While watching “Horror Incorporated” on television in the early 1970’s, my friends and I had received an unwitting education in the history of the horror movie. The Universal Studio cycle of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Wolf Man,” “The Mummy” and “The Invisible Man,” had been adapted from folk tales and 19th century literature, often concluding moralistically that man should not attempt to meddle in the affairs of God. After the Second World War, the otherness of the monster evolved into alien invasions and destructive giants that embodied cold war anxieties about the atomic bomb. During the socially turbulent 1960’s, when children were eating their parents in “Night of the Living Dead,” the monster returned to human form; the otherness was blurred and the monster resided potentially within all of us. As teenagers in the late 1970’s, the slasher films inspired by the success of “Halloween” had replaced our more innocent Saturday afternoon television ritual.
Why did the horror genre so fascinate us as children? Film theorists frequently compare the complex attraction/repulsion that we sought from these movies to an amusement park ride: a vicarious exposure to risk and the threat of death shared as a circumscribed, communal experience. The shock of the movie’s content was always mitigated by an awareness that we were actually safe in the funhouse. But the shocks in these films also provided us with an emotional vehicle to navigate our exposure to real-life horror and death. Growing up in small farming town Wisconsin, death was daily business. During the sixth grade, for example, the school made a routine field trip to the slaughterhouse. A class of twelve-year-old kids 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 one wet, weighty purge. 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 to myself the moment at which the energy of consciousness leaves inanimate matter. What exactly did death mean now that I understood I too would also become just meat someday?
In reaction to the brute realities of farm life, rural storytelling developed a dark folklore of madness and murder. When I was young in the 1970’s, Ed Gein was the Wisconsin ghoul with which the older kids frightened their younger siblings. Mr. Gein didn’t actually kill many people; he was primarily a grave robber with a well-developed imagination. The most intriguing story, recounted in dimly lit basements by the older neighbor boys, was that Mr. Gein had sewn together a ‘woman suit’ of human skin so that he could become his own mother. Surely these basement/campfire spook stories are the ultimate progenitors of the movies that drew us to “Horror Incorporated” and to the Amery Theater; Ed Gein’s story reportedly inspired both “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Adding to this essential morbidity, the 1970’s were a period of economic difficulty and farm failures in rural Wisconsin, of foreclosures, suicide and mental illness. Werner Herzog’s “Strozek” plays for me like a documentary of the place and the time. My father was a doctor in Amery, which meant that my family was firmly middle class, had a distinct sense of our social status, and were largely insulted from the effects of the farm crisis. Despite my relative privilege, however, most of my friends were farm kids. During the sixth-grade I drew sequential comics with Mark Knutson. We served as the primary audience for each other’s small stories, but 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 regularly 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 been foreclosing 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 looked at the pork chop on my plate and thought of the field trip to the slaughterhouse.
Against the background of this real-life misery, my friends and I developed a ritual of watching teenagers brutally murdered on the screen of the Amery Theater. Though it seems at first contradictory, perhaps the repressed and inexplicable emotional experiences of our waking life found manageable expression in the cinematic dream of death, aesthetic catharsis in the classical sense. But there was also a simple social bonding in the ritual of watching the horror films together. If I now recall films like “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “Silent Scream,” “Phantasm” and “Prom Night” in the Amery Theater at age sixteen or seventeen, what I remember most distinctly is sitting next to girls. The movies offered a rare opportunity for me to sit close to one of my classmates, to smell whatever fragrance was on her skin or hair. The primary motivation of these movies was building tension to a sudden release. When the shocks were sprung, we all lurched in our seats and screamed and there was a reasonable likelihood that one of the girls would involuntarily grab my hand or arm.
I was good at math. I played chess and tennis, which wasn’t a sport that gave you social credibility in Amery, Wisconsin. I idolized Bjorn Borg and wore headbands to class. And, worst of all for my status in school, I was the dungeon master for a circle of Dungeons and Dragons players. I had no charisma or sexual presence. What attention I got from girls was as a harmless friend who could help with math homework. As compensation, the girls would then sit next to me at the Amery Theater while we watched our onscreen surrogates graphically murdered. The horror movie outings provided me with a sense of ritualized social belonging.
After we’d all seen “Halloween” together, I suggested to my Dungeons and Dragons group that we should make our own horror movie. As the dungeon master of our circle, I functioned much like a film director, organizing a collective energy toward one shared fantasy. Our families all owned Super 8 cameras and projectors, the home movie format of that era. We’d grown up with the excitement of watching ourselves in the films that our parents shot and we’d always felt a curious prestige in seeing the image of ourselves moving on a screen like the image of an actor on television.
It wasn’t difficult to convince my friends to shoot our first exploitation picture, “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 intuitively adopted the first-person camera shot to place the viewer in the position of the killer stalking his prey. Everyone had their turn playing the victim: one of us was hung from a tree, I was stabbed to death and a third member of our gang was thrown down a long flight of stairs. My taller brother played the masked killer. As we sat proudly together one day after school watching our new movie, fresh from the processing lab, my friend Brad had the entrepreneurial savvy to suggest that we screen 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 stage multiple shows to accommodate the crowd that arrived. We made a killing. (I note that, to date, these early Super 8 exploitation knock-offs were the only films I’ve ever produced that made a profit. The Roger Corman method works.)
Our next film, “Mindless Massacre,” was a ‘campers get slaughtered in the woods’ scenario based upon “Friday the 13th.” I refined my blood mixture of flour, water and red food coloring and I grew more ambitious designing the special effects. In this movie, for example, the fingers of a clay hand are severed with an ax and plastic tubes hidden in the clay pump spurting blood. A girl’s head explodes when she’s shot at close range with a shotgun; for this effect, we filled a mannequin head with hamburger. And as a multimedia enhancement for our screenings, 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 producing these films was that my friends and I enjoyed a moment of celebrity in school. We had earned our long-sought visibility; we existed socially. The classmates that had merely consented to accompany us to the horror films at the Amery Theater now volunteered to be killed in our own horror movies. The head cheerleader, who sat at the peak of high school popularity, approached me after class one day and politely asked if I would shoot her with a shotgun too. During our brief period of celebrity, the idea arose of showing the films to the whole student population in the school gymnasium. We immediately set our makeshift publicity machine in motion. The posters for the event, however, attracted the attention of the earth science teacher, a fundamentalist Christian. He objected to the school board that movies with violent content and satanic proclivities 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 of our films, 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 capitalized on this censorship in true exploitation film style in the subsequent posters for our garage screenings: ‘See the films that were banned at Amery High School!’
My friends and I must have ultimately been discouraged by these events because we shot only one more Super 8 horror project, “Photopath,” and this film is more self-aware and almost apologetic in tone. In “Photopath,” a filmmaker stages explicit murders for his Super 8 horror movies, the most elaborate of which is a stunning ‘ax in the head’ set piece. In his dreams, which are shot in black and white (I’d just discovered that one could buy black and white Kodak stock) the filmmaker is subjected personally to more grittily realistic versions of his contrived murders. He repents of his previous movies and in the final shot pours his fake blood mixture solemnly down the drain.