My family always thought it was laziness that kept me in my room, away from my peers throughout high school, but they were wrong. True, Sloth has always been the easiest of deadly sins to come by, but it wasn't the whole story. While my relatives were worrying about my social life, I was discovering the magic of cinema. And not just any cinema, but horror cinema! I was an addict, swallowing up anything I could find. From direct to video Full Moon films to tried and true black and white classics, I was a horror fiend. My weekends were full of late night creature features and Vincent Price marathons.
It could be argued that a social life was never in the cards.
It hadn't always been that way, though, there was a time when I wouldn't go anywhere near horror films. Sure, I had always loved scary stories(strangely enough, I have fond childhood memories of the book 'It' by Stephen King, having read it in high school), and I was fascinated with books about horror movies and monsters. I studied the pictures in those books much the same way I would stare at a spider on the wall, entranced by it's complex anatomy. And, much like a spider on the wall, if the pictures were moving, I would scream like a girl and wave my arms like an epilectic watching pokemon.
You see, I've always been a bit of a coward. Intensely in love with those things deemed frightening and monstrous, but constantly scared by it. This may stem from the fact that the first movie I consciously remember seeing was John Carpenter's 'The Thing'. Regardless of how scary it may seem to a modern audience, it made quite an impression on my 5 year old mind. After that fateful day, I avoided horror films like the plague. I would suddenly leave the room if one came on the TV, and I'm embarassed to tell you how old I was before I could sit through the entire video for 'Thriller'. Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll testify to the fact that I'm the first to jump in fright at a movie. More times than I can count I've been forced to disguise a startled jump as a flamboyant scratching of the nose. And not just horror movies, either, but any film that has a sudden noise and quick camera cuts.
So, what happened in between kindergarten and high school? The movie Nightbreed, for one. If you haven't seen it, the movie is about a troubled man who dies and finds himself a member of the Nightbreed, monsters who have lived hidden away for centuries after a bloody massacre at the hands of fearful humans. It came out while I was starting Jr. High, and at the time I gave it about as much thought as I would any other horror film. Which is to say, next to none. Thank god for friends with cable, is all I have to say. We watched it one night, against my initial hesitations, and I loved it. Here was a horror movie unlike any I had ever imagined, where the monsters weren't just sympathetic and frightening, but heroic as well. They lived in a complex society, and were more than just the bloodthirsty fiends who usually stalk half naked teenagers. The villians in the film were religion, authority and science. As flawed as the movie may be, imagine the impact on my impressionable teen mind.
After that, the floodgates opened, and horror became a steady part of my diet. I began renting near a dozen movies a week(I didn't sleep weekends all throughout high school. That was for class), and I've made it a point to do everything I can to catch a horror movie during it's theatrical run. Any movie where the main characters are WB poster children can wait until video. Hell, right now, as I type this, the original Amityville Horror is playing on the TV next to me(it's a fairly bargain basement haunted house flick, but it has a few moments).
And yet, despite my obvious addiction to the horror genre, I would always downplay it's significance. About a year ago, Stephen King wrote a column for Entertainment Weekly about the resurgance of horror, and horror fans in general. He compared us, not unfavorably, to junkies, so addicted that we would constantly be hunting for the next score. Fiendishly trying alternate sources, like Italy or Asia, and always chasing that fleeting high of fear even when we know the results will probably be disappointing. In my case, at least, he was spot on. I spent a large amount of time in denial, masking my horror addiction in shame. You see, horror films are also a lot like porn. You can keep a horror DVD out in the open, but people are still going to assume your a drooling pervert. But just because one person is into whips and chains doesn't mean the next guy is into anything more than plain old vanilla.
Of course, we horror fans don't exactly help our case by going in droves to see goddawful remakes of once classic(and sometimes classy, in their own way) films that merely increase the gore and nudity. Horror has always had an air of exploitation, but over the past few decades an increasingly mean spirited edge has begun creeping into what most studios believe a horror film should be. The problem has only become worse now that the generation raised on such films(well, I guess that would be my generation. sorry folks) has matured and begun making films of their own. As much as I enjoy some of these films, I'm a bit dismayed at where it seems to be heading.
The problem is, too often people(especially movie studios) confuse shocks with scares. Anyone can make you scream by hiding in the dark and yelling BOO! as you walk by, and cinematically thats what most horror movies do these days. They bombard you with quick cuts, sped up or slowed down footage, and wall to wall noise, deadening your senses. The rare and true genius realizes that horror isn't about jumping in your seat, it's about mystery. Not the mystery of what you don't see, but what you don't understand. When you truly can't understand something, when you just can't wrap your brain around it, thats when it truly gets under your skin. In that respect, some of the best horror movies I've seen probably wouldn't classify as horror. Check out Fire Walk With Me(or Lost Highway, if you aren't a Twin Peaks fan), or the psyched out road-trip movie Gozu for perfect examples.
And so, in my shameful, horror junkie attitude, people perusing my collection have been told to ignore my DVD copy of Astro Zombies and pay closer attention to Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or my Buster Keaton collection. Any questions as to why I owned such trashy movies used to be met with stock replies that it was for camp value. But screw that! I am here to tell the world; I love it all. As bad as the movie is, I get a genuine enjoyment out of Beware! The Blob(the movie JR shot!). Not just a hipster's ironic entertainment, but true joy.
Horror movies affect me in a way that borders on spiritual, and it's actually hard to explain to people, so stick with me. Imagine your sitting in a dry stuffy room, or standing on a street waiting for a bus, whatever, just imagine it's mundane. So your sitting there, probably zoning out, when along comes a sudden breeze. A draft of pleasant air that brings with it the scent full of adventure and the promise of lands beyond the oceans. It reminds you of something, something you can't quite recall, but something very specific. And since all memories bring a bit of sadness with them, you experience a whole array of emotions. Longing, joy, comfort and anxiety. You feel it all at once and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. If someone were to catch you at that moment, and wonder as to your state, you honestly wouldn't be able to tell them if you were crying out of joy or sadness, but you could tell them you were content. There ARE lands beyond our borders, and places unseen by human eyes.
That, to me, is what truly fantastic horror movies can do. Hell, even the bad ones do it in some small way. Instead of deadening the senses they open the floodgates, bringing out every possible emotion. They all offer the hint of some faroff place, both familiar and unknown. Frightening, and somehow comforting, like going back to childhood. A place where you can belong, with other outcasts. And to the 14 year old me, longing to be somewhere else, where the outsiders were the insiders that was a powerful idea, and a life changing feeling. One of the few things that kept me from snapping and doing what too many confused and repressed people do today.
Horror movies may be the first ones mentioned when Washington sets it's sights on Hollywood, but it should be the last thing we want to get rid of. Horror is one of the few venues of true freedom of expression, where the artist is free from not only censorship, but logic. The person working in the medium of fear is completely free to create whatever he wants, owing allegiance to no single idea or set of rules. And without that creativity, what do we have? Reality. And reality without mystery is just soul crushing.