Comrades In Horror-Kelsey Zukowski

She will not stop at nothing

Kelsey is a ‘Final Girl’ who knows how to channel the fear of horror and use it as a tool for survival.  She sees the dark as an aspect of life.  As a writer and a model, she knows how to execute her skills.  I was honored to get to know her better and learn of her future projects and insight into the horror genre.

DP: What draws you to the horror genre?

What initially drew me to horror, like many other horror fans, was watching the Halloween series when I was younger and in a way it changing my life drastically right then and there. It was a turning point with my relationship to the genre. The infatuation and horror Michael Myers invoked in me allowed me to view horror in another way; it allowed me embrace the horror rather than fear it. In fact, it has been a fascination since and resonates within me deeply. Horror is a safe space to explore the ugliest, vilest, and most unthinkable things in this world in situations and manifestations of evil we couldn’t really imagine actually being faced with. In reality these things are often very real in one form or another. When engaging in horror we aren’t actually in a life or death situation, but typically if it’s well done you have great empathy for the protagonist and feel you are fighting with them against such disgusting torment. Ideally, the “monster” on hand is intensely complex and interesting. The best horror can offer stimulating exploration or perhaps simply exposing evils in a metaphorical, powerful creative art form. They show all aspects of evil being born, bred, and thriving in ways that aren’t so different from what we cross paths with. Every person has struggles in life that can seem unbeatable and threaten to tear you apart, but it’s that thirst and hunger for life, suffering, but not losing your fight or strength, that makes us all have a little piece of a kick ass final girl within us.

Once the genre pulled me in and got me to see it in another light, I really realized the endless potential it hold for creativity, strength, and having immense substance and meaning, which often gets misunderstood or overlooked. In a way, it only makes me connect to the genre more, it’s a mutual understanding that can really fuel you and has come to be a massive part of my identity and spirit.

DP: What do you find more effective: suspense or gore? Why?

I don’t really think it has to be one or the other. Gore and suspense working together and complimenting one another to bring out a gripping, powerful story with identity and subtext makes for a wonderful combination that tends to bring out horror’s potential, utilizing all elements.  If I had to choose it would be suspense though. I can really appreciate great gore, but I have certainly seen horror films that have phenomenal gore and effects and a lackluster story and build of suspense and it just kills it for me. Really the most essential thing is getting the audience invested, getting them to care, which typically starts with relatable characters, story, and then building from there. Then hooking the audience and pulling them in further, both through suspense and building intrigue. It’s important to give them something unique and fresh; something that resonates. Sure, there are exceptions like goresploitation films, where the story and how things are built aren’t that important; it’s more just about over the top insane gore and having fun with it. Gore has it’s time and place to reign on its own, but more often than not if I was going to have just one it would be suspense. Some of the most terrifying scenarios are psychological, entrapping through the mind horror, which feels even more horrifying and seemingly impossible to break free of, making the injustice of it seem all the more brutal. Gore isn’t necessary, but suspense is to tell a compelling horror story. Just look at Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. It is one of the most brutal movies I have seen, one of the few that would honestly be hard for me to revisit. It left me feeling violated for days. Yet, there isn’t actually much gore and that much graphically shown. It’s more the heartless very real atrocity it is based on, but in terms of the film more than anything it’s the tone, writing, conviction of the characters and acting, and the situation. We don’t really need to see the gore to make this hard to endure. It’s clear how twisted, cruel, and sickly unjust this is. It reveals that sometime the greatest monsters are those who are supposed to care for and protect you.

DP: What sub-genre of horror speaks to you?

Psychological horror will always speak to me the most. Attacking one through the mind always seemed like such a fascinating take on horror. It goes beyond the physical to attack you in the one place that is most your own, if you’re anything like me the most precious, heavily guarded piece of you; your own mind. Wes Craven’s films resonated with me most, partially due to this very much being his signature style, the strongest two examples probably being A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Serpent and the Rainbow. It also seems like it takes things to the next level and makes it seem so surreal and impossible that this can even be happening, more so than a killer simply stalking you. The concept of the ripping away of the safety net of something being “just a dream” and not real as in Elm Street, was destroyed, because in this unreal dream world realm, it actually gave more finality to it and made it that much harder to escape. Yet Nancy, easily one of the strongest final girls, uses this avenue for her torment, to meet Freddy at his own playing field; to fight right back through the mind. She approaches him in this unreal realm where he has all the power. She realizes fear is the most powerful weapon, and she might have a fighting chance, if she owns it and grows from it.

Most of the horror films that really stand out to me as the strongest and where I want to see the genre go tend to be very brutal, but where that gore and torment serve great purpose, presenting parallels and exploration in to the potential for both darkness in human kind and society and the unbelievable resilient human spirit. I love horror films with meaning and substance that make me think and overwhelm my senses. French extremity films, as well as similar films from other countries, are a favorite of mine, films like Frontier(s), Martyrs, Inside, and Eden Lake. Most Jack Ketchum’s adaptations fall in to this category too. To me it’s one of the most creative and beautiful things you can do with horror; use it to expose and attempt to understand the world we live in, even pushing it to the extreme of where that potential can lie and how harmful it could become.

 DP: What challenges does a model face that differs from an actress?

