Aaron Christensen: WildClawing Weirdness with the Editor of Horror 101 by Brian Kirst

Aaron Christensen, or Dr. AC to those in the know (and all of you should be), is not only the editor of the seminal book 'Horror 101' ( available at www.horror101withdrac.com ), one of the most comprehensive and fun guides to the horror genre, but he is also one of the founding members of Chicago's WildClaw Theatre ( www.wildclawtheatre.com ), a brilliantly inventive Midwest theatre company devoted to bringing works of horror to the stage. With 'Horror 101's' continual presence (and rave reviews) in such magazines as Fangoria and Horror Hound, Christensen has become a known commodity across the world, but his heart truly lies in Illinois and its community of scare loving fans is all the better for it. AC recently took some time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for Racks and Razors. After you're through, be sure to check out his personal myspace page (http://www.myspace.com/horror101withdrac.com ) where he is an enthusiastic and vital contributor, and the 'Horror 101' page ( http://www.myspace.com/horror101_thebook as well.


BK: How did 'Horror 101' come into being?

AC: Honestly, I still can't quite wrap my head around the idea that it actually has come into being. Seems like only yesterday that the wheels first started turning, but in fact it's now been over a year since the first copies hit the streets. In fact, I remember when Horror Society printed its write-up of 'H101', it was the first review we had gotten from anyone, which was pretty special. Especially since you guys liked it! We'll forever thankful for that - it really got us off on the right foot. You work so hard on something, you want it to be welcomed into the world. A couple kind words from our intended audience gives artists of any stripe the confidence to continue creating, so thanks for that.

BK: Did you originally think you would do the book by yourself or was it always going to be a fan project?

AC: Well, originally, I was envisioning a much larger project. Based on years of personal "research", (i.e. watching tons and tons of horror flicks, ha ha!), I thought it would be interesting to create a hierarchy of genre films, going from the "essentials" on out into the fringe, a curriculum of creature features. We'd have our Freshman class, Sophomore, Junior, etc. and the whole thing would be called something like 'Going to Horror U.' But it soon became clear that once you got past the Freshman year, things started spreading out in a big, big hurry - the scope of the project was going to be simply "enormous", and ultimately superfluous, considering the fact that there already were great resource books like John Stanley's 'Creature Features' and Phil Hardy's 'Encyclopedia of Horror', not to mention the Internet. Did we really need another comprehensive volume of every horror movie ever made? Survey says... no.Still, there are these essential films within this wildly diverse genre, and that appealed to me. For instance, you've got the natural touchstones of 'The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!' and 'Gojira' for the "giant atomic monsters," serving as the gateway to that particular subgenre. But once you get into the pool, it's like an inverted pyramid; you've got hundreds of rip-offs, spin-offs and sequels. It's very easy to disappear into a particular subgenre without an understanding of or familiarity with the rest of the rich and varied horror genre as a whole, be it the Universal classics, slashers, etc. So then I thought, why not compile a collection of essays on these various touchstone films - a beginner's class, if you will - that would give new fans an introduction to a wide variety of subgenres, historic turning points and important figures within the genre? I liked this idea very much, but as I began writing, I realized that I was only going to be able to bring my experiences and sensibilities to the table. I wanted more than that; I also wanted to show that the fans are as varied as the pictures themselves - I wanted to represent that aspect of fandom as well. Then it occurred to me that thanks to the Internet, I was already in direct contact with the global horror culture that I wanted to give a voice to. My fellow horror friends were from all over the world, they were male and female, they came from all different walks of life, and they ranged in age from high school students to senior citizens... It was a no-brainer that enlisting these diverse individuals to write an essay on their favorite horror film was the real project worth pursuing.

BK: How did you narrow down the contributors featured in 'Horror 101'?

