Walking through London’s history of horror

Dr Lauren Barnett (PhD Cultural Studies, 2017) writes, lives and breathes horror fiction, with a passion for illuminating London as the epicentre of horror.

“Sometimes, you just want to watch people die in a really insane way,” remarks Lauren on her podcast, London Horror Movie Club. This is from an episode about comedy horror film Attack the Block, in which various characters, including Moses played by John Boyega, get graphically eaten by aliens visiting their South London council estate. Speaking with Birkbeck, however, Lauren subverts our expectations by describing the viewing experience as “far from unsettling.” She believes that horror as a genre can create “a safe space”  for people to experience the unsavoury, “in the living room with a hot chocolate in hand. It’s like why people want to watch films which make them cry. You know nothing bad is going to happen, as you can turn off the TV or leave the room at any point.”  

Sharing this unlikely safe space has been a driver of Lauren’s career. This began with the creation of her London Horror Walks, which see Lauren act as a tour guide to illuminate the history of horror in our capital city. Lauren describes these walks as “an amazing chance to introduce people to horror,” recalling: “I did a horror walk for the Women’s Institute, and no one on the walk was that familiar with horror movies. By the end of it, they were asking me for a list of them!” She adds: “From Jack the Ripper to Jekyll and Hyde, London has been the home of horror for a long time.” 

Being in London also allowed Lauren to undertake her PhD in Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, which included exploring Thanatology, the study of death, by night. Lauren credits the range of interdisciplinary research she undertook to the academic freedom she was given at the College: “Birkbeck said ‘here’s the rope, now go do the PhD’.”  With two supervisors – one an art historian, and the other a medical historian (specialising in the history of plastic surgery) – her research topics ranged from photography to the history of death and burial. This even led to Lauren being able to sit in on an autopsy at UCL Medical School, albeit “not in the same room!”  

Asked what advice she would give to a Birkbeck student today, Lauren says: “Don’t be afraid to ask teachers and other students about things not directly related to the class, such as ‘do you know anybody at the Institute of Contemporary Arts?’ A lot of what I ended up doing arose from these kinds of side conversations.

The students I spoke to were interesting as they brought lots of life experience to the table, being able to explain things like how to give talks or run marketing campaigns.” Tempering this openness and curiosity, however, is Lauren’s warning: “Don’t try to do too much at once! I’m not exactly the poster child for following that advice, but you need focus when approaching your studies.”  

Lauren’s own focus is currently on her writing and the December release of her new book, Death Lines: Walking London Through Horror Cinema. This book will be the culmination of stories from her London walks, inspired by London horror films ranging from Bloomsbury’s generational conflicts, such as in the 2010 film Dead Lines, to murder and satanic rituals along the King’s Road. Lauren is also setting her sights on releasing more fiction, adding that “one day, I would love to have an anthology of my own short stories.” 

Finally, when asked to describe her time at Birkbeck, Lauren responds: “A wild, crazy ride.”