The Devil and Kevin Tanner (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 5)

Folklore and urban legends are fiction we choose to believe, enhanced by person-to-person transmission. If a novel or film can be said to be a window into another place or time, then surely some part of the mind recognizes the conduit of book or screen can be closed at will. Folk 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 world; not peering at a page or a rectangle of projected light, but immersed in and surrounded by the great limitless sphere of everything we can see and hear and feel, and everything behind and beyond that. You cannot close the book against the horror of an escaped madman or the mystery of a vanished hitchhiker because it exists in the real world that we inhabit – if you choose to believe the tale, or are gullible enough to accept it without question.

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.

I do remember I met him in first grade. We had the same teacher and rode the same bus, and by the time his birthday on Halloween rolled around, we were best friends. I went to his party dressed in a shark costume my Mom made. He was also the first kid other than my cousin Erin who came over to my house for a sleepover. Usually we’d play with some GI Joes, maybe Mom and Dad would take us to dinner somewhere or order pizza, we’d have a snack, watch a movie, and make a tent out of blankets. And, like normal little boys, we would whisper about alien abductions, the Kenneth Arnold incident, the actual guy from a long time ago who put sticks through people and might have been a vampire, and how you can be sure Bigfoot is real because the Indians have a word for him: Sasquatch.

What I wish I could remember is how the fuck did a couple six-year-olds know about that shit? How do two children barely out of kindergarten, learn about Betty and Barney Hill for fuck’s sake? I have no recollection. I do remember that as the next few years went by, Kevin outgrew those things but I didn’t. I did not, and they became an early wedge between myself and most of my classmates.

Our favorite discussion topic in those very first weeks of all-day schooling was the Bermuda Triangle. Bounded by Miami, San Juan, and Bermuda, tales tell of mysterious disappearances in this part of the Atlantic Ocean, possibly caused by magnetic anomalies, or by the submerged ruins of the once-mighty Atlantis, or by aliens, or perhaps by all three.

If you’ve heard any of these stories, you’ve heard of the disappearance of Flight 19. In December 1945, 14 men aboard five bombers took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on an eastward training flight over a patch of ocean that years later would gain the name “Bermuda Triangle.” The airmen lost their bearings and radioed for help determining their location. Their commander believed they had somehow ended up over the Florida Keys, and later that they were over the Gulf of Mexico. Intermittent radio contact over the next several hours revealed to personnel on land that Flight 19’s two compasses had stopped working and the airmen flew back and forth as the weather deteriorated, hoping to sight land and arguing betwixt themselves about which direction to go. In the last of their communiques heard on land, they planned to ditch into the ocean together as they expended the last of their fuel. The Navy sent rescuers to an area in the Atlantic a couple hundred miles east of Central Florida, where triangulation of their radio transmissions placed the planes. Among these rescuers was a bomber crewed by 13 men, PBM-5 BuNo 59225, which was lost to an apparent explosion. How did they get so lost? How is it that they never sighted land? Why did the compasses stop working? Isn’t it a big coincidence that one of the rescue planes was also lost?

I’ll grant that I have no explanation of why the compasses broke, and that losing a rescue plane too is a pretty unsual run of shitty luck, but Flight 19 fell into the ocean because they started out flying east, then got disoriented and thought they were somehow over the Florida Keys, and so started flying to the northeast hoping to reach South Florida – but in fact they were headed further out to sea. They never reached land while flying west because they were so far out over the ocean and didn’t go back far enough. As for PBM-5 BuNo 59225, the burning oil slick believed to represent it’s final resting place was far from the triangulated location of Flight 19 and not even over the Triangle.

Anyway. There are other stories like this, and many of them are similarly not so mysterious, but we’ll leave aside further discussion of Bermuda Triangle lore, because Kevin had additional stories about the Triangle of an entirely different and more frightening character. Stories that hinged upon its other name: The Devil’s Triangle.

