From Russia with Hate: My Month with Andrey Iskanov

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There are some places I have visited that make me feel more at home than my actual home. Khabarovsk, Russia is not one of those places.

To put it another way, there’s an old Soviet-era joke related to me by Andrey himself:

An old sinner finds himself close to death and is worried about his eternal afterlife. He asks Archangel Michael to show him Heaven. St. Michael obliges. Heaven is a serene and beautiful place, but the old man finds it to be rather bland.

The old man asks Satan to show him Hell. Satan obliges and gives him a tour of hell. It’s a raucous place full of parties, sluts, and booze. The old man says, “This is exactly where I want to go when I die!”

The old man dies a short time later, and goes to hell as he requested. But instead of wild parties, he’s greeted only by demons and the damned being boiled in oil. Of course he’s outraged. He asks Satan, “What’s the meaning of this? This isn’t what you showed me!”

Satan responds, “My dear, tourism is one thing. Immigration is another thing entirely.”

So it was for me during my visit to the city of Khabarovsk, located in the far eastern edge of Russia, near the border to China. If you visit as a tourist and stay in a hotel such as Intourist or Enigma, you will enjoy a comfortable or even luxurious stay at reasonable rates. Shopping and restaurant dining are also very affordable and generally high quality. Your US dollars can buy a lot of great things at a low price, and I recommend the Khabarovsk tourist experience for that reason alone. I spent far less money during my three weeks in Khabarovsk than in a few days in Los Angeles. The language barrier was a bit jarring, given that the most of the shops cater not only to Russian locals, but also to Chinese and sometimes Korean tourists, but rarely to English-speaking tourists. History buffs will find a lot of value as well. There are many fascinating Soviet-era monuments and historical buildings, as well as great museums in central Khabarovsk. It’s not a common city for American tourists to visit, but you will probably have a good time if you do.

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One of the breathtaking views in central Khabarovsk: The war memorial Glory Square juxtaposed with an Orthodox church.

But if you really want to understand the experience of the “average” Khabarovsk citizen in general, or understand what influences Andrey Iskanov’s films in particular, you must venture outside of the tourist districts. Andrey’s apartment complex, and many others, are what U.S. citizens would consider ghetto conditions, in cockroach-infested Soviet-era flats in various states of disrepair. Feral cats and wild dogs roam the streets. The locals seem cold and unfriendly, and rarely smile—a trait I learned is common among people of the former USSR. The tap water is generally considered unsafe to drink without being boiled first, and no matter how often I bathe, the funky water makes me stink within an hour. After my first week in Khabarovsk, I’m not so bothered by the language barrier and culture shock as I am by constantly sweating and smelling bad.

Andrey’s flat is no exception. He has lived in the same building most of his life, initially living with his mother and grandmother before moving to a separate flat in the same building over 20 years ago. His one-room flat is clean but cramped with many film props. His kitchen sink faucets are broken, so he is forced to wash his dishes in his small bathroom. He sleeps on a crude wooden bed with no mattress. He seems somewhat proud to tell me that he filmed 90% of the Unit 731 scenes for Philosphy of a Knife on his bed, and then sarcastically adds, “you can see how much money my American distributor put into my films.”

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Andrey’s mattress-free bed and luxurious studio space.

Andrey is referring to his former distributor Unearthed Films. Andrey alleges that Unearthed’s owner, Stephen Biro, never paid him the 75% royalties owed for the sale of over 9,000 copies sold of multi-disc edition of Philosophy of a Knife, which I estimated to be well over $100,000 USD in profits for Andrey, excluding royalties from later prints of the one-disc edition. In various podcast interviews and in online forums, Stephen Biro has emphatically stated he doesn’t owe Andrey any payments for Philosophy, and has characterized Andrey as “difficult” and even “crazy as fuck.” The disagreements between the two escalated online until Andrey blocked everyone in Stephen Biro’s friends list on social media, which surely didn’t help dispel Andrey’s reputation for being difficult.

