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.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It seemed to be an alien or monster, kind of like E.T., but mean and scary, and covered in slime. There were pointy things on it’s neck or body. Years later I’d realize it was a dog’s snout, its lips pulled back in a frothy snarl. This was Mom’s copy of Cujo.
It horrified me. And I couldn’t stop looking at it. What’s wrong with E.T.? Why is he twisty and slimy? Is it him? Or is it a different E.T., a bad one? Could he get me? IS HE GOING TO COME GET ME IN MY BED AT NIGHT?
It turns out he could and did. I had nightmares about the thing, I mean. I dreamed it was chasing me. In the dreams it was huge, and it made wet noises as it glided across floors behind me, just inches from my heels. If it caught me, it would eat me, I was sure.
And yet… Mom was recovering from cancer at the time, and she was worn out a lot. She’d take naps on the couch after lunch when my cartoons were on. During the Summer of Cujo I’d sneak into her bedroom while she slept and get the book from the vanity. I’d look at it. Stare at it. Then put it back.
There was a part of me even then that wondered why I kept looking at this thing. It was scary, and I realized it was the source of some of my bad dreams. If you’re a horror fan and you’re not too jaded to be impervious to every book, movie, and tale you encounter, this is the question you spend your entire life trying to answer: Why do I watch and read this stuff that scares me? Why do I like being scared?
Stephen King wrote, in Danse Macabre, that the horror genre lets us confront our fears in a safe way, with the additional protection of being in the company of other readers and viewers. We confront the fear and whether the tale ends well or badly for its protagonists, we are intact and unharmed. We faced the monster and lived.
I would add to King’s assessment that horror offers powerful ways to distill big, broad, global fears – our apprehension and anxiety about family, society, the future, government, institutions, and just people who aren’t part of our own group – into a single bogeyman to stalk and slash through blood-drenched morality plays. Take for example the movie Halloween (1978). If you understand that babysitting is, figuratively, a dress rehearsal for parenthood, and drinking, smoking, and sex are behaviors for grown ups, you can see that Michael Myers embodies the looming adulthood of the movie’s teen characters, and the peril they face as they take the final steps toward a future they might not be entirely prepared for. Michael kills those who reach for things they haven’t matured into. Steadfast Laurie Strode, however, survives by not repeating the mistakes of her friends.
But the need for a metaphor is definitely not why I spent so much of my fourth summer staring at what I believed was E.T.’s deformed, child-eating cousin. I don’t much think I did it for the thrill of gazing at the monster and surviving either. That brings us to a third appeal factor: Horror fandom correlates to a tendency toward thrill-seeking. So it could be our physiological reaction to horror that keeps the fans coming back.
I wasn’t what you’d call a thrill-seeker as a little kid though, as the next several posts will probably illustrate. During adolescence I developed a love of roller coasters, legend trips, and driving with my foot firmly on the floor. As a kid, however, I was afraid to watch Scooby-Doo. My obsession with Cujo as a three-year-old remains a mystery, even to me.