My mom dropped me off at Queen Park movie theater in Charlotte the summer of ‘85 one Saturday afternoon with my best buddy Isaac. I was given two bucks. One was to get me into the movie the other was for a snack. Yep. You could get that stuff for a two-spot in the 80s. We were going to see Ghostbusters for the umteenth time. And since it was at the dollar theater (the regular theater was a whopping $3 then) it was a cheap way to entertain sixth graders for two hours. We bought our tickets for Ghostbusters and made a sweeping detour straight into the theater hosting A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was our plan all along.
I was wide-eyed with fear from the get-go. Sure, I had seen horror movies prior to this–but on TV, VCR, in a setting that was safe, where I could turn it off if I got scared. Not here. I was in a theater–big screen. Freddy was larger than life. Isaac and I left the theater terrified. And I knew onthe way home I was in trouble. I’d been a scaredy cat all of those twelve years that I’d been in the world. The dark was no friend of mine. Only now I had to face the dark with the knowledge that one-two Freddy’s coming for you. For me! He was coming for me! That crazy, pissed-off, half-burnt bastard with the ugly-Christmas sweater, a Wolverine glove and asthma, apparently, was coming for me! Why on earth had I not just gone into Ghostbusters like my mom had thought?! They were busting ghosts! Ghosts are scary too, right? Not Freddy scary. No way, no how. So why had I done it? Had I wanted to be scared? The short answer is yes.
People love to be scared. We humans can’t get enough of it. And we’ll shell out tons of cash to do so. We jump on rides at the amusement park, scuba dive with sharks, climb sheer rock faces with nary a rope, skydive, walk through haunted corn maze at Halloween, you name it. That’s why horror as a genre works so well. We’re all just a bunch of voyeurs at the end of the day. Don’t believe it? Ever been in a traffic jam, wondering what could possibly be causing it only to get to the “scene of the crime” and it’s a guy on the side of the road changing his tire, not obstructing traffic at all? That’s because just about every single car passing by had to slow down to look. To stare. To see what the hell is going on. It’s how the human mind works.
That’s how horror movies draw a crowd: we, the audience, get to see the victim being stalked, to feel that anxiety, that fear, that trepidation, but there’s a catch: we aren’t in any danger. None. We’re in our seat, butter tipped fingers, mouth full of popcorn, drink at our side. No matter what the fate of that victim, we get to walk out of that theater alive and well. That’s not to say we won’t have nightmares or fear going to the basement at night, but that’s all part of the allure.
In 1932, on the campaign trail, FDR coined the phrase, that still lives on in pop culture to this day: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Oh, I do beg to differ, sir. The fear of the unknown is alive and well. It’s one of the great elements utilized in horror. Think of the monsters/villains whose face was obscured or completely unknown to the viewer. Jason Voorhees didn’t always have his signature hockey mask, but he got a lot creepier when he adopted that fateful look. Freddy Krueger’s face wasn’t that of a normal person either. Leatherface, the iconic Munch mask from the Scream franchise, even Hannibal Lecter’s mask, they all elicit a creepiness because of how they either hide or obscure the wearer’s face, turning them into more of a monster than a real person. Imagine how much less creepy Michael Myers had been just walking around Haddonfield, stabbing people sans mask. It would have just been some guy with week-old stubble in a pair of coveralls with a dull Ginsu.
We don’t always get to see the bad guy unmasked. Not every movie is like the end of a Scooby Doo episode where the kids are shocked that it’s Mr. Mcghee from the five and dime dressed as a phantom trying to frighten off the locals while he syphons off all that oil from Old Man Johnson’s farm (yes, those are both characters from Prince’s Raspberry Beret–hey, I’m feeling nostalgic for the 80s). Unmasking implies a certain closure. With a great number of movies in the horror genre, lack of closure does two things: 1) it leaves open the possibility for future movies, and 2) it leaves the audience with a feeling that the killer is still on the loose, that fright they paid to feel goes home with them.
Which brings us full circle. If you decide to sneak into a horror movie as a youngster, remember: it comes home with you. When I shirked going into Ghostbusters that fateful summer day in 1985, I sealed my fate for a good few weeks. That night when I got home, I confessed my sins to my mother about sneaking into A Nightmare On Elm Street. I was scolded handily, but I had to spend the better part of the next month sleeping (trying to sleep) on my mom’s floor on an exercise mat (they weren’t yoga mats back then) lest Freddy came for me.
Nine, ten, never sleep again.
Written by Rick Deal