How a Brush With Death Made Me an Even Bigger Horror Fan

Kimberley Elizabeth, one of the directors of the new horror anthology movie Sinphony, on her origin story as a genre filmmaker.

I almost died when I was 16. A few times, actually.

Not many people know this about me, but I was diagnosed with and fought cancer when I was 16 years old. It was one of those really rare ones, a House-worthy diagnosis of a neurofibrosarcoma in the nerve of my left elbow that had metastasized to the lymph nodes of my armpit while on its way to threaten my cardiovascular system. What started as a visit to my family doctor over a painless 3cm lump on my arm saw me three months later – after biopsies, ultrasounds, bone scans, MRIs and a grim diagnosis with a 30 percent survival rate – the youngest person checking into the oncology ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto for my first round of intensive chemotherapy.

I was instantly transported to another world, and if you’re hip to the multiverse – perhaps another timeline altogether. I was a healthy, if rather morbid, 16-year-old girl with long purple hair who’d just started her second year of high school. But in what felt like an instant, I was hospital-bound, completely bald and more than 60 pounds lighter, being pushed from chemo treatment on Floor 12 to a scheduled CT scan on Floor 5 in a wheelchair because I passed out once in the hospital elevator and ended up needing a blood transfusion for lack of, well, everything in one’s blood that keeps them upright.

Kimberley Elizabeth and her Nightmare on Film Street co-host Jonathan Dehaan fooling around.

I ran the gamut of the cancer experience. After several grueling rounds of chemotherapy, I underwent surgery to remove the tumor and a good chunk of the tissue surrounding it, followed by one whole month of radiation therapy where they cooked my arm crispier than a stale chicken wing. When it started to look like the cancer wasn’t going to kill me (even though there were a few brushes; three total blood transfusions and two trips to the emergency room in those few months), my immunocompromised body picked up a parting gift from the hospital – a bacterial infection in my brain and lungs called Nocardia (a disease actually featured on House, Season 8) that left me with a 13-month course of antibiotics, a hole in my lung, and a terrible memory that may or not be related but for which I totally blame.

And when both metastasized cancer and bacterial pneumonia didn’t kill me, I headed back to high school – now a 17-year-old with much shorter hair and a heck of a lot more life experience.

“You’re young, you’ll bounce back,” my oncologist said to me the day I received my diagnosis, a quote I received somewhere between the words “malignant with metastasis” and “limb-sparing surgery” while my ears rang from the fear boiling my blood pressure like a steaming kettle.

Kimberley Elizabeth and Jonathan Dehaan on their wedding day, October 31, 2015.

I did bounce back. Sort of. A former honor roll student with an artistic streak, I stepped back into my Converse sneakers and learned my peers had completed a whole year of living without me. My best friend had gone on a trip to Europe and fallen in love with her high-school sweetheart. A new Johnny Depp movie had come and gone and been obsessed about without me. A coffee shop had been built by our high school, a vast upgrade from the dusty clearing we had carved out where everyone smoked cigarettes and whatever else they could get their underage paws on.

While everyone was checking out universities and colleges, I hesitated. With invasive doctor’s appointments every three months reminding me another bout of cancer could be just over the horizon, I passed on my prior path. Before, I would have likely gone to post-secondary for English or Art History, ending up slipping into a job pool with a four-year wait that I only ever felt lukewarm about.

Having no idea what I wanted to do with myself and the second chance at life I had seemingly been granted, I instead opted for special effects make-up school. I had always loved movies and monsters, and making them felt like something I could master. Because I simply loved the process of creating, imagining and conceiving … the amount of time I actually had to create didn’t seem as important. Whether I only had two years left or a lifetime ahead of me, I wanted to make things.

Nightmare on Film Street hosts Kimberley Elizabeth and Jonathan Dehaan hanging out with Troma greats Lloyd Kaufman and Toxie at Panic Fest.

My love for the horror genre grew. Where the people around me found shrieks and giggles, I found romance. Having spent my most emo years under the veil of cancer like Lydia Deetz staring underneath her black straw hat in Beetlejuice, I looked at the world with black-colored glasses. And I used it to appreciate everything around me. Every adventure I got to take with my new boyfriend (now husband and business partner), every new creative project I would start and have the opportunity to complete.

I emulated a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe, embracing the unknown darkness around me, letting its constant threats to sink my ship force me to walk new and more adventurous planks I otherwise wouldn’t have.

As the length between my oncology check-ups gradually increased and my foray into adulthood began, my unconventional path began to solidify and take on a sense of permanence. My five-year remission came and went. Then my 10-year. The words “cured” never crossed my doctor’s lips, but one day he gleefully kicked me out of his office and told me never to come back. I got married on Halloween night in 2015. I started the horror movie podcast Nightmare on Film Street and pursued producing it professionally in 2016. I began screenwriting, privately building my arsenal of horror movie scripts on my way to carving out a permanent space as a creator in the horror movie world.

The first day slate for “Do Us Part?”, Kimberley Elizabeth’s segment for Sinphony: A Clubhouse Horror Anthology.

And now, though cancer derailed my path 16 years ago – exactly half my life ago – I’m celebrating my writing and directorial debut with the segment “Do Us Part?” in the upcoming feature film Sinphony: A Horror Anthology.

I’m going to walk hand in hand with the darkness as long as I’m allowed. I’m not afraid of what I can’t see, because I force myself to celebrate and appreciate it every single time I click Play, or write “FADE IN.”

And so being young and full of folly, I fell in love with melancholy.” – Edgar Allan Poe


Featured image shows Kimberley Elizabeth on set with the cast and crew of “Do Us Part?” from Sinphony: A Clubhouse Horror Anthology. All images courtesy Kimberley Elizabeth.

Kimberley Elizabeth is co-host and creator of the leading horror film podcast and outlet Nightmare on Film Street. She’s a horror screenwriter turned director, celebrating her directorial debut with the segment “Do Us Part?” in Sinphony: A Clubhouse Horror Anthology. Her favorite horror films are Creepshow 2, Poltergeist and From Dusk Till Dawn.