Kevin and his family had recently taken a vacation in Florida, and there he had gained terrifying new knowledge of the Bermuda Triangle and the cause of all it’s unexplained phenomena. It was worse than Atlantean ruins or alien plane-nappers. Kevin was playing on the beach when something caught his eye. He stood and looked out into the Atlantic, out into the Triangle, at an island not far from the shore. And there, on the island, in the Triangle, there stood the goddamn Devil.

Or so Kevin said.

A storyteller is loath to relinquish a rapt audience, and so Kevin went on and on over the next several days with tales ever more terrifying about diabolism in the Devil’s Triangle. The final nightmare was the worst and hit closest to home – because it was literally close to home, in Kevin’s own backyard. Once again, Kevin had been playing outdoors when the air began to warm and the ground to quake, before a fissure opened in the earth, spewing smoke and heat. The Devil emerged, huge and scaly, and chased my horrified friend. Kevin hid in a shed in his yard as the Lord of Darkness strode back and forth in search of him, his every hoof-fall jolting the ground. The shaking intensified then abruptly stopped, and after several long moments Kevin emerged from hiding. The rift from which Satan had emerged had closed, but for three things: The tips of his horrid pitchfork protruding from the scorched dirt. There the Lord of Flies waited, there where Kevin played daily, there close by his bedroom window where he slept each night, there Satan would remain until the time was right to burst forth again, red and blazing, his trident flashing, his lupine grin dripping slaver, to snatch Kevin and carry him bodily into the burning bowels of Hell.

And if Satan had ranged all the way to Ohio from … Miami, Florida … what was to stop him from roaming around my hometown? I lived less than a mile from Kevin, and our school wasn’t far off. In light of Kevin’s revelations about the infernal attack on his backyard, it was obvious that no place was safe.

I would have been at home in Salem perhaps, 300 years earlier, among Puritans who feared the tread of the Dark Man in the wilderness around them. Satanic Panic was in full swing, and despite neither my parents nor our priest being the sort who spot Old Scratch behind every rock, tree, and album cover, the moral panic about Devil worship had somehow seeped into my intellectual drinking water. That Satan is real is Catholic dogma. That he bursts from the ground sporting horns and a goatee to drag children away is not, nor is his alleged massive global – and paradoxically secret – network of worshippers who put backmasked messages in heavy metal songs. But that rotten stuff was in my head too. The Reagan years were Godly years in the Heartland, and even if your parents didn’t haul you twice a week into the First Southern Fried Holy Rollin’ Spirits on Fire Church of Lookit Over There It’s the Devil Again, you were nonetheless liable to get the distinct impression that Lucifer and his agents were everywhere. So Kevin’s stories played to that.

It also has to be said though that as a boy I had no guile whatsoever. I was an only child and the streets near our house were way too busy for anyone to trust a 6-year-old to roam the neighborhood without getting hit by a car. Consequently I spent way more time around adults than other kids. The idea that another kid would tell a lie just for the hell of it never occurred to me. So everything Kevin said, I assumed to be the truth. The lesson I was about to learn would prove invaluable a year later when a prize-winner named Jared Little arrived at my school.

Whatever the reasons, Kevin’s stories were real and terrifying as far as I was concerned. Prior to Beelzebub’s Backyard Brou-ha-ha though, I had been able to manage my fear. Not after, and terror seized me immediately. Kevin told me the story at lunch, as usual. Also as usual, an hour or two later I poked along changing clothes after gym and found myself the last boy in the locker room. If the Man in the Red Pajamas was planning to take me – and let’s face it, he definitely probably was – this was his chance. I yanked my clothes on, heart crashing as I fumbled with the buttons of my shirt. I laced my shoes and bolted from a crouch into the hallway, narrowly avoiding the Prince of Hell.

I was still composing myself when Miss Hough, our gym teacher, noticed something amiss.

“Why is your shirt inside out?”

To put a shirt on inside out is one thing. To fucking button it is another. Miss Hough was justified in feeling this was curious indeed. She told me to go back into the locker room and put my shirt on rightside out. I then did something I had never done outside of home.

“No.” I flatly defied an adult.

