. It's not fun. It is definitively not fun.
Andrew S.: Right, but thus we do watch a lot of horror, there are a lot of our movies, right? That would fit that category, right? I'm thinking of Saw or Hostile, right?
Eliot Bessette: Somewhat, yes. Saw and Hostile are a bit unlike a lot of the horror precedents which have more to do with fear. Fear I understand is something like an emotional response to a threat that is not threatening primarily because of its impurity. If you are primarily threatening because of its impurity, that would be discussed.
Fear as I understand it can be fun. Fear is much more inactively involved emotional response, whereas horror seeing a beheading videos, seeing a car crash doesn't invite a physical response. There's nothing to do other than gaze, aghast.
Andrew S.: Maybe gag?
Eliot Bessette: Maybe gag, but horror, I'd rather fear by contrast usually invites some sort of bodily reaction like commonly set of fight or flight response, there are other things we can do too like freeze. I think this as a possible somatic theory reaction, this doesn't get enough credit, but think of the scene in Jurassic Park where the water starts shaking and the T-Rex realizes or rather the people realize the T-Rex is nearby.
The thing to do is not to move, that's how you stay safe and fear leads to the characters freezing. And in every time I've seen Jurassic Park with an audience, it leads to everyone in the audience freezing.
Andrew S.: Yeah, that's true. We're all kind of like possums in some ways or anything.
Eliot Bessette: In a way.
Andrew S.: Are there any, you would think evolutionary reasons why we might freeze? Would that be helpful?
Eliot Bessette: Oh, yes. I think the reasons why we have the basic suite of reactions to fear that we do is for evolutionary reasons. The pop science writer Jeff Weiss says there are four main responses, fight, flight, freeze or faint. And all of them can do different things in reaction to a predator depending on, for instance, how close or far you are from the predator.
Freezing is very good. If there is a predator hundreds of yards away that might not notice you if you don't move. Fainting is good if there's a predator up close that wants to eat you, but won't eat something it thinks is dead. And of course fighting and fleeing can obviously have their utility too.
The way I think of it, the basic initial response that we might have probably has to do with the long evolutionary history. But on top of that is overlaid so much human development and learning and culture and personality, which is what makes fear so cool that it stretches across our most basic reptilian brain to our most evolved cognitive self.
Andrew S.: Yeah, that's pretty cool. I wanted to go back to the empathy thing. And so you said horror movies [inaudible] in your opinion make you empathize with the fear. Do you empathize with the characters on other emotional levels?
Or I'm just wondering if you are saying that you would argue that you're more removed from horror movies than people would normally try to suggest? Horror movies tend to be a visceral experience I would think, where you are experiencing emotions along with the characters.
Eliot Bessette: Let me first sketch out why I think we don't empathize with the fear of horror characters. I think we need two things, a shared emotion and second to have arrived at that emotion through some imaginative, putting yourself in someone else's shoes. The reason why we don't empathize with characters fear is that we're lucking the second part. We have, they feel fear and we feel fear.
But we don't get to fear by imagining what it's like to be Laurie in Halloween or Sally in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film is independently scaring us. Everything about it is conducing to make us feel afraid. We're not on top of that imagining what is it like to be afraid in that position? We're already afraid in our position.
Andrew S.: It's a separate fear than we would feel in a fight or flight situation, it's sort of performative almost.
Eliot Bessette: There are certainly performative aspects of fear and this is one of the differences of watching a horror film in a theater versus watching it by yourself or watching it with a significant other versus watching it by yourself. You may act differently if you know that other people are seeing your fear, but there's something shared across all of those.
Andrew S.: Right. Okay. But it's the music, it's the lighting?
Eliot Bessette: Yes.
Andrew S.: Or is it seeing somebody else in that situation? Do we feel similarly as we watch a horror movie to how we would feel if we actually saw somebody being victimized in a terrifying situation?
Eliot Bessette: Two things. One, it's noticeable that we can experience fear from horror films even when there's no character present. If you just imagine a scene with a monster visible or a monster glimpsed in an empty house, that could be scary, although no one is threatened. Then you asked, "Is it like how we relate to people being threatened in the real world?"
I think a crucial difference there is the matter of belief. Belief doesn't decide whether or not you're afraid, but it will strongly color what your fear feels like and whether the fear can be fun. Why horror films can be fun to a lot of people is that we don't believe that we or any other real person is threatened.
We can enjoy the play of emotions, we can enjoy the narrative, we can enjoy the creativity of the aesthetics, but we're not worrying on anyone's behalf. But if I saw someone getting mugged or if I were being mugged, there would be someone to worry for or I would believe in the reality of the threat and that would strongly color how the emotion feels.
