Interview: Dr. Cynthia Miller Discusses the Undead in the West
Dr. Cynthia Miller is a cultural anthropologist specializing in popular culture and visual media. She has received several awards and fellowships, and is a leading academic voice in the field of popular culture studies. She recently has published two anthologies, 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Man (with A. Bowdoin Van Riper;Palgrave MacMillan), and Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier (with A. Bowdoin Van Riper; Scarecrow Press). And for this interview, she will be talking about the goals of and research present in Undead in the West.
You can learn more about Miller by visiting her bio here.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some of the scary movies and TV shows that you enjoyed watching?
Dr. Cynthia Miller: You know, I was a sheltered suburban kid – I wasn’t allowed to watch scary movies at all. So, the only scary stuff I ever got to see was when my parents weren’t around. I absolutely loved Creature from the Black Lagoon, though, and the 1931 version of Dracula. I usually managed to sneak a couple of episodes each week of Dark Shadows, too. But I love to be terrified, for the “right” reasons. The grotesque and horrific have to be interesting – funny, or ironic, or suspenseful, or … something! Just splattering blood on the screen gets boring very fast. I think our media culture has left viewers pretty numbed-out to exploding body parts.
Yanes: With so many aspects of popular culture to study, what were some of the reasons you decided to produce a collection about the Undead in the West?
Miller: That’s a little complicated … I’ve always been drawn to B-movies – they’re great fun, and tend to be passed off as so much pop culture drivel, but as cultural products, they’re fascinating. The low-budget Bs are where constraints were loosened – where filmmakers and studios were willing to innovate – and where the ability to promote meant as much (or more) than cinematography or narrative continuity. They’re the cinematic version of dime museums and sideshows. It’s spectacle – “Hey folks – bet you’ve never seen this before!” – and I find that charming. Hybrid films, such as undead Westerns, are a big part of that construction of corner of the entertainment world.
Layered on top of that, thanks to my dad, the genre I watched a lot of as a kid was the Western. I joke a lot about being a John Wayne kid. So, when I first started working in popular culture, that was the place that I gravitated toward. My first couple of film-focused book chapters were on the 1938 hybrid, The Terror of Tiny Town (a musical Western with an all-midget cast) and the 1935 movie serial, The Phantom Empire, the first science fiction musical Western, starring Gene Autry. I’ve also recently done work on steampunk Westerns, so it’s not a very long throw from there to Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or From Dusk Till Dawn … The pull of the genre and my B-movie sensibilities gradually paved a path to Undead in the West.
Yanes: On this note, how are you defining the “West” for this project? For instance, though The Walking Dead is largely set in the South, many have commented that it has a distinct Western feel to it.
Miller: It definitely does, and for our purposes, that was “Western” enough. We were interested not only in films or television programming set in the geographical West, but also narratives that invoked the traditional West – tales that adapted gunslingers, the Cowboy Code, shady ladies, and dastardly villains. So, we have a chapter on The Walking Dead, as well as Supernatural, and Bubba Ho-Tep, along with what might be thought of as more traditional Western narratives.
Yanes: Currently, what are some supernatural shows that you feel best embody Western themes?
Miller: Hmm … I think both Supernatural and The Walking Dead do a very good job of interpreting and adapting Western themes. One of the best things about the Western is that its tropes and symbols are so solid – a storyline can incorporate all sorts of other genre elements, but a Stetson, or a Winchester, or a saloon is always going to “read” as Western, with all the associations a writer or director might want to invoke. A story doesn’t have to be set in the Old West to elicit the values and ideals packed into the American frontier.
Yanes: When designing this project, how did you approach the tension between making it academically relevant, but still easily accessible to the average reader?
Miller: That’s a very good question, and one that was in the front of our minds as we thought about the contents of the volume. Projects such as this always run the risk of not being taken seriously, so we wanted the level of scholarship to be very high. By the same token, we wanted both the authors and the readers to enjoy the project. One thing that meant was making sure that the book was challenging, thoughtful, and really showed off our authors’ insights and expertise, but did so in a way that an average reader could feel good about reading and in turn, thinking about. It was important to us to make the book a “jargon-free zone” – intelligent, but not inaccessible – the most compelling ideas in the world are wasted if they can’t be expressed in ways that readers can appreciate and work with. Also, we tried to make sure that unfamiliar territory – say, concepts from philosophy or economics or sociology – were explained and contextualized. I think our authors found a very nice balance, where readers who are academics and readers who are fans will feel equally respected.
