My First Fright featuring Gemma Files

Painting from the NIGHT GALLERY episode “The Cemetery.”

In Night Gallery, the 1969 film that served as a pilot for the anthology TV series of the same name, there’s a segment titled “The Cemetery” that will forever haunt me. In this macabre tale, the lead character, Jeremy Evans, who has murdered his uncle and lives in his dead relative’s mansion, owns a painting which depicts the mansion and the family graveyard, where his uncle is now buried. As the story progresses, the painting changes. To Jeremy’s horror, his uncle rises from the grave in the painting and lurches closer and closer to the mansion, until….well, I won’t spoil it for you. But the image of that painting, of the undead uncle creeping toward the mansion, has been seared into my brain since I was a kid. Author Gemma Files knows that feeling. She happened upon a book when she was but a child, one filled with images that would haunt and thrill her for years to come.

Gemma Files is a Canadian horror writer. She is the author of several books, including The Worm in Every Heart (Prime Books/Wildside Press, 2004), the three-volume Hexslinger series (ChiZne Publications) and most recently, Experimental Film (ChiZine Publications, 2015). Her short story “The Emperor’s Old Bones,” won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Story of 1999.

(Interview conducted by John Brhel)

CEMETERY DANCE: What scared you when you were little?

GEMMA FILES: I was capable of being scared by almost anything when I was a kid. Stuff that gave me screaming fits includes: reading Robinson Crusoe and coming across the line “I might live there comfortably the rest of my life,” i.e. that he could live on that island alone until he DIED; the back cover copy of James Herbert’s The Survivor; a Boris Karloff’s Ghost Stories comic in which all the ghosts looked like cartoon bubble-people; the final scene of Wuthering Heights (1939 version), during which I turned to my Mom and went: “Wait, so they’re both ghosts now?!?”; the title sequence music from A Clockwork Orange; Steeleye Span’s version of the murder ballad “Long Lankin.” Interestingly, what inevitably happened with almost all of these things is that I eventually moved from being completely unable to engage with them, to being fascinated by them, to finding them sort of…I don’t know, quaint? Familiar? Like I owned them, like they were a part of my childhood…which, of course, they were. It’s like the time in the early 1990s when I was listening to radio on my Walkman while traveling home from my first security job, a night-shift posting up in the back ass of beyond, during which I saw and spoke to no one for almost eight hours in a row. Without warning, I suddenly found myself listening to “Down In It” by Nine Inch Nails, transfixed and suffused with a flood of awful existential horror. Naturally, it soon became my favorite song.

How old were you when you came upon your “first fright”?

I think the first time I tried to consciously immunize myself against this susceptibility to fear was probably at age eight or so, just after my Dad went back to Australia, when I started going over the things he’d left behind obsessively, as though doing so—learning as much as I could about what made him him—would somehow bring him back. I remember setting an 8×10 he’d gotten done on cardboard up in our mud-room and almost praying to it on the daily, for example, like it was some sympathetic magic religious icon. Anyhow, amongst the various books on stuff like the history of cartoons/comics and the history of sci-fi, he’d left a coffee table-sized tome on the history of horror movies, thick enough to kill bugs with and illustrated throughout, with a mixture of colored inserts versus black-and-white stills from all sorts of movies I’d never seen. The two that I could barely stand to look at were a two-page splash of a very bloody shot of a girl with an axe buried in her skull and a posed shot from one of the only non-silent movies to feature a golem, It! (1967, starring Roddy McDowall).

I’ve still never seen It!, but holy crap did that thing freak me out—just the way it was designed, made out of dried, withered mud with vestigial features, a creepy cross between a dried mandrake root drawn by Edward Gorey and a petrified turd. It just made me feel bad. The axe-in-skull shot, on the other hand—probably from an Italian giallo, when I come to think about it (the girl was wearing a very late 1960s/early 1970s flaxen beehive wig, knocked slightly askew and saturated with black-rendered stage blood)—was more of a shock, almost palpable, a punch to the stomach, or maybe somewhere further down. It made my eyes glaze over, made me want to literally be sick. It made me sure that the whole adult world was full of murder and shame and rot, that I was destined to die in some terrible way that nothing and nobody could save me from.

Do you know the title of the book, by any chance?

After a bit of Googling images, I found it: A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, by Denis Gifford (1977).

It sounds like you were a little young to be reading a book with this type of content in it. Did your mom know you were poring through the book?

Yeah, Mom knew I was reading it, because I did it right in front of her. I was already reading texts about archaeology and stuff like that at that point—I think I could read at a high-school level by then, at least for sense; complete understanding came later. The only person who ever tried to stop me from reading anything at home was Dad, who didn’t like my native urge towards books with blood, boobs and/or guns on them.

Did it scare you or were you more intrigued, or was it a combination of both?

The fear was crippling, or maybe the fear of fear—that the minute I got over one thing, I’d inevitably find something else to get caught short by, something else that’d keep me from sleeping and filled my waking hours with dread as I obsessed over it, saw it everywhere, thought about it constantly. What I did, therefore, was to make myself sit down and study that book every morning during breakfast, eating my cereal while flipping through it from start to finish. Eventually, I became so familiar with those images that I can still recognize some of them whenever I run across them: ah, there’s the hopelessly crushed drag racer-turned-monster’s head with its one giant eye from I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (1957); there’s the equally creepy but distinctly different rigid smiles of The Man Who Laughs (1928) and Mr Sardonicus (1961); there’s the weirdly disquieting image of a bunch of dudes done up as skeletons sitting on a bunch of horses done up as skeletons from Night Creatures (1962). Through sheer contemptuous familiarity, they all lost their power, even the worst ones.

