“WORLD TELEVISION PREMIERE” was a familiar and sometimes exciting phrase for kids in the early 1980s. It meant that you were going to watch a big budget, smash-hit Hollywood movie at home. Unless you had one of the four – FOUR! – premium stations, there were two ways to watch recent popular movies: You could go to the theater, or you could catch one on sychronous broadcast TV. I have a hazy memory of watching Mark Hamill introduce Star Wars on a little black and white set in my room as a preschooler. At the time it was kind of a big deal.
VCRs became available in affordable consumer models in the mid-1970s, but it took about 10 years for them to catch on. No one we knew had one until my folks bought one in 1985, right smack in the middle of the format war and the golden age of the local video shop. Overnight, it seemed like everyone else got one too.
Rod Serling’s immortal gift to mankind, The Twilight Zone, will forever reign as the king of television horror-SF anthologies. It will never be excelled. Zone had worthy contemporaries, too. The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents rightfully have taken their places among the legendary, One Step Beyond was available on Hulu for a while, and the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller was, until a couple years ago, airing late at night on one of the OTA subchannels.
That the bar for excellence was set so high so early did not deter later generations of TV producers, directors, showrunners, and writers. Many in the years since have striven to create their own unforgettable horror anthologies, and many indeed have succeeded. Every decade has its own standouts in the genre. Serling himself reloaded in the 1970s with Night Gallery, and people a bit younger than myself still speak affectionately of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? I’m confident that today there are thousands of American and British kids, mostly in their teens but a few maybe a bit younger, who turn off every light in the house before watching Black Mirror in deep, intent silence.
This blog at this stage however is concerned with the 1980s. We had our anthologies then too, and they were nothing to sneeze at. About the same time that I was struggling to find and later enjoying the finer titles in Tyler Elementary School’s library, I was also seeking every opportunity to be terrorized by television.
The library at John Tyler Elementary School was not a place of welcome. When I was in second grade, it became a battleground.
That’s a strange reminiscence from a librarian. My mom found it odd back then too that her son, who read everyday, loved the public library, and always left it with a pile of books, complained that he didn’t like the school library and couldn’t find anything to read there. I was quick to explain. There were books there that I wanted to read, but I wasn’t allowed to read them.
The school library was divided into three large sections. The low shelves under the windows held picture books and early readers for first- and second-graders. The floor-to-ceiling shelves facing the desk and lining the two alcoves across the reading area from the windows were for grades three and up, offering YA fiction and nonfiction. An additional wall of tall shelves on the east wall at the end of the reading area were off limits to everyone but fifth- and sixth-graders. And as far as the librarian Mrs. Huffle was concerned, those age restrictions were absolute.
How about a few movie reviews? That was, after all, the intent of starting my first website ten long years ago, and it’s the weekend prior to Halloween. You might be looking for something to watch some evening.
I’ve had the chance to watch several horror movies lately and the best of the bunch by far was American Fable, which is a chiller, a period drama, and a fairy tale. Before the backdrop of the Midwest farm crisis, Gitty, a tween-age girl, roams her family’s verdant but imperiled Wisconsin farm. From the living room television, friend of the working man Ronald Reagan pontificates that it is not the role of the federal government to intervene as family farmers default en masse, allowing large businesses to buy their homes and farms at a discount. (Someone has apparently used this speech to place the movie’s events in 1982.) Gitty’s father, Abe, voices the anxiety and resentment of the other side, listing a series of foreclosures and suicides among their neighbors. Abe is not going to let it happen to their farm, their home.
Folklore and urban legends have a verisimilitude no found footage movie or false document fiction could ever match, because we receive them from real people in the real, everyday world. A novel or film might be a window into another place or time, but the reader or viewer is aware they could close the window whenever they like. Even a true crime book or documentary offers that solace.
But when we’re told a true (or allegedly true) frightening tale in person, we’re not peering at a rectangle of printed words or projected light. We’re surrounded by material things that we can see and hear and touch – often our day-to-day surroundings. You can’t close the book against an escaped madman or vanishing hitchhiker because it “exists” in the real world that we inhabit and is placed in the context of daily life.
I don’t remember how or why I started hanging around with Kevin Tanner, but I remember we bonded over stories of Bigfoot, flying saucers, and psychic premonitions of the Titanic sinking. Kevin and his gift for storytelling are central to one of the most cringe-inducing memories of my childhood.
It’s funny how some things you did as a kid seemed like inviolable, era-spanning traditions, when in reality you only did them for a few years. The Creature Feature is a good example. When I was little, it felt like a Halloween ritual I had observed for years and years, but in reality it was three at the very most.
