It must be fun being neighbors with Christine McConnell in South Pasadena, Los Angeles. You might open your kitchen blinds one morning and find the 32-year-old photographer outside with what looks like a terrifying creature attached to her face. Or she may be dressed up as a Stepford Wife, with lustrous, big hair and tight dress, or as a ’40s movie star reveling in her own film noir. Or even going on what looks like a summery date with…oh dear, a guy in a mask who looks like Jason from Friday the 13th. Oh, and now the date is over and McConnell is wandering off with Jason’s head. His body, slumped, ends in a bloody stump at his neck.
But as a neighbor, you may not be too surprised by these dramatic scenes, because more than likely you also will have had McConnell knocking at your door to offer her delicious, if disturbingly designed, baked confections. Neighbor or not, there really isn’t much more one can do when confronted by Christine McConnell’s fantastical, astonishing cakes and cookies than stare in wonder and merriment. And that’s before you get to the amazing re-creation of scenes from movies like Ghostbusters.
Here, crafted out of waffle cone cookies, layered with whipped cream, chocolate custard, and chocolate cake, is a cake of gnashing monsters; a sugar cookie, inspired by the “Facehugger” from Alien, made from nutmeg, milk, and sugar, and glazed with caramel; a cake topped with the distinctive skull design of the heavy metal band Danzig; and—my favorite—a chicken pot pie, with the chicken’s feet and head (the latter squashed onto mashed potato with two peppercorns for eyes) made from carrots.
McConnell has more than 100,000 Instagram followers, and unsurprisingly is fielding offers from book publishers and TV companies to do cookery shows. “I never grew up expecting any of it,” she says. “But you only live once, and you should take every opportunity.” All the wonderful scenes McConnell creates, featuring either her or her baking, are done thriftily, with materials costing between $50 and $100. She makes her own vintage-style clothing; stage sets are constructed using old drapes and fabric.
“I’ve always loved the Stepford Wife look, just as an aesthetic. I’m not controlled by anyone,” says McConnell, “I’m a huge fan of Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Cyd Charisse—if I could be anyone else, I would be her. She was so elegant in the way she spoke.”
McConnell insists that if she was running for a subway she would be in jeans and a T-shirt, but as her Instagram makes clear, she is happiest in her immaculately conceived make-believe worlds, with their stylized nods toward Tim Burton and David Lynch: kitschy idealized Americana given spiky, dark twists. “As much as I love sunny meadows and bunnies, I also love spooky forests with owls,” she says.
“I’ve lived a pretty happy life,” she insists, when I ask where her love of all this darkness comes from. “I love traditional beauty without being creepy.”
McConnell grew up watching Burton’s movies, and Alfred Hitchcock’s, engaged by the juxtaposition of the orderly and the macabre. She also was handy, hammering nails into walls and using a heat gun to chisel glue off the floor. Her parents’ home was creepy: “very dark, three stories, like the Amityville Horror house.”
A photographer since she was 19, McConnell’s rise to Instagram fame has been fast. A self-taught cook, she only started making her scary-themed confections last Halloween, with Girl Scout cookies in the shapes of an army of life-size tarantulas, dusted with frosted coconut. When she modeled the 5-pound Alien Facehugger mask, she had to stick it to her face using caramel, and it was a hot day; so she suffers for her art, too.
McConnell’s foodie inspiration derives from the redoubtable, and not a little terrifying, 1970s British chef Fanny Cradock, whose culinary creations could be as revolting as her voice was bellowing. McConnell also is an unapologetic fan of the controversy-hit Paula Deen: “She’s the best. We all say terrible things. Goodness knows I have.”
McConnell rarely eats what she makes—“The last thing you want to do is eat them once you’ve inhaled all that powdered sugar,” she reasons—so she pops ’round to her neighbors’ and occasionally terrifies their children with her eye-popping cakes.
The picture re-creating Sigourney Weaver at her most possessed in Ghostbusters was shot, McConnell tells me, “in my garage. [I] built the stone I’m laying on out of blocks of wood and painted foam core board with a backdrop and fog machine going. A friend came over to play the Keymaster, and I made my costume out of the exact type of fabric used in the original film… It was a blast and took about a week to pull off.”
Playing the multi-imaged Stepford Wife, “I painted the walls of a room at my parents’ house first, then went to a thrift store and picked up a bunch of stuff they were going to throw out and cleaned it up/painted some and decorated the room…I even made the curtains and sawed, painted and nailed in the trim along the floor of the room. Then I set everything up, marked my various positions, and did a bunch of changing really quickly. Afterwards I melded all the best shots into one cohesive image.”
McConnell’s favorite movie re-creation was from Weird Science. “I also shot this at my parents’ (as they have a lot of room and are very tolerant of my weirdness). I created the set, actually painted foam-core board to look like a door, and broke it out. I made my outfit in about an hour, had a fog machine and eerie light going on…it actually felt like I was in the original movie while I shot it…it was crazy fun.”
She doesn’t want to divulge exactly what we will next see in her sunny nightmares. But she promises, “If you like space, you’ll like what I’m going to do.” I’ll add that even if you don’t like space, you’ll probably like it, too.