Why Casey House made a horror film about HIV stigma

Who: Casey House and Bensimon Byrne, with OPC for production (directed by Paul Shkordoff), Rooster for post-production, and Berkeley for sound.

What: “Others,” a campaign that extends the ground-breaking “Smash Stigma” platform created for the Toronto HIV hospital. This year’s campaign is built around a nearly 20-minute horror film intended to evoke the fear of living with the stigma of HIV.

When & Where: The film debuted Oct. 26 with a two-night immersive experience at Toronto’s Ontario Place. The film is also being supported by a widespread PR and earned media push, and is being submitted to film festivals throughout the year to keep the conversation going.

Why: Casey House and Bensimon Byrne have been working together to challenge misconceptions, ignorance, and prejudice about HIV since 2017, when they launched “Smash Stigma” with an eatery staffed by chefs living with HIV. That was followed by an HIV-positive spa, and a cheeky reimagining of episodes of Friends and The Office with HIV storylines.

Those campaigns have changed thinking and ideas about life with HIV, but despite that—and 40 years of public education—there is still widespread prejudice about HIV, forcing those living with the disease to deal with the additional fear of people finding out, said Joseph Bonnici, chief creative officer for Tadiem, parent company of Bensimon Byrne.

“People will consistently say, ‘I don’t know anyone with HIV.’ Well, no, you do,” he said. “They just haven’t told you because disclosure is such a difficult thing.” Rather than tell people about the horror of being stigmatized for having HIV, Bensimon Byrne wanted to make people actually feel what it’s like themselves.

“This year’s campaign is trying to put every individual into the shoes of someone who has to undergo that stigma—that’s what this film is about,” said Bonnici.

Why a horror: Fear has the power to produce a visceral understanding of things people struggle to understand intellectually. “That really was core to the insight this year,” said Bonnici. “We’re not just trying to silence stigma, we’re trying to smash stigma. And we need to get their attention in really compelling ways that they haven’t seen before.” There are many examples of horror films being used to tackle difficult topics head on. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is one popular recent example, but the tradition goes back many years.

The science behind it: “Research shows that both traditional fight-or-flight responses, and an individual’s personal and prior experience, contribute to how one will respond to horror films,” said Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience at New York University, in a release introducing the film. “I believe that the unique power of horror films is that they bring on an immediate response in a relatable and engaging way in a safe setting.”

The plot: “Others” tells the story of Peter, a gay man who is an “other” in a society that menaces “others” and treats them like pariahs. There is no direct mention of HIV, but enough references and allusions for the viewer to understand the metaphor unfolding on screen.

The film opens with Peter on a rocky outcrop high above a lake in a large wilderness park. His boyfriend in the water far below encourages him to jump, but Peter is scared and struggles to take the leap.

Early in the film, a radio newscast reports on the disappearance of “others,” and the inhumane treatment of Peter, now on his own, by a park ranger hint at what’s to come. The real horror begins when Peter gets a flat tire on a desolate road as night approaches. A friendly woman stops to see if she can help, and though Peter is reluctant at first, he accepts her offer even though any horror film fan knows he shouldn’t.

The ending: (Spoilers ahead, so skip to the next section if you want to watch the film first.)

The woman takes Peter down an even more isolated road to a lonely house. In the car headlights, a man briefly appears on the porch and disappears into the shadows. Another car pulls in behind them, and the man inside pulls a mask down over his face. Peter knows he’s trapped, and starts to panic.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make it quick,” says one of the men. Peter pauses for a moment, and as his panic passes and his breathing slows, he charges at his captors. The ending is left open to the interpretation, but with one important message delivered: “It was really important to portray Peter, ultimately, as a hero who fought back, who ran at the people who are stigmatizing him,” said Bonnici.

The stories of “others” behind the story: The inspiration for the film came from the many conversations the agency has had with Casey House stakeholders and patients over the last five years, in which people talked about being treated differently—badly—because they have HIV, and the toll that takes on their mental health.

“There’s a human truth to being an other,” said Bonnici. “I think we’ve all felt it at one point or another. When you experience HIV stigma, it’s just a whole other level. We thought it was important to portray it in its most intense form. Because that’s the reality.”

Along with the film there are six short documentary-style videos of individuals talking about life with HIV and the stigma that comes with it. They include Peter McPherson, the actor who played the lead role, and believed to be the first actor with HIV intentionally cast to play an HIV+ person.

In their stories, the audience hears first-hand what it feels like to be an other. “When [they] talk about their own personal experience, whether it be with strangers, or once-good friends or family members, those are really, really tough moments that they’re articulating,” said Bonnici.

And we quote: “‘Others’ will spark needed conversation on the impacts of stigma that people living with HIV face every day,” said Casey House CEO Joanne Simons. “Horror is a genre that allows for complex social issues to be presented in a compelling way… The ‘Others’ campaign looks to harness the power of fear—which fuels stigma—to spark conversations around outdated misconceptions about HIV.”

David Brown