There’s something big in the horror field going on in Pittsburgh that few fans of the genre are aware of, but should be: the University of Pittsburgh has set out to create the world’s largest special collection of material related to the genre. As overseen by librarian Benjamin Rubin and visiting researcher/film professor Adam Hart, the archive started with the acquisition of George A. Romero’s collection of materials related to his career (bit.ly/3qFHJIu); now, Ben and Adam hope to expand beyond Romero and are actively seeking materials from other writers and filmmakers, with the goal to creating a substantial archive that will expand understanding of the genre and serve as the go-to research source for generations of scholars.
Let’s start by assuming that many of the readers for this interview may not be familiar with the academic world. Given that, can you both tell us a little about how special collections work, and why they’re important, especially to the horror genre?
BEN: Sure, Special Collections are the rare and unique items that reside in a library, and generally include archival materials, manuscripts, and rare books. These materials are very important to the library, especially as they help distinguish a particular institution, as they are often one of a kind or extremely rare and maybe only held at a handful of places. Libraries have always been the space where the cultural and knowledge record of our societies reside. With the emergence of the digital era, much of the access has been shifted as it becomes available online. Of course, this isn’t the case for everything and not everyone has digital access, so libraries remain essential as the space for everyone to come and learn from our resources. But libraries really treasure their archives and special collections and use them as a way to set themselves apart and can serve as a means for an institution to focus its collecting efforts. Libraries often become known for a collecting area represented in their archives and special collections. In relation to horror specifically, I think that it’s always important for libraries to collect and preserve everything, including that which is maybe not considered “worth” keeping, whether that is because it is seen as ephemeral, unimportant, or controversial. For a genre that is oft maligned, I think we can risk losing a significant part of the cultural record unless we make an effort to ensure we recognize its value and seek to preserve it. Just because it might be seen in a negative light now doesn’t mean it will remain so, and having these records ensures we can better understand the greater historical significance and impact the genre has had.
ADAM: An archive like this serves, essentially, two functions: preservation and scholarship. We would love to see Pitt become a destination for anyone interested in studying the history of horror, that if you want to research any topic in the horror genre, you will find something of use here. And because Pitt’s archives are open to anyone (at least, they are under non-pandemic circumstances), that includes students and faculty, but also critics and fans. If you love George Romero’s work, you can come to our reading room and actually read the first, unfinished version of Dawn of the Dead that he wrote in 1974 that features telepathy and intelligent zombies.
But while I think that we can all agree on the importance of our first, foundational collection from George A. Romero, we’ve also been doing a lot of work to expand our archive beyond the biggest of big names in the genre. Archivists have to think beyond the current moment, past the figures who might be the most important names in 2021 to think about what needs to be preserved for researchers 10, 20, or 100 years down the line. Or more. And that’s not something we can know, except that Ben and I are passionate horror fans and, for us, the filmmakers who have made their first, low-budget feature that we adore or the writers whose names are sacred amongst a small but limited group and virtually unknown outside of horror devotees, that work is just as important in the long run as is that of someone like Romero. So we think it’s important whether or not it’s left much of a footprint yet. But also, as anyone who’s spent time researching knows, it’s the stuff that doesn’t leave a large cultural mark that needs to be preserved the most. It would take a truly apocalyptic series of events for us to lose The Stand or Interview with the Vampire, but somewhere out there is a story in an anthology or a journal with two hundred copies in circulation that some researcher will discover a few decades down the line and realize is an utter masterpiece whose rediscovery will completely change the genre going forward.
One of the things we’ve encountered over and over again is a writer or filmmaker who had genuinely never considered that an archive might be interested in their work. WE ARE. But the heartbreaking side of that story is that because they thought nobody would be interested, they didn’t hold on to anything. Our interest is in preserving the history of horror for future generations, so, first and foremost, our message to writers, filmmakers, and artists is: whatever you end up doing with it, whatever your long term plans might be for your career or those boxes of stuff you’re keeping in a storage space, please please please don’t throw anything away. Especially anything that shows the development of your work: notes, outlines, drafts, drafts covered in scribbles, feedback, page proofs, etc.
Ben, you’ve got one of the coolest job titles in the world—“Horror Studies Collection Coordinator.” How did you end up in this position, and what’s an average workday like for you?
