Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Danse Macabre

    When I was just a tike (somewhere around my son's age, say between 6 and 8), my brother babysat me for what would end up being the last time. It was supposed to be a pizza and movie night, special treats provided by our not so well to do parents so that our night in was as fun as their night out. Pizza was ordered, movie was ready, but my brother had other plans. Whatever kid friendly fare was supposed to be on (I still can't get this memory to make sense in my mind, I know that we wouldn't have owned a VCR in 1984, but I can't imagine this movie played on network television), my brother had decided that we were going to watch John Carpenter's Halloween. And watch we did.
    That would have been bad enough. But my brother lived to torture me at the time, so he went on, post-film, to explain that the story of Michael Myers was based on an actual boy and actual events, events that had taken place in the south Chicago suburb in which we lived, and a boy who had never been captured. Oh! Look at the time! We need to get you to bed!
    Cut to me, in bed, and my brother, on his way out of my room whispering, "What was that?" He grabbed the wooden nunchucks that he had fashioned in wood shop (who lets a troubled teenager make nunchucks in shop?) and said, "I'll be right back." I pleaded with him to stay, but he wasn't having it. 
    Cut to noise from the kitchen. Cut to my brother stumbling into my bedroom with his shirt and his nunchucks covered in fake blood. Cut to me screaming. And screaming. And screaming.
    Cut to me at age 35 having a serious love/hate relationship with the horror genre. Love for all the reasons that people love to be scared, it thrills and chills and (ultimately) relieves. There's chaos followed by catharsis. We made it. We survived.
    Hate for the reason you'd guess. It scares the hell out of me.
    Stephen King's Danse Macabre was written in the early 80's and serves as a great lead in (or, if you're just now getting to it, follow up) to his excellent writing memoir, On Writing. In Macabre, King explains and explores the horror genre; why we love it, why we hate it, when it succeeds, when it fails, and why it succeeds and fails when it succeeds and fails. King knows his stuff, he's a nerd, he's a fan, but he's also enough of a scholar to have some perspective and enough of a teacher to help us see it.
    Breaking the chapters into commentary on films, television, and books and then further exploring themes and morality (yes, King argues, there is a morality to good horror fiction and an utter lack of it in bad), King is like a favorite professor, showing you things you never knew and giving you a taste for more. Perhaps the real testimony to the greatness of this book is the number of films and books I now want to discover or rediscover. How have I never read Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House? Will my childhood fears continue to keep me from watching Halloween again (that's right, kids, I haven't seen it since)? You can be sure that I have Jackson's book on order at the bookstore. Whether I see Halloween again or not, this is the first time that I've ever really wanted to. Danse Macabre is a reminder that the horror genre is a chance to face our fears with the knowledge that we'll come out safely on the other side. But my fear isn't really what I might see on my TV screen, it's who I might see out the window when I'm done. Because that story is a true story, the bogeyman is out there, and a viewing of Halloween might just be a way of letting him in.

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