“I was so scared of horror when I was a kid,” says Isabella Price as she strokes a purring black cat next to a coffin covered in cobwebs, reflecting on how she became Seattle’s premiere Horror Hostess. “I grew up Baptist and wasn’t allowed to watch horror at all. It wasn’t until I was in college and I started studying films from the 1920s — because I’m SO pretentious — I fell into the horror movies of the silent film era, and fell in love.”
Nosferatu, with his terrible grasping claws; Dr. Caligari’s dizzying landscapes; the Phantom, the Hunchback, Faust — they each beckoned to Isabella at the University of Texas, and now Baptism's loss is Seattle's gain.
“Learning about them helped me to understand that it wasn’t just blood and guts and dead cheerleaders,” she says. There was also something magnetically queer about many of these works, as directors like James Whale and F.W. Murnau infused their films with queer undertones.
Horror “was a place for people to explore darker things,” Isabella says, from the sham heterosexuality of Bride of Frankenstein through the penetrative monster of Nightmare on Elm Street. “There’s so much to the idea of the monster, someone who lives on the outskirts of society, who’s misunderstood by other people.”
Around the same time that she was first exploring the horror genre, Isabella discovered another means of empowerment at a queer bar in Texas that held periodic open nights for burlesque. “I was like, ‘fuck, I’ll try,’” she said, and started dancing.
Today, she hosts screenings and convention panels around Seattle that blend her passion for horror and burlesque, delighting in everything at the intersection of the horrific and fantastical with a healthy dash of gender and race.
While horror media is a topic of fascination and study for Isabella, the burlesque provides a more participatory form of expression. “Burlesque is like drag,” she says. “You’re putting on a personality, donning a heightened version of yourself — sexier, more feminine, more assertive.”
For her, performance is very much about who’s watching. “Most people who come to my burlesque shows are women and queer people — not that those two things are exclusive … but most of the people who say they like me and what I do are women. All of my shows I think are targeted to other women.”
In other words, it’s about learning to enjoy your own sexual power in a group, no matter what that group’s sexuality might be. “It’s not really to get people off,” she says, “if you DO get off, that’s an added bonus — and I hope you brought dollar bills — but it’s about your sexuality exclusively. It’s very queer.”
Of Isabella’s many projects, her favorite has been the Nocturnal Emissions film series at Northwest Film Forum. It’s a blend of a saucy cabaret show with a movie screening plus an academic lecture with a few party games, featuring films like The People Under the Stairs, Phantasm, and Attack the Block. Nocturnal Emissions parties are great rowdy fun — or at least they were, before the pandemic put in-person events on hold.
Now, creators like Isabella have had to get creative, turning to online events in an attempt to replicate some of the magic of being in the same physical space. It’s not an easy conversion, but Isabella’s love for horror is irresistible.
Take, for example, her enthusiasm when the topic of the movie Candyman comes up. “Candyman is the ghetto as a haunted house,” she says. “Like a Dracula in a castle, Candyman lords over the ghetto and the projects as a specter that can be at any place at any time. Normally in horror movies, people are kept in a haunted house through some means. But in Candyman people can’t leave because of their economic situation.”
In normal times, Isabella has an entire convention panel on that topic. But these days, she’s channeling her thoughtful approach towards horror critique into a podcast and YouTube videos. Recent topics of exploration have been the queer monster-hunting show Demonhuntr; the film Nightmares are Dreams Too; and I joined her on an episode for an exploration of the homoerotic residue of Nightmare on Elm Street II.
Still, quarantine has been disruptive, to say the least. At the start of the year, Isabella had arranged theatrical screening rights to a whole season of films — “the industry is only set up for theaters,” she sighs, “but now there are no theaters.”
Now, “I’m trying to make everything digital, doing the panels and live shows virtually, trying to reconfigure all of those things,” she says. “I think it’s totally possible to be a horror hostess who streams online.” She’s working with Northwest Film Forum and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute on livestreamed watch parties, hosting one recent online screening with Tony Todd, the Candyman himself.
She’s learning as she goes, she says, and discovering that online events provide their own opportunities, whether with classes or workshops or Facebook live hangouts. “All of these things are exciting for me, because there is a lot more you can do when you’re in your home,” she says. “Normally when you do a panel or workshop, it’s you and your PowerPoint presentation.” But now, she can bombard an audience with material from clips to stripteases like never before.
And of course, one of the most exciting aspects has been connecting over horror and sexuality with people who are geographically dispersed around the globe. As it turns out, there are lots of folks all over the world who share her passions.
“Horror is so deeply aligned with queer identity, it’s really remarkable to me,” she says. “Heightened, ridiculous, absurd, sexy characters — what is queer life if not dark, sexy, alluring, and endlessly entertaining?”