My first true cinematic love was the horror film. We broke up a lot time ago, but it ended well and we still talk every Halloween and whenever I’m nostalgic for my adolescence.
We met in junior high on a Friday night at a friend’s house. We began hanging out every Friday night, but always in a group. My grade school buddies and I called this group, this weekly event, “The Horror Movie Club.” We used to waltz down to the neighborhood video store, pick out a few 80s slasher flicks, and all pack into Andrew’s small TV den with pizza and soda. We watched every Friday the 13th film, the whole Nightmare on Elm Street saga, Halloween, Candyman, and the lesser know ones like Prom Night and April Fools’ Day.
When I got a camcorder for my 14th birthday, we began making our own short horror films. We shot “The New House” the night I got my camera. It was about a haunted house that torments the new owner and ultimately traps him in the basement. “The Killer”, about a menace terrorizing teenagers,was shot entirely on location outside of Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania over the course of one October night.
As time went on, my relationship with the horror film evolved. We started hanging out one on one, me and the horror genre. Not just on Friday nights, but school day afternoons. I began watching older films. My friends didn’t share my new interest in classic horror. No longer was I spending time with Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers. Instead the posse consisted of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff.
The progression from contemporary slasher films to golden age horror occurred quite naturally: Halloween and Scream led to Psycho, which opened the door for Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. I started watching movies based on release date, discriminating against films made after 1975. I’d scour nearby video stores, seeking out hard to find titles like House of Dracula, Mark of the Vampire or White Zombie. I developed a personal VHS and DVD library stocked with Universal Studios films of the 30s and 40s, the big bug and alien invader films of the 1950s, William Castle’s delightfully silly yarns, Roger Corman’s adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe short stories and the Hammer Horror remakes of the 1960s.
I’d check the TV guide section of the newspaper everyday to see what was on TCM and AMC. (This was back in the day when AMC would actually play old films, before they found mainstream success with Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Die Hard Marathons.) I recall waking up at 4:00 AM once on a school day to watch the original Godzilla on AMC. I wrote a high school admission essay on how Psycho inspired me to want to make films. (A language arts teacher, however, urged me to change the focus on my essay to Rear Window, due to the disturbing subject matter of Psycho.) For Halloween one year, I dressed up as Lon Chaney’s character from London After Midnight.
I was pretty obsessed.
I still paid attention to the new releases, the splatter films of the 2000s, but I increasingly grew disinterested. I couldn’t stomach the violence and the torture porn. How they desensitized murder. The cheaper and often predicable thrills. The lasting effect is not horror, but disgust. It seemed that with the modern films, the act of murder itself had become the focus of the film: “How creative can we be with this murder?” (The Final Destination and Saw series are good examples of this.) Furthermore, the villains are rarely sympathetic, but instead, faceless forces of evil and destruction that are never fully annihilated (which is either a Medieval commentary on the nature of violence and death…or an opportunity for a sequel.) But these older films were more compelling. I could sympathize with Dracula’s search for a lost love, the misunderstood Frankenstein Monster, the self-destructive Wolfman.
I don’t mean romanticize the “good ole days” and lament the current state of the horror film. The genre has always been interested in pushing the envelope of sex and gore. But what really intrigued me about these older films was their aesthetics. I was enchanted by their gothic, dreamlike quality. They rarely frightened me, but it wasn’t about fear. They were more like fantasy films: they seemed to take place in far off, often unnamed, countries. The sets hardly resembled anything I’d ever see. The impossibly constructed castles on unreachable cliffs. The foggy moors. The twisted and leafless Expressionist trees.
I was nostalgic for an era that I never lived in. I wanted to make films just like James Whale, Tod Browning, Val Lewton or Terence Fisher would’ve. I created a Van Helsing-like monster hunter and wrote screenplays, short stories and comic books about him.
But that progression from slasher to classic horror had to continue. The films themselves interested me, but also the era and world in which they were created. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, about a real-life director of b-films in the 1950s,peaked my interest in classic Hollywood, which brought me to Sunset Boulevard, which led me to Billy Wilder and film noir and John Huston and Howard Hawks. Eventually, I wasn’t watching TCM just for old horror, but for anything.
So, I outgrew the horror film. I rarely see new horror releases, although I do often delight in the truly chilling ones. The Orphanage and the original Paranormal Activity stand out in recent years as films that really scared me. Being scared is fun. It’s why people deliberately go to haunted house attractions. There exists many theories as to why we seek out fear, but most of them point to the fact that fear is a necessary emotion that we find stimulating, and the experience of relief felt afterwards is cathartic. I’ll never forget when I saw Paranormal Activity how the audience would scream at something terrifying, and follow up with laughter.
But as I said, my love affair with the horror film was never really about being scared. It was about movie magic! The translation of imagination and reality onto the screen. The blend of romance and melodrama. It was nostalgia and camp. While I may rarely watch them anymore (except around Halloween), I’ll always feel somewhat indebted to those films. I still have a full-size lobby card for 1932’s The Mummy framed on the wall of my apartment. It reminds me of where my love affair with classic cinema came from.