A twisted tale of modern Britain: how our cultural provocateurs and visionaries harboured ideas rooted in horror, informing the last 50 years of creative rebellion.
A journey through the underbelly of Britain’s cultural psyche exposes horror as more than just a genre – being a lived reaction to, and expression of, our most troubling times. An Autumn Exhibition at Somerset House, The Horror Show presented an alternative perspective of the last five decades of modern British history in three acts –Monster, Ghost and Witch. Recast as a story of cultural shapeshifting, each section interprets a specific era through the lens of a classic horror archetype, with thematically linked works and installations.
You don’t have to dig deep into British history to uncover its fixation with the macabre. From folklore and classic ghost stories to eccentric occultists and punk rock, a dark tenor permeates Britain, one onto which subcultures have long grasped. A heady ride through the disruption of 1970s punk to the revolutionary potential of modern witchcraft, demonstrating how the anarchic alchemy of horror – its subversion, transgression and supernatural – can craft and make sense of the world around us. Horror not only allows us to express our deepest fears; it gives a powerful voice to the marginalised and society’s outliers, providing tools to overcome anxieties and imagine radically different futures.
Co-curated by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard – BAFTA nominated filmmakers and resident artists at Somerset House Studios, alongside Claire Catterall the Senior Curator at Somerset House; Horror as a genre is experiencing a breakneck resurgence in popularity. This exhibition looked at the subversive archetypes in British counter-culture and their demonisation by authorities, exploring the nightmares of youth culture and casting new light on the living phantoms of our present past.
Monster: On A Nice Roof
The opening Monster begins by delving into the economic and political unrest of the 1970s and the high octane spectacle and social division of the 1980s, where the deviancy and degeneracy of glam rock and punk thrashed against the backdrop of Thatcherism.
It charts the origin story and ascent of individuals who will go on to disrupt, define and demolish cultural norms, while exploring the beasts that plague society today. There’s a biting sense of irony that the cultural icons perceived at the time as monstrous, were disrupting a status quo many believed to be run by monsters.
This is encapsulated by the 1974 Mclaren-Westwood T-shirt titled You’re gonna wake up one morning and know what side of the bed you’ve been lying on! On the shirt are printed two lists, one (blue) featuring who was on the bad side of the bed, the other (red) who was on the relevant side. The wrong side featured people accused of selling out – Dalí, Mars bars, The Met Police Chief, Rod Stewart and Elton John, and the red side included groups like “the Raw Power Society for Cutting Up Men”. A powerful tirade against a country and culture in fragmentation. For a generation looking to rip everything up in order to start again, this was a manifesto for change.
“After the dark years of the immediate post-war… there is a sense of optimism. But at the beginning of the 1970s that just all goes. It disappears and it felt like there was a generation of kids, there’s the birth of this generation of monsters who are really influenced by glam rock and David Bowie. You know, David Bowie is the godfather to all of this… Bowie’s freewheeling attitudes to sex, love and androgyny kicked off the burgeoning punk revolution, where Sid Vicious and Vivienne Westwood’s infamous shop SEX scandalised polite society.” – Claire Catterall
This unholy marriage of conceptual art and supernatural dread is good evidence for The Horror Show’s claim that gothic subculture is the true dissident virus of the modern British imagination. The story told here starts to the hypnotic chant of Bela Lugosi’s Dead by goth pioneers Bauhaus, which makes the argument with every echoing beat, that punk was always gothic, and goth its natural evolution.
Encouraging you to shop til you drop, the special exhibition store, edited by Faye Dowling’s alternative art store GothShop.co features an exclusive range of limited edition mementos, including collectible books and selections of original and inspired gifts from the house that horror built…
Instead of artist Jamie Reid’s now-cliched Sex Pistols imagery, is his painting of a giant owl-like green monster materialising on top of a suburban house. Monster on a Nice Roof dreams of impossible creatures coming to destroy convention. The devil is in the detail, as they say, and it’s the enthusiasm of the curators for the arcana of pop culture that makes their thesis as alive and twisted as the forest. Who knew Mark E Smith of the Fall was a fan of the late Victorian horror writer Arthur Machen, author of The Great God Pan? They do, and they prove it with letters from Smith to the Arthur Machen Society.
As the decades rolled past, the anarchic spirit of the Seventies gave way to a more muted style of horror: one befitting a decade of social change, and one in which technology was playing an ever-larger role in peoples’ lives, before shifting to encompass the burgeoning environmental movement, as well as women’s and LGBTQIA rights.
