There was a time when I thought the story of my love affair with horror was unique. That unlike all the other boys, horror and I had something special—we hadn’t locked eyes across a crowded room or gone steady in high school. We weren’t Meg and Tom or Bogie and Bacall; we were Carey and Winslet, Harold and Maude. Turns out, though, the way I became interested in horror movies isn’t terribly different from the stories of so many other people my age. Turns out, horror is a promiscuous little tart. But oh, do I still love it so.
I’ve heard from so many other horror fans that their fascination began as revulsion; so too did it for me. My first exposure to horror came from the staircase scene in Beetlejuice. You remember—the banister is replaced by Beetlejuice in the form of a snake and he tries to kill the Dietz family. I have no idea why– in a movie featuring hanged men, burned up bodies, and a decaying corpse as the antagonist—that one scene in particular terrified me, but, oh boy did it ever. I loved the movie—I loved Day-O, I loved that house, I especially loved Beetlejuice himself—but every time I watched it I cowered in fear when that snake showed up. I hid my face in the couch. I had nightmares.
But damn if I didn’t keep going back to watch Beetlejuice.
The same went for the Librarian scene at the beginning of Ghostbusters, though I had the VHS permanently set to begin after the Ghostbusters run out of the library, so, I never even had to face that one down, unless I got overzealous with the rewind button. My pattern of being drawn to things that disturbed me continued into Kindergarten, when I asked for In a Dark, Dark Room, a collection of scary stories for children in one of those onion-skinned Scholastic catalogs they handed out at school. If Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice disturbed my dreams, then Room disturbed my every waking hour. Looking back now, all of the stories are very silly—some of them turn out to not even be horror stories at all, but seemingly scary stories with a punchline— but the sight of the Little Girl with the Green Ribbon’s head falling off scarred. Me. For. Life. (Or what seemed like life to a five-year-old). I didn’t want to eat. I sure as hell didn’t want to sleep. That yellow skeleton (The Ghost of John, if I recall correctly) didn’t do me any favors, either. I didn’t know what I was experiencing at the time but I’ve since come to recognize what happened to me as a full-blown, long-lasting panic attack. (Looking the book up while researching this article, I discovered I’m not the only 80s baby this book traumatized. I also realize that the mordant illustrations probably had a lot to with that. I mean, look at them. Shit). It kept me away from horror stories for the next two years; but when I went back, I went back big.
My third-grade teacher inexplicably had a library filled with YA horror books clearly geared towards a slightly older crowd, and I ate them up. Again, I found myself drawn to the very stuff that terrified me—I’d read a story, not be able to sleep that night, invariably have nightmares, swear never to read another scary story, then find myself reading another one in two weeks. In an instance of patterns repeating themselves, a particularly traumatic story gave me a massive panic attack and kept me away from horror stories for a while—in this case, a classmate’s unusually disturbing retelling of the Bloody Mary legend, which to this day makes me think he was either a budding psychopath or grew up to be Ryan Murphy.
At the same time I was indulging in this on-again, off-again relationship to horror stories, I was also taking part in another 80s-90s child ritual: ogling the horror movie boxes at the video store. If you never had the opportunity to go to Schnucks’ video in St. Louis, let me tell you—it was a thing of beauty. For a rental joint tacked onto the front of a grocery store, they had everything. Given the choice between Blockbuster and Schnucks’, my parents inevitably chose Schnucks because they had stuff Blockbuster had never even heard of. They had the selection of a chain store combined with the esoteric finds of a mom-and-pop, all in the safety and cleanliness of a well-lit suburban grocery store. My mom was friends with the manager, and sometimes when she had to do a big grocery trip she’d leave me there to occupy myself so I wouldn’t get bored and wander off or cause a scene. I could spend hours there between the horror movie section and the video games alone. I’d stare at the boxes, horrified but unable to look away, my mind concocting ever more warped and uncanny scenarios to explain what I was seeing. A favorite box of mine to stare at for minutes on end was the one for the NES Friday the 13th Game. I’d heard kids at school talk about Jason—an older boy had gone to a haunted pumpkin patch where someone called “Jason” chased you—but beyond him being some guy in a hockey mask I had no idea who he was or what he meant. To my child’s eyes, the thing on that NES box was an incomprehensible, Lovecraftian abomination, and I couldn’t look away.
It was a pattern that repeated itself through middle school, until the fantastic day that my parents agreed I was old enough to rent movies on my own. With a Hollywood Video card informing the clerk I was allowed to rent anything I wanted short of XXX (and good luck finding that anywhere but a truck stop in rural Oklahoma in the early 2000s), I went to the store with a mission. My mistake, I figured, had been in reading those scary stories and then not going straight back. Somehow, after reading about immunizations and inoculations, I’d gotten the idea that I could apply a similar principle to fear. I had to give myself a veritable horror overdose. By exposing myself to as many horror movies as I could, with incremental levels of uncanniness, terror, and gore, I would never be scared again.
Damn if it didn’t sorta work.
No, I don’t claim to be some sort of psychopath or blowhard who’s incapable of feeling fear—I still tense up in Texas traffic like any sane, rational person—but it became very difficult for a horror movie or story to scare me the way they once did. What’s more, as I began to watch more and more horror movies, my fascination with them turned to full appreciation. I started to pick up the underlying social themes of movies like Dawn of the Dead or appreciate the gritty aesthetics of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Horror movies became art to me.
My appreciation of the horror community came later. What was important was that I’d won a great victory and that in doing so, I’d discovered that what had once been an impediment to me was now an ally, a source of joy and endless wonder. I had a friend; a voice. Thanks, horror. I know you’ll never be mine, but I know it would be selfish not to want to share you. You have so much to give.
This article is part of our special October series, #horrorandme