Confessions of a lifelong fraidy-cat; or, Why I (mostly) can’t abide horror films

May 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 15, 2017

When I was a child, I would sometimes glimpse horror films on television. These brief exposures inevitably made my pulse race and usually left me terrified, regardless of whether the scene showed someone being harmed or even threatened.

Once when I was 10 years old, my family and I attended a family gathering at my Great-Uncle Paul and Great-Aunt Jesse’s apartment in Queens. (Or maybe I was 8 or 13. Who knows?) The apartment’s combined living room and dining room was full of people. But one moment, when I happened to be facing the TV, I saw something that made me feel completely alone and utterly vulnerable.

There was some old 1960s movie on; I remember it being in color, although I couldn’t even tell you if the scene I saw involved a Frankenstein’s monster coming to life or a vampiric woman awakening. In fact, I’m not even sure if the sound was on or off. But just watching a few seconds of this production frightened me to the core. I think one of my parents — my mother? — noticed that I was petrified and steered my attention somewhere else, or perhaps got someone to change the channel.

It’s a weird childhood trauma to remember, if trauma is indeed the right word for such a minor ordeal. And yet thinking back on that moment — muddled though my recall of it might be — I get terrified all over again.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve never much liked horror movies. All of the circumstances of my youth dictated against my ever getting to like them. My younger self was a huge fraidy-cat. No one in my family has ever had any fondness for the genre; nor do I remember any of my friends liking horror movies. My parents regulated my television watching fairly strictly until I was well into my teenage years (as was only proper). And unlike today, when YouTube enables anyone to view a mind-numbingly vast array of videos, the state of personal computing at the time afforded little access to any kind of pictures or video that would have helped me get comfortable with such movies.

It helped matters not at all that as I was on the cusp of adolescence, the horror genre was swamped by a tidal wave of slasher movies. Many of these graphic, gory features aped John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, and featured a disposable cast of teenagers being stalked and murdered in various ways. To put it mildly, this was not my thing.

To be fair, though, the wave of films that preceded slashers — gothic horror, which relied much more on atmosphere, suggestion and psychological suspense than on graphic makeup effects — was not my thing. And while we’re at it, the horror fad that preceded gothic — atomic monster movies — was not my thing, either.

I have, however, long been willing to make an exception for a certain horror subgenre. Longtime readers will know of my affinity for science-fiction horror.

I consumed the novelization of Alien not too long after that Ridley Scott cinematic masterpiece was released. I watched Scott’s film on a VHS home video cassette that I remember checking out from the local library sometime in the early 1980s. And my friend E— had a videotape — recorded off of a cable channel, I think — of Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, perhaps the second-greatest* example of the sci-fi/horror subgenre. I enjoyed both of these features, even though they also kind of freaked me out.

Actually, The Thing sort of violates my sci-fi/horror rule rule in that its narrative is wholly earthbound (although the threat is — spoilers for a 35-year-old movie! — indubitably alien). But otherwise, if a movie is set in space, if it or its makers seem capable of portraying space exploration convincingly, and if the film has some kind of alien killer or killers, I’m liable to watch it at some point or another.

There are plenty of examples on this blog: I’ve written about PrometheusGhosts of MarsRiddickAliens (naturally), Event HorizonSupernova and the indie film Infini. (Arguably, Red Planet and Saturn 3 also fall into this subgenre, although the former has a rather minimal horror component and there are no alien life forms in the latter, notwithstanding the bizarre co-perormance by Harvey Keitel and Roy Dotrice.)

There are other features along these lines that I’ve watched and enjoyed but not written about: Brian De Palma’s 2000 flop Mission to Mars, say, or the obscure gem Pandorum. (Then again, the horror content of the former movie is marginal and the latter one only kinda sorta has aliens).

There’s but a single respectably budgeted sci-fi/horror entry that I know of that I haven’t watched, although, even more than The Thing, this is an exception that proves my rule. Although the 10th entry in the Friday the 13th slasher franchise almost entirely takes place (a) in the future and (b) on a spaceship, I’ve never worked up the nerve to watch Jason X. But that’s consistent in a way because the sci-fi/horror ratio in Jason X is skewed heavily toward the latter genre, right? (Also, Jason X lacks aliens.)

Long story short: You won’t find me writing much about horror movies on this blog. But the genre will put in occasional appearances, all of which have certain common characteristics…


* (Behind Alien, natch.)

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