Horror Incorporated was my education in the history of the horror movie. My friends and I, watching on a black and white television in the early 1970's, absorbed the Universal Studio cycle of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Invisible Man. Adapted from folk tales and 19th century literature, these melodramas concluded that man should not attempt to meddle in the affairs of God. In the post-World War II movies, the otherness of the monster evolved into alien invasions and destructive giants that embodied cold war anxieties about the atomic bomb; again, perhaps man should not attempt to meddle in the affairs of God or nature. When children were eating their parents in Night of the Living Dead, the threat returned to human form and the social turbulence of the 1960's. Why did the horror genre so fascinate us as children? We certainly weren't interested in the larger themes I've just described. We identified on the elemental level of destroying a balsa wood city with Godzilla.
Film writers frequently compare this complex attraction/repulsion to an amusement park ride: a vicarious exposure to risk and the threat of death shared as a communal experience. Any authentic shock that we feel is mitigated by an awareness that we are safe in the spook house. But the emotional resonance of these films also gives us a vehicle to navigate real-life horror and death.
In the farming town Wisconsin of my youth, death was daily business. Every sixth grade class at Amery Middle School made a routine field trip to the town's slaughterhouse. A group of giggly twelve-year-olds entered an observation room and watched as a cow was shot in the forehead, raised by a hind leg still wriggling in the air and disemboweled. In a utilitarian sense, we now knew where our hamburgers came from. But we had also just witnessed the mysterious transformation of animate life into meat. As I lay in bed at night, I was left to explain the experience to myself. I pictured a dotted line moving through the solar system, as in an animated educational film, receding into darkness. I remembered the phrase that we chanted in church - "time without end." What did death mean now that I understood I too would become meat someday?
In reaction to the brute realities of farm life, rural storytelling developed a dark repertoire of madness and murder. In the 1970's, Ed Gein was the local Wisconsin ghoul the older kids used to frightened their younger siblings. Mr. Gein didn’t actually kill many people we were told; he was primarily a grave robber with an elaborate imagination. The most intriguing story, recounted in dimly lit basements by the bigger neighbor boys, was that Mr. Gein had sewn together a ‘woman suit’ of human skin so that he could become his own mother. Try reconciling that image with what one saw on Saturday morning Scooby Doo cartoons! These basement/campfire spook stories felt like the progenitors of the movies on Horror Incorporated and, later, of the slasher films we saw at the Amery Theater; Ed Gein’s story did, in fact, inspire both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The 1970’s were also a period of economic recession and farm failures in rural Wisconsin; Werner Herzog’s Strozek plays for me like a documentary of that place and time. My father was a doctor, which meant that my family was firmly middle class and was largely insulated from the effects of the farm crisis. Despite this relative privilege, most of my friends were farm kids. During the sixth-grade I drew sequential comics with Mark Knutson. We acted as the primary audience for each other’s small stories and we also collaborated on comics, finishing panels that the other had started. During the summer break between sixth and seventh grade I didn’t see Mark often because he lived in the country and I lived in town. One evening my father came home from the hospital for dinner. He seemed shaken, paused uncharacteristically and said, “Mr. Knutson killed himself and his whole family with a shotgun last night.” The bank had foreclosed on Mr. Knutson’s farm and he had received a message from Jesus Christ to deliver his family to the city of refuge. One by one he put pillows over the faces of his children and wife, shot them in their sleep, and then killed himself. I stared at the pork chop on my plate and thought of the school trip to the slaughterhouse.
By the late 1970’s, the slasher films inspired by the success of Halloween had replaced our more innocent Saturday afternoon television. My friends and I gathered regularly to watch the brutal murder of teenagers on the screen of the Amery Theater. Although it seems at first contradictory, the repressed and inexplicable emotional experience of real horror in our town may well have found manageable expression in the cinematic dream of death, aesthetic catharsis in the classical sense. But there was also a simple social bonding in watching horror movies together. If I think now about watching Silent Scream, Phantasm or Prom Night at age sixteen, the most powerful sensation I recall was sitting close to girls, smelling whatever fragrance was on their skin or hair. The primary mechanism of these movies was building tension to a sudden release. When the shocks were sprung, we all lurched in our seats, screaming, and there was a chance that one of the girls would involuntarily grab my hand or arm.
I was good at math, played chess and tennis. I idolized Bjorn Borg and wore headbands like his to class. And, worst of all for my social status in school, I was the dungeon master for a circle of Dungeons and Dragons players. I remember driving the main cruising drag in Amery on a Friday night with my Dungeons and Dragons friends, naked in my family's wood-paneled station wagon. No one noticed; we were manifesting our invisibility and lack of charisma. What attention we normally got from girls in school was as asexual buddies who could help with math homework.
After we’d seen Halloween together, I suggested to my Dungeons and Dragons group that we should make our own horror movie. A dungeon master functions much like a film director, organizing the collective energy toward one shared fantasy. Our parents all owned Super 8 cameras and projectors, the home movie format of that era, and we'd grown up watching ourselves moving on a screen in these family films like actors on television. We shot our first exploitation picture in 1979 - He Walks Among Us. Halloween, for all of its manipulative sophistication, provided us with an accessible model: the sets were simply our own neighborhoods and houses, the actors our friends. We also mimicked the first-person camera perspective to place the viewer in the vantage of the killer stalking his prey. Everyone took their turn playing the victim: Blake was hung from a tree, I was stabbed and Brad was thrown down a flight of stairs. My taller brother played the masked killer. As we watched our new movie proudly together one day after school, fresh from the processing lab, Brad had the idea to show it in his garage on a Friday night and charge twenty-five cents admission. I made posters advertising the event and hung them at school. On the first weekend, we had to add extra screenings for the big crowd that showed up. We made a killing; the Roger Corman method really works.
Now that we had a ready audience, we quickly made Mindless Massacre, a campers-get-murdered-in-the-woods scenario inspired by Friday the 13th. I refined my blood mixture of flour, water and red food coloring and grew more ambitious designing the special effects. The fingers of a clay hand, for example, were severed with an ax and plastic tubes hidden in the clay spurted blood. A girl’s head exploded when she was shot at close range with a shotgun; for this effect, we filled a mannequin head with hamburger. And as a cinematic enhancement, I created a soundtrack that we synched roughly by starting a cassette tape player on a visual cue at the film’s beginning.
An unanticipated consequence of our screenings was that my friends and I enjoyed a moment of celebrity in school. We existed socially for the first time. Our classmates volunteered to be killed in future horror movies; the head cheerleader approached me after class one day and politely asked if we would shoot her with a shotgun too. During our period of notoriety, we decided to show our double feature to the whole student population in the school gymnasium. The posters for the event, however, attracted the attention of a fundamentalist christian teacher. He objected to the school board that movies with violent content and satanic intentions were going to be shown on school property. My mother advocated on our behalf, arguing that although she didn’t personally approve of the content in our movies, they represented a form of creative expression that should be encouraged. In the face of this unwanted controversy the school’s principal simply cancelled the screening. We did capitalize on this censorship in true exploitation film style in subsequent garage show posters: ‘See the films that were banned at Amery High School!’
My friends and I must have ultimately been discouraged by these events because we made only one more Super 8 horror project, Photopath, and this film was more self-aware and almost apologetic in tone. In Photopath, a director staged explicit murders for his Super 8 horror movies, including an impressive ax-in-the-head set piece. In his dreams, which were shot in black and white (I’d just discovered Tri-X Kodak stock) the filmmaker was subjected personally to more grittily realistic versions of his contrived murders. He repented of his previous movies and in the final shot poured his fake blood mixture solemnly down the drain.