At the time of this interview (Aug 2021) Ben Rubin (Horror Studies Collection Coordinator) and Adam Hart (Visiting Librarian) both worked for the Pittsburgh University Library System at Hillman library and were heavily involved in the George A. Romero Archive as well as further acquisitions in the Horror Studies Collection archives. Their knowledge of the collection is thus unparalleled and key to the formation and further development of the Horror Studies. Our talk spans archives, teaching, fandoms, and troll dolls—as any good conversation likely should.
Ben Rubin is the Horror Studies Collection Coordinator, Archives & Special Collections for the University of Pittsburgh Library System. In this role he serves as the curator for the George A. Romero Archival Collection as well as working to build up research collections in support of horror studies ranging from archives and other primary sources to general collection materials including books, media, and journals. He serves as a subject area expert for the library in assisting researchers navigate and utilize library resources. He also participates in programming and exhibit building as a way to engage students, faculty, staff, and the public with the horror studies collections. Lastly, he works closely with faculty to incorporate primary source literacy and engagement within their classes and provide students with an opportunity to handle and actively learn from archival and rare book collections.
Adam Charles Hart is a curator and archivist with Mediaburn. He is the author of Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media and the forthcoming The Living Camera: The History, Theory, and Politics of Handheld Cinematography, and is finishing a book on the work of George A. Romero.
Nathan Koob (NK): How do you both intersect with horror, what are you interested in, what do you research and study?
Ben Rubin (BR): For me it’s always been more on the literary side. I’ve definitely watched a ton of horror films, but I think it just goes back to growing up. We went to the library and I could get whatever I wanted to check out. We didn’t have cable and we weren’t allowed to rent any scary movies from the video store so I only saw them at friends’ houses. Thus, I definitely grew up more on the literary side. I tend more toward the splatter punk, more extreme horror, for a lot of what I read.
NK: Out of curiosity, there wasn’t a concern regarding what you were getting from the library, or maybe your parents didn’t know what you were getting from the library?
BR: No, I think my mom just didn’t care. I could check out whatever I wanted. I could always get the book version, but she didn’t want me to see the film. My dad always thought that was weird because he’d say, “You can imagine it more if you read it than you can if you see it.” But he didn’t really care one way or the other. I think it was more just aversion toward television. If there were things they wanted us to do it was to go outside to play or go read, not go sit in front of the television. It would often be, “you can get this Stephen King book, but you also have to check out this more ‘Literary’ title from the library as well. I think I read my first Stephen King novel in the 5th grade.
NK: So, Oliver Twist and Cujo as bedfellows?
BR: <laughs> Right, yeah.
NK: How about you Adam?
Adam Hart (AH): Well I wrote a dissertation and a book on horror and have been writing about it and teaching it for years at this point. I started being interested in horror because it affected me so much. My analysis of horror movies was in part trying to understand why something that’s just images on a screen could make me jump, scream, and give me nightmares and all that. I think if you read my work you can see, thinking back on it, that there is a preoccupation with those kinds of movies that are really visceral and physical in the responses that they provoke. When I was writing, particularly the book (Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media), I started to develop a real interest in horror in whatever medium as something that’s almost--avant-garde seems like not quite the right word—fundamentally transgressive or subversive, as something that flips aesthetic categories on their heads, that rejects the norms of polite art. There’s almost a sort of instinct that I have now to defend a movie when somebody says, “Oh it’s just a bunch of jump scares” or something like that. I get why that doesn’t seem as rich in terms of literary categories, but I also see how relying on jump scares or gross-out graphic gore as this kind of assault on proper filmmaking practices.
NK: Yeah, in my own thinking on horror, as someone who’s also film studies academically minded, I’ve thought a lot about how even the more ‘poppy’ horror stuff that comes out I always think tend to be much more experimental and playful than other genres at the same level. This is personal taste, but I thought Hell Fest (2018), for instance, was much more interesting than Green Book (2018). It’s probably an unfair comparison, but they both aim for large genre audiences essentially—one being horror and one a wide drama audience.
AH: Yeah, the value of horror for me is that it’s showing you things that most films don’t normally show you and doing it in a way that’s completely unlike how other films would show anything. Even if it’s just received as some sort of ‘dumb’ slasher move, I do see some kind of value in that punk transgressive assault on taste. That’s why horror is interesting to me.
