I am a person who has come to expect instant gratification from the technology that has intertwined itself into our modern lives, especially in being entertained. Like many of you out there perhaps, current world events have caused me to spend a greater amount of time thinking about things that have always interested me. The primary thing I’d always wanted to do but didn’t have the guts was to try my hand at writing. For new writers the advice is to “write about what you know or love”, so the only logical option was to write about horror or whatever other weird things that pique my interest.
See, I’ve always known I was able to write at least moderately acceptably, I was just afraid of the “what if’s” that most of us are guilty of listening to inside our heads. This time in my life was different. I am a fairly new dad and I have twins on the way and decided there’s no time like the present to go for it. So…here I am. Maybe you will be able to relate, or maybe you’ll advise me to stick to my day job. Either way, I’m not going to listen to the ‘what if’s’ anymore. Life is far too short in my opinion.
I am what I would consider a fairly typical man of my age (46) and generation (X). I’ve loved horror movies for such a long time, and recently I asked myself why? What is my attraction to the genre and why did it develop in the first place? I got to thinking about my first memories of watching horror movies and how I felt when doing so. After all, one of my biggest frustrations in recent years has been the fact that I rarely have anyone in my real life to physically watch horror with. I wondered, am “I” the weirdo, since so many other people aren’t into it? Why do I like it if everyone else isn’t interested?
Now to start, I’d like to clarify a couple of things. First off, I use the term horror to encompass a wide variety of movie types. To some people, the movie ‘Alien’ with Sigourney Weaver is a horror movie, whereas I had always just thought of it as science fiction. Other people may watch Jaws and consider it a horror movie where I always thought of it as a suspenseful action movie. I suppose for me, in my mind’s eye, I tend to categorize movies an awful lot like the shelves of movies were categorized at good old Blockbuster Video. Now for those of you who remember Blockbuster feel free to skip past the next couple paragraphs unless you want to walk down memory lane with me.
If you were born in the last 15 or 20 years you might not understand what I’m talking about. Way back in the old-timey days of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990’s you had to leave your home to rent a movie. And if you were a movie-loving person like I was, entering a video rental store felt like a very special event. This is because most people I knew simply didn’t have the money or time to constantly rent movies, especially since it was a whole thing to go back and forth to the store.
When you walked into the video store it was organized with row after row of freestanding shelves as well as tall shelves built along all of the walls. Additionally, there were racks of candy, microwave popcorn, and movie-related posters or memorabilia.
Originally every shelf was filled with VHS videotapes which were later replaced by DVDs, and the shelves themselves were organized into specific categories. Categories included New Releases, Action, Science Fiction, Documentaries, Horror, Westerns, you get the idea. For me, the video store was like a utopia of escapism. If allowed to, I could wander the aisles for what seemed like hours. Consequently, I have always had the same problem in book stores as well, but that’s a different story.
As I grew older I cultivated a wide assortment of tastes concerning movies, I suppose I used those old video store categories as a mental template for categorizing my likes and dislikes in regards to movies. There probably isn’t a single category of movies where I don’t appreciate at least something related to it. But for me, horror was the biggest attraction.
At first, I think it was because it was taboo. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to just watch anything that I wanted to. My parents, like most, didn’t want me screaming at 2 am from nightmares produced by watching scary movies. In fact, I think I was already prone to nightmares simply because I had such an active imagination already at a young age. My poor mom’s heart must have aged prematurely with all the times I woke up screaming from nightmares, and that was even before I watched horror movies! But for some reason, once I got a bit older I wanted to be scared. I can remember feeling as if I was able to watch and not be scared, then maybe my dreams wouldn’t be so scary anymore either.
I don’t recall if I watched actual scary horror movies first or not but I had an early introduction to silly horror movies as well. Those were heavily censored movies I saw on television. This brings up another aspect of my interest in horror. I can remember the very first spark of desire I felt for a girl a bit older than myself. Her name was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. On occasional weekends I was allowed to hang out with my step-dad at the time and watch the movies that she presented on her television show. The movies were often very low budget and campy horror films, but the main attraction was Elvira herself. Allegedly, my step-dad who worked in the movie industry knew Cassandra Peterson who played Elvira so I assume that’s why he watched her show. I watched it because she was funny and truly beautiful! She had a way of making you feel like an old dear friend.
