Nestled on the north coast of Massachusetts, the charming city of Salem is famous for a shameful chapter in American history. It was here, in 1692-1693, that 19 people were persecuted and killed after being accused of witchcraft. Today, this bleak episode has been transformed into a money-spinner for the descendants of those lost souls.
Tourists pour into the town to follow guided trails, visit museums, buy t-shirts and witchy trinkets and take in the Disneyfied, Halloween air of the place. Horror and despair have become entertainment. It was the perfect birthplace, then, for Ice Nine Kills, the highly theatrical metalcore outfit obsessed with the scary side of popular culture.
“I definitely do think growing up there had some effect on my love for the macabre and the spooky side of life,” says Spencer Charnas, the band’s frontman, creative heart and walking horror encyclopaedia.
“You can see where the witches were hanged and stuff like that. That sinister, historical nature that was so close to where I grew up – it probably, subconsciously, had somewhat of an effect on me. The whole idea of being the black sheep or people being afraid of what’s different, I think made me gravitate towards stuff that would maybe make other people squirm.”
Today Spencer is talking via Zoom from an extraordinarily un-spooky, generic hotel room in Greensboro, North Carolina, sitting on the floor in front of an unmade bed. Yesterday was a day off, which he spent chilling out, watching movies. After our conversation he’ll pick up the tour bag he has packed next to him, heading off to play a club show, something he missed terribly during the pandemic lockdowns. “It’s been good to get back on the road after so long,” he says with a smile.
For his fans, Spencer thrills by embodying the world’s favourite fictional bogeymen, from Pennywise the clown from It to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. The band’s newest album, The Silver Scream 2: Welcome To Horrorwood, again plunders the horror movie vaults for inspiration, a new round of videos weaving a creepy narrative that has fans hooked and waiting for the next instalment.
But in person, he’s disarmingly ordinary. Driven, clearly, but any spooks or scares are saved for showtime. The kid whose teachers noted on his kindergarten report card that he “claims to have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” has grown up to play out his schlock fantasies without falling too far down the rabbit hole.
The son of a lawyer father and dental hygienist mother, Spencer first felt that tingle of anticipation browsing the VHS rental section of his local grocery store, when he spotted the cover of Halloween with the pumpkin and butcher knife design. A confident and outgoing child, he was always happy to be the centre of attention, performing in local talent shows. “I always enjoyed being onstage,” he says. “And I was always the kid that the other parents were like, ‘I don’t know if he should go over to Spencer’s because you’re gonna end up watching something that’s gonna give you nightmares.’”
A close-knit and supportive family, the Charnases were also very scholarly, with various cousins and Spencer’s sister attending Ivy League colleges. The latter now works as a psychologist, and the siblings enjoy debating his interest in all things slasher.
“She always kind of looks at it as, you know, do horror movies and violent music have an effect on actual people’s tendencies? Does it cause rage? For me, I think that horror movies and music that have violent imagery provide an outlet for people’s demons. It sort of makes death less scary, because you associate it with your favourite movies, or your favourite band. So I think it has a positive effect on society. If you’re crazy, and you’re gonna kill people, it’s not gonna be because of Friday The 13th. And if there was a serial killer that was actually inspired by horror films, don’t you think we’d have heard about that?”
He points out that his adoration of horror crosses over with his love of comedy, likening the former genre to a rollercoaster, a “safe scare”. So while his prized possessions include a Ghostface mask from Scream signed by Wes Craven, along with a bloody lamp from Scream 4 (at the moment he’s working on acquiring a harpoon from Jaws to display in his bathroom), there’s no sense of him living a shadowy, creep-show life, or trying to freak people out in conversation.
The band have filmed videos on the sets of famous horror movies, but he draws the line at real-life terror. Nine Inch Nails may have recorded in the house where the Manson murders took place, but Spencer has no interest in following Trent Reznor down that bleak path, or writing about true crime.
“If you start to get into the real killings, it loses a lot of its fun. I prefer the fake death route. Songs about true crimes and serial killers, it seems a bit more like blood money to me. I’d rather keep it fun, a bit more lighthearted.”
