I started young. Very young. Never denied, never censored. Likely before I could walk, before I could speak.
Vague recollections of that time; the first images, distorted, exaggerated. I’ve managed to revisit most of them in my adult life, though it’s impossible to recreate that first frisson now. The memories are far more elaborate, far more atmospheric, than the reality.
Individual films are difficult to recall or specify, as much as experiences from that period. I do recall an early encounter with the spiders I would come to fear up to the present day; a very large, female house spider scuttling across the back of my hand. It seems extremely vivid in my memory, but, as anyone half way interested in human psychology knows, memory is a very poor medium. We fill in gaps; imagination seeps where details and specifics dissolve. What we consider so clear, so essential to who we are and how we define, is more fantasy than memory. Or rather, memory itself is misconceived as it is popularly understood: we invent ourselves, imagine ourselves, more than we assume, and, in that, can re-imagine, re-write ourselves, to certain degrees.
But I digress.
The first films; those that truly terrified. I recall watching Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead very early; while still surrounded by plastic toy telephones and die-cast metal miniature cars; only vague images remaining from that original exposure: the cellar beneath the shack, seeming so much larger back then; a labyrinth, and so much more detailed than it is in the actual film. Heart clenching dread, knowing that something was down there; something vile.
Alien. More vivid than anything, Ripley’s hurtling, stumbling flight through the Nostromo as the self destruct mechanism counts down, the creature that hunts her potentially lurking around every corner, in every shadow. This one arguably more than any other still has a certain power over me, though the influence has changed somewhat; no longer terrifying, but bizarrely appealing; the xenomorph itself, the alien ship from which it originates . . . aesthetically very pleasing to me, as is much of Giger’s work (which I discovered and have an intense attraction to as a result of this film).
Hellraiser. One of the very, very few films whose imagery distressed me well into adolescence; one I only watched out of a morbid curiosity, fascinated by my own response to the images of graphic pain and bodily mutilation: a sense not of disgust or horror per se, but of being soiled inside; a strange and wonderful thing for a horror film to do. Like Alien, this film and its sequel (not so much any of the lesser instalments that followed) has informed my aesthetics and interests as a writer; as an entity that defines by what it can imagine. The strangeness and extremity; the nightmarish quality of the states and situations presented…I recall coming to the film periodically as one might to a wound that refused to close, unable to stop picking and prying, no matter how infected it got. A life long love affair with the work of Clive Barker is the most enduring result.
A very vivid and particular response: home alone in early adolescence (no more eleven or twelve), a very dark, deep winter night; my Mother’s VHS of Halloween and Halloween 2. A strangely intense sense of discomfort; fear that prickled up my arms and behind my eyes, making me afraid to turn around for fear of what I might see reflected in the patio window, in the night outside. Enjoying that experience; loving it, in fact, seeking it out again and again wherever I could. Unable to articulate why or even what it was; just knowing it with the immediacy and intensity of lust.
An experience that will chime a chord with any fellow Brits out there: Halloween 1992, a BBC exclusive “special investigation;” a purportedly “live” broadcast from inside “ . . . the most haunted house in Britain.” Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch is an extremely beloved memory for many of my generation; there has never been anything quite like it on British television before or since; an elaborate Halloween prank, the show was entirely scripted, pre-recorded, but marketed as a live broadcast. Thus, when seemingly paranormal phenomena started to happen on screen, the entire nation went into meltdown, generating a record number of complaints and inspiring the BBC to utterly disown the project.
For a child like me, it was better than Christmas. Again, extremely vivid and intense memories; a fire burning, a cold, cold night, pyjamas smelling of the old laundry detergent my Mother used to use. Intense connection; engagement with media the like of which is difficult to quantify or emulate. Revisiting the show later, it has lost none of its power and is now rightfully remembered as a profound and brilliant experiment.
Beyond horror cinema, there were also a number of TV shows throughout my childhood and adolescence that fed my desire for the distressing, causing it to swell beyond containment, out into the games I would play, the little stories and dramas I would create with actions figures or nothing at all:
Knightmare, a fantastic experiment in children’s programming, still fondly remembered, which generated an enormous cult following here in the UK: a genuinely frightening, tense experience; a virtual “dungeon” in which a blindfolded youth would be sent to traverse the various levels, avoiding traps, monsters etc, solving puzzles and, ultimately, solving the quest (which painfully few managed). The show was notable not only for being fiendishly difficult, but also, as its title suggests, extremely frightening for a piece of children’s media: if the “dungeoneer” lingered too long in a particular room, then a heartbeat would begin to sound, often accompanied by strange, intensifying music, until one of the dungeon’s many, many monsters entered to chase them out. The tension of those moments; my Mother often screaming at the television along with me for them to “Hurry up!”; the kind of show that would likely draw record numbers of complaints, were it to be marketed to children in the present climate, but which treated us with profound respect, daring to challenge and be terrifying.
