Scream-ing into the Horror Genre: How I Became a Horror Movie Fan


October 21, 2015 — I liked monsters as a young child. Just did. And that fondness mostly incarnated itself in the toys I played with—Rubber Uglies, Krusher, Chewbacca. So this post should be the shortest backstory ever. Except that I had a strict Baptist upbringing where I was shielded from horror movies for all the “under my roof” years. I was allowed Godzilla and his ilk, classic black and whites here and there, and one strange Saturday morning Dr. Phibes Rises Again. But nothing too intense.

Heck, we didn’t even really celebrate Halloween for much of my childhood, but that’s a story I’ll tell you some other time.

Growing up I would catch snatches of Rated R horror movies here and there. Hotel room cable during vacations. At friends’ houses. Weekend afternoons when they were aired on TV eviscerated of all R material. I wasn’t really looking for horror movies, I don’t think, but this was the 1980s. Horror icons were cultural icons, and they were everywhere. But I was way behind. I remember watching a trailer for Friday the 13th, Part IV and being blown away that the monster had the same first name as me. Suddenly so many jokes from my peers made sense.

But movies in general weren’t really a priority for me at the time. So I caught the odd horror movie here and there, just like I caught the odd sports movie. Or the odd action movie. Or the odd airborne disease. But I did eventually become an obsessive movie fan. That's also another story. But it was in December of 1996 that something landmark happened to me. Actually, something landmark happened to all of horror film: Wes Craven’s Scream.


The movie was so big even non-horror fans were talking about it, which was probably how I heard about it in the first place. It had two separate runs in the theater within four months of its debut. But I didn’t catch it in theaters either time. Again, Baptist prohibitions. Theaters steal souls. It wouldn’t be until later that I learned that Wes Craven himself was also raised in a strict Baptist home and had barely watched any movies when he jumped into the industry.

I watched Scream for the first time on VOD.  I caught none of the allusions, got none of the jokes, understood none of the satire. I walked away with one thing and one thing only: Randy Meeks. Well, two things, but my devotion to Neve Campbell is irrelevant here. I’ve been in love with her since her Catwalk days.

Like, I didn't know that this was a reference to both Suspiria and Psycho.

But Randy Meeks astounded me. Here was a character who was an expert in a pop culture topic. And not only was he an expert, that expertise had, in the movie at least, a practical application. Today, that astonishment is, I don’t know, quaint. Every movie and show is full of characters who are pop culture experts. Heck, our society is full of them. We’re to the point where knowing pop culture is tantamount to knowing the alphabet. Geek doesn’t mean anything anymore, if it ever did.

But back in that slightly pre-Internet time, I wanted to be that guy. I know. In a movie with the likes of Skeet Ulrich, I wanted to be Jamie Kennedy. But I didn’t have much time to think about it, because I was soon off to college.

I even eventually worked at a video store myself.
I went to school in Florida, at a Christian college with the usual anti-movie rules. We weren’t even allowed TVs in our dorm rooms. That first summer after my freshman year, though, back in Maryland, I became a horror fan.

We were living in northeast Maryland at the time in a brand new neighborhood carved out of a cornfield. So two sides of our property ended in unending stalks. I had an attic room, and from the window on one side, it just looked like your average suburban neighborhood. From the other, I could, you know, do some serious wishing into that corn...unless it was out of season, then it was just wishing into acres of dirt. Looking back on it, it was magical. Especially since it was in that attic that I discovered Children of the Corn.

See, in those days before streaming movie services and torrents and bottomless movie catalogues at our fingertips, I found a way to binge-watch movies. Back then it was just called a movie marathon.

Not 500 feet from our driveway was the Delaware state line, and we’d do all our shopping in that state because it had no sales tax. In one of the shopping centers was a video chain called Movie King. Completely VHS, back in the days where you didn’t have to use the phrase, “completely VHS.” The video store even had a porn section on the other side of a set of saloon-style doors. It was that kind of place. But most important, it had a deal that changed me as much as Scream did: Five movies, five days, five dollars. I’m going to write that again, because if, like in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, I’m ever at the gates of heaven being asked for the meaning of life, I’m going to say: Five Movie, Five Days, Five Dollars.

Again, it’s almost quaint in this, the Amazon Prime era.

