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Johnna Dias-Watson Dances with Demons in “Hot as Hell”

Johnna Dias-Watson is thrilled to unhinge her psychological jaw in the name of fantasy. The raw depths of humanity are best absorbed through a sheen of blood. “I think there’s an element in supernatural and horror that allows you to explore deeper or more vulnerable aspects of being a human with this separation of something mystical, like a demon or a ghost,” she muses. “You can get a little bit closer to it, and I think you can say more with a supernatural element because the audience and the writer has that degree of separation built in. So you can watch it and say, ‘That was so creepy or funny or scary,’ but you’re still getting the emotional closeness to the themes that you’re trying to explore. I also just freaking love supernatural stuff. I love demons and horror movies and ghosts. It’s exciting, fun, and free.”

Apart from those Twilight chickens coming home to roost, that irreverence can equally be used to interrogate the theological institutions that have shaped society for eons. “Our generation has always loved vampires and werewolves and supernatural humanoid entities. We consume all the media about them. We find them interesting. And I think that our generation also really questions religion and establishment in an interesting way. When you add demonology or spirituality into a piece, you have a new lens. You’re able to challenge it in a way that I feel like people weren’t comfortable doing before. We can poke fun at [religion and establishment] in a way that people hadn’t previously felt like they were able to do in art, especially mainstream, to make it more consumable. I love the ability that we have to look at all the freaky things that used to be too affronting.”

Johnna was more than ready to let her freak flag fly with her original play Hot as Hell, which debuted at the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the Pleasance Theatre. She plays Becky, an outcast and self-proclaimed choir prodigy who pursues her crush (Benjamin McCann) with the help of her demon BFF (company Aidan Futterman, Aron Cynan, Bookie Schwartz, and Ellana Gilbert).”There are readily apparent parallels between pushing the boundaries of identity as a teen and bending reality through the supernatural. We can all get by with a little help from our demon friends. “[Hot as Hell] is about questioning your identity and knowing deep down that you are different, that you are not like the people around you, and you don’t see things the same way they do. In the play, Becky learns things about herself through this demonic best friend that she makes. There’s a supernatural being who’s helping her to accept things in her life: because the demon is not in this realm of reality. It’s somebody who feels like an outsider being led by a true, ethereal outsider.” Loosening the corset of repression allows truth to breathe. “That’s what it feels like to come to terms with something about yourself that you’ve pushed away for so long. It feels like almost giving into possession. You eventually think, ‘Oh, maybe I knew the whole time I was different, but I needed something to let me feel that way.’ So the demon decides, ‘I’m just going to make you understand by possessing you.’ There’s a parallel of being young, questioning things and doubting yourself, which people often do with the supernatural as well. Like if you see a ghost, you’d immediately try to doubt it. You’d go, ‘I didn’t just see that,’ but you did. And then when you finally accept it, it’s so much less scary. All of that stuff that you feel is real. They’re one in the same.”

Hot as Hell centers around a teenage girl with an otherworldly infatuation. “Becky has no friends until she makes a friend in the form of a demon on a Ouija board,” Johnna explains. “I used to play with Ouija boards as a teenager, and I thought, ‘How fun would it be if she was playing with this Ouija board, and met someone in there who got her, who understood her?’ It’s this all-knowing thing, because it’s a demon. It’s undead. It has been to the other side. It knows all there is to know, and it can see into people’s minds in a way that other humans can’t. So she makes friends with this demon because he gets her, he can see deeper than she is willing to go within herself…then she goes to a high school party, brings him with her by accident, and maybe ends up killing someone or causing a lot of damage.” As with the majority of adolescent attractions, projection is muddled by the inconvenience of the object of her affection refusing to align with her dewy lovestruck narrative. “I wanted to reflect on my own time as a teenager when you met that person or that girl or that boy that you idolize for a minute and think, ‘I’m in love with this person.’ But you don’t actually love them. You see them, and you have this whole life in your head with them, and you’re like, ‘That’s got to be it’, and you fabricate it. I wanted her to go through that experience, the ‘I’m so in love with this guy that I’ve never spoken to.’ But through the demon guiding her, becoming her best friend, and trying to push her to really look inward, she learns that she doesn’t love that guy, and that it’s just idolization.”

For Becky, the long awaited tryst with her assumed future boyfriend instantaneously breaks the illusion of their future. External validation becomes smoke and mirrors as imagined fulfillment remains elusive. “An entire party is building up to, ‘We have to kiss, we have to kiss,’ and then they kiss…and she’s so uncomfortable. I tied that back to experiences I had in my teen years where I would be like, ‘Oh God, I’m in love. I want to kiss them and hug them. I just want to be their girlfriend.’ Then when it actually happens and it’s in front of you, it’s not what you dreamed it to be, because you’re not going to get something you made up in your head from somebody else. But anyway she builds this up and she kisses him, then suddenly realizes, ‘I am horrified, and I need to get out of here.’” If an aspect of Becky is to be admired, it’s her unflappable conviction and her zeal for standing out. “Becky does not conform. She never does. She is weird, and she’s happy to be weird, and she’s going to be a freak—and she doesn’t care that she’s alone, because she has her best friend in the Ouija board. She turns up to this party in a strange wig because she thinks it’s going to look cool, and she wears insane clothes the entire play because she thinks it looks cool. She just likes it, even though everyone around her is going, ‘You’re so weird. Why are you wearing that?’ She’s very different from me in that regard. I think as a teenager, I was a lot less confident and I didn’t stick to my guns the way she does. She’s definitely somebody that I would’ve wanted to be friends with, though.” 

Johnna is enjoying a well-deserved break. Even the most ambitious butterflies have to rest their wings. “I’ve got a lot of acting stuff coming up, which is my love. I love acting. It’s always going to be my sweetheart, as it were. I think in terms of writing…it is such a vulnerable experience, putting your own work out there that you’ve created. I needed to take a step back after the show ended because I thought, ‘God, I’ve had people watching and critiquing my work for a whole month. I need to just back off for a sec,’ but I definitely will write more. Writing is my outlet, so I’ll just write stuff that I don’t necessarily expect to go anywhere.” When baring your soul in screenwriting, self worth cannot live and die on the arbitrary sword of others’ approval. “You really need to build up your confidence and your community to hold you, so that when you go into those meetings and you pitch this play or this film and they say no, you have a whole system to fall back on. You go, ‘That’s okay. You’re not the right person for it. I’m going to find somebody else who wants to make it.’ Because if you don’t go in with that complete sense of community and support, it only really takes one bad interaction or one bad critique to think, ‘What am I doing? Should I stop?’ I don’t ever want to be in a position where something else forces me to stop. Either I decide to stop because I don’t want to pursue that project anymore, or I’ll find somebody who totally believes in it like I do, and I’ll just keep trying until that happens. It might be a little while, but I would love to do a screenplay one day. I love the storytelling of film, and how you can use visuals to communicate anything.” Whether ghostly or not, Johnna’s inimitable spirit will guide her to her destiny.

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Johnna Dias-Watson Dances with Demons in “Hot as Hell.” Photo Credit (in order): Jake Stewart and Stewart Bywater