At the intersection of theory and practice, Mapping Global Horror: Australia, Japan and Beyond put horror scholars in dialogue with filmmakers and festival producers. This enabled audiences to understand new dimensions of a medium that’s constantly fluctuating in form. The roundtable transcribed here was chaired by Adam Daniel, an academic and filmmaker from the Australian Film Television and Radio School and Western Sydney University. He was joined by Isabel Peppard: a director, animator and visual artist. Her animated short Butterflies (2012) won the Dendy Award at The Sydney Film Festival and was nominated for an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award (AACTA). Caitlin Koller is an award-winning Australian filmmaker, featured in 1000 Women In Horror: 1895-2018 and Women Make Horror: Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre. Natalie Erika James’ feature length debut, Relic (2020), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and received nominations for Best Film at the 2020 Gotham Awards as well as Best Film, Best Direction and Best Screenplay at the 2020 AACTA Awards. Asakura Kayoko was born and raised in Japan, her film My Girlfriend Is a Serial Killer (Hitsuji to ôkami no koi to satsujin, Asakura Kayoko, 2019) screened at the conference, alongside Relic.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. See here for the academic roundtable.

Adam Daniel: A general question to each of the panellists, what was it that drew you to working in horror as a genre?

Isabel Peppard: It’s an interesting question. I think the origin story for me is I used to live in Japan when I was a little girl. I lived in this little town called Kamakura which was a centre of Buddhist art. There were these large temples and guardians of the temples standing outside them called Niō. They have a demonic form, to keep the evil spirits out. When I was a little child, I used to walk past them all the time and I was very, very afraid of them. I used to beg my parents to not walk past them and I’d cry, but then that fear grew into a really intense fascination and I started to pretend to be them. I started to embody them, as a little girl, kind of embodying this monstrous form. I feel like that was the start of my interest in horror and things that were dark. Horror has been a way for me to decode my experience as a woman in the world and a kind of person that’s always felt like an outsider, kind of felt monstrous in some ways. The idea of a female monster is really quite resonant to me. So yeah, that’s the start of my interest. 

Isabel Peppard on set of Butterflies 

Daniel: Fantastic. Caitlin?

Caitlin Koller: I think I have a two-fold answer. Similar to Isabel, I was very easily frightened as a child. When I used to go to the video store with my parents, when I walked past the horror aisle, a lot of the covers would jump out and scare me. Things like Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992). I had this fascination, like how scary are they? When I got to my early teen years, I pushed myself to watch as many horror movies as I could in a very small amount of time so I could try and desensitise myself. It worked, which is great. Not only that, I realised that horror has this amazing plethora of women protagonists that you don’t see in a genre outside of romantic comedies. So it was lovely to watch all of these women being strong and having a goal. It wasn’t just falling in love and getting married and happily ever after. It was like, fighting the demons and becoming strong independent women. That really resonated with me. Going into film school, I originally wanted to do music videos. Then I found a love of narrative film and wanted to be a director. 

Daniel: Excellent, Kayoko?

Asakura Kayoko: This seems to be a really common theme for horror filmmakers, but when I was young I was also an easily frightened child. I was really scared of everything: ghosts, monsters, even just the dark. That really terrified me. I remember being a five-year-old girl and thinking, all of this is so scary to me. If I’m this scared of everything right now, then when I grow up and become an adult, is it going to get even worse? I grew up and I was still scared, as I expected, but I guess I was really drawn to the culture of horror films. I decided I should watch one, just to see. Unexpectedly, it was really interesting. I thought, well I’m just going to keep watching horror films. I already knew that I wanted to make films, but then my interest grew into wanting to make horror films.

Daniel: Thank you. We’d love to hear from you Natalie, about your origins?

Natalie Erika James: It’s amazing how we all just had this ability to be scared, all of us. It’s incredible. I guess you have to have that, to speak to it in a deep way when you’re making films. You have to be susceptible to fear in a really particular way. Similarly, I was a very frightened child. I think mine takes the cake. I really distinctly remember being four or five years old and crying my eyes out because I didn’t want to watch E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982). I was a really frightened child, but also became interested in darker fairy tales as a child. That turned into gothic horror fiction and that’s probably where it all started. I also really distinctly recall watching The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001). It was the first time I went to the movies with just my friends, as a bunch of 11 year old girls. I remember being so shit scared, like sitting backwards in my seat but also the joy of kind of surviving it together. It felt like a bit of a roller coaster to me, you get quite emotional as well. I think that particular brand of horror has really stuck with me. 

