Live Cinema
Live Cinema

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson is Principal Lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Brighton, UK, and an audio-visual arts practitioner undertaking explorations into new forms of fictional and dramatic storytelling in visual and sonic media. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Helen W. Kennedy

Helen W. Kennedy is Head of the School of Media at the University of Brighton, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Horror, Science Fiction





Related Content

Never Seen a Shot Like that Before! Playfulness and Participatory Audiences in San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival

DOI: 10.5040/9781501324840.ch-010
Page Range: 117–132


It was 2 November 2015 and The Howl (Paul Hyett, 2015) was playing on the screen when, like a young Quaker, I was overtaken by the need to speak. The room was incandescent, and after four intense years of attending the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival (SSHFFF) as a researcher and audience member, it felt like the perfect moment for my debut. I took a deep breath and spoke out for the first time. I did not have to wait for a reaction: after a few soft giggles from the back rows, a loud voice invited me to leave the room (and festival) and go to the more mainstream and, therefore, more appropriate for the style of my comment, horror film festival in Catalonia with a ‘Bugger off to Sitges!’ This being my first and last intervention to date, I felt really proud to get that sort of reaction.

This personal anecdote is typical of any given moment at the festival’s screenings and represents part of the normal routine that takes place each year in the last week of October in the Main Theatre (Teatro Principal), a picturesque old venue in the heart of the northern seaside town of San Sebastian, in the Basque Country (Spain). It is here that festivalgoers engage in boisterous acts of disapproval towards films and guests that are introduced during the screenings. Almost any film that is part of the line-up as well as anyone who ventures on to the stage will be the target of crude witticism and the catalyst for a whole dictionary of in-jokes that have developed over the years. Given the highly restricted protocol that rules the interventions of the audience, it is not surprising that some have seen the audience performance as an ‘endogamic ritual’ (Cueto 2013: 72). Yet, throughout its twenty-seven years of existence the festival has been firmly supported by the San Sebastian city council. What is more, it is publicly funded by San Sebastian City Council, the Basque Country Government and Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport. In this sense, SSHFFF stands out as an example not only of cult films and cult audiences being included into the institutional dialogue of a particular cultural place such as San Sebastian, but of an uncouth subcultural event, seemingly at odds with conceptions of civic life, becoming part of the public/local cultural agenda.

In this chapter I contemplate the peculiar performance of the SSHFFF audience as an example of how audiences can, in a ludic manner, interfere and negotiate with pre-existing discourses and ideologies in horror and fantasy film viewing contexts. Considering the specifics of the audience’s viewing protocol, I argue that by playfully interacting with films, the audience not only legitimizes and regulates an internal hierarchy that enhances discourses of disaffection, aspiration and power among the Horror Week fans, but also establishes a protocol which enables them to take part in the creation of new engagement strategies that sometimes challenge the dominant groups in the theatre. This is not to suggest that audiences in the Horror Week enjoy complete sovereignty, but that play works against and for status quo and social norms, something that becomes clear in the social context of the Horror Week.

Drawing upon Roger Caillois’ sociology of play (1961), I argue that play offers contexts for pleasure and invention while teaching the importance of complying with rules and submitting our instincts to social order. Since play creates controlled models of reality, it happens within condensed spatial and temporal limits, and often combines freedom with convention, mimesis, repetition or principles such as competition or creativity. But more than that, play is a recurring, habitual performance through which we see and therefore approach familiar things and situations under a new light. When everyday life tends to be repetitive and end up being meaningless to us, play helps us to engage with it differently. From this perspective, play is a notion worth paying attention to when studying the social construction of events; as they periodically return to people’s lives, events introduce newness within routine and allow festive and unruly behaviours; they are cultural landmarks and they bring stability to the community.

By interpreting qualitative responses of members of the audience, I am first going to examine dominant discourses in the performance that takes place during the screenings, and then, give examples of how the audience, through their subversive readings of horror and fantasy films, playfully reinterprets traditional film viewing protocols. Ultimately, I expect that the examination of the playful attitude of the audience will provide insight into the larger study of both cult film cultures and other film spectacle experiences that are taking up the baton and writing the future of collective cinema viewing in Spain.

Method: Film festivals and ethnography

Several researchers involved in the study of film festivals have referred to the challenge of researching and writing about an event while it is happening, even when the researcher is able to be present for the entire duration of the festival (Chan 2014; de Valck 2007; Iordanova 2009; Lee 2016; Vallejo 2014). In her essay about the methodological challenges that researchers face when approaching a film festival, Aida Vallejo reflects on the benefits of conducting on-site ethnographic fieldwork: ‘This methodology [ethnography] implies attending the festival where professionals are working, observing the conditions under which they carry out their tasks, how they interact with each other, how they organize their work’ (2014: 25).

