By Aaron AuBuchon
There’s a truism amongst cinephiles that runs so strong and so deep that to suggest otherwise is to risk ridicule, banishment, ritual torture and summary execution: it is best to watch a film in a theater with a large audience. This is always presented as an a priori fact, an objective truth that doesn’t even need to be voiced thanks to its obviousness and universality. To that I say, bullshit. That is a subjective feeling based on how the speaker or writer had their peak experiences with films. And for those raised before home video, it totally makes sense. Television was sterile, mostly a wasteland of conformity and shared values. The cinema was a place where you might see something different, something that would leave an indelible mark on your psyche. However, that’s only true for some people. For others like myself, the exact opposite is true, and I’m extraordinarily tired of being told that I am incorrectly participating in the medium I love. So today, I’m coming out of a cinematic closet of sorts and saying that while I enjoy watching films in a theater with others, that experience does not, and has never, created peak experiences for me. The most important filmic moments in my life have almost always come as I sat alone in the dark, by myself, in my home.
Anathema! Heresy! Burn! Etc… I know, I know. But hear me out.
Most summer nights my grandparents would back the car onto the street and everyone- my grandparents, parents, neighbors, etc. would gather on the carport and drink beer and share stories and jokes as loud trucks whizzed past pissing DDT on the neighborhood to keep us safe from mosquitoes. I would spend time with them, but I would also go inside, to the quiet, shadowy inner sanctum of the living room, where the television flicked light onto clean, empty chairs and sofas. Around the age of five, I stumbled onto a late night creature feature showing Frankenstein (1931) and was instantly transfixed. The memory of actually watching most of it is sadly gone for the most part, but what remains completely intact is the memory of rushing outside to leap into the lap of one of the more understanding adults in my life to try to babble out an explanation of what I’d seen and becoming hysterical in the process. There were no words for what I’d seen, and I was left panting and sobbing when I tried to convey what I felt. Sitting alone in the dark, somehow James Whale’s film possessed me, jumped into my skin and took over a corner of my mind. It was one of the most emotionally charged moments of my life, and it reset my modalities. Other kids would find their groove as athletes or in other forms of competition, some would pick a collecting hobby of some sort, some would build models, whatever, but from that moment on, I was hooked on finding things that I could digest that spun me up into a frenzy. And more and more, I found that the most inviting world was found when I was alone.
As much as we would all like to think that we would be the same person no matter when we lived, we are products of our time, and my very formative years coincided with a number of things that would shape me, and all would create situations that would find me alone in the dark. First, when I was eight years old, my grandmother gave me a 10” black and white television for my room. 1981 was a very different time, and I was the only kid I knew that had my own television, which allowed me to very quietly stay up well past my bedtime on weekends and take in the many delights of KPLR-TV, a St. Louis independent station (the first in Missouri) that played all sorts of syndicated content including the famous Wrestling at the Chase, a regular slew of Saturday and Sunday movie matinees that over the course of a weekend always included an old monster movie, a western, a war picture, and something from the oeuvre of Ma and Pa Kettle, and all sorts of syndicated television. But at night they played a series of things that seared themselves into my mind: first, at 11, they played an episode of the Canadian sketch comedy show Bizarre which is most famous for being the birthplace of Super Dave Osbourne, as well as being a show that started with a completely unmotivated and gratuitous shot of a different pair of breasts each week. So, every Saturday, after my parents went to bed, I crawled to the end of the bed where the tiny TV lived and tuned it to channel 11 to grope television breasts with my mind and then settle in for the main event: a monster movie. Though I watched them often, I only remember one really well: Jeff Lieberman’s 1976 creature feature Squirm (1976). The idea of something as innocuous and simultaneously slimy as worms being electrified to an angry and bitey state was very vivid for me. The famous scene where R. A. Dow’s character Roger is rebuffed by Patricia Pearcy’s Geri and then decides to force the issue only to wind up with half a dozen toothy red wigglers burrowed under the thin and sensitive skin of his face burned in on my mind and became the gold standard for what was terrifying to me for years to come. And I there I was alone, pursuing that which was forbidden, which was immediately empowering, but also mildly fraught for when I inevitably got scared, there was nobody there to comfort me. If I told my parents what I had been doing, the television would have certainly been taken away- maybe for a week, maybe forever. It was a weird feedback loop: it scared me, terrified me, made me want to stop and look away, but if I told my parents I would lose the ability to chase after the things that scared me and terrified me, and that was far, far worse.