BEN: It is a great title and definitely a bit surreal. I’ve always been a horror fan, and it’s incredibly edifying to find myself in a position in which I get to include that fandom in my professional life. I think a bit of it was just luck of being in the right place at the right time. I was working in Archives & Special Collections, and due to my knowledge of the subject matter, was involved in the discussions about the Romero archive coming to Pitt. Once we knew that the Romero archive would indeed be deposited with Pitt, our library administration began considering whether this could serve a larger purpose. After some research, it was apparent that no other institution was specifically collecting around horror, and so we decided that the ULS (University of Pittsburgh Library System) would embark upon this effort and I am lucky enough to find myself in the position of overseeing this endeavor.
An average day is difficult to define. There is processing work, which includes working with an archive to inventory, arrange, describe, and catalog the materials. I also work to meet and forge connections with folks to help us grow our collecting efforts either through physical collections or programming. Additionally, I work on reference assistance, helping researchers with questions about our collections or facilitating access. And lastly, working with our faculty and students to generate ways to provide primary source instruction and experience, whether through a class visit or independent research project.
Adam, your role in the George Romero Archive is “visiting researcher.” What exactly is that?
ADAM: This past year, Ben and I have been processing the material from Romero and our two other archives, from Night of the Living Dead writer John A. Russo and Rotters novelist Daniel Kraus, which consists of sorting through and organizing boxes, creating an inventory, and entering it into the library system. But I’ve also been able to be the first person to really dig into Romero’s materials for my own research. Some of that is just reading what’s in there and trying to make connections and draw out ideas and themes that get worked out over the course of several different projects. But I’ve also been pestering just about everyone connected with the materials that I’ve been able to find, particularly related to the unmade projects. The vast majority of the unmade scripts have little to no contextual information, no production history, no contracts—all we have is a script, sometimes multiple drafts. So, I’ve been trying to track down collaborators to hear about the projects. It’s led to some amazing revelations about projects that Romero worked on, some of which were extremely important to him, but which for one reason or another never came to fruition,
It’s been extraordinarily exciting, just an incredible opportunity. I’ve been writing about this material and am already about halfway through a book that would tie together Romero’s films with his unmade or unpublished projects. The sheer size of the archive means that it can’t be exhaustive, but I’ve tried to figure out ways to show how a project like Copperhead, a Robocop-like project that he developed with Marvel Comics legend Jim Shooter in the early 1980s, illuminates aspects of his zombie films; or how a story fragment from the early 1970s about a society of pre-human ape people eventually led to Diary of the Dead; or how Martin began as an unfinished novel about a middle-aged businessman who was definitely not a vampire. That sort of detective work finding the connections between works is fun—and incredibly satisfying—but it’s also been revelatory.
For me, the most exciting find was a VHS tape with the words “Jacaranda Joe” handwritten on a sticker. We found a lost film made by Romero, one that only a handful of people even know about. And I’ve spent months tracking down info about the production, pestering a really wide range of people. We’re still working on it, but because of that, we’ve filled in a lot of the gaps and have managed to obtain the original 35mm camera footage. Work will need to be done to preserve and maybe even restore it, but, whatever else I do in my life, I can always say that I saved a lost film by George Romero. (Which is, ahem, only a minor exaggeration.)
Ben, I know the Romero Archive was assembled from three different sources. Did they all come to you, or did you go after any of them?
BEN: The collection came from materials deposited by his widow Suzanne Romero, daughter Tina Romero, and business partner Peter Grunwald. Suz was our first contact. She was interested in finding a home for George’s materials, and had a connection to the university through a faculty member. We met with her to discuss some of the details of archives here at Pitt and talk to her about our stewardship including our efforts to use archives and primary source materials for instruction and teaching. We apparently made a good impression, which then led to similar discussions with Tina and Peter, and then they eventually made a collective decision that the ULS would be the right home for the archive.
Can you give us a rough idea of the size of the collection so far?
BEN: The collection takes up over 100 boxes of mostly paper but also includes photographs, moving image media, books, and props. There are also over 3,000 digital files that were included, which we are still working through. So, it’s a large collection and has lots of opportunity for exploration. It spans his entire career, but it’s really a document of his creative energy and mind. By far, the largest part is the mass of scripts that he wrote. He had so many stories he wanted to tell, and this archive will provide the world with an opportunity to finally read these stories.
