When I was a young boy, in the last millennium – before streaming services, before DVDs, before VCRs or even cable – there was a TV show in Richmond, Virginia called Shock! Theatre. It came on Saturday nights and would feature old black-and-white horror movies, some classic, some not so much. But at five or six years old, I pretty much loved them all.
The host was a guy painted up like Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, called The Bowman Body. I don’t remember a lot about him except what he looked like and that he was pretty country for a ghoul, and therefore funny. I remember watching him do his own live version of “Monster Mash.” I remember sometimes when the movie would break for a commercial, Shock! Theatre would cut to a shot of a coffin that would slowly open: Bowman Body would be lying there, and then a pie would come flying from off-camera somewhere and smack him in the face, and the coffin would close again. Might not seem funny now, but it was hilarious at the time.
My father, who was in the military, was overseas in Thailand that year, so my mom would watch Shock! Theatre with me. Oftentimes the movies shown were ones she’d grown up with, and was already a fan of them. I’d venture to guess that I didn’t actually make it through most of them before I fell asleep. But nothing would stop me from catching it the next week. Bowman Body (or rather, The Bowman Body, the internet tells me) and Shock! Theatre were my introduction to classic horror movies from the early days of cinema: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and The Mummy, Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man, Gloria Holden’s Dracula’s Daughter, Claude Raines’ The Invisible Man, all the Universal horror and more besides, like Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong or Howard Hawks’ The Thing (from Another World).
These are the classics of the classics, the ones that have made it into the National Registry or are otherwise universally (heh) acclaimed some other way. But Bowman Body also introduced me to other acknowledged un-classics, like The Mummy’s Hand, The Beast with Five Fingers, and The Man from Planet X. I devoured them all with equal relish.
I must have been into monsters and ghosts and horror before then ,because that’s what would inspire me to watch Shock! Theatre in the first place, right? But when that particular proclivity began, and why, I have no idea. Funnily enough, it wasn’t just about being scared. Even at that age, the Frankenstein monster didn’t scare me. I just thought he was cool. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, creatures from black lagoons, it was all super-exciting. I always found the whole vibe of horror extremely compelling.
But if it was scary, all the better. As much as I loved Scooby Doo – and I did love Scooby Doo – it was always really disappointing that at the end, it was some con man wearing a rubber mask trying to scam some money. Being fake at the end always seemed to undermine the stakes of the previous half-hour. I hated that.
So, it was lucky for me that Shock! Theatre came along. And in those pre-streaming days, when you couldn’t watch movies anytime you wanted, Shock! Theatre was a gateway to a world I heretofore could only find in books.
As I got older my love of horror movies didn’t dissipate, it only solidified. It’s hard to convey the utter glee with which the other third-grade boys and I discussed the gruesome head of Ben Gardner falling through the bottom of a boat, or the leg of a shark victim sinking to the murky bottom of the bay, in Stephen Spielberg’s original blockbuster, Jaws.
And man, if you think that got us talking, you can only imagine how maniacally overjoyed my friends and I were a few years later when reliving the baby xenomorph bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien. Being a true child of the American Century, many of my most indelible memories come from movies. And being a horror nerd from jump, many of the most striking moments of art I’ve encountered come from horror movies. In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I’d remember a few:
Moments like the one when a little girl comes out of the desert like an unspeaking wraith gazing into the distance with a thousand-mile stare. When the police find her and ask her what happened to her family and her house that was destroyed, her eyes all of a sudden catch fire and she screams “THEM!” – thus giving the title to this 1954 sci-fi horror B movie favorite.
In Dracula’s Daughter there’s a scene in which the titular character, who goes by the name Marya Zaleska, says to her manservant, “Look into my eyes. What do you see?” “Death,” is his solemn reply. OK, not the most layered writing in the world – but when I saw this movie as a kid, that scene was very profound.
In The Thing (from Another World), when the disembodied hand of the alien lying under a lamp begins to clutch and un-clutch, under the horrified gaze of his human prey and adversaries.
