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Graduating ASU film student befriends the macabre


A woman stands against a dark green background while wearing a black top and a Mona Lisa smile.

"Horror was and still is my preferred genre. I write film reviews of horror films from a feminist lens," said graduating ASU film and media studies major Kristen Semedo. "It's a highly subtextual genre that filmmakers have used to explore so many complicated social and individual issues. As a kid, the macabre drew me in more than it pushed me away."

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April 26, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Arizona State University student Kristen Semedo has held many jobs: ghost tour guide, music photographer, community health worker, and most recently, Hollywood prop master.

At least some of these seem appropriate vocations for a horror cinephile who — for real — first attended college in witchy Salem, Massachusetts (she’s originally from Marlborough — a city about 50 miles southwest of Salem).

“I would watch the free, on-demand section where all those B-rated horror films were hidden when I was home alone,” Semedo said. “I didn't really know why they fascinated me, but I was perfectly happy to watch them with or without friends, lights off and joyfully terrified. It's a highly subtextual genre that filmmakers have used to explore so many complicated social and individual issues. As a kid, the macabre drew me in more than it pushed me away.”

Her experience with the macabre extended to relationships — “people themselves can be and often are haunted” — and coming to terms with her own dark side as she struggled with clinical depression. Semedo has emerged at peace with her identity as “the kid who was into the weird stuff.”

“Movies kept me company as a kid,” she said. “My first horror film was William Castle's ‘13 Ghosts.’ I was pretty young when I saw it, maybe around six, and I wore the tape out from watching it so many times. As I got older, I spent most of my alone time with my modest DVD collection, which, by the time I got my first part-time job in high school, grew considerably, as each week I bought used horror DVDs from a comic store. Horror was, and still is, my preferred genre. I write film reviews of horror films from a feminist lens.”

Nowadays, when not working in the prop master capacity, she haunts a coffee shop in east Hollywood to do her ASU Online coursework and write film reviews and screenplays.

Her graduation from ASU this spring is the culmination of 10 years of higher education, beginning at Salem State — through detours for work, mental health, marriage, travel, life-threatening illness and more work — and ending on a stage in Tempe, Arizona where she’ll earn her BA in film and media studies at ASU.

Semedo shared more of the dark alleys and bright lights of her journey in an interview for ASU News.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I originally entered ASU as a photography major. When I started working in film, however, it made more sense to switch to a related degree track.

I'll be turning 30 a month after convocation. I'm originally from Massachusetts and moved to LA in 2021. I graduated from high school in 2012. I thrived in my English classes and took social sciences, psychology and even legal issues. Despite that though, I had a difficult time keeping up with other classes at times. Unlike many kids in my school, I didn't think about or plan for my future. It was hard for me to picture what I wanted or was capable of. I was bright, but I didn't push myself to take AP classes, and I only took the SAT once. Early on in my life, I struggled with pretty severe depression, so my future was just a sort of blank space that my imagination couldn't fill. I had the support of several teachers, like my TV production class teacher, Keith Heckman, and my college writing teacher, Chris Henry. Both still teach at Marlborough High, and I've never forgotten them or what they did for me.

I went to community college in Worcester, MA, while working part-time. Almost immediately, I became an academically engaged student. I was earning high marks and rediscovered my love of school. Eventually, I transferred to Salem State University and studied social work in 2015. I wanted to make something out of my own suffering and chose a career in helping people, which I am proud of, but some of my more creative interests never had the chance to flourish. In 2016, I took a break for my mental health that lasted about four years. I got to a point where I labeled myself a college dropout, not really seeing a world where I'd go back. I tried to convince myself it was something I didn't want as desperately as I did.

When the pandemic hit, Salem State offered online courses, so I decided to go back. But in 2021, my then-boyfriend, now husband, got a job here in LA, and having lost so much during COVID already, I thought this was the time to have an adventure and pursue my creative interests that, truthfully, I had put to bed a long time ago. So, I essentially blew up my plans once again. I've never really been the traditional type, and my path has always had some pretty sharp turns in it, so it isn't surprising to me or the people who know me that I up and moved across the country to see what's out there.

When I got to LA, a friend transitioning from production designer to director offered me assistant jobs in the art department on indie features. I was lucky enough that the first project I worked on ... ended up going to Sundance, and the directors went on to direct “Loki” and other Marvel shows. From there, my friend introduced me to more folks, and I became active in film groups, trying to get on set any way I could. I have several feature-length and short films, music videos and commercials under my belt because of that one day, and my gratitude for the people who offered me those opportunities is incalculable.

I had my first gig as a prop master on an indie horror franchise, “V/H/S/85,” and became interested in props. I was the prop master on two more feature films after that: “Aporia,” starring Judy Greer and “Destroy All Neighbors” starring Alex Winter and Jonah Ray Rodriguez. I got my union days and joined IATSE Local 44 in November of 2022.

Then ... the strikes happened.