Adam, you’ve spoken about how some of what you’ve found in the collection will change our understanding of Romero as an artist. How so?
ADAM: Romero never sought to be a horror specialist. He and his collaborators in Latent Image [production company] only turned to creature features after several other productions in the 1960s never got off the ground, and even though he seemed to enjoy his status as a master of horror, his interests were always far broader than his filmography would indicate. The scripts in the archive cover just about every conceivable genre, from westerns to children’s fantasies to science fiction epics to raunchy comedies. There are musicals, including a “sci-fi space rock musical” adaptation of Tales of Hoffman that he wanted to stage at Carnegie Mellon University—his alma mater—with original songs written by his longtime collaborator John Harrison. The archive gives us a much more complete picture of his artistic interests and ambitions. And the more I read, the more impressed I am by Romero as a writer. I’m increasingly approaching his unmade scripts and early drafts of familiar films as valuable works in their own right, all of them worthy of study and celebration. We can think of them as “failed” film projects, but we can also appreciate them as vivid and hugely imaginative pieces of writing. He clearly loved to write, and some of his most fun writing came in short pieces that he didn’t seem particularly serious about actually making—4-12 page “treatments” for films with goofy premises like Monster M*A*S*H* (about a secret medical unit made up of monsters that travels around the world to treat the medical emergencies of fellow creatures) or Nuns from Outer Space (about aliens who happen to look like nuns, and whose language contains words that happen to sound like words we associate with the Catholic Church). Romero was a great filmmaker, of course, but he was also one hell of a writer.
Many of us who are long-time Romero fans are familiar with the notorious early draft of Day of the Dead that had zombie armies, but you’ve found a draft of Dawn of the Dead that contained equally interesting differences. What can you tell us about that?
ADAM: In early 1974, Romero met with American International Pictures about possibly producing a sequel to Night of the Living Dead called Dawn of the Dead. A lot of the story’s foundation was already there: it was set in a mall, with the characters living off of what they could grab from stores, and the characters of Stephen and Francine (referred to as “Francie” in the script) were present. But that’s where the similarities end.
Romero composed a letter about that meeting with AIP, and in that letter, he seems to be referring to an unfinished (possibly incomplete) early draft that we have in the archive. Steve and Francie are the main characters, hiding out in the secret rooms of a mall that’s still overrun by zombies. But the zombies are semi-intelligent, capable of learning and being trained—an idea that was important to Romero’s early drafts of both Dawn and Day. That early script is very much an action movie, with little of the satire of the eventual film. This aspect of the film is never resolved, alas, but Romero brings in an unexpected supernatural element to the film, as the zombies are controlled by two mysterious humans. One of them wears an eye patch and has telepathic powers over both the zombies and the heroes. It’s clear that the “rules” of zombies hadn’t been fully established yet, but also that Romero was primarily interested in making a film that wasn’t just more of the same. He’d eventually find a way to do that by making Dawn a kind of slapstick satire with a handful of action scenes, but it’s clear his first impulse was to do something very, very different from the original.
But in that letter, Romero discusses AIP’s feedback. They were, apparently, interested in potentially producing Dawn if it was cast with an all-Black cast, starring a famous athlete (AIP had experienced major successes with some early Blaxploitation films, including a huge hit with Blacula and several very profitable collaborations with the great Jim Brown). The most famous Black athlete of the era just happened to be someone with whom Romero was personally acquainted, as he had just made a documentary about him that was broadcast on national television: O.J. Simpson. In the letter, Romero mentions that Simpson was not available, so he suggested a rewrite of the script that would expand the cast list so that the film’s promotion would not depend on the marquee value of a single name. Instead, he thought that perhaps they could cast the film with a whole bunch of athletes. The letter contains the first scene, handwritten, for a re-imagining of the film with a larger cast.
That project never went further, and I have some guesses as to why, but they are just speculation. We can’t even know if Romero sent the letter! But when he returned to Dawn a couple years later, he simplified the story substantially. He did keep in mind that idea of working with athletes as a way of finding funding, and that led to one of my favorite projects in the whole archive, his bigfoot movie The Footage that was set to star Steelers running back Franco Harris (and possibly also their quarterback, Terry Bradshaw).
