Finding Horror

Originally Published on 17.07.2020

I always thought that I could somehow make my trauma glamourous or easy to digest if I explored it through making sensible and sophisticated, quiet stories, but I’ve come to realise that you cannot make something that is inherently ugly into something beautiful and you cannot make something inherently loud into something quiet.

Like most, I’ve come to learn that my body of work is a stark representation of where I was in my life at the time that I wrote or made it. It’s a strange but accurate ledger of my thoughts and feelings at any given time.  

For the longest time in my career, I always wanted to write romantic comedies, because as long as I could ignore all the terrible things that I went through, I could be happy and I could force my happiness onto the world through a silly romance and some really terrible jokes. This changed more and more as I started to acknowledge my trauma and see a therapist. Things were clearer than they had ever been, but I did not like the way they looked. I wanted them to be prettier. I wanted people to admire them and not see them as strange little curiosities that come along with me. Baggage. Ultimately, even though I was starting to discover strange and ugly things about my past, I did not yet know who I was and that is why my scripts were completely without direction.

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I wrote a short film called ‘The Sycamore Gap’ in 2016. The graduate film I went on to make in my final year of university, a period drama made on a shoe-string budget, and a film that really changed the course of my creative life. The story follows a young maid, Mina, who really feels as though she has no control over her life. Ultimately, she wants to escape the situation she is in, even if it means sacrificing something important to her – a relationship she is having with someone and that is what she goes on to do. She is left facing a horizon and the beauty and fear that can only be the result of an uncertain future. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this film was very much a little map inside my head. I left home when I was fifteen and there was a lot I had to leave behind, and they were things I did not face until I was a lot older. Walking away from things that are supposed to give us joy, but in reality, don’t, is a very hard thing to do. But do I think that it was the best way to tell that story? Absolutely not.

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It’s 2018 and before I’ve even graduated, I’ve landed a full-time job at a really amazing company, but I am not happy. I’ve made my grad film; it screened at the BFI Southbank and won a bunch of awards. I knew my average would already give me a first before I got my final grades. Why wasn’t I happy? I started working on a script while I was there, something less shrouded in metaphor. It was borderline autobiographical. Perhaps even too close, which was one of the major reasons I think this film was not as good as it could have been. Of course, I am talking about a film very close to my heart, Peak. The story of Emma, a young woman going on a hike to escape her past, but finding herself lost in isolation begins to drown in it.

The film tackles some pretty dark themes but ultimately, because of the state of mind I was in when I wrote it, it came out really experimental. When you suffer from dissociative episodes, finding your memories is like finding Wally on a billboard-sized Where’s Wally challenge. All the memories are laid out before you, but they are so in your face that you cannot see them at all, and you begin to float. Completely untethered to the world around you. Turns out, because of my mental health, that amazing job got very hard. It wasn’t right for me at the time and I had to leave.

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It’s October 2018 and The Haunting of Hill House has just debuted on Netflix. I am understating it when I say that this TV show would change the course of my life both personally and professionally in the most seismic way.

Up until this point in my life, I had refrained from watching horror of any kind. Not because I didn’t like or respect it but because it triggered me in ways that would usually leave me catatonic for days. But I was feeling low and reckless and I decided to binge-watch the show in one day. My life was changed in ways I cannot even begin to describe. The absolutely terrifying, hypervigilant, heavy-from-baggage, fear and looking over my shoulder suddenly I could see and make sense of in complete clarity. The show, the genre, articulated everything that I had been feeling my whole life in a way that made it seem effortless. I became obsessive; I caught up on almost a century’s worth of cinema. I read every single Shirley Jackson book I could get my hands on and if you know me, you know that I would lay down my life to bring that woman back from the dead, because the worlds that she spent her life creating and the words she wrote down, make more sense to me than anything. It’s a language I am fluent in. 

“I had found something I had been looking for my whole life, Horror, and it was there the whole time – I was just too scared to make friends with it.”

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In December of 2018, on zero budget and alongside a whole other bunch of dumpster-fire decisions and mistakes I made, I had a finished film (Peak). One that actually did okay in the big wide world – considering we had no money. It went to the wonderful Underwire Film Festival and was nominated for Best Cinematography. What I came to realise, making that film, is that I was very good at tension and I had discovered that Horror had helped me to understand why. I was always tense – no, not just tense – it felt like my skin was constantly under siege from biting ants. I was scared. Who better to tackle a horror than someone who is constantly scared that her old life will somehow rise from the place she buried it and eat her alive?  

