Digital Polyphony

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Not/Quite Remembering: Immune to Fear

Posted on October 5, 2011 at 1:25 AM

Not/Quite Remembering: Immunte to Fear


It's October, that magical time of year where Jesus rises from the dead and hands candy out to zombies and vampires to prevent them from feasting on us humans. It's also my favorite month because I love horror and suspense. From literature such as Poe and Lovecraft to crazy, perhaps disturbing artwork. But film, though, is the quintessential medium for horror, in my view. The tension, the suspense, the laughs or the gore, it has it all. So this entry to my trip down memory lane is about my history with horror and how, as I dove more and more into the abyss of chills and thrills, I also became less and less a victim to its intentions.


Ever since I was a child, I've always been drawn to the unknown and the unexplained. You know, those elements of reality that are just off of. In particular, I've always been intrigued by ghosts. I have, for as long as I can remember, been fascinated by the entire idea of them. The concept of the soul, life beyond, planes of existence, whatever you might call it, the idea that there is something else, in some sort of other form, has always had me hooked. It's a combination of intrigue and, at one time, fear.

I've never been quite able to pinpoint the precise moment or time when I became so interested in ghosts, spirits, haunting or just creepy places where bad things once happened. I want to say it was when I saw Ghostbusters or Poltergeist as a child, or maybe the stories around campfires or about my uncles house that may or may not have been haunted. Perhaps it was just Halloween. Give a kid some candy and costumes and he'll love whatever holiday you may be celebrating.

I think it's just one of those natural things, not just one precise moment. It's like when someone has an ear for music or prefers Food A over Food B. The things you find interesting are a part of your own being, and like the ghosts themselves there really is no explanation for it. You just know you like it.

Though, if we're talking percentages, let's be honest: the horror genre is about the only genre where you can honestly say that for every good or great film, there's probably another ten that are just...just awful. Horror fans tend to accept that, though.

What I do know is that it wasn't because of horror movies. As a kid, I was scared to death of horror movies yet, at the same time, I couldn't help but love them. My interest in the "supernatural" (and the occasional guy with a big butcher knife apparently) is what made me get into horror movies in the first the place. I remember the very first one I remember seeing was Friday the 13th Part IV. I was about eight or nine years old, obviously far too young to be watching such things, but my step-brother somehow got a Beta Machine and a dozen or so movies along with it including a handful of horror titles. Others included the first three Nightmare on Elm Street films, the original still my favorite, the first two Halloween films, again the original still my favorite and a movie I had seen spots of on television in years prior, Friday the 13th Part 3, Part 4 and Part 6 and Alien. There were others, but those were the ones I recall (and you'll have to forgive me if some of those might have been VHS, it was a bit of a mixed bag)

While I loved Ghostbusters, which was great in helping a kid squash his fears of demons and spirits, and saw Poltergeist and Halloween, which was great for making a kid wish he had some Ghostbusters around, beforehand, I still mark Friday the 13th Part IV as the first movie that got me into horror movies as it was the first one I watched off those old Betas. Uncut. Commercial free. It scared the shit out of me. I was hooked from that point on watching the likes of other 80s horror that were still quite easy to find, such as Fright Night, Gremlins (a part of every 80s kid's watching), Child's Play, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13 titles my brother didn't have and The Lost Boys. All these were the roots of my love of horror. Simply being exposed to them was what nourished it. It was a time of discovery. It was a bit demented and macabre. It was 1989.

Some of the early horror movies I was actaully able to see growing up correspond with the era I grew up in: 1980s.

For most of my teen years, I couldn't get ahold of much in terms of horror movies outside of that old Beta machine. Almost everything was either through cable television (USA Network and even the consummate Mystery Science Theater 3000) or the few times I could get a movie from my step-brother. I think I mentioned in previous blogs that, for years, the television version of The Terminator was all I knew about that film, along with others like Ghost Busters and pretty much every movie up until about 1990.