While most scholars involved in the study of film festival audiences have engaged with the social world of the festival and collected data on-site, only a few have approached the audience for interviews and qualitative data analysis. In her study of the audiences of Glasgow Film Festival, Lesley-Ann Dickson draws attention to the frequent disregard for audience opinion when drawing conclusions about their performance in the event. According to Dickson in a previous work concerned with the role of the audience in film festivals (Czach 2010; de Valck 2005; Koehler 2009), ‘Observations of the event operate as a stand-in for the voice of the festival audience’ (2015: 704). The result is that even when the work provides an account of audience experiences, their voices are hardly present. More than immersion in the social setting of the festival, Dickson calls for consideration of interviews, questionnaires and qualitative responses when approaching and interpreting the audience’s motivations to attend the festival. In a similar fashion, Toby Lee (2016) draws attention to the need for an approach that considers the study of film festivals from the bottom up. According to Lee, unlike systemic approaches to festivals, microscopic ethnography allows relevant information that is found at the margins of the event to be unveiled (2016: 127). These ‘unexpected stories’, which the researcher might come across when engaging in conversation with locals or participating in different ongoing events, might throw light on the different stories that make up the multilayered and complex experience of the film festival. While most of the information I present here comes from interviews and conversation with the audience and organizers, I also include the opinion of locals who have an indirect relationship with the festival in order to get a wider view of the reputation that the Horror Week has in the town of San Sebastian.

In order to gain insights into the audience’s habits and to acknowledge what elements constitute their sense of community, I decided to approach the event ‘from within’, attending the screenings, visiting the exhibitions and events, and getting involved with members of the audience, guests, journalists, programmers, organizers and local people of San Sebastian. Since this chapter is part of my doctoral thesis research, what I describe here represents a work in progress based on ethnographic engagement with the festival audience and guests on-site, as well as on several visits to San Sebastian outside the festival period in order to do archive research, analysis of printed materials and interviews with the festival directors, programmers and festival organizers.[1] This chapter relies upon material collected during my visits to the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 editions of the festival and it presents results from audience members’ responses to questionnaires and group interviews carried out in the 2014 edition of the festival. Given the complexity of the discourses that circulate within film festivals (Harbord 2002: 60), attending the event for four consecutive editions allowed me to detect differences in the audience performance in the auditorium, as well as to identify recurrent patterns of conduct that would explain certain hierarchical dynamics.

Following the lead of previous ethnographic work carried out on audiences of film festivals (Dickson 2015; Ethis 2001; Martínez et al. 2015; Unwin et al. 2007; Van Extergem 2004), I used online questionnaires with 108 respondents (September–November 2014) and I conducted face-to-face focus groups with forty people in total that complemented the questionnaires with qualitative responses (November 2014). The people interviewed during the focus groups represent 8 per cent of the audience who attended the screenings at the Main Theatre in 2014 while questionnaire respondents represent 19 per cent. Online questionnaires included twenty closed questions that allowed me to collect demographic data, how long the individuals had been attending the festival, their favourite activities during the event, their film tastes and habits and their film practices outside the festival. While some focus groups were deliberately organized to contain only younger and less-experienced members or only veterans, other groups combined both inexperienced and veteran members of the audience who attended the festival in 2014. The questions that I devised for the group interviews mostly focused on the participants’ experience and their feelings towards what happens during the screenings as well as their feelings towards each other:

  1. How would you describe the Horror Week to any friends who have never been before?

  2. Are there any rules that a first-timer must know?

  3. How would you describe a typical festivalgoer in this festival?

  4. How does shout-a-long affect your viewing experience?

  5. Can you think of anything that you don’t like about the Horror Week?

  6. Would you say that the festival has changed in the past few years? If so, how?

Since the purpose of my research was to interpret the interaction dynamics of this temporal community, being a participant as well as a researcher proved to be useful for getting an insider view of the event. Nevertheless, I must note that presenting myself as a researcher meant that I was never considered a member of the community, but a distant observer-anthropologist with a bird’s-eye view. As such, I believe that my recurrent presence in the festival not only triggered a stronger sense of community among the people interviewed, but even occasionally elicited a performance of the community in opposition to the outsider-academic. This behaviour has been previously noticed in ethnographic research (Hammersley and Atkinson 2003). My observations on this matter are supported by the comments of interviewees who defined themselves with regards to the research as ‘like National Geographic’ (Respondent A: 45: Male), or ‘strange and endangered species’ (Respondent B: 37: Male).

Regarding my relationship with the subjects under research, it must be noted that particularly at the first stage of my research, not only was I perceived by them as an academic, but as a first-timer and therefore as someone with no insider’s knowledge of the event. Seeing that a substantial number of festivalgoers showed scepticism towards my work at first, I slightly changed my discourse and adjusted my behaviour so it matched the audience’s expectations of a new festivalgoer. In this matter, engaging in conversation about films and past events from the festival, proved to be useful when drawing the audience’s attention towards my research and gaining some level of acceptance. Furthermore, conducting group interviews two years after my first visit meant that even when participants were fully conscious of my role as an ethnographer, they would open up more during the focus groups.

