Why you should care
Because being scared on demand is a booming cultural phenomenon.
Fancy a cookies-and-scream tombstone ice pop? How about a mac-and-cheese brain salad? These are just two of Kaci Hansen’s most popular offerings. An average day finds the 31-year-old Californian chef elbow-deep in entrails or slicing sausages into finger-size chunks and making Nightmare on Elm Street Soul Pizza. In February, Hansen turned her love for the spooktacular into a popular YouTube channel, creating and hosting “The Homicidal Homemaker,” which has amassed 101,000 views and counting. With jet-black hair, feline eyeliner and a style that merges Morticia Addams with rockabilly, Hansen’s all in.
From Katy Perry’s bedazzled skeleton suit at Moschino’s 2017 resort show to AMC’s Shudder Labs, a “scream-on-demand” streaming service, it’s never been hotter to skip a heartbeat. Hansen has tapped into a growing interest in fear-flavored food, reaching a millennial audience that’s twice as likely to watch a horror movie as the 30-plus crowd. And members of the under-25 demo also make the most adventurous cooks, according to the Hartman Group, a market research firm based in Bellevue, Washington. In fact, 75 percent of millennials use their mobile devices for cooking advice and videos, according to a Think With Google report.
The creepy cooking genre also includes “The Vegan Zombie” YouTube show and restaurants like Vampire Café in Tokyo and Gwar Bar, which serves food with a side of fake blood, in Richmond, Virginia.
“There’s a greater appreciation for the fun that can come from introducing fear into any situation — it’s not as taboo as it was in previous generations,” says scare sociologist Margee Kerr, the author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Kerr studies how fear works in different societies and the ways that consciously introducing it can benefit people. She’s seen horror content spike in the past few years and suggests that’s because it resonates culturally. “Everyone is looking for that standout product — fear is a great way to do that.”
Take Halloween. This once-a-year spookfest has bled into everyday life, from skeleton-themed bars to summer blockbusters — hello, Ghostbusters. Nathan Polanco, 24, owner and producer of the Fear Overload haunted houses in Northern California, has expanded operations from the core October–early November shudder season to include Valentine’s Day and Christmas, a holiday he calls Santa’s Scream-Fest. These are not traditionally popular times of year for the macabre. “We specifically target millennials,” Polanco says. “We find that love and fear often intertwine, and this makes for a thrilling and popular [date] event.”
Kerr theorizes that sensation seeking declines as we age, but our need for experience doesn’t. Younger people are more likely to go for the high-thrill startle, whereas older people opt for the less challenging shiver. The popularity of shows like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things have taken these deep-seated impulses mainstream. “When I started, there was a negative idea that horror was bad,” Hansen says of her early fear-food days. “Now it’s acceptable in our culture. Even if you don’t like being scared, there’s an appreciation of it.”
And there’s profit in screams. Joining AMC’s Shudder Labs are CryptTV (backed by Hostel director Eli Roth) and Screambox, both of which launched in the past two years. Horror uniquely appeals to both genders, unlike action or romance flicks. Hansen says her audience is fairly evenly split: More women visit her website, and more men view her YouTube tutorials.
Cooking is one of the most popular YouTube verticals, and it’s hard for a newbie to stand out. That’s partly why Chris Cooney — YouTube moniker, the Vegan Zombie — decided to add a little gore to his recipes. “In our storyline, it’s meat and dairy that caused the zombie infection,” he says. “So vegans are a step ahead in fighting off the zombies.” His entertaining tutorials have a subtle message: Don’t be a mindless zombie, think about what you eat. The message seems to be resonating. Cooney’s channel has 5.5 million views and 119,00 subscribers, and he’s spun off a cookbook and a line of themed hoodies and T-shirts.
What makes the home-economics-meets-horror cooking genre so popular is the genuine enthusiasm of everyone involved. “I’m making food that looks like internal organs,” Hansen says, “and I get a kick out of it.” She’s keen for people to try before they judge. What looks disgusting can taste really, really good, she says. To accomplish this, Hansen has started giving cooking lessons at horror-themed festivals, most recently ScareLA in Los Angeles, a 4-year-old summer convention that celebrates everything scary. Hansen’s classes, which she called “Gruesome Gourmet” and “Killer Cocktails,” were so popular they had a waitlist.
With a new season of The Walking Dead premiering soon, and Google Trends showing searches for “horror” on the rise, the future looks deliciously dark. And with creepy cooking combos getting so much traction, this macabre Martha Stewart and her cohorts plan to stay in the sweet spot for scary and scrumptious.