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The Horror Show at Somerset House: A deep dive into Britain’s uncanny cultural offerings.

Updated: Mar 10

By Abbie Ritch

Image courtesy of Stephen Chung for Somerset House

The whispering of unintelligible words. A face pressed up against a white sheet, leaving an intricate silhouette of something that may or may not be human. Fluorescent lights illuminating deformed creatures. As we creep further into the gallery, more and more uncanny commodities lie in wait for us.

Curated masterfully by Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard. and Claire Catterall, Somerset House’s latest exhibition, The Horror Show, opened just in time for Samhain's night last week. Celebrating the devious and abnormal elements of modern Britain, it was originally due to open in late 2020 but was pushed back due to the pandemic. The curators decided to go ahead with The Horror Show this autumn, arguing that ‘the harder the times, the more urgently we need the toolkit of horror’ to navigate real-life terrors.

However, you’d be mistaken if you turn up to The Horror Show expecting merely blood, guts, and gore. Instead, this exhibition takes a magnifying glass to the leylines of the British Isles, showing us how the music, art, film, and culture of Britain has a profoundly unsettling vein running through it that often reflects the unstable political climate we find ourselves lost within. Intertwining contemporary art with film, television, punk music and anything in between, this interdisciplinary pageant of horror depicts the darkness inherently found within the British psyche.

The exhibition is divided into three sections. As you slowly meander around the building, you are transported through British history of the last five decades within the realm of MONSTER, GHOST & WITCH. We are treated to a multitude of perspectives on horror and British culture, glimpses of past, present, and future disturbances to come.

MONSTER introduces us to an emerging subculture in the 70s and 80s as a response to increasing political unrest. Sex Pistols, the grotesque Spitting Image puppets, Siouxsie Sioux, the accompanying fashion and JD Ballard’s Crash are just some of the things presented as transgressive, rebellious reactions against the society we came to know. The Horror Show asks us: what should we really define as the monster?.

GHOST explores the haunting nature of the 1990s and early 2000s, an age defined by jarringly disturbing technological changes, the promise that we were entering a new, advanced world and the reality of a similarly bleak, melancholic chapter in British history.

Reflected in the electronic music of Aphex Twin, the eerie spectacle of Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch and Rachel Whitehead’s House series; GHOST lingers on cultural anxieties we still experience. It is filled to the brim with familiar icons of television, film, music, and art. Visitors will recognise a certain Mighty Boosh character or David Shrigley’s iconic art style - I was especially delighted to come across the severed heads of horror-comedy legends Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton!

GHOST dwells on electronic music labels like Ghostbox and Mark Fisher’s work on Hauntology to make sense of the nostalgia connected with horror; how wistfully looking back often creates something much more sinister and strange. The curators cleverly pair public information leaflets warning of the dreaded ‘Millennium Bug’ with Richard Littler’s satirical Scarfolk work to understand how popular culture constantly tries to cope with politically tiresome times in new and inventive ways.

In WITCH we are taken through the later 2000s into the present day where we are ‘re-enchanted by witchcraft’ in these fast-paced, convoluted times. WITCH looks forward to what comes next; a long-awaited diminishing of heteronormative patriarchal standards, the slaying of neoliberal zombies, and a new age of liberation for those previously confined. We are now acquainted with new spells and potions to face the ongoing horrors of social and wealth inequality, climate crisis, and global injustice.

Bert Gilbert’s The Vagina Whisperers hangs spectacularly at the entrance of WITCH, parading a deluge of red amongst tarots, ceramic art, woven wheat dollies and luridly wonderful film ephemera to entrance us into seeing a newly equal and more feminine, understanding of the world.

The Horror Show demonstrates that horror is not just for Halloween. It is deep within the roots of British soil and continues to linger, haunting us through musical, filmic, and artistic offerings. Horror fan or not, this exhibition has something hidden around the corner for everyone.

The Horror Show: A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain exhibition is being shown at Somerset House until the 19th of February 2023. You can get tickets, including discounted student tickets, here.

Images courtesy of Stephen Chung for Somerset House

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