by Michael Sterrett
People often ask me, “Why do you like horror films?” Actually, that’s a lie. People never ask me that. When I tell most people that I like horror films they usually say something like, “Oh they’re horrible. I prefer comedies. Have you seen Pineapple Express?” But let’s pretend for a moment that at some point a conversation of this nature has occurred.
Why I enjoy horror is a mystery, especially to me. It would be easy to misquote the late great H.P. Lovecraft and say that horror of the unknown is the oldest fear there is, and therefore abides with us the most. I could also appropriate some armchair Freud-isms and say that the only genuine emotion is anxiety, therefore the only thing we can truly experience. In this case horror films act as a kind of primal emotional pornography, allowing us to engage with base instincts within us, but with the physical and psychological detachment necessary to keep us from being seriously injured or mentally damaged. Much as you might enjoy the sight of a midget being sodomised by a gang of masked freaks
on the internet, you wouldn’t want to do it yourself.
What really got me into the horror genre was a little video shop at the top of my high street. It was called, somewhat ironically, ‘Video King’. Like most video shops in the late 1980s Video King’s stock in trade was low budget action movies, ‘blue’ films with titles like ‘Girls Gone Bad 3: Back In The Slammer,’ an unknown classic, and a range of video nasties alongside more mainstream horror offerings like the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ films.
My parents wouldn’t allow me to rent out any of the horror flicks but I would stand transfixed by the video sleeves; Freddy Krueger’s melted face, the suggestive Nazi imagery of ‘The Gestapo’s Last Orgy’ and Pinhead’s unforgettably nightmarish visage gracing the cover of ‘Hellraiser’.
My thirst for the macabre was further whetted when my next door neighbour told me my first ghost story, a pretty tame affair about a murdered wife returning to haunt her husband. To say it scared the bejaysus out of me is an understatement.
It was around this time that I was given a television for my birthday.
A natural inclination for insomnia meant I would spend most nights sat awake watching terrible late night programming. This was well before the days of twenty-four hour scrolling news channels and pay-per-view movies so I would often find myself watching a bizarre mixture of quiz shows and erotic European films. My adolescent mind was undeniably boggled by this mixture of mundane trivia and naked flesh, but it beat sleeping and sometimes I would stumble upon a horror film.
What these films were called or what they were even about has long since deserted me but tiny snapshots of what I watched remain; a huge screaming rat-like thing, a boy with skin grafted over his eyes stumbling around in Victorian clothing, a hooded spectre drifting silently through a church.
Like a smack addict taking their first bump, I was hooked. The terror was deliciously unpleasant and such a jolt of pure emotion was exactly what I needed.
I like to think that if I hadn’t been turned on to horror films I might have become a master criminal or some sort of sky diving daredevil, but to be honest the perverse and self abusive nature of my personality was perfectly suited to this most derided of genres.
It is hard to overestimate how difficult being a horror fan was when I was a kid. Films like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ were still banned by the British Board of Film Classification. To get your hands on these films you had to get one of your mates to steal a porn mag from your local newsagents and scan the classified section. Now and again there would be an ad saying something like,
“BANNED VIDEOS AVAILABLE ON VHS. SEND SELF ADDRESSED ENVELOPE ALONGSIDE £2.50 POSTAL ORDER TO PO BOX LS7 5LB FOR EXTENSIVE CATALOGUE”
So you would dutifully save your pocket money for the postal order and send it off with a self addressed envelope. Boy, it was worth it. An envelope containing a dozen or so crudely typed pages stapled together would arrive on your door mat a few days later bearing the names, quality and prices of the videos available. Just a glance was enough to enflame the senses;
BLOOD SUCKING FREAKS (excellent quality) : £3.50
SURF NAZIS MUST DIE (good) : £2.00
PORNO HOLOCAUST (rare/average quality/missing last fifteen minutes) : £2.50
THE BURNING (good quality/Spanish subtitles) : £4.00
How could I resist?
During those years I enjoyed so many classic horror films that a mere few hundred words could not do them justice. In a strange way it was all the more enjoyable due to the dubious legality of the whole operation.
In some cases I could understand why the powers that be did not want to unleash these sadistic and unpleasant images on the great unwashed, yet when it came to films like the highly over-rated ‘Evil Dead II’ I saw no reason why people could not be exposed to its cartoonish content. After all, so many cartoons that children of my generation grew up with were nightmarish, sexually charged and ten times more challenging than the average horror film.
The underlying tension of ‘Popeye’, for example, is that of our spinach chomping hero constantly having to prevent the brutish Bluto character from raping his girlfriend, Olive Oyl. Warner Brother’s ‘Pepe Le Pew’ continues the theme of rape. He is depicted as a freakish sex pest on a never ending quest to force himself upon a host of unwilling felines. Tom wants to kill and eat Jerry. Yogi Bear is a thief with an eating disorder. I find Mumra The Ever Livings’ transformation from aged crone to muscled man-beast in ’Thundercats’ more terrifying than the entire output of Wes Craven or George A Romero. Yet my innocent brain was flooded with these images and concepts, awaking in me what I now realise is a taste for the perverse subtext of human interaction and discourses.
In recent years there has been an outpouring of what has been dubbed ‘torture porn’. Films such as ‘Hostel’, ‘Saw’ and ‘Devil’s Rejects’ are undoubtedly unpleasant yet for me they miss what is the most truly horrifying concept available to writers and film makers.
Slavoj Zizek hit the nail on the head when he said that, “death is not the worst thing we can envisage, it is in fact the idea of immortality which is truly terrifying.” For me that is why chillers that deal with supernatural themes and the idea of existence after death, such as Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ and M. R. James’ ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You’, as well as more visceral fare like Lucio Fulci’s masterpiece ‘The Beyond’, resonate far longer in the subconscious than straight up splatter movies.
Another undeniably addictive characteristic of the horror genre is its conservatism. Aside from a few notable exceptions, the aforementioned work of Lucio Fulci for example, the plot of most horror films can be summed up in only a few short sentences. The majority of these films adheres to the strict linear narrative of a normal environment being disrupted by an outside influence such as; ghosts, zombies or hook-handed serial killers. This disruption is fought and finally defeated, allowing normalcy to return once more. A popular coda to this formula is the ‘but is this the end?’ question as the titles roll, such as is seen in the 1958 original version of ‘The Blob’, Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie’ and a million other titles. But even this plot device has become somewhat de rigeur for horror film hacks, meaning works that do not utilise this trick seem all the more interesting and haunting for it.
So the question remains, why do I watch this sick shit? At the end of the day I like a good chuckle as much as anyone else, just as I enjoy a good heart warming underdog story. It is also hard to beat a gritty action film with plenty of swearing and big guns laying waste to an assortment of faceless baddies. What the horror genre offers above all these things is an engagement with the infinite. Not everyone will get into hilarious japes, battle the odds to come out on top and get the girl, or even massacre a group of foreign insurrectionists. But we all have an appointment with the grim reaper, some sooner than others. What horror movies offer is a safe peek into the dark abyss of death, a crafty butcher’s hook at the how’s, where’s and why’s of kicking the bucket. And much like a kid who can’t wait to find out what presents they have got for their birthday, I am compelled to know.
This article originally appeared in Art Fist issue 5
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