The Beauty of Horror

This article comes from issue 2. Award-winning author Kent Kreuger talks about his life-long love of horror films.

 

When I was a kid, during the “duck and cover” years of the 1950’s, the most common pastime in the world was contemplating its end, which we all pretty well figured would come from nuclear holocaust. The threat of the atom bomb hung over us, poised like a big shoe about to crush us all like cockroaches. In fact, it would have been better if we had been cockroaches because, myth had it, those fast, filthy bugs were among the few creatures likely to survive in an environment poisoned by radiation. One thing was for certain: The nuclear age and everything that came with it was sure to be monstrous.

This foreboding was hammered home to me every Saturday afternoon in the dark of the local movie theatre in Houston, Texas, where, from just after lunch until late in the afternoon, I watched the matinee. A quarter bought me a serial, a cartoon, and a movie, over and over again, as many showings as I could stomach or until my Milk Duds money ran out. Sometimes the feature was a grade-B western starring the likes of Audie Murphy, or a grade-B war movie also starring the likes of Audie Murphy, but more often than not it was schlock horror, monsters in black and white, monsters that to this day I remember with ridiculous fondness.

They were legion and came in identifiable categories. There were the creatures made enormous by radiation: Them (giant ants, an all-time classic), The Beginning Of The End (giant grasshoppers), The Amazing Colossal Man (giant man—duh). There were the creatures awakened by atomic testing or man’s general meddling: Godzilla (the original with Raymond Burr was a pretty good debut for this perennially favorite gargantuan from Japan), Rodan (a pterodactyl), The Creature From The Black Lagoon (one of my all-time favorites). There were creatures the horrible likes of which we would never have seen but for the god-awful mutating effects of radiation, as in The Day The World Ended (horned, flesh-eating monsters that once were men—later they would become part of George W. Bush’s administration). There were monsters who couldn’t help wreaking havoc and at whose demise we felt a note of sadness: Twenty Million Miles To Earth (an egg brought from Venus hatches a monster clearly out of its comfort zone—a monster made wonderfully life-like through the magic of stop-action animator Ray Harryhausen), Might Joe Young (a big gorilla with an even bigger heart), The Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathoms (a lonely leviathan from the ocean floor who rises to the mating call of a lighthouse foghorn; from a story by Ray Bradbury). Because of the general paranoia of the time, when we weren’t imaging monsters born from the earth, we were imaging them descending from the stars: This Island Earth (creatures with swelled heads, kind of like Mariah Carey), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (a classic that pokes fun at the Red scare of the McCarthy-era), Invaders From Mars (which gave me countless nightmares and made me look at my parents with greater than usual concern), and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (perhaps my favorite from the schlock era).

Bad as they were and as scary as they tried to be, these movies were, in an odd way, comforting. In the end, man always triumphed. We beat back the giant grasshoppers. We killed Godzilla. We disrupted the gyro-navigation systems of the flying saucers and brought them crashing to earth. Despite the very real threat of annihilation that hung over my world, I left the theatre every Saturday believing we could battle any adversity, no matter how monstrous, and win.

Then scary movies began to change.

At first, the change was mostly in cinematic technique. Hammer Studios in England turned out a long line of horror movies that relied heavily on the shock value of blood in Technicolor, films that often starred two great contract players, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. But after Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful psychological shocker Psycho assaulted all our naïve assumptions of what could frighten us, a whole new set of rules came into being, ushering in a different era of scary movie. The monsters became human beings, savage mentalities hiding in a familiar, often banal, frame of skin and bone. Films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Last House On The Left, Nightmare On Elm Street, and Friday The 13th began frightening people in a whole new, unsettling way that has come to be called “gore fest.”

Modern horror films are technological wonders. I won’t deny that. But I long for the old days. I would argue that there was more genuine human creativity involved in movies like King Kong and The Thing, and that despite the fact they were made to scare audiences, there was a more humane sensibility to them as well. Given the constraints of the technology of the times, many of these films still offer something to marvel at. As for those schlock films whose budgets were so pathetic they never had a chance of being technologically eye-popping, there’s still something endearing about the cheesy rubber monster suits and bad sets of those grade-B horror movies, films that a whole generation of teenagers grew up making out to at drive-in theatres. They might not have been really scary, but they also didn’t assault our senses with nauseatingly relentless splashes of gore.

I still love being scared. Occasionally my son and I do a horror night. We start off with whatever’s showing on the big screen in town, then rent a whole slew of videos and head home. I suffer through his choices, most of which star Freddy Krueger or Jason or Leatherface, and he suffers through mine. As long as the Milk Duds last, we do just fine.

William Kent Krueger