Happy Halaloween: Exploring horror films in the Islamic world


Halaloween 2019

Marlon Brando's Perfecto leather. James Dean's brooding teenage rebellion. Marilyn Monroe's ethereal, platinum blonde beauty.

It's a testament to the power of Hollywood that so few words can summon such vivid 20th-century American iconography. 

Even no-frills popcorn fare like The Day After Tomorrow can have "significant impact" on public awareness according to a 2004 Yale study on Climate Change Risk Perception.

But if these pop-culture dreamscapes can embed in the cultures in which they were conceived, what happens when that product is consumed in foreign cultures, especially those with a different majority religion?

Two events at the University of Michigan will explore this question: Dr. Alireza Doostdar, assistant professor of Islamic studies and the anthropology of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, will discuss Hollywood Horror in Iran on Tuesday, September 24, at 4 pm in Room 555 of Weiser Hall and U-M's Global Islamic Studies Center and The Michigan Theatre will present Halaloween: A Muslim Horror Film Fest every Tuesday at 9 pm throughout October. Each film is presented free to the public with English subtitles.

Doostdar is the author of 2018's The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and The Uncanny. A complex study of occultism and spiritual experimentation in early 21st century Iran, Dr. Doostdar's award-winning book had its origins in a pair of observations that had previously informed his Ph.D. dissertation.

First was the inexplicable trend of Iranian engineers and scientists who had built their entire careers on a sturdy foundation of logic suddenly taking an active interest in the occult. As an undergraduate studying electrical engineering at Tehran University, Doostdar fostered friendships that would last well into adulthood. Now that those once rational, logical-minded students had become educated professionals, why had they begun to cast aside their fully formed belief systems and look to the occult for answers? 

The second was the revised interest in New Age and alternative spirituality that Doostdar had observed in Iran during the mid-2000s. Yoga was all the rage and Iranians were filling auditoriums for seminars on everything from astral projection to Zen Buddhism. Was this a new phenomenon, as surface appearances seemed to suggest, or just the latest rotation in an ongoing cycle?

From an anthropological perspective, these two revelations demanded further investigation. In the 20th century, movies made the world a smaller place; that captivating widescreen was not only a window into other cultures that afforded us the luxury of observing their most unique traits in heretofore unprecedented detail, but also one which offered warm reassurance that even our most personal struggles are, in fact, universal. 

The factor that distinguishes Dr. Doostdar's research from that of many of his contemporaries is his insistence on including the occult -- and all of its complex trappings -- in the conversation. 

At the very least, posits Dr. Doostdar, there is value in observing these ideas and practices within the context of the universal search for understanding. 

Time and again, his research circled back to an unexpected source of influence: Hollywood horror films.

Inspired by research into the role that horror and supernaturally themed films play in shaping the subjectivities of the viewer, and propelled by scholars' increased willingness to consider film as an art-form capable of helping mold our perception of the world and our role within it, Dr. Doostdar conceived of an innovative research method that took a decidedly non-binary approach. The details and dynamics of which -- not to mention the results -- are genuinely compelling.  

From colleagues who invoked imagery from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) to describe the appearance of a jinn (a demonic entity in Islam), to real-life exorcisms that appeared to mirror those featured in big-budget blockbusters such as The Exorcist (1973) and Constantine (2005), Dr. Doostdar's research revealed that phantasmagorical Hollywood imagery had become a ready point of reference in public discourse over religion in Iran. 

As the wide and steady stream of Hollywood product found its way into the country with increased speed and efficiency, American pop-art was being repurposed, in earnest, as fodder for theological debate. The potential for receptivity to unfamiliar religious and cultural norms by Iranian moviegoers, critics, activists, and officials was of particular interest to Dr. Doostdar, and his presentation probes the complex dynamics of that information flow in ways that inspire the viewer to meditate on the potentially unanticipated effect of media consumed outside of its original context.

Halaloween: A Muslim Horror Film Fest explores Doostdar's ideas by casting a net across all Islamic cultures: What scares Muslim moviegoers?  

