The Horror Show! at Somerset House review

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The normally serene galleries of Somerset House have been “disrupted by a cacophony of ominous sounds and nightmarish shapes”, said Vicky Jessop in the London Evening Standard. The event is not some belated Halloween party; it’s an unusual new exhibition that charts the ways in which horror has influenced British culture since the 1970s.

The show brings together a wealth of material, from contemporary art by the likes of Cornelia Parker and David Shrigley, to fashion, film and TV, so as to explore how artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers and authors have “used horror as a tool for making sense” of modern Britain. Featuring demonic costumes sported by 1970s punks and mementos from the classic horror film The Wicker Man, along with art created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Horror Show! illustrates how frightening imagery is used to confront the traumas of the age.

The show is split into three sections, said Kim Newman in the FT. The first deals with the 1970s and 1980s, positing that the era saw postwar optimism turn to paranoia. We see David Bowie envisioned as “a freak-show half-man/half-dog” against a dystopian skyline on an album cover, and ephemera linked to “the angry anarchy of punk”; Margaret Thatcher appears in the form of her “snarling” Spitting Image puppet.

A section on the 1990s and the early 2000s “trades in millennial anxieties and digital phantoms”, yoking together disparate references including Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures, Derek Jarman’s harrowing film Blue (1993) and a photograph of a “smiling” Tony Blair “frozen in an antique frame”. Oddly enough, little that we see here is “unironically terrifying”, though Kerry Stewart’s 1993 installation The Boy From the Chemist is Here to See You, featuring a statue-shaped charity collection box seen through a pebbled glass front door, is genuinely “disturbing”.

There are some “baffling” displays here, said Helen Barrett in The Daily Telegraph. A case in point is a collection of “tatty souvenirs” collected by the writer Iain Sinclair on “lonely urban rambles”. Yet perhaps the point of these ostensibly “inconsequential items” is that “horror is everywhere”: we see it in “mainstream music and media”, courtesy of some “unsettling pop videos”; in Chris Cunningham’s “creepy” PlayStation adverts; and in clips from Ghostwatch, a 1990s “horror-drama” presented as “live reality television”.

The final section is “an optimistic coda” that explores how contemporary artists have reacted to “environmental fears” by reviving magical rituals. It would be easy to mock this occasionally “earnest” exhibition, but its argument is “intriguing and nuanced”. More importantly still, it is “riotous, anarchic fun”.

Somerset House, London WC2. Until 19 February

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