Click on the film title:
The Savage Hunt of King Stakh (1979)
Den’ gneva (Day of Wrath, 1985)
Vel’dt (1987) (Ray Bradbury stories)
Desiat negrityat (Ten Little Indians, 1987) (Agatha Christie)
Psy (Stray Dogs, 1989)
Semia vurdalakov (The Vampire Family, 1990)
Papa, umer Ded Moroz (Daddy, Father Frost is Dead, 1991) Yufit
P’iushchie krov’ (Bloodsuckers, 1991)
I grew up in a generation that has matured (or not) with horror. I received my first kiss watching a horror movie, and I like to believe that, if I ever come face to face with a serial killer, ghoul, or ghost, I might know how to handle it thanks to horror films. Growing up, my father would take my brother, sister, and me to the local movie rental store to pick out horror films for the weekend. I was probably too young to watch some of them, but they instilled in me a fascination with the genre. What makes people so fascinated with witnessing death, blood, gore, and trauma? What accounts for the genre’s salience?
I realized as I got older that horror movies embody something inherent in our social-self. They reflect our deepest fears, anxieties, fantasies, and in some cases our secret wishes in a certain time and place. The popularity of major blockbusters like Halloween, The Shining, and Nightmare on Elm Street evince how horror is not exclusively a form of entertainment, but socially and culturally relevant in its time and place. We are eternally afraid of what cannot be understood, what we as humans cannot stop, and what alters our understanding of what is visually possible. As H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, production of horror movies from independent filmmakers and Hollywood sky rocketed. It was a time of intense Cold War conflict and a resurgence of conservative ideals. Along with the rise of horror, hardcore punk came to the scene, giving disgruntled youth an outlet to express their ideas in a space full of like-minded people. It’s not difficult to imagine that the ascent of horror occurred in conjunction with an increasingly scary and alienated world (at least for everyone in the working class). Horror reflected those freights in the form of nuclear holocausts, toxic waste pollution, alien clown invaders, and undead houseguests. Everyone was at risk—teenagers especially—because their present and future was the most uncertain.
As I started to study late Soviet history I began to wonder whether the Soviet Union confronted a similar phenomenon. A quick look on Mosfilm’s YouTube channel brought up Konstantin Yershov’s famous rendition of Nikolai Gogol’s Viy, a haunting tale of adolescent overindulgence, irresponsibility, and fate. Released in 1967, the film stands out amongst Mosfilm’s pantheon if only because it is the oldest of its kind. Indeed, even compared to later Western horror films, Viy is quite haunting. The classic rural witch and the pale white maiden are nightmarishly depicted, leading to the ghoulish conclusion where the creature of Ukrainian folklore, Viy, finally ascends from hell. I was surprised to learn that Viy was and is considered still the first Soviet horror film, even though its screen writer (Aleksandr Ptushko) was more famous for his folklore fantasies like Ilya Muromets (1956).
Despite the fact that Viy is considered the only horror film before the late 1970s, it still occurred to me that it was as much a reflection of its time and place as its later counterparts. In fact the more Soviet horror films I discovered and watched, the more I realized that they all reflect different aspects of late Soviet politics, society, and culture in historical context. I wondered whether one might be able to isolate these films and use them to reflect on cultural and social fears and broader perceptions and changes in the late Soviet Union. What do these films depict? What can their plot lines and context tell us about the thoughts, fears, and emotions of the last Soviet generation?
Coincidentally, Viy aside, horror in the Soviet Union really took off only in the 1980s, particularly the second half. We should understand this partially as a result of perestroika and glasnost—the lightening of censorship and the introduction of new ideas, genres, and topics. But we should also study this trend in the same way we examine the American horror uptick—what changes within the Soviet Union facilitated the genre’s growing appeal? How were late Soviet politics and society feeding into a growing culture of self-induced shock, catastrophe, death, and destruction?
The topic of Soviet horror has rarely been explored, if only because the genre itself occupied an ambiguous place in the Soviet academy. One scholar of genre, Lev Nikulin, has argued that part of the problem was that “USSR cinema was called upon to express not only specific ideas, but also particular moods deemed ideologically appropriate for the Soviet viewer.” Horror was therefore outside what the censors and Party deemed appropriate. Despite this, certain films contained elements of horror like suspense, paranormal activity, and murder without explicitly branding itself horror. Nikulin is absolutely correct, but the fact of the genre’s sudden breakthrough in the 1980s still raises the question: what was going on in Soviet society that gave license to the genre’s nascent popularity?
Hence I decided to start this blog, not necessarily as an academic exercise, but as a way of reflecting on Soviet history using my favorite film genre. In full disclosure, I have never studied film or cinematography, I only approach these films as cultural artifacts in the same way a historian approaches archival sources. I will do the best I can to unpack these stories without getting bogged down in summary or details, but I want to keep each entry fairly trim and legible. I am also going to stick to secondary literature for my contextualization, as it seems more appropriate to use work that has already been written. My only hope is that through this blog, I can inspire someone else to delve deeper into the strange phenomenon that was late Soviet horror.