The screams came from the kitchen.
As a ten-year-old in 1972, this was the last thing I wanted to hear. Then came the nervous laughter, again from the kitchen. When my older sister emerged, she beckoned me to see who was at the back door. I tentatively followed, assured by her that it was going to be fun. Peering through the kitchen window was someone in an old man mask. The nervous laughter doubled and trebled as we realized it was our father hunched over and scratching at the glass. Even better was when he chased my older brothers around the backyard, but that time he swapped the old man mask for a devil mask. Our dad never did anything remotely like this again. But I did.
A year later, I donned that devil mask and scratched at our living room window while my younger brother innocently looked out for a fancy car that my older brother insisted was there. When he looked down and saw my mask, he jumped three feet and started crying. I think we took it a bit too far, scaring an eight-year-old like that, but dad seemed to set the rules on scares like this.
With no cable, videos or DVDs, computers or streaming services, we had to come up with our own scares. In fact, the same brother I made cry would play a game with me that called “Scare Me, Scare You.” The idea was to set up an elaborate or cheap scare in our bedroom while the other one waited outside until called in. I’d go in not knowing what to expect and be met with either a creaking closet door slowly opening, a grasping hand under the bed or a stuffed animal wrapped in a pillow case suddenly thrown at you from a dark corner. I’d fake a scream and leave and then we’d switch places.
My older brother would order haunting recordings on a vinyl record and play them for me in his attic bedroom. Unfortunately for him, they did not have the desired effect of scaring me. The tracks on the record were mostly banshee howls, chains rattling, and things banging about. One recording was of a guy moaning leading into maniacal laughter. My brother tried to emulate it while playing it. A painful duet that disappointed more than frightened.
One of my favorite places to find chilling tales in the 70s was the library. I remember obsessively looking for ghost stories but they were few and far between. One story, though, about a dog who could see spirits stuck with me. When I wrote my screenplay, A Ghost Story Of Christmas, forty years later, I added a dog that could very clearly see ghosts. All the owner had to do was peer over the dog’s head and see them for himself.
In the late 70’s, Stephen King entered my consciousness. I bought a paperback of ‘Salem’s Lot at a gas station, of all places. Then it was Night Shift, his collection of short stories. I was hooked. He was all I read, with one exception: The Amityville Horror. I must have read that four times.
Without cable or videos, and only a few TV channels to search for horror movies, you had to plan accordingly. First stop was the TV Guide and whatever was playing on Saturday afternoons. Believe it or not, we had our very own Creature Feature host on UHF’s Channel 20, who was not dissimilar to SCTV’s Count Floyd. He would invite kids to write in with their letters and drawings before showing Die, Monster, Die, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, I Was A Teenage Wolfman, The Tingler, Bucket Of Blood, Invasion Of The Saucer Men, the list goes on.
Then there was late-night movies that were especially great for Universal monster classics, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and, if you were desperate, slow-moving British horror films. I’m not talking Hammer films. I’m talking the kind of Brit film that is clearly shot on film when outdoors before switching to videotape indoors like a soap opera. My younger brother and I dubbed these as B-A-D films. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. We watched because we had no choice. We were too young to go to R-rated movies, so TV it was.
Our oldest sister took the four youngest of us to the movies constantly, but never to anything scary. The only time we got a taste of a thrill was when she took us to The Legend Of Boggy Creek. Having grown up with Disney nature films, this “documentary” captured my imagination. Its grainy quality, glimpses of the creature, its terrifying roar and a hairy arm through a window was enough to cement my love for anything Bigfoot-related.
It wasn’t until I turned 17 and could take the family car to the drive-in that I finally saw an R-rated movie. My very first one was The Toolbox Murders followed by The Town That Dreaded Sundown. TV never showed things like these. Quality films they weren’t, but they paved the way in my quest to see only the best in horror. Luckily, the drive-in soon showed The Exorcist. I had never seen it. I went alone because no one else would go. My only previous experience with it was in the form of a scary-looking paperback that stayed in the attic and went unread. After watching the movie from the safety of my car, I dreaded going home at midnight, fully expecting to find my sister possessed with her head spinning around.
That movie was how I capped my 70’s horror experience. From a devil mask to the devil himself, it was a decade that gave me true appreciation for the genre itself. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even my soul.