Miss Hough was taken aback. Another kid, she probably would have yelled at; Miss Hough was more than able to summon the requisite demeanor to compel insubordinate grade-schoolers to shut up and do jumping jacks, and was not above grappling with the occasional kid who refused to relinquish a playground ball or perhaps another child’s shirt.

“Why don’t you want to go back into the locker room?”

“I don’t know.”

“Get back in there. Fix your shirt.”

I shook my head.

That she didn’t tee off on me, I can only ascribe to curiosity at my extremely uncharacteristic and perplexing refusal. The boys’ locker room at John Tyler Elementary School, in my defense, was not a pleasant or soothing environment. It stank to high Heaven, for one thing. The building was then 35 years old – my Mom had gone to school there two decades earlier – but bore the hallmarks of having been designed in one era, and retrofitted for a new one with an eye on avoiding expense. So whereas boys might have used the locker room shower in the 1950s, by the mid-80s elementary age kids weren’t required to do so and the showers were closed off with chicken wire and piled full of junk that still hadn’t completely settled and was prone to crash and creak ominously. There were ragged holes here and there where old fixtures had been pulled from the walls. It had other charms.

My brass-balled yet chickenshit disobedience elicited interested stares from my assembled classmates in the hall outside the locker rooms. The whole episode was so damn interesting, in fact, that Miss Hough shared it with Mrs. Mello, my first grade teacher. Back in class, with everyone seated she asked me, amused, why I refused to go back into the locker room. I shrugged.

“You don’t know?”

I shook my head.

“Your shirt’s still inside out. Isn’t that uncomfortable?”

“No. It’s fine.”

“Why wouldn’t you go fix it?”

I looked down at my desk. “I was scared.”

“Why were you scared?”

I grinned a little bit, pointed, and cringed – kind of like I’m cringing now. I pointed at the floor.

“What’s wrong with the floor?”

“Not the floor. The Devil.”

My classmates were delighted. Mrs. Mello was at a loss for something to say to a child who wouldn’t go into the boys’ lockers for fear of the Adversary. Kyle turned around and gave me a sheepish grin, acknowledging that we both had some explaining to do, not unlike earlier in the year when he taught me the word “fuck,” which I promptly went home and said loudly in front of my mother while she was on the phone with Mrs. Mello.

This is Kevin Tanner’s last appearance in my life as a horror fan. That was a surprising realization for me. Kevin was the first really close friend I made outside my family. But I guess we weren’t close friends for all that long.

We were classmates again in second grade. I remember our class put on a fairy tale themed play that year, and Kevin and I were two of Old King Cole’s fiddlers three. I also remember we hung around together a little less. I was becoming buddies with Jared Little and Kevin with a kid named Jeremy Valen, though they fucking fought all the time, including one truly cacophonous shit-fit in the middle of their act in a class talent show, during which I was sure they were about to fistfight. Kevin’s Dad and stepmom divorced sometime that year, so Kevin, his sister, and Mr. Tanner moved into a different house, near a different school. When third grade started at Tyler Elementary, Kevin was long gone.

Kevin came over to our house a few times a year between then and fifth grade or so. Mostly we’d play GI Joes or Nintendo or watch a movie. I was never invited to his house for some reason, except for one birthday party in first grade. Only that once. Despite his interest in the paranormal, horror wasn’t really Kevin’s thing. In fact, during one sleepover he got heavily freaked out and had to leave the room when the vampire gets out of his coffin on a cargo plane during the kiddie monster rally Monster Squad. It was a little bit of turnabout I guess, but it would have been more equal if it had happened in front of 25 of our peers.

As the idea of “popularity” began to emerge when we were preteens, Kevin became sort of a dick. He was was chosen to be one of the cool kids, which made him confident and a bit mocking. I was not, and that made me moody and prone to self doubt. Kevin started to find ways of leveraging my insecurities against me. One time close to the end of the friendship he cowed me into a patently lopsided ballcard trade. Dad and I dropped him off at his house – because Kevin’s Dad almost never came to pick him up, either – and Dad asked afterward why Kevin left with one of my higher value cards. I had to explain, which was embarrassing. Dad frowned and growled, “Have you learned your lesson about this kid yet?”

