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Jonah Ray knows the perfect time to watch a horror movie.
"It's when the sun is creeping up, and there's no danger," he tells SYFY WIRE, so perhaps consider dawn a good time to watch the latest installment in Hulu's horror anthology film series Into the Dark, "Pooka Lives!" The feature-length episode reunites Ray with his Mystery Science Theater 3000 co-star Felicia Day, as he plays a househusband named Matt, who may or may not be a slightly more basic, dumbed-down version of the real Jonah Ray.
Full of metafictional commentary on the origin and danger of internet crazes, "Pooka Lives!" is one of the smartest and most subversive horror movies you'll see all year — especially since you can watch it from the safety of your home, right now. It's also one of the funniest. Just after the launch of "Pooka Lives!", SYFY WIRE caught up with Jonah Ray to discuss his role in the film, how it connects to his own life, and how it all ties back to his own "worst day on the internet," when he was first announced as the new star of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
**Spoilers ahead for Into the Dark's "Pooka Lives!"**
After being harassed online, a struggling writer named Derrick (Malcolm Barret) returns to his hometown and briefly moves in with his old high school friends Molly (Felicia Day) and Matt (Jonah Ray) and reconnects with his old flame, Susan (Lyndie Greenwood). After one late night of drinking, Derrick, Molly, Matt, and Susan concoct an internet challenge by way of a creepypasta. The designer (Rachel Bloom) of a popular toy called "Pooka" really did kill her husband (Wil Wheaton), and the circumstances of the murder are freaky enough to convince people that the spirit is still out there. And so, after creating the "Pooka Challenge," Derrick, Molly, Matt, and Susan invent a fake internet ritual that, in fact, comes to life.
"My character doesn't take it seriously," Ray says with a laugh. "And then he’s like mauled by it. Literally."
As the slightly basic and trend-oriented househusband Matt, Ray plays his role with almost zero ironies. Yes, he's battling a giant mouse-like demon-doll, and yes, the entire thing is a little tongue-in-cheek, but as Ray points out, bad days on the internet can result in real-life horrors.
"There’s a lot of Matt in me. I mean, I don’t believe in mysticism and supernatural stuff. I’m into reality," Ray explains. "But the need to belong and be part of an internet community the way Matt does — he keeps up with current trends, maybe he ate some marbles — I think that's relatable, and I think it's because he's insecure and doesn't have a lot of friends."
Ray has never personally summoned any ghosts by participating in a hashtag game on Twitter, but he does say the experience of making "Pooka Lives!" was cathartic. If you're unfamiliar with Ray's body of work, the guy not only participates in internet culture but in some ways, through his influential podcasts on The Nerdist, he helped shape some of the nerd internet space we all live in. This is why his own "worst day on the internet" is its own kind of horror story.
"I had a bad day on the internet when I was announced as the new star of Mystery Science Theater on Netflix. That was a bad day for me because I choose to focus on people who told me that I was going to ruin their favorite show," he admits. "Which was crazy, because that meant I would be ruining my own favorite show. And so my attention went toward the negative. There were people saying very positive things. But for some reason, I focused on the negative. I could have ignored it, but I interacted with the negativity and it caused more negativity."
But Ray says he came out of the whole experience with a new outlook. Thanks to some sage advice from Ivan Askwith — the guy who ran the Kickstarter that brought MST3K back to life in the first place — Ray was forced to interact with the positive comments from fans before responding to any more negative ones. "And after I had to do that, I was able to respond to the negative comments in a positive way. It was a huge turning point for me," he says.
That said, because he was online so much before joining Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 2017, Ray admits he "should have known better" about the kinds of monsters internet fights can create. Luckily, in "Pooka Lives!" the stakes are slightly more realistic and slightly more absurd at the same time. And it's in Ray's experience with absurdity and humor that some of the funniest moments in the movie were created. While being chased by one of the monster Pookas, Ray's character Matt blurts out, "It’s a giant monster rat. Get into the pantry!"
It's a killer line, but Ray reveals that it wasn't what had originally been scripted. He'd changed it to make it funnier, but more importantly, more authentic.
"I think the original line was like 'big bad Mickey Mouse,' but when you’re scared, you’re not clearly thinking, so it’s like you're having first draft thoughts," Ray explains. "He couldn’t even think of a more clever way of saying that. You get real dumb when you’re scared. I like the dumbness of that."
As a genre, though, Jonah Ray thinks horror — even slightly goofy horror like "Pooka Lives!" — is anything but dumb. In fact, as people shelter in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak and worry for the future during a global pandemic, Ray thinks the power of horror is actually found in its ability to comfort people in times where they are scared about other things.
"Horror for me has always [been] a comfort," he says. "Since I was a kid. I think because, mainly, it’s a nightmare that you know is going to end. It’s a scary reality that you can turn off if you want. It’s this situational fear that isn’t real in the end.
"It’s nice to just have this vacation, like a roller coaster. It’s scary when you’re doing it, but it’s going to end," Ray adds, before getting a little serious. "Right now, we don’t know if this is going to end. But with horror, you know in 90 minutes you’re free."
Into the Dark's "Pooka Lives!" is streaming on Hulu.
Listen to our full conversation with Jonah Ray on SYFY WIRE's Who Won the Week podcast.