Canadian Horror Story
Screenwriters chime in on the sinister streak running through the collective Canuck psyche
By Matthew Hays
It is a truth universally acknowledged that somewhere deep down in the Canadian spirit there are very, very dark and creepy things lurking. Some of the most profitable films in our nation’s history have been horror, everything from the early work of David Cronenberg (once famously dismissed as a mere shlockmeister) and various other twisted tax-shelter projects to our own Saturday-morning horror parody, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
While horror is one of the most resilient genres, it comes in fits and starts, declared dead one moment only to stage a zombie-like recovery at another. And right now, horror is definitely experiencing a renaissance, with Canadian-written and -produced series like Van Helsing, Slasher, The Order and Wynonna Earp sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. series like The Walking Dead to expand themes, ideas and boundaries of the genre.
Its connection to Canada is one that has long been pondered, with some arguing that horror’s very outsider status makes its kinship with such a remote and frozen country entirely logical. It was Cronenberg himself who once said that “No horror film is truly mainstream,” a telling statement about a marginalized genre from Canada’s most recognizable auteur. So, horror and Canadian cinema are connected, in that both are seen as marginal.
The Canuck-horror connection makes perfect sense to Emily Andras, creator of Wynonna Earp. “I think we are used to seeing ourselves as the ‘other’ and as underdogs. After all, we live directly in the shadow of the greatest god/monster nation on Earth.”
It’s an echo of Pierre Trudeau’s thoughts on Canada’s relationship with the U.S. “We love and loathe, depend on and fear our southern neighbours, and as much as we try to deny it, much of our cultural identity comes from a desire to survive them.”
Aaron Martin, who created and wrote much of the Netflix hit Slasher, argues horror is actually something that runs through many, if not most national cultures, but might just stand out more because our nice-guy reputation makes it counterintuitive. “I think every culture has its own connection to horror,” he says. “It might stand out more when it comes to Canada because we’re perceived as being so nice. So, when you have us polite types ripping people apart or sewing people together against their will, it’s going to be a little more shocking.”
Certainly, some of Canada’s unique connection to horror can be found in our harrowing landscape. As critic Katherine Monk put it in her 2001 book on Canadian cinema Weird Sex and Snowshoes, “Death is an intrinsic part of the Canadian landscape and as much a part of our national psyche as weird sex and snow imagery.”
“Speaking of survival, most of our huge country is still terrifyingly wild,” notes Andras. “One wrong turn on the way to the cottage, and you’re fighting frostbite in an old growth forest while outrunning a rabid grizzly bear. That lives deep in our souls.”
And for Andras, that’s part of why a great Canadian horror story is rooted at least in part in “a sense of place and a hint of history, both of the land and of other Canadian horror content that has preceded the work, with of course, some classic Canuck self-deprecating humour to break the tension now and then.”
Shelley Eriksen is headed into the writers’ room for season two of the revenge-werewolf mashup The Order, and she says Canadian horror is all about location, location and location. “We’ve just come out of a hard winter. Let’s face it: The Canadian environment wants to kill you. You go outside for much of the year and you’re entering an environment that is happy to destroy you. You’re under assault! Getting through the winter is a daily struggle.”
Eriksen says reading Survival, Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1972 book of literary criticism, led to a series of a-ha moments. “That book explained so much to me about the Canadian character, about the meaning of landscape in literature and film. She really showed how many characters in Canlit die in the elements.”
“There is certainly a connection between countries in the northern hemisphere and horror,” confirms Jonathan Lloyd Walker, showrunner for post-apocalyptic vampire series Van Helsing. “All those bleak winters open up the idea of overcoming difficult circumstances that are tied to the land. It lends itself to parable and myth. It seems some of the stories are about teaching children to be wary of danger. It also supplies an obvious adrenaline rush: The danger of the unknown.”
Martin says the survival instinct didn’t occupy a huge place in his psyche, but acknowledges it might tap into many Canadian’s deep-rooted fears. “My whole life has been in urban Canada, and other than an occasional blizzard or tornado warning, it’s pretty simple to survive up here,” he contends. “I think that it’s far easier for Canadians, however, to tap into that base physical fear of ‘I’m going to die from just being outside!’ than people from other countries. One of my favourite Canadian horror films is Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry. It uses the great outdoors — and the psychic impact it has on people — as ‘the big bad.’ It’s terrifying, plays internationally, and yet is uniquely Canadian.”
Walker says that working in horror can itself feel precarious, as “you don’t want to get pigeonholed as a writer. The genre can get weighty at times.” And here, he echoes the sentiments of many filmmakers associated with horror (including Wes Craven and Clive Barker), who have argued that once you get branded as a creator of horror, it’s tough to shift into other areas.
Part of the ability to write horror comes from a vantage point that could be seen as Canadian, Walker notes. “You have to start with characters that people will relate to, ordinary people. And you have to make people care about them. So, part of the genre comes with building compassion for characters.”
