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Rock legend's private collection on view at Peabody Essex Museum
Rock On, 2017. R. Kikuo Johnson.

SALEM, MASS.- The Peabody Essex Museum presents It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection, an exhibition of graphic art that has seeped into the public imagination and reflected society’s deepest fears and anxieties for nearly a century. Best known as lead guitarist of the famed rock band Metallica, Kirk Hammett is also an obsessive collector of visually arresting horror and sci-fi film art and has dedicated the last three decades to creating one of the world’s most important collections. Hammett credits his collection as a primary source for his own sonic creativity, reflecting, “the stuff of horror has a mojo that always works on me. I start producing ideas. They just flow like liquid.”

It’s Alive! -- on view at PEM August 12 through November 26 -- explores the interplay of creativity, emotion and popular culture through 135 works from 20th-century cinema, including posters by an international array of graphic designers, rare works by unidentified masters as well as related memorabilia such as electric guitars, lobby cards, film props and costumes. Originally designed as ephemeral works, many of the artworks on view are exceedingly rare or even singular in nature. Celebrating the graphic artistry of these posters, the exhibition also delves into the cultural meaning of horror and sci-fi films and the scientific underpinning of fear.

“Posters that fascinate with weird appeal”
Originally printed in large numbers, 20th-century horror and sci-fi film posters integrated commercial, decorative, graphic and fine art forms into a publicly accessible medium designed to captivate passersby. Bold, stylized lettering and vibrant swathes of color drew the eye from the title headline to the claws of multifarious ghouls, monsters, or men from Mars. These meticulously hand-drawn compositions could be found everywhere from lobbies, to train cars, to the pages of magazines. Inevitably, theaters changed up their offerings and these carefully designed promotional materials were often discarded. “Beyond their visual allure, these film posters are fascinating vernacular objects, relaying the commonly held values, emotions and aspirations of their time,” says Dan Finamore, exhibition curator and PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History.

For a time, Universal Pictures contracted the Morgan Lithograph Company to produce their posters. Ten artists worked exclusively on Universal Pictures’ account in a building adjacent to the studio, allowing Universal’s art director control over how a film was marketed. Poster production was incorporated into an integrated strategy of filmmaking, promotion, distribution and presentation that became known as the studio system. Pressbooks advertised a range of creative marketing products to theaters that were intended to keep the promotion of a film on message. For the 1931 release of Dracula, pressbooks advertised “Posters that Fascinate with Weird Appeal” and “Paper that Lures like the Vampire Himself.”

The Collector
Before becoming a cult icon who routinely plays sold out stadiums around the world, Hammett was a shy kid “dreamily obsessed,” as his biographer Stefan Chirazi writes, “with monsters, ghouls, toys, movies and guitars.” The original Frankenstein with Boris Karloff was the first monster with whom Hammett connected; then came Godzilla, the Mummy and a whole cast of fantastical outsiders.

“Like the monsters in his posters, Hammett knows what being a cult icon is about. Just as fans of his music follow him, he unabashedly throws himself into cult fandom through his voracious collecting activity. His personal creativity is inextricably linked with these works and he is deeply passionate about sharing them with the world,” says Finamore.

Hammett’s collection plays on our curiosity about the supernatural, the other, the mutant and the beast within us. It toys with our collective anxieties and suspicions during times of social, political, cultural, or economic tumult, and our need to cope with growing pains and feelings of estrangement.

“My collection takes me to a place where I need to be,” says Hammett. “Among the monsters, where I’m most comfortable and most creative. That’s where the magic has happened for me all these years and it’s something I’ve come to trust. From the moment I first encountered these characters, I could see that these guys had just as much difficulty in coping as I did. It’s a very, very dark universe when we shut our eyes at night.”

The Fear Factor
Terror is one of the strongest emotions we are capable of feeling and many are drawn to horror and sci-fi films for that very reason. Researchers are now learning more about the creative mindset such films can induce. When watching frightening films, the brain and body have an intensified experience while the cognitive mind can know there is no real danger or harm. “For those who can suspend reality for the sake of momentary thrills, empathy may be what allows them to feel the anxiety and fear that the characters are experiencing, and to enjoy the rush in the safe atmosphere of the theater,” explains New York University neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux in the exhibition catalog.

It’s Alive! reflects PEM’s continued experimentation with unconventional approaches to the presentation and interpretation of museum exhibitions as well as an exploration of the intersection of art, culture and creative expression.

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