Monday, August 30, 2010

How I Got Into Horror/Spooky Stuff

Let's get one thing straight: I owe my interest in horror and the macabre to my Irish grandmother, an untimely death, and Rod Serling. Despite the fact that my last name isn't actually spelled "Terror", the world of the macabre, of horror, of terror, has always been a mere hop, skip and jump away from the neighborhood of normalcy that I dwelt in most of my life. No matter how mundane life was, no matter how Fundy Christian I was, no matter how much of a gaming geek I was, there was always that little something extra, that dark yet somehow benign shadow of the world of horror, always creeping along beside me, keeping pace. I could see it out of the corner of my eye sometimes, but rather than vanish when I turned to face it, it beckoned me with a skeletal hand, encouraging me to join it.

But the whole mess started when I was four years old. When I was at that tender, impressionable age, my mom died of breast cancer at the age of 28. The last (and come to think of it, maybe my only) real image of my mom was when she was carried out of the house on a wooden folding chair by two dark blue uniformed ambulance attendants. I don't know why they didn't have a stretcher or a gurney, but that's not important right now.

What is important is that my Irish grandmother, on my mom's side, my "Nana", if you will, always filled my head about what a saint my mother was, and often took me to visit her grave. Now, when I say that she was my Irish grandmother, it has to be said for the record that she wasn't born in Ireland. No, she was born and raised here in the good ol' U.S. of A. in 1909. I believe it was her mother, my great-grandmother, who emigrated from County Cork, Ireland, to Massachusetts.

And funny thing was, although she was American through and through, she had some Irish mannerisms, including word pronunciation and such. And, true to stereotype, she instilled in me a love and devotion to my sainted mother, who was unfortunately under the disadvantageous condition of being deceased.

Still, in kindergarten, while other kids drew duckies and horsies, during art time, I was drawing my mom's tombstone. I can only guess that this made my stuff stand out a little to my teachers.

And since I visited the grave a lot, I got a good gander at the rest of the cemetery, and my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Cambridge Cemetery is HUGE. I would look around, wide-eyed, at the vast necropolis, and say "This place is filled with dead people!?!?! Wowwww!" This, from an early age, there was a fascination with death and cemeteries.

As if this isn't enough, with my mom gone, my dad would use the television a lot to help keep me entertained. What did I end up watching? Twilight Zone. Outer Limits. One Step Beyond. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. These shows would scare the Hell out of me, I switched channels (in those days, you had to get up and manually turn the channel dial...those were dark, savage times indeed), and yet I'd find myself going right back to them the following night. I couldn't stay away.

Cut to 1969. I'm watching tv with my family. This movie came on that was hosted by that Twilight Zone guy, but now he's doing something that involves portraits of some sort. So, this one vignette, in fact the final one of the movie, involves a guy who ends up crucified on a painting.

Although I try to keep my language genteel in this blog, there's no other way to say it...that ending fucked me up good. I mean, I couldn't LOOK at a crucifix for decades, and I'm not kidding here, without fearing that the little Jesus carving would turn, look at me, and open its mouth in a silent scream, like the ending of that Night Gallery pilot film. Yes. Decades. As in, I finally started getting over it around the age of 30.

So, since this pilot movie traumatized me so much (interestingly, the weakest of the three vignettes was directed by some young was Spielberg or something like that), naturally I didn't watch Night Gallery, right?

HA! What do you think? I watched Night Gallery faithfully, and yes, again, would turn the tv off or change the channel when it got particularly bad. But that didn't stop me from tuning in the following week!

Now, to all of this, add movies like the Creature Feature and Creature Double Feature, usually seen on our local UHF stations. I watched these movies religiously during my high school years, with my favorite program being the movies hosted by a horror host out of Ohio, the Ghoul.

And of course, there was reading...and I'm a voracious reader. Edgar Allan Poe was my favorite author when I was in high school. I also picked up a lot of horror anthologies. Then there were the DC Comics I read, and back then I was a total DC fanboy, and read every title they put out (except for the teen romance titles...they were for sissies). These titles included their extensive line of horror, such as House of Mysteries, House of Secrets, Secrets of Sinister House, The Witching Hour, Tales of the Unexpected, Weird Western, Weird War, etc.