Karla Mallette and her team at the Global Islamic Studies Center Director were brainstorming a promotional event for the center when the discussion turned to horror films. Malette's a professor of Italian and Mediterranian studies, with a background is in Medieval literature, but as a genre fan, she was fascinated when a friend introduced her into the wild world of "Malasyan jinn possession movies" (the "jinn" being something akin to the "demon" of the Judeo-Christian faith). The films, while entertaining, were frequently distinguished by their particularly "lazy" handling of genre and gender issues.

Convinced that there had to be Muslim storytellers who aspired to something more than making giddy teenagers shriek into overpriced popcorn, Mallette expanded her scope. Though Iran and the Arab world at large didn't have much of a horror industry to speak of, Turkish filmgoers turned out to be natural-born fear-junkies. 

It wasn't long before Mallette noticed something intriguing: Much like American genre filmmakers of the 1970s and '80s used horror as a means of social and political protest, filmmakers in the Muslim world were using the medium as a means to try and make sense of their own, unique generational chaos. As stories, though, they were often more personal, relating struggles of faith and family rather than linger on the living dead (Mallaette poses that zombies aren't halal but haram, and appear to serve little purpose in Muslim culture).

Halaloween: A Muslim Horror Film Fest gets off to a mesmerizing start on October 1 with writer/director Ana Lily Amirour's critically acclaimed black-and-white debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Described in the director's colorful terms as the "first Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western," the American-made film follows a lonely female vampire as she haunts the tenebrous streets of an Iranian ghost town. At once tantalizingly alien (the film was shot in the Central Valley, lending it an otherworldly affair) and terrifyingly familiar (sleazy drug-dealers and sad addicts are the same all over, it seems), Amirour's assured debut possesses a poetic human touch, signaling the arrival of an exciting new voice in independent cinema.  

Indonesia's Ritual (2012), which screens October 8, is the only film in the fest produced in English. The movie plunges an isolated father into a world of terror as he frantically searches the jungle for his two missing children.

On October 15, Turkey's Siccin 4 (2017) thrusts viewers through a spook-a-blast funhouse of horrors. Fans of the Insidious and Conjuring series will certainly find something to scream about in this tale of a desperate business owner who unearths a grim family secret -- and unleashes a malevolent entity in the process. 

Abdelhamid Bouchnak's Dachra -- the only flick in Halaloween: A Muslim Horror Film Fest that has yet to receive distribution in the U.S. -- comes to the Michigan Theater on October 22. Described as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets The Blair Witch Project, the movie features college students making a documentary as they seek a legendary lost village -- only to encounter "an ageless creature in red" that is anything but benevolent.

Under the Shadow (2016) wraps up the fest on October 29. Though written and directed by a male, Babak Anvari, the film looks at life in Tehran during The War of the Cities from a decidedly feminine perspective. When young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) finds out her husband receives orders to report to the front lines, she must decide between fleeing to the countryside with their daughter to escape the ever-encroaching missile attacks or remain home in hopes that fighting will cease and her family will be reunited. As the fighting drags on, Shideh's psychological state grows frail and a dark force begins to stir in her war-ravaged tenement. 

In presenting the series, Mallette and the GlSC hope to illustrate "the ways that global Islamic culture are in contact with global trends ... [and] how that culture is in communication with other major cultural voices around the world." In other words, not to view Muslim perspective as an idiosyncrasy at the world table, but to consider in earnest the role that it plays in the larger discussion. 

Featuring Muslim perspectives from Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Indonesia, and the United States, the Halaloween film festival is likely to generate some discussion itself -- once the screaming stops, of course. 

Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.

Dr. Alireza Doostdar will discuss "Hollywood Horror in Iran" on Tuesday, September 24, at 4 pm in Room 555 of Weiser Hall. U-M's Global Islamic Studies Center and The Michigan Theatre will present "Halaloween: A Muslim Horror Film Fest" every Tuesday at 9 pm throughout October. Each film is presented free to the public with English subtitles. All events are free and open to the public.