A Visceral Response to Lifers: Horror Fan For Life

I wrote another version of this, but like many films — horror or otherwise — I feel like I lost the plot. I tried to be too clever about it, which is something I’ve been accusing other creators, in other media, of being. But this isn’t something to try to be smart about. It’s something I wish I can say directly, and as clearly as possible. It’s how someone else’s story — and the experiences of others — hit me under the umbrella of the horror genre.

A few months ago, about a month into life beginning to stand still thanks to the Pandemic, KreepazoidKelly: a makeup artist, model, interviewer, and general good will and ambassador for horror media and the community mentioned that there is an article about her in Fangoria Magazine. At the time, I thought she had written something for Fangoria, but it is a piece created by the writer and actress BJ Colangelo from many of their interactions about KreepazoidKelly — or Kelly Barlow — an ultimate horror fanatic: a “lifer.”

BJ Colangelo’s article about Kelly, titled “Lifers: Horror Fan For Life,” can be found in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue 7. It talks about her life, her influences, her achievements, and her struggles with brain cancer and its associated maladies, along with the emotional toll its taken on her, while at the same time relating it all back to their mutual love of horror. Both Colangelo and Kelly are cancer survivors as well as horror fanatics, and I can’t and won’t speak for their experiences, but there are two things in the article that really hit home for me: that stabbed me in the gut.

Before I go into that, there is a way that Colangelo frames her entire article that really appeals to me, because it’s something we all do: not just in the horror fandom, but in all geek circles. Interspersed throughout her writing is an ongoing, short form dialogue with Kelly comparing and contrasting different horror characters, and asking for her favourite films and moments, and why. It’s something I actually want to engage with on my own, because as I read it, some of my own answers came to mind as I imagine they did with a lot of Fangoria readers.

Quick! Without thinking! Who would win in a chainsaw fight, Leatherface or Ash, and why?

Colangelo explains why they do this, and I can understand it as well. For Kelly, and others like her, it is a way to distract from the constant of daily pain. It is the reason why someone with chronic and/or terminal illnesses — or someone associated with them, someone knowing or watching someone they love go through them — can enjoy, and even embrace, horror. It’s better than dwelling on it, or being overwhelmed by the despair of that helplessness, of not being able to do anything about the inevitable beyond simply continuing to fight, to exist, to keep engaging, and going on for as long as you can.

Kind of like I will be in this article.” I will tell you. “Because as of this writing I haven’t seen Chainsaw Massacre yet, but while I know Ash from Evil Dead is far more intimate with his chainsaw out of necessity, Leatherface’s is his love, and I will have to go with Kelly on that answer because, seriously? Ash can barely focus on the things that matter. Like, you know, that mystical spell that comes from The Day The Earth Stood Still? Klaatu barada, um … oh damn. I’ve lost my train of thought, and I’m dead now. Because Leatherface.

Kelly is someone who, with the chainsaw of her beloved genre, could eviscerate a person like myself who lost something, and tries to fill that void with the remnant of what came before that loss, literally and metaphorically opening me up to realization that there is still so much left to feel, and discover. She has done enough horror makeup to know how to make it look like her insides are on her outsides, and taking what is inside of her and projecting it externally: expressing it, accepting it.

Quick! Without thinking! Friday the 13th, or Halloween and why?

I’m terrible at not-thinking. Grief makes it even worse. I’m at a loss. I am only starting my journey in horror with fans around me, while Kelly, and Colangelo, and others have been in it for ages. I know, as I write this, I am putting myself into the conversation — not just between the two of them, but between the dialogue that has been happening with so many people in the horror fandom and the industry for years. Even so, it tugs at the corners of my blackened, twisted heart.

I’ve barely seen either horror series.” I admit to you all. “But while I love Halloween because it’s how I truly found and interacted with the Drive-In Mutant Fam for the first time with my story prompt, Friday The Thirteenth makes more sense to me because Jason Voorhees is dead, and even though that isn’t always true in continuity, it makes more sense that he has supernatural powers and can survive anything compared to what should be a simple lunatic like Michael Myers. 

