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Visceral and Virtual: Horror Film Fests in 2020 [Pt. 1]

Sunday, December 20, 2020 | Events


To say the past year was challenging is akin to Pamela Voorhees saying her son “wasn’t a very good swimmer.”  Record-setting wildfires ravaged the West Coast, we’ve agonized over a presidential election that we can only hope has been settled by the time this story goes to print, and perhaps worst of all, we’re suffering through the type of pandemic that we’d previously only seen in movies or read about in books. 

One of the cascading effects felt in the horror community due to the COVID pandemic has been the indefinite hiatus of horror festivals – a fact that threatened to compound our collective despair by taking away our ability to come together and share our love of this weird little genre. But they say necessity is the mother of invention, and when we needed our horror fix, festival programmers invented a way to deliver it to us without ever leaving the house.

Of course, it wasn’t an easy decision for festivals to pivot to a virtual platform, as it’s nearly impossible to duplicate the experience of an in-person event where gaggles of people throw on their favorite horror T-shirts and come together to get a first crack at the next big horror films hitting the scene that year. But for programmers like Mitch Davis, co-director of Montreal’s long-running Fantasia Film Fest, the threat of COVID would taint the experience for everyone involved.

“Essentially, our poor theater staff would be having an endless ocean of confrontations with different people every minute of the day. It would be an awful experience,” he says. “Of course there would be the mask-wearing, and we’d be selling the venue at a fraction of capacity so the crowd experience, the communal energy wouldn’t really be there. If anyone had allergies or colds and coughed during a screening, people would be horrified.”

So programmers went to work figuring out how to best simulate the festival experience in a COVID-safe virtual arena. K Lynch, director of Salem Horror Fest, utilized a browser-based viewing platform to give attendees either weekend-specific or all-access passes. With these passes, virtual festival-goers had on-demand access to an eclectic mix of new films, from dark, brooding psychological fare like Ryan Glover’s The Strings to fun, microbudget romps like Leslie Rivera’s Papi Ramirez vs Giant Scorpions (a film that is as delightfully silly as it sounds).

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In addition to film premieres, Salem has always hosted some fantastic panels, live podcasts, and lectures. This year, without the limitations inherent to physical venues, they were able to put out an open call for content submissions, amplifying more diverse voices so that viewers could watch a lecture on The Black Final Girl while sipping their coffee, order a pizza and enjoy a Ginger Snaps reunion, or even catch a Nightmare on Elm Street-themed drag show in their pajamas.

To achieve the interactive component of an in-person event, Lynch leveraged Zoom to recreate individual meet-and-greet sessions with their special guests, including genre icons Joe Dante and John Waters, in the hopes of maintaining the intimacy of the in-person event. To their delight, it worked perfectly.

“Having been able to hear and see these interactions was quite touching, and how intimate and personal they seemed. I was really concerned that there was going to be a loss of connection going through the screen as opposed to live. And to some degree there was, but there seemed to be more of a sincerity to the conversation so it was fun to get that experience.”

[Pt. 2]

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Bryan Christopher