AC: I tried to approach potential writers who were capable of expressing themselves articulately and intelligently. Anyone can say, "Man, that movie is "awesome!", but I wanted a "little" bit more than that. So, I trolled around various horror message boards and sent out emails to friends, inviting people whose work I thought would make for compelling and interesting reading. Most of them were thrilled by the idea of contributing to a book, but when I started talking about deadlines, etc., that thinned the field a bit. I wanted contributors who were willing to go the distance, respect deadlines, supporting the book up to and beyond publication. The recruiting process itself took a pretty long time. Then after we had assigned the essays, the first deadline came along - and half of the writers had either dropped out or were begging for an extension! I realized right then that this was going to be no stroll in the park. It was a bit of a revolving door for a while, but about a year we eventually had all the essays in hand.

BK: Upon celebrating a year of 'Horror 101', what has been the most surprising thing that you have discovered about its success?

AC: Wow. I think what\rquote s been most gratifying is that people still respond to the notion of a "book". I grew up in the public library, poring over reference books, and there's a tactile experience from having an actual book in hand that I could never replace with the computer screen. Websites are wonderful, but I knew I wanted something I could hold, keep on the coffee table, take with me on the train, etc., and it's been great to find so many people who still feel the same way. Watching someone pick it up and start flipping through the various essays, saying, "Oh, wow, I love this movie!".... That makes it all worthwhile. I think that's why we've enjoyed such a wealth of positive reviews - people are responding to the enthusiasm that went into the book from start to finish. It really was designed to be a gift back to the horror community - for the fans by the fans - and that seems to be how it has been received, from the big boys like Fangoria and Rue Morgue to individuals fans' pod casts and websites. It's been great.

BK: Were there favorite films of yours that didn't make the cut for the book?

AC: No doubt about it. I had the oh-so-clever notion of 101 essays 'Horror 101', get it? But you wouldn't believe how hard it was narrowing it down; You have your initial list, and then you say, "Oh gees, I can't leave "that" out. Or "that". Or "that"... It felt like a 'Lucy' skit, trying to keep the overflow in the washing machine. So, yes, there are several films that I had to kick to the curb, and it was for that reason that we opted to call it Vol. 1 , just to reassure ourselves that we would be back to pick up the orphans later. I still can't believe we couldn't make room for seminal flicks like 'Carnival of Souls', 'Basket Case', 'The Toxic Avenger', 'Mario Bava's Black Sabbath', 'I Spit on your Grave', 'Maniac'... As you see, once you open the floodgates, it's hard to stop. But we had to draw the line somewhere. Hopefully we'll see a Vol. 2 sometime in the near future.

BK: Is there anything that you'd want to do differently concerning the second volume of 'Horror 101'?

AC: Get someone else to edit it? Just kidding. Not really, I suppose. The selection of contributors is going to be interesting, since so many more people want to participate this time and of course, all of the original authors are up for another round. I think I'll probably be a bit firmer with the deadlines - fewer extensions this time around, especially if someone else is going to be bumped in order to give out that slot. I understand life gets in the way sometimes, but when you've got this many people involved, the commitment level needs to go up a notch as well.BK: Why does Ray Harryhausen belong in the same volume as Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton, William Castle, John Carpenter and M. Night Shymalan?AC: See, to me the question is, why "wouldn't" he belong? But that's probably because I grew up during the time period that I did. Growing up in the time before CGI, Harryhausen's stop-motion epics were as close to magic as any of us had seen. The man conjured some of the most memorable creations and imbued them with so much personality that they often seemed more real than the human characters alongside them. His work (along with mentor Willis O' Brien) inspired a whole generation of filmmakers and special effects artists. There is something about films like 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' and 'Mysterious Island' and even 'Clash of the Titans' that strikes a chord with the little kid in all of us. I think for many of us, these films were the spark as to just how cool monster movies could be, or how cool movies in general could be. I think they are similar to films like 'Star Wars' in that way, the imagination is free and unrestricted - anything can happen. I want people to be excited by monster movies, and for my money, experiencing a Harryhausen film is a guaranteed winner. And for all those who say these aren't monster movies, um, we've got an enormous Cyclops, dragons, two-headed Rocs, dinosaurs, giant wasps, a huge octopus, etc... Case closed.

BK: 'The Unseen' (with Barbara Bach providing da - yowza!) was one of my favorite 80s horror flicks. Can you discuss what you think makes this film so potent?

