In October 2018, film professor and author Adam Lowenstein’s worlds collided but not in a sci-fi way. It was much more horrific.
Four years ago, Lowenstein — a professor of English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a steering committee member of “Romero Lives” — marked the 50th anniversary of “Night of the Living Dead,” George A. Romero’s classic nightmare-inducing film. It was an exciting time for Lowenstein as he joined Pittsburghers in honoring the late filmmaker and the half-century since the release of “Night of the Living Dead.” He attended screenings and talks informing moviegoers and residents about Romero’s contribution to the region and the film’s cultural impact. Lowenstein even wrote a piece for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle calling “Night of the Living Dead” the “most famous and influential film our city has ever produced.”
For Lowenstein and other Romero lovers, October 2018 was spent fêting a film, its creator and the nightmares generated by both. But by the end of the month, the professor and the city understood horror anew. On Oct. 27, 11 Jews were murdered inside the Tree of Life building. Lowenstein struggled to make sense of the violence and how his work as a professor related to it.
The conjuncture of “Romero Lives” and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting “forced me to think harder and more urgently about what the stakes are in my teaching of the horror film,” the Jewish professor said.
Lowenstein had already spent nearly 20 years asking students and colleagues to probe a cinematic niche. He published two books and numerous articles exploring questions of realism and class in the films of Wes Craven and David Cronenberg. After October 2018, Lowenstein realized his scholarship needed to become less extrinsic.
The professor said he couldn’t help but look inward.
Horror films had long spoken to him — he screened “Night of the Living Dead” at his bar mitzvah party — but in light of the synagogue shooting, Lowenstein reviewed essays he’d drafted, films that interested him and the courses he’d designed.
“All of a sudden, I saw that there is this thread running through them, which is otherness,” he said. That quality is intrinsic to the genre and key to understanding “these questions of social difference,” he explained.
Lowenstein realized that horror films had been misunderstood for too long. The ghoulish haunting pictures that lead to an abundance of nightlights, open doors and never saying “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror, weren’t generating an increase in violence or racism, he said, but instead offered a key to society’s problems.
“We tend to be afraid of different minority communities,” Lowenstein said. “We're afraid of their difference. We're afraid of their potential threat to the things we perceive as normal, mainstream and accepted.” Horror films, he continued, “provide a vocabulary and an experience that lets us understand the voice of the other: what it feels like to be marginalized; what it feels like to be minoritized; what it feels like to be discriminated against.”
After October 2018, Lowenstein reckoned with his Jewishness like never before, he said. He reflected on his experience in the city, as a husband and as a father who sent his daughter to Tree of Life Congregation for Hebrew school. As time went on, he thought about the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. He revised old writings and drafted new material, packaged the collection as “Horror Film and Otherness” and asked readers to see the genre not as something designed to prey on viewers’ fears but to offer cinephiles an instructional fount.
“Horror is precisely a place where we can learn because our defenses are down, and we're not looking for a lesson — we're not looking for a sort of lecture,” he said. “We’re going to experience something primal, something moving, something frightening.”
Since Lowenstein’s book was published by Columbia University Press months ago, he’s disseminated the horror-as-teacher message as best he can. He knows the genre isn’t beloved by all, and that some would rather get a root canal than watch a tooth extraction on screen.
Even still, “horror is one of the most tried and true genres that we have, and it's because it speaks to so many foundational experiences in our lives,” Lowenstein said. “We all need horror in some kind of way. And you don't have to be a horror fan to sort of see that.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.