As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by total exhaustion and gainful employment, I got exposed to a lot of frightening stuff on TV as a kid that helped pave the way for my lifetime horror obsession. Why TV, you ask? Mainly because I was too young to be taken to see horror movies in the theater. But since daytime TV in those days was fairly polluted with old horror flicks, that didn't mean I never saw theatrical films, too.
Case in point: The Changeling. No, not the admittedly excellent, if overlong Angelina Jolie Oscar bait. I'm talking about the George C. Scott classic that I still consider among the finest ghost stories ever filmed, perhaps second only to The Haunting. I caught this one as a wee lad, all alone in my grandparents' living room, while the rest of the family argued downstairs in that uniquely Italian-American way.
Can you say nightmares? And lingering trauma? The image of the little boy being drowned in the bathtub was burned into my consciousness, and I could not approach a full tub, or even a toilet bowl, without first checking for a submerged face after that.
But there was a big difference between the relatively tame movies shown on afternoon syndicated TV and the kinds of movies my parents loved going to the theater to see, and renting to watch on that newfangled contraption we hooked up to our TV in the mid 1980s. See, I grew up during a golden age of gore cinema, when video store shelves were stocked to overflowing with forbidden fruit. No, I'm not talking about that section behind the beaded curtain (although that held a taboo appeal, as well). I'm talking about the horror section, filled with box covers which on their own were enough to shock me.
My parents were big horror nuts, but knew enough not to let me watch with them. They knew I wasn't ready yet. But that didn't stop me from being fascinated to listen to the terrifying sound effects coming from the living room downstairs as I tried to sleep, accompanied occasionally by a startled yelp from my mom. Or from listening in as they would gleefully describe their favorites to friends and family, movies like The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The first time they ever tried to initiate me was far from a success, but it is what officially kicked off my love of horror nonetheless, and sums up in a nutshell my relationship with it. That was the time they cautiously relented and allowed me and my younger sister (!), after prolonged begging, to watch The Exorcist with them. As I look back now, they were clearly teaching me a lesson...
I'm proud to say I held together pretty well. That is, until the moment when Regan turns on her caregivers, her eyes rolled up into her head, a subhuman voice emanating from her lips. In a scene my father likes to describe as reminiscent of a terrified Oliver Hardy, my sister and I simultaneously lept from the couch, wailing with fright as we scrambled upstairs and into our beds.
Yet despite my dismay, I kept thinking back to what I had seen, more intrigued than ever. This was a step beyond anything I had ever seen on Channel 9. This was fear in its purest, distilled form. And despite my dread, I couldn't help wanting more. And it has been the same ever since.
As I got older, I got a little more freedom in my viewing choices, and so began seeking out the kinds of movies I was never allowed to see before. Thanks to home video, I got a crash course in my preteens and early teens in the modern classics of the genre. The first one to enthrall my imagination, as I've discussed at length before, was The Return of the Living Dead.
But that movie was only a prelude to the one I'd discover at the age of 15, and which would fill me with a kind of visceral horror that's been unequaled since. It was a lazy afternoon in November 1990, and like the geeky third wheel I was, I sat bored on the couch in the den of my friend's girlfriend's house, my pal and his gal off in another room. Needless to say, I was bummed, and in my search for something to watch, I came across a VHS tape on the shelf marked "Dawn of the Dead".
I popped it in, and after about ten minutes, I was way too distracted to continue feeling sorry for myself. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. That would kick off a completely irrational fear of zombies that would last for more years than I can admit without being a bit embarrassed.
I don't need a degree in psychology to realize that my bone-chilling phobia of the fictional undead was directly connected to a deep-seated fear of death I had been living with ever since first fully grasping the concept of my own mortality. Romero's zombie concept seemed tailor-made to keep me awake at night: Here was death itself, personified in the actual bodies of the dead refusing to politely disappear. And not only were they right in your face, but they also wanted to eat you. Could it get any worse?
The fact that I understood logically that zombies did not exist was little consolation. They were a reminder of the inevitability of death, which was enough. Not to mention they were also the source of years of nightmares, which unbelievably enough, persisted stubbornly into my adult years. Yet true to form, I remained morbidly fascinated, seeking out the most gut-wrenching zombie fare I could find (hence my Fulci obsession). There was a time when viewing such films was a truly upsetting experience, but one which I nonetheless compelled myself to endure.
But I got over my zombiephobia. I think having kids played a big part. You don't realize how much it changes you until it happens, and one of the biggest symptoms of maturity is the relinquishing of silly childhood hangups. The fictional fears that consume the self-centered years of youth suddenly dissipate when you're faced with the real fears and concerns of grown-up life. I mean, who has time to be worried about zombies and vampires when you're busy worrying about feeding a family, paying a mortgage, and the very real horrors that inspire parents to protect their children at all costs?
And so, my attitude toward horror movies has actually taken a dramatic shift in recent years. The outlandish, supernatural horror that once sent me into cold sweats I now find harmless fun. I see the humor in such movies that my unironic teenage mind never grasped. Rather, it's the more plausible, realistic stuff that freaks me out these days. Maybe because I'm more aware of the real horrors the world contains, I find myself strongly put off by movies most would describe as "torture porn".
Sometimes, while watching movies like Hostel and the like, I find myself wondering if I'm losing my edge and turning into an old fogey. Because I just don't have the stomach for it anymore. Even a well-made film like Inside, for example, will leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Part of it is wondering what goes on in peoples' minds that even leads them to come up with such stories and scenarios. But the more honest part of me also is repulsed by my own desire to watch it in the first place.
And so, the bizarre, inexplicable lifelong fixation on the limits of my own fear continues-- transformed, but ever present...
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