Cullen Bunn has a nimble ability how to take the macabre and supernatural and pull it to the human, to a base psychological level. Whether in series such as Boom! Studios’ The Unsound or Dark Horse’s Harrow County, Bunn seems to have a preternatural knowledge of how to disturb his readers and have them coming back for more. Bunn brings that skill to his new horror comic Regression, with issue 4 going on sale next Wednesday from Image Comics. Following a young man plagued with waking nightmares, a hypnotist session reveals that his past life is haunting his present.
Mr. Bunn spoke with me recently about the genesis of Regression, how his upbringing influences the series, and how denial is a powerful pull on keeping us from facing truths about ourselves.
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the release of Regression #3.
FreakSugar: For folks who are considering picking up the series, how would you describe the conceit of Regression?
Cullen Bunn: Regression is the story of past life regression therapy gone very, very wrong. In the beginning, the story centers upon Adrian, a young man experiencing horrific waking nightmares. In desperation, he agrees to meet with a hypnotist who guides Adrian back to the life he led before this one. That’s when the trouble starts, because Adrian’s past life was ghastly, and it follows him back to the present. From there, though, the story evolves into a trippy supernatural conspiracy tale involving murder, possession, the past, and the future.
FS: I’ve read that your father was a professional hypnotist for a good while. How long has the idea for Regression been gestating before you started writing the series? How did your personal experiences shape the evolution of the book?
CB: Yes, when I was young, I watched my dad perform a number of past life regressions, and they were some of the strangest, most haunting events I’ve ever witnessed. In many ways, the story of Regression took root while I was watching these hypnosis sessions. This story has been with me for a long, long time in one shape or another.
FS: What can you tell readers about Adrian, the series’ protagonist? His erratic state does a wonderful job at keeping readers’ stomachs in knots; it feels, in some ways, like Sam Neill’s performance in In the Mouth of Madness, especially tonally.
CB: Adrian is an everyman, except for these awful hallucinations he’s experiencing. He’s having such ghastly visions that he’s constantly on edge and growing more paranoid by the second. Of course, once he undergoes hypnosis, things start to change. We get a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde style tale here. That’s only the beginning, because Adrian’s going to learn that some of his paranoia is well-deserved.
And it’s interesting that you bring up In the Mouth of Madness. The antagonist in this story, Sutter, was named after the writer in that flick.
FS: Speaking of In the Mouth of Madness, the first two issues had a very Lovecraftian vibe that was gripping from the get-go. What are your influences that you tap into while writing Regression?
CB: There are definitely Lovecraftian influences in this story, but I also drew upon the body horror genre, in particular the movies of David Cronenberg.
FS: The violence and some of the grosser moments in Regression lingered with me for quite a while after putting it down. Is there a certain mindset you have to be in when you tackle writing a page or a plot? Is there anything you need to do to wind down to decompress after finishing writing for the day?
CB: I’m usually able to put the day’s work aside pretty easily. With Regression, though, I’ve certainly found myself feeling overwhelmed by some of the darkness and horror. I don’t have a routine or anything, but often watching very lighthearted comedies on TV helps me put all that aside, at least for a little while.
FS: From the first two issues, we see a good deal of exploration of the concept of past lives swirling through the plot. What is it about that idea that appeals to you narratively?
CB: The past life angle allows me to explore the idea of answering for the actions of another person. Adrian did not commit the acts that his past life—Sutter—so willingly committed. He didn’t make the pacts Sutter made. But here he is, answering for those actions. As we look into that, we’ll start looking into actions Adrian hasn’t answered for or dealt with in THIS life.
Also, don’t think that Adrian is the only individual we’ll meet with a past life worth exploring. I like that I can follow both Adrian and Sutter’s lives in very different settings. I’ll be chasing that concept.
And there are some people who believe that time is all an illusion anyway, and if you can be regressed to a past life, you can be progressed to a future life.
There are so many narrative twists and turns coming up in this story.
FS: Following up on that, so far, there has been a focus on both hypnotherapy and past lives. What kind of research have you had to do in preparation for writing Regression?
CB: I drew a lot upon my own experiences with past life regression, but I’ve always been fascinated by the subject and I’ve done a great deal of reading over the years. I’ve studied the “practical” side of past lives and I’ve delved into some of the more “out there” beliefs associated with reincarnation.
FS: One theme that comes up in the first two issues is denial: Adrian denying the grotesqueries that he sees, denying that hypnotherapy works, denial of a belief in past lives. Given how strong his visions are, though, how long can he keep living in such denial?
CB: There will come a moment when Adrian can no longer “look the other way” when it comes to the things that are happening to him. When that happens, the gravity of his situation becomes nearly crushing. Adrian is in serious trouble here, and he may not be able to escape. That’s going to be sobering for Adrian. Even though he may be hopeless, he’s going to try to change his fate, even in some small way. But his life is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
FS: I’ve always thought that, on some level, one of the ways that humans get through the day is by way of denial. We make little compromises about the nature reality, either consciously or subconsciously, just so we can get from morning to night. Is it fair to think that’s what Adrian is doing?
CB: Oh, Lord, yes! Adrian is very much in denial about what’s happening. Have you ever—during the early stages of illness—just squirmed there in bed, knowing that at any moment you’re going to start throwing up? Your stomach’s turning. Your mouth is dry. Your head is pounding. But you don’t WANT to throw up, so you keep telling yourself over and over that this is going to pass, that you’re not going to need to run to the bathroom at any minute? That’s the way Adrian is approaching this affliction of his.
FS: Danny Luckert and Marie Enger’s work on the series is gorgeous and sometimes hard to look at, like some of the great horror tales shape up. What is the collaboration process like with the two of them?
CB: Marie and Danny are great to work with. They are true collaborators who elevate every issue of the series. They worked closely to develop the “look” of Regression, giving it this bright, real world feel despite all the terrifying things that are happening. That strategy was all on them, and I think it really sets this book apart from other series in the genre.
FS: We recently spoke about another of your series, The Unsound, that just debuted this month. What is it about the horror genre that makes it fun to dig your hands into? Does it have to do with the fact that there are so many different angles that it can be tackled and explored?
CB: I’ve always felt most comfortable writing horror stories. I think there are countless types of horror tales to be told, as you mentioned. There are humorous horror stories, bloody splatterpunk style tales, quiet horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, you name it. And with a horror story, I can really hook a reader on an emotional level. If I can make them fear for a character, I can make them love (or hate) the character. It almost sounds like I want to play with the reader’s emotions… and that’s because I do.
FS: At the end of issue 2, we see Adrian confronted by the detective who’s investigating Sid’s death. Given Adrian’s already precarious frame of mind, what can you tease about how he’ll handle this encounter?
CB: Adrian and Detective Graymercy will have a very interesting relationship moving forward. Adrian doesn’t trust the detective… or he doesn’t trust how well he would fare if he tells the truth. Graymercy, on the other hand, knows Adrian has something to do with the death of Sid Ferrell, and he is going to be keeping a close eye on Adrian as a person of interest.
Regression #4, written by Cullen Bunn with Danny Luckert and Marie Enger on art, is on sale Wednesday, August 16th, from Image Comics.
From the official issue description:
Adrian has gone from tormented soul to full-on possessed murderer! And he’s got his best friend Molly in his sights! As blood is spilled and the waking nightmares intensify, Adrian is faced with the prospect of undergoing past-life regression once more. There, he must face Gregory Sutter, the human monster who is tormenting him from beyond the grave. The conspiracy, though, is deepening, as a group of mysterious figures spy on Adrian, watching his every move with sinister intensity.