BY A.E. Santana
James Comtois has long been a fan of horror and is a skilled and adventurous storyteller, writing dramatic, thoughtful, and frightening onstage scenes. As the cofounder and co-artistic director of New York–based theater company Nosedive Productions, where he also served as resident playwright, Comtois was involved with creating original and fantastically bizarre plays. He has produced more than twenty plays, including the award-winning titles The Awaited Visit and Mayonnaise Sandwiches. He is an accomplished reporter and reviewer.
Just in time for Halloween, The Coachella Review talks with Comtois on horror, crafting scripts in this genre, and his experience writing the acclaimed vampire play, The Little One.
TCR: You have been interested in horror since you were a kid (growing up on classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but when did you decide to start writing horror stories and scripts?
James Comtois: Oh, I’ve loved sci-fi and horror as far as I can remember. When I was a kid, I used to write sci-fi and horror short stories that essentially ripped off Stephen King and Isaac Asimov (I was an avid reader of both authors). When I started writing plays in college, then in New York through my theater company Nosedive Productions, I wrote all kinds of plays: surreal comedies, dark tragedies, puppet shows, slice-of-life dramas, and occasionally genre stories. Whatever interested me at any given moment. In 2003, I wrote a one-act called “Evil Hellcat and the Liquid Lunch,” an absurdist dark comedy about a young man trying to pitch his screenplay to two Hollywood producers, one of whom is a literal vampire and the other an actual zombie. It was a sendup of the Hammer horror films of yesteryear and an unsubtle satire of Hollywood. Although I found it to be more of a comedy than a horror story, there was a brain-eating scene in the show that elicited some genuinely shocked gasps and groans from the audience, which (pleasantly) surprised me. The first play I wrote that my company promoted as a comedy-horror was in 2006, called The Adventures of Nervous-Boy, about a young man wandering through a nightmarish version of New York. But it wasn’t until my producing partners Pete Boisvert and Patrick Shearer decided to curate an annual anthology of horror-themed plays in the tradition of the Grand Guignol under the banner of The Blood Brothers present… later that year. So, for several years, many writers, myself included, would write short horror plays for this annual series. In fact, one year we wrote short plays based on Stephen King stories—with his permission!
TCR: How the horror genre, and whether it’s truly even a genre, has been defined is often debated. How would you describe “horror”?
JC: Oh, wow. Good question. It can encompass all sorts of things, can’t it? As briefly as possible, I’d simply describe “horror” as scary, just as I’d describe “comedy” as funny. And scary can mean viscerally thrilling or existentially dreadful. It can make you jump out of your seat or sink in your chair contemplating the awfulness of the world. Just as I’m of the school of thought that funny is funny, I also think scary is scary. I’m not picky.
TCR: What is it about horror that fascinates you?
JC: I love that horror, which is often dismissed by nonfans as lowbrow trash, can be used to explore the human condition like any form of so-called highbrow art. And I also love that horror can provide visceral thrills. You’ve got something like George A. Romero’s Living Dead films that provide both thoughtful social commentaries as well as (as you say in your follow-up question) “gore, guts, and monsters.”
TCR: When people think of horror, they may think of gore, guts, and monsters. This often creates an idea that horror is low-brow and all about shock entertainment. But horror often deals with the deep, dark fears that permeate everyday life and society. How do you handle writing deeper themes in horror?
JC: In some ways, I think it can be easier, since you can lull your audience into a false sense of security with horror storytelling, because you’re telling them an entertaining fiction and can sneak in deeper themes and ideas without them noticing. If you’re writing a straight drama about a disintegrating marriage, the audience is already expecting some heavy-handed message about the doomed state of current relationships or something like that. But if you decide to tell a story about a disintegrating marriage through the form of, say, a monster tale, they can let their guard down, since they think they’re just getting the gore, guts, and monsters.
TCR: Speaking of deeper themes, Stephen King writes in his book Danse Macabre: “Horror appeals to us because it says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say right out straight … it offers us a chance to exercise emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand.” What are your feelings on horror masquerading as a hidden desire or societal taboo?
JC: Horror, like comedy, can help audiences examine and explore darker thoughts and feelings in a (relatively) safe and controlled environment. Just as the best comedians can articulate the humor found in dark thoughts we best not express in polite conversation, horror can articulate and exorcise those bad thoughts many of us share but feel too scared to express. In general, some of the best forms of horror validate that feeling many of us have—that things are not, in fact, going to be all right—and that you’re not crazy, stupid, or evil for thinking that.
TCR: Some people may feel that theater doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of film to frighten audiences. How do you create the tension, suspense, and mystery needed to infuse your plays with terror? How do you use dialog to this end?
