Jillian Mcdonald is a kind of horror culture sociologist studying the differences between zombies and vampires, the two most popular species of the Undead. “There is a sophisticated and aristocratic ideal about the vampire, whereas the zombie is a working-class everyman. He’s very average.”
There is nothing average about the success the Brooklyn-based artist has experienced inhabiting her working-class anti-hero. Growing up in Winnipeg, she couldn’t bring herself to watch horror films. “I think the most disturbing thing was the zombies because they are so disgusting. What’s more terrifying than the thought of us rotting and chasing ourselves?” Eventually her disgust turned academic; she began reading horror film theory and looking at films. “There’s always a special feature on horror film DVDs with makeup artists and that’s when it began to percolate. I became fascinated with the artifice of the makeup.” Mcdonald had also noticed that a number of women put on their makeup while riding on the subway. Her study and observation resulted in a 2006 performance called Horror Make-up, in which she transforms herself from a pleasant-looking young woman into a full-on zombie while sitting on the L train in New York. It is brilliant, both because of her blasé performance (Mcdonald is a fine actor who uses minimal gestures and actions to maximal effect) and because of the conspicuous way her fellow passengers ignore her on the train.
From that transitory beginning, she has moved into more complicated narratives, like Zombies in Condoland, which she made for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche in October of 2008. It’s an upscale movie and the first time she had worked with people other than herself. “It was pretty scary, but it made me realize I could orchestrate a larger production.” In May the following year she expanded her directorial skills and her ambition, organizing Undead in the Night in Malmö, Sweden. Audience members were invited to join actors playing vampires and zombies in a three-kilometre-long, peripatetic living horror movie. “Almost 500 people came out for the auditions, and after the first hour we could tell which people wanted to be zombies and which vampires. Such different people are interested in each of the characters. But what I’m most interested in is the effect that films and film genres have on audiences.”
Her most recent project was shown at Gallery One One One at the University of Manitoba in the fall of this year. Called RedRum, it references The Shining without retelling Kubrick’s story. But she does play with conventions of the horror movie found in his 1980 classic, like the apparitions, the children and the dripping blood. “It becomes apparent as you watch the video that the characters are apparitions of people who have been murdered.”
For all the visible drama of RedRum, Mcdonald is walking a delicate line between horror and camp in her production. “I think there is camp in my video because of all the clichés of the horror movie. When you watch a horror film you know that something is going to happen and yet it works. I find that fascinating. There are certain things that get us, like a door opening by itself, when you can almost feel the wind on the back of your neck. The thing about horror and fear is that it’s visceral. It’s like love in that sense; you feel it in your stomach.”