Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ESSAY: Terror for Tots: My Adolescent Fascination with Horror

Illustration by Jim Kay, from the novel A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Abstract: A personal reflection on the enchantment that horror movies held over one particular child's psyche during his developmental years. Why did he love monsters so? Was he a monster himself? (Well...) What did fictional monsters teach him about his own life? We reveal that his world felt a whole lot safer with fantastical cinematic monsters roaming around in it, as those creatures were easily vanquished when contrasted with the invulnerability possessed by the mundane horrors of growing up.

This essay features discussion of:
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir. Wes Craven
The Monster Squad (1987) dir. Fred Dekker
Little Monsters (1989) dir. Richard Greenberg
Gremlins (1984) dir. Joe Dante
Stephen King's IT (1990) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace

I can remember the exact moment when I stopped being afraid of monsters.

For most of my early childhood, my parents had been members of Moose International, which invariably meant that on Friday nights they would cart my two brothers and I over to Moose Lodge #644 on East Genesse St. for dinnertime and a couple of the surrounding hours. Typically, my younger brother and I would race through the bar area to the claw crane machine resting against the back wall near the bathrooms. We'd bust open a fresh roll of quarters and then try our skill (or was it blind luck?) at acquiring as many worthless stuffed animals as we could with the time and coins provided. We had a routine.

But one October, the week before Halloween, Moose Lodge #644 underwent a redecoration. When we arrived, we were ushered from the usual entrance to a new ramshackle facade leading directly into the dining area. We were told by those guarding the entrance that the dining area's stage and dance floor (which did indeed feature a disco ball suspended high above it) had been converted for the night into a haunted maze, populated by Moose Lodge members dressed in costumes and waiting patiently behind freestanding walls for the moment to jump out and scare us. The maze was providing tonight's only entrance into the Lodge. Naturally, I was terrified.

Even after being repeatedly reassured by my parents that those costumed creatures waiting for me in the dark were harmless diners and bar patrons whom I saw every week at the Lodge in their human forms, I refused to enter the maze. I'm not sure I knew what specific dreadful thing would happen to me if I did enter the maze, but I was certain I didn't ever want to find out.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Eventually, after much coaxing and probable bartering, a compromise was reached: my much braver older brother would traverse the maze first, soaking up all the scares and asking the costumed volunteers to refrain from jumping out at the next fearful travelers who passed them by. Those travelers were my father and I, with me in his arms, hugged tightly to his torso, head buried in his shoulder to escape the sight of whatever lingering horrors might remain in the maze. As we began our trek through, I was relieved to discover that my brother had done his job: none of the monsters were trying to scare us. After a few jolt-less twists and turns, I had enough confidence in my bear-hugged safety to open my eyes, if only for a brief moment, to examine my frightful surroundings. 

What I saw was Freddy Krueger hiding behind a wall that we'd already left in our wake. He was smiling and waving his clawed hand in a friendly, if somewhat mischievous, greeting. At me.

Deposited safely at the other side of the maze, I was stunned. I hadn't seen any of his movies yet, but, like every kid of the late '80s and early '90s, I knew Freddy Krueger. (Remember, this was the brief era when, even if I wasn't directly familiar with any of Freddy's screen adventures, something as innocuous as supermarket sticker vending machines would have had no trouble informing me.) Sure, I knew this Freddy was just some Lodge member in a cheap store-bought costume. But boy did it look convincing through half-shut eyes in the blood-red lighting dimly coloring the maze. If I wanted to, I could believe it really was Freddy Krueger, and that what he'd made at me was a gesture of civility, signalling peace between my world and the world of horrors he represented.

In a daze, I wandered over to my customary stool at the far end of the bar, near the unoccupied shuffleboard tables. Like he always did, Norm, the bartender, sauntered over and gave me a free Shirley Temple and a bag of Andy Capp's Hot Fries. "I just met Freddy Krueger," I told him. "He was a pretty nice guy."


I looked at monsters differently after that night. I'd always enjoyed horror movies, but like most children I harbored a vague fear of the monsters contained within them. Lying in bed at night, I was certain that the Blob was stuck to the ceiling above, waiting to drop down upon me and start slurping; most mornings, I knew for a fact that Jaws himself was swimming in the carpet under my bed, patiently awaiting the moment when I would foolishly stick my foot over the edge. These were far from crippling anxieties, but they were the sort of feelings that kept me at a slight distance from the genre, carefully (if subconsciously) metering out my exposure to these films so as to prevent any more nightmare creatures from entering the repertoire.

Detail of Monster in My Pocket - Monster Mountain packaging
But, soon after Freddy Krueger waved at me, my fascination grew. Horror-- in film, in print, as a feeling-- became my obsession. I'd spend what felt like hours browsing through the VHS box art in the supermarket video store's 'Horror' aisle, imagining what terrific treasures lay within those spools of magnetic tape. I would be glued to the television for most of the month of October, absorbing every Halloween-themed sitcom or commercial that aired. The only childhood birthday party I can remember being thrown in my honor was themed after Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series of horror folktales and urban legends. My favorite toys were the small, soft plastic figurines of the Monster in My Pocket toy line. What better evidence of my newfound fuzzy feelings towards monsters than the fact that I'd keep pint-sized replicas of them in my jean pockets at all times? Monsters didn't frighten me anymore; they'd become my figurative security blanket.