When I was twelve my family and I had just returned to the United States from overseas. We went to visit my mom’s family in Texas. My cousin Bonnie and I were both horror movie fans, but cousin Betty – Bonnie’s little sister – and my little sister, Chantelle, were decidedly not. So Bonnie and I went, just the two of us, to a double feature of The Shining and Prom Night. It was just as fun as it sounds, although Bonnie missed most of both movies because she had her face covered in her hands and would stay in that position until I let her know that whatever horrible thing was going on had passed.
A year or so later, when I was thirteen, An American Werewolf in London came out. It seemed to be the werewolf movie I’d been waiting for all of my life, which, looking back, was only a few years, but when you’re an adolescent that seemed like a long time. Horror, humor, sex, and the most startling transformation I’d ever seen all made American Werewolf a practically perfect movie for my young teen-age self. The moment during the transformation when his face actually extends into a snout was worth the price of admission by itself. But to my mind, the most memorable scene has to be when David, the werewolf then in human form, meets his dead friend in a porno theatre and they discuss, with several other corpses, which is the best way to commit suicide.
The year after that, perhaps the one truly great monster movie about a creature that was invented in the 20th century (as opposed to werewolves, vampires and ghosts) was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Carpenter, like me, was a big fan of the 1951 film but his movie adhered more closely to Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell’s famed pulp novella.
The Thing has a by-now familiar story of not being well-received by critics or the public at the time, but undergoing a critical reassessment since. There is some thinking that coming out as it did just after Spielberg’s colossal mega-hit and instant cultural milestone, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the public wasn’t in the mood for another alien monster.
Well, the rest of the public, that is. I can remember sitting in a near-empty movie house, munching away on my popcorn, thinking, “What is everyone talking about? This is great!” (Not for the last time.) Anybody who’s seen the movie remembers its tension mounting like a screw turning, the still-extraordinary special effects (remember, no CGI), the defibrillator scene, and the grim, fatalistic ending. “ET go home,” indeed.
It’s not lost on me that Halloween, Alien, An American Werewolf in London and The Thing all came out when I was 10, 11, 13 and 14 years old, and that to this day they are among my all-time favorite horror movies. You could throw in a few others from that time period: The Fog, The Evil Dead, The Howling; movies that, buried as they are under layers of nostalgia, I can’t truly tell how they hold up.
People forget that The Silence of the Lambs was released on Valentine’s Day, and made for a heck of a date night. I saw The Blair Witch Project the night it hit theaters. It was packed house, and when the movie ended, there was complete silence. Nobody moved for what seemed like a full minute. Finally somebody exhaled, “Shit!” – and then the whole audience started buzzing. It’s too bad the hype train mauled its reputation in later years, but that opening night, no one had experienced anything quite like it.
I went on a double date to see the midnight showing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The house was so full people were sitting in the aisles. The movie was a lot of fun, but it convinced me the vampire was pretty much dead as a horror character and had been surreptitiously co-opted into the fantasy-romance genre, a grim fate indeed for what had formerly been one of the great monsters. There have been a few last gasps at re-instituting the fear factor to the vampire – Nadja, From Dusk Til Dawn, Let the Right One In, some others – but it’s going to be hard to break them out of the teen-angst hell of Twilight and True Blood.
But horror reinvents itself as often as any genre, and perhaps most nakedly reflects the neuroses, dreams, and psyche of its times. If Bram Stoker’s Dracula showed that one face of horror was irretrievably altered, other films came along to push horror in a new direction. The ’90s were a welcomed turning point in the history of horror films, and the creatures and monsters of nostalgia would have to make space for more diverse, immediate and relevant phantasmagoria of the 21st century.
“Kiri, kiri, kiri.” If you know, you know. See you next week, horror fans. Happy Halloween.
- Bobby Bermea: A piercing tale of horror. Jack Pierce and the invention of a Hollywood horror classic, the makeup and design of Frankenstein’s monster: Read Part 1 of Bermea’s series of Halloween essays.