One of Kier-La Janisse’s first memories is a horror film.
“Yep, ‘Horror Express,’” Janisse says.
The 1972 picture starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Telly Savalas features a frozen monster that thaws out on a train and begins to kill.
“I would have been 3 years old, Saturday afternoon,” she says. “I was in my grandmother's back living room area, in Windsor, Ontario, watching a Detroit TV channel. And I am watching this movie, and I then had nightmares about it for 12 years. And I didn't know what the movie was.”
It wasn’t until she was an 18-year-old movie fanatic, renting everything in the video store in alphabetical order, that she came across the movie again and recognized the imagery: “Oh, my god, this is the movie that's from all my nightmares."
Now based in Los Angeles, the Canadian-born former Austin resident has done nearly all the things you can do in and around cinema that don’t involve making a movie. She wrote horror fanzines and graduated to magazine writing. She founded and ran the CineMuerte genre film festival ("the only horror-only genre fest in Canada for a long time") from 1999 to 2005.
She served as a booker and guest coordinator at the Alamo Drafthouse and now sits on the Fantastic Fest advisory board. She has edited books about genre films for her own press and, in 2012, published the singular “House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films,” which is just as bonkers, just as fascinating, just as heartbreaking and just as academic as it sounds.
Janisse was in Austin after Fantastic Fest, hanging around for a few weeks ("I love Austin, because I always feel still like a local whenever I come here"), working on a digital transfer of songwriter and musician Harry Nilsson’s movie “The Point.” And over breakfast tacos at Polvos, we talk about women and horror.
“Most horror films are about women,” Janisse says, with the patience of someone who has had to talk about this roughly a billion times. “Most horror films have female protagonists that have friends that are other female protagonists. A lot of horror movies, even if they have male protagonists, are very much about men's confusion and uncertainty around women's sexuality. It's the only genre that passes the Bechdel test almost always.”
Put very simply, if a movie passes the Bechdel test, it features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. This does not necessarily mean that such a film is feminist, explicitly or otherwise, but it is a very basic way to start talking about female representation in film.
And these movies have plenty of female fans.
“The idea that women are squeamish is absurd," she says. "Do you know how much gross (stuff) goes on with our bodies that we have to deal with all the time?”
Like so many things, Janisse says it comes down to visibility.
“Female fans were always there; their fandom was always fervent,” Janisse says, adding that the explosion of film festivals as places for fans to congregate helped make women in the community more visible.
“Before festivals, it would have been conventions,” she says. “And conventions, because of the crowds, can be very intimidating and hard to deal with for a lot of people."
The internet also helped. “If you were a female horror fan, you could start a blog, where you do your own horror film criticism,” Janisse says. “And a lot of writers for a lot of horror magazines started out that way. And then you start going to horror film festivals as press. The more horror festivals there were, the more opportunities there were to do those types of things. The fans were there; the visibility was not.”
The fascination with horror goes beyond movies. Janisse points out that women’s interest in true crime narratives, a vigorous topic of discussion in the 21st century, is nothing new.
“In the Victorian era, all through the 19th century, the audience for public trials was almost all women. Of course, many didn’t have jobs, but they were there and bought magazines of ghost stories and penny dreadfuls. Women were the primary audience for that stuff. And women remain the primary audience for true crime.”
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Horror also feeds the autobiographical bits of Janisse's “House of Psychotic Women.”
Adopted at birth by a couple for whom the word “dysfunctional” seems charitable, Janisse has a past filled with instability, violent physical fights with adults, running away, parental neglect, time in Canadian group homes and in an institution, fraught personal relationships, dissociation, drinking, petty crime, not-so-petty crime, suicide attempts and mental illness.
And lots and lots of movies, all of which are broken down precisely, almost geometrically, in the book.
“I always found horror to be very comforting. It helped my equilibrium,” Janisse says. “And in the case of some of the movies from 'House of Psychotic Women,' the women worked for me as examples of behavior that I could choose to emulate or not, you know? I could recognize some of the crazy behavior I would see in movies about neurotic women and say, ‘I do that.’ Seeing a character doing it, having that distance allows you to see the worst possible outcome of that behavior without having to do it yourself.”
Speaking of crazy, the biggest inspiration for the book was Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession,” a film Janisse speaks of with the pride and subliminal defensiveness of a long-term fan.
“In the past 10 years, that movie has shown up in my Facebook feed more than ‘Star Wars,'” Janisse says. “There wasn't much writing about that movie when I started working on the book a long time ago. I couldn't explain this movie I loved to anyone, and I thought, 'If I can explain what's happening in this movie, I can do anything.' I am still not completely sure I have done it.”
“Possession” stars Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill and a very strange, very wet rubber creature. It is nominally about the screaming disintegration of a marriage and features a scene in a subway tunnel that has to be viewed to be believed.
“I think people started to relate to that for the same reason I did,” she says, “which is, there's so much power in just not (caring) and saying everything you think no matter if it makes sense or not, or if it hurts somebody or not or, whatever.”
This feels applicable to horror in general, to one of the ways women in horror films operate. Yes, they are often victims, but in many movies, the gloves come all the way off.
“There's incredible power in being completely unleashed," Janisse says. "Especially if you are the type of person who has a hard time being emotional or saying how you feel about things or being comfortable in awkward, painful, challenging relationship situations. You know it when you see it.