Interviews with Artists

Charlie Fox

Interview by Maggie Dunlap


Published in August 2020


Charlie Fox (b. 1991) is a London based writer and curator. In 2017, Fitzcarraldo Editions published his book, This Young Monster, on the nature of monstrosity, what it means to be a freak, to dwell in the shadows, to raise hell. Charlie and I met through Instagram— a platform that algorithmically encourages like minded people to connect. I wanted this interview format to be less question and answer, and more in the tradition of telling scary stories around a campfire, passing a flashlight back and forth for the speaker to hold under their chin. One of the more magical parts of ghost stories and urban legends is hearing the tale told by someone who knows it inside out and uncovering a secret encyclopedic knowledge. I don’t want the Cliffs Notes, I want the whole story. I want to know what parts give them goosebumps and I want to be spellbound the way I was as a child, when a friend’s teenage brother would say something like, “did you hear about what happened in that old abandoned shack in the woods?”


My Head is a Haunted House, installation view,  Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2019. Image by Robert Glowacki.

I think it is safe to say we both have a penchant for the morbid and macabre, and I consider you an expert on all things spooky. I want to take your temperature on what the concept of a "haunted house" means to you? Currently, the werewolves and vampires I so love have taken a temporary backseat, and the spaces they inhabit are at the forefront of my mind. In the press release for the exhibition you curated at Sadie Coles in 2019, My Head is a Haunted House, you name these charged places the "weird interior."  Has your thinking about (literal) haunted houses, and heads as haunted houses, changed during the pandemic? Apparently, more people are experiencing domestic hauntings since lockdown began (see the May 17th New York Times article, “Violating Spectral Distancing Rules” by Molly Fitzpatrick.) Whether ghosts are "real" or not is sort of beside the point, but this phenomena to me says that many people are feeling like their homes have become distinctly unhomely. If our domains are their most mysterious when they are the most familiar, it makes sense that people have been hearing things go bump in the night. Have you?

What’s up, Maggie?

Yikes, what does a haunted house mean to me: uh, it’s a psychedelic environment, I guess— ‘psychedelic’ means ‘mind-manifesting’, literally— where the ordinary rules of reality don’t apply. I was just reading this review of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland from 1969 which describes the album as ‘an extended look into Hendrix’s head, and mostly it seems to have some pretty good things in it (who among us is totally free of mental garbage?)’ Yup, a brain you can explore, like in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The trippy Expressionist paradox of representing the non-physical/phantasmic and the dangerous confusions it entails is, like, wildly attractive to me. Somewhere to inhabit. Somewhere to get lost. Emily Dickinson said, ‘One need not be a Chamber— to be haunted/—One need not be a House—/The Brain has Corridors—surpassing/ Material Place.’ Transdimensional slippage.

Being really into comedy and the ways that comedy proposes psychotic distortions of reality where Brian the Dog talks and Kool-Aid Man lives next door or whatever, I  enjoy the haunted house as a parody of a ‘normal’ house. The walls shouldn’t bleed and the TV shouldn’t scream and the dog shouldn’t drool toxic waste but in the haunted house they do. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is a really delicious example of an artwork where there’s this constant psychedelic flux between things being funny and scary at once. Parody is where you can experiment with meaning and allow unorthodox responses to stimuli to cavort. (I’m sounding very mad scientist.) Which relates to my haunted house show because I really didn’t want it to seem like a horror freak’s obsessive tribute to all their favourite genre tropes just illustrated by artwork. But I was more into luring you inside this overfamiliar carnival attraction and then spook some unexpected response from you: it would turn out to be soothing, romantic, melancholic. I wanted to deform the traditional meaning. Not all gore and screams. What if it became somewhere you felt at home? 

My Head is a Haunted House, installation view,  Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2019. Image by Robert Glowacki.

COVID and haunted house aesthetics: it was peculiar how the response was straight-up fairytale. Like, home is where you’re safe and Outside is scary and evil. But, of course, your house could be swimming with viral bacteria without your knowledge anyway. And then your own house could become a zone of disease; you could become this monster, that which must not be touched or seen. Even if you didn’t get infected, the claustrophobia kicked in… It was one of horror’s major tricks run amok: the ordinary home suddenly infected with malevolence. This made the release of The Lighthouse extra weird, obviously, because the movie was like a quarantine allegory until there was that final narrative convolution revealing that you were actually in the deranged mind-scape of the dying sailor. (I’ve got a whole theory about the relationship between haunted houses and what I call environmental simulation in cinema but I’ll stick that in the freezer for now.)

No supernatural experiences, sadly, unless you count tons of hi-def dreams. Like a lot of people, my dreams were going nuts early on until I felt like I was being fed this insane Netflix show in nightly installments by my own brain. They were becoming a parallel reality which maybe sounds too Borges but at the same time, uh, it reverberates with all this other stuff.

