Artscape
8:10 am
Sun October 2, 2011

Go ahead and scream: New horror film exhibit at Seattle's EMP

What is it about horror films that makes our skin crawl?

EMP Museum's new  "Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film" exhibit dissects the horror flick, ripping apart the hair-raising soundtrack and giving us an up-close view of various movie props: from the gory to the just plain eerie.

Example No. 1 – the torture chair from "Hostel," which is, in fact, an actual interrogation chair from 1930s Czechoslovakia.

EMP asked horror directors John Landis ("An American Werewolf in London"), Roger Corman ("Little Shop of Horrors") and Eli Roth ("Hostel") to pick their favorite horror films. The "Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film" exhibit pays homage to the directors and these films.

Paul Allen's ... brain child

It also offers an interactive "horror soundscape" that looks at horror film music, a monster timeline and an art installation by Philip Worthington that lets visitors morph into "shadow monsters."

The idea for the exhibit comes from EMP's founder Paul Allen, a big horror film nut and a collector as well.

On display from the Allen collection are: Bram Stoker's original "Dracula" manuscript from 1897; the goalie mask used by Jason Voorhees in "Friday the 13th," and the infamous axe used by Jack "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" Nicholson in "The Shining."

The horror mentor

Many of the items are from legendary collector Bob Burns, a mentor to everyone from Peter Jackson to Guillermo del Toro. His director fans love to give Burns props from their films. Many of Burns' items have never been on display.

The movie items are displayed in lit-up medicinal-looking shelves that feel antiseptic.

"And cold and scientific," says Jacob McMurray, EMP senior curator. "We're really trying to emphasize that idea, that contrast, of the rational and irrational, which is such a good part of horror."

It's all in the sound

"If you're frightened in a horror film, don't close your eyes, cover your ears," says Seattle record producer Steve Fisk. He's quoting Roth, the brain behind the bloody "Hostel."

Fisk composed the soundtrack that hovers throughout the exhibit and is the host of the interactive "horror soundscape."

"A lot of what music does is set up," Fisk says. "It creates dread or anxiety or apprehension or the illusion to all of the above."

Case in point: the soundtrack of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Even after watching a ton of horror films as "research" for the exhibit, curator McMurray says that's the movie that most terrifies him. Not because of the visuals but because of the music.

"There really isn’t any overt bloodshed in the movie. It all happens off screen," McMurray says. 

"(But)that soundtrack is petrifying. Chickens squawking. Grating metal sounds. It's so visceral, for me, watching it, I kind of felt a little nauseous the entire time."

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.