The house I lived in during senior year of college was a two-story joint, and one day my buddy Pete leaned over the balcony and said, his voice aghast, “What are you watching?”
Actually, thinking back on it, it was more like, “What are you watching?”
The answer was Peter Jackson’s seminal gore-tastic Dead Alive (aka Braindead), and the scene in particular was that film’s infamous climax which finds Lionel (Tim Balme) our schmucky protagonist strapping a lawnmower to his chest and wading into a cramped parlor filled with zombies. Limbs fly and blood pours by the gallons, at one point soaking the floor so thoroughly that Lionel has to leap-frog from bit of shredded flesh and viscera to the next in order to keep from slipping.
It’s a sequence knit out of atrocity, the human body reduced to a meatbag prop in a slapstick stick.
And there’s me, on the couch, laughing my head off.
So when my buddy asked, “What are you watching?” the question encompassed not only the horror occurring on the television but my own reaction to it. The question, then, was closer to “Why are you watching? What the hell is wrong with you?”
It’s not the first or last time that horror-related viewing/reading/writing has garnered this reaction. There’s a segment of the audience (a good-sized one!) that is confounded by even the basic notion of horror, who are taken aback at the idea that someone might enjoy being scared, that there’s something funny and fun to be found in violence, and that seemingly level-headed individuals who engage properly with polite society might within them possess a drive to either ingest or create as much of that content as they possibly can.
I sympathize with that segment of the audience. For a good portion of my early life, I was part of it.
As astonished as some people are to learn that I’m a fan of horror, that I inhale horror movies and write horror stories and have a horror podcast (BLACK SUN DISPATCHES AVAILABLE ON SPOTIFY AND ITUNES. “LITERALLY THE BEST PODCAST EVER, LITERALLY.” -Someone, somewhere, probably), it would have astonished my younger self as well.
Goddamn but was I a ‘fraidy cat back in the day.
Until I was about 10 or so, movie-watching was a fraught affair, so much so that I would insist on leaving the room if there was even a threat of violence or a chance that there might be injury to a character I liked (which was most of them, Young Brendan having an even more over-developed sense of empathy than his current version). Instead I would sit on the stairs outside our family room and wait for Mom and Dad to call that the danger was passed and it was safe to come back…until the next time the characters were imperiled and I had to leave again. Any level of bloodshed left me quivering and nervous, even when it was the result of karmic, cosmic justice, like the Nazis getting pulped at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (spoilers).
Each Halloween season, social media and the interwebs in general are filled with folks reminiscing over their earliest forays into horror, tales of staying up late as an 8-, 9-, 10-year old and being hypnotized/traumatized/inspired by the likes of Halloween, Alien, The Thing, The Fly, or any of the other myriad gooey classics that have acted as siren songs inviting young minds to trend towards the dark fantastic. And each Halloween season I shake my head, partly out of envy, partly out of embarrassment, that my own awakening was much later in arriving.
So what changed? How did someone who recoiled at even the intimation of fear and violence become someone who is positively punch drunk on genres that purvey exactly that?
Simple. I started creating my own.
I couldn’t tell you why I started writing those first scary stories. I know they were bad, of course, no 11-year-old sits down and starts cranking out The Haunting of Hill House. Maybe, maybe I was looking for some way to let out the tension I felt inside myself all the time, a way to share my dread and uncertainty over my place in the world with others, spreading it out and thus diluting it.
I do remember that the handful of fellow children that I showed those stories told me that they found them scary too.
And then a really funny thing happened: Having gotten a reaction, I wanted a stronger one. So more stories followed, each time chasing that same initial high that came from the knowledge that something I had created had an effect on someone else. This was insanity, man, this was freaking telepathy! And in wanting to create even more, to make it even better, to get even stronger reactions, it led me to reading and watching as much from within the genre as I possibly could so I might pull them apart at the seams and study their precious inner workings, their shining intestines. And then it was a matter of the ol’ curiosity driving me even deeper, wanting to know as much as I could, ingest as much knowledge and experience as I possibly could.
I still get plenty scared by a really well-crafted horror movie. Hell, I rewatched It Follows a couple weeks back and even knowing exactly when and where the big scares were going to hit I was still jumping when David Robert Mitchell brought the hammer down (that tall dude with no eyes, I mean what the fuck). But my reaction really well-done scares and gore is not to recoil, but to lean in so I might understand better how it was done, or to laugh appreciatively at the way a really talented filmmaker constructed a scene to stoke an audience and then wallop them.
Around the time Pan’s Labyrinth was coming out, Guillermo del Toro told the story that as a child, he was tormented by vivid waking dreams of monsters (including a faun) stalking the hallway to his bathroom, stopping him from relieving himself. Finally, one night the future master of horror called out to the creatures lurking there in bottomless shadows that if they only let him be, he’d be their friend forever. They did, and so he has.
If you’ll allow me to be unbearably pretentious for a quick second, I think all of us who love the horror genre with a passion have an experience like that, even if it’s not quite so literal as del Toro’s origin story. I think we each of us at some point in our life grew tired of the monsters clogging up the road ahead, so we threw a collar on the beasts and called them our own.
I guess in many ways I’m still a ‘fraidy cat, at times wracked with anxieties and feelings of worry that can morph into something that’s not dissimilar to depression. But I’ve made friends with my monsters, and I’ve learned how to channel those things that scare me into sources of entertainment, release, and maybe even a kind of personal place of grace.
It’s strange to think, and even stranger to say, but it really is true: Sometimes it’s only in darkness that we find our light.