Fright wing: ‘The Horror Show’, Somerset House, London

Emergency! Emergency! I made it to this show unforgivably late in the run, and at the time of writing it only has a week remaining. If you’re in or near London and can find the time, I would recommend it purely for the heady, intense experience it offers. Failing that, I hope you find the photo record I’ve made below gives you a flavour of the show – and the accompanying book is something of an artefact in itself, well worth seeking out.

I wonder if ‘The Horror Show’ is one of those exhibitions where every visitor thinks afterwards, “Well, I didn’t know quite what I was expecting… but it wasn’t that.” It’s an intriguing premise: a look at how British culture in recent decades has seemed overwhelmingly influenced by the horror genre, mining it for inspiration and subject matter. On the whole, I think it worked. Probably for the best, the show tried to have its cake and eat it, first by drawing out these influences in areas you might not anticipate, and second by making sure there were lots of fascinating juicy exhibits from actual horror films, or related media.

To someone like me, with more or less no sense of direction, much of Somerset House itself is a maze of infinite, almost featureless corridors worthy of the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’, so the venue couldn’t be more appropriate. I believe ‘The Horror Show’ occupied roughly a single side of its quadrangle, allowing it to spread over two floors, filling it with 200 or so exhibits.

There were three separate sections: Monster, Ghost and Witch. Monster, I think, was the part which perhaps best embodied the exhibition’s aims, making powerful but surprising connections: the body horror aspect of ‘Spitting Image’, or the crucial role of horror / SF / fantasy in the aesthetics and artistic practice of the post-punk and goth scenes.

Witch was the least focused area for me. The show didn’t shy away from the more erotic elements of paganism or witchcraft, but to me it felt there was a kind of seedy-British, low-rent aspect to some of this stuff, particularly when presented in the guise of apparent empowerment. With the thesis of the exhibition so UK-dependent, this part suffered: I remember thinking specifically of two US films, ‘Midsommar’ and especially ‘The Love Witch’, that could have sold this idea more effectively. But for anyone into their occult / folk horror, it was an undoubted thrill to see items like the mask from ‘Kill List’, the puppet from ‘Possum’, or behind-the-scenes ephemera from ‘The Wicker Man’.

On the other hand, that understated Britishness was definitely part of what made the Ghost section an absolute triumph. This is absolutely my wheelhouse: the blurry lines between technology and the paranormal (think ‘Ghostwatch’ and ‘The Stone Tape’); the present and the absent (photographs recording Rachel Whiteread’s extraordinary exploration of negative space, ‘House’); the past and the future (the universe conjured up by the Ghost Box record label, state-of-the-art music and design skills in the service of a beautifully intricate retro package). I was pleasantly spooked to see the actual ‘Mezzotints’ used in Mark Gatiss’s recent revival of the famous M R James story, and frightfully amused at the inclusion of Scarfolk, Richard Littler’s brilliant satirical portrait of a town frozen in the 70s, run by its mysterious Council like an Orwellian republic with increasingly doom-laden public information campaigns, Kafka by way of Croydon. (“For more information, please re-read.”)

As I said, only a week before ‘The Horror Show’ vanishes like a phantom into the night. Unless, of course, some of the exhibits remain to haunt the Somerset House corridors into eternity…


(Photos by AA)

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