This issue features a “microinterview” with Simone Muench, conducted by Daniel Handler. Muench is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Orange Crush, published this year by Sarabande Books. She is an editor at Sharkforum and is an ardent, thoughtful, die-hard fan of horror movies. Her thirteen favorite horror movies are Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Don’t Look Now, Braindead, Suspiria, Halloween, The Exorcist, Alien, The Descent, The Thing, Possession, À l’intérieur, and Romero’s original trilogy: Night, Dawn, and Day of the (Living) Dead. She lives in Chicago.
DANIEL HANDLER: Horror movies currently reach a larger audience than poetry, to put it mildly. Does your admiration of a very mainstream art form ever cause you to doubt your practicing of a somewhat marginalized one?
SIMONE MUENCH: No, never actually. Poetry may be one of the less lucrative careers, to put it mildly, but it is poetry’s marginality that allows for it to be commercially untainted. The idea of being pressured to dramatically alter my book to generate capital (in the way that some directors have to tack on “money-making” finales) for their film to get financed, is disagreeable to me; and, fortunately, I’ve never had to hack up my poetry just for the sake of financial influx—because there is no cash flow in poetry. Of course, ask me that when I’m out of a job, and I may respond much differently.
DH: There’s now a well-established tradition of horror movies—it seems like this started in Japan, but it’s certainly spread—of a long, long stretching of suspense and then, in the last twenty minutes or so, a lot of gore. (Like, a lot.) Structurally I find this appealing. Often it’s the final lines of a poem that can clinch the thing, almost retroactively enhancing the reading of the prior lines.
SM: If I don’t finish watching a film or reading a novel I often feel that I haven’t the right to be dismissive, because sometimes, as you said, it is the end that asks us to retrospectively reassess the entire work. So it’s a journey I’m often enjoy taking in film and also in poetry. La Cérémonie and Audition are films that come to mind that structurally create these last minute blowouts—however, it’s less about shock than it is about resonance.
SIMONE MUENCH: I think this idea of asking us to open our eyes is what horror films “ought” to be doing, and that it’s actually something that horror foregrounds with its constant motif of vision. The eye is highlighted repeatedly in horror films (think of Jamie Lee Curtis’ famous eye assault in Halloween with her wire-hanger iridectomy)—there are binoculars, peepholes, keyholes, venetian blinds, door-cracks, one-sided mirrors, and of course, the eye itself. The destruction of the eye is often stressed in a way
that suggests—look and look again, but this time, look differently. I think my experience with horror films has actually saved me from some possible sinister situations. Do you remember the bestselling book that was released a while back, The Gift of Fear? Its premise is that most people sense predators, but often shrug off that sensation as paranoia. If I intuit something’s wrong, I don’t try to convince myself that I’m overreacting, which has helped me avoid some possible unpleasant outcomes. The Gift of Fear came up when I was talking with an acquaintance who’s a psychiatric nurse. One of the things she teaches people about intake is to listen to their own instincts. If they want to step back from someone, for instance, it is likely for good reason.
DANIEL HANDLER: I always think good poetry—like your own collection—and horror films both inspire a similar “startle” reaction. When you’re working on a poem, are you trying to give the reader some version of the gift of fear?
SM: Maybe more the gift of awareness, than fear? An attempt to render the bright and violent alchemy of living, of language.
DANIEL HANDLER: How do you think your high threshold for getting scared affects your appreciation of horror movies? If a horror movie doesn’t scare you, what does it do?
SIMONE MUENCH: I think you’ve just asked one of the most difficult questions for a horror fan, the one that often stumps us—why do we like them and what do they do? I guess I’m interested in how they go about this business of dying. When I was in my late twenties I asked the guy I was dating what he wanted to have done with his body when he died—cremation, donation, burial? He said he didn’t know because he didn’t think about dying. (Obviously, we broke up). Even though horror films don’t scare me, they snap me out of complacency—they create a rent in the thin scrim that falls over me each day from a routinized lifestyle—sleep, teach, grade, eat, etc. I also find that horror provides a transgressive space for women—we get so caught off guard by horror’s frequent showcase of tits and ass, where there exists run-of-the-mill misogyny—what I refer to as Hustler Horror—that we often miss the ways in which horror films create a space for women to have agency. As a genre I find horror has much in common with film noir, and that there is a kindredness between the femme fatale and the final girl: their intelligence (that often outshines their male counterparts), their independence, their initiative, and their ingenuity.
DH: Is there some incidental trope in horror movies that always appeals to you? My wife, for instance, always startles at the sudden appearance of someone in a mirror, no matter how many times she sees it, no matter how clear it is that it’s going to happen.
SM: I’m fascinated when open space is intentionally employed to paradoxically generate claustrophobia, specifically the use of panoramic shots of flatland in both Near Dark and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: TCM’s early tracking shots of a van pasted diminutively against the vast, blanched Texas skyline as its inhabitants drive unwittingly toward their dismemberment. Growing up for part of my life in a small Louisiana town with only a cemetery and a gas station to mark the land probably contributes to this impression of landscape entrapment. Additionally, the bleak, open snowy vistas in The Thing and Giger’s goliath cavernous design of the opening alien spacecraft in Alien, as well as the utilization of space itself (“In space, no one can hear you scream”), construct a false sense of freedom that actually begets a desolate oppressiveness as these films emphasize the utter impossibility of escape.