The issue of whether or not Andrey is still owed royalties from Philosophy will never be objectively proven without both parties disclosing financial records. However, having seen firsthand how Andrey lives and knowing the buying power of U.S. dollars, I can’t imagine that he ever received such a large sum from Philosophy or any of his films. Andrey doesn’t even have expensive vices. He doesn’t use drugs or smoke cigarettes, and very rarely drinks alcoholic beverages. Almost all of his disposable income—when he has it—goes directly toward his films.

During my nearly month-long stay with Andrey, I failed to see anything indicating that he is “crazy,” dangerous, or otherwise unstable. In fact, he was extremely kind, funny, and generous with the limited resources he had, and went out of his way to make me as comfortable as possible. This isn’t to say that Andrey isn’t eccentric or doesn’t hold views that are contentious, unpopular, or just…difficult.

Regarding filmmaking: “All filmmaking is an act of magic. Unless it’s a Marvel movie.”

Regarding the Lord of The Rings series: “I hate Hobbits. Just fucking hate them.”

Regarding spiritual practices: “Horror movie soundtracks are the best music for meditation.”

Regarding other “extreme” horror films: “Fuck Men Behind the Sun and fuck those Italian cannibal films. I hate animal cruelty.”

Regarding great literature: “War and Peace is a shit novel…What? Even Tolstoy said so.” (Fun fact: Andrey was named after a character in War and Peace.)

Andrey even has a complicated and ambivalent relationship with his own work. For example, he railed against Dread Central’s 0 out of 5 star review of Philosophy of a Knife, referring to the reviewer as an “anacephalic fetus” for criticizing the historical accuracy of the film. Andrey says, “The reviewer says it’s ridiculous that the female prisoners have shaved pubic hair and wear makeup. If he did any research, he would know that it was standard procedure in prison camps to shave prisoner’s pubic hair to prevent lice, and officers sometimes gave cosmetics and other gifts to female prisoners they liked.” It should also be noted that Khabarovsk was the site of the Unit 731 trial, and Andrey has read all the trial transcripts and all available documents of the Unit’s activities, so he’s definitely immersed in the history of Unit 731.

In a subsequent conversation, I mentioned that my university’s Film Studies professor was familiar with his work, and didn’t like Philosophy of a Knife at all. Andrey shrugged and said, “That makes two of us.” He went on to explain that he regrets some of the extreme elements of the film, and he especially dislikes scenes involving rape and humiliation of women. If he could make the film over again, he would rather focus less on torture and more on the Stockholm Syndrome romance between the Japanese Officer and the young female prisoner.

Andrey also regrets the reputation he has gained as an “extreme filmmaker” since making Philosophy of a Knife. Indeed, as much as I appreciate the film, it did create a misleading impression of Andrey as a person, until I got to know him better. The disparity was even more pronounced in person. One might expect Andrey’s apartment to be full of extreme horror films, deviant pornography, and real death photos. His interests and influences are actually very diverse. The few “extreme horror” films in his collection were autographed gifts from other filmmakers, including Fred Vogel and Ryan Nicholson. (“He wanted to make a movie with me,” said Andrey of Nicholson, who had recently died of brain cancer. “It will never happen now.”) His favorite and most influential films are from diverse genres, including Westerns, Science Fiction, and the Film Noir films of the 1940s. The most surprising influence upon his own work is in fact the music video for ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” which was popular on Soviet television in the 1980s due to its anti-capitalist themes. Andrey explained that the red and blue lights in the music video inspired his own use of multicolored lights. Likewise, Andrey appreciates almost all styles of music, and he enjoys books on many subjects, including history, art, and the occult.

One of Andrey’s more surprising influences.

At this point I would be remiss for not providing some backstory as to how I came to work with Andrey. I saw Philosophy of a Knife in 2008, and it gave me recurring nightmares. I found Andrey in Facebook in 2014. We started chatting off and on for the next few years, and then found that we have a freakish number of personal things in common. Last year, Andrey offered me a part in his film Breaking Uroboros, and I simply couldn’t refuse. So I filled out my Russian visa application and was approved in time for an October visit.

