To say it started with Suspiria would be true and untrue. My affinity for horror and the things unseen and unspoken began long before that, but my affair with Dario Argento began one year ago in my little studio apartment, my laptop rigged into a TV so I could watch his famous film.
It was raining that day, and I had just finished reading an Ira Levin novel. Suspiria (1977) had been on my list since I saw Luca Guadagnino’s take on the story months earlier. I hardly moved while watching the film, drawn into the world of color and madness that Argento so masterfully created. From the harrowing red to the greens and blues, I was thrust into a type of psychedelic terror I had never known before, my mind unsettled, yet safe with my front door locked. As the end credits rolled, I sat in shock, unsure of how to process what I had just experienced or understand how Argento brought terror to everything. At that moment, Suspiria was my introduction and goodbye to his work. I would not watch another one of his films for a year.
Once the social distancing announcements came (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and life quickly came to a halt all around me, I found myself stuck and alone in my apartment. The first few days were fine, days spent catching up on cleaning and finishing up some projects that had been left to the wayside. Time suddenly seemed endless — no deadlines, no work, nowhere to go — so I turned to film to keep me company. After a couple of months having watched Giallo films without any Argento, I decided to take a dive into his work. For that year, though, something held me back. Was it the hangover from Suspiria? Was I too afraid of what I might experience?
Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) was first on my list, by happenstance. Shudder recommended the film to me, so I hit play, committing myself to whatever would come next. I watched intensely, my eyes not leaving the screen, careful to take in each detail, each piece of dialogue, each drop of bright red blood. Outside, the sun hovered over the valley where I lived, bringing the dullness of winter to life, my own symphony of blinding color untouched and undisturbed as I sat indoors and wrapped up in a blanket with my blinds haphazardly closed. I knew I would be indoors for the foreseeable future, unable to visit my regular haunts, or even see my friends who lived a few neighborhoods away. Somehow, the madness of quarantine coincided with Argento’s artificial madness on my screen. Self-isolation was for the good of myself and the community, but I couldn’t help but feel my own descent into a world of bold color and hysteria.
One of the hallmarks of Argento’s work is his ability to bring us into the madness. In Deep Red (1975), we see what the killer sees, both sympathetic to and disturbed by the killer’s actions. Does Argento mean to implicate us in murder? Or does he see us as only spectators? As I continued my descent into his world, these lines began to blur. The hours began to blur too as if my television screen was my own alternate reality. I saw myself as one of his murderers, though my weapon became the fact that I could be spreading disease whenever I stepped outside my door.
This madness came to a head when watching The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) on a bright morning. The film focuses on Anna (Asia Argento) who suffers from Stendhal Syndrome, a phenomenon that causes fainting and hallucinations when exposed to objects of great beauty. Reality and fantasy collide into one another as the film’s killer — and Anna’s rapist — use paintings as a way to sedate her, forcing her into confusion at the helm of stunning works of art. I remember watching this as the sun came up over the mountains in my town, bringing light slowly at first, and then blinding our valley with color. In a way, the world outside my windows became a painting, an unreality amongst a life indoors. As my attention turned to the goings-on out my third-floor window, I realized that no one walked the streets. The sidewalks were empty, something I never saw, not even in the middle of winter.
There were others I watched that week too: Tenebrae (1982) and Phenomena (1985). Both tapped into Argento’s world of madness and color, of beauty and terror, just as I became more dissociated with how to handle an international pandemic, one that seemed poised to change the very basic functioning of the society in which I live. In many ways, I found comfort in seeing through the eyes of a killer, in coming to terms with what it means to see color and longing for stability and the familiar — when life was anything but. Perhaps, then, the solace I found in the work of Dario Argento is that we take the messy at face value, lean into the madness, and know we’ll continue to see vibrant days.
About the Author
Sydney Bollinger is a graduate student in Environmental Writing at the University of Montana. She’s written for Cultured Vultures and runs a film Instagram account @_screentime. Sydney considers herself a horror aficionado and can often be found eating popcorn while watching a horror film or writing short stories with a creep factor. Follow her on Twitter @sydboll.