Daniel: Fantastic. There’s a large body of work from an academic perspective about how horror reflects cultural anxieties and a lot of the common fears. The universal fears and the culturally specific fears that we’re feeling as a society. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how those culturally specific fears and anxieties, particularly of the contemporary moment, influence your approach?

James: It’s so central to why I use horror as a genre. I think it’s just such a great vehicle to talk about fear. When you talk about a very specific experience, the more specific you are, the more universal it seems to become. It goes hand in hand, right from the writing process and that’s why it’s so appealing to be able to use it. It’s an imagery to talk about things that are real and have emotional resonance, but you’re playing in this space that’s very heightened as well.

Daniel: Kayoko, your thoughts on how the fears and anxieties of contemporary society have filtered into your filmmaking?

Asakura: For both ourselves and other people, ourselves and the other in society, this relates deeply to horror movies. In horror movies, you sort of have to face yourself. You have to face the other. Of course, this is also what we do daily in society. I think a lot of fears that we as women feel in society, there’s this dread. This unseen force that you can’t really put your finger on, but it’s always looming. It’s always there and we feel it all the time. But at the same time, we can’t see it. It’s a really big problem. It’s just there. I want to mix that in with the sense of entertainment and fun that horror films can bring and allow my audience to feel this feeling really deeply.

Daniel: Caitlin, your horror wears a little bit more of a human face. It seems to have a lot of specificity around human relationships.

Koller: I think being an only child, one of the strongest relationships I have is friendships. So a lot of my previous films have dealt with that breakdown of the relationship between friends because that’s a huge fear for me. Things like Blood Sisters (Caitlin Koller, 2017) and Maid of Horror (Caitlin Koller, 2013) revolve around friendships breaking down and other external forces being pressured into that to make it like a melting pot. In terms of my magnum opus, which anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been writing forever and a day, it’s called Slam the Savages. It’s a post-apocalyptic, women in prison cannibal film which was set in a pandemic. Then the pandemic happened, now it looks dated. If someone had given me money before the pandemic, it would have been prescient, and now it’s just over. Going forward, my partner Phil and I are working on an anthology that explores the fact that during the pandemic, everyone got together. The communities that formed around storytelling, whether that be music, film, television, was the thing that brought us together and the fact that we don’t value our storytellers like we should. That’s the main cultural fear, that we don’t value our storytellers and what happens if we don’t pay them a living wage. Will they die of exposure, literally and figuratively? That’s the kind of fear I’m interested in. 

30 Miles from Nowhere (Caitlin Koller, 2019)

Daniel: I feel like we should put a crowdfunding link for Slam the Savages. If anybody has a spare couple of million dollars, please. Isabel?

Peppard: I think being an artist and a woman, creative person. I’m quite interested in how those parts of my identity are in conflict with the societal structures around me, particularly the patriarchy and capitalism. My short film Butterflies (2012) explored that theme. In the feature that I’m currently developing, it’s about the historical ratio of women in art history. Female artists were essentially written out of history and we’re just starting to rediscover them. If you’re raised in a world like I was, where I didn’t learn about any women artists at school. I didn’t have any creative role models to look up to or contextualise myself through, how does that affect your feeling of belonging in a place? How does that affect your feeling of identity? When you don’t have anyone to follow, essentially that sense of belonging is taken away. Trying to exist within social structures that are fairly hostile towards you as well, that’s something I’m kind of obsessed with. A lot of my writing has lost mothers or dead mothers that you’re trying to get back to. The creative process has a redemptive element, that leads you back to mother. Always.

Daniel: Fantastic. I’m aware that we’ve got this wonderful panel of four amazing female filmmakers which is kind of unusual, to have a female-centric panel on a very broad genre approach. Each of you have already touched on it to some degree, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on what unique perspectives being a female filmmaker brings to the horror genre and how you see spaces or evolutions in the genre going forward? 

Koller: One of the reasons that I made Maid of Horror, it’s about a killer bridesmaid for those who haven’t seen it, was my fears around the expected route of women to take. That they fall in love, they get married and they have kids. Those main things. I think the horror that can come with weddings hasn’t been delved into enough, especially in a comedic way. That’s why I was very excited when I saw Wreck (Chris Baugh, 2022). Not spoiling it for anybody, but it does have a wedding. I was very excited. So those kinds of things, birth and rebirth. I think the ceremonies that women are supposed to put on a pedestal for their lives haven’t been delved into enough from a female perspective. What about you Isabel?

