In a way, I’ve wanted to be a horror screenwriter since I was in elementary school, unafraid of working on spooky stories in all that endless spare time I could have been using for playing with friends or convincing my mom to go to McDonald’s again. I wrote my first horror story, a straight up short story not intended to land on any screen, when I was in Grade 2. Perhaps you wouldn’t have expected it of me as I was even girly than I am now at that time, trying to wear a Blossom style floppy hat to my first day of Grade 1 and often wearing overtly feminine dresses from Laura Ashley. But I devoted a fair amount of time to crafting what I would call “The Night of the Big Crash,” a ghost story about a tow truck driver and a night on a possibly haunted road.
The thing is, “The Night of the Big Crash” wasn’t anything spectacular (you could see the twist coming from miles and miles away), but I really put my everything into it, even attempting to illustrate a few pages. I think that my goal was to imitate the Goosebumps stories and I loved so dearly back then and I think I might have achieved that even slightly, at least in spooky, but not too spooky spirit. But any confidence I had for my work came crumbling down after some terrible Grade 2 boys told me that I wasn’t talented enough (ahem, manly enough) to join their Goosebumps Cover Art Drawing Club (that wasn’t an official name, but if I had been allowed in, I’m sure it would have become something punny like Goosebumpers, or Draw, Draw, Goosebumps). After that, I didn’t continue writing more horror stories and instead just tried to continue doing my regular school work and fighting off those pesky cooties. Sure, I devoured all the horror films and books I could for years to come, but I didn’t even think that I had the stuff to attempt to make my own, whether through writing or drawing. After all, if I couldn’t even recreate “Beware, the Snowman” successfully on lined paper, how could I create an awesome monster of my own?
Flash forward to 2015, when Joshua Korngut, my childhood friend and one of my sole supportive horror pals from my younger years approached me about helping him write some new horror stories, this time for a then-untitled female-centric web series he was developing. A part of me wanted to crawl back into that dark space where I felt insecure about my horror authority and just say, “No, but I’ll help out with something else like I dunno, social media, which I’m actually working in?” But then again, I also saw an opportunity presented to me that I hadn’t allowed myself to even entertain since I back in Grade 2 and I felt a strange urge to jump on it, even if it seemed scary to just talk about it.
Sometime last spring, Joshua and I brainstormed a few ideas for an all-girl story and settled on a party setting with revenge and possibly spirits (the boozy kind and the BOOOOOZY kind) on the menu. We spent one Friday night with some wine and these basic ideas and churned out a script that, sure, needed polishing, but was something that I didn’t actually hate or feel a bit bad about (in fact, I kind of felt great about it and not in like a full-of-myself way?) And then over the next few weeks, we polished this thing a bit more and it became an episode titled “Surprise!” It’s this episode, only a few pages long in script and only five minutes long on screen, that really kickstarted the series and furthermore, my confidence in writing horror again.
The thing is, as far as scares go, “Surprise!” isn’t much more intense than “The Night of the Big Crash” was. Sure, there is an end scare that we worked really hard to make translate for the screen with the help of the excellent make-up work of Elyse Marion (also a supportive horror friend and this time a girl!), but the rest of it is atmosphere and some bitchy dialogue exchanges between the two leads. In other words, I guess you could say that while I’ve grown up as a writer and a horror fan, my style in terms of writing for the genre hasn’t really changed and, if anything, was just waiting to come out to play again. And now that I’ve let it out of the box like a long-standing evil curse, I can’t help but feel possessed by it and the desire to continue to write, create and, hopefully, creep a few people (of both genders!) out. It’s the reason why I said yes when Josh asked me to write another episode of the series, now titled Girl Up and Die, with him.
While I have to admit that our second episode didn’t feel as groundbreaking to me internally as “Surprise!” did (hey, that was my first story in almost … cue dramatic music … 20 years!), the process of writing was, once again, pretty damn thrilling and fulfilling. This time we didn’t necessarily start from scratch, but built a story around a concept (scary tampons!) and tried to go for more gross than spooky. We ended up writing “Toxic Shock,” an episode following a young woman’s harrowing first experience with tampons, which may have been loosely based on my own former trauma (more sexist fear stuff, this time from a misinformed entry into puberty). And “Toxic Shock” would go on to be a sort of brand ambassador for Girl Up and Die, what with the explicitly (and I mean explicitly) female-oriented concept and high production levels on the shoot (we got a make-up artist from Doc’s Monster Design that used the formula for Monster’s Blood from my long lost love, Goosebumps!), and eventually be picked as our series premiere, landing on YouTube and Girlupandie.com starting October 6 (“Surprise!” would be our finale, premiering on my favourite day of the year, October 31).
Through writing both “Surprise!” and “Toxic Shock,” I most certainly regained my passion for horror storytelling, but also gained a new drive for horror filmmaking in general. Because these episodes be independently shot, I also got the chance to volunteer for some crew positions on their productions, which meant I got to not only play screenwriter, but also script supervisor (see: Girl Up and Die‘s “Red Ribbon”), producer (“Surprise!”), actress (“Surprise!” again, as well as a special series of promos) and marketer (all the Girl Up and Die productions). It was like a crash course in what it might mean to get into indie horror filmmaking and I loved every minute of it, especially as the mixed gender crews on the shoots I was able to take part in were much more welcoming than those confidence crushers in the Dublin Heights Elementary School Goosebumps Cover Art Drawing Club were. It helped that I had a positive ally in Josh, who has himself explained the importance of creating roles for women in the horror space.
I don’t know what’s next for me, specifically, in terms of filmmaking, but I do know now that I want to pursue the dream that the Goosebumps-loving girl I told you about once had crushed by a group of discriminatory boys (more Goosebumps-related dreams were crushed by that new boys club of a new movie, but that’s a whole other story). I want to try and write some more horror stories, whether just as a personal creative outlet or as an attempt to try and get into the game more professionally. I’m already talking about writing another horror script with Josh, but even more importantly, I’ve just started drafting a concept entirely of my own and I’m maybe more excited about it than I am about the fact that by making Girl Up and Die, Josh and I are one step closer to being able to cast Lin Shaye (you know, sister of Robert Shaye and star of so many horror classics including the Insidious series, Dead End and 2001 Maniacs) in something. And hey, maybe one day I’ll try my hand at some more crew roles, eventually working my way up to director!
No matter what my future holds, I’m just happy that I finally freed myself of the sexist demons that were keeping me from being a horror filmmaker and creator. As I often tell my non-horror friends when they’re freaking over the slasher movie I’ve made them watch with me on my birthday, there’s no need to be scared of things that are only real if you let them be.
SHE SCREAMS is a monthly series in which Emily Gagne discusses being a girly horror fan.