It was my first international trip, and my layover in Beijing was unexpectedly difficult due to their overly stringent security protocols. I had planned to use my stopover in Beijing to shower, change clothes, and catch a nap in a sleep pod, but instead I barely made my flight to Khabarovsk. I arrived in Khabarovsk extremely sleep deprived and filthy. It was a relief to see Andrey and his assistant Svyatoslav Iliyasov (“Slava” to his friends) were waiting for me at the Khabarovsk airport. Andrey gave me a big hug, said, “you look like you escaped a Chinese prison camp,” and presented me with rose-scented bath salts and a bag a Kotex. Andrey is unexpectedly wholesome in person. Andrey and Slava helped me check into the Intourist Hotel, which is historically significant because it was the only hotel in Khabarovsk for visitors from Western countries. Perhaps most notably, Akira Kurosawa stayed there during the filming of his Academy Award-winning epic Dersu Uzala.

Andrey and I at a lovely spot along the Amur river, near the site where a bag of 54 severed human hands were found in 2018

Over the next few days, Andrey and Slava took me out on a tour of the many historical sites of the city, and then we prepared for filming. I’ve read some comments from horror fans online wondering why it takes Andrey so long to finish his movies. I have firsthand insight. First, he has very little money and basically creates something from nothing. Second, he has only one assistant, Slava, who isn’t always available to shoot. Third, Andrey is a perfectionist and will potentially spend days shooting five minutes worth of footage, even for scenes that don’t require extensive special effects. Scenes that do require special effects may take three months to film. And then there’s his painstakingly long editing process. Fourth, Andrey’s scenes take a long time to shoot because of incompetent “actors” like me. I ruined countless otherwise good takes because I would think of a blooper from a previous take, and erupt into gales of laughter for the next ten takes. Andrey was a good sport about it, and very professional on the set.

When we weren’t actively filming scenes for Breaking Uruboros, Andrey’s typical day involves editing footage, gathering resources and sound effects for his films, composing soundtrack music, and mundane daily tasks including checking in on his mother (who is disabled), and playing with his cat. Anyone who has followed Andrey and his work knows he loves animals, especially cats. During our long conversations, I found out that he personally rescued dozens of cats, and had 20 cats living in his apartment at one point. For someone who creates such brutal films, Andrey is a softie.

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Andrey applying a hyena-face prosthetic to me for my role as the demon Golgotha.
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Andrey, Slava, and I getting ready for our scenes as soldiers of fortune in a 1970s flashback scene. Note: Slava is not a dipshit Nazi in real life.

With so many apparent incongruities between the nature of Andrey’s films and Andrey himself, I believe it’s best to let Andrey explain things in his own words. In the near future, I will be following up with an exclusive interview with Andrey, conducted over the course of several weeks.

In the meantime, please support Andrey’s work by renting or buying his films on Amazon Video, buying his films on DVD from Last Exit Entertainment or Spasmo Video, donating to his GoFundMe page, or becoming his Patreon supporter.


Support Andrew Divoff’s fundraiser!

 

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Andrew Divoff and I at the 2016 Lake Arrowhead Brewfest.

It’s about time for the Lake Arrowhead Brewfest again! As some My Horrific Life readers know, I’ve attended the Brewfest every year since 2015 as a volunteer at Andrew Divoff’s table, and I’ll be present this year as well. I met Andrew at a charity fundraiser in 2014, and have since met all kinds of celebrity guests with all kinds of personalities (a few of them contenders for their own horror stories). I’ll tell you this: Andrew is the real deal. He’s one of the truest, kindest, and most genuine people I know. He’s always giving someone a hand and looking for ways to improve his community.

As with previous years, Andrew is donating 100% of this week’s sales of merchandise on his website to benefit the Mountain Film and Theater Arts Committee (MFTAC), which provides scholarships to young people who want to pursue careers in the performing arts. This online fundraiser will run until the day of the 2018 Brewfest on August 11.

