An Education in Horror
Every horror fan has an origin story, a moment in which everything changed and they were plunged into this macabre world they had no idea existed. Ask any horror fan when they got into the genre and you’re bound to get some variation on the “When I was 8 years old…” story, where they recount with misty eyes the first time something scared the living shit out of them. It’s a strange sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where the viewer starts to relate to their terrorizer. What starts as horrifying, shocking even, eventually grows into a lifelong passion. It’s akin to other adult pursuits, like cigars or scotch. As you age and wear down your faculties you begin to appreciate the subtle notes and inspirations below the smoky surface.
For every horror fan, there is that eureka moment, that first nostalgic trip down into the cellar of the human psyche. Though that moment is important, I’ve become interested in the last 6 weeks with the rest of the journey, with the other films and books that influence, perhaps I a less nostalgic way, how horror fans engage with the genre. That first movie or book is a starting point, but as we all know, great art needs more than a beginning.
There tend to be three strains of horror fan: book only, film only, and omnivores. I’ve always tended toward the book only variety myself. I’m a writer after-all, and my love of the dark side has always been married to my love of word and narrative. I began with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark before moving onto mainlining the good stuff, King and Barker and Koontz. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the profound impact horror movies have had on my fandom as well. Horror films have a way, more than any other medium, of dialing up the terror to a visceral level that just isn’t possible with stories. Maybe the act of reading incorporates too much of the intellect? I don’t know, but though I’d hardly call myself a horror movie fanatic, my horror education has been as much influenced by movies as novels.
So, here’s my horror education, as told through five key films.
THE ORIGIN STORY
When I was about eight years old I was on a trip with my mother to San Francisco. I remember nothing else about the trip, except that one of the nights I stayed up without my mother knowing and watched a VHS copy of James Cameron’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece Aliens. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the movie scared the living shit out of me. From the harrowing claustrophobia of the set pieces to the drab melancholia of the camera work the whole thing got under my skin in a way I never would have been able to articulate at that age. By the robot Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) gets spliced in half by the mother alien and acid spews out of his chest like blood, I was too terrified to turn the TV off and go to sleep. I stayed up half the night with horrible nightmares of aliens chasing me through mechanical tunnels and stinging me with their tails.
And yet, as scared as I was, the movie opened up something in me. By that age, I’d already been devouring scary story compilations, and writing scary stories of my own, and so maybe there was something in me that was primed for this experience, but as terrified as I was by the xenomorphs, I was also fascinated. It was like a scab you can’t help picking. Every visit with my father to the movie store, I’d furtively dance through the horror aisle, taking in the mystery of the VHS covers. Evil Dead, Ghoulies, Critters, A Nightmare on Elm Street, these films leaped off the shelf and into my brain, an open door to darkest parts of the human experience. And I wanted more.
MONSTERS ARE REAL
Over the course of the next 4 years, that small spark had blossomed into a raging fire. Never one to go in half-assed, I moved from my elementary school library to books I could only get with my parent’s approval from the adult section of the city library. I started with It, then read Misery and The Tommyknockers, and ‘Salem’s Lot, and Jay Anson’s utterly terrifying The Amityville Horror. I had the bug bad. I read everything I could get my hands on that had goblins and ghoulies and horrifying murders. But it wasn’t until I was twelve that I dared dive into the horror section of the video store. I had to try it again. I had to explore more of this horrifying world.
I chose Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My life would never be the same.
I was captured by the cover because it said it was based on a true story, and that seemed more terrifying to me. Aliens was scary, but to my adolescent mind I realized it was a work of fiction. But here was true tale, something where the monsters were real.
I watched it with some friends on Halloween night after we’d gone trick or treating (isn’t 12 years old great?), and from that opening shot of the dead armadillo on the side of the road I knew that there was something different, something terrible about this movie. Not only was it based on a true story, but Tobe Hooper’s cinema verite style and washed out cinematography made it seem as though we were watching the actual events unfold in real time. By the time that creepy AF hillbilly slashes Franklin Hardesty’s arm in the van, I wanted to turn the movie off. I knew I was in far deeper than I’d planned.
And I was right. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a master work of tension and dashed expectations, which is why it’s considered one of the most influential horror films of all time. While much of the film centers on chainsaw-wielding maniac, Leatherface, chasing various horny teenagers around the torched Texas countryside (a narrative choice that would seem cliché if Hooper hadn’t practically invented this particular trope) so much of the action takes place in broad daylight that there’s a palpable sense of realistic dread. I mean, who can say that they didn’t jump out of their pants when Kirk walks into the abandoned house and Leatherface jumps out of nowhere and cracks him in the head with a sledge hammer? There weren’t even any soundtrack cues to prep you for Kirk’s impending doom. It just happened.
