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...

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