Story by Devonshire Lokke
Photos courtesy of Emma Campbell
Imagine a house with rooms full of squids, snakes and frogs floating in odd-shaped bottles. One room has a six-foot-tall rack of tarantulas, a tank full of beetles or an industrial-sized box of lizard corpses, bones or tortoise shells. Horror movie posters from the 1980s cover the walls. Masks of zombies, mummies, aliens and other monsters watch you with an eerie life-likeness. Behind the house, skeletons of boars, rabbits and goats lay decomposing in rows like an unearthed animal graveyard. To some, this may sound like the lab of a mad scientist, or a scene from the creepy intro sequence of the FX television show “American Horror Story: Murder House.” A nightmare. To Emma Campbell, however, it’s the dream art studio.
Emma Campbell — makeup effects artist, creature creator, animatronics engineer, oddities collector, taxidermist and mortuary science student — shares her Austin home and studio space with the company of living creatures as well. She has a direwolf-sized dog named Davros, a bearded dragon named Drogon, and three rehabilitated snakes — Dexter the red-tailed boa, a blood python named Gregor, and a ball python who has eaten a total of 11 fellow serpents in his day, appropriately called Hannibal.
A nocturnal creature herself, Campbell says she sleeps throughout the daytime. However, when the moon comes out, she becomes “manic, hyperactive and neurotic,” working to bring the monsters in her leather sketchbooks to life. On the weekends, Campbell creates masks, animatronics and film props for PCND FX, a company that specializes in dark attractions and large-scale film and video game props. Their work is notably featured in Slayer’s Castle at The Texas Renaissance Fair and in the movie “Pacific Rim” (the helmets in the film were created by PCND).
Campbell has also conjured creepy characters for Austin’s House of Torment, Slaughter Farms Haunted House in Lago Vista, Texas and other Halloween attractions as far away as Los Angeles. She has worked on the effects for more than 17 different films in the past few years, and takes online classes at a mortuary school based out of Houston. In her free time, Campbell combines her FX artwork and applied science skills to create whimsically frightening sculptures and taxidermies for her Etsy shop and gallery, Clever Cannibal Productions.
Campbell credits her scientific interests for the aesthetic of her artwork. Holding up a zombie mask she created, Campbell explains how she aims to capture the surrealistically beautiful colors of the natural processes of death. “I wanted to do something that actually looked like proper rot,” Campbell explains, pointing out the mask’s vibrant greens, pinks and violets. “There’s a lot of things like this that happen when a body dies, a lot of disgusting things obviously, that are also pretty.”
“Have you ever seen marbled tissue?” she asks excitedly. “When a body dies, the blood coagulates inside the veins, so the skin turns paler, the veins turn purple and it looks like marble and I think that’s just gorgeous.”
Her inspiration is not simply aesthetic. Campbell explains why she collects insects and animals that have died from natural causes and preserves them as artwork. “I don’t bleach any of the bones I find, because I don’t like the way it looks plastic, unnatural,” she says, “but it’s not just an aesthetic thing. I like the bones because it’s like being left a piece of something else’s life.”
In a similar way, Campbell aims to preserve the life of reptiles, spiders and other exotic pets by educating people who take interest in her specimens. She explains that many of the dead tarantulas, snakes and lizards she preserves come from pet stores or owners who don’t provide the animals with proper habitats or care. “I think snakes and spiders get such a bad rap, and people treat them so poorly because they think these are such low maintenance pets when they’re really not,” she says. By carefully dissecting, mounting or preserving their bodies, Campbell often discovers exactly how the animals died and informs the pet stores, breeders or her customers about how to better treat these often misunderstood creatures. “I don’t like seeing anything in pain, I don’t like seeing beautiful things die young,” she says.
Miraculously, for her line of work, Campbell has the day of Halloween off this year. She plans to create a full-body wendigo costume, which is her favorite mythical monster. According to Algonquian legend, the wendigo is a demonic, cannibalistic half-man half-beast. The wendigo is often described as a balance of nature. Campbell parallels this balance of nature and human fear with her artwork and study. “Humans like being scared,” Campbell explains, “because we have created a comfortable society where our worries are stress, not legitimate danger.”
She says this freedom from fear is what allows us to appreciate the art and beauty of the frightful or grotesque: “Fear keeps our minds agile, healthy and ready for the fantasies we create. Everybody has the potential to see something beautiful in a naturally scary or grotesque thing,” she says. “Everybody.”