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1,895 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

A Life Reflected in Art; the Art Reflected in a Life:
Kier-La Janisse and House of Psychotic Women

by Bill Mesce, Jr.

One of a writer’s most lethal enemies is familiarity, that early on, a reader already has a sense of the whole piece, killing the tension that creates suspense, mystery, anticipation. Kier-La Janisse’s answer to the problem in her non-fiction work, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012), is to mash up two seemingly unrelated genres—an autobiography and a critical analysis of certain brands of low-end horror films—into one, provocative, surprisingly complete whole. The thematic glue holding these components together is the concept that our sensibilities—what we like and don’t like, the value we see or don’t see in creative work—are, at least to a large extent, shaped by the people who we are, and how we got to be that way.

Janisse, a writer and film programmer as well as the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007), is an anomaly: a fan of the kind of blood-drenched, low-budget movies which more typically appeal to young males, and persistently raise the ire of feminists with their depictions of women as victims (often in grotesque fashion), manipulating victimizers (ditto), and brutal avenging angels (ditto again). To throw a little more gas on the fire, Janisse is particularly fond of the made-on-the-cheap grindhouse fodder of the 1970s-early 1980s, i.e., Ms. 45 (1981), Roadside Torture Chamber (1972), and Prey (1977), as well as imports like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972).

But in these movies typically dismissed by much of high-brow, “serious” film criticism, Janisse finds chords resonant with her own scarred psyche. Born in 1972 in Winnipeg, “ isolated city in the dead centre of Canada known for its long, harsh winters and its citizens’ tragic propensity of alcoholism and violent crime” (11), she suffered through, consecutively, abandonment by her birth parents, a philandering adoptive father, and a paradoxically emotionally abusive/supportive stepfather. Janisse has memories of a time between her mother’s marriages of listening through her bedroom door to her mother being assaulted by an intruder. There’s a parade of foster homes, self-destructive acting out, relationships in which she is sometimes the abused, other times the abuser, and an increasingly neurotic and eventually distant mother. She found her own real-life horrors reflected in distorted funhouse-mirror fashion in the fetishistic gore of Italian giallo, drive-in exploitation flicks like Ms. 45, as well as in more nuanced, upscale work like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Persona (1966). In these movies, Janisse “...found myself unconsciously drawn to female characters who exhibited signs of behavior I had recognized in myself: repression, delusion, jealousy, paranoia, hysteria” (9).

Janisse writes with insight, power, passion, and style, whether she is discussing film—“Guilt ran through the 1970s genre films like a parasite, eating away at the psyches of female characters, who oscillated between domestic responsibility and the desire for autonomy” (45)—or one of the many troubling yet colorful episodes from her life:

...given my erratic emotional and social patterns, my Christian Aunt Pam started to worry about my mental and spiritual well-being. After all, I was a sketchy juvenile delinquent with a gun living in the basement listening to Anarchy in the UK about a hundred times a day. One night...she and her weird friend Beth came down to my room...they were going to save my soul with the help of Jesus Christ. I was really tired and asked if they could save my soul some other time (85).

While, for the most part, the two threads of the book—autobiography and critical analysis—move in reflecting parallel, the connection between them does, at times, become manifest such as her discussion of the Italian 1974 creeper, The Perfume of the Lady in Black:

There are a lot of elements from my own life playing themselves out in this film. Silvia’s crazy work ethic, her independence, her collection of toys and other signifiers of stunted emotional development, her idolization of an absent father, her abuse at the hands of a substitute father-figure, and her consequent demonization of her mother for allowing it all to happen (60).

Manifest or not, that is the engine of the book: that Janisse views these horror shows—titles often dismissed as exploitive schlock by the cinematic mainstream—through the lens of her own personal horror show, and so, where others see exploitation, she finds a macabre brand of art.

House of Psychotic Women combines two easily identifiable genres: an autobiography, and a genre analysis. Either one of those elements as you wrote them is strong enough to stand on its own. What was your thinking on putting the two together?

I originally planned the book as a book of essays on specific films, which—at the time of the book’s conception—were rare films. But, as I kept procrastinating about working on the book, the internet exploded and the cult DVD boom happened, and the films were suddenly being written about everywhere, very intelligently. So, I almost threw out the book, thinking there was no point in even writing it since there was already so much solid writing online on film sites and blogs.