Okay, so what we have so far is a teenager who has a little morbid streak due to past circumstances, and tripping over a lot of horror in book and tv form. OK, so...what do we need to introduce to make this poor boy go completely over the edge?

How about a Conservative Christian Church?

Historic Park Street Church in downtown Boston, overlooking the Boston Common, was my church for almost 20 years. Park Street Church is defined as Congregationalist, Evangelical, Trinitarian. It's also conservative as all get out. A great church, don't get me wrong, but at the time, quite a bit reactionary and very very conservative. I don't know if "Fundy" could be used as a good term to describe it, but in many ways it does fit.

Would it surprise anyone to know that it was directly as a result of Park Street Church that I cultivated my interest in a) historical simulation wargames, b) Dungeons and Dragons (!!!), c) and horror movies?

There was this guy in Seekers (Park Street's college age fellowship) named Steve who was a very very devout old-time Christian. But he also had a weird side (yay!). One night, he and some other members of the group invited me to go out with them to the movies in Harvard Square. See, in the 70's, the Harvard Square Theater (one of those crumbling old-time movie houses with faded opulent decor) would have double features for low, low prices. Usually the double features had a theme ("Help" and "Yellow Submarine", for instance).

On this fateful night, the theme was horror. Steve said "You gotta see this movie, JT! It's whacked!" It was a double feature, but he was referring to the second movie. Both movies were by some guy with the last name "Romero". The first one was this black and white one and had zombie, but the second one..the second one also had zombies but was in color, and...well...let's just say when I saw this zombie guy taking out a chunk of meat out of this woman's shoulder, I practically threw up.

So yes, over post-movie ice cream, Steve said "If you thought Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead was messed up, wait till you see some of the movies made by this guy David Cronenberg."

As for my love of HP Lovecraft, blame Dungeons and Dragons for that one. They came out with this sourcebook that had the role-playing stats for many Lovecraftian entities. As I thumbed through it going "What's a Cthulhu?", I was grateful for listings of reference material, which made me start reading HP's stuff, adding to my deranged condition.

And that, gentle reader, is how I got involved in the world of spooky things. My fascination with cemeteries never went away. I still get frightened/freaked out when I watch a movie or tv show and see portraits, pictures, and statues move or change somehow.

The most fitting way to end this is to mention that Carol, for all the time she knew me and thought that I was the coolest thing to come along since sliced bread, was never aware of my fascination with horror. But during a day trip to Salem, as we walked through the pedestrian mall area, I happened to mention it to her in response to her own opinions on the subject, and the look on her face was unforgettable. It was the look that made you think she had just won Powerball.

And the rest, as they say, is hysteria...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How Carol And I Got Together

A lot of this is actually culled from a very similar blog entry I put together a few years back when I was on Myspace. Read and enjoy!

The date was 1992, and those were heady days indeed. Nirvana released Nevermind, Wayne's World urged us to "party on", Ren and Stimpy were in their glory, war erupted in Bosnia, and Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco. The saga of Carol and John began at GenCon 25, in beautiful downtown Milwaukee.

For the uninitiated, Gen Con is THE premier role-playing game convention in the country, possibly the world. I had been attending GenCon since the late 80's, and participated heavily in the Role-Playing Gamers Association (RPGA). This was a national group of role-playing gamers that ran games at many gaming conventions around the world. They had a system of ranking players and judges, and held contests, competitions, and tournaments.

I had written a Call of Cthulhu scenario entitled "Wild Weekend at Turner Junction" for the RPGA, and ran it at Gen Con 25. Again, for the uninitiated, it needs to be pointed out that in this case, Call of Cthulhu was/is a paper-and-dice roleplaying game played in the same vein as Dungeons and Dragons, but instead set in the 1920's of HP Lovecraft. The player characters uncover the eldritch horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, and attempt to stop the Elder gods from destroying the world. Many player characters end up insane, dead, or go insane then die.

