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Thursday, February 8, 2018

MY TOP HORROR FILMS THAT STARTED IT ALL, THAT I REMEMBER SEEING AS A YOUNG DOE-EYED INNOCENT, ON THE BIG SCREEN, LARGER THAN LIFE, IN MY FACE, AND STRAIGHT INTO MY NIGHTMARES (a child’s journey to horror fandom- an epic editorial)


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.


Normally when I’m asked my favorite horror movie of all time I safely fall upon Alien, referring of course to the original. The culmination of science fiction, fear of the unknown, giant alien creatures that want to exterminate humanity, chest bursting body horror, science run amuck, government control and cover-ups, claustrophobic isolation, and just plain awesome visuals. Alien is safely one of the best horror films ever made. I can also truthfully say that, especially today. But when it comes to answering the question we started off with, “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” I realize it would not be honest to claim the original 1979 film. I was still seeing Disney movies at this time, I believe The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again would have been the release of the year. Yea, definitely not best horror of all time material. Although, I’m pretty sure I at least saw the original film before the sequel. I had a twisted older friend more than happy to share these things with me. Now Aliens definitely fits the discussion here. Released in the middle of my high school years, this long-awaited sequel was highly anticipated by myself and my closest friend who snuck into the theater to watch it with me. 1986’s Aliens has all the same chest bursting body horror, science run amuck, government control and cover-ups, claustrophobic isolation, and giant creature seeking to annihilate humanity. It’s also amped up in comparison to the original with the return of tortured Ripley and a new ensemble that kicks ass as well as getting their asses kicked in the most brutal ways possible. And, lest I forget, some of the best one-liners in horror history (i.e. “Game over man! Game over!”). Despite all this, I would still not give it the distinction of my number one. For the sake of this essay we’ll call it number three for several reasons but mostly because I want to place these “first Favs” in order of when I would have seen them. Which is why an even earlier film would rate above it.


As we recall I mentioned just a moment ago something about sneaking into the theater to see a rated R film. In the small town I grew up in there was only one equally as small, single screen, theater, that took its ratings seriously. We also had a really awesome Drive-In theater the next town over that professed to be equally concerned with ratings. Although sneaking into Drive-Ins to see movies has been notoriously documented, and though I am guilty of such acts once I got older, as an early teen/preteen my fondest memories of the Drive-In includes The Dark Crystal, Legend, and Labyrinth. All of which are pretty scary, especially the first. I also recall seeing several classic sci-fi films like Them and Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman there. But, at the actual theater, especially during boring winter months, I had an inside contact that worked there and had no qualms at sneaking some of us in through the side door depending on the film and how badly we wanted to see it. He was also the same person who introduced me to Monty Python and Grindhouse movies on VHS. The best part is my parents trusted him to do the right thing like not let me into rated R films. Personally, I’m glad he wasn’t as perfect of a role model as they thought, or rather, in the end, he proved to be a far better role model for this delinquent. I suppose I can blame him for my overall interest in living on the fringe and being a rebellious teen. Of course, that is another chapter for the bibliography, the point here is it is thanks to him that on one chilly November in 1984 I snuck in during the open credits to witness my second favorite horror movie of all time, “one of the ones that started it all, that I remember seeing as a young doe-eyed and innocent, on the big screen, larger than life, in my face, and straight into my nightmares,” literally.


