Monday, September 5, 2011

Don't be Afraid of the Dark

Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.
–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Now that Labor Day weekend is here and summer is officially at an end, I find myself getting nostalgic for horror films—not because Halloween is just around the corner, but because I regret I never have enough time to watch as many horror flicks as I want over the summer months.

More than fall, I associate summer with monsters and madmen and things that go bump in the night. Though as far as movies and stuff go, I got in a pretty good haul this year. Most importantly, I got to write several things that had horror elements, and that’s even better. Coyote and I got a lot done on the O4S series of course, and this week, I just finished a short story entitled, “La Tutayegua,” which was a good old-fashioned horror story, with a terrifying creature, children in peril, and a bloody, tragic ending.

Over the summer, I revisited Poltergeist (1982) and Monkey Shines (1988). I watched a newer film, Let Me In (2010), the American remake of Let the Right One In (2008), which was originally a Swedish tale about a tween vampire that falls in love with a mortal, but it’s so much better than Twilight I can’t even tell you. The two young leads in the original generate more chemistry in a single glance than Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart could ever hope to spark in a lifetime, even though they’re like 12 and never even share an onscreen kiss. It’s amazing. See it. The American remake stars Chloe Moretz as the vampire, (the actress who played Hit Girl in Kick-Ass). It was well-done, but not as good as its European predecessor because, in my opinion, the chemistry between the two actors was something special—it’s just not something you can replicate.

This past week, I watched Apollo 18 in the theater—terrible! -- but the one I was really excited about was Don’t be Afraid of the Dark.

I was beyond thrilled when I heard last fall that Guillermo del Toro was going to be producing an updated version of the 1973 made-for-TV movie. I saw it when I was seven or eight years old. del Toro describes it as the scariest film he’s ever seen, and I am inclined to agree—it gave me nightmares for years afterwards.

del Toro’s genius as a director and an artist has been enumerated by others, so I won’t go all fan girl on you here and wax poetical about why he’s on my list of people I’d love to work with someday. But oddly, our shared terror of the creatures of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark makes me feel a strange affinity, indeed, a camaraderie with del Toro that’s even more powerful than the Mexican-Catholic connection. It’s funny what a strong bond a little terror can inspire.

So, of course, over this summer, I made time to rewatch Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), widely regarded as del Toro's masterpiece, and another one of my favorite films. But I would like to point out that I loved Guillermo long before most people jumped on the sexy Mexican train de amor, mostly because I happen to love Spanish cinema—I was a big fan of the forerunner to Pan's Labyrinth, La Espinoza del Diablo, (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001). I also saw Cronos (1993), del Toro’s first film, which contains so many elements that have become his trademarks—children, clocks, magic, the fantastic and phantasmagoric.

I re-watched the original Don’t be Afraid of the Dark this summer because, well, it’s been over 20 years, and I thought a refresher was in order. But some things had been burned indelibly into my memory.

For example, time had not exaggerated how very scary the little goblin-like creatures were. Having grown up in the 80s, there was a whole slew of films with pint-sized horror critters—Gremlins, Critters, Chucky, Puppet Master, the thing in Trilogy of Terror, and too many other demonic dolls and evil puppets to recall. There was a vignette in Cat’s Eye where some sort of demon came out of the wall and terrorized a young Drew Barrymore that particularly traumatized me. I don’t know why I always found small monsters scarier than big ones but I did and do.

I mean, look at these things. What’s not to be afraid of?

In the original Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, I also remembered their creepy little voices, calling for the main character, named Sally, (played by Kim Darby—Katie Holmes’ character in the remake is named Kim, obviously a nod to Ms. Darby). I remembered that light could hurt the creatures, and I remembered one particularly horrifying scene in which Sally was in the shower, and they came out of the bathroom cabinet and tried to cut her with a straight razor. Yeesh.

While the update of the film, regretfully, was not directed by del Toro—just produced by him, his fingerprints are all over it, stylistically-speaking-- the creatures themselves, the set pieces, the camera work. As the film started, I found myself expecting the characters to speak Spanish just because del Toro’s name had been splashed all over everything. It threw me for a second when they didn’t.

Overall, I was very pleased with the changes to the story. Aside from adding a back story that explained the origin of the creatures in the house, and shifting the protagonist from a young newlywed to a little girl, (which I thought was a wise move), it was very faithful to the original film—even down to the last line of dialogue, which pleased me to no end. One of the things that was so powerful about the original film was its dire ending—especially gutsy in an American movie. Unfortunately, being faithful the original movie meant that the remake suffered the same flaws—which are the same flaws suffered by most haunted house films. Namely, if a house is full of dangerous creatures that are trying to kill you, why the hell would you stay? And if you are being plagued by a bunch of critters the size of squirrels, why would you not pick up, I dunno, a golf club, and start wailin’ away?

If you suspend disbelief however, it’s still a damn scary movie. The prologue of the new film takes place in the late 19th/early 20th century, and features a sequence so gruesome, I’m sure that I bruised Patrick’s arm from gripping it so tightly.

