I don’t know when my first exposure to horror might have been, but what I do remember are the moments. I have never been the guy who has been attracted to horror to “get scared,” even if that was often times a great byproduct of the experiences at hand. Rather, horror was always a gateway to something more creative, a place where imagination had no bound, akin to the cartoons and larger-than-life comedies I cherished at my earliest of ages. To that point, I always equated horror and fun together, embracing the wicked grins that would come at the end of an urban legend or the laughter that follows a haunted hayride.
If I had to take a guess, I would say that my love of horror first broke into “obsession” territory through my cousins, who were hardcore horror fans. My immediately family were not horror fans, often choosing action or comedy over anything with ghosts and ghouls, and my sister and brother didn’t seem to care much for the genre. But my cousins were all-in on horror fandom, collecting monstrous action figures and FANGORIA issues, and whose posters and VHS tape covers promised entertainment that was distinctly far more mature than I was allowed to see at the time. In that sense, perhaps horror felt like a step towards adulthood, as braving through the blood and guts that came with horror (as well as, of course, the nudity and foul language) made me feel much more mature by nature.
I remember that many of my first horror experiences were through my cousins, who reveled in showing me their brand new VHS tape of The Blair Witch Project or I Know What You Did Last Summer, or even the TV edit of Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. In fact, seeing Jason Takes Manhattan at that age introduced me to the slasher film in the best way possible: I wasn’t scared of Jason, but I found the movie to be fun, frightening, and even a bit somber. One minute, I’m laughing at Jason Voorhees punching a skull off of a teenager who tried to box him, and the next, I’m feeling genuinely bad for some random blue-collar worker who had his head crushed in with a wrench for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. To this day, Jason Takes Manhattan remains one of my favorite Friday the 13th movies, and I’ll defend that choice until the end of time.
But throughout my youth, horror was always a presence, in one way or another. Living in the New York / New Jersey area, fall was always my favorite season, as the foliage and the heavy forestation always brought Halloween to mind. Halloween was easily my favorite holiday growing up, back when going out for candy meant hanging out unsupervised with your friends, roaming around your communities and getting a giant sack of candy. It was also an excuse to dig into more horror-related stuff, as I’d frequent the school library to find books on urban legends, old myths, and scary story anthologies, such as the beloved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
But beyond the seasonal presence of horror, I could even come home after school and find a slice of the genre to capture my imagination. The first real piece of horror entertainment that I distinctly remember loving, as in “will watch literally anytime it was broadcasted,” was Are You Afraid of the Dark? The idea of getting a brand new horror story every week, with new monsters and new twists, was a boon to me, and got my mind racing as to how I could tell stories in such a fashion. I can also say, with absolute certainty, that my first real nightmares would spawn from Are You Afraid of the Dark, as the Ghastly Grinner would keep me up many nights in my youth. Sadly, it’s been difficult to try to revisit this series, as many legal options go out the window as U.S. rights for Are You Afraid of the Dark are as tangled as tangled can be, but even the opening title sequence is enough to send my mind back 20 years or so.
There are plenty of other horror milestones I can recall with shocking clarity from my youth. I remember my babysitter, who would let my siblings and I watch the latest R-rated horror fare under a pledge of secrecy. I remember the first horror video I rented was The Monster Squad, a film that speaks to me today almost as much as it did over 20 years ago. And I remember my many live-action horror experiences from my youth, from the Jaws ride at Universal Studios Orlando to getting my first real taste of gore from the Sterling Forest of Fear (back before their Haunted Hayride was shut down) to random creepy shit I would find in the woods or around the train tracks in my neighborhood. In fact, I even remember the scary music videos that would occasionally show up on MTV at random hours of the day, which I’m sure ushered me into my love of metal as well.
In a lot of ways, my love for horror evolved as I did, as I became more enticed by the prestigious and the extreme as I grew more mature and game for that kind of material. It wasn’t much of an emotional catharsis in my youth, for which I’m lucky knowing that so many horror fanatics had the genre help them through lifelong traumas, but when social anxiety and depression kicked in during my teenage years, I spent many-a-night lifting my spirits thanks to Peter Jackson, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter. Later, upon discovering just how communal the genre could be, my love of the genre deepened, and as soon as I was old enough to do so, I’d be going to see horror movies on the big screen whenever possible, even when it looked to be a real piece of shit. I’d say that explains why nowadays I’m so inherently drawn to terrible-looking films, but when the world at large is a living, breathing horror movie, sometimes paying to see a prestige independent drama that’s going to exploit my misery is not at the top of my priorities.
But no matter how scary, disturbing, or breathtaking horror can be, the genre will always be a place of fun that takes me into a world beyond our own. As a kid who went from choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps books to Stephen King novels to writing his own horror book, The I in Evil, going to a world of monsters and madmen has become almost second nature. Certainly, my imagination and sense of humor have benefitted from the horror genre, and I’ve met so many brilliant and fantastic people over the years thanks to a mutual love of horror.
Perhaps that’s the beauty of horror; the genre is never just one thing to everyone, and that’s a wonderful thing. Sure, you’ll get the reactionary assholes who are quick to write off horror as “dead” every time a high profile genre picture flops, or those who still equate the genre with devil worship and psychosis. But to many others, horror is therapy, or a friend who slaps you out of a rut, or a good time from beyond the pale that’ll keep you feeling on cloud 9, or that thrill that tricks your brain into thinking you just had a brush with death for a quick dose of adrenaline. Horror is no longer exclusively in the lexicon of the outcast as, no matter who you are, even if you’re a fun-loving kid who dug the sights and sounds of Halloween, laughing, gasping, or screaming at your greatest fears is still better than running away from them.
This article is part of our special October series, #horrorandme