Inside Tay Yuan Song’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Boo! Meet the spooky kid who’s been photographing all of your nightmare fuel. Gabrielle Ang goes on a haunt with him to find out.
Hype Issue #54
February 7, 2022
Before I met Tay Yuan Song, 23, in person, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the horror artist and full-time National Serviceman.
With haunting photographs that might make the faint-of-heart clutch their rosaries, Yuan Song seems like he would be a gloomy, vampiric dude skulking away in some abandoned castle, creeping out of his crypt at night to scare the innocent like the ghouls of lore. You’d think aunties would hold their grocery bags and toddlers a bit tighter while shooting him dirty looks and loud tsks.
When he meets me outside an MRT station on a bright Saturday afternoon, Yuan Song reminds me of any other person who works in the production field. Slight in build but strong-looking, he’s wearing a black t-shirt and jeans with a pair of boots, and is carrying a heavy plastic bag full of props on top of his camera gear.
He’s rather friendly and easy-going, and even offers my chaperoning friend advice on surviving National Service while geeking out about cameras and rock bands with us. We’re waiting for his stylishly dressed street photographer friend, MoodyDen (@moodyden), to help out with the shoot.
“Many people think I’m a weirdo which is totally understandable, given the fact that I do scary horror shoots with dolls and stuff,” says Yuan Song. “But behaving normally can be very different based on the perspectives that people have.”
Yuan Song on the sets of various shoots. Pictured on the left are some of his models. On the right, you’ll spot one of his dolls. Photo courtesy of Yuan Song.
If you look at Yuan Song’s Instagram page, you’ll find plenty of subjects that may remind you of Slipknot or Voldemort’s Death Eaters: All of them are masked, and no, not in the socially responsible N95 way.
“I believe that masks frighten people not because of what they look like on the outside, but rather what’s hiding beneath them. They strip the humanity of the subject to help me portray a strong idea,” says Yuan Song. “As masks play a big part in my shoots, I have to choose the right mask to see which best matches the styling and concept to create a strange, yet beautiful look.”
As masks play a big part in my shoots, I have to choose the right mask to see which best matches the styling and concept to create a strange, yet beautiful look.
He’s also been keeping vintage dolls ever since he started his hobby and incorporates them often in his photographs.
“I use these dolls a lot for my shoots to further invoke fear and terror to humans with the unsettling vibes they give,” he says.
Frankly, it was terrifying seeing Yuan Song’s valley of dolls on social media. As a childhood Barbie owner, I knew this wasn’t the same as my younger self collecting wedding dress Barbie, Twelve Dancing Princesses Barbie, or Mariposa Barbie. I’ve seen too many accounts of haunted dolls leaving morbid generational curses on unsuspecting owners and I wasn’t going to be the next breakout star of the Annabelle franchise.
Haunted, or haute couture? I can’t tell what it is with this 1910s doll from Australia. Photo by Gabrielle Ang.
When Yuan Song casually unzips his bag to show me the doll we’re using, I feel a lot more relieved. He doesn’t seem extremely cautious or careful with it and no exorcism rituals were involved, for better or for worse.
“This one’s from Australia, and it’s from the 1910s. So that means it’s confirm haunted,” he jokes wryly before passing me the doll. It’s a little heavier than the average rubber baby doll, with a slightly eerie painted face.
“Personally, I feel that the vintage dolls that I’ve collected are interesting, as they used to be some kid’s favourite toy many years ago and now it’s just there in my house sitting like a lifeless body all day long with frozen expressions. Every bit of decay, such as the cracks on their faces tells a story.”
Personally, I feel that the vintage dolls that I’ve collected are interesting, as they used to be some kid’s favourite toy many years ago and now it’s just there in my house sitting like a lifeless body all day long with frozen expressions. Every bit of decay, such as the cracks on their faces tells a story.
Feeling less terrified with a potentially haunted doll in my arm and a gold Guy Fawkes mask on, I’m mostly concerned by the heavy, fragile headpiece sitting precariously in my hair that Yuan Song tirelessly readjusts every few minutes under the hot sun.
Stepping into the famous lalang field frequented by wedding photographers in Singapore, I make Emily Ratajowski jokes and TikTok videos while posing for him.
It’s an interesting experience playing a character other than myself for a shoot. I’m quite grateful that I’m familiar with leg workouts because I was contorting myself into various shapes that might have been painful, and also extremely embarrassing if I looked like myself. “Stick your arm out! Give me something more dramatic,” he’d say, and I’d just try my best while asking: “Like this?”
I went crazy on the shoot under his artistic direction because it definitely stripped any kind of vanity I might have had in a regular context. I don’t know, do hantus think they look fat in photos like teenage girls do? Normally, I’d feel slightly insecure with so much attention thrown onto me. This time, I chose to let loose with my new identity. It was easy to laugh around Yuan Song and MoodyDen, even with a creepy doll in my arms.
“Make your hands a little more god-like. Put some fingers down. Yup, keep doing that!” Photo courtesy of Yuan Song.
I was told to give my poses more elegance, to act in a god-like manner and was shown tirelessly curated reference photos, most of which were Renaissance paintings of royal and biblical women.
“Oi, run faster la!” I joke to the onlooking runners at Jurong Lake Gardens, who gawk at my more-than-unusual appearance.
Yuan Song’s friends, Isabelle (left) and MoodyDen (right), modelling for various shoots while holding his prized vintage dolls. Photo courtesy of Yuan Song.
