When I was a young man – no, not even a young man, a boy, really – a certain type of film appealed to me. Like most other boys my age I had no interest in earnest dramas about families or relationships or anything that had to do with feelings, unless the feeling was fright. Not surprisingly, my taste, like many of my contemporaries, ran to horror.
Part I: Tip Toeing Down Memory Lane
I was a child of the 80s so it comes as no surprise that my taste in horror ran to franchises, with the Friday the 13th films at the front of the list, Nightmare on Elm Street right after and the always amazing Texas Chainsaw Massacre coming in last because it only had one sequel, which was terrible, But really, while Jason and Freddy and Leatherface were surefire ways to get my thrills, I didn’t need them. No, any horrors committed by any of that type of faceless, brainless human-monster would do. And even then, if the film offered plenty of blood, it didn’t matter what it was about or who the perpetrator was, I was there.
Given my youthful predilection for such films it might be safe to assume that the current state of horror, dominated by retro-remakes, J-horror retreads with those creepy white-faced kids, or the torture-porn phenomenon started by the Saw series, would appeal to me. After all, they are just as grimy, just as silly, and even more bloody than the films of my youth.
Sadly, though – or maybe it’s happily – as I’ve grown older films filled with mindless violence have ceased to hold the same thrill for me, something which probably has more to do with my hazy memories of the films of my youth than it does my maturity. Because these films were largely unmemorable I don’t get the same sort of nostalgic joy from them as I might a film like The Goonies.
Consider this: though I faithfully watched the first seven Friday the 13th movies I have but three memories of the franchise. 1) The killer in the original movie was Jason’s mother, Jason was a long dead boy by then and nowhere to be found. 2) One of the Corey’s was in one of the films – Wikipedia tells me it was actually Corey Feldman and he was wasn’t in one but two of the movies, alongside Crispin Glover, pre-Back to the Future. 3) In part six or seven of the series Jason traps a woman inside a sleeping bag and does her in by smashing her against a tree. Of seven films, I have but three memories and the last one, I’m not sure was in the movies. My memories of Nightmare on Elm Street are worse. All I remember is that Johnny Depp was in the first one, pre-21 Jump Street.
The only truly memorable horror film from my youth is not really a horror film at all but a revenge film, I Spit On Your Grave, and even then it’s hardly memorable because it’s a good film. Aside from its general scuzziness it sticks out for me because I remember a lot of nudity, a man was killed when he was thrown from a boat and the boats engine went over his head, and a man bled to death after his penis was severed and a retarded man was strung up by his neck after the woman wrought with vengeance seduced him.
I Spit on Your Grave isn’t memorable for me because it’s scary or even a good movie but because it’s generally incredibly offensive, but at least it’s memorable, and perhaps this is why I have little interest in new horror. If the films that I grew up watching aren’t memorable it was because they weren’t scary or particularly horrific and given how terrible they were, it’s no surprise that I have little interest in seeing any Friday the 13th retread.
Part II: In Which I Cling To Some Things From My Past
So, it would seem that the horror of my youth holds no sway for me, but this is not entirely true. The films of my youth, the ones populated with weird and brainless human-monsters hold no sway, but there is one type of horror film, that contains almost no blood at all, that still gets me: just about anything with a heavily religious or satanic element.
I might not recall much of Freddy or Jason and their shenanigans, but sit me down and make me watch The Exorcist, or The Omen and I know I’m going to sleep light for a couple nights. Even thinking about both films kind of gives me the creeps and has me looking over my shoulder to make sure the devil isn’t sneaking up on me. That’s one memory of my childhood I will always have, that feeling of something standing right behind me, ready to steal my soul.
The date when I first saw The Exorcist is somewhat in dispute. A custody dispute between my divorced parents has me watching it on cable when I was maybe five or six, but I have no memory of this and can’t say if it’s true or not. However, I can say for certain that I did see it when I was 13 and so this will be the official ‘first time’ for me.
I was living with my mother then and had a room in the basement of our house and Mom was working on another divorce from the second of her four husbands and so things were a bit upside down and tense and the room in the basement gave me a place to hide my little introverted heart. Anyway, the thing I loved to do most at the time was watch movies and I rented them all the time from this video store downtown. As I worked through all the Friday the 13th’s and Nightmare on Elm Streets, it’s no surprise what section I was working my way through.
I’m not sure how much my mother knew of my rental habits, or if she even cared, but even though I was a horror not for months I avoided The Exorcist. It was at once a seductive movie and one to be avoided, both because of the custody issue that cropped up around it when I was younger and also because my mom swore it was the scariest movie ever. As much as I tried to fight it eventually I saw The Amityville Horror – would you believe it that my grandmother rented that for me – and didn’t think The Exorcist could be any scarier than that and had to give in. When I did I was not disappointed.