Funny you should mention “mental garbage” in this context… In the introduction to his book of short stories Night Shift, Stephen King responds to the perennial question of, "Why do you write about such gruesome things?" with, "why do you assume I have a choice?" To paraphrase, he writes that we all are equipped with filters on the floors of our minds, with differing sizes and meshes. What gets caught in my filter might run right through yours, and it is the sludge that gets caught in our mind-drains that becomes our private obsessions. I like that you describe your exhibition as an “overfamiliar carnival attraction” because I think familiarity is something that many of us are recognizing the terrifying potentiality of— that’s what I was thinking about when invoking the spectre of Freud (lol) by mentioning the unhomely (the literally translation of the word uncanny, the unheimlich.) I’m really attracted to the idea of the place that is “wrong” but simultaneously makes you feel at home. Although I do love screams and gore— obviously— right now I’m more interested in what happens in the shadows. Like, what is behind the screaming girl? What would this terrible place look like once the blood and guts are gone?

My Head is a Haunted House, installation view,  Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2019. Image by Robert Glowacki.

There is something really special about horror and comedy intersecting, especially in Tim Burton films. As a child I felt a sort of comfort in representations of these dark places as having a bit of levity- because to me they already felt so inviting. That's that brain-drain at work I guess, catching all the scary sludge from an early age.

But back to our current reality. I always thought it was bass-ackwards to be frightened of playing with Ouija boards for fear of opening a door to some sinister dimension but endlessly doom-scrolling on social media, desensitizing ourselves, whether that be through reading the daily statistics of Covid deaths or watching literal snuff films of black people murdered by the police. I’m post-moral so I’m not making a qualitative judgment on the act of consuming violent media, I’m just saying that there are ways to invite some sort of dark-sided energy into your house via screens, it doesn’t always have to be as literal as Poltergeist. I’m not sure if this relates to your theory but, I really want to know more about haunted houses and “environment simulation.” Care to say anything about that, or is it still bubbling and brewing in your brain?

OK, environment simulation theory:

A lot of cinema now is about throwing you into a diabolical and illusionistic experience of space in ‘real-time’ (Uncut Gems, Enter the Void, Midsommar, Spring Breakers) rather than delivering a story to you through a collection of discrete scenes. The story explodes around you, live, making you into the protagonist. This really begins with Apocalypse Now— Coppola discovering some kind of cinematic analogue to the first person narration in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Martin Sheen as its avatar. It kicks into overdrive in the late 2000s as a response to the rise of non-linear ‘sandbox’/‘open world’ video-games like Grand Theft Auto III or The Legend of Zelda, immersive experiences of a fictitious reality which the protagonist is free to explore. You’re just exploring this world and the story is transmogrifying around you. Um, it’s probably the next phase of our submersion in the virtual or something but you could also go on the McLuhan wavelength and read it as a ghostly situation where one medium haunts another.

Haunted house theme park rides or sequences in movies are sinister forerunners to this whole tradition. Like, think about the first-person stalk through Buffalo Bill’s hideous labyrinth in The Silence of the Lambs (kind of like DOOM or any other shoot-‘em-up) or J Lo’s adventures in the luxurious realm of The Cell. I was interested in taking the concept of the exhibition and treating it like that. It was important to subvert/parody every traditional behaviour associated with the exhibition in the same way that the haunted house is a parody of the normal house. The catalogue contains no words or even acknowledgement of the show itself except for the back  page; the lighting was wronged to purple and green rather than traditional white cube fluorescents overhead, the floor was a quotation of the Twin Peaks floor that undulates like you’re in the middle of a mushroom trip. That was the conceptual schtick: multiplatform haunting.

Not to be super-hauntological— I was very into hauntology in the 2000s when it was ‘new’, predictably— but since we’re talking about the hot paradoxes of haunting-through-absence, one of my favourite sculptures of all time is this Tom Friedman piece which is just an empty space except he tells you this gobbet of nothing was hexed by a local witch. Hexed air! Sick. Do you dare come close? A lot of Friedman’s sculptures in the 1990s are about taking ordinary supermarket materials and deforming them, e.g. stuffing trash bags inside trash bags until he’s created this monstrous black blob. Or he photographs a room that’s pitch black except for a crack of light coming under a door. I mean, they’re the most perfect illustration/manifestation of the unheimlich you can get outside of Twin Peaks: that which is rendered unhomely, obvs, alien, for room after room.