Andrew S.: It's kind of like playing a game, watching a horror movie, it's like playing football. You can kind of like almost go to war, get really amped like battle this team, but it's not real. Although football is a little weird because there are a lot of injuries.
Eliot Bessette: [crosstalk] that analogy. But yeah, basically the idea. Right?
Andrew S.: Yes. Okay. You don't just study horror movies you study haunts?
Eliot Bessette: Yes, that's right.
Andrew S.: Physical attractions?
Eliot Bessette: Yeah.
Andrew S.: Do you like going to those a lot?
Eliot Bessette: Oh, I love it. I'd be doing it for seven or eight years and I started at the big amusement park attractions, specifically Halloween horror nights at Universal Studios. But I quickly grew tired of that. I quickly outgrew it and wanted something more intense.
I started looking up more experiences that were more physical, more immersive, more tactile, which has led me to the very weird world of extreme haunts, where there is a safe word that you can say if it gets too intense and you sign a waiver and they can put bugs on you, they can smack you around. It's a wild obscure world.
Andrew S.: Oh, are there places where you can go and you get a bunch of money if you stay the whole night, if you make it through? Is that a thing?
Eliot Bessette: That is a common urban legend? I don't think it actually exists anywhere, but I've heard it.
Andrew S.: Bummer. Well, so that's a little weird.
Eliot Bessette: It is. I agree [crosstalk]
Andrew S.: At that point. I mean I guess you know you're safe overall, but they can cross boundaries that you would normally not cross and even these physical haunted house situations. Why does that add things to report to you?
Eliot Bessette: What interests me there is first of all, how much I can handle. I'm interested just in the survival challenge aspect of it. At the same time, from a scholarly perspective, I'm interested in how the fear changes as layers of safety get stripped away. When we watch a horror film, we know that we can see things and we can hear things and that's it.
When we go to a haunt, there is so much more room for sensory engagement or even pain. In one that I went to in New York a years ago, I was waterboarded.
Andrew S.: Why?
Eliot Bessette: I know. First of all, I didn't know this is going to happen going in, but I now have been through a mild version of that. And I know, at least within this very confined, aesthetically managed situation, I have this entire new sensory memory experience of a certain sort of fear. And first of all, I can tell you it's not fun.
Andrew S.: I believe it.
Eliot Bessette: But it's interesting how that could be rolled into an overall theatrical experience with aesthetic value. I know I'm sounding completely crazy.
Andrew S.: No, you're good. But, so there, yeah, you're actually feeling, I'm just imagining the situation. Okay. I feel like waterboarding is about as far as it could go. And it's almost like it's not even theatrical at that point. It's just like you were experiencing things, right?
Eliot Bessette: Yeah, that's exactly right. That what's so strange is it's like the fiction get stripped away. There's nothing fictional in that moment or the times that I've been electrically shocked. It's just reacting to that moment and emotionally reacting, physically reacting, figuring out what you will do or what you can take.
Andrew S.: Wait, so what was the situation like when you were being waterboarded? Were they trying to get something out of you? What's [inaudible] happening in this scenario.
Eliot Bessette: I was in some weird suburb of Buffalo. I had no idea where I was. I was about an hour, 15 minutes into this experience. I was the first person to have gone through. And apparently I learned afterwards the performers were talking amongst themselves and were concerned that I wasn't reacting enough to the other stuff they had thrown at me.
They decided just on a lark to improvise and waterboard me and it worked. It got a reaction. I definitely felt something. And once they saw my legs start jerking, they let me out.
Andrew S.: That was you tapping out?
Eliot Bessette: I didn't want to tap out. I knew I could, I knew there was a safe word although I wouldn't really have been able to say it through a wet cloth hood, but there was a safe word ostensibly. And they could tell that the first round of it had gotten to me. And so they let me take a breather.
And then I was restrained in a wheelchair and they pitched the wheelchair back a second time as though to do it for a second round. And I asked them to stop, but I didn't say the safe word because I didn't want the experience to end and they did stop and then other things happened and they put spiders on me, et cetera. Then the experience wound down.
Andrew S.: Now I'm interested. Okay. Have you worked at one of these places?
Eliot Bessette: No. I bet it would be a ton of fun, but I haven't myself.
Andrew S.: Yeah, because I'm interested in the experience of working at the place. Right. I mean that would be a interesting comparison. Yeah.
Eliot Bessette: I would think so. I would think there would be some interesting sadistic, masochistic polls there as well.
Andrew S.: Yeah, for sure. I don't even know what to say at this one.
Eliot Bessette: Yeah, where do you go from there?
Andrew S.: Now, when I was emailing you to set this up, I said one of my questions might be comparing, these kinds of theatrical haunted houses, although as we've demonstrated, like the theater kind of blurs at some moments there.
