Thursday, 13 February 2014

Horror Is No Longer Harmless

When I were a nipper, the approach of the weekend raised one key concern: would my Dad let me stay up to watch both films in the BBC2 Horror Double Bill series? 

It was a serious issue. The Horror Double Bill represented a glimpse into a dark adult world I desperately wanted part of, a world which seemed to promise fear, thrills and excitement. Later I would tap literature and music for these visceral and psychological delights, but on the cusp of teenagehood, I lived for horror. Well, horror and fishing. And perhaps Toffos. 

Atmosphere accounted for much. As a youngster I was lucky. I spent most weekends at a place called Turweston House, formerly the family residence of the people who owned Church's Shoes. My Dad had a 'wing' in exchange for looking after the place when the family were away. Turweston House had a gritty tennis court, a freezing cold swimming pool, a lake stuffed full of perch and roach, a gnarled orchard of apple trees, and a huge basement full of wooden shoe moulds that reminded me of the haunting storage rooms at Auschwitz. At that gullible age, the difference between 'souls' and 'soles' seemed a plausible and sinister coincidence. 

Turweston House [centre] with church immediately behind

Turweston Church is located very close to the House, sharing a wall along two perimeters. Not only did we use the churchyard and the house grounds as a huge rambling playground, but the windows of our 'wing' looked out across the churchyard. This is important because I was supremely aware of this unnerving fact when sitting transfixed in my chair watching such films as 'Dracula Has Risen From The Grave' and 'The Reptile', for the rooms were large and chilly, with real open fires and high ceilings, and spectral shadows would leap malicious and unfettered behind the chairs we had pulled up close to the hearth. Outside, the wild English countryside would lay silently quivering under the cloaking dark, as the despising moon would coldly gild the jaundiced tombstones and craven gargoyle faces with dirty white sepulchral tinctures which seemed to me unholy and cancerous. My father would pack my younger siblings off to bed and begin to roll a succession of cigarettes, before succumbing to his reliable habit of quickly falling asleep with a copy of the Daily Mail collapsed upon his lap. Even at that naive age, I knew enough about the world to know that the Daily Mail was enough to send anyone to sleep. 

The first film was usually a black and white feature. The range was extraordinary, varying between expressionist horror such as 'The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari' and 'Carnival Of Souls', through the various 'Dracula'/'Frankenstein'/'Werewolf' mainstays which introduced me to legendary stalwarts such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, and then on to the weird series of 1950/60s films which seemed to blend horror with science-fiction, including the mighty 'The Man With X-Ray Eyes'. 

The first features usually offered innocent thrills. According to Christopher Lee in a 1958 edition of 'Picturegoer', "Horror is pure escapism and rattling good entertainment."

The first features were often unintentionally funny, as exemplified by the cover for the same magazine:

Skeletonism was rampant in the 1950s

As these neon nightmares ended, I would cast an anxious eye upon the dozing form of my father as he sloped ever further downwards into his chair, hoping beyond reason that the closing music would not rouse him from his torpor. My father was a fireman, and because this involved shift work, he took sleep were he could get it, a habit I have since inherited. I knew that once the credits had begun rolling on the second film, I had passed 'Go', and that I was safe. My father may have been a working-class Tory who liked Jim Davidson, but he was also a musician whose band had appeared on Jukebox Jury, so he understood the importance of frivolous cerebral stimulation. 

I preferred to watch the second films on my own because they would often feature darker, more disturbing themes, and as an emerging teenager, I felt a marked discomfort in sharing that experience with an adult. I wanted to experience these things by myself, and to make my own mind up about the fantasy world of violence, sex and horror that they portrayed. Having said that, the existence of a sleeping adult close by, who would be available to shut up the house and tuck me up safely in bed afterwards, was not something I objected to. 

The second films represented a gateway into an alternate dark promised land. School sought to qualify me for the future daytime routines that would seek to map out the duller path of my life, but the second film in the BBC2 Horror Double Bill offered a tantalising glimpse into a more alluring nocturnal world, where imagination and intellect could be truly liberated, where Edgar Allen Poe, Roger Corman and Bram Stoker reigned sublime. Although I never really understood why at the time, films such as 'The Wicker Man', 'Blood On Satan's Claw' and 'Rosemary's Baby' spoke profoundly to me, stirring complex and often disturbing sensations that went beyond mere visual reality. 

"This isn't a dream, this is really happening!"
Mia Farrow in 'Rosemary's Baby'

Of course, at that age I wasn't particularly enlightened about such seemingly trifling matters as sexual politics - and in particular, the rampant misogyny that I now know to be pandemic in the horror genre - but I quickly formed an instinctive dislike of gratuity and cruelty. I found the former repellent, and the latter fascinating, but only by virtue of the dark psychology which accompanied it. Years later, I would chance across this quote at the beginning of Robert Aickman's short-story collection 'Dark Entries', and I still find it interesting:  

"I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a studious and serious mind - sex and the dead."
W.B. Yeats

Having said that, Aickman also quoted something elsewhere about it being the secret fantasy of every woman to be raped, so his views should be taken with a large pinch of salt.  

With the benefit of age and experience, I now view the difference between the first and second features in the Horror Double Bill to be of far greater significance. At the time, I myself existed in this watershed; I occupied the brief space between the two slots without consciously realising it. I was both fondly nostalgic for the black-and-white simplicity of childhood, and viscerally excited by the dangerous and colourful prospect of adult life. I just don't know anymore. But I do know this: horror is no longer harmless. There is too much irresponsible, gratuitous horror in the world. 

To quote from 'The Man With X-Ray Eyes' [this time the Bauhaus song]:

"I have seen too much, wipe away my eyes, wipe away my eyes". 

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