“Why would you read a murder magazine?” The words of a co-worker to me after he and I settled into our seats on a packed plane to Los Angeles en route to NAMM. The NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show is a bi-annual music instrument industry trade event where manufacturers unveil their latest and greatest. I was manager at a shop in Normal, Illinois and my travel partner helmed the sister store in Champaign. My reading material apparently concerned him, and he looked positively disgusted at the issue of Fangoria in my hands.
“I don’t get how people watch that stuff,” he huffed. I was surprised. Most of my friends enjoyed fright and exploitation fare, but here he was looking at me like I was ogling pornography in church. Until that moment I hadn’t considered why I so loved the horror genre and its ilk, but in the years since (after long ago leaving the music industry and moving on to filmier things) I have considered this because I am asked so often.
The only other component in my life fair for comparison is being vegetarian. Growing up in the Midwest it is unfathomable that someone would turn their back on food that once took naps and cuddled with its parents, and while I am no soapbox veggie activist, I am often expected to explain myself when food is the topic. While the outspoken are quick to cast aspersions when they hear you order a cheese pizza or bean burrito, many just ask about protein intake, shrug and forget the topic ever came up. Not so with horror. It is a most misunderstood entertainment category, that confuses the uninitiated at least and outrages at most, and I would like to explore (from my perspective, not speaking for everyone, of course) why so many of us are drawn to this crimson flame.
My Grandmother reading to my brother and me circa 1983. The book: Crestwood House’s KING KONG.
1. THIS HAS TO DO WITH BEING A KID
Morality tales are a key ingredient in the infinitely complex stew of childhood. Warnings from parents range from hollow and simple (“clean up or no television after dinner!”) to legit terrifying in some parts of the world (“listen to your parents or the Bogeyman will steal you in your sleep!”). Either way, these admonishments rely on imagination to serve their purpose. Parents plant the seeds and our little minds do the heavy lifting, concocting scenarios that frighten us out of wrongdoing. At the end of the day, though, this really is about the creativity each of us has ingrained and how early tales of monsters and all seeing entities push us into the backwaters of innocent worst case daydreaming. We are attached to this stuff because we have spent most of our lives with it. Whether we realize it or not, for many people the first instinctively creative impulse they had was prompted by fear.
Also relevant here is the Halloween factor. As children there is but one day a year where everyone, parents and teachers included, are on board with mischievous, costumed fun, and it falls at the end of October’s calendar. As part of the month-long celebration, horror films and themed shows overtake the television schedule on nearly every network. At an early age we are introduced to Charlie Brown and the gang musing about the Great Pumpkin. That gives way to the “safe” Universal classic monsters. From there all bets are off, especially these days when censorship is less of a concern (especially on cable) and air time is divided between well known and fringe titles of a more adult bent. Add in the thrilling moment when drug stores shovel the summer swim gear into discount bins and fill shelves with spooky treats, decorations and accessories, and you have an all-in, very potent annual experience. Halloween is the classroom for many when it comes to first introduction to horror, and as a result celluloid scares and trick or treating are inextricably intertwined.
2. THIS IS ABOUT ART AND MECHANICS, NOT ABOUT MURDER
Horror fans are unique in that they are as into the process behind the scenes of their entertainment as they are with what ends up on screen. Magazines like the aforementioned Fangoria have made production personnel into household names. Guys like makeup legend Tom Savini are perhaps as well known as stars like Robert (“Freddy”) Englund and Jamie Lee (“Laurie Strode”) Curtis. What makes publications like Fango essential to the genre fan diet are the stories behind the making of the films that fans hold most sacred. The dissection of filmmaking has become a big part of the experience for legions of perpetually rabid consumers who want to know how a certain effect was achieved or what vein a writer tapped to concoct their twisted tale. It went from passive consumption to interactive ownership. Horror fans are cinema students.
So what of the blood and guts? One of the things film offers us is fantasy. We get to experience things life doesn’t often offer, or that are not normally comfortable to explore. Death is something we all must face, and these films present it in often fantastic ways, acting as something of a shallow end primer on the end of life experience. We first dip our toes in, then walk farther and deeper as life progresses. We all know how the end of our story will read, but in horror death is not absolute, not always sad, and not taboo.
While someone not a fan of horror may be revolted by a scene featuring someone having an arrow shot through their neck, horror fans marvel at how the gag is pulled off. The making-of bonus features on video releases are packed with the nuts and bolts of how effects and stunt personnel make the unreal look real, deceiving a very smart and aware audience with their slight of hand. The wonderful thing here is that these craftsmen love to share their tricks of the trade. There are few guarded secrets, and fans cannot get enough.
3. THIS HAS MORE TO DO WITH EMOTION THAN SHOCK
The ticket worthiness of many non-genre films is often based on the recent box office success of celebrities and franchises. The audiences don’t often head to the multiplex hoping “a comedy” (any comedy) is playing so they have something to see, where horror fans will almost always give a new genre picture a shot. There is a unique openness here not often present elsewhere and it is based on a number of things.
First off, we are nostalgic. We attach ourselves to a period of discovery in our lives, a filmmaker, a subgenre or style of filmmaking. Buying a ticket means we may be giving something new a shot or walking in with fingers crossed that something we love is handled with care. We find what we need in the form and hold onto those things.