I suppose it's not surprising that my favorite childhood horror movies were those in which children befriended monsters. In Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad, a group of monster-loving adolescents become friends and allies of Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan) in a prophesied battle against all of the other classic movie monsters (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Gill-man). Little Monsters finds Fred Savage being pulled down into a netherworld of creatures both frightening and friendly by the monster under his bed (Howie Mandel). Gremlins features young Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) discovering that his adorable new pet monster has the unintentional ability to multiply and create a wicked horde of more diabolical devils. I think it's interesting that all of these films characterize monsters as beings that are simultaneously both good and evil, and capable of embracing either tendency at a moment's notice. Feed Gizmo after midnight and see if he's still a fuzzy sweetheart. Regardless, there's no denying that my childhood's monsters were demonstrative of a general weakening of the role of cinematic monsters in American culture. As I discovered, even Freddy Krueger was blurring the line between hero and villain in the later entries of his series, with his corny quips and cackling demeanor making him a rather perverse children's icon, worthy of being immortalized as squishy dolls and yo-yos.

What this child-proofing of the monster in late '80s and early '90s American horror cinema says about our culture at the time is probably worthy of another essay, but my affection for this new breed of monster is easily explained: I liked these gentler monsters best, in spite of the latent threat that remained within them, because they were a testament to the idea that the truly horrific could be revised into something more benign. I was never especially terrified while watching the movies containing these monsters; instead, I was comforted. In one sense, these horrific monsters had been tamed, and I knew implicitly that if any of their inherent monstrousness were to be unleashed, it would be adequately dealt with by the adolescent protagonists sometime in the third act, restoring the balance. I understood that these monsters were products of essentially happy narratives, and that any horror they wrought would be converted for me into entertainment or catharsis.

The Monster Squad (1987)
The only problem for me was that this sort of controllable monster was restricted to the VHS tapes that they came to me on. I can still remember the things that actually frightened me as a child. I remember when, in my adolescent desire to become more worldly, I dedicated myself to watching national news programs every night. What I saw was Waco, the Rwandan Genocide, the Unabomber, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the Oklahoma City Bombing. I recall watching true crime television programs like Unsolved Mysteries and being flabbergasted by the depths of human depravity they would detail. The real horrors of my childhood weren't contained in the monster movies I was spending all my time with, but were out in the world that awaited me as I grew up, like monsters lurking around a corner in a poorly lit maze, anticipating the fresh meat.

Perhaps my fascination with horror as a child was a naive form of psychic shielding through fantasy. Maybe I was maintaining a belief for myself that the horror in the real world could be controlled like it was in my movies, that it could be altered to a more pleasant outcome. Trapped in these films, I wouldn't ever have to face those everyday horrors of adult life, both the grave and mundane. I could tune out the news, and pop in my tapes. I could wish all the horror away. At the very least, I could wish it into a more cuddly form.


The desire to rid myself of the horrors of reality explains my reaction to the only film that ever really traumatized me as a child: Tommy Lee Wallace's made-for-TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's IT. The film scarred countless children of my generation, and it's not difficult to see why: its villain, Pennywise the killer clown (Tim Curry), is another, albeit more sinister, variation on the alternately comforting and horrifying monster. On the one hand, he's a dancing clown who blows balloons and cracks jokes; on the other hand, he eats children. But his confrontations with a Monster Squad-esque group of kids in a small Maine town play out far differently than the Squad's encounters with Frankenstein and the bunch: Pennywise becomes for the child protagonists a symbol of the horrors of growing up, deceptively personified as that most comical figure of adolescent innocence. As in life, the dancing clown of childhood leads you blindly into the gaping maw of adulthood.

Stephen King's IT (1990)
When I braced myself to watch the entirety of IT, I was thrilled by the climax of the first part, in which the children literally wish the monster away by refusing to believe in him. In that moment, they had the power my subconscious so desperately wanted and that I derived vicariously from all the monster movies I consumed. But then came my viewing of the second part of IT, and I was crushed (for far deeper reasons than the reveal of Pennywise as a giant alien turtle). The children's wishing away of the horror of reality had failed. The monster still lurked out there in the maze of life (or, concretely, in the labyrinthine sewer system of Derry, Maine). Worse yet, I was forced to reckon with the fact that these once so imaginatively powerful children had grown into aimless and depressed adults, living out horrible lives filled with humdrum horrors. One of them even kills himself to avoid facing the reality of his life and his failures. Was this what I had to look forward to as I grew up into the world? When added to all of the very real tragedies and atrocities littering the planet, it didn't seem like I had much to look forward to. It's no wonder I'd want to comfort myself through horror films, to reassure myself that the monsters could be controlled or wished away. Like Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizl), I wanted to feed battery acid to the slime of existence, and I wanted it to do permanent damage.

But it's not possible to wish monsters away. I think deep down I knew that, too. Wishing them away is also what Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) tries on Freddy in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and her success doesn't last long either. Freddy would return time and time again in numerous sequels to haunt the dreams of her and others, and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it as long as the films kept making New Line Cinema money (another reality of the adult world). Even horror movies with ostensibly upbeat endings had taught me while I was young that there's a certain fragility to the tranquility and happiness achieved in one's life at any age, as if those states have a built-in expiration date. Gizmo can't stay dry forever, the portal that sucked up Dracula will spit him out again in some distant century, and children from Derry, Maine will continue to go missing, even if all the clowns leave town. Given enough time, the monsters always emerge again from the dark of the maze to pounce upon the next weary traveler. And there are always more monsters deeper in the maze, biding their time, waiting to swallow you whole. The trick is in convincing them to smile and wave instead.

A friend.

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