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Hammer films, Fangoria magazine and the books of Stephen King proved a bloody education in gothic thrills, special effects and adult themes. However, the grim reality of adult life proved far more chilling than any army of zombies, says Stewart Who?
I first fell in love with horror films around the age of seven. My Granny used to babysit for me and during the ‘70s, Hammer double bills were a feature on a Saturday nights. She seemed to find them mildly amusing, never flinching from gore nor fang.
Years later, when I questioned her relaxed attitude to the blood, terror and the screams of virgins, it was pointed out that as a tough Irish farmer in bleak Monaghan, sentimentality towards death and violence was thin on the ground. ‘When the farm cat had kittens, they were thrown in a sack and bashed with a spade,’ deadpanned Dadda, possibly spinning a yarn. Why would she flinch at Christopher Lee?
Books of blood
When not watching The Curse of Frankenstein with my granny, I was reading horror novels.While adults might twitch at the thought of kids watching porn or graphic violence, thankfully, few question the consumption of literature.
Perhaps the paranoid parents of today are sensitive to their kids’ reading materials, but in the ’70s, I’d wander into school fetes and snap up second-hand paperbacks by Dennis Wheatley, James Herbert and Stephen King.
Aged 12, I became an avid reader of Fangoria, a glossy magazine specialising in horror, splatter and exploitation movies. In regular publication since ’79, the mag charted the boom in video nasties and the evolution of special effects championed by the likes of Alien, Friday the Thirteenth and Dawn of the Dead.
Walls of gore
Fangoria featured pull-out posters of the genre’s biggest stars, from Halloween’s Michael Myers to The Shining’s Jack Torrance. These terrifying pics found pride of place on my bedroom wall alongside Madonna, Madness, Marley and James Dean.
Understandably, my parents were at a loss as to what to say to me, though my mum drew the line at a poster of Barlow, the vampire from Salem’s Lot. She couldn’t visit my room while it was there, so instructed my Dadda to remove it.
‘One day I’ll have a house of my own and it will be full of horror posters,’ I mused, bitterly. Obviously, I was too young to ponder the forthcoming reality of an adult future peppered with debt, grief, baldness and arthritis. That’s where real terror lurks.
It seemed that the perfect career for me would be as a special effects make up artist. This led to all sorts of experimentation. A particular favourite was to dampen toilet paper and then lay it on the skin. Highly impractical, but visually effective, it did kinda resemble the flailing, peeling flesh of a zombie.
I’d stagger ‘round the house groaning mournfully as gobbets of wet Kleenex dripped onto the carpet. Blood capsules allowed one to froth gorily at the mouth. If my mother wasn’t disturbed into silence, she was screaming at me to ‘stop fucking about’.
Cider & ciggies
One of the main reasons for truanting was to attend video nasty marathons at the houses of other teens whose parents were at work and possessed a VCR. Local video rental shops seemed to all house a wispy haired pervert, willing to dish out dodgy stock to a flirting schoolgirl with lashings of blue mascara.
Us boys would cockily march to the offy for the requisite cider and ciggies. Throw in an empty suburban semi-detatched and you had the perfect adolescent storm; booze, nicotine, rewindable terror and a party of hormones.
Sadly, one has to grow up and learn that the world harbours more scary prospects than any Hollywood horror. It’s hardly surprising then, that real life terror can affect appreciation of the cinematic kind.
Whilst travelling the Greek islands in the ’90s, I met a 19 year-old Bosnian chap who’d been caught in possession of cannabis. He was the only other person staying in my Naxos pension and was waiting to be shipped to the mainland to face trial. The lady who ran the guest house asked me to keep him company, so we spent two days chatting and wandering the beaches. Told of my love for horror films, he stopped dead, looked me in the eyes and said;
“If you’d seen the things I’ve seen, you’d never watch a horror film again.”
He said this with bone-chilling gravity and an unblinking, fiery stare. In that intense, personal moment, it felt like he transferred a wave of unspeakable horror to my mind’s eye. For a fraction of a second, in that tense silence, I saw rivers of blood and felt a punch of howling anguish. All of this occurred while sat on a beautiful beach at sunset.
Until that point, it hadn’t really clicked that he’d fled conflict in Bosnia. In the UK, we may have been slightly shielded from the scenes of rape, ethnic cleansing and torture camps, but evidently, my island companion hadn’t experienced that luxury. He briefly viewed me with an unnerving mix of disgust and disappointment.
For a number of years, I felt so ashamed by that exchange, horror films were off the menu. After a guilty hiatus, it now boils down to aesthetics. A decent film is a just that and occasionally, a horror film cuts the mustard.
However, nothing will ever chill me quite as much as the Bosnian boy who forcibly downloaded a flash of raw horror onto my mental hardrive. Despite the efforts of Hammer and their successors, there’s no monster quite like war and nothing haunts humanity with such deadly efficiency.
First Published- HospitalClub.com