It affects me, because I know I might not ever be able to have this conversation, because I wish I could. I’d seen Kelly in passing on Twitter ages ago through mutual horror followers, talking about her illness, receiving support from so many people whose lives she touched, or who just heard her like I had. I also left my support. It wasn’t until a little while ago that I’d seen her post again, and after some interaction we added each other on social media. I began to look at her interactions with others, fans and creators, and her own Live-Tweets during The Last Drive-In on Shudder. What I saw — which Colangelo also states in her article — is someone who promotes both mainstream industrial and independent horror productions and works, a person who attempts to keep engaging with a community: a truly beautiful being, inside and out.

In her article, Colangelo mentions how in October of 2019 Kelly found out that her cancer is terminal.

Quick! Without thinking! If you could keep any horror monster as a pet, who would you keep, and why?

I’ve been thinking about how I wish I could talk with her. I know that Kelly has many people leaving her well-wishes and even in a best case scenario, being well-rested, and comfortable she can’t get to us all. A major part of me, after everything, wishes I found her before now, even wishes I’d gone further into horror more than a year ago. But it’s not just because of Kelly.

I mentioned, earlier, how there are two elements in Colangelo’s article that stood out at me, that stabbed me directly, and went for the killing blow. One of these things, was dealing with the question of why someone who was dying or suffering from a serious chronic illness would still want to surround themselves with horror. Colangelo seems to state that horror can take the terror someone is feeling toward their own sense of mortality and put it on the outside, allowing it to be faced tangibly. Perhaps there is also the catharsis of it, the purging of all those volatile emotions and fears into something resembling meaning against the backdrop of the senseless and unfairness of a chaotic and arbitrary world.

And then BJ Colangelo, while listing the wide array of Kelly’s ailments related to her cancer, mentioned scleroderma.

I would also choose Bob from Creepshow‘s ‘The Finger.'” I admit to all of you, my face bowed down. “He’s a mess and he kills massive amounts of people. But he’s loyal. You never doubt his love for you. Ever. He would be the best pet ever. I wonder if you could order him to kill a nation, or an entire world for you. But I think I already know the answer to that. Such a large love from such a small, beloved, monstrosity.

My former partner, Kaarina Wilson, had been sick for a long time. She passed away in April, from complications due to various auto-immune disorders: including, primarily, scleroderma.

Going into our relationship, I knew Kaarina had been an advocate for auto-immune awareness. She led workshops, went into marathons to raise money for treatments and education, and throughout all that agony she would present herself and attempt to help others. Horror, to her, was what she was experiencing, what she was feeling from the that place of the inside turned out. When she experienced the horror genre, when she engaged in it, it allowed her to glorify that part of her mortality: to accept it. And while I can’t speak for for her or Kelly, or anyone, I’ve always gotten the idea that horror — in illustrating terrifying death — shows the vitality and voraciousness of that need to live: to truly do something, to be something, with whatever you have left.

I remember when I spent more time with her, Kaarina would look down at her finger. Scleroderma hardens and tightens parts of the skin, and bodily connections. It often has other illnesses like Raynaud’s associated with it that affect circulation. It got bad. Often, she would say that she would lose that finger.

She never did.

For me, horror isn’t so much dealing with the prospect of my own mortality, even during the current Pandemic, but processing grief, and that sense of a loss of time. That melancholy has always been there in me, and I imagine in a lot of other people — fans or otherwise — but my focus on the genre at this time, with my own interest in story and the darkness of the world, is something driven by my own sense of pain and loss, in an attempt to give me some meaning — and to reach out to others — in an extremely lonely time.

It’s why I began interacting more with the Mutant Fam, and participating in the Last Drive-In. And, in so doing, creating this Blog, then finding Kelly again, reading the Fangoria article about her, and writing this entire response. It comes full circle, like the limited spheres of social interaction we are supposed to have now in this time of the Pandemic, the bubbles we are supposed to isolate within to prevent the spread of disease, like the repeating psychodramas of things inside our heads that are hard to ignore during this time of trauma we are only beginning to know that others have been living with far longer than ourselves.

I am taking the bad, and the ugly in me and putting it out there, and projecting it. I know that. I think everyone of us in horror at some point or another does something like this. I don’t know when it will stop. I don’t know if it ever will. It’s like, I am writing for two instead of one. I am reaching out into the darkness to find a light that is similar to my own. To capture what is lost. To hold onto someone or something that won’t always be there, and should never be taken for granted.

Quick. Without thinking. If you could only watch one more horror movie before the end of your life, what would you watch and why?

