True confessions time. I was not a fan of horror films growing up. As a matter of fact, it was safe to say that any genre title, no matter how well meaning or schlocky, frightened me to no end. I actually went to a slumber party when I was eight where the group decided to watch Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster as part of the “fun” and I could not sleep all night. Or the next. Or the next. Put another way, when Charles B. Pierce’s “classic” The Legend of Boggy Creek played at our local movie house, it was peer pressure mandatory to attend. When I eventually made my way into a seat, I spent more time under it (or out of it, in the restroom) than actually witnessing the dread.
I’m not sure why terror touched me so deeply. I can say that I was always a very impressionable kid (and teen, and young adult…). There was no real suspension of disbelief between myself and what was up on the screen. I tended to believe everything I saw on TV and in the movies was real and happening. It’s what led to my love of science fiction. I could instantly get lost in the worlds offered either between the pages of a speculative novel or on the small/big screen. But it wasn’t just the fantastical that hit me hard. I have a vivid memory of crying my eyes out over Jackie Gleason’s “death” in Gigot. The kindly deaf mute didn’t actually die, but I had been so wrapped up in the character’s story that I couldn’t distinguish between possible reality and dramatic manipulation.
The same applied to horror. When I first heard that desperate, dire cry of the Bigfoot-like Fouke Monster, I was chilled to the bone. For days later, as I rode my bike around the wooded areas of my neighborhood, I could swear I heard the wail rising up from within the dark and foreboding forests. Then there was Night Gallery. Sure, it was lesser Serling, but I will never forget seeing Roddy McDowell’s reaction shots as the painting on his mansion wall showed a coffin ascending from the family plot, the rotting corpse of his vindictive dead uncle climbing from the grave and stumbling to the front door before we heard the ominous “knock…knock..knock.” Yes, I could tolerate the brilliant Darren McGavin vehicles The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, and adored the Kolchak TV series. But I never went to see a real honest to goodness serious horror film in a theater…
That is, until, The Exorcist. For those of you either too young or too oblivious to remember the year that film was released, William Friedkin’s allegorical masterpiece of devil possession and the generation gap was the talk of every town. Back in 1973, movies didn’t open “wide.” They played various markets, sometimes staying for weeks as a time, before traveling to other parts of the country. For months, we in Michigan City, Indiana had been watching the nightly news reports, listening to exaggerated tales of people walking out, of patrons being violently sick and fainting, of Church officials condemning the final result, and perhaps most importantly, of sold out shows and alleged cinematic greatness. By this time in my life I was a fledgling cinephile. I was eager to experience everything the medium had to offer…everything except fear.
I figured that The Exorcist would be a good way of finally discovering a passion of scares. Since the film was rated R, and I was never going to find a willing adult to take me to see it, I had to formulate a plan. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was playing in revival in the theater next to where The Exorcist was playing, and I was such a regular at the establishment that I knew when and where I could sneak out of my screening, and into this forbidden film. Timed perfectly, I made it in as Fr. Karras was running around the track at Georgetown (having missed the entire Iraq archeological dig set up with Fr. Merrin). I quickly found a seat away from prying adult eyes, settled in to catch up with the case of actress Chris MacNeil and her odd acting daughter, and prepared for whatever this film had to offer.
Right off the bat, I could smell the slight aroma of vomit. Clearly, the news stories hadn’t lied. Then I noticed more than a couple people shifting uncomfortably in their seat as the scenes with Ms. MacNeil and her daughter Regan arrived. I was nonplused…and then, the crucifix sequence arrived. For those of you who do not know it, it remains one of the most stunningly blasphemous and horrific moments in a genre film, modern or otherwise. It was beyond shocking. It was degrading and demeaning. It was practically soul stealing. My eyes were wide open, my mouth agape. I continued to watch in morbid disbelief…and then Regan rotated her head around to confront her mortified mother.
That was it.
From that moment on, The Exorcist frightened me like no other film before or since. I spent so much time cowering beneath the chairs in front of me that, when I finally revisited the film in the late ‘70s with a couple of my high school friends, it was like watching it for the first time. I remember the voices, the terrifying images of projectile vomiting and physiological transformation. I remember Fr. Merrin’s arrival, an image straight out of the promotional material, and the confusion I felt when Fr. Karras sacrificed himself for Regan. For weeks, I heard the horrifying sounds of the movie in my dreams. I slept with the lights on. I shunned the more shadowy, spookier places in our house. The saddest part? I couldn’t share any of this with my friends. If my parents found out I had snuck into The Exorcist, my fate would have been worse than that of any character in the film.
Yet it wasn’t this experience that began my love affair with terror. Nor was it the moment during The Omen when I realized that a pane of glass could cleave a man’s head clean off. Actually, it was a different kind of attraction that finally pushed me over into the realm of the dark and the dreadful. It was my future wife. When I met Angela, she was a pure horror nut. She loved everything, from the most ridiculous Roger Corman crap to the gorefests of Lucio Fulci. She was addicted to Dario Argento and sang the praises of forgotten gems like Deathdream and anything William Castle. I knew I was in trouble on our first date. We didn’t go and see one of the typical date movies of the time. Our first film has been and will forever be…John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.
From then on, it was a matter of mutual acceptance. She reluctantly listened to the punk and New Wave I was constantly crowing about. I, in the interim, learned to love A Nightmare on Elm Street and George Romero’s brilliant Dawn of the Dead. She schooled me. She laughed at me. When spent many a possible passionate make-out session in different parts of her parent’s house: me, avoiding the TV and VCR in the living room, her cozying up to another piece of euro-splatter. When I dared share these blood and guts fiascos with her, I soon learned that I liked the experience. It was kind of cathartic. It was like conquering a phobia, and then fetishizing it.
But it was Sam Raimi’s horrific Evil Dead and its comedy cousin Evil Dead 2 which finally won me over. They were both so primal, so visionary, so tactile, that I was irretrievably hooked. I learned that I could love terror and still see the artistry underneath. Sure, I might not get much sleep at night, but I was addicted to such a discovery. Today, I am as big a fright fan as my wife, sometimes even more so. She’s so jaded that, within moments, she can tell if a potential paranormal ‘activity’ is going to be worth her time (usually not). For me, it’s still seems relatively new. I didn’t spend my whole life loving the graven images of the undead rising from their tombs to consume the living. Today, I couldn’t imagine my life without them.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More