In 1998, Barry Jay co-founded a gym called Barry’s Bootcamp in West Hollywood. It went well. There are now 70 Barry’s across 14 countries. But two years ago, aged 55, he retired to make horror films.
“There was an attraction to that feeling of chills running down my spine,” he says. “Of seeing people in peril.” Therapists have credited this to his traumatic childhood. “I lived in a lot of fear growing up. I was under height, underweight, quite a target at school and in the neighbourhood.”
Jay grew up in a “really rageful household” dominated by his “very angry” father in Monsey, a suburb of New York. “We had holes in our walls. The house resembled a lot of the violence. My father hit, a lot, and hard. He’d beat the crap out of me. I was always afraid.
“The therapist thought I liked horror because the horror movies actually end. And you get that feeling of relief. It’s over. I can shut it off, it’s done. I can see that: comparisons to my life where I couldn’t do that. Because I had no idea when the fear was going to end.”
As a child, and then as a young man ill-at-ease with his sexuality, Jay sought refuge in the storage shed of a neighbouring apartment block. His adult escape room is rather different. Forever sweet and chirpy, Jay is speaking from his home in Nevada.
His office is covered in horror film posters and memorabilia, including a 6ft model of Halloween’s Michael Myers, wielding a knife. Next to his bed, he says, there’s a Chucky doll. He watches a different horror film every night.
Jay’s was not a traditional path to moviemaking. In 1983, at 20, he left New York for Los Angeles to pursue songwriting, but before long “was on every drug you can imagine”. Crack was a favourite: “I was big on overdosing.”
Then, one morning in 1988, he got out of bed “amazed I had woken up. I didn’t know how I got home, I didn’t know who I was looking at in the mirror. I was gaunt and yellow. I weighed 120lb. I had $20 to my name. And in a flash I just thought: ‘You know what, no more. I’m giving up everything, and I’m gonna join a gym.’”
He also found work at a PR management company, swiftly rising up the ranks – he was Jamie Foxx’s first publicist, then managed Chaka Khan for two years. He quit in 1995, though, increasingly bitten by the fitness bug, starting out as a receptionist before becoming a trainer, collecting clients and opening the first Barry’s three years later. Workouts mixed cardio with strength training, in a red-lit gym with military-style trainers – beginning with Jay – for whom you were late at your peril. Members included Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, assorted Kardashians and the Spice Girls.
He wrote his first horror script in 2010 and didn’t stop. “I wrote 21 scripts in a year and a half, just to get better.” He then wrote one, The Chosen, with someone from one of his Bootcamp classes; they sold it to a production company who made it in 2015 before hiring Jay as a writer for an anthology they were making called Patient Seven, starring Michael Ironside.
He has now directed two films, 2019’s Ashes and the recently released Killer Therapy, populated with bit-players from classics of the genre – Carrie, Halloween, Friday the 13th. Both are completely self-funded. In 2019, Bloomberg valued Barry’s at $700m. “I have read that,” he says. “I’ve also read higher. The truth is I don’t know.”
What he is certain – even proud – of is that his survival method has involved turning the worst moments of his life into art. “The well I’m dipping into is my experience,” he says. “And my experience is traumatic. Sexual abuse and physical abuse and verbal abuse.” At school, he says, classmates would abuse him by the swimming-pool lockers. “There’s nothing I can do today that’s gonna make me go back and have a good childhood, but I can draw from it.”
In Killer Therapy, a young man failed by mental health professionals goes on a murderous rampage, slaughtering therapists. It’s mostly invention, but Jay did want to include some personal experience. “I knew someone who had a therapist who molested them,” he says. “So I borrowed from that. I wanted to add the sexual abuse to the child because it happened to me.”
It would be easy to write off Jay’s work as vanity projects; expensive catharsis of a singular kind. Yet there is real interest and envelope-pushing here, too; Ashes in particular has won praise from horror aficionados (Film Threat called Jay’s direction “inventive, engaging and atmospheric”). Slaying your demons has rarely been done with such literalism – and, often, panache.
Next up is Aroused, which shoots this year, and “hits hardest on the level of abuse and sobriety and rebuilding a life”. The hero is a man whose father is brutally murdered, then coached by his roommate to fight back. “It’s Fight Club meets Basic Instinct. He’s basically killing sexual molesters. That part is not my life at all. But it is reflective of me living all those years, thinking: ‘God, if somebody would just come along and get rid of all these horrible people it’d be so nice.’”
• Killer Therapy is available on Sky and Amazon