This isn’t to suggest that all my horror film experiences were had under the covers in my room. Like most people who came of age in the 80’s (I was 7 when the decade began and 17 when it ended) I had a several big console televisions from which to eat of the (sort of) forbidden fruit. The aforementioned one at my maternal grandparent’s house wasn’t often the scene of horrors after Frankenstein though. My grandfather died when I was seven, and my grandmother and I became the best of friends, and often watched TV together. I always felt weird sharing my deep love of horror with her, or most anyone in my family. Besides my mom, they all found it mildly unpleasant and only watched them with me to humor me. My parents were somewhat typical baby boomers in that my mom had me at 19 and then realized that maybe she wanted to be young and do young people stuff, and the consequence was that all of my human needs were well taken care of, and I was mostly left alone to entertain myself. This meant that in the evenings while my dad was off on business, my mom liked to make herself a drink, sit in the kitchen and talk on the phone to her friends. I on the other hand liked to sit in front of our hulking wood television set and consume every horror cable TV offered in the early 1980’s, which is to say lots of horrors.
Oh yeah, cable TV. In the fully online environment in which we live it’s hard to remember the seismic impact of cable and satellite television as it spread across the United States in the early to mid- 1980’s but as someone who lived it, I can’t say it loudly enough: I would not be who I am today if it weren’t for cable television. Nobody hasn’t heard it, but I’ll say it again anyway. Before cable came to my town, the only way I saw a movie was during its theatrical run or on the off-chance that someone played it during one of the (admittedly frequent) television runs for films. I grew up in the Saint Louis region, and we had three main television stations, the PBS affiliate, and two independent stations that showed a lot of syndicated content and played a lot of movies. And so I watched a lot of moves. But they were whatever someone else programmed, and for every exciting film, you had ten that were utterly forgettable. Every Saturday and Sunday one of the independent stations played three films, but I swear to god, at least one of them was always a Ma and Pa Kettle movie (a phenomenon that will almost certainly die with my generation) and once per weekend they showed the most boring war movie in the history of earth, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) Twice in my childhood they showed Creature from the Black Lagoon (1955) in real 3D on Saint Louis television, which is pretty cool, but for that, I sat through Paint Your Wagon (1970) ten times. Also, though late night and independent television were a bit more lax about it, there was censorship to consider. But that little black box that showed up on top of my television somewhere around 1982 was quite literally a ticket to a new dimension for me. As much as I loved Universal monsters and the rare 70’s horror films, now I was able to see films that were almost new like Friday the 13th (1980), Mother’s Day (1980), Prom Night (1980), and Sleepaway Camp (1983).
One thing that seems to unite many horror fans is the desire to dip a toe (and maybe more) into forbidden waters, and I was and am no different. The (to me) newer horror films of the early 1980’s just flattened my young mind and I couldn’t get enough of them. To this day, Friday the 13th Part III (1982) is one of my all time favorite movies, and it has little to do with the quality of the film, but has much to do with the fact that when I saw it, it was hands down, the scariest thing I’d ever seen. I had to watch it standing in the doorway from the living room to the hallway into the kitchen since I was constantly bellow-running away from the film in terror, only to yo-yo back immediately, utterly addicted to the cycle of abject terror and uncontrollable fascination. The scene when Jason takes off the hockey mask and smiles a little bit is just seared into my memory and watching it now is an instantaneous transport to 35 years ago when a little boy found out that he liked to watch things that made other people run away and not come back. And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s part of the key. The thing you find out alone in the dark is something about how you’re built, and how much you can stand, because you learn that it’s progressive. You learn that exposure toughens you and paradoxically makes you want more of it. You learn that the things that make other people very uncomfortable also make you uncomfortable, but you find out that you like feeling uncomfortable, and you also find out that you like that you can handle more than the next person.
You’ve heard of “defining moments” and “peak experiences”? You know, those things that a person sees as a fork in the road for their personality, a road that once taken changes everything about their life’s trajectory? A friendly wager if you buy into that concept: ask a horror fanatic if they’ve had one, and I’ll bet you that if they are of a certain age (5-50ish) they will have to admit that they had at least one of those peak experiences sitting alone in the dark. For me, the most clear-cut one was the first time I saw The Howling (1981). My parents, like many baby boomers, were far more relaxed about what their children viewed than their parents were, but they still carried a curious sexual puritanism into that arena. When we went to the drive in, I could watch any sort of carnage the director could dish up, but if a pair of boobs (hell, even one boob) bounced onto the screen I was expected to collapse behind the big bench seat of my mom’s 1968 Ford Fairlane and remain there until one of my parents declared the coast clear and fit. Murder good, sex bad. So when The Howling, a film that I had been expressly forbidden to view came on cable, I was more excited than a horny rooster in a henhouse to see it, but knew my options were limited. However, my paternal grandparents had a TV in their kitchen, which I regarded as a high luxury and they added the princely detail of also having cable run to that TV. So one night, I discovered that it was playing while we were there for a visit. So I sneaked away while the family was pouring drinks and having a grand old time in the family room downstairs and sneaked up to the kitchen and sat on a stool perched two feet from the TV with my hand on the dial of the cable box for the entire run time of the film. I played the film at a volume so low I could barely hear it, with the itchy-est trigger finger in the land parked on the dial. If the house creaked, I turned the channel. If the toilet flushed downstairs, I turned the channel. Barely hearing it, and flipping channels every four minutes may sound like a pretty shitty way to watch a film, but I remember it like other people remember winning a baseball game or having a birthday party. It was goddamned fabulous. It is only in recent years that I have come to be able to remember The Howling as more than the opening scene in the porno theater because that part was engraved on my brain. Sex, violence and an emphatic prohibition make for a pretty heady experience, and I had one that evening, sitting in the dark kitchen, scared of the film, scared of getting caught, and absolutely thrilled by all of it. Chasing the forbidden became the most prominent feature of my personality for the next couple of decades, so it had a lasting impact too.
