Welcome to Scene Report where we highlight significant, underground scenes and subcultures across the globe.

Horror isn’t for everyone. That’s kind of the point of creating art that’s meant to make people uncomfortable. But when the people who love that art come together, there’s an immediate sense of community and camaraderie. 

For horror lovers living in Chicago, Illinois, there’s a plethora of spaces to come together. From indie movie theaters and stores that cater to horror fans to unique places like a curiosities museum and a themed coffee shop, in the last couple of years, the Windy City has become a hub for horror fans of all kinds. 

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It wasn’t always this way, though. “Five to 10 years ago, this [abundance of horror spaces] was not a thing,” says Moses Gibson, co-owner of the collectible shop The Horror House in Avondale. But now, more people are finding themselves fans, he says, since “everything has gotten darker in the mainstream,” and thanks to things like the streaming service Shudder, or how boutique physical media brands like Vinegar Syndrome and Severin have made more obscure titles accessible. This growing appreciation for horror has created a massive demand for not only more horror stories and merchandise, but for more horror-centric communities.

2022 saw the expansion of the Music Box Theatre's horror programming to monthly, instead of solely focusing on the month of October — and that month featured a horror movie everyday on top of their annual 24-hour movie marathon. Last year also marked the opening of The Horror House, the horror-themed coffee shop The Brewed, and oddities museum Graveface Records and Curiosities, which doubles as a record and movie store that features a mass collection of obscure films available for rent. To say the least, 2022 was an incredible year for horror fans in Chicago. 

the brewed chicago

[The Brewed / Photo by Nick Mayor]

When the pandemic hit, Nick Mayor, co-owner of Bric-a-Brac Records and The Brewed, his wife Jen Lemasters, and their friend Jason Deuchler decided to start working on something of their own. That something became The Brewed, a brightly colored coffee shop adorned with a series of rotating vintage horror and cult film posters, as well as display cases of horror and monster movie memorabilia going back more than 50 years. They also host screenings at the shop and have partnered with the Music Box on several occasions to program at the theater. 

The Brewed team is also actually a major reason why a brick and mortar location of The Horror House exists — showing just how interconnected the community is. Gibson and his brother/business partner Vinny Malave dreamed about opening a permanent store for years. But it wasn't until Mayor and Lemasters urged them to take over the previous Bric-a-Brac Records space when they moved that the brothers felt like the plan was feasible.

They took to Kickstarter and sought aid from the community who, Gibson says, “really came through for us in a way that was unprecedented.” Malave says they saw so much excitement when they proposed creating a space where customers know they’re “supporting a small business directly” and “going to people who genuinely love the genre.” 

They didn't end up setting up shop in the old Bric-a-Brac, but they did open a location of their own. Now Gibson says the store is in a position where they can spotlight “local artists [who] do such badass stuff” and are constantly “finding new merch, new companies, new artists.” The store features T-shirts with Malave’s designs with clever mashups like “John Candyman” and “Alkaline Trejo,” alongside official merchandise from brands like Terror Threads, as well as zines and figures ranging from E.T. to Michael Myers. But it’s the feeling of the store more than any specific products for sale that makes it special. The brothers came up selling their shirts at horror conventions and sought to bring that vibe to the store — creating a space where you could find something for any and every kind of horror fan.  

the horror house chicago

[The Horror House / Photo by Jorge Espinosa of Bury Me in Gold Media]

And there are all kinds of horror fans in the city. As Eric Miller, vocalist of local mincecore band HANZxGRUBER and staple of horror screenings at the Music Box, says, the scene includes “mainstreamers, fanatics, geeks and nerds, snobs, know it alls, gore hounds, sick freaks.” Local horror merch creator Nicola McCafferty, who sells her wares as VVitchroom and at The Horror House, similarly sees the horror scene in Chicago as “wide-reaching and full of a bunch of different special-interest pockets that you can dip into, depending on your investments.” 

The Music Box is one of the main places in the city where fans can explore those varied interests, and that’s by design. Katie Rife, one of the programmers behind horror screenings at the Music Box, says, “I want to show a bunch of different kinds of movies.” Those movies vary from things like the Lindsay Lohan-starring trashterpiece I Know Who Killed Me and deep cut slashers to the horror-inspired 1975 gay pornographic film Sex Demon and silent films.