With a lot of time off, I realized I was more interested in screenwriting than being a prop master. I started writing when I was little, and I started winning awards for my writing around the third grade and up through high school. But I didn't see a way to have a career as a writer back in Massachusetts. There isn't that sort of creative opportunity there. And truthfully, I just didn't think I was of the caliber of other writers; (I thought) that career wasn't possible. In June of 2023, I wrote my first short and began devouring books on screenwriting. I wrote more shorts, sent them to friends, edited them, etc. I began writing a horror anthology at the end of 2023 with a friend, and we've written quite a few segments for it so far. I'm also currently writing my first feature-length script. Now that I'm really "in it," I don't see going back. So, as much as I loved my time as a prop master, I really see myself writing and directing films in the future.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: My college career, being over a decade long, has run concurrently with some of the best and worst moments of my life. Both of my parents did not get college degrees, and I grew up knowing how much education mattered. I also knew that coming from a working-class family and being the youngest of four meant that nothing was going to be wrapped up in gold for me. No one was going to force me to go, or to finish, or to do well. I've taken breaks, gone to therapy, gotten married, worked various jobs and traveled to various places. Still, I always returned to the academic space because I love being in it. I feel comforted by knowledge and discussion, and once I decided that I was going to finish this film degree, I refused to let anything stop me. I was attending school full time on top of working 12-hour days on set, five to six days in a row, running a department by myself. All this to say, pushing myself over the limit wasn't unusual.

Last year, I was hospitalized with a life-threatening disease that came on pretty suddenly. I got exercise-induced Rhabdomyolysis, a condition where your muscles break down into your bloodstream, poisoning your kidneys and liver. I had maxed myself out at a gym class and finally found that limit. It was caught before needing dialysis, but it required a few days in the hospital. Left untreated, the mortality rate is around 60%. Having something this serious put things into perspective in a way I may not have been able to see otherwise. I had this complex — about school and life — where I felt I needed to make up for lost time or be at the level of others that I saw as high above me. Obviously, this isn't healthy. It put the journey of my life and academic career into perspective.

Crossing the stage this May is, for me, much more than just wrapping up an academic career. And it's hardly the last page of the story. But it's the end of nearly half of my life up to this point. I wish I had a better-formulated way to express the enormity of this milestone beyond the obvious. I learned hard and fast in the latter half of this journey that nothing is ever a given and it can be taken from you instantly. I kind of expected the diagnosis to force me to take another college break, but really, it made me come back more intensely. I'm usually not one to hold myself up in the highest regard, but living through something like that while in the last year of this degree impacted the way I move through the world.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Though in an ideal world I'd attend in person classes, I knew that with the move to LA and needing to work as soon as possible, I needed a school that would accommodate an at-your-own-pace learning style. ASU stood out to me as not only a school of innovation, but as a school of equal opportunity. More than prestige, I think an institution that values accessibility is of the highest value. And I feel strongly that the professors and mentors I've had here care just as much for me as their in-person students. I've had the chance to get to know my professors and mentors in-depth in a way that I didn't experience in my other academic settings. Plus, being that they're working professionals in the industry as much as teachers, I was able to connect with them as someone experiencing both the academic landscape as well as the working landscape.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: While there are definitely quite a few professors I've appreciated at ASU, without a doubt, (Instructional Professional) Ruby Macksoud changed the entire game for me. I originally reached out to Ruby, looking to be connected to an internship experience through ASU. I've never met someone so dedicated to other people. With something like 250 students to keep up with, she somehow manages to make people feel seen, supported and cared for; not just in a passing way, but genuinely. If I hadn't met her and gotten the chance to take FMS 484 with her, I wouldn't have the confidence in myself as a creative professional that I do now.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Often, we put as much pressure on ourselves as other people put on us. Education is important, yes. But don't hold yourself to a timeline, and meet yourself where you're at. If I can take three times the amount of years to complete an undergrad degree, then an extra year or two is nothing. And with the realities of the cost of living, there is no shame in having to put some things on hold to take care of yourself. I heard from many people that if I stopped going to school for any length of time, it'd be harder to go back. I have to say, the opposite has been true. The more life experience I returned to school with, the better engaged I found myself. There is no right way to do college; doing it at all is a miracle.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I have been a habitual coffee shop study person since I was 18. I find that being a regular at a coffee shop and posting up in a corner comforts me a lot. Studying all day can be lonely, so being around other working people or chatting for a few minutes with some regular faces has always done me some good. I've even met fellow screenwriters and gone on to work with them from doing this. I frequent a shop called Obet & Del here in East Hollywood.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm working on getting a few scripts ready to be submitted to contests, and hopefully from there, go into development with one of them. I also have plans to shoot a short horror film sometime in the summer. As jobs come back, I'm open to returning to set in the props department, but my priority is finding my way in the screenwriting world.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Humanity would benefit from affordable housing and universal access to healthcare and education. $40 million wouldn't come close to solving all of these, but investing in any program that supports one or all would be worth it. Giving children free school lunch, or access to arts education programming, or housing subsidies; any small amount could massively alter the lives of more than a few people.

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