As a horror fanatic who watches tons of films and has a lot to say about them, the question I get asked the most by my peers and colleagues is obviously... “what is your favorite horror movie?” This should be an easy question right? Well, not for me. This is usually when I get evasive or requires further information about the parameters that I'm supposed to pick from. Are we talking right now? Because that answer changes yearly, sometimes even monthly, and my top list for the year will usually answer that one. Usually, the question is meant to be the more definitive and judgemental “what is your favorite horror movie of all time?” To which I always respond with, “well, that’s a tough question. I mean, I love all horror movies! It would be easier to ask me ‘what is my favorite horror movie that I can think of right off the top of my head, at this moment!” Which I suppose wouldn’t be that easy either given the amount of good, great, and awesomely bad horror movies I have stuck in my head. But, now that I’m thinking about it, I suppose what they really mean to ask is “what is your favorite horror movie of all time, the one that started it all for you, that you remember seeing as a young doe-eyed and innocent, on the big screen, larger than life, in your face, and straight to your nightmares.” A question I can easily deflect and cite several classics like a good horror fan. But the truth be told, though I have grown up with them and love them equally, that wouldn’t truly answer the question. After all, there has to be that one film that invaded my fragile psyche, and despite the damage it did to me originally, I always find myself going back to out of a nostalgia-driven love of the thrill and fear of it. It has to speak to me generationally and come with a good story to back up the fact that I saw it at a young age and that lends credence to why it would have affected me so much and for so long.
Now if this question was about books the answer would be easy. Though I had, of course, gorged on the classics thanks to an amazing and supportive Grandmother (Bram Stoker’s Dracula leading the charge) the first to truly affect me in a thrilling and fearful way was easily Jay Anson’s telling of The Amityville Horror. I’m guessing I was 11 or 12 when I discovered it in a pile of books somewhere, not knowing the true story or anything behind it, and from page one missed a whole night of sleep being afraid to put it down. Mostly because every time I tried to I could see Jodi’s glowing red eyes staring at me accusingly. I’m pretty sure that damn pig demon was looming outside my window just to make sure I read the whole book, if not for something worse. After that, it was all downhill for me after discovering Stephen King. Pet Cemetery still makes me question the cats I keep company with and I can definitively claim IT as my favorite King book for reasons I will likely go into at a later date.
When it comes to horror television I’ve already gone on record telling about how my father used to wake a tired five year old late at night to share his love of The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Darkside, and Ray Bradbury Theater. To this day I will forever feel apprehension at creepy narrators, love anthology storytelling, and both fear and love the great god Serling. These master craftsmen helped to set me on a demented path of tale-weaving myself that could only be made better once I discovered the likes of King, Barker, and peers. Since I’m also making declarations I can easily state that Tales from the Crypt is my favorite horror anthology series. Although The Twilight Zone will forever be the show that scarred me into a horror fanatic when it comes to true influence and coming of age.
Even when it comes to horror-themed music I can quickly site my influences and early/all-time favorites. It all began innocently enough with a friend's Black Sabbath Masters of Reality tape that served as a gateway to Alice Cooper, everything Ozzy solo (earning Bark at the Moon my favorite all time horror themed album), and W.A.S.P. (my all time favorite horror themed band). My exposure to live performances follow the same path, beginning with Ozzy, moving on to the spectacle that is a brilliant Alice Cooper show, to finally the mind-blowing and mental scarring of a W.A.S.P. show. What I suppose all this proves is thanks to the incidents of first-time exposure I can easily find early and lasting favorites in just about everything else horror related. Yet, I have a hard time committing when asked to definitively declare a horror film as my own personal number one. Mostly, I claim, because I’ve seen so many I can’t quite remember how it all began. Which isn’t entirely true, as we shall see. After all, this essay is supposed to be about my favorite horror films.
The first horror film I remember seeing in the theater my mother took me too. I can’t say how old I actually was but let's guess somewhere around six. I think I may have mentioned before that when it came to theater going my father was all about Star Trek and Star Wars. I barely remember being 8 and seeing A New Hope but hey, that became our thing. My mother, was all about Disney, and we’re talking classic Disney here, the 70’s saw such masterpieces as The Aristocats (still my favorite animated film of all time), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Believe me my sister and I saw them all, including what was undoubtedly a theatrical re-run of my first horror films in a theater… Fantasia and this Disney villain movie, I can’t remember the name, maybe it was a short before the actual movie, maybe even before Fantasia. Anyway, I can tell what you’re thinking. “Really J.P.? Fantasia?” As I freely admit, I was a bonafide scaredy cat as a kid. Besides, the whole windmill thing and dancing mops are freaky, I don’t care who you are. Combine that with all the other films that were available to scare the crap out of us kids like The Wizard of Oz, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The wicked witch of the west was a cause of many nightmares. It didn’t help that for a few years after I almost believed my mother's claim of being a witch herself. Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, although brilliant and likely one of my top five villains of all time, taught me to avoid being a brat for sure. But don’t get me started, I can find the horror elements in anything, take Toy Story 3: Woody Goes to Hell for example.
Back to J.P. as a young “fraidy cat”... thankfully, or perhaps even no thanks to, the fact I had parents and grandparents who felt free to not shield me from those things that go bump in the night, my exposure to classic masterpieces was early and frequent. Between 6 and 13 I’m sure I saw every Universal monster, including those that met Abbott and Costello, and many 70’s era films that I remember as being nightmare inducing. For example, I remember seeing Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (TV Movie 1973) and feared little creatures would come out of the basement and trip me on the stairs if I didn’t turn the lights on first. Let's just say the title of the film was misleading, to say the least. Interestingly, when I saw the film again many years later, which I was avoiding doing because of the profound effect it had on me as a child, the film was actually pretty silly. From this lesson, I had two major discoveries about my early exposure to horror… 1) it made me into a scaredy cat, 2) it helped make me immune to otherwise mundane horror. Obviously, increased exposure leads to desensitization. But all this may be a discussion for a later date. Looking back to the original subject of this paper, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark isn't my favorite film of all time. Still, I have a soft spot for this poorly created thriller. The point here is to show growth and development as a fan of the genre. From fraidy cat to connoisseur if you will. Which will likely lead us to an answer to that question I have such a hard time answering. Perhaps even as soon as the next paragraph.
After much pontificating and looking at the things that made me a horror fan, we’ve actually managed to get a few elusive “what is your favorite of all times” answers out of the way. We know what my favorite horror television show is (Tales from the Crypt for those keeping notes, there will be a test later), although I have no explanation why other than I love anthologies. We also know my favorite author is Stephen King with my favorite horror novel being IT (another answer that may require explanation someday). As a bonus, we also covered my favorite horror based musical act (W.A.S.P.) and album (Bark at the Moon) despite Alice Cooper dominating my listening habits (did I mention that?). Now I didn’t get into my favorite horror artist (Goya) or my favorite horror director (and I’m not going to). But, with all those mentioned so far, we have a clear picture of the time in which I become aware of the genre and began to love it. Enter the 80’s, and the three films we’ll have to examine to get to the answer we are looking for.
Let me finish by saying thank you to everyone who took their time to read this rambling and hope you have, if nothing else, learned something about the child who became the freak that is your editor. If you have a similar story to tell about your own introduction to the land of horror please let us know in the comments below, or if its book-length, like mine, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and, with your permission, maybe you'll see it here! We also welcome all other comments, suggestions, etc.
'Til next we bleed,