I sat at the kitchen table, playing with my Matchbox cars, while my mom made supper. My mind drifted to a Tom & Jerry episode in which Tom, while chasing Jerry, keeps dying and going to hell. He rides a winding escalator down into a massive, fiery cavern, where a bulldog devil tallies how many of his nine lives Tom has used, then sends Tom back to chase again. He rides that winding escalator back to the above-ground world, and the cycle continues.
This worried me. If hell was real, and if there was indeed a simple people-mover that ferried people back and forth, couldn’t the Devil ride it back and forth too? Couldn’t he just come on up to this world, pop in for a visit?
“What if…the devil comes up here someday? And walks around and stuff.”
She didn’t pause much. “Oh, honey. The devil’s just the part of people that makes them do bad things.”
My mother was raised Southern Baptist, went to church every Sunday, played the organ in a small town where she had at least 12 aunts and uncles and just as many cousins in rural Gloucester County, Virginia. Their devoutness, as I remember it, was low-key, a sort of mild-mannered Evangelism. They didn’t carry on or holler or condemn, but they were there every Sunday, singing hymns. And they were serious: God was real and, I assumed, the Devil was real too—there, far below the earth’s surface in that seething cave.
And here was my mom telling me the Devil was just a metaphor, defying what I saw as her regional literalism and giving me just plain old good news. Such relief: no guy in a red suit with horns, an angular mustache, and a pitchfork, no cave, no fire, not even that winding escalator. Nobody to imagine and fear underground, no escalator, no burning. Nope, all’s well, little boy.
The Devil’s just a part of us—people in general, my mother herself, and even first grade me. In a single sentence, my mom had demonstrated a certain sophistication, given her child comfort, and scared the living hell out of him.
In “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King says, “The potential lyncher is in almost all of us.” He softens it just a touch with that “potential” and “almost,” but it’s still pretty ominous.
He echoes Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, how tragedy performs a social function by helping the audience collectively purge negative “anticivilization emotions,” particularly aggression. In those days, the audience did this by watching a play in which a baby is born to parents who abandon him in the mountains because of a prophecy, so he grows up to kill his father, defeat a monster, become king, fuck his mother, have kids with her, and eventually stop listening to anyone’s reasonable advice because he has been in a lifelong cycle of abandonment and being a savior.
When Oedipus finally realizes all of that, he stabs out his own eyes, the moment described by a messenger:
I would blot out from my mind what happened next!
For the King ripped from her [his mother/wife] gown the golden brooches
That were her ornament, and raised them, and plunged them down
Straight into his own eyeballs, crying, “No more.
No more shall you look on the misery about me,
The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have known
The faces of those whom I should never have seen,
Too long been blind to those for whom I was searching!
From this hour, go in darkness!” And as he spoke,
He struck at his eyes—not once, but many times;
And the blood spattered his beard,
Bursting from his ruined sockets like red hail.
Aristotle says it helps us to watch that kind of thing, and it is a useful test: if we’re at least a little bit shocked and grossed out, then we’re normal. If not, then we need some help. King says horror movies’ function is, in part, and ironically, one of reassurance. We watch in order “to re-establish our feelings of essential normality” by a kind of spectator-spectacle comparison. In other words, when we watch someone get butchered on screen and go, “Wow, that’s messed up,” that’s a good sign; some movies are so freaky they make us feel more normal. Horror is one way to acknowledge our darkness, purge (at least temporarily) that darkness, and calibrate the aftermath.
By collectively witnessing fictional horror, we rev ourselves up—together, importantly—and face what each of us—individually—are: capable of evil, including hurting those closest to us. Just think of Medea killing her children offstage to get back at her adulterous husband Jason:
CHILDREN’S VOICES: Help, help! Mother, let me go! Mother, don’t kill us! […] Help, help, for the gods’ sake! She is killing us! We can’t escape from her sword!
There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 crime film Reservoir Dogs in which a Mr. Blonde tortures a police officer, Nash, who is being held hostage in a warehouse. With the officer gagged and tied to a chair and Stealers’ Wheels 1973 hit “Stuck in the Middle with You” playing on the radio, Blonde dances and slashes with a straight razor, then crouches, grabbing the side of Nash’s head. Moments later, Blonde holds the Officer Nash’s severed ear in his hands, sardonically talking into it.