Peppard: I think a lot of it decodes an experience. If you’re in a structure that doesn’t really respect your humanity, the full spectrum of your humanity and value that, you have a certain type of experience. You’re used to constantly being pushed down and put into a box and treated a certain way. Your perspectives are questioned, what you said is questioned, you’re constantly going through these things. I use mythology and fairy tales to decode that experience and try to share it in the hope of fostering understanding so I don’t feel alone and other people will feel less alone. But there’s something about symbolism and symbolic hand made elements, it’s like you can create a mythological structure that triggers an almost subconscious experience of these things. I guess that’s what I’m interested in doing. It’s something that fosters empathy because I think these structures aren’t just hostile to women. I think they’re hostile to everyone and everyone’s humanity.

Isabel Peppard on set for Butterflies

Daniel: Excellent. Natalie?

James: We can talk about the broad spectrum of horrors’ history with gratuitous violence against women, the enmeshing of sex and horror and the sexism that has been entrenched in certain films. Early in my career, I remember pitching some ideas to a producer and everything was hit back with, “They’re too tasteful.” I think the note was, “It needs to be spicier.” As a young female filmmaker, to hear that, it made me so fucking angry. It proved to me that female voices are so essential to just broadening what horror is. Obviously, we’ve seen that that’s happening already, but I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of evening out those numbers.

Daniel: Kayoko, I’d love to hear your perspective?

Asakura: I’ve thought about this quite a lot, I get asked this from so many places and a lot of the time I feel a sense of kindness. Like you Adam, a lot of people ask this from a place of kindness. But to me, I think the saddest thing is that we live in a society where these kinds of questions are so commonplace. That is the saddest thing for me. I’m actually working on a serial drama, it will be out in April. I’ve been preparing for it since last year. It just so happens that the production crew for this drama (there are three producers, three script writers and then you have me as the director) all of us happen to be women. I think this was a very shocking experience for me. There were a lot of things that I never questioned working in the film industry. Most of the time, we do have more men than women on the crew. There was a sort of ease, working with women. There was a sort of smoothness that I didn’t experience before and I feel kind of complicated about this. I’m not sure if I should be happy about this, I’m not sure if I should be sad about this, but I really hope that we can someday live in a society where it doesn’t matter who you’re working on a team with. Where we can feel the same, regardless of who’s on the team. That’s the kind of society I hope we can live in. Sorry that I sort of went off on a tangent. Sorry that it’s not really a direct answer to your question. But personally, I think that as a working woman, a woman in society, on one hand I think that it would be nice if originality or any of those aspects became more common in the society we live in. But, another part of me also thinks that it would be nice if we could all just go out there and make whatever we like. Whatever we think is interesting, it could be really simple. I think that’s really nice as well. So, I hope this answer is fine.

Kuso subarashii kono sekai (It’s a beautiful day, Asakura Kayoko, 2013)

Daniel: That’s great, thank you. Obviously, all horror filmmaking is political. One of the aspects that I was really interested in was the way in which as women (but we can broaden it out and do it as a more of a universal question) how does horror allow you to approach some of the issues around gender, race, social justice, things that are important to you. How does horror offer you a lens to dig into those and to explore the aspects that you find interesting around those particular social issues? Do you have any thoughts, Caitlin?

Koller: Filmmaking in general can be very political and behind the scenes there’s a lot of people who don’t get that. As a cinema going audience, you wouldn’t think about the fact that most crews are almost entirely white men, in Australia at least. It’s up to us as filmmakers to make a change where we can. If we’re in a position of power, to try and level up people who are from different communities and different backgrounds. If we keep seeing the same kinds of people working behind the scenes, then we’re going to get the same kinds of stories. Who doesn’t want to see more interesting, different kinds of backgrounds on film and in leading roles? It’s changing a little bit in front of the camera. We were talking before about how Netflix has had more people of colour in romantic comedy leads, which is great, but I think there’s always space for more interesting leads in horror. We know that there’s a lot of white women that get to be final girls, but I would love to see more women of colour. I would love to see more trans people. I’d love to see more disabled people as leads and this not be the focus of their character, it’s just who they are. 

