Horror Films of My Childhood: Who Needs Sleep?


Remember those days of huddling under the blankets in the middle of the night? Sure you do. During childhood nothing seems safer than your own bed. I can recall night after night of pausing at the door to my bedroom, screwing up my courage, hitting the switch and running to dive into bed before the monsters got me. Fine, I still do that. I am a firm believer in the closet monster and the creature under the bed. I wasn't one of those kids who had bad dreams after horror movies. It's hard to dream if you don't sleep at all. There was this chair in my room that looked exactly like the shadow of Frankenstein's Monster when the light was right. I would stare at it for hours on end it seemed, waiting for it to move. I went through a long period of time when I could not sleep in the dark. I would hear my heart pounding in my ears while I tried desperately to listen to every sound. That is when I began to hate that old “house settling” excuse. How is that supposed to make a kid feel better? Now the house has to settle? Great. I can take my pick. The monster can get me or the house can fall down around me. I'm resting gooood tonight.

At this point it may seem cruel and unusual that my parents allowed me to watch horror films. Honestly they had no idea how scared I was. I never told them. I knew if I did they might make me stop and I was already in love. I had not the words to explain it if you asked me but I knew there was something special about these films: the lighting, the music, the gore. They were more powerful than any other genre. They found a way to squeeze emotion out of me like no other kind of movie had before or since if we are keeping track. My mom was a huge horror fan too so I was able to get my fill. The only thing she ever shielded me from was the nudity, go figure.

One of the first experiences I ever had with true terror was watching Salem's Lot when it aired as a mini-series in 1979. It wasn't my first horror film but it was the first one to really go for my jugular (hey I didn't even see that pun coming. I swear). I was only five and I hadn't been that old for long. I sat transfixed, crouched in the corner of our brown velvet love seat until it was over. That evening I carefully climbed the stairs to go to bed. I can still recall running past open doors so the “red-eyed man” wouldn't get me. Little did I know that I would sleep with my neck covered until I was about twelve. It did not matter what time of year it was or whether I was hot or cold. My neck had to be covered as I lay in bed staring at the window in case the Glick Boys would come a'scratchin.' In later years, the neck part morphed into a ritual more than a necessity and about seven years later I let it go altogether. But to this day I will get freaked out if I hear something at my window late at night. Just a few months ago I turned out the light after reading some Matheson and was startled out of a dead sleep by a knocking outside my window at three in the morning. I rolled off the bed and army crawled (I am so not kidding) to the window. My cats were running around confused. I was terrified. I crept slowly to the curtain and pulled it aside to reveal...my upstairs neighbor's air conditioner was dripping onto mine. Laugh if you want. I do. But that is why I love Salem's Lot so much.

Things went well for the next couple of years until Poltergeist was released in 1982. I spent my early years in the suburbs. My neighborhood was very similar to the one the Freelings occupied. I was so excited watching this movie in the theater. Robbie was a lot like my stepbrother. It all seemed so familiar until everything went to Hell. Suddenly that was nothing like where I lived. My toys never tried to kill me. But they may as well have for all the good that clown doll did me. Thus began my lifelong habit of diving into bed as mentioned above. I did learn a good trick from that film though. Thanks to Poltergeist I still count between lightening and thunder.

Fast forward a few years to 1985. If you have read my article on Day of the Dead and the Cold War then you know what's coming here. This movie messed me up, but good. I would be in bed at night, the house all quiet (the settling notwithstanding but I was used to that by now) and I would strain to hear the noises from outside. My mind would hear the moans and the shuffling of the zombies on the prowl. I would try to be calm but my quickening pulse betrayed me. I pumped so much adrenaline in those days that I could have easily solved the energy crisis. I would turn on the radio in case a bulletin came through in the night. I had seen Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead already but Day is what began my love of the zombie movie. It was dark and hopeless. The worst part was over and we did not win. As I grew older Dawn became my favorite but Day will always be the first one to keep me up at night.

As if that wasn't enough my mom took me to the drive-in to see Return of the Living Dead that same year. Yikes. It's not scary at all now. I think it's great but it doesn't scare me. But back then was a whole different tale. Did I mention said Drive-in was conveniently adjacent to a graveyard? Yeah. I spent the whole movie looking around the car so no zombies could sneak up on me. Awesome.

Then came Pet Sematary in 1989. I have one word. Zelda. That chick is scary. They were so wrong for that. Even now, when the night is just right, I can picture her running at me all stooped over screaming “never get out of bed agaaain! Never get out of bed agaain!”

My zombie trials were not over though. Soon I would be watching the 1990 remake of Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead directed by Tom Savini. Say what you will about this film but one thing is certain. Savini took great care with his zombies. He did his research and those corpses came to brilliant life or unlife or whatever. I am not completely sure what it was that struck me so hard. I don't know if it was the yellowy ghouls or the updated feel or even the fact that I watched it in an isolated theater with only a few in the audience. But when I got home I was once again feeling the effects of too much imagination and not enough sleep. I kept picturing them coming in the windows. I relived every frame a thousand times before dawn.

That's enough for now. Any later examples and it just gets embarrassing. If you aren't lucky enough to experience this kind of fear from a movie this may all seem silly to you. You may even be wondering how I could possibly love and devote so much of my life to a genre that affected me so much. But I see it as a good thing. Even now I go to the cinema in constant search of the fright flick that will keep me up at night once again. It fueled my imagination then and it continues to do so now. A good scare is how I know I'm alive. Nothing in the world beats that rush of adrenaline or pounding heartbeat.

Some people malign parents for allowing their children to be exposed to experiences such as these. I thank mine. Every masked killer, every werewolf, every ghost and yes even every zombie helped to mold my mind as it is today. My imagination was always there, it's obvious. I may even still have become a writer if I hadn't enjoyed such an upbringing. But instead of horror, I could be writing romance. Now that's scary.

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