That goes for all these horror movies as well. My family didn't get a VCR until about 1989, around the time Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out on home video because that was the first "new" movie I remember buying on VHS. That VCR, though, was a family device. I didn't have a whole lot of say in what I could buy, especially considering I was barely 10 years old. It's not as though I could go out and rent an R-rated movie on my own much less sneak a time to watch it. For the longest of times, those smattering of Beta horror flicks were all I knew and the occasional time my step brother and I could get one from the video store.

In 1996/97 I started working at a videostore, and that's where it all really began. Sixteen is the perfect age to start getting into things like horror movies and it should be no surprise that Scream, the big movie of that time, was one of the first sort of "new" horror movies I enjoyed. I took it upon myself to re-watch the horror movies I had previously only known through Beta and television, notably the Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th movies. Those are good a places to start as anything. The years I worked there I got into so many I wouldn't even know where to begin, however I was far from versed in the genre. I was simply an observer. That and I was still at the point where I could get a little scared. It was all new and that sense of snarky "I bet this is going to happen" mentality I have now was far from relevant yet.

Those years were good, but the variety was limited. Hell, I hadn't even seen The Exorcist yet, much less something like Zombi 2 or a Hammer Horror flick. I did see a number of Cronenberg flicks, though, notably The Fly which actually gave me nightmares and I never quite looked at insects the same way again. Others while in high school included the Scream movies, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Fog, The Coppola Dracula Movie, Alien, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. Expanding, yes, but it would be college that grew it ten-fold.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Throughout college, and in studying film, I realized the more I learned and appreciated cinema, the more I actually found my love of horror movies growing. One might assume that a dose of "film school snobbery" would inject itself into my persona, but it didn't. I actually didn't like those types of people at all and avoided their snarky, often cynical groups of nose-thumbing towards anything that wasn't "artsy." I like anything that's made well, genre and era be damned.

By learning about eras and history of film, I learned more about my favorite genre and soon found personal favorites such as these above, only a fraction. An American Werewolf in London made me love the notion of comedy in horror, already enjoyed with the Evil Dead films. Night of the Creeps even moreso. The Invisible Man made me a fan of James Whale, Claude Raines (whom I was already a fan of, actually) and classic Universal Studios horror. Both the original and remake of Nosferatu are among my personal favorites and Re-Animator was the source of my fascination for HP Lovecraft, which I began reading shortly thereafter. Not seen: a hell of a lot more, maybe I should do a list or video of my favorite horror flicks.

Anyways, as I learned the history of film, I learned with it the history of horror. There were discussions in class, but I took it upon myself to go out and see older horror films on my own time. It was here I just unleashed a hidden flurry of fanboyism and couldn't get enough of horror movies. I think I was watching at least three or four a week (it was college, lots of downtime, kids).  Due to my film studies making me appreciative  of so many past eras of film, I naturally delved into the horror movies from those eras as well, from the silent years of Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to re-visiting my own youth with the camp cheesiness of 1980s slashers.

I absolutely fell in love with the Universal and Hammer films. Dracula and Frankenstein from Universal are classics for a reason, however I found myself in particular fondness of The Invisible Man, one of Universal Horror's earliest "horror/monster movies." It probably has to do with my fondness for anything Claude Raines is in, seeing as how I was appreciating Notorious and Casablanca at the same time while I traversed the decades of film history.

The intense, claustrophobic horror films I noticed tend to be some of my most favorites. Most film fans can't put a label on "bests" but I can tell you what my favorite horror movie is: the completely nuts and intense The Thing, which was a remake of a classic itself.

I "discovered" many things I liked. I learned I was more in love with the claustrophobic and atmospheric than I ever was with a slasher movie or gore-laced movies. I had an inkling I was going that route when I saw Alien way back in the early 90s in high school (and on television) but when I saw The Thing, and perhaps Dawn of the Dead as well as I saw both around the same time, I finally understood what it was I loved: fear and paranoia in a situation you can't control. Atmosphere, dark shadows, psychological and not knowing who to trust (stems from my love of Hitchcock suspense, undoubtedly) was my preference. Though, I can enjoy a good zombie flick or knife-in-the-eye if the movie is well made enough. It's not surprising that The Thing and Dawn of the Dead and Alien are all in my personal favorite horror films as a result of this.