“I mean the trans debate, for example, and all that kind of thing, it sort of puts the heebie-jeebies up people. And I think in a way that is related to horror: the tropes of horror are very much about accepting all outsiders and really championing the underdog… I think that what scares the establishment is, as much as ever, anything that disrupts the status quo.” – Claire Catterall
Ghosts: Floating Through Cyberspace
The next apparition marks the collapse of hyper-inflated 1980’s culture into the uncanny temperature change that presided over the 1990s and early 2000s. It traces an unsettling path through to the global financial crisis of 2008: a turning point in time between a century of old and new, at the dawn of a digital age of faceless audiences and imperceptible cyber wars.
Due to fraudulent market economics, a new form of austerity was creeping up on the UK, alongside the birth of widespread CCTV and internet anonymity, ghostly spectres hidden behind screens – the eerie sense of being watched became part of our collective consciousness.
“Horror is a reaction to the world: you’re using its strategies, you’re plugging into its potential and its characters as a way of reacting to the real horror show that you begin to find yourself in.” – Jane Pollard
Immersive sound installations highlight the strange frequencies of an age that saw the emergence of trance music; illuminating the sonic textures of the city to uncover those masked by the blind spots that neoliberalism failed to assimilate, while echoing a call-and-response that beckons visitors to become spectator, spectacle and ghost in the machine.
One of the artists whose work was also exhibited in this section was Gazelle Twin. As an electronic artist who draws heavily on the pagan for inspiration, she uses her music as a way of commenting on present-day events (including Brexit and the state of the country) and working through her own emotions and challenges.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the dark and scary. I think when you’re connected to a sort of place where you’re feeling vulnerable or afraid, I think you can see things in a different way. I think it engages the fight or flight response, which leads you to really live in an existence which is bristling, and very much in the moment, and I find that really thrilling.” – Gazelle Twin
There is another Britain, this exhibition convinces you, that exists only as a web of imagination, a phantom realm that defies the reality of the everyday like a ghost channel taking over your TV. An obsession of the curators is the infamous 1992 BBC Ghostwatch broadcast, that appeared to be a live broadcast interrupted by supernatural powers. This is shown in eerie fragments.
Actor Reece Shearsmith’s severed head lies on a purple cushion, eyes open, mouth gaping. The performer and writer’s bonce is a prop from the 2018 Inside No 9 Halloween special in which he and Steve Pemberton play themselves in a live broadcast that goes eerily wrong, as malevolent ghosts invade a TV studio. It’s exhibited here not as a joke, or a curio, but as a relic of idealism. Fans of the black comedy will know its creators have a passion for horror, fully shared by this cacophonous cauldron of an exhibition.
Witch: Sordid Sorcery
Conjuring the final act, Witch focuses on 2008’s financial crash up until the present day, and celebrates the emergence of a younger generation and their hyper-connected community – a global coven readily embracing a dynamic grounded in integration and equality. Penny Slinger and Zadie Xa forgo the patriarchal occult and old world druidism with a new sorcery – which also includes Linder’s The Goddess Who Has The Sky As Hair (2019), depicting bodily autonomy and ecological forms of magic.
With Witch comes the blossoming of a new type of divination rooted in nature and social equality. British horror and esoteric occultism have always been deeply connected with the landscape of the British Isles, but Witch finds its feet firmly in the present. Considering Britain’s history of persecuting witches, the current wave of occultism feels like a rebellious rebirth, a reaction to the evil forces at play and the reimagining of druidism.
Tai Shani’s The Neon Hieroglyph (2021) is a sculpture that expresses this bold, psychedelic vision of the future, taking inspiration from the true story of the Maiara, flying witches celebrated on the Italian island of Alicudi. A work bound up in sorrow but full of dreamy optimism.
Co-curator Claire Catterall considers the present a ‘Golden Age of Horror’, with a new breed of cultural collaborators who are once again using the grotesque to challenge and provoke. Still, as we’re more desensitised to such sights through ease of access to content, cancel culture and social censorship, one questions how the days of subversion and boundary-pushing are to adapt to current climates.
While subculture may be dead, whatever form it takes, the underlying message of horror remains the same: it is a voice of creative alchemy, upending norms and providing a crucible in which to confront our darkest fears. There is a romanticism at the heart of this exhibition, a lucid quest for an enchanting truth that’s always slightly out of reach. Horror is not healthy nor is it meant to be, but the present nostalgia and past culture change lurking in its depths are a sight to behold, and a story to be told.
“The world has changed in the past few years.. It feels like everything is driving towards these very binary positions of for and against; left and right; black and white. And I think art and horror share this interest in the in-between spaces: in the greys… Horror happens in the shadows. It’s the thing that’s lurking in the corner that’s scary, not necessarily the monster right in front of you. The biggest trope of horror is the thing that is not yet seen… I can think of no better experience than being stopped in your tracks by something you weren’t expecting, and what that moment of transformation can do.” – Iain Forsyth