Creatives reflect on heart of horror at the ATX Short Film Showcase

Harsha Ketavarapu, Life & Arts general reporter

As the lights of The Ballroom at Spiderhouse dim, terror sinks in and the audience’s worst nightmares begin crawling to life on the big screen. Little do viewers expect, the filmmakers planned more than just a good scare for this night.

Austin’s monthly film festival returned with eight wickedly entertaining short horror films Oct. 10. The ATX Short Film Showcase offers a platform for local filmmakers to share their latest creative endeavors. 

The first short, “Enjoy Your Stay,” directed by Tara Dickerson, depicted the common fear of intruders and anxiety in people’s minds. In her film, Dickerson said she explores themes of self-doubt and cautiousness towards the outside world. 

Dickerson said she strives to write stories that can thrill while also comforting people with similar struggles and creating a force of healing.

“For a long time, I made really dark art because that’s kind of all I felt. Now, I realize … if I really want to consider myself a force for good, I can’t leave people in darkness,” Dickerson said. ”To prove your worth as an artist … you have to do more than just call out the darkness. I think you have to point out at least a path to the light.”

The next screening, “Between the Trees,” directed by Kelli Horan, portrayed a young woman processing grief and her encounter with a human and supernatural threat that forced her to question which one she should fear more.

Horan said making her film in the sci-fi genre allowed her to incorporate metaphors expressing people’s everyday fears while also providing a comfortable distance from reality where they could embrace those emotions.

“Characters making mistakes or going through hard times (are) universal for people,” Horan said. “I like having that separation of ‘It’s a sci-fi fantastical thing. I’m not going to actually experience that, but, I relate to how this character is feeling.’” 

Danielle Evon Ploeger, actress and main protagonist in “Between the Trees,” said the horror genre uses empathy to connect the audience to the characters and experience their emotional highs and lows.

“There’s something really special about being able to buy into an environment and an atmosphere so much so that it scares you,” Ploeger said.

As an actress for 13 years, Ploeger said she strongly believes art fosters a space for free, unrestrained expression and that films should be designed for more open interpretations.

“There’s this hard line in American film where you (either) leave (the) theater happy and loving it, or shocked and hating it,” Ploeger said. “There’s not this in-between state of being thought-provoking and just existing for the sake of art.”

Later in the showcase, the festival showcased director Jason-Christopher Mayer’s “The Sound.” The film follows a woman who lost her hearing two years prior and gained the ability to hear a fatal sound no one else could hear.

As he progresses in his projects, Mayer said he hopes to learn how to blend social commentary into horror since he values making films that  resonate with his audience. In the meantime, Mayer said it’s important to stay authentic to his creativity and self-expression.

“The way I want to tell stories … (is) not what the mainstream is looking for right now, but I feel that I need to tell certain things,” Mayer said. “I didn’t get into this world for money or to be successful. … It’s just been a passion of mine. … I want to tell stories as opposed to following guidelines or a system of what they’re making.”