The Creature Feature was an annual airing of Creature from the Black Lagoon – in 3D – hosted by the Cool Ghoul, Cincinnati’s erstwhile Saturday night horror host, on WXIX. Or at least my parents called it “the Creature Feature,” and I remember it being Creature from the Black Lagoon every time. The internet offers no record of the Cool Ghoul’s 1980s Halloween specials or what they were called, and the Creature Feature was also the name of a Sunday afternoon movie presentation on WXIX during the Ghoul’s heyday in the 70s.
Maybe it was because my descent into near-panic a few months earlier watching Fantasia, or maybe they just wanted to introduce me to one of America’s finest institutions, but sometime during that same Summer of Cujo, when I was three years old, Mom and Dad decided to take me to a movie I could watch from the safety of our Skylark. It my was first visit to the drive-in movie theater.
Drive-ins were still plentiful around the Midwest in the early 1980s. One town away from where we lived, the Sky-View loomed over a back country crossroads. Not far off, the Colonial sat on a low strip of land between a two-lane state highway and the river. There were many others whose names I no longer recall. We went to the Holiday Auto Theatre, on a hilltop just west of town.
My Mom loved horror, and loved to read. The mass market paperback was made for her. She had stacks of them, usually in a brown paper grocery bag in her bedroom. Whenever she’d finish the last in a bunch, we’d walk a couple miles to a second hand bookstore to sell them and fill the bag with new ones. Whichever book she happened to be reading at any time, she’d keep on the left side of the vanity in her room. I thought they were neat because – this was the early 1980s – many of their covers had an opening that framed a face or a flame or some image, and when you opened that cover there was a second cover, and you’d see the small image you were looking at a moment ago was also part of a larger illustration. For instance, the front cover of a novel might have a drawing of a woman with red eyes, and when you opened the cover you would see the red was part of a second illustration of blood oozing from a wall.
One book cover in particular really caught my attention when I was three years old. It was summertime, so I probably found it on the vanity only a few months after having the life scared out of me by Fantasia. This cover didn’t have the “illustration behind the illustration” effect. As a matter of fact it didn’t have much of anything on it, but what was there was drawn to great effect.
No, Disney wasn’t always a behemoth. Disney, of course, used to be an actual person, a living, breathing artist who might have had some weird ideas about civil society, but was a bona fide creative genius who on occasion elevated animation to high art. Fantasia is one of those Disney films. Although Walt Disney didn’t direct any of Fantasia‘s eight segments, it was his idea to create a feature-length anthology of non-comedic animated shorts that would depict fantasies inspired by and set to great works of classical music, with the animation accompanying the music – not the other way around. It was like the 1940 equivalent of Heavy Metal or maybe Laser Floyd. My point is, for a variety of reasons, I think it’s safe to say this is a film that would not get made today. Disney used to push artistic and social boundaries.
My parents took me to see Fantasia during its 1982 theatrical run. I was three years old. I don’t remember where we saw it and neither does my Dad, though he suspects it was the then-giant seven-screen cineplex by the freeway. I have a fragmentary memory of passing a building with big, cuckoo-clock style figures over the door, which would indicate a downtown theater somewhere, but I might be conflating my memory of Fantasia with the Festhaus at Kings Island. I do remember the red curtain around the stage and the pink light cast on the screen as we waited and waited and waited for the movie to start. Dad hated to go to anything with a scheduled start time without arriving at least an hour early.
I remember bats swirling before me in the darkened theater. I remember a snarling mouth full of sharp canine teeth. I remember 3D glasses. I remember Vincent Price. I remember Daniel Cohen and Alvin Schwartz, and Stephen Gammell’s drawings of the eyeless, ethereal dead. I remember a basement and its cornucopia of horror movies on VHS. I remember the board and the planchette. I remember chainsaw chase-outs and Joe Bob Briggs. I remember a long drive home on an empty tree-lined backroad. I remember amusement parks shrouded in artificial fog. I remember propping the baby up to burp her when the lights went red and the gymnasium doors slammed shut.
Those are stories I like to recall, days I wish I could relive. They’re long gone now.
Or maybe they aren’t. There are new stories all the time, every year, and they’re all linked. Watching, reading, and even playing horror is a thread woven through every stage of my life, binding nearly all of the people, places, and events to the main fabric.
Roberts’ Rules of Horror will begin, then, with an attempt to restore flesh to the bones of memory. In the coming posts, I will recount my life as a horror fan through scores of movies, books, games, TV shows, and haunted attractions, from my earliest memories to now.