AC: It's funny, I had never seen the film until the recent 'Code Red' DVD release, so I expect you are even more excited than most now that it's out there where more people can experience it. It's a great time to be a film fan, no doubt about it. I think what makes 'The Unseen' so memorable is that it starts off following a standard template for horror: A trio of attractive women go out to a sparsely populated location, get lodgings at the local old dark house, we discover that there is something strange living in the basement, it starts picking off the women one by one until the lead character goes down in the basement and encounters the creature face to face... Up until this point, it's pretty standard stuff, elevated by Sydney Lassick's terrifically eccentric performance as the crafty old codger running the joint. However, what we expect is that the creature will appear, we'll see his ugly mug for a few minutes during the final struggle, and then our Final Girl will somehow prevail and credits will roll. Uh-uh. Here, Stephen Furst (who plays 'The Unseen' ) pulls out a show stopping third-act tour-de-force performance that will knock you on your ass. In fact, the final 30 minutes between Lassick, Furst and Lelia Goldoni reach a near-Shakespearean level of weirdness and emotional fever pitch. I was so pleasantly surprised by it, especially since I was expecting nothing more than a fair-to-middling forgotten slasher flick.

BK: Considering the fact that guilty pleasures shouldn't exist within the horror film community, is there still a film that you are embarrassed to admit that you like?

AC: Not anymore. Funny, John Bowen from Rue Morgue magazine and I were just having this conversation. I refuse to call anything a guilty pleasure anymore, because I refuse to feel guilty for liking what I like. Do I think all the 'Godzilla' or 'Planet of the Apes' movies are "good" movies? Not at all. Do I love them? With all my heart. So many horror fans, I think, are made to feel guilty for being horror fans in the first place, so I try to preach tolerance and let people watch (and enjoy) whatever they want to. I know that there's a lot of stuff out there that different people would consider crap, but in the end it all comes down to personal tastes. Granted, it has taken me 40 years to get to that place, and I think being a horror fan has helped me stick to my guns. You tell people you're a horror fan, you automatically get "the look." So, it's possible horror fans develop a thicker skin about their own personal tastes much quicker than others. I'm a film fan: I like Disney, I like porn, I like romantic comedies, I like exploitation films, and I like horror. Do I feel embarrassed by it? Not anymore, but I certainly did as a younger person and for years was a "closet" horror fan. Now I try to embrace it all and simply take other people's opinions for what they are. Before, I might have dismissed someone for their personal tastes; now I find it fascinating that they can have affection for a film that I don't care for - I want to talk about why they liked it so that I can understand them and/or the film better.

BK: Is fiction writing or screenplays something that you plan on pursuing?

AC: I think my mind tends to be more reactive than whole-cloth creative, so I'm not sure. I get plenty of ideas from seeing so many "bad" films, so it's possible that someday I'll feel inspired to write something of my own. But to be perfectly honest, there are still so many film out there that I have yet to see, so many books I've yet to read, it would have to be a pretty strong spark to sway me from my real passion. I'm a fan first, no question about it. I was talking to Jon Kitley from Kitley's Krypt.com the other day, bellyaching about how, "There never seems to be an end to it. There's no way you can see it all!" His response was that that is the beauty of it, that there will "always" be new (or old) films to encounter, new lands to discover, unsung diamonds in the rough to share with the masses. Right now, my passion seems to be to shine a light and encourage folks into the horror pool, to be an 'Ambassador of Horror,' so for now, that's where I'll put my energies. But things change, so never say never.

BK: What was the impetus behind the founding of WildClaw Theatre? Was it simply the lack of a Midwest theatre company specifically devoted to horror themes - or was there a deeper significance?

