About a third of the way through The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Kirk enters a decrepit house and haphazardly enters (rookie mistake in a horror movie, of course), hoping the inhabitants may have some gasoline to lend. This was during the gas shortage that occurred in America in the 1970s, when shoddily written signs reading “NO GAS” were common sights at gas stations, and the stations that did have gas were crowded with lines of cars extending down the road. In the rural Texas town in which the film takes place, it would have been unlikely to just stumble upon a house that had kindhearted strangers willing to lend a young, hippie-looking traveler some gas for their journey. But again, rookie mistake.
Some strange sounds are heard (is that a pig squealing? what’s that clanking?), and Kirk (and we as the audience) can see through the open doorway to the left of the staircase a wall adorned with various animal skulls. He walks toward the doorway, stumbles a bit, and is then suddenly greeted by a large, apron-clad man in a mask made of human skin, who instinctively smacks Kirk in the head with a hammer. Kirk’s body convulses on the floor, so the man hits him with the hammer again, pulls his body into the room, and slides shut the metallic door. The camera doesn’t go into the room. It lingers for a few moments on the door, its sound reverberating ominously alongside a cluster chord that serves as the only bit of musical score during this scene.
In filming this scene, Tobe Hooper drew a line in the sand between horror fans and, well, “normal” people. By temporarily abandoning any element of character perspective and rather deliberately leaving the audience on their own in this moment outside that metal door, the “normal” response would probably be a jolt of adrenaline from the shock scare followed by a sigh of relief that we’re not following them into that skull-decorated room. To the horror fan, however, the adrenaline is foreplay, and there’s no sigh of relief. There’s no doubt in our minds that we want to see what’s going on behind that door.
Becoming a fan of the disreputable forms of cinema — horror, exploitation, B-movies, cult trash, etc. — is rooted in the same principle. The stranger, more dangerous, and less appealing to “normal” people something seems, the more we want to dive in headfirst. Is it an adrenaline junkie thing? Maybe. But I don’t think it’s strictly adrenaline based on being scared or thrilled. The search for something we haven’t seen before and something we could never have even imagined seeing accounts for a large part of the adrenaline. We’ll go through various phases of what keeps it exciting. It’s not about being scared, because truth be told, I think the vast majority of horror fans don’t find horror movies scary. I know that’s a concept that may seem strange to the uninitiated, like watching comedies even though you don’t find them funny, but it’s different. “Scary movies” is a term I don’t think I’ve ever heard a horror fan use. Being scared by Leatherface dragging a body into his weird skull room is a sure sign of a square. If you’re a fan of horror, I guarantee the reason you want to watch it is not because you get off on being scared (although the rare times upon which we do find ourselves genuinely scared by a movie are thrilling), but because you have an innate fascination with the weird, the macabre, the grotesque, and sometimes the just plain batshit crazy.
There are few things in life as uplifting and reassuring to me as the fervor with which many horror and cult film fans will tell their like-minded friends, “You have to see this movie. It’s so fucked up!” The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was made on a shoestring budget by a director who had a well-documented drug problem under excruciating conditions and a possibly even more excruciating schedule. It’s by no means one of the most extreme movies out there (far from it; it’s incredibly tame relative to its reputation), but it’s a great example nonetheless because there’s no reason to trust the movie. You’re not in the hands of some cinephilic master of the craft applying his institutionally learned techniques to a well thought out screenplay. You are in the hands of someone who may not even be sure himself of what he’s doing or where the movie will go.
This is an important distinction that separates the paracinema crowd from those who like more traditional, reputable, respectable films that win awards, make money, and get studied in college courses. While plenty of movies under the cult or horror umbrellas are impeccably crafted (look to Dario Argento for proof that master technicians do indeed exist in our universe), the point is that we don’t want to trust the filmmakers. No matter how disturbing a mainstream or arthouse film may be, there is almost always the reassurance that you’re watching the work of a professional — an industry insider — and there are lines they won’t cross. There’s a palpable delight in the voice of a cult film freak when they tell you about the work of a director they just discovered who not only crosses those lines but may very possibly not even understand that there are lines in the first place.
I’ve been using The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as my example thus far, but now that I think about it, perhaps Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (a.k.a. Zombie, a.k.a. Zombie Flesh Eaters, a.k.a. at least seven other titles) would be a good one to use too. The movie’s most celebrated scene (give or take the underwater shark versus zombie fight, a scene so stunning in its rush of visceral insanity that I genuinely don’t know how anyone with a pulse couldn’t find some joy in it) is one in which a woman’s face is slowly pushed toward a jagged protrusion of wood. Shot in extreme closeup for the most part, her eye inches closer and closer to the big splinter. When a normal movie would either cut away or at least switch to a different angle, Fulci is the just the type of director who will stick with the shot as the splinter pierces through her eyeball and continues to penetrate deeper into her skull. No cutting away. I think we gore-whore horror freaks probably forget that the vast, vast majority of people would look away, cover their eyes, or possibly even turn off the movie in disgust at this image. We’re the creeps who’ll keep our eyes open and watch in delight. We like a metaphorical splinter in our eye when we’re watching a movie sometimes.