BR: It’s funny that we feel we have to justify it. It’s still an extraordinarily popular genre. It makes a shitload of money. Even these throwaway jump-scare movies are the ones that sell a shitload of tickets, and yet I feel like anytime you talk to horror folks we feel like we have to justify our fandom or show that it has another value. I don’t know that people feel the same need to justify really shitty dramas or rom coms that also make a ton of money and have a big audience and are not well made necessarily. There’s not a constant need to justify your fandom or enjoyment of them.
NK: Yeah, that stigma is something we’ve all talked about through the Horror Studies Working Group of course so it’s great to get into it here. I remember somebody looking at my Stephen King books once and asking what my guilty pleasures were with the leading proximity of gesturing toward the King books. I remember having at that moment the thought that I don’t know if I actually do have guilty pleasures in that I no longer feel guilty about them. Though as you both bring up there are contexts in which we still do justify it. I suppose that’s also an idea that can inflect theories of the archive such as in thinking about new acquisitions. Is there a method you all are using to gain new acquisitions or are there particular types of acquisitions you’re looking for?
BR: Ultimately, yes, I’d like to have an approach in how we want to do this. Right now it’s so new that we’re leaning on the connections we’re able to make. These are the people we’re able to meet, these are areas where we’re getting to programming. We kind of have to take it through the connections we’re making with folks. As far as general acquisitions we can make that aren’t archival donations I definitely want to have a sense of how we’re doing that. For some of it I started with making sure we get all the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson award-winning and nominated titles. It’s a way to broaden our holdings, it’s easy to justify, it makes sense, these are the ones that have been recognized in that group—this is something to have. Beyond that we’re trying to figure out what are areas where we can have better representation in horror. To find out how can we get more diversity in the genre than what we’ve got. For film it’s the same, we know what the canon is, but what’s more on the margins of that canon so that we have those resources for students or faculty when they come in and want to do research. If we want to have Horror Studies as a discipline at Pitt then we have to have those resources. Overall there’s of course more than we can ever acquire so we do have to have some rationale on how we’re going to do this. But on the archive side, Romero drives a good portion of it. We continue to connect with folks who are ancillary to him and who have worked within the Pittsburgh scene. But beyond that a lot of the collections we’ve gotten aren’t related to him at all and are partially driven by the connections we’re making.
NK: Yes, the Bram Stoker award is something I wanted to ask about in the sense that it’s notable that pops up a lot in the collection holdings so it raises the question if that’s a canon you’re working with at the moment, or if that’s one of the communities through which you’re making a lot of connections right now?
BR: Well, through the Horror Writer’s Association more broadly. That is a community that’s there and where folks involved know each other and with any of these kinds of things getting personal introductions from somebody goes a lot further than a cold email. We’ve had a lot better luck with getting in touch with folks through that. Pretty much everybody from our Webinar series (Women in Horror) was people that either I had met, or we’d gotten an introduction through somebody that we’d met. These connections were made personally, and I think that’s what’s driving it. Getting people to respond to things and getting them to want to engage is much easier because they trust their fellow community members.
NK: That makes a lot of sense, Adam, does this speak also to the filmmaker interviews you did with Sonia Lupher or could you talk more about those?
AH: Yes, they were a blast! Sonia Lupher and I did a handful of interviews with filmmakers that Heidi Honeycutt has worked with on her own and through the Etheria Film Festival. We got a lot of students involved and obviously Sonia was central to the programming of it. It was really enlightening and fun hearing Mary Lambert and Guinevere Turner and others talk about the way they managed to cobble together a career in the genre at a time in which that was more or less unthinkable for women. It often meant not working for long stretches or not getting to make the kind of work that they wanted to, but the insights that they had into the industry and the way things have evolved over the last few decades is fascinating. One of the things it really hammered home was the extent to which in Hollywood that everybody has to forge their own path. There’s no natural ladder that everybody can just climb up. The extent to which that’s doubly, triply, quadrupaly true for women even today is really remarkable. Having to sort of invent the wheel for one film and then there’s no sense of momentum from funders or studios for the one that follows that. You have to always be starting over as if you don’t have that kind of track record. That’s changing somewhat, but nobody is too Pollyanna-ish and rosy-eyed about where the genre or industry is now. There are still plenty of steps yet to be taken. All of the interviews were great, but I was actually most fascinated by hearing Jen Wexler, who is a younger filmmaker. She’s directed one film, has produced several, and is working with Larry Fessenden’s company and has been producing with them for a while. Her story strikes me as one that is kind of reason for optimism because she has created this career for herself where because she is also a producer, someone who works to help run an independent production company, there is some repeatability to that. As a producer she has also helped develop the careers of other women writers and directors. It seems like there is actually not just momentum, but sustainability to that sort of career that’s extremely promising. And I just like her work a lot too.
