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Hammer films, Fangoria magazine and the books of Stephen King proved a bloody education in thrills, special effects and adult themes. However, the grim reality of adult life proved more chilling than any army of zombies, says Stewart Who?
I first fell in love with horror around the age of seven. My Granny used to babysit during the ‘70s, when Hammer double bills were a feature on a Saturday nights. She found them amusing, never flinching from gore nor fang.
Years later, when I questioned her relaxed attitude to the blood and terror, it was pointed out that as a tough farmer in Monaghan, Ireland, sentimentality towards death and violence was unhelpful.
‘Granny loved animals,’ deadpanned my father. ‘She’d drown unwanted kittens in warm water’.
Books of blood
When not watching The Curse of Frankenstein with granny, I devoured horror novels. Adults rightly twitch at the thought of kids watching porn or graphic violence. There’s less concern about consumption of literature.
Perhaps modern parents are sensitive to their kids’ books, 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 mag specialising in horror, splatter and exploitation films. In regular publication since ’79, it charted the boom in video nasties and 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 unimpressed at my descent to the dark side. 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 it was ripped down.
‘One day I’ll have a house of my own and it will be full of horror posters,’ I seethed, bitterly.
I was too young to ponder an adult future punctured by debt, grief, homophobia and osteoarthritis. That’s where your screams may really fall on deaf ears.
It seemed that the role of a special effects make up artist would be the perfect career. This led to all sorts of experimentation. A particular favourite was to dampen toilet paper, 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 rental shops seemed to all house a wispy haired pervert, happy to dish out dodgy stock to a flirting schoolgirls with lashings of blue mascara.
Us boys would swagger to the offy for the requisite cider and ciggies. Throw in an empty suburban semi-detatched and you have a perfect adolescent storm; booze, nicotine, rewindable terror and a party of hormones.
Sadly, one has to 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. It was an odd request, but therein lay the appeal. We spent two days chatting, smoking and wandering the beaches.
Told of my love for horror films, he stopped, 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, furious stare. In that intense, personal moment, it felt like he transferred a wave of unspeakable horror to my mind’s eye. For a second, in that tense silence, I saw rivers of blood and felt a punch of howling anguish. All 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 were largely shielded from the scenes of rape, ethnic cleansing and torture camps. Evidently, my island companion hadn’t experienced that luxury. We’d got intensely close over those few days, unnaturally locked together, yet buzzed by the company. Briefly, he viewed me with a crushing mix of disgust and disappointment. He’s looked up to me. I’d let him down.
For years, I felt so ashamed by that exchange, horror films were off the menu. After a guilty hiatus, it now boils down to aesthetics. Occasionally, a horror film cuts the mustard.
However, nothing will ever chill my being as much as the Bosnian boy who transferred a flash of raw horror onto my mental hardrive. Despite the efforts of Hammer and Hollywood, there’s no monster quite like war and nothing haunts humanity with such deadly efficiency.