But the duality of the book started to appear maybe in 2003. I started to revisit it, and even asked my dad (a psychologist) to write it with me. He was suspicious of the idea, so I dropped that pretty quick. But I thought perhaps I would have a sidebar running along every page that would have personal anecdotes in it, since I realized that a lot of the films had parallels in my own life story. But even then, they would not be integrated into the main text; instead, it would be more like a magazine that has sidebars or trivia or something running alongside the main article.

I think I dropped the book again for a few years, and then it was probably my friends Matthew Rankin and Caelum Vatnsdal who convinced me to pick it up again, and focus on the more personal elements. But I didn’t know how to integrate these things.

I was influenced to a certain extent by James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, and even Stanley Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, in that they were each inserted into the story they were telling, while maintaining a lot of history, facts, and critical observations. But I would say when my friend Chandra Mayor gave me a copy of Sandy Balfour’s Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) that the structure of HOPW really came into place.

Balfour’s book is about cryptic crosswords, so I wasn’t sure why Chandra had given it to me, but when I started reading it, I realized the structure was pretty much exactly what would make my book work. I mean, sometimes his transitions between crossword history and his memoir are overtly clunky—he’ll be talking about a crossword and then say, “And that reminds me of a story!” and vice versa—and I didn’t want my transitions to be as obvious as that, so I tried to integrate the two types of storytelling more, and even leave some things implied so that the reader could make the connections between things themselves. So, in a sense, I guess my structure is slightly more experimental, but it would never have existed without Balfour’s book.

On the switching back and forth between the two threads: was there a plan? Or did it happen organically in the writing?

Some of it was planned, but a lot of the patterns and connections became apparent as I was writing. I would have these “Eureka!” moments where I realized certain things connected, and then I would shuffle things around.

It’s quite a no-holds-barred memoir wedded to a genre often labeled as lurid and exploitive. Was there ever a concern that the one might color a reader’s judgment of the other?

My two concerns about the structure were that it would seem really self-indulgent and narcissistic and that would turn readers off, but also, I totally expected the horror community to turn on me. I was ready for all the bloggers to slag the book, to make fun of me, and when this didn’t happen, I was shocked. I mean, the internet is a cruel place and here I was writing this totally personal book to be read by people who can be quite obsessive and critical. I truly expected everyone to hate it. But not only did the opposite happen—most of the notices have been positive—but it reached beyond the horror community, and all kinds of people buy it, whether they are film fans or not.

I’ve had people buy it off me at events for relatives who are mentally ill, or they are mental health professionals. I’ve had people buy it because they relate to the foster home stories. And strangely enough, some famous people have read it and posted about it online, which is totally bizarre and flattering to me.

The autobiographical sections are gutsy, to say the least. Did you ever have second thoughts about how open to be about yourself? Or did you consider that openness vital to the entirety of the book?

I knew I had to be candid or it wouldn’t work. I’m talking about some serious psychological problems with many of the characters in the movies I discuss, so it wasn’t enough to just say I could relate to them. I had to talk about why. I had to try to instill in the reader an understanding of these characters beyond the usual dismissal of craziness. I have empathy for these characters, and I wanted the readers to feel that.

That said, I haven’t laid my entire soul bare; I still have some secrets. But none of the stories I kept to myself were really relevant to exploring the characters in the book. But, yeah, there’s some pretty embarrassing stuff in the book. Some of my acquaintances had a hard time looking at me after they read it!

How therapeutic was it to deal with the events you discuss on the page in this way?

Lots of people ask me this. It was therapeutic for sure. I came out of it with way more empathy for my parents, and after a brief blow-up upon the book’s release, it actually brought me closer to certain family members. But it also didn’t provide “closure” in any traditional sense. There are still a lot of unanswered questions between me and my mom, things that will never be answered.

And I didn’t come out of it “cured” from my neuroses (as an aside, I also love that most mental health professionals cringe at the outdated language I use in the book—apparently it’s not called “neurosis” anymore). I still have a lot of problems staying calm, and being able to keep up a front of normality. It’s exhausting. I can only act normal for a few hours and then I have to be alone where I don’t have to monitor my obsessive mannerisms.

But, overall, I would say yes, it was cathartic, which is why I put the book out there even though I expected people to hate it.

SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Bill Mesce, Jr.

is a writer and college adjunct instructor living in New Jersey. His most recent book, Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company that Transformed Television, was published in June 2015 by McFarland. Forthcoming this fall, his collection of essays: Idols, Icons, and Illusions: The Movies We Love—and Love to Hate—and the People Who Made Them.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury