The Photographer Who Makes Dating Look Like Actual Hell

Using the visual language of 1970s horror films, artist Robert Hickerson explores the frightening hellscape that is romance in the age of apps. Countless failed encounters and dates that led to nowhere left him fed up. But once Hickerson discovered that the language of violence used by directors from Dario Argento to George Romero fit what he was trying to communicate, he realized he could transform his feelings of loneliness and alienation into images of terror and catharsis.

Hickerson worked on these images for the better part of a year, elevating the project from a diary into a challenge, making the images look better, more real, and even more absurd in the process. Eventually he took on the character of Adam, who is an amalgamation of all the bros who get murdered in the first 30 minutes of every horror film. But instead of being scared, Adam’s just bummed out about his love life.

Bad dates aren’t the end of the world, although they sometimes feel like it. I spoke to Hickerson about some of these encounters and what he’s planning on being for Halloween.

VICE: Horror can be a polarizing genre. How do you justify using violence and gore in your artwork?
Robert Hickerson: Starting this series, I was more interested in whether or not I could pull it off, create a realistic prosthetic, and make horror images. I have always loved horror, especially earlier campy stuff, which can be both hilarious and disturbing. I had been wanting to make work like that for awhile. I think horror, unlike other genres, has the potential for more direct allegory—where internal demons can become actual demons that you can see and deal with.

I was feeling hurt after dating a few people, and wanted to externalize that in an absurd and extreme way. I settled on using the language of horror, but showing only the aftermath and not what caused it. I made all the prosthetics out of paper and expanding foam, so the bones and nubs look fake. All of this was to underline the ridiculousness, and play up on the humor. But still there is this push and pull, from the subject matter to how it’s depicted. I think we also see violent imagery all the time and have become desensitized to it. So it made sense to talk about something as insignificant as heartbreak and frustration through something as extreme as gore.

What parallels do you draw between a bad date and a classic horror movie?
I think there is the whole aspect of finding yourself in a situation with someone you think you know that lends itself to horror. However, I think for me, it is more figuring out that horror can act as a language that has its own rules and conventions. I think the process of dating can be really frustrating when it’s good, but boring when it’s bad. I wanted to use the language of horror movies to discuss this process of meeting and spending time with strangers, and the self-deprecation and doubt that comes from realizing they don’t want to spend time with you.

What’s the scariest date you’ve been on?
The worst date I went on was with someone who literally had no hobbies or interests. I spent the entire time we spoke online and in person suggesting things they could be interested in.

What are some films and filmmakers you were looking at when making this?
When I started this project, I was heavily influenced by Suspiria by Dario Argento. That led me to become interested in giallo films, especially all of Argento’s work and the work of Mario Bava. I also was looking at George Romero, especially at movies like Creepshow—his use of lighting was amazing. In that realm, I also looked a lot at horror movie posters, which have had a bit of a resurgence. The posters for Fright Night and Eyes Without a Face are amazing and have a visual quality I tried to replicate in this series.

Aside from filmmakers, I was really looking at the work of Sue de Beer, who is an incredible inspiration. Her early gore photographs blew my mind for their use of practical effects, and just the humor behind them. Plus, her outlook is one thing people don’t know what to do with in a fine art context, making it really interesting new ground.

I also looked at Mark Rothko for color inspiration because modernism is so established and dry, I thought it would be funny to base horror work on it.

Why photography, versus making a film?
I love the idea of making a horror movie, but for this project I wasn’t really interested in fleshing out a narrative. It was more about stumbling upon the aftermath than witnessing an act of violence. I didn’t want to create a villain because it’s not really about that, it’s about what it’s like to remain in the feeling of being bummed out and jaded. And covered in blood.

For better or worse, how do you think horror has changed since the 70s?
I think with the American horror movies of the 70s, we saw a lot of horror dealing with political unrest, but through extreme violence. I think over time we kind of got lost in the gratuity of violence. Don’t get me wrong, I love campy gore, but when things get too torture porn-y, like extreme violence for no reason, I just get bored. After the brilliance of New French Extremism we were met with an onslaught of American remakes and regurgitations that were just trying to up the shock without upping the social commentary (or in some cases, including it at all). I think we are starting to see a resurgence of socially motivated horror, which is really exciting.

Is your alter ego, Adam, going to come out on Halloween?
[Laughs] No, Adam won’t be coming out on Halloween. He’s currently in pieces.

Who are you going to be?
For Halloween I want to go as Jean D’Arc from the web series Zhe Zhe. She’s a musician who has been to the grave and back, and now really just wants to focus on her music. Basically the ultra in cool.

What’s next for this project?
I am working on making enough of these to put together a book and hopefully an exhibition. I want to create larger and more elaborate sets, and more elaborate props. I think there’s potential for some moving-image work, but it really depends on what happens in the next year. What I know for sure is: There will be blood.

Robert Hickerson is an artist and photographer based in New York. You can follow his work here.