Written by author John Langan
Family tradition has it that, when I was born, my father was watching a monster movie. He’d been watching one on the home TV when my mother had told him it was time to go to the hospital and hours later, by the time I was making my squalling entrance into this world, he’d found another such film on the waiting room TV. My mom, no fan of these movies doesn’t know what either movie was. Their names are another of the things I never asked my dad before he died. I suppose I could try to research TV schedules for upstate New York in 1969, but I don’t really need to know the movies’ titles. What matters is that my birth was attended by monsters.
The earliest memory I have of being scared by a movie involves an adaptation of Frankenstein I’ve never been able to track down, despite rather extensive investigation. My father watched it one weeknight on the TV in his and my mother’s room, which was the family TV; he sat in his easy chair with the lights out. (I can’t recall him doing this for any other movie, which makes me think he really must have wanted to see this one.) My mother was not interested in viewing the film; she sat at the kitchen table with my brother and sister, gluing popsicle sticks together for some type of project. (Making little men?) I may have been six or seven; whatever age I was, dad considered me old enough to watch this version of Frankenstein with him. My recollections of the film itself are fragmentary. The screen had a red tint, which I don’t recall with anything else we saw, so I guess that shading was particular to this film, or the print of it. The monster was pale, thin, dressed in a (hairy?) vest, pants, and tennis shoes. At one point, he was chained to a paper-maché-looking rock. Whatever scene that was took place on what might have been a theatrical stage. Could this have been a stage version of the story being televised? Maybe. I kept moving, staying a minute or two in the darkness with my dad, then exiting to my mom and the brightly-lit kitchen. Each time I appeared, mom urged me to stay with her and my siblings. I did not. What was it that I found so compelling about the film? I don’t remember. What was it about this version of Frankenstein that was so frightening it would leave the monster the figure who would chase me through my nightmares? I don’t know; if I saw something, some terrible act committed by the monster, I’ve buried it too deep in my subconscious to retrieve.
Perhaps, though, it wasn’t anything worse than what remains in my memory: my father sitting in the dark, in his easy chair, the TV screen red in front of him. Perhaps it wasn’t anything worse than him telling me this was a movie about a monster.
When I was maybe in third grade, I was off school sick for several days with a stomach bug. In addition to the pleasures of crisp, cool sheets and cups of cool ginger ale, not to mention, my mom’s attention, I was allowed to watch the black-and-white TV in mine and my brother’s room. This was pre-cable, and during the long hours between the early-morning and mid-afternoon cartoons, there wasn’t a great deal of interest on offer. The station out of Secaucus filled the late morning with old movies, and sometimes, one of these was worth a look. The film I wound up watching that day was set in a mining camp somewhere in the American southwest. At its beginning, a round of blasting uncovered a perfectly-preserved Allosaurus egg, along with a deposit of radioactive material which both caused the egg to hatch and rendered its former inhabitant invisible. It also may have accelerated the dinosaur’s growth; within a few scenes, he was stalking and attacking the members of the mining team. In the lead-up to each attack, there may have been three-toed footprints advancing across the desert sand, but during the actual event, the camera shifted to the Allosaurus’s point of view, the screen filled with the screaming face of his victim, their hands flung up to defend themselves, long slashes opening up and down their cheeks while the dinosaur’s oddly-distant, almost warbling roar swelled the soundtrack. I’m reasonably certain the beast was destroyed with fire, a conflagration during which its silhouette became briefly visible.
At the time, I didn’t think this movie a triumph of low-budget filmmaking. I was frustrated not to have been able to see the Allosaurus, because I loved dinosaurs as only a small boy can, but rather than striking me as ridiculous, the idea of an invisible, carnivorous dinosaur on the prowl made me deeply uneasy. That night, when it was time for my brother and I to go to sleep, my unease had progressed to out-and-out fear. My father answered my calls for parental aid, but once he’d heard the reason for my anxiety, his concern soured to irritation. If the movie was too scary, I shouldn’t have watched it. I tried to explain that it hadn’t been too scary while I was watching it with the lights on and the sun shining and mom bustling around the house; it was only now, in the dark and the night and the quiet, that it had become frightening. My explanation did not win me any more of my father’s sympathy.
