When the horror YouTube account Dead Meat exploded in 2017 and amassed millions of views in mere months, it wasn’t an overnight sensation. As far back as their film school days at the University of Michigan over a decade ago, co-creators and spouses, James A. Janisse and Chelsea Rebecca have been making comedy videos together. In Ann Arbor in 2011, they founded Comediocracy, their online sketch troupe that, after an ad revenue mix-up, was barred from monetization and eventually demolished by YouTube by the end of 2012. Born from its rubble was Practical Folks, the couple’s breakthrough channel with James Graessle and Joel Arnold. It was there where they imagined recurring series, like “Game of Thrones Book Club” and “Drunk Disney” (the latter’s Lion King episode remains the channel’s biggest success, clocking in at over 770,000 views).
But after moving to Los Angeles from the Midwest and witnessing Practical Folks plateau around 60,000 subscribers in 2016, Janisse quickly realized splitting ad revenue four ways wasn’t going to sustain him and Rebecca on the West Coast. “Day job-wise, we both moved out here to try working in the [film] industry,” Rebecca says. “It was rough, just starting from the very bottom. For years, we were production assistants and [had] lots of weird, little odd jobs to keep us both afloat.” Those jobs, which ranged from Janisse pulling shifts at a Starbucks to Rebecca freelance editing exercise videos for senior citizens and handing out swag bags at red carpet premieres, weren’t getting the couple where they wanted to be, professionally and emotionally. “I think it was the night of the 2016 election that I was like, I gotta do something. I just gotta make an impact in the world and Practical Folks is not doing it,” Janisse adds.
Because Janisse was handling most of the editing leg work with Practical Folks, on top of the channel’s already-daunting pedigree for group filming, it prevented him from creating as much content as he’d hoped for. He’d always wanted a creative outlet that gave him the freedom to be his own boss and abandon the world of clocking in and out. “I was like, I gotta make a channel where I can just do things my way,” he adds. After stepping away from Practical Folks, Janisse spent November 2016 to April 2017 in pre-production for his new project, a horror-focused channel he aptly named after a reused turn-of-phrase in the genre: Dead Meat. The convergence of horror and comedy was a natural fit; most slashers are downright absurd in their continuity issues, fair-weathered acting, and low-budget grandeur. Janisse, a natural comedian who can throw wry, knee-buckling jabs at anything, holds those imperfections up to the light with unrelenting adoration and brazen honesty.
The first Dead Meat video was always going to be a Kill Count. The subject matter, however, ended up becoming the Friday the 13th franchise because, as Janisse puts it, “It’s what people think of when they think of horror movies, that guy in the hockey mask killing people.” The inaugural video, a seven-minute recap of the groundbreaking 1980 slasher, where Janisse counts every on-screen (and off-screen) murder, was inspired by something he’d done years prior. “Horror movies were something I’d been a lifelong fan of,” Janisse says, “and when I was a kid, I had a horror movie website that I learned HTML to create. I coded it myself, and one of the things on there were ‘body counts.’ I remember being a 10-year-old watching horror movies and writing down how many people got killed and how.”
Dead Meat’s Kill Count style is always fresh, inventive and timely, full of Adam Sandler references, Star Wars deep cuts, WWE nods, and, of course, a plethora of on-screen blood and guts (or as much as YouTube will allow before handing out copyright strikes). In-between the shots of slain bodies are quick-witted pokes, roasts, timely behind-the-scenes footage, and cast interviews. Janisse’s humor is a good middle ground, perfectly nestled somewhere in-between cartoonish and sarcastically dry, and makes him equally as accessible to his casual viewers and as he is to the longtime, diehard supporters since Practical Folks. The holy grail of Kill Counts, however, comes at the end, when Janisse gives out two infamous awards: the “Golden Chainsaw” for the film’s coolest kill and the “Dull Machete” for its lamest. Those accolades bleed into each video’s finale, a pie chart separating the genders of victims, which sometimes include cyborgs, killer dolls, paranormal spirits and shitty animatronic sharks.
Though Janisse’s relationship with horror stretches as far back as his early childhood, Rebecca’s journey with the genre took a much different path. “I didn’t watch horror movies as a kid, I was very easily frightened,” she says. “But in high school, when I’d have slumber parties with my girlfriends, that’s when we started renting movies from the video store and that’s when I saw so many of the classics.” When she got to the University of Michigan and started studying genre theory and film subtext, she discovered an irreversible appreciation for horror. “I never viewed [horror movies] as ‘cinema’ in the same way that other films are,” she adds. “Then, in college, I took a horror history class and [it] just blew it all open for me. I still use so many of those textbooks that I was assigned as research material for the podcast.”
