I have a memory… one that I’ve told to others… one that I’ve told to myself. I don’t know how much of the memory is apocryphal, but as the old Psych-101 adage about the man who’s told a fictional story of being lost in the mall as a child so many times that he works it into his life — history teaches us, how much weight can you put on “the truth”… isn’t it more about what we believe shaped us, regardless of that belief’s accuracy.
Anyway, as the memory goes I’m eight (or six, or seven, or nine, or ten) and it’s summer (or I’m home sick, or it’s a weekend, or it’s a snow day, or some other day off from school). These are the unimportant details. The remainder is clear to me: I’m sitting on the floor, cross-legged, watching TV. My mother is in the other room (another patch of blurriness pops up here… I feel that she was doing the dishes, but if that were the case, she ended up doing the dishes for more than an hour… more likely than not, she was cleaning the house, part of which entailed dish-washing). The TV was tuned firmly to Arts &Entertainment (only referred to A&E to those in the know). By “tuned firmly” I mean that my mom had taken the remote with her to the other room. Therefore, my only options were A&E or off… and, being the perpetual in-door-kid, there really wasn’t any choice.
Keep in mind, it was the late eighties… meaning, A&E was still a relatively high-class channel… still a couple of decades away from the decrepitude of Duck Dynasty. (I know that I should probably italicize this but I refuse to do anything that will bring more attention to these… well, let’s just say that I’m am trying to keep my blog as positive as possible… so, we’ll leave it at that). Most likely, my mom clicked it on, saw something in black and white and figured that at worst I would be bored and quiet, at best there might be a chance, however unlikely, that I may actually learn something. What she didn’t know, was that the next 90 minutes would shape my sleeping habits for years to come… and my life-long love of movies, in general, and the genre of horror in particular.
She had put on Night of the Living Dead, turned her back, walked away, and left her eight-year old son to fend for himself.
I won’t go into details about the movie (at least not for now… expect a later post on this). Instead, let’s focus on the experience. All I remember is sitting there legs crossed, eyes refusing to blink waiting for something familiar to happen. I was no stranger to horror movies, or at least I didn’t think I was. I would watch the Universal Monsters movies whenever they came on… waiting with baited breath for the Halloween marathon (more on this in a later post). So, I was able to recognize the key elements of a horror movie buried with NotLD (black and white, heroes, monsters, etc.) but the rest was a horrifying mystery. Why were the heroes fighting with, and shooting each other!?! Why was there blood!?! Why could I see internal organs!?!
At some point my mother came back into the room. I wasn’t crying, but she knew something was wrong. I imagine myself sitting on the floor, back as straight as an animal in pure fight-or-flight mode, unmoving… so still that it was either rigor mortis or some kind of seizure. I don’t remember the interaction with my mother. All I know is that she let me watch the rest of the movie. If I had to guess, it was probably because she assumed that in the end the good guys would prevail and that would quell my unease. Well, here’s where I spoil the movie (more on my thoughts on spoilers in a later post), so, if you are concerned about me talking about the ending of a movie that is nearly 50 years old, then skip ahead to the next paragraph. Well, in the end, our heroes don’t prevail. In fact, the only “hero” still standing at the end is shot in the head by some good-ole-boys, mistaken for a zombie (though, now, as an disillusioned adult, I wonder whether it was a mistake). Over the credits we see still shots of these men celebrating a successful zombie hunt, and our hero’s body being treated as just one more zombie corpse… placed on top of a giant bonfire.
As an eight-year old, I couldn’t begin to process what I had just seen. In fact, I’ve spent so much time in the ensuing 27 years trying to understand the intricacies of a movie that, at its core, is probably not all that intricate. I want to speak here of what NotLD is the first true modern horror movie, why it was groundbreaking in its treatment of race, why it could be seen as a metaphor for our war in Vietnam, why George Romero has spent nearly every Living Dead movie since trying to apologize (rightfully) for his portrayal of women…but, that’s not the point. The point is to tell a story.
I love threes… if you stick with my blog you will begin to notice that I try to make my points in three as often as I can. I don’t know if that comes from my Oral Communication professor or my love of comedy… either way, the Rule of Three has firmly implanted itself into my brain. So, I’m sure that if I thought about it long enough I could say that my too-early viewing of NotLD had three major impacts on me, but that would be dishonest. In reality, it did two things to me. The first, my increasing obsession with movies in general, and horror movies in particular, and crux if this blog, I’ve already spoken about and will continue to focus on for the remainder of this exercise. The second, I hinted at.I couldn’t sleep right for years after. Seriously. I slept with my lights on for longer than I’m willing to admit here. Let’s just say that puberty hit me long before my fear of the dark left me. That’s not entirely accurate… sadly, the timing is… just… it’s not that I was afraid of the dark… I was afraid of a single image… one that, to this day, if I think about it long enough can freak me out to the point of insomnia… in fact, since I’ll be writing about it here, I’m sure tomorrow morning my fitbit will report hours of restlessness. See what I’m doing? I’m stalling…
It’s been thirty minutes, two cups of coffee, and one unnecessary trip to the bathroom since I wrote those last ellipses… since I’ve sat back down and cracked my fngers, they’ve been staring at me like some three-eyed cyclops, daring me to put my greatest nightmare down on paper… okay, triclops, here we go. So, what’s my own personal boogieman? It’s a zombie… there, no shocker… anyone who knows me, is reading this with disappointment at its obviousness. Let me clarify, I don’t find zombies, in and of themselves, very scary… really, it’s just this one. This one is standing in the corner of my bedroom, facing the wall, his head tilted slightly down, his drool forming a viscous puddle at his rotting feet, his body, swaying gentle back and forth, completely silent. That last part is the kicker. It means that no how quiet I am I can’t tell if he’s there with me or just a figment of my imagination. Therefore, the rational path is to assume that if the lights are off he’s there… he’s always there… and he’s hungry… and, if I make the slightest noise, like the sheets moving across my body as I roll over, he’ll know that I’m there too…
So, lights are key… lights keep me alive… kept me alive… I’ve over it… I don’t need to sleep with the lights on… which, is what I convince myself of every single night… and, honestly, I’ve won that battle every single night for the past couple of decades… though, it’s still a battle.
You have questions… or maybe you don’t… or maybe no one is reading this. I’ll assume the first is true (since if either of the last two are the case, I could simple stop writing) and I’ll assume that the most common question is: what the hell is the blog about? As any master-of-suspense (your Hitchcocks, your Serlings, your Shyamalans pre the-last-fifteen-minutes-of-Signs) will tell you, it all in the waiting. So, all will be revealed, but not until tomorrow. Okay… here’s the truth, it’s really not anything worth building up suspense about… it’s just that I’ve written nearly 1,500 words and that seems already like too much… and I’m still figuring out what this blog is all about… until tomorrow…
Here’s to sleeping with the lights on,