Thursday, April 17, 2014

How and Why I Got Into Horror

     Readers may have noticed that during the rare blog posts where I don’t talk about food, I tend to discuss horror-related themes—horror books, and horror movies.  And although I do occasionally write fiction that’s not strictly horror, it usually has at least a horror-ish tinge to it.  This is no accident, as horror is my favorite genre.  Since I’m sometimes asked why this is, I thought today I’d try to answer it.
     When I was growing up, few folks would have pegged me as a future horror fanatic.  Even the most watered down, kid friendly horror offerings scared the crap out of me.  I guess I had an active imagination, as I can remember at least two occasions when I was about five or six years old when I hallucinated and saw supernatural creatures.  The first time I saw a mummy walking into our kitchen, and the second was a lizard man coming up the stairs.  (At least I assume they were hallucinations—if not they were either non-homicidal, or else they were fooled by my clever trick of hiding under my bedcovers.)  So until I was embarrassingly old (8? 9? Even later?), it was not uncommon for me to run downstairs in the middle of the night and have to sleep on the couch outside my parent’s room due to being scared.  (Because apparently ghosts and monsters could attack me when I was alone in my room, but not in a room adjacent to my parents.)
     Nearly everything scared me.  Any story with a remotely dark theme.  I even recall being frightened by an afterschool-type television movie which had a (pretty tame) ghost in it.  I’m actually kind of surprised that “Count Chocula” cereal didn’t give me nightmares.  When I was 8, I remember being pissed that my father didn’t take me to the theater to see “Alien.”  Later, when I saw it, I realized that man, did he make the right decision.  If I’d seen that movie at age 8 I probably wouldn’t ever have slept alone in my bedroom again. *
     But clearly, as I aged, I began to lose some of this extreme fear.  The movie “The Thing” (the John Carpenter remake) was an important benchmark in my entertainment life.  I watched it at a neighbor’s house, on what must have been a fairly early version of a VCR.  Since the movie came out in mid 1982, this must have been in late ’82 or early ’83, making me either 11 or 12.  I found “The Thing” terrifying (and still do—it really holds up), but, I didn’t have to sleep downstairs.  I’d finally gotten over the hump.  After that, I kept going.  Obviously I had some interest in horror, and I watched , and read, more and more of it.  Effective examples of each still scared me, of course, but in a more mature way (or should I say, a less immature way).
     It wasn’t long before it became my favorite entertainment genre.  I’d head to the horror section first when we went to the video store.  Also at the book store, where I quickly discovered Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.  And when I started to write, invariably it was horror, or at least horror-related.  Put it this way—characters in my stories typically don’t die of old age.  And essentially, this is the same situation I’m in today.  I read a lot more nonfiction these days, but even this tends to be about real, nasty, events or people.  Shipwrecks, cannibalism, serial killers—that type of thing.
     Going deeper, the “why” question persists.  No one in my immediate family was interested in horror.  Some extended family members and friends were, but usually not to the degree that I was/am.  But, my family wasn’t adamantly anti-horror either, so I don’t think it’s a forbidden-fruit-is-sweeter deal, or some sort of rebellion.  The obvious psychological interpretation is probably that I enjoy it largely because it’s a way to beat a childhood fear.  Watching a movie, reading a book, or writing a story is my subconscious way of overcoming something that caused me stress as a kid, and helping to erase the embarrassment that I was so scared.  Alternately, maybe it’s a lazier version of an adrenaline junkie.  I want a rush, but I don’t want to, say, jump out of a plane.  Escapism is yet another explanation—it might help me get through the day to indulge in something scary (yet often unrealistic) to avoid some real life stressful issues.  Maybe it’s a combination of some or all of these.  Or perhaps I’m just kind of morbid.
     Whatever it is, it’s a strong appreciation.  Because, let’s face it, being a horror fan is tough sometimes.  Respect wise, it’s considered by a large portion of society to be only above pornography as a type of art or entertainment.  To many, a horror fan is at best dumb and immature, and at worst a sicko.  Horror entertainment rarely wins the awards.  Its creators are often asked to defend their work, in a way that a creator who specializes in comedy or drama isn’t.  Stories and films that are obviously horror may be labeled as things like “psychological thrillers” to appear more respectable.  To be fair, much of this disdain is deserved.  I’m a huge fan, but even I have to admit that for every good horror movie there are probably at least 5, or 10, really terrible ones.  Every genre has its clichés, but horror can be the worst offender.  Also, sequels and remakes plague every movie category, but horror has some of the most egregious examples.  In some ways, this can be a plus, since when you find that rare great one in the sea of refuse, it makes it seem even more valuable.
     I like other genre offerings too—some sci-fi and fantasy, action/adventure, comedy, and even a few dramas.  Some of just about everything, with the possible exception of musicals.  But, horror will always be number one.  Scare me, disturb me, disgust me (or allow me the chance to do that to readers)—that’s my idea of a good time.
* Amusing story—growing up some friends of the family rather carelessly allowed their two young children to watch “Jaws.”  Like a lot of kids, this pair was then afraid that a shark would get them.  But they were so terrified that they avoided using the toilet, in case a 25 foot great white found a way to swim up those narrow pipes and attack them when they were just sitting there.  I shouldn’t laugh too much, since if I’d seen “Jaws” at a similar age I might also have been afraid to use the commode, or something even more ludicrous.

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