Devil Within is a true story of possession coming soon from Black Mask Studios, and we got to talk with writer Stephanie Phillips about the story, her inspirations, her collaboration with artist Maan House, and more.
Issue one hits stores September 26th; you can pre-order it at your local comic shop with code JUL181686. The series is written by Phillips, drawn by House, colored by Dee Cunniffe, and lettered by Troy Peteri.
Stephanie, first off, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Your new comic is Devil Within at Black Mask Studios. Can you tell us a little about it?
Devil Within is rooted in classic ghost stories. When Samantha and her fiancé Michelle buy a house in the Philippines, they start to experience strange events around the house. This includes ghosts, misbehaving reflections in mirrors, and even possession. While Devil Within explores Filipino mythology and folklore, it is also a love story wrapped in a very creepy package. As the title might suggest, this is not the happiest of love stories and really asks readers to consider that the monster we fear most is sharing a bed with us.
And I read that this is based on a true story – is that right? What was it about the story that jumped out at you that you had to make it into a comic?
Yes! One of my best friends is from Cebu and told me this story to keep me entertained when I had eye surgery. I could not open my eyes after the surgery and she decided that was a perfect time to tell about “that one time” her girlfriend just so happened to experience a possession. While this is the jumping off point for Devil Within, I really wanted to explore the relationship at the center of the horror story. According to my friend, her girlfriend would “relapse” into possession-mode once in a while. Living day-to-day with someone presumably possessed is a literal nightmare. Best-case scenario, her partner is faking an ongoing possession… either way, there is something horrific about a relationship trying to function in the middle of a horror film.
How did you come to work with Maan House on this book?
Maan and I met through a mutual friend. We talked a little about the project, and after seeing more of Maan’s work I knew it would be a perfect fit. His style is made for creating horror stories.
What’s your collaboration process like with Maan? Are your scripts very detailed or is there a lot of room for his interpretation?
The script is very much a collaboration. Maan is a great storyteller, so I always leave room for him to interpret a page how he wants. I would say each book is a good balance between my descriptions and Maan’s interpretations. But, I suppose, that’s what a good partnership should be like.
In terms of writing the script, I like to think of it more like writing a letter to the artist. Maan is trying to bring to life what I see in my brain, so I do my best to give him all the information he needs in the script.
In the first issue, I noticed that there are a lot of moments where characters are completely cast in shadow. Whose idea was this, and what was the thought process behind it?
This is a combination of both of us. Sometimes the scariest thing is the thing you can’t see, or can’t see clearly. We wanted to leave some things to the reader’s imagination, so the book has an overall dark, shadowy tone to it. Let your mind start filling in some of those horrific shadows. No one really likes the dark. There’s a reason I still sleep with my Batman nightlight on…
Horror comics can’t rely on the same tactics that other mediums use to scare people, like music. How do you generate horror and tension on the page?
Since we can’t rely on the kind of jump scare of other mediums, we are attempting to leave more of a lasting impression on the imagination. Like I was discussing with the purpose of the shadows, we want to leave just enough room for creative interpretation on the part of the reader. I don’t want to give too much away, but during a particularly gory scene there is a page that just turns black. Instead of watching all of the killing unfold in painstaking detail, we give the reader just enough to let their minds wander.
I also think Maan does an amazing job of building tension leading up to an action or reveal. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but before the reader sees anything truly horrific, Maan does a really nice job of building the anticipation with smaller panels that show facial expressions and body language in minute detail. It’s almost like he is stretching a very intense moment to show how nervous or scared characters are. Then, you flip the page and there is… okay, read the book for that part.
What are some of the horror stories – from any medium – that you looked to for inspiration while writing Devil Within?
I reread Carey and Perkins’ Rowan’s Ruin from Boom! before diving into this project. Devil Within is a very character-driven story that focuses primarily on just two characters. I really admire how well Carey and Perkins built an engaging world that also focuses almost entirely on one character.
I also look to anything Joe Hill when I take a stab at the darker side of storytelling. Locke & Key is a favorite, but I love anything he has written.
Currently, I am reading Gideon Falls from Lemire and Sorrentino, and Infidel from Pichetshot and Campbell.
My mom saw The Exorcist in theaters when she was 12 and it scarred her for life (they tricked her friend’s mom into bringing them by telling her it was a “religious” movie). What’s your favorite possession story, and why do you think possession horror affects people so much more than say zombie horror or slasher stories?
I really love the look and feel of The Witch: A New-England Folktale. It may be one of the most recent possession movies I have watched, but I really like how the creative team made every aspect of this movie feel unnatural and haunting.
I love a good slasher movie, but I think possession stories have to rely on that unseen element that I was discussing earlier. What’s a zombie film without some finger-lickin’ brain eating? With possessions, on the other hand, you don’t typically see the force that possesses someone. The possessed person is just your neighbor Susan, except she’s saying weird things and maybe crawling backwards down a dark hallway. There is something very deceptive and psychologically manipulative about a possession story. Just think about the religious component associated with possession: demons are trying to trick God by possessing the bodies of worshippers. These forces seek to corrupt the good, and they are difficult to detect when they consume the shape of the familiar, like your neighbor Susan. Poor, possessed Susan…
What do you hope people take away from Devil Within other than nightmares?
At the root of this story is a messy relationship. Perhaps it’s hyperbolic to call your loved one possessed, but I want to explore the concept of living in fear of the person sleeping next to you. The reader can question the validity of the haunting in this story, but it is undeniable that there is something doomed between Sam and Michelle.
And finally, when readers think of Devil Within, what’s the one word you hope jumps to their head?
The Devil Within #1 is out September 26th.