AN INTERVIEW WITH KIER-LA JANISSE
By Olivia Whittick
Editorial Magazine Dec 22, 2023
See illustrated interview on their website here: https://the-editorialmagazine.com/an-interview-with-kier-la-janisse/
In 2000, when The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen was released in theatres, my brother and I begged our dad to take us. We had to leave before the movie ended because I was sobbing into my hands, but I remember feeling a bizarre affinity for Regan, played by a Linda Blair only a few years older than I was at the time. It took some years to grasp it: the haunted houses of horror movies are the haunted houses of our own lives. The possessed, screaming, puking, contorting women of horror can work as strange mirrors, helping us metabolize the inscrutable, sometimes barely bearable experience of being alive. This is something Kier-La Janisse understands.
As far back as I can remember, almost anything cool that happened in Canada in the world of genre film seemed to link back to Janisse. As a writer, editor, publisher, programmer, podcaster, and filmmaker, she has dedicated her life to amplifying the films she loves. She founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver in 1999, and between 2010-2012 she co-ran the Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre in Montreal. In 2010, she founded the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, a volunteer-run school which offers undergraduate-level courses and lectures on topics ranging from The Australian Gothic and The Rise of Indigenous Horror to The Scores of Bernard Herrmann. In 2021, she wrote, directed, and produced the award-winning documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, the first feature-length film on this subject.
Among other projects too numerous to list, Janisse is also the author of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, a memoir weaved with film analysis and a weighty encyclopedic reference. Detailing her life from childhood adoption through teen years in group homes and precarious adult relationships, her personal anecdotes find sense and structure by way of films featuring women on the brink, from canon selects like Possession and Carrie to obscure and international exploitation films. Her book, released in 2012 and re-released last year, is a must-own for horror fans, or anyone who finds themselves in the unstable female lead. My copy is a prized possession.
I read that you’re living on Pender Island now. I grew up nearby on Vancouver Island. I’m so attached to that landscape. It’s really haunting to me. Do you find it eerie living out there, living so remotely?
I mean, objectively, yes. It’s weird because I’ve always been afraid of the dark. When I was a kid, I would watch movies where you’d see people taking shortcuts through the dark woods at night. I thought that was crazy. But now I do it all the time. It feels totally safe for me here, but it is pitch black at night.
What are your earliest memories of connecting to genre films? In your book, it seems like you gravitated towards horror from a really young age.
I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, so we got all the Detroit stations, and on Saturday afternoons there would be Creature Features, which would be like a double bill of movies. I got a pretty heavy diet of classic horror when I was little. One of the first things I remember—I would’ve been like three years old—was watching Horror Express on TV. That’s the first horror movie that I ever remember seeing, but it’s also just one of my first memories. I was always really interested in monsters, really interested in ghosts. My mom liked horror, more mainstream, like Stephen King and Peter Straub and the bestseller stuff. My stepdad liked Hammer films, he loved Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Horror was just always a part of my life.
Your book deals with using these films as a vehicle to transmute or make sense of your own negative emotions, your own inclination towards violence, your own pain and neurosis. I’m wondering how horror films helped you process, and at what point you realized they could?
I knew that horror was very tied into my inner life and my psyche from a young age because of repeated nightmares I used to have about a character I called The Man With Green Eyes, who was actually a character from Horror Express. Alberto De Mendoza plays a priest who gets possessed, and he has glowing red eyes. I watched it at my grandmother’s house on a B&W TV, so in my imagination his eyes were neon green. I would have nightmares about him in my closet every night. As I grew older, I started trying to interpret him. I felt pretty early on that this horror imagery was connected to feelings of anxiety and fear and that they were being put into this character. In my early twenties, I started reading horror academia, the very beginning of it—this would’ve been the early 90s. There were a lot of the women writing about horror that weren’t totally dismissing it as being misogynistic and sexist. Isabel Cristina Pinedo had a book called Recreational Terror—that was the first one I read where you could tell she was a horror fan. Maitland McDonagh was a big one for me, she wrote the book about Dario Argento, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds. At that time, so few people in the West knew who Dario Argento was, unless they were serious horror fans, so to have this woman do an entire book about him was hugely influential. When I first started working on House of Psychotic Women, I thought it would just be a bunch of essays I had already written, and then I’d supplement them and then I’d have a book about crazy women in movies. It was really other people that said to me, “What do you know about, like, actual psychology?” And I was like, “Nothing!” So my friend was like, “Just write it from your own experience.”
