When I was very young, I was into monsters: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, goblins, you name it, I ate it up with a spoon. There was no particular reason for this, and I don’t know that it made me that much different from a lot of boys my age. But I loved horror stories, ghost stories, monster movies, what have you. I couldn’t get enough.
I was also a voracious reader, a trait I inherited from my mother. One of my mother’s favorite books was and is Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Because I was still very young, and would, in fact, often get scared by the very media I sought out, my mom absolutely forbade me to read Dracula. So, naturally, I found a way to read it. I would wake up in the morning before my parents, creep downstairs and sneak Dracula off the bookshelf, then read as much as I could before they woke up.
It was hard to get through at first. It’s written in epistolary style, a complex combination of journal entries, letters, newspaper articles and transcriptions. Still, perseverance won out. And I did just fine, loving the little thrill of excitement I got when stuff happened, like when the mysterious horse driver pulls up next to the carriage carrying a breathless Jonathan Harker and tells them they should have known better than to try to outrun him, and one of the terrified passengers whispers, “Denn die Todten reiten schnell.” (“For the dead travel fast.”)
That was fantastic, but I could handle it. I knew who the driver was, and I knew what the passenger was scared of, and just that knowledge was delicious. And I remained in that state for days on end, enjoying my stolen moments of delightful dread.
Then there came the scene where Jonathan Harker, now fully aware that he is in the grasp of something terrible but who still knows-not-what (not having a century of pop culture explaining to him what vampires are), crawls into the room where Dracula’s coffin is. He finds Dracula lying inside.
Before this, he had known Dracula as a strong man but an elder one, with white hair and mustache. Now, his hair is iron grey. He seems gorged with blood, and his unmoving, malignant red eyes stare out at the world with a mocking glint. Repulsed, Harker finds a shovel lying around and goes to smash Dracula in the face — and right before he does so, Dracula’s head turns, and the eyes fall on Harker …
In the daytime, when I first read it, I was more or less fine. That was what I had come for, and it was great! But at night, when it was time to go to bed, I had to pay the price for my insubordination. Every shadow seemed darker than the night that surrounded it, and they all seemed to move at the corner of my eye. I could see Dracula’s face staring, bloated, his sharp teeth protruding over his blood-swelled lips. I was around seven or eight, so I was too old to crawl into my parents’ bed. So, I slept in the hall outside their door, and thankfully for what little self-esteem I had left, woke up before they did and returned to my room. I had done a number on myself, alright. And I had trouble sleeping for the next couple of nights.
Yet, I went back for more. That was a very dense book for me at that age. I had trouble understanding a lot of it, and a lot of complicated emotions that came with it. It took me a long time, but I made it through. I was driven. I don’t know what that desire – that need – is, or where it comes from. What is it about this kind of story that thrills me so much?
A week ago, when I wrote about some of my favorite horror movie experiences, one of my esteemed colleagues, the irrepressible Marty Hughley, commented frankly, “I just have no interest in horror as a genre. I feel as though I’m being manipulated, not enlightened or challenged. I see no point in it.” He’s not alone. For years, and maybe even to this day, horror was the bastard stepchild of the arts, relegated to pulp fiction, B-movies and comic books, looked down upon and sniffed at by the more “sophisticated” members of society.
Never mind that as august a shaper of the culture as William Shakespeare wrote all the time about ghosts, witches, and the supernatural, peppered throughout with exotic and sometimes breathtaking violence. By the 20th century, people of discernment and breeding didn’t partake in such ghoulish nonsense. I think often that the reason for the disdain has to do with the fact that horror, more than any other genre, is a manifestation of our collective neuroses, nightmares and plain bad taste, come to the fore. If it “enlightens” you, it’s an accident. There’s really no defending it.
Having said that, you can learn a lot about a society from its horror. There’s a reason why Dracula, the dark embodiment of repressed sexual desires that would steal your soul, arose and took hold in the Victorian era. It’s the same reason why, the more secular the society became, the more romantic a figure Dracula seemed. I remember the poster for the 1987 movie The Lost Boys said, “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Even though I was a teenager and enjoyed the movie, I understood that the threat of vampires, the danger, was, um, actually dead.
Likewise, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, was an exploration and explanation of aberrant human behavior and mental disorder. More than a century later, we understand and relate to Jekyll and Hyde in a way most people couldn’t have in the late 19th century. People who have never come near the book, or couldn’t make it through its rather florid prose, will readily describe someone as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality.