The first year of Dead Meat found Janisse, eventually, venturing into other legendary franchises, covering Scream, Child’s Play, Alien, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, to name a few, alongside one-off hits like Get Out (2017) and Krampus (2015), but it was the Friday the 13th films that generated the first wave of buzz. Janisse is particularly quick to credit the release of Gun Media’s Friday the 13th video game, which came a month after Dead Meat’s premiere, as what “launched the channel into the stratosphere.” “People would play it, look up the movies and find the Kill Counts,” he explains.
But it was around the channel’s two-month mark that Janisee both found a glimmer of potential and absorbed an exhausting workload just to keep the whole thing afloat, as the Jason X (2001) Kill Count video amassed more views in a day than any Practical Folks video had in five years. “After the Jason X video, I was like, I just need to fucking devote myself to this, because this might actually work,” he says. While working full-time 40 to 50 hours a week as an editor, Janisse was putting just as much time into Kill Counts off the clock. “Back then I was doing every single thing myself,” he adds. “I didn’t have a staff. I would, literally, wake up at 5:30am and leave [for work] early, because any time spent in traffic was time wasted to me, work on Kill Counts until my boss came in, spend my lunch break at my computer desk working on Kill Counts, leave a little bit early and avoid traffic, get home and work on Kill Counts until 1am, go to sleep and do it all over again.”
At the same time, Rebecca was on an opposite schedule, working nights for Jimmy Kimmel Live!’s post-production team and YouTube account. “The show would film at like 5pm, so my work started after the show was finished recording, essentially,” she says. “It would vary, but I would be there, sometimes, until midnight or 1am. [James and I] never saw each other, it was rough.” Though they were in a constant state of exhaustion and low social battery, the daunting hours would prove to be worth it, as the couple introduced the Dead Meat Podcast in early 2018 and the channel eclipsed the million-subscriber mark. On the podcast (which is written, hosted, and edited by Rebecca), they review and discuss non-Kill Count films, do March Madness-style horror brackets, and play trivia games.
Dead Meat has remained a consistent machine ever since. Even after releasing over 320 Kill Counts since April 2017, not one episode has less than 800,000 views, and only four have less than a million (all are a part of the Tremors series, which aired this past spring and are likely to hit the mark before 2023). The channel’s most-watched Kill Counts? Halloween (2018), It: Chapter Two (2019), The Belko Experiment (2016) and Saw (2004), each clocking in at over 20 million clicks. That widespread visibility granted Janisse and Rebecca the opportunities to take trips to, and cover, various horror conventions and amusement park attractions, like Monsterpalooza and Universal’s Halloween Horror Night.
The successes of the Kill Counts and Rebecca’s podcast also gave the couple an avenue to create the Dead Meat Awards, where, this spring, they gave out categorical praise, in the shape of a golden tenderloin slab, to the best horror films of the previous calendar year. “[The awards show] is the thing I’m most proud of from Dead Meat,” Janisse says. “I’m just so happy with how it turned out, that we got actual trophies made and they were sent to some of our winners. Like, Vincent Lindon [of Belgian body horror film Titane] has one of our stupid fucking trophies of a slab of meat. I think it was, really, the culmination and the epitome of what we like to do with the channel, showcasing and honoring the work that goes into making these horror movies. I’m just so proud of that showcase, and I’m really happy with the response to it. I hope that, if we do it every year, that it will continue to grow and get more recognition.”
But, given the labor, it came as no surprise when Janisse took to YouTube last December to announce a brief, personal hiatus that would span from January until June 2022. The break from hosting didn’t mean that Dead Meat was going offline; rather, it was him stepping away from videos for half a year to focus on channel logistics and big milestones, like him and Rebecca renovating their new home and getting married in a ceremony officiated by Heather Langenkamp, who played the infamous Nancy Thompson in three Nightmare on Elm Street movies. “For that first two-and-a-half years, there was at least one Kill Count out every single week,” Janisse says. “And, looking back, I don’t know how I did it, especially since so much of it was by myself. Those first couple of years, it was still me being like, We have to make sure that this keeps growing and growing.”