Why do we like this junk, though? And let’s be clear: it most definitely is junk. There’s no use getting defensive about it to argue with those snooty elitists who thumb their noses at what we love. We like junk, plain and simple. We like movies that are ridiculous, gratuitous, nonsensical, unprofessional, violent, exploitative, immature, crude, rude, and often just really fucking stupid. We are pretty much everything the snobs say we are. We’re cinematic dumpster divers, really. But we should own that. You can listen to an educated waiter slip in and out of a French accent to detail how your meal was prepared in a Michelin-rated restaurant, or you can watch Island of Death and see the main character nonchalantly fuck a goat within the first ten minutes of the movie. I realize I just abandoned that analogy midway through, but you get my point.
Is there an element of classism to this dichotomy of tastes? I bet I could cook up a fairly convincing essay explaining why that could be true, but I frankly don’t have much of an interest in exploring that issue because it would feel on-the-nose and a bit redundant to me. Besides, just read Jeffrey Sconce’s essay “‘Trashing’ the academy: taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style” if it’s the sociological aspect of this topic you’re interested in. I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar on the matter. After a certain point, I realized I was more of a missionary for the cause, and that’s why I write about this junk.
I don’t think anyone gets seriously into horror, cult, or exploitation movies because they want to impress anyone by engaging in the sort of intellectual posturing I suspect other people have in cocktail lounges after watching the latest Palme d’Or winner. And I definitely don’t think anyone likes horror, cult, or exploitation movies because they want to go out and see them in groups of friends like I suspect other people do when they see the latest Marvel movie. It can be a lonely, sometimes embarrassing existence, the life of a trash movie lover, spending far too many Saturday nights alone watching bad transfers of inaccurately subtitled Italian schlock from the ’70s, the only semblance of social gratification being a post you’ll make in some closed Facebook group where you’ll be lucky to get five likes from a few other degenerate miscreants who share your unexplainable and insatiable hunger for ever more perverse celluloid rejects.
Yet despite the fact that they tend to be viewed as lowbrow, low-class losers by the rest of society, many horror fans proudly wear t-shirts of their favorite movies almost every day. Obviously it’s not that they think most people will even be familiar with the movies, let alone like them enough to say, “Hey, nice shirt.” It’s that that’s kind of how they communicate with each other. Wearing horror apparel is not completely unlike throwing a message in a bottle out to sea in that the chances aren’t that good you’re going to get a response, but on the rare occasions on which you do, it’ll make your whole day (that was probably a bad analogy; I don’t imagine you’d be aware if anyone received your message in a bottle). Despite the fact that most people who are deep into these movies are extreme introverts, rarely will you ever see a more amiable, outgoing encounter between two strangers as one between two horror fans who like each other’s shirts. It’s nearly primal in its totemic power, and it’s much more effective than relying on mere pheromones.
I finally took the plunge and attended a horror convention for the first time only within the past two years, and my hopes were confirmed. Horror fans, cult film fanatics, and the ilk are actually the nicest, greatest people in the world. We all like weird, violent, crazy junk, but contrary to what I think most people would assume that entails about our general behavior (i.e. that we too are weird, violent, and crazy), the people I encountered were all very down-to-earth, unpretentious, passionate people who were just ecstatic to be able to share their love for weird things with other people who also love weird things. There’s an intrinsic communal element to liking anything as marginal as splatter films or shocksploitation, because despite my best efforts to remain vigilantly antisocial in my everyday life (only a slight exaggeration there, I assure you), I’m never going to be able to keep to myself when I see someone wearing a Basket Case shirt. To quote a decidedly non-horror, non-cult movie, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
Although my interest in horror can be traced back as far as I can remember to when I was just a toddler obsessed with monsters, I first started to really get into horror around 1998, and while there weren’t really any social media websites around back then that would have made it much easier to find myself a home within the horror community, there were fan pages (mostly on sites like Angelfire and GeoCities) that I followed religiously and used as the bases for my decisions at the video store. These were not people who were writing for big publications or anything. They were purely fan sites, through and through. They didn’t have visually pleasing layouts, they were littered with grammatical and spelling errors, and there were broken links aplenty, but that was how I learned about a great deal of movies during the early stages of my horror obsession. The people running those sites were not being paid and simply wanted to share their passion with whomever might stumble upon their modest little corners of the dial-up era internet, and that’s really what being a horror fan is all about, I think. I really wish I could dig up some of those old sites I frequented (I believe most of them no longer exist), because I’d like to email the webmasters to thank them as a small token of my gratitude for helping me assimilate into the subculture that has become an integral part of my identity.
I still haven’t answered the question of why I — and other weirdos like me — like all this junk. I’ve really only emphasized that there’s a strong community of people who also like it, but that can’t be the entire reason. Again, it’s not like I watch these movies in a group of friends or discuss them regularly in person with others. It still feels like a particularly solitary passion to have despite the abstract comradery that exists between strangers in Return of the Living Dead shirts. The truth is that I have no idea why I like all this junk so much that I’ve all but sacrificed my entire social life to keep digging deeper into it instead of going out and doing normal things with normal people.
I don’t know what the precise explanation could be for this obsession. But maybe if I keep writing about weird movies and you weirdos out there keeping reading along, we can figure that out together.
Probably not, though. I don’t plan on getting existential about it very often. Mostly I just want to ramble about horror, cult, exploitation, and other cinematic oddities because I enjoy it. So if you’ll go behind that metal door into the skull room with me, maybe we’ll have some fun. And I’ll totally compliment your shirt.