JC: I followed what Clive Barker did with his horror plays and, later, what Clay McLeod Chapman does with his. When Barker wrote his plays, he knew he didn’t have a lot of money for productions, so he’d often have to rely on dialogue. And man, some of the pictures he could paint simply with words were astounding. There’s a scene in his play Crazyface in which three noblemen stand on top of a mount overlooking a battle scene and describe the utter carnage and depravity. It’s so intense and stomach-turning you nearly forget you’re just watching three actors standing on a bar stage talking. Chapman tells stories through his annual stage show, The Pumpkin Pie Show, and some of them are intense and unnerving to audiences. These writers (and others) have shown me that you can do a lot with just dialogue, so I just followed their leads. Which isn’t to say I don’t love using makeup and gore effects for the stage. Fortunately, Nosedive had a great in-house gore effects and makeup person in Stephanie Cox-Williams to mix all the fake blood and design all the severed limbs when words just aren’t enough.
TCR: Your play, The Little One, deals with vampires. When writing such a well-known horror archetype, how important is it to the character and story to be familiar with traditional lore and previous texts?
JC: For me, it was a lot of fun peppering The Little One with references to other vampire stories. But to be honest, that was more like adding Easter eggs for my own amusement; I don’t expect anyone coming to see or read this play to be a scholar of vampire literature. That said, I’m assuming everyone knows the basics when it comes to vampires (drinks blood, can’t stand sunlight, gets killed via a stake through the heart, etc.). I guess it’s important to know if you’re doing something that’s fresh or cliched. If you’re completely unversed in a well-known archetype, you run the risk of writing something you think is bold and original but is in fact well-worn and tired.
TCR: The Little One deals with relationships, but not romantic relationships as some might expect from a vampire story. What was your inspiration for this play?
JC: Yeah, you’d think a story about vampires would have some erotic elements, right? But from the moment I began crafting this story, I knew I wasn’t interested in anything romantic. I was annoyed with the spate of vampire stuff coming out at the time (The Vampire Diaries, Twilight) that imagined vampires as objects of preteen fantasy. As my friend Mac Rogers said at the time, “Vampires have become like ponies!” So, I wanted to do something that didn’t treat vampires as cute or sexy. Or harmless. They were essentially inhuman and didn’t regard us as anything more than food. So, a story about a young woman becoming a vampire came to me in bits and pieces as daydreams over the course of several weeks. I’d be waiting for my train to take me home and a street busker would be playing some haunting tune on a synthesizer that would make me imagine an unnamed young woman (eventually Cynthia) having to fight off the goons of a mob boss–like character (eventually Gogol). I’d be waiting in line for my lunch and I’d be thinking about a group of vampires self-immolating as part of a funeral. Random snippets that didn’t tie together kept coming to me. Eventually I wrote down as many of these fragments as possible and outlined the rest of the story to come up with the connective tissue to make the story a cohesive whole.
TCR: When writing monsters or nonhuman entities, like vampires, do you try to humanize these characters to make them more identifiable? Or do you want the audience to find their own connection to these characters?
JC: Oh, sure. Often, the goal is to make these inhuman characters relatable in some ways. Because otherwise I don’t think they’d be frightening. Or interesting.
TCR: When you are writing horror what is your “end game” with your audience? Are you trying to scare them, make them think? Both?
JC: I want them to have fun and enjoy themselves first and foremost. I want them to think that coming to see a show I wrote was the right decision. That may sound like self-deprecation, but it’s not. There’s a stigma about theater and about going to plays, so if I can cut through that and make an audience member glad they left their home to see something I wrote, I consider that a success. So, I’m fine with any positive reaction. (“Positive” in this case meaning they got something out of it—this includes feeling scared, if that’s what happens.)
TCR: Having written in various speculative fiction genres, what are major differences in writing horror vs. another subgenre, such as science fiction?
JC: Well, there’s often overlap (Alien, The Fly, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are some great examples of sci-fi/horror films). Black Mirror and Stranger Things are also pretty good at incorporating both. But I guess genre storytelling is a way of incorporating impossible “What if?” scenarios to examine the human condition. What if humanity invented a device that made death obsolete (science fiction)? What if your pent-up hatred toward your neighbor brought a murderous monster to life (horror)? What if a team of astronauts discovered a dying alien race that needs an earthlike planet to survive (both/either)? It all depends on what the desired outcome of the story is.
Poster: designed by Pete Boisvert, photo by Aaron Epstein. Photos: courtesy of Nosedive Productions, photo by Aaron Epstein.
A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction. She received her bachelor’s degree in mass communications, with a minor in script writing from California State University, San Bernardino. She taught fine art, theater, and writing at the middle school level. A.E. Santana is part of the theater group East Valley Rep in Indio, CA, as one of their founding playwrights. She is currently a managing editor and writes media content for a nonprofit organization. She has quite an affinity for cats. A.E. Santana can be found at www.aesantana.com, facebook.com/authoraesantana, and on Instagram and Twitter @foxflur.