I had. I don’t believe I ever hung out with Kevin after that. Or at least not by choice; Mom forced me to invite him to my 11th birthday party. To this day, I have no idea why she had some stake in whether Kevin was going to be at my party. The next summer I ran into him at a weeklong basketball clinic, where he and his newer friends laughed at me – literally right in my face – for missing a lot of free throws. Months later he called my house and seemed confused that I hadn’t talked to him in a while and didn’t seem interested in hanging out or doing anything.

We ended up in a few of the same classes in high school, by which time he’d actually become a cool, interesting guy; loved beat poetry and Siddharta by Herman Hesse. We’d talk about books in our English classes, but we were never friends again.

How Ghoul Was My Valley (My Life as a Horror Fan, Part 4)

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 tradition 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.

Anyway, The Ghoul, whose real name was Dick Von Hoene, moved to a station in North Carolina sometime during the mid-1980s, and my parents certainly wouldn’t have let me stay up until 11 o’clock or midnight to watch it when I was a two-year-old. Three years old, maybe. So at most, I took in the annual Creature Feature three times, around 1983 to 1985.

coolghoul1zine1
The Cool Ghoul

I don’t remember the show itself as much as the excitement it generated. The Cool Ghoul was beloved throughout the Cincinnati area, even though his weekly show, Scream In, had been off the air since 1972 or so. He still did public appearances all over Cincy and the surrounding communities, and the Creature Feature (or whatever it was called) was hyped during damn near every commercial break on WXIX for the entire month of October.

Every promo reminded you that you could pick up your free 3D glasses at Arby’s. I remember sitting in the backseat of the Skylark at age 3 or 4, pulling through the drive-through with my parents, bursting with excitement to get my 3D specs and jamoca shake. Arby’s association with the Cool Ghoul was just one more reason to love the place, in my book. The one on our side of town had a glass tunnel over a carpeted ramp that led down from the counter and registers to the dining area. I loved to lay on my side and roll down the ramp, popping up at the bottom dusted with crumbs and the occasional smear of horseradish. My Mom was so enthused, let me tell you, she just loved it when I did that. Anyway, I concluded that Arby’s would be a terrific place to take shelter during a tornado because the dining area was sort of underground and they had great fries.

The picture in my mind as I rolled down a carpeted ramp at Arby's.
The picture in my mind as I rolled down a carpeted ramp at Arby’s.

The Cool Ghoul was one part Bela Lugosi, one part Bud Abbott, two parts Uncle Fester, and one part John Fred and his Playboy Band, or maybe Crazy Elephant. (Many thanks to Mom for the master class in 1960s one-hit wonders.) Like a lot of other horror hosts, the Ghoul was a happy jokester in Halloween regalia, but with the added twist that he was kind of a hippie. The word “longhair” certainly applied: The essence of his costume was a shoulder length reddish-orange wig as bright as a highway caution sign. He also wore heavy eye-shadow, a newsboy cap, and what looked like an open red cassock. His signature exclamation, still famous throughout Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky, was, “Bleagh! Bleagh! Bleeeeeeaaaaaagh! Bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl-bl…” A lot people can’t do it. I can. I practiced. The inserts – the hosted segments played during breaks in the movie – featured skits, pantomines, corny jokes, puppets, and movie trivia. Frequently mentioned but unseen until decades later was Gladys Purplelips, the Ghoul’s college sweetheart from Drain University. “That’s Drain U.” Also unseen was the Cool Ghoul’s “friend,” a Karloff-like voice provided by Von Hoene himself.

My relationship with the Ghoul as a kid was not all jokes and grins, however. Sure, he came on TV with concerned warnings about safe trick or treating, but I harbored suspicion that he might have a hidden, sinister side. Once, during a parade in my hometown, he looked right at me and made his “bleagh, bleagh, bleeeeaaaagh!” face as he rounded the corner of Market Street and Second, where my Dad and I stood in the colonnade outside Elder-Beerman. I just stared, unsure what to make of him. He seemed harmless but … there was all that makeup. I was just too young to understand horror host personae are supposed to parody the genre.