Once, that would have taken me forever to answer. But I would choose Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, because every reality and every life is a cycle, and they be both beautiful and horrific, and sometimes the most heartrending beauty is that moment when you have to say goodbye and let go — to abandon the familiar cycle of desperate nostalgia and fear, and embrace the terrifying, yet exhilarating vista of the unknown.

Like I’ve said before, and especially now on this Blog: I am no Doctor. I am just a student of horror. And KreepazoidKelly — Kelly — if you are reading this:

Quick. Without thinking. What is a piece of horror, literary or cinematic, fictional or no, that really hit you where it hurts? And why?

Why is the Horror Doctor?

It seemed like a good idea the time.

Horror is pulp. I’m not talking about the old magazines made from cheap and often recyclable paper that are not known for their physical durability. I am definitely not referring to so-called mass-produced or “low quality storytelling.” It’s the closest to the dark building-blocks of the imagination: where fear, death, blood, comedy, tragedy, bodily realities, and the monsters that are archetypes that are both cautionary tales and ourselves, meld together or viciously separate from one another.

It’s a mess. Horror is messy. Weirdness is confusing, and playful. Terror tells you that something is wrong, and dread informs you that there is nothing you can about the inevitable.

Words are misleading when you really think about it. Naming something and defining it is hard when you are taking it apart, and trying to put it back together in some other kind of form. That’s why I thought it was a good idea at the time before I actually sat down, finally, in front of his computer screen, and began to type it all out.

Pulp, as has been used in different places, can mean something visceral and gross — a mashed and distilled version of what could have been a solid state before the blender or the force exerted to crush it — while, in a literary sense, it can mean something ephemeral and transitory, ideas and feelings that have poignancy until they eventually pass on with the people or things that carry them. I’m mixing metaphors here. If you follow me long enough, you’ll realize that I do that a lot. I mean, I might as well be taking about gore and ghost stories by this point, and you wouldn’t be wrong in including these thoughts.

I guess, for me, horror is a liminal thing. It is transitional. It is always in a state of change like the innards of the human body, or the feelings of a person under stress, or someone’s concrete thoughts before they are lost to the misinterpretation of outside influences, or the oblivion of forgetfulness.

This is my focus here, for this Blog, where I may or may not be playing a role half of the time. My problem has always been that when I review a piece of literature, cinema, or interactive narrative my brain does more than just take it apart. It’s easy to do that. Obviously, some people are better or more expert at dissecting matter such as doctors and butchers, but you will just have to settle for me. I am no H.P. Lovecraft, or Joe Bob Briggs. I’m definitely not a Carl Jung.

I’m more like, as the description of my Blog states, a Victor Frankenstein: with hopefully a little more sense of responsibility and just … well, sense in general. I don’t have a Doctorate in any sense. A Master’s Degree in Humanities and my own eclectic knowledge will have to do. I’m not a Cinema Student, or even a cinephile, though I do like some films and I appreciate the effort and the imagination that goes into them.

It all began, one day, when finally sitting down and watching an episode of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder, after watching several other horror classics and obscurities that I never got around to doing before the Pandemic. I was watching a movie that was going to be removed by Shudder, along with Briggs’ commentaries, and something just … clicked in me.

It wasn’t an immediate reaction, you understand. I’ve been grieving the loss of one of my partners, who was a major horror fan, and was instrumental in getting me to write again outside of an academic setting, and to watch weird and odd films that my very serious and formerly straight-laced self had no place for, even though I had a whole lot of thoughts. Horror is pulp, she lived with how messy her illness made her life physically and emotionally. Weirdness is confusing, as we didn’t always know how to feel about us or life. Terror tells you that something is wrong, and I felt a sense of falling, waiting for that other shoe to drop. And dread informs you that there is nothing you can do about the inevitable, like a slow, stupid, swarm of encroaching zombie sickness taking away all of your functions, or watching someone you love slowly disappear or worse — not seeing it happen at all, with just hints of it, and knowing that it is still occurring, and you are still helpless.

They say that there are three modes of fear: flight, fight, or freeze. I tend to call the last one fright. An absolute, paralyzing terror where you, again, know that something’s wrong though freeze is appropriate too given how you stay in place — not wanting to move, hoping you’ll survive if you just don’t change, just don’t breathe. It’s where the term “blood-chilling” comes from, I’m sure.