Categorizing the Horror Week as a cult event

SSHFFF, commonly known as the ‘Horror Week’ among regulars, is located in San Sebastian, one of the most culturally active towns in the Basque Country and in Spain. An old bourgeois town, summer residence to royalty and aristocrats in the nineteenth century, San Sebastian became in the 1990s a focal point for cultural tourism and seasonal events, and is currently a worldwide reference in the culinary arts. To this cultural and economic prosperity contributed the creation in 1953 of the first film festival in Spain: San Sebastian International Film Festival, which has become a landmark in the A-festivals circuit. Since then, the city has developed a thriving film culture, hosting over ten film festivals every year and offering multiple options for cinema viewing in art galleries and art houses.

Despite the fact that the Horror Week was a consequence of the town hall investing in cultural events in the early 1990s, the festival has never reached the high-profile level of San Sebastian International Film Festival. In fact, in contrast to the extensive media coverage of the larger festival, the Horror Week’s avoidance of media coverage across time is mostly due to organizers trying to keep the festival in small scale by offering a narrow range of features in the Main Theatre, 576 seats, where most of the cult action happens. While the event’s small proportions have reinforced its only-for-hardcore-fans image, this has also resulted in a small local community of fans appropriating the festival over the years. Consensus among audiences seems to be that, as there is little chance for audience renewal, the audience – most of them local in their forties – is ageing (Figure 7.1).

Although the festival has now been held for over twenty-seven years, the participatory performance and playful behaviour that the audience of the festival engages in echo current emerging contexts of film reception in which audiences’ involvement goes beyond ‘traditional’ moviegoing practices. In the last five years, several experiences that invite the audience to sing, dance, shout, dress up and celebrate the act of viewing have taken off in different towns in Spain. Festive experiences such as Phenomena Experience (Barcelona), Sunset Cinema (Madrid), Bang Bang Zinema (San Sebastian), Voodoo Cult Horror Movies Club (Madrid), singalong and quote-along sessions or itinerant initiatives such as Trash entre amigos (Trash with friends) are attracting larger and larger audiences to classic cult films of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and are starting to assume an important role in the cultural programme in big cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. The current popularity of these experiences and the fact that they bear a resemblance to other ‘experiential’ film screenings such as those set up by the company Secret Cinema (Atkinson and Kennedy 2015) or at Prince Charles Cinema in London (McCulloch and Crisp 2016) leads us to categorize the Horror Week as a pioneering example of event-led cinema in Spain. This argument is reinforced by the fact thatsome of these events have been set up by early members of the Horror Week who are still today well known by the audience. This is the case of the Horror Week veteran Nacho Cerdà, who today runs the profitable Phenomena Experience in Barcelona, while Nacho Vigalondo, Rubén Lardín and Raúl Minchinela are all founders of Trash entre amigos, an event that according to Lardín ‘wants to take the spontaneous and genuine self-releasing experience of the Horror Week to other parts of Spain’ (Lardín 2014).

Nevertheless, we must point out that the Horror Week has had a life on its own, which long precedes the so-called event-led cinema phenomena. The festival came about as a city council project in 1990 with the ambition of attracting young San Sebastian residents to the local film programme. With this main concern the project was passed on to José Luis Rebordinos, a young cinephile who in the 1980s had gained some local recognition for running a prominent film society. In order to meet the city council’s requirements, he brought to the project his own knowledge of his contemporaries’ film tastes and practices, and envisaged an event that would show international horror, fantasy and sci-fi-related films, genre classics and recent production. In its golden era, the festival introduced high-profile guests such as Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson, and introduced cult directors to Spain such as Takashi Miike, Takashi Shimizu and Hideo Nakata. By the mid-1990s, the festival had become widely known by fans of the genre for the participatory and intentionally annoying behaviour of the audience during the theatrical screenings. A regular evening in the festival would typically include concerts by anti-establishment bands; spontaneous interventions of the audience showing amateur material; and fanzine competitions along with heavy drinking and habitual drug consumption.

Although the Horror Week fits within horror and fantasy-themed film festivals, its programme actually spans films concerning a variety of issues and genres that aren’t always related to fantasy or horror. As happens in many other genre film festivals, fantasy, horror and science fiction, are rather loose categories that incorporate a broad scope of meanings, styles and subgenres. Taken together, the body of films that the festival screens could easily fall under the category of cult cinema, an eclectic category that Cristina Pujol links to fantastique, a genre that derives from French literature: ‘This genre has been adopted by comic books and especially by cinema, which has given it one of its most popular forms, a hybrid between science fiction and horror without forgetting other genres such as noir, giallo,[2] adventure, porn, horror comedy, etc.’ (2011: 153).