If you are lucky enough to be able to attend the Brewfest in person, Andrew is requesting a $5 donation to try his beer (with unlimited refills). In addition to his Djinn’s HellaBrew, Andrew’s brewery Three Marm Brewing will de debuting two new flavors, the Trugger’s Logger Lager and Cowboy IPA. In addition to donating 100% beer sold at the Brewfest to charity, Andrew will also sell autographs, T-shirts, barware, and other merchandise to benefit MFTAC. Buy your tickets to the Lake Arrowhead Brewfest here.

I will be there as well to help with bartending and other tasks, and will follow up with news about Andrew’s other community efforts, which include maintaining healthy forests in the San Bernardino mountains.

 

 

Hereditary (2018): Ancestral demons manifested

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Hereditary is perhaps the greatest horror film of 2018. Perhaps the greatest film of 2018, period. It has the conspiracy element and paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby, but surpasses that film. I was fortunate enough to attend an advance screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in La Vista, Nebraska, followed by a live-streamed Q&A with writer/director Ari Aster and two cast members, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro. The Alamo staff were kind enough to drop off a complementary desert early during the screening, warning us to avoid eating it if we have nut allergies. You”ll get the joke if you see Hereditary.

It’s difficult to do a proper analysis of the film without giving away major spoilers. However, it would be a disservice to spoil any significant aspect of a new film that is destined to become a classic, and will possibly win major awards. Instead, I will provide an analysis of themes and motifs prevalent in the film, avoiding major plot points that aren’t featured in the official trailers. That said, if you assume you know what will happen based on the trailers, nothing will prepare you for the onslaught of violence and insanity that is the film itself.

If you haven’t already seen them, take the time to view the trailers below, and then read my discussion of motifs and themes in the film itself.

And trailer #2:

Now to get on with a relatively spoiler-free analysis…I will tell you what the film isn’t. It’s not cliched, and it doesn’t follow common horror tropes. It doesn’t take a lazy or cliched approach along the lines of “It was all a dream,” or “It all happened inside one character’s head.” It teases us with those concepts, especially when we see the characters inside a dollhouse, or (early in the film) when Annie (Toni Collette) discusses her family’s history of mental illness. But to my relief, it’s not that kind of film. The ghosts and demons are as real as the mental illness itself.

Power of the ancestors

In the film, Annie carefully hand-crafts miniature homes. One such model is a modern home built on top of increasingly older homes hidden under the foundation, ending in a medieval castle. The implication is that the modern lifestyle we take for granted is built on the foundation of everything our ancestors did before us.

Nature vs. Nurture

With a title like “Hereditary,” you know this theme has to come up. We can inherit a lot of things from our parents: certain forms of mental illness (as Annie discusses), and physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. On a less tangible level, we may “inherit” their biases, likes and dislikes.

Some religions and spiritual traditions believe we can inherit generational curses too. Generational curses are mentioned throughout the Bible. One such passage is Deuteronomy 5:9, which states “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me.” The “them” we are not to bow down to are the gods and venerated spirits of pagan religions. This is relevant to Hereditary, as the trailer implies the deceased grandmother practiced a form of occultism and had strange “private rituals.” You’ve also seen this concept played out in the Paranormal Activity franchise.

Similarly, there’s the modern New Age concept of “generational contracts” (ask any Akashic Records reader), meaning your ancestors can make major decisions for you, without your knowledge.

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Annie ponders one of her creations

 

Knowing that you don’t have free will won’t save you

One common horror trop that Hereditary does follow is that of a high school or college classroom as a vehicle to explain pertinent concepts to the student character and to the audience alike. We’ve seen it in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Final Destination, and It Follows, to name just a few. Relatively early in Hereditary, a teacher discusses a Greek tragedy in which it seems that the characters have no free will, and this makes their misfortune seem even more tragic. One main character attends this lecture, but this knowledge doesn’t save him, or even mitigate the horrors to come.

This is alluded to again with Annie’s world of miniature homes and figures. The dolls she creates, however lifelike and realistic, have no say in the role they play in the little world she’s created. The same is true for the main characters. Someone or something is pulling their strings and scripting their every move.