To this day I remember watching it how certain I was that the devil was lurking somewhere in the midst of our darkened basement, ready to send one of his minions in to take over my soul and make me do all sorts of awful things, like masturbate with a cross and get really bad acne. For years after this I tried to avoid dark places and shadowy areas, for fear of what might be lurking in them and thinking about it now, maybe it was the combination of horror movies and having a room in the basement that contributes to my fear of the dark. If only I could go back and talk my younger self out of it.
Anyway, whatever the other long-term effects the movie had on me the biggest is that since that first viewing 20 years ago I have seen the movie exactly 1 ½ times more – once with the commentary, once without – and both times it scared me about shitless, so much so that I gave up watching it half way through. Even now I own the DVD but have yet to bring myself to open it because I know that if I open it I’m bound to watch it and if I leave it closed I might eventually return it to the store and save myself the temptation, even though I’ve long since lost the receipt and Best Buy doesn’t take returns on three year old DVD’s. Hell, the movie is so frightening to me that even the book gives me the willies, mostly because it makes me picture the movie, and so even though I have it, I have only read about ¼ of it.
It’s strange to think that, while most other horror movies are utterly ridiculous and uninteresting, at 34 The Exorcist, The Omen, Amityville Horror and, to a lesser extent, Rosemary’s Baby, get me every time.
Being frightened by The Exorcist, The Omen, Amityville Horror and Rosemary’s Baby is nothing new. Millions of people every year discover these movies for the first time and fall prey to the little jolts, the eerie atmosphere, weirdness and unexplained phenomena in all degrees and almost literally have the pants scared right off them. In essence, they scare folks for the same reason that other horror movies scare people.
For me, though, these films don’t scare me the same way they do others. They are above having just an average jolt, which is only slightly effective anyway and leaves me feeling kind of silly afterward. No, what elevates these films from being simply the celluloid equivalent of a roller coaster ride – producing short thrills and not much else – and something more lasting is the use of religious elements to suggest demonic possession or the devil himself had the ability to make anybody, even the kindly old neighbors, into murderous villains at any time. In some ways, it’s almost like my own particular fetish is religious-themed horror films and I can’t be scared unless the devil or his minions are a character.
But what separates these films from others of their ilk and makes them effective for me is something of a mystery. After all, I find your average monster movie ridiculous, even your human-monster movies are ridiculous and I simply cannot suspend disbelief. And, as I neither believe in the existence of God nor the Devil, movies that contain major allusions to one or the other should be just as ridiculous and not the kind of thing that would scare me shitless.
Maybe it’s best to make a slight sideways step for a moment and explain that while I do not believe in God or Satan or any of that it’s little to do with some dogma on my part. I have an open mind about things but struggle to accept that which cannot be touched, seen or even quantified in any way. Taking things on faith alone is something that human’s don’t do as a rule, me among them. And really, if God wanted me to believe in him, he’d find a way to win me over, but he just hasn’t yet. That being said, I have religious friends and come from a Catholic family and can appreciate the allure and power of faith, even I don’t have it myself.
In any case, the eternal question, then, should be how something that I believe is patently ridiculous could prove so effective for me? Is it because I secretly believe in God, somewhere in the darkest recesses of my mind and know that one day he may turn his wrath on me, or the wrath of his others, just like in the movies, and I’ll be reduced to nothing but a grease spot and that’ll be it?
Or is it that while I don’t believe in God or any of that the movies about such things make me fear just exactly the horrors that could be perpetrated if he did exist? And do I really want to live in a world where possessed children, children with the sign of the devil on their heads and his worldly spawn could wreak havoc on humanity? Is it that I fear God or fear what he means if he is real?
Obviously, these questions cannot be answered, so the conclusion is inconclusive, though I suspect one commenter or another may try to answer it for me – feel free. As these questions cannot be answered perhaps it’s simply best to sit back and treat these types of films as being like a joke. When somebody tells you a joke it is either funny, or unfunny, on its own terms. Certainly, when you hear it you bring your own baggage to it, but more often than not the urge to laugh is involuntary – it’s funny or it’s not.
Maybe horror films are the same and it doesn’t matter what sort of baggage a person brings to them. Maybe it’s just enough that, in the world of The Omen, the devil’s child can be born and will one day rise up to lead, or in The Exorcist, that possession happens, or that sometimes demons in a house cause a guy to kill his family, and if it’s my place to carry that fear from the movie around for days and days, that’s my fault, not the movies and has nothing to do with whether god exists or not or anything else other than the movie is effective.
Either way, lacking faith in a deity doesn’t preclude me from enjoying god and notion of heaven and hell in fiction, so why ruin a good thing with a lot of stupid questions?