Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film

A staircase spirals around, leading you down underneath the Experience Music Project Museum. You know you’re heading in the right direction because things have taken a darker turn. The lighting has the distinct color of red, and in the background you can hear the faint cries and screams of people in desperate need of some help. Off on the left wall from the staircase is a large black and white collage of nameless faces, all perfectly photographed at the precise moment they let out a horrific shriek. It goes without saying that the tone the EMP is going for at this particular point is to create some kind of descent into a hellish place. At the bottom of the stairwell are glass doors, and once a person walks through them, they enter a world of goblins, ghouls, monsters, and a whole bunch of other really cool stuff.

This is what a person will first encounter when they enter Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film, one of the newest exhibits to be on display at the always colorful EMP, a museum of music, sci-fi, and pop culture in the heart of Seattle Center. Three big names in the world of horror, John Landis, Roger Corman, and Eli Roth, were guest curators, handpicking some of the most influential horror movies of the last century and discussing what it is that makes the genre such a long standing one in the history of cinema. Through movie memorabilia, interactive displays, and a number of video interviews, a guest can see what it is about horror movies that scares us, but at the same time hooks us in and makes us return again and again. A large display near the front of the exhibit asks, “If horror film scares us, why do we like it?” and that’s the question Landis, Corman and Roth attempt to answer.

One thing to take note here is how dark the actual exhibit is. They definitely went into “full experience” mode when creating the layout of the room. Darkness completely encapsulates the entire area, with just some faint hints of red light helping you find your way. Most of the displays and memorabilia line the outside of the room, creating a kind of circular, roundabout feel. One of the cooler elements of the exhibit is the use of atmospheric noise. If you search closely enough, you’ll find a small switch on one of the columns of the room. On the switch are a number of options you can pick from that will set the mood of the room’s background noise. Do you want to hear people screaming? Or how about the low buzz of orchestral strings? Maybe you want to people hear some creaking noises? Just flip the switch and you’re there.

Landis, Corman, and Roth all have their own displays set in different areas of the room. Each one has a small biography of the filmmaker, and the design of the set-up is based around the style of their work, whether it is the low budget, do-it-yourself style that is inherent to all of Roger Corman’s exploitation films, or the gory, splatterific mayhem that is closely related to the work of Eli Roth. Each display also contains a video monitor showcasing interviews from each of the three, where they talk about which films highly influenced them and how they used that motivation to propel them to where they are today. Also, look closely at the memorabilia around each of the displays, as you will see a nice handful of pieces of their work, such as the tools that were put to good use in Roth’s Hostel films, some beautiful posters from films that Corman produced, and a costume that was worn in Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) music video, directed by Landis.

Any movie exhibit would be incomplete without some good old movie artifacts, and this one has its fair share. From the gloves used in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) movies, to the masks worn in The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), there are a large staple of items showcased. Two of the more notable pieces are the axe used by Jack Nicholson to break his way toward Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980), and the infamous Facehugger creature from the Alien movies (minus the attached human, of course). The two biggest items however, are not props used in a movie, but manuscripts. The highlight for me was the original pages of text of The Un-Dead, written by Bram Stoker himself in 1897. These pages would ultimately become a part of the Dracula book, going on to influence a countless number of film adaptations. One can only wonder if Stoker had any idea how big his story would become, well over one hundred years later. Accompanying Stoker’s display is one from a more modern storyteller, Guillermo del Toro. One of del Toro’s idea journals is put on show as well, and we can see how much an artist he his through his wonderful sketches and red-colored handwriting, and how that would play a part in his films like Cronos (1993) or Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Let me go ahead and say that my three favorite parts of the exhibit were the Double Feature video section, the 100 Horror Films To See Before You Die wall, and the Scream Booth. The Double Feature video section dominates the middle portion of the room, where visitors can walk in, sit down, and listen to the filmmakers talk about two related horror movies that they particularly love. I enjoyed listening to them talk about the influence of Les Diaboliques (1955) and Psycho (1960), or the twisted craziness of The Wicker Man (1973) and Suspiria (1977). I suggest coming to the EMP early so you have time to sit down and watch all of the video presentations, because each one is fascinating, knowledgeable, and just plain fun.

Any movie fan will appreciate the 100 Horror Films to See Before You Die wall. Displaying films selected by each of the three filmmakers, the wall shows the 100 most important horror movies released chronologically, with the movie’s title poster lined up beside it. You can see the progression of the genre the further you go through time. I counted a good handful that I haven’t seen yet, and noted them as a must for future movie rental/purchase.

The Scream Booth is probably the main attraction of the entire exhibit, where people can go inside a small, soundproof booth, and scream at the top of their lungs just as a camera takes a picture of them. Just to the left of the booth is a video monitor where you can see how your photo turned out. I wanted to try this, but the line for it was so long that I didn’t have the patience to wait, since there was so much other awesome stuff to check out.

Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film is one of the cooler exhibits you’ll find; if you’re from the Seattle area or will be in town any time soon, I highly suggest you pay a visit. The exhibit will last at least for a year, so you have plenty of time to stop by. But honestly, when is there a more perfect time to go than in October? If you want to learn a little more about the history of the genre, or if you’re just looking for some titles for a nice scary movie marathon with some friends, that little dark room at the bottom of that spiraling staircase is a fine place to start!

Roger Corman discusses how one of his productions, Dinocroc (2004), helped title a number of his other films. This interview is a part of the video display of Can’t Look Away.


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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