It’s October, and I’m deep in the midst of watching 31 horror films in 31 days. I have horror on the brain, so naturally, only a spooky webcomic will do. Ana Critchfield’s Phantasmagoria, with its scritchy-scratchy artwork, eerie atmosphere, and hints of terrible secrets, fits the bill perfectly. (Be forewarned: There are scary images ahead.)
The story opens on Angie in the airport, alone, waiting for her flight to Oregon and her first day of college. Her parents are none too pleased that she tried to leave without saying goodbye. Weird, right?
When Angie finally makes it to campus, she’s greeted by a bubbly roommate and starts settling in. She spends her time reading and doing homework and, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem too interested in making friends. That might seem simply like garden-variety shyness, but Critchfield uses subtle visual clues to hint that there’s something else happening here.
Despite her standoffishness, and thanks to the gregarious older students in her dorm, Angie starts making some friends, mostly through the weird, quiet boy she meets at a dorm meeting. Soon she’s spending lots of time with him and his lively cohort, who easily accept her as one of their own, although she never seems to come out of her shell.
At this point, you might be thinking, “So what? She’s a shy college freshman, no big deal.” Well, I promised horror, and I’ll deliver: In between attending classes, doing homework, and cultivating a social life, Angie tries not to sleep because she has utterly terrifying nightmares. Check it out:
During Angie’s nightmares, Critchfield’s artwork gets frenetic, with manic scribbles and splatters. Images of Angie shift in and out of negative space, and though individual snippets of scenes aren’t terribly scary, taken together, Critchfield’s compositions and linework, with hints of gnarled fingers and bloody footprints, are all the more ghoulish for what’s left out.
Since Critchfield’s story is still in its early stages, it’s not quite clear what brings about these nightmares—but there are plenty of clues about what might be wrong. Angie doesn’t like to talk to her mother; odd things startle her, like a book with an inscrutable inscription; an offer for a ride home triggers a cloudy memory of a friend, who seems to show up in one of her dreams in, shall we say, an altered state.
Critchfield capably shifts between breezy scenes of Angie bantering with her new friends and the horrific images she sees at night, which only serves to amp up the horror. Her spare, fine-lined artwork morphs nicely from the naturalistic scenes of Angie’s daytime life, rendered in soft, warm grays, with the exaggerated, grim visions she sees in her dreams, which are in a stark, high-contrast black and white. The quick switch in atmosphere is precisely where the horror lies, and the intriguing mystery of why Angie is so afflicted keeps the suspense thick. Phantasmagoria just completed its third chapter, and Critchfield updates twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays.