I never really watched horror movies when I was a kid. I was scared of them. But not for the reasons you might think.
It wasn’t the monsters; I’d had a fascination for monsters as long as I can remember. (I was writing research papers on vampire and werewolf legends when I was about seven years old.) I don’t think it was the blood, or the gore; I found those things slightly nauseating, but I wasn’t really scared of them. I knew that movies were just pretend.
It was the other children. The ones who did watch horror movies. They were the ones I was afraid of.
I had very strict classifications for people back then. I think most children do. I was one of the good kids, the smart kids, the “gifted” kids. The kind of kid the teachers liked, the kind who could happily spend his recess in the library. I liked science fiction movies and writing stories, not sports or cool cars or anything the other kids thought I was supposed to be interested in.
I spent a lot of time reading about horror movies, reading about special effects and makeup techniques. I could’ve told you off the top my head what Dick Smith’s recipe for stage blood was. But actually watching horror movies — that seemed to be the provenance of those other kids. The ones who looked street-tough in their denim jackets and listened to heavy metal and punk music, and when they got a little older, even sometimes actually smoked cigarettes. You know. The bad kids.
Sure, that was judgmental. Like I said, children are.
There was some overlap, of course. I had friends who watched horror movies, or at least claimed to. (You can imagine my surprise when I finally watched Halloween as a teenager, and learned that there weren’t any aliens in it at all, no matter what my classmate had told me, let alone aliens who sliced any trick-or-treaters vertically in half with a samurai sword. Maybe we can charitably assume he was thinking of a different movie.) Some of these friends would sneak copies of Fangoria Magazine into school, and I would flip through their garish, blood-soaked pages, half-fascinated and half-repulsed by what I saw there. I envied those friends, in a distant and slightly scandalized way, for being able to own such things, watch such things, to enjoy such a strange and terrible freedom.
Recently, I got to read a wonderful article in the New Yorker, one that made me nostalgic for someone else’s childhood — a reminiscence of a childhood parallel to my own, yet so different it may as well have happened on another planet. In it, a horror writer examines how his early horror movie habit influenced him as an artist:
At the time, many of the New York cinemas that showed the movies I liked were disreputable shacks, where marijuana billowed from the back rows, insects nibbled on the candy glued to the floor, and the telephone booths in the lobby provided stages for all sorts of shady theatre. The city had not fallen so far into ruin, however, that my younger brother and I were allowed to stroll into these places unsupervised. Fortunately, our parents were fellow-enthusiasts, and had in fact given us a taste for this peculiar fare. Mom and Dad didn’t believe in censorship. We enjoyed beheadings, disembowellings, sexual assaults—all sorts of flickering R-rated depravity—the way others might take in a Grand Canyon vista: as a family.
[....] If these movies existed, then surely whatever measly story was bubbling in my brain was not so preposterous. The psychotronic movie’s disregard for mimesis, its sociopathic understanding of human interaction, its indifferent acting, and its laughable sets were a kind of ritualized mediocrity. The filmmakers were so inept in their portrayal of any kind of recognizable reality that their creations became a form of grubby science fiction, documentaries an alternative planet. It was certainly not our Earth that they depicted. In what dim corner of the galaxy would the “The Atomic Man” make sense?
[...] Yet, somehow, these Psychotronic Practitioners had scrounged money for their misbegotten operations and conned actors and neighbors into appearing in them. They were unaware of their utter freakishness, unaware that the world found them absurd, as they toiled in the tunnels below the Famous Directors and the Masters of Horror, like clueless C.H.U.D.s. As a kid, I’d got stuck on the idea of monsters as people who had stopped pretending. My psychotronic explorations led me to a new formulation: an artist is a monster that thinks it is human.
The convenience store near my house had a small section of videos available to rent. Sometimes I would paw through their horror movies, just as intrigued and horrified by their covers, avidly reading the descriptions on the back.
I can clearly remember to this day that one of the movies I picked up and looked at over and over again was called Chopping Mall. It apparently had something to do with security robots malfunctioning in a mall and killing people. It’s easy to see why I kept coming back to this one. Star Wars already left me with a huge interest in robots, and the idea that this movie was both science fiction and horror captured my imagination.
But even if I thought for a minute that my parents would’ve allowed me to watch such a movie, it never in a million years would’ve occurred to me to actually ask if I could rent it. I just wasn’t the kind of kid who would watch such a thing.
Or at least, that’s what I liked to tell myself.
The truth was, my fascination for horror movies wasn’t going away, and neither was my hunger to read about them and talk about them and maybe even make my own someday. I do remember watching a few of them when I was a little bit older, when my parents finally got basic cable, and I was allowed to stay up later and watch movies on my own — wonderful pieces of schlock like Night of the Comet and Night of the Creeps.
But my real education, a solid grounding in horror movies that were actually good — that didn’t begin until I was an adult, until I was living on my own and finally realized that I could now rent and watch anything my little black heart desired. Until I was able to finally claim that strange and terrible freedom as my own.
Over the years, my mind has often gone back to that convenience store, to the movie stores of my youth, thinking about the movies I looked at and never rented. I’m gradually tracking them down and watching them one by one. (Or several all at once.)
So you might imagine, I’ve been meaning for years to finally watch Chopping Mall. You might think something that obscure would be too hard to track down, but I’m lucky enough to live in the same town as Scarecrow Video, and they have it, of course. They have everything, basically. I’ve stared at it a few times on their shelves, flipped it over and read the back, and have always told myself, “Nahhh, not this time.” I knew I’d watch it someday.
Tonight, Central Cinema is actually showing Chopping Mall and that equally classic film, Maximum Overdrive, as their Halloween event. Am I going? Oh, yeah. You bet I’m going. And I’m sure it’s going to be just as terrible as it sounds.
But I owe it to myself. To the child I was. And to the child I secretly wanted to be.previous post: Coffin Hop 2012: Indie Horror Giveaway! | next post: Sign Up For My Newsletter And Get A FREE Halloween Story Tonight!