From the Editor:
Regarding editing errors in No: 94, p.12 of the print issue, Interview: Erica Scoggins
Number apologizes profusely to Jac Kuntz, an art critic, journalist and editor based in Atlanta, GA
for not crediting her authorship of this article.
We likewise regret and apologize to Sherry Lucas for erroneously listing her as the author.
Erica Scoggins is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts (MFA in Film Directing 2016), and a current art instructor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her narrative, dark, and surrealist short films have seen international screens. Her short, The Sacred Disease (2016), was shown at the 2016 Vienna International Film Festival, the 2017 Nashville Film Festival, and most recently in Lab Competition at the 40th Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.
The film follows a young girl who battles the side effects of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) and it’s medication, before being invited by a non-conformist, femme fatale to explore and confront the disease with a band of “diseased” who live on the fringe of society. Through a suspension of time, flashes of imagery, and manipulation of sound, Scoggins provides a window into her recalled experience with the “sacred disease.”
Her soon-to-be-released production, The Boogeywoman, is a coming of age story “about the wonders and horrors of becoming a woman,” a prelude to an upcoming feature-length film. Here we talked about the underlying symbolism, connecting themes, and the cross over from mundanity and madness to final transcendence.
How much of the sacred disease was autobiographical?
In the narrative, the girls’ age, the mother relationship, the effect of the medication, and the experience of the seizure were somewhat autobiographical. I shared her feeling of separateness from the society she grew up in and the need for escape.
Both of these films were shot in Eastern TN. Was the setting intentional and what is the significance of this being a small, [probably] southern setting?
Definitely. I always start with an atmosphere instead of a story. The South is an endlessly interesting but uncomfortable place to me. There is something so haunting, beautiful, and magical in the South, but there is also antiquated and oppressive thinking. I am always stuck in between those things.
And you really can’t beat that wild, forested imagery that symbolically represents being in and out of control in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) and the natural inclinations of the mind. Does anyone ever file your work into the genre of southern gothic?
Yes, and I would be proud to wear that badge. Both of those words resonate with me. The wild of the South––there is always that enticement–there’s this feeling that you want to go out there and be away from everything that makes you comfortable, yet at the same time, it can be dangerous. This is the place of that fantasy, the place you have these experiences that can’t happen in the mundane world, where there is too much to occupy your mind. Only when you remove yourself do you feel what you need to feel as a human and animal.
In researching your work, I found a review by producer Justin Hogan, that said “The Sacred Disease” is “a deeply elegiac portrait of the space between madness and the mundane” I see that as an underlying theme in your work.
There is definitely a thread in each film that touches on that dichotomy: what if the every day was actually full of big experiences and it just depended on how you viewed them. An augmentation of the mundane is what I am interested in, and through that augmentation, how it becomes something different.
The synopsis of a literature influence you gave me, “In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy” caught my eye. It read “…. Eugene Thacker suggests that we look to the genre of horror as offering a way of thinking about the unthinkable world. To confront this idea is to confront the limit of our ability to understand the world in which we live.” In what ways was The Sacred Disease a confrontation of that wild, unthinkable world?
I revel in the in-between; when that horror of the end of a sequence of thoughts is reached. You can’t go any further but then, despite its end, you cross over… as humans we aren’t entitled to know what we can’t know. His writing resonated with me because I had these experiences I couldn’t explain, and none of the worldly explanations felt truthful to me. That’s where I live: a space of unknowing. That is how I structured this film too, that there is this society of people that go and cope with this issue un-medicated. And they have to go out of society to confront it and feel it.
You have described the “disorder” as “a means to veiled knowledge or experience.” Like a number of artists, writers, and poets that have also lived with your condition, you have pointed to those experiences as formative in your film-making.
When I say “veiled knowledge,” I am referring to this weird occurrence with TLE called “forced thought.” I would have a weird sense of déjà vu, coupled with a sense of premonition that something horrible was going to happen, unrelated to the emotions of what was really happening. I would have physical sensations, and then 20 seconds or less of sentences I wasn’t actively thinking in succession, but something was making me think; I knew what was going to be said, but I couldn’t stop it…
But, I know medication protects your brain against permanent brain damage and helps you live a normal life. It sounds like a complicated relationship with medication because you can no longer tap into those experiences. How did you try and simulate, depict, tap into or remember that for the imagery in this film?
The medication aspect is really tough for me because it’s medication used for people with bipolar disorder, it is a mood stabilizer that made me feel like a shell of a person, and it often made me sick. It was a long recovery process from the thing that was supposed to “cure me.” I did keep a journal when I was having the seizures to record them.
You used the word “nostalgia” when describing your feelings towards those episodes before they became regulated by medication. I think of the red-headed woman, Nicole, who says explicitly in the film “A woman your age shouldn’t be nostalgic.” The Boogeywoman too had a nostalgic vibe. Can you speak about the role of nostalgia in your work?