In the case of SSHFFF, horror and fantasy have been present throughout the years in many shapes and fashions, spanning from crime and Italian giallo to slasher and found footage, from neo-monsters and viral infections to haunted houses and Arthurian fantasies. While programmers have tried to keep the festival line-up as varied as possible, Asian horror, animé and horror comedy are among the festival’s favourites. As the current director of the festival, José Miguel (Josemi) Beltrán, explains in a personal interview ‘The extent of the presence of vampires, werewolves, blood or superheroes, will be determined by each year’s harvest of films’ (Beltrán 2013). Given the fact that programming a film festival is subjected to commercial interests and to distributors’ requirements, the selection process is often determined by whatever is available after the festival high season is over, and by the personal criteria of the small team of programmers who, according to Beltrán, ‘also try to keep the program close to the audience’s taste for the bizarre’ (Beltrán 2013).

This ‘taste for the bizarre’, which is indeed a motive of celebration in the Horror Week, allows us to interpret the festival as a cult event that is better understood through its audience’s protocols of reinterpretation of films than for the group of films it shows. In fact, according to Jeffrey Sconce, this is ultimately what characterizes cult films, a group of films which he defines through the category of what he calls Paracinema: ‘Paracinema is thus less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus’ (1995: 372).

However, Anne Jerslev (2007), in her essay ‘Semiotics by Instinct’, writes about how it is cult events that can help us to understand cult films. In this essay, she makes the case for two different contexts of reception of two classic cult movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and The Big Sleep (1946), which have since the 1970s been projected in collective/cathartic screenings. Adding to Andrew Tudor’s account of genre as a reception concept, Jerslev argues that cult films need to be conceptualized historically in terms of their reception, meaning the conditions (contexts of film circulation, spaces, practices) that enable the act of viewing to shape the understanding and categorization of a film as a cult film (Jerslev 2007: 92). By doing this she demonstrates that cult audiences work as temporary communities that are motivated by sharing their film textual knowledge in a social context. Using Jerslev’s account of a cult event as a point of departure, I want to examine the Horror Week audience as a unique community that has created a playful and highly restricted protocol to mediate with the films and the guests of the festival.

Never seen a shot like that before! Aspiration and power in the Horror Week’s ritual

Who are these people who religiously attend the festival year after year? First of all, to an outsider, or a non-specialized spectator who is unfamiliar with the horror and fantasy milieu, the large number of men that attend the festival could come as a surprise. However, the overwhelming presence of men in horror-themed events has also been noticed by Van Extergem, in his study of the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (2004).[3] In addition, the Horror Week’s reception protocols and behaviours bond it with quote-along sessions, which have also been identified as largely masculine (Klinger 2008). However, although this gender imbalance was the tendency when the festival started, the festival has now expanded to an increasingly mixed audience of men and women. In 2013, over 20 per cent of the respondents to my questionnaires were female and over 12 per cent of focus group participants were also women. I should add that it is my belief that men and women responded with equal enthusiasm to my request to participate in my research.

While 63 per cent of the people interviewed make time to visit the exhibitions (centred on props, special effects, comic writers and illustrators), watching the competing films in the Main Theatre remains the main attraction for hard-core followers that year after year reconfirm their loyalty by buying a weeklong special pass. Regardless of age or geographical origin, 77 per cent of the questionnaire respondents chose ‘the atmosphere in the Main Theatre’ as their main motivation to attend the festival. In answer to the question ‘Why do you attend the festival?’ a survey respondent explained: ‘For fun. To see the same old faces and get together with people you haven’t seen for a year. We just come every year and get together. Some might have changed job, they might bring another girlfriend, but they keep coming and get drunk, and talk about films as we always do’ (Respondent C: Forty-two: M).

For many members of the audience, the festival is a nostalgic revival, a space where people return and where some continuity with the origins of the festival is perpetuated. The emphasis that many members of the audience placed on the past confirms that the Horror Week shares a series of formal features with traditional festivals, either secular or religious. Like traditional festivals, the Horror Week provides exceptional conditions for communication and opens a chance for both perpetuation and renewal of the community, it commemorates the past periodically and by doing so, it keeps believers believing. When studying film festivals as social phenomena, a wide list of scholars have assumed that film festivals can be studied as festivals from the viewpoint of anthropology, folklore studies, sociology or history of religion (Dayan 2000; Elsaesser 2005; Koven 1999; Zielinski 2012). For instance, Zielinski (2012) and Elsaesser (2005) have noted that due to their level of excess and festive ways, film festivals present elements of the unruliness of carnival, a quality that is favoured by the special time/space frame in which the event takes place. Other scholars have demonstrated that film festivals play a significant part in fostering and consolidating a sense of community among the participants of the event and, occasionally, among residents who feel the festival is an expression of their local identity (Derret 2009: 107). For example, in his ethnographic study of Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF), Mikel Koven (1999) highlights how this event becomes through the 1990s a meaningful space that keeps the Jewish community relevant in the context of Toronto’s film cultures. Equally, the Horror Week has become a classic in San Sebastian cultural calendar, well established through its different events, street parades, zombie walks and cultish and sometimes uncivilized audience who for a week take over the old town of San Sebastian. At the Horror Week, the ritual aspect of watching the film is enhanced by the collective performance that not only helps the audience to consolidate a long-lasting sense of community, but also transfers knowledge of the community to the locals (Figure 7.2).