When Blonde actually lunges to cut Nash’s ear, however, the camera pans away to the corner where the walls and ceiling of the warehouse meet, an innocuous enough subject for a shot, where we look at, really, nothing for 11 seconds, while we listen to a man grunt and scream, knowing that his ear is being cut off.
In both of the ancient examples, the moment of ultimate horror occurs offstage. In one case, it is described by a kind of anonymous witness, an everyday messenger. In Tarantino’s example, we are similarly taken offstage by the camera’s shift of subject. The camera quietly breaks its invisibility in that meta-moment where we are suddenly aware of film’s artifice, the deliberateness of a director allowing us to sense certain things but not others. We look at a corner of a warehouse, picturing a severance; we watch and listen to a messenger, and visualize a graphic self-blinding. We listen to the sound of those children wailing over there and visualize in here, in the mind, what’s going on. And the monster is conjured within us.
A group of boys lost on a deserted island have an urgent meeting to discuss what they believe is a beast in the jungle. One of them, Simon, says, “Maybe it’s only us.”
In 1994, Johnny Cash sits on a stool amidst a studio audience, strumming, singing a song by Nick Lowe:
The beast in me
has had to learn to lie with pain
and how to shelter from the rain
and in the twinkling of an eye
might have to be restrained.
God help the beast in me.
Other than his voice and acoustic guitar, complete silence. Other than one man nodding, total stillness—a couple of people smiling, one woman leaning markedly away from Cash.
My folks separated in late August 1986; my dad left 249 Amberly Road the day before I started junior high school. My mom became friends with Janice, the woman who ran the local chapter of PWP, Parents Without Partners, a support group of divorcees and their children. She needed support, both for herself and for me, her shy only child.
She too was an only child. The day before she turned 30, in 1978, her mother died. Within just a few years, her father had remarried, which caused another silent crack in her. And a few years after that, her marriage of 16 years ended.
What would we do now that one-third of the people in our home were suddenly gone, and just two wounded only children remained to recalibrate everything? It was like we all split into new relationships, with the same people: my new relationship with my dad without my mom around; my new relationship with my mom without my dad around; my mom-and-dad’s changing relationship with each other; my new relationship with myself. It wasn’t so much that everything was new; everyone was new.
Chuck was Janice’s son, and in some ways we could’ve been each other’s double: we were the same age, flabby, with sandy hair and dark circles under our eyes. Still, the only private moment we ever shared, the only time either of us let his guard down, was the time he brought me up to his room, pulled out a handful of magazines from under his bed, and started flipping through one, showing me.
“Her name’s Sandy,” he said, of one blond, tan, white woman, naked on a beach, kneeling in profile, her hips canted toward us. Then his mom called us back downstairs.
In 1985’s Heaven Help Us!, Wallace Shawn has a shining scene as Father Abruzzi, offering wise words of caution before a Catholic high school dance, after writing L-U-S-T on the chalkboard that’s been wheeled into the gym:
There is a beast living within each and every one of you! A filthy beast! Whose name is…? [He thrusts his arm toward the word on the chalkboard behind him; the students mutter it aloud.] Yes, ladies and gentlemen, lust is the beast within each and every one of you…the beast that wants to consume you…and then spit you out into the eternal fires of hell, where for all eternity your flesh will be ripped from your body by grotesque serpents with razor sharp teeth! [The students grimace.] Where for all eternity your blood will boil, your bones will burn, and your marrow will be reduced to a putrid black slime! [He is screaming now, slightly lisping, occasionally spitting, and ends with a sneer.] And for what? For a few moments of weakness, in which you admired the shape of someone’s buttocks. [One student smirks.] Any questions? [Of course not.] Very well then. Have a good time, enjoy the dance, and I’ll see you all next week.
My dad and I first saw a clip of this speech on a hotel TV while on vacation in Colorado. My mom slept as my dad and I laughed and imitated Shawn’s spectacle. This was the summer of 1986, the last trip we took as a family.
