I was a scared kid. When I was really little, my mom had to put a sticker over the face of every vaguely-leering character in every picture book that crossed my path. When I had to pee in the middle of the night, I would leap out of bed, run down the hall to the bathroom, quickly take care of business, then sprint back. (Depending on how dark the hallway, how creaky the floors, I sometimes still do this. I was not then, and am not now, completely certain of the threat. But it always kind of feels like there’s something out there.)
I was terrified by arrangements of inanimate objects, like the back of the house behind ours, the one with the two second-story windows that looked like huge, blank rectangular eyes and the ladder always resting on its side on the ground, leaning up against the side of the foundation, the rungs like bared teeth set in a steady grimace, staring at me as I creaked away on our swing-set.
Ghost stories told at Girl Scout camp and recess would chill my bones for days. I once sat alone in another room at a slumber party, reading but mostly just sitting there fiddling with my sleeping bag, while the other girls watched Mac & Me or Gremlins or some other movie that I’m now sure wasn’t actually all that scary but that I decided at the time would probably frighten me so much that social isolation and acute boredom seemed like better options. My resentment of spookiness was outweighed only by my love of candy, or else I might not have ever left the house on or around October 31st.
My boyfriend Joe, of course, knew nothing of this when we started going out. I’d gotten a little better by then—by high school, when we got together—to the point that I’d been able to watch The Blair Witch Project when it came out a few years before, and that I was scantly hesitant to go see The Ring in theaters with him on one of our first real dates. If we hadn’t been an official couple before then, we likely would have had to discuss it afterwards, as I’m not sure I could’ve made it through without some serious boy-arm grippage, and I’m not sure I could have seriously gripped any boy’s arm at that point in my life without that meaning he needed to immediately become my boyfriend.
We watched The Ring at least one or two more times with friends once it was on DVD, for some reason, but for a while that was the extent of our mutual scary-movie experience. I don’t remember ever having a specific conversation with him about my lifetime of extreme wimpiness, but it happened at some point and he took it in stride, even as he carried on with his own self-education in classic and modern horror films all through college and grad school. Together we strayed, instead, to the campier end of the spectrum, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Mayhem and Troll 2—but that lead, after a while, back to the real thing.
We were bizarrely snowed in in Atlanta one weekend early last year when he showed me Friday the 13th Part V, the one Jason movie that doesn’t actually feature Jason, but does feature a jerry-curled, crooning Miguel Nunez, some great robot dancing and some particularly gratuitous boobs. It was bad enough to make me curious about what it was such a ridiculous diversion from, and so—after a detour to the almost-even-worse Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan—eventually we looped back to the beginning. Part V doesn’t feature Jason, but did you know that the first one doesn’t, either? He’s in there, he’s an important character, but it’s his mom that’s the killer. I thought that the series having become an utter cultural cliché meant that I knew what it was about, but I was unprepared for this: She’s middle aged, wears a cable-knit sweater, has kept-up hair, and she’s utterly desperate and insane. One of the final scenes is a long, stumbling, heaving fight between her and the last girl standing at Camp Crystal Lake—a fight scene in a horror movie between two women, neither of whom is sporting a ripped, blood-soaked, nipple-baring shirt, neither of whom is wailing like a crippled infant while she waits to die. At that point, there’s no horror, there’s no spooks. It’s just two women, both a little crazed for various reasons, one trying to defend her life and one trying to avenge her son. It’s a real fight, a real struggle. I never knew.
The rest of the series is kind of downhill from there—the last installment we watched was Jason Goes to Hell, which brought the phrase “poop tongue” into my life, for which it will never be forgiven. After that, I was not particularly inclined to finish up with Jason X, so I can’t claim to have seen the whole canon—an accomplishment that seems so totally out of line with every hangup of my childhood that I feel like I absolutely have to achieve it at some point, but I still have some time, I guess. Plus, there’s been so much more to see: Last fall he showed me Halloween, and after we re-watched it on October 1st this year (we’ve exclusively watched scary movies all month), we continued the Early Works Of Wee Baby Jaime Lee Curtis Revue with The Fog, which was less good but still necessary somehow, like seeing Demons after Suspiria—something a little bit the same, but just disappointingly different enough to make a great thing really certain in its greatness.
The horror movies that are the most rewarding to watch are the ones I’ve heard about all my life, that I felt like I had some concept of before they even began—some mental amalgamation of scenes and characters and names that’d been repeated over and over again in the world and seen in snippets on TV so many times that it seemed fair to say I’d seen the movie just by experiencing its existence in the broader culture. But that’s never how it really works, of course. There’s a difference, I had to learn, between being passingly familiar with a scary idea—demons haunting children in their dreams, masked and remorseless killers, vengeful and silent ghosts—and seeing the idea unfold, watching the terror possess the people on screen who, even when they do the most ridiculous things that you know are the last things they should be doing, are still just as in control of their lives as you are, which is to say not very much at all, actually. Maybe the only difference for me is that I’ve been waiting for the terror to creep up on my all my life—waiting for the ladder-mouths to start howling, waiting for the withered hand to reach out for my ankle in the dark—but they so rarely ever see it coming.
Joe and I watched Silence of the Lambs the other night. I had never seen it. I had never thought about whether I would or would not see it—unlike The Exorcist, which I am still trying to work my way up towards after almost watching it last year and then chickening out at the last minute after seeing a still shot in the DVD insert booklet of girl walking backwards down some stairs on her hands and feet—but there I was, curled up in bed with him, gripping his arm. It was a different kind of scary, so different that I don’t even know if it really qualifies as a horror movie, but my gut was clenched the whole time and Joe kept swatting my hands away from my face: “Don’t cover your eyes! Don’t cover your eyes!” I made it through, but I made him walk the three feet to our tiny apartment’s bathroom with me, then stand outside the door and talk to me so I wasn’t alone while I peed, then watch a half hour of cute puppy videos on YouTube to push Buffalo Bill’s seamstress-dungeon out of my mind. Our minds. I know it spooks him, too, no matter how many times he’s seen it. It’s not like he’s impervious to the fear, even after all this time and all those movies. After we saw The Ring, we both went home to our parents’ houses and later he told me he was afraid to look in the mirror hanging in the dark hallway on the way to his bedroom. I felt less bad about grabbing his arm, then. I think he needed it as much as me.