How can I explain my deep and abiding love for all things horror? To begin with, my parents did not censor any of my reading or viewing materials. At all. So I grew up on a steady diet of horror and suspense—fed on Friday Fright Night and Saturday Nightmares on cable, Tales from the Crypt, Garbage Pail Kids, 80s slasher flicks, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Unsolved Mysteries, reruns of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and even Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? I loved all of it—watched all of it—devoured all of it. Not to mention the surrealist music videos that filled MTV, the innovative claymation and animated shorts on Nickelodeon, and short films on premium cable stations back in the day, like this one:


As I got older, I got more highbrow—I began reading Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. As soon as I could, I got my greedy little paws on Stephen King and Anne Rice novels.

But I never strayed far from my roots-- the stories we heard as kids about ghosts and ghoulies and madness in our own neighborhood.

A well-known Mexican folk tale is that of La Llorona, which means “the weeping woman,” about whom songs are sung. Kansas City’s West Side, with its large Mexican population, even has its own variation on the legend. The basic story is that a woman with children falls in love with a man who rejects her on the pretext that she has children. She drowns her children in a river in order to be with him, but he rejects her anyway. (“It’s not you, baby, it’s me.”) So she kills herself. When she arrives at the Gates of Heaven, (or Hell, depending on the version), St. Peter (or the Devil) asks her where her children are. She says she doesn’t know. So her spirit is sent back to earth to search for them. She’s used as a cautionary tale—bad children are told that if they don’t do as they are told, La Llorona will get them. You can hear her at night, weeping and calling for her children.

Obviously, in Kansas City, she drowns her children in the Missouri/Kansas river, and she haunts the West Bottoms. In the article I've linked to, you’ll notice the variation where she is cursed to have a horse’s head, which helped inspire the story I wrote this week. I first heard the story of the horse-headed woman from my cousin right around the same time that I first saw Don't be Afraid of the Dark. Scared me out of my wits, as did the tale of La Llorona. It's really amazing that I ever slept at all as a child.

I conceived of the character, La Tutayegua, the Horse Lady, several years ago, a creature with the body of a woman and the head of a mare who haunts the West Bottoms. I knew I was onto something when it gave me such a terrible nightmare that Patrick actually had to wake me up because I was whimpering in my sleep.

Another superstition I grew up hearing was from my great-grandmother—she believed that Death could not come into the light, which is, of course, ridiculous. But her whole life, she slept with a night light. Related to that were all sorts of strange premonitions of death—a widowed neighbor lady began having strange disturbances at night. She thought she was being bothered by a would-be burglar, so she asked my great-grandfather to install a porch light for her. One night, she turned it on, and was terrified to see that the person on her porch was her dead husband. She died a few days later.

In a similar incident, my grandmother swore she saw a strange black shadow appear on the porch of another neighbor’s house. The next day, the neighbor woman was found dead in her house—a suicide, an overdose of sleeping pills. (I do remember when that happened—I remember the ambulance coming to take her body away. The woman’s name was Rosa.)

There was the tale of a relation of ours who believed she saw the devil in an outhouse one day. This would have been back in about 1928. The funny thing is, if you’ve ever read Stephen King’s O. Henry award-winning short story, “The Man in Black,” my relative’s description of the devil matches King’s description almost exactly. That poor woman, over the course of her life, became dangerously insane and spent her later years in the state hospital in St. Joseph—but of course, the question is, did she see the devil because she was insane, or did she go insane because she saw the devil?

For me, one of the scarier stories I heard growing up was about a house on Belleview Street, off of what is now Avenida Cesar Chavez. The house is long-gone. In its place is now the Guadalupe Center. The house that was there belonged to friends of my great-grandparents. In the house was an upstairs bedroom that was haunted by some mysterious entity. Supposedly, if you slept in one of the beds, this strange, invisible force would drag you out of bed and haul you down the stairs, into the garden and deposit you there—always in the same spot. My great-grandfather swore he saw that with his own eyes, and he was one of the most skeptical people I’ve ever known. I asked them if it had ever occurred to anyone to dig up the spot where the force or spirit was depositing them. Well, no—this was well before the days of Ghost Hunters or paranormal societies. And now we can’t—the spot has been paved over to make a basketball court.

I associate horror with summer because I watched horror films at my grandmother and great-grandmother's houses-- we never had cable when I was growing up, but they did. We spent the majority of our time at their houses in the summer. They were also the ones who told us more spooky stories than I can count.

The horror genre is one of the key reasons I am a writer today. Someone asked me recently why I’m a writer, and I gave my usual answer—that I never outgrew my love of fairy tales, of nursery rhymes and make-believe, and that’s a part of it. But fairy tales have but to hang a left and then they become horror stories—big bad wolves, ogres, witches, trolls.

Guillermo del Toro knows this. Check out the tagline for the new Don’t be Afraid of the Dark film:

"Fear is never just make believe."

The imagination has teeth.