I grew up on a steady diet of Universal Monsters, Planet of the Apes, Jaws, The Exorcist, Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Creature Feature on Saturday afternoons. Then it was Cronenberg, Stephen King, De Palma’s Carrie, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Ridley Scott’s Alien. I had a nose for horror, its bouquet luring me towards things that were supposed to bring on the gooseflesh.
When I was eight, my older brother snuck me in the back exit door of a cinema to see a matinee showing of It’s Alive, one of the shlockiest cheapo horror films ever made, way before Chucky. But the trailer had hooked us: “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby,” a menacing voiceover says, as a dark-lit bassinet spins around to reveal a red demonic claw dangling from beneath a blankie: “…It’s alive!”
How hooked was I on monster and horror movies? As a kid I collected short 8mm film reels with highlights from my favorite movies (this was long before YouTube or even VCRs) and would string up a white bedsheet on the wall, invite friends over and we’d watch Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman or Beneath the Planet of the Apes (the one where the world is blown up by underground mutants who worship an atom bomb) on my Bell & Howell projector. I learned to cut and splice film doing that, because the damn thing would keep getting jammed, causing the stuck frame to melt under the hot bulb.
For one sixth grade art class, my friend and I made a spoof animated movie about a huge blob of clay crashing into earth and gobbling up panicky claymation figures, then a car, then an entire handcrafted diorama of my small Massachusetts town. I think the title was “I Was a Teenage Blob.” Why a blob? It was the easiest thing to animate.
Yes, I was basically that kid in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, crafting homemade short horror reels in his basement, getting all the kids to play parts. Or Spielberg himself in The Fabelmans, figuring out how to get a particular shot on camera with no budget. The big difference being: I didn’t go on to make films. But I definitely read and watched a lot of scary stuff.
Drive-in movies were another mecca for horror. I still can’t believe our parents took us along in the backseat to watch triple features that included The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price as a fire-scarred concert organist, out for revenge after a medical team allows his wife to die on an operating table), Willard (a young boy’s fondness for his pet rat leads to mayhem, as well as Michael Jackson’s theme song Ben in the sequel), and—yes—The Exorcist. I mean, how messed up did they want us to turn out?
These are my top seminal childhood horror movie moments:
- Watching the last 30 minutes of Night of the Living Dead on TV alone one late Halloween night, not knowing to expect… and being absolutely traumatized by the zombie-bitten little girl in the basement sitting up, grabbing the nearest garden spade, and going after her mother with it… (The same chills hit me when I watched the last 20 minutes of George Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead.)
- The horror of watching Damien’s nanny plunge off a balcony at the kid’s birthday party, a noose around her neck, in The Omen: “It’s all for you, Damien! All for you!” (I was 11 years old, for crap’s sakes!)
- When the screeching body-horror hybrid hops up off the lab table and skitters across the floor in John Carpenter’s The Thing — that’s when everything suddenly shifts from being a paranoia-driven horror thriller into something that gets right under your skin, and starts churning your guts. Call it “tummy horror.”
I know that somehow those lurid ‘70s and ‘80s horror movies, all those saturated reds of Dario Argento, seeped into my consciousness, became part of my personal horror iconography, like Carl Jung filmed by Roger Corman. It was all so very primal.
Then I got older, went to college, forgot about horror movies, discovered real-life horror instead — wars and atrocities, man’s inhumanity to man, ecological disasters, pandemics… That’s the horror that we are forced to hear about and live with on the daily, the horror that finally manages to numb us all out.
So why would we seek out horror entertainment as adults? Maybe it’s a link back to our childhood fears, when everything seemed scarier, brighter red, more convincing. We think we know what horror is about from the movies. But maybe it’s the inventive way we manage to hide it, disguise it, that makes it so much more effective when someone peels back the layers to show us what actually scares us.
For me, a nine-year-old leaving a matinee screening of It’s Alive and not being blown away by the movie itself, but by the sudden exposure to absolute daylight after being immersed in a dark, womb-like cinema for 90 minutes, it was like being born.