You might assume I had learned some kind of lesson from this experience, but the next day, when I was off sick again, I begged my mother to let me watch another weird movie on channel 9. (If anyone had learned from the previous day, it had been mom, who subjected me to a rigorous round of you-re-sure-this-won’t-be-too-scary-for-you questioning before consenting to my viewing the film.) This movie took place at sea; I’m reasonably sure it must have been somewhere in the Sargasso Sea. The survivors of a shipwreck (or maybe their ship was torpedoed?) (were they English? I recall one actor at least having an English accent) drifted into a part of the Sea that was inhabited by a group of people who had been living there for a long, long time—centuries, I think. These people lived in huts built on stilts and connected to one another by a series of narrow walkways set close to the water’s surface. The Sargasso-dwellers may have had a king, or leader, who was an old man hobbled by bad counsel from his trusted aide(s). What made the film stand out for me, though, were its monsters, these great, seaweed-covered mounds taller and wider than any of the characters; they shuffled forward with a motion that shook the plants draping them. These things might have been the allies of the Sargasso-dwellers, their pets or something analogous, or they may have been an ever-present menace. Whatever their status at the movie’s beginning, by its end, they were a definite threat, and this film, too, ended with fire. I wish I could convey how strange this film felt to me, how different, not just due to the seaweed-heaps, but due to the sheer oddness of its setting.
I must have guessed the night to come would not be a pleasant one. But lying there in my bed next to the bedroom door, which was open ever-so-slightly to the kitchen light streaming down the hallway, I knew the darkness of my room to be immense, full of shapes like great black boulders. This time, I did not call for my father. I knew what he would say, and I suppose he would have been right. I had earned this.
Halloween of my junior year in high school, one of the local malls rented some unused store space to a haunted house troop. Located directly across from the movie theater, the place, whose name I’ve forgotten, had an unassuming design: basically, a long rectangle with the entrance on the right side, the exit on the left side, and the ticket-window roughly equidistant between them. The front wall was painted with seasonally-appropriate graveyards and ghosts, spiderwebs and skeletons, all under a sky full of a fat, white moon. Some kind of music, or a sound-effects record, the noises of wind and creaking floorboards, played faintly; at regular intervals, someone inside the haunted house would scream, or laugh, or scream then laugh. I can’t imagine it was that laughter that convinced me this was something I had to do; I know it wasn’t my younger brother, whom I’m pretty sure I had to browbeat into joining me. My father was surprisingly amenable to the plan, and in short order, my brother and I were passing through a heavy drape into a short, dark hall that turned to the left, becoming an almost-pitch-dark tunnel. At the opposite end from us, a figure sat under a faint light that looked as if it were shining down through a grating. Most of its face was in shadow, but I knew right away the cavernous eyes, the slab of pale brow, the flattened cranium, of Frankenstein’s creation. My legs stopped moving. All the air went out from the hallway. “Hello, boys,” the monster said in a low, pleasant voice. My jaw was quivering. “Why don’t you come down here?” the monster continued. “I’m not gonna scare you.” I have been frightened since that moment, but that is the last time I can remember being so overcome with fear, my joints locked and I could not move. To his credit, my brother did not abandon me. “No one’s gonna scare you,” the monster said, and I started babbling, a flood of words bursting forth from my mouth: “I know you’re not you’re not going to scare us because you’re not scary you’re my friend,” and then something gave inside me and I rushed my brother out the way we had come in, past a pair of girls somewhere around my age who favored us with glances of disgust.
My father hadn’t realized we’d never made it past that first corridor. When we told him what had happened, he was annoyed at our wasting money.
Although I feel sure I must have watched it at some point before this, the first time I can say for sure that I watched James Whale’s Frankenstein was the summer of 1999. After having been away from writing horror fiction for most of the past decade, I had plunged back into it, and, as part of that immersion, was viewing and re-viewing whatever screen classics the local video store had. I have to confess, Mel Brooks’s inspired Young Frankenstein was more clear in my memory than Whale’s original, and it was difficult to the point of impossible not to watch scenes in the earlier film through the lens of the later. There was one moment, however—after the monster’s creation, when he has been locked away in the castle dungeons, where he is being tormented by Fritz, Frankenstein’s assistant—when we look down a long hallway at the monster standing quietly, his head tilted forward, his dead eyes looking out at us. It can’t be any more than two or three seconds of film time, but it seemed much, much longer. For the length of that shot, I was back in the haunted house with my younger brother; I was in that dark room with my father and the red screen of the TV.