The confessional framing is one of my favorite things about your book. I feel in the same way that horror movies helped me understand my psychological landscape way before I had any concrete language. You’re talking about analyzing your dreams, and ideas like the uncanny, neurosis, repression, paranoia. What excites me about the genre is the accessible way it plays with big psychological concepts, with morality, grief, mental illness, and, obviously, mortality.
It’s interesting because maybe you haven’t read Freud or Lacan or Jung or whoever, but I feel like so many people who are into horror understand those concepts. They’re just maybe not versed in the kind of terminology used in those books.
Trauma is a topic that’s spoken about a lot more now than even when your book first came out in 2012. A lot of new horror movies are pretty explicit metaphors for trauma, and you hear people complain about that. But is every horror movie about trauma?
Yes! I find it so funny when people complain like, “Ugh, every horror movie is about trauma now.” And I’m like, every horror movie was always about trauma! It’s like the whole basis of the genre. Somebody moves into a big old house because their daughter drowned, you know?
The Body Keeps the Score would be a good name for a slasher. There was a re-release of your book for the 10-year anniversary last year. What changed in between, for you personally, or culturally?
The only thing that’s different about the book is it has a hundred more reviews in the appendix, and then there’s a new foreword. The main body of the text is not changed. There’s the whole painful chapter where I talk about how Kim Ki-duk is a genius, left untouched. There’s stuff I don’t agree with anymore, but it was important to me that the book reflect what my level of knowledge was, and what my preoccupations were, in 2012. I’ve realized in the interim that I generalize about things in my book. I can’t make generalizations like all women experience this, because no matter what I went through, I have a privileged position compared to many women in the world. I added an acknowledgement of that.
I’m interested in the collective unconscious aspect of horror, the common symbols and archetypes and mythologies that can activate fear across cultures, generations. That’s touched on in your documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. The power of place is an important element of folk horror, and the film circles around psychogeography and the relationship between a place, its myths, and its history. How do you understand the psychogeography of Canada, and how that plays out in our cinema?
Whenever I talk about this, I’m leaning a lot on Paul Corupe’s writing, where he talks about the effects of the brainwashing experiments that were going on at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, and the Duplessis orphans. He has done lectures about this, and that’s what I tend to think of. The residential school history in Canada is horrifying. It’s addressed best in one line in the documentary, when Jesse Wente is talking about the “Indian burial ground trope” and he says, “If non-Indigenous people are going to be afraid of the Indian burial ground, then I’ve got some news for you: it’s all an Indian burial ground.” If people have that fear, like, what happens when your house is built on a burial ground—that’s the whole country. I feel like that reckoning is going to be a big part of Canadian film moving forward.
A lot of people can’t stand to watch horror movies, while others are thrilled when a movie can successfully scare them. How do you understand the pleasure people derive from horror films?
I mean, for me, it’s cathartic. You walk around in your daily life afraid, and to be able to vicariously experience these situations and have it be controlled is cathartic. In a movie, everything’s choreographed. Maybe you’re partially identifying with the action of the scene. Is that what I would do? Would I trip? Would I run up the stairs? Would I call somebody? But because it’s a movie, there’s an acknowledgement of the aesthetics and the mechanics, and we’re appreciating that. We’re able to see it both up-close, like we’re living it, but with this filter, where we can see the seams around it.
Do you still get scared? What scares you the most?
Oh, I’m scared all the time. The scariest thing is when you think you see something in the shadows at night. You’re in your room and it’s dark and everything looks static and you’re sure that somebody is standing in the corner. I’m a control freak, so the idea of being asleep brings anxiety. I have anxiety about being unconscious.
This interview was conducted in October 2023, and has been edited for length and clarity.