Anyways, the scenario I wrote went over rather well, if I do say so myself. Two people were particularly impressed by it: Carol, and her then-boyfriend, who I shall refer to by the very mature nom de guerre of Mister Grumpypants. Carol and Grumpypants loved the tournament and wanted to meet the deranged brain behind it. An RPGA staff member arranged the meeting, and before I knew it, I was on the steps of MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center Auditorium), talking with this affable guy and his very bright, knockout girlfriend. Now, of course, I was married at the time, but holy crap. Never had I met someone like this! The gaming hobby in those days had far less female players than now, and very few of them were what I'd consider attractive women. I mean, I could count on one hand the number of women there who could truly turn heads, and I'd have fingers left over. Now suddenly, standing here before me was this bright, hardcore gamer chick, a species that I thought was as fictitious as dragons, centaurs, and rational conservative talkshow hosts.

When I found out that this charming couple (who seemed quite knowledgeable about gaming and about Cthulhu in particular) were also from Massachusetts (as was I at the time), I was quite surprised and pleased. I invited them to join in on some of our games, if they had the time and inclination.

We said our good-byes and promised to touch base when we all got back to Massachusetts. I walked away basically muttering "HOLY CRAP!" to myself. Here was a woman who was a) intelligent b) socially adept c) a role-playing gamer d) a Cthulhu fan and e) pretty freaking hot. Again, the "married" light went on in my head, and I decided that, hey, I can at least be friends with her and of course her boyfriend as well!

Well, as it turned out, Mister Grumpypants came to the games way more often than she did, though she did put in appearances at some of our social events. Grumpypants actually became a regular in our group, and he was a very very very welcome addition; nice guy, helluva role-player, and just an all-around swell guy.

Time marched on, and Carol broke up with Grumpypants. Hey, these things happen. Since Carol's attendance had really dropped off, there was no awkwardness. Carol and I still kept in touch, via letters, or chatting on the phone, discussing stuff like religion and gaming.

More time goes by, and my first wife and I eventually hit the outs (long story short: don't marry too young, and by all means know yourself well enough to know what you want in a spouse). Right around the same time, I get involved in quite possibly the worst relationship I ever had, and to be frank, the timing of it was a bit dicey, in relation to my failing marriage. This thing had "Bad Decision" written all over it. For the sake of this narrative, let's call the young lady Lady Caca. Caca and I end up not lasting even a year. But we did part amicably, and darned if Mister Grumpypants didn't end up asking her out within about a week of the breakup. Hey, I was cool with it, go with my blessing, my children. Better you than me, I say! But we remained friends, so it wasn't such a bad thing. Lady Caca and Grumpypants even remained part of my gaming group.

As for me, I underwent a series of casual dates, not-so-serious relationships, etc., most of them set during the infancy of Internet dating. All I can say to sum them up is, "The horror..." Good Lord, the number of bad decisions I made was staggering. Even today, I refer to that several year period as My Stupid Time. Meanwhile, Carol was dating as well, but we never seemed to end up free at the same time. Whenever I was free, Carol was seeing someone. Whenever Carol was free, I was seeing someone. In technical terms, our timing blew goats.

More time passed. Carol got a new boyfriend, some lawyer guy who turned out to be a major Richard Head. For the sake of this narrative, let's call him Bozo the Patent Attorney. Still, she seemed happy. Far be it for me to butt in, right? But the key word in this case was seemed.

But as time went by, we would talk, and it became clear that this guy was a bigger jerk than I ever imagined. But she was hanging in there. I got annoyed and shut down contact with her. Part of this was motivated by my frustration over what I saw as her docile acceptance of a bad relationship. Part of it stemmed from a "I don't want to see what's going to happen!" mindset. And yes, part of it was "I want to be the one dating you, dammit!" Yeah, kinda childish in retrospect, I know.... You'll find no claims to perfection here.