Years later I was able to grasp it. I got acquainted with other horror hosts, particularly Joe Bob Briggs and Svengoolie. I even got to interview and write a short newspaper story about the Cool Ghoul’s Dayton-based counterpart, Dr. Creep. Dr. Creep, at the time, was gearing up for a short public access run in the city where I was working. He was a good guy, working as a corrections officer in those days.

Dr. Creep was also reportedly known to cluster all the tornado symbols around Xenia on WKEF's weather map.
Dr. Creep was also reportedly known to cluster all the tornado symbols around Xenia on WKEF’s weather map.

As for the Cool Ghoul, he did one more Halloween comeback show on WXIX in 2002 or 2003. Mr. Von Hoene died in February 2004.

Footage of the Cool Ghoul is hard to come by – a documentary and a short promo congratulating Indianapolis’ Sammy Terry on his run at WTTV are about all the videos I’ve ever found online. Apparently, early Scream In inserts were broadcast live, so obviously there are no tapes of those episodes. As for the rest of Scream In, it was only on the air for two years, during a period when very few people owned VCRs. A bootleg of the Phantasmagorical Funky Fonograf Record, on the other hand, was fairly easy to track down. It was a 10-track 1971 album laden with jokes, puns, and parodies, on which the Ghoul is backed by a group called, I believe, the Crypt Creepers, and visited by his Friend, his father, and an admiring Scream-In fan. I got it from a buddy whose cousin has a vintage copy of the LP.

I miss the Cool Ghoul, which is curious because I don’t remember him very clearly. To be sure, some of that is just longing for things from my childhood. But I also lament the demise of locally created TV programming that brought an end to the hometown horror host. There was a point in time where just about every television market had one. Back in the day Cincinnati also had lots of other homegrown TV content: The Uncle Al Show, which I do remember, and The Skipper Ryle Show, which I don’t, and things for grown-ups too, like Nick Clooney’s midday variety program.

Within a few years of the Cool Ghoul’s departure for the Carolinas, Michael Flannery’s Club 19, an after-school block of cartoons on WXIX, was about the only local non-news programming. Eventually that was gone too. I guess it goes hand in hand with the disappearance of local restaurants and retailers in the face of ever encroaching national chains. RIP, Swallen’s and Hickory Hut. Long live United Dairy Farmers!

Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” There’s less and less there anywhere these days.

My Life as a Horror Fan (Part 3): Kiddo’s first drive-in double feature

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 Americana’s finest institutions, but sometime during that same Summer of Cujo, 1982, 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.

The screen at the Holiday Auto Theatre. outside my hometown.
The Holiday Auto Theatre, outside my hometown.

The first feature that night was The Secret of NIMH, a Don Bluth adaptation of a children’s book. Don Bluth was a name you knew if you were a child during the 1980s. It was repeated in the commercials for a string of successful animated features created by his eponymous studio, including NIMH, An American Tale, and The Land Before Time. Bluth and his crew were also behind the arcade game Dragon’s Lair, which spawned a Saturday morning cartoon from Ruby-Spears. Don Bluth Productions was sort of the DreamWorks Animation of its day, in that it produced quality animated features with big time distribution and competed toe-to-toe with Disney. Of course, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera were still standing tall in the face of the Mouse and releasing animated features back then too, so it’s not a perfect analogy. But I digress.

The Secret of NIMH is about a family of field mice facing a disaster – the annual springtime tilling of the field where they live in a nest within a cinderblock. One of Mrs. Jonathan Brisby’s children, Timmy, is very ill and too sick for the move, sending her on a quest for help from her animal neighbors, who possess uncanny intellect and are swayed by the memory of her late husband and the unexplained debt they owe him. How did these mice and rats get so smart? What did Jonathan Brisby have to do with them? Can they delay the farmer until Mrs. Brisby can move her family? There’s a scientific (albeit implausable) cause behind the animals’ human-like intelligence, which you can probably guess if you’re old enough to know your government acronyms. It does not, however, explain the working of magic and magical artifacts in the movie.