Romero’s collaborations with other horror artists—I’m thinking mainly of Dario Argento on Dawn of the Dead and Stephen King on Creepshow and The Dark Half—led to some of his best work. Have you found any unproduced collaborative efforts, maybe that one great unmade project with Stephen King?
BEN: Yes, Romero was very collaborative. It seems that everyone we talk to who worked with him praises the atmosphere of collegiality and inclusiveness that he fostered on set. He was friends with Stephen King, and they had plans to work together on many more projects than what came to fruition. For me, I think there are two King collaborations that I would have really loved to have seen. One is for a cut segment from Creepshow 2, called “Pinfall.” It is in the perfect EC [comics] style and is a hilarious story of yuppies, bikers, zombies, and bowling. It was in the original draft for Creepshow 2 and then also later included for Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, but unfortunately never made it into either film. Another is one we don’t have a script for, but rather just the contract for the rights: The Long Walk. I think the themes of this Richard Bachman novel would have been perfect for Romero to cover. A non-King collaboration I wish would have made it was on The Light at the End with John Skipp. This didn’t seem to make it past the planning stage, and ultimately Romero was involved in other projects, but the possibility it presents is intriguing.
ADAM: Ben has spent a bit more time with the King scripts, but there are tons of other collaborations. I’m very fond of Copperhead, the collaboration with Jim Shooter. There’s a fantastic western script called Quevira that he worked on with William B. Farmer. Jay Bonansinga’s first novel, The Black Mariah, was a perfect fit for Romero’s sensibilities: a film about an ancient curse, with roots in American racism, that passes from person to person on the road, killing them if their vehicle falls below a certain speed. In the early 1990s, Bonansinga and Preston Whitmore III were working with Romero to adapt it for a bigger studio production when they got a phone call from the studio informing them that there was another film, further along in production, from a rival studio with a similar premise. So, because of Speed, The Black Mariah was shut down in the middle of script revisions.
In general, Romero loved to collaborate and loved to give people chances. He gave scores of people their first gig on a film production—mostly as cast and crew, but also sometimes as writers. I spoke to one writer who introduced himself to Romero at a festival in 1980 or so and the two of them hit it off. He sent Romero a script, which he liked but wasn’t something he wanted to make at that time. But a few months later, Romero called him and hired him to adapt a book called Mayday that he wanted to make after Creepshow. We’ve been hearing a lot of those sorts of stories from the people we’ve spoken to. Romero seemed to genuinely believe in people, especially anyone with a bit of enthusiasm, and by doing so, he got some truly remarkable work out of people with little or no experience. His sets were kinda like film school for several generations of young Pittsburghers.
You’ve had an almost-unprecedented opportunity to examine the entire working career of a great filmmaker, so I’m wondering if you gained insight into the arc of his career. Or, to put it more bluntly: why are Romero’s last two films as director—2007’s Diary of the Dead and 2009’s Survival of the Dead—so pale in comparison to his earlier films?
ADAM: Well, considering that Diary is about a bunch of University of Pittsburgh students trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, I believe that we’re professionally required to at least give it a chance . . . I actually quite like Diary, but I know that those last two films never found the audience that his earlier zombie films did, and that they aren’t treasured in the same way. There’s an anger to them that makes them less approachable.
The ’90s were a time of absolutely remarkable creativity for Romero. He wrote in a million different genres with a million different tones. He was writing for fun and for hire, and he had a handful of projects get extremely close to production. But after the critical and financial failure of Bruiser and the perceived failure of Land of the Dead, that pace tails off. Is it because he was, quite understandably, a bit less excited about only being able to get zombie movies financed? After a lifetime of having to scrape together budgets for every film he’d ever made (and trying to scrape together budgets for dozens more that never made it that far), I can understand that, at a certain point, you just don’t have the energy to fight for every little thing. It’s unfortunately common among American indie filmmakers, genre or otherwise.
Adam, you’ve talked about Night of the Living Dead as a key film in the “New Horror” that supplanted earlier horror cinema, and noted that its most famous line of dialogue—“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”—is delivered in a Boris Karloff impression that links it with the past. How aware do you think Romero was of his standing within the horror film genre’s history?