The Blair Witch Project. One of the very first films I ever sought out myself in late adolescence, having consumed the viral marketing campaigns, immersed myself in the media surrounding the film. Also, the very first example of “documentary horror” I ever came across, and one that I still adore to this day. This film, arguably more than any other, still has the power to inspire a state of lingering dread; certain moments, certain beats within the story, which leave the viewer in no doubt that the film makers are not going to survive . . . it’s a wonderful tension, one that I find to be rarely emulated; the kind that I adore in any work.
Returning to an earlier state and place, The Shining; one of the earlier horror films I was ever exposed to, the coldness of the film; the strange, expansive silence of the Overlook Hotel…I recall vividly an intense emotional response to that film, particularly to certain images within it (the woman in the bathtub, the twins, the tide of blood) that still linger; that are burned into my sub-conscious and which no doubt inform, to a certain degree, what erupts from it. Like most of the previous impressions, these are distorted and exaggerated interpretations of the original images: those in my memory very different from those on screen, but that doesn’t matter; it’s the impression and their significance that matters, whether they are faithful to the original media or not.
More than anything, it is the Overlook itself that lingers; impressions of strange, seemingly endless corridors, their emptiness; the whiteness of the walls, the Autumnal tones of the carpet . . . something about the way in which Kubrick shoots the hotel makes it seem like something sentient, something waiting and entirely malicious. Watching Danny Torrence peddle his tricycle through it is like watching a child blithely dancing into a monster’s throat.
The Lost Boys. Still one of my favourite vampire films; one of the few that captures the utter abandon, the adolescent, youthful exuberance of being undead. A consistent favourite for film-time in our household; one that myself, my brother and my Mother watched until the VHS tape wore itself to nearly nothing.
A lingering impression: the original VHS box art; a strange image of Kiefer Sutherland as vampire David, what seems to be a hole in his forehead streaming luminous matter. Far apart from the subject matter of the film itself, that image suggested so much to my child self’s eyes; an image that still resonates and echoes of which can be found in my own writings.
As for the film itself, lingering impressions are not necessary; every scene is recorded inside my head in exacting detail, refreshed perennially by more recent viewings of the film.
So many beautiful and emotive images: the board-walk, the lights, the crowds; the carousel and carnivals . . . Michael taking his first sip of blood from a strikingly ornamented bottle. Along with the film’s comic elements, there’s also an artistic beauty to it; many of the scenes having the quality of paintings or of art in motion, the matter of Michael’s transition into vampirism handled as much symbolically as it is overtly.
A particular scene that always, always resonates: the teenage vampires, hanging from the struts beneath a railway bridge, holding on as long as they can as a train rattles overhead, slipping one by one into apparent suicide, swallowed by mist. Michael following, not knowing; not yet, but beginning to realise.
The gory brilliance, the dissolution of a vampire in a bathtub of garlic and holy water, the streamers of blood and matter as stakes are driven through hearts, as carnage erupts. David’s hand bursting into flame in sunlight.
The significance of these images; these experiences and distortions, is so personal to each of us; formulates and determines itself in such idiosyncratic -and often, sub-conscious- ways, that it’s all but impossible for another to understand but the remotest echo of what they are to us; what they mean.
That is what art is for, that is what fiction is for; to provide a medium for that empathy; a form of telepathy, in its own peculiar way, and one whose engine is constructed of these very components. Without them, without being provided with them at a young age, I doubt very much I would be the writer I am; certainly not the human being I am.
Whether or not that is something to be grateful for, I’ll leave up to others to judge.
George Lea tends to inhabit the grey mists and damp patches of the UK Midlands. In between baking bread, making curries and working as a support worker for the mentally disabled, he pours out the diseased and deranged absurdity that infests his skull in the form of short stories. Since his last project, Strange Playgrounds, seemed to go over passably well, he’s currently involved in a collaboration with photographer Nick Hardy, Born in Blood, which will consist of photographs and short stories exploring mental illness.