NK: That’s great, absolutely. Actually, as a quick follow-up because I also liked talking about this with Sonia, in your particularly non-horror-based classes do you commonly teach horror films and have you even run into any issues good or bad with that? Are students often reticent to watch horror films when not prepared for it or do they commonly find value in horror films in those contexts?
AH: Horror is interesting because it’s the one genre, maybe other than porn or something like that, where people will be just incapable of watching a horror movie. They hate being scared and they just can’t watch it. I definitely include horror occasionally in non-horror classes. It tends to be popular, students like it, they always have a lot to say. It tends to be the less sensational horror, stuff like Let the Right One In (2008) or The Witch (2015), that anybody can watch without having their sensibilities offended too much.
NK: Yes, same. I’ve always thought about teaching the Innkeepers (2011) in Intro to Film—something that I would still think of as horror but is a bit lighter or frank in a way. I've noticed students seem to get really into A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) in class, for instance. Ben, I know you teach some classes as well, have you run into this?
BR: Nothing related to horror, but I think along those lines if I’m talking to people making recommendations and think they probably would enjoy some horror, because I do read splatter punk and extreme horror I don’t recommend those to people unless I figure they can handle it. I don’t go like, “Hey you should read this Ed Lee book, you’ll know on the first line whether or not you can handle it—trust me!” I would give somebody a recommendation of something that would give an experience of understanding what the genre is but without going for the most extreme example we can get. That would only absolutely solidify how put off they are about the genre.
NK: It is interesting, and in going back to Adam’s earlier point about pornography because if we then think to the Linda Williams triad we would add, interestingly, melodrama in there. Not in terms of what people can handle, but in what people find physically affecting of course. The things I’ve seen the most intense reactions to were, first, a University screening of Audition (1999), the Miike film. There were students who in the last few minutes bolted out of the theater because they couldn’t stand it and of course understandably so as that’s a very intense scene (no spoilers). The other one is Pink Flamingos (1972) because I’ve done a lot of John Waters research for my dissertation and I knew people who would teach it and bring me in to introduce the screening. I would always sit through at least the first half or third of the film because there was always the same scene where people would just get up and leave whether it was a public screening or a class. It was always so fascinating to me to see that…
BR: The chicken scene?
NK: Yes, exactly! We somehow all know that. It is the chicken scene and that’s peoples’ breaking point if they’re going to break.
BR: I had rented that in high school, I had already seen it, and I was trying to make people watch this really transgressive film. I was at this girl’s house and we were watching it and I knew the scene was coming up and her mom walked into the bedroom.
BR: And I bolted up off the bed to hit stop on the VCR because I thought, “Oh please God don’t let the scene play while she’s in here!” <laughs>
NK: <laughs> Yeah, the first time I watched it I saw a lot of it through my fingers, I was around that same age, and now I’ve seen it a lot of times. So I do get it to some extent, but it is so interesting to see people experience crossing a conceptual line in a way they never knew they would before. I think a lot of people have a strong sense of that line being crossed in horror, but when we think to sexuality we don’t culturally think of that line as much, but it’s still there and can be so similar. I’ve done a lot of archival research associated with John Waters/Pink Flamingos and was perhaps somewhat relieved that they contained mainly writing, publicity, and production notes instead of some of the physical objects that could have been there. It has me wondering, in terms of the archive, do you have a preference in terms of what types of materials you’d like to see in the collection such as ephemera or stages of drafts, writing notes, etc.
BR: I really love the drafts and the stuff that shows the creative process. As a policy generally we have things we can’t take. We don’t really take costuming or some stuff like that—things we don’t really have the capacity to take care of. Otherwise we have lots of collections with lots of variants of what’s included. We talk to donors and see what they have and make the determination of what’s appropriate.
NK: Great, is that the same for you Adam in terms of what you most like to see in a collection.
AH: Yeah, I love to see the early versions of stuff that’s familiar or that I know backwards and forwards like Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Day of the Dead (1985). I like things that give us an entirely different radical understanding of the point things started out at. You can see the creative process, but also the evolution of ideas and the compromises for logistical or financial reasons, the changing preoccupations and interests thematically of a writer or filmmaker just as a project can take years or decades sometimes. Something we have a ton of in the Romero archive, but which is pretty rare to get from a lot of people because they don’t necessarily hang onto this sort of thing or they want to keep hanging onto it, is drafts and ideas for stuff that was never made or never completed. The volume of unmade scripts, treatments, and ideas in the Romero archive is just astonishing, and they’re really great some of them. Not all of them are as polished as others, some of them are more promising, and some might have gotten somewhere really great with another draft or two. I think they’re all extremely valuable. Romero was a really great writer in a lot of ways, and I just love reading his scripts. Even the ones that don’t work there’s always something really interesting, some weird idea in there. I think that especially writers, authors, are a bit more reticent to share with the world the stuff that wasn’t good enough by their own admission, through publishers, or for whatever reason was never published.