Yanes: You mentioned mummies in your title. Given that there have only been a few movies featuring mummies in the past few years, why did you decide to include this creature?
Miller: Mummies are, I think, the Great Overlooked among the undead. When we think “mummy” we tend to immediately conjure images of either Boris Karloff or Brendan Fraser. Undead Westerns, though, have a couple of very cool mummy narratives: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), which was written by East Texas storyteller extraordinaire Joe R. Lansdale, and 7 Mummies (2006), which stars one of my favorite undead villains of all time, Billy Drago. Both films are, in their own ways, terrific examples of the creativity that comes with genre mash-ups. In the case of Bubba Ho-Tep, an ancient Egyptian mummy wearing a Stetson and spurs terrorizes an East Texas old folks’ home, until two residents – an African American who believes he’s JFK (played by Ossie Davis), and Elvis (yep, he swears he’s the King, and is played by Bruce Campbell) – decide to go to battle and defend their territory. In 7 Mummies, escaped convicts make their way to a ghost town after hearing tales of a fortune in gold. The thing is, the residents of the town are all normal-by-day, undead-by-night, and the gold is guarded by seven mummies who were, in life, Jesuit priests. Where else can you find storylines like that?
Yanes: What are you hoping a reader of Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier will come away with?
Miller: I’m really hoping that readers will come away with an appreciation for how diverse and versatile the undead are – just how many uses we put them to, and why – and a greater sense of respect for the films and programs, and the writers, cinematographers, special effects artists, and directors who create them. I’d like to know that it left readers thinking seriously about genre mash-ups, as well, and all of the amazing, creative potential that exists in them. Mostly, though, I hope that they come away still feeling the fun in these films and programs. A recurring complaint I hear about scholarly treatments of popular culture is that an academic can suck the fun out of just about anything. I don’t think that has to be the case. I teach a course called “Making Monsters,” at 8:30 in the morning – if I can’t make the topic engaging, I’m in big trouble. I think good scholarship should be “value added” for pop culture topics, not a joy-killer.
Yanes: After finishing this book, are there some aspects of the Undead you think scholars still need to investigate?
Miller: Oh, yes! There’s always ground left to cover. A great deal has been done on topics like contagion, commercialism, immigration, and sexuality in relation to the undead, but one of the things I’m happiest with about the essays in the book is the kind of thoughtful ties they make to themes such as restorative justice, masculinity, economics, exploitation, philosophy, etc.. Once you begin looking at these texts through diverse lenses like that, all sorts of interesting potential emerges for new ways of thinking about what they do and how they do it. And genre mash-ups like these are continuing to be made. I’ve done quite a bit of work on Nazi zombie films, such as Dead Snow (2010), and I think that there’s a lot to say about this year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The thing is, scholars have to be encouraged to stop thinking about these films as diminished works that aren’t worth consideration. “Good” and “Bad” aren’t interesting categories – “How?” and “Why now?” are.
Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects of yours that readers can look forward to?
Miller: Well, as they say on TV: “But wait, there’s more!” Readers can look forward to Undead in the West II: They Just Keep Coming sometime in the summer of 2013. The first volume focused exclusively on film and television, so the sequel is going to focus on literature – from the early pulps to contemporary novels, comics and graphic novels, gaming, and fan culture (fanfic, fan editing, etc.). And speaking of genre creativity, readers might also be interested in another of my recently released volumes: Steaming Into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology, co-edited with Julie Anne Taddeo (Scarecrow Press, 2012). This is a really wonderful collection of essays on all aspects of steampunk: airships, the music of Prof. Elemental, literature, art, museum exhibits, and of course, fan culture.
Again, you can learn more about Miller by visiting her bio here.