Anybody who knows me knows I am a horror fan. To look at me you probably wouldn’t guess that – while I tend to favor black clothing out of general laziness, I don’t have any horror tattoos, or paint my nails black. I don’t wear those colors on my sleeve.
But, I’m a fan. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of my career is that none of my horror screenplays have actually been produced. Well, technically, this one, but it is more of a comedy than a gut wrenching horror (the story of how it became what it did can be found here). There’s also one I’m developing with the folks at Rue Morgue Cinema, and a great one I wrote for the fine folks behind this upcoming thriller.
So yeah, I’m a fan. Thing is I wasn’t always one.
When I was much younger, I was plagued by nightmares. Bad ones. Ones that woke me screaming in the night. When we lived in Vancouver, our house was nestled on the edge of some pretty deep and dark woods, and I was convinced there were things living there. Dark things. Things with glowing red eyes. Things that would burrow underground at day, and at night, they’d rise and stalk the shadows. Their eyes would inevitably be drawn to our house, lights gleaming from within. I knew they could see me too, passing by the windows that looked out onto our backyard.
One time I was in the basement, where we had our TV. For some reason I was alone. My parents were upstairs, as was my sister, but at some point I was certain I wasn’t alone down there. Our basement was only partially finished. The TV room was to the right of the stairs, but through another door there was only the unfinished portion – my dad’s workshop, the furnace, and storage. This door was opposite the TV room. You had to pass that door to go back upstairs. And for some reason I was convinced that something had gotten in and was waiting on the other side of that door. Waiting for me to pass. Waiting to open it and get me.
So, what I remember doing was turning the volume on the TV up to mask my footsteps, and at a particularly boisterous moment in the commercials, ran from the TV room and up the stairs. I stole a look back … and I saw the door that I was sure had been closed a moment before was now open, and I saw a long hairy leg and large hairy foot step out. I ran up the stairs, convinced that it would grab me before I reached safety, and drag me outside, muffling my screams, my family none the wiser.
Anyway I made it upstairs and muttered something to the effect I was going to bed. I went to my room and closed the door. In there I was safe … unlike my bedroom in Mississauga, where we lived previous. That room definitely had a monster in the closet. I know this because I saw it – dark, vaguely human, vaguely simian. Once I actually hid under the bed from it, and saw it lurch from the closet, heard it sniffing the air for me; I actually stayed beneath the bed all night, not poking my head out until morning came.
When we moved across the country I was relieved. But when it became apparent that there were monsters in our new house, I wondered if it was the one from back East that had followed us across country, only traveling at night, sticking close to the shadows, gradually getting closer and closer.
We moved to Edmonton the following year, and as we settled in to another house, I knew that monster had left the Vancouver house and was slowly but deliberately making its way towards us, and to me. The Rocky Mountains would slow it down somewhat, but it was definitely on its way.
So yeah, I had a vivid imagination, and scary stuff on a vivid imagination is like giving a hyperactive kid a handful of candy before bedtime. And for the longest time I avoided horror movies like the plague. This was because if I saw something scary on TV or in a book, I KNEW I’d have bad nightmares. Seriously, even the assorted ghosts and ghouls on Scooby-Doo would induce paroxysms of terror in me.
So horror? Not my thing.
My dad, on the other hand, was a fan. He famously took his parents to see Psycho – my Grandmother being likewise a fan of the macabre (more on her in a bit). Even as a father with a couple young kids, he’d go out to the movies with his work buddies every so often, and it would usually be a horror film – Halloween, The Fog – and when we got our first VCR (yes, it was a Betamax), he’d plumb the shelves looking for monster movies to watch after we kids had been tucked off to bed. I’d know he’d be down there watching them, and occasionally I’d creep downstairs and listen to the sound of chainsaws and machetes splitting skulls form just outside the TV room. Once, he and I were at a department store for something, and one of the movies being shown on a TV in the electronics department was Poltergeist.
We stopped at the video store on the way home so he could rent it. He watched it; I didn’t, even though I was fine watching it at The Bay. I think because bringing the movie into our home meant the monsters and nightmares it unleashed would be unleashed on home turf.
