Another Halloween

I’ve meant to do this for a while.

Originally, I was going to make something of a Toronto After Dark retrospective: specifically an account on how I was introduced to the Film Festival, and how it made me deal with the horror genre in a different way. And the person who brought me to this Festival in 2010 was Kaarina Wilson.

It always comes back to her.

I’ve talked about Kaarina before, and not just on this medium. I feel like sometimes that is all I ever do: talk, and write about her. Autumn, or Fall, is a time of year in many cultures where the veil between the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. The Harvest is often reaped in Fall, before Winter. And people go around wearing the likenesses of their favourite fictional characters, their celebrities, or their personal demons and their nightmares.

This was Kaarina’s favourite time of year. She got to dress up and be as unapologetically camp as she wanted. And she also got to wear her fears and terrors on the outside for a change, of the creeping, inexorable march of the body’s hunger and decay overtaking the rational and feeling human mind.

She was so much more into the horror genre than I was. Before her, I had read the Classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and H.P. Lovecraft’s main Cthulhu Mythos stories. I’d watched some camp and horror movies with my friends before they moved from their apartment to Barrie so many years ago. I learned, there, that horror is something that should be experienced in a group setting. I can’t even begin to tell you the difference between watching something terrible happen to someone, or an utter bastard of a character getting their comeuppance alone, and then hearing other people gasp, or applaud, or cackle beside you as it all happens on the big screen.

Kaarina cackled. That was how she laughed. It was this wicked, pleased with herself reaction of dark joy, and it was one of the reasons I so insanely in love with her. It was her that had me read Clive Barker and made me realize that horror isn’t just a fear of the unknown, but also the realization that you often what scares you is — deep down — what you ultimately desire when you strip away human niceties, conventional morality, and common sense. It also set the stage for the fact that, aside for the potential of public catharsis — the purging of emotions caused by pity and fear often attributed to ancient tragic plays — horror can have its own twisted logic, an orange and blue morality that even in its own alien mindset still has a human component that makes sense.

I think about the fact that Kaarina was the one that made me read “Dread” and “The Midnight Meat Train” and then had me see the film adaptations, but not before we watched May together in the basement apartment she called her Wonderland — after Alice’s — or what I thought of at times was her Underground. Quaid just wanted to overcome his fear and help others do so. Leon Kaufman had a terrible need to fit into something bigger than him, to find an assured and foundational place in New York: to belong somewhere. And May, in the midst of humiliation and confusing and deceptive human actions she just wanted to make a friend.

I learned a lot, then, even as I related to it. I’d even read “The Forbidden” and got to see how that short story changed in the better known Candyman adaptation. It also helped that Kaarina had been taking a Ryerson course on Gothic Literature that gave me the excuse to read her online copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a lot of what I learned about horror, which had been scattered between University courses, bored movie channel watching at my parents’ place, and the times with my zombie-fanatic friends, started from Kaarina. And she was definitely the one that encouraged me to write something about horror in film: to the point of her arguing with me when I didn’t believe I could focus enough to do so.

The truth is: I never thought I really fit into this genre. But Kaarina challenged that. She made me watch ridiculous films, weird films, creative films, erotic films, and enjoyable films. She showed me movies that made me use my critical brain, and others that I just sat back and enjoyed. I realized it didn’t always have to be serious, or stick to eclectic small things that were the result of my own crippling perfectionism.

It was actually okay for me to have fun.

This was important, especially given that when we met I was still struggling to finish off my Graduate Program. I didn’t think I could do it, get through my Program, write again for myself, or even engage with these weird independent movies, and have something to say. I know for a fact I used to drive her utterly crazy with my doubts, and my stubbornness.

Perhaps it hit a little too close to home, even as I encouraged her to write more reviews and stories herself. Like the seasons, like birth, death and rebirth, or life, death, and reanimation everything was a cycle. It still is.

For example, if not for the Pandemic this year would have been the first After Dark without her. And there is something almost fitting about the fact that on the year of her death, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival — her favourite event — didn’t happen. But either way, this is the first Halloween without her in it.

And grief is a cycle as well.

So I find myself, in the midst of 2020’s utter misery trying to compensate, to live twice as much as I can in these limited circumstances, to feel that abundant life force and need to live in the middle of so much death and stasis, and to enjoy horror for the two of us. I bought her a subscription to Fangoria while she was in the hospital which I had to cancel after she was gone, and I have to read that for her: to succeed this time, one day, in actually being able to submit something into its pages. I got her a Shudder account while she was in a medically induced coma to shave the damaged parts of her lungs away — and I curated the films in there to match the ones we’d seen together, or that were at the After Dark Festival, or anything I found interesting, but now that she’s gone it still exists there, having never had the heart to close it. Some part of me imagines, in some liminal space between sleep and the Internet, that a part of her watches those films to this very day.

I know there are some things, like this Blog, which she would be proud of me creating, but it’s hard to think about how she will never be able to tell me that herself again. So that is why I watch all these horror films, so many more than I used to. That’s why I want to celebrate Halloween with friends, to enjoy the movies with others and not be alone. That’s why I look forward to the Hallow’s Harvest table-top roleplaying game I’m playing with my friends before I have to return to this reality.

In the early summer, still reeling from Kaarina’s loss, I finally decided to sit in on a live watching of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I’d only been there in passing when they were watching some of the Halloween series having found out about it through Diana Prince: or Darcy the Mailgirl on the show. When I watch the show on Shudder TV, and live-tweet with Diana, and the rest of the MutantFam it reminds me of all the times I watched horror films with my friends, all the moments I wished I had someone to watch them with in my house, every occasion I watched them at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in the Bloor, and Underground Cinemas, and ScotiaBank Theatre.

Watching strange and weird films with “blood, breasts, and beasts” with the MutantFam of The Last Drive-In reminds me of all every night I watched movies with Kaarina, and it takes a little bit of that edge of the jagged Jack-o-Lantern hole in my heart off.

I had a lot of plans for this Blog. I was going to write alternate endings to films and stories. I was going to reconstruct one movie in particular. And I was going to write about weird things, unique perspectives and experiences and experiments. Most of this has been reviews, like the ones I would write for GeekPron or Sequart. But sometimes I can still get personal. Perhaps next time, I will tell you all about the writings that actually led to the making of this Blog: my proto-articles that tried to link themes and ideas together in a series I was watching which would provide the basis of what I do — or try to do — on this Blog. I wrote them when Kaarina was still alive, but she never saw them. But I think she would have approved.

So let me just say to you all, before adopting my Horror Doctor half-mask persona again, have a safe and happy Halloween. I will do the same. It is the least I can do now.

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?