NK: That’s great. I wanted to ask you both, I was reading the announcements about acquisitions and Linda Addison had a great quote, and I’m paraphrasing, about how the archive extends the authorial life of her and her work. I was curious how you both interpret that. In what ways do you see the archive as extending these authorial lives?
BR: I think having that documentation of that creative process does a lot of that. Seeing these drafts and revisions, and I think particularly as you get students who are interacting with it in an increasingly completely digital way, where they’re writing and they just resave over their Word document, or, it autosaves now right? You don’t have to obsessively hit that button. They kind of lose what that looked like and I think that’s a big piece of what comes through with that. I think we see that with other literary archives that we have outside of the genre of fiction. By having that document and having it actually live in the archive it gives a little bit more to it where people can continually come back and have the opportunity to engage with it. I don’t know if it extends the lifetime of how recognized their work is or not, but it still gives that opportunity and continually can be rediscovered further down the line. We have some papers of authors from the late 1800s early 1900s that were really big when they were writing then, but have kind of fallen off. Because we have their archives people are assigning their work at Pitt so they can engage with the archive and see it. They also come up with creative ways to do that. Once class was looking at them as lost best sellers, that the ideas in these books were best sellers 100 years ago but now are forgotten. We have all this documentation so he reassigns these books, gets students re-exposed to them and then we have all these other pieces to help enrich that class. Hopefully work like Linda’s wouldn’t fall off people’s radars, but I think in a way that at least at the University of Pittsburgh it’ll continue to pop up in curriculum.
NK: And in theory in the larger project if the archive grows to become a horror center for literary and film material. That itself also adds to that in a larger sense. Adam, do you have anything to add onto that?
AH: Just that you never know what some reader or scholar or student is going to find valuable in a decade or five decades or 100+ years. It’s not just that it’s unpredictable, but that we sort of need to preserve as much as possible of the genre for posterity so that those sorts of discoveries can be made. I obviously wouldn’t be here for it, but if some scholar 150 years from now is interested in horror and finds the papers of somebody whose name is no longer in circulation for whatever reason and realizes that they’ve found a major voice. That’s the ideal for any archivist—that you’re planning for so far down the line that someone can make that discovery of value, genius, and importance. We’ve been talking a lot with and working a lot with Lisa Morton who’s a really prolific author, the former head of the HWA, and just an all-around great person, but she’s put out one volume already of an anthology called Weird Women that collects women’s horror short fiction. Ben, do you remember what the year range is? It’s from mostly the 1800s.
BR: I think it cut off around 1924
AH: She’s compiling a second volume…
BR: It’s out!
AH: Oh, it’s already out! She’s been digging through with her co-editor Leslie Klinger they’ve been digging through old magazines and just finding all of these amazing stories that nobody has thought about in at least a century <laughs> and sometimes longer. Imagine if somebody had thought in the 1880s to save all of the drafts of this short story that Lisa and Leslie Klinger are now putting back into the public consciousness for the first time in who knows how long. Imagine how valuable that would be.
NK: Yeah! I love this, and I agree that so much about the value of archives is in the unknown. You don’t know what is going to be valuable or what people will get out of things. Not to bring up Dickens again, but how much value have people gotten out of the fact that we have the serialized versions of his work some of which were later published as novels and we actually can track all of those edits that occur in between. This is something your archive is providing in stuff that wasn’t published in these same ways. I actually had this exact conversation with Alan Rudolph in the Robert Altman archive. We were walking through and he pulled a random box within the Afterglow materials, because Altman was a producer, and it was all financial and tax records, and he said, “Come on, who wants any of this? Who cares?” And I said, Alan, you never know. Someone who has an eye for something and knows about film finance and has a different perspective, this can tell you a lot when you look at the documents and read between the lines. Years later I knew someone who went in to the Altman collection and that’s exactly what they were looking for—all the financial and legal documents to look at the intricacies of how more independent films were financed back then.