Yup, I mean, one of the ways describing ‘the haunted’ as a subspecies of spookiness would be that it’s what remains once the monster is gone: traumatised space, burial ground, malevolent presence, the house where three teens were slaughtered. Stuff like that. One of the amazing things about the movie version of The Shining is that it suggests this freaky time-out-of-joint space where traumatic events are trying to reconstruct themselves but failing and only fragments remain, weirdly dismembered from their context, like the elevator gushing blood or the rabbit-man blowjob scene or the zombie woman in the bath. The reason is never given. The house becomes this perverse malfunctioning amusement park. Objects in haunted environments suck up a lot of meaning, kind of like sculptures, because they relate to something way bigger, they’ve survived something or they signify some terrible deed. Like the abandoned car in The Blair Witch Project or the cherub sculpture with the bug in its mouth from The Innocents. A similar thing’s going on in crime scene investigation: the ooze of spilt Burger King milkshake in The Thin Blue Line goes from being just sweetened goo gone to waste to something which records an incident of violence. The ordinary gets encrypted with sinister knowledge. The severed ear in Blue Velvet is kind of everything, in this tradition: evidence of crime, spooky non sequitur, undead eavesdropper, portal into nightmare, symbolic clue that we’re about to get into all kinds of fucked-up knowledge about what goes on inside the body, brain, orifices, inside the dark itself. The whole story grows out of (and falls into!) this uncanny thing. I think Freud said the ‘uncanny’ is that which hasn’t ‘learned its proper place’: an ear doesn’t belong in the bug-swarmed grass.

One of the major attractions of haunted spaces is this Stone Tape/Shining concept of evil being recorded by space itself. A weird medium; a mute witness to who knows what. ‘Truth will out’. I think this whole tradition kind of peaks with the Hammer Horror episode The House that Bled to Death— whoa, released the same month as The Shining according to Wiki. I’m into those notions about space-as-recording-medium— I’ve spent whole days of my life in The Overlook, natch— but at the same time I like thinking about the confusions between house and body that it implies: it becomes an organic, living thing. That’s where physical space begins melting into mental space and the real fun begins.

My Head is a Haunted House, installation view,  Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2019. Image by Robert Glowacki.

Have you heard of the no longer existent first person video game called P.T.? It is regarded as one of the scariest games EVER, even though it was just a “Playable Teaser” trailer for a game in the Silent Hill extended universe, a sequel that was meant to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro but was ultimately canned. The whole game is a POV walk-through of a haunted suburban house on continuous loop, each “level” is a reincarnation of the same hallway with increasingly creepy things happening to and around you. It fits well in your environment simulation theory and it’s definitely a video game for the age of the “real-time” movies that you cited. The gameplay is worth a watch on YouTube. It has some very smart moments, like a paper bag that talks to you and hints at an alternate reality and doppelgängers: “Watch out, the gap in the door… It’s a separate reality. I know the only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?” Unlike other games, there really isn’t any graphic violence. In this way it is much closer to a haunted house flick than games such as GTA or CoD.

After it was pulled, PS4s with P.T. already downloaded went for thousands of dollars on eBay. With its disappearance, it went from being a good scare to entering the world of lore. When something in this vein becomes difficult to access, like censored crime scene photos, or the deleting of shock sites, THAT is what really gets me going. I don’t care much for high-def photos of gore and I don’t even play video games but, redact the details, pixelate the photo, remove it from its original context, post it on the ‘soft white underbelly of the net’… Yeah, now we’re talking.

Anyway, when I think of artists who so get the “hot paradoxes of haunting through absence,” like Tom Friedman’s hexed air… It makes me think that maybe the language of haunting is really a visual one. I’m glad you brought up crime scene investigation, I wasn’t sure if you were interested in the aesthetics of forensics too. Do you know the work of Angela Strassheim? In one series, she photographed homes where domestic violence murders occurred. She would cold-call the new residents, tell them what happened in their house and ask if she could photograph the former crime scene using a chemical reagent called BlueStar. Similar to luminol, BlueStar reacts to hemoglobin but is different in that you don’t need a blacklight to see it. It just glows on its own. She darkens the rooms and takes long b&w exposures, so the fluorescent blood residue is the only source of light. The result is a glowing radioactive slime, infecting these otherwise ordinary domestic interiors. To quote you back to you (lol,) evil has been recorded by the space itself, and is cursed to play on loop for eternity. No matter how many times you refinish the floors or scrub the walls, there will forever be a phantom pain left behind. Like, the limb is gone but you can still feel where your boyfriend carved his name into your arm.

