There’s nothing like morbid, grotesque and disturbing stories to alleviate the pain of real life and invigorate one’s soul. Thus, horror fans will flock to the Frida Cinema this weekend, so they can join their brethren in a celebration of all things frightful. Yea, it is in this darkened cathedral that these good people will both get their jollies and transcend the sins of humanity by attending the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. Naturally, non-horror fans will view this description as hyperbole, chortling or scoffing, but there’s actually something to it.
In this age of animosity, division and chaos, all one has to do to experience nightmarish realities is to read a newspaper or watch the news. It’s easy to see that government and religious institutions contribute to the atrocities inherent in the human race now as much as ever, and while horror films, comic books and video games remain scapegoats for the world’s dysfunction and violence, the Horrible Imaginings mission statement demonstrates festival founder/executive director Miguel Rodriguez’s noble goals. It reads, in part: “We sincerely believe in the sharing and exploring of our deepest fears, desires and anxieties in a community setting . . . to not only explore these complex emotions, but also exorcise them.”
“In a way, it’s a very primal genre, and it’s built on emotion, the emotion of fear,” Rodriguez says. “[And since the genre is] stigmatized, people tend to dismiss it. And a nice side effect of that dismissal is that artists and creators can kind of drop their pretension and do something a little more real, a little more sincere, because if we’re not gonna be taken seriously anyway, we might as well.”
Rodriguez, who holds a degree in classical literature and has taught classes on the subject, has traced the history of storytelling—all the while fostering a fascination with frightful things. And his discovery of the genre’s social potential began when he was a child and would watch horror films with his mother or aunt. “They liked these movies, and [afterward], we would talk about . . . what we thought was scary, why we thought that was scary . . . how it wasn’t real and that there were special effects and makeup and acting and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “And it got me thinking at that impressionable age that these types of movies are made specifically to stir up an emotion.”
The 10-year-old Horrible Imaginings is the extension of that experience. One of the effects of exploring various anxieties and fears, Rodriguez finds, is a realization that all people have them, and there’s a catharsis from that shared experience. “That’s why I like running the film festival,” he says. “We have these conversations in a large group after watching something in a darkened theater—often with a bunch of strangers whom we hadn’t met before.”
The festival’s programming showcases serious conversation starters as well as light-hearted material. “I view it a lot like making a mixtape,” Rodriguez says. “We have things that are animated. We have funny movies. We have things that are genuinely scary.”
Blocks of short films follow distinct themes. The “Shock to the System” program is “very much socio-political,” according to Rodriguez, while “This Mortal Coil” demonstrates the progression of life. “The first few are about birth, the next few are about childhood, the next few are about adolescence, and so forth.”
There’s also a panel discussion titled “Horror for Humanity: Real-Life Anxieties Through a Genre Lens,” which accompanies two relevant short films. “One talks a lot about human trafficking,” Rodriguez says of the movies, “and the other one is called Conversion Therapist. That title kind of speaks for itself.”
In the spirit of fun—and to honor its 60th anniversary—Rodriguez will screen William Castle’s The Tingler. Horror buffs frequently associate this film with Castle’s accompanying theater gimmick called Percepto, which involved rigging seats with devices that enabled viewers to experience “tingling” during certain moments. For the occasion, the Frida’s seats will be equipped with the buzzers.
Also in this spirit, Rodriguez mentioned the prospect of having attendees fill out fake life insurance policies prior to screening the feature film Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made.
For opening night, a live performance of Leigh Purtill Ballet Co.’s Sweet Sorrow: A Zombie Ballet accompanies a block of films that includes the satirical Satanic Panic, which depicts a socially elite group whose love for the unholy dark lord goes hand in hand with an affection for casseroles and country clubs. The opening-night party follows.
Though Horrible Imaginings Film Festival got its start in San Diego, this is the second year it has taken place in Orange County. “We’ve found the community around the Frida Cinema to be extraordinary,” Rodriguez says. “It’s so welcoming and so enthusiastic. We end up having these packed theaters with engaged audiences, who like to stick around for the Q&A and talk to the filmmakers. When we moved here, it was like starting over in a way, but I’ve loved it.”
Horrible Imaginings Film Festival at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; hifilmfest.com. Fri.-Sun. Visit the website for show times and ticket prices.