Chuck’s sister Laura was in 10th grade at Green Run High School, where my mom worked in the main office dealing with 3000 kids, and lots of drugs and weapons. I had a crush on Laura and for one afternoon, I believed she wanted me back, despite my being 12.
PWP gave parents and their kids a support network. Every two weeks, the grown-ups got together, just to talk about how things were going, and about every month or so there was some kind of outing or get together for the kids.
One such trip was to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, an hour away from our home in Virginia Beach. Maybe ten of us rode in a passenger van, and I did grow into some courage that day, riding the Loch Ness Monster, with its two loops I’d always been afraid to ride in my previous visits as a child. But that day, I couldn’t get enough, riding it and the tamer but still fun Big Bad Wolf all day long.
On the way home, Laura insisted on sitting on my lap for the hour ride. She never leaned back, but we talked the whole way home, and she’d occasionally turn around and smile. She sat upright, and she was warm. She had to know I was hard, and I swore that, a couple of times, she gave her hips a slow, slight writhe.
Or was it just me, twelve and growing into desire, transposing fantasy into reality? No one else seemed to notice.
For another PWP event, there was a Halloween party at Chuck and Laura’s house, where we’d dress up, watch scary movies together, have snacks. We watched Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and another I don’t recall. Seven hours of scared, broken young people watching scared young people get broken up by someone else who had, at some point, in some way, been broken up.
Aside from the unknown fourth movie, I don’t really remember Halloween except for the music, and I remember only a few fragments of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
A young woman in dark woods, blinded by the killer’s flashlight.
An old man on a bike warning the young people. I sensed a tremor in his voice and mind, like all the old people I saw in nursing homes or apartment buildings in Norfolk.
A devastated, grieving, maniacal mother, her hilariously horrible acting, how so little of the double plot-twists made sense but still wigged us out.
I remember a lake that made me think of the lake in western Virginia where my parents and I used to camp, how the dead boy was still alive.
I remember how he was ready to make the living dead, even that last survivor, the one who lived.
A bloody girl screaming and struggling against an invisible force dragging her up a bedroom wall and across the ceiling.
A geyser of blood opening on a teenager’s bed, shooting torrents against the ceiling where it spreads and spreads.
A child molester with his burnt face and an old-school Fedora, locking eyes with a girl in an alley, raising his demented red-and-black striped sweater and swiping his stomach open with steel claws. I remember how his green guts spilled out as he still stared at her. Look at me. Look at this.
I remember how sometimes in the first weeks of my parents’ separation, my mom and I hugged and wept on the sofa, how primal it felt, like we were living in an old vision, an archetype, or a lucid dream.
I remember my dad asking me once, in his truck on the way to baseball practice, “Do you hate me for what I’ve done?”
I split open but was silent.
Finally, I managed to sob, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
In “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” poet Nathaniel Mackey describes how, for the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, music and poetic language
…arise from a breach in human solidarity, a violation of kinship, community, connection. […] [This] is founded on the myth regarding the origin of music, the myth of the boy who became a muni bird. The myth tells of a boy who goes to catch crayfish with his older sister. He catches none and repeatedly begs for those caught by his sister, who again and again refuses his request. Finally he catches a shrimp and puts it over his nose, causing it to turn a bright purple red, the color of a muni bird’s beak. His hands turn into wings and when he opens his mouth to speak the falsetto cry of a muni bird comes out. As he flies away, his sister begs him to come back and have some of the crayfish but his cries continue and become a song, semi-wept, semi-sung: “Your crayfish you didn’t give me. I have no sister. I’m hungry…” For the Kaluli, then, the quintessential source of music is the orphan’s ordeal—an orphan being anyone denied kinship, social sustenance, anyone who suffers, to use Orlando Patterson’s phrase, “social death.” (231-232).
The story goes that my mother found out where his girlfriend lived and tracked them both down. She drove around the complex until she found his silver pickup truck—years later, it became my truck—and walked up to the door. She told me she saw them through the storm door, along with the woman’s sister, the three of them laughing and drinking wine. She knocked and one of the women came to the door.
