“My Sid Haig is bigger than yours,” the blowhard says. He howls with laughter, slams his fist against the bar, and looks over his shoulder at me. His bulldog face is ruddy. A ring of tribal thorns is tattooed around his eye socket.
They’d been comparing their tattoos. The blowhard’s tattoo is older, from Sid’s Spider Baby days, young and clean-shaven. Max’s Sid is fresh, still red about the line work, an ode to Rob Zombie’s Devil’s Rejects.
Max lets the sleeve of his black T-shirt drop. Timid by nature, Max keeps his mouth shut, crosses his arms over his chest, fingers clasped around his shoulders.
The blowhard is still eyeing me.
“What?” I say.
“What’s your favorite movie?”
This is typical of horror conventions. Oneupsmanship. Trivial knowledge dominance. Credibility. Whatever you want to call it. If you don’t know your shit than you’re just a poser. If you know too much than you’re a fanboy. The key is to straddle the line—to be knowledgeable of the obscure, yet mindful of the accessible. These are horror films, after all.
“Of all-time? Or horror?”
As soon as the words leave my mouth I realize that I’ve made a mistake. The blowhard’s mouth pops open, a little black hole. I know what he’s thinking. I can see it on his face. He thinks I’m a poser. I open my mouth to respond but he beats me to the punch.
“Shouldn’t your all-time favorite movie be a horror movie? There’s no point in watching normal, boring movies. Me,” he says, and thumps his chest with one of his stubby, sausage-link thumbs, “my favorite movie is Halloween. The original. The John Carpenter version.” He turns back to Max. “Fuck that Rob Zombie remake bullshit.” He turns back to me. “You know why it’s my favorite movie of all-time?”
My beer is getting warm in my hand. A sweat bead rolls over my knuckles. I’m frozen in place. My mind says, drink your beer, but my body stays rooted to the ground, stiff and straight-backed as a corpse.
“It’s my favorite because it’s the best movie ever,” the blowhard says. He turns back to the bar, gives it another slam, and howls. Stitched across the back of his leather vest is a cartoonish eagle, wings expanded outward, over its white-feathered head, its talons corkscrewed into violent tridents, ready for prey.
With his back turned, I take the opportunity to slip away from the bar. I like Halloween as much as the next guy, but not enough to fight with someone about it. I start shouldering and elbowing my way through the drunks. Max is following close behind.
“I hate people like that,” Max says, punctuating his sentence with a sip of his beer. “That fucking blowhard. It’s all a dick-measuring contest for guys like that.” He sweeps his arm out to his side. “This whole convention—just a big dick-measuring contest.”
I nod my head. Max has a point. There seems to be two kinds of people who regularly attend horror film conventions: the obsessed and the obsessive. The obsessed are those who attend out of love, who seek out like-minded people, collect signed, limited-edition foreign-language movie posters, wait in line four hours to shake Clive Barker’s hand. The obsessive are similar, in many ways, to the obsessed, nearly indistinguishable save one glaring difference: the obsessive want to tell you—want to convince you—how much more obsessed they are than you (or anyone else for that matter).
* * *
So what am I? One of the obsessed, or one of the obsessive?
Back when I was seven years old, at the grocery store, I’d slip around my mother’s side and make my way up to the wall of plastic-sleeved VHS tapes up front. As soon as the checkbook came out, I’d sidle away from the Gumby videos and take it in—the imagery that sent my heart racing, made my palms sweat.
The cover of Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child showed the gnarled, scorched flesh of Freddy, and a demonic baby carriage in the lower corner. I couldn’t stare at it for more than three seconds. I’d look away. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Jason’s hockey mask lying in a pool of blood, a knife through its eye socket. I’d look away. Piranha. A bikini-clad woman dangling a lanky limb over the open mouth of a gigantic, razor-toothed mutant fish. Jesus. I avoided the Child’s Play boxes as much as possible, knowing from experience that my nerves couldn’t handle Chucky’s shock of red hair—not even for a second. My heart was in my throat. I licked my lips. I couldn’t take much more. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. A bone-white face void of definition and humanity, eyes as black as the space beneath my bed (the space beneath my bed!) staring back at me, reminding me of all the evil out there in the world, of all the creeping thoughts that filled my head right before I fell asleep.
And that was it. That was all I could take. I’d stuff my hand in my mouth, as much as I could fit, and dart back to my mom in the checkout line, limbs rubbery, head spinning.
It wasn’t long before I’d seen all those movies, before I’d outgrown my nightmare phase, when that black space beneath my bed became nothing more than that—just a space—and not a portal into a dimension of endless terror. It wasn’t long before I outgrew the schlocky horror movies of my adolescence, discovered serious fare: the grainy brutality of Hooper’s Chainsaw Massacre. And from there I got even more far out: the psychedelic, jazz-infused rhythms of Dario Argento, Herschell Gordon Lewis.