Learning more of film naturally brought a love of foreign cinema as well, and foreign horror was no slouch. Giallos like Deep Red, Spanish masterpieces like The Devil's Backbone, trouble British movies like Peeping Tom and The Wicker Man and the French classic, Eyes Without a Face are just some of my personal favorites. Japan and asian horror, especially, seem to deliver great horror and suspense, such as the Grimm-esque Onibaba


I also learned I enjoyed camp and a horror movie that knew how to have a little fun with the ridiculous of it all. A horror movie that takes itself TOO seriously was a turn off, especially those that tried to be too smart and witty for its own good only to fall flat because it's not nearly as sharp and original as it thinks it is. Naturally, the Evil Dead flicks are great examples of my love of campiness and a little movie by Shaun of the Dead could be the best horror-comedy ever made. I remember inviting people over to my place just to watch it and they were as enthralled and amazed as I was. I'd like to think I was one of those "grass roots" people that helped make that film so popular, but my reach isn't that wide and my ego not nearly big enough. I did my part, though. I also have a personal place in my heart for the often-underseen Night of the Creeps if only for the line "it's miller time" followed by a bombardment of bullets killing zombies in a sorority house. Others include movies like The Stuff, Night of the Demons, Throw in a campy Peter Jackson or Stuart Gordon flick for good measure.

I dabbled with Giallos, the Italian horror genre, and returned to watching classics from Andy Warhol's oddities to Chainsaw Massacres to the countless horror movies that came and went in the 80s, such as The Burning and Sleepaway Camps and Slumber Party Massacres. Then you have the great gems in Peeping Tom or The Spiral Staircase or The Old Dark House and then I would thrust in a week's worth of Asian horror in my DVD player. I went in spurts and my viewing was always changing from style to style, decade to decade, classic film to probably-not-so-classic film. What's great is that I've seen a ton, and I mean a ton, of horror movies but I know there's always more to see. That's what makes the horror genre so great.

Now It's More Appreciation than Anticipation

Which brings me today. I have, over years of seeing horror movies of all sort, become immune to their enticing. I still appreciate them when well made, but that initial, almost instinctual concept of "being scared" is lost to me now. I can see a movie and appreciate when it does something unexpected, and I certainly love it when it has a menacing atmosphere, but I know a) the initial fears I had as a child are long gone and b) I've learned to just watch a movie and rarely "get lost" in them anymore. Immersed? Perhaps. But never so deep into the celluloid I forget that I'm merely a passive observer of something fictional.

I used to mistake this for cynicism. "Oh, that doesn't scare me," is what I often say, but I don't mean it to be negative. Perhaps the fact that a scary movie is meant to actually scare you is why it appears so negatively, but I don't hold it against a scary movie if it doesn't scare me. I only appreciate it when it at least tries and doesn't get lazy in doing so. I suppose, what I'm trying to round this all out to, is that I appreciate the "craft" of scaring someone or making them tense rather than succumbing to it myself.

Speaking of well-crafted...

Take Hitchcock, for example. Easily my favorite director because he grasped the concept of holding an audience in the palm of your hand, then taking the other hand and slapping them with it out of nowhere. Hitchcock wasn't always about twists nor was it about throwing out perfunctory "scares." It was about manipulation, pace and patience...then he would turn it on its head and do it again.

When a horror movie does that, I truly appreciate it. Even if the film isn't scary to me anymore, I recognize a well-crafted sense of being scared. To scare someone with cinema, or to hold them on the edge of their seat, is an art. How it plays out, how its edited and how the camera moves and is positioned and the lighting along with it are all part of this art of scaring the shit out of you.  Sure, I may not be scared myself, but I will always smile when a film does it right. I still have the interest in the unknown, the demented, the macabre and mysterious. Even if those won't scare me, per se, my interest is always there and the better made they are, the more I appreciate the efforts.