“Are you Julie Logan?”
“Uh, no.” My mother saw her husband’s face freeze. The woman who answered—Julie’s sister—went to get Julie, who then came to the door, confirmed her identity, and my mother said, “I just wanted to see what you looked like.”
She turned around, took a quick minute to write lipstick profanities on my dad’s truck—years later, it became my truck—and drove off.
God help me, for the PWP Halloween party, I decided to dress up as Curly from The Three Stooges. I had hours of their shows taped, having shifted from Saturday morning cartoons to Saturday morning slapstick.
My mom helped me find an old grey polyester suit of my dad’s from the 70s in the back of my closet—there was still a little section of hung clothes in my closet that were his—and we bought a cheap bald cap from the People’s drugstore, which had a little Halloween section in the seasonal aisle.
It is easily the worst Halloween costume of my life, clearly failing on a technical level, since no one knew who the hell I was. I was just a kid wearing an unfashionable suit and a cheap bald cap that couldn’t quite hold down my wavy hair.
It is also the saddest costume of my life, two months after the separation and literally wearing my father’s clothes, trying to figure out if I hated anybody, who, how much, why, and what to do with all that mangled pain.
A few weeks after the incident on Julie’s doorstep, my Aunt Nancy had been visiting from Germany, and I rode with my grandmother and Aunt Diane to take Nancy to the airport and say goodbye. My dad worked at Norfolk International Airport for 25 years, so his sisters, mother, and I could see him too, and I would then ride with him back to his place at Chick’s Beach for an overnight “visitation.”
Waiting to watch Nancy’s plane take off, Diane covertly pointed to a woman at one of the nearby gates. “That’s her. That’s Julie.”
I don’t know what she intended by telling me this, and I don’t know what came over me, but I walked to Julie’s gate. My dad appeared, perhaps sensing something, said jovially, “Hey, boy!” I think I just glanced at him.
“Are you Julie Logan?”
Aunt Diane slid up beside me.
“Yes,” Julie said. She was so polite.
“I think my mom said this to you once: I just wanted to see what you looked like.”
Her smile melted, my dad’s lips pursed, and Diane, dead thirty years now, put her left arm on my twelve-year-old shoulders. “Oh, honey…”
Anticivilization emotions: the urge to hurt, destroy, fracture, dismember. The desire to embrace chaos, to surrender, with teeth bared.
Later in the truck, just the two of us, he tells me, “You embarrassed her and you embarrassed me. I know you’re a better boy than that. I think you felt hurt and wanted to hurt something back.”
“Well, I’m sorry I embarrassed you, but I’m not sorry I embarrassed her.” When did I finally learn about deflection, projection?
I told my mother about it all the next day.
“Good. Now maybe they know something like how it feels.” I felt strangely proud, vindicated by her bitter, wounded approval.
King says one reason we watch horror movies is simply “To show that we can, that we are not afraid.” I was afraid of going to the party because I was afraid of scary movies, and I was afraid of being scared in front of Laura and the other kids. I knew I was in for perhaps dozens of screen-deaths, and I was worried nauseous until the first screen-death actually happened. I wish I could remember it, but I do remember feeling jolted, and then thinking it wasn’t so bad after all. The second death came and I nodded, thinking, “Ok, maybe I can handle this.”
By the second movie, I was laughing, and by the third I had joined the others in talking shit to those stupid teenagers we were grateful to judge. We came under the spell of disposition alignment, such a common phenomenon in horror audiences: our natural alignment with the “good guy” gets repositioned such that we root for the sociopath (Hess).
“Don’t go in there, dumbass! Oh, you went in. You’re so fucking stupid you deserve to get all impaled and shit.”
Or maybe some of the people that get killed are pretty bad themselves, and it seems not just a demented pleasure to cheerfully glory in their death, but only right that such people would be served bloody justice.
“You’re a shallow, lying asshole anyway, you should get more than just an axe to the crotch.”
I joined in on such dissertations, but I found myself not really feeling much of anything about the villains or the victims; the protagonist I was really watching was myself. I monitored my own levels of fear, disgust, relief, or confidence as I watched teenager after teenager get torn apart.
