Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Horror

BEST OF lists… ever the controversy. Expressing dissatisfaction with HMV’s recent list of the Top 50 Horror Films of All Time, a fellow blogger recently compiled his own list with the help of the horror genre’s most web-friendly uber-fans. It’s pretty hard to argue with the status of the top five films (though I’m sure many have argued the sequence):

1. Halloween (1978)
2. The Exorcist (1973)
3. Psycho (1960)
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

There, in a nutshell, you have the history of the modern American horror film. (Vault of Horror refers to this time period as the “Silver Age,” reserving the term Modern for the period 1980 – Present.) Each of these films has been dissected a million times by a million viewers, but they all still manage to pack a punch. Rather than offering further analyses or trying to put them into historical context (both of which have been done elsewhere), I’d like to offer my own memories of seeing some of these Top 50 films for the first time… because, as John Muir noted on his blog, these “rankings” depend so much on the viewer’s individual experience of a film.

I’m not entirely surprised to see Michael Jackson’s Thriller on Vault of Horror’s list because, as a member of the home video generation, that was one of the first “movies” that inspired my interest in horror. When I was in second or third grade my father rented it for me, along with Jaws. My little brother was happy to watch Thriller with me during the daylight hours, but when it got dark he refused to watch Jaws. I ended up watching the film alone, from an old beat up recliner in the middle of the family living room – a cavernous room in a ranch-style house. I remember feeling, during the scene where Quint tells his war story, like I was at sea with the characters. By the time the end credits rolled, I was emotionally exhausted. Completely and utterly drained. I suddenly became aware of the bigness of the room I was in. For the two hours prior I had only been aware of the television, not my surroundings. This is how addiction begins…

Soon after, my godfather let me and my brother watch Poltergeist. It was the same thing all over again. I was so tense during the last half hour of the film that, as the credits rolled, I realized that my muscles ached and I could literally feel my heart rate returning to normal. That night, I was supremely thankful that there were no clown dolls in my bedroom or gnarled trees outside my window. I wasn’t eager to watch another horror movie right away… I had to muster my courage again.

My parents did me a huge favor (for the most part) by not allowing me to watch horror movies when I was a kid. In the age of home video, many of the great modern films were readily accessible but they remained – for me – unavailable. While other kids my age were watching the Friday and Elm Street sequels, I had to ease into the genre… I started by reading about them, in home video guides and Fangoria magazine. Once I had some sense of the history of the genre, I convinced my parents that the “really bad” horror films were the ones with an R rating. They couldn’t possibly object to my watching black-and-white, unrated horror films… right?

I saw Psycho for the first time in the back bedroom at my grandparents’ house, my face glued to a small screen TV. I wasn’t particularly shocked by the infamous shower scene, but when Norman appeared in drag I suddenly felt like I was getting away with murder. Surely, my parents would have never knowingly let me watch this kind of thing… even if it was in black and white.

Nevertheless, I used the flawed logic about the ratings system a few weeks later to convince my mother to let me buy a cheap public domain copy of Night of the Living Dead at K-Mart. I promptly went home and watched it in the comfort of my own bedroom. Night affected me far more deeply than Psycho had… partly because it was such a crappy transfer. The grainy look and poor quality audio, combined with surprisingly un-glamorous locations and actors, made it seem like a pirated broadcast from the twilight zone. It was that strange tone – rather than the violence or the gore – that stayed with me. Not long after, I bought a better copy of the film.

Soon after, I graduated to TV-edited horror films. I’m sorry to say that the first time I watched Halloween, it was interrupted by commercials. On the up side, I did watch it on Halloween night, alone in the dark, and I don’t think very much was cut out (aside from PJ Soles’s tits). For me, the power of that film was doubled by the mystique that Halloween night has over impressionable kids – it is, after all, the most likely night of the year for the boogeyman to visit. And for impressionable kids, the boogeyman is VERY real. Perhaps even more affecting was my first viewing of Carpenter's The Fog. I was only seven or eight, and managed to catch the second half on a black and white TV with poor reception. I had to turn the sound way down so that my parents wouldn’t catch me watching it… but that was part of the appeal.

One glorious day, my parents caved in and decided that I was old enough to watch whatever I wanted. I had a tremendously long list of films I wanted to see and three local video stores to patronize. I can still tell you which films on Vault of Horror’s Top 50 list came from which of those three video stores. I started with A Nightmare on Elm Street, because it was something of a legend among middle school kids at that time. I had already read the novelization – in a single sitting one afternoon while a thunderstorm swept in. When I had finished the book, I realized that the room was dark because of the cloud-cover outside and I had been straining to see the words on the page for the last twenty or thirty pages. The movie had the same effect – it was more gloriously bloody than I’d imagined and just as nerve-wracking. I moved on to Friday the 13th, and when Jason jumped out of the lake at the end, I jumped too. Naturally, I then had to watch all of the sequels, though none of them quite measured up.

This year, I’ve had ample opportunities to talk about the effect that horror movies had on my formative years… and with some of the greatest horror filmmakers on earth! I told John Carpenter about that first time I saw The Fog. He had just finished telling me about how much the sci-fi films of the 1950s had influenced his life and his career, so I took the opportunity to explain how his films had done the same for me. For a moment, he seemed truly gratified. A few weeks later, I argued with George Romero about whether or not Night of the Living Dead remains relevant for newer generations of horror fans. He said he felt that it was too firmly rooted in the culture of the late 1960s for it to resonate as strongly with younger viewers. I told him that it had resonated strongly with me – a child of the 80s – when I first saw it, and I then proceeded to explain why. Quite simply, I was struggling with the reality of death when I saw it. My mother had been in and out of the hospital for several years during my childhood and I was a very high-anxiety kid. I didn’t like being scared… but I was scared regardless, and it was easier to deal with my fears via Night of the Living Dead than it was by looking at my mother in a hospital bed.

Later, Tom McLoughlin talked about feeling like an outsider as a kid and therefore identifying with the classic Universal monsters. Joe Dante told me about growing up in fear of the atomic bomb. Mick Garris told me about the threat of the Vietnam draft (a fear that most of my generation can scarcely relate to). And Darren Lynn Bousman told me about the Halloween when he dressed up as Freddy Krueger. The best part is that I got all of this on tape, and portions of these interviews will be included in Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, a feature-length documentary based on my 2004 book. We are seeking a distributor and hoping for a Spring 2009 release (either on TV or DVD). More details at: www.nightmaresinredwhiteandblue.com.


  1. Great. Freaking. Post.


  2. Thanks, David! Hope you liked the website.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I grew up a mile from the Gulf. Not wanting to deal with a neurotic child at the beach every weekend, my Mother wisely didn't allow me to see Jaws. She did let me read the book though, and I got busted by my 4th grade teacher reading it surreptitiously under my desk. She actually called my Mom. "At least she's reading" was the reply. I finally saw it years later, and the whole USS Indianapolis thing, so chilling.

  5. Jane - I was constantly being reprimanded by teachers for reading Stephen King novels. Imagine a 12-year-old slowly making his way through all 1,000+ pages of IT while the other kids are at recess. I guess that's why I turned out to be a serial killer...