Daniel: I’m sure we all agree with that. Natalie, do you mind if I throw over to you? That kind of general question about how you see politics playing out in your work.

James: Generally speaking, so much of what’s great about horror is that the creator gets to dictate the parameters of the fear of the other and what kind of groups are demonised or reconciled with at the end of the film. That is political and obviously has really changed over time as the range of creators has broadened. Relic was a film that explored the fear of ageing, mortality, loss of memory and loss of people that you love. But at the same time, I was really conscious of demonising the elderly matriarch. Do we want to depict this character with an alien mind as a kind of outright evil? My answer for that was no, so there was a kind of reconciliation and coming together at the end of the film. I think that that piece about marginalised groups and who we’re painting as the villain, that’s the most inherently political thing in horror.


Daniel: There’s that beautiful complexity at the end of the film where we see under the surface of the ostensible villain of Relic and realise that there’s this empathy. This really strong empathy towards what she’s gone through and how her family are connected to her. Isabel, I’d love to hear your perspective on this.

Peppard: The idea of the other and monstrousness is something that really interests me. Getting into conflict with the structures around you, what does it mean to be the other? For me, it’s often about women characters that are stepping outside of their social roles. For example, the woman artists who are expected to be a muse or a supporter of the man. The qualities that make someone a good artist like willfulness, selfishness, eccentricity, these are qualities that are seen as monstrous in women and quite undesirable. They’re kind of pushed out of you. The use of monsters in my work is often a beautiful thing. It’s like as you transform towards a monster, you’re embracing your social monstrousness and kind of moving back towards your true self. In my work, when we’ve been transformed into a monster it’s often about self-discovery. 


Daniel: Kayoko, I haven’t had a chance to see your film. Really looking forward to it tonight. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about how politics has influenced your feature film productions?

Asakura: I’m the kind of person who thinks quite deeply about societal problems and politics and whatnot. But, in my films, I’m not sure if I’m the type who likes to portray something and then say that this is the right thing to do. I don’t want to do that. If I’m creating a story, I want that story to be enjoyable and just a story. I think that’s my direction, making something simple that can be enjoyed as entertainment. Perhaps, not so overtly, there might be some messages about society or politics. I’ll be really happy if anyone is interested to come and see my film (My Girlfriend Is a Serial Killer) that’s going to be screened tonight. I don’t want anyone to think that it has a really deep message. On the surface, it probably seems like a cute romantic comedy. Like not too much is going on. It’s just something that’s really fun and enjoyable. Perhaps after watching it, you might start to think about stuff that sort of takes a back seat. Maybe this could be societal problems. It could be about politics. Even if you don’t get to that point, even if you just enjoy it as a piece of entertainment, I think that’s perfectly fine. One thing about the film that’s screening tonight, one of the protagonists asks, “What’s wrong? What’s bad about killing people?” And she’s killing people for fun. It’s really important to her. Then in the movie, she’s just a cute little girl. It’s a romantic comedy, so she falls in love and you’ll watch it and think, “Something doesn’t seem right here.”

My Girlfriend Is a Serial Killer

Daniel: I’d like to shift the angle and talk about the different national contexts, having a group of Australian filmmakers and a Japanese filmmaker here. Perhaps Natalie, if I could throw to you for your perspective on this. I’m curious as to what you see as the opportunities and challenges of being a filmmaker. You’re working in a broader international context, but also as an Australian filmmaker. Perhaps speaking to that transition period, from making your short films to your first feature film. 

James: Do you mean more industry specific challenges? Or the content of your films?

Daniel: Probably more industry specific. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are interested in filmmaking from an industrial perspective who are here with us today. I’m curious as to what you see as the advantages of being an up-and-coming Australian filmmaker versus some of the obvious challenges of that. 

James: It’s really shifted over the last five years or so. It feels like there’s a lot of horror being made in Australia and a lot of really interesting horror as well. There was about four years between when I started writing Relic and when we shot it and The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) had come out when we were about two years out from shooting it. I think it was a time when people were really looking for female directed horror. This project was a little bit America facing, we had American collaborators as well. It was a kind of zeitgeist moment, it was great. In terms of the Australian thing, the challenge was, I still recall meetings with funding bodies where there’s a whole sense about horror not playing well in cinemas and not making box office numbers. But again, I think that’s really shifting now. Maybe something about the identity of Australian horror films traditionally being a bit more geared towards the vastness of the landscape and torture porn, Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005) style horror. Potentially. But, I think that it’s all up for the taking now. It’s really great. I think people’s perception of Australian horror is really changing with films like You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski, 2022) or Talk to Me (Danny Philippou, Michael Philippou, 2023). I think it’s kind of a good time.