We lampooned the neat, predictable morality that Sharon Begley writes is one attraction of horror movies. Oblivious teenagers acting irresponsibly? Killed. Drinking beer? Knifed. Smoking pot? Axed. Having sex? An arrow through the throat.
We’d all spent our childhoods with Nancy Reagan telling us to “Just Say No” to drugs and alcohol, as our parents consumed plenty, as we too ultimately would. The morality of substances, adultery, verbal or physical abuse, and changing perspectives on our families—all that was anything but neat and predictable that fall.
Later in the school year, my mom told me that Laura was in the hospital. It had something to do with her boyfriend being abusive. I wonder now if her father had abused her mother, and she was reliving those patterns, but I know that’s just speculation.
Then again, one of the few things my mom told me early on about my dad in the divorce was that he was emotionally abusive. The harshest thing she told me was an argument they had after they’d decided to separate when he said, “No one else will ever love you. No one else is going to want you.”
In the 2007 mini-documentary View from the Overlook: Crafting “The Shining,” director Hugh Hudson says, “Horror actually is across the dinner table, across the breakfast table. Horror is in the family—it can be, and often is. And it’s always hidden, it’s always repressed, it’s too frightening for us to think that it’s somewhere at home, but it is. And that’s what The Shining is about.”
He had always been the All-American working-class kind of guy. He loved to camp, fish, work outdoors, drink beer, grill. We threw the football around the backyard, with him narrating and playing his childhood hero Sonny Jurgensen and me playing mine, Art Monk.
We’re facing our rival Dallas Cowboys for the NFC championship, down a field goal with seconds remaining. He mimes snapping the ball to himself, and I run a couple of short in- or post patterns for quick first downs. Then I run an out pattern to tippy-toe out of bounds towards our backyard-neighbors, out of bounds, into the flowerbeds, stopping the clock. Inevitably, it ends with a final bomb to the far corner of the yard, my father’s magnificent arc spiraling down towards me. I catch it, fall, rise, and we run towards each other and high-five, two players from different generations, playing out of time together.
He worked hard. The warehouse at Sears, then as a salesman, later at Montgomery Ward’s, at one point working at both places—all of that from 1970 when he and my mom married until around 1980 when he got a job at the airport in Norfolk, where he often had crazy hours. 3pm to midnight, 6am-3pm, overtime, sometimes with weekdays as his days off. It seemed like I never knew when he was around. He helped take care of his mother, who had divorced in 1980, and her house on Allyne Road, just a half mile from ours; he was estranged from his own father. He was handling a lot. He worked in our yard, and I’d help sometimes, but when he worked in the garage or on anything mechanical, all I could really do was hold the light. I remember him napping a lot, by the woodstove.
The divorce showed me a side of him I didn’t know: the classic, traditional, good father I knew was (and is) real—it wasn’t some disguise—but there was also this other guy, one with some darkness, who was also real.
Couple all of that with the turbulence of anyone’s adolescence, and when an introspective only child like me looks at himself, he wonders what any of our surfaces mean.
Decades later, I learned from Heather McHugh’s poem “Etymological Dirge” that our word “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning the masks ancient actors wore. To be a person is to be, or at least occasionally wear—or be—a mask.
My Curly costume had no mask. My face was mine, but nothing else was.
How my mother must have cringed: my twelve-year-old awkwardness, that pathetic bald cap, the idea of her shy son going to watch horror movies with a dozen other teens, her cheating ex-husband’s suit on her son’s changing body, as if I were a Jungian shadow of him, or a walking Freudian example of the uncanny, caught in an eerie conflict between id and ego, the primitive and the civilized (Hess), every moment tangled up in my own, my parents’, and all of our perpetual struggle: “I know this isn’t right, but it feels so good.”
When I started junior high school, I was scared of the usual things: the “big kids,” embarrassing myself, and who I’d sit with at lunch. I wound up quickly making casual friendships with two other anonymous types in my math class, so we sat together at lunch. One of them, Greg, started making mix tapes for me of various metal and hard rock bands: Megadeth, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Danzig. We also sat at the opposite end of the lunch table of several “grits.”
