I just found out that the house that The Amityville Horror is based upon is up for sale for $1.15 million dollars. I would very much like to buy that fucking house and then burn it to the fucking ground.
God knows why, but I read the book when I was just a boy. Allegedly a faithful documentation of a demonic home that possessed whomever lived in it, The Amityville Horror was not the sort of book that a highly suggestible preteen should have been reading. All the same, I read the thing and it made a sufficient impact on me that I eventually came to believe that the book itself was evil, and went so far as to bury it in the backyard, near my parent’s tomato plants, so that it wouldn’t command me to murder my family, or whatever I feared it would do.
In 1979, about a year later, the movie came out, and as if ordered by my now buried copy of the book, I went to see the movie. It was without a doubt, the most wretched moviegoing experience of my life. Way too young to be seeing such a movie — let alone without any parental supervision — I was terrified beyond imagination.
The infamous house — which I will one day burn down — had windows that resembled the eyes of a satanic beast. Frequently displayed at a blood-red sunset, as if the image was screened through a red and black negative, the home seemed to be staring, with penetrating malevolence, into your very soul. As you contemplated this, music that was a hybrid of a lilting chant from the lost souls of dead children and nails on a chalkboard, played in the background. It was the most frightening thing ever.
This little postcard served as a kind of intermission, one that linked all the terrifying and jarring narratives. I guess it was meant as a kind of breather, but it filled me with an unbearable dread and anxiety. It just made things worse, and I typically fled to the lobby when the music came on, and paced about, pretending to be considering a candy purchase. After a few minutes of this, and after I heard the music pitch and crash and the audience scream in horror, I would return to the darkness of the theatre, hopeful that the worst was over.
But the worst was never over. I just kept working myself up into expectations of greater and greater evil, and whatever I imagined was coming next was always far more horrible than seeing a priest get covered in flies, James Brolin falling through the staircase or whatever else the house had in store for me. When I walked out of the theater I didn’t feel relief that the experience was over, I wasn’t pulsing with an exhilarating adrenalin, I just felt a horrible uncertainty that maybe the home and family I loved and trusted could also rip apart in heinous directions.
Shortly after that deeply scarring experience, I happened upon Salem’s Lot, a TV miniseries adapted from a Stephen King novel. I sat on the sofa and watched as a boy — probably about my age — that had been transformed into a vampire, floated outside the window of his still mortal brother, scratching at the glass, beckoning his brother to come out to his doom.
I think I ran screaming from the room.
I refused every opportunity to see a “scary” movie for the next ten years, missing out on all the sexual tension that Jamie Lee Curtis and her slasher flicks had to offer. It wasn’t until I was in university that I summoned the courage to rent The Shining, a movie that I had heard so much about. I figured that I could handle it.
But no, I could not handle it.
It was a starkly terrifying, perhaps even brilliant movie.
Kubrick led us down long, empty hotel corridors, revealing gruesome fragments of a past that beckoned Jack Nicholson to murder his own family.
Exploiting the vulnerability of child and family, Kubrick showed us that the real predator was internal, not external. The omnipresent sound of a heart beating brought this home. Placed inside of Jack Nicholson, we watched through his eyes—with a mounting hopelessness— as he fell into madness and stalked the vast hotel hunting his family. It wasn’t serial killers or sharks we had to fear, it was ourselves.
Man alive, I was scared to death, and once again, I swore off horror films.
Years later, I stumbled upon a 2001 film called Frailty. Starring Bill Paxton and Matthew McConaughey, it came with little fanfare and I had absolutely no reason to think it belonged to the horror genre. I settled in to watch it one night and quickly found myself disoriented and mesmerized.
In the movie a man, touched by some holy zeal, believed that God was instructing him to kill demons that were manifest in human flesh, and as he set about these tasks, he pulled his two young sons into his missions. The children were reluctant and suspicious, but they loved and trusted their father and became culpable to his actions. Like The Amityville Horror and The Shining, children were being threatened by the person that they loved and trusted the most.
Ultimately, in all of these films the distinction between whether what’s taking place is actually a supernatural possession or the organic manifestation of a mental illness is irrelevant. What matters is that there is mystery afloat, and for unknowable reasons, the worst conceivable evil might, in an instant, emerge from us or those that we love, and for me that has always been the most terrifying thing to consider, scaring me now just as it did as a boy.