Over a long period, the festival has developed a reputation for its rowdiness as well as for its uncivil and politically incorrect ways among uninformed and uninitiated audience members who, according to Beltrán, have at times asked for their money back. This was corroborated by the testimony of different passers-by and locals who reacted in different ways to my inquiries about the Horror Week. Although not everyone that I engaged in conversation with knew the event, a considerable number of the people that I approached were familiar with it and its unusual conventions. ‘Iam not from here, but I have been living in San Sebastian for six years and apparently the horror film festival is a classic. I have never been to it, but I know it’s very popular among people who like horror and that kind of stuff’ (Passerby A: F). ‘I like horror films, and that’s why I don’t go to the horror festival. I’d rather watch films at home, where no one’s howling and getting on my nerves behind me’ (Passerby B: M).

What we can learn from these comments is that while outsiders might not identify with the festival milieu or its films, they recognize the event as ‘an event from the town’. In this regard, we can assume that film events can work as a marker of time and local identity even for those who do not feel they are part of that community. Furthermore, for those who have heard of the event or even have attended once or twice, what marks the festival out from other events that take place in San Sebastian is its exclusive, impenetrable audience, something that becomes apparent through the specific ritual that takes place in the sitting area during the screenings. As we have noted before, the concept of the ritual is not unfamiliar. Particularly, it has been through the work of Victor Turner (1984, 1977) and Alessandro Falassi (1987) that the concept has become useful to the ethnographic study of film festivals (Dayan 2000; Koven 1999; Regev 2011). In order to engage with the film experience, the audience collaboratively follows a sequence of rites and cathartic moments that guide them through the ceremony. What is more, if we look closely at the festival structure, we find that this performance presents some mimesis with expressions of idolatry and the sacred. Rites of passage, of reversal, of competition or of conspicuous consumption that Falassi considers essential at festive times are to be found at the Horror Week. While food and drink are forbidden at all events that take place in the main theatre, the Horror Week is the one exception to this rule. Copious drinking and eating is not only permitted during the Horror Week screenings but also encouraged by organizers who keep the theatre bar open ‘to keep the spirits up during the sessions’, according to Beltrán. Furthermore, drinking and eating, as expressions of abundance and gorging, echo with dressing up, which suggest rites of reversal and the carnivalesque. While certain costumes at the Horror Week (such as childhood icons and religious idols and figures) clearly hold a rebellious attitude towards mainstream culture, reversal is also heavily present in the transgressive use of space at the Horror Week. The classicist-inspired Main Theatre, also the oldest theatre in the city, is converted into a ‘film bacchanal’ where patterns of proper viewing are inverted. Not only the radical selection of films, surely difficult to watch for a mainstream audience, but also the audience’s behaviour seems always to border on excess and transgress most civic conventions. The stage and seating area are used ‘in reverse’ and almost tarnished by the obscene comments audiences throw at guests, particularly at women. ‘Take your panties off!’ or ‘I just got a hard on!’ are some of the most recurrent phrases dedicated to female guests that venture on to stage. The shouting at the Main Theatre often incorporates elements of religious provocation; there is a recurrence of profane war cries and sexually perverse humor; pagan-like attitudes such as the use of animal noises to distinguish the members of the audience; jeering at the local authorities when mentioned as sponsors of the event and cosplay using childhood icons (like Winnie the Pooh) exemplifying the ironic embodiment of naïve popular culture are some of the routine reversal activities of the audience.

Rites of competition are also essential to the spirit and the structure of the Horror Week through different contests and quizzes. For instance, at the 2014 and 2015 editions, the organizers set up The Master of Doom, a quiz that takes place in two phases (prior to the event and at the midpoint of the festival), where participants’ encyclopaedic knowledge of classic, fantasy and horror films is tested. The winner holds the Horror Scepter until the following year, an award that is given ceremoniously in an act that works as a reminder that not everybody holds the same status in the worship. Additionally, The War of Fanzines, a competition where audience teams competed to create ‘the best fanzine’, was hosted between 1996 and 2003. Competing ’zines would be passed around the Main Theatre to be voted on by the punishing audience. Although, according to long-standing member of the organization Carlos Plaza, The War of Fanzines was cancelled ‘because fanzines ended up being private jokes among their creators’ (Plaza 2013), organizers brought the event back for the 2016 edition.