These were the long-haired kids who wore jeans jackets with Slayer or Black Sabbath patches, whose parents all seemed to have been divorced forever, who had smoked since elementary school, who carried switchblades, who got into fistfights, who were terrifying to me, but somehow decided to tolerate us. No threats, no swirlies, no mean looks. No conversations either, but we often shared a quick head-nod.
Between observing the grits’ t-shirts or jacket patches and Greg’s tapes, and occasionally watching Headbangers’ Ball on MTV, I started to see an extra dimension to all the surface-scares. Danzig was into comic books. Maiden wrote about history. Megadeth sang—viciously—about heartbreak, suicide, political and religious corruption. Sabbath was just cool, plus if you read some of their lyrics, you’d find all sorts of love and peace and compassion, right there with the dark sound, like hippy metal.
In a letter, Rilke urges Franz Kappus, eight years his junior, “Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.” Again, people weren’t only what they seemed to be. The grits were not just street warriors, but the working class wounded. Years later, I learned through a mutual friend about some of Greg’s family issues, his gangly sarcasm partially a cover for his own wounds. Some mornings, his breath smelled like puke.
Significantly, when Oedipus defeats the Sphinx, he does so by thinking like it. He has just come to manhood, and is on the threshold between conventional thinking, where everyone else seems to be getting themselves killed, and metaphorical thinking, which will save his own life as well as that of the city. Solving the riddle requires him to transcend the obvious, to push his mind beyond the literal, so the monster essentially pulls Oedipus out of his old self and into something more.
To defeat the monster, you have to think like one, and like any rite of passage, there is no growth without fear.
Furthermore, the center of the Sphinx’s terrorizing of Thebes is not really physical, but psychological. A lion with eagle wings, the head of a woman, and sometimes a serpent’s tail, guards the city of Thebes, not letting anyone in or out, posing a riddle to anyone who tries to enter or exit. Although it does slay—or, in some versions, “devour,” as in eat—anyone who answers incorrectly (which is everyone), the crux of it all is the riddle, something that is only alive when in the blind spot of human beings’ thinking. Once the answer is brought to light and the riddle is solved, it loses all its potency: “Of course! How did I not see that?” And then you’ll always know the answer.
Finally, the heroic showdown between savior and monster is, for the most part, just a conversation. Sure, the Sphinx commits suicide by throwing herself from a cliff, but the core of the conflict is a question and an answer.
I am living with my father in a small house on nearly an acre of land in a nook of Chesapeake that still feels rural. Every few weeks, we play horsehoes with his friends, have a bonfire, stay up all night, drinking and talking.
It’s been at least ten years since my parents first separated, and on some of these nights, we stop nibbling or taking the momentary plunge into emotionally scary territory that we briefly did when I was in seventh grade. Now, after all the airport buds have left, it’s large chunks of time talking, crying, cussing, sometimes yelling, and always hugging at the end. God knows the beer smoothed things, but we’re more direct and honest with each other than we’ve ever been.
“Why did you start cheating on Ma?”
A slight pause. “Because I didn’t love her anymore.”
Scary stuff. Youth, health, one’s looks—of course they’re not forever. The body shrinks, shrivels, and creaks, decomposing almost before our very eyes. Even a child sees that when visiting grandparents, talking to a middle-aged aunt or uncle, attending a funeral, or looking at old photographs.
But love can end too, even the love between the two people that made you, even the very impulse or spark that was part of their making you. Not just la petit mort, the little death of an orgasm, but whatever flash leads to people getting together. That tiny thing that led to your tiny being—turns out that it too is often just dust, even if love lasts longer than lust.
My mom told me the Devil is part of us; my dad said the love that made me ended. All of this so very, very fragile.
After my conquest of the roller coasters at Busch Gardens and the movies at the Halloween party, I became briefly obsessed with horror movies. If I wasn’t at my dad’s for a weekend visitation, I rented one to watch while my mom went out at night. If I was home sick from school, she rented one for me. The Exorcist, Witchboard, Child’s Play, The Shining, Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th sequels. I still love to think about motifs and metaphors, but I’ve only watched a handful of scary movies since that first year of divorce.
