Behind The Scenes With A Kansas City 'Horror Photographer'

Jun 20, 2016

One photo depicts a corpse lying on the dirt in a white dress, black spiders streaming out of her mouth, cradling a plump sleeping baby.

Another shows a little girl kneeling on her bed in her pink bedroom, screaming as the devil emerges from a jagged split in the floor.

These photos are the work of local photographer Joshua Hoffine. Clearly, he doesn't take your typical wedding or graduation photos; his specialty is "horror photography" and the young kids in the photos are his daughters.

While his photos might shock or disgust the viewer, things are different behind the scenes.

"It’s a great time. It really is a lot of fun to do them," Hoffine told guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR's Central Standard.

“I think if it was genuinely dark and upsetting, no one would want to do it with me,” he added. “And so to keep it light and enjoyable and everyone having fun on set is part of what makes it work.”

Hoffine started taking horror photographs in 2003. It was still in the aftermath of 9/11, and fear was in the air, he said.

While talking to another photographer, he realized that no one had ever made a horror photograph — a deliberate one, he said, “the way that you have horror movies and novels and comic books and video games.”

He decided to pursue that genre, incorporating childhood fears, fairy tale imagery and things that were happening at home with his young kids.

Credit Courtesy of Joshua Hoffine

“We can all relate to the idea of a monster hiding under the bed or in the closet, but I’d never seen a picture of it before,” he said. “And so, to sort of take the monster from out of the darkness, out from under the bed and into the light of day and take a picture of it was really kind of the initial motivation.”

He used two of his daughters in a photo series that he called “After Dark, My Sweet.” At the time, Shiva was six and Chloe was three.

He wanted to make sure they weren’t scared.

“I do try to keep things fun and safe on-set. Frightening the children is never really part of the equation,” he said. “Making sure they’re participating, willingly and voluntarily, is a big deal. And to keep that safe, I would usually use other family members as the villains.”

For example, in his photo, “Balloons,” Chloe is approaching a sheet that’s hanging on a clothesline. Behind the sheet is a silhouette of a clown with creepy claw fingers.

The clown, he said, is the girls’ grandmother, and she wasn’t wearing any clown makeup.

Even at a young age, his daughters knew what Hoffine was trying to do.

“I think people might underestimate how savvy a three-year-old can be … she totally understood the artifice of it,” he said.

“And both daughters were, I think, into the idea that we were scaring other people. If as a child, you’ve ever hidden in bushes to scare a younger sibling, you kind of know the thrill of scaring someone. Especially as a child where everything kind of frightens you, and to have the power, for a moment, to be the agent of that type of fear. It was weirdly empowering to them.”

While Hoffine dealt with classic childhood fears in his work, like the monster in the closet or under the stairs, he also channeled his own fears as a parent. Villains like the bogeyman or wolf, who are preying on his daughters in the photos, are stand-ins for child predators.

Credit Courtesy of Joshua Hoffine

“It’s meant to be a commentary on how those type of people are the real bogeymen of the world. Those are the real monsters,” he said.

The photo series went viral in 2008, resulting in a wave of press and a lot of controversy. Hoffine still has a folder filled with hate mail from people who were concerned about his kids.

“In their defense, when the work initially came out, there was no explanation. I think the only tagline was, ‘These are real photographs, these are real children,’” he said.

But because people were concerned about child abuse, he started a behind-the-scenes blog to show how he put things together — and to show how the kids were having fun.

Shiva and Chloe are now 18 and 14, respectively, and Hoffine says that they’re “fiercely proud” of the photos.

But the Hoffine family has never hung those photos on the walls.

“It’s one thing to create images, it’s another to have (the kids) living underneath pictures of themselves as victims,” he said.

“That was agreed upon with their mother at the outset; if we were to do the work, they could never once be truly frightened, and they weren’t allowed to live with this imagery so that it might, in some sad way, affect the way they think about themselves.”

Hoffine has been raising funds on Kickstarter to publish his first book, a compilation of 13 years of work. He’s hoping to take the book around the movie producers to try to make a full-length horror movie that’s based on the ideas in those photographs.

According to Hoffine, horror is an interesting genre because it’s metaphorical, psychological and existential.

The world is insecure, chaotic and violent, life is fleeting, and horror gives us the vocabulary to deal with those types of fears, he said.

“It gives you a splashy artificial way to approach your inherent fears, but that is probably the only time you’re invited to engage with those sort of taboo emotions, like fear or cruelty, or provide an environment where those feelings are sanctioned,” he said.

“I do think that my role as a horror photographer is to show you what you don’t want to see,” he added.

“I think that horror, when it is doing its job right, is confrontational, it is trying to shake you out of any sort of complacency or calm emotional state … it is using fear as a tool, if not sometimes a weapon.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.