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. And that is that 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 “truth” is really just a subjective feeling based on how the speaker or writer had their peak experiences with films. And for those raised before cable TV and home video, it totally makes sense. Television was pretty sterile, mostly (but certainly not entirely) a wasteland of conformity and innocuous programming. The cinema was a place where you might see something different, something that would leave an indelible mark on your psyche, and so you’d gravitate to the theater to share a communal experience that would hopefully leave its impression on you. Consequently, no experience of watching a film besides that one could compete with it. However, that’s only true for some people. For others like myself, the another reality 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, been my favorite way to see a film. The most important filmic moments in my life have almost always happened 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 during my early childhood, my grandparents would back the car onto the street and they, my parents, a few neighbors, and friends would gather on the carport to drink beer, share stories and jokes as loud trucks whizzed past pissing insecticide on the neighborhood to keep us safe from mosquitoes. I would spend time with them out there, but I would also venture 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 much of the film is mostly gone, sadly. But what remains completely intact is the memory of rushing outside to leap into the lap of my grandma’s best friend Bernice, one of the more understanding adults in my life, to try to babble out an explanation of what I’d experienced 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 right there with confused adults looking on as I huffed and puffed. Other kids would find their groove as athletes or in other forms of competition, but from that moment on, I was hooked on finding media that spun me up into a frenzy. And more and more, I found that the most exciting explorations happened when I was alone.
As much as we might 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 my generation. 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 weekend bedtimes and take in the many delights of KPLR-TV, a St. Louis independent station (the first in Missouri). By that time, they offered all sorts of content including the famous Wrestling at the Chase, tons of old TV shows in syndication, and a regular slew of Saturday and Sunday movie matinees that over the course of a weekend always seemed included an old monster movie, a western, and a war picture. But on weekend nights, 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 sleep, I crawled to the end of the bed where the tiny TV lived and tuned it to Channel 11 to grope televised breasts with my eyes. Though that was exciting, the next thing on the schedule really was the main event: a monster movie of some sort. 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 alien 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 has his romantic intentions 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 into my mind and became a gold standard for what was terrifying to me for years to come. I was all alone, pursuing that which was forbidden. In the house I grew up in, when my parents told me to go to bed, that was The Law, and I was in flagrant violation. But as every rule breaker knows, this experience is empowering but also mildly fraught. Inevitably, when the terror settled down onto me and spread its chill into my veins, there was no one I could turn to for comfort. 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 and made me want to stop and look away, and run into my parent’s room to ask them to help me banish the terrible things my mind had conjured, but if I did I would lose the ability to chase after the things that terrified me. That fate was far, far worse.
This isn’t to suggest that all my horror film experiences were had under the covers in my bedroom. 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, however. 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 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 1980’s but as someone who lived it, I would not be who I am today if it weren’t for cable television. 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 on television in a frustratingly edited fashion. 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 movies. 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 (even knowing who that is seems 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 my childhood, 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 cable box that was installed on top of my television somewhere around 1982 was 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 have always shared that desire. 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. This 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 living room doorway since I was constantly bellow-running away from the film in terror, only to yo-yo back immediately, utterly addicted to the cycle of blind terror and uncontrollable fascination. The scene at the end when Jason, hung from the hayloft, hefts himself, whips off the hockey mask and flashes a tiny and terrible smile at his quarry is utterly seared into my memory. And watching it these days is an instantaneous transport back 35 years 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 to this whole passion, in my humble opinion. An important 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 to terrible things 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” I’m sure. 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, were far more relaxed about what their kid viewed than their own 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 any 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. The clear (and ultimately confusing) lesson was: 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. My viewing options were very limited, but 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 this forbidden film was playing while we were there for a visit. As my family was enjoying drinks and conversation, I excused myself, padded upstairs and quietly sat on a stool in their kitchen 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 ready to yank the television to another program. If the house creaked, I turned the channel. If the toilet flushed downstairs, I turned the channel. Barely hearing it, and flipping channels every every couple of 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, many of which were entering this brave new world without enough content to fill their day and ended up showing some truly insane things. 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 defining trend in my life to date. There is little that makes me more nostalgic for my adolescent years than the memory of the various mom and pop video stores which I raided like a pirate. 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’ and talked my wonderful and ever-accommodating grandmother into renting me my first two Herschel Gordon Lewis films (The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Gore Gore Girls (1972) which I watched, transfixed and terrified that she’d stop vacuuming in the next room, come back into the family room and behold what a leering gorehound I was becoming. 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 show snippets of this film to give nightmares to his classmates? My guess is that he’d be on a number of official lists 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 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 that I discovered punk rock and started reading every issue of Fangoria magazine. It’s weird to look backwards in your life and clearly see the time and place that you became the person you are today, but that was it for me. My early adolescence coincided with a number of random occurrences 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 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, 30-something 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; quantity was vastly more important than quality in those early days. 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 to consume at my leisure, which I did constantly. Like most kids, I was a maniac for repeat viewings and I would watch films dozens of times.
Though vast, the internet does not seem to possess all the information I need to write this article. For example, I can’t seem to find the date that 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. In contrast, 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.) 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 at least a 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 then I completely 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 their filmic education on their (GASP) cellular device. So it goes. Not everyone has to watch things the same way, and what actually matters is what you take away from it. It’s not the method of delivery, it’s what it does to your insides. And my insides were and continue to be transformed thanks to hours spent alone in the dark.