Second, we watch film much like we listen to music: in relation to how we feel. This is not unique to horror, but is prevalent among the fanbase. Speaking for myself, certain films/subgenres are linked to particular seasons or emotions. Winter comes with an openness to a whole slew of videos I wouldn’t think of watching in hot summer months, while camp movies must be enjoyed when sunny days are long. It is about connection. The film is a conduit between how we feel and the world outside ourselves, and in a society where it can be hard to find outlets to openly emote, films are ever consenting partners. They are reliable. Like the seasons. And the two are one.
Third, we take ownership of the movies we adore, much of which is tied to when we first encountered them. You can find a die hard fan of just about anything within the world of horror, and for most of us the thread leads back to our early cinema exploration.
Many of my most treasured childhood memories began with buddies and I hopping on our bikes and trekking to the video store. Before driver’s licenses, cars and exploration of the world, there was the rite of passage that was getting your video rental card. These stores were really art galleries with row after row of endlessly diverse covers. Of course kids gravitated to horror and its outlandish, shocking, gory, sexy, color drenched imagery. No other genre offered so many intriguing delights. The challenge was often the same: rent as many as we could and vow to make it through the stack by the end of the weekend. Anything was game. Monsters and madmen, vintage and new. As such, we came to know and adore a wide spectrum of subgenres.
4. BACK TO YOUTH
Continuing on the subject of being a kid, one of the most consistent elements in horror films is in how children are treated and presented. Aside from family movies, it is the one genre in which young people are not relegated to background or brief expository elements. The people behind the movies understand their core audience, and as such, they deliver an often realistic portrayal of the youth experience. In many films, we are in their element, among them as they do the things kids do. They laugh, swear, reveal self consciousness, fail at love, harass each other, share painful moments, explore the unknown, and find strength in their friends. They are CHARACTERS. They are important and matter and are key elements. This is appreciated and relatable, which is why so many genre fans stick to horror at a young age. Kids see themselves on screen, often for the first time.
5. THE UNEXPECTED IS EXCITING AND FACING IT IS IMPORTANT
Life is unpredictable. It is a constant barrage of new, where our environments are ever evolving and whether we want to admit it or not, we are all feeling our way around in the dark. Nobody has a grasp on this thing (life), which is why the small victories mean so much. Much of what happens is out of our control, so when we can harness and tame a thing or two here and there it is powerful.
Fears are meant to be overcome. They are a challenge to our intellect and our momentum. We snarl at them from safe quarters, or we confront them head on and shape them into something new. The cliché analogy is roller coasters, but damnit if that isn’t just about perfect. The butterflies that nauseate us as we settle into a coaster cart are not because we genuinely think we are about to die. They are because we know the fear of riding is unreasonable and we want to confront the unknown experience of the twists and turns. It is a microcosm of our approach to life. We WANT to live interestingly, to go through the curves and loops, standing tall at the end to tell the tale. Part of horror is about facing what bothers us. You don’t just absorb these films. You have the opportunity to conquer their content.
6. THE HORROR COMMUNITY IS A BIG FAMILY
One of the ways sports fans share their passion by adopting city-to-city rivalries as personal grudges. The battle between Montreal and Boston in hockey, for example (go Habs!), is a fun hot button for people on both sides of the border. It is about competition, and while passion is the core ingredient, the fanaticism is framed in conflict. Horror is different. As with sports, the heart of things is passion, but with horror the unity among fans isn’t rallying behind a logo or city, it is about sharing, celebration, fun and family.
Horror conventions are perhaps the best illustration of this. Every year, in increasing numbers, there are shows all across the United States that offer a weekend of events, celebrity meet and greets, and collectable selling and trading. The locations are often arenas, hotels or convention centers, and while the zip codes and guest lineups may vary, it is all one big reunion each time event doors are thrown open.
Shared language among kindred spirits is one of the most wonderful components of any hobby, and it is no different here. Entering a venue for a convention knowing that any person you engage in conversation with shares your interests, knows the names and faces and various video incarnations of the films you hold most dear, is refreshing and exciting. Many dress up, getting the chance to create their own characters or bring silver screen icons to flesh and blood life. It is stepping into an idealized universe for a few days where everyone is on the same page and there is no judgment. It is sanctuary for those without someone to talk to at work about the things they are into the most. This applies to all the different ways horror fans connect with each other, whether it be via podcasts, chat rooms, message boards or any number of other avenues.
7. HORROR FILM FANS OFTEN BECOME HORROR FILMMAKERS
Horror cinema is a breeding ground for talent. Countless people track down cameras and try their hand at movie making after being inspired by small budget affairs like EVIL DEAD. While the effects and fantastic elements mentioned earlier are benchmarks, so, too, are simple low-fi indie productions that deliver on fun and scares without the need for mega budgets. Truth is anyone can make a film in any genre with the simplest of equipment, now more readily available than ever, but horror viewers are especially likely to give it a shot. Once films are completed, there is a great network of indie friendly horror film festivals from coast to coast happy to exhibit homegrown terrors. Once again, fans of this entertainment aren’t passive viewers, they are often interactive and hands on with the very thing they so love. These films inspire and motivate in a most unique way.
This is, of course, just scratching the surface, and by no means all inclusive. Just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Horror fans are beautiful, kind, inclusive, proud, open, passionate, creative, invested, involved people who enjoy what they enjoy because it is bound to them in numerous ways. Stigmas be damned. This is about art, celebration, community, and self.