Northwestern Horror Stories: Accomplished Filmmakers Cultivate Fear (and Fervor) in Horror Genre Curriculum

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October 24, 2019

Drawing by Angela Azmitia for Cassandra.

**Looking for some frightening fun on Friday, October 25? Attend a screening of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horrorat The Block Museum at 7 p.m.! **

Filmmaker Spencer Parsons says he draws inspiration for his work from growing up in Florida, what he feels is the epicenter of weird and scary occurrences.

And barely a week goes by before a friend suggests an idea for his next horror movie from the true crime world.

“The daily newspaper is a very good place to find horror stories right now,” he says.

This winter, Parsons, an associate professor at Northwestern, is teaching a class on low-budget horror, part of the curriculum offered by the School of Communication for students interested in the darker themes in screenwriting and production. Parson’s award-winning Saturday Morning Mystery (nee Massacre) premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2012, and his short films have also won accolades.

“Horror is an amazingly flexible genre,” Parsons says. “One of the things I most enjoy about it, and this might sound a little bit pretentious, but it’s kind of the last place where tragedy is readily available in our contemporary artwork. We tend to really like happy endings, and it’s not that horror always has unhappy endings, but there is a way that the qualities of the characters and the things that they do can bend toward these grim places that deal with greater forces than themselves or things that they have set loose.”

A scene from Cassandra.

The horror sphere offers professional opportunities for students to plug into, says screenwriter, playwright, director, and professor David Tolchinsky, the co-director of Northwestern’s MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage program. And learning to incorporate fear and suspense into screenwriting is useful to students no matter what genre they plan to pursue.

Tolchinsky notes that some schools reject comedy in the same way they reject horror. “But we embrace both,” he says. “Our department is about creative experimentation, pursuing business opportunities, and also innovating and combining forms in unexpected ways. We love high brow and low.”

Tolchinsky wrote, directed, scored and sound designed a new psychological thriller, Cassandra.

The story follows a policewoman who tries to find a Midwestern serial killer who leaves a drawing of the location of her next murder at each crime site. Her search for the killer takes her to the house of an ex-psychiatrist, who was part of the memory recovery movement in Chicago. He recalls a patient he had who used to draw creatures who take on nightmarish human/animal forms.

Northwestern supported the work with a School of Communication Innovations Grant, and student Genevieve Kane worked on it as social media coordinator and production assistant.

“I could not have had a better introduction to film production,” she says. “Dave was/is a fantastic mentor.”

As the film’s “runner,” she established connections with the entire cast and crew and learned about their experiences on various sets. She got to work closely with the film’s producer and assistant director.

Cassandra was also her first experience working with fake blood and limbs. “It was super exciting to see the making of such gruesome effects,” she says.

National and international film festivals are now showing the film.

David Tolchinsky, second from left, with a few of his Cassandra crew.

“Like other genre-specific festivals, horror/fantasy/crime/thriller festivals are huge,” Tolchinsky says. “Clearly, there’s a thirst for dark material. And what’s intriguing is that horror isn’t just one thing. There’s psychological horror, there’s gore, there are slashers, there’s comedy-horror. And from there, you can start listing the sub-genres: Possession stories. Invasion stories. Haunting stories, and so on.”

What’s more, horror is a genre where some of the deepest filmic experimentation can be found, Tolchinsky says. “Your financiers know as long as people are scared, they’re willing to go with you on sometimes a quite unusual ride. An early example is The Ring. It incorporates the language of experimental filmmaking in what is otherwise a straight-ahead example of psychological horror. More recently, Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) can make whatever kind of movie he wants to make. He’s choosing horror as a vehicle to comment on race, class, and relationships. So, horror is a thriving business in screenwriting and it’s a fertile ground for creative experimentation.”

Also in the horror realm, Northwestern lecturer David Catlin wrote and directed the Lookingglass adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which ran last spring and summer.

Anthony Williams (C08), who took classes in the horror genre and won a major competition to bring a feature film, Wither, to life, found that the Northwestern faculty fostered the talents of every student and offered them a space to grow.

“They made sure everybody had a place,” he says.

He describes his Northwestern instructors as incredibly passionate and supportive. A highlight was learning from author and director Jay Bonansinga.

Williams also got to meet American Horror Story star Naomi Grossman (C97), a fellow School of Communication graduate. “She’s a truly awesome person,” he said. “I was lucky enough to meet her while she was in town.”

His advice for current students is to go out and make movies and help other people make films as well. Learn the aspects of how a film comes together. Also, get excited and champion the successes of your classmates.

“It’s a big world and there is room for everyone to succeed,” he says.

As an MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage student at Northwestern, playwright, essayist and performer Jennifer Rumberger (C13) was encouraged by her professors to pursue her horror projects.

“I loved my time there,” she says. “The great thing about the master’s program is they really don’t try and shape you into any kind of specific writer, rather, they push you to hone your individual voice by just working with you as you’re creating as much work as possible.”

This is where she realized all of her writing had some kind of monster in it. Her first 10-minute screenplay was a horror film, Ava, which featured a creepy ghost child chasing a woman around an abandoned school.

“It was a mess,” Rumberger says. “I didn’t fully understand how storytelling worked in a screenwriting format, but I soon learned how exciting it was to freak my classmates out and how much fun it was to create tension in the room.”

Her thesis, a horror play, was developed with the input of all the faculty chairs in the program.

“In horror stories, plot is really crucial, and it’s definitely my weakness as a writer, so I was forced to really focus in on the bones of the play being super solid so the audience can come along for the ride without being taken out of the story,” she says. “I was able to apply that in the play’s first production in Chicago and I continue to apply it to all of my work — I always start by figuring out what the monster is and then making sure the threat is really clear, so there’s always that really shivery delightful tension in the back of the audience’s mind.”

Much like memorizing poems in a poetry class, Northwestern students in Parsons’ horror production class this winter will start with watching and to some degree memorizing movies.

“We’re taking them as lessons on how to make our own films, what are the rhythms, what are the practices, what can we take away for how to execute scary stuff,” Parsons says.

In many ways, horror speaks to our deeper fears underneath the action we see taking place on screen, Parsons says. “Obviously it’s frightening that a person might become possessed by demons, but what is really frightening about The Exorcist is the way it speaks to our fears about what happens to family members — on one end there’s a metaphor about what children go through in adolescence, that they are sort of possessed by larger forces, but there’s also quite a bit about our fears of aging and illness and death, where bodies fail, people’s minds no longer work the way that they used to, they don’t recognize one another, personalities change. And on the formal level, there is a lot about rhythm and timing and sounds coming together in peculiar combinations to get us in that right mood to be productively frightened.”

By Katie Fretland