ADAM: His relationship with horror is fascinating. He loved old monster movies and cheesy ’50s science fiction, and tried to get his own versions made of The Mummy (both on his own in the ’80s and again in the ’90s as part of the chain of filmmakers who worked on what would eventually become the Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser Mummy), War of the Worlds, Frankenstein (in several different iterations, including an X-rated spoof called . . . wait for it . . . Peterstein), Dracula, The Golem. But the genre also limited him, enough that by the end of his career he was essentially only able to make Dead sequels (and on an ever-shrinking budget, at that). It’s not that he disliked making horror movies, but his interests were incredibly diverse, and horror quickly became the only kind of project he could get funded. After Night, he never really tried to scare anybody with his movies. It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Night, not just on horror but on indie filmmaking and genre more broadly. In order to find an analog in terms of influence, you’d probably have to look to billion-dollar blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws or, I dunno, Harry Potter, but after Night he seems far more interested in figuring out ways to fit his ideas into the shape of something that could be categorized as horror than he was in giving viewers nightmares. So at times you see some pretty strong ambivalence. I think that what made his films so new and so influential was that he was always trying to bring his other interests to the horror genre. Night feels so visceral and immediate because it brought Orson Welles and modern theater and documentary into the horror genre.
Is there a particular Romero film that you gained greater appreciation for after going through this material?
ADAM: The development of Day of the Dead is fascinating. I think the first version of the script is the best script he ever wrote, and even though I do love the finished film, I love the creativity of the original. Each successive step in the film’s development narrows the canvas, starting out with an epic vision featuring massive armies of the undead in combat with each other in a very brief 1979 synopsis, and then a first draft with less combat but an expansive cast of characters and a vividly realized world with a stratified society and a religious rebel faction and a whole system of trained zombies. Then the filmed version funnels so many of those ideas into a compact, hyper-intense movie that feels like it could be a stage play: a handful of characters interacting in a handful of locations, the drama and suspense coming from internal conflicts rather than from action set pieces.
BEN: I think I gained a greater appreciation for his entire body of work by going through the material. But to pick just one film—I think I’ll go with one of his lesser appreciated films: The Dark Half. I think this film is often overlooked and suffered from his conflicts with working with a major studio. But it was also his last big hurrah of filming in Pittsburgh. From the production material, it’s apparent what that meant to him and the fans and it involved people from all over the community to not just serve as extras in the background but really work on the film. So, he kept that independent and local character to the film despite working with a studio that would have preferred he played by Hollywood rules. It’s also just noteworthy as the culmination of so many abandoned projects between King and Romero. It’s a strange twist of fate that this is the only major feature length adaptation of King’s work by Romero, but perhaps it makes sense in that it is a rather personal story to King in dealing with fandom, the exposure of his pseudonym, and battles with personal demons. It’s also one of the few projects that has well documented enumeration of drafts so that one could really move along the path from the original novel through the drafts to the final film and trace that process of adaptation, which I find really interesting.
What can you tell us about the great lost Romero film from 1973, The Amusement Park?
BEN: It is a pretty amazing piece and absolutely harrowing despite not really being a horror film. It was made on contract with Lutheran Social Services to explore the problems that older folks face in America. The result is a truly surreal and terrifying exploration of the experience of one man as he navigates an amusement park. The sights and sounds of the park are employed to create a disorienting atmosphere coupled with the sheer disdain in which he’s treated by everyone at the park despite being in clear need of aid. On one hand, I can see why it was ultimately not used widely to promote the need for building a better social safety net, but on the other, I cannot think of a more effective piece to communicate that need. And the themes are timeless as ever. Almost fifty years later, we’re still struggling with providing needs to what is an even larger aging population than existed in ’73.
ADAM: It’s great, and it’s very strange! It’s not a horror movie, but it is horrifying. Romero’s collaborator Wally Cook wrote a screenplay for the Lutheran Services, which had just started running the local Meals on Wheels. It’s supposedly an educational film, but it’s far more surreal and disturbing than anything you’d expect to show in a classroom. It’s an allegory set at an amusement park, in which an old man is put through a series of increasingly painful and alienating trials and humiliations. It gets into really bizarre, existential territory.