Talk to me

Daniel: I love that optimism. Isabel, what are your thoughts in terms of the challenges and opportunities that you see going forward? 

Peppard: If you’re a filmmaker with a fairly distinctive voice and making genre work, one of the big difficulties is to find producers that share a vision. Firstly, that they’re interested in making original intellectual property. It’s quite hard to find. Then secondly, that you like these people. Then thirdly, they actually understand and share the vision of the film. This is a really, really difficult thing for directives to navigate. To find those teams. There’s a lot of horror stories. I’m sure producers have a lot of horror stories about directors too, but in Australia, there’s a very small pool of producers who have the power to raise enough money to make a feature. It’s a very small pool. The same people always get funded. The same producers always get funded. When you’re an independent filmmaker, you navigate through this extremely small group of people unless you go to the United States (US) and try to find partners. If you’re someone who is very creatively driven and doesn’t really want to compromise their vision that much, I think that makes it even harder. People try to push things into certain boxes. It’s really hard to find those collaborators. They are out there, but they are few and far between. So that’s a significant challenge.

Daniel: You and I were talking about how if you love horror you’re kind of compelled to make horror, right? There’s nothing there to stop you from doing that, if you’re really passionate about it. What are your thoughts on this question?

Koller: I’m going to echo Isabel’s sentiments in that if you want to make a movie with funding from a funding body you do need to find one of those few producers who a) want to work with you and b) keep to the idea that you’ve got and c) be able to work with in a collaborative medium. It’s very hard, out the gate. I think that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t really pursued that as heartily as I could, just because I know it’s going to be an uphill battle. I’d rather just spend the time finding the funding myself, when I know that at the end of the day, I’m going to be more happy with the product that I haven’t compromised on. It’s not a surprise that my first feature film was filmed in the US and that’s where I got my first opportunity, because there are a lot more opportunities over there for filmmakers who are hungry to make new things. But I also think that a lot of producers, especially in the US, have only decided in the last 10 years or so that it is a good opportunity to go outside of the white male filmmaker angle and look for directors of different ethnicities and genders. That’s a great thing. It’s very funny to me that just as 30 Miles From Nowhere premiered at Monster Fest, Jason Blum from Blumhouse Productions said there weren’t, “a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.”1 There was a huge round of comments, especially on Twitter, from female filmmakers basically saying, “I’m right here Jason. Please give me an opportunity.” He came back and he did apologise and say he was wrong. That there are lots. It’s just that people don’t look for them. Even my producers, who were both women in the US, said that they struggled to find horror filmmakers in the US that were women. So they came to Australia. 

James: Sometimes the struggle is that they are looking for a woman, but they’re also looking for someone to justify their misogynistic instincts. I think you’re right, that genuine interest in and collaboration on the work can be hard to find.

Daniel: Kayoko, I’d love your perspective on the Japanese horror film industry and what you see as both opportunities or challenges within that terrain?

Asakura: I think Japan is a country in which many many horror films are produced. You have those big budget films, but then also if we’re talking about films with smaller budgets there really is a whole lot of them. Now that we have streaming services and they’re becoming more and more widespread there are a lot of new movies. They become available as DVDs and whatnot. You don’t even have to physically go to the theatre anymore, you can just enjoy it from the comfort of your own home. Then there are other products that are not DVDs, they’re sort of like comics. This product gets sold at convenience stores and some of these are based on real events, but then they sort of spin this event like a mockumentary or whatnot. Until about 10 years ago, there were a lot of these being sold at convenience stores around the country. They’re really unique in that they’re not DVDs, they’re also not available on the internet. I think a lot of youngsters used to enjoy these products as part of the horror genre. Nowadays, you have independent horror content creators on YouTube or TikTok and this is definitely a chance for people to create more horror related content. I don’t really think it’s the established route into creating horror content, but as someone who really loves horror, I would really love to see where these routes lead.

  1. Rachel Yang, “15 Women Horror Directors Jason Blum Can Add to His List, Variety, Oct 18 2018)

About The Author

Amanda Barbour is an award winning film critic and president of Senses of Cinema. She was previously a media advisor in the Australian federal parliament.

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