While competitions help to indicate a hierarchical order among the members of the audience, it is through their verbal interaction with films and fellow audience members that the members of the audience make a play for status within the group since every intervention must pass audience judgment. Except for some rare moments of silence, the audience spends most of its time commenting on bad acting, slip-ups they have picked up on and genre clichés such as the much-celebrated (by the audience) ellipsis of coitus, or simply bullying Beltrán for his unfortunate film (and clothing) choices. For example, visualize a man who we know is a werewolf stumbling through the forest, as the action cuts to a close-up of the moon, within a fraction of a second someone with fast reflexes shouts out ‘Never seen that shot before!’ to much appreciation of the sarcasm. Another phrase from the festival lexicon, ‘Oh, very effective!’ is brought out every time someone detects a too-obvious or cheap mise-en-scène such as a crossfade that lasts too long. Cries such as these are some of the classics that the audience uses to point out the narrative ineptitude and clumsiness of some films.

In the same way that Sconce characterizes the para-cinematic community as embodying an ‘educated’ perspective on cinema (1995: 375), in the Horror Week the heckling becomes a substantial part of the audience’s self-construction as experts. By being fastidious and witty, the members of the community ritualistically demonstrate their authority as well-informed spectators and dispute their position within the audience hierarchy. That such a hierarchy exists is reaffirmed by some participants who declare that ‘yelling out has crossed my mind but I have restrained myself since I’d rather leave that to those who have been coming here for longer’ (Respondent D: Twenty-six: F) or ‘people can detect when someone is trying too hard’ (Respondent E: Twenty-seven: M). These statements provide evidence that inside knowledge of who is who in the festival hierarchy is crucial in order to act and respond to others’ actions accordingly. In this sense, the viewing protocol holds a pedagogical purpose for both older fans and newcomers, since the audience performs its own structure by individuals patenting witticisms, occupying the same seat year after year. These marks of expertise and commitment draw a line between the older, genuine fan that is ranked higher in the festival hierarchy, and the younger and therefore less-invested fan who is regarded as not being experienced enough. Several participants expressed this idea in the following way: ‘It’s true that there are new people coming to the festival, younger people who come sporadically and, maybe, don’t buy the whole-week pass. They don’t stay for the whole week and they don’t participate as much as we do … probably it’s not so easy for them’ (Respondent F: Forty-three: M). ‘I found the hard-core audience quite intimidating. When I first queued up to get a whole-week pass, I was like … who shall I talk to? What should I do? To me those who got the whole-week pass were like a superior race (laugh)’ (Respondent F: Twenty-eight: F).[4]

Different authors have pointed out that cult audiences possess a subcultural sensibility oppositional to legitimate film culture, which they display by attending cult events, writing in blogs, magazines, fanzines or engaging with other fans (Hills 2010; Stringer 2008; Van Extergem 2004). Does the Horror Week audience’s ritual work as a marker of a sense of cultural distinction? Koven’s work on TJFF offers an interesting viewpoint on how audiences work for and against mainstream discourses of identity at film festivals. According to Koven, by annually celebrating Jewish ethnicity around the screenings, in coffee shops and in casual encounters at local venues, the TJFF creates a safe and meaningful space for discussion among members of the audience, who take a dialogical position towards films and what it means to be Jew (Koven 1999: 123). Drawing upon Victor Turner’s anthropological definition of the liminoid, Koven argues that the special occasion of the event provides a liminal context that gives voice to a unique cultural dialogue where contradictory discourses collide. Using the context provided by TJFF, audiences ‘either support or reject the cultural values inherent within the cultural hegemony, in this case, the voice of mainstream Judaism’ (Koven 1999: 124). Although the ways in which TJFF audiences engage with the event are substantially different to those followed by the individuals under research here, the audiences of the Horror Week function in a similar way to the audiences in Koven’s study. Through the ritual, audiences of the Horror Week not only find an institutional space to communicate their disengagement from the ‘more “normal” popular audiences’ – as John Fiske has referred to the socially legitimated audiences (Fiske 2007: 446) – but also personalize their fandom and differentiate themselves from other cult communities in Spain. In particular the audience takes pleasure in attacking Sitges Film Festival, its big name and its ‘pretentious’ film programme. Even though for many members of the audience Sitges Film Festival remains a not-to-be-missed, cult event of the season, it is also home to the more mainstream genre aficionados and, therefore, the object of constant mockery among insiders. The fact that Sitges attracts such a large and diverse audience is looked on with suspicion by the majority of the audience at the Horror Week. In fact, one of the most celebrated cries ‘¡Vete a Sitges!’ (‘Bugger off to Sitges!’) is heard in the theatre every time the audience considers that a film (or an audience comment) is too pretentious and therefore would find a better home in Sitges. By incorporating Sitges into the insiders’ vocabulary of the ritual, the audience reaffirms its own identity in opposition to Sitges’ fans who lack the transgressive attitude of the fans in the Horror Week.

