Thursday, September 27, 2007

Confessions of a Freaked-Out Young Shining Viewer

One of the things that makes doing this list interesting for me is that I wasn’t a ‘scary movie’ fan growing up. I was the one fanboy supergeek who had no interest in horror cinema. You know those people who, when you ask them what kind of music they’re into, say “I listen to everything. Except classical and country.” That was me. I loved all types of movies—except scary ones. Looking back now, I realize it’s because I was a wimp.

I’d intellectualize the hell out of it. “Horror movies are generally quite dumb,” the teenage me would say, “I only enjoy the ones that in some way discuss themselves AS horror films, like The Shining or In the Mouth of Madness.” I also liked some of the funny ones for the same reason: The Burbs, From Dusk Til Dawn. Then, when I was 15, Scream came out, and I thought it was the best thing ever. It seemed to prove my point, that self-referentiality was the only thing that could make horror truly interesting.

But, since I wasn’t really a ‘scary movie’ fan I was ill equipped for Scream. My sister was in high school in the late ‘80’s, so she was the prime audience for the video nasties era. I can remember sleepover parties where her friends would bring over I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left. I was ten, or younger, and would flee from the room almost immediately. The only one of their favorites that I would stick around for was The Serpent & the Rainbow. As a film geek (at 15 I had already written 4 or 5 screenplays), I got the jokes in Scream even if I had never actually SEEN the movies they were talking about.

It wasn’t until relatively recently that I began to seek out all of these movies and watch them, and in doing so, examine my relationship with horror cinema. Why had I avoided it while embracing just about every other genre in the book? Just last week I caught myself claiming in a post that I didn’t understand people who say they get freaked out by movies… and then I started compiling a list called 31 Flicks That Give You the Willies. So what’s going on here?

I started reaching back in my memory to that time before I had cemented the idea in my head that I didn’t like scary movies. For eternity I had been claiming that The Shining was the only horror movie I thought was actually worthy of being called a GREAT FILM. I tried to remember the first time I saw it, thinking that maybe recalling the experience would unlock some sort of secret code in my personality. Weirdly, it worked. I remembered with perfect clarity the first time I saw The Shining: I was scared shitless. I was at the girl next door’s house—Nikki Alves—with all of my friends. Somebody put on The Shining. I was maybe 11 or 12. We’d watched The Faces of Death series just recently and it did nothing but provoke me to point out all the times when it was obviously fake, so I obviously wasn’t just squeamish. But as soon as that tracking shot started in, right at the beginning of The Shining, the way the camera seemed to be looming over the world started creeping me out. And then it finds the car, and latches onto the family inside, and it’s like a presence from out in that wilderness has found them by accident and is now stalking them.

I was freaking out right from the start, before there was anything even scary on the screen. But I was trying to play it cool, I didn’t want everyone to know that I was afraid of a MOVIE. But then the scene when Jack goes into the room and finds the woman in the bathtub came on. She’s naked. Again, I’m 11, so I’m pretty excited by the sight of a naked woman, and then she turns… hideous. And the camera is still… LOOMING. All of those emotions pushed together into one moment was much too much for me. I jumped up, made some excuses and ran home.

So there it was. The only horror movie I claimed to like SCARED ME TO DEATH the first time I saw it. To the point that I couldn’t even finish watching it. Other memories came back to me: my friends wanting to watch Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm St. 2 after school and me making them turn the sound off when it got to the scary parts. My mother tells me the first movie I ever saw was The Neverending Story and I was scared to death, but I don’t think that really counts.

Anyway, there you have it: I admit it. I’ve been scared by horror movies all along and I’ve avoided them and called them dumb instead of confronting my emotions. For the last month I’ve been watching quite a few horror movies (depending upon what your definition of horror is, of course: see Piper’s post today at Lazy Eye Theatre for more thoughts on the matter) and I’m obviously not scared of them like I was when I was a kid, but I’m beginning to understand the appeal. The young Michael at the beginning of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, for instance, gave me the creeps. The grown-up Michael at the end, however, did not.

I’m sure all of these issues will continue to swirl around in my head as the nominating ballots for the 31 Flicks That Give You the Willies list keep pouring in. (Also: I didn't really follow up on the proposition that I was attracted to Scream because of its self-referentiality and how that attraction was the result of the distance it allowed me to place between myself and the text. I just wanted to point out the shortcomings of posting a first draft written bleary-eyed in the morning during your first cup of coffee before rushing off to class...)


Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

I very rarely post things off the top of my head, and I try to steer clear of talking about myself, keeping the focus on the text. I clearly broke both of those rules here.

I posted the following on Lazy Eye Theatre this morning, and my head had got to churning so hard that I finished my comment and wrote, extemporaneously, the entire post you've just read. I thought it would make a nice addendum to the post:

One of the reasons I decided to do this list was as an investigation into what it is about horror films that so captures the imagination of our culture--and why so many different types of films get lumped into this category we call "horror."

I think Neil at Bleeding Tree had a lot of interesting things to say about this, and I'm glad for his erudite, historical perspective. However, I think matters of genre and classification are fluid and it is futile to attempt to fix a definition in place. Ultimately, the habits of the filmgoing community--rather than the needs of the studio marketing depts. or the beliefs of critics or academia-- have the final say on these matters.

Which is why, presently, I'm interested in what individual members of our--smaller, more circumscribed--community consider "horror," and what our community as a WHOLE comes up with as 31 high-quality representatives of it.

The specific rules and specifications of a genre are always stretched by its individual films. For instance: film noir always involves crime going on in the city, lit darkly in black and white. But then what about THE LOST WEEKEND, DETOUR and THE LAST SEDUCTION?

RC said...

i do love the shining...and even seeing those pictures returns the willies! yikes!

Robert said...

It's difficult to talk about horror films without reaching into the personal. Perhaps more than any other genre, horror films live and die based soely on the personal emotional reaction of the viewer. Perhaps thats why there's such a large cult (oxymoron?) following for the genre. Because people feel a very strong individual connection with the material. I dunno, I may be talking out of my a$$.

Anyways I get the feeling that The Shining will be finding a very high spot on the final list. I know it will have a very high spot on my list.

Bemis said...

I had a similar first experience with The Shining and the room 237 scene in particular - I ran by our bathroom as fast as I could for weeks. Other friends of mine have had the same Pavlovian response to completely different scenes. It's like a cinematic Rorshach test of what really scares you. Great post, Ed.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words about this one. I wasn't sure I was going to post it, as it is one of the first things I've written about film that focuses on ME and not on THE FILM, which is where I would like to keep things.

shahn said...

seems the shining was a pivotal film for a lot of other people too. for me it was one of the first times i could appreciate the beauty of the mis-en-scene at the same time as being really, really freaked out. switching to the abstract in face of the "reality" (it WAS just a movie) was probably a mental defense strategy but it opened up a new appreciation for horror films. those stills make me shudder still....

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...


I'm fascinated by your final thought: could it be that so many of us who write about film analytically are obsessed with horror films because we initially "switched to the abstract" as a "defense strategy" against them?