As Miller says, “Not everything is for everyone,” and there are some films the theater has shown that have upset some people, like Hong Kong horror films Black Magic 2 and Evil Cat. But those films keep their patrons in conversation and feeling like they're part of a community — which is something the entire Music Box of Horrors (as the horror programming is called) team emphasizes.

Rife’s teammate Will Morris says, “The vast majority of our crowd feels comfortable to come up to us and say, ‘Whoa that was really fucked. Why’d you do that?’ and then we have a conversation — which is great.”

Morris, who moved to Chicago from Los Angeles, says the ability to disagree and be honest about their opinions is something he's "always loved." He says, “That’s a very welcoming thing when folks are just being fucking real with you — and that’s my favorite thing about the Chicago horror scene."

That comes from the sense of trust and community horror lovers have amongst each other in Chicago. Co-host of the Fear Queers podcast Beyza Ozer cites the city’s status as a sort of outsider big city as what contributes to that. Ozer says, “We have an advantage being in a major city, but at the same time we're maybe not on the radar like LA or NYC are. That makes it feel like a smaller, closer community to me.” 

That closeness manifests itself not only in comfort discussing different opinions on movies people have seen, but also films people have made. Filmmaker and cinephile-about-town Raphael Jose Martinez, who works at a variety of video stores and theaters throughout the city, premiered their short giallo All Your Secrets Will Be Your Noose last November, knows this. They say, “No one is going to tell you, ‘Good job,’ just cause they're your friend.” Although, Martinez got lucky and the response to the film was overwhelmingly positive.

What was more exciting was the turnout to the premiere. They say, "[I had] to run and borrow chairs from the neighbors because people just kept showing up!” In Chicago, they explain, people “will definitely be like, ‘Oh, shit, you made something? Cool! Let me check it out!’ And they'll tell you exactly what they think about it.” 

Ozer echoes this sentiment. They say, “Chicago is a genuine, big-hearted place with lots of horror nerds who come out to support whatever the event may be.” 

bucket o blood chicago

[Bucket O’Blood Books and Records / Photo by Grant and Jennifer McKee]

Ultimately, it comes down to "a real hunger for connection" that's "matched with an extremely creative drive," as Ozer's co-host Chase Hauser explains. 

That applies to art, just as much as it does creating spaces and events for the horror community. And, as Casey L., one of the programmers with the screening-organizing group Terror in the Aisles, puts it, it's "all about outsiders" coming together — because often those niche or underground scenes can be the most welcoming. 

Casey highlights how much they love creating spaces for those weirdos and outsiders to feel accepted and the diversity of patrons at the screenings they program. “There are lots of wonderful LGBTQIA+ folks, women, metalheads, BIPOC folks, punks, goths, film lovers, parents with kids, older folks, younger folks [that come to events],” they say.

The scene isn’t perfect in its openness, though. Martinez says, “Rarely do you see horror events or programming geared towards the Black, Latino, or Asian communities of Chicago. And when you do, the promoters/bookers, who are primarily white and live on the North Side, don’t really know how to market it or promote it to those communities.” McCafferty also notes how the larger structural issues of race and class in the city likely limit access, saying, “[it's not easy] for everyone to come out to midnight movies," and mentioning the lack of public transportation in some areas.

But the scene is still growing. 

“There's an entire horror ecosystem that seems to have emerged in the past 10 years here that is genuinely mind boggling at times,” says Martinez. You can see it in the recent openings of new places like The Brewed and The Horror House, and even at landmark institutions. Grant McKee, co-owner of long-standing horror store Bucket O’Blood Books and Records, for example, says “Just in the past two years we've nearly doubled our selection of horror fiction and more than doubled our selection of horror films across a variety of formats [to meet the increasing demand].” 

A new Alamo Drafthouse location also just opened up in Wrigleyville, serving up repertory screenings alongside major franchise releases. With more places for horror fans to watch movies, buy merch, drink coffee, and commiserate opening up in the city every few months at this point, there’s no telling how big this community can grow. But one thing is for sure: They’d love to have you, whether you want to talk about The Conjuring, Stephen King, Jörg Buttgereit, movies shot on video only 10 people have seen, or all of those things.