The archive contained about sixty unproduced scripts. Which one of those do you most wish had been made?
BEN: The number ended up being even higher—there are an astounding 114 unproduced titles, of which just over eighty were authored by Romero! I couldn’t pick just one, so I’ll list a few. I wish we could have seen the aforementioned King adaptations. There is a project called Moonshadows in which shadows cast from moonlight come to life to haunt. I really like that idea of the danger being not so much what’s lurking in the shadows, but the shadows themselves. There’s a project called Midnight Show in which a ghost inhabits an old cinema and haunts producers as the classic monsters the ghost played in film. There are also two projects that seemed more like a sketch of a fun idea, but I think would have been great: Monster M*A*S*H, about the warzone field hospital but with monsters; and Nuns from Outer Space, which has all the hallmarks of a monster of the week X-Files episode with aliens being mistaken for nuns in the desert out west. This last one is also probably my favorite title of any project in the archive.
ADAM: I really love The Footage, his Bigfoot project from the 1970s. We have three drafts of treatments (shorter, and written in prose), so it never got to the script stage, but we have some character designs and other materials. Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris was attached to star in it at some point! It’s a fascinating glimpse into the way he thought about monsters: a community of Bigfeet in the middle of the woods are disturbed by a television crew filming a show about hunting. The Bigfoot society is a kind of utopian, communal paradise, while the humans nearly kill each arguing about what to do next. He would pick up some of those ideas twenty years later for Jacaranda Joe, but that’s a verrrrry different script.
I’d also love to have seen one of his more grandiose projects get made, to see him get money for a huge, epic spectacle with lots of special effects and a huge cast and such. War of the Worlds, or maybe the first version of Day of the Dead.
I know your ultimate goal is to expand the collection beyond Romero and create the world’s largest horror archives, encompassing everything from literature to film to fan activities like conventions. Can you tell us more about your goals for the collection and how you’re pursuing them?
BEN: Yes, that is exactly the goal. It is an ambitious project, but something I think we can achieve. I hope to develop a collection that really reflects the depth and diversity of the genre. This makes it really exciting but also really daunting. The literary and film archives can offer a great window into the creative process and serve as an inspiration for our students that hope to pursue similar careers. I also really think it’s important to capture the fan culture, as it is so important to the success of horror. It’s a genre that has a very dedicated fan base, and materials of events like conventions help us to understand why horror has such staying power and what about it resonates so strongly. As far as how we achieve this, I think there are three different approaches. The easiest is just expanding general library resources; ensuring we have a wide representation among our book and film collections so that students will have access to explore the genre in more depth. Next is working to expand archives. This will take more time and comes through making connections with people and talking with them about our goals in hopes that they will want to have their work represented with us. Eventually, this should become self-reinforcing; as we acquire more archives, it solidifies our reputation as a good steward and natural place for these archives, which in turn makes it easier to attract more material. And lastly, through programming. We have had a great slate of webinars with authors this past year. We try to make the webinars a good mix of fun conversation with some academic insights as well. Ideally, this programming not only helps bring attention to our efforts, but also helps us really underline the social and cultural significance of the genre through the topics covered, which helps reinforce why horror studies belong at an institution such as Pitt.
For authors and creators in the future, many may have little or no physical material since their work will be entirely digital. How will archives deal with that going forward?
BEN: This is a situation that all archives are facing. We do have a digital archivist on staff whose job is specifically to work with ways to ensure we can ingest digital-borne materials and ensure ways to preserve these materials even in the face of rolling obsolescence of formats. This is important even beyond literary archives—we also need to preserve the history of the university itself though materials such as the chancellor’s papers, and even those are now almost entirely digital. Of course, libraries and archives have long figured out ways to preserve paper materials for hundreds of years, so I know we’ll innovate ways to ensure the same for digital materials so we can continue in our mission to steward the cultural record.
Ben, do you see your position as the Horror Studies Collection Coordinator being an interim gig or a career?
BEN: I most certainly hope that this is my career! I definitely don’t have plans to do anything else! As you can imagine, this really is a dream job that melds personal interests into a career.
