Every October (although let’s be real – it’s started bleeding into September) I try to watch as many horror movies as I can. Maybe you do, too; it seems like a thing that a lot of people do. But why? I don’t mean in a practical sense – obviously a big part of it is that watching scary movies is fun. But what is this seasonal compulsion to watch as many horror movies as possible (essentially binge-watching, before we thought of it in those terms)? Why do I find myself planning my life around these movies for a whole month every year?
For me, the tradition of watching lots of scary movies during the month of October goes back to the early ’90s. It might be earlier, but 1990 is the earliest I can remember. This was when Joe Bob Briggs was still on The Movie Channel and thus completely off my radar, since at that point my family didn’t have any of those fancy premium channels. But on TNT MonsterVision was already a thing (along with its companion block 100% Weird). Those programs were not Halloween-exclusive, although they could generally be counted on to kick things up a notch if they happened to fall on or around October 31. In October, the genre programming wasn’t restricted to those blocks however. Because this was when TNT was still predominantly a network showing old movies and TV reruns, they could be counted on to air a fair amount of classic horror films throughout the week. I distinctly remember one year, for the whole week leading to Halloween, TNT aired a different Hammer horror title every day not long after I got home from school.
But programming alone can’t explain why those early years of horror movie viewing made such an impression, to the point that it has influenced my activities for virtually every Halloween season of my adult life. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much credit I have to give my dad. I think it’s safe to say that I am the film lover that I am because of him. There were plenty of horror movies and Halloween specials on TV every year, but my dad was my first curator. He went through our ever-present TV Guide and picked out the titles he thought I would like best (and not be too scared by). He set the VCR timer to catch the movies that would air after my bedtime or while I was at school. He went to the local Pic-a-Flick and rented movies that maybe weren’t being shown that year. It’s thanks to my dad that I first saw the classic Universal Monsters, Hammer Horror, and countless other genre odds and ends. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of staying up late on a Friday or Saturday in October to watch flicks like Curse of Frankenstein and eventually giving in to sleep as the opening credits for Godzilla vs Monster Zero started to play.
It’s not just that my dad picked out these movies for me to watch. More often than not, he watched them with me. October was the season for monster movies, and monster movies were an event in the Lawson household. Sometimes we’d tape the movies during the week and save them for the weekend so we could stay up later than usual. My dad would pop some popcorn, turn out the lights, and the two of us would watch these movies together. Not just that, but we would talk about the movies, too. My dad was a Fangoria and Starlog reader, in addition to stuff like the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide, and he would share whatever behind the scenes and production history tidbits I might find interesting. He’s the reason I was able to sit through the original silent Nosferatu as a kid. With my dad, horror movies were a shared experience. Even at home, on our old tube television, it was a communal activity not all that different from going to the theater (albeit with a much smaller screen and more comfortable seating). We bonded over these movies, and the horror genre is something I’ve considered “ours” ever since. My dad and I don’t live in the same city anymore, but that bond has stuck with us. We’ll chat on the phone about recent horror releases – especially when someone like Scream Factory puts out a new edition of a particularly beloved title. For my last birthday he gave me the It’s Alive trilogy and a DVD of Teenagers from Outer Space, and my last birthday gift to him was Peter Cushing’s complete memoirs. It’s a thing that we’ll always be able to share.
Some people are drawn to horror for the sense of danger or menace that comes with movies that are meant to frighten. But what brings me back to the genre every October is something like nostalgia. Not really for the movies themselves, although there are certainly old favorites that I will always love and revisit. It’s nostalgia for the experience of sitting on the sofa and eating popcorn as my dad cues up the next installment in my horror education. The thrill of seeing movies that are new to me, while also seeing them with someone who wants to share that first time viewing experience with me. We didn’t keep up the tradition as much once I was in high school and beyond. I was busy, and he was busy, too. Life got in the way. MonsterVision and its brethren were cancelled. And ever since, for pretty much my whole adult life, I’ve chased the rush that I got from those childhood Octobers when my dad and I would watch as many horror movies as we could together. Countless times I’ve revisited the movies I loved most from those years, and I’ve also tried watching nothing but titles that were new to me. But it’s taken me all this time to realize that what I was looking for isn’t really about the specific movies. It’s about sharing movies with the people you care about most, just like my dad did with me. And so I’ve come to especially treasure any opportunity I get to have that collective movie-watching experience – whether it’s me introducing someone to a beloved film, vice-versa, or even something new to both of us. And so now I’ve figured out that I shouldn’t keep October spooky out of some sense of obligation, or as a race to see who can fit in as many movies as possible. It’s about forging memories not just of the movies themselves but of the specific moments in time when I watched those movies. I keep October spooky as a tribute to those childhood memories of Octobers spent falling in love with movies alongside my dad. And so think of this as an invitation: As you work your way through your Halloween movie marathon lists, find ways to share the experience. Introduce friends or loved ones to your favorites. Catch something new in the theater. Let others share their favorites with you. Start a hashtag and watch along with people via Twitter. And please, hit me up and let me know how it goes.