And that’s the takeaway from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that horror can be raw and unflinching, and shown in broad daylight. You don’t need shadows and screeching soundtracks to get a response from the audience. Sometimes you just need a dude wearing other people’s faces and a chainsaw.
MONSTERS ARE FUNNY
Two things happened simultaneously for me in the month after I saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre: I saw the trailer for Child’s Play 2, and my mother made the mistake of leaving my dad and I home alone over Thanksgiving. It took surprisingly little needling to get my dad to agree to take me to the movie, and I still cringe when I think of the looks he must have gotten taking a twelve-year-old to see this movie, but 2 hours later I walked out with a giant grin on my face. My dad, however, was probably wondering what he’d just done.
Child’s Play 2 is not a scary movie. It’s a gross movie, and a foul-mouthed riot that showed me how funny horror can be when done right. I realize that for most horror fans A Nightmare on Elm Street is the crème de la crème of horror comedy, but for me it was Child’s Play 2 and its ridiculous conceit of a murderous doll. The movie finds the perfect blend of gross out horror and adolescent comedy; it’s a movie made for teenage kids and the filmmakers know it. They don’t strive for more, and that is largely what’s given the series its staying power. It knows its lane, and it stays solidly in the middle.
MONSTERS ARE PAIN
I was thirteen years old when I saw Pumpkinhead, Stan Winston’s brooding 1988 creature-feature. While the movie has been largely overlooked through the years, primarily because of its shoddy theatrical release when the company that produced it went belly up right before its release, I fell in love instantly with everything from the dark color palette to the pathos of a father driven to desperate lengths to seek revenge for the death of his son. I have seen the movie multiple times since that first time and every time the movie holds up. It’s one of those rare slasher flicks that strive to be something more than a vehicle for gory deaths. It is a morality tale about the cost of revenge, with an ending that leaves the viewer stunned.
In the span of 6 months, I finished reading It for the second time, and then watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Child’s Play 2, and Pumpkinhead, giving me an excellent cross-section of the possibilities of the horror genre. I saw that it can be realistic and disturbing, funny and tongue-in-cheek, and it can also be emotionally affecting, finding space between the gore and violence to tease out the reality of life’s more powerful emotions. Pumpkinhead takes the darkness of revenge and personifies it in the creature, showing that revenge can be punishing for the perpetrator and the victim. As the witch lowers Tom Harley’s perverted and twisted body into the dirt, his transformation to the creature’s next iteration complete, you see that revenge is a cycle, and no one is left unscathed.
LIFE IS HORROR
Years past before I completed my horror education. In 2007, I went to see J.A. Bayona’s deeply moving Spanish-Language film, The Orphanage, on a lark, having literally no idea what I was walking into. It was one of the tensest and saddest movies I’ve ever seen. It centers on a woman, Laura, who moves her husband and young son to the orphanage where she grew up in order to open a home for handicapped children. But as the movie progresses, Laura’s son begins to have conversations with a new “friend” culminating in a game of hide and seek which leads to her son’s disappearance.
The remainder of the movie is one part supernatural thriller, and two parts meditation on faith and love, in which Laura, convinced her son is still alive tries desperately to find any clue as to his whereabouts, even if her quest leads her into the realm of the dead.
Based loosely on Peter Pan, this film doesn’t “scare” in the traditional sense, but creates a pervasive sense of mounting dread as each of Laura’s theories are systematically debunked, leading her with no other option but to believe that the spirits in the house have kidnapped her son. The lengths this mother will go to save her son, and the unflappable belief in her son’s survival, give the tension a level of realistic horror that sets this movie way apart from its peers.
And above all the ending is simply devastating.
Horror has always been a cypher for telling deeper truths about the human condition, but until I watched The Orphanage I didn’t realize how sad a horror movie could be. While there are plenty of scares, I come back to The Orphanage year after year not to be scared but to watch the drama of a mother’s love unfold in crisp and loving detail. While the other films on this list prove that monsters come in all different shapes and sizes and temperaments, The Orphanage shows that sometimes the greatest monster of all are the bonds that tether us to one another. Death isn’t so scary, when you have nothing left to live for.