This may sound strange, given the fact that I have been championing horror films through various web sites, blogs, and movie marathons for the last ten years, but I came to the genre much later than most fans. Most aficionados of horror that I know were immersed in the genre from a young age. But I did not take an active interest in horror until I was probably eighteen or nineteen-years-old. People who get to know me are shocked that I did not grow up on a steady diet of Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and slasher films. But growing up, I was far too afraid of everything to even think of watching a film that had the explicit intent of scaring me.
The case for horror films was further hurt in my young mind by the lurid cover art of the VHS boxes that lined the shelves of the mom and pop video store I rented movies from. Images of a decaying, dismembered hand pushing a doorbell for the movie House or a bloody knife impaling a sneaker for Sleepaway Camp are still seared in my brain because they inspired fevered, gory images in my mind of what the actual movie must be like.
Looking back now, it all seems so silly. I grew up on films that were often more violent and upsetting than the horror films that I was too frightened to watch. Since my dad controlled the lone television in our house, I wound up watching whatever he watched. To him, there was no distinction between viewing something as relatively tame as a film like Rio Bravo and a film as brutally violent as Heaven’s Gate. In his mind, they were both westerns.
So while my parents always shook their heads and clucked their tongues at the commercials for the latest Friday the 13th film, commenting on how disgusting and depraved they were (even though I’m certain they never saw a single one of the films), it was deemed fine for me to watch movies full of gore and horrifying images that were not deemed horror. In the early ’80s, by the time I was ten-years-old, I had savage sights from movies seared into my brain. I had seen rows of severed heads lined up on the river bank in Apocalypse Now, the mass slaughter of innocent people in The Killing Fields, numerous rapes and brutal murders in the first two Death Wish films, Arnold Schwarzenegger carving his eye out of his head with a knife in The Terminator, and a bloodied man being buried alive in Blood Simple. In my mind, these images had to be child’s play compared to the unimaginable blood letting in something like The Howling (another nightmare-inducing VHS cover), because horror films had to be on another level of terror and violence.
As I got older and hit junior high, I started to realize just how odd it was that I was one of the only kids I knew not into horror films. As adolescence set in, so did an increase in peer pressure to fit in. So, armed with the might of a satellite dish the size of a small house, I plucked up my courage and dove in. I lasted approximately five minutes into Larry Cohen’s Q, but the second the window washer gets his head bitten off and gushes blood on the window, I was out. Even though I had seen far worse things in other films, there was something taboo about the fact that it was a flying monster responsible for the carnage.
Despite that false start, I slowly worked my way forward. I withstood fifteen or so minutes of Halloween, had no problem with Psycho until the shower scene, and eventually made it all the way through my first complete horror film: Creepshow. Not a bad way to get things going if I do say so.
From there, my love of horror grew as I became serious about my ambitions to be a writer. I found the potentials for stories grew exponentially when working within the genre. Rules were obliterated, plot points and characters that would be absurd in other genres made perfect sense in the heightened atmosphere and worlds of horror, and people actually wanted to read horror stories and articles about horror movies. Always a plus for a struggling writer.
What amuses me now is that I can trace my favorite horror films back to my aborted attempts to engage with the genre: Q kickstarted my nearly overwhelming obsession with the films of Larry Cohen, Halloween is still one of the most terrifying horror films I have ever seen, and the second half of Psycho from the shower scene to the big reveal in the basement is one of my favorite stretches in any film.
The good thing about my skittish nature toward horror as a kid is that it forced me to focus on other forms of storytelling and understand that the scariest villains were usually people who operated without any moral compass. That lesson has reverberated throughout my writing as I focused more on the horrors capable of the people next door than the monster in the closet.
I often wonder if I would still be invested in horror now if I had been a “normal” kid who developed an affinity for the genre at a young age. I doubt that would be the case. By immersing myself in the genre at an older age when I could appreciate the films and books beyond just being a delivery system for blood and nudity, I feel like I have been able to maintain a love for horror long after the point when most adults quit caring about it. I was an odd duck as a kid for not watching horror films and I am an odd duck as an adult for loving them. I don’t think I would have it any other way.