I know that your parents are both actors. Did your dad have this book because he was in the biz?

Before my father started training as an actor, he had already been working as a graphic artist in Melbourne, Australia’s Mad Men-era advertising scene—he continued to draw and do other sorts of art pieces throughout my childhood. For example, I remember him putting a shellacked collage of sci-fi images up inside one of our shelving units, and he painted a version of a famous Medieval woodcut on the bathroom cabinet that showed a woman admiring her hair in a mirror as the Devil pranced behind her, showing off his ass, which was reflected along with her vain face.So I think he must have been looking for inspiration when he bought the book, then left it behind because it was just too big to ship all the way back home.

Were either of your parents in any horror movies themselves?

As it happens, my Mom was in Andreas Muschietti’s Mama for a minute and a half—she plays the psychiatrist’s secretary. She was also a recurring player on the Canadian Broadcast Company’s horror radio series Nightfall, which ran from 1980 to 1983.

How do you feel about your first fright now? Is it still scary?

Long after this, I remember I came across a piece of Yukio Mishima’s writing about his own childhood, during which he was taken away from his mother by his grandmother and forced to live as though he was sick with some illness no one really understood—“auto-intoxication,” the grandmother’s doctor called it. He talked about how he’d obsessed over various fairytales and images, how he’d been sure a picture of Joan of Arc was a particularly gorgeous male knight and refused to believe otherwise, how he’d “edited” passages in his head to make sure there was no happy ending for these characters he found so beautiful that he wanted to see them torn apart and destroyed in rigorous detail. It was at that point that I realized there had always been a similarly fetishistic element in my fear of these images, these narratives–that they aroused me and horrified me in equal measure, their violence reflecting my own anger, my own potential for violence, as well as those darker veins of sexuality we all possess, even when we’re really young.

So was that always it, the seed of my fascination with horror? This weird twinned wish to both destroy, and be destroyed—the unspoken and often unacknowledged wish to be exterminated/extinguished yourself, snuffed out of a life you find emotionally unbearable, because you haven’t experienced enough yet to conceive of it becoming something else. To know that everything changes if you only wait long enough is one of the freeing lessons of getting older, but it does come with a price: the parallel and undeniable knowledge that that same constant patterns of change ends, always, in death. That things get better or worse but eventually they’re gone…them, and you, forever. That it’s impossible to evade; everything just is, until it’s not.

Did your first fright inform your writing in any way? Have you ever touched upon some of its themes in your own work or tried to emulate it in any way?

This is definitely something I’ve come back to again and again in my writing. Because horror is integrally about the human ability to transfer their own innate fear of death into something or someone else, a signifier, a totem, a monster. In that way it really is very much like sexual fetishism, except that instead of a scenario or a prop encoding/standing in so much for your own sex-drive that you can’t make love without it, it’s something very ordinary that becomes an item of awful reverence, a portal into the numinous that induces a state of fear/hypersensitivity in which we hallucinate ghosts and demons. It’s sort of like faith, in that way: we agree to pretend that something which palpably doesn’t exist does, at least for the length of the narrative. We trick ourselves, so we can trick others; we hypnotize ourselves, summon images that make the hairs on our own napes rise in order to hopefully communicate some part of that internalized terror to somebody else…our readers, our shadow-selves. To make them dream our nightmares.

Most of the things I write about are things that scare me, to one degree or another. They’re also things that excite me, not always sexually, but sometimes that way too—black miracles, the moments where reality’s rules appear to be suspended, where down suddenly becomes up, or even sideways. In “This Is Not For You,” for example (which appeared in Nightmare Magazine), I wrote about female rage, about getting pleasure from ripping men apart just to do it, from making them complicit in their own doom; I wanted to mine the idea of a pack of women being uncontrollable in an almost divine way that goes back to the Greek mystery religion myth of the Bacchae, Dionysus’s followers, drunk on a power that turns them into beasts whose ferocity is literally god-given. In Experimental Film, I wrote about all the worst aspects of my experience as mother to a child with special needs, but also my obsession with film and my interest in old, dead gods. In “That Place” (Letters to Lovecraft), I actually freaked myself out by writing about “evil Narnia” portal fantasies. Much of this stuff feeds into the novel I’m currently writing, and will probably continue to feed into everything else I write, too.

What are your favorite horror movies?

As to my favourite horror movies…man, that’s hard. If I had to choose a bunch at random that I’d watch almost anytime, then those would include Banshee Chapter, The Ritual, The Witch, It Follows, Final Prayer, Alien, Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez version), 28 Weeks Later, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Session 9, Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions, The Exorcist, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Invisible Man, Suspiria, Sauna, Kairo, Kwaidan, The Innocents, The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, Brides of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out, Frankenstein Created Woman, Blood On Satan’s Claw…but also some not-so-easily defensible things that I just enjoy being inside of, like The Lazarus Effect, Viral, Pyewacket, Friend Request, The Bye-Bye Man, etc. You need that grit to get the itch and grow the pearl, that’s what I always say. Sometimes garbage in doesn’t have to be garbage out, hopefully.

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