1978. I was ten years old and spending an evening at the cineplex with my sister, brother, and his girlfriend. My sis and I went to see some family-friendly picture, the name of which escapes my memory. My brother and his girlfriend went to see an R-rated feature that had just been released – a little movie called “Halloween”.
I can still see the movie’s poster in my head – an image of a jack-o-lantern with a hand holding a large knife and the tag line, “The Night He Came Home!” I had no idea what the film was about, but that tag line made me think it was about some annoying, unwelcome relative, the kind of father that ruins Christmas or birthday parties with his drunk behavior, or the uncle that everyone thinks is just a little creepy. The giant butcher knife in the poster didn’t really register with me – I’d never seen a slasher film at that point, so the idea that someone could be coming home to slaughter the family members didn’t even occur to me. I really only knew the film was about Halloween, and for a ten-year-old boy, Halloween is just about the greatest thing ever.
So it is understandable that, since the film my sister and I saw was over well before the R-rated screening was finished, we decided to sneak in to that auditorium to watch the end of “Halloween” and wait for my brother to drive us home. The only thing that occurred to me as we were walking in to that theater was that it was the first time I would be seeing an actual R-rated movie in a theater. (The concept that we were actually violating at least two laws didn’t even register.)
So that’s how I found myself sitting in a dark movie theater at the tender young age of 10, watching Jamie Lee Curtis walk upstairs in the dark, spooky house with the suspenseful, creepy music playing, and see her discover the bodies of one, two, three people strategically displayed in a bedroom. I think the shock first set in at the body of the dead young man hanging upside down in the closet – this was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I was duly horrified.
Then the image of the truly scary man with the white mask on – my first view of Michael Myers – was seared into my brain. I watched the final 15 minutes of that movie in sheer terror, and I had lost all sense of thrill at sneaking in to my first R-rated movie. I was sorry I’d done it. This movie was scaring any bejesus I had left in me, and I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there.
That night, at home in bed, I couldn’t sleep. I had bunk beds in my room, with the bottom bunk removed and my desk in the empty space so I slept in the top bunk. All night long, I kept my eye on the open door of my room, fully expecting to see that boogeyman slowly enter the frame of my doorway, his white-masked face at eye-level with me in my top bunk as he stealthfully made his way into my room and around my bed, creeping closer and closer to me as he raised his knifing hand…. Sleep came eventually, but there were many, many more nights where I would see that image as I lie in the dark. It would haunt me for years.
Of course if you’ve read this blog before you know that I ended up becoming a big fan of horror films. I’ve seen every kind of horror movie out there, and generally speaking I’m not kept awake by them anymore. I’ve been sufficiently de-sensitized to the gruesome and the ghoulish and the gory. I find them entertaining and slightly silly, but harmless.
It is 2010. I have a son, also ten years old. He has inherited a penchant for the macabre from his father, although I want to stipulate that I did not force it upon him – he came about it organically. In fact, I’ve been hugely protective of him, not allowing him to view anything that I deemed unsuitable for a child. He was a fan of the Goosebumps books, and when he discovered The Twilight Zone he became an expert on every episode. Night Gallery and The Night Stalker were discovered on Hulu and he would watch them with rapt attention. Those shows from yesteryear were acceptable because they were made for television in another era, and so obviously fake that there was not much content to confuse a young mind, yet the few moments of genuine chills were enough to keep his interest.
He’s been pestering me to let him see some “real” scary movies. He has a curiosity about the unknown just like any healthy kid, but more to the point, he wants to know what the big deal is about these movies that his Dad forbids him to see. I keep telling him “when you’re older, when you’re older…” and bit by bit he has seen some of the edited-for-television films that are shown on Chiller or Sci-Fi or FX – monster movies, mostly. Nothing that could happen in real life.
So when he asked me the other day if he could watch “Halloween”, my first thought was, “hell no!” – because I remember my own trauma from seeing that movie and of course wanted to spare my son the same sleepless nights. But when I thought it through, I realized that even though he is the same age that I was when I saw that last 15 minutes of footage in the theater, he is not me. He is a different person, with an entirely different experience with the world of childhood than I had.
So yesterday, I said “OK”. I had recorded AMC’s airing of the original “Halloween” film, part of their “Fear Fest” programming this month. Once we had his sister safely set up in the next room away from the television, we started the movie.
All the scenes with Michael Myers being spotted lurking across streets and outside windows and from a distance still had that effective sense of creepiness and unease that they were intended to have on the audience – at least for me, anyway. I kept glancing over at my son, expecting to see wide eyes and a worried crease of his brow. Instead, he looked – well, bored. He would get up and walk into the kitchen for something and I’d tell him, “Wait, you’re gonna miss something important!” and he’d come back in to see the part where Dr. Loomis tells the sheriff how he’d studied Michael for 15 years and his professional opinion is that he’s evil incarnate… and my son would say something acknowledging like ‘Huh. Okay.” and go get his snack or drink or whatever he found more interesting than the movie.
At one point, about an hour into the film, he turned to me and said, “Dad, when’s it supposed to get scary?”
On one hand, I was proud that he wasn’t easily scared by the movie, but on the other, I was sort of offended by his lack of respect for the classic horror movie I was allowing him to see. “Well, Hayden, they’re establishing mood” I told him. But I did admit to myself that the first hour of the film doesn’t really hold up well thirty-some years later. It’s kind of slow, and the style of camera work and the “startle-the-audience” moments felt limp and dated. Still, I knew the last 15 minutes of the movie were still ahead, and that, after all, is what scared the hell out of me when I was his age.
Maybe it was the sunlight coming in through the windows, or maybe it was the constant interruption by commercial breaks that broke the tension and took us out of the story every 10 minutes, but he never got worked up into anything resembling fear while watching this movie. The scene where the little boy spies the scary boogeyman across the street carrying the dead girl from the garage to the house did make my son remark, “Ooohh, that’s creepy”. And the scene at the end where he’s stealthily stalking Jamie Lee Curtis across the street while she’s screaming to wake the sleeping kids to unlock the door and let her in had my son on the edge of his seat. But at the real heart-stopping scene –where she’s sitting in a doorway with her back to the not-really-dead psychopath as he sits up and looks at her– this is where I expected my son to gasp, to display some indicator of fear.
Instead, he turned to me and said “People in movies are so dumb. Why wouldn’t she just run out with the kids and get out of there? Or just stab him with the knife when she stepped over him?” A true statement and valid questions. We’ve all wondered the same thing, of course, but I just shrugged and shook my head and turned back to the movie. I wasn’t asking those questions at his age – I was just trying not to pee my pants.
In the end, he said it was okay, and that it was “sorta suspenseful” and it had “a couple scary moments.” But overall I could tell he was unimpressed. I’m glad he didn’t freak out and cry and tell me to shut it off and just completely implode upon viewing the movie. He’s clearly braver than I was at his age – wiser, more secure, more grounded. Still – he’s now likely to be wondering about his Dad, about why his father was so easily scared by such a mild film. He’s apt to question my judgment about what is scary. He may doubt my credibility in such matters.
Let’s see how he handles an uncut and unedited version of “The Exorcist”.