The pleasures of shouting-a-long: Between play and resistance

In her text about dialogue quotation in participatory film viewing contexts, Barbara Klinger explores the viewing pleasures derived from quoting lines of classic and cult films. As she suggests, audiences take pleasure in repeated viewing and immersion in the film where quoting ‘acts as an unexpected getaway to narrative engagement’ (Klinger 2008). According to Klinger, these pleasures are neither limited nor restricted to fandom or to other niche film viewing communities, but are common to all spectators, and different forms of viewing. Nevertheless for Klinger, pleasures in movie quotation are best defined by their ‘role in presenting private and public faces of masculinity’ (Klinger 2008).

Although the behaviours and discourses under analysis in Klinger’s work present similarities to our case study, there are important discursive differences in the ways audiences respond to films in the Horror Week. While quote-alongs are based on memorizing and shouting out movie lines and dialogues while rewatching the film together, the Horror Week screenings are built around a dialogue with the film and fellow spectators where the audience creates and reiterates a private library of comments as they go along. In fact, this particular type of critique is a genuine initiative of the SSHFFF audience, which for twenty-seven years has scripted a repertoire of in-jokes that has become the central motive of the ceremony. Despite the fact that many of these jokes are anticipated by the audience – which takes pleasure in shouting out and listening to the same gags over and over again – novelty and creativity are also central to the enjoyment of the audience. In fact, my study shows that off-script interventions are highly valued by the audience. During the focus groups, several participants remarked on this aspect of the ritual: ‘There are sessions when all the gags sound repetitive and are just not right. But then when the mood is low, someone says something new that really hits the spot and brings the audience back. I love when that happens. People love it’ (Respondent G: Twenty-three: M). ‘There are really funny people that know what to say at the right time. The usual suspects. It’s not only about what they say, you know? Is mostly when they say it’ (Respondent H: Thirty-one: M).

A good sharp comment that arrives at the right time makes the whole auditorium break into laughter and applause. While audience testimonies reveal that the reiterative use of ritualized catchphrases are an important source of pleasure, challenging the script is also key to the enjoyment of the audience. As Paco confesses: ‘I love when someone speaks out of time and gets heckled for it’ (Respondent I: Forty-six: M). To understand the importance of improvisation in the Horror Week, it must be stressed that unlike quote-alongs, all the action happens around films that most of the audience watch together for the first time. Furthermore, improvisation and creativity are also often rewarded by the audience who allow its creators to own their punchlines and use them accordingly in the future. This is the case of witticisms such as ‘Telephone!’ (shouted out loud when someone makes a call on screen or when a telephone rings in the seating room) and ‘Subtitles!’ (shouted out when subtitles are not working). These are two of the most celebrated gags whose masterminds have been using for over fifteen years. Given that spontaneous attempts to diverge from the text often find a way in the ostensibly rigid pantomime, I argue that being playful with the rules inevitably goes hand in hand with the ritual as it opens a door for change, renovation and survival. Therefore, rather than confirming the general idea that the festival is ageing, it seems more appropriate to describe the performance of the audience as a vivid dialogue, a living text that is under slow but constant transformation. Sometimes, these transformations are the expression of a certain resistant sensibility that sporadically takes the lead in the auditorium.

While most of the time the play of the audience does not go far from playing with the rules that are already set, on other occasions interventions seem to challenge the very structure of the whole performance and, even, the community. A good example of this is the occasional, but courageous, interventions of women in the predominantly masculine milieu of the Horror Week. Klinger finds that in movie quotation women tend to quote male characters as consequence of Hollywood’s stronger characters being predominantly heterosexual white males. According to Klinger, this demands women ‘to be more flexible in their choice of objects of identification as a condition for being able to experience spectatorial pleasure’ (Klinger 2008). This is also true of some discourses in the Horror Week where women seem to accept and validate sexist comments by being silent or even by adding (in very few occasions) to the chain of discriminatory comments. Nevertheless, in two occasions I was witness to how the response of a woman to a sexist comment while viewing It Follows (David Robert Mitchell 2014), led not only to agitation in the auditorium but also to a stimulating competition between the two authors of the gags to see whose comment was the wittiest. When asked about these incidents, veterans confirmed that ‘girls are getting cockier lately’ (Respondent J: Forty: M). Even though scarce, these experiences confirm the changing character of the ritual and of the festival audience.

