The inaugural “Once Upon a Screen: Screen Traumas and Cinephilic Hauntings” yielded many of my favourite video essays of 2020. I was taken especially with the way many complicated more familiar critical viewing practices with personal and performative approaches, crossing analysis with affect and emotional experience.
Almost as soon as I began sketching my personal history for this volume, however, I realized it would be handed off to a stranger. In its place, I’d have to grapple with someone else’s encounter. I was intrigued by the prospect of a personal project intersected (or sideswiped?) by impersonal dimensions (anonymous collaborators and an unfamiliar film). One of the stipulations of this collaboration was that the films in question not be named by the authors. I puzzled for some time over the identity of the film gestured to in the prompt I’d been given, a grotesque scenario studded with insect imagery, and scented with a pervasive odour of disgust that suggested horror as the frame. I’m a seasoned viewer of that genre, but I struggled in vain to pin down the exact specimen.
Ultimately, I opted to use the video to collect a swarm of insects, identifying the bug-ridden corpus of David Cronenberg as my only gesture towards a precise entomology. I’ve pressed here on the question of identification introduced in Jiří and Veronika’s text, with its frankly wild premise “that humans and insects are not all that different.” If it’s drab to say that I believe we are, I must nevertheless admit to a fascination with the way surrealist and horror films have so often plumbed the intimacy of our shared experience with these creatures. Our connection with insects isn’t brokered by identification, but by proximity and contiguity. We touch all the time, if mostly against our will.
Though I’ve long been invested in the form, it was only with the move to online teaching during the pandemic that I began making video essays of my own. There are distinct vestiges of that pedagogical history in this piece, though my concern in teaching was not to bind the play of images with a disembodied voice of authority but rather to use vocal performance to assert and expose the personal (so easily eclipsed with our exit from the classroom). In academic discussions of video essay form, voice-over technique has often been criticized for its feigned objectivity. But one’s voice can signal immersion as well as transcendence—it can serve as a first-person tool for exploring subjectivity and sounding out doubt and ambivalence.
Horror is everywhere in this collection of video essays; it seems the call to break from a detached analytical approach to film drives many of us back into the maw of a genre from which we can’t distance ourselves. Often against our will, these movies alight upon us, touching raw nerves and provoking messy feelings. Horror’s perplexing appeal, for me, lies less in fear than in disgust, in the abject spectacles that trigger my body’s senseless revolt, its futile attempts—with a flinch, a wince, a clench of the stomach—to push the image inside back out of my frame. Insects are abjection’s inadvertent ambassadors because they breach thresholds without recognizing the lines they cross. Horror carries me over those boundaries, delighting in my squeamishness even as it coaxes me to let down my defenses.
Gregory Brophy is Associate Professor of English at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec. His research spans film and literature, including work recently published in Literature/Film Quarterly (2023), The New Review of Film and Television (2021), Science Fiction Film and Television (2020), Victorian Review (Spring 2020) and the Journal of Victorian Culture (October 2019). His current project, Endless Forms: the Evolution of Science Fiction Film Studies, is a book and multimedia project that connects formal arguments about film adaptation to urgent ecological and ethical questions concerning our evolving relations with the planet in the Anthropocene.