Adam, I’ve been enjoying reading your papers and your book (Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media, Oxford University Press, 2019), and I’d love to know how much new material you’ve already put together from going through this collection . . .
ADAM: I’ve already written about 120 pages, and there’s no sign that will slow down anytime soon. There’s just so, so much to talk about! Some of what I’ve written in the past has been for a more academic audience, but I very much want this book to be accessible for all fans of Romero. But it’s also a very strange kind of book project, in which I’m trying to fit discussions of the films within the context of the giant body of work that’s contained within the archive. I’ve tried to trace themes and ideas across a number of projects—produced and unproduced—and to look at early versions of the famous films to show how those ideas evolve over time, but also how they change as they get funneled into horror movies. There’s some version of this project that could be a 2,000-page encyclopedia of every script he ever worked on, and maybe someday somebody with a ton of time on their hands will get to write that one, too, but this is an attempt to dig deep into those projects that show his full range of interests and the kinds of creative choices that he made trying to bring them to the screen.
I’ve been posting little bits and pieces from the book alongside other fun bits from the Archive on a Pitt Library website (bit.ly/3lUvl6P).
For years, horror was the “ghetto genre,” with many of the major publishers and production companies either refusing to use “the h-word” or doing little to promote their horror releases (although with the arrival of authors like Victor LaValle and Josh Malerman, and filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, the situation has definitely improved immensely). Do you think a significant academic horror archive could change perceptions about the genre?
BEN: That is definitely our goal. I think that genre studies broadly and horror very specifically has long been neglected and not considered “literary,” despite enjoying wide readership or viewership. I think horror has immense social and cultural significance and has been present throughout the history of human storytelling. It has always served as a means to deal with and work through our social anxieties and fears. While slow and way past overdue, I do think that, more and more, the social significance of horror is being recognized as is genre broadly. Science fiction seems to have entered a space in which it is now considered a “respectable” genre, and so I’m hoping with more time horror will also achieve that status. I think that the authors and filmmakers you mention have definitely helped in bringing some positive attention to the genre and have led to more critics recognizing that horror can be “smart,” although I think that has always been true of the genre. And I do think that having a significant horror archive at a top tier research institution can further help shift this perspective. Especially once scholarship starts to emerge, particularly from our students as they engage with these materials.
ADAM: The shift is slow, and I think that, even with mainstream critical successes, horror still brings out a conservative streak in established institutions, whether they’re critics who write for newspapers, academic departments, or libraries. And sometimes I’m more pessimistic than others, worrying that a Stephen Graham Jones or Ari Aster are seen as exceptions. But I think that there is a drastic shift that’s already started, and that it’s inevitable that the genre will get a bit more respectable as these amazing writers and filmmakers keep producing masterpieces. But one of the central pleasures of horror is that it’s disreputable, that it rejects the conventions of more polite, respectable film and literature. I like that horror can be transgressive, and a lot of my favorite horror artists are the ones whose work still carries that charge. I love that Jones can write both Mongrel and My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and I love that Jordan Peele followed up Get Out with Us.
If you could each add just one single piece to the Horror Studies Collection, what would it be?
ADAM: If I had to come up with two pieces, or a top ten, I’d be debating this for weeks. But if I have to choose one single thing that’s a bit easier. My favorite work of horror in recent memory is Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Even just glimpsing the early drafts and sketches would be a dream come true.
BEN: Just one piece? That is so unfair! I think I’ll cheat here and split it among archival papers and rare books: The papers of several authors come to mind immediately, but I suppose rather than name drop someone here—I’ll say that as a big splatterpunk fan, I’d love to have archival materials from any of the founding authors of that subgenre. It had such a transformative impact, and I’d love to document that from its originators. And for rare books, while first editions of seminal works are always fantastic to add to our collections, I think I’d go a different direction and would be thrilled to recognize the impact that some of the amazing small presses have had on horror publishing and obtain everything on a press such as Dark Harvest or Scream/Press.
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For more information about the archive and Horror Studies at Pitt as well as contact information, see the George A. Romero Archival Collection (bit.ly/3lPaPEt) or the University of Pittsburgh Library System Horror Studies (bit.ly/3lUvl6P). You can also view the George A. Romero Archival Collection Finding Aid (bit.ly/3cY1eaA).
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