Two examples of the first horror movies I can distinctly remember are The Fog (1980) and Poltergeist (1982). By modern horror standards, The Fog isn’t necessarily a very frightening movie, but to ‘little kid’ me it was.
**Spoiler Alert** A mysterious fog entombs a small coastal town bringing with it hordes of the dead from a 100-year-old sailing tragedy that the town’s elders have kept a secret. The dead are back and in search of revenge on the current townsfolk for the sins of their ancestors. Lying in bed after having watched the movie my mind began to race. What if that could happen in real life? After all, I had seen some serious fog before and who knows what could be out in it!
I did my best to tell myself it was just a movie and not real, but at the same time, I was so intrigued as well. Would 100-year-old dead people look like that? What did their ship look like? Was it a pirate ship? I bet it WAS a pirate ship. That would be so cool! I wish I could go on a pirate ship!’ So were the wandering thoughts of little-kid me contemplating the mysteries of life and horror movies way back then. And also, if you haven’t seen The Fog (1980), do yourself a favor and watch it.
In contrast, if The Fog had me a little scared, then Poltergeist scared the hell out of me at the time. In case you live under a rock and don’t know what I’m talking about,
**Spoiler Alert** Poltergeist is the story of a suburban family living in a newly built tract home who begins noticing odd and possibly paranormal events occurring in their home. In my opinion, the casting of the movie couldn’t have been better as the actors embodied what (at least I thought at the time) was a dead-on representation of a middle-class suburban family that looked and seemed similar or at least comparable to my own.
The events at first appear harmless, like the very young daughter seemingly being slid by some unseen magnetic force across the kitchen floor, or the mother turning her back for a moment in the kitchen and then turns back to discover all the kitchen chairs stacked on the dining table the moment in a matter of moments. The paranormal events only ramp up in intensity from there, however.
The scariest of those events in Poltergeist for me involved a clown doll. That stupid damn clown. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m referring to. For years after seeing Poltergeist I couldn’t see a clown without immediately remembering the terror that movie brought me. That damn clown. Sitting in a chair, staring, and waiting to attack the young boy in the movie. It makes me laugh today at just how scared I was that the clown doll was in MY closet at home. That the moment I stepped out of bed the clown would grab me by the ankle and drag me under the bed to what would surely be my grisly death. I distinctly remember lying in bed in the dark, absolutely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was seeing my closet door inching open ever so slowly, and the clown doll was silently slithering its way across the floor to hide underneath my bed.
As silly as I know it is to admit, even as an adult I have jumped the last foot or two onto my bed for fear of the unknown threats residing just out of my sight. And if you haven’t watched Poltergeist then hurry up and watch it. It’s chock full of yummy 1980s American nostalgia. And if you don’t like that kinda nostalgic stuff then hell, you can still cheer for the clown.
I don’t know why that wasn’t the end of my interest in horror movies. I was truly scared by those movies, but those fears weren’t enough to deter me…
It probably had a little to do with hormones if I’m being honest. Horror movies have always been a great excuse to dress up/or undress beautiful women for a little extra something in the scenes for the viewers (many of which are hormonal young guys like I was). Therefore, not only were horror movies fun because of the adrenaline rush of being scared, but the potential of seeing a topless woman or two was a huge motivator in itself!
Of course, I can already hear someone out there saying “Ugh what a pig, objectification of women isn’t something to be excited about!” …You know who you are out there. Well, I am not writing about today’s socially accepted standards, but those of my formative years. And even then, what I consider socially acceptable and what others do are completely subjective, but again that’s another story. In those days, the objectification of women was arguably the primary force driving movie ticket sales besides violence and action scenes. Even if the viewer recognized something might have been done in poor taste, it just wasn’t as hotly debated as everything seems to be in current times.
So, combine the thrill of witnessing bloody and scary action onscreen, the adrenaline and excitement of a (straight) teenage boy witnessing the wonders of the female body which were completely out of reach in real life, and a desire to get lost in something far more exciting than the daily drudgery of living someplace without many friends. It didn’t take long before I was watching every horror movie I could get my hands on.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. ‘How can this amazingly cool guy expect us to believe he wasn’t super popular and didn’t have legions of other kids wanting to be his friends’. I know, it’s hard for me to believe looking back also.
Additionally, I think horror movies sort of represented a certain amount of freedom to me as I got a little older as a kid too. As I became older, I was more able to watch what I wanted without the same restrictions. Flashing back to when I was an early teen I used to love spending the night at my Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary’s house with my three cousins. Sometimes, Uncle Bill would load us all up and drive us to Blockbuster to pick out movies to watch.