But that’s not the only thrill that cable brought to me. The other was the thrill of discovery. Not only did we have all four available movie channels at the time (HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel and Showtime) who themselves were starved enough for content to show a lot of b, c, d and even z grade genre films, but we also had basic cable so there were things like Commander USA on the USA Network showing weird old sci-fi and horror films, as well as a ton of kung fu pictures that I consumed like potato chips, one right after the other. While discovery was possible on broadcast television, the bandwidth of five channels really couldn’t match that of sixty channels. It’s hard to overstate how many of the things that would impact me enormously were also things that I stumbled into thanks to a wide sea of programming that was seemingly aimed at my general thirst to discover and my addiction to the forbidden and the obscure.
Childhood time isn’t like adult time at all, and though it was only about four years between when we first got cable TV and when we got our first VCR, it seems in retrospect like half a lifetime between those two monumental events. The ability to rent, purchase, and tape your own movies and TV shows probably stands as the single most shaping trend in my life to date. There is little that makes me more nostalgic for my childhood than the memory of the various mom and pop video stores which I raided like a pirate as an adolescent. The names are uninspiring and a list of them is meaningless to everyone else, but as I think of the hours I spent walking the aisles of The Movie Palace, The Movie Station, and Charlie Brown’s Video Rental (that was actually the name of the place) as being one of the more important parts of my horror education. Because it’s just how it was, I didn’t think of it until years later, but can you imagine if they had organized early video stores entirely alphabetically, rather than by genre? I know that I wouldn’t be the same person, and I suspect that to be true for many horror fans my age. The ability to go to the Horror Section and pick a movie at random ensured that for a completest like myself, I would eventually make my way through every horror film in my hometown and the next two closest towns that had video stores.
Other families had VHS machines well before we did, and that included my paternal grandparents and some family friends, so I didn’t spend all of my first forays into rented films alone in the dark, but I sure put pressure on some relationships. Like when I talked my middle school friend who didn’t even really enjoy horror films into renting Faces of Death (1978) so we could watch it at his house with his parents occasionally walking through, scowling at both of us. Or when I stayed the weekend at my grandparents’ house and watched my first two Herschel Gordon Lewis films (The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Gore Gore Girls (1972) with my grandmother vacuuming one room over from me. Though I wasn’t entirely alone, I may as well have been, and it was during that period that I realized that I would do anything, really anything to see these movies that I’d only read about elsewhere and that once the forbidden fruit was in hand, I could tune out just about anything that might try to disturb my enjoyment and fascination. Both of those experiences were galvanizing for me, by the way, and I would go on to watch Faces of Death scores of times, eventually showing ragged little snippets of it to disgusted students in three of my classes through middle and high school. Side note- if it wasn’t clear, I was in high school years before Columbine. Can you imagine the 14 year-old in today’s society who keeps giving speeches in class on subjects like capital punishment or cults, mostly so he can give nightmares to the bullies and arrogant young ladies who already regularly call him a weirdo? My guess is that he’d be on some sort of list and be forced to go to some sort of counseling on the regular. But in those much-lauded 1980’s our WWII-era grandparents were too remote and our Baby Boomer-parents were too self-involved and we were mostly left to fend for ourselves. The result? A bunch of gaping kids in a backwater Missouri high school saw far more of Faces of Death than they would have otherwise, and they did it in the guise of education. I was learning to subvert systems while also finding ways to foist off these peak experiences I was having alone in the dark on others.