All of that work paid off quickly, as Janisse and Rebecca have become leading figures in horror media as a whole. Since 2019, the couple has interviewed icons like Langenkamp, John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Keke Palmer, Kathryn Newton, and Edgar Wright; they’ve collaborated twice with Good Mythical Morning co-creators Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal; Janisse hosted his own show on Crypt TV called Meat Up, where he’d pick the brains of horror legends like Tony Todd and Joe Dante over meals.
Janisse stepping back and taking his foot off the gas was a gradual occurrence, as he started filling the channel with other video series way back in 2020, like “What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?,” in which celebrities talk about their favorite horror films, more podcast episodes and “They Talk!,” where longtime editor Zoran Gvojic does hilarious voiceovers for historically silent horror killers. When Janisse handed the Kill Count reins to Gvojic for the Tremors franchise (and Rebecca for the American Psycho films), he promised a return with a more polished, professional aesthetic—a long-term goal that first genesized last fall when Janisse released “recounts” of every Friday the 13th installment, injecting all 12 films with his modern Kill Count theatricality and comedy. It’s a welcomed upgrade from the rawer, drier pace he worked from during the channel’s inaugural year. Because of his improvements, he’s planning to go back in and recount other films he covered in 2017, and the Scream franchise will be the first to receive the Friday the 13th treatment later this summer.
To carry that ambition through 2022 and beyond, Janisse has been working behind-the-scenes with a new, growing team of writers, coaching them on how to adopt his precise tone, comedic timing, and style. “We could have kept coasting on what we were doing, the same set, the same stuff, but I always want to make improvements to the show,” Janisse says. “I don’t want to just feel the same. That’s why the writing of [Kill Counts] went from just listing off the kills with a few jokes to sharing information about how it was made and [showing] behind-the-scenes footage of these people at work. And sure, that’s expanded the length of the episodes, but I think it adds more value than a simple recap. I don’t want to just be a recap.”
And, already, the channel is upping its own game. Rebecca adopted a three-camera set-up and brand new, horror memorabilia-covered backdrop she and Janisse invested in for the podcast, which was shown off during the X (2021) episode in April. The Kill Count set also got a fresh, three-dimensional makeover from Go Button. On the production side of things, along with hoping Gvojic will resurrect “They Talk!” for a second season, Janisse is helping bring an independent series called “Tales From Hell” to life, where videos will go in-depth about on-set problems that occurred during the production of horror movies. Dead Meat is also slated to executive produce a horror film about the University of Michigan’s football rivalry with Ohio State. Janisse calls his position with the channel moving forward a “producer role of just molding things as they happen.” It’s unclear if the Kill Count will continue occurring as regularly as before, but Janisse is optimistic and approaching the channel’s relaunch with patience. “There’s just so many fucking horror movies and I just want to cover all of them, but there are only so many Fridays in a year,” he adds.
The couple are also looking to bring in other voices on the channel, as well, in an effort to raise awareness on, and start compassionate dialogues about, different niches and identities in horror, like LGBTQIA+ and Black characters. It’s something they’ve done before, firstly when they dedicated an entire podcast episode to transgender representation and spoke with sketch comedian and Cartoon Network writer Joan Ford about trans history in the genre. “Horror is such a big, diverse genre and there’s so many cool niches of horror that we can basically do book reports on,” Rebecca says, “but we can’t really speak from personal experience. So, getting people who can talk about different tropes or genres with a more persona experience than we can, that’s really important, too.”
With the channel’s visibility and audience still growing, so is how online communities affect media. Streaming and TikTok trends help shape a lot of the culture we’re exposed to, yet the film and television industries are still catching up on what generates interest. Though the internet is still reeling from Stranger Things’ use of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” and the song’s subsequent reappearance on the Billboard Hot 100, horror production companies are very much still at the back of the pack. “It’s kind of amazing how slowly the industry changes,” Rebecca says. “Even now, studios are kind of realizing, or understanding, that the internet drives so much of the discussion around film. Horror has done so much cool marketing online and I think it has such a neat history. The Blair Witch Project got so much word of mouth online, and it was this perfect little moment where the internet was not what it is [now], so it was impossible to look up the people involved. But you couldn’t do that now. The Blair Witch Project would be debunked on TikTok within 20 minutes. It wouldn’t be as fun and you’d have to suspend so much more disbelief.”
