Even now I can remember the nightmare that followed — the creature from the story, hunched in the darkness of my closet, eyes yellow and glowing — and waking in the night, screaming, tears hot on my cheeks. In that moment, the world had become deeper, darker, and truer.
Virtually everyone has a story like this: the first nightmare. What separates the horror fan from everyone else is that they return to the nightmare, voluntarily, over and over again. For years after discovering The Tailypo, I insisted that my parents read it to me every night. I showed the book off to friends at school and drew the creature in sketchbooks and journals. Eventually, I discovered that my parents had rewritten a happy ending on the inside of the back cover and demanded they read the original with the evisceration of the old man.
There are those among us that not only return to the nightmare, but study it, and struggle to understand why they’re returning. What do I get out of these grisly words and images? they ask. What does it say about me as a viewer and a person? How do we explain the popularity of films that feature (mostly) female victims being terrorized by (mostly) male aggressors? From such questions come classics like Carol J. Clover Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Barry Keith Grant’s dense but rewarding collection of essays The Dread of Difference, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, David Skal’s The Monster Show, and my personal favorite, Kevin Wetmore Jr.’s incisive Post-9/11 Horror In American Cinema. There are more, of course — documentaries like Andrew Monument’s Nightmares in Red, White and Blue and Michael Stephenson’s genuinely touching The American Scream, not to mention countless other books, films, magazines, blogs, etc., as well as a few notable film critics who are refreshingly horror-friendly (Devin Faraci and Scott Weinberg both spring to mind) and have made strides to legitimize a genre that has been, for years, largely dismissed by the mainstream critical establishment.
Until now, the most popular defense has been that horror films allow audiences to exorcise large-scale social fears in a safe environment. King, Skal, Wetmore, and others all argue variations of this. If you were a teenager of the 1950s, for instance, atomic power was probably weighing pretty heavily on your mind — hence all of the big bugs (the horrifying result of atomic radiation!) crawling across the screen. However, while the sociopolitical angle seems like a good way of addressing why filmmakers made the movies they did — George Romero clearly had some stuff he needed to get off his chest about American conformity when he conceived Night of the Living Dead — I never felt in my gut that that’s why I watched them. The answer seemed deeper and more personal than that.
Enter Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, the next step in genre theory, as well as the most frightening and heart-rending memoir I’ve read in years. Janisse has been a film programmer since 1999, first for the Cinemuerte International Horror Film Festival in Vancouver (which she founded), and then later for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, as well as their festival spin-off Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. She’s also a film writer and the founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, as well as the owner and editor of Spectacular Optical Publications. She’s seen more horror movies than I’ve even heard of, and writes about them deeply and beautifully, frequently putting more thought into them than the filmmakers probably did. Janisse is one of those people who went to her local video store and began working her way through the horror section, alphabetically, watching as many as five movies a day.
House of Psychotic Women is a hybrid of autobiographical and scholarly writing, and in the four years since its publication, I’ve yet to come across anything quite like it. The only cultural touchstone I can come up with to describe it is the scene from High Fidelity where John Cusack’s character reveals to his co-worker that he’s organizing his record collection autobiographically. Janisse interweaves her familial narrative with synopses and critical reviews of films that reflect various moments in her life. For instance, in the first chapter, Janisse describes, as a child, walking in on her mother’s rape, and the ensuing years of cyclical abuse that haunted them both. This leads into an analyses of the infamous ghost-rape film The Entity (1982), starring Barbara Hershey, wherein Janisse explores the parallels between the film’s narrative and the story of her life. The review concludes by focusing on a scene where Barbara Hersey’s character Carla is put before a panel of skeptical psychiatrists and forced to defend the reality of her experiences. “A female psychiatrist cuts to the chase,” Janisse writes:
“Would it be a reflection on you as a woman if [the entity] left you, if you were cured?”
But self-blame is no less destructive; it’s an easy out that only feeds the negative cycles of abuse. After the events that led to her divorce, and bolstered by the [rape] at Columbia Court (which my father Oates — a psychologist — refused to believe ever occurred), my mother remarried, and this new relationship would bring its own challenges in the form of an ill-tempered stepfather whose behavior would be tolerated because my mother felt to do otherwise made her a failure. If one views Carla’s situation in The Entity as the equivalent of domestic violence [the lead psychiatrist’s] assessment is not far off the mark: women who cyclically pair up with or return to abusive partners are more often than not re-enacting residual experiences, constantly retuning to the source of the trauma in an attempt to master it, to get it right.
If the majority of horror scholars before now have viewed the genre through a macro-lens, Janisse is adopting a micro-perspective, avoiding broad sociopolitical readings of the films in favor of deeply psychological ones. Janisse is a razor-sharp observer of human behavior, and her insights are frighteningly candid and frequently funny. For instance, here’s how she recounts her adolescent experiments with self-destructive behavior:
As a child any deliberate self-injury was limited to scab-picking and other means of interfering with the natural healing process of wounds (not so abnormal), but adolescence brought the typical self-injurious behavior — cutting, bruising and consistently giving myself bad haircuts. I still maintain that the latter was the most damaging.