I remember it being a little bit scary, so of course I sat down to watch it with my kids. Like their dad, they seemed to find it very mildly spooky. I can see why, but I think the swirling fogs and vivid colors were meant to lend mystery rather than chills to the film’s otherworldly, bearded and glow-eyed rat-sage, Nicodemus. The Great Owl, on the other hand, was definitely supposed to be scary. Which is great actually. What could be scarier to a mouse than an owl? A cat, at least, doesn’t fly.

Bluth was a believer in older techniques used during the Golden Age of Animation of the mid-20th century, and the animator’s care and regard for tradition is apparent in how The Secret of NIMH looks. Just as memorable as the animation, however, are the performances of the distinguished actors who lent their voices to the film. Elizabeth Hartman finds a balance between plaintive and persistent as Mrs. Brisby, a timid soul who dares greatly on behalf of her son. The Great Owl and Nicodemus are voiced, respectively, by Shakespeareans John Carradine and Derek Jacobi. Dom Deluise, whose name was synonymous with funny during the late 1970s and early 1980s, is Jeremy the Crow. Wil Weaton and Shannen Doherty have smaller roles as two of the Brisby children.

deluise
Dom Deluise, the funniest man in movies for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

The second feature during my first evening at the drive-in was Clash of the Titans, the original one with Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress, which had been released the previous year. I have not seen Clash of the Titans in its entirety since, but I remember being immediately freaked out by its early scenes, in which the infant Perseus and his mother, Danae, are imprisoned in what I thought was a coffin and then thrown into the sea. I remember being fascinated by the enchanted weapons and armor crafted for Perseus by the Olympian Gods. I don’t remember watching his combat with Medussa or the Kraken that night, but I definitely remember Calibos, the vainglorious young prince turned into a hideous satyr by Zeus. I thought Calibos was the Devil, and I was terrified. Looking back, I have to wonder why I had such a well-formed idea at age three of who and what the Devil is. We attended Mass, but I hadn’t yet started CCD. Anyway, maybe Clash of the Titans is a movie I should *not* share with my children anytime soon.

calibos
Calibos. I forgot to mention the body hair. It’s like James Caan had a kid with Rondo Hatton.

The Holiday at that time still had speakers you hung on your rolled-down car window. I remember drifting off to sleep under a blanket in the back of the Skylark late that night, looking out the window at the twinkling stars and staying watchful in case Calibos might appear there, trying to quietly open the door and sneak into the car.

The the late 1980s and the decades after were harsh for drive-ins. The Colonial and the Sky-View both closed. The former deteriorated for ages along the riverside, its sign losing letters and very gradually collapsing, until the concrete company that has taken over its grounds finally, only a few years ago, tore down the battered, tilting colossus that had been its screen, removing the last vestige of the theater. The screen at the Sky-View likewise towered over a lot overgrown with weeds for at least twenty years. The Oakley Drive-In, far to the south, operated until the summer of 2005 but did not linger long after; it was quickly demolished to make room for an animal hospital.

The Holiday Auto Theatre endures, however. Taking me to the drive-in that night was a great decision on my parents’ part, and not just because upon our return to indoor theaters that winter my seat folded up while I was fucking sitting in it during the Gary Coleman vehicle Jimmy the Kid, which led me to demand to park my bony ass on someone’s lap at the movies for a year afterward. No, apart from the convenience of being able to sit on a non-folding car seat, I came to love the Holiday for dozens of other reasons: The clear, stary skies overhead, the abundantly stocked concession stand, memories of watching movies with my parents and later my wife, vintage cartoons and intermission reels, and all the other awesome movies I’ve seen there over the years – Labyrinth, An American Tale, North by Northwest, Dial M for MurderGone with the Wind, The Dark Knight, The Exorcist, Halloween, the Shining… I still return at least once a year for Terror at the Drive-In, their annual Halloween quadruple feature.

My Life as a Horror Fan (Part 2): Cujo, a paperback book cover review

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, 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 of the eyes 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.

cujo
If you look at it wrong, the nose is Scary Twisted E.T.’s head and the drool is slime. I was three, okay.

