We have been given giant trash cans by the city. This has turned Trash Night into a prolonged nightmare. It began with the low ominous rumble of the cans being dragged up our street. I couldn’t identify what it was at first but I was alone. I was scared. And once I realized what it was I felt silly.
Having a cigarette out back before bed I noticed one of our cans was gone. I didn’t take it out. I didn’t notice it was gone before. I was scared again. As I lay in bed, awake with the hallway light on, I thought about being scared, truly frightened, by horror films and how that hadn’t happened in a long time.
The Horror of the Horror Film is a stand-in for very real anxieties. The Exorcist, a story of a mother dealing with a dying child. Halloween, crippling social anxiety; fear of a blossoming sexual identity. Saw…
But even without possessing awareness of adult concerns, children are still frightened by horror films. Violent imagery, droning soundtracks, and shock edits thus possess an internal power beyond what they represent. Seems obvious enough but there’s another aspect that occurs to me. Horror is the genre of “on the cheap”. Shot in 30 days, 12 days, over a weekend with a cast of newcomers, friends of the production, some guy dragged in off the street, in the woods where no one can kick you out. Kids haven’t seen this end of the entertainment spectrum so they have no way to process something “so bad it’s good” let alone a story where bloody violence is not shied away from and, usually, there is no happy ending.
Horror films are a shock to the system, a broken promise we had with the magic box that made us happy. Not only do us kids get nightmares from it but suddenly all the good stuff, the stuff that makes us happy, seems to be hiding something from us. For me as a kid, it would have been Ninja Turtles or G.I. Joe or, poor thing, Winnie the Pooh who would have been unable to hold back the unholy power of a Jason or Freddie. The dark always seems to hold more power. Luckily Ghostbusters dealt with the issue head on by giving kids across America a proton pack with which the demons could be held at bay.
In bed, listening to the damn trash cans being slowly dragged to the curb, I was reminded of what the fear felt like. It’s contours are irrationality, tightness in the chest, an inability to move, laughing at yourself, hoping for the sun when you awake and see there was nothing to worry about. But something held me in that moment, beyond missing trashcans and the noises of a settling house. I’ve always had a fear of someone breaking into my home in the middle of the night and it started with a kid’s book that may never have existed. Let it be known that children do possess extraordinary powers of empathy and understanding and this is not by way of a humble brag.
This picture book, if it exists, had an image of a young boy standing in a stairway. Across his face was the silhouette of two men fighting. One of them was the boy’s father. The other was of a burglar. The boy looked horrified and I was too. I was suddenly aware of a strange feeling I haven’t been able to name, the feeling of watching your Father fight someone and lose. I haven’t personally experienced this as I’ve never seen my Father fight anyone and he is a more than capable and imposing figure. But in the story, the boy loses his Father. I intuited that the book was written to help children cope with the loss of a parent after a break in. I further thought that this was fairly common, something that may even be inevitable. What followed was a dream I had only once, that there was a man in the house. He looked like a silhouette. He started walking towards me and I couldn’t breathe. When he came into the light he was revealed to be my Father and I felt fine, though a vague feeling of guilt at thinking my Father was a bad-guy was there. He wasn’t and he continues not to be.
So do horror films exploit anxieties that we are unaware of or do they begin the process of realizing we have inherent anxieties, thus creating them? I don’t know but it feels like there is greater territory here to explore, probably by making a horror movie. One thing is certain; I stayed in bed, I did not investigate any strange noises, I checked the closets and under my bed and I locked my door and I survived the night. Horror films have trained me well.