Though Janisse and Rebecca left Metro Detroit to come to Los Angeles and get involved with studios, with no connections and no intentions of having a full-fledged brand through YouTube, the couple is still grappling with how the industry treats the content creators reacting to their creations. “To some people, we’re still just ‘YouTubers,’” Janisse says, “and, to an extent, that’s fair. We haven’t made a movie, but we are respected by a lot of people. I think there’s just an association that people have with YouTube.” At press events, they’re often grouped with multi-million-follower, diaristic influencers instead of the more niche channel faces they keep community with. “We always feel very out of place,” Janisse adds. “Because our content is less about us and our appearances, or even our personal lives, and more about the things we’re fans of.” Though YouTube is the platform that worked for them, the couple thinks of the medium as more of a public access channel, a DIY space where they can get their interests out to people. “When you’re in a situation like that and you want to make things, YouTube is incredible because it’s a great equalizer,” Rebecca adds.
Heading into the future, Janisse is returning to his dream of on-screen acting, but he doesn’t want to be cast in a project just because of Dead Meat. “I always say it: I don’t want a role handed to me,” he says. “I just want to be able to read at an audition and earn a role. I do feel as though I can bring some audience members to a movie. If I’m a character in [a film], it doesn’t even have to be the lead. I just want to get killed in a horror movie.” Rebecca has also spent the past year getting into voice acting, with the hopes of spending more time in that space. “It’s a similar thing where I’m sure, if I wanted to, I could throw some internet clout around and get cast,” she adds, “but I don’t want that for myself. That’s not fair to other voice actors, either. I’ve been working hard on developing my skills and I’m in love with it. That’s kind of my wish now, having my own niche outside of YouTube.”
Janisse’s return to the Dead Meat screen starts on June 17th, with a Stranger Things 3 (2019) Kill Count. Once the intro fades out and he greets us with his trademark, “Welcome to the Kill Count, where we tally up the victims in all of our favorite horror movies,” it’ll be a celebrated reunion. In the comments section, and the fandom at large, supporters of all ages and from all walks of life will come back together to nerd out over beloved horror tropes and titles. What Dead Meat has so wonderfully done is expose the genre to younger horror fans, and something that brings Janisse and Rebecca joy is the privilege they have in guiding those audiences through thornier issues present in the films they cover. “When you’re a kid, it’s harder to think about nuance and what’s okay and what’s not,” Janisse adds. “And if we’re there to provide some context, like, Here’s this older movie that has some problems with it. You can still like it, but you can recognize that there are problematic aspects to it…I wish I had that guidance when I was younger. I just watched these all entirely by myself, so it’s nice to just be able to babysit these kids watching horror movies.”
At conventions and screenings, those same kids bring Janisse and Rebecca gifts and warm adoration; the couple gets recognized by fans nearly every time they go out in public. “At the Limp Bizkit concert we were just at, there was a kid who was shell-shocked to see us there,” Janisse adds.
Though some horror films try way too hard to be funny, and some horror films take themselves so seriously that the plot and tone become corny and over-saturated, the industry needs the couple’s comedy now more than ever. The lightheartedness Janisse and Rebecca bring to films brimming with gore and murder is injecting new love for a genre that stretches as far back as film itself and, desperately, is fighting tooth and nail to return to the slasher glory of its bicentennial-era, box-office successes.
Janisse and Rebecca get championed regularly, and deservedly, for the compassion and kindness they bring to a profession that’s sometimes lacking it. When Janisse talks about his employees, he mentions each of them by name in every instance; on their payroll, Dead Meat provides healthcare and 401ks to the entire staff. For a channel whose content hinges so heavily on talking, Janisse and Rebecca never stop listening to the fans and communities they serve. It’s a transparency that’s so deeply lacking across YouTube culture. Few creators make their channels as equitable as Dead Meat, which Janisse aims for when he hosts livestream parties while he edits Kill Count, or holds open discourse about films or cultural happenings on Twitter. Through Dead Meat, he and Rebecca are transforming the horror genre and inspiring the next generation to right the ship.
“At this point, we’ve had so many people come up to us and say that they’re going to film school or they’re making their own short films and they’re doing it in the horror space and they got into the horror space because of us,” Janisse says. “And I think that’s so cool. It’s so rewarding, and I hope that, in 10 years or so, we see some really kick-ass movies being made and hear that the filmmakers were inspired by us. That would be so rewarding and make all of this worth it.”
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.