4th February 2019
A blonde girl runs down the street as a shadowy figure slowly follows. She frantically knocks on the door of her sister’s shop willing her to let her in, as her pursuer gets closer, and closer, and closer…
… And then I was too afraid to go outside in the dark to feed the rabbits.
That was the moment I saw a clip from 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer on The Movie Chart Show presented by Gail Porter back in the Nineties. I was about 12 years old and, with the exception of my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I had everything from the soundtrack to ‘The Watcher’s Guide’), anything horror related truly terrified me – particularly the films in the slasher sub-genre. I was the child who made her parents throw away a recently purchased doll after becoming convinced it would kill me following a scary story in the playground (“I’m on the first step…”), the one who would hide under her sleeping bag and cry because Halloween was being played at a sleepover, and the girl frightened to walk home from the school bus stop at 5pm because it was dark. In short – I was a bit of a wimp.
Joss Whedon cited his main reason for the creation of Buffy was because he got tired of the repetitive slasher film clichés, and instead of watching the ‘ditsy blonde’ walk down that dark alleyway and engage in a cat-and-mouse style chase with the killer before being unceremoniously dispatched, he wanted to see her turn around, face her attacker and fight back. I don’t know whether it was the fact that the scene in question showed my heroine Sarah Michelle-Gellar doing the exact opposite of what I expected her to do, or whether it simply tapped into that primal fear of the ‘creature’ hiding in the shadows. Incidentally, when a year or so later I made the decision to be ‘brave’ and watch the film in full on Halloween it proved to be ill-judged, as it transpired that the clip I'd seen previously wasn’t even the one that was going to affect me the most… it was the hiding in the wardrobe scene (monster in the closet anyone?), and I, as a result, had a sleepless night.
It’s not that I’d never watched a film that upset me before, despite my parents’ strict adherence to BBFC classification… the Child-Catcher and the melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark made notable appearances in my nightmares. But this was different. This lasted throughout years where I should have known better. Even while I was studying film at college and university and knew how those jump scares were created, how a director builds suspense, the significance of the ‘final girl’ etc. – in fact I’d read numerous articles about them (Carol Clover, I'm looking at you) - there was still something about a home invasion or slasher film that filled me with dread and paranoia.
This fear wasn’t completely irrational. I had been followed by a creepy stranger, and when home phone-lines were still a thing I had received strange ‘breathy’ calls. Coupled with an overactive imagination which, while no bad thing, isn’t ideal when reasoning that there was ‘evil’ in the world, teenagers did go missing and people’s houses did get broken into. So I imposed a self-censorship on my movie viewing as an extra precaution to minimise my anxiety. This did have its disadvantages. I missed out on some key moments in cinema as a result of my cowardice until years later - most notably Scream, due to the simple fact that it featured an ‘unknown’ terrorising a young girl on the telephone while she was alone in the house. It didn’t matter that I knew this would be a film in which the heroine would eventually triumph over evil at the end, I wasn’t able to get past that notorious first scene – which, to this day and despite myself, I still find incredibly disturbing. As a side note, Scream gave my younger sister six months-worth of nightmares when she did what I would and could not, and gave in to the peer pressures of a sleepover at the age of about 13.
So, how then, can you go from essentially being scared of your own shadow to a person who enjoys early morning viewings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while eating breakfast? As I ‘grew up’ I could watch films I deemed to be purely fictional - zombies, vampires, witches and ghost stories didn’t worry me – but I was still slasher film averse well into my Twenties because I deemed the stories to have originated from something based on truth, regardless of the fact that I could happily watch Psycho or The Silence of the Lambs which were actually inspired by murderer Ed Gein.
Ever full of contradictions, it was a film rooted in reality that helped me evolve into the horror film lover I am today - David Fincher’s Zodiac. Although the story about a killer who was never caught should have been the stuff of nightmares and there are some truly brutal unpleasant moments in the film (particularly the Lake Berryessa scene), I, like Robert Graysmith, became fascinated with the story – who he might have been, his motivation, the suspect list – and so began my obsession with true crime. Reading and watching documentaries about various cases, I came to the realisation that nothing in a film can be as frightening as what people do in the real world, and, while this is an alarming conclusion to come to, it somehow allowed me to view horror in a new light.
I made a list of the slasher films (both good and bad) I should have seen as a film fan / student but was always too afraid to watch alone, and started playing catch up. While I’m sad that I missed out on that experience of watching the films upon release, with friends or with an audience at the cinema, there is something joyful and a little bit special about discovering them for the first time. I went to my very first London FrightFest last year (on my own) and have never had so much fun at a festival!
Perhaps all those stories about the horrific things people do to each other in the world we live in have desensitised me to the horrors on the screen. Perhaps I’ve grown up. Perhaps I’ve chilled out. Either way, I live alone and actively seek out new horror to watch on Netflix, Amazon, FilmStruck (R.I.P.) etc. The most nervous I tend to get of an evening is when my cat Chaplin seems to see something I cannot… maybe it’s time to reconsider my stance on the ghost story.
And for the record, I’m still scared of walking home alone late at night. You can’t fix everything.