More time passed, and I kept up a wall between Carol and me. But then in the summer of 2000, family members on my dad's side began falling sick and/or dying. It was eerie. It was like this large handful of relatives on my dad's side and of his generation suddenly decided to all get sick and die within a few months of each other. All of this sickness and death made me realize that life's too short to hold grudges over silly things. So, I decided to mend fences with the three people in my life whom I was at odds with. Carol was one of them, and I thought "Hey, she's probably engaged to the guy by now, so I can at least wish them well and such." I had hoped we could at least be friendly acquaintances, if she'd be willing to forgive my ill-conceived harshness.

As it happened, I still had Carol's AOL IM name. So I IM'ed her out of the blue. I was scared that she was going to say "Piss off", and she'd have been well within her rights to do so. But no, she was happy and delighted to hear from me. I too was happy, not to mention relieved. I became even happier when I found out that she had had enough and dumped Bozo. She was free!! And as it happened, so was I!! Hey, guess what happened next? We decided to make a lunch date, meeting outside the Target at Peasant Lane Mall (yeah I know it's Pheasant...I like my name better).

We went to lunch, caught up, had a great time, and, as the day went on, we both realized that all of those romantic feelings we had pushed away could now be fully expressed and acted upon. We decided to start dating and see what would happen. It was quite a heady, liberating feeling. It was as if all that crap I had gone through was getting me ready for this relationship.

So yes, needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), that particular instance of fence-mending went rather well. For the record, my other attempts at reconciliation were successful too, but with scarcely as spectacular results.

Unfortunately, this is where "JT's Law of Conservation of Mass, Energy, and Being At Odds With People" kicked in. See, I may have mended fences with Carol and was now dating her, but her ex-boyfriend, Mister Grumpypants, was having none of this. Oh no, he wasn't jealous...after all, he had been dating my ex girlfriend, Lady Caca, for quite some time by this point. I think they were already engaged by this point. No, he cited a huge argument that he and Carol had one night when they were still together, and how she basically traumatized him (though that didn't stop them from remaining together for another year, and then she ended things!). Grumpypants couldn't (well, wouldn't) forgive Carol, despite her attempts at mending fences. He wanted nothing to do with her, which was going to get awkward, considering that I had invited Carol to join our gaming group, and she had accepted.

As a result, Grumpypants and Lady Caca stopped coming to the games. They were willing to hang out with me and such, but if Carol was around, then they wouldn't be. That's when I decided that if Grumpypants wasn't going to even acknowledge Carol's existence, then I really didn't want to hang out with him. And despite the mature, reasonable, compelling arguments put forth ("This is doesn't concern you!" "Why must you always make these things about you!?!?" "You're thinking with your dick!"), I stuck to my guns.

...and Carol stuck with me. And so, after enduring all those years of bad relationships, arguments, misunderstandings, loneliness, alienation, heartbreak, bad decisions, and friends turning into jerks, I know that I finally made the right choice. It's been a long, strange trip. Fortunately, the destination is well worth it.

(Cue Dragnet epilogue music)

MUSIC: Dun-Da-Dun-Dun! Dun-Da-Dun-Dun-DUNNN!

OMNISCIENT NARRATOR WITH IMPRESSIVE AUTHORITARIAN VOICE: Carol and John married in September 2002, in a small surprise wedding ceremony. They are living happily ever after. Rumor has it that they may end up throwing some kick-ass party to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary in 2012, unless the Mayans have other plans.

MUSIC: Dun-Da-Dun-Dun! Dun-Da-Dun-Dun-DUNNN!

OMNISCIENT NARRATOR WITH IMPRESSIVE AUTHORITARIAN VOICE: Mister Grumpypants and Lady Caca are happily married. Despite the fact that the Terras and the Grumpypants are all on Facebook, and even sometimes respond to the same posts made by mutual friends, there is still no contact, though it's a foregone conclusion that all parties are aware of each others' presence on Facebook. Sad but true.

MUSIC: Dun-Da-Dun-Dun! Dun-Da-Dun-Dun-DUNNN!

OMNISCIENT NARRATOR WITH IMPRESSIVE AUTHORITARIAN VOICE: Bozo the Patent Attorney eventually found someone to marry him. No speculation has been made in terms of the bride's state of mental health. There's been no further contact with him, which suits us just fine.