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Headless

There is a recurring decapitation motif, both literal and figurative, in Hereditary. In the trailers, we see young Charlie cutting the head off of a dead bird. We also see a brief glimpse of one of Annie’s miniature figures, presumable her son Peter, without his head. There are a lot of other gory things that could have been done just for shocks. Since Ari Aster didn’t get to my tweeted question during the Q&A, I don’t know the answer for certain. I assume the decapitation motif alludes to the characters’ lack of free will. They have literally been severed from their decision-making abilities.

Transplantation of a foreign intelligence

Now that you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably guessed that this is some sort of demon possession movie. Again, you will see the symbolism in benign places throughout the film. Just as Annie is obsessed with creating a miniature world, her daughter Charlie builds dolls from found objects. You can see glimpses of these dolls in the trailers, and you will notice that they are “off” in a number of ways, most noticeably that the doll heads don’t correspond with the doll bodies. Not only are the characters separated from their decision-making faculties, it stands to reason that something else is making decisions for them.

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My biggest spoiler so far:

Even the demon itself, allegedly powerful in Hell, doesn’t seem to have free will. When you view its manifestation while within a human host, it seems that the demon doesn’t want to be there. It’s socially awkward, withdrawn, full of nervous tics, and seems bewildered by the humans around it, even by the human cultists who “worship” it. It’s been taken from its natural habitat, and doesn’t seem to know what to think of the strange, sometimes barbaric, behavior of the humans around it. This is my interpretation, and not explicitly stated. If you were a majestic “King of Hell,” would you want to be bothered with mundane and demeaning human responsibilities such as taking an exam at school or working a menial job? Perhaps being trapped in a human body comes with a degree of powerlessness and confusion.

Hereditary is an atypical horror film with atypical tropes, atypical demons, and atypical occultism. You owe it to yourself to see this wildly original, inventive, and cruel film in theaters.

Upgrade: A secular possession film

 

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Leigh Whannel’s latest film, Upgrade, has been hyped by several reviewers as something of  across between William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the dark sci-fi series Black Mirror. The film lives up to the hype, for the most part. Upgrade is slick and visually stylish, existing in a future that seems so close to our current reality, if only the Baby Boomers had bothered to invest in infrastructure and scientific research. (Just read A Generation of Sociopaths if you don’t believe me.) And if only the transhumanist movement hadn’t become defunct before before biohacking could even become mainstream.

Much of Upgrade seems like a transhumanist cyperpunk fantasy melded with exploitation film revenge narrative. During a mugging, protagonist Grey Trace is paralyzed and his wife is killed. Eron, a Frankensteinian genius, offers to implant a sentient AI chip called STEM into Grey’s spine, allowing him to walk again. In case Eron’s God-complex wasn’t obvious, we get to see him manipulating a miniature storm cloud inside his living room.

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Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace

In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argued that the body horror genre is essentially the secular humanist version of the demon possession film. Upgrade is no exception. As Grey recovers, he becomes obsessed with finding his wife’s killers. STEM turns him into a killing-machine, and there’s both humor and genuine horror in Grey’s inability to control his own body while STEM mutilates the villains. Grey isn’t the only upgraded human. His enemies have implants such as literal handguns, infrared vision, and the ability to kill an opponent with a single sneeze. The action scenes are fun to watch, and occasionally gruesome. Aside from such creative concepts, much of the Upgrade is carried by the performance of Logan Marshall-Green, whose portrayal of emotional brokenness reminds me of his role in one of my favorite films, The Invitation.

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The only downside of the film is that, with the exception of Grey and STEM, all of the characters seem two-dimensional and are never seriously developed. Perhaps this is a conscious choice, given that the human perspective shouldn’t necessarily be the privileged perspective in this narrative. Without giving major spoilers, the technology in Upgrade isn’t so much of a transhuman dream as a posthuman nightmare, with more in common with the philosophy of Nick Land than that of William Gibson. While the twist ending isn’t entirely unexpected, it subverts our earlier notion of what it means to “upgrade.”

