Saturday, October 03, 2015

Fabulous Frightening Firsts

People love firsts. They love commemorating them, recounting them, hearing about them, and reliving them. First date, first kiss, first concert, first dance,,, There is a rush that comes the first time you do anything new, and any good junkie will tell you that you never stop trying to match that original high. The same holds true for horror fans; we scour bookshelves for new authors, rifle through discount bins in seedy corners of video stores, scour through the less reputable corners of netflix, forcing ourselves to ignore the suggested rating of one-star or less. We pore over hours of forgettable(if we're lucky) trash in hopes of find something that will give us at least a taste of that original rush of fear. A couple of hours would be great, thank you. Every movie a horror fan watches is, in a way, an attempt to recapture the original childlike mix of terror and wonder that accompanied our first experience with the horrific and nightmarish.

The idea of writing about my first horror film came from a facebook, thread, where this sort of eternal nostalgia seems to comprise 85% of all posts(and I am as guilty as anyone else of perpetuating this). In a way this is a ridiculous idea, because there's no real way for me to verify my actual first horror film. Childhood memories fade, adapt, and shift in such a way that it can be hard to tell what order events happened in, or what you saw with your own eyes versus what other people told you. For the purposes of this post, however, we'll go ahead and say that my first ever horror film was John Carpenter's The Thing, which is at least the first horror movie I have a clear memory of watching. It is entirely possible that this is because the shocking impact on my young impressionable mind was so intense that it superseded all other horror movie memories. It is also possible, judging by the impact this film had on my childhood, that I had to relearn the alphabet after watching it.

If I'm being completely honest with you, my memories of this event are anything but crystal clear. It's more like a series of images and sensations with no real connective tissue. A mnemonic slideshow. I'm not even sure of my exact age at the time, so I'll stick with just the things I remember with pretty strong certainty.

I know I was between the ages of 5 and 8, because I was still going to school at Gladys Wood Elementary, and hadn't yet made the change to Chinook, which I started attending in the 4th grade. I know I watched it at a friend's house, though I do not remember the friend's name(although, strangely, I could give you directions to his house from just about anywhere in Anchorage). I'm fairly certain it was during summer vacation, because in my memory it is a bright sunny day, something I had occasion to view quite a bit as I quickly found the movie too much for my young, inexperienced psyche. I believe he had an older brother, although it could have been a cousin, either way there was an older boy in the house who had unfettered access to HBO while my friend's parents were at work. I don't think I saw the movie from the very beginning, because I remember being shocked years later at the pre-title spaceship scene at the very beginning. I believe I came into the movie just after the opening title, because I remember the ominous, minimalist bass line that accompanied the aerial shots of Antarctica as two Norwegian men hunt an escaping husky from a helicopter. Ennio Morricones' score is probably what haunts me the most from this film. More than the overwhelming dread, or the suffocating paranoia. More than the gore, or the crazy mutations. The score still gives me a brief vestigial urge to hide myself behind the couch whenever I rewatch the film and those opening moments begin.

I do not recall actually watching the film's first standout effects shot, when the rescued dog from the opening- which turns out to not really be a dog at all- kills a kennel full of canines in an explosion of alien appendages, mutated orifices and slimy projectile excretions. I feel like I must have made it at least this far, however, because I know that after this film I treated our family dog, of a similar breed to the one in the film, with a small measure of distrust. I was old enough to realize the film was not reality, but young enough that it still colored my perception of our dog. I knew he wasn't going to suddenly split into a writhing mass of tentacles and teeth, but it was hard to keep the thought out of my mind whenever I had to take him out to go to the bathroom. I believe it was sometime shortly after this, it must have been, that I ran silently from the room, feeling a cold hollow pit in my stomach. I didn't watch all of the movie in this sitting, but I did stay within ear shot. I sat at the top of the stairs, looking down to my friend's front door, in a position where I could hear the events on screen, but was able to control when I actually looked at the screen.

It may be hard to believe, considering how completely I adore all things horror to this day, but for years after The Thing I was almost entirely incapable of watching a horror movie in its entirety. I avoided them whenever possible, and hid behind the couch whenever I couldn't actually leave the room. The Thing had scarred me, badly, and I was in no hurry to recreate the situation. However, it had also sparked something in me at the same time. I had always been a bookish kid, constantly reading and re-reading whatever I could find. Throughout the ensuing years I gravitated to more and more 'spooky' material. I began reading books on witchcraft and cryptozoology(Unsolved Mysteries was a big influence on me, as well), voodoo and supernatural folklore. I checked out plenty of books about science fiction and horror movies(although at this time I was leaning more towards the sci-fi end of the spectrum) and pored over the photos and stills included. In the 6th grade I began reading actual horror novels, starting with Peter Benchley's Jaws(which was confiscated from me by a concerned teacher because it had a nude woman on the cover, though nothing was visible. It was essentially the famous poster of the lady swimming while the shark rises up from beneath), and quickly moving on to Stephen King and, very briefly, Dean Koontz. It wasn't until I was 12 or 13 that I actually began watching horror movies in earnest, as I began spending time with a group of cousins who had been raised on the nightmare worlds of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. And still I would say I merely dabbled in horror films. I watched them, sometimes through my fingers, while with my cousins, but I rarely if ever sought them out. That is, until 1991, when I first saw Clive Barker's horror/fantasy film Nightbreed, which completely won me over to the side of the monsters, and I've never looked back since.

To be continued....

1 comment:

Rik Tod Johnson said...

Sixth grade was my Jaws year as well, though it was closer in time to the movie's release. I did a book report on the novel and got in trouble because they thought the content wasn't appropriate for a sixth grade class. Never brought the book to class though, and I didn't see the film until I was in 8th grade.