A Nightmare on Elm Street was the epitome of horror in the 80’s, and it was one of my worst nightmares. I know I’m not alone saying that. It is important to understand the political and cultural environment of the time to understand the true effect Wes Craven’s masterpiece would have had on the impressionable youth of that era. A Nightmare on Elm Street appeared right in the middle of a generational cold war. Our greatest fears as teenagers were mostly related to the possibility that bombs could start falling any day. We had a live for today, there probably won’t be a tomorrow mentality that death, especially suicide, permeated but couldn’t penetrate the bubbles our parents and society had put us into. Sure, we knew the bad people were there, lurking in the corners, waiting to victimize at any given opportunity, but it just seemed like it was so under the radar, so unspoken, that maybe it wasn’t really an issue we should be concerned with. So we delved happily into our age of excess believing we were invincible until we were not. In many ways, A Nightmare was, ironically, a reality check. As if having bad dreams wasn’t enough, let’s give the dreams the ability to hurt you. We will combine that with all the troubles of teenage angst, and murder our characters in creatively gruesome ways. What’s worse than all that? How about the main assailant, Freddy Krueger, just happens to be a veiled representation of the worst child criminals that have preyed on society. Yes, it's true we weren’t fooled by the clever editing that all but removed Freddy’s colored background. The irony of Freddy becoming a beloved horror icon after the trilogy was not lost on us either. But, all of that is a much longer piece we may get into some day. What’s important to us here is that every film from the first through the fourth embodies the decade in which they were an integral part of addressing everything from drug addiction to teen pregnancy. All the scariest stuff a young adult has to face, with a wisecracking killer that lurks in the darkness of your dreams. Having barely stepped into puberty myself as I snuck through the back door of that theater, Freddy represented the truth I had to look forward too. He taught me more than any human development class could have, and prepared me for some of the worst experiences I had yet to experience. All while invading my nightmares with a flourish of razor claws and clever quips.


So, if Aliens (1986) comes in at number three, and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) comes in at number two, then number one must be another few years back in time, back when the fraidy cat was still in full form and was still easily manipulated to fear the things that bump in the night. Which makes perfect sense since my earliest known fears were the monster in my closet and the one that kept me up breathing heavy under the bed. I was also introduced to the idea of ghosts pretty early in life given an addiction to Edgar Allan Poe supported by my wonderful Grandmother. I also mentioned earlier the supposed true story of the Lutz family's experience in the evilest and haunted house on earth. This book and the subsequent soon to be discussed number one favorite film are undoubtedly what led me down the spooky path to embracing, dare I say being possessed by, horror and all that it has to offer. I remember reading the book at a very young age, sandwiching it between Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson without anyone ever knowing I was daring to delve into such darkness. I mean, it wasn’t but a few years before that I had cried my way through Disney’s Haunted Mansion refusing to look at the ghost that was reportedly sitting on my lap smiling. When it comes to movies, though, we won’t be talking about The Amityville Horror since I didn’t actually see it until long after Poltergeist. But the book does help to establish the fact that from this point on I was fascinated and obsessed with ghosts no matter how badly they scared the shit out of me.


You know in those 80’s movies when it seems like the parents really have no real clue what their teenagers are up to? Well, as far as I remember, they weren’t that far from the truth. If my parents knew half the crap I did I wouldn’t be here today. But I digress and need to be careful because they might be reading this… When it comes to my progression from fraidy cat to veteran horror fanatic it is true that mine had no clue, although in many cases they found out. Like the time our entire family, cousins and all went to see the summer blockbusters of 1982. Given the many choices, we had that week everyone was decidedly divided over what was worth our time in the seat. So we split into groups, the Dads going to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (I mentioned my father was Star Trek nut), the women and little kids went to see E.T. (yes I did finally see it a week or so later), and the teens/pre-teens slyly talked their way into seeing the other Spielberg phenomena - Poltergeist. With the exception of the one really cool aunt, whom I sure was secretly sadistic, no one had a clue what we were in for and its likely lasting affect.