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 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 adults only, 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 have 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.

My Life as a Horror Fan (Part 1): Fantasia

Disney didn’t bowdlerize this one.

The first movie that ever frightened me was a Disney movie. Weird right? Well, let me explain. Disney wasn’t always a kiddie culture brand-colossus that churned out toothless, G-rated snoozes that dumbed-down their source material and bolted it onto a formula that combined toy-transferable heroes with wisecracking animal sidekicks and insidious, merciless earworms, pausing occasionally to buy up fresher companies or demand tribute from the government in the form of trademarks to fairy tales that have existed for centuries.

No, Disney wasn’t always a behemoth. In fact, Disney 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 genuis 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.

From the 1943 short Education For Death
For instance “Education for Death,” a propaganda short about the indoctrination of a sweet-eyed German cherub into the Hitler’s army.

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.

The only segment I remember watching that day was the last one, “Night on Bald Mountain.” There was a mountain, and the mountain had wings. It was a bat. No, it was the Devil! Bats and skeletons wheeled in a macabre riot as the Devil, bulging with muscles, smiled with delight, his horrible yellow eyes glowing. My heart raced as I gripped both armrests. I was frozen with terror.

Chernabog from Disney's Fantasia
It was looking at me.

This seems like the appropriate moment to begin the story of my lifetime of horror fandom. So I did what any intelligent and caring parent would do: I decided to show Fantasia to my three children and see if “Night on Bald Mountain” would scare the shit out of them too.

The film was a tough sell for the oldest, six-year-old Boo Boo Bear, from the very beginning. Her three-year-old sister, Caterpillar, was antsy. The movies and cartoons they watch don’t begin with a spoken introduction by a bookish emcee, nor silhouettes of a conductor and his orchestra in pink, orange, red, and blue.

“Dad, is this going to be music the whole time?” Boo Boo complained. I didn’t think we were going to get through “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”

Deems Taylor, emcee of Disney's Fantasia
Compare this scene from Fantasia
Sonic Boom
… with their baseline for cartoons.

Caterpillar burst with excitement at the sight of the first fairy in “The Nutcracker Suite.” This segment, with its dancing flowers, fish, and mushrooms, hooked them both. Their brother, Superman, age one, was also sucked in.

The kids were somewhat concerned about the wizard in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” They asked if he was a bad guy. I was explaining that he was just stern when the girls exploded with a shout of “MICKEY!” when the titular budding mage appeared. There were other dark moments throughout the film, for instance the dying dinosaurs in “The Rite of Spring” or Zeus hurling lightning during “The Pastoral Symphony.”

Arlo and Spot from The Good Dinosaur
Another comparison: Here’s a tender moment between Arlo and Spot in The Good Dinosaur

 

Fantasia Dinosaurs
… And here is the death agony of several Stegosauruses in Fantasia.

The penultimate segment is “Dance of the Hours,” with its manic ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. It’s wild fun, the aligators chasing after the other animals in a crazed dance that brings the house down. “Dance of the Hours” also sets viewers up for the gut punch, the segment that flies in the face of Disney’s more recent image as a squeaky clean company that makes dull, moralizing cartoons peppered with pop culture references to make sitting through them bearable for parents.

“Night on Bald Mountain” begins with night falling over a mountainside village. One crag towers over the others like the spire of some dark, blasphemous church. One leather wing darts out, then a second. Thus the horned demon Chrenabog reveals himself, perched atop the mountain.

He casts his hands down, and where his shadow falls bats and phantoms rise from town, graveyard, and murky lake. Wraiths astride skeleton horses gallop upward through the night. Flames erupt from a mountain cauldron beneath Chernobog’s infernal throne. Lesser devils emerge from the fire. Chernobog picks them up adoringly, as skeletons caper, before casting them back into the conflagration.

Skeletons and demons caper about the fire
Blazin’.