“In hindsight,” she goes on to say, “it’s easy to see that my own masochistic behavior — from eating things that were potentially harmful to me, to provoking physical violence from my stepfather … was fueled by a need to feel I’d survived something that would incapacitate others, more than being born out of low self-esteem.” Much of Janisse’s life story reads like a script from one of the delinquent teen films that she analyzes in an early section of the book. She is adopted as an infant and raised in a fractured home. Eventually, her womanizing father leaves, and the alcoholic mother remarries a man with a violent temper who is nevertheless her most emotionally available relative. As she grows up, Janisse begins rebelling against parents and teachers, running away from home, sneaking out of school, and hanging out with punks (“Any idiot in a Ramones shirt would do”). Eventually Janisse is kicked out of school when she’s caught with a gun in her locker: a gift her stepfather has given her in an attempt to bond. She then bounces around various group and foster homes, trying to cobble together a makeshift family to replace the one she’s lost. Surrogate family members include Pam, her born-again Christian aunt who eventually tries to exorcise the disturbed adolescent; Kim, “a 15-year-old Satan-worshipping prostitute” whom she meets at a group home; Edna, Janisse’s foster mother, a child of the system herself, who takes her four teenage foster-daughters on a booze-soaked trip to Mexico, where two of the girls have “weird flings with much-older Mexican guys — both named Fernando,” who then follow the girls back to the United States. Later, there’s Val, a single mother who gives Janisse a place to stay as she struggles to make the transition from government-subsidized teen to government-recognized adult; Keith, “the angry and despondent” teenager who will become the love of 18-year-old Janisse’s life; Johnny, the “empathic, generous” photographer and illustrator she marries and subsequently divorces; and then there’s the procession of horror icons-cum-surrogate fathers (Udo Kier, John Saxon, Jean Rollin, Richard Blackburn, Jeff Lieberman, Ed Neal, Bob Clark, et al.).
While never explicit in her self-diagnosis — she calls herself “crazy” and “neurotic” and leaves it at that — it quickly becomes clear that Janisse is shouldering some frightening psychological baggage, and she puts herself in situation after situation that radiates self-sabotage. After a short stint working at a porn shop, Janisse gets a job at a video store in Vancouver called Black Dog. “Working at Black Dog changed my life. One might even say it saved my life,” Janisse writes, and she’s not kidding. She eventually goes back to school, founds a horror fanzine called Cannibal Culture, starts the Cinemuerte Film Festival (basically by accident), and slowly gets her life back on track. The book doesn’t get “happy” from here on out — I wouldn’t believe it if it did — but this is the moment when Janisse suddenly finds herself in a position to make her obsession a vocation, developing a sense of direction and empowerment.
Janisse’s memoir only makes up about a third of the book. The other two thirds are essentially critical reviews of horror and exploitation films. The resulting style isn’t quite memoir, isn’t quite history, isn’t quite analysis, but rather a kind of Confessional Criticism, both deeply personal and rigorously academic.
The appendix, which is roughly half the length of the entire book, is basically a list of all the films mentioned in the body of the memoir, as well as other related titles that informed its writing. Each entry is followed by an in-depth plot summary, character analysis, and some kind of thematic untangling. While most film guides tend to focus on famous genre offerings, Janisse’s book contains relatively few classics. Yes, she touches on Carrie, Black Swan, The Brood, The Haunting, and Repulsion (among a handful of others), but leaves other seemingly obvious choices — Rosemary’s Baby, Scream, The Descent, etc.— unacknowledged. Instead, she focuses on titles like The Mafu Cage, A Gun For Jennifer, Cutting Moments, Defenceless: A Blood Symphony, Daddy, Anima Persa, Alucarda, The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, and Singapore Sling. If you’re a horror fan and none of these titles are new to you: bravo. I hadn’t heard of any of them before reading this book. And there are dozens more like it. The book is simply a treasure trove of titles waiting to be rediscovered.
What ultimately makes House of Psychotic Women so spellbinding is less the memoir or the reviews as individual entities, but the way that the two, when juxtaposed, remind us that these stories are rooted in the real; and not the big/broad/social-political real, but the real that is small and intimate and experiential. Janisse touches upon this in her introduction when she writes that “a good horror film will more often make me cry than make me shudder.”
The cover of the latest edition of House Of Psychotic Women features a gorgeous double-exposure from the criminally under-seen Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, which Janisse dubs “[o]ne of the most subtle masterpieces of 70s genre cinema.” (I like to think of it as a horror version of Cassavetes’s A Woman Under The Influence.) The film tells the story of a young woman — the titular Jessica — who has just been released from a mental institution and is taken to a farmhouse in upstate New York by her well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve husband, Duncan, and their friend Woody, only to discover a beautiful young hippy named Emily hiding out there. The opening 20 minutes are crushingly sad, as we watch Jessica try like hell to act like the happy, healthy version of herself that she knows her husband wants her to be. As the film progresses and Duncan and Woody begin competing for Emily’s affection, Jessica slowly uncovers that Emily is not what she seems and battles the voices in her head over whether what she’s experiencing is real or another delusion.
After I read and reread House of Psychotic Women and reflected upon its ideas, a scene from this film continued to replay itself in my mind: Jessica has just arrived at the farmhouse with Duncan and Woody. As she approaches the house, she sees a woman in a rocking chair on the porch. Jessica looks to her husband, who is still unpacking the car. However, when she turns back to the house, the woman is gone. As the men approach, we hear Jessica’s thoughts: “Don’t tell them, they won’t believe you.” Then, as the three of them make their way inside the house, Jessica looks and sees the woman again at the top of the stairs. She freezes, terrified but afraid to say anything. The figure dashes away into another room and her husband puts a hand on her back. “It’s okay, Jessica. I saw it too,” he says. And Jessica laughs with relief.
Horror films reflect some core truths about the way we live, the trials and tribulations that we endure, and our individual relationships with a world that seems, at best, indifferent to our well-being and, at worst, actively hostile. Not everyone feels this way, but a lot of us do. And there’s a deep satisfaction in seeing your experiences and perceptions honestly reflected back at you, even if said experiences and perceptions aren’t totally pleasant. It’s a reminder that although the world can be a hard place, you’re not alone in it.
Kier-La, thanks for seeing it too.
Ian MacAllister-McDonald is a playwright, filmmaker, and educator from Portland, Maine. He recently completed work on his first feature film, Some Freaks.