 

We’re Moving!

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Hello, friends of My Horrific Life.

We are moving to a new host, and will be debuting a new look and new format. As a result, our podcast and certain other website features will be temporarily unavailable.

I would like to thank my friend Derek for his work setting up the original My Horrific Life website in 2014, and for his tech support for the past four years. Big thanks also to our podcast guests and supporters.

We will be back soon with creepy new content and new reviews.

Demons (2017): Southern Gothic

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Andrew Divoff has been a busy man. He recently starred in Michael Kehoe’s film The Hatred, and is in the process of launching his own brewery. Last Friday, his newest film, Demons(directed by Miles Doleac) was released in theaters and VOD. I can say without reservation that I thoroughly enjoyed Demons, in part because it runs counter to common horror film tropes.

The plot bears some similarity to The Last Exorcism, insofar that a fanatical father requests that a skeptical minister exorcize his daughter, who may or may not be demon-possessed. Divoff portrays the afflicted girl’s father, and he is a scene-stealer in that role. It would be too simplistic to merely label his character, Jasper Grant, as another “bad guy.” Jasper does some awful things to his children, but with good intentions, because he is entirely sincere in his religious beliefs. This element could have come off as campy or otherwise derailed the film, but Divoff handles it beautifully. The character’s love for his children shines through enough that you can’t hate Jasper, even though his religious beliefs are destructive.

Andrew Divoff as Jasper Grant

Demons runs counter to horror film tropes in its depiction of women, particularly the character Lara (Kristina Emerson). Introduced in the present-day timeline as a friend of Jasper’s surviving daughter Kayleigh, Lara initially seems like the sort of character who is written out early. That is, she spends a lot of time naked, has purple hair, and has a lot of unconventional ideas about spirituality and social norms. In fact, she is a psychologically healthy character whose spiritual views and lifestyle serve as a counterbalance to Jasper’s shame-based religious attitudes.

There is also a twist ending that I flat-out did not expect, but if fully in keeping with the fact that many characters are not what they seem. This is certainly true of Father Colin (portrayed by writer-director Miles Doleac), who is skeptical that a demon possession is actually taking place. Father Colin also goes against expectations by leaving the priesthood to marry the afflicted girl’s sister, Kayleigh (Lindsay Anne Williams).

You won’t find many jump-scares in Demons, but you will find solid psychological and religious horror.

Check out the trailer for Demons below and order your copy today.

My real life horror story

My regular readers may have noticed that I haven’t been too active this past month. It’s because of a family emergency that ended up being the most horrific day of my life.

Around two weeks ago, I was going to drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment. While getting into my car, she slipped and fell, apparently twisting her leg on the way down. Because of the position of my car door, I didn’t initially see that her leg was broken. Once I did, it felt like I couldn’t respond quickly enough. Her leg wasn’t “just” broken; both bones were protruding from her skin and her foot was almost completely detached from her ankle. Quite a lot of blood was spurting out of the wound, and I was terrified that she was going to bleed to death before the paramedics arrived. To top things off, my repeated calls to 911 kept being disconnected before I could even speak to a dispatcher, making the situation seem even more like a bad dream. Even though I am Red Cross certified in First Aid and CPR, I had no first aid supplies or even a belt to use as a tourniquet, so had to squeeze the wound with one hand and dial 911 with the other. I’m not at all a squeamish person, having worked and interned in funeral homes and coroner’s offices. But it’s an entirely different feeling when someone’s life is in your hands, and that person happens to be a loved one.

I’m extremely grateful to the strangers who stopped to help my mom while the paramedics were en route. One was a first responder who was out for a walk on his day off work. Others were nurses who worked at a rehab center across the street. Their presence truly feels like divine intervention.

My mom has a long road of recovery ahead of her, and some of her immediate needs pulled me out of my daily routine, including writing for My Horrific Life. As things become more stable, I’ll make up for my absence with new interviews, reviews, and exclusive news from some of my favorite personalities in the horror genre.