It’s an overcast Saturday afternoon in Upper Queen Anne, on one of the first honest-to-God, truly autumnal autumn days of 2016, and I’m on my way to interview Ravenna Woods lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Chris Cunningham. The wind’s picking up, and the trees—some flashing lambent autumn reds and yellows, others bare and skeletal—are bending and eddying with the increasing gusts.
It’s a genuinely enthralling gothic tableau, reinforced by our appointed meeting place, the charming but faintly spooky little two-story house that Cunningham shares with Ravenna bassist Reed LV. The house, Cunningham reveals, is over a century old, a detail borne out by the very old-school architecture and the patches of peeling white paint tentatively covering small pockets of the home’s siding.
Anyone who’s listened to Ravenna Woods shouldn’t be surprised that Chris Cunningham lives and creates in a place like this. Gregarious, enthusiastic, and down-to-Earth as he is offstage, Cunningham and his bandmates craft music that draws from the darkest outskirts of acoustic folk, with shards of punk-rock shrapnel embedded inside. It’s an overcast but cathartic, often beautiful epic sound. “Darkness doesn’t have to be synonymous with dreariness,” he says as we sit in his living room nursing beers. “I like playing with the dichotomy of really dark lyrics and really pretty melodies. Dark imagery is just beautiful to me.”
I’m initially focused on chatting with Cunningham about Alleyways and Animals, Ravenna Woods’ brand-new four-song EP. It’s an indelible (and yes, sometimes dark) collection that manages to crystalize everything great about the band even as it displays Cunningham’s restless creative spirit and the band’s continued metamorphosis. But early in our two-hour conversation, we dive down the rabbit hole of horror.
Like me, Chris Cunningham knows—and loves—the stuff. “I love horror movies, horror books, horror podcasts…I fill my life with it,” he gushes, and he’s not kidding. He talks about directing the videos for two cuts from Alleyways and Animals, “Alleyways” and “Good Friend,” both rife with decidedly horrific imagery, and he excitedly relates at length how his love of the macabre informed his college major of cultural anthropology. “Dark folklore is such an important part of every culture,” he says. “I spent a school year in the Marshall Islands teaching, and the first thing I asked the locals was [for them] to give me their scary stories.”
Ultimately, though, our conversation zeroes in on horror movies, a perfect topic for this time of year. Over the course of polishing off a six pack, Cunningham and I riff on scores of fright flicks, but the below movies represent some of his absolute favorites, in no particular order.
It Follows (2015): “I think it could have been a John Carpenter movie, right down to that great Disasterpeace soundtrack. It’s a good example of something that starts out insular with this girl and her friends, but then it opens up into something that can get you wherever, whenever. Part of what I love about it is all the questions it brings up. Where does it come from? What is it? Why is it doing this?”
The Exorcist (1973): “I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was a teenager. One night after I saw it, I’d just been grounded, and I was in my room. I remember that feeling of looking around, at my cat and into the darkness, and feeling like something could manifest at anytime—like some evil on the other side is just looking at you through a window.”
Evil Dead (2013 remake): “For sheer terror, I have to put this one on the list. The original’s great, but the reason I love this one is its realism. If this happened in real life, if your friends were in a cabin with you possessed by demons, this is exactly what it would look like.”
Night of the Living Dead (1968): “I saw it with my dad when I was a kid, and it scared the ever-living fuck out of me. I still watch it a lot. It’s brilliant. Not to be a spoiler, but the meaninglessness of [the hero’s] death at the end just shook me.”
30 Days of Night (2007): “There’s not an inch of fat on that movie. It’s got a perfect setting, in this remote snowbound place. Blood on snow, it’s just a striking visual.”
The Thing (1982): “One of the best horror movies, bar none. The Thing is the ultimate body horror movie, because it just desecrates the human form.”
In the Mouth of Madness (1994): “I watch it every Halloween. We were talking about H.P. Lovecraft, who I love, and that movie just has that cosmic horror quality like Lovecraft.”
Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988): “I like it better than the original. The second one really lets you into the world of the Cenobites. It’s this horrible place where there is no empathy, and getting lost in that world is terrifying.”
Return of the Living Dead (1985): “It’s tongue-in-cheek and it’s so punk rock. But it’s also one of the first zombie movies that spends a lot of time on people who get infected, and how they deal with that fear of becoming a monster.”
An American Werewolf in London (1981): “I’ve only seen it within the last four or five years, and I can’t believe it took me that long to see it. I love that [the lead’s] dead friend keeps coming back to visit him, progressively decomposing throughout the movie. It’s funny, but also nihilistic.”
Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985): “More body horror. That one destroyed my best friend and I the first time we saw it together. The first one is good, but the second one is just heart-of-darkness scary.”
Ravenna Woods play the Sunset Tavern Friday October 21 to celebrate the release of their new EP Alleyways and Animals.