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July 2019. I had spent seven months writing – non-stop. Every waking moment around three weird part-time jobs. I wrote a manuscript and I wrote a couple of scripts but nothing I was proud of. I’d spent a lot of time inhaling Shirley Jackson’s work like opium whenever I had the chance and I was besotted – like a teenager in love but with words and not people. Because of my influences, there was an idea that kept coming back to me. A woman, unlikeable, isolated but very happy that way and something that she keeps burying. Exhuming my past, I also wanted to revisit the place I experienced my trauma and so my character lived on the fells of (then) Cumberland. 1841. The very year that The Sycamore Gap was set.

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I got an email from a producer, whose work I had admired from afar, and we decided to meet up. I walked from Four Lane Ends to Gateshead on the hottest day of that year and sweat through the dress I had carefully picked out that morning. Any illusion of sanity or togetherness was gone. I was a sweaty mess when I arrived, but she was very lovely to me. She offered me a glass of water and introduced me to a colleague (both of these wonderful people, I am very proud to say have become friends). Foolishly, I declined the water because I didn’t want to make a fuss. (Idiot moment – should have taken the water). Anyway, we had a chat, we spoke about each other’s work and what we’d been up to over recent times and I explained (in the best way I could) that I had been keeping to myself and was taking a period to research to explore exactly what kind of work I wanted to make. She asked me what interested me, and I my answer was ghosts and folklore. I saw something in her eyes light up and I knew we would be fast friends – although, I will be honest, I expected nothing to come from this meeting of the professional variety because I was sweating the entire time. Would I want to work with a sweaty woman who showed up to my office and began raving about Shirley Jackson and other classic titans of horror? Actually, probably yes – but only because of my unconditional love for the one and only SJ. The producer asked if she could see a script and I don’t think I let one second pass before I said yes. It was desperate – but I was desperate. Desperate to be seen, desperate to be validated, and to have my work validate other people.

Okay. So. I got in a taxi and made a whole bunch of notes on my arms and hands. I looked crazy but I didn’t care. Our conversation had given me a lot of ideas and so the second I got home, I sat in my chair with the windows open, and just wrote like I had never written before in my life. I redrafted. I nipped. I tucked. And then I composed an email which I sent on the 26th of July at about 9 PM. I tried to keep my cool, be professional, but I am very bad at this.

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Now. I am very proud to say that I went on to make the film with that producer I met on the hottest day of the year, 2019. It was the best time of my life. Nothing had ever felt so right. The script. The people. The time. Everything was perfect and the film came out wonderfully. For the first time, I have a film that truly represents who I am. I discovered the only way to articulate my feelings is by writing them exactly how I feel them. Sometimes, it does feel like a horror film is playing out in my head and in my chest.

The reason I wanted to write this blog post is because I couldn’t sleep last night. All the while I am processing things, I am still waking up in the middle of the night, sweating from nightmares. I am still looking over my shoulder, scared to catch a glimpse of what I consider to be my old life. Scared of facing the sense of dread I carry with me everywhere I go, so much so that it’s become a permanent resident in the vessel of my human form.

I could not get to sleep last night. I lay awake, looking for awful faces watching me from the shadows. Looking for disembodied heads or hanging feet. I spend a lot of time deflecting during in the day when I have to act like a normal person so at night-time, the damn is released and last night, it was especially bad and there was only one thing, out of the many techniques I’ve been taught by a therapist that could thwart my symptoms. I thought of my characters. Mina (The Sycamore Gap), Emma (Peak), Maud (She Lives Alone), Jane (Little Fires), and Shirley (She Fixes Bodies).

I was on the floor and I just wanted to sleep. First, Shirley approached me and watched from a distance. It’s just who she is. She can’t get close enough to comfort me, but the sentiment sprouted a tiny warmth in my chest. (She, like most of my characters, is quite stoic and miserable.) Next, Maud came to me. She did not touch me (again, boundary issues) but she lay on the floor next to me and stared up at the ceiling. Then Jane sat by my side and indulged the wildness I often hide to appear sane in public spaces. Then it was Emma, she came to my side and held on tight because she needs someone just as much as I do. Then last, Mina came to me and held my hand. She hummed something. I was surrounded and protected by my pack.

Finally, I could fall asleep.

The message I suppose is that storytelling, to the storytellers, is like science. We are only trying to make sense of what we cannot understand.

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