Pauses and Moments

Rumblings from the lane next to the off-ramp.

Fear of Frights

What makes horror such a treat?

He doesn’t get the attraction. Why conjure horror with computer-contrived invasions and digitized end-of-earth extravaganzas when howling hurricane winds and devastating tidal surges provide enough disaster for a lifetime?

As if nature’s fury isn’t sufficiently threatening, as if “unnatural” catastrophes are too intermittent and unpredictable, as if actual killing sprees aren’t sufficiently horrific, filmmakers come up with their own waves of supernatural (unearthly earthly) decimation, their own gusts of deranged killers, and their own mutations and manmade grotesques (human centipedes, among the latest).

He hates Halloween. Now more than ever. It’s not the costume and candy excesses so much as what the “holiday” invites: the celebration of menace and the macabre.

Just the previews of horror movies prompt a wince, a grimace. Hardware store displays of an ax and a chainsaw, a sledgehammer and a nailgun are threatening—even if not actually dripping with blood. Even as part of hurricane recovery work, they are ominous.

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The creepy Bates Motel, the demonic Overlook Hotel, and the “paranormaled” Dutch colonial in Amityville—he’ll go far out of his way to give them a wide pass. Late nights, he avoids Elm Streets, densely wooded lakesides, mist-shrouded swamps, and lagoons that are not immediately adjacent to four-star beach resorts. He is scrupulous about avoiding phantom 18-wheelers and ghost trains. If he could, he’d check an airline’s passenger list against his own terror watch list—he’d screen for snakes on a plane.

And he doesn’t want to think about disfigured-and-hockey-masked Jason Voorhees or scalpel-fingered burned-face Freddy Krueger, or even the rock band Kiss, for that matter, with its fire-breathing and blood-spitting. As for the shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, he doesn’t get the turn for the twisted: the bizarre outfits and make-up. Hey, tuxedos were good enough for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Unnaturally large congregations of birds make him nervous, to say nothing of bats. Packs of avenging rats, menacing bunny-rabbits, mutant hamsters, snarling rabid dogs, crazed cockroaches, garden snakes and sandworms on steroids, and, of course, scorpions and tarantulas, they give him “the willies.” And, please, no cobras, no boa constrictors, no anacondas, or anything that slithers while rattling or hissing.

The edited-for-television previews for the edited-for-TV version of “Jaws” made him wary of freshwater swimming pools as far inland as St. Louis, Missouri. When young, his kids would imagine that his vigilance was normal: At any pool, anywhere, he would walk round the tiled perimeter several times to check for marauding fins, as well as for piranhas, alligators, crocodiles, stingrays, and giant squid. Even at the best hotels, he’d check the bathtub, too.

After seeing a few previews of Chucky movies, this ever-wary dad came to view most puppets and dolls as potential serial-killers. Ditto for clowns.

Dracula’s blood lusts hold no fascination for him. Vampires are nothing more than orthodontic curios. The full-moon flocculence of werewolves seems to cry out for dermatologic intervention. As for Twilight romances, he certainly wouldn’t want his daughter to keep company with either of those guys. Guess who’s coming to dinner—no way.

To his way of thinking, Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments reduce to cases of egregious medical malpractice and should have been subjected to intense scrutiny by the Bavaria Medical Association’s committee on standards and ethics.

Every October, the kids would be assigned a few Edgar Allan Poe stories. Edgar had some problems: a raven as his best bud. Talk about a guy who needed a therapist; a guy who had to get out more.

In his kids’ early school days, he was saddened whenever he saw a youngster wearing a snarling-dog T-shirt or carrying a three-ring binder or lunch pail adorned with Goosebumps spine-tinglers.

He wonders if those kids have matured into aficionados of ghoul and gore. He is at a loss to understand the appeal of chain-sawed limbs, ripped body-parts, crudely extracted organs. Severed, slit, ice-picked, butcher-knifed bodies; skewered, kabobed, rotisseried bodies—torsos en brochette; human beings sliced-and-diced—such cinematic carvings put kitchen supply boutiques in a whole new (and very sinister) light.