Frankenstein, written by the teen-age Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in the early 1800s, has become perhaps the central myth of contemporary Western culture, the 20th and 21st century version of Prometheus (its subtitle is, in fact, The Modern Prometheus) as we stand for the thousandth time on the brink of world destruction, staring into the abyss, brought to this cusp by humankind’s own naked intelligence, ability and ego.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees, the bogeymen from the Halloween and Friday the 13th film franchises respectively, became faceless symbols of an uncaring and hostile universe, inexorable and amoral – or the real-life serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, who were actually out there ( both of whom have been described as Jekyll and Hyde-types, by the way).
Devils, werewolves, vampires, goblins, and other creatures that were violations of the spiritual order – God’s law — have been replaced by zombies; impossible abominations of the new world order of science. Undoubtedly these shambling (or sprinting) grotesque hordes are a direct response to living on a planet with almost eight billion people.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out didn’t reveal anything to Black people they didn’t already know. The difference was that in 2017 white liberals were ready to look at a part of themselves they had always known was there but weren’t willing to talk about. (One criticism you never heard from anyone about that movie was that it was unrealistic.) Everybody got what Get Out was getting at, even if they didn’t always fully grasp the many meanings that Peele layered in.
The fact of the matter is, even though we have a much greater understanding of how the human body works and how the mechanics of the world around us operate, we’re still animals. After all, the bulk of that intellectual understanding of the human condition has come about only in the last millennium or so. For the previous 50,000 years, and before that, ever since we slithered out of the ocean, we were scared of the dark. Because that was where the duppys, demons and djinns were hiding. We might know more now, but all those emotions, instincts, passions, neuroses and obsessions that helped us survive long enough to pave a street haven’t gone anywhere. Those are needs that go back to prehensile tails.
All of this belies what I said earlier. There is no defending horror. It doesn’t need defending, anyway. Like comedy, whose basic, most fundamental goal is simply to make people laugh, with horror the only real intent is to frighten, though the fear can take many shapes and come in varying degrees. We want to ride on that rollercoaster.
I tend to feel that whatever that need is in me for the emotional jolt that is horror is similar to the burst of adrenaline that other people go for in, say, romance. It doesn’t bother me when people say they don’t get my desire for horror, because I don’t get their need for Bridgerton. But when I watch my partner watching it, and observe the visceral delight it brings her, I get that. It’s the same thrill I get from watching the riveting séance scene from J.A. Boyona’s 2007 film The Orphanage. Or Jeff Goldblum dissolve his donut with fly puke in David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
Years ago, when Evil Dead, a remake of Sam Raimi’s ’80s underground classic came out, I was super-excited. The Evil Dead had been one of the truly terrifying, unsettling movies I had ever seen, and I had high hopes for this one. My partner, loving, patient, and understanding woman that she is, didn’t want to go with me. Remembering that the original had been exceptionally gory and intense, I decided maybe that was okay.
But I could not find anyone else to go with me. To hell with it, I thought at the time, I’ll go alone. I actually don’t mind going to the movies alone. Heck, sometimes I prefer it. Knowing how excited I was, Jamie, my partner, called me when I was on my way to the theater and asked who I had found to go with me. When I told her no one, she changed her mind and offered to come. Always down for the party, I said, hell yeah.
Now, in the original The Evil Dead, there is a scene where a young woman is >ahem< sexually assaulted … by a tree. You might think you couldn’t up the ante on a scene like this. You’d be wrong. Two minutes before we got to that part in the movie I recognized what was about to happen. But of course, it was too late. When those few gruesome, revolting, unbearably elastic and absolutely indefensible minutes were over I could feel my partner turn and stare at me like, “Really?”
What could I say? There’s no defending it. It sucked, too, because, as I said, I’d asked other friends. Since then I’ve found a group of friends who have this same macabre gene I have, and my partner is eternally grateful. But I’ve never forgotten the reaction of one friend when offered my invitation to Evil Dead. “Bobby,” he said, laughing, “I don’t need that in my life.”
But I do. And I always have.
- 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.
- Bobby Bermea: O, the (lovely) horror of it all! A television host called The Bowman Body opened the creaking lid to an overflowing casket of horror films – and a fascinated boy discovered a lifelong passion. Read Part 2 of Bermea’s series of Halloween essays.
- Bobby Bermea: A little ‘Candyman’ in your trick-or-treat bag. The 1992 movie raised the stakes on horror films by casting a Black man as the villain and, like 1999’s Japanese “Audition,” giving a glimpse of the future. Read Part 3 of Bermea’s quartet of Halloween essays.