Just as his interest in gory film was piqued, Spencer discovered metal through a friend of his uncle’s, who worked at Elektra Records and introduced him to Metallica’s music. The move to more extreme sounds came from an unlikely source – the 1994 Jim Carrey comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which featured a cameo by Cannibal Corpse. Things have come full circle on Welcome To Horrorwood, which includes an appearance from their frontman, Corpsegrinder, on the My Bloody Valentine-inspired Take Your Pick.
“I’ve never actually met him, this was just all set up through the pandemic,” Spencer explains. “I was just so glad that he liked the song and was willing to do the feature, but he seems like such a sweet guy.”
It’s all far removed from the ska- punk band that the frontman started in high school, but that initial point can still be detected in their melodies. More tellingly, Spencer reveals that he’s a huge fan of musical theatre, having seen Les Misérables and The Phantom Of The Opera as a kid and getting hooked on the high drama of it all – to this day, he books tickets for a show whenever he’s in London. This influence adds a pleasingly camp edge to proceedings, a sense of silliness many people overlook because they’re blinded by all the blood.
“We’re not taking ourselves too seriously with this stuff,” he admits. “There’s always sort of a wink to the camera. Everything is done tongue-in-cheek. Which is so funny when I hear people say, like, ‘Oh, that band is cheesy.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, no shit.’ Ever seen any of the 80s slasher movies? You just don’t get it? It’s supposed to be that way. Because that’s what we love.”
Bandmates have come and gone over the years, but Spencer has remained a constant. He went to college for a couple of years but his heart wasn’t in academia – it was all or nothing with music, unwavering as INK battled to get signed, to build an audience, to get people to sit up and notice them. “I think it’s always been in my blood to be relentless,” he says. “My parents used to say that about me all the time.”
Despite batting away suggestions he might be a control freak, it is obvious that he has a very clear vision for the band, and beyond. The bit of acting he has done, in a film called The Retaliators, has given him a taste of life in front of the camera (“I get a gun shoved in my mouth. And then my tongue is cut out, which was kind of interesting,” he says), but far from waiting for fame to come to him, he’s taking matters into his own hands with the band’s videos, short films with a serial-killer narrative woven through them.
It’s a very modern way of making a movie episodically, away from the Hollywood system, and it’s led to collaborations with actors he has long admired – horror titan Bill Moseley plays the police captain hunting Spencer down in the most recent series. And of all the ghouls he has portrayed in the clips, there is a clear favourite in the song Hip To Be Scared.
“Patrick Bateman was just super-fun,” he says. “I’ve loved that book, and it’s such a funny movie. It’s almost more of a comedy to me than a horror movie. He’s such an asshole, but in the world of theatre, sometimes those characters are just so much more fun to play.”
The final, crucial part of the INK puzzle, though, is the fans. Every time the band announce a song-title, there’s a frenzy of speculation as their followers try to work out which movie it’s going to spoof. They were the ones who called for a song based on Chucky from Child’s Play, and INK were happy to oblige with Assault & Batteries. There’s a thriving merch arm, one graphic novel – Inked In Blood – is out, and there’s a novelisation of Silver Scream in the works. More videos are planned, as are bigger and more ambitious shows, including a slot at Download festival next summer. But at the heart of it all is the community, a collective of like-minded geeks who look to the band to brighten their day if they’re having a rough time. An app, Psychos Only, is their home, and it’s welcoming an ever-growing army of INK obsessives.
“I think of it as INKstagram,” says Spencer. “Everyone is just really supportive of each other and they’re all just there for the love of music and horror and Ice Nine Kills. And it’s cool that you don’t see any of the toxic kind of crap that you see on Twitter or other social media, where people are constantly saying negative things about each other, trying to bring one another down or making fun of people for what they listen to. It’s nice to see our fans are just completely the opposite.”
Those fans are calling the INK name, so it’s time for Spencer to head out and spread the thrill of the chill to an adoring North Carolina crowd. Deadly intentions have never seemed so positive.
The Silver Scream 2: Welcome To Horrorwood is out now via Fearless
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