The modes of interaction between members of the audience and films explained above connect some aspects of the audience performance to the playful and resistant viewing that according to John Fiske (2007) is typical of television audiences by the end of the 1980s. In his renowned study of television audiences, play becomes a way of disengaging from the social clichés and archetypes that television bestows. Fiske notes that by involving themselves in different kinds of pleasurable forms of identification with television texts, audiences playfully appropriate mainstream discourses as a way of transgression (Fiske 2009: 183–195). In other words, they are capable of choosing in what way they want to identify with the text and of rejecting dominant mass media meanings while taking pleasure from popular television narratives. Adding to Fiske’s reading of the resistant pleasures in television audiences I would further argue that while the ritual in the Horror Week sustains its social structure and, therefore, legitimizes certain members of the audience as a source of authority and dominant discourse, it is through play that some take action and shake the very structure of things by pushing conventional boundaries.


Roger Caillois (1961) points out that play happens between two extremes that constantly interrelate in life: paidia and ludus. On the one hand, play manifests itself through spontaneous behaviour that leads to free improvisation (paidia); on the other, we become social through play: when playing we create rules that channel our volatile and cheerful impulses towards common goals. In other words, as we play we imagine possible paths of action, and by doing so we increase our productive capacity as a society (ludus) (Caillois 2001: 32–33). Likewise, Horror Week fans enact a similar tension, as their rigid performance must be matched by the creation of new rules and therefore by engaging with newness and creativity, as well as deal with the unexpected. This is somehow facilitated by the spatial and temporal nature of the film festival. While the enthusiasm that the fans display for the happening of the event provides room for improvisation and unconventional thinking, the iteration of the event sets up a series of liaisons among fans and organizers and creates a habit that ultimately institutionalizes the viewers’ rituals.

My argument is that by attending the festival and by being part of this ritual play, audiences find different ways of disengaging with regular and more civic contexts of film viewing. Furthermore, my study shows that being part of the ritual means being able to express disaffection towards certain dominant discourses that are part of its very structure. Yet, more than an expression of rivalry or resistance towards mainstream discourses (and conservative discourses where they emerge within the auditorium), play is the way the audience reassures and confirms their loyalty to the community. By collaboratively constructing films as ‘bad films’, viewers elaborate their private, encoded protocol that more than anything confirms their love for films and for the community. As Klinger wisely points out: ‘In any circumstance, movie quotation can operate as the verbal, cinematic equivalent of a secret handshake’ (Klinger 2008).

This study, eventually, raises questions about the role that shout-a-longs and horror film events play in challenging institutional film cultures (such as the parallel film cultures that circulate in the city of San Sebastian). My view is that the Horror Week’s playful performance is not so much an expression of resistance to dominant encoded meanings of official culture as it is a way of negotiating a privileged cultural position within the SSHFFF hierarchy as well as within the Spanish sphere of cult film fans, where Sitges Film Festival is the main reference. Additionally, the Horror Week is a good example of horror and fantasy film viewing contexts being sites that provide room for certain conservative facets of masculinity in the public sphere. Therefore, in this area of study, there is still is a lot to be said regarding the role of women in cult film events where it is still assumed that men must take the lead. For future research we might wonder where this will go from here. Ultimately, the considerable similarities between the protocols and ‘plays’ in different cult film contexts (Austin 1981; Jerslev 2007; McCulloch 2011; McCulloch and Crisp 2016; Van Extergem 2004) seem a very good opportunity to make researchers aware of the contrasting experiences that emerge from different live cinema experiences and how, in each case, ‘participation’ must be put under scrutiny.

Figure 7.1. The audience at the main entrance of the Main Theatre in San Sebastian, 2015. Courtesy Donostia Kultura.
Figure 7.2. Shinya Tsukamoto being heckled by a member of the audience, 2008. Courtesy Donostia Kultura.

[1] This chapter constitutes an extension of previously published work on SSHFFF: Rosana Vivar, ‘A film bacchanal: Playfulness and audience sovereignty in San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival.’ Participations. Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 13, no. 1 (May 2016): 234–251.

[2] Giallo (also called Spaghetti Slasher) is an Italian film subgenre that features murder mystery thrillers. It proliferated in the late 1960s and the 1970s with the films of Dario Argento.

[3] Van Extergem’s study of Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film provides testimony of an event that features not only a similar programming vocation to SSHFFF, but also a cult audience that partakes in a series of behaviours and reception modes similar to those under analysis here.

[4] Respondent F alludes to the queue La cola de los sustitos (the spooky queue) which has become a ritual in itself as well as an enjoyable experience that followers look forward to. For residents in the Basque Country, owning the precious tickets means queueing up for forty-eight hours in front of the theatre’s entrance as whole-week passes are sold on a first come, first served basis and seats are assigned in order of purchase. Being part of the queue not only means getting the well-deserved tickets, but becoming part of the festival’s legend and, ultimately, a visible personality in the community.