It was during this period, around the time I was 12-13 that my family got our first VCR, I discovered punk rock (thanks to that VCR), I started reading every issue of Fangoria magazine and soon shifted to a friend group that was more in line with my interests. It’s weird to look backwards in your life and see how clearly the place was where you became the person you are today. My early adolescence coincided with a number of random occurances that, had they been a year or two off in either direction, would have massively changed my life. The VCR was essentially an accident. My parents weren’t exactly technophiles and though I pleaded with them to get a VCR, they were satisfied with cable TV and steadfastly (and irritatingly) refused. So it’s likely that we would have made it almost to the 90’s without getting one, had my dad not won a shiny black VHS player/recorder in some way that is now lost to me. I had purchased blank tapes and gotten a membership at the local video stores in anticipation of the arrival of the machine, and I can still remember the anticipation and excitement the day it was finally delivered and I hooked it up to the TV. The first film I taped off of cable was the Chevy Chase comedy Fletch (1985). No, it wasn’t a horror movie, but I’ve also been a huge fan of comedy my whole life, and it was the movie that was on next when we got the VCR. In what would become a pattern, I have likely seen Fletch fifty times. I still have that tape in a box in the basement, though I doubt very seriously that it would still play today, 33 years later. It is sitting next to probably two hundred other T-120 VHS tapes, the vast majority of which were recorded on SLP mode so that I could cram six hours of content onto each; clearly quantity was vastly more important than quality. I recorded television shows, standup comedy, music videos (remember those) and a tremendous number of movies. Before long, I had a very respectable collection of films illegally copied from cable for me to consume at my leisure, which I did constantly. I had a real mania for consuming films, and I would watch them over and over again.
Though vast, the internet does not seem to possess all the information I need to write this article. I can’t seem to find, for example, when the film The Return of the Living Dead (1985) premiered on cable. But looking at TV listings from 1986-87 show me how profound the effect on my viewing life the VCR had been, as I have no memory of most of the shows that were on broadcast TV during that time. I remember every show that had been on TV in 1984, including such obscure blips as Oh, Madeline and Mama Malone. But just a couple of years later in 1986, there were shows called The New Mike Hammer, Sidekicks, and The Ellen Burstyn Show and I remember none of those, because by 1986, I was consuming mostly rented or recorded films and shows. Somewhere in 1986, sandwiched between The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, I recorded what would become my most watched and most influential film, the aforementioned Return of the Living Dead (ROTLD for short because we’re pals.) And here is the value that home video brings that even the most profound cinematic experience rarely does: the power of intense repetition. I have seen ROTLD upwards of around two hundred times, and most of those viewings were on the Sony T-120 VHS tape I recorded off of cable in the mid-80’s. I didn’t just watch that film; I studied it and internalized it. Something about the combination of intense graphic violence, black comedy, the anarchic premise, the non-traditional characters and the amazing soundtrack struck a loud note inside me that continues to reverberate. And now that I “had” a copy, my 13 year-old self could watch it any time. When I was sad and wanted cheering up, ROTLD. When I was angry and needed calming down, ROTLD. When I was happy and wanted to celebrate, ROTLD. When I was bored and wanted something reliable to engage me… you get the picture. I watched it a few times a month through all four years of high school. And that repetition caused me to be able to pick out things that might have slipped by me in one or two theatrical viewings. Things like the soundtrack.
No soundtrack had ever hit me as hard as The Return of the Living Dead soundtrack. Some of those early repeated views were just to hear the songs, and one day at a music store in a mall I found a cassette tape of that soundtrack, which I bought immediately, and which changed my life. Punk rock, meet recent adolescent Aaron’s psyche. BOOM! Punk rock (and alternative music generally) would reshape my life immediately and for the rest of my life, and I really don’t think that would have happened to me had it not been for all those hours sitting alone in the dark grooving on The Cramps, The Damned, The Tall Boys and The Jet Black Berries while my favorite film played.
Finding punk rock made me gravitate to other people who liked punk rock and eventually I became a skateboarder and suddenly as I left middle school, I had a new group of friends. One of them, my very good friend Todd, shared my love of movies and we sat together for hours watching and talking about them. He’d tape comedies and old war movies, and I taped a bunch of horror movies, and we’d watch them together and educate each other. Eventually, we realized that if we brought his family’s VCR over to my house, we could stay up all night taping movies from the video store, and we spent quite a number of nights doing just that. Todd and I became like brothers and are still friends to this day, and I’d say that one reason for that was because we liked… scratch that, we loved to watch movies at home.
Am I shitting on seeing films in the theater? Of course not. I like that experience as well. But I think that the suggestion that there is something wrong with watching a film in any other way than theatrically is goddamned dumb, and I bet right now there is a kid somewhere who is going to be hugely important in the horror genre who is getting most of his filmic education on his cellular device (GASP). So it goes. Not everyone has to watch things the same way, and what actually matters is what you take away from it. And each of these methods of delivery have plusses that don’t get praised often enough.