What changed between me and horror was my dad pulling a fast one on his ten year-old son. He brought home a movie for me and him to watch one afternoon. It was a sci-fi film, and he knew I was a sci-fi fan. I was in love with Star Wars, and all sci-fi was like that, right?
Oh yeah, it was this one:
I was terrified from the opening credits, but resolved I was going to stick it out to the bitter end. Sleep? Overrated. I had to prove to myself I could do this. I watched through to the bitter end … and a strange thing happened. I slept soundly that night. There were no Alien nightmares at all. And the following Monday at school, I was BRAGGING in the playground that I had seen this movie Alien, that a guy got his head punched off, and another guy had something burst from his chest. I thought I was hot shit. And in my own way I was, because I had survived Alien.
The flood gates had opened, if not to a full surge than at least a steady stream. I was becoming more attuned to horror movies. Alien was the gateway, and soon after that I managed to survive Poltergeist, and The Birds, and Bride of Frankenstein. Mostly watched on an afternoon, in broad daylight, but still, I watched them.
My burgeoning interest in horror brought me and my aforementioned Grandmother closer together, given she was a HUGE horror fan.
Every Christmas she was a recipient of the latest Stephen King hardcover from my sister and me. She came to expect it, and look forward to it, and soon after un-wrapping it, she’d be in her chair, cigarette clenched in hand, shunning the rest of the celebration so she could get started into Needful Things or Misery or Pet Sematary (her personal favorite, and with good reason; it’s a scary mofo). She’d lend some of them to me to read, after she was finished with them, of course. When she passed away in 1993, left me all her King books. They’re sitting on my shelf as I write this. One of them contains a note she wrote to me. You can still feel the indentations from the ballpoint, 20 years later.
Once I started exposing myself to the horror, the less it horrified me. I realized that, rather than terrorize me, it was trying to help me. To prepare me for adulthood, to show me that fears could be conquered, and bent to your will. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I started to enjoy horror, I likewise began writing, with horror being the creative tinder for the fire that’s burned bright for well over 30 years now. The monsters stopped visiting my house entirely — they knew I wasn’t scared of them anymore.
So, yeah, I’m a horror fan. And if you ask any horror fan, they’ll tell you that it was an involved process of confronting, and then conquering their fears, to make them their obsessions. Horror fans get a lot of grief from the so-called “normal” people, the ones who ask why you watch that “horror crap” when there’s already so much horror in the real world. But if you have to ask that question, chances are you’ll never know, or understand why we do.
As much a fan as I am, I regret that horror movie, and books, aren’t the vivid, terrifying experiences for me as they once were. When you hit adulthood, the stuff that scares you changes – it becomes more real. People I know with families tell me they have a visceral reaction to a child in peril that they didn’t have before they became parents. The older you get, the more you age, those worries of illness and disease stake out the same mental real estate that vampires and zombies once did.
My grandmother was never a healthy person, and even when she was diagnosed with cancer, knew it would win in the end. But she still read horror novels and watched horror movies right up to the end. She never articulated to me why, but I like to think it was because they made her happy, and took her mind off her own problems. In horror, the monster can be defeated, though sometimes it comes back (usually in a series of increasingly awful sequels). Not so much in life.
One thing I’ve come to believe is that being completely, irrationally freaked out as a young kid, is key to becoming a sane, creative adult. The horror fans, the writers, the journalists and the filmmakers I know count among the very best people I’ve ever met. The ones who confronted their fears and conquered them and bent them to their will, to thrive and make a living off those things that terrorized them when they were younger.
And the ones who don’t watch horror? The ones with the “nice, normal childhoods”?
They’re the ones you really need to be afraid of.
BRAD’S TOP TEN HORROR MOVIES
- Alien (1979)
- The Innocents (1961)
- Jaws (1975)
- Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Halloween (1978)
- The Evil Dead (1983)
- Black Christmas (1974)
- Phantasm (1979)
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973)
- The Haunting (1963)