The Horror! The Horror!
Paul Harris Boardman ’89 doesn’t scare easily, but he knows how to terrify people. In fact, he does it for a living.
“People who know me say I have a humorous approach to life and don’t come off as dark,” Boardman says. “But I can visualize what scares people. I know when I’m writing something scary. Horror takes things in our subconscious and makes them real and brings them out from the shadows. I like to use my craft to create that effect.”
Boardman, who received a master’s degree from the Krieger School’s Writing Seminars, is a Hollywood screenwriter and producer of horror films. His best-known works include The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno, Devil’s Knot, and Deliver Us From Evil.
Growing up in Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee, Boardman became enamored with the horror genre, reading Edgar Allan Poe and watching such films as Halloween and Alien. He attributes his fascination with the macabre, thrillers, and the supernatural to a peripatetic youth.
“I had to reinvent my world over and over again, which may have drawn me to storytelling,” Boardman says. “And there’s grist for the horror mill there. I’ve just always enjoyed that thrill when something is scary.”
A graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, Boardman came to Johns Hopkins primarily to study poetry, though he already had screenwriting on his mind. After taking a class on Hitchcock with media studies Professor Mark Crispin Miller and working as an actor during an intersession program with playwright Edward Albee, Boardman felt certain of his new direction and decided to pursue filmmaking.
“I learned a lot at Hopkins,” he says. “Poetry can be a useful background for screenwriting because it’s visual and structured and distills things into powerful images. I made some great friendships there and got to be around formidable creative minds. I really got inspired and honed my craft as a writer during my time at Hopkins.”
After attending the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, Boardman started working on suspense and horror scripts with fellow filmmaker Scott Derrickson. They soon developed a reputation for that genre, particularly after working on a script for a horror film titled “Darkness Falling” that never reached the screen but helped raise their profiles in Hollywood.
“If you break through with a certain type of film or script, that becomes your brand and that’s where your opportunities are. It happens to everyone,” Boardman says. “That’s not bad at times because you want to show you can do a certain kind of thing. I obviously have a knack for that kind of storytelling.”
With horror films, Boardman says certain formulas tend to work best. Naturally, they should build up suspense and deliver “scares” on a fairly frequent basis, he says. But Boardman generally avoids horror film formulas and clichés.
“You have to deliver what people expect, but it has to stay fresh,” he says. “It can get formulaic and silly if the characters aren’t believable and the world you’re presenting doesn’t seem authentic. I don’t just want great scares; I want a believable and relevant world. A good horror film can have great horror sequences and still present a believable world. You should identify with the characters.”
Boardman says The Exorcism of Emily Rose is his favorite work among his oeuvre. He says the 2005 film, starring Laura Linney, Jennifer Carpenter, and Tom Wilkinson, comes closest to what he had in mind for the story from the outset.
“Making movies is like riding a runaway train—you hope it doesn’t derail,” he says. “There are so many variables and difficulties to contend with when making a film. That’s why it’s such a challenge to make a good one.”
Boardman plans to transition to doing more action/adventure films and complex thrillers, including stories in the espionage genre. “Horror films tend to have more simple settings and plots,” he says. “I’m interested in more complicated, real-world movies with a lot of character depth and thematic depth to go along with the dramatic tension. Stories with more layers and more moving parts.”
Boardman is currently working on film adaptations of James Patterson’s Guilty Wives and Catherine Nixon Cooke’s Tom Slick, Mystery Hunter; the latter he describes as “Indiana Jones meets King Kong, laced with a bit of Cold War intrigue.” He is also writing a TV miniseries based on horror master Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers.
In addition, Boardman, who lives with his wife and two children in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, recently inked a deal to write a film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ 1942 novel The Screwtape Letters. He also has a spy thriller in the works.
“I’m a little overbooked at the moment, which is a good problem to have,” Boardman says. “In this business, you want to have a lot of things cooking because you don’t know what’s going to come to a boil. You’re only as good as the next thing you have lined up.
“I’ve wanted to be a storyteller since I was a child,” he says. “Fulfilling that dream, you have to feel very grateful. It’s a stressful industry, but I feel lucky to be in it.”