Our time together was messy, and also ephemeral. I recall details but even now a lot of them are fading from my mind, from my memory, over a relatively short period of time. I started Horror Doctor in my partner’s memory, on Blogger where we were going to collaborate on a project together, and because of my own lack of confidence and her own changing life, we never did. I had shared access to it, and I saw her own works, and an unfinished draft: something that will never be started, or completed.

But Blogger didn’t work for my purposes, and I came back to WordPress. Unfortunately, it too has suffered from change, and I may have to go elsewhere or go to another hosting site as figuring out Block Editor feels like putting a tombstone on my writing process before it even begins.

So what is Horror Doctor? Well, think about Victor Frankenstein. He was never a PhD or even an MD by the standards of fictional Geneva in the late 1700s. Victor is a student of old texts and, for his time, new discoveries. Somehow, he manages to combine ancient alchemy and what seems to be cutting edge science to make something new: to create life in a clumsy, artificial manner by taking something apart and putting it together in strange arrangements, and wondering why it isn’t beautiful when he pumps it with chemicals and possibly galvanizes it with lightning, and disowns the poor bastard when he’s done.

I’m not rich like Victor, a Baron’s heir. And while I attempt to edit my work, and I’m biased towards it, I know I’m not making any Adonises out of my parts. This Blog is evidence of that already. I’m not a web designer, blog creator, nor a graphic artist. What you see here, in terms of layout, is what you’re going to get for a while unless I can make some collaborative arrangements with my friends.

But I don’t think it’s ugly. I don’t think it will be. Certainly, my idea isn’t. Perhaps neither was Victor’s, when you really think about it. You see, my issue has always been like that I like taking things apart and putting them back together in different patterns. I have, what you could call, a synthetic brain: and no, that doesn’t mean I am an artificial intelligence, or a cyborg. It means that while I use analysis to look at different pieces of a thing, I primarily do it as an ends to the means of making something else. I’ve done it in my academics, my other articles, and here will be no exception.

You see, that day when I saw that movie Joe Bob had been examining on Shudder, I looked at all the ways it didn’t work … and then I thought to myself — a very dangerous thing to do in general for me — what would happen if this, or that, had been done instead? What would the narrative be like, the flow of the events become, if I changed elements around, if I grafted parts of it into different places? If I took some of the ideas in them and conflated them with similar mythological material? What if I took the bullshit, and bullshat it in a different direction?

You might say it would be fanfiction at that point. I began to think, then, about all those obscure horror movies that didn’t work, or were weird for some reason — that most people, not necessarily all — forgot about, and I started to ask myself: how could I get them to work for me?

That is the twisted, infernal heart of what this Blog is, my friends. Primarily, I want to focus on this film I saw, this weird, messed up thing that barely makes sense, that could make sense, and make it into a story that does. And if it works, I want to see if I can do it with others, on this Blog.

Obviously, I am not doing it for the money. There is no money for something that doesn’t belong to me. This is obsession, pure and simple. Perhaps some Pandemic boredom and ennui and existential dread with which to deal. And perhaps more than a little bit of grief to process.

And maybe, it will lead to an original work, to help me sift through the muck and the grime, and the filth and the guts of this thing. I’m not an augur, being able to tell the future of what I can make by searching through something’s insides but maybe it might trigger something, or become like some sort of weird Jack-o-Lantern that I can hollow out and eventually provide the basis of something entirely new.

I might, in addition to rewriting obscure horror films, write up some reviews on the genre here, some homages or fanfiction, and maybe even more thoughts. The thing is, for me — personally — horror is that archetypal place that I can draw on in between supposed “high-brow” and “low-brow” art, journeying through the guts to find the gem that I’m looking for. I guess, through doing this, through just watching these films and reading these stories, and not being rigid about my expectations, I want to be more fluid. I want to be more alive.

Victor Frankenstein abandoned his creature. And maybe my impetus will run, and I might do the same with this one. But I want to give it a good start first. And even this doesn’t work out, I can use it to learn how to make the next thing better, perhaps, or make it at all.

You get to see the creature get made, my friends. Or creatures. I’ll try not to take apart something I only began to put together. I always thought that the creature’s companion deserved better, whether in Shelley’s novel, or James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Victor was never a Doctor, but popular consciousness ascribed him that title. Let’s see if I can, similarly and creatively, earn the designation of becoming a mad creator.

Come, let’s study a scary story with the Horror Doctor.

Frankenstein 1910
Image from Edison Studios’ Frankenstein, 1910.