Three burning vixens appear then melt and twist into a wolf, a pig, and a goat. The echoes of ancient paganism are unmistakable. Flame and smoke fill the screen. Ghastly faces, skulls, and harpies with erect hot pink nipples fly directly at the viewer. Paganism and erect nipples. Erect, blazing pink nipples. In a Disney film.

Finally, a church bell peels as dawn begins to break. The ghosts and imps fall silent and Chernabog is dazed. Eventually he falls into slumber, as a procession of monks, singing “Ave Maria,” make a lantern-lit passage through the forest. This is how the segment ends, but for a little over 10 minutes, Diseny was metal as fuck.

Tenacious D
Even more metal than the motherfucking D.

So how did my kiddos do? Superman lost interest. He only pays half attention to anything they watch on TV, and this was the end of a feature film. He was smiling and playing with his toys. Boo Boo Bear made it through the segment, albeit with her arms crossed tight over her chest and her nervous eyes locked on the screen. Three-year-old Caterpillar, however, did what I could not do in that long ago darkened movie theater at the same age: She got up and noped the fuck out. As for me, I was left with a hankering to listen to Ghost.

Watching Fantasia again led me to reappraise my opinion of Disney movies. I really liked them when I was a little kid. I can remember going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and The Fox and the Hound, and I remember renting and repeatedly watching The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood on VHS. And now that I have kids of my own, I’ve seen some I either missed as a kid or forgot about as I got older, like The Aristocats, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland. Maybe not every one of those is what you’d call a classic, but it’s a damn fine list. Many of them are also evidence of a willingness to take creative risks. I don’t think anything like Dumbo‘s pink elephants scene would get into a Disney film today, and Bambi‘s revelation that the enemy is man would probably get squashed for being too dark.

And yet the same studio produced shit like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion KingHercules, and Tarzan. And then they followed a string of total crap with Lilo & Stitch, which was fucking awesome. What the hell happened during the 1980s and 1990s? Well, those years do mostly coincide with Michael Eisner’s tenure as Disney’s CEO. My opinion of Disney during those years was probably also darkened by my emergence into adolescence, and particularly my transition from “sweet little kid who tries to please everyone”to “future pissy, horror-obsessed, outcast teenage boy.” In school I was surrounded by a group of goody-goodies who continued to gush about Disney kiddie movies long after you might reasonably expect a person to outgrow them. They were the primary antagonists of my grade school years for a number of reasons. In the case of one girl, her mother was the leader of the local Upright God-Fearing Family Values Morality Police, and tended to clash with my Mom over things like trying to censor the Scholastic Book Fair, or proposals to have parent volunteers stand outside the school in the morning to catch kids swearing and report them.

But even realizing my own adolescent bias … I fucking hate Disney animated films from the mid-1980s and 1990s. They all seemed to combine a family friendly, no sharp edges story with an underdog who can succeed if he or she just looks inside and finds the something-or-other to try, one or two goofy but unfunny sidekicks, a memorable song, a product line, and a Happy Meal Toy. Aladdin was the worst, because in addition to all that horseshit, it had Robin Fucking Williams at the height of his “kid-safe but still outsized, manic and hammy as shit but not really funny oh God please don’t make me watch Hook again” phase.

But they’ve been good lately. Frozen kind of followed the 80s-90s template, but my daughters love it, so I have a soft spot. Wreck It Ralph was beautiful, hilarious, and novel. And maybe Disney’s purchases of other companies aren’t so horrible after all. Pixar movies are still good, and The Force Awakens was every bit the Star Wars movie I had waited 32 years to see, and it was amazing. You could say that was J.J. Abrams’ doing, but I’d counter that Disney let him have creative control. I still hate that Warner Bros. lost their battle for cartoon culture dominance to Disney, because Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck beat the living hell out of Mickey any day of the week, and they deserved better than to be second banana to the fucking Mouse.

Anyway. Fantasia was visionary and unflinching, and “Night on Bald Mountain” scared the living hell out of three-year-old me. It was my first encounter with the horror genre, and as I left the theater with Mom and Dad I wanted no more of Bald Mountain. The next encounter though was one I’d keep going back to.