How Horror Made Me

A personal history with horror.

I have always loved horror movies. Ever since I was a little kid I have loved monsters and being scared; when I was 7 or 8 my father took away all my Universal Monsters books and figures because I was having nightmares so regularly. But even with all of those great Crestwood books gone my fascination with horror continued, unabated.

As I got older the VHS boom changed everything. We had a service in my neighborhood called Video Van, which brought VHS tapes to your home. My best friend Joel and I would go, tape-by-tape, through their entire horror collection, watching everything from slasher movies to gonzo Italian cannibal films. Weekends would be full of black & white horror classics on TV - Them! and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Fly would play seemingly all the time on WPIX’s Chiller Theater or The Million Dollar Movie. - and throughout my early teen years my horror education would be pursued with an omnivorous appetite. If it was horror, or if it had monsters, I watched it. On Halloween other kids wore those plastic masks that advertised popular TV shows and movies, but I wore make-up that transformed me into grade school versions of The Wolf Man, the Mummy and Death himself. 

When I was about 14 the obsession took on a new level. Joel and I had advanced from just watching these movies to very actively finding out everything about them. Fangoria was a first step, opening us to the world behind the scenes of our favorite horror films - the make-up artists in particular. As soon as we learned the name Dick Smith we got ourselves a copy of his make-up book, and we were mail ordering latex out of the back of Fango in no time flat. All of our money went into latex and Karo syrup and severed fingers and dangling rubber eyeballs. It was Halloween all year round.

In high school my locker wasn’t adorned with pictures of hot models but with my favorite gore gags and portraits of Tom Savini. With high school came more money, which meant we could raid the back issue bins for Creepy Magazine or get our hands on some of the then-new reprints of EC classics. I read every Stephen King and Dean Koontz book, and then began expanding out into the better stuff - Lovecraft and Poe, Bradbury and Jackson, Matheson and Bloch. Clive Barker changed my life forever, his Books of Blood being more a mission statement than just a collection of short stories.

Through horror I began to become interested in true crime. The same guy inspired Psycho AND The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so I had to know more about Ed Gein. That started me down a path of psychos and weirdos and creeps, and that led me to a world of zines and darker music. I had been into metal since I was a kid - my mother was very upset when she saw the pentagram on the cover of my Shout At The Devil LP, and in 1985 we had pooled our lunch money to import a single of the then-banned Fuck Like A Beast by WASP - but that was really glammy, hair metal stuff. The world of true crime and psychos brought me into a rougher, harder music that truly spoke to me. I found myself in lower Manhattan, trawling through dusty record shops that smelled of stale cigarettes and body odor, looking for punk and hardcore album covers that were offensive as hell.

The next step, while I was downtown anyway, was the occult. We had been going to magic shops for years - they were great places to get stage blood and all that, and of course as nerds we were into stage magic in general - but now we started going to magick shops. We bought oils and candles, spellbooks and pentagrams. I read LaVey and some version of the Necronomicon that someone had created. We tried casting spells and summoning angelic beings (we didn’t fuck with demons) and for much of high school I had magickal sigils on my bedroom door to keep out the serious intruders. Sadly they didn’t keep out my mother, who threw all of my comic books and occult books into trash bags and tossed the bags in a closet when I misbehaved.

All of these things brought me to another interest - history. The true tales of terror I read about were better with context, and a gory mind soon realized that even the boring stuff in history class was actually fucking awesome - the Hessians would run their sabres through American revolutionaries, nailing them to trees! - and that led me to further history reading and a deeper understanding of the world.

Meanwhile, my devouring of horror and genre films led me to other movies, movies that were more serious. I would come out of the genre VHS sections to find movies that seemed weird - I saw Alphaville when I was 15! - or very violent - hello, Straw Dogs! - and those films led me down other paths to great cinema. Exhausting the Video Van and eventually Blockbuster archives led me to the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, and that led me to both weirder movies and more film writing. Clive Barker’s prose sparked my brain and sent me after other writers who were more interesting and esoteric than the mass market authors I had been reading before. Those writers got me interested in words, and I began writing - first little horror stories and comics of my own, and then over time essays about the topics that interested me, especially movies. I Xeroxed a little horror movie review fanzine when I was 16, leaving it at the local library (where I worked). 

While all of that was happening my interest in special effects make-up made me more and more aware of how filmmaking works. One of the first things I remember making a true impression was Tom Savini explaining the way he tricked the audience into buying his FX - he would have the killer brandishing a real knife in one shot and even have him slam it into wood or a wall to give it heft and truth, and then replace it with the gag knife for the kill. Shooting home-made horror movies on VHS taught us about lighting and blocking, and what had been an interest in just blood and guts blossomed into a curiosity about every aspect of the filmmaking process, from writing to editing.

Horror got me into film, it got me into writing, it got me into history and learning, but more than that, horror gave me a community. When you’re the kid with the exploding heads in his locker you don’t quite fit into the day to day life of high school , but I found other people who shared my weird interests. I met them at bookstores and conventions, and eventually when the internet showed up I met them online. I found a community that understood me and who even pushed me farther - people who introduced me to new films, new ideas, new avenues of life. I met people who were so much smarter than me, and people who were amazing experts who opened up my mind to new ways of thinking.

Originally I was going to write yet another thing about ‘why horror?’ but that’s been covered so many times before by so many people who are smarter and better writers than I am. You either know ‘why horror?’ or you don’t - you feel it or you don’t. As we start a whole month celebrating cinematic horror here at BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH. the question that intrigues me isn’t why you’re into horror but how horror has shaped you. It’s no coincidence, I think, that some of the smartest and nicest people I know are obsessed with the aesthetics of horror, with spookiness and gore, monsters and ghosts. Horror is for the open minded and the daring, those willing to challenge themselves and for those who look to become uncomfortable, to be tested, to explore the unknown. It’s for those who find joy in facing their fears, and it’s for those who are curious and restless and slightly dissatisfied with the clean, sunny reality around us.

I am who I am today because of horror. I am the man I am today because of Jack Pierce’s classic Universal Monster designs, the way they spoke to me on an unconscious level when I was 5 or 6 years old, catching the old movies on TV as the adults sat at the dining room table talking. I was raised by the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, and I think I was raised well.