Nostalgia is something I don’t always have the words for. It’s a feeling that maybe you have already had the most intense moments of your life. The Sacred Disease was about very specific experiences that took me out of the everyday–– it was a violent, unpredictable thing that was also strangely cathartic. Those two things next to each other are so powerful. It is hard to look back and think, “Yeah when I was in that moment, I wanted to be in that moment,” but there was always that flicker of something great. In comparison to those moments, the mundane seems scary. To think, this is how most people spend their lives: washing dishes, doing laundry, paying taxes… it’s kind of devastating. So, to have had these intense experiences in the past, and to be in a place where I know that won’t happen again…I don’t want to go back, it was scary, but there are also those moments when I don’t want the mundanity that is my current existence. I think maybe that’s where the drive to make my art comes from.
How did you try and simulate that in the imagery in this film? I noticed that in depicting these experiences, sound and imagery were heavily used.
I feel an inability to describe it, but I often see certain pieces of art, or a film, or hear music and think that’s it! That’s it! That’s it! I think that is where my obsessions of recreating it came from––I could see glimpses of it in other people’s work. There’s power in cinematography to recreate fleeting moments and altered reality. The film itself is my best attempt to recreate it, but it still misses the mark.
Going into the characters and symbolism of the film, was Nicole’s role in this movie a metaphor for the sacred disease? She seems like she understands the young girl’s plight. She is inviting and somehow familiar and exciting, yet at other times she is violent and callous and invites risk and danger.
I am so about symbolism. Nicole is a weathered, young woman who has been dealing with the disease for a long time––but in the way that she wants to. She takes her medication occasionally, but ultimately lives for the high of the seizure, be it’s something that causes harm and peace. But she embodies this person who’s accepted the ambiguity of the disease. She lived with the limit Eugene Thacker described. Nicole was also meant to be Angie’s guardian angel, babygaga, or double, because seeing your double or having an out-of-body experience is another symptom of TLE. She is ultimately a catalyst, inspiring Angie to come out of her medicated shell.
Speaking of archetypes, I enjoyed that there is this character in both films: the redheaded woman (Nicole) and the Boogeywoman, who are the temptress, femme fatale, or siren archetype, but instead of man following a woman in desire of her allure, a woman is inviting a girl to look, question, explore, “follow me and discover something about yourself.” Can you speak to that invitation of self-discovery?
Yeah, I always have these two characters that personify the tension of what one wants to do and what one should do or has been told to do. One person lives the straight path and the other says, “No, come this way. This is where you want to live.” A film is a place I can live that without risk.
A way to transcend that mundanity without taking the risks of no return.
Yeah. My drive to make things is a drive to create a different type of existence. These two characters are related in that way. They are a rite of passage, offering something beyond the everyday experience, but always with risk involved. And that’s what makes fiction interesting. In some sense, anything someone creates is cathartic or an exploration or discovery of a darker side. I think those characters are symbolic of that.
In both films, you blur the lines between what is happening and what is imagined. I think of popular culture movies like Fight Club or Black Swan where the movie takes place inside of the character’s mind. At some point though, you realize it doesn’t matter what is real and what isn’t––perhaps it all is or isn’t. It’s unnerving and disorienting as a viewer– as I would imagine your experiences with TLE have been. Does portraying reality matter?
It always bothers me when people see a film and think it must be a dream or the character must be crazy because they didn’t understand it. They assume there must be an easy answer. I liked that after a point, you didn’t care anymore because what we are seeing is a reality for someone. It may be a reality for just one person, but that doesn’t mean it is a lesser reality. That’s why I try and stay away from special effects, etc.–– cinematic tropes that point to a dream state or drug-fueled fugue––and instead let the materiality of the film and actuality of the scene perform, hoping people accept that it’s real or maybe question it, but don’t arrive at these easy answers.
So going along with the “dream-like” sense, both films were very surreal, as a style, and aspects reminded me of the 20th surrealists. That movement reveled in and tried to simulate cognitive disorders or conditions to achieve transcendence. In some cases, misogynistically, fetishizing women with cognitive ailments or mental instability in their work. Your work is surreal, but it is a surrealism that possesses female agency.
I used to study the surrealists and absurdity. I am interested in the methods the surrealists used to induce trances or arrive at subconscious connections. And I tried to do that after I stopped having seizures. Surrealism and magical realism are big influences. In works like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the very strange is treated as normal. I am still learning how to bring that into cinematic space…and want to do that going forward: mixing magic with the mundane and what would happen if magic became mundane. As for female agency … that’s something that I hope I bring differently to this kind of genre or style of making.
Do you have anything else to say about that spectrum of madness, mundanity, and boredom?
I think it is really hard for people to be bored these days––it is hard for me––but I think that empty headspace. If you can get there, is where that kind of magic can happen. I am constantly terrified of settling down, but at the same time, I need that routine in order to make, in order to have my thoughts, and my brain, and my creativity function. You have to function, but you need your ways to supersede boredom. If you do it the right way, you give yourself the space to go a little mad, before you need the balance of the mundane again.
Jac Kuntz is an art critic, journalist and editor based in Atlanta, GA