A connoisseur of macabre taste, Yuan Song collects a melting pot of influences from heavy metal to pop-punk music. I slowly realised that MoodyDen and Yuan Song were part of the brood of millennial emos, as they joked about the line-up for the When We Were Young Festival and buying band tees and half-coloured skinny jeans from Peninsula Shopping Centre in its glory days. Prior to the pandemic, the two even clubbed at Emo Nite, a popular party formerly held at Kilo Lounge that played exclusively pop-punk and emo music.
Inspired by TV shows such as American Horror Story and musicians with spooky aesthetics such as American shock rock band Marilyn Manson, there’s something geeky about his disposition, even while he sought to create eerie works that would disturb the comfortable.
“Music significantly inspires my shoots. I grew up listening to heavy metal, pop-punk, post hard-core, metalcore, rap, et cetera! Bands like My Chemical Romance, Avenged Sevenfold, Alesana, The Devil Wears Prada… These artists make songs that produce a strong emotional response in me that really helps a lot with my creative process,” muses Yuan Song enthusiastically, as he and MoodyDen recall gigs from Simple Plan and Bring Me The Horizon.
While listening to music serves as creative fuel, ultimately it is working on his craft that helps Yuan Song cope with the difficulties of everyday life, helping him express his emotions and thoughts in a productive manner that would be hard to replicate.
Like any Singaporean child growing up in the 2000s, it was impossible to evade local horror through one of local horror’s most prominent influences: Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories. This first flirtation with Singapore’s dark side threw a younger Yuan Song into an obsession with horror, including Singapore’s own folklore.
Local horror books such as Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories inspired Yuan Song as a child. Photo taken from Angsana Books.
“I spent my primary school days during morning assembly’s silent reading sessions with True Singapore Ghost Stories,” says Yuan Song. “The author, Russell Lee, certainly inspired me when I was just a kid by invoking my curiosity through his ghost stories. Local folklore used to scare the hell out of me as a kid, but I now find myself adapting some local horror elements for my shoots. I also have a bomoh and pontianak-inspired video shoot that is underway this year too!”
Armed with an arsenal of supposedly haunted dolls, horror masks and an abundance of influences, Yuan Song feels that creating horror photographs helps him express his concealed feelings in a way that he would be unable to convey verbally.
What started out as a means of self-expression slowly saw him invest in his work more seriously, even going to great lengths to find rare dolls and horror masks from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, some of which come at hefty prices amounting to thousands of dollars which he earns partially by serving the nation, while also selling prints of his work to international customers.
But to Yuan Song, it’s more than worth it. “My art is like a medium for me to channel my suppressed thoughts and feelings. It guides me to look deep into my darkness to drag those monsters out and proudly exhibit them for people to see as art.”
My art is like a medium for me to channel my suppressed thoughts and feelings. It guides me to look deep into my darkness to drag those monsters out and proudly exhibit them for people to see as art.
His friends and family have remained supportive as well. However, this wasn’t the case with some people, when superstitious naysayers accused him of being a Satanist and devil-worshipper amongst other things.
“As Singaporeans, many of us here are raised to be respectful towards superstitions,” he says. “Even in modern times, age-old superstitions still remain. Personally, I am very used to mean comments about my art such as saying that I have nothing better to do. My stance is that as long as I am respectful to the environment and people paying their respects there, I don’t really see what’s wrong with it.”
While many might choose to disregard the beauty in the macabre out of fear, he has chosen to embrace its dark splendour wholeheartedly.
“I understand that many people find cemeteries spooky and depressing. But to me, cemeteries are incredibly peaceful and beautiful. It is a special place designed in a way to make mourners feel more comfortable and relaxed when they visit their loved ones to pay their respects.”
Clearly, Yuan Song is unbothered by the Satanic Panic. He and MoodyDen dryly poke fun at boomers that make unsolicited rude comments about their work and MoodyDen’s unconventional, gothic fashion sense, and scoff at the judgemental behaviours of others.
By this point, I’m impressed by their nonchalance towards the attempts made to discredit their talent. After all, staunch conformists are the greatest enemies of creativity, and it’s not wrong to say that judgemental individuals might be too afraid to explore the darker side of human nature.
“I just tell my models to wave every time someone’s being weird,” says Yuan Song. “These unnecessary opinions will just shackle my artistic potential, therefore I don’t really care what others think of me. I really want to inspire more people to step out of their comfort zone to do what they really like instead of what society expects from them.”
These unnecessary opinions will just shackle my artistic potential, therefore I don’t really care what others think of me. I really want to inspire more people to step out of their comfort zone to do what they really like instead of what society expects from them.
With a calm, “don’t like then f*ck off” attitude towards haters and sceptics, as well as a supportive group of friends and fellow creatives, Yuan Song’s irreverence and undying penchant for darkness ensures that he continues to thrive. With a roster of subjects include dominatrixes from the local BDSM community to take part in shibari (Japanese erotic bondage) shoots and has even worked with a taxidermist to bring his shoots to life.
Yuan Song’s collaborators include dominatrixes skilled in the art of shibari as well as taxidermists. Photo courtesy of Yuan Song.
“For this shoot, we incorporated the art of Shibari ropes together with a goat skull and bone accessories from the taxidermist to create a pagan ritualistic horror shoot,” says Yuan Song. “With my shoots, it’s not just all about me creating the outcome. It is also about the experience that I am providing for the talents in my shoots where they can freely express themselves without feeling restricted once they put on a mask.”
Few would think that horror art would have a refreshing, almost therapeutic quality to it. By getting to know our monsters by portraying them in art, we can find beauty behind our own darkness, and potentially be at peace with what scares us.
Embracing your inner spook is a lot more than just a gang of emos typing “rawr xD” on MySpace, so fly your freak flag and roar.
You can follow Yuan Song and buy his prints here.