A Comfortable Sort of Terror

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

A friend recently told me, “I love how you’re all deep cuts, only with bad horror movies instead of music.” And I gotta say, I love that people both love and notice that about me. But after this crazy Pandemic Year, I got to thinking: I wonder why this is? Why is it cheesy horror that often comforts me in times of stress?

I suspect it has a lot to do with nostalgia. When the Pandemic first started last March, I spent at least six weeks watching Night of the Comet repeatedly. It got to the point where I’d just turn it on while playing computer solitaire late at night until I was finally tired enough to go to bed. It was such a cheerful portrait of the Endtimes, after all, in that ’80s consumer bliss way. It’s the story of two sisters, one a teenager and the other just out of high school, who find themselves in L.A. after a passing comet has vaporized almost everyone on the planet but a handful of survivors…many of whom start turning into mutant zombies. The apocalypse itself was blissfully fast, something that seemed sooooo enviable from our standpoint of stay-home-and-wait while our government did little if anything to give us guidance.

A lot of the movies I turn to for feel-good vibes (or at least, survival vibes) are films that I associate with younger, carefree days. Sometimes, they were movies that scared me as a kid, but now are more funny/bad/cheesy than they are scary. Yet, the times they take me back to fill me with fond memories and feelings of security that only come from a pretty well-adjusted childhood.

Example: When I was about twelve, I was visiting my oldest sister Ginny in Seattle for a few weeks. She always had the latest thriller paperbacks or would buy me whatever book I was interested in reading. And when it came to television, she was more than happy to make recommendations for movies to watch. In retrospect, she probably just wanted to keep me happily busy while she went about her day, but I think she also enjoyed chatting about the movie with me afterwards (to a POINT…before I just got nerdy-chatty and started basically reciting entire scenes from the film). I’ll never forget one such recommendation: Burnt Offerings, a mid-’70s schlocky horror film with Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Bette Davis as their aunt.

An incredibly detailed lobby card for Burnt Offerings (1976) by United Artists

It’s your basic family-wants-a-cheap-summer-rental, become-summer-caretakers, then-become-possessed-by-the-house-and-somehow-consumed-by-the-house story. It’s effectively creepy, mainly because everyone in the cast is effectively creepy. Being only twelve, it totally worked for me for the same reason Let’s Scare Jessica to Death worked for me when it played on Creature Features late one Saturday night. Basically: I had no better thrillers in my frame of reference to compare them to. But also, there was something undeniably foreboding about that grainy filmstock and the telltale signs of what I now recognize as a low-budget film: bad sound that echoes because of only one boom mic and lighting filled with unintentional shadows. Things that would be a turn-off to a schooled moviegoer just added to my this-is-creepy meter.

Also, I just plain loved being scared, preferably by the supernatural. Ghosts were always just a more comfortable scare because I knew the chances that I’d encounter ghosts, killer houses and vampires in real life were slim to none. But a human killer stalking babysitters, like in When a Stranger Calls? That was straight up terrifying. The more normal the setting, the more uncomfortable the scares became.

Which begs the question: Do Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees fall under the category of supernatural or human killers? Wait, you mean that wasn’t the first question that popped into your head? You clearly don’t know me at all. But Michael Meyers in Halloween is, for all practical purposes, just a guy. But as Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis tells us repeatedly, he is also the physical embodiment of EEEEEEVIIIIIL. And by the end of the film, we believe it a hundred percent. Jason Voorhees’ entire existence is pretty much never explained beyond, well-I-guess-he-never-really-drowned-and-is-somehow-alive-and-keeps-coming-back-so….? But again, I saw both Halloween and Friday the 13th for the first time at age 12, edited-for-television complete with commercial breaks, and therefore wasn’t entirely immersed in them. I watched them in the warmth and safety of my own home, possibly on a black-and-white portable TV in my room, so those are go-to feel-good films.

Does this make me weird? Probably. But who wants to be normal? Besides, it’s not like these are the only films that make me feel better on a dark and dreary day. Like anyone, there are a slew of other films that took me out of my world and that I love to revisit: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the OG Star Wars and (again, horror!) Poltergeist all do the job nicely. Just like Die Hard at Christmas, right? 

But for someone who loves Halloween more than Christmas, nothing warms my heart more than the comfortable fear I get from watching John Carpenter’s Halloween, and knowing that Jamie Lee Curtis will get away….for now.

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