What is it that ghoul-and-gore seekers are seeking? What is so riveting and rewarding about punctured, mutilated, dismembered bodies?

Was it Alfred Hitchcock (avuncular, by today’s standards) who said or wrote something about horror as a hobby; something about the deliciousness of being able to dip one’s toe into the ocean of fear?

A hobby? Before he came to the humanity and humility of fatherhood, this over-wary father had indeed dipped a toe into an ocean of fear—near some artillery and automatic weapons fire. Nothing delicious about that. Some years later, in 1981, he went in up to his ankles in a Palestinian hold-up near East Jerusalem. In 1982, he found himself up to his quaking knees—with his heart descending into his abdomen, lodging in his groin, then pulsing down into his thighs and calves—as he made his way south through Lebanon in the hours immediately following the September 14 bomb-blast assassinations in Beirut.

But there was no bravado in any of that. Not one Rambo moment. He never shouldered a bazooka or RPG launcher; never sprayed machine gun rounds. His chest was never crossed with bandoleers. He didn’t mount a tank or commandeer an armed APC to go on the assault. He didn’t jump into a Jeep to make a hell-bent race for the border, lobbing grenades in his dusty wake. Nope. As a forensic accountant, the only things he was there to combat were phalanx of zombie P&Ls along with their skeletal balance sheets.

Though every ligament and tendon in his body had retreated into knots of hiding, he made a quick and tentative recon of a few apprehensive streets on either side of Beirut’s Green Line. When he found all the hire-car garages shuttered and when there were no taxis to be hailed, he set out for the extraction point on foot—paced with apprehension, feeling vulnerable, full-body fearful.

However, such sensations recede. The fears he remembers, the thoughts of fear that stay with him to this day, concern his kids, and, to a lesser degree, the medical menaces that took his wife and his parents.

He remembers the “spotting” during the pregnancy that had been so difficult in coming. He remembers the first hours and days home from the hospital when they had to do all the newborn things without the ready-at-hand aid and counsel of maternity staff. He remembers the child’s deep deep slumber they took for something dire; and the race to the hospital emergency room. He remembers returning from a long, exhausting family trip when his wife tried to carry too much and stumbled, appeared to drop the child who was clinging to her. He remembers a soccer game scare: his young son’s goaltending lunge, and how the side post stopped the boy’s forehead, and laid him out—for a while that seemed to last forever.

Those were the frights of his life.

CAT scans and cystoscopies do not hold such terrors. Transurethral resections of bladder tumors and the accompanying insertions of chemistries no longer freeze him in fright. Even the prospect of a radical does not pose a tsunami of fear. A wave of concern, yes, but that tide goes out.

Are those who spend double digits to witness mayhem the equivalent of virgins when it comes to having actually experienced real horror? Do horror films prepare them for “escaping” and “surviving” the terrors imagined for them? Subconsciously, are they preparing themselves to endure harm, unharmed? Are they inuring themselves to blood-curdling screams? Aren’t real (in a way “unreal”) “natural” disasters chastening enough?

He’s okay with edge-of-the-seat action-adventure drama; he can stomach the taut and the tense. But ghoulish gruesome cringe-into-your-seat, hide-your-eyes moments would repeat on him. Just the previews (why do they call them “trailers”?) for horror movies reassert themselves like large servings of Trinidad Scorpion and Caribbean Red habanero peppers, washed down with gulps of Tabasco sauce.

His menu does not reduce to culture for the faint of heart. As to reality, he’s not been remotely cowardly. Yet, his distinct preference is for gore-free fare. Call it taste, aversion, or snobbery—but a dash of intrigue and a pinch of suspense do just fine, thank you very much.

He prefers his drama to be digestible: Something to sink his teeth into and chew on, and swallow without disbelief or discomfiture—without mental reflux.

In his provocative 1981 essay—“Why We Crave Horror Movies”—Stephen King opens with the diagnosis that we are all mentally ill; that we all, to some extent, relish being frightened, even repulsed.

Pay to be frightened? Pay to be sickened? Not in this wary father’s budget. Not in his diet. He has no stomach for horror.

Joseph H. Cooper, J.D., teaches media law, film, and literature at Quinnipiac University.

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