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Horror in the Dark: 11 Questions with Caseen Gaines

Horror in the Dark: 11 Questions with Caseen Gaines

As an author, director, educator, and popular culture historian, Caseen Gaines has been making waves in the world of non-fiction film history. Having written insightful behind-the-scenes books on such classics like Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse, A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: The Ultimate Visual History, Gaines has made a strong name for himself in this literature genre. His most recent books, Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way and When Broadway Was Black: The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical That Changed the World turned the attention to earlier days when African-American artists were breaking ground in culture for the better. When not publishing, Gaines teaches young artists, like himself, whom someday he might write books about. Gaines was gracious enough to speak with Malevolent Dark about his thoughts on race and cultural awareness within the horror genre. 

You are a film historian and have written several books on the subject. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your research?

I’ve always been fascinated by popular culture, or maybe more specifically, works of art that are often dismissed because they are embraced by the masses. We all know people who hate to see a certain movie, listen to a certain musician, or read a certain book because it’s too popular. The mass appeal, somehow, becomes a turn-off. I never really subscribed to that idea, and I’ve always found it fascinating to try and figure out why certain things catch on, why others don’t, and how popular culture, and films specifically, shape the culture. The most rewarding thing is learning about how happy accidents shape many memorable film moments. Sometimes you just have to work with what you have, and your work can resonate with other people.

Horror in the Dark - Caseen Gaines
Author, Educator and Culture Historian Caseen Gaines

Any surprising stories or shocking stories you never heard of from your research?

So many! I wrote a book called “We Don’t Need Roads”, on the Back to the Future films, and I was very interested in the six weeks of shooting with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly before Michael J. Fox was brought on for the role. I interviewed director Robert Zemeckis, writer Bob Gale, and some of the film’s stars like Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson, but some of the best insight came from folks like the editors and the Director of Photography. There are lots of people involved in making a film. I’ve always gone out of my way to reach out to as many folks as possible because you never know who will have the best stories to tell. 

You’ve written on the history of so many films, including E.T., A Christmas Story, Back to the Future, and many more  so what got you into researching movies in general?

see list of books here: https://www.caseengaines.com/books

I’ve always been interested in behind-the-scenes stories. I was an avid reader as a kid, and as crazy as it sounds, my two favorite books were The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann and The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree. A lot of people say they don’t like nonfiction books, but they have characters, they have stories. Nonfiction books are just centered on real events. So in a lot of ways, writing about movies and television just feels like it was always in my DNA.

The world of Horror and African-American history has always been connected. Why do you feel Horror has been such a presence within the community?

I think horror, as a genre, has always had the ability to transcend racial boundaries, but it’s interesting to think about why, because filmmakers within the genre aren’t always kind to their Black characters. It’s a common trope that Black characters are often the first to die, or at least that was the case for a long time, and there aren’t a lot of horror films centered on Black stories. Horror films provide escapism for everyone. It can be fun to get scared, to feel suspense, to experience a jump scare in a theater or on a couch, to scream “don’t go in there” at the screen, and that certainly extends to Black folks too.

Horror in the Dark - Interview with Caseen Gaines
Behind the Scenes Books by Caseen Gaines

What are the best examples of black history in the horror genre and why?

Blacula (1972) was a very important film. It was released in 1972, at the height of the Blaxploitation movement, and it took a well-known story and reimagined it for Black audiences, much like The Wiz did on stage a few years later. Most recently, I love what Jordan Peele has been doing with his films. Get Out is one of the most important films of the past decade, not only because it substantively puts a Black character at the center of a horror film, but also because of the way it comments on race in America. It’s an amazing artifact from that period of transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, and like all great films, it would be completely different if it were made at any other time.

Documentaries like Horror Noire have shed new light on the genre and some of its harmful tropes. In your professional opinion, why did these tropes come about and what are ways filmmakers today are challenging them?

I think Jordan Peele is leading the charge in changing those harmful tropes within the genre, for the reasons I’ve already outlined. Get Out garners the most attention, for good reason, but Us and Nope are important films for the genre as well. Regarding the genre’s history, I think it’s a mixture of things. Cinema is filled with stereotypes, still to this day, even though there’s been a concerted effort among many to try and combat them. I think when you look at the genre’s history, there’s been a sense among many filmmakers that horror films needed to check certain boxes—and many of those boxes put women and Black folks on the receiving end of some less-than-flattering moments on screen. It’s like when comedians say that comedy is meant to offend and be provocative. Maybe—but it’s primarily supposed to make people laugh, and those laughs don’t necessarily have to come from provocation. Horror is supposed to provoke too, and many filmmakers have gotten those thrills in ways that many would consider to be problematic.

Horror int he Dark - Caseen Gaines - When Broadway Was Black: The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical That Changed the World
Caseen Gaines signing his book “When Broadway Was Black: The Triumphant Story of the All-Black Musical That Changed the World”

 

Night of the Living Dead is so important in the genre. Why do we still watch this independently made cheap film all these years later?

This may be a simple answer, but low-budget films tend to look more realistic, and I think horror films are scarier when they look like they could, or did, actually happen. There are a lot of low-budget horror films that have stood the test of time, and speaking generally, even when film studios throw a lot of money at a “big budget” horror film, it usually has a comparatively small price tag.

Of all the films I want to ask you for your raw feedback on two films: Blacula and Blackenstein. thoughts? (don’t hold back!)

It’s impossible to separate those two films from Blaxploitation as a whole, as I mentioned earlier. I think there are aspects of both films that are hit-or-miss, like a lot of low-budget films from the first half of the 1970s, especially within the Blaxploitation genre, but I think it’s interesting how those films straddle that genre and the horror genre. They both traffic in the tropes we’ve been talking about, but in a way that excites Black audiences first and foremost, a demographic that usually isn’t the target audience for horror films.

Can a movie be bad and still be good? Can a movie be good and still be bad?

Of course! “Good” and “bad” are completely subjective, even though we often act like they aren’t. There isn’t a rubric for a good film. In fact, sometimes a movie can be bad because it’s good. I’m probably going to lose a lot of cool points here, but I don’t think The Rocky Horror Picture Show is what I would call a “good” movie. I love it and think it’s a lot of fun, even without a midnight showing, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s high cinema. Movies can resonate for a number of reasons, and that’s one that does. Just look at Roger Corman’s work. Are his films “good?” As a whole, on a technical level, I don’t know if I’d nominate any for an Academy Award, but they connect with people.

Who are your idols or filmmakers whose work you follow closely and why?

Of directors who are currently active, once again, Jordan Peele’s work really interests me. Some of my favorite directors are Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan… each have made films that have underwhelmed me to some extent, but I think they’ve all created art that has excited me and, truly, changed the world. 

How can people follow your amazing work and what is in store? Are there any new books in development?

I’m currently working on a book on The Wiz, which should be released in 2025, and I have some more very exciting things coming up too. I can’t really talk about them, but if you follow me on social media, you’ll be among the first to know!

You can follow Caseen Gaines at:

https://www.caseengaines.com/

Instgram: @caseengaines

https://www.facebook.com/caseengaines/

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