Discovering the Joy of Being Terrified

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By James Hancock (Originally posted on my personal blog)

Back in 1986 I was a young horror fan in the 4th grade and Freddy Krueger was rapidly on his way to becoming the biggest celebrity in the United States, at least that is how it seemed to me. My older brother and I had recently watched Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) for the first time on HBO and I can still vividly recall how the movie put me in a charged state of alarm and heightened awareness for hours after the movie ended. I remember taking our dog for a walk after watching the movie, feeling so on edge it was almost as if electricity were buzzing through me where any sudden sound or movement might send me leaping into the air involuntarily. On the surface, this might sound like a negative experience, but in some dim way I was aware that I had enjoyed an incredible movie watching experience.

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For months after seeing ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. I enjoyed/suffered through a variety of Krueger-inspired nightmares and something as innocent as the click of a tape reaching the end of its side could shock me into a defensive posture. I had been scared before while watching movies but this was a new experience. I had experienced full-blown trauma watching ‘Poltergeist’ at the age of 6, but with ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ I had enjoyed being scared and hero-worshipped in a strange way. In an effort to imitate Freddy’s infamous glove, I designed my own using straws covered in tin foil. When I put posters of Freddy on my wall, my room became a chamber of horrors that my young sister, who was a toddler at the time, refused to enter. I’m embarrassed to admit I did not notice her fear at the time but she confessed her feelings many years later. It was only a matter of time before my friends and I at school decided that we needed to throw down with a horror movie marathon slumber party. We assembled a coalition of interested friends and got to work planning the event.

Back in the stone age of 1986, the suburban sprawl in which I lived (Greensboro, NC) did not even have its first Blockbuster Video yet. This was the high water mark of the independent video store and our local spot was a dive called Video Review. Video Review was not much of a video store but it did have a large section devoted to the horror genre with many of the essential titles from the 1970s and 1980s, for those of you not old enough to remember this meant overly large VHS boxes with ominous stickers about being banned in dozens of countries (‘Faces of Death’ made a fortune exaggerating this dubious honor). I was responsible for picking the movies for the slumber party and my mother rented my movie picks for me without a second glance. The location for our gathering was out in the country at a friend’s house, one renowned for very little supervision. True to the reputation of the house, upon arrival I was handed a lit cigarette by my friend’s father so that we could light bottle rockets to fire at one another out of coke cans as the sun went down. The father also supplied us with enough coke and pizza to keep us properly fueled indefinitely. That was the last time we saw an adult before the next morning.

For our viewing pleasure that evening I brought ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Blob’ (the original), and ‘Poltergeist’. We were all excited and feeling the rush of courage of watching horror movies in the safe company of our friends. That said, not one of us was prepared for the total onslaught on the senses we experienced in watching ‘The Exorcist’ for the first time. I vividly remember our pre-pubescent squeals of terror during Father Karrass’s dream sequence where we saw a split second shot of the Devil’s face. We rewound the tape and watched the scene repeatedly trying in vain to pause the cassette at the exact moment the face appears. VHS, imperfect format that it was, was not capable of capturing the shot below without being covered in static. As we pressed on into the evening the mood of our group of friends became downright giddy and increasingly edgy. When someone needed to use the bathroom we’d go as a group to avoid facing the darkness of the house alone. Apart from one break to indulge in a caffeine-fueled wrestling match, we queued up one horror movie after another until the sun came up. Some of us did not go the distance but for me it was my first all-night movie marathon. I was limp and dizzy with exhaustion when my mother came to pick me up in the morning.

Come Monday morning back at school, we noticed that one of our friends was missing and we learned that afternoon that the poor kid hadn’t been able to sleep Sunday night. Much like one of the victims in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, he absolutely dreaded the prospect of going to sleep. We also learned that he had never seen a horror movie prior to the slumber party but didn’t want to get left out. Peer pressure is a powerful thing and I can only imagine what he state of awe our horror marathon must have induced in the poor kid. I’m no longer in contact with anyone that attended this function but for his sake, I will keep this poor soul’s identity a mystery. For my part, my interest in horror movies only deepened after this experience. I became very familiar with that long rack of horror at Video Review and quickly discovered movies like Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’, John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, or the strange Italian imports dubbed over in English that somehow made it to our town, horrific little gems like ‘Buried Alive’ otherwise known as ‘Buio Omega’ (1979), a movie which made my older brother dry heave when we sat down to watch it. Little did I know it at the time but I was slowly picking my way through an era that many fans now regard as the golden age of horror, specifically the 70s and early 80s. What year this era begins and what year it ends is a matter of opinion but suffice to say that anyone keen on understanding the unique allure of the horror genre could start with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) and work their way up to ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) and enjoy one of the best roller coaster rides cinema is able to offer. There are many things in my life that I would go back and do differently but saturating my brain with horror at a tender young age is not one of them.

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