Alumni profiles: Jack Davis' 14 and Robert Higgins Ph.D. '61

June 13, 2018

Sure, Jack Davis ’14 has seen and enjoyed Scream and Final Destination, those signature modern-day horror-film classics. Yet it wasn’t so much a love for the genre that led him to cofound Crypt TV. “My interest is in how tech and media intersect,” he says.

Davis points out that his sister, six years younger, doesn’t go to movie theaters at all, choosing instead the screen on her personal devices. Indeed, overall, he notes, the theater audience is dwindling. People even deal with the Internet differently than they did a half-decade ago.

When Davis was at Duke, those changes were just beginning to percolate. He noticed. “No one was doing scary content, no one was filling that space,” he says.

The Los Angeles native had met director writer/producer Eli Roth—he’s responsible for The Hostel films—so they came together to launch the horror-media company in 2015 to reach the social and mobile generation. The company has received additional investment and support from high-powered figures Jason Blum, who runs horror studio Blumhouse (Get Out and The Purge), and Kenneth Lerer, who has invested in BuzzFeed and Mic.com.

Things look promising. According to Deadline, Crypt TV has drawn an average of more than 100 million views per month across its Facebook show pages, which have more than 7.5 million total fans. Its YouTube channel has more than 575,000 subscribers.

The shift in the way the films are consumed has changed the process of making them, says Davis. Storytelling still matters, he says, but crafting those stories comes with the technological benefit of data. Crypt TV creators can tell how old their viewers are, whether the story has been successfully engaging, and specifically, in what parts of the story viewership peaked.

Data tell Davis that 92 percent of his audience is watching Crypt TV on smartphones. “So a powerful visual is so important. It’s not just that people could be watching something else. They could be texting, they could be on Instagram.”

That’s why the company has become particularly adept at creating monsters; Davis’ oft-stated goal is that Crypt TV become the “Marvel of monsters.” To that end, he’s already had a hit with Giggles, a scary female clown character with the worst teeth you’ll ever see and more than 370,000 Facebook followers. Besides appearing in Facebook live videos, she’s had live fan gatherings and merchandise selling in some of Spencer’s stores.

Giggles’ burgeoning ubiquity is a step toward Davis’ hope that he can bring his monsters beyond the short videos and features Crypt is now producing to different formats, including virtual reality, podcasts, and long-story forms. “We want to make the next class of iconic monsters,” he says. —Adrienne Johnson Martin

 

Even for Robert Higgins Ph.D. ’61, it’s a little tricky to describe kinorhynchs—and their appeal—to a broad audience. For decades he studied these meiofauna, marine, microscopic “mud dragons” that live not among but between grains of sediment, that are smaller than a period on this page yet are nevertheless essential to marine food chains. Higgins helped discover a new species of them and a new phylum (one of four new phyla described in all biology in the twentieth century). He developed and supported an international network of researchers interested in this topic; he even received an honorary doctorate at the University of Copenhagen from Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

But growing up, Higgins didn’t have “a great deal of interest in biology, certainly not microscopic things,” he says. So how did he end up here?

Maybe the best explanation invokes the William Blake poem “Auguries of Innocence.” The poem starts, Higgins explains, with this line: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” And once Higgins figured out how to catch these creatures in bulk, he unlocked a whole new realm. “I think I got people interested in them, because I had broken the barrier of how to work on them,” he says.

Higgins got his start with microscopic science at University of Colorado Boulder, where he took “whatever job I could get to supplement my G.I. Bill,” landing on a thirty- five-cents-an-hour gig in the moss-and-lichen herbarium. He worked with Professor Robert Pennak to study tardigrades (read: microscopic “water bears”) and soon made plans to head to Duke for similar doctoral work, selecting it from the five schools that had accepted him. “Duke seemed to be the best at the time,” Higgins says, “and it certainly turned out to the best.”

The turning point came the summer before he traveled east. He was on a fellowship at the University of Washington, trying to collect kinorhynch samples for Pennak. Minimal literature existed on this process; Higgins decided to painstakingly skim the surface of a bucket of muddy water and attempt to collect these unknown creatures one by one.

Higgins had never seen a kinorhynch before; it took him an hour to catch just four. But when he fumbled a piece of paper into the water and rinsed it off, Higgins realized he had snagged hundreds of them at once. In doing so, he invented a precursor to the still-used “bubble and blot” method for finding mud dragons, and he soon had an unfiltered view of that world Blake was talking about.

So when Higgins arrived at Duke, his area of study had changed. “I said, ‘Well, I’m still very interested in tardigrades, but I’ve actually gotten more interested in kinorhynchs,’ ” Higgins says, of his initial conversation with C.G. Bookhout, a legendary Duke Marine Lab professor. “And basically he said, ‘I’ve never seen one of them; I don’t know anything about them, either. So...what do you need?’ ”

“I designed a dredge, and he had it built,” Higgins says, “and from then on I did my thing.” —Lucas Hubbard