By TERROR-RAMA director Colin Johnson
Horror has kept a special place in my heart for a very long time. It’s not the screaming, it’s definitely not the gore or the grue, it’s not even the tendency for pretty ladies to run around naked (although twelve year old Colin may dispute that claim).
It’s the unknown.
The fear of the unknown. What’s behind that swinging closet door? What made that sound in the kitchen? Are we ever really capable of fully understanding the saturation of psychic, supernatural forces that may or may not be all around us? Do we really have an implicit faith in an orderly universe?
What fascinated me was shaking those core, physical beliefs that we all share upon birth. We see things a certain way, ways that adhere to the laws of physics. But with horror, true terror, our perception is thrust into some sort of grey place, where we catch glimpses of things that shouldn’t be.
It’s the most overpowering emotion in the spectrum.
What other sentiment leaves one completely paralyzed if executed correctly? Think about the last time you were terrified. I mean truly terrified. The breathing, the silence, the hairs on the back of your neck, the idea that anything can happen in those few seconds after hearing a loud crash in the dark. That old feeling of total exposure, true vulnerability, true discomfort, a biting need to leave, just fucking leave wherever you are and scramble to safety.
Get ‘Em Young
I started tinkering with these narrative elements at an early age. Backyard plays, picture books based on Tom Waits songs, culty recordings, etc. With movies and literature, my fascination was taken to a new level. Not only can horror be digestible, but it can defy the laws of physics in ways life cannot, and it can also say something about the world.
It started with TV’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, Halloween specials of popular 90’s sitcoms (including a very traumatic memory of Bea Arthur as Bride of Frankenstein) and quickly graduated to Stephen King, Peter Straub, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Blair Witch Project (and other crude and primal explorations of the supernatural), the classics of the 70’s and 80’s (Exorcist, Changeling, The Conversation, The Shining) and, ultimately, From Dusk Til Dawn – where I was first struck with the notion of cross-genre storytelling.
One half comedy, one half horror. Brilliant. Because, let’s be honest, comedy and horror are essentially the same concept taken in two different directions. Human misfortune.
Mining the Darkness
I started making movies at age fifteen. Ketchup, knives, strobe effect POV shots, burying myself alive, running over my Mother – only to have her severed hand come back to life and kill us one at a time, ghosts filmed in a higher shutter speed or in reverse. I slowly started figuring out what creeps people out. And I do mean slowly.
Then came college, a slightly larger microcosm of the world than Monroe, WA. People actually humored my unusual projects, supported my weird ideas. Then the film department at my school mentioned that student horror films never work.
So I made one, and it worked – kind of.
I made another one, and it really worked. It even got me some awards and screened at an international film festival.
Then came the Bay Area
Look at all the awesome freaks. Look at all the bizarre art. I was home. I spent a few years producing, writing and directing multimedia sketch comedy, honing my storytelling brevity, going as far as I can with a concept. I got to the point where I felt comfortable telling stories, making people laugh, developing the tools to manipulate audiences down certain rabbit-holes, educating myself on the strategies of effective presentations. However, in terms of horror, I felt I had hit a wall. Where else could I take these ideas of unnatural, atmospheric dread?
With theatre, you’re locked in to the laws of physics.
There you are, mere feet away from an eager audience, with nothing but yourself and some conveniently placed props and set pieces and lights to offer assistance.
The limitations were exciting, they forced creative thinking. As a writer and director, they thrust you and the characters deeper than usual, digging the terror up from the inside out. Radio plays were fun, but they lent themselves to the subjective nature of sound. Once you’re operating without vital senses, horror can breathe easier and carve a line directly to your imagination.
But live theatre – leaves so much less to the imagination. In theatre you can’t cut to a dark barn as a shadowy figure hovers above the bails of hay. In theatre you can’t slap on a funky filter and walk through a fantasy nightmare-scape…
And then, in walks Anthony Miller, packing two one-acts that perfectly captured the tonal dynamism of live terror.
One – his own – sends up cheesy 80’s backwoods slasher stories. A family inherits an old summer camp, only to be sliced and diced my an unseen menace. Tongue-firmly-in-cheek, it nails the path of the fun horror. Screaming, giggling, loud sound cues, intestines, hacked limbs, one-liners, bright colors.
The other – by Nick Pappas – takes the most grim approach possible. Bleak, colorless, atmospheric, stomach-churning in its brutality. Loosely based on Fritz Lang’s M, it follows the efforts of two dogged detectives to find a human monster terrorizing a dark, expressionistic city.
Sign Me Up
One half comedy, one half horror. All underneath the banner of TERROR-RAMA.
And a Horror Host? Like Elvira or the Cryptkeeper? Even better!
As we assemble an amazing production team and aim for an October opening, the logistic limitations of a 40-seat block box studio theatre have created boundless options.
Unlike other genres, horror has always functioned best in its most primal state. Where dramas, comedies, cartoons, crime stories evolve through revisionism (look at the originals – sloppy, unintentionally funny, unsure of themselves. Compare them to the current crop – more refined, twisty, thick with character and prestigious production value), horror is most effective when it’s ugly, mean, crude, lacking any full explanations, dirty.
This is what makes horror one of the most under-appreciated storytelling modalities in contemporary culture.
The opportunity to explore what we all secretly want to believe but are unable to fathom. And, once you’re ten feet away from an ominous act of violence or a creeping stalker, you feel that immediacy, you’re sucked into that blissful plane of suspended disbelief – where physics can be dashed and true terror, with all its contradictions and spectrum-running styles, can be seared into your retinas. Ever had to stifle laughs while feeling the nagging scratch of impending doom?
Welcome to Terror-Rama.
-Colin, the Director