My Head is a Haunted House, excerpt from book,  published by Karma, New York, 2019. Edition of 800

I think one of the most compelling things about this particular concept of haunting is that it injects the banal with something fantastic, and maybe if you’re lucky, evil. It’s not the corpse itself, it’s the Thin Blue Line milkshake, the Blue Velvet ear, a pair of Nike Decades poking out from under a purple blanket or a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle with no passenger-side door handle. It’s what makes Strassheim’s familial homicide photos so stunning and disturbing. These aesthetic overlaps between haunting and crime aren’t as straightforward as murder + time = literal ghosts, but something more nuanced and subtle. It’s the idea that the past can scream out for help and we can hear the echoes in the present. (In the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.") A letter opener becomes charged and put into a new context once it is marked “evidence”— just as a pair of eyeglasses become frightening if they are lost in a haunted house and appear somewhere they ought not be. I’ve been called an edgelord because my work deals almost entirely with violence and it’s reverberations, but who could resist the out-of-synch object, or place, that erodes whatever separates our boring, safe lives from some insidious underworld. And all you need to access it is stumble across something that makes you think, “Huh. That’s weird.”

I’m sorry I have no real direct questions in this email, I’m a terrible interviewer. I could read your writing on all things spooky forever, and it’s always exciting to be able to discuss your obsessions with a kindred spirit. Any last words before I lay this email chain to rest?

Whoa, I never played Silent Hill or knew about P.T.— that’s amazing.

Sucked at video games, generally, but I watched my brothers play them a lot, which is probably significant because my experience of them was about zoning out in these hyper-fantastical realms rather than fetching the jewel-encrusted mongoose or whatever DonkeyKong was really about. I don’t know if it’s just urban lore but I remember hearing that the budget for the first Silent Hill was tiny and they couldn’t generate much playable terrain so they just saturated the map with simulation fog. (There was this big mythic quest thing in the early 2000s about getting floppy discs with the levels of DOOM invented by the Columbine killers on them, too, but nobody I know ever did.) The Silent Hill fog vs. map thing kind of encapsulates haunted-ness as a breed of horror which is about texture, suggestion, mood. And maybe having some relation to horror which is spookily askew since, if all the foes have been deleted, the terrain becomes somewhere dreamy, soothing, calm.

I know a lot of people find Under the Skin (an environment simulation classic hahaha) unbearably sinister and, like, opaque pretty much because you’re experiencing familiar environments as somewhere alien. That’s so wild. You get to swim around in the alien’s sense that ‘nature is a haunted house’. (Thanks again, Emily D!) E.g. you get infected with ‘her’ (if she even really has a gender) perception of the trees as, like, swirling ghosts or the weirdness of rain. And, kind of like the Silent Hill stuff, I find that psychedelic experience of the world as ‘something other than it is’ (I don’t know who I’m quoting: it sounds mystical, maybe Enya) as weirdly magical rather than unsettling.

Last video-game memory: there was an arcade at this bowling alley I used to haunt a lot as a pre-teen in the Nineties and my fave game was this zombie shoot-‘em-up House of the Dead. Not that I ever actually played it because I never had any money. I just remember standing in front of this weird alien booth that was covered in hyper-realistic renderings of gothic architecture and zombie gore, between the light of the Slush Puppie hound and the bowling alley screens, staring at this endless ‘demo mode’ version of the game where the camera floated around a spooky landscape. Tons of fog. Since you were disembodied, it seemed like a weird rehearsal for being dead.

OMG, I didn’t know Angela’s work! Sick. Claude Wampler did a thing where she invited a boy to jerk off all over her show and then she made photographic documentation of this ‘crime’ and showed it with the other stuff, using a blacklight and some chemical agent (probably luminol) to reveal his ectoplasmic neon cum snaking all over the space. Which is one of my favourite haunted house pieces because it’s about turning space inside-out to give you this creepy and trippy doppelgänger of a normal space where notions of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ are confused/deranged/jerking off over the dream of each other. A lot of this stuff is about confusion: something being sexy or melancholy or alluring when it should just be scary. A house gets confused with a body.

Um, the last thing I wanna say is that I’m really into that confusion that proposes a house might have a memory or some weird, traumatised psyche of its own. It’s totally OK to think of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as a gay or drug-addled environment even though houses don’t (supposedly) feel sexual attractions or take acid. You need to have an anthropomorphic relationship with an environment to make it bearable. My room is my room because it’s dense with physical memories, possessions and manifestations of taste that relate back to the shape-shifting creature known as ‘me’. It’s a vessel for personality. The haunted house offers a monstrous version of that dream, I guess.

My Head is a Haunted House, excerpt from book,  published by Karma, New York, 2019. Edition of 800


My Head is a Haunted House, Sadie Coles HQ, 2019. Curated by Charlie Fox

My Head is a Haunted House, KARMA Bookstore. Edition of 800


If you like this why not read our interview with Calum Bayne


© YAC | Young Artists in Conversation ALL RIGHTS RESERVED