Now that deal didn’t include new releases, but everything in that store was a new release to me. And I went through the horror section like I was in Willy Wonka’s candy room, lurid VHS cover by lurid VHS cover. It never took me five days to get through the five movies. I became the Movie King.


Now, watching horror movies in this strange, gluttonous way meant two important things.

First, I didn’t just watch A Nightmare on Elm Street. I freebased the entire franchise. For most horror movie fans, they saw the franchise as it unrolled over the course of a decade. I caught all six movies within less than a week, one after the other. It was literal hours for me between Nightmare and New Nightmare. So my horror education was holistic.

Sometimes there were holes in my education, when my video store didn’t have one of the movies. I’d fill those in by scouring other video stores or waiting until years later. For instance, I watched the Evil Dead trilogy backwards. My chronology for The Howling franchise is all over the place. I still haven’t caught The Hills Have Eyes 2. Whether it was a bad movie or a good movie, it didn’t matter to me. I just couldn’t believe all those grisly stories existed.

Second, horror movies were a personal journey for me. I rarely had anybody in that attic with me. Just a bag of UTZ rippled BBQ and some gummy peach rings. Now, during the college season, down in Florida, I would find somewhat likeminded friends and watch marathons at their houses on the weekends or sneak to a theater far enough away that we wouldn’t get busted. But the real education was back in that cornfield. Horror movies gave me something no other genre of movie did: uncertainty. I liked not trusting the director to protect me from his own story. And much like fantasy and science fiction, I loved not knowing what the experience would be when the constraints of reality were loosened.

Meanwhile I was taking online courses at horror sites in a late 90s Internet world: Losman’s Lair of Horror. The Cabinet of Dr. Casey. Universal Studios even had a pretty cool site at the time, which I would access on a computer decked out in a horror movie “theme”. Sometimes it was Psycho, and my cursor was a knife and my background was the Bates house, and the sound effects were all quotes from the movie. Sometimes it was Scream, where the cursor, I think, was still a knife, but the loading icon was the Ghostface mask, and the wallpaper was an eviscerated Drew Barrymore.


In many ways this post feels like a confession. That I was anointed into horror fandom the wrong way. It’s strange for me to tell you that Scream opened up horror films for me. That because of Scream, I found Hammer Horror and Vincent Price, John Carpenter and Italian giallos, slashers and nature run amok flicks. But it did.

These days I still watch horror movies regularly. But not with the ardor or wonder of that younger self. Instead it’s more wistfulness. Every horror movie experience for the rest of my life, no matter how great the movie, no matter how great the company, no matter how many bags of UTZ rippled BBQ I consume, is going to pale against those turn of the millennium years in my attic, the moon shining on the stalks outside my window, and completely na├»ve in not realizing that Full Moon wasn’t a real horror studio. Just kidding. I love you, Leech Woman.

So that’s it in general and as far as I can remember. I’m leaving out a lot. How books and televisions shows fit into that evolution. How it intersected with my love of fantasy and science fiction. Joe Bob Briggs. How I rationalized my thirst for blood within my Christian aquarium. And goddamned Todd McFarlane action figures.

Heck, you might not be reading OTIS right now if not for those horror movies. I got into this having-a-website thing originally because an article I wrote about Pumpkinhead more than a decade after its debut got rejected by a horror site because they only wanted current movie reviews. So I made my own site with a friend. That was back in 2000 or 2001. A year or two later, we mothballed that site. But the joy of web writing stuck with me and eventually reincarnated itself as OTIS in 2007. I mean, my seventh article in was a trip to the Dawn of the Dead mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

POSTSCRIPT


I started writing this article late the night of August 30. About half an hour in, I needed to Google some specifics about the release of Scream in theaters. Instead, I found the announcement that Wes Craven had just passed at 76. Gutted me like a fish, and I pushed off finishing this article for another month or so.

RIP, Wes Craven. Least among your many accomplishments is that you helped create a monster. And he thanks you.



3 comments:

  1. "But the real education was back in that cornfield." I wonder how many have said that... ;)

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  2. Timely post for me. I am a Baptist, and a lover of horror movies. I guess the New England variety is much less strict. Anyway, some in my circle are anti Halloween and my wife and I were just commiserating over that fact as Halloween is a close second to Christmas at our house.

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  3. One of the saddest things to me is the demise of the video store. That used to be my weekend mantra: grab a horror movie, grab a pizza, go home and binge watch a franchise. The generation now will never know what they're missing.

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