That’s right, I’ve accused Steven Spielberg of creating the one that started it all, that I remember seeing as a young doe-eyed innocent, on the big screen, larger than life, in my face, and straight into my nightmares… and it lurks there still. If the platinum headed sky blue eye girl isn’t creepy enough for this movie, let's include an unseen force that she talks to through the TV. Objects fly around and crash against the floor, a clown doll that comes to life and taunts everyone, mass hysteria brought on by a supernatural force that only the Parapsychologists and little creepy psychic seems to know even a little about. Poltergeist was my first jump scare movie and it succeeded. Everything in this film has been documented in some true stories. If after seeing the film you aren’t convinced that it's the scariest thing you ever saw then read the behind scenes facts about the film such as the Poltergeist Curse. This movie made me fear everything ghost related even more than I already had (remember Disney mentioned above), but it also, in a way that I’m not sure I even understand today, made me more curious about the mysterious world of death. The Parapsychologists, despite their lack of understanding of what was actually going on, gave me a career opportunity I never would have thought existed. Research materials were readily available for those who would seek the knowledge. Oh, and I sought everything I could, including delving into arts that may be considered dark, like the ouija and tarot. There was even a time in my young teens that I was sure I was haunted myself until I threw open a window and demanded they all leave.  Which, of course, they did. Though I never actually pursued parapsychology past researching universities that truly had a department for it, I’ve been a well educated amateur ghost hunter for a long time. Even today my wife and I like to spend our anniversary in a purportedly haunted place where we wander the halls with cameras and a digital recorder. I’ve also developed a very critical eye when it comes to ghost stories, be they supposed real accounts, or those seen on the screen. It used to take me a long time to actually see ghost movie partly because I feel I know too much about them to be convinced by the film, but mostly because I fear that they may be good enough to scare me. My weakness is that I believe in ghosts and demons, and fear the possibility of running into one. Even though I'm constantly looking for them. Which, in a convoluted sense, is just my way of facing and/or coping with the fear since I doubt I have run into any of them yet.


Prior to the film Poltergeist, the closest I'd gotten to the idea of a poltergeist was watching The Waltons with my mother. She loved the show and watched the reruns religiously. I loved TV and would watch whatever was on it. For those not in the know, the life of a Depression-era family in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains is the subject of this wholesome series. It's basically the Little House on the Prairie (another show my mother watched regularly with me in the background) of the 30's and 40's. Anyway, of the three times, I remember them treading supernatural ground, it was only once that they left the experience unchallenged by reason. In the episode titled "The Changeling" from 1978, Elizabeth apprehensively approaches her 13th birthday. She is torn between the prospect of becoming a woman or staying a little girl. She is also moody, a fact that her parents discuss and are concerned about, and while Elizabeth secretly listens, objects start moving on their own. Other similar, strange things continue to happen, including dolls that move on their own, and someone suggests maybe it is a poltergeist, you know because they were popular knowledge at this time. Things reach a crisis point when at Elizabeth's party, someone starts telling a ghost story and all sorts of things happen. Elizabeth is told that it is she who is controlling all the weird things and that she must let it all go now. Elizabeth confesses to being afraid of growing older and watching her parents grow older and die. She is consoled and begins to realize maybe getting older won't be so bad. The strange things stop and according to our narrator never return. All this is what I expected walking into a film called Poltergeist and in many ways, I now wonder if Spielberg saw this episode with his mother and came upon the ideas for the script. Of course, Dr. Lesh in the film makes the point that the paranormal activity at the Freeling home is probably a poltergeist, not a haunting since poltergeists typically are associated with a person, in this case, the pre-pubescent Carol Anne, and hauntings are associated with a place. All spoiler warnings aside (because if you haven't seen the original film by now it's already been spoiled), we learn at the ending that this assessment was incorrect when it is realized that the house was built on a cemetery; that means it was actually a haunting, not a poltergeist. Therefore the entire franchise was built upon a lie! But that is also likely an essay of another sort. All I can say is that there should be no wonder that I was happy to move out of my parent's house before my sister went through puberty.


So there we have it, an in-depth explanation of the films that made me into the horror fanatic that I am, ending with the one that influenced far more than just my desire for more horror. Many life choices and hobbies were influenced in my quest to learn more about the phenomena. It also turned me into a huge skeptic and critic of ghosts both real and fictional. We also have learned about my weakness, as in I believe in ghosts and demons, and fear the possibility of running into one. Even though I'm constantly looking for them. Which, in a convoluted sense, is just my way of facing and/or coping with the fear. No matter how we decide to look at it, Poltergeist is the one that started it all, that I remember seeing as a young doe-eyed innocent, on the big screen, larger than life, in my face, and straight into my nightmares.

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 creepercasthub@gmail.com and, with your permission, maybe you'll see it here! We also welcome all other comments, suggestions, etc.

'Til next we bleed,
J.P. (E.I.C.)