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  • The Disappearing Body:Poe and the Logics of Iranian Horror Films
  • Laura Fish (bio)

Horror has not gained much traction as a genre within Iranian cinema. Despite the apparent scarcity of such genre works within Iranian film history, elements of horror have featured in individual Iranian films since early in the history of the country's commercial cinema. The originator of the crime thriller in Iranian cinema, Samuel Khachikian, an Iranian Armenian, experimented with horror techniques developing and incorporating strategic lighting and editing much to the shock and awe of his audiences.1 For the first time in Persian and at the hands of an Iranian filmmaker, Iranian audiences could be thrilled by crime tales meant to invoke fear, intrigue, and suspense. Moreover, Khachikian centered female characters as leads within his films during a period of commercial filmmaking that positioned women as secondary characters serving the male characters' goals and sexual ambitions. While Khachikian's use of women-centric narratives often still benefited a patriarchal worldview, the motifs and female fixation he employed entice a pervading uncanny impression that aligns closely with the gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe. This uncanny effect begs further analysis via a comparative reading that places the two storytellers in dialogue with one another.

Within histories of cinema in Iran, Khachikian's films appear as outliers for their crafting of terror-inducing narratives for the silver screen. Scholars of Iranian cinema contend that horror as a genre has never taken hold in Iranian filmmaking.2 Investigations of specific films suggest that applications of horror are exceptionally rare and serve as one-time occasions for filmmakers to spur introspection regarding disregarded or derided elements of Iranian culture. Hamid Naficy mentions the 1986 Dariush Farhang gothic horror feature Telesm (The Spell) within his discussion of the higher quality films governmental bodies produced following the 1979 Revolution.3 In delving into the supernatural horror film Khābgāh-e Dokhtarān (Girls' Dormitory, Mohammad Hossein Latifi, 2004), Pedram Partovi highlights the novelty of horror films in Iranian cinema, along with the rarity of female lead characters in Iranian cinema [End Page 86] history in general.4 Along with twenty-first-century diaspora productions,5 both these post-Revolution films demonstrate how Iranian cinema scholarship has attended to specific interpretations of the ways horror should be defined: supernatural components, whether hauntings or possessions, are presented in combination with religiously-inflected influences. Despite emphasizing the role of women and their bodies as critical to the creation of horror, though, this historiography is limited and often sidelines women's agency throughout Iranian film history. Further, it has largely ignored the longstanding and subtle origins of Iranian horror films of Khachikian's oeuvre within commercial cinema. Scholars taking note of horror in Iranian cinema history point to the supernatural, occult, or religious as the sources of such films in Iran that pen explorations of horror within narrow confines. Instead, this article situates horror in Iranian films as rooted in something more existentially human.

Even beyond Iranian film histories, the "horror film" itself has long been difficult to define, and Khachikian's films walk a tenuous line between recognizable horror film and thriller. Mark Jancovich makes note of the notoriously difficult conceptualization of horror within not only American cinema, but also global cinematic traditions, throughout the history of film.6 Highlighting the words of S. S. Prawer in defining horror in his conflation of "horror" versus "terror," Jancovich cites that "there is often a slippage between the term 'horror' and terms such as 'fantasy', 'the Gothic', and 'the tale of terror', terms which are not commensurate with one another but through which differences can be elided. "7 As a discursive form, there is little agreement among film scholars on horror as a genre, let alone one with specific generic expectations. Jancovich further explains that in addressing histories of horror film, certain films are retrospectively defined as horror, such as Georges Méliès's turn of the century work that might more appropriately be deemed fantasy.8 It is important to note, however, that the reverse was also true: films that today might not be viewed as decidedly horror films did fit within...


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