My Root (an essay)

When I am asked why horror movies are appealing to me, I think of the (non-horror) movie But I’m a Cheerleader. It’s about a group of gay teenagers sent to a conversion camp. Part of their “therapy” is wracking their brains to find their root—the trauma that made them gay. Their answers are  ridiculous—for example, one reports being a lesbian because her mother got married while wearing pants. I feel similarly subversive for my passion for the horror genre; I must have a root somewhere.

I’ve struggled with writing this piece for over a  year, and I ultimately decided the best way to approach it is to blatantly steal my structure from David Sedaris’s essay “12 Moments in the Life of the Artist.” You could call this “12 Moments in the Life of a Horror Fan.”

One: When I was small, I was watching MTV with my mother’s boyfriend. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video was on, and I was freaked out. I was looking out the window, and asked him to tell me when I could look. He told me I could look before the video was over, to purposely scare me. It worked. As I got a little older, my parents would watch Indiana Jones and I would be horrified but interested when a man’s heart is ripped out. I had gone from afraid to fascinated.

Two: My mother worked a lot when I was a kid, and often my sister Leslie and I were left in the care of our uncle, Earl. It was a relationship I treasured; he was fun and interesting and funny, and I definitely inherited my love of trivia and pop culture from him. He was one of the few stable adults—men in particular—in my life at the time. He introduced us to many things, including our first horror movies. We watched a variety of genres, but I’ll always remember the glorious afternoon he brought over all three Poltergeist movies. I don’t remember being scared—I felt safe.

Three: My oldest sister, Suzy (a half-sister who mainly lived with her own mother), became a bigger part of Leslie’s and my life, and often she would babysit. We had a regular rotation of kids’ movies (one memorable day we watched Fern Gully three times in a row), but we also got curious about the many drawers of VHS tapes containing movies my mother and oldest brother Jeremy had recorded off of HBO. Jeremy was a fan of martial arts movies, and one such was called Ninja III; it involved a woman possessed by the ghost of a ninja taking revenge on the police squad who killed him. We also discovered an ’80s gem called Witchboard, which I still enjoy to this day.

Four: My sisters and I were best friends with our neighbors, also three sisters, named Hope, Jillian, and Amanda. We used to gather together and read from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. The terrifying stories were accompanied by terrific gory, goopy-looking pictures. We also used to make up our own scary stories, Jillian being the best at this. She could tell an epic scary story that stayed with me. It was disturbing but fun.

Five: Another of our favorite activities was to record ourselves. We made haunted house tapes similar to Halloween sound effects tapes, and we also acted out skits. As teenagers, Hope and I made new recordings, lampooning our earlier efforts to hilarious effect. We also recorded original songs, such as our Poltergeist song. I don’t remember the whole thing, but the chorus went, “You son of a bitch, you only moved the headstones!” And the last line was, “Damn ghost followed me home.” We thought we were so funny. And you know what? We totally were.

Six: As our sisters paired off, Suzy with Jillian and Leslie with Amanda, Hope and I, the youngest, were thrust together and became closer friends. We spent less time playing outside and became movie buddies. Hope acquired a copy of The Silence of the Lambs and brought it over. We tried to watch it, but we were so bored that we turned it off before Starling even leaves Quantico. We had a similar experience with The Exorcist, only we fell asleep. Carrie we liked. To this day, we don’t get together often, but we keep each other updated on which horror movies are good and which ones should be stayed away from.

Seven: I’ve been a voracious reader since I learned how. One day Leslie was going to the library, and I asked her to get me some R.L. Stine books. She instead brought me Stephen King’s Christine. What’s a ten-year-old to do? I needed something to read! After getting over the shock of the salty language, I settled in and enjoyed it. And then I devoured everything else he’d ever written. The last time an adult read to me was when I had a migraine and I asked my father to read The Tommyknockers. He was uncomfortable, but complied. Love ya, Dad.

Eight: Our father, who was in and out of our life, used to take Leslie and I and sometimes Suzy to the movies. We generally insisted on horror movies. I remember regaling my mother with the tale of how in Leprechaun II the titular character made a pot of gold fly out of a guy’s stomach. My father has since passed away, but I have fond memories of seeing movies like Wolf with him, and as an adult the re-release of The Exorcist.

Nine: When I was in sixth grade, I was given an assignment to write a story, bind it into a book, and decorate the book. I wrote my first piece of horror fiction, a gory tale of a Howdy Doody style ventriloquist who ate children for some reason. The booklets were meant to be showcased for our parents and read to kids from younger grades. Mine did not make it to the display. I went on to write many more books and even a couple of novels before I hit puberty. They were terrible, but I got a lot of encouragement from Leslie, Suzy, and Hope.

Ten: As teenagers, my sisters, Hope, and Amanda fell in with an older crowd of friends. I often stayed home while they went to the park. While they were drinking wine coolers and trading shirts (somehow Suzy and Hope began a tradition of trading t-shirts every Friday), I was reading Clive Barker and finally appreciating The Silence of the Lambs. I never did try cigarettes or drugs or underage drinking. The Books of Blood and dyeing my hair blue was inflammatory enough for me.

Eleven: In college, I had a cool professor who let me write term papers about horror movies as long as she had seen the movie in question. I wrote a paper on the absent presence in The Shining and a psychoanalysis of Carrie. I had another professor, not nearly as liberal, whom I shocked by writing a poem about the link between sex and death in slasher movies.

Twelve: I made the acquaintance of Matt Molgaard, editor of both Addicted to Horror Movies and Horror Novel Reviews. I began receiving praise and attention for my writing that I haven’t seen since college. I have a wise mentor and a direction and reason to write.

I can wax nostalgic about how fun and wonderful those times described were, I can go all Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes about how when I was telling stories with my sisters and friends, the golden, endless summer days seemed infinite and the future was full of anticipation of good times. It’s true, I look back on those times as an integral part of my youth. So my short answer is that my root lies in nostalgia. That and parents who stopped censoring what I read, listened to, and watched at a young age. But I don’t need to explain my love of horror movies. At the end of But I’m a Cheerleader, the main characters learn that time spent with people who don’t love and accept them for who they are is time wasted. Yes I love horror movies. I’m married to a gaming nerd who tolerates the genre and loves me. I don’t need a root. Sometimes you just like shit.