But to things like haunted experiences that people might actually believe in, right, if somebody goes to a house... people that are really into saying that the Winchester House right in San Jose is haunted, I think you sent back a response. I was like, "Whoa, man, I don't really believe in ghosts."
Eliot Bessette: I ain't afraid of no ghost.
Andrew S.: But, yeah, I guess so and my mind, I was thinking like there wouldn't be a whole lot of the difference there. You go with this intention of scaring yourself, but when you brought up, the difference between watching a horror movie and watching something terrifying happen to someone else, there's a difference between beliefs. I guess you would argue that there might be a difference, assuming you do believe in supernatural threats.
Eliot Bessette: I think that would be the salient difference. If you go into an allegedly haunted house and you believe in the haunting or the possibility of haunting, then that experience carries with it for you the threat of possession or some sort of paranormal attack. And that's something worth being worried about to return to earlier distinction.
You would worry for your life, for your soul or something. Whereas, like you said, "I don't believe any of that in anything paranormal." If I were to go through a haunted house, I might be affected by the creepy atmosphere, I might think about the history of the place, I might even fear something more pedestrian in the present day like, what if there is a clandestine drug deal happening somewhere? Which would again lead to a sort of worry, but setting that aside, I think I would have a much milder encounter than someone who believe they might be possessed.
Andrew S.: Right. Yeah. I guess I was thinking more of teenagers egging each other on to go into the graveyard vibes and someone who is seriously afraid of becoming possessed. And then it's kind of more back to the whole theatrical thing, right, like your friends and you are collectively saying, "Oh, this is on and but we're trying to go or we're going to prove ourselves anyway." It's almost like a haunted or a haunt at that point. Right?
Eliot Bessette: Yeah, that's a good point. I wonder though, for the teenagers egging each other on how many would kind of maybe sort of hold out the possibility that there is something.
Andrew S.: Right, for sure. Yeah. Did you do that a lot as a kid? Did you like try to go and I don't know, mausoleums or something?
Eliot Bessette: No, there were no good haunted spooky things nearby. I grew up around Chicago that I was aware of, so I had to contend myself with roller coasters and R.L. Stine books.
Andrew S.: Rollercoaster, same kind of line of entertainment as a haunt would you argue or no?
Eliot Bessette: It's pretty similar. I have, I think outgrown roller coasters in a way. They just don't do it for me anymore. And in a way I'm still chasing that fix by going to more and more intense haunts, so they are similar.
Andrew S.: All right? Do you like track them down? Is it like every Halloween, you're just traveling and to find these places?
Eliot Bessette: That's exactly right. It's become one of my main hobbies every October. I write also for a website online, haunting.net. We write news and reviews about the haunt world to share the experiences with people.
One of the things is that many of these immersive experiences let in very few people, sometimes 10 will go through the entire run of the show. Most of the haunt world doesn't get to experience it. And correspondingly reviews from those who have been through take on a more important role than say a Broadway show that might be playing for six months.
Andrew S.: Right. Are there world famous haunt people? People who create the haunts that everybody in the community's like, "Oh, this guy just set up a new haunt I got to check that out."
Eliot Bessette: There are, 2019 is a bit of a down year now that we're talking two of the main creators, the creator of Blackout Out Haunted Houses and the creator of Heretic are both currently not operating. There's a bit of a power vacuum in the community and we're waiting for the next top dog to emerge.
Andrew S.: Got you. Is it just a US thing or do you go internationally?
Eliot Bessette: There are international haunts, I haven't been there. Heretic, had a haunt in Switzerland a year or two ago and I couldn't make that trip.
But I had heard of the setup that you were supposed to fly or otherwise traveled to Basel, take a bus just so far down a road, walk then down a country lane by yourself where you would find a house. You were supposed to go to the house at midnight, knock on the front door and then turn away from the door and wait.
Andrew S.: That sounds pretty terrifying.
Eliot Bessette: I agree.
Andrew S.: As we wrap up this interview, usually, we get time for the guests to say any major point they want to make about, I don't know, their field of study, social issues, anything you want to say? Is there any bigger point you want to make?
Eliot Bessette: I would say that anytime someone watches a horror film, they are being a philosopher. Because what horror films do is present you with fear and allow you to make of it what you will and fear can teach you things about yourself.
All you have to do is pay attention to the feeling, pay attention to how you react to the feeling, how it relates to other feelings, what affects you, what doesn't affect you, but you have a real opportunity to learn about yourself when you watch horror films. Yeah, watch them.
Andrew S.: Sounds great. All right. I've been speaking today with Eliot Bessette from the Department of Film and Media Studies, with some talking about his lifelong interest in horror movies and in experiencing fear at haunts and through the movies. Thank you so much for being on the show, Eliot.
Eliot Bessette: Thank you very much.
Andrew S.: Tune in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.