On Fear and Femininity

Horror director Elle Callahan, whose new film Witch Hunt is out now, on her complex and longstanding relationship with fear, her extra sense.

I have always had a complicated relationship with fear. It has been one of my constant companions in life and, although I find myself harnessing it now as a career in making horror films, I still struggle to keep it in its proper place. At times, it feels like it seeps into everything, a muddy mess that taints my thoughts and confidence. It leaks from the pages of my scripts and hides behind curtains and doors that I walk past. But the more I try to harness it, the more I find it intoxicates me.

From a young age, I found myself fascinated with death. Ghost stories and serial killers, bloody legends and folklore. My male counterparts were more interested in tales of adrenaline, of dashing heroes and stories of strength and speed. Yet my girlfriends and I were always the ones holding open our boyfriends’ eyes as we watched the newest horror movie. To us, that was our adrenaline kick – the fear that we felt in the scares.

Writer-director Elle Callahan with actor Christian Camargo on the set of Witch Hunt.

But why? Why am I so fascinated with fear? And more importantly, why do I crave it? Personally, I think it’s because “fear,” or as I like to think of it, this extra sense, is kind of a superpower. It’s this awareness, this connection with your surroundings, this primal instinct that is always looking out for you. I think there is a stark difference between “fear” and “being afraid.” I’m not afraid, but I do have this fear sense that whispers in my ear. And as a woman, I am much more attuned to listen to that sense.

When I was 18, packing my many suitcases, eager to jet across the country and start my life at film school in California, my father slipped a book into one of my bags called The Gift of Fear. I, ignorant of the wide world I was barreling into, did not read it. Had I taken the time to sit down and dissect this sense that would keep me out of harm’s way countless times in the future, perhaps I would have understood it far earlier than I did. Who is that walking behind you? Take the path by the streetlights. Don’t park by that sketchy looking van. That voice inside my head, that sense, was trying to keep me safe.

Witch Hunt writer-director Elle Callahan.

As I progressed in my life, gathering stories that I wanted to retell in my films, I found myself drifting toward the ones that struck fear in myself and my audiences. It just felt natural to try and capture this sense that felt so innate to me. However, I have noticed over the years that this sense is not so innate to many of my male friends. When I would call an Uber to take me three blocks at 3 a.m. … they would simply walk home alone.

My guy friends say that it’s “creepy” that I have read entire Wikipedia pages on serial killers. They think the true crime podcasts that I listen to are “disturbing.” And they find the latest local missing persons case “upsetting.” But my girlfriends? Most of them have also read those Wikipedia pages, listened to those podcasts, and already formed an opinion about the man on trial for killing that girl. Do we, as women, find it “creepy,” “disturbing” and “upsetting”? Of course, 100 percent. But these things draw us in because we are learning from them. We are sensing them, absorbing them, and filing them in our brains so that these dangerous things don’t happen to us. That’s the harsh reality. But that’s also, in a weird way, the thrill.

At least, that is the only logical explanation I can think of for why so many women in my life are fascinated with horror. It is real to us. And then, when that is shown to us in the safety of a film – we can enjoy that adrenaline, because it isn’t real. For once, the fear we are so used to feeling all the time isn’t dangerous. Instead, it is just … entertaining.

Elle Callahan with actors Lulu Antariksa, Anna Grace Barlow, Gideon Adlon and Natasha Liu during the making of Witch Hunt.

To me, every horror film I make is a fear that I am conquering. Power relinquished from the men that created it for us. I cannot speak for my male counterparts in this genre, but for me and many of the female artists I know, fear is a very big part of our lives, and the films we make show our complicated relationship with it – and our need to explore and conquer it.

I would like to clarify that I am not afraid of the world, I do not let others’ nefarious intentions dominate my life – but I do hear that little voice in the back of my head that’s trying to keep me safe. At times, I have wanted to master it, beat it back until I no longer felt the need to weave my car keys between my knuckles at night as I walked home alone. But as I grew and experienced more of the world, I came to accept that it would never leave me, and it was, in fact, a gift. A power. And I would spend the rest of my life trying to capture it in 24 frames per second.

Elle Callahan is an American genre film director, writer and sound designer. Her latest feature, the thriller-horror film Witch Hunt, which she wrote and directed, was selected for the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, premiered at SXSW 2021, also played at Sitges 2021, and is out now in theaters, On Demand and digital through Momentum Features. A firm believer in story above all else, Elle is an alumna of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Elle’s focus lies in the genres of mystery and magic realism – as she sees the world through amber-colored glasses. Her first feature film, Head Count, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2018, winning the Special Jury Prize in the Nightfall category. Elle commonly sound designs her own films and is an advocate for the Women in Film movement.