Most of the modeling I do isn’t traditional modeling; it’s more thematic, emotional, and story-based. Overall, I do take an actor’s and storytelling approach to modeling, whether it’s abstract avant garde or a more literal approach of this character’s world and themes I am striving to bring out. One of the biggest challenges is everything is visual and still, obviously there is no relying on dialogue or even much action to convey struggles or strength, emotion or intellect. Your expression and all you have to convey through your eyes and body are your most crucial tool you must learn to harness. You have to tell a story one snapshot at a time, each one needing to be fairly unique and a step deeper in to exploration on the subject. Also, typically unique poses are pretty important for a model, which can be tricky to find something new, sometimes outside of the box, while still allowing it to look natural and not to detract from the more crucial emotion or attitude you allow to radiate through you.

DP: How does it affect you to see yourself die on-screen?

I’m honestly not particularly affected by it. I think it’s probably hardest for family to see that, which I can totally understand. Seeing someone you care for in great torment or dead, even in a fictional medium, when they aren’t as totally engrossed in this genre the way I am, isn’t something most people want to see. Once I’m watching something I was involved in I’m more focused on the final product and how it comes across as a viewer. When I am more affected by my characters and the hell they are often asked to endure it’s when I’m preparing for a role and especially when we are actually filming. As an actor, you have to take away that separation and allow yourself to fall in to the realities of the character, what is currently real in her world has to become real to an extent in your world, body, mind, and soul. And you have to live and stay there as much as possible. I try to at least hold on to the thoughts, mood, and mindset of that character even between takes. It can be hard at times as usually being on set is a blast, especially when working with people you really get along with. Focusing on horror, most of the films I work on do not have that lighthearted fun tone. So sometimes I’ll even have to separate myself from that energy to stay in the headspace and suffocating turmoil and fierce emotions of my character. In that sense, it can be difficult, but absolutely worth it, to let yourself go to dark, desperate places sometimes to tell this story as authentically and honestly as you can.

DP: As a writer, what subjects do you consider off limits?

KZ: I don’t think any subject is off limits to me as a writer as long as I portray it with dignity and depth. I have a high tolerance as a viewer for watching disturbing films; sometimes they impress me the most, because humanity has proved it’s capable of truly horrible things and facing that through a creative medium can do so much. It’s an honest exploration, utilizing the capabilities of horror.  But what I really can’t get behind are films that use horrific things for shock value with no point other than for the sake of shock and filth, especially if they are based on a true story where they are taking someone’s actual suffering and cheapening it for their own benefit. The most hard to swallow, yet powerful, horror tends to have a basis in reality or where it could be real at least, that’s usually something that makes it more scary. If you experience this cruel, horrible atrocity and then walk away from it without it seeming impossible that it could happen to you or anyone really it tends to have a larger affect and hold on to you. So whether it be a true crime story or involve rape, or children, things I could see being more touchy subjects and of high importance not to exploit, if you handle it correctly and your intentions are right, none of those things should be off limits. Horror isn’t about what’s pretty and easy to talk about. It’s really the ideal medium to address the most, nearly unfathomable atrocious wrongs in this world. So I don’t see any reason to not go there, if it will invoke something meaningful or powerful in the end, even if it’s just a story worth telling.

DP: What projects are you excited about?

I’m very excited about my main creative project right now,, which I created with my creative partner and fellow horror actress/ model, Leslie Gladney. We have a different theme or sub-genre of horror we focus on at once, during that time we visit films that we think are a strong example of that theme, new and old, and have an analytical, conversational review between the two of us, diving in to all aspects of the film. We also have “New Blood” reviews, reviewing new horror even if it’s not in the theme we are focusing on at the moment.

In addition to that we create photo stories focusing on that given theme, where we bring alive the inherent horror and strength that we see the potential for within the subject matter. We do this primarily through cinema inclined images that tell this story one shot at a time and then couple it with a short story I write to bring a voice to the images, really allowing the viewer to fall in to the eerie atmosphere and gripping horror on hand. A main focus of the site as well is highlighting the type of horror that speaks to us is to promote stronger, more intelligent, and realistic roles for women in the genre, which are far more of a rarity than they should be. In addition to the reviews and photo stories, we are in the process of adding an interview section, initially focusing on female horror filmmakers and other roles within horror that are typically male-dominated, but we also are eager to interview male filmmakers who actively seek to create strong, well-realized, non- clichéd female roles.

I’m also happy to share that Within These Walls, a disturbing, psychological and surreal haunting feature I wrote and star in is now available to watch on Amazon Prime. It has been a huge passion project of mine for several years, and it’s exciting that it’s out there and people are able to experience it for themselves.

DP: What’s your favorite way to scare your fans?

I feel like I have a different relationship with horror than most. I really don’t look to be scared with films; that’s kind of a non-issue for me. I am essentially looking for a compelling story that can really pull me in and have an effect. If I am trying to scare an audience with my writing in particular, it’s not that momentary scare or jump. I definitely want to have good build up and rich, biting suspense, which can create anticipation and potentially scares just by its nature. But really if I’m actively looking to scare an audience, it’s in the bigger picture of the film and inherent horrors in the concept itself. I’m very big on themes and as you can probably tell horror with depth. So more often than not, the scare will be in the concept of our heroine or hero having to face very real evil present in the world and by extension, the audience being exposed to it as well, to imagine themselves in this impossible situation that can be utterly suffocating, yet show the truth resilience of the human spirit.  There is no question though, the core of fear is the fear of control over oneself. Really creating any situation where that is true and dig in to personal torment, seemingly with no end, can scare anyone.

You can find more about Kelsey on her website and Instagram.






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