And then, Walker acknowledges, it’s about putting them in the worst circumstances imaginable. “Most of us try to live our lives within the lines. What if all of that went away? When you write horror, you have to put yourself into the mindset of what is going to mess with people,” he says. “What is going to make people dig their fingers into the couch? What am I trying to get from people? It’s much different than writing conventional drama. It really is about an extreme escapism. And it opens up a lot to think about: What makes people really frightened?”
Martin says his early horror influences were clear. “I loved The Changeling and Prom Night, and grew up on a lot of slasher movies in the ’80s,” he recalls. “I didn’t even realize a lot of them were Canadian at the time. I think part of our appeal is that Canadians seem very nice on the surface. But if you look at these movies, something is lurking underneath. We don’t do it in real life, but we do it in our movies.”
After executive producing Saving Hope, Martin says he wanted to prove he could do something other than soapy relationship shows. “I wrote Slasher on spec,” he says. He went on to sell it to Chiller and then Netflix picked it up. “Horror is different. The fun part is the kills. In the writers’ room, you’re having meetings about how to chop people up. ‘How do I cut someone in half with a chainsaw?’ But it’s not that simple,” he admits. “You do have to make people care about characters before you kill them. And the thing about writing horror is, the audience comes to it with a great knowledge and appreciation of the genre and its history. So, you really have to deliver. You have to figure out new ways to shock the audience.”
Part of Canada’s proclivity for horror is removed from lofty cultural theory. The attachment is far more practical than that. With limited budgets (or no budget at all) and a star system that has mainly bailed for L.A. or New York, Canada’s means of production lend themselves perfectly to the genre. “The economics of horror films works perfectly in Canada,” says Eriksen. “That’s part of the thrill. You don’t need a huge budget. You can do things with very little money, ingenuity and good ideas.” Unlike a lot of other low-budget films, she explains, there is a significant community built around horror and it’s always hungry for new additions to the genre. “The audience is always out there. Simply put, horror is a budget-friendly way to get teenagers and young adults into movie theatres.”
“The fact is,” adds Walker, “on an extremely limited budget, you can still tell a very horrifying story. Even with limited resources; it feels like you have no limits.”
If the “Why here?” has been answered, “Why Now?” is a little harder to nail down. Zombies, monsters, body-snatchers and serial killers are all experiencing resurrections, largely serving as go-to allegories for current political and existential crises. “I think a lot of the resurgence has to do with American Horror Story,” says Martin. “It revitalized it as a genre of TV. And horror sells well around the world; it travels well, which is something producers and networks think about.”
“We are in a very dark political and cultural place,” says Walker. “We’re at a tipping point, with the rise of the alt-right, with fear being used as a political weapon throughout the world. Campaigns are being waged on fear, not hope. People feel hopeless. Horror feeds into that paranoia.
“If you look at The Walking Dead, it is very clever, because you often don’t see things coming. The show is constantly taking us off guard, especially when we lose characters who are central to the show. I remember watching the first season and having the feeling of being thrown off. There are other examples of horror becoming a cultural phenomenon, in particular Jordan Peele’s Get Out.”
“Horror is absolutely having a moment right now,” says Andras. “It’s both popular and increasingly seen as legitimate storytelling. See how well Jordan Peele is doing. The world feels dark and divided right now, and people are looking for stories that can both express and explain why.”
Eriksen isn’t entirely convinced about the timing, just because of the lag in production, with concepts taking years to blossom into actual movies or TV series. “I’m mystified by the horror renaissance right now, in the sense that we’re living in a horror renaissance. So, shouldn’t we be seeing boatloads of musicals and comedies being released? However, knowing the long arc of how things get made, I’d guess the latest ‘classy’ horror — you know, where TV stars are directing or you managed to land Toni Collette — we’ve been seeing, got its footing long before Trump was elected, and just happened to stick the landing perfectly.”
If horror is about being marginalized on some level, Walker believes the new push for diversity in writers’ rooms and the director’s chair is leading to new ideas and perspectives. “People who haven’t traditionally been telling stories — indigenous people, black and Latino people and people of colour, LGBT people — are now getting access, and the ability to tell their stories, or to illustrate their fears. This creates whole new worlds of horror and fear. I look forward to more of these stories being told.”
Andras strongly believes that the possibilities are endless. After all, the horror genre has been popular since cinema’s beginnings, unlike various other once-popular genres that have since bit the dust (the Musical and Western being two of the most obvious examples). The horror genre is rich precisely because its history is ripe for ongoing cannibalism: It’s the genre that never stops devouring itself, to the sadomasochistic cheers of a diehard audience. “You just need would-be victims worth cheering for,” she says, “and a monster worth hiding from. Plus twists that feel earned.”
And after a pause, Andras adds a distinctly Canadian possibility: “When in doubt, toss in a rabid grizzly bear. Never fails.”