AC: WildClaw's artistic director, Charley Sherman, originally approached me last year with the idea of forming a horror-centric theatre company, one that would focus on bringing serious horror back to the stage. There are plenty of campy, splattery productions that go on in town, but we wanted to do something more than that. He brought together a strong core of like-minded actors and designers, and I'm very proud to have been included in the mix.I think we simply wanted to create an opportunity for Chicago fans to have year-round " live" horror-themed experiences, as opposed to just that random haunted house in October. Horror and Theatre have a grand history together, dating back to the Greeks (Oedipus tearing his eyes out, Medea slaughtering her children), Shakespeare is gory as hell, there's France's Grand Guignol on through to Sondheim's 'Sweeney Todd'.... The possibilities are there. Theatre relies upon the viewer's imagination, making them an active participant as opposed the more passive experience of watching a movie. We offer audiences an intelligent, visceral experience, one that will appeal to the mind, the gut, and hopefully even the gag reflex. We create a form of entertainment that gives performers something juicy to sink their teeth into and audiences something different than they're used to seeing on Chicago stages.

BK: With its own festivals (Flashback Weekend), independent film productions, author-screen writers (Adam Rockoff) and particular brand of celebrities (Svengoolie, Ari Lehman), Chicago seems to be the perfect place to begin a horror theatre company. Do you have a grand plan to bring all these diverse elements together to make one fantastic, limb ripping whole?

AC: As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am all about community. I love that Chicago horror fans are slowly but surely becoming this cohesive force to be reckoned with, and over the past few years, there has been such an outcropping of horror-themed events that we are able to see each other more often, which strengthens the bond. The success of events such as Flashback Weekend and the Music Box Massacre only breeds more interest and more success. I don't know that a company like WildClaw would have a place in a city that didn't value the genre, but Chicago's horror community has embraced us openly. We're going to continue to give back with everything we have.I don't think any of us have any "grand plan," but it's great to continue to share opportunities for fans. For instance, it's awesome to see a bunch of movie nuts all crowding into an art gallery because Clive Barker is showing his work there. It's fun to see theatre people at a horror convention, excitedly looking around them at this spectacle that they never knew existed. This kind of community mindset is thoroughly rewarding; without getting all touchy-feely about it, horror serves as a common ground that brings together people of different races, economic stations, age groups... When the lights go down, it doesn't really matter what your religious beliefs are, what matters is that you scream when the monster jumps out of the shadows. I think that's pretty cool.BK: Earlier this year, WildClaw presented a classic (Arthur Machen's 'The Great God Pan'), an evening of original works ('DEATHSCRIBE' , an evening of radio plays) and now H. P. Lovecraft with your current production of 'The Dreams in the Witch House'. Do you have a dream project in mind for the company - or is it all an evolving process?AC: The ideas keep pouring in \endash I wish we had the time and money to do them all. I don't know that we have a "dream project" at this time - the existence of the company itself is the dream. Next spring, we'll be presenting our first full-length original work (i.e., not an adaptation), Scott T. Barsotti's zombie drama, 'The Revenants' , which should be challenging and rewarding in a completely different way than the period pieces we've already done. We're also planning to produce some of the 'DEATHSCRIBE' submissions as radio dramas to put out as pod casts. Then next year we'll have another new season, the 2nd annual 'DEATHSCRIBE' Festival, more blogs and pod casts, the sky's pretty much the limit. We just need to live by our wits and beneath our means and we should be fine.BK: Lastly, any words of wisdom (i.e., make sure the popcorn's hot and buttered before the monsters start emerging) or future plans that you'd like to tell us about?AC: I think the more we continue to bring horror into the light, the more it will be respected as a legitimate art form. I hope that everyone reading this takes it upon him or herself to become the resident 'Ambassador of Horror' in their own community. Host a horror movie party, and invite people who may not be card-carrying genre fans (and don't blow them out of the water with the biggest gore fest you can find if you know that they are squeamish). Try to actually "cultivate" more horror fans, and be respectful of the ones that you do know. If some kid has only seen mainstream modern horror, don't ridicule him - we all started some place, and more likely than not, it was in the mainstream. Earn their trust and encourage their passion. Read and see as much as you can, and "talk about it". Keep waving that horror flag high because there is someone out there dying for someone "just like you" to talk to!BK: Thanks - this has been better than the last 10 Stephen King novels put together!

AC: Thank "you". Thanks for continuing to fight the good fight, good sir! See you - round campus!