I no longer crave horror the way I did as a boy. Not saying there’s anything missing in current horror films, but more of there’s something missing in me; a rabid curiosity for truths not yet quantified.
Eighties horror flicks birthed my inner white trash cinefile; sparking a creative tick I carry with me to this day. My childhood birthdays were zombie marathons and big pots of spaghetti. Usually no cake. Never was a fan of cake. So it was a no win situation for my brothers, cousins, and mother who endured my obsession with all variations of the undead, violently spiritual, and demonic. Eventually my youngest brother and a few cousins learned to enjoy them, but it took time.
We didn’t go to movies often. Theaters were expensive with three rowdy boys. So I looked forward to these moments of suspended reality. With all the lights turned off in the living room, I would lay down on my belly in front of the tv with a pillow under my chest and immerse myself. You couldn’t speak to me when a movie was playing. I was consumed by the terror on TV Elevated by the copious amounts of gore, ridiculous pacing, and familiar structures and themes. Films were better than real life. Films were urgent, engaging, and the only form of travel I had ever experienced.
You could rent two horror films for a dollar at Big C Drugs on South Broad Street in the early nineties. Mom allowed me four to six VHS tapes for my birthday. She wouldn’t help me pick them either. At least for my birthday. I already knew the faces of actors I liked. I knew which series I wanted to revisit. Movies were one of the first sets of sentient choices I was allowed to make. I had opinions. I didn’t really know what that meant, but identity is an act, not a resume, and I could choose then. It felt good walking up and down the horror aisle; even if I didn’t know why.
Most birthdays I went with zombie mythos: Night of The Living; Dawn of The Dead; Day of The Dead; Return of The Living Dead; Return of The Living Dead II; and Dead Alive. I never got through them all in one night, but I’d wake up the next morning and play the next tape in order. Other people had Walt Disney, I had George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper. These directors shaped who I became. I still gravitate towards similar themes across all variations of my art due to these films. From these directors alone, I learned to identify and address basic issues of isolation, non-moral violence including violence towards animals, existentialism, materialism, bigotry, humanism, and the frailty of human grace and social constructs under any stress. You learned quickly. When the fictional world ended, so did most civility.
Associating large portions of your identity with film is a double edged sword. You build a portion of yourself around a caricature of reality. Very dangerous. The levels of danger depend on how you process information. Posturing is a bad habit when it’s not necessary. A lot of life is posturing, but waiting around to build your perfect narrative to act is obviously problematic. The useful edge of that sword is you build a portion of yourself based on truth that can’t be spoken. People’s foundational constructs are too fragile. Some truth is too real for conversation, so you have communicate through actions. These films were not short of action, even if it was fictional action.
Each horror flick I revisited over my childhood and into adulthood had a morality subplot or motive. Each featured heavy subversion or an insurrection or diatribe for the status quo; whether is was literally in the script or in between the lines. A movie like Videodrome fixates on visuals for representation of our obsession with simulating reality through entertainment and the escalating euphoria driving us to find more real forms of entertainment. When you watch the movie, you mostly think, “Damn, this is a sleazy attempt to sexualize media.” But, it’s about the already sexualized media and our lust for more “real” media. Where do you end up when you want your entertainment as real and as dangerous as life? Maybe we start chanting, Long live the new flesh? Maybe a stomach vagina to hide your gun? More likely a show like Survivor.
When I want to trace back my existentialist views of the world, I can watch Day of The Dead and get my bummer on. The doctor had Bub and Bub was his new form of hope. Rehabilitating the already “infected” after they hadn’t made contact with anyone alive over several months was his only last shot at perpetuating civility. After the doctor is killed, the movie goes to shit, and the redeemable characters leave to find their own form of hope in a lifeless, serene world. The third Romero installment shows survival is the ultimate act of futility if standard of living lacks hope, growth, and companionship. You assign the meaning to your time here, and that meaning is the only line in the sand between hope and hopelessness.
If I need to shed the material cage of ownership, I can watch Dawn of The Dead and all materialism fades. The characters are surrounded by everything you could ever want and after the new wears off, they’re still unsatisfied. Still depressed. Still longing for society. As social constructs fade, barbarism is inevitable and the possessions they surrounded themselves with attracts hedonistic bikers which destroy their once sustainable safety. They flee as their home floods with zombies and the bikers are literally consumed by their greed.
Throughout all these movies, you see old world hang ups disappear. Any attempt to assimilate the characters’ new harsher reality back to their old comfort levels ends in death and destruction. The bare bones of each is about relationships, priorities, and adapting to change, along with the exterior plot lines that don’t need any internalized dissection: a man of color saves the day in the three Romero films; in Return of The Living Dead, a funeral home becomes a safe haven for life; in Dead Alive, the main character’s oppressive, abusive family structure dissipates in the face of imminent death; and both of the Return of The Living Deads are about the military industrial complex.
Return of the Living Dead 1 & 2 starts with the discovery of zombies in military biochemical drums. Most likely kept by the military so they could weaponize them at some point, then they lose track of the drums and some idiots find them. Viola! Movie starts. Subversion, fiction, and truth as the camera starts rolling.
There was a time I worried I internalized the violence, the gore, and the macabre, but so far so good. As an adult male, I fight very little; I don’t like guns; I try not to speak violence to anyone unless I feel it extremely appropriate; I’ve been vegetarian going on now for ten years; and spite a long history of violence and crime in my family, I’ve only been arrested once. The arrest was for public intoxication on St. Paddy’s day. I was a block from home, walking because I drank too much.
The boy who watched and drew demons, zombies, and abstract creatures turned into a well-rounded abstract thinker. No major damage from all the horror. Really the horror in films kept me from obsessing over the trauma and pain of my childhood. The religious portions of my family worried about my soul when I was a kid, but my track record is saint-like compared to some of the family members who suggested I get an exorcism. Which is brilliantly ironic. They wanted to save me from fictional horror by putting me through real horror.
The world is more fucked than fiction, and that’s a fact.
As an adult, I’m more aware and burnt out on violence. I see enough in daily life to fill my eyes, heart, and mind without putting it on a TV screen. From war to self-hate to politics, there’s no end in sight for the variables of violence or a lack of civility. As long as men convince themselves they need violence to be men, they’ll always be abstractions to teach us about the nature of men.
So thank you horror films. I feel more at ease then I should.