AH: We’ve heard that from a lot of filmmakers and authors who didn’t think anybody would be interested. One of the most heartening things and that makes me most excited about the future of the archive is that we’ve also talked to a number of young filmmakers and authors who are not ready to start thinking about archives yet, it’s still very early in their career, but I do like our pitch: It’s cheaper and more dependable than a storage unit. But what they’ve been saying is that now that they know there are people who are interested, they will hang onto this stuff. They’ll go out of their way to save the call sheets for the film shoot, to save the ephemeral stuff that they usually throw away or that ends up in boxes, drafts of the script or manuscript. If there’s one thing that you already see something of an impact in the archive is that young authors and filmmakers realize that there is an interest and they should hold onto this stuff and I think that’s super valuable. Who knows what they’ll do with it or where it will find a home eventually, but just the fact that they’re not throwing this stuff away is a positive for the world I think.
NK: Yeah, the more the collection becomes a known entity the more that knowledge gets out there: there are things worth saving. Imagine if we got the collection of—I don’t know—Dean Koontz or somebody, and when we got the collection in the boxes there were just all these troll dolls and we then find out that every new novel he would put a different troll doll on his desk to be paired with that novel. Who knows what use that is, but it is really fascinating…
BR: <laughs> I think that’s our new viral rumor about Dean Koontz…
NK: <laughs> Absolutely!
George Romero and Pittsburgh: The Early Years
The Horror Studies Working Group (HSWG) focuses on structuring as many opportunities as we can for academic, student, and fan work in horror because it is difficult to predict where the next great thing will come from. In our effort to help bring awareness to academic and student work in horror, the HSWG was thrilled to help premiere three student-produced documentaries on George Romero’s birthday (February 4th 2021). The event was realized through the cooperation of Carl Kurlander’s Making the Documentary course and the George A. Romero Foundation in a private University of Pittsburgh event hosted by Pitt’s University Library System (ULS). The film received essential funding and practical support from ULS, the University Honors College (UHC), the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, the Center for Creativity, the Department of English, and the Film and Media Studies Program. The HSWG, through the generous participation of the UHC, provided some further funding aid to help students finish two short documentaries, on Night of the Living Dead leading-man legend and Pitt alumnus Duane Jones and another on making a documentary during a pandemic. These films served as informative introductions to the night’s main feature: George Romero and Pittsburgh: The Early Years. The film runs almost an hour, boasts dozens of interviews with prominent figures in the Romero universe, has thoroughly excavated archival material, and according to the students who made it, represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of material that they found. The impressive array of documentaries were made by Carl Kurlander’s Making the Documentary course (ENGFILM 1671/FMST 1740), where students are mentored by film professionals and given access to archival materials as well as interview subjects. I was able to sit down with Kurlander to discuss the course, its history, and the journey to the Romero-based documentaries. Carl Kurlander is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh in English and Film & Media. Kurlander is the faculty adviser of Pitt in Hollywood, a student group which led to the creation of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, a non-profit which has helped Pittsburgh become a leading regional production center. In June 2019, Kurlander helped launch the Pitt in LA film program, taught at Lionsgate Studios.
Sonia Lupher has been a member of the Horror Studies Working Group since the very beginning and is intimidatingly adept at programming amazing events. Her work focuses particularly on women in horror and as a result her impressive list of contacts and interests allow her to access compelling, edgy, and extremely talented horror filmmakers and artists. Most recently, Sonia hosted an event with director Lesley Manning discussing the impact of her film Ghostwatch (1992). See my own interview with Sonia about the Horror Studies Working Group and her work. Like any good horror interview we span such topics as cookbooks and cannibal horror to teaching Psycho and Funny Games.
A History Told in Infinite Parts: Part I
Though we would like to say the Group started one all-hallowed October 31st, the reality is that seeds of the Horror Studies Working Group (HSWG) started sprouting on an otherwise unassuming Thursday in 2016. It was at this point that Adam Lowenstein, Pitt Professor of English and Film/Media Studies, began to work on an event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) in Pittsburgh. This event would grow to be the annual Romero Lives Festival and in turn flourish into the realization that maybe the University of Pittsburgh could be the perfect site for a Horror Studies Center. The connection came from seeing that the 50th anniversary event for Night of the Living Dead would be an opportunity for Pittsburgh to fully recognize the great influence of Romero on the city and the many ways in which he had promoted it throughout his life. This strong connection indelibly links Pittsburgh to modern horror and there’s no reason why this is something that Pittsburgh can’t embrace more fully. The HSWG, then, ultimately flowered from the desire to provide a structure for horror scholarship and appreciation centered in Pittsburgh and available to the world—thus it all started with a little 50th anniversary event that pre-dated it all