Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Personal Diatribe on Horror


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In Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes about that moment when a person makes his or her first deep connection with horror. He believes it to be so memorable and powerful, for some of us, that it gets slung into the “Where were you when…” category. While certainly not as life-altering (or maybe it is, on a different level) as the Challenger explosion, the felling of the Berlin Wall, the Desert Storm announcement, the L.A. riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict (as sad as that is to admit), Katrina, or 9/11 (the most obvious “Where were you”s I can think of in my generation), the first time I watched Sam Raimi’s cult classic, Evil Dead, inserted a bug in me that would be forever hungry for horror.

I must have been eleven or twelve (that glorious, innocent age when most of my best stories seem to have taken place). Earlier in the day, at the video store, I had begged my mother to rent Evil Dead because it had this cool image on the cover of a hand reaching up from the grave to clutch the throat of some young maiden. It was either a weekend or summer break or both, since we lived in the Midwest and it was warm outside, so two of my friends convened at my house that night to partake in the gory goodness.

We waited, of course, for the folks to traipse off to bed, before turning the lights down low and popping the videotape in. What followed was the most terrifying ninety minutes any of us had experienced, or probably ever will. Everything seems more frightening when you’re a child; in that juvenile, borderline pubescent state of being, all emotion is ratcheted up a few notches. I particularly remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, a blanket wrapped around my head trying to hide my fear while, on the television screen, the group of campers played a psychic game with a deck of cards. Ash held up a card, the others tried to guess what it was. Cheryl, who was staring out the window, not even looking in the direction of the others, started calling out the numbers and suits as Ash held the cards up. Naturally, Cheryl was on the money with each one. Worse, she called them out in the creepiest altered voice ever. 

And when she turned to face the group, good God, we saw that she was possessed by some nameless Kandarian demon.

I think, at that point, I gave up pretending like I wasn’t scared because both of my friends were just as terrified. I’m pretty sure we all spent the rest of the movie idly wondering how the hell we were going to sleep that night.

I was on home turf, but unfortunately for them, my friends still had to walk home. In the dark. We lived in a fairly wooded area, and if you know anything about Evil Dead, you understand that the Woods are alive with demonic presence.

Even as kids, though, we recognized the concept of strength in numbers. We agreed to walk together to a point where each house was equidistant, then on the count of 1, 2, 3, we would bolt for our respective front doors and the relative safety of our homes. (Note: I saw my friends the next day, so I know for certain we all made it home alive.)

Even though I made it home safely, I was still alone. Sure, I knew the folks were down the hallway, but they were sleeping, and besides, even they couldn’t protect me from possession. Still, I pulled a sleeping bag into my bedroom doorway so I could see, to my right, my parents’ bedroom at the end of the hallway, and to the left, the living room where the demons were most likely to come from. I didn’t make it long in that position before I dragged the sleeping bag to the foot of my parents’ bed and still had to sleep with a low light on.

I avoided that movie like the plague for the next five or six years, but the itch had started up. I watched every other horror film I could get my hands on after that, always subconsciously searching for the one that would do to me what Evil Dead did. The Exorcist came pretty darn close. In that one, Father Merrin says something along the lines of, “You cannot be possessed by a devil unless you believe you can be possessed.” In a sense, you have to let them in. I remember lying in bed, night after night, trying 
to convince myself that I didn’t believe it could happen. But secretly, way deep inside, I did believe it.

Anyway, I finally braved Evil Dead several years later, and by then I was old enough to appreciate the unintentional humor embedded in the film. It’s now more funny than anything else, though if I try real hard I can still summon a mild set of chills when I think about how those scenes affected me as a kid.

The reason why I’ll watch almost any horror movie now (good, bad, high-budget, low-budget, B-grade, Z-grade, it’s all good) is probably because I’m still searching for a movie that will scare the living daylights out of me. I realize it gets harder and harder as I age because things naturally affect us differently when we are children. Things that are life-and-death important when we’re young become silly and inconsequential when we grow up. It’s easy to put the blame on society, the great omniscient presence that shapes and molds us into responsible human beings. But it’s not society’s fault. It’s not our parents’ fault, or our friends’, our teachers’. It’s a simple question of biology. When we are kids, our brains are hardwired for wonder and belief and experimentation. It’s how we learn. When we’re kids, we really believe that shit can happen. We believe in zombies and vampires, and even the more docile monsters like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

So, I guess a good horror movie (and even a bad one, really) makes me feel like a kid again. It’s a brief, welcome release at an age when I’m expected to be serious and professional and mature all the time.