We kids would frantically search for the perfect video to take home to watch, many times those movies were horror. When we got home we’d eat pizza and sort of camp out on the living room carpet watching whatever comedy movie Uncle Bill had usually selected. But then, after the adults and the youngest cousins were in bed, we boys would put on our horror movie with anxious anticipation. In the wee hours of the night, I clenched a pillow tightly to my chest as Freddy Krueger stalked rebellious teens in their dreams. I shook with fear the first time I saw The Exorcist, rocking back and forth trying to hold my bladder because I was too scared to go to the bathroom alone.
Back then, it felt like joyful freedom to be allowed to choose what I wanted to watch (within reason of course). At that time in my life, I desperately needed an escape from the realities of life at home, life at school, and I will forever be thankful to Uncle Bill for allowing us to be kids when we needed to be, and allowing us to dip our toes into the big boy pool when we wanted to. We were rambunctious and wild kids, but we were also overall well-raised kids who just needed a little bit of freedom as a reward.
So here I think lies the answer to my original question of what horror means to me. Horror means excitement and freedom. It means the freedom of a director to craft a story as frighteningly exciting or as silly and nonsensical as they choose. Horror means the freedom of an actor to push the limits of his or her acting abilities to convince the viewer of their complete and utter terror at that moment in a film.
After all, a poorly acted scene in which the actor is supposed to be scared but isn’t is incredibly easy to spot. If the actor feels inhibited for whatever reason and doesn’t let down their guard enough to deliver true emotional vulnerability then the scene and those it’s comprised of will be quickly recognized as being subpar. Therefore horror movies allow an actor a certain type of freedom of expression not necessarily found in all other types of movie roles.
For instance, during filming on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film’s director Tobe Hooper kept Gunnar Hansen who played Leatherface separate from the crew as a means of preserving the suspense and visual impact of the characters costume mask which in the movie is hand-made of human skin. The tactic worked as when his co-stars did interact with Leatherface their truly frightened expressions were genuine and forever immortalized on film.
Additionally, it was later revealed that during the intense filming of what’s known as the ‘Dining Room’ scene, Gunnar Hansen is supposed to use a real knife rigged with a tube to produce fake blood to imitate cutting the terrified female victims finger. The blade edge of the knife had tape applied to it for obvious safety reasons. The blood tube continuously failed to work as intended however and in a move that would undoubtedly never be gotten away with today, Gunnar Hansen removed the tape and the actual knife blade was used and cut into the actresses’ finger causing her to bleed!
Sticking to the script, the actress’s bloody finger was then shoved into another actor’s mouth in a gritty and frightening mix of fear and chaos. Actress Marilyn Burns admitted in a much later interview that due to the mixture of being physically exhausted and delirious from the heat and oppressive filming conditions, coupled with Hansen’s terrifyingly realistic acting lead her to question if she wasn’t secretly involved in some kind of snuff film and was going to end up being killed for real and left discarded in that grisly mess of a secluded farmhouse.
Horror means the freedom to push the boundaries of what is considered art versus what is considered trash. When it comes to horror, one person’s trash is indeed another person’s treasure. I am personally not a fan of what I would consider really low budget horror movies that also have terrible acting. I can overlook low budget costuming, set design, locations, effects, etc. I cannot, however, overlook a badly acted or directed movie where the movie and its actors don’t at least seem to be aware of how terrible they are. I’m sure people will disagree with me on that but yet again, that’s another story.
Lastly, horror means the freedom to enjoy and even relish the fear, the misfortunes, the mistreatment, and especially the death of others without the implications and judgment that would come from such behavior in real life. The freedom of horror allows me to stretch out and relax while the horror character of my choice slices and dices that annoying guy who was being rude to the waitress in the diner a few minutes ago. I can laugh as the less than surefooted and annoying cheerleader like the mean ones from high school gets impaled on a wrought iron fence….. To me horror means freedom, but the more important question is this….what does horror mean to you?
Ian McGee. Gen X. Equal parts Man-Child/Cuddly Bear/Fierce defender of the weak. Dad and Husband. Lover of movies, music, jokes, food, good booze, and great conversation. Hello to any and all of my fellow horror movie aficionados out there on the ol’ inter-webs.