I was a ‘fraidy-cat.
I hated Halloween and avoided that aisle in the department store whenever the season rolled around. The only horror I could stomach was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series even though they would keep me awake. I think I only read them because my classmates were reading them. I still don’t like that ventriloquist dummy.
I was six years old in 1990 when a TV spot for Child’s Play 2 ran, and the sight of Chucky made me rush to the safety of my bedroom as I screamed.
I encountered Freddy Krueger at a friend’s slumber party when he terrorized frightened students on a school bus that was teetering over a fiery pit.
I checked into The Overlook Hotel when I was 12 and the dead lady in the bathtub followed me. For years, I would throw open the shower curtain whenever I went to the bathroom.
Oh, and Jaws? Yeah, completely ruined swimming for me.
I still can’t get the image of the Dr. Giggles cassette tape cover out of my head. Staring into the doctor’s dark, menacing eyes made my heart race. I would see Monkey Shines staring at me with a grimace and beady eyes from the shelf at Blockbuster and I would walk faster.
My first and worst experience with horrific imagery didn’t even come from a horror movie. It was Ghostbusters and it was the scene when Sigourney Weaver’s character Dana is possessed by Zuul.
Scaly hands spring out of her leather armchair and hold her down. They multiply as she struggles until her legs, her face, her entire body is held fast to the chair as she screams. There’s an ethereal light emanating from her bedroom door and it bursts open to reveal the demonic dog-like beast behind it. Her chair is jerked forward as she continues to scream and then the door slams shut.
It would be years before I watched that movie again.
As a kid, my relationship with horror was interesting because it was revulsion mixed with youthful curiosity. I wondered what went on in films like Friday the 13th and Candyman. Did the girl live in Halloween? Why all the pins in that guy’s head?
Does the dog die?!
I wanted to watch these movies to get answers, but my fear of what I would see was too daunting so I resisted, even through my teenage years.
I opted for comedies and musicals over the macabre.
It wasn’t until I went to college and majored in English that I got the chance to ask those questions again. I went to a small public university in East Texas and there wasn’t a film department, but a new professor with a background in film roomed with the Liberal Arts School and came up with a program he called “Film as Literature.”
I was excited. I love classic films and I signed up for his class on Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. I enjoyed his lectures and film screenings so much that I decided to sign up for another class.
The next semester, he was offering horror films.
The curious kid in me jumped at the opportunity and I enrolled, not just to satisfy my childhood curiosity, but this class might help me get over my fear.
The syllabus listed the classics: Night of the Living Dead. Halloween. The Shining.
We read books on horror film theory that accompanied our lectures. We would watch the movies on a big screen in a lecture hall every Wednesday night and then write short essays about them. Finally, the end of term paper was to be a twenty page analysis on a horror movie of our choice.
The professor taught us that film, like literature, was full of symbolism and social commentary and horror movies were no exception.
It never occurred to me that George Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead was a commentary on American society in the 1960s, particularly its racism.
Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was not only a gruesome homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring but his response to the American cover-up of violent acts by soldiers in the Vietnam War.*
It’s been years since that class, but its lessons stayed with me. I look for hidden messages in every horror film now. I analyze shots that linger just a bit too long, and I’ve become adept with the important tropes (don’t have sex, don’t split up, don’t answer the phone).
Jump scares give me a wonderful rush of adrenaline.
I grew as a writer but also as a horror fan. The class made me examine my monsters and put me in the situations of the protagonist.
I was Kristy Cotton with her puzzle box fighting the Cenobites. I was Laurie Strode with her butcher knife protecting the children from a masked intruder. I was Lt. Ellen Ripley battling a Xenomorph.
My writing assignments helped me embrace my fears. It’s because of this that A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favorite franchise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre taught me how to survive, and the dead lady in the bathtub at the Overlook is no longer behind my shower curtain.
Speaking of which, my final paper, the twenty page analysis? It was about The Shining and I got an A.
Pretty proud of that A, too.
*For those who want to view The Last House on the Left, please do so with caution. Tons of triggers!*