When horror films first burst into my life, I was 8 years old, and of course, I was not ready. I was at my mom’s boyfriend’s house trying to spend time with his sons, who were older, and thus, obviously, cooler than I was. They had just put in a movie and I can’t remember if they tried to discourage me from watching it with them or not, but whatever their stance, I did not listen. The TV was small, but large enough for A Nightmare on Elm Street to imprint itself onto my mind. It scarred me in that old, familiar way, and the wound it opened would shape a lot of my life going forward. This initial trauma, this nightmare fuel, was what opened me up to horror and it will always live on in my mind because of it. It wasn’t the first terrifying thing that happened to me (the real world had already touched something fearful inside), but this piece of insanity resonated into my past, out toward my future and the fear waiting there.
The strange part of this story is how this initial contact with horror films didn’t mean that NOES was the first horror film I obsessed over. I love it still, and returning to it years later meant coming to terms with some real fear I held as a child. Still, the first horror film I obsessed over was something entirely different, a film which I think presents itself as deceptively simple but holds a lot of content for us to consider: The Gate. This wasn’t one of the VHS tapes I took home, but rather a film I caught on TV over and over again before I could finally get the full thing on tape. You would think that after many viewings it would have lost its hold on me. I kept returning to it, though, and the feeling of returning to it was not one of comfort food, it was a feeling of subjecting myself again to something visceral that could still touch me.
The Gate is perhaps the ultimate suburban horror film of the ’80s. It doesn’t have an incredible plot, but the execution of the scares and tensions inherent in the story give it a lasting power. Our protagonists are an unlikely trio of mostly ignored, Reagan era youth. Glen, played by a young Stephen Dorf, is still a child in every discernible way, while his friend Terry, played by Louis Tripp, and his sister Al, played by Christa Denton, are both flirting with an advanced teen persona. Terry has embraced a metal/hasher culture, focusing on the dark and foreboding of the world as a way to navigate trauma. Al, on the other hand, is experiencing this gulf between her and not only her childlike brother, but between herself and his memory of who she is, because of the social pressures of being a teenager. Her friends have grown out of the kinds of whimsy and wonder she associates with her brother, or at least feel they must have done so to participate in this new world of boys and fashion, the mall and the beach. They are ready for this liminal space that might even have “S-E-X” hidden within its labyrinthine corridors, but Al is torn. She wants to be in that world, but she is not entirely comfortable with the gap between her and her brother. The various competing ideas of family, childhood, even community are wrapped all around this thing, which is basically a film about a gate to hell being opened up unintentionally. The waters run deeper than they seem, while still being at heart a fun horror film.
The Gate’s introductory sequence really sets the tone. Glen is having a nightmare in which places and contexts that should be familiar are suddenly hostile. We are seeing embodied alienation as he is transitioning into something new and scary; that is, growing up. The dream culminates in the destruction of his childhood treehouse, which has also been destroyed in real life. Perhaps it is a bit heavy-handed to signal the themes of adolescent angst by literally destroying the embodiment of childhood fun, but this opens the pit to the dark realms, much the way ’80s civil society feared that their seemingly innocent children would one day walk through the gates of puberty and transform into hell spawn themselves. Is it the anxieties of our protagonists, each dealing with feelings of abandonment by their families, or the feeling of isolation created by their strangely barren, suburban cul-de-sac? Or is it the alienation America was feeling towards its youth, who they had convinced themselves were somehow both the future and the downfall of the entire nation? All of the above, I guess.
Returning to The Gate as an adult, there is much which resonates, but perhaps nothing more so than the ways that, within a certain world, children/teens can feel entirely isolated from adults. I am a parent now, but of a four year-old, so her world is still very much my world. I have no idea if this kind of isolation still exists, or is maybe made worse due to the internet. What I do understand is this feeling that the adult world cannot fix the issues kids face. They are in another place, and though they occasionally break in to wreak havoc and chaos in our childhood domains, they have no salvation. When adults are present, they somehow warp reality itself, so that the rules of childhood no longer apply. Things for me, as a kid, felt more real and vital when adults were where they belonged, in their own space. The confusing mix of forces at play in my world, from the bullies, to the passions, to the music and art, and the deep current of urban myth we based so much of our being on; all of this was a realm my mom could not enter, let alone understand. The Gate maintains this autonomy. Each time Glen whines about contacting his parents, it feels less and less sensible. The first time, he is making some good points, but by the third or fourth time, it seems beyond them now. What could your parents even do?
Of course, I knew my world had limits, and if I did anything too wild or anyone actually died in the various games and acts of cruelty that animated my childhood, suddenly we would be in the real world. There was comfort there, a comfort that disappeared when I finally lived on my own, paying my own bills. However, the world we ran around in was no less real for those limits, and something about this film gave that world stakes. It felt all the more present, and within that context, I felt like I had some agency as Glen did. I still think about that feeling of agency. I didn’t think I could change the world, and I had much less power than the cooler and smoother around me, but The Gate was about the world hinging on the acts of children, and something about that made sense to me even then. When I thought about the minor dramas that, to me, seemed tied with life and death itself, I think not just of The Gate but of my first nightmare, Nightmare on Elm Street. Remember those waking nightmare sequences when the audience can see the horror at work but somehow the adults are oblivious? What better metaphor was there for how some of us felt about growing up?
The Gate is perhaps not a work of art, as many people understand it, but I find it nonetheless vital and impactful. Part of that is how brutal it can be. When the film turns to its gross or haunting set pieces, one expects something for adults, and perhaps these moments are, but they are also for the deep, upsetting nightmares of children. The movie has a weight and often a depth that perhaps the small trolls obscure; that we see the pulsating backyard pit and think only of the artifice of it all, and not the underlying anxiety. From the beginning, Glen knows that something is not right, but those around him seem uninterested in listening. The film doesn’t give us a moment of satisfaction when it becomes clear Glen is right and everyone else has been wrong, but I suspect a lot of the audience feels it. I felt it on this re-watch, the briefest moment of saying to myself, “OK, see, now they can’t ignore him anymore.”
I feel that now, sometimes. The world is on the edge, and, unfortunately, it has been heading that way for a long time. There is no one among us, I suspect, who had not been told at some point by some friend how bad things really are and dismissed them. I know I did. Yet now, at this moment, while some of the specifics may have been off (Y2K was never gonna be a thing), the general sentiment suddenly rings true. Things have been going wrong for a very long time, longer than maybe we are willing to admit. The signs were there, but we ignored them and went to the beach. Also, our dumb boyfriend threw the dead dog in the pit to hell, but we can discuss that later. The point is, that feeling, the “finally, now they see,” feeling, is no less toxic for being understandable. It was the second moment, where Glen has to simply look the giant, old god in the face and shoot him with a rocket, that really struck me. I don’t expect a film with claymation trolls to remind me that we still have agency, but sometime horror surprises you.