And that excitement, that feeling of being seven years old, sneaking peeks at golden-era cover art, that feeling never diminished—if anything it increased over time. I discovered international films like Kwaidan, Onibaba, Eyes Without a Face. The silent classics: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Lesser-seen films like Deathdream, Carnival of Souls, Peeping Tom. It seems that I had found my life’s obsession, my true passion.
* * *
Max lightly elbows my arm. “Look,” he says, motioning toward to the stage at the front of the room with his pint glass, “Romero.”
A line of eight or nine people, cast members and crewman, ages ranging anywhere from fifty to seventy, shuffle across the stage and turn to face the crowd, chief among them the famous director, who stands a head taller than the others, hands crossed before his waist, wide shoulders hunched, face hidden behind his signature thick, black-frame glasses. His silver hair is pulled back in a ponytail.
There’s a standing ovation. Romero smiles, raises a hand in the air. The crowd settles back into their seats, their applause dying down, ceasing.
There’s a brief speech about horror being nothing without its fans, about going against the grain, working outside the system—stuff like that. But I’m having a hard time following it. My mind is cluttered. I keep formulating responses to the blowhard’s question, responses that would put him in his place. Well, actually, I feel that Casablanca, with its depictions of Nazi-era totalitarianism, succeeds both as a “horror” film, if that’s what you’d like to call it, as well as a more conventional studio picture. Therefore, my good sir, the importance you’ve placed on differentiating horror films from other, so-called “normal” films, is irrelevant—and, thusly, so are your opinions of Rob Zombie. My mind is churning. Why do I feel the need to justify my love for horror films? To correct some drunken blowhard’s perspective on my supposed poser-dom? Why do I even care? Did he even use the word poser? Was that just all in my head?
* * *
Back in the bar, things have cleared out. One out of every three or four stools is occupied. The booths are empty. The talking heads on the TVs can be heard clearly, droning on about wars in foreign lands, the declining economy—real life horrors that have no place amongst blood-soaked hockey masks or razor-tipped leather gloves.
I spot the blowhard’s eagle-adorned leather jacket and stomp over to him, giving him three hard jabs on the shoulder with my index finger. He turns in his seat, facing me with his tattooed eye socket.
“Casablanca had Nazis in it,” I say, slurring any consonants grouped too closely together. “How’s that for horror?” Wow, I’m really drunk, I think. Yet that still doesn’t stop me from continuing. “I left my mother at the checkout line. I loved the boxes.”
Jesus, who’s measuring their dick now?
A couple of yellow teeth show between the blowhard’s thin lips, then a few more, and then he’s in a full-out smile. “My friends,” he says. “Welcome back to the bar.” He clasps me on the shoulder, gives me two brisk shakes. Had he heard a word I’d just said? He turns to Max. “The little Sid.” He slams the bar, howls. “Saddle up. I’ll buy you guys some shots.”
It gets a little blurry from here on out. I know that I stumbled back to my hotel room that night feeling good about the blowhard (turns out his name was Steve), and that after a few drinks with him I learned about some new movies I hadn’t seen that sounded promising.
I think that all of this—this obsession with horror movies, their imagined worlds and conceived logic—stems from that space beneath my bed. It’s often said that the greatest fear of the collective human race is the fear of the unknown. For children—at least for me—that space beneath the bed, that blackness beneath comfort, was an ever-present reminder that as safe as I could ever feel, there was always something beneath, always something lurking. Every night, there was dread, a twinge of anxiety once the lights were off. I’d get a running start and leap into bed, making sure my feet never came close to that black space, that I was never within arm’s-length of whoever—or whatever—was down there. My mind would run wild with the images of the VHS tapes I’d absorbed at the grocery store: the pools of blood, the hockey masks, Freddy Krueger and his razor-tipped glove. My imagination would take over from there. I’d see my closet door slowly creaking open, a My Buddy Doll skittering across the floor, its red-and-white-striped shirt flashing in the dull glow of my night-light. I’d see a pack of adolescent vampires floating outside my 2nd-floor bedroom window, hear them scratching at the panes with their curled fingernails, beckoning me to join them. Or was that just the sound of a tree branch, scraping against the glass?
Part of growing older is losing touch with that sense of wonder, that unmerciful imagining. Life experience teaches us to rationalize our fears, to worry about the day-to-day, the ordinary. And that’s the true travesty—this death of curiosity, the unwillingness to let go of life’s absurd horrors, to trade them in for the all-too-real horrors: war, genocide, disease, life without healthcare.
Instead, I chose to trade that black space beneath my bed for the black space of a movie theater, that dull glow of the night-light for the brilliant prismatic sheen of a projector. I allowed the images on the screen to work their magic on me, to give me that permission to let my imagination do as it pleased. In a way, I found myself, surrounded by so many others, always searching for that twinge of anxiety, that familiar dread, knowing full-well in the back of my mind that it wasn’t real, and preferring that unreality to reality without thought, without hesitation, without fear.
Read more about David Peak here.
Read More about Gianelle Gelpi here.