My issue with horror
Picture the scene: in a North London terraced house, it’s 10.30pm on a Friday night in 1971. In the main bedroom, the patriarch, the bread winner and staunch defender of the Pope, lies snoring. In the other bedrooms several children, including a 10 year old boy, are under the veil of slumber. A woman, the matriarchal figure, enters the room and gently shakes the 10 year old awake, beckoning him to follow her.
Downstairs, in the messy sitting room, a small black and white television fills the air with flickering light. On the screen, an elderly man finishes announcing the weather before the scene changes and the title sequence to the House of Usher rolls. As the credits finish, other siblings are herded into the room.
Friday night was horror night. My Mother loved horror films. My Father, an Irish Catholic immigrant, believed such things to be tantamount to heresy. As such, every Friday evening when he was asleep, we were dragged up to sit in with our Mother. The reason? She was too scared to watch them alone.
We received a grounding in the mythology of vampires, werewolves, man-made monsters, devils and demons, mummies, ghosts, ghouls, and — of course — man’s inhumanity to man. Forbidden to tell anyone about our viewing habits, only our closest of friends knew, and envied, our late night dalliances with darkness.
Of course, the result was we became blasé to all things horror from the 1960s, as these were the typical reruns we’d sit through on a weekly basis.
All good things come to an end, and after exhausting the back catalogues, the Friday night TV slot fell to some other genre. We thought we’d get some sleep, but we were wrong. The next Friday evening we were herded to the sitting room to find my Mother’s friend sitting at the table, Scrabble tiles spread around. Where they going to make us watch a fucking Scrabble game? No; they were going to make us join in a séance with a home-made ouija board. The reason? They were too scared to do it on their own.
The next horror milestone was the cinematic launch of the Exorcist in 1973. The furore that greeted it in the UK included press reports of one viewer dying of shock. Okay; an old lady did have a heart attack during a viewing, but she was 82 and had a history of heart issues. Then someone allegedly miscarried watching the film. Demands grew for it to be banned, which lengthened the queues at the box office. It also made it very difficult for children to bunk in! It was the first horror film that I really wanted to see.
My friend’s sister worked at the Odeon. After much nagging she agreed to turn a blind eye if we went to an afternoon showing. We were under orders to get there early and leave only once the cinema was empty. We had to sit right at the front and do nothing to bring attention to ourselves.
Ready and willing to be terrified, I was amazed at what I saw. The Exorcist was (and still is) one of the best comedy films I’ve ever seen. I laughed, a lot. I laughed so much an usher came and threw us out. We missed the last 15 minutes. Finally seeing the ending a few years later, I thought it was a lazy way to finish things off. I couldn’t take horror seriously after that.
Despite this, horror does seem to be a constant companion in my work. I don’t class myself as a writer of horror, but there is always horror in there somewhere, usually in the darkest of the dark humour. What others call horror, I view as normal. Well, normalish, in as much as violent, disturbing and absurd episodes which heap misery and torment on my characters can be normal. It’s a given; they have to suffer!
When I’m not writing, I like nothing more than taking my grand-daughters into the woods at night and telling them about the terrible murders and tortures that happened to the people who previously lived in my house.
Am I coming around to the idea of writing horror? Maybe. I’m reading more horror, and enjoying it. I’m even building up a collection of bad 1960s and 1970s horror films. One thing is certain: I like my horror served with a shot of the darkest of dark humour, because, for me, horror will always be a laugh!