Horror is Healing: A Conversation with Hilary Williams of WildClaw Theatre’s Second Skin

Hilary Williams. Photo by Joe Mazza. Hilary Williams loves horror. In the dim light of the bar at the Den Theatre (where she is performing in Wildclaw Theatre's production of Second Skin) her eyes grow wide when I ask about the genre. She takes a moment to sip a cider she has been nursing as we talk; I'm drinking a blood-red soda pop. It is the last day of summer, and the crowds are growing on Milwaukee Avenue. Autumn is hours away. She continues. "I crave stories that contain a certain element of things that you don't usually experience in waking life, and horror provides this. But I also grew up around a writer; storytelling is very familiar to me." Hilary's father is screenwriter Larry B. Williams; her propensity for the spooky isn't surprising knowing that the man who raised her worked on, among other things, the "Friday the 13th" television series. "I love horror movies. I love roller coasters. But that's because I know they're safe. Horror is just a way to communicate something human, really. Second Skin, at its core, is a way to teach about trauma. Informed. Teaching about trauma with care." Indeed, Wildclaw's season 10 opener spends a great deal of its runtime musing on the shared traumatic tendrils connecting a trio of women. Disguised as a ghost story, staged with campfire intimacy, Second Skin relies on our mutual desire to be creeped out in order to peel back and reveal a layer deeper, tapping into the universal fear of grief and loss. Written by Kristin Idaszak and directed by Jess Hutchinson, with a cast comprised solely of women and an all female design team, it's truly a story about how the "second sex" navigates through modern life. But, according to Hilary, what makes the play resonate is that it forgoes dwelling on gender and traffics in our shared humanity. "In essence Kristin has written us a genderless play, in that all individuals are capable of experiencing fear, trauma, and grief. I think what is unique about the play is less that it is all women within a horror framework, and more that it is feminine. And because the story is told through the lens of something spooky, it pushes at the boundaries of femininity using the underlying anxiety, rage, and terror that we as a society have decided are so unfeminine." And in a play that relies on mystery to develop its thematic threads, the way in which women disconnect from one another is as important as how they relate. Consider the main relationship: a mother and daughter estranged through years of miscommunication are forced back into each other's lives because of the mother's failing health; she is stuck in a body that has never been fully hers, and one that she can no longer fully control. Revelations from both women about past and present eventually paint a picture of silence for the sake of safety, an understanding that the world is sometimes only bearable when one doesn't anticipate the dangers awaiting them. But such neglect can often lead to disastrous consequences; Hilary knows this conundrum well. As an educator for Catharsis Productions, she teaches sexual assault prevention to individuals in the Navy at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. It's an experience that folds into Second Skin's message of reclaiming female agency. "Women are often seen as nurturers. Mothering is a way of protecting or hiding someone from the dangers of the world. In this play so much is withheld, so much is unsaid, but it is not always to protect. Sometimes it is self preservation." Back at the bar, we are joined by Josh Zagoren, Wildclaw's artistic director and Chicago's maestro of horror theater. He echoes Hilary's sentiments, and explains how this play fits into the season exploration of anxiety in our modern world. "Horror is as common as sadness and laughter a horror story can be something healing. has been a wonderful revelation and I'm grateful to this team for conjuring that. Horror is human anxiety and real fear we can all understand." The Den's other theaters have begun to let out and Hilary and I continue to muse on Second Skin's thematic underpinnings, touching on everything from tragic familial terror like the recent, excellent Hereditary, to classic, intellectual nightmares like The Shining and Mary  Shelley's Frankenstein. Amidst the bustle, an acquaintance of Hilary's stops to chat; she invites her to a gathering of women filmmakers in Chicago, a sort of networking and support group for nurturing the female cinematic voices in this great city. (Williams recently co-authored and produced the stellar Atoms of Ashes, which shares thematic DNA with Mary Shelley's masterwork, and has been making waves in Chicago film festivals and beyond.) We finish our drinks, and I thank Hilary for the night's performance and for her invaluable insights. And soon we step into the hot summer air, leaving behind the ghost of a conversation and a darkened theater and memories that will lie still until the curtain rises again, on the next night, the first of many autumn evenings that will bring the thoughtful and terrifying truths of Second Skin to the Second City's enthusiastic audience.
Hilary Williams is an educator, performer and filmmaker in Chicago. Wildclaw Theatre's production of Second Skin runs until October 13 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, with an Industry Night on Monday, October 8. Tickets are $15-$30.
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Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.