I didn't see In the Mouth of Madness, Dead and Buried Dawn of the Dead or Cat People until much later on, well after I became immune to potentially being scared by them, but damnit do I applaud how well done they are. They also just happen to be some of my personal favorites as well.

I still watch horror movies quite a bit. As I said, we're never going to run out of them, especially with the flourishing world of indie filmmaking, and the backlog is immense. I particularly loved being surprised by a horror movie in a sense of "I wasn't expecting it to be this well made." I think, perhaps, that's supplanted my "man, this is scary/gory/intense" thought processes. The genre is far from its hey-day, though. The late 30s into the 40s Monster Movie explosion, the gothic/Hammer era of the 50s into the early 70s and the massive variety of flicks, from zombies to slashers to just about everything else under the sun that the late 70s and 1980s flourished in. Those were the periods to see really good horror, but around the 1990s it became pretty damn over-saturated and even though you'll get a nice, original picture here and there, it's far from potent of a genre it once was. In fact, some of the best horror flicks are smaller movies that might not even get a theatrical release or something foreign.

But despite that, the fans still come because of the history of it all. It's really the only genre that can say it truly acquires fans more from what it's done in the past rather than the popularity of the present. While my roots in horror go back to my childhood, I didn't become a fan until much much later and with movies from decades I wasn't even alive in.

Horror fans love their past and are dedicated to it. We love to go back decades before we were even born and probably find some favorites, such as a few of mind depicted here that I didn't "grow up" with, but sought out.

And Now We Must Say Goodnight

Fans of the horror genre are an interesting bunch. You have two extremes: the casual fans that will just go to a horror movie in the theater and have a good time, maybe rent a few over Halloween and so forth. Then you have the die-hard fans. These are the ones that treat horror as a trivia book: always wanting to know and learn more, always open to anything whether it's a big-time horror flick or some little Direct to DVD one, seeking out horror films from years past and eras lost, maybe even holding their own movie marathon of little unheard of horror classics like Day of the Triffids, The Tingler or Hausu (House for the non-Japanese speakers out there.)

Obviously, I am the latter. Hell, I just wrote this blog about horror movies. I'm pretty sure someone who only watches the Scream movies and think The Hitcher remake was "pretty good" wouldn't bother. For that matter, most horror movie fans can rattle off horror-directors and influential writers and actors in the genre like naming family members at a reunion. "Oh, there's Uncle Romero and our neighbor Mr Fisher and Grandpa Browning. (Horror fans would get every one of those references).

I have a nice collection of horror movies too and I have a shelves dedicated to the idea of someone coming over and asking "I want to get into horror movies, where should I start? I would take them to my closet and point to the one shelf that has about ten or so DVDs on it. They're not my personal favorites, which is odd. They're more as if you were introducing an alien to earth's history - you want to be inclusive and have everything represented, such as Night of the Living Dead and Dracula and Halloween.

And it certainly won't be ending anytime soon, but not from today's films, that's for sure. I will never run out of classics, some I still haven't even got to see yet. It's exciting because you never know what you might get, or you might finally just sit down and watch a classic for the first time, such as I did with The Thing From Another World just recently which I simply have had on my backlog for a few years now and loved every minute of it.  It's a great sensation - far more satisfying and my attention far more focused than any other type of movie, maybe except science fiction which often has me just as engaged.

What is it about this genre that I still become captivated in long after its purpose of actually scaring me has become a thing of my past? Appreciation, sure, but I still appreciate other genres. With horror and suspense, I still get giddy. Excited. Hell, it doesn't even have to be October, that month just reminds me how much I love it. There's just no better sense of satisfaction than a dark room, a late night, a flickering screen and a horror movie to become entranced by.

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