Whether we’re talking about ancient Greece or Camp Crystal Lake, the name “Jason” comes from a Greek word meaning “to heal.”
In her 2003 book Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture, Natalie Purcell writes that, “In an age of divorce, broken families, and day-care […] metal is a philosophical response, whether conscious or unconscious, to terrifying questions about nebulous human nature […] One sings about demons because they somehow reflect his life experiences.”
Sometimes, in the wake of mass shootings, police violence, or any another American horror, someone will say, “This is not who we are.” I can’t believe those words: you don’t have to search long or far in human history or current events to find us devouring or exiling each other. The statement is perhaps well-intentioned, meant as a call to resist those darker dimensions, to not be dragged down by them, but we can resist without denying. In fact, we more likely have to acknowledge, explore, and confront the darkness as a foundation for resistance of it.
Stuart Fischoff notes how “our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine” (quoted in Begley). It’s like we need practice or we’ll get stiff. Our emotional muscles will atrophy if we don’t fire them up with something, be it horror movies, speed metal, hardcore punk, intense exercise, or what have you. We need practice at being brave or sad or vulnerable or any other mental/emotional capacity, in order to do a good job when we’re sad or scared or need to be brave at important moments.
Glenn Walters similarly asserts, “By learning to suppress feelings and display mastery or cling to others in a dependent ploy for protection, a person learns to cope with another aspect of his or her environment, a skill that may be useful in dealing with more than just horror pictures” (quoted in Begley).
If I never revved myself up with horror—and some of that metal I still listen to—during 7th grade, would I have learned to deal, as modestly as I have, with a tiny family breaking apart? If I hadn’t been to so many funerals growing up, and faced the plain, unavoidable fact that we’re going to die (Begley), if I hadn’t seen so many old people getting sick and suffering, both physically and mentally, would I have been ready for how quickly my mother’s body and mind shut down with a late diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer?
Maybe it’s a good thing I listened to Slayer’s speed metal descriptions of Nazi butcher Josef Mengele’s human experiments at Auschwitz:
Frigid cold, cracks your limbs
How long can you last in this frozen water burial?
Sewn together, joining heads
Just a matter of time ‘til you rip yourselves apart
Maybe it’s a good thing that when I was twelve and my world had been dismembered, I watched a teenager, while lying on a cot after sex with his girlfriend, suddenly grasped across the forehead by someone under that cot, who then drives an arrow upwards to pierce the teen’s throat.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Freddy wasn’t just looking at that girl in the alley, but also at me when he slashed his guts open, as if to say, Look at this. Look inside me.
- This essay’s title comes from a Misfits song called “Halloween” from the 1985 collection Legacy of Brutality:
Bonfires burning bright, pumpkin faces in the night, I remember Halloween Dead cats hanging from poles, little dead are out in droves, I remember Halloween Brown leafed vertigo where skeletal life is known, I remember Halloween This day anything goes, burning bodies hanging from poles, I remember Halloween Candy apples and razor blades, little dead are soon in graves, I remember Halloween This day anything goes, burning bodies hanging from poles, I remember Halloween
2. Siouxsie and the Banshees also have a great song called “Halloween” on their 1981 album Juju. Part of the lyrics go “The carefree days / are distant now / I wear my memories like a shroud”
3. Sonny Jurgensen’s career began in Philadelphia in 1957 when my dad was 9, and ended in in Washington DC in 1974, when I was born. Six years later, Monk’s career began in DC, and lasted until 1995, in Philadelphia.
4. Incidentally, Heather McHugh was born a month after my mother and raised in the same county. Of her childhood, she says, “As a child, I had no friends,” she said. “I spent a lot of time rocking and singing to myself – the making of a poet. … I think one of the reasons I retreat to poetry is because it’s the protector